Steambirds – The Tragedy of Sequels

Amidst the dross of online games, you occasionally find a gem. A game that isn’t half-finished, or shallow, or just a vehicle for ads. A game that is actually playable, one that presents you with interesting problems and doesn’t just allow you to click away your time. So many online games are half-finished amateurish messes, or color-shifted rehashes of concepts that were tired decades ago. I find it’s rare to come across a game that is worth the time.

Steambirds is such a game – a shining needle in a dirty haystack. Set in an alternate history version of the world wars, in which steam-powered aircraft battle for control of the skies, the game puts you in command of a small squadron, playing through various dogfights against the encroaching menace of the enemy airforces.

The art style is consistent and fits the setting – no missing textures, or scrawled sprites. It looks good – not amazingly realistic, but a game about cold fusion defeating the Nazis is never going to. The whole aesthetic hangs together well, giving a polished experience without visible wires or rough edges.

The gameplay is neat and easy to pick up – the game pauses, you choose your planes’ actions, and then both your move and the AI’s move play out together. You have to predict the enemy planes’ movement, working out where they are likely to turn, trying to get a clear shot at them without ever making yourself vulnerable.

Planes can’t stop in mid-air, and can’t (without a particular power-up) change direction on a whim. For a top-down turn-based game, Steambirds cleaves remarkably closely to the actual capabilities of planes.

At heart, it is a puzzle game – given this situation, these planes heading this way attacked by these other planes from this direction, can you win? Can you, moreover, win without losses on your part, or even without taking damage? There are only fifteen scenarios, but each one provides interest, and the quest to win perfectly, rather than simply survive, is one that I rather enjoyed.

Steambirds is not a perfect game, nor even an amazingly deep one. All the levels are winnable without possessing superhuman analytical abilities or reflexes. However, for what it is, it stands head and shoulders above its peers. There is enough depth to be interesting, enough challenge that you don’t feel as though playing it is totally slack time.

For a free, online game, I can’t recommend it enough: it’s a perfect example of how polished and proficient a game can be even without a massive budget. It also demonstrates that “online” doesn’t have to mean “shoddy”. That you can have a decent game without it just being a vehicle for microtransactions and Facebook likes.

And then this year, I discovered that it had a sequel – Steambirds Survival.

At first, I thought this was fantastic news; my only issue with Steambirds has always been the length of the game – I wanted more of it. And surely, with more time and experience, the people who made this shining example of what an online game could be could only improve?

This was not the case. Steambirds Survival isn’t a true sequel. It isn’t a continuation of the narrative, or a refinement of the concepts. Instead, it’s more of a re-focusing, a sign that the developers have changed their priorities.

I’m not, I should stress, currently talking about the app that the developers (Spry Fox) have released for various smartphone platforms – I understand that that has more features, and possibly avoids some of the following criticisms, but I can’t currently get it to download, and it seems fairer to compare the two web-based versions to each other. I’m focusing just on the version available online, and how that differs from the original.

It doesn’t differ particularly in aesthetic, or even the basic gameplay – a few new power-ups have been added, but the actual game feels that same in almost all ways. What has changed is the overall idea.

One of the reasons that I love the original is the purity – there’s no fuss, no interruptions to the game: you unlock more levels by completing them, there’s no faff or gatekeeping other than by your own ability to play the game. That’s all gone in Steambirds: Survival.

Now, it’s just one mission: survive (the name should have given that away). You face down wave after wave after wave of enemies, with not much changed but the flavour text on the background. In a few minutes of playing, I was apparently instrumental in evacuating both Swindon and parts of London, but I felt only tenuously connected to this.

It isn’t a puzzle any more, just endurance – you circle around again and again while the enemy aircraft arrive from all directions. The controls are the same, the idea is the same, but the execution is totally different. Strategy and thought have been replaced with what seems like a slow-moving bullet hell game.

The game now has a currency – copper. Copper is unlocked by success in the levels, and is used to unlock more planes. These planes vary wildly in price (there is one free one, and then the most expensive is two million). Better planes are not only more effective, but also allow you to earn copper faster. I don’t object to that as such – it’s essentially the idea behind any kind of leveling system, but I do take issue with the other additions that come with it.

There is now a social element to the game – earn a bonus to copper through interaction with Twitter and Facebook. This will, obviously, allow you to unlock the better planes even faster.

A further set of planes can be unlocked through “gamergold” (purchased with real money) – these planes are even better, and allow you to get even more copper! That “innovation” comes to you from Gamersafe – their website provides details.

And that’s the game now – instead of a set of carefully crafted puzzle missions, you now play the same survival game in order to get currency in order to unlock planes that let you earn more currency. You can also buy currency, in case you want to skip the game and get right into the game.

To be fair to the developers, there’s nothing immoral with what they are doing, and there is nothing incompetent with what they are doing. They’ve still delivered a polished product. Developers are more than entitled to seek profits, and they are more than entitled to gate aspects of the game behind paywalls and social hoop jumping. I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t have that right, or even that they shouldn’t exercise it.

It just makes me sad. It’s sad to see a game that was so perfectly designed, so purely a game and not a cynical cash-in or a lazy mess, turn so far away from what made the first one good. The first Steambirds was brilliant – polished, intriguing, and focused on giving the user the best experience, making the game the best that it could be. The sequel is focused on profit, on skinner-box gameplay and resource collection that allows you to collect more resources.

The whole free to play thing in gaming is more and more prevalent, and I think it’s a negative – it’s a step back from interesting game design towards highly effective advertising, and I think that such a step necessarily removes a lot of what makes games interesting.

Steambirds was better than that – Steambirds was a game I could point to and say “that’s how to do it right – that’s how to build a decent game”. And now its an equally effective poster child for the other side of the equation; a game that cheapens its central concept in order to sell itself.

Again, I’m not saying that they shouldn’t do it – it’s not unethical, and I have no doubt that it makes sound economic sense. I simply wish they hadn’t. The developers are clearly capable of making well-designed and engrossing games, and I don’t think that they are doing that any more. Others may disagree, and there is certainly much to be said on that side of the argument, but I’d always rather pay for a good game than not pay for the chance to grind.

A sequel is meant to build on and improve the original work. Steambirds and Steambirds: Survival are proof that that isn’t always the case – sometimes, the game you look forward to bears no relation to what you actually get, and a great concept gets twisted and spoilt. I think it’s sad, I think it’s a shame.

The original is still up: play it. It’s a game that I will always recommend. I wish I could say the same about its sequel.

What do you think?

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