Wednesday, October 26, 2011

More Reflections After A Month Of A Valley Without Wind's Beta

Has it really been a whole month since beta came out?  How time flies.  It's been a while since I wrote my two-week "thoughts on the beta" post, so I thought I'd do another such post

The game is still growing at a hefty rate, but we're no longer in that period where we're spending all our time polishing the core mechanics.  Which is definitely good -- there's been vastly more content added since the last post of this sort that I made.

Let's look back at the same topics we talked about last time, and see how they've progressed:

Not a whole lot to report here, in the main -- we got this hashed out pretty well in the first couple of weeks, and players seem to be happy with where the difficulty is sitting, in the main.  We did introduce some new bosses that are much harder in some circumstances, but we've also introduced a lot of new player abilities that make things easier.

At this stage, the difficulty of the game is into that "arms race" territory -- where the difficulty is generally fine, but we're constantly adding new enemies that make it harder and new abilities that make it easier again.  This is familiar to anyone who has ever followed the development of an AI War expansion, and one of the main net effects of this is that it gives the game a lot more variety and depth over time.

Despite my intentions, I really haven't been able to address much of this yet.  I've instead been erring on the side of improving the experience for the players who already are able to get over the base difficulty curve.  This keeps the existing players happy, and gives more of a reward to anyone who picks up the game fresh and gets past that initial complexity perception.

The "intro mission" has been something that I sit down to work on every day, and I get little bits and pieces done, but I have yet to really make significant progress on it.  I expect that to change very soon, but I keep saying that.  Usually when I have some reluctance to work on a specific feature, it's because I know there's some fatal flaw with my conception of that feature, but I just can't put my finger on it yet.  That's been my sense for my plans for the intro mission.

Just this morning I actually did have a breakthrough on part of my plans for the intro mission, though, so maybe that means I'll be able to wrap this up sooner than later.  The lack of the intro mission is probably one of the single biggest things holding the game back from wider appeal at the moment, so I certainly feel antsy to "just get it done," but at the same time that's tempered by my desire to get it right the first time and avoid too much rework.  I've been plotting this out in word documents, and I think it's getting there.

"Signal To Noise"
This is something that we've been taking some pretty enormous leaps and bounds with since last time.  As a few examples:

The storm dash and storm rush spells let you traverse wide exterior areas in a much faster and more fun method, making it so the tedium there is gone in favor of some sonic-like frantic movement if you like.

The game now has "stash rooms" in most buildings, with unusual and cool rewards that players have really responded positively to.  This makes it so that any building is quite rewarding, and you don't have to spend remotely so much time or effort building up your potion reserves.  The way that this has changed up the feel of exploration for the game is just immense.

The game also now has EXP Containers that you can find in large rooms, and in particular in maze rooms.  This gives a point to long, dead-end hallways that previously were just a frustration.  Now you actually get some EXP out of it.  This also provides a new way for players to level up; if you are combat-averse, you can avoid boss fights and just level up by exploring around if you want.

Exploration-only leveling takes a lot longer, and the best path is really to mix and match your sources of EXP gain, but it really expands the options that players have in how they choose to interact with the world.  You don't need to be a boss-slayer to progress at all in the game, now.

New Content
This is another of the areas in which the game has really taken some enormous leaps.  We've not introduced very many new enemies just yet, but we've added tons of spells and spell scrolls and even a few outfitter items.  All of these new goodies expand the options that players have in terms of how they fight enemies or simply get around.

I felt it was important to focus on player abilities first, so that players would be better-equipped to actually deal with new enemies as those get added in the coming weeks.  Some other really major additions are still upcoming in the coming weeks as well, such as the long-awaited elemental damage, which will really change up how both offensive and defensive combat loadouts are chosen.

Speaking of defensive loadouts, that's another area that's seen a lot of new content in the last few weeks.  The new shield spells, the ability to summon crates, and even somewhat the miniature spell and other new traversal spells (greater teleport, lightning rocket, etc) all expand your options during a fight beyond simple reflex-based dodging.

We've also added several new music tracks, tons and tons of furniture, and loads of new room templates.  There's still lots more to do with furniture, but as of the last post the interiors of rooms were always completely barren, and where we are now is a huge bound forward thanks to Josh's efforts in this area.  A lot of the cooler new room templates were actually player-created, so it's awesome to see the map editor getting use outside of Arcen staff.

A big part of any given boss fight in particular is the actual room structure itself.  Fighting the same boss in different rooms can lead to wildly different experiences.  There have been a lot of awesome boss room templates submitted in particular, and these really amp up the variety and excitement of the boss fights to a degree I hadn't quite expected.

Yesterday on the main Arcen News Blog I posted about the current state of multiplayer.  We're still not release-ready on that, nor is a public release of that too imminent, but we're figuring out lots of things internally with it.

We have it playable, but not performing with the combat precision that we want over the Internet, and so we're going through a lot of big changes there to make sure that the combat experience in multiplayer is equal to that of solo.  I'm still hopeful that we'll have the first multiplayer public version sometime in the next month, but only time will tell -- I don't have anything remotely resembling a firm ETA as yet.

Things continue to go well.  We're increasingly shifting into the content development phase of the dev cycle, and that's always exciting for us and players because each new bit of content really increases what you can do in the game.

Multiplayer has been draining about half of our programming hours for the last couple of weeks and likely will continue to do so for another few weeks or a month, but despite that the rest of the game is still growing and changing at an excellent clip.

I still think that the new player experience is a key thing that is holding the game back at the moment, but I think we are making at least incremental progress in getting that to where it needs to be.  All good things in time!  We're still hugely encouraged by everything that we're seeing during this beta period, and it remains our most successful public beta to date.

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