Universe Sandbox ² 2017 Roadmap | Part I
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What Was New in 2016?
Before we get into our 2017 roadmap, let’s look at the progress we made last year. The updates weren’t numerous, but each was a big step forward for Universe Sandbox ².
Universe Sandbox ² VR
In the beginning of 2016, Universe Sandbox ² VR was released as a featured launch title for the HTC Vive. It was extremely well received; many users described the awe at the sheer sense of scale of planets, stars, and astronomical distances that has to be seen in VR to be believed. But our highest accolade? The Escapist’s 2016 Winner of Best VR Experience: Universe Sandbox ².
We’re currently working on a VR update with the help of our new, dedicated VR developer.
Alpha 19 | Disintegration Update
Then in early November, we released Alpha 19 | Disintegration Update. It was a long, winding, bumpy road to Alpha 19 with a number of unexpected snags, but we were incredibly proud of what we released. Alpha 19 was a massive update, with an 8-page list of new features, improvements, and fixes.
Here are the big changes which came with Alpha 19:
- Tidal forces now tear apart planets
- Planets are now vaporized by high temperatures & supernovae
- Improved performance, appearance, & user control for fragments & particles
- Explosions look more epic & cause expanding “shockwaves”
- You can now record animated GIFs
- “New” labels, stats, & sorting options for sims
- New/updated models for the New Horizons probe, police box, Great Pyramid of Giza, & Saturn V third stage rocket
- Two new music tracks
We’ve released a couple of smaller updates since then which have fixed a number of bugs and introduced a few smaller features, like a new model for the Juno spacecraft and the ability to upload and share GIFs via Facebook and Twitter. Our latest update, Alpha 19.5, is another round of small improvements and bug fixes, and we’re now turning our complete attention to Alpha 20.
Six New Team Members
In mid-2016 we hired Dave to work full time on a mobile version of Universe Sandbox ². We’re still a long way from launching on mobile, but we already have a functional version running on a few of our team’s phones. (More info on a mobile version in Part II of our roadmap!)
In September, we hired Rahul to work alongside Thomas on some physics projects. He’s currently working on rigid body collisions, which means that smaller-scale objects, like pool balls or the pyramid, will eventually no longer merge together when colliding, and will instead bounce off of each other or even break apart. And a bit after Rahul, we hired Sergey to work on some new 3D models for Universe Sandbox ². Sergey created the recent Juno spacecraft model for us and is currently working on the Voyager.
Then in October, we hired our producer, David. David came just in time keep us corraled on the home stretch toward Alpha 19. Without him, it’s quite possible it would have taken us even longer to release Alpha 19. And as we move forward he has continued to wrangle all of the moving parts into one semi-coherent machine.
And while this isn’t technically 2016… since we’ve rounded the bend into 2017, we’ve hired two new team members. Mat is our new QA Lead who has already helped hunt down and document bugs for our 19.5 release, and Jacob is our new VR developer who will focus exclusively on continuing to build and improve the Universe Sandbox ² VR experience. (More info on our next VR update in Part II of our roadmap!)
We’re super excited to welcome Dave, Rahul, Sergey, David, Mat, and Jacob, and we’re thrilled to have a continually growing team of talented enthusiasts — we even have plans to hire a couple more this year. We’re not slowing down.
In our updated roadmap released last year, we talked about a lot of big features we planned to include in Alpha 20. But in this same roadmap, which was published in June, we also said that we were rounding the corner on releasing Alpha 19. We said this because we thought it was true.
If we fast forward to the release date of Alpha 19, November 8, almost 5 months after we thought we were rounding the bend, it becomes clear that things don’t always go as planned. Which is why we try to be transparent and not make promises about our development schedule. We simply can’t know. Maybe this could be an area of improvement for our team, or maybe it’s simply the fact that we’re trying to simulate the universe and that’s a complicated task that no one has solved before… Who can say for sure?
Regardless, this is why we’re changing our plans for Alpha 20 a bit, and why we want to focus on smaller updates moving forward.
Let’s say you go out to eat with a big group of people. You can ask your server to bring out each dish as soon as it’s ready, or everyone can wait patiently, hungrily, until the chef crams in the last dish under the heat lamp and it’s time to bring everything out. Maybe you’re the polite type, but we know you’re hungry, so we’re going to try to roll things out in smaller updates, rather than all at once. Features are better fresh.
As mentioned above, our plans for Alpha 20 are a little bit different than they were in our 2016 roadmap. It may not be as feature-packed as originally planned, but there are still some exciting changes coming.
- Stellar Evolution
- Previously, we weren’t expecting this until after Alpha 20, but now it’s looking like we’ll have our new stellar evolution model ready for this update. With the rewritten model, Universe Sandbox ² will support 16 evolutionary star types versus the previous 5. Jenn, our astrophysicist, based the model on these papers; it is primarily a function of mass and age or metallicity, and will work for evolutionary types outside of main-sequence stars.
- The results will be more dynamic and accurate properties for stars, as well as smoother transitions from type to type. It will also now account for mass loss from solar winds, and be able to differentiate envelope from core.
- New User Interface System
- This is mostly just a change in the tech we’re using, but if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice some small changes to the design aesthetic as well. Also, if you’re on a 4k monitor and you’ve noticed that the text is a little hard to read at that resolution, then good news — the new interface is scalable for higher resolutions. It’s also an important step toward supporting language localization further down the road, and we know this is often requested.
- Analytics won’t change anything for users (at least not immediately), but it will help us better understand how people play Universe Sandbox ². We receive a lot of great feedback every day from our forums, social media, and in-game feedback system, but improving our analytics will allow us to see things like which sims are opened the most and which never are, or which options and features are never seen because they’re too hard to find or are confusing to use, or how many users close out of the tutorial after the second step. We’ll look at the data as a whole to see where our strengths and weaknesses are so we can focus our efforts on making the best possible improvements to the user interface and user experience. (And if you’d prefer to opt out of sending analytics, you can certainly do that as well.)
- Merged Desktop/VR Builds
- A small change for users (who will simply see one executable instead of two separate ones for desktop and VR), but an important step for the team. Along with merging these two separate “projects” internally on our development side, this will help keep the two versions up to par with each other in terms of features and improvements. And also with the help of Jacob, our new VR dev, this will make future VR updates a much smoother process.
- First Stage of Planetary Grids/Detail/Automata
- This is admittedly just a tease. You won’t see anything different on this front in Alpha 20. Our plan is just to take the first step in bringing in the necessary tech for this, which has existed in a separate development branch. But what is this nameless feature? Well, it’s actually a system that will open up the doors for a bunch of exciting features that will make planets visually more detailed and responsive to interactions. But we’ll have to wait until after Alpha 20 to see the first of these features in Universe Sandbox ².
What’s Coming After Alpha 20?
Find out in Part II of our 2017 roadmap!
And we really can’t say it enough — thanks to all of our fans for continuing to support Universe Sandbox ² as we enter another year. We’re very excited with all of the changes coming in 2017, and we’re incredibly grateful to our growing community for hunting down bugs and for helping define and prioritize our roadmap. Thank you for joining us on this crazy ride.