Friday, September 28, 2012

A Valley Without Wind 2 - a full sequel free for existing customers - is coming.

I've been hinting about this over here, and actually answered a lot of questions about it.  However, we were planning on doing a big announcement through an interview with a major news site to announce the game, and so we didn't want to say too much.

We're now reversing that stance, however.  We actually don't particularly want major news coverage about this in advance of it being playable, we decided.  Why?  We don't want it to be over-hyped, and we don't want to run up against potential skepticism for people who didn't like the first game.  We're still in the process of getting the art assets together to where we could really do a true announcement, and so we haven't even contacted any of the press just yet about it.

Warning: extremely long post incoming.  But you already know that if you read this blog much. ;)

Is this really a sequel?
Make no mistake, Valley 2 is a true sequel -- it's a lot more different from the first game than many sequels are compared to their original.  There are a lot of changes I've been wanting to make for a while to the game, but these changes were too deep to do without angering players who bought one game and then had us change it on them to that degree.  This way players can keep playing the original in its current state (though we won't be doing much more of anything to update the original game from here on out), and they can also enjoy the awesome sequel for free as well.
 A Time Of Magic object in a finished-but-for-final-shading-and-texturing state.

And I get this for free if I already have the first game?
Yeah.  Basically everyone will be getting both games whenever they buy either one.  Kind of like what Zeboyd Games does with Breath of Death 7 and C Saves the World.  You get both for the price of one.

Why do it this way?  Well, we think that's fairest to existing customers, for one.  And for two, we don't think anyone will be much inclined to buy the first game after they see the second.  But the first game is cool in its own right, and so that's something we wanted to preserve.   It breaks a lot of new ground that no other games have ever experimented in before, and we didn't want to just throw that out.  The game isn't perfect, and it doesn't last forever, but it's fun for a goodly number of hours and it's something that people should be able to experience for years to come if they're into that sort of thing.  Meanwhile we get to move the "Valley franchise" forward in the manner of our choosing with the sequel.
 Cool "Pencil test" of a burly man walking animation.

So what's different, already!?
It's almost easier to define what is not different.  But here are some of the highlights in no particular order.

- Completely new enemies.  At the moment, 120 have been designed and are scheduled for art and programming, but not all will be available right at first beta.  They have a lot more variety of designs both artistically and in terms of gameplay, and they are in general a lot smaller and thus something you can get more up close and personal with.  In general the feel is closer to a Metroid game or similar in terms of the scale of enemies (whereas previously in AVWW1 the enemies were 4x to 8x larger than in Metroid in many cases).

- Completely new procedural generation methods.  We'll be using a "slices" methodology to create undergrounds, interiors, and exteriors.   This basically uses pieces of chunks that are created by hand in a level editor and then assembled and populated randomly.  Although enemy placement will be done by the 11 broad classes of enemy, and thus will be hand-done.  That way you'll get much more interesting and unique scenarios with enemies compared to what you did in the first game.

-Huuuuge new citybuilding game that ties everything together.  This is much more descended from Actraiser now.  Keith and I spent four days on skype designing out the new game, and this was one of the biggest topics.  The new citybuilding game uses dozens of buildings on the map that you capture, and some of which you can convert into other building types.  You can give your survivors orders, and they gain skills in five skill categories based on what missions you send them on.

- The dispatch model for NPCs is completely different and much improved now; no more moods, profession books, or gifts.  No more professions at all, in fact.  These were grindy and annoying, and we have a much better model that involves multi-NPC dispatches and skill points in five categories that improve based on successful missions.  Plus the risk of death on missions will be a lot lower than in the first game, meaning you're not feeling so heartless sending these poor folks out.  There's more strategy and less cannon fodder.

Incomplete view of one generated world map in an external diagnostic tool.

-Entirely turn-based in the macro-game.  The citybuilding stuff is all turn-based, and even the day/night cycle is now turn-based.  It flips back and forth between day and night as you change turns.  There are thematic reasons for this, and it lets us have a unified timescale rather than a separate day/night cycle and time period cycle.

-It is actually possible to win the game.  Each game is more randomized in how it unfolds, and basically plays out across what would be a super-continent in the old game.  Much larger than a single continent, but not infinitely large.  In fact, the entire world is generated right when you start it (as with a galaxy in AI War) and that becomes the basis of how you plan out your advances and strategy of how you're going to become more powerful.  When you actually defeat the overlord, you win the game.  If you play it again, the game will play out quite differently.

-Since these are now more finite campaign-style engagements more like we have with AI War, this also means that you won't be able to change the difficulty once you start the game.  This makes each campaign a finite experience that you play, win or lose, and then play again if you like.  You can even set the size of the world that you want from a dropdown, and that will also affect how many levels you get from each level-up tower that you conquer on the map.

-Isometric world map!  Enough said. :)

-You are not a glyphbearer.  You're actually a former henchman-in-training of the overlord; so kind of a bad person turned good.  You've got an Oblivion Crystal which serves a different function from the glyph but occupies the same space.

-No more permadeath.  The oblivion crystals prevent you from dying, and instead bring you back from the dead anytime you die.  Your survivors can (and will) still die permanently, however.  The overlord and his other henchmen also have oblivion crystals, however, so they are literally invincibile also.  They can be killed same as you, but they'll come back to life and return to fight another day if you defeat them.  You'll face the henchmen several times and defeat them several times on your quest to beat the overlord, but if you see the overlord before the end of the game (which will happen from time to time) you had better run instead of trying to fight him.
  A Bronze Age object in a finished-but-for-final-shading-and-texturing state.

-Ilari are nowhere to be found.  All those guardian stones, and indeed the glyphbearers in general?  It's not just that you aren't a glyphbearer -- they don't exist in this part of Environ.  Similarly, the wind never reached the level where it drives people crazy here.  Wind is still a big problem all over the world map, and prevents your movement -- you'll have to "purify" tiles in order to be able to advance further on the world map because of the wind.  But in general, this means that there are pockets of people all over the place, rather than people coming together for big settlements huddling around the Ilari.  Environ is a big world, so this is just a part of it that is neglected by the Ilari and thus has woes of its own.

-No more settlements, and survivors don't need to be rescued.  It's been a year since the events of the first game, and people are pretty used to what has happened by now.  Your problem isn't to rescue the survivors, it's to recruit them.  For that you'll use other survivors who will be dispatched to convince them to join your uprising against your former master.

-The overlord and his henchmen actively terrorize the countryside.  You'll see their tokens moving around and literally destroying buildings of yours every few turns on the macrogame side.  Your survivors don't stand a chance against them in combat, so the only thing you can do is to try and create "reverse traveling salesman" problems for the overlord and his minions, while also rebuilding as you go.

-You're not just fighting Generic Overlord #5 and his lieutenants.  The sole overlord you'll be facing in this game (for now) is named Demonaica and has a specific look, backstory, and all that good stuff.  His henchmen (which differ from lieutenants in many important ways) are named Slender, Lilith, Vorgga, Fanzara, and Wordrak.
A Wild Garden Age throne in a finished-but-for-final-shading-and-texturing state.

-Speaking of which, since there is no longer permadeath you won't be playing a long line of characters you barely care about.  When you start a new game, you'll create your character and then that will be your character for the rest of that campaign.  The basic character creation process is much like in the first game, except that you get to choose from any time period right from the start rather than having to unlock them.  Then as you go through the game, there are a ton of new character customization options that you'll run into (see below for more info).

-There is an all-new roster of 24 unique characters.  There are four each -- two male and two female -- from six time periods.  You cannot play as Draconites (who are not in this game, though tons more dinosaurs are in general), nor can you play as Neutral Skelebots (also not in this game, though several new enemy skelebot types are), nor can you play as ice age characters (which were over-represented in the first game, so I wanted to do something different).

 Some new character portraits at a finished-but-for-final-shading-and-texturing state.

-No more inventory, or loose items, or crafting (please don't freak out, you'll see why in a minute).  This means no more stash rooms, and no more item pickups, and no more opal guardian store or consciousness shards.  No more spellgems, no more spell scrolls, no more grinding to find stuff in various random parts of the world.  No more materials, or placing wooden platforms or crates, or using settlement stockpiles (no settlements, recall?).  I'm sure some of your are thinking "WTF" about this particular line item, so let me explain the subsystem we have in place of all that -- it's much more streamlined and lets you get to the meat of this game much better.

-First off, there is now a class system that lets you choose what kind of mage you're going to be.  There are five overall tiers of mage classes, and you'll unlock each of them as you play through the game.  The first tier you start out with, and you can choose from among 5 randomized mage classes to play as.  Overall there are 10 mage classes per tier, and so each playthrough is a bit different as you have different options each time.  Each player in multiplayer also has their own randomized set of classes, too.

First 25 mage class icons in a final state (plus 2 sketches).

-So what is a mage class?  Essentially it defines your basic abilities.  The way the game controls is now completely different, and a lot more like a classic Metroidvania title rather than taking inspiration from MMOs.  This way always our goal with the first title, but somewhere along the lines we strayed.  You'll always have four abilities at your fingertips, which are entirely set by which mage class you choose.  Each mage class has a primary, a secondary, a special, and an ammo-based attack.  This lets us hand-tune the combinations of spells to make many interesting sets that you'll switch between on occasion depending on what kind of area you're about to embark into.

-The controls are also streamlined.  That whole mouse+keyboard thing was really a bad idea, as some players pointed out to us.  That sort of freedom of aiming really kills the classic Metroidvania style of a game like this, and makes it so that keyboard-only players and gamepad-only players are at a huge disadvantage.  So we're moving down to two streamline control schemes that are equivalent with one another: keyboard-based and gamepad-based.  And yes, the tab-targeting is gone since that basically acts like a cheat at this point without free-aiming of the mouse.

Please note!  We're not just taking away control options for kicks, or because we think people were "doing it wrong."  But the fact remains that generally a game is built around its controls, especially as an action game.  We're trying to maintain as much flexibility in the controls as we can while not making it so that people are playing fundamentally different games that we can't make universally fun.  Placing wooden platforms was trivial with the mouse, and so is killing a bat.  But it's incredibly frustrating with any other sort of input.  When you get right down to it, what we're trying to make is a Metroidvania game, and I don't personally know of any of them that use a mouse-style of control.  Hence we're going a bit more standardized with that, and I have to say the controls feel really good.
 Lighthouse building in a final state.

- But back to the whole customization thing.  Rather than customizing yourself with what you craft or what you happen to randomly find from missions or in a cavern, now you customize yourself with perks and feats.  

-Perks: Each time the world level goes up, everybody gets a list of new perks that they can apply to themselves.  You can choose only one per level to apply to yourself, but you can reconfigure your choices later if you change your mind (not in the field; when you return to certain safe places).  There are 20 possible levels to attain, and 5 perks per level.  However, only a randomized 2 perks will be available to all players right at the start of achieving any particular level.  By exploration, players can find tokens that will unlock the other three perks on each level and thus let them further customize themselves.

Perks are basically things like improved health or speed, better jump height, etc.  They are largely replacing the enchants model from the first game (enchants are also gone).

-Feats: feats are actually active abilities that you can trigger on yourself, like double jump, miniaturize, etc.  You start out without any of these, but you can acquire them by busting into skelebot research facilities and hacking their mainframes.

-The last way that you can customize yourself is by the choices made on the world map, in the macro-game.  These are choices that affect all players, and/or survivors.  By capturing certain buildings, for instance, you can increase the distance you can see in dark places.  By capturing others, you can make it so that you are able to go into excessively hot or cold areas (the heatsuits and snowsuits are replaced by this mechanic that is integrated into the strategy/citybuilding side of the game).

-In general, this game is really a mix of straight-up Metroidvania style shooting and dodging with the longer-term thinking and planning on the world map.  With customization and character loadout choices thrown in -- made more interesting by the fact that you can't just line up all the "best" spells, but instead have to choose which full loadouts will best fit the current circumstances.  So there's quite a few more interesting choices to make now, without there being so many individual choices to make except in the macro-game.
 A Wild Garden Age statue in a finished-but-for-final-shading-and-texturing state.

-Physics!  The physics of the game are also going to be tuned quite a bit.  That's something we haven't implemented yet, but we're experimenting around with various ideas for it and think we know of a number of ways to make that feel smoother and nicer.  Simply having it so that the terrain is actually built for you rather than just being procedural all over the place is going to make a big difference, of course.

-Bosses!  There's going to be a lot less emphasis on bosses in general in this game, because they were too frequent in the previous game.  However, the encounters with regular enemies will be a lot more interesting because of that.  With bosses we're going to be moving to multi-stage behaviors where they shift behaviors mid-fight.  We'll also be having smaller, saner boss rooms that really give a better Metroidvania vibe.

-Spells!  Some of the old spells, like shields and seize and so forth, are being removed -- they either weren't useful enough (seize) or they were unbalancingly useful (shields).  We'll also be revising most spells in general, adjusting their characteristics and size and move speeds and all that.  These go along with the physics changes in general, and bosses will get the same treatment.  And then we're also going to be adding just tons and tons of new spells and spell visuals for all the mage classes.  a number of them will essentially be visual upgrades from one spell to another, but that's something players have asked for for a while; essentially there won't be any invisible "this spell is stronger but looks the same" modifiers or levels.  The stronger ones will look it!  Spells also will have a vastly lower cooldown across the board, meaning that you can get a much more satisfyingly fast-and-furious effect with them.

-Ammo!  A single spell out of the four you get from each class will be ammo-based.  Enemies will drop either health or ammo when you kill them, and each ammo pickup is only part of what is needed to cast the ammo-based spell once.  So these ammo-based spells are really something that you'll want to use sparingly, but since there is a pretty low cap on how much ammo you can hoard, you're still encouraged to use them periodically.  Like in a Metroid game rather than in something like Final Fantasy where I hardly ever use a consumable weapon.  And not all the ammo spells are weapons -- one of the animal-related mage classes has an ammo ability to turn into a bat (as in the first game), and that effect lasts until you take a hit.

-Health!  In general, after playing a lot of Cave Story and Super Metroid and similar games lately, we've realized that in AVWW1 players really have too much health.  And so do many of the monsters.  All in all it was trying to be a bit RPG-like and thus turning into a bit of a slug-fest.  That's something we're rebalancing entirely to be more in keeping with the other Metroidvania titles, and even games like Zelda.  That's one of several things that should lead to a much more satisfying experience in our opinion.

 An evergreen forest object in a finished-but-for-final-shading-and-texturing state.

-I've mentioned that missions are gone, but I've not mentioned what is replacing those.  That's a bit hard to answer in a specific fashion.  I suppose the best answer would be "the game."  In other words, AVWW1 was kind of an undirected sandbox in most areas, but in some areas you could take on these instance-based missions and have a somewhat more directed time with them.  In Valley 2, the entire flow and point of everything is different.  All of your adventuring is directly in service of your larger strategic/citybuilding goals, and your strategic/citybuilding goals feed right back into making you more powerful so that you can take down the overlord.  

It's a much more tightly integrated loop there, AND the actual gameplay locations for the game in general are more unique and interesting, so the need for missions themselves really vanishes.  Which is a good thing in my opinion, as they felt a bit artificial in execution anyhow.  I really prefer how everything is so concrete here and is so tied together into your overall goals of both halves of the game.

 -Call in the Mercenaries!  Some parts of the game will intentionally have uneven difficulty, however.  These particularly challenging areas are often caused by enemy buildings that project onto the world map tiles nearest to them (and some other enemy buildings block travel on the world map until you send your survivors to destroy them, incidentally).  Sometimes you'll need a bit of an extra push to make it through an area like this.  Well, another thing that you can collect out in the world are mercenary coins which you can then use to call the mercenaries in on a hotline.  When you do so, they'll travel with you like a familiar (or like one of those NPCs from the first game that floats after you during a rescue).  They'll stay with you until the next level-up or until they die, and the added firepower can be a real boon.  It's also another decision point on how you best use your resources, which is critical on higher difficulties.

 A Wild Garden Age object in a finished-but-for-final-shading-and-texturing state.

- If you're interested, the citybuilding/strategic model has five main resources: Food, Scrap, Mana, Morale, and Housing.  Each one of those works differently from the other, and each one can only be impacted by your actions in the strategic mode; so in other words, you can't play a poor strategic game but then grind on the adventure side to make up for it.  We've put in a lot of work to make sure that while the two modes do have tight integration between one another, you can't just grind in one mode to win at the other.  You have to actually play well (for the difficulty level you've chosen) at each half of the game to win.  And you'll be flipping back and forth between modes pretty regularly, to keep either side from getting stale; each enriches the other.

-Oh, and yes: you can also lose the game, as well as being able to win it, now.  Despite the fact that you are un-killable thanks to your oblivion crystal, if all your survivors die then you lose.

-And also: there's all new objects for the game in terms of the art, too.  As you've seen throughout this post, Heavy Cat is working on all-new time-period-appropriate art that is a lot cooler and more unique than what we had in AVWW1.

- Also also: the platforming difficulty is going away, as are most of the things it affected.  No more falling damage, no more rising lava, no more bouncing spike traps (regular spike traps remain, though, as do dangerfalls, blade traps, and mines).  Also the freefall missions might be gone, but their concept is retained through some freefall segments you'll run into from time to time.

Monster at the sketch stage: Procompsognathus. And yes, one mage class can transform into these.

Overall Goals
So!  If you've read all of this, then I imagine you found it quite a lot to parse.  It was obviously aimed at people already very familiar with the first game, and so highlights all the differences -- of which there are quite a few.  But why so many changes?  Did we really have to change X or Y?  Wasn't X or Y feature in the first game really fun, and thus shouldn't it have been included in the sequel?

I'm sure I'm going to be fielding lots of those sorts of questions, but the general answer to those questions is: we made the choices we did because it contributes to an overall tighter, more cohesive game.  A few specific examples below:

Loss of the sandbox
The first game was trying to be both a sandbox and a directed game, and that's just not very possible -- or at least not in a way we were happy with.  The first game was always hugely successful at being a sandbox you could just run around in and have a good time at, but it was substantially less good at providing a forward-moving experience with tension and a satisfying game arc.

That was something we repeatedly tried to address throughout the beta of the first game and after it's release.  However, we met with only mixed success.  At this point I'm convinced that we took those concepts as far as we were able to in the framework of the first game.

Thus we really needed to get back to the roots of what we wanted to build in the first place before sandboxiness invaded the first game's design: a spiritual sequel to Actraiser with a much deeper citybuilding/strategic component, and with better platforming in a Metroidvania style.  

In order to do that, we needed to not have players faffing around with endless collection quests trying to find materials for crafting, or grinding for just the right spells, or doing all that manner of thing.  Instead we needed to have some broad and important choices that players could make quickly to customize their character and then could later change at will if they changed their minds.  

That sort of thing keeps the action and the strategy game moving, but it means that we basically had to cut out this.  But that was fun!  That's why we still have the first game as a separate product that we bundle with the sequel (and vice-versa).  That way you can play the more sandboxy game, or you can play the more directed, intense, interesting game.
 Monster at the sketch stage: Ice Esper.

Loss of the mouse controls and shield spells
Both of these things have an enormous impact on balance.  You could argue that these things are a matter of taste and customization, and I'd have to agree -- that's why they are in the first game, and why they remain there.  But these were one of the biggest ongoing challenges to balance in the first game for me, and they are things that really put large segments of the player populace at a disadvantage if they don't use them.

Here again, it comes to getting back to the roots of what we were trying to do.  Yes, Terraria uses the mouse controls -- so do numerous other PC action-adventure games with a 2D sidescroller view.  So do a lot of MMOs and RPGs.

In the first game we were really enticed by the allure of all those things, and so we let our design drift and become unfocused.  In other words, the design tried to become all things to all people, and Environ became a world that you could come and do whatever you wanted in.  That's pretty fun!  But it's very difficult to make a truly compelling game that way.  What we needed to do with the sequel was really focus, and make the original game we set out to do.

In terms of Mario Bros. games, what if Mario had a rocket launcher he could aim in any direction?  What if he had a force field he could toggle on and off periodically at will?  That might be entertaining for a bit, but that would fundamentally make a different game, I think.  And I don't think a better game -- for Mario, all the enemies are designed around him not having abilities like that.  So to give him those abilities means the levels would be crazy easy and hollow.

On the flip side, the game Intrusion 2 uses mechanics like aim-anywhere firing, and it's a brilliant game.  All the enemies are designed around the powers that your avatar has, and so everything fits together just right.  But of course the character there doesn't have the movement abilities that Mario does -- if the character there had that kind of speed and jumping ability, then I suspect its mechanics would really start to break down -- in the same way Mario would if you gave the wrong weapons to him.
 A Wild Garden Age skeleton in a finished-but-for-final-shading-and-texturing state.

What I'm saying is, games are additive in nature -- you can't just throw any old thing in there and expect it to be the same game.  If you add a single new piece to Chess, you've dramatically changed that game.  It doesn't matter what the piece even does.

In the case of AVWW1, we had the movement speed of Mario 3 or so, and the aim-anywhere nature of Intrusion 2.  We also had control schemes that did not support aim-anywhere, and that made it so that players were playing two different games.  And that meant that enemies really couldn't be balanced around either, since in some cases could aim super-precisely and in others they could not aim remotely that well.  What a mess.

Again, I still think that really worked out pretty well in the main, but it's definitely a more niche experience and a bit rougher around the edges because of that.  By focusing on specifically the kind of game we're actually trying to make, and not dragging in stuff from other unrelated genres if it doesn't really complement it well, we have something that's a lot tighter and more fun.  It's not about taking options away from players it's about creating one game at a time rather than a whole soup of games.

And of course then we're adding tons of options in the style of the core gameplay that we're going for, too.  (As noted throughout the document above).  So there is that. ;)

We still have a long way to go before we're ready to let people start playing the beta of this, but we should be ready for it in the November timeframe.  We're really excited about how it's coming along, though!

Here's the forum thread for this post if you want to join in the discussion about it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Evolution Of Shattered Haven

Thought it was about time for a general update on our upcoming game Shattered Haven!

Art Evolution
For Shattered Haven, you may recall that Heavy Cat Multimedia is doing all-new pixel art for this game just as they are doing all-new higher-res art for AVWW.  Both projects are going really well, although we've been so hard at work on both of them that we've not really had time to stop and share much yet.

Here's how that is proceeding so far, although there are still not-yet-updated bits even in the most recent version all the way at the bottom -- so these are definitely WIP images!  The first image is from before Heavy Cat got involved at all, and the most recent one at the bottom was taken about 5 minutes prior to my writing this.

The thing I'm most proud of out of the recent screenshot is the new organically-shaped water.  It's a lot more natural than just the pure squared-off tiles, and that's something I really like.  It took me literally all day Friday to get it to work, as the various approaches that I and Heavy Cat had tried were not working and I had to think of something new.  Now of course I'm still going through the collision ramifications of that and adjusting code to work with the completed visuals for the water, but that's winding down thankfully.

A New Team Member
An old friend of mine, Zack Cataldo, has joined the team to help with level design, story, and general game design tweaks.  Zack and Lars and I go way back together, knowing each other from the primordial Internet days of 1998 or 1999 or so.  All of us were hobbyist game developers together, and then we all wound up moving into business software development instead of games.

Then of course I founded Arcen, and a while later Lars and I worked on Tidalis together (the brilliant core design there was his).  Zack is one of the best adventure level designers I've ever seen, and so I'm really excited to see him on this project -- he's been working on it for about 5 weeks now, part-time in his after-the-day-job-and-after-family-time slice of life.

Speaking of, back in 2008 or so Lars was enormously helpful to me in refining the Shattered Haven design and mechanics.  So this is another game where his hand is definitely visibly felt.  When he heard the news that we were revisiting that game to complete it and release it this fall, he said "Oh, good, I've been hoping you'd come back to that!"

Story Evolution (Very Minor Spoilers)
Zack and Erik and I have been meeting once or twice a week for the last 5 weeks or so on Skype to have writing session calls, and the results have been really amazing.  I've never worked in a group to write/plot/plan like this before, but I've of course worked that way for game and software design many times.  I find it refreshingly similar of a process.

The original story for Shattered Haven was based on a novel that I had written about 1/3 of but then never could finish.  So I'd set up the world-building and the Grays and all that, but the actual storyline that was moving through that world was both incomplete and a little weak.  Hence my setting the novel aside in late 2007.  Still, it was a cool premise, and the main thing was that I didn't know where to go with it after about the first third or so.

Compounding problems for the game version of that story back in 2008, the story of the novel really didn't lend itself well to being an interactive game of this particular sort.  So I had done kind of a half-baked version of the novel story that was way worse, and introduced a lot of new characters and so forth.  My focus was on the gameplay and the environmental-style puzzles, and that was what really shone.

So what Zack and Erik and I have been doing is working on making a new and improved version of the story that would suit the game better.  To be honest I wasn't expecting all that much, because writing for games is particularly hard and the results aren't usually that stellar.  However, all of my favorite games tell tight and compelling stories: Final Fantasy VI, Silent Hill 2, Chrono Trigger, and so on.

As it turns out, writing in a group has been one of the best things to happen to this game.  Zack and Erik have both been just full of slam-dunk ideas, and their ideas have spurred me on to have new and exciting ideas, too.

There are 13 major overworld areas to the game, and 8 different endings that you can get, and we've been making good headway.  At this point we have the entire intro all planned out and partially written (and Zack is partway through the level design on the new intro, too), as well as having the first of the overworld areas complete in terms of its main story arc.  We've also got the broad outline for the entire story, as well as the generalities of all 8 endings, as well as the details of all of the principal characters and villains.

It's very exciting progress, and I'm really jazzed to see us so far along.  We're expecting to have all of the rest of the detailed plotting done by the end of September.

Evolution Of The Villains (Somewhat More Material Spoilers, But Still Not Bad)
Remember this image from the main menu of the game?  Turns out the composition of it is even more significant than we realized at the time I commissioned it from Heavy Cat (it's not an actual scene from the story, it's just more of a thematic montage showing the major characters all together).

Darrell and Mary Williams are the two adults and are the main characters.  Mary Williams and the boy Pierce are also playable characters briefly at the start of the game, but mostly they are the object of the parents' quest: saving the kids is the end goal.  And no, there are not escort missions, as a few people had worried about the last time we did a big update that showed this image!

At any rate, you can see that the family is beset by a variety of monsters here.  Originally when I was writing the novel, there was one squid-like monster that was going to be sort of a running villain, but mainly the novel was more about the survivors vs the world.  And bear in mind this isn't your typical zombie apocalypse -- the Grays are zombie-like, but are different in many significant ways that you'll discover throughout the game.

Anyway, no villain!?  That's not that compelling to me, and I suspect to many people.  So the squid-like monster was taking on more of an important role in the story of the game.  If you look on the left side of the main menu image, you can see one of its hooked tentacles reaching up over the family.

For a while the squid seemed to be enough, and Erik and Zack and I were running with that.  It wasn't too long before we had come up with a Gray that we refer to half-jokingly as "zombie mom," though, and you can see her on the right-hand side of the main menu.  Exactly what is going on with her is one of the chief mysteries of the game.  And actually that's true of the squid, too.

But a third villain who was just a minor (yet terrifying) monster in the game suddenly leapt into prominence during this past weekend's writing sessions: the shadow man.  You can see him hulking over both zombie mom and the family on the right-hand side of the screen.  The shadow man was always in the game, and hence why I asked for him to be given that sort of place on the main menu that heavy cat did.  However, he wasn't really a major story figure before... and yet now the story has evolved so I can hardly imagine what the story would be without him.

So now we've got a stable of three major villains that are set against both the family as well as, in many cases, each other.  Each of the villains has their own initially-inscrutable but eventually-explained motivations that make perfect sense in the context of the story while being mysteries that I don't think most people will figure out in advance.  This is one of the things that has resulted from our writing sessions that I'm definitely most pleased about!

Evolution Of Cutscene Methods
All the way back in 2008, I had created an in-game cutscene engine based on a simple scripting language I created.  That's really useful for doing most of the small little exchanges and happenings, and it really can help make the world feel more alive.  That's something we're still using a ton, but since seeing the awesome main menu that Heavy Cat did, we've also realized that we now have a new tool in our toolkit: comic panels.

For key scenes in the game that are particularly important or emotional or whatever, we're using these comic panels to give you a more dramatic view of what is happening.  The main menu is a good example of what their style will be, although the main menu is larger (it's 1024x768, whereas all the comic panels for in-game are 500x500).  Overall it looks like we'll have at least 32 comic panels, and more likely that we'll have 46 of them so that there are enough for the ongoing story as well as each of the 8 endings.

I won't show any of the ones that are related to the actual story bits, but we're also using the comic panels to introduce each of the 13 areas of the overworld.  That gives a really cool view of each of the areas that makes them feel much more like a real place than just seeing them with the more roguelike-looking graphics.  These are from some of the earlier areas in the game:

The Phoenix Forest
 The Deadlands
 Ivanwood Marsh
 Snow Mountain

Evolution Of... The Timeline For Beta
So, we'd planned on doing a beta for this game by the end of September, right?  Well, with all the growth in the game, we're really trying to make sure that everything is in a really great state before we even start the beta.

Not all of the levels or parts of the overworld will be included in the beta initially anyway (extra regions will be coming out one or two at a time during beta).  And the same with the endings coming out during beta.

However, for beta what we really want to have is the first few hours of the game there in just a super-awesome state.  First 4ish overworld regions out of 13 at the least, I think.  And we want everything in general to be as polished as we can make it right from the start, as well as including all the new art from Heavy Cat and no placeholder art, and so forth.

With that in mind, I think we're about 4 weeks out from when we'd want to start beta at this point.  That would then leave us another 4 weeks or so before we actually hit 1.0 for the game (this is a really mature game already, with so much development history behind it).  Anyhow, so the beta will likely be hitting around the same time the Ancient Shadows expansion is coming out of beta and arriving on Steam, etc.

Sorry for the delay, but I figured I'd give you an extra-meaty status update on what we're doing by way of apology. ;)  Once the last of the placeholder art is gone from a few levels at least, I'll be sure to share a gameplay video so that you can actually see how the gameplay works.  The one main thing that wasn't even discussed at all in this post!

Until next time...

Monday, September 17, 2012

New WIP Art Images For A Valley Without Wind

It's been exactly a month since my last post of WIP art on AVWW!  Fear not, it's not because not much has been going on -- it's because a ton has, but we can't quite talk about it yet.  That said, the art is proceeding really well and I thought I'd share these bits of them that are particularly far along.

The Mockup

First of all, we have the above mockup of what the new game will look like.  The idea with the mockup isn't to actually create assets to use in the game, it's instead aimed at defining the style that all the other art will be finished as.  Much of the art that is currently in progress is currently at the sketch or coloring stages, but what this mockup is defining is how exactly the final shading and stylization will be.

The enemy is obviously still at the sketch phase even in this image, but the Celes character looks really amazing at this point, and the backgrounds and general style of the rest of the image does as well.  I'm extremely jazzed with how this is turning out.

Now that you've seen a mockup of how everything is intended to look when tied all together, here's a few more images that are either complete or very close to being so.  Most of the focus thus far has been on the buildings and to some extent on the backdrops, but as of last week the major focus has changed to being on the characters.

Selected Buildings
Bear in mind that these are at varying stages of completion, so the level of detail in all of them doesn't quite match yet.  But it will!

Getting the style for the characters exactly right has been a challenge, because we were looking for something that would work with the style of the background elements without being too muddy or similar.  As you can see from the mockup above, here's what we've settled on:

It's a bit of a cartoony look, but with shaping and shading that fits with the backgrounds while still making the characters "pop" off them.  That's really great for being able to quickly find your character in the scene, as you can see demonstrated in the mockup at the top of the screen.  But at the same time, the character doesn't look out of place in the scene.

I take no credit for figuring this out; the artists and producers at Heavy Cat know their stuff!

As part of the work on the art-revamp-plus-other-changes, we're going to be introducing 24 all-new character models to the game.  Celes, above, is one from the modern contemporary period.  Tiyi, below, is from the bronze age:

Each sprite will have two different portraits to help to differentiate individual characters who use the sprite more from each other.  The actual final styling of the portraits will be more like the Celes sprite above, but what you're seeing with Tiyi there is a near-final version of the portrait that has everything except the final stylization.

Parallax Backdrops
The parallax backdrops show behind the layers of buildings and foreground objects, and help to provide a sense of place.  One of the things we're also working on with these is to help provide more of a sense of depth in the new versions -- something that my art skills were definitely not up to in the original versions of the art.  Here's a few selected WIP images:

And that's it for now!