Friday, December 16, 2011

The Power-Coding Sprint Is Over -- So What's The Agenda Now?

For the last week, we've been working on power-coding.  That took us through multiplayer sync models and enemy/character stats balance, to a whole new health subsystem, to the addition of continents and a whole new mana subsystem, to a new mission system, and finally ending up with the removal of tiers, the complete revamping of crafting, and the transition of the strategic map functions into the mission system.  Whew!  Busy week.

During that power coding period, we were essentially asking people to hold the bulk of their commentary until we got through with the power coding.  We'd been in a huge design phase for a week or two prior, talking with players in the brainstorming subforum about a lot of different things. After all that talk, a lot of things had firmed up and it was time to actually implement!  Which meant we had to take a step back from design for a while, and couldn't get sucked into long discussions if we had any hope of meeting our power-coding goals.

Now that the power-coding is done, we're pretty much back to our regularly-scheduled programming style.  Essentially, where we mix together design, coding, bugfixes, new features, and enhancements to existing features.  There area few specific issues I'd like to make a note about, however:

Enemy Balance/Difficulty, Mana System Stats Balance
This is something that we know isn't right at the moment.  The power-coding phase got us a lot closer, and players are reporting that this is way more fun and interesting (and challenging) than before, but it's definitely not yet polished.  This is definitely something we want feedback on!

Civ Level Relative To Region Level Balance
Right now, when you go up one region level relative to your civ level (so, you go to a level 5 region when you are level 4), the difficulty is increasing about 100%.  This is something that we're doing because of how the missions are designed to play out, and it's something that I want to leave in the short term.

We need more meat on the mission system bones before we can really evaluate if this is working as intended or not.  If we get to that point and it still isn't feeling right then we'll change it up, but for now this is working as intended.

EXP Balance
Right now, minibosses and microbosses are still granting EXP, and EXP containers are still scattered out in the wild.  Once the mission system comes better into its own, those sources of EXP will be going away, and only missions, overlords, and lieutenants will be granting EXP.

New Warp System
There was a brainstorming thread on potential new warp systems even back before we started power-coding, but that was basically one change too many at the time.  Now this is going to be a focus again, probably with some form of Warp Statues that you can freely warp between in a region (once you've visited them), but without the current style of freeform warp.

We already took a few steps down the path of making the world feel more sizable by making the missions not allow warping in them at all, but then having a form of warp stone that takes you directly to the mission exit upon successful completion of the mission.  That's something that, at the moment, we plan to keep indefinitely.

But not needing to have warp potions out in the wild would be a great thing, I think, and players have been pointing out the merits of making some terrain traversal necessary rather than being "too convenient."  It's an interesting thread above, if you are inclined to read and comment.

The "Feel" Of Exploration, Specifically On The World Map
As has been pointed out by a few players, some of the feel of freeform exploration has been lost with the addition of the new mission system.  Because of this, we're getting all sorts of suggestions on various ways to put back the feel of exploration, such as making missions optional, adding implicit missions, adding a fog of war to the continents, redesigning the entire flow of region levels... etc.

Whoa, folks!  This is an area that is basically right in my wheelhouse, so to speak.  For the moment this isn't actually one I particularly want any feedback on, because while in the short term exploration has indeed taken a hit, we already have plans on how to put it back better than it was before.  Once we have those things in place we'll welcome commentary, but right now this particular aspect of the game is in too much transition for anyone to make much commentary on it.

Things that need to happen before we'll be soliciting feedback on this:
1. We need to get a really solid core of missions in place.
2. We need to get some of the planned "secret missions" in place.
3. We need to get crests and other elite loot in place (traps, other outfitter-type stuff, etc).

There might be a few other things as well that we also need (possibly some seafaring exploration for small hidden islands, etc), but the above should give us a solid core that will once again really reward exploration in a way that currently it isn't.  Suffice it to say, we have plans upon plans for all sorts of cool ways to make exploration feel awesome -- it's one of my favorite things about any adventure game -- but I'm in no way wanting to reevaluate region levels, missions, or fog of war at the moment.

Crests Are Coming.  Soon.
These have been one of those mythical features that we've been talking about for what seems like forever.  We actually had them working in the game at one point, and they sorta kinda work in some dev builds even now.  As noted above, these will be some elite loot that you can find.

The whole idea of enchants is something that we've revised a lot from our original plans.  Emit Light is the first example of an enchant that is already in the game, actually, but at the moment it's all very freeform and nonstructured.  You put on emit light and it lasts a certain amount of time, then you put it on again.  Yawn.

What we'll actually be doing once we add some more enchants, is making it so that each enchant can only go into a certain Enchant Slot on your character.  You'll have a finite number of enchant slots, and each one would have a certain type.  So you might have a movement enchant type, which would let you run faster or jump higher, etc.

And you might have a couple of body enchant slots, which could hold a light source or some sort of defensive modifiers.  Suddenly ball of light and the other light sources actually have some attractiveness, versus emit light beating them all out, right?  Emit light would mean only one defensive enchant rather than two, potentially.

Anyway, some of the details are still not firmed up, but that's the generality of what we're planning on enchants now.

More Missions, New Mission Content!
This is a really huge one, and something we're going to be focused a lot on soon.  Right now we only have three types of missions, and all of them use the exact same mechanics.  We're going to have not only more kinds of missions, but new mechanics for existing ones and new ones.

This is the "putting the meat on the bones" that I was talking about above.  Once a lot of this is done, then that's when we'll make the EXP changes.

Old Strategic Map Functions Carried Forward Into Missions In New Ways
Consciousness shard nodes and vortex pylons and all that.  We're going to be revamping how those work, and pulling them into the missions framework.  Keith and I have a design call today to talk about some of those specific things, actually.

Citybuilding Interface Revamp
This is something that Keith and I are also going to be talking more about today, but the core idea is that you won't be placing buildings directly or any of that sort of thing.  You'll still be able to get to the citybuilding screen as sort of a status-of-your-settlement screen, as well as potentially a way to make some more indirect changes to your civilization.  But a lot of what used to be directly handled via a point-and-click interface on this screen will instead be handled through missions.

This is something we're still brainstorming, although the recent changes to the game have made death more significant again in some ways.  Permadeath has always been a part of the game, but the issue we're brainstorming is how to make it feel more significant and poignant.

More Monsters, New Environmental Hazards, More Spells
In order for there to be a proper reward structure, and in order for there to be a proper escalating threat that requires the reward structure, we need more content!

Other Miscellany
There are lots of other things on our list, too.  Monster weakspots.  Multiplayer position smoothing.   Multi-part monsters.  And so on and so forth.

So, That's The Agenda
The above list is going to be pretty much what we're focusing on between now and 1.0, which means that this is pretty much the overall agenda between now and sometime in February, when we'll hit more of a polish phase if we hope to release in March.  We'll see what actually happens -- we all know how schedules tend to be -- but it's a good list, I think.

Monday, December 5, 2011

AVWW Multiplayer: The Shattering Of The Multiverse

On Friday we announced the first public alpha of multiplayer, and feedback on that was very positive except for one major point, which was could not have been received more negatively.  The point in question is the "multiverse thing," which is detailed here.

What Happens Next With "The Multiverse Thing"
Firstly to go ahead with the most important news, we're working on an update that will negate most of the stuff with the intentional-desync effects.  We're instead going to be moving to a model where the enemy logic is run on the server and the state will be as consistent between clients as most other games.

To accomplish this, there will have to be some slight wiggle-room in terms of monsters allowed to be in slightly different spots, but it's the sort of thing that I don't think you'll be able to tell even if you had two clients running on computers sitting right next to one another.  Keith came up with this idea over the weekend and was talking about it with players in the forum, and those who have played multiplayer so far seemed optimistic that this would address their complaints.

The good news about this particular fix is that it's really replacing only part of the networking model, since the networking model is already such a multi-headed hydra.  So it's possible we might be able to have this out tomorrow.

The short-term downside for this particular fix is that it's going to really require a lot of rebalancing of enemies, and some complete scrapping of some enemies, to make the model work.  But this is something I was planning to do anyway, just in the interest of making even the solo experience tighter and more fun.  As was discussed prior to this multiplayer fiasco ever coming up.  But we're quite confident that players will help us iron out those temporary bumps in the balance road, and both the single player and multiplayer experiences will be a lot stronger for it inside a week or two.

One more serious downside is that certain things that we would otherwise be able to do, like "offscreen spawning of enemies" for one example.  Or stuff like having bats flee from the cursor.  Or even things like having 300 eagles in a chunk like we currently do.  This isn't exactly a new sort of restriction class for us, as most action games have restrictions along these lines, and even network strategy games like AI War wind up with certain kinds of restrictions on what can and can't be done for reasons of multiplayer.

That said, after much discussion today, Keith and I have explored a lot of the various issues that arise from this change, and things that players were hoping we would change about the existing game even prior to multiplayer (monster spawners, etc), and we both are now feeling really confident that we can simply find lateral solutions to all the various issues.

For the monster spawner example, for instance, we have plans for how we'll be able to remove monster spawners (a popular idea with players) without having to do "offscreen spawning of enemies," which is something infeasible in the new model.  There are several bigger things that will be resulting from that particular change, which I won't get into here, but the general effects are that: "trash mobs" will be fading into obscurity; enemy projectiles will be vastly slower and yet more plentiful; what were formerly trash mobs will become more interesting, more powerful foes; interiors, surface areas, and undergrounds will get differentiated even more heavily; and environmental hazards of new sorts will be playing a much larger role in the game.  Most all of which were things that players were asking for, anyway.

The largest benefit is that we'll still be able to make the sort of game we want to make, while having it work well in multiplayer.  The performance characteristics that you're seeing now, including that extreme latency-tolerance for general gameplay, should largely remain.  Enemies will now jitter around some if you have a really latent connection, but it shouldn't be horrible and that's basically in keeping with any other action game, if not a little better than many of them.

That's part of the benefit of the existing hugely-hybrid networking model that Keith has spent the last two months implementing.  We're able to re-tool part of it without having to affect any other part of it, and the general performance characteristics still remain quite high even though we're treading into some territory now that we'd initially hoped to avoid.  This should be what players are looking for in terms of multiplayer performance/sync, I'm pretty sure, and it represents a technical middleground that until a few hours ago I didn't think would be possible to do.  But Keith's idea, plus some refinement that we came up with working through it together this morning, strikes me as really solid.  Knock on wood!

What Alternatives Were Considered?
Prior to ever implementing the model that we released on Friday, we had implemented a more traditional action game model that just performed completely unacceptably compared to solo play.  We also looked at pretty much every other major networking model that we could think of when it came to other genres that are similar to a lot of what AVWW does.  Nothing really fit this game perfectly, which is why we went with the model we did.

Side Note: We actually went with that model knowing we might have to change something about it, but we weren't sure what player reaction would be to it since no game had ever tried anything quite like that before.  So we made sure to have the general networking be as flexible as possible so that changes would be possible.  And that's part of why we didn't want to talk about the specifics of the model in advance, because we knew folks might not like the idea on the surface of it, and we wanted their feedback on the actual playtesting of it rather than the concept.

Since the release on Friday, and what can only be described as a "polite outcry" from our core playerbase about this one specific design choice (after playtesting, which is precisely the sort of feedback we were looking for), we've been wracking our brains to figure out a better alternative, and players have been making suggestions as well.  Not really any of the suggestions particularly fit with the technical constraints of this game, which are really unique and particularly challenging to work with and explain, but we did get a razor-sharp insight into exactly the sort of performance characteristics that players were expecting and where our current model let them down.

Anyway, so we've been all over the board since then, thinking of radical other models, major changes to solo play to make multiplayer fit, and even not having multiplayer at all (since if the execution of said multiplayer was going to be a detractor, better not to have it at all).  In the end, after many hours of discussion and modeling and remodeling, we came up with the above changes which are actually pretty slight.    Key to being able to settle on that model was talking through solo-affecting core gameplay changes that solo players were already asking for anyhow, and which would be more compatible with multiplayer than the current model.

We think you're really going to like what's coming up, and you won't have to wait long this time.  There are lots of changes coming to the game in general, as anyone who's been following the brainstorming subforum already knows.  The game is really undergoing a transformation from something more rough and alpha-like to something more polished and release-like, which is a great thing all around.

Most of those changes are unrelated to multiplayer specifically, but a lot of them actually do happen to make the new model of multiplayer easier.  And given that we keep getting comments to the effect of "this is how I was imagining the game back when I was first hearing about it" when people read about the coming changes in the brainstorming forum, I take that as another really positive sign.

We really do appreciate all the feedback, and for people taking the time to run through the early alpha of multiplayer for us.  It sounds like overall people were having a lot of fun despite being hugely frustrated with "the multiverse thing," so I think that once we get that shored up we're going to be in happy territory.