Monday, September 12, 2011

AVWW Update: Windstorms, Fast-Travel, Vengeful Ghosts, Strategic Overlay, Citybuilding, Character Selection/Stats, Caving, Boss Types

It's been a couple of weeks since our last update, but we've been hard at work!  No video  this time, but I wanted to tell you about a few things that are new or altered in the game, since we're getting close to public beta.  We're hoping to hit that stage in about another week and a half if the final preparations continue to go well (as they have been so far).

New Windstorm And World Map Exploration Mechanics
In past videos and blog posts, we've shown and talked about the windstorm mechanics of the game, which I won't re-explain here -- because those have been completely tossed out and replaced with something more fun.  The old mechanics, which basically had kind of a "musical chairs" general design to them, were one of those things that sounded good on paper but felt awkward in practice.

The new windstorm mechanics are simpler: there is no windstorm counter, and you never get "lost in a windstorm."  You can wander freely on the world map, except into the ocean, the lava flats, or the deep, without fear of getting sucked into a region against your will.

THAT said, you also can't wander infinitely in the world anymore, either; the only world map tiles that will appear are those that are no higher than five levels above your civilization level.  This gives a more focused feel to the early game in particular, and every time you level up your civilization the world expands!  This has been a really popular change with our internal alpha testers.

So what happened to the windstorms?  Regions that are too far from a wind shelter (which are now more sparsely seeded) show up with a little asterisk behind their region number.  If you go into one of these regions, then you'll see that you're in a windstorm/snowstorm/sandstorm/firestorm/etc, and all the monsters are buffed up to 150% of their normal magical and physical attack powers.  This makes wind shelters still important, because it makes for easier adventuring in regions that are under their protection.

I should also add that now there are roads on the world map, which get automatically formed between wind shelters that you construct, and settlements that you've been to.  All the tiles that are crossed by these roads also are protected from windstorms; later there will also be other NPC-related macro-game benefits to having these road networks, but that's not in place yet.

Fast Travel: Warp Scrolls
This is not something we ever showed before, but on the forums and in one vide we did talk about our plans: essentially, we were going to have a sort of portal system that would get new nodes each time you killed a boss.  There were a lot of minor problems with this approach, though, mostly in that there were still plenty of inconveniences for the player, and that it felt like an immersion-damaging case of "the game developer is helping me out through arbitrary tunnels leading exactly where I want to go."

In other words, it felt like being handed something, rather than like winning something for yourself, and it still made for some annoying backtracking through areas you had already been; just less of it. I wanted to get the annoying backtracking down to as close to zero as I could possibly manage, and to have the players feel like they weren't being handed something through the fourth wall (narratively speaking).

The solution turned out to be remarkably simple, thanks to the dungeon and region maps that we already had in the game (which you can see in the last video we did, although the graphics are a lot more polished on it now and there's added information in the nodes and their tooltips, such as rooms that are destroyed, areas that have "side links," or areas that you've not visited yet).  The solution was just to give players "warp scrolls" that they can craft and use to get back to any dungeon node anywhere in the region they are currently located -- if they've already been to that dungeon node.

This is something that a lot of games wouldn't do, I suspect because they want you to actually spend more time traveling since the world is ultimately only so big.  AVWW's world is literally infinite, so in our case there's actually a big incentive for you never to visit the same place twice unless that place is a settlement or a challenge that you're completing a small bit at a time (or failing at multiple times, as the case may be).

My big fear was that this warp scroll mechanic would make the world feel artificially smaller, since every time you want to get back to anywhere in the world you've already been, you just walk to that region on the world map, enter the region, pull up your region map, click the dungeon you were in, and then click the specific area of the dungeon you want to go to.  And presto -- you're there.

I worried that would make things seem smaller, but in practice I don't think it does, because to get to some place in the first place, you have to put in the time to travel there on foot.  It's only once you've been there at least once that you can warp back there anytime you have need to.

Next, of course, was the challenge that we didn't want players to go harvesting purple dispersia dust all the time just so that they could fast-travel around.  Purple dispersia is our entropy-themed gem for the game, and one unit of dispersia dust can be used to craft a number of warp scrolls (I think four).  Having to spend your dispersia dust would be a major ongoing chore that I wasn't keen to inflict on players.

What we decided to do was to make it so that the any of the guardian stones in the game (of which there is one green "hearth guardian stone" in every settlement, for instance) will automatically refresh your inventory back to two warp scroll if you presently have fewer than two.  This makes it so that you can't spam the warp scrolls, and if you want to do a multi-jump expedition (for some reason I can't fathom) you need to use some purple dust to craft more than the two base warp scrolls.

So the flexibility is still there, but most expeditions consist of visiting a settlement, crafting some stuff, taking some other macrogame-related actions (that I'll talk about below), letting the hearth guardian heal your mp and hp back to full for free, letting it refresh you to two warp scrolls, and heading back out again.  Quickly walk to the world map tile of the region you wan to visit, use a warp scroll to go where you want in the region, and then use the second warp scroll to get back to the area of the region right by the world map when you're ready.

All in all this is really different as a mechanic than anything we've encountered in other games, but it fits really well with the infinite nature of our world, so that's nice.

Permadeath is something we've been talking about for a long time, since the game has been talked about at all in fact, and it's still very much in force.  However, the way in which we're going about it has recently changed.

Previously, when you died that meant that you dropped all your inventory where your character fell, and to get that stuff back you'd have to do a corpse run.  In the meantime, of course, you'd have to craft your own lesser things in order to get back there.  And, just as annoying as having to craft a bunch of stuff that I've already crafted before and which in fact is worse than what I was just using in the field, was the fact that I'd have to rearrange my inventory constantly to get it back in my preferred arrangement.

For me, that tends to be a long-ranged spell on my left mouse button, a melee-range spell on my right mouse button, wood platforms on my middle mouse button, some other special function (varying by context) on my fourth mouse button, and then ride the lighting (double jump) on my fifth mouse button (I use a Razer DeathAdder).  Then elsewhere on my main ability bar I'd have health/magic restoration potions or scrolls, which I can easily activate by right-clicking them in the main interface, or pressing the corresponding number key to use them.

Anyway, in practice what this was meaning was that every time I would die -- which can happen as often as every few minutes, in this game, if you play up in region levels compared to your civilization level -- I would be stuck spending 2-3 minutes crafting some repetitive scrolls and spells, and rearranging my inventory.

And with the addition of the warp-scrolls fast-travel mechanic, suddenly corpse runs fell into only two camps: trivial or impossible.  Either you would die, every time, trying to get your stuff back; or it would be simple to pop in, grab the stuff, and jet out.  There was rarely a middle ground.

Our goal with the permadeath mechanic, unlike in roguelike games, has never been to punish the player or end the game.  Rather, what we're trying to do is craft a large and meaningful world where actions matter -- and what action is more narratively meaningful than someone dying?  That person is then gone forever, and people may have emotional reactions to this, etc.  It's one of the few truly one-way doors of the human experience.

Nowhere in that goal is there something that says we want to inconvenience the player as part of it; and generally we find any inconvenience to the player is counter to the game design we want to have.  Therefore: when you die, you now get to keep your inventory, and it stays ordered exactly as it was, etc.  Thanks to warp scrolls being given out free from the hearth guardian stones (which you respawn right next to in the last settlement you visited), there's not even a "time tax" when the player dies.

This, of course, would make death feel as meaningless as in a Mario game, except for...

Vengeful Ghosts
What we really wanted to do was make it feel like death actually matters.  And this is a game about a broken, magical world.  So we took a bit of inspiration from my old "Alden Ridge" game design, which featured zombies heavily, and decided to make death matter in a very literal way: any human character (player character or NPC) who dies now immediately turns into a vengeful ghost version of themselves.  Neutral skelebots, since they are robots, do not do turn into ghosts.

The ghosts themselves are freaky, purple-glowing, floating apparitions which slowly move towards you, and kill equal-level characters in a single hit.  They remain behind in the area you died in, so this actually adds back some measure of that "do I continue onward or do I head back for safety for now" tension that I so admired in Demon's Souls.

Particularly with bosses.  If you are fighting a boss and die, then not only do you have to once again face the boss that killed you, you also now have to face an evil ghost version of the character the boss killed.  Die three times with the boss, without killing any of those ghosts, and suddenly it's three ghosts and the boss you have to face.  Yikes!

Of course, given that this is an infinite world, there are always other bosses and other goals you can pursue.  But this is now a choice that you face.  Do you go somewhere else in the world for a while, accomplish some other goals, level up in the process, and then come back to tackle the thing that killed you the last time?  Or do you go directly back and try your hand again against the boss AND the ghost, knowing that you might just succeed in making it a boss and TWO ghosts when you ultimately do come back.

These sorts of tough choices are something that's interesting to me as a player and as a game developer, and I like that vengeful ghosts add this.  However, that's not all they add, as I'll talk about further down.

Oh, and one last note: if you or another character dies in an area under the influence of an Illari (read: settlements, wind shelter sites, etc), that dead character will go peacefully away instead of turning into a vengeful ghost.  Thus the prevalence of "sweeps" whenever one character dies in a settlement is negated.

Strategic Overlay
This is something that Keith and I have been talking about internally since the start of the game, and which Keith has been working on now for several months, but we've never talked about it publicly.  Basically, while the core of this game is definitely always going to be a Metroidvania-style action-adventure game, we also wanted to pull in some of our existing experience with strategy games.

Specifically, in this case, turn-based 4X games.  Right now, as a standalone strategy game, the strategic overlay of AVWW would be trivially simple and not that satisfying.  However, as a subsystem of a larger adventure game, this adds some elements that have never been seen before elsewhere.

The strategic overlay is basically a special view of the world map that you can get via talking to the green hearth guardian stone in any settlement.  This view shows the status of all the NPCs in that settlement, and lets you give them orders that they will carry out for you on the world map.  You can pan around the world map like in any strategy game, and it even has a resource bar at the top showing your available quantities of resources such as wood, stone, and "consciousness shards."

Consciousness shards are found all throughout the adventure mode of the game, and every player gets a small windfall of 100 such shards every time your civilization level increases.  Consciousness shards are of mysterious value to the Illari, and basically are pieces of people that didn't survive the shattering and reforming of the world.  These shards are your main currency in the macro-game of AVWW, which consists of the strategic overlay and the citybuilding segments at the moment.

I mentioned that the strategic overlay is a turn-based game.  This fits particularly well with the Metroidvania-style action-adventure mode, because you can go out adventuring for as long as you want without fear of the strategic aspects getting away from you.  The top-down strategic map is exactly where you left it when you come back, with the exception of anything that you explicitly changed while you were out adventuring in the side-view.  It's all one world, after all, even though you're able to interact with it in the manner of several genres at once.

The Passage Of Time, Day/Night Cycle
In the past I said there would never be a day/night cycle, but we actually decided to implement one after all.  Part of that was due to our inclusion of Unisky and its amazing procedural clouds, but we also implemented a down-level "static skies" option for graphics cards that are too old to run Unisky (which requires shader model 3.0, unlike the rest of the game).  And of course, the day/night cycle then had to be functional in both sky models.

Anyway, the day/night cycle doesn't actually affect the literal passage of time in the broader sense.  Much like in The Ocarina of Time, the day/night cycle affects various aspects of minute-to-minute adventuring, but it doesn't affect the overall larger story (unlike, say, Majora's Mask).

"Ending a turn" in the macro-game of AVWW is more like actually progressing the story in a typical adventure game.  Enemy units move around on the world map, new ones may appear, all your NPCs get refreshed and can take more strategic-level actions again, etc.  And, nominally, a week passes in actual gametime.  The actual turns in the macrogame are the only real concept of the passage of time that are held in this game, and the day/night cycle is completely unrelated to this.  Like in a lot of games.

Another Way That Death Matters
Now that I've explained how the concept of time works in the game, this means I can explain another effect that death has: it wears on the minds of NPCs.  If you go around murdering NPCs, or you yourself play character after character who dies, NPC morale/happiness becomes temporarily depressed with each death, and thus productivity and available options for that NPC also go down.

That said, as in real life, the effect isn't permanent: each death only depresses the NPCs for ten turns.  It's a fairly simple mechanic, but effective, and the entire NPC model is something we look forward to experimenting with and expanding upon through beta and beyond.  There's a lot of interesting directions we could take this, and right now we're just taking the first steps along those paths.

NPC Strategic Actions: Exploration, Construction, and Invitations
 I'm sure that it has not escaped your notice that I never said exactly what sort of actions the NPCs could take in the strategic map part of the game.  Right now it's limited to three things, but throughout beta and beyond we're going to be building this up more.

First of all is exploration: you can click on a tile on the map in the strategic overlay to reveal extra info about it and the surrounding types.  Some NPCs are better at exploring thanks to their innate qualities, and explore further with each click.  When a region tile is explored, any sort of special locations or resources become revealed.

You can totally ignore the strategic map and find this stuff manually on foot if you prefer, but that's really wasteful of your time.  As with AI War's galaxies, the worlds in AVWW are filled with both interesting and uninteresting places to go.  NPCs in AVWW, like the scouts in AI War, let you find out about places without actually going there, decide what you find is interesting, and then go there.  That way you get both the massive world and imperative to explore, but without the boring task of wandering around aimlessly through endless areas that don't match what you're looking for.

Things you can find via NPC exploration at the moment: resource deposits that your NPCs can mine in citybuilding mode; evil overlord lairs housing the evil overlord oppressing the area; evil outposts housing lieutenant bosses that support the evil overlord; and rare commodity towers that are special vertical dungeons filled with minibosses with a special crafting component at the end.  This is also how you now find the memory crystals mentioned in past blogs and videos -- through the rare commodity towers.  Once again, we expect to build in more things to find via NPC exploration over time, but this is off to a pretty cool start if I do say so.

Secondly is exploration: when you are visiting a region that has a potential wind shelter site in it, you can travel across that region to the site and manually build the wind shelter yourself.  If that's what you want to do, then more power to you.  However, if you've discovered the potential wind shelter site on the world map, you can actually order your NPCs in the strategic overlay to build the wind shelter for you (and the attendant road network extensions are automatic).

Thirdly, and finally for the time being, is invitations: normally in a settlement, there are only so many NPCs present.  Three to five on average, I'd say.  You can only do so much with that number of NPCs.  However, as you play through adventure mode, you will locate individuals or small groups of NPCs living under the sheltering influence of various Illari. You can find them underground, at potential wind shelter sites, and elsewhere.  When you encounter these NPCs in adventure mode, you can't directly invite them anywhere.  But it does mark their location in the strategic map.  Next time you are in a settlement, you can use the strategic overlay to invite those found NPCs to your settlement.

I mentioned earlier that character deaths cause NPCs to lose productivity for ten turns.  But if you look at the list of things NPCs can do in the strategic overlay, none of those are affected, or make sense to be affected.  There's another top-down mode, also accessed via settlements, which takes the form of a simple citybuilder.

In this mode, you can plan the layout of a top-down section of the settlement which you cannot directly walk to in adventure mode.  You can place things like warehouses, farms of different sorts, houses, mining and refining buildings, wells, and so on.  Most of those have functions that are fairly obvious in a broad sense, I expect.  Note that the interface shown to the right is still very WIP.

A lot of the details of the citybuilding part of the game I don't want to get into yet because Keith is still working on implementing it and we're still working on playtesting and refining it in general.  He'd kill me if I said anything that could be construed as a promise of a specific implementation of such a feature being implemented, as then that would severely hamper his ability to change said features if it later turned out to be a good idea to do so (as has happened numerous times as we pursue our immutable design goals, as you can see above with permadeath, windstorms, etc).

But the general idea here is that it works like a fairly simple citybuilder, with settlement residents needing a place to live and work, and with them able to produce raw materials or finished goods that you can then use for other purposes.  You can also do things like upgrade the NPC houses, but to do so requires access to various goods, etc, etc.  This is also where the graves of your past characters who have died show up.  And as you want to expand your buildable area you have to get your NPCs to chop down trees, etc.  All of this is also turn-based, using of course the exact same turns and NPCs from the strategic map.  It's all one thing, it just depends on where you decide to use your NPCs.

Strategic Units (Including the last bit about Vengeful Ghosts)
Whew.  Now that I've explained all the above about broadly what the strategic overlay and the citybuilder aspects even are, I can tell you about strategic units.  Right now these are always enemy units of either of two sorts: bandits or vengeful ghosts.

Bandits appear every so often and threaten a settlement of yours; you can opt to either pay them off (they are demanding resources of specific kinds), or you can send out the lone adventurer hero-person to do them in directly (that would be you, going out to where you see the bandits on the world map and then fighting them in adventure mode).  Later we expect to have a third option that is more in keeping with the strategy/4X aspects of the game, but since those are still heavily in development I don't want to talk specifics yet.  We expect to start playtesting those mechanics sometime during beta.

So that's the bandits: they appear every so often, ask for resources, and advance on your settlements every turn if you don't kill them or pay them off.  And then next time you visit the settlement in question in adventure mode, the bandits will be there and will do their best to kill off your NPCs, who fight back, but weakly.  Expect a massacre; so unless you want to see a massacre (which is kind of fun, actually), don't let the bandits actually reach your settlements.  At the moment you have about three turns of warning before they would get there, but we're thinking of extending that pending some more playtesting.

But what about vengeful ghosts?  Normally those just haunt the area you died in, right?  Well, this is true... until you have four ghosts haunting the world.  Once there are four ghosts, they form a strategic unit of their own wherever the last ghost was located.  And then, every turn, they advance on your settlements, too.  And boy is it really a massacre if they get to your NPCs.  The good news is, when they are advancing on you they are generally in a less dangerous locale than wherever you died in the first place.  So you can fight the four ghosts without having to worry about, say, a boss or lava or whatever.

Did I mention that these ghosts retain the name and appearance of the characters that died?  It's pretty neat.  We're also in the process of experimenting with some other ideas for them, such as having them leave trails of temporary miasma as they move, etc.  We're still experimenting with what feels best.

Procedural AND Hand-Crafted Interior Rooms
Moving in a completely other direction from all the macro-game stuff we've been talking about: let's talk about interiors.

The rooms that we've been showing off so far were all hand-crafted using a map editor (which will be publicly available), and then are procedurally filled with things like doors, monsters, objects, etc.  This is still in place, and I think it works out really well.

However, we now ALSO have some purely procedurally-based room types, mainly for evil outposts and overlord towers and pyramids and things of that nature.  These rooms are actually whole series' of little interconnected rooms with maze-like corridors.  They show up as a single node on the dungeon map, but they are much larger than normal interior rooms, and much more twisty.

They add a fun bit of variety, I think, and I look forward to pushing the pure-procedural rooms even further in the future.  These basically incorporate a lot of what I had originally done, then discarded, then publicly released for the top-down view, but it's much more straightforward working with the side view.

Interior Locked Doors ... But No Furniture Yet
We've been working heavily on polish, the first bits of content development, the macro-game stuff, and so on.  That's been quite a process in and of itself, and so something that is mostly aesthetic, like interior furnure, hasn't made it in yet.  This makes a kitchen and a bedroom and a bathroom look disappointingly same-y at the moment, but it won't always be that way.

We just didn't feel it was worth pushing beta back any for, when it's mostly an aesthetic thing and can be slotted in later.  The interiors do look quite cool anyway, as you've seen in the past videos, but they all look more like barren dungeons rather than like houses or office buildings just yet.  All good things in time!

On the other hand, since locked doors add such an interesting actual gameplay twist to the game, those are already in place.  Keys are problematic in such a massive procedural world, especially in multiplayer.  So we did it with switches, instead.  You go into a special switch room, fight past the obstacles there, and... um... pull the lever.  Then the door in another part of the dungeon opens.  And sometimes something else happens.  Watch out for that.

Locked doors and switch rooms are right now confined to evil outposts and evil overlord keeps, so it will be a little while before you are likely to encounter those on your first playthrough.

Character Stats
One of the chief challenges of making any game is managing complexity.  Where do you want the game to be complex -- where is complexity fun -- versus where does complexity need to be culled.

In the case of our core character stats -- health, magic points, magic attack, magic defense, physical defense, and magic casting speed -- we decided that was too many stats to be fun to manage in an action game.  Therefore, magic defense and physical defense are now gone, and the only relevant defensive variable is health.

That is not to say that there won't be ways to augment your defensive characteristics throughout the game -- far from it.  But those augmentations will be largely in the form of spells or equipment that you use on yourself to temporarily or permanently buff yourself.  In other words, those are player choices that get made, further into the game when it is more interesting, versus it being an extra pile of stats that players have to wade through every time they choose a new character (at the start of the game or otherwise).

Character Selection
In the past, we talked about how when you died, you'd be able to take on any NPC you'd met, or choose a "random wanderer."  In practice, we never got around to implementing the former because we couldn't think of a way to do it that would present as clean an interface as just choosing a wanderer, AND which wouldn't lead to massive depopulation of your settlements.  If every time a player dies, some settlement loses an NPC, that's a big penalty!

So we're just sticking with random wanderers -- when you die, you get to choose a new character that previously did not exist in any settlement or any survivor camp.  This character is new to the world, and if they die then you pick another character that is new to the world.  This keeps things simpler and freer-feeling -- the vengeful ghosts are disincentive enough not to die!

What if you want to take over an existing NPC in your settlements?  After all, the ability to do that is pretty neat.  Well, we plan to implement that in a different way.  It's not in yet, and probably won't be in for the very first beta, but we're going to implement essentially a "body swap" spell scroll.  That spell scroll will require a semi-rare commodity to craft, so you won't be using it all the time, but you'll be able to swap your "wandering" character for another NPC if that's what you want to do.  Thus your net population of your settlements still isn't negatively affected, but you can take over NPCs if you want.

Cave Depth And Appearance
Another something that is new is how the caves work.  You know those little wooden platforms that are so plentiful, almost like ladders, throughout the surface tunnels and the higher-level caves?

Well, every time you go down a dungeon (each cave system is a dungeon, and you can often go 8ish dungeons down in most regions, or infinite dungeons down in a few regions), the prevalence of those wooden platforms goes down.  How much varies by the region, but it's usually about 10% per dungeon.

Thus, in most cases, after about 10 dungeons down there are no longer any platforms at all.  And when that happens, the visual look of the dungeons turns very molten and lava-like.  You won't need to wear a heatsuit like in the lava flats -- probably -- at least you don't at the moment -- but it's a lot more hostile of an environment, and there's lava instead of water, etc.

Also as you go into the undergrounds, the "chunk level" (kind of like region level) goes up by one each time.  So if the region level is 5, and you go into the first cave system, you're fighting level 6 monsters.  Go another dungeon down, and it's level 7 monsters.  Etc.  Thus even older regions that you've been exploring for a long time can still have interesting and level-appropriate underground dungeons that you can get to.

Lastly for now, cave appearance actually varies by region type now.  So if you're exploring in the ice age, the underground is icy until you get to the molten parts, which are further below the surface.  If you're exploring underground in the lava flats, it's molten all the way down.  If you're in the ocean or ocean shallows, and somehow are surviving the toxic water there, then the underground caverns you can find there are all also submerged in toxic water.

Explicit Difficulty Levels
Having dynamic difficulty levels is something that has always been a goal of mine for this project, and to some extent we have achieved that.  You can play up or down in region levels, and that affects how hard the action-adventure parts of the game are.  However, some alpha testers were finding even the same-level regions to be too challenging right from the start, which is harder to overcome.

To make matters worse, there's really more to the game than just the action-adventure difficulties, anyhow.  What happens if the vengeful ghosts form a party and attack your base settlement?  This happened to Keith's wife, and they wiped her whole town and made her think she was going to have to start a whole new world.  This was an understandable response, though she really could have just walked to another settlement and started over there, but new players aren't going to have any way of knowing that if they haven't read much about the game and haven't explored far enough to find more settlements yet (there usually tend to be three withing walking distance right at the start of the game, but it varies randomly).

These are problems that are somewhat impossible for us to solve if we don't have any indication from players what sort of experience they are looking for.  Are you looking for a hardcore strategic element, or something casual that you can just flit through to get your exploring done?  Do you want to have enemies kill you in two blows, since they barely ever land a hit on you, or does that sound insanely masochistic?  Even just among our in-house alpha testers, the answer varies wildly: I fall into the I-want-two-hits-to-kill-me camp, for the most part, but I would never intentionally inflict that on the wider player population.

So what's the solution?   Using both dynamic and explicit difficulty levels.  All the work that has already gone into dynamic difficulty-setting based on relative region level is still valid, and in fact will be particularly so for multiplayer, when players really do need to be able to tune their own experiences compared to their compatriots.  But, on its own, it just isn't enough.

Therefore, when you start a new world it will now first ask you for a Strategic Difficulty and an Action-Adventure Difficulty.  If you aren't sure what you want, you can take your best guess and then change it at any time while you're playing.  You'll never have to start a new world just because your feelings on the desired difficulty level have changed.  But splitting out this difficulty lets people have a difficult strategic experience and an easy action-adventure experience, or vice-versa, or anything in between.

You Will Actually Be Able To Pause This Game
Originally we were not going to have a pause function because of the multiplayer mechanics.  However, this is something that we've known was non-ideal, and we just didn't have a better solution... until now.

Because of the way in which multiplayer games are segmented, if you are in one part of the world and I am in another, then the server is keeping track of both of us but our computers don't have info on each other.  If we're playing in the same area, then we both have the info on that area and each other, as does the server.

Why does that matter for pausing?  Well, it means that we actually can pause based on the "chunk" (local area -- specific node on the dungeon maps).  Rather than having pause be a global state, the action of a specific chunk can be paused when one the players in that chunk wants to, and then it only impacts the players in that chunk.  Thus if the phone rings, or the kids come in, or whatever, you don't wind up getting killed and at the same time you don't wind up halting an entire server full of people from doing anything.

Presumably anyone you are adventuring with that closely is someone you want to keep up with anyway, so if you pause they want to wait for you.  If you're someplace commonly used by everyone, like a settlement, there's no need to pause anyhow, since there's nothing dangerous there.

This might seem like one of those "duh" features, and in fact looking at the solution it seems patently obvious.  But trying to balance something as simple as pausing the game for solo play as well as various multiplayer scenarios is surprisingly challenging.  Ideally we wanted all the various modes to work identically, so that people who play both solo and multiplayer don't have to mentally adjust or learn new mechanics each time they switch.  And this does it!

Boss Types: Micro, Mini, Lieutenant, Overlord
There really is a ton of new stuff in the game since the last blog post I made, and there's no way I can cover it all, so this is the last thing I'll talk about.  There are basically now four kinds of bosses in the game:

Microbosses are the smallest, and are really just elite regular monsters.  They have a name as well as unique and buffed stats, and basically this is what the strategic bandits are: a collection of these.  In the past I've referred to these as "named monsters," but microboss is a lot clearer as to their function.

Minibosses are the most common kind of boss in the game, for sure.  They are different in appearance and function from any of the regular monsters in the game, although often they are thematically related.  For instance, there are regular amoebas that you fight in the game, and then a Giant Amoeba miniboss.  Others won't have a regular-monster counterpart.

Lieutenants are special bosses that aid the overlord.  Each lieutenant has their own evil outpost, which you can invade and destroy if you wish.  If you don't choose to do this, then when you attack the evil overlord in their lair, all the nearby lieutenants will come to join them.  Yikes!

A lieutenant is basically an elite miniboss, in function: they are exactly like other minibosses, but with better stats and the added behavior noted above.  NPCs complain about nearby lieutenants that are bothering the settlement if the overlord isn't bothering them more (or if there is no overlord at the moment).

Overlords obviously have the toughest stats of all of bosses of an equal level.  These bosses will ultimately be larger and more complex than the minibosses (which are themselves quite large many times), and nothing other than overlords will use the overlord entity types.

At present, since we've only had so much time for content development yet, overlords actually are just lieutenants with even more stat buffs.  That won't last more than another couple of weeks, before we get at least the first overlord entity type in place.  It just hasn't been an early priority since it's so long before the players actually even meet their first overlord.

Public Beta's Getting Near!
Coming up in the next week(ish) we will also have our beta trailer, as well as a completely revamped set of AVWW web pages, screenshots, etc.  It's been a long road for this game already, but we're finally hitting the point where it's just about ready for early public consumption.

There's still a lot we have to do, though, to hit our 1.0 goal.  Most likely we won't hit the point of 1.0 until early 2012, because we want to pack a ton of content into the game and so far the main focus has been on worldbuilding, engine development, and all the various game systems.

There's plenty to do already, where you could easily get a dozen or more hours out of this game, but the true variety is something we're going to be adding through our daily-or-nearly-so beta patches once we hit public beta.  We're really excited to hit that point, but we really want to be clear to players that will be considering early beta that we have a little bit of everything at this stage, but not a lot of any one part yet.  Our work between first beta and 1.0 is to make it so that there's a lot of everything!

One thing that I do want to mention, though, is that initially the beta won't include any multiplayer component.  We got a rough version of that working early in the project, but it's been semi-neglected as the game has grown up since we've been trying to focus on the game itself.  It's definitely not ready for showtime, and we don't feel like we can hit both an awesome single-player and multiplayer experience right from day 1 beta without delaying beta for a few months.  Therefore, multiplayer is just what's being delayed a few months, and we're going ahead with the beta in the meantime.  This doesn't mean our commitment to the multiplayer component is slipping at all, but this is the way in which we feel we'll be able to deliver the strongest experience to everyone -- single and multi player -- in the most reasonable amount of time.

If the responses of our internal alpha testers are any indication, though, things are definitely looking up already for the game.  Stay tuned!


RagerX said...

Wow, that's a lot of information. Thanks for keeping us posted. I can't wait for the beta!

Josh W said...

Very interesting stuff!

I have a suggestion on the ghosts though:

They seem perfect as a consequence when they stay in one place, marking the point where you died before. It is resonant and interesting, as well as having tactical consequences.

I don't see what is special about there being four of them that should change their behaviour, and if there is something special, this should probably be signaled to the player.

First off what is the problem with someone killing off hundreds of random wanderers in the local area? Leaving hundreds of ghosts? Why are you limiting the total number? Presumably there is a memory toll, but I can't imagine it's very high compared to the persistent world being generated all around them. I would suggest that instead the problem is that someone walls themselves in with all these ghosts, making it very difficult to progress.

So how about you let the players make the choice when there are too many ghosts? What if you call them back to the settlement, to have their revenge against the settlement they died for, or be killed on route?

You could call them in on the strategic map, and have them be marked there, acting similarly to bandits. They would also automatically stop when they have killed a person each in the settlement, or the settlement is empty, allowing players who do really badly to restart from slightly lower than scratch.

Christopher M. Park said...

Well, "calling the ghosts" would actually really be a bad idea, for the most part -- it's very much a penalty for them to come after you. Four is a special number because that's how many units tend to be in a strategic unit.

There's no general memory cost at all to having ghosts way out in the world, although I guess if there were thousands it would start to be a problem. But the main thing is, if you die in some little chunk and then can just speedrun through it, the ghost was meaningless. Or if you die repeatedly in a boss room, and it's chock full of ghosts, that may have just become unwinnable, which is way too mean.

The ghosts advancing on you is both a mean thing and a nice thing on our part, and it generally keeps stuff more balanced in general.

Cocoarico said...

Great post and a lot of information that whetted my appetite for the beta. On the topic of ghosts though I agree with Josh W that it seems a little forced considering when the global number hits four they immediately band together and seek revenge. I'd prefer it if there was a cause for the ghost to rise up, for example the death of a fairly successful character calling the others to his side, or a large group of weaker ghosts that were created by less then noble deaths (ie. shooting yourself in the foot.) At the very least I'd prefer a little bit of surprise for when they come instead of counting my deaths and anticipating them. Either way the game is looking great and I'm sure whatever the team decides will suit the overall tone.

Robert Mohr said...

Sounds very awesome. This sort of "unlimited adventure" game is actually something that occurred to me as a cool idea when I played some of the Fable games (as in, "wouldn't it be cool if there were this type of game but you could have endless adventures by going to different continents and such?"), and AVWW thus massively interests me. Looking forward to seeing what you've accomplished.

On the ghosts--mechanically they sound neat and certainly are a nice "death penalty" to replace the more arduous "death run" that's annoyed me since I played MMOs, but is there a world/story explanation for them or a way to not become a ghost other than the "protected region"?

It seems a little odd that every hero, even the purest goody-two-shoes nice guy who spends his whole life helping everyone out, becomes a murderous ghost out to slay humanity when he dies unless he's in a specific protected region. It might be nice to (later) include some way to ensure that your heroic do-gooder doesn't become a psychotic murderous spirit even though he is exploring dangerous regions. Some sort of "righteous soul" idea or something that makes him move on regardless of where he dies, or maybe even act as a protective spirit for travelers in that region (there's actually a lot of neat stuff you could do with good and evil ghosts).

Christopher M. Park said...

Cocoarico -- Thanks for the kind words. For the moment we're going to stick with the way that we have it, as it seems to make a lot of sense in practice and with our alpha testers so far. But I expect the system to grow.

Wolf Ninja -- Likewise, thanks for the kind words! And in terms of some characters becoming immune to turning into a vengeful ghost, Keith and I definitely have talked about that. Ideally once someone is a certain amount of a great hero, they would be immune. Someday we want to have things like festivals when jerks die, or funerals when heroes die, etc, and this sort of thing would fit into that. Those are just broad ideas, of course, but I think that something along those lines would be fun to do once the core game is further along.

Oh -- and, thematically-speaking, there is a very good explanation for the ghosts, though I won't tell you what it is. Right now the game just kind of hints at it, but that's going to be one of those mysteries you will be able to piece together about the world as you explore. :)

Robert Mohr said...

Sounds great, then. Very interested to see where this goes--you guys are dreaming big and I really hope you're able to accomplish all you desire with this game, as it is one of the most exciting ideas I've seen recently.

Christopher M. Park said...

Thanks! And yeah, this is a huge project. But, like with AI War, it's also something intended to be a multi-year project. By the time we hit 1.0 the goal is to have the bulk of the cool stuff in there, but to keep really pounding on this for a long, long time to come. I think that's the only real way to do something massive and new, at least as an indie. I love how Dwarf Fortress does that, and we've done a form of that with AI War in a different genre, and now we want to do that here, too.

Josh W said...

I think I understand the principle, you want to insure that ghosts are significant penalties, not ubiquitous etc.

The problem is that having them march when they get to four is something that makes sense in computer-logic terms but not necessarily in world-logic terms.

It's like having a high score table that wraps round and has some other effect when it aproaches some high power of two. That might make an elegant program, but why should anyone playing the game expect that?

It's not simply a matter of telling someone it will happen in some manual or starting tutorial, as it's quite an unexpected quirk.

So this trigger of four probably needs some cues to remember it, and more importantly some story in the world to have it make sense.

The tricky part to my mind is the danger of forming a barrier to the non-technical. You probably want people to be able to get into the game and understand it as a world.

More generally, I feel like games that are more intuitive to play allow you metaphors to understand their structure, and remind you of those metaphors by various things in the UI or world, even when that specific event is not happening.

You could do something like have the ghosts appear on the "select new character" screen, in such a way that implies the max number etc.

To be honest I think the ghost mechanic is a very cute one even if they do stay where they are, and I think it has a lot of potential for development (eg slightly randomise their location to make speed running more difficult), but depending on how you set it up, this swarming bit could be very interesting too.

Christopher M. Park said...

I hear your points, and that's a possibility, but I will say that not one out of a dozen plus testers has mentioned it. There's not really a need to tell players what will happen on this, as they figure it out. When they die, the ghost appears and it tells them. When they go back, the ghost is still there. Etc.

When the four is reached, a message gets shown to them saying that a mysterious force has banded the ghosts together, and they are now headed for your settlement. You see the ghosts on the world map, and this is not an unusual sort of event as bandits spawn periodically anyhow and come for your settlements, so the ghosts are just yet one more example of something pre-existing.

There have been a number of places in the alpha versions where there was initial confusion and we had to make things clearer for the subsequent batches of testers, but this isn't one that anyone has ever brought up.

It might be something we look at later, but right now I have a long list of things that testers actually think should be changed, and we're focusing on getting those things cleaned up prior to beta.