Why we made Steambirds Alliance

We are launching Steambirds Alliance out of beta tomorrow (August 22). After almost six years of development, it has become a full-fledged MMO with lots of polished content, unique bosses, and a kind of heavily-cooperative gameplay that is rare in today’s world. We couldn’t be prouder to see it finally, officially released!

OK, so that’s what Steambirds is. But this post is about why we made Steambirds. Specifically, why this game? Spry Fox has been making games for a decade. Heck, Daniel has been designing games for over 25 years. We could have chosen to make any number of games, including many that would have been significantly less effort. So… why?

To encourage friendships

Steambirds was born from a very basic belief: Games can bring people together.  An online game like an MMO is more than just a brief consumed experience like a book or a movie. It’s a shared space where like-minded people can meet up, get to know each other, and ultimately form meaningful friendships. 

The truth of the matter is that in this modern world, there are a lot of people who could use a friend. Or even if they have enough friends, they could use a place to spend more time with them. There’s a ton of research demonstrating that lonely people often suffer from poor health, depression, and/or anxiety. Friendship is the antidote. 

So it occurred to us: what if we made a game that was all about connecting with and cooperating with others? A game with only two teams, and all the players are together on the same side. Many years ago, we had the opportunity to explore that very idea when we co-developed Realm of the Mad God. Our experience making RotMG only strengthened our interest in cooperative games. But then we were forced to walk away from RotMG, well before we’d fully explored all our ideas. And we weren’t prepared to give up just yet. Thus came Steambirds Alliance.

Design challenges

Making SBA a great game where everyone can enjoy time with friends is easier said than done. Online games can easily become toxic places dominated by trolls and cheaters if you don’t make enough effort to prevent that.

So we’ve spent a lot of time building pro-social mechanics and tech into the very foundation of Steambirds. Things like:

  • Jump in and play: There’s no minimum amount of time you need to play Steambirds per session. You won’t ruin it for anyone else if you pop in and out in 15 minutes. We want Steambirds to be like a club room (or the bar “Cheers”, if you remember that) where it’s easy to hang out for 5 minutes or for an entire evening. 
  • Shared XP and Loot: No kill or loot-stealing. No dividing up limited XP– everyone gets 100% of the pie. We don’t want this game to make you angry at others.
  • Ad Hoc grouping: Teleport instantly to other players. There’s no real waiting and arbitrary gating. 
  • ‘Better together’ game balancing: You almost always benefit from playing with another player. Even if they are playing “selfishly”, there’s a decent chance that they will end up helping you accidentally. And eventually, there’s also a decent chance that they will realize they’ll be more successful if they stop playing selfishly!
  • Trade: You can trade most of the things you can find in the game. You can even trade gold, the game’s “hard currency.” Trade has brought people together for thousands of years – it shouldn’t be a surprise that it can do so in games as well.

This is just the start. We’ve got big plans to expand the social features of Steambirds in future releases. We’ll be experimenting with new ways to have fun with the people you care about. Helping people build and enjoy friendships is the most important point of the game from our perspective. 

What does success look like for Spry Fox and SBA?

You often hear a common complaint on forums across the Internet that game developers are greedy; that they just want to make money. But money isn’t what defines success for us on this project. For us, it goes back to the ‘why’ of building Steambirds.

Every single member of the Steambirds team could be earning a lot more money doing something other than making games. You don’t become an indie game developer because you love money (unless you really don’t understand probability!) You become an indie game developer because you love games, and hopefully the people who play them too.

We’ve funded Steambirds out of our own pockets. There’s no “evil publisher.” There’s no venture capitalist demanding a return on their investment. It’s just us and our life savings.

We could have taken our earnings from our previous games and put them in the stock market and retired a little earlier. Instead, we took that money and we made you this game. Because we want you to have a fun place to be with your friends. We want to reduce the loneliness in the world a little bit if we can. 

For Spry Fox, success to us means achieving three big goals: 

  • Earning enough to pay for hosting and ongoing development. We want SBA to keep running for a long time. In-game purchases go towards making SBA self-sustaining. There is very little chance that it will make us rich, but we hope that it will at least pay our bills, take care of our teammates, and let us keep this game alive for you. 
  • Entertaining our players for years to come. We want SBA to be a joyful place for you to hang out! You probably have a lot going on in your life. SBA should be a place where you can take a break, have a laugh and feel welcome. And maybe blow up a giant cat mecha while you’re at it.
  • Helping players build and enjoy friendships. This also means we’ll try to have low tolerance for toxicity.
    • Please help us with this. If you see someone being toxic, ask them politely to cut it out. If they won’t, you can report them. Spry Fox will do everything we can, but we’re just a handful of people and we can only do so much.
    • In general, try to be the best and kindest person you can be. Everyone has a bad day (or week, or month) sometimes and they could use our understanding and support too.
    • TLDR: if we want this community to stay awesome, we have to work together to do it. Everyone plays their part!

A long journey

We’ve been building towards a game like SBA our entire careers. From the very first day we started Spry Fox, we’ve tried to live up to our motto of ‘Making Happiness’. 

And part of that is making a fun game. So we’ve spent a bunch of years learning to make polished, fun games. Games that at this point have been played by tens of millions of people.

But that isn’t enough. We also want to make the world a better place. Not just provide a few minutes of hedonistic pleasure, but an actual, positive change in the world. 

We learned how to build MMOs. We started with RotMG, and Steambirds is built off a similar design philosophy. But building MMOs, especially real-time bullet hell MMOs, is very hard. Probably the hardest type of game development by an order of magnitude. The sort of thing that big companies — like EA or Bungie — still struggle to pull off with teams and budgets massively larger than ours. MMO development can kill a company. 

It took us much longer than we thought it would, but we persevered. We don’t always get everything right, but we care enough to at least try as hard as we can. And we are going to keep trying, and keep improving, for as long as the world allows us to. We can imagine no better way to spend our time on this planet than growing a positive, low toxicity community with all of you. Because you matter to us more than you can possibly know.

So here we are. Steambirds is on the verge of launch. Let’s see what the future brings!

With all our love, 
Spry Fox