Despite what most people may think, the inspiration for Starlink was not Galcon or Eufloria, but actually another fantastic indie game — FTL.
While most people that have played that game likely simply skimmed over this feature, I found the star map in that game particularly interesting. In FTL, the player couldn’t just jump from any star to any star, but had to choose where to go from a very finite list of options, as stars were linked by hyperspace routes. This limitation, combined with the impending doom of the advancing armada gave the player few choices of where to go, and made every decision matter.
When I started working on Starlink, I didn’t have a particular game idea in mind, other than “take FTL’s star map and expand on it”. I knew I wanted the galaxy in it to be procedural, and that it should be playable on tablets and phones. I also knew I wanted to have an optional multiplayer component, but that was about it. I wanted to start working on game mechanics and have the game take shape gradually rather than designing it fully upfront.
The Idea Taking Shape
A few hours into its development I changed my original thought of having 1 player-controlled capital ship, replacing it with a swarm of ships instead. Stars created ships, and could send them along hyperspace routes to other stars. To make the game more balanced I introduced a cap on how many ships could be active at once, making it more difficult to control larger territories, and added various anomalies to stars that changed their attributes, making them more or less suitable for certain tasks. For example, a gas cloud anomaly makes it easier to defend the star, while a Plasma anomaly severely limits the number of ships that can be present, and increases casualties in combat.
Once procedural generation was implemented a few days later these additions completely altered how the game played, making the game all about exploration and strategic captures in the beginning, and much more tactical in the long run. When playing the game, I was often tasked with a choice of which star to sacrifice to an advancing enemy army. The Vortex anomaly that severely limits the rate at which the ships can leave the star system would always be the first choice of a type of star to give up for example, while an Asteroid Belt — an anomaly that doubles the ship production rate — would always be fought for until the very last ship.
At this point in its development the game was plenty of fun to play in both single and multi-player, but it was possible to have “deadlocks” where neither side could get an advantage. To address this issue I decided to add various abilities that the player could choose to take into each match. Adding this feature once again changed the feel of the game for the better.
Currently there are defensive, offensive, and tactical abilities available, with each one having a certain “size” associated with it. The player can choose a pair of the top-end abilities, a couple of lower ones, or a mix — it’s all up to how they want to play. There are abilities that improve offensive or defensive capabilities of a star, hide or reveal territory, improve or reduce capture speed… There are even abilities that let you reshape the galaxy to your liking, destroying or creating new hyperspace routes between stars.
To further complicate matters, many abilities have counters. For example, Patriotism is countered by Propaganda, and vice versa. Better yet, some abilities can be even chained together for greater effect. For example, bribing the star’s authorities tends to be much more effective after launching a Propaganda campaign to soften them up first. And since each player can bring their own set of abilities into the game, cooperative matches are a good way to make the game easier to beat at higher difficulty levels.
The Final Push
The vast chunk of the game was actually completed in the first two weeks of development that happened over the holiday period, but it was not until GDC that I finally decided to put the finishing touches on the game and call it “done”. The final straw was getting to spend a fair bit of time playing it with a bunch of people in multiplayer, all of whom seemed to really enjoy the game. It’s one thing for the developer to enjoy their own creation, but when other people spend hours playing it at an end instead of going to GDC parties… well, that’s a good sign that at least something went right!
Screenshots of Starlink
What makes Starlink different? Procedural galaxies, limitations introduced by hyperspace routes, star anomalies, and abilities the players can choose.
Target audience — everyone who enjoys tactical and/or strategy games, especially ones set in space.
- The game can be paused at any time in single-player if you need time to think (pause button is in the top left corner).
- If you are a new player and just want to play with friends, turn off the “ranked” option in options, giving you more abilities to play with without having to unlock them.
- “Eye” button in the top-left corner of the menu lets you observe an AI-vs-AI match.
- Initially, send ships in many directions, not just one. Later on, attack from several directions, not just one.
- Beginner difficulty lets you capture everything twice as quickly, so it’s a good idea to start with that.
- You get 35% score and experience at Beginner difficulty, 75% on Easy, 100% Normal, 150% Hard, and 200% on Nightmare.
- The AI gets penalties at lower difficulties, and advantages at higher ones. The AI won’t use abilities unless the difficulty is Hard or Nightmare.
- Your empire has a cap on the maximum number of ships, and it’s a good idea to turn off production at far-away stars by making them enter defensive mode (tap them). This will let stars closer to your front-lines to create ships instead.