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The Tragedy Of Jumplight Odyssey

It could have been great, but now we'll never know

In 2022 Australian studio League Of Geeks--developers of the hugely-successful Armello--announced a new game called Jumplight Odyssey. It looked perfect.

Here's the debut trailer, which didn't show me a single second of gameplay and didn't need to, because even on purely thematic grounds it was ticking every box I needed to see ticked:

It was Macross. It was Space Battleship Yamato. It was Battlestar Galactica. Three of my most favourite things. The game's anime-style visuals understood the brief and nailed it, and when a gameplay trailer was released a little while later, my sneaking suspicions were close to being confirmed: this was going to be a Game Of The Year contender for me.

I love the deep-space tension of FTL. I love building management games like Two Point Hospital. I love tending to a crew, I love managing resources and supply chains, I love sending little spaceships out of bigger spaceships to go on dangerous missions. I very rarely get this excited about a video game before it's out, but come on.

After patiently waiting a few months for Jumplight to release into Early Access, I took advantage of a few months off work earlier this year to settle in and see just how perfect this game was. And, uh. Well.

It wasn't perfect. Far from it. This was an Early Access game all right. While the shape of an excellent video game was very clearly visible, Jumplight Odyssey--despite its polished visuals and performance--still had some work to do.

Jumplight just couldn't get the pieces to come together to marry the roguelite sensibilities of FTL with all those management and supply systems. A run would start well enough, its foundation of "build some rooms, jump to a different star system, build some more rooms" working pretty well for the first few hours, but as your ship got bigger and its needs grew more complicated, everything started falling apart.

As I wrote last month:

...it completely falls down as you progress, because its interface and design simply don't give you the information and access to systems you need to keep everything running smoothly.

Also coming in a little under-cooked was the crew management aspect of the game. Every single member of your crew had a name, a job and personality traits, and could form friendships and even romantic relationships, but keeping track of all this--and making important decisions based on it--was either difficult or non-existent.

As fun as everything was to build in Jumplight Odyssey, when it first launched in Early Access you never felt like you had a real understanding of your full supply chain, which made the game incredibly difficult to play.

No matter! This is exactly what Early Access is for, after all. Developers iron out some kinks, get feedback from users, iterate and, by the time the game reaches 1.0, it’s hopefully in a much better place than where it started. Look at Against The Storm, which has very recently done just that.

By all accounts, that process was well underway at League Of Geeks. I haven't played the game since launch--when I have an experience like this, I prefer to leave the game for a while and come back when changes are substantial--but the team had been working on it non-stop. By the time December rolled around, the game's overall review reception on Steam had improved from "mixed" to "very positive" in only three months, testament to the progress the game was making.Sadly, it's a process we'll probably never see hit the finish line, because--as we've reported--League of Geeks laid off half its earlier this month, and practically shelved Jumplight Odyssey as a result. As part of the announcement, the studio said of Jumplight's future:

Over the next few weeks, Jumplight Odyssey will be winding down. We’ll be tying a bow on as many things as possible in the short time we have left on the project. As mentioned, there will be one more patch (v0.3.1) that contains all the things that were remotely ready to go - as well as some stuff we were saving for later!

It’s important to be clear and set the right expectations; the game won’t have realised its potential with this upcoming patch. There were so many things we still wanted to do, and there will absolutely still be many bugs kicking around that we simply won’t have the time to squash. We are so very sorry.

League of Geeks estimated that Jumplight was still around six months away from being "finished", so as they say, these last updates aren't going to get the game to where it was supposed to be. And that's a damn shame. This could have been a really good video game, a unique mix of styles and genres that catered to a deeply specific itch I'd carried with me for decades. The signs were there, the progress was there!

Plans for the "Training Room", where civilians could be trained to become members of your military crew

Even more agonisingly, almost everything League of Geeks had been planning to add to the game over the coming months sounded like stuff it really needed, and then some. To find out exactly what had been planned, and now likely won't ever make it into the game, I spoke with a couple of developers--Associate Producer Dave Harmon and Principal Designer Felix Strangio--who told me about some of the "many things we still wanted to do".

Harmon says more control over your crew was a big area of focus, something that had been a little lacking in the earliest versions of the game. "We wanted tools to give players more captain-level management options for controlling where the crew work and rest", he says. "The idea was to make tools not so granular it felt like a god game, but were realistically available to a captain. So a room can be assigned to an officer, a private room to a couple. Two marines who hate each other could be put on different shifts so they don't have to bump into each other, stuff like that.”

There were also plans for a training facility to help convert the civilian refugees you encounter along the way into military crew, and a duty roster that would let you schedule everyone to work in shifts. Harmon also says there were big plans for everything from combat (the addition of a space pirates faction, and more ways to encounter enemies) to added environmental hazards to the implementation of two whole new playable ships, with their own unique captains, crew missions and storylines.

Dr. Jean-Baré, one of the planned new captains for the base game (DLC would add two more), was in command of a scientific research and exploration vessel. Their storyline would have involved travelling through a black hole and dealing with various environmental hazards.

"Our DLC was going to feature two additional captains, and we had early exploration plans for these", Harmon says. "A galactic pop star and her pleasure yacht was one, a penal colony ship on the verge of a riot was another."

"There were lots more granular features we wanted to add, and more content for the systems we already had. There were cosmetic items concepted for each room--we had a prototype of an accolades system to flesh out the post-run flow--we also had designs for a memories system that would add some metagame progression. Obviously in the end time and money ran out on us."

"It's a massive shame, not just for the work lost but also the fact that it means the team breaks apart. It was just a killer group of developers all extremely committed to the concept and excited to get the next stage out in front of players."

Strangio says that one of the most important areas under construction was the way the game was going to use story to weave everything you did together, and try to build out the game's constant attacks and diversions into something meaningful.

"We always knew that Jumplight needed a strong narrative 'engine' to spark player curiosity, increase variety and elevate our game loops", Strangio says. "We had systems in place to deliver both micro-narrative 'spotlight' moments to surprise and delight players, as well as larger narrative arcs for players to solve over the course of many jumps. This would be driven--like the best Colony Sims on the market--by interlocking systems that bounce off each other to create remarkable, emergent outcomes, but also fuelled by bespoke content peppered throughout to introduce complications based upon player context. To put it in a metaphor, if the game systems are the engine that keeps the simulation running, then this content would be the wrench that is occasionally thrown into the gears to stir things up."

Yamato and Macross fans would need no introduction to the second captain update, Captain Remo

Strangio says they had even been working on a "wrapper" system, sort of like the Storyteller AI in Rimworld, that could tie all this together, and that they had been "inspired specifically by the episodic nature of our influences (Star Blazers, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek etc.) to create 'A Plots' and 'B Plots' that could overlap and intertwine to maintain tension and interest."

"In a nutshell, it feels to me like we had time to build the stage, assemble the props and train the actors; but were robbed of the ability to put on the final show."

"Ultimately, sometimes all that is left of a game at the end of the day is the things that don't end up on the cutting-room floor", Strangio adds. "We cut a lot of things, some of which were very cool and very promising, in order to ship Jumplight to Early Access and forge an achievable roadmap to a Full Release. What remained on the roadmap was, in my opinion, a refined Jumplight Odyssey that delivered on the core promise of the game; a heartfelt, human-centric survival experience with storytelling that blends bespoke narrative with a systems-driven sandbox to tell remarkable, emergent stories about hope and perseverance."

"It's just a shame the situation League of Geeks found itself in forced our hand and this version of Jumplight won't, for the foreseeable future, find its way to players."

Selfishly, this all sucks for me personally, the author of this blog talking about a video game I fancied, but it obviously sucks a lot more for everyone who worked on it and has now not only seen the game shelved but has been laid off, their lives thrown into chaos right as we head into the holiday season. The game deserved better, and they deserved better, than to wind up tossed in the trash not because of whether the game was any good or not, but because of--and stop me if you've heard this one before--the whims of investors.

I can't remember the last time a game I was so into got so close to the finish line before being killed off like this. It's one thing to cancel a singleplayer game early in development, often before the public even knows about it, while shelving multiplayer games after a poor launch is also pretty common. But for a game to come out, show promise, work steadily towards improving itself, then at the 11th hour be struck down just as it was about to really put a bow on it? It's agonizing!

If you want to see what's there as of December 2023, it's not like the game has been wiped from existence. It’s' still available on Steam, and still pretty fun, and who knows, maybe those last few updates being made over the next "few weeks" will make a big difference! And if you're a fan of the game as it was, or even as it could have been, the developers have built a little page here that contains a ton of art and notes for the features that were planned and will now never likely make it into the game.

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