The reignition of Star Atlas
In the latest episode of his Blockchain Gaming World podcast, editor-in-chief Jon Jordan talks to ATMTA CEO Michael Wagner about what’s happening with Star Atlas, the ambitious Solana-based space game that had to significantly downsize headcount in late 2022 but is still maintaining its ambition and now shipping new experiences.
This transcription has been edited for length and clarity.
BlockchainGamer.biz: Star Atlas has experienced a pretty tough 12 months so have you ever thought about giving up or downsizing the vision?
Michael Wagner: I would just say a definitive no. At no point did I ever think of giving up. If anything, with the challenges, with the obstacles, it only fortified my intensity in being able to execute on this vision. And the vision really hasn’t changed. It certainly hasn’t gotten smaller. If anything, we’ve probably broadened the scope of what’s possible as we explore the tech and actually deploy and deliver on various features and products.
I very much have the endurance athlete mentality. For years I raced triathlons, rode bicycles, ran, swam and through that the mentality I formed was one of ‘one foot in front of the other’. You just keep going. You’ll get to the end of the race eventually. You just need to keep going and it might hurt along the way … David Goggins has a quote – “Pain is temporary, failure is forever”. And it’s something that I really align with.
How would you describe what you’re trying to build?
Maybe for some of the audience that just isn’t as familiar with the product, I personally think of Star Atlas as more than just a gaming product. We are a platform. We’re a development ecosystem. We have this deep philosophy of onchain game logic, and the purpose of that is this idea of composability.
So we’re creating a platform that other people can integrate into. They can build their own services, their own dapps, their own gaming applications, and they can leverage not only our blockchain primitives and the tech that we’ve developed but also gaming assets and art that we’ve released.
Now, our core focus is on a set of gaming environments that all tie into this one product that is called Star Atlas. We built our flagship triple-A product in Unreal Engine 5, and that’s the open world space exploration MMO. We have a browser-based game that we call Star Atlas Golden Era (SAGE), which is more of a top-down real-time strategy MMO which focuses on territory control, star-based crafting and construction, combat, and has some deep loops around resource extraction, crafting systems, and logistics.
In addition we also have a mobile companion app, which is a fitness trainer and the way it ties into the rest of the gaming products is that people may have heard of a product like Stepn, which is move-to-earn. In our case, this isn’t move-to-earn, but move-to-progress. So as you go on a walk, a run, a bicycle ride, you’re leveling up one of your crew members and the crew member in the mobile app slots into your ships, in the ship configuration process in both the browser game and in the Unreal Engine client.
But I say, we don’t have multiple products, we have a single product. It is Star Atlas, and because we’re leveraging Solana as this underlying backend infrastructure for the game logic, we have the ability to synchronize events across all of those different environments. So you’re not playing a different game when you play SAGE, you’re just experiencing it through a different environment.
These are the core products that we’re working on today. There’s a lot more ancillary services tied into the economy and into governance, but let me pause there for now. We have some really exciting stuff I can talk about that’s up and coming in the very near future
It’s interesting that you talk about being a platform rather than being a game.
Let me just expand on the idea of composability and maybe even define the category of web3 gaming, because there are a lot of different ways you can engage in “web3 game” development. The simplest path and what we’ve seen most prominently is people releasing NFTs and then finding a way to integrate those NFTs into their game. In many cases, there’s really not any onchain actions. In fact, once you own the NFT, it’s your access point into the game. But those games are built in a completely traditional fashion; it’s all web2 development. Once you own the NFT, maybe you can trade it but otherwise, you use that to get access to the game.
If you were to extend that to slightly enhanced web3 integration, it would be doing things like minting in-game currency tokens as well as the governance tokens. So we’ve done that with our tokens ATLAS and POLIS.
And then the third part – and this is where we lie – is in this idea of onchain game logic. So within SAGE, for example, we have a product coming out that we’re calling SAGE Labs, and this focuses heavily on the resource extraction and crafting gameplay loop.
So in the future, your character progression and account management is onchain. The fleet management program movement and coordinate systems, inventory management, when you’re actually extracting resources, putting those into crafting recipes and crafting items and the output you get … those are all programs that live on Solana. We’re also releasing the IDLs and the documentation so other developers can integrate directly into that game logic. It’s not hosted on a server somewhere. It’s hosted on Solana: Solana is the server.
That’s where there’s this massive potential in being able to create an ecosystem that can be co-developed and co-created by people all over the world.
How does being a platform change the vision for Star Atlas?
We’re working at the bleeding edge of tech, not only in Unreal Engine, always using the latest version, incorporating all of those features, building a business from the ground up and then working in the blockchain space and also pioneering this idea of on-chain game development.
To me, this represents a transition from the model of business for consumers to co-creators of this universe that we’ve outlined, this vision that we’ve outlined. We intend for Star Atlas to be a live service game to get frequent updates and get patches and new content, but the benefit in this open architecture is that anybody is able to build their own content and monetize that as well. I think of it as very much synergistic.
So from our perspective at Automata (ATMTA), the studio building Star Atlas today, if someone else builds content, that’s content we didn’t have to create. That adds value to the current user base, so the users win from this new content. We as a studio win because we didn’t have to spend the time or resources to create it. And the developer of that content also wins because they can find a path to monetize through transaction fees or some type of onchain activity.
That’s just one example, but the idea of being able to modify or create your own levels, create your own maps and give people access to that is not a new idea. In fact, Counter-Strike is one of the most popular games of all time, came as a mod for Half-Life. So we see enormous potential in this co-creation.
I could also point out other applications more specific to the crypto space, things like DeFi, for example, that is a massive opportunity. What I’m looking forward to is seeing someone create a lending or scholarship program within our environment. They can create their experience where if somebody owns a ship and they don’t have the time or the interest in leveraging that asset, they can lend that out to someone else who does want to play with the asset.
It creates labor markets and and efficiency of capital where maybe you can’t afford a hundred thousand dollar ship. That’s a very expensive asset. Most gamers are not ever going to buy that, but if they could rent that or rev share that asset by borrowing it on some marketplace and then using it in the game.
My goal with Star Atlas is to create something that ultimately has a perpetual life cycle and that’s impossible for any company ever to accomplish. It’s through this transition of intellectual property into the DAO and the ownership of the idea of Star Atlas by the people that are participating in it that this thing can continuously evolve into the future. New studios will take it over and build future experiences. So that’s not to downplay our efforts today. We’re very much focused on building the game ourselves and making sure it’s a phenomenal game.
Ultimately, what I’m proposing only is a value proposition to the extent that we’re able to attract the initial users to the ecosystem. Then it becomes a big opportunity.
What’s happening with the Unreal 5 Engine product?
The way our team is structured, we have specialists on different aspects so the team that we have that’s working in Unreal Engine is 45 people or so today, including the co-creation studios that we engage with. The fact that we’re doing blockchain work in our browser-based application does not slow them down. In fact, they’re moving at an incredible pace. They’ve accomplished so much already in what is a short time frame.
To expand on what’s coming in the Unreal Engine product, we’ve been doing a lot of foundational work on content creation pipelines and building out asset libraries, making everything custom and unique too. Part of that is defining things like combat and ship physics and movement and animations.
Back in 2022, we released the first version of our Unreal product, which we call the Showroom, and that’s on Epic Games Store. But for what we’re calling the R 2.2 release there are a couple of very exciting things – the gameplay mode, which is a complete competitive combat racing loop that’s analogous to pod racing. There are boosts and level ups and pickups. You can attack other ships and this is full multiplayer. You can also compete in tournaments.
Through that you’re able to level up your ship through ship mastery, customize components, configure different items, change out your crew member, and level all of those up as well.
This is coupled with a partnership that we announced a couple months ago, with MetaGravity, which is a user concurrency backend infrastructure and server that’s going to enable the multiplayer support, but also large-scale user concurrency. In our testing, we’ve already accomplished 5,000 users in a single instance. By the end of 2023, we’re targeting 30,000 users in a single instance. For a game that is as graphically intense and beautiful as Star Atlas, this is a massive accomplishment. Nobody’s ever demonstrated 30,000 users in a single instance before.
Now, what does that do? It provides real agency to all of the players in the game. Things that are happening on a distant planet are not instanced out. They’re reflected for all players in the game so we don’t need multiple servers. You don’t need to make sure you join the same server as a friend of yours. When you’re moving off planet, for example, you can fly through the atmosphere into outer space. And when you’re on a central space station, you can see thousands of other players, real players, running around and interacting with them, which provides a social element.
In my opinion and in the team’s opinion, this is the first complete gameplay loop that will really retain, not only attract, but retain users because there is something that they can compete in and get that sense of progression and leveling and also ATLAS earnings through participation in these events. We’re targeting the end of 2023 and I think that’s a major milestone for our business and a point of inflection for us where we’ll start to see some major adoption
How do you compare with games like Star Citizen and EVE Online?
I would say Star Atlas is a combination of Star Citizen’s space simulation tech and the economy of EVE Online – a deeply complex supply chain management and economic gameplay loop. The benefit we have is – and the benefit from building anything in web3 – is that we have a legitimate financial system behind all of this, a real economy, a real opportunity to generate income for yourself and exchange assets with other players that have monetary value.
So when I think about the demographics of people that are interested in participating in Star Atlas, it’s not just the space sim gamer. We certainly have an objective to target the mainstream audience, especially as we flush out more of the game development. But in the meantime, you have two other major segments, one of those being this play-to-earn audience.
I have been screaming from the rooftops that play-to-earn is not dead. Play-to-earn is still extremely viable. The challenges teams have faced in the past is that they didn’t sufficiently develop a sustainable economy. And this is a little bit of a tangent, but to go deeper the economy cannot and should not function purely based off of the inflationary emission curve.
The way that you create an economy that functions is a producer-consumer, peer-to-peer exchange because players can come into SAGE and produce resources and components and then sell them to other players who don’t want to do the resource extraction, crafting, and building of their own components. They just want to buy that from someone else. Equally, an artist could come into Star Atlas and have no interest in playing the game, but buy resources from other players and create these beautiful skins and sell them on the marketplace.
There will be deep layers of complexity across the game. There’s a lot of this in EVE Online where gamers look at spreadsheets for price disparities and they take a ship from one point to another which costs resources. You burn food and fuel and ammunition and toolkits along the way. But arbitrage might exist and some people are going out and taking advantage of arbitrage by flying their ship between space stations, buying up resources and selling them elsewhere.
We’re building the core gameplay loops in a modular fashion today. We already have some 10,000 daily active users through interactions with various programs. If you look at EVE Online, I think they have something like 20,000 daily active users. I could be wrong, but I think that’s pretty close. For us to go from 10,000 to 20,000 daily active users when we have major product releases coming up in Q4, I don’t think that’s a difficult objective for us to hit.
Of course, CCP is also building a blockchain games in the EVE universe.
I’m really curious to see where they go with it by the way. I’m a fan of EVE Online. I’m also a fan of Star Citizen. I mean with the on-chain development, you get the composability. You also get interoperability. I don’t think of them necessarily as competitors, but as potential partners at some point down the line.
How do you deal with the impact of crypto bear market and declining token prices?
I think there’s a point in time where a product like Star Atlas will decouple from the broad market, but given early stage development, the tokens will trade in line with the rest of the market. And what we’ve seen is everything down, essentially 99% from the bull market.
These things will come back and you’ll see a rise in values in these tokens at some point in the future. That’s not what we look for though. We need to build the fundamental value into the assets and we do that by building a great product people want to use. When the mainstream gamers come in, they’re going to care far less about what’s going on in the crypto markets and care a lot about what’s going on in the game they’re playing, the features they have access to, and the value of the assets that they’re earning through gameplay.
Any thoughts about going cross-chain?
We are diehard Solana. The things we’re doing with the onchain game logic, they’re really only possible with the state machine that is Solana, just in terms of speed and cost and scalability. We don’t see any bandwidth constraints operating exclusively on Solana. Sure we could launch on another chain with the ambition of attracting users from those ecosystems but I don’t think that that’s a necessary tactic for us. I think the products are going to speak for themselves. We’ll get people onto Solana to play Star Atlas and we want to focus all of our energy building here.
Can you talk about what you’re working on right now?
SAGE Labs is a 2D environment using all of these real on-chain mechanics. It’s very similar to Ogame for anyone who’s familiar with Ogame. From there, our web team is focusing on a guild management platform that’s nearly complete. It’s very exciting for all of the guilds in our ecosystem. It includes onchain registration, profile management, permission settings, multi-sig wallet with guild treasury management, things like that.
In the meantime, we also have a small team right now dedicated to the core SAGE product. It uses a lot of the same fundamental programs that we’re using in Labs, but in a 3D environment, so it’s all WebGL assets and 3D models of ships. We’re targeting a big release of that before the end of 2023. And just to restate, we have the R.2.2 launch in Showroom with this competitive combat racing loop. That’s our big release going into the tail end of the year.
You seem to be doing a lot of product given the staff reductions you’ve experienced?
To be transparent, we had 165 people on the team. We eliminated about 75%. That was our internal team, by the way, excluding the co-creation studios. But, ironically, we’ve seen velocity pick up.
I’ve often referenced a podcast from Tim Ferriss when he’s interviewing Evernote’s CEO who talks about challenges with growth and scalability of companies. His rubric is every time you 3x the amount of people working for you, you have to radically transform all of your procedures and communication channels. At peak, we had 235 people working in some 24 countries around the world, primarily through Discord. We went from 4 people to 235 over the course of a year and that introduced many operational inefficiencies.
I’ll take the blame for my own naivety that adding people is going to make you produce more. Now, with a smaller team, we’re actually able to communicate more effectively. Everybody is focusing on one thing. Outside of a few satellite teams, effectively everybody is focused on one product. Everybody’s aligned on what needs to get built and how it needs to get built, and we’re able to execute on that more quickly. Obviously, reducing personnel isn’t something I wanted to do, but I will say there is a positive byproduct in that we’re working better now than we ever have before.
Everybody knows exactly what to work on and the team is working incredibly hard right now. Everybody is extremely excited about what we have coming up, so it feels really good to feel that passion from everybody on the team.