Astro Empires is a real-time MMORPG set in space, were the player can build bases, fleet and research technology to make base defenses and fleet more powerful - as well as unlocking new units. Astro Empires was founded in 2006 by Nuno Rosario as a personal project with no expectation for it to become what it was. Nuno lives in Faro, Portugal and maintains Astro Empires with his best friend, Bruno Rodriguez who has been part of Astro Empires since its launch on the 27th May 2006
A One Man Effort
WHEN NUNO ROSARIO started to learn how to create websites, and how they interact with databases, he had no idea that his sample project would turn into such a large and vibrant game with a community of over 44,000 people at it's peak throughout it's twelve years since creation. With no prior experience in web development, financial investment or even resources, Nuno's hobby - which he worked on in his spare time while working a full time job - would soon turn into be his new career managing his own business.
Astro Empires started off as a one man effort by Nuno, who was later joined by best friend Bruno Rodriguez who played a crucial role in the marketing department - he has been part of development team since Astro Empires launched in 2006. Nuno & Bruno would be later joined by a small team of three other people who came and went throughout the course of Astro Empires life time.
"The game development started as a hobby, when I start learning how to make webpages and databases access. I didn’t have any concrete expectative by then, the game could just end being an experience or in the most positive hope get some degree of success.
After the initial release a friend of mine [Bruno Rodriguez] start helping with the game community and some of the operations (forum, support, marketing, etc..), only about 1 year later we get some one more to help on support and other operations, after the game start being more popular, we manage to have one more person, a designer/programmer and later two 3D designers for a while working in the game assets in 3D (ships, buildings).
There are always small things that could be made different, in special after looking back, maybe improving some aspects of the original game design and improving by then the initial potential of the game, but as mention it start as a hobby and without much time or resources to invest on it." (Sic)
Alpha, the first official server to be launched, was released on the 27th May 2006, and in less than 2 weeks already had a player base of 1,000 players. By mid July, Astro Empires had become very popular - with a player base of nearly 10,000 active players - prompting Nuno to invest more in server resources to keep up with the demand after the initial release. It was by late October of the same year, that players who enjoyed the game so much were flooding Nunos email inbox with the interest in becoming volunteers on the community forum. 'Kn0xx' was the forum username of the first volunteer administrator, who also played a small role in development - having created a skin for the forum.
In total, there has been more than 30 volunteer forum moderators, and tripple that in beta tester volunteers who got to test exclusive features on the Development server, some of which made it into the game - and according to past volunteers - most of which didn't.
As part of conducting the research for this article, I spoke with 'Winchester'.
A successful lawyer outside of the game, and ingame and forum probably the most well known user and most respected poster on the forum. 'Winchester' was a volunteer forum moderator from 2009 and on-and-off up until recently.
Me: What spurred your interest in becoming a moderator when the voluntary role was made available?
Winchester: I wanted some power to abuse and to be able to spy on things like warnings and the mod forum. Plus, it got me a free upgrade.
Me: I'm sure there's been many proposed and tested game ideas that actually haven't made it past the development server, how often would new features be developed in the development server and was there ever any arguments over tested features that were scrapped from being implanted?
Winchester: It was extremely rare for Wizard to actually implement any new features, and most of the time he did it with little or no input from the volunteers. There were frequent arguments, because Wizard was rarely interested in any idea that wasn't his, and his ideas tended to suck. The volunteers also had different viewpoints on ideas, which was a good thing, really - or would have been, if we'd been listened to. Xaman would also frequently get on our case for not being respectful enough to Wiz, which didn't help.
Me: Of the good ideas that never made it past the development server, what was the explanation given - if any?
Winchester: The explanation was usually one of three: 1) Wizard couldn't figure out how to code it; 2) Wizard didn't think it fit in with the roleplay aspects of the game; or 3) Wizard or Xaman just plain didn't like it. Of course, the most common response was silence - we wouldn't get any word on what Wizard thought about a given idea, and the thread would eventually die.
Me: How did the developers treat volunteers?
Winchester: Like garbage. We weren't respected or listened to. When Wizard introduced his concept of fleet maintenance, it was met with near-universal disapproval by the volunteers; several of us put together exhaustive revisions to fix the glaring holes, and I think Wiz only adopted one or two minor changes before he introduced it in AE 2.0. Myself and a few other volunteers tried to make it known that we did everything we could to stop the atrocity that was 2.0, because we would normally get the blame for Wizard's crappy ideas - even though we were the first to speak out against them.
Me: Anything else you'd like to add?
Winchester: The most fun I had as a mod was warning and banning people who annoyed me, whether they deserved it or not, and turning a blind eye on the people I liked. Good times.
Moral Among Volunteers Was Very Low
The overall moral of the forum volunteers was rather low, I noticed. Nuno, when asked if he had any specific regrets about the game replied:
No special regrets. All start as a hobby, if it started as a more commercial product and with more resources at the initial phase the success probably could have been greater, but for a large time the game was a secondary activity, shared with a full time job. There are always small things that could be made different, in special after looking back, maybe improving some aspects of the original game design and improving by then the initial potential of the game, but as mention it start as a hobby and without much time or resources to invest on it.
The peak of Astro Empires yearly turnover was on the 2nd or 3rd year of running, in result of that we had by then more capacity to invest on the game development and advertising, after the initial years even with the game improvements the yearly turnover decreased constantly (as normal on most games).(sic)
Nuno seems adamant that perhaps Astro Empires, like any game has had its peak but is just on a steady decline, but the community are very critical and feel the lack of interest from the developers, as well as their overall attitude is what's killing this game. Astro Empires typically opens a new server every six months, but Nuno has recently announced that the next server will be delayed. The community are not happy that in the past two years all Astro Empires has gotten is new servers, and not a single update apart from changing the speed of a unit from 5 to 6....
It only takes a quick read of the 'Feature Request' forum to see that the same ideas pop up again and again. Infact, it happens (or happened) so often, there is a thread stating which ideas not to post because of how frequently they appeared. Surely it's sheer lunacy not to implement any of them? The same ideas get posted over and over again not because they're bad ideas, but because its what the community want in their game. Isn't the customer always right?
Even the moderators took issue with this approach, one moderator - who asked not to be identified - shared his (/inb4hateforassumingmoderatorsgender lol) view with me on the development team:
"The AE development team has, in my opinion, let the community down. We have given them feature requests that are fully thought through and balanced and very few have made it to the game. The few that have made it to the game have, arguably, made it worse. It feels like they gotten their research and development for free and then threw it all away."
The last significant update to Astro Empires was in 2015.
The only thing keeping Astro Empires still afloat, is the small community which still exists in game and on the forums. People who still like to share jokes, talk about the Astro Empires lore that exists in the archives of the 'Politics & War' forum.
Whis, who is a global moderator shares this same view:
I've been playing AE for over 7 years now. Started in Ceti, worked my way up from a nobody to pretty much still being a nobody. I'm average at best at AE, and I don't play everyday because I have too many real life obligations. When I knew this was going to be the case, and I saw the forum announcement that they were looking for moderators I thought it would be a good way to keep in touch with the community instead of losing it forever.
It's a decent community, more outspoken than most, but still a decent group of people. I have found the community is deeper than the game itself as many who visit the forums are just people who used to play but still have "friends" that do.
There has been a number of calls from the community to the development team to either: Open source the game code; or sell on Astro Empires to someone willing to show it the love and affection it needs to keep it afloat.
Most, though, feel it's just time to let Astro Empires die a well deserved death.
Decline In Revenue
Using some stats I gathered from Alpha I was able to figure out on the Alpha server, the average number of players who have upgrades on their accounts is 1 in 5.4
Just under 36% have upgrades of less than 3 months on their accounts.
33% are upgraded for atleast the next 6 months
31% makes up the amount that have an upgrade of 12 months or more on their account.
Based on averages, there's approx. 213 upgraded accounts in Alpha, of which:
77 are upgraded for less than 3 months; and generated approx. €385
70 are upgraded for the next 6 months; and generated approx. €989
66 are upgraded for the next 12 months; and generated approx. €1,300
Now, the fun and interesting part. Applying the averages cross server!
Thats an approx sum of €50,806, I can't estimate how much they make from ad revenue but I can imagine it perhaps being less than €10,000 euro per annum.
For arguments sake anyhow: €60,806 / 2 (Number of fulltime employees)
€30,403 each before before tax
The total amount of income tax prior to tax credits being applied is €8,525.99
So we've worked out they each take in about €21,877.01 euros per year each, but that's without the subtraction of costs i.e Advertising, Dedicated Server Hosting
I imagine both amounts - give or take each way - could be a little bit higher, because of company fees & tax compliance.
At its peak Astro Empires had 44,000 players, let's try figure out how much they were making:
The game was 2.4 times bigger in 2009, so based on our averages and the the player count from that area Astro Empires before paying any tax brought in a revenue of - €121,934.40 per annum
Amended to include research conducted into Cybertopias revenue for the purpose of this post
Corrected inaccurate stat of 60,000 players to true value, 44,000