About a year ago I fell in love with DU's tech and the promise. Launched my organization (DIA) with the beta. I have grown it to a relevant proportion. I then left the game due to what's basically a lack of content. This devblog series does not rekindle my hopes for the game. Here is what I think about the game's current state and my open letter to NQ and response to the devblogs.
Is DU a Tech Demo, a Beta, or a Full Launch?
A fundamental thing about why this game is losing so much momentum is you calling a tech demo a beta, then expecting players to actually play it like a fully launched game.
From a game mechanics perspective, Dual Universe is a tech demo. The only sustainably enjoyable and interesting gameplay has been construct building. Most playstyles this game should have been featuring are out of balance, boring, or nonexistent. Player support is a nightmare. The game regularly experiences bugs and exploits most of which affect the universe and enjoyment of all players, not just the ones who interact with the bugs.
From the your official perspective, DU is a beta, because you wanted to be able to charge the players for the game, yet make drastic changes to the game without angering the playerbase.
But from the player perspective, DU is a fully launched game, because you are letting players accumulate wealth, experiences, organizational structures; and carry it over to the actual launch. Let me explain why this matters so much.
Why Would People Play DU?
Your failure to recognize the fact that this game isn't a beta for the player showcases a fundamental lack of appreciation on why people play single shard sandbox games. People do not and will not play DU for the immediate experiences of mining, building, industry, ship flying, or PvP. Your main problem isn't the immediate "gameplay loops" that the players are put into. These are not the primarily outstanding features of DU gameplay. There are much better games out there for each. I could play Star Citizen or Elite Dangerous if I was super into spaceship flying. I could play Satisfactory for a way better version of DU's experience of industry. Literally any game has better PvP than DU.
[I exclude construct building from the above list of activities as it is pretty high level compared to games of similar nature, such as Minecraft. And guess what; it's your most time-invested and early-developed feature.]
We are early adopters of this game, because we want to play a game which we don't just log in and do our favorite activities, but we also want a game in which doing these activities matter in the context of the greater sandbox universe. The ore I collect could fuel a war. The PvP I do could save or collapse an organization. The ship or LUA I designed can be adopted by thousands of players, ultimately be used to tremendous ends. The factories I build could be the backbone of my space empire. We are here waiting for this emergent content to emerge. We are want to get ahead, be relevant, be famous, be helpful in our different ways in this universe. We want to be a part of something greater. That's what a single shard sandbox is about. The fact that whatever you are doing matters in a greater scheme of things, is why we are playing this game. This is also why game changes, exploits, lack of support and lack of content matters so much.
We cared about playing in the context of a greater, living universe. So we sucked up the broken mechanics and the lack of content, and started seriously investing our time in DU. This is because if we didn't, we'd have fallen behind. In other words, we had no choice but to treat this game as a full launch in our time investment decision, because otherwise we'd be punished with respect to why we are playing the game. You basically forced yourself into a position which you constantly frustrate players, because you gave them a tech demo but pushed them to play as if it was a full game. Let me elaborate on concrete examples.
The vast majority of specific frustration cases in DU can be categorized into three.
Firstly, there are game design changes that invalidate people's hours. The industry patch, screen updates, and every other perhaps much-needed change that would invalidate hundreds of hours of people's time. Now since the game is mechanically a tech demo, you want to be able to make drastic changes. But since people play it as a fully launched game, they commit their full selves and do become frustrated when major changes that are very much necessary invalidate hundreds of hours of their time.
Secondly, there are bugs, exploits, and lack of support. People derived truckloads of money and benefits off them (e.g. the blueprint market bug, the initial T4-T5 bot ore purchases, old broken industry, and lots more). People who didn't get support fell behind (even in DIA we lost a warp beacon, and we didn't have DRM ownership of our factories due to the lack of support). These exploits and broken gameplay elements aren't things that you can shrug off when you fix them, because their repercussions in the DU universe (aka the illegitimate wealth people acquired, etc.) carry over even into the actual launch. And you didn't (in most cases couldn't) address that in most cases. You didn't remove the profits earned by the exploiters of the blueprint bot order fiasco, for example. When players earn billions off bugs and exploits, that makes the rest of us who has to do legitimate work to earn that income invalidated. That's game-breaking, because again, most of our enjoyment of DU derives from our activities in the context of the greater DU universe than just the activities themselves. Again, you launched a tech demo in which you didn't have the manpower to do cleanups (e.g. deleting the income) after exploits, and players playing it as a full game pay the price.
Thirdly, there is the lack of content because the game is underdeveloped. The path from a tech demo to boredom is pretty self explanatory with this category of frustration.
The truth is many players wouldn't have invested that much time and effort in trying to do things that matter in this sandbox, if the game reset once it's properly launched at an acceptable quality. And no, it obviously isn't enough to argue that "players knew that they were going into a beta" because you committed to not wiping the game, including designs. Because, again, people mainly play DU to matter and to be relevant in a universe, and you left them a choice of either falling behind of that goal, or playing a semi-working tech demo.
The second big picture issue I see with your decisions is about your views and predictions of how emergent content emerges. Emergent content does not emerge unless the game creates the right conditions for it to emerge. The lack of conflict and content driving mechanics mostly made it impossible for it emerge in DU.
[I am saying "mostly", because the one playstyle which is an exception to this is construct building. Great construct creations (although only in looks, not as much in functionality) are the only emergent content this game provides so far. And guess what, the content around this playstyle (ships, stations, expos) are the only thing NQ Twitter can mention daily.]
For even a beta, DU should have emerged as many stories in war, piracy, theft, great empires, great trade deals, and so on. These are the kinds of things Eve players should be familiar with. The fact of the matter is that for any other single player experience, there is a better game. But for the emergent sandbox-wide content, DU could have been the best game. Meanwhile, we got JC's "puzzles" which were badly envisioned attempts to generate that content. They were one-time events generating one-time content. They were pretty exclusive in terms of the ratio of DU players engaging with it. They were probably a waste of your devtime. An elaborate "puzzle" is an example of how not to introduce emergent content to your sandbox. True sandbox content is typically unintended, unplanned.
Here are some immediate choke points on the game design which makes it non-conducive to emergent content.
Industry: All processes in DU leading up to construct building are fully vertically-integrateable solo (if not with a small organization). If you have 10 people, no reason to not to everything in-house. The game should have been designed from very early on in a way which deep specializations are needed to prevent self-sufficiency. Instead, your "gameplay loop" and "DU shouldn't feel like work" worries pushes you to introduce even more self-sufficiency (aka mining units). In a true sandbox people who don't want to mine would have other opportunities of value generation to buy the ore. Moreover, this is a bad case of "listening to players". Most players have no idea what makes an overall high quality sandbox. A builder will just want free materials to build. That doesn't mean that's a good implementation for a sandbox MMO.
Trade: JC's allergy to API, ESI and such removes huge depth from trading for the sake of trading.
Organization-Building: There is no value organizations can provide to members which they couldn't have gotten elsewhere. There is no service and value-generator members couldn't have gotten elsewhere unless they join. And inversely, there is no reason why members should pay "taxes" or invest in their organizations. Thus, there is no point in creating a deeply structured organization. Anything can be done better as 1 or 2 dedicated players, without all the hassle of people management.
Consensual PvP: There is no structure in which players can find PvP. Solo PvP isn't even viable (at least to most who don't use remote controllers) when 2 players can man an L core that can one-shot your ship. It is a huge deal-breaker for a sandbox game if one can't hop on their ship and find daily PvP at their small time window. Frankly I don't see how you will be able to circumvent this problem in the next year or years. The devblog certainly does not provide an answer here.
Organizational PvP: Can be summed up as "nothing to fight over". Even if you introduce territory warfare, huge mining and resource distributions revamps will ne required to make territories worth fighting over.
Non-Consensual and Asymmetric PvP: Piracy is near-impossible because avoiding potential pirates is easy. There is no mechanical depth to generate a meaningful risk/reward space in which some players die to pirates, but not in a game-disabling fashion. Similarly, there are no asymmetric (big org vs. small org) opportunities for the same lack of depth.
No PvE Content: You don't seem to have money for any.
No Exploration Content: You don't seem to have interest for much. One can do construct and planet exploration, but it gets old pretty fast without any reward. Moreover, exploration gameplay was a very low hanging fruit to generate right at the beta launch. Just sprinkle some exclusive rewards in a manner which someone roaming regularly would find these rewards at least once half an hour (and this is how you botched shipwrecks).
The Trajectory of the Game and DU as an Ecosystem
Reading the devblog does not excite me about the future of the game and on whether you learned meaningful lessons. Emergent content will not emerge unless you begin thinking about Dual Universe as an ecosystem. In a single shard sandbox, playstyles and activities should be interconnected in an ecosystem of relations. Yes, you do seem to realize that there is a lack of content, conflict driving mechanics, and more "sand in the sandbox". You don't however, seem to appreciate the role this interconnectedness plays in generating content.
For example, you want to implement space mining, but you don't think about the demand-side. Ore itself is only valuable if there is demand for it. The lack of PvP losses, the availability of ore in safe-zone players, in the market, and in people's long term stashes won't make ore worth fighting over. So you need new things with demand. And even when you meet this challenge, you have to solve the n+1 problem. For players, the optimized way of engaging with big-reward mechanics is creating consortiums and monopolies. Good conflict drivers involve inherent game designs against these. There is nothing for example, that yields advantages to smaller fleets of ships over larger fleets in DU PvP. This example illustrates how sandbox conflict drivers are supposed to be grounded on mindful and deep PvP mechanics, as well as meaningful balance of risk/reward to drive the conflict and the fun. It is unfortunately predictable that you will put some ore (or new items) to PvP space, and wait for people to sustainably fight over them, which won't happen. The nature of the reward and the nature of the PvP to obtain the reward are as much inherent to content emergence as the placement of the reward.
I have a pessimist prediction, because any earlier game design decisions involving ore distribution to planets and hexes, territory scanning, bot orders, industry flows, etc; indicate a similar lack in conceiving Dual Universe as a single interconnected ecosystem. Earlier decisions could have easily generated a more meaningful distribution of value to territories (the most valuable hex is cleared in a day, which is also connected to mining mechanics), things to fight over (if we would have construct PvP on asteroids, there is no reason why we didn't have construct PvP on some planets), exploration (for example, it's not costly to add 10 valuable NPC ships with sub-par AI at a given time to orbits of planets), and so on. Similarly, some future plans show the same lack of appreciation to DU as an ecosystem; such as mining units which will predictably devalue mining by underestimating how much effort players (and botters/RMT'ers) would spend to create big passive income setups.
Overall this all just feels like different teams at NQ are given different aspects of the game and they are all implementing their individual designs. There is no wider orchestration from upper level game designers and producers who truly can conceive DU as an ecosystem, and who can appreciate the interconnectedness different systems in the game should exhibit. JC looks like a person who has a great big picture vision, who wants his metaverse, but who does not have the necessary specific visions and approaches to sandbox/ecosystemic game design and development to get there.
DU's Project Management and Finances
As a final remark, it seems that most of this "lack of content" and the launch decisions could be due to high level decision-making for financial or technological reasons. Perhaps you heavily needed the subscription revenue. Or you needed players to truly commit to the game so you can test the tech. Even if so, the plan seems to have failed. The people who pitched the game to investors should have conducted better expectation management and better financial/business planning.
I am speculating JC was put on the bench for related reasons. If so, then that's perhaps a good call depending on who replaces him. If this is the most you could deliver given the money you have, I don't see how using the same money better would have delivered a timely product. The game might have just needed more money and several years more of development to reach a workable design and launch track. If so, then the responsibility is with those who planned DU and NQ as a business and project model.
That said, I hope the investors keep up with it, because I think the initial promise of the game (provided good future game design) is pretty sound. It might need two years more development and a bigger team though.
I'll keep following how the game progresses and I hope it succeeds. I don't find the money I spent on it a waste as I already played hundreds of hours.
EDIT: Corrected some grammar and sentencing.