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Jacob Phillips | Creative Director, Co-Owner

Oct 27, 2023


Welcome to the first ever ULTRAMASSIVE Dev Blog! Our purpose with these blog posts is to give insight into the creation process of various ULTRAMASSIVE mechanics and concepts as well as how they have evolved over the development of ULTRAMASSIVE. As for today’s Dev Blog, I will talk specifically about one of the most integral elements of ULTRAMASSIVE, the Anomaly Board! I will discuss how it has changed over the last few months and how its creation has shaped much of the ULTRAMASSIVE experience.

First, however, allow me to introduce myself and my role on the Studio Unknown team. My name is Jacob, and I am the Creative Director and Co-Owner of Studio Unknown. In my time since joining up with Alex (Studio Director and Founder), I have helped shape the experience that we want to give players as Studio Unknown and the experience of ULTRAMASSIVE. This includes how ULTRAMASSIVE plays, looks, and how players interact with each other while playing. I also handle a lot of behind the scenes stuff that is not nearly as exciting as ULTRAMASSIVE like managing the Studio Unknown website, arranging playtests, and building our balance tools. I work closely with both Alex and Daya, our Art Director, to make sure that every detail that paints the experience we want players to have when playing ULTRAMASSIVE is cohesive and well thought out. On a more personal note, I love complex strategy games and think of Microsoft Excel as a sandbox.

When I joined Studio Unknown, the core concept that defined ULTRAMASSIVE was that the players control the flow of matter trapped in a black hole’s immense gravitational pull, a black hole with a singular purpose: absorb as much matter as possible to become the biggest entity in the universe and the original mechanics of ULTRAMASSIVE reflected that concept. Players could take actions to add matter to their board, as well as move that matter through their board, a function we call orbiting. We even had black hole expansion figured out! As the players absorbed more and more matter, they hit thresholds where their black hole piece was swapped out with a larger black hole, effectively shortening the path of matter on their board. .

This functioned properly, however, as we tested more, it became very clear that it was really hard to catch up if you fell behind. Doing well in the game inherently made it easier for you to win as the game progressed, and we saw that across multiple internal playtests and change cycles. It was essentially a toss up as to who was going to win based almost entirely on what they drew or rolled, which was without a doubt frustrating to some of those who played ULTRAMASSIVE in its earliest days. There were ways a player could miss-play, and some strategies were stronger than others, but at the end of the day we had a fundamental problem on our hands. That is to say, we had a problem until we created the Anomaly Board.

First, some context is needed in regards to the early stages of making this game. ULTRAMASSIVE had somewhat of an identity problem in its infancy. We knew we wanted a game that had the ability for players to ramp up in power, not only making the game faster as it went on, but also increasing players’ efficiency. We also wanted a full system of interaction between players which focused heavily on strategy. All of this was being developed alongside us trying to balance how many actions a player could take on their turn and what those actions could be.

What we found while doing all of this was the value of unique and individual strategies. So we made fundamental changes to address the game’s fundamental problems. First, players needed to be able to catch up if they fell behind. Second, we wanted to lean into the different developing strategies and really hone those styles of play. Third, the progression the player felt as the game went on needed to be more dynamic than just the expansion of their black hole. With these objectives in mind, it dawned on us that the best way to move forward was to swing hard into the inherent “engine” of absorbing matter to expand, and expansion providing more matter – an engine that ULTRAMASSIVE already possessed. Our thinking quickly turned into us asking ourselves, “why not just let players build their own engines?” Overnight, ULTRAMASSIVE went from a game that had an “engine” to an “engine-building” game. The player workshop where they tune and build their engine became what we now refer to as the Anomaly Board. Players gained a currency secondary to points whose primary function would be purchasing Anomalies, aka, upgrades. These upgrades changed how the player manipulates their board, resulting in a personalized style of play that the player developed as the game progressed.

The first step towards building the Anomaly Board was deciding what styles of play could be made into winning strategies. We made broad strokes first, establishing four core functions of the game that players could use to win. We brainstormed as many unique styles of play that could exist within one of those core functions, eventually agreeing on having at least two distinct styles of play for each. This effectively solidified the distinct styles of play that were occurring before the creation and implementation of the Anomaly Board.

With the potential styles of play that players could choose established, we then addressed the issue of the game snowballing in one player’s favor based on the randomness of action cards or die rolls. We soon changed our thinking of what it meant for a player to be “behind”. What if that player isn’t behind, but they have been focusing on a late-game style of play? This type of thinking led to the development of the Anomaly Board so that the upgrades offered different levels of results at different levels of player investment. This effectively established the idea that some strategies were oriented to be early game or late game focused.

The problem of progression was solved as well. The individual features of the Anomaly Board were much more than just minor changes or resource upgrades. As players progressed further down the Anomaly Board, the rewards became stronger and more complex. Some of the late-game Anomalies even changed how the rules functioned for some players, giving players a more personalized map to victory when playing. The black holes that players used to know now had their own progression system tuned by the player to better suit their style of play. We often liken the Anomaly Board to a skill tree in a digital RPG, where players are in control of how they want to play the game.

The process of creating the Anomaly Board and its role in ULTRAMASSIVE has been a lengthy one. The Anomaly Board has not been static in the sense that it has very much been the focus of our playtests over the last few months. Every time we play the game we gain a more solid understanding of how all the strategies play out against each other, and to our credit, we have adjusted things when needed. The original Anomaly Board had exceptionally powerful upgrades for the player to unlock towards the end of the Anomaly Board. However, we found that most of the time, players weren’t even reaching those options before the game was over. In our experience, unlocking those zany, rule breaking upgrades were notably fun experiences for the players, even when they weren’t the ones obtaining the upgrade. In an effort to facilitate more of those moments, we have shortened the Anomaly Board significantly, changed possible strategies entirely, played with the costs of these upgrades, and even increased the score thresholds for winning ULTRAMASSIVE! Of course, all of this has been done with one goal in mind, and that is to make playing ULTRAMASSIVE a unique and customizable experience every time it is played. Players can adapt to other player’s styles of play, experiment with zany combinations of upgrades, and keep ULTRAMASSIVE fresh and exciting by trying out all the content we’ve made.

We have an awesome series of blogs planned for the months building up to the release of ULTRAMASSIVE. At the end of every month, we will post a blog similar to this one, highlighting the conception or implementation of a game feature that we felt shaped the game in some way. Additionally, these blogs are a great place for us to give insight into our process of changing those same features or mechanics after they are in place. Along the way, we will highlight some of the games we play that we think are pushing the edge of creativity, design, or experience. With that in mind, stay tuned for our next post, a game highlight centered around your favorite alternative timeline game of conflict, Scythe.

If you made it this far, thank you for your time spent reading a blip from our little corner of the internet. We are incredibly passionate about ULTRAMASSIVE and our dream is that you will be passionate about it too. I have included a nonsensical chunk of our Changelog that makes sense to us but is as ominous and nebulous as black holes themselves, to you, the reader. Enjoy, and as always, “Embrace the Unknown!”

ULTRAMASSIVE Change Log | Oct, 2023

-Made Anomaly Board significantly less wide.

-Increased general “bombasticity” regarding the Anomaly Board.

-Locked in removal of the three card draw and drop.

-Made the Action Card Deck more visible.

-Weakest Siphon Anomaly Tree nerfed after its debut as a real legitimate player option.

-Locked in Matter Anomaly Tree changes that significantly “mattered.”

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