Ships That Fight Underground is your Descent-style blockchain shooter
It’s got a cheeky working title, but STFU – relax, it stands for Ships That Fight Underground – is a serious shooter in the tradition of Descent and Overload. But, of course, it also has a blockchain component.
“It’s an interior space shooter in an asteroid facility. You’re in zero-G. So it’s six degrees of freedom,” Matt Scott tells us. “If you remember Descent from the 1990s, that sort of thing. We’ve taken that idea and just blown it up for a modern-day gamer.”
At GDC we meet Little Orbit’s CEO and founder Scott at the trendy Blue Bottle Coffee about 10 minutes from San Francisco’s convention centre, and the place is packed with game developers, including at least one other person chatting at the counter about a web3 project. Amid the din, Scott tells us what sets STFU apart.
At the start of your game, Ships That Fight Underground will deliver 20 different ships, six progressions, multiple customisation options, a single-player campaign and four different PvP modes. The team is currently testing a 24-player mode, but battles will be between 10 and 16 players at launch. It’s about two months away from open beta at the time of our conversation.
“We love this style of game,” says Scott. “It’s a LAN party game! It’s essentially that 1995 fun game style, but brought into 2023. Done in Unreal. There’s an infrastructure around it and a huge lore around it. We’ve done so many cool things with the gameplay; then we layer blockchain on it.”
Rewarding user-generated content in STFU
The game was initially hyped on Kickstarter in 2015, so the community has been on board for a while now (“It was hugely gratifying. They’ve waited forever for this game.”). A different studio pitched it, and Little Orbit came to finish it and publish it, having a background in this sort of game and an inkling that web3 might give it the boost it needs.
Little Orbit owns GamersFirst.com, a destination for free-to-play multiplayer online games, including the popular APB Reloaded. Overall, GamersFirst.com has some 20 million registered gamers. Scott’s team came to the game that would become STFU because “it ticked all the boxes” for the kind of multiplayer shooter the team loves.
But one of the core things they’d nurtured on APB Reloaded is its user-generated content, with a versatile built-in creator studio. And as the blockchain scene started to show its potential, Little Orbit realised there was something they could add to new games like STFU. “This is maybe the next generation!” says Scott. “I’m an engineer first, a CEO second. I see that blockchain is really good at establishing ownership. And also really good at distributing revenue.”
As a publisher, I’m still paying for user acquisition. I might as well take that and chuck it in the fireplaceMatt Scott
What blockchain tech does is eliminate problems of royalty and revenue. “If we wanted to create a programme in which guys make content for our game and we share the revenue, it would be a nightmare. You’d have to enter bank details and all that. But with blockchain, you can do that in a straightforward way,” explains Scott.
Rather than just selling NFTs “that are just going to sit there”, Scott’s keen to see SFTU as a regular game, with blockchain tech in the background to help solve problems like rewarding creators.
Making maps for money
“What makes blockchain tick is a smart token design,” he says. “We have our GamersFirst network we control. Everybody’s going to have a wallet, whether they are creative or not. The idea is that we want the front end of our games to feel like a free-to-play game. On the back end, you have an account, and we’re sticking things in your wallet. You may not know that or don’t even want to mess with it! We’re doing it in a way that a free-to-play game would.”
He continues: “Assets start centralised and go in the wallet. You can’t mess with that wallet until you want to. The core thesis here is that there’s a tiny group of blockchain players and a huge group of free-to-play players. My job is to make a cool, compelling game, and then you’ll start looking under the hood, and you realise, ‘Look at all this stuff. Oh, wow, I could be trading this?’ That’s ownership.”
User-generated content was another colossal thing at GDC this year – consider how Epic chose this year to release the Unreal Editor For Fortnite. Scott believes UGC fits smoothly with his team’s GamersFirst philosophy. “We’ve been working on putting tools in the hands of gamers, so they get to shape the game,” he says.
Players can design their own levels. In much the same way that Doom and Quake LAN games back in the day would enjoy levels made by fans, people will be able to build their own STFU multiplayer maps. But with the blockchain layer, they can confirm ownership of those levels and get paid if people get into them. “We will pay royalties based on the new players that come play your level,” says Scott.
Blockchain-based monetization for user-generated content
“As a traditional publisher, I’m still paying for user acquisition,” he muses. “I might as well take that and chuck it in the fireplace. It’s such a difficult science.”
The free-to-play space, particularly on mobile, has proved to be challenging for the whole market recently, with soaring UA costs, increased competition in the stores, marketing issues caused by shifts in data availability (think, IDFA) and diminishing returns.
But it isn’t just developers who need to think of new ways to monetise. “Game streamers make money when they stream. But they want to make money when they don’t stream – when they’re offline,” explains Scott, turning the attention to the users.
Is there a way to solve both problems at the same time? Scott believes the blockchain can provide it by sharing the revenue from user-generated content.
If it can be played and beaten three times, then it’s a genuine levelMatt Scott
“Here’s a great opportunity. They can stream a level creation. They can promote their level. And then when they’re offline, they can earn as people play their level,” he says. “The first time, what makes this work is being transparent about the revenue. With this game, we can say: ‘Here’s our revenue. We’re going to distribute a portion of that.’ That’s a win/win, right? We’re getting new users without throwing money away on ads. Today, influencers drive the events. Why not give them multiple ways to participate?”
As a user acquisition model, there’s an additional booster here. STFU has an entire level-crafting system built in, but once you’ve designed your level, you must prove it works by recruiting two friends to play with you. If it genuinely works as a three-or-more-player level, you can mint it and publish it.
“If it can be played and beaten three times, then it’s a level,” says Scott. “Which means it has to be a playable and beatable level. It has to be a genuine level. We have staking mechanics. As a level designer, I’m now making a little bit of money on it. I can take my STFU level, and I can stake it on this. And I can grow the level, adding enemies and resources, and make it bigger as it grows popular.”
Modding and crafting in STFU
You don’t need to be an influencer to enjoy the UGC aspect of the game. It’s possible to mod your ship and craft weapons from materials you harvest during missions. In this, the team has taken inspiration from its existing game APB. In that – a game not on the blockchain – there’s an intricate system where you can modify and enhance your weapons.
A bunch of people who don’t know games [were] making NFTs. But this year, game studios have seen cool, good, legitimate use cases for itMatt Scott
“We apply the same design pattern [as in APB]. You unlock ships, sort of like League of Legends. Once you have a ship, it’s yours. You’re kind of renting it from the corporation,” explains Scott.
STFU takes that and applies it to the player’s ship. You can then mint the ship if you like, but all that does is enable portability and enables you to identify it – there are no bonuses to gameplay.
Scott emphasises that Little Orbit does not want to resell NFTs and that this builds trust with the gaming community. “People mint what they feel is valuable. We have a marketplace that they can trade on. They can trade on OpenSea – that’s fine, whatever. But I feel like we’re letting players decide what’s valuable. We’re providing the facility and the transparency and then giving them a sandbox. You don’t have to do any of this!”
A web2.5 strategy for both traditional and blockchain gamers
Little Orbit refers to this strategy as web2.5. It’s traditional in many ways but with blockchain elements that are “opt-in”.
In previous years there’s been some pushback from traditional gamers against web3. Does Matt Scott think that’s going away as the market matures?
“Web3 came along, and people went in,” he muses. “And unfortunately, when you see new tech like this, there’s going to be a percentage of grifting going on. You saw a bunch of people who don’t know games making NFTs. But this year, a lot of game studios have seen cool, good, legitimate use cases for it.”
According to Scott, he had two requirements when they started adding web3 elements. “One was: it couldn’t affect the gameplay. It had to play and feel like a traditional game,” he says. “And two: I wanted blockchain players to be super-stoked about the free-to-play players… and I wanted the free-to-play players to be super-excited about the blockchain players. That’s kind of a difficult thing! NFT is a bit of a dirty word…”
So how do you bring the two sides together? It’s that UGC again. “Free-to-play players are the ones bringing the USD in. So the blockchain players can get paid in a token that’s backed by USDC and the treasury. Awesome. But the blockchain players are developing all the levels that the free-to-play players get to play. So I feel like we’ve created this flywheel of symbiosis where people will stop saying ‘no’ but can get excited about it all.”
You can wishlist STFU now and find out more at the official website. There are more interviews from GDC to read at our stablemate sites PocketGamer.biz, PCGamesInsider.biz and BeyondGames.biz now, and there’ll be plenty of blockchain talks and panels at our own next event, which takes place in Seattle in May 2023.