Star Billions: Modern Love

When Star Billions was first conceived, it was an interactive fiction game in which four characters acted out short stories in three acts, pausing after each of the first two acts to ask for player input. Between acts and stories, the game cut to a screen designed to look like a digital clock. Players were asked to put their phones away until a notification came through to let them know it was time to continue.

There were a lot of changes to come. Check out the following two screenshots: the first is from May 11, 2015. The second is from the final build.

Star Billions internal prototype (May 11, 2015) Star Billions Version 1.0 (December 7, 2015)

Wow. To be honest, this is the first time I’ve seen that prototype in months. What a difference.

For those who haven’t played Star Billions yet, what you’re seeing in the second screenshot is the game-within-a-game called Astro Whiz. In the Star Billions universe, Astro Whiz is a popular handheld game from the 90’s. It’s a one-button shooter that relies on perfect timing to string together combos by shooting one asteroid after another without missing. When you shoot an asteroid, the time until the next mission drops by an additional 15 seconds. That number increases with your combo, up to a possible 300 seconds per shot!

LACIE: Hey! Are you any good at video games? This one always helps me pass the time.

“But why make players wait at all?” We anticipated the question from some players. While we worked on Star Billions, notification games like Lifeline and One-Button Travel weren’t a thing yet, so the idea of asking players to play at the characters' pace instead of their own seemed especially daunting. We live in an era in which games are supposed to give, give, give, to condition the player to expect instant gratification and then charge them for the convenience. In fact, there were publishers who demanded that we increase the waiting time and include a "skip" feature as an in-app purchase. Everyone who tried the game agreed that each episode left them wanting the next episode more, so it was often suggested to us that the best way to monetize Star Billions was to exploit that desire.

In Star Billions, players can speed up time by playing mini-games

The truth is that making money has always been around #10 on our list of priorities. Our #1 priority was to give life to EIN, ROSIE, SARGE, and LACIE. We prioritized EIN’s existential need to make sense of a senseless universe. We prioritized letting ROSIE wrestle with the question of whether it’s better to be right or be liked. We prioritized imparting SARGE with shades of Don Quixote that make us laugh in times of peace and cry when his back’s against the wall. We prioritized LACIE and the thin line between trust and naïveté.

We had to ask players to wait until the crew was ready for the next mission because it was the only way to stay true to those priorities. We want you to feel like a parent speaking to your kid on the phone, asking them to make the right decision and hoping that they do, but understanding that it’s their decision to make. We want you to get to know our synthetic crew organically. We want you to spend some time with your four new friends, laugh at a few of their jokes, and then wonder and worry what they’re up to while you wait to hear from them again. We want you to love them. That’s real. That’s our priority.