Taking Ashes of the Singularity from HERE to THERE

Published on Tuesday, April 19, 2016 By Brad Wardell In Ashes Dev Journals

With Ashes of the Singularity now officially released, it’s time to think about where to take the game next.

This is going to be long and rambling so please bear with me. Smile

Topic #1: The Reviews

The game seems to have been reviewed by 3 types of reviewers so far with their scores reflecting opposing views on what a PC game in 2016 should deliver.

The Story Reviewer

The most common reviewer has been the ones who consider the campaign as the primary single player experience.  These are the reviewers who give say Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak a 9/10 because of its engaging story while giving Ashes a lower score (sometimes much lower) because its campaign is relatively bare bones.

While I personally object to that criteria in a strategy game. Who am I to argue with their opinion?  Plenty of people feel this way now. 

The RTS Reviewer

The second most common reviewer is the one who actually plays RTS games on a regular basis.  They’re the ones who usually like Ashes of the Singularity and give us a 9/10.   What matters to them is that the game, on day 1, has a smart AI, lots of skirmish maps, a built-in ability to easily add more scenarios, strong modding support, a future proof engine for expansion and a good set of initial units (16 right off the bat). 

The Nostalgia Reviewer

These are the reviewers that I have relatively little use for.   They’re the guy who played strategy games way back when but nowadays is mostly messing with Dota 2 or Overwatch and thus really has no business reviewing the game in the first place but got assigned to do it because no staff writers had the minimum GPU to run the game.  They’re the ones who don’t actually play Supreme Commander: FA or Total Annihilation anymore but remember thinking how cool they were back in the day and how weak Ashes seems, to them.

My problem with this reviewer boils down to this: As good as SupCom is, it’s never going to be updated again. Ever.  So unless you are personally playing one of these games, and they’re not, it’s a disservice to compare to a 1.0 game to an older game that has had years of updates but isn’t, as a practical matter, something someone is going to go and play.  Now, if that person is actually playing SupCom: FA (and they’re not, they should be playing FAF and FAF players are not in this category) that would be one thing. But they’re not and we know because they would be instead talking about FAF.

All in all, I’m annoyed with the relatively low quality in game reviews these days.  Getting a review from a metacritic site where they played .4 hours (yes, we know who you are) is exactly why people have trust issues.

Topic #2: What makes games last?

Well, as I write this, Sins of a Solar Empire has climbed over the years to having typically around 800 to 1000 people playing.   But it didn’t happen over night. And don’t even get me started on GalCiv I for Windows.  I still wonder what would have happened if Master of Orion 3 hadn’t crashed and burned.  GalCiv I was not..shall we say, initially great (no campaign). So what matters?

  1. Replayability
  2. New Content
  3. Modding

Those are the 3 pillars.  Miss any one of them and your strategy game better be super strong in one of the other categories to survive long-term.

  • Replayability can be achieved in many ways, none of them easy.  Good AI, a good multiplayer community, Every game feeling new and different. These are crucial.
  • New Content has to keep coming in.  When Sins of a Solar Empire shipped, it had a total of 11 units per faction.  Today is has 21. Almost twice as many.  Sins had no diplomacy, starbases or Titans originally. That all came later.  People also forget (or don’t realize) how rough Supreme Commander 1.0 was.  When People talk about SupCom they really mean Supreme Commander: FA not Supreme Commander 1 or even Supreme Commander 2.
  • Modding no developer can keep extending a game forever.  The best games foster a strong modding community over time.  Modding doesn’t come initially. You have to have a good, strong player base first.


Topic #3: What makes a “good” RTS?


Click to enlarge

My chart here is, by no means, objective.  It’s my personal opinion on the matter. It doesn’t represent Stardock or some consortium. It’s just my 2 cents.  I have highlighted the areas in which I think a particular game is the best.  So for instance, even though SupCom has 4 factions now, I feel StarCraft’s faction diversity is superior even though it only has 3 factions. Similarly, I personally prefer the balanced resource design in Company of Heroes to anything currently released.


Ashes of the Singularity (Arumba playing)

But you look at the above chart and even by my own standards, my other favorite RTS’s are “better”. 

But better doesn’t equate to me wanting to necessarily play them anymore. Let me walk you through my rationale and please comment below with your own thoughts:

As much as I like StarCraft, it’s gameplay has moved away from the style I enjoy. It is far too twitchy for me.  I have an 88 apm and that used to be enough to put me into Diamond.  But Legacy of the Void put the game out of anything I would enjoy.  It’s an action game now for me.


StarCraft: LOV

As much as I like Supreme Commander (more specifically, FAF) I have played it out.  I am not as big of a fan as some of its die-hards that insist on review bombing Ashes (which hasn’t improved my opinion of some elements of that community, come on guys, Ashes’ success will eventually let you bring your entire game to it).  For me, Supreme Commander is hopelessly over-engineered for a new player and as anyone who watches Gyle’s streams (which I do) knows that nearly every game ends in Nuke duels or Experimentals.  That’s only fun (for me) so many times.  Ashes, btw, would have the exact same problems if development for it stopped. 


SupCom: FAF

However, it wasn’t Ashes that killed SupCom for me.  It was Company of Heroes.  After seeing the elegant hard counters in CoH, it’s really hard to go back to a game in which people tend to build masses of the same unit.  I never enjoyed on a map like Open Palms building up a dozen plus tech-1 land factories.  And ironically, Ashes has some of the same problems which I’ll talk about in a minute.

Sins of a Solar Empire on the other hand is just a game I’ve played so much over the years. There’s nothing wrong with it per se. But I’ve just played it too much.  It also is single threaded which keeps its future expandability tough.  I look forward to a Nitrous Sins game. Winking smile


Sins of a Solar Empire (prophets mod)

I still play Company of Heroes 2. But it is a fundamentally different game for me than Ashes.


But as my chart above makes clear, Ashes still has a ways to go.  And yet, I also think it is the definite RTS game people should be buying today.  Why?

Ashes next steps

When I look at the things that I think Ashes needs work on, they are all doable things that simply need time (and money).  People will ultimately vote with their wallets on what they want so consider this: If not Ashes, then what? 

There are 3 things I think Ashes needs:

  1. More Content
  2. More Community Features (modding, sharing, etc.)
  3. Time

Content isn’t just in the form of “more stuff”.  It means things like upping the little details that are expensive but necessary.  In no particular order:

  • A Third race that is fundamentally different (i.e. different technology base, so no anti-gravity based units like PHC/Substrate)
  • More Units
    • 1 more T1
    • 3 more T2s
    • 2 more T3s
    • 1 T4
    • 3 more Air
    • Naval
    • More defense structures
    • More economic structures
  • More story-driven scenarios and missions to flesh out the world and make sure single player remains a growing and interesting experience


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PHC Instigator, War Hog, Marauder and Havok


One trend we want to continue is that these units aren’t simply “Better versions” of the previous tier. You can always tell someone who doesn’t know the game very well when they say it’s about building the biggest swarm.  A single Zeus or Avenger will make short work of swaths of Brutes for instance.  Each of these units will be very strong at certain things but also be very vulnerable.

In Ashes, units are intended to be tools. They’re not different sized hammers.

Community features comes in the form of modding.  You have to make it so that people can create and share scenarios and map that work both in single player and multiplayer with friends.  The ability to add new units and expand the game from the community (you want your FAF total conversion, then go ahead).  Similarly, replays, observer modes, 64 player mega maps, etc. These are all things that will need to get into the game.

Time is just something we can’t do anything about.  Half the market can’t play the game because of the 4-CPU core, 2GB of video memory requirement.  This was a decision we made and we debated on whether we’d be better off sitting on the game for another year and polishing it or releasing it so that the early adopters could get a start on growing things.  As is, we had to limit things to 6 players to get the performance fidelity we wanted on our minimum spec (and even then, minimum spec players make 6 player MP games very unreliable imo).  As we develop better ways to test performance we will eventually be able to open up much bigger maps with specific hardware requirements.

Obviously, how fast we can go down the path depends really on player demand which is measured in sales.  It’ll be a long time before Ashes is a top-seller for no other reason that you can’t chop off half the market with hardware and get there.  But hopefully, those with the hardware to play the game will give it a shot and get their friends to.