Transparency and community in Starbound

Chucklefish’s Molly Carroll on the value of nurturing a trusting fanbase

Starbound was always likely to be a success. Pitched as a kind of spiritual successor to the already popular Terraria, here was a game that came with an attractive promise: a vast, procedurally generated 2D universe, full of planets to explore, quests to complete, items to craft and enemies to fight. A little over a year after its formal announcement, developer Chucklefish Games teamed up with the Humble Bundle team to begin a preorder campaign aimed at funding the game’s ongoing development. The team’s goal was $50,000. That figure was surpassed within a few hours.

In December of last year, Starbound was released in beta form. To date, it has racked up over 1.5 million sales. “We’ve been massively surprised the entire time,” says Chucklefish’s Molly Carroll. “We knew that the game had a fairly large following and that it was going to be fairly popular, but we definitely didn't realise it was going to be as big as it is.”

The game’s crowdfunding campaign surpassed all its stretch goals within 16 days, eventually raising $2m in preorders alone.

Today, Starbound has one of the most active and vocal communities of any current game, and it’s Carroll’s job to deal directly with the game’s fans, and keep them appraised of ongoing developments. It’s a very different position from the one she originally applied for, however. “Before I came on board, our director Finn Brice looked in places like r/gamedev on Reddit and Twitter to [recruit] people for this project that he wanted to make. We were going to add some voice acting into the game and we wanted to do a sort of gibberish, Animal Crossing[-esque] language.”

The recording sessions didn’t go particularly well (“I'm not a voice actor by any means!” Carroll cheerfully admits) and indeed the voice acting idea was dropped entirely, but after discussions with Brice, she ended up accepting a role as Starbound’s community manager.

"People have this game now and we have to be open with them about the entire process."

The crowdfunding route, says Carroll, has had its pros and cons. It has, she admits, worked extremely well for Chucklefish from a financial standpoint: the company was able to move most of its staff into an office after the launch of the beta, which has undoubtedly increased efficiency and productivity. “In other ways, there are downfalls to Early Access,” she adds. “Pitfalls in development happen, and when you have an Early Access game that people have already paid for, people come to expect a lot more, and they may not know about the kind of development [issues] that most companies don’t have to be so public about.”

Not all studios make such an effort to be transparent as Chucklefish has been, but Carroll believes it’s vital. “We have an obligation because people have paid money. People have this game now and we have to be open with them about the entire process.” Perhaps part of the reason it has been able to earn the trust and support of its large community is Carroll’s mandate that at least one member of the development team post on the game’s official blog every weekday, to give its fanbase a clearer picture of how the game is progressing.

“We’ve always been open with what we've been doing,” says Carroll. “For a while leading up to release and a while after release I posted all the updates: I would round up from the rest of the team what they did that day and ask them a bit about it and try to generally give an overview of what we did. Then we stopped doing daily updates [for a while], but because we’ve been working on a big patch people were starting to wonder a lot about what we were doing.” It’s now Carroll’s job to crack the whip and ensure that at least one person – whether it’s an artist or a programmer – posts a blog update every day. “Now we’re getting a lot better feedback,” she says.

Written by Ashton Raze, Starbound has a stronger narrative element than many of its peers, with story missions and a rich lore for its seven playable races.

Indeed, Carroll admits that Starbound’s audience “has had quite a bit of pull as far as the changes we make in the game”. While Chucklefish has its own vision for the complete game, it has made adjustments in accordance with the community’s responses (“when we nerfed birds, that was really good,” Carroll recalls) and has even implemented ideas based on fan mods. “Overall, what we use and what we don't is [dependent] on whether or not it fits into our complete vision for Starbound. Sure, different people do want different things. Though most of it at the moment is generally [about] wanting us to put out the big patch, so they’re pretty unified on that!”

Starbound made its playable debut at the Insomnia Gaming Festival in August 2013, a nerve-wracking time for Carroll and the rest of Chucklefish. “We weren't sure if it was close to being in place where we were comfortable with releasing it. When you develop something for so long and you’re playing it as a developer, you get tunnel vision, [and] you have no idea what other people are thinking. But people really seem to enjoy it, and we're motivated by that. We decided that we would be able to release a beta around December and we knew what we had to work towards.”

"It's very easy to add new things to keep Starbound exciting."

Following the next big patch, which is imminent, the studio will be working towards what they’re calling version 1.0 – a feature-complete release. “It'll be what we had in mind from the start and a little beyond,” says Carroll. “Afterwards, we're still going to want to add things from time to time, and I think the plan was after we're finished updating to form a team of people who want to keep updating the game, and keep it current.” It is, she says, a game that could keep running and running. “Starbound is very moddable, it's very easy to add new things to keep it exciting.”

Console versions are also very much part of Starbound’s future. After an approach by Sony’s Shahid Ahmad, Chucklefish confirmed via the PlayStation blog that the game will be coming to PlayStation 4, PS Vita and PlayStation 3. For now, however, its focus is very much on finishing the PC game, which will, Carroll says, be ready when it’s ready. “We don't do specific dates anymore, because it's kind of burned us in the past. But we're working as fast as we can on it!”