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.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Work Continues On The New AI System, Among Other Things

Well, I'd hoped to have the new AI system ready for a release today or even yesterday, but things don't always go to plan. 

At first I was just going to make it so that enemies could do multiple types of magic attacks.  Then I decided to wrap in some of their general logic so that they could do things like chase you some of the time and then kite you and then just wander around, etc.  Then I decided to wrap in a really much broader behavior structure, where enemies can flexibly switch between whole movement styles if need be.

It's not done yet, but it would allow some enemies to walk some of the time and fly others, or do things like run really fast and jump really high while having a weak attack, and move slower while having a stronger attack, etc.  And to even have the various abilities be level-gated so that you'd see them with different frequencies or even not at all depending on their level. 

The general idea being that this is a really flexible AI framework that can be used to manage some moderately more complex stuff in the short term, and that can then be extended without the need for any more rewrites as more and more complex enemies get added.  A lot of that complexity won't actually manifest in the current enemies because they are meant to be pretty simple, but a number of them are getting more abilities that they only show under certain circumstances such as higher levels. 

Regular espers start outright pathfinding after you a bit once you get to a pretty high level, for instance, and the bosses have an even better chance of doing that.  Icicle leapers of a certain level, rather than always chasing you, will now sometimes do that and sometimes not, which actually makes them more dangerous because then they're harder to predict and better at navigating the terrain under some circumstances.

Whew.  It's really a whole re-imagining of the entire AI system based on what I've learned with working with the mechanics of this game and its enemies so far.  We started simple with the AI here specifically so that we could see what would feel good and play well, but now that we want to do real overlords (not just stat-buffed minibosses), that's requiring a much more flexible and advanced AI system.  It's becoming a lot more AI-War-like in its decision making per enemy, now.

Two new enemies, the Skelebot Centurion and the Skelebot Overlord, have also been integrated into the game, and the skelebot overlord is now the largest enemy in the game.  Standing next to a skelebot giant, the giant only comes up the overlord's elbow.  Right now the centurion and the overlord skelebots don't actually act much differently from their lesser counterparts, but they'll be the first two enemies to very visibly benefit from the new AI system once I get that finished up.  Hopefully Monday -- I'm down to 73 conflicts to fix in visual studio, so that's really getting down there from the hundreds it started out as!

Keith has also been having some absolutely amazing strides with the multiplayer, too.  He and Josh have had a number of successful playtest sessions now, and there are only a few blocking issues that he's now working out.  I don't want to jinx it, but it looks pretty likely that we could have this ready for some first public alpha multiplayer testing next week (though the Thanksgiving holiday might get in the way and push it to the week after).  Anyway, it's getting down there.

There's a number of other cool things in the works, too, for soon after the AI update.  A "mission scripting" system has really been on my mind a lot lately, and the design for that has been taking shape well.  There's also a lot of things that I want to do to improve the flow of the game, providing more structure for players who want it while still allowing as much freedom as you have now for those who want that.

There are several other streamlining-type ideas that Keith and I have been talking about for a while that we're going to implement in the next month or so.  There will still be more enemies and spells and such coming along with this, and yes I've got plans to address the eagles although that's going to take a bit more time to fully resolve as there's several levels of things I want to look at with them.

Lots of good stuff coming up!  Just figured I'd give one last update before the weekend here.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

New A Valley Without Wind Video Trailer!

Just in time for Minecon, here's the latest and greatest trailer for the game!  Erik and his friend Kevin really pulled out all the stops with this one, and I think it's our best-put-together trailer yet. 

It's also far superior to the prior trailer in that it shows off a lot of the new spells, enemies, and visual effects that simply didn't exist when the other one was made.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Week Without Updates!? An AVWW Status Report.

Ever since beta started, we've hardly gone a business day without updates, but here we've now gone a week since the last AVWW update.  Fear not!  This isn't the start of some new trend.  It's just been a confluence of events.

First of all, I was out of the office last Thursday and Friday due to some personal stuff.  Then we've also been preparing for Minecon, where we're going to be an exhibitor.  This includes getting both a new trailer going (which is almost ready!) and that new Getting Started Guide that we posted earlier today.  Then there's been a whole bunch of stuff to do with various distributors for AVWW and our other titles, and some general nearing-year-end business maintenance stuff.  Oh, and a number of press interviews or Q&As on several subjects.

Goodness!  All of this has culminated in my being unable to work on the game directly much until today, but now all that seems to be quieting down (knock on wood!).  Meanwhile:

* Josh has been hard at work on a variety of things including the Getting Started Guide and helping to test multiplayer
* Keith has been powering through the last of the multiplayer stuff for pre-public-alpha of that feature.  He's almost got it to the point where we can start having some people opting in to testing multiplayer outside of the confines of Arcen staff, which is very exciting.
* Pablo has composed two awesome new tracks that I'm very excited about, one of which is for a new region type that isn't ready to go quite yet, but which will be really fitting for when that region is integrated.
* Erik of course has been busy as usual with all the PR/marketing side of things, but particularly with Minecon preparations and the trailer work.

I've got a number of items on my shortlist of features that I want to work on for myself, but what I decided to work on today is some more advanced enemy AI.  Basically allowing for single enemies to have more complex patterns of attacks, and even unique combinations of attacks for specific individual bosses, etc.  The existing bosses won't get these features since they are inherently meant to be simpler, but one of the new bosses I'm working toward is the first true Overlord type of enemy (versus the game just using stat-inflated minibosses for the overlords, which was always a placeholder mechanic).

There are also some other cool things on my shortlist, such as multi-boss rooms, outdoor boss arenas, underground rare commodity caverns, and enchants.  Not to mention just general new spells and scrolls and enemies.  And I keep meaning to add more stuff to craft at the outfitter, too, but that keeps getting bumped for other stuff that is more exciting in the short-term.

There's a lot that's coming, anyhow, and the next beta update should be either tomorrow or Friday, but probably tomorrow.  Just figured I'd give folks an update on what's going on internally here!  Definitely a really busy and exciting time, and we'll be back to our usual pattern of frequent updates starting late this week and into early next week.

A Valley Without Wind Getting Started Guide - Take Two!

Note: Even this second guide is now hugely out of date, and we've written a replacement that you can view here.

It's been a month and a half since our first Getting Started Guide for the game, and so much has changed since then!  The old version is now confusingly wrong, as it refers to tons of stuff that either is no longer in the game or which you don't encounter until after you complete the intro mission, etc.

The intro mission itself is meant to be self-explanatory, but it's also meant to be more of a linear early-game experience than a hand-holding tutorial.  So what we thought we'd do is make a little strategy guide of sorts to give you a hand if some aspect of the intro mission requires extra explanation.  Enjoy!

A Valley Without Wind Getting Started Guide - Take Two!
by Josh Knapp

This is Environ, a world that's been shattered by an unknown cataclysm. We've tried the make the game as self-explanatory as possible, but there's a lot here.

When the game loads, the first thing to do is update to the latest beta if there are any updates available.  There almost always are!  This is a pretty quick process, and it gets you the absolute latest and greatest version of the game.

Once you've got the game up to date, Click 'Play' to get started, choose a name for your world, then press OK. Now it's time to pick your character. Each character has a list of randomly chosen stats below them. The meaning of each isn't crucial at this point, but it's good to know that green stats are good, red ones are below average, and white are average.

Once you pick your character, you'll start the game in an ice age tundra. You will see your “Action Bar” in the bottom left corner of your screen (it's empty right now, but that will change soon). In the top left corner is the mini map of the current “chunk” that you are in. On the minimap are dots, the colors of which have specific meanings. A blinking red dot would be a boss enemy, an orange dot represents loot of some sort, etc. You will learn the other colors as you progress in the game.

Finally, in the bottom right is the Dungeon Map. At the moment, this is showing you all of the surface chunks in the region. When you are in a cave or a building, it will show you the relationships between the chunks (rooms or caverns) in those areas as well.

Move to the right to get started, and use the jump key to get over any small obstacles in the terrain. As you do, you will see a coffer with a Fire Touch spellgem in it. Grabbing this spellgem will allow you to cast the Fire Touch spell, which is a close-range attack that doesn't do a lot of damage, but costs no mana.

Keep walking off the right-hand side of the screen to continue to the next area. You may have noticed that there was more loot up high in the first area. You can't get this now, but when you later get wood platforms, feel free to come back and grab it if you wish (though doing so is not required, and you can get the same item further into the intro mission anyhow).

In the second chunk you will find a tombstone; there are several of them throughout the intro mission, and they will offer clues and hints to get you through this part of the game and beyond. It's a good idea to read them! If the first one isn't clear enough, use the Fire Touch spell on the crates to destroy them and thus proceed beyond.

The next coffer has the wood platforms, which you will need to get past the next area. But, before we go on, lets grab one other thing from this chunk. Look on your minimap: see the orange dot way up high? You'll want that.

This might be a good time to talk about your action bar. As you have probably figured out, the fist action in your action bar is triggered by the left mouse button. Additionally, the second slot in your bar is triggered by the right mouse button. The third slot by the middle mouse button. If you have additional mouse buttons, this pattern will continue.

You can also trigger any action in your bar by right-clicking on its slot or by pressing the corresponding number on your keyboard. All of your spells and items that are not in your action bar are stored in your inventory, which you can access by pressing “I”. At any time, you can click and drag the items and spells in your inventory around to wherever you want them.

Assuming you've been following this guide, your platforms should be in the second slot of your action bar. If so then, simply right click on the screen a few times above you, jump up (add a few more if you need to), then get the warp potions up in the rock crevice. These will save you time later, so you can immediately warp back to your last location if you die.

The next chunk features a pool of water. Be careful! The water may look harmless, but the cataclysm has actually made it highly acidic; staying in the water will eventually kill you. You will need to deploy your wood platforms over the water, and then jump on them, to get across.

Our First Building

The next area starts with a sheer cliff: again, deploying platforms is the way to get past. On the other side of this cliff rests a building. You aren't required to go into all buildings, but they can be a good source of supplies to help get you further in the game. This particular building does have a spellgem that you will need to advance, so lets go get it!

Press the action button 'E' while standing by the building's door to go inside (you will see a note telling you that as well). Once inside, you will see two ladders. Press down on the ladders to drop through them (yeah, it's dark -- we'll fix that shortly). At the bottom you will find a coffer with ten Emit Light scrolls. Grab these, and then activate one of them by right-clicking on the new icon in your action bar.

Now that you can see well, look for the vent right above the coffer, in between the two ladders. Jump up to that vent and press the action button again. You can place a wood platform under the vent if you have trouble pressing the action button while jumping. The new room on the other side of the vent is small and simple, but contains a powerful spellgem called Ball Lightning. Ball Lightning is your first ranged offensive spell, and it can do a lot of damage, which we'll see in action shortly.

Head back through the vent to the other room you were in, jump back up the ladders, and head through the second white door from the left. This will lead you to a room with a platform near the top with two doors. Take the left door. This is a “stash” room, as indicated on the dungeon map with the color yellow. Stash rooms have all kinds of stuff that will be helpful as you venture out. This particular one has three coffers.

The most important things you will need here are the potions. The green potions will restore your health, the blue ones will restore your mana. There is also a Storm Dash spellgem, which makes it much faster to traverse wide open areas. Once you have these, there's nothing more you absolutely need inside the building; but if you want to explore the rest of it, feel free, as there are other goodies lying around.

Once you're done in the building, it's time to use the warp potions you found a couple chunks back. Rather than backtracking all the way through the building on foot, let's just warp straight outside! Press the period key until you see the region map instead of the dungeon map. Click on the long green rectangle, which represents the surface dungeon.

You will then be looking at the dungeon map of the surface instead of the building. Click on the rightmost node in this map that doesn't have a black line through it. This will warp you back out to the grounds outside the building (or further, if you passed the building before doubling back to go inside it). You can use these warp potions to warp to places you've already been -- there's never a need to backtrack unless you run out of warp potions!
Back Outside; aka Our First Enemy!

Now that you are back outside of the building, move on to the next area. As you can tell from the tombstones, the red slime up ahead can be pretty dangerous. But don't worry, you have the tools to take him out.

As soon as you get on the same level as the slime, which looks like a big, red blob, fire your Ball Lightning at it a few times. Don't get too close, because if you do, it will attack you. Once it's dispatched, move through to the next area.

This next area is the beginning of a cave. There's quite a bit in these “surface tunnels,” but for now, head towards the bottom left and go in the door you see in the wall. This will take us deeper into the cave, towards some raw gems so we can learn how to craft more spellgems. You'll need to use something different to get past the next slime, which happens to be resistant to Ball Lightning and Fire Touch.

In the next cavern, simply head to the right and drop down to find the next door (you don't get damaged from falling... except in the lava flats where gravity is heavier...). Go through the door to the next cavern. Again head to the right, and you will see a bunch of skelebots (one of which even shoots back). Take them out with your Ball Lightning before you drop further down

You don't need to kill minor monsters in this game, but doing so means they won't be hitting you. Once you have gone down to that platform, head a bit more to the right and you will see another door -- behind which is the cavern containing the raw gems.

Mining Our First Gems..

For the cavern with the gem veins, head to the left, drop straight down, and head left across the water, using platforms to get across. On the far side you'll find two easy-to-harvest raw jade gem veins. You can use Fire Touch on this to break it down, and you will get one raw jade and two jade gem dusts from each one.  There is a third gem vein on the far right side of the cavern, but that one is much more of a battle to collect.

Now that you've got the gem, head back two rooms (to the beginning of the cave), preferably by warping.  There are convenient coffers of warp scrolls in the gem vein caverns in case you are running low.  Once you're back at the surface tunnels, head to the top of the chunk and you will see the crafting benches as shown above. Press confirm while standing in front of the spellgem workbench. This will bring you to the spellgem crafting interface.

Click on the raw jade to bring up the info on a spell called “Launch Rock”, this spell will help us against that next slime. Click craft, and the spell will now be in your action bar or inventory. If you don't see it, press “I” to view your inventory and you will find it there. There is another color of gem in the caves you can get if you wish, but it's not necessary, and it does require you to kill your first set of minibosses in order to get them.

In the chunk where you crafted the spellgem, head to the bottom right there is a red and yellow slime blocking your way. Once again, don't get too close -- and this one has a twist, in that it's resistant to your Ball Lightning. You'll have to use Throw Rock to get past.

With the second slime dead, finally you enter the last portion of the intro mission.  After that you will move on to the full game... only there's a giant skelebot miniboss standing in your way! You can choose to fight him or just slip quietly past.

Whether or not you take him out is up to you, but, if you do, you will gain valuable EXP for your civilization, advancing you towards more and more powerful spells. If you don't, you will still have numerous other opportunities to gain the EXP you need in the main game itself.  Most EXP is gained by fighting bosses, though some is found by collecting EXP containers in large rooms in buildings.

If you want to kill the boss, use spells like Ball Lightning and Throw Rock and try to hit him without falling down where he can physically attack you. You will still have to dodge the fireballs he's throwing at you even if you stay up high, though. If you prefer to skip the boss for now, you can use platforms and get above him, and simply walk to the other side of the chunk to leave. Either way, this ends the intro to the game.

Going Out Into The Full World; or What Now?

After you leave the intro, you will be put into your first settlement. This settlement will likely be your “home base” for quite some time. In here are guardian stones that will fully heal you and restore your mana, and restore you up to four warp potions if you are running low.  You can see other people living here as well, who you will optionally be able to play as once you get some“Transfer Glyph” spell scrolls.

From any settlement you will also be able to run a lot of the citybuilding and strategic-type features that will be unlocked as your civilization level increases. A lot of the "macrogame" features don't show up until civilization level 3, so you have some time to just explore in the side view and get used to that.

Leaving the right-hand side of the settlement chunk will take you to the world map, an overhead view. On the world map there is a numerical value to each tile -- this "region level" denotes the level of the enemies and bosses in each area, as well as the general quality of the rewards you'll find. Bosses and the EXP containers will grant more EXP the higher the region relative to your current level.

If you feel the game is too easy, you can go to regions that are above your current level. Otherwise feel free to play in areas that are at or even below your level.  You can also tune the action or strategic difficulty of the game at any Difficulty Shrine.  You started out the intro mission next to such a shrine, and there is also one located in each settlement.  Any time you die, your new character will appear by one of those shrines.

Besides the level of each region, you should also note some of the icons on the map. Many of them represent Rare Commodity Towers, which have multiple bosses guarding a rare crafting resource at the top. From time to time there will also be groups of rampaging monsters on your map. They will demand resources from your settlement, but you can fight them (and gain EXP for doing so) if you don't want to pay. You can right-click on any region for more information about the various icons.

Checklist Of General Early Game Goals

Here are a few suggestions for early goals that you can pursue:

1. Explore various regions to gain new crafting materials to craft more powerful and exciting spellgems and spell scrolls.  The Reference Info button on the in-game menu (press escape to see) has detailed info on things you can craft, what materials are required, and even where you can typically find those materials.

2. Try to gain as much EXP as possible by defeating bosses and exploring large buildings.  Getting better spells and equipment will really help you in this endeavor, hence the importance of exploring for better crafting materials.  Often you can accomplish both of these goals at once, as there tends to be minibosses guarding most of the more valuable crafting supplies.

3. As your civilization levels up from all the EXP you are bringing in, you'll unlock the "strategic overlay" and the "settlement management" interfaces.  These let you build homes and other buildings for your NPCs, it lets you order around your NPCs to explore the world map, and it even lets you rescue other settlers that you find in the wilderness, adding to your population.  Improve the morale of your settlers to have them produce resources at peak efficiency.  There are a lot of in-game tips (and tooltips) explaining all of this once you gain access to it.  Bear in mind all of this is optional.

4. Try to find the lieutenants that are oppressing the land, and then ultimately the overlord that they serve.  You probably won't have an overlord move into your world until you reach civilization level 10 or so.  And you'll likely need to be around level 20ish before you can take him out.  The overlord keeps and evil outposts of the lieutenants provide special and interesting challenges.

5. Explore the world for its own sake!  Every time your civilization level increases, the world gets larger.  As your civilization level goes up you'll also start finding objects, enemies, crafting materials, and even whole region types that you've never seen before.  There's a lot to discover, and as the game continues to be developed further there will be more and more to find in your existing worlds.

There's really a whole lot more in the game, but, you should go ahead and discover it for yourself. Have fun!

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.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Some Reflections After Two Weeks Of A Valley Without Wind's Beta

If you've been following the main Arcen News Blog, or the AVWW Forum, or any of our social media, then I'm sure you've seen that we've put out a few metric tons of releases for A Valley Without wind in the last two weeks.  We're presently working on update #20, actually.

So, how have things been going?  Sales-wise, we started out with a real bang, and then it's gotten a bit quieter as the initial wave of press passed and all the players who had been most anxiously awaiting the game already now have it.  This is already our second-best-selling beta yet, though, and it's only been two weeks -- within the first month, this will have surpassed what Light of the Spire sold in three months of beta.

That's great, but of course sales aren't the core reason that we do these public betas in the first place -- what are we learning from all this exposure to players?  Well, quite a lot actually.  The difficulty curve was all out of whack, the lack of loot drops and the unkillable monster spawners really bugged people, and there were a number of mechanics that were found to be too complex even by our hardcore forum fans, and so on.

The difficulty curve is now consistent throughout the game, which is great, but in the process we've had to rebalance everything, and that's led to some wild oscillations in some parts of difficulty -- mostly toward the harder end.  Still working on that!  This 20th release, to be available later today, should address most if not all of the remaining large issues with difficulty being too high.

I was actually really pleased with the difficulty flow of the game right at the start of beta, but after about 10 levels of play that really started breaking down and the game got progressively easier.  Having a growing pool of players in the level 30-40 range or even higher has been really invaluable for us -- testers invaluable to any game, especially at this stage in the life of a game.

Ever since A Valley Without Wind was first conceived, it's been our goal to have it be so simple that we didn't even need a tutorial to get new players started with it.  I loved how Minecraft or similar just plops you down and you're left to forage and expand, etc (though I understand a tutorial was added there more recently than I last played).

On the other hand, we wanted our usual incredible amount of depth to this game -- just gating most of that depth and complexity into a natural game-like progression.  Games that are easy to pick up are awesome, but once players have their feet wet they shouldn't be asking "is this all?"

So that's been an interesting balancing challenge for us, and I think overall we've done a pretty good job of getting into the right ballpark.  We were taken by surprise both in alpha and beta by how complex certain parts of the game were perceived to be, but again that's why we get the players involved early -- it's very hard to objectively judge the complexity of something you thought of.  And if you let the game get too far along without getting that critical external feedback, there are some kinds of complexity that just get too interwoven into the game that you can't later take out.

We've made a lot of strides on the complexity front already: adding more tooltips, simplifying the crafting interface, level-gating the strategic and citybuilding aspects of the game so that you don't have to deal with them immediately, and most recently taking out the "profession books" for the main three kinds of crafting.  Those added complexity without fun, which I wrote about in more length in the release notes.

So all of this helps a lot, but there is still more we need to do.  We're going to be adding a little introductory "mission" that players have to go through in new worlds.  It's not really a tutorial -- the linear mission will give you the basic tools you'd need to find for yourself anyhow, and make you use them as you would anyhow, while giving you onscreen tips just in case you feel stuck.  This should take all of 5 minutes to play through, or even less for players who already know how to play, and that should serve as a much more fun and game-like introduction to the game rather than just reading lots of stuff from the adviser guardian.

"Signal To Noise"
One of the interesting things about making a really huge infinite world is that one of two things happen: on one end of the spectrum you're constantly tripping over awesome stuff all the time, and the world feels small because you don't really have to go anywhere to accomplish anything; on the other end of the spectrum the world is incredibly vast and sparsely populated, and you wind up having to really trawl immense tracts of land to get anything done.

Right now AVWW is somewhere in the middle, which is the overall best place to be, but "the middle" is a broad place.  AVWW definitely leans toward the side of being too large and sparsely populated.  There's a ton of awesome stuff in here, and players who bother to learn how to use the dungeon map and world map, and who read the tooltips, can find those things with ease.

Of course some of the traversal is still a bit too longwinded to be as fun as we'd like (maze rooms have come up a lot in particular as needing tuning).  And even more core is the issue that players tend not to want to read.  I'm as guilty of it as anyone -- just let me play.  If the game looks familiar enough that I think I should know what I'm doing, I figure I'll figure all the stuff out as I go.

That's a challenging problem to combat, because one of the things that I like to do in my games -- as you see in AI War, for instance -- is to give the player a lot of choices and let them figure out what matters to them.  In AI War, if you try to take every planet you will usually wind up losing because of the AI's rising aggression.  In AVWW there is no penalty for trying to explore every room in every building, but it sure is boring to do; we intended for people to scout the buildings, find the rooms of interest, grab the loot, and get out.

And a number of players do just this; but still others don't.  So that's still something we're trying to find the sweet spot on, and again the beta testers are being absolutely invaluable for this.  I think we're not that far off at this point, but there's still some more condensing and such that needs to be done.

New Content
With all the flood of feedback about the existing content, and all the revisions to balance and so forth, there's been limited time to work on new content thus far.  But we have managed to add in a couple of new enemies, and our update #20 includes the first batch of new spells.  We've also added a lot of macro-game type additions all throughout -- the citybuilding bits have really grown, and we got things like consciousness nodes, pylons, vortexes, and resource deposits added on the world map.  And there's been a large number of new boss room templates, too -- things like that.

Thankfully a lot of the revision-type work looks like it is overall winding down, so I expect to see the focus really shifting soon into blasting out tons of more content.  I know that's something that a number of players have been really waiting for most eagerly, and so have we, but I think the last two weeks have been incredibly valuable to the game.

Multiplayer is something we've decided to make a focus sooner than later.  Still no ETA on that, but Keith is going to be sinking most of his time into that starting today.  It's going to be rough and in need of a lot of beta testing right at the start once we first publicly release it, but hopefully within a couple of weeks of the first release into the hands of the core beta testers, we'll have it ready for wider dissemination.

Why Release This Early?
A comment that comes up occasionally from people who don't really "get" the game yet, or who just aren't that interested in it at all (hey, that happens) is "why release the game in such an early state?"  Usually with added snark or nastiness.

That really gets under my skin a bit, I have to say.  We've got loads of players who are clearly having a blast with the beta, and the feedback we're getting from the dozens who are choosing to give feedback has been nothing short of amazing.  This is how we make games at Arcen -- we actually listen to players and value what they have to say.

But you can't listen to players if they can't play the game.  And if the game is already finished, then there's not a lot that player feedback that the players can really give.  Ergo: if you want player feedback, you have to get them involved once the core of the game is solid, but before the full shape of the game is even remotely finished.

I think that when a lot of people ask for feedback, they're really saying "tell me you like it and think it's perfect in every way."  I actually want to know when there's something up with the game that makes it less fun, or more tedious, or too complex, or whatever.  When we know about those things, we can do something about it.

To some extent, that means that the players who get in early get to see "how the hotdog is made" a bit.  And if somebody really doesn't want to know that sort of information and gets turned off the game by it... well, that's a cost of being open, I guess.  But I think we and the game gain a lot more in the long-run by getting players involved in a real, early, and meaningful way.  Next time you complain about a released game having some fundamental flaws that you just can't understand, remember -- that's what can happen when games are developed in a vacuum.

The Bottom Line?
Things are going really well, I think.  We have a growing contingent of players who seem really happy with the game, and the early press has been largely quite positive.  There are still a few fundamental things we're trying to get tuned exactly right, and the new player experience still needs a lot of work in particular, but in another week it's going to be in a whole different place than it is even now.

In short: we're one of the few game developers, indie or otherwise, to experiment with a development process remotely this open.  And I think that the process is working quite well.  Only time will really tell, of course, but based on the first two weeks of beta I'm strongly encouraged.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Valley Without Wind: Public Beta Begins Now! (Plus New Trailer)

Today is the day that the public beta finally begins!  We've fixed up the website with new information, screenshots, and all the recent videos, including the one below.

Most importantly you can now download the demo, and give the first six civilization levels a full crack if you think the game sounds interesting.  The only restriction is that your civ level can't go past level 6.  If you're loving it, here's the preorder page in our online store where you can get the game for 50% off during early beta -- only $10 USD!

Here's the beta trailer:

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Valley Without Wind: Locales And Enemies

As you journey through your own unique world of Environ, you'll primarily be splitting your time between exterior landscapes, building interiors, and underground caverns.  Not only that, but you'll be traversing shards of nine different time periods, ranging from the prehistoric, to medieval, to modern, to far-future.  Each has a very different feel, often different enemies, and often unique rewards.

While the game is in beta, of course, the all of the full content from all these areas of the game is not remotely yet in place.  However, that said:
  • You can visit all nine of the time periods already.
  • There are at least four different character models for NPCs in each of the seven human-inhabited time periods.
  • There are already a number of unique bits specific to each time period's shards.
Enough enumeration -- a lot of the fun of a game like this comes from simply exploring it and seeing what cool things you can find.  So we won't provide an exhaustive spoiler-laden list here, or attempt to show everything.  Suffice it to say, we've had some alpha testers that put more than two dozen hours into the game, and they didn't even see everything that the game contained at that stage of alpha.  Right from the start of beta, this is a respectably varied world, and it's only going to get more vast as beta continues.

Here's a few specific snapshots to give you an idea of what you might encounter on your journey.  All of these are full-resolution (no downscaling, no JPEG or video compression, etc), just cropped down to make them fit in to 600px wide:

Fighting A Blue Amoeba In An Underground Cavern
As you gain civ levels, you'll actually start running into the even-more-deadly red amoebas, so watch out!  This is also a relatively close-to-the-surface underground dungeon; as you delve further underground, the number of wooden platforms decreases, the monsters become tougher, and eventually you'll find yourself in a heated lava climate. 

Charging A Rhino
The grasslands surface areas (and sometimes interiors!) commonly have rhinos running about them.  Rhinos move pretty fast, and stop for nothing short of a brick wall.  This character is casting the Forest Rage spell at the rhino, but unfortunately it looks like not only did she miss, but the rhino is closing in.

Creeping Death Inside Pyramid
This character is casting the creeping death spell on some desert burrowers inside a pyramid hallway.  Creeping death is a particularly nasty entropy-based spell (there are six colors/elements in all), and is one of the few that presently can harm your allies or NPCs.  The doors you see behind the spell lead further into the pyramid (she's about halfway up at the moment), into massive maze-rooms filled with enemies.

Decrepit Modern Building
This is a building from the modern time period, and the character is casting Ice Cross to the far side of the image, which is what is providing the paltry light here.  The Emit Light spell would be a far more effective choice, but as it stands this old building looks more like something out of a horror movie.  Buildings don't yet have furniture in them -- that's one of the things coming throughout beta -- but the walls, floorplans, and room designs are heavily varied already.

Desert Hut
Thus far, all of the images have depicted characters who were actually from the time period of the region shards they were journeying in.  However, this is a character from the medieval time period (which you won't be finding until much later in the game), and he's traversing a bronze age desert exterior.  This is perfectly normal -- you'll start out with only futuristic ice age characters to choose from, complete with sci-fi snowsuits, and as you journey you'll eventually unlock characters from all the time periods as playable options.

Destroyed Room
This is an example of a destroyed room in a modern building.  There is never, ever, anything interesting in these; and they are marked with a bomb symbol on their doors so that you can see to ignore them.  Why have bombed-out rooms?  Because players -- including us -- hate doors that your all-powerful magical character mysteriously can't open.  It's like the chain-link fence kryptonite joke.  At any rate, in the wake of the cataclysm, buildings are in varying states of destruction -- some are all but impassible, others are pristine.  You can go into any room in any of the buildings, but the bombed-out ones are items you can easily (and happily) mark off your exploration list.  The spell shown is Douse Monster Nest, by the way.

Settlement Management (Citybuilding) Interface
This is one of two screenshots that we're actually not going to crop down, so you'll have to click through to see the entire screen resolution on this one.  This is where you can create homes and jobs for your NPCs, assign them places to live and work, and provide them with amenities like wells, grave plots, upgraded homes, and so on.

Avoiding Death With Auto-Applied Potions
This character is exploring next to a pyramid in a region far above his civ level of 6.  As such, the lightning esper bolt that you see piercing him has brought his health to zero -- but since he was carrying healing items with him, one of them was auto-applied to save him from death.  The recharge time when a healing item is auto-applied is extra long, though, so he won't be able to heal himself again (automatically or otherwise) for another 20 seconds.  If the esper (or another monster) lands another killing blow within that span of time, the character will be permanently dead and the player will have to choose another to continue with.  Those spear-skulls the character is jumping over are monster spawners, incidentally.

Terrence Crow's Grave
What's the name of that character above? ...Oh.  Looks like the espers did him in, after all.  Each settlement starts out with 100 grave plots forming a graveyard.  Every time your current character dies, or an NPC associated with that settlement dies, one of the grave plots will get filled with their actual grave.  It also depresses the local NPCs for ten macro-game turns, making them less effective.  If you play for long enough, you'll have to put down more grave plots to prevent your graves from spilling out into the rest of your settlement where you don't want them.

Forest Battle With Bats
This character is from the pre-industrial time period, and she's using the Circle of Fire spell to strike back at some bats that are following her through a daytime forest.  Circle of Fire is great to use against bats because often they'll swarm around you, and one use of this spell can hit a lot of targets if you're careful about it.  It's also hitting the background trees and stumps and such; ice cross and fire touch also do this, as does energy pulse, but most offensive spells don't impact the background.

Launch Meteor
Personally, this is one of my favorite spells at the moment.  Launch Rock is a spell that you can craft right from the start of the game, and it's pretty neat -- it does pretty much what it says on the tin.  Launch Meteor is a spellgem recipe that you have to unlock through profession books, and it uses magma -- one of those rare commodities that you have to climb a boss-ridden tower to find a single unit of.  Magma will ultimately be useful for more than just the launch meteor spell, but it will have to be something pretty cool to keep me from using it over launch meteor, which crashes through multiple enemies in a wicked, flaming arc.

Moon Rising
Even Environ's moon didn't escape the carnage of the cataclysm, as you can see.  Every 10 minutes of game time is a day/night cycle, although you can accelerate to morning or evening using the Sunrise and Nightfall spells (if you can get your hands on some of the rare sunstone or moonstone, that is).  At present the day/night cycle doesn't have an impact on gameplay, but during beta we'll be introducing spells and enemies that are affected by the time of day.  Also please note that the global passage of time is counted in macro-game turns, which are considered more equivalent to weeks and which you can advance via the strategy or settlement-management screens.

The World Map
Here's a small slice of the world map.  This is how you get between the various regions.  As you can see, the cataclysm has thrown the time-shards together in a somewhat haphazard fashion.  You can tell roughly how difficult a given region is going to be based on the region level it has -- if the region level is higher than your current civilization level, then be careful there!  Of course, some region types -- the ocean, the lava flats, and the deep spring to mind -- are always exceptionally dangerous. 

Strategic Map
And now we've come to the second of the two full screenshots that I'm not going to crop down -- you'll want to click this to see it at full resolution, for sure.  This is the strategic map, which lets you order your NPCs around to do things outside of the settlement in which they live.  At the moment it's pretty much three things that they can do: they can scout regions for you (removing that crosshatch fog that you see below on many of the regions); they can build wind shelters (and the attendant roads) for you; and they can invite new NPCs to join their settlement (you have to have located the target NPCs first on your own).  This is a part of the game that is still in relatively early stages, like the citybuilding sections, but it's a part of the game that we're very excited about.  These :macro-game: bits are turn-based, like a very light 4X strategy game.

Wind Shelter
Here's a wind shelter -- this is one that I constructed directly, by hand.  You don't have to use NPCs to do this, but it is often faster to do so.  Until this wind shelter went up, this region and all the regions near it were covered by a terrible snowstorm.  Any regions too far away from a wind shelter, settlement, or road are covered in fierce windstorms that buff all the monsters and reduce your visibility.  This wind is part of where the name of the game comes from ("a valley without wind" would represent a safe place to the people faced with these winds), and it also has a mysterious connection to the cataclysm.  You'll be able to learn more about these and other mysteries through talking to NPCs and collecting memory crystals on your journey.

The type of weather the windstorms manifest as, as you might guess, is based on the climate of the region in question.  In temperate climates it tends to be rain more often than not.  In the desert it's sandstorms.  In the lava flats it's a firestorm (lots of blowing ash, etc).  And so on.

Ocean Cavern
If you have enough healing potions, you can actually go exploring in the acid oceans that dot the planet.  It's a slow and dangerous road, but there are even completely submerged caverns such as this one.  In future beta updates there will be fish and whales (instead of just amoebas), and you'll be able to transmogrify yourself into a fish as well for faster, safer travel.  Did we mention that you can already transmogrify yourself into a bat?  Yeah, that's another favorite of mine.

Sapphire Gem Vein In Ice Cavern
The undergrounds vary by the region they are in, of course.  Here in the ice age, even the underground caverns are so cold that you'll freeze to death in under a minute if you don't bring along a heavy snowsuit.  Here you can see a couple of Icicle Leaper enemies guarding a sapphire vein -- split that open, and you'll get not only a sapphire raw gem, but also two units of sapphire dust.  Gems and dust are the backbone of almost all crafting (everything except the Outfitter goods use them). 

Robo Brawl Here you can see my neutral skelebot character (left) fighting some other skelebots in a futuristic junkyard's surface tunnel.  That's a quartz outcrop I'm after, behind them.  You might notice that my character here is also named Terrence Crow (as was a woman from the medieval period in the underwater cavern).  This isn't normally something you'd see in a game, it's just a function of how I was transforming my character to move quickly around the world and take these screenshots.  There are tens of thousands of first and last names included in the game, and millions of possible character names -- the likelihood of your ever seeing two characters with the same name for as long as you play is pretty low.  And unlike with AI War, these are all real names that you can pronounce (well, except some of the monster names, but those are still way more prounounce-able despite not being real names).

Giant Skelebot
While we're on the subject of skelebots, here's one of the minibosses from the game: the giant skelebot.  He hits you with his spear if you get too close, and he shoots fireballs at you when you're further away.  The giant skelebots, believe it or not, are actually by far the tamest of the minibosses in the game.  When you hit level 12 and start seeing the crippled dragons, whose fire breath actively chases you around the room... yeah, the giant skelebot is nothing compared to that.  

But he's still killed me quite a plenty times; and depending on the boss room layout and what regular enemies are spawning to help out, even a weaker miniboss type can give you quite a fight.  This is a case where we're starting to see some combinatorial emergence in the same fashion that we see with AI War battlefields, and that's something that was really a surprise to me personally to find.  The AI itself isn't emergent here, not like AI War's swarm intelligence, but the way that the environment and various enemy types combine to make emergent challenges is very much in the same style as AI War.

The very last locale I'll leave you with is the my favorite grasslands windmill, with rolling clouds behind it.  In-game, all those clouds are dynamically animated in realtime on your GPU thanks to Unisky (on modern GPUs -- older or underpowered GPUs can use a much-lighter static skies option that still has the day/night transitions, etc).  That's a lightning esper waiting down below, peacefully gliding along until you come within range -- and then zap.  Bring a weapon.