Tuesday, January 24, 2012

AVWW Beta 0.562 "Continental Drift " Released!

This one is... massive.  Actually, that's a bit of an understatement.  I'm not sure that this is our largest single beta release ever for any of our games, but it's certainly our largest one that was done in just a week.

Consequently, even trying to summarize what all has changed is really difficult -- so I'm not going to.  To really understand all the many changes, you'll want to read the release notes themselves.  It includes not only detailed information, but also multiple summaries about many of the things that are changing.

Closing In On Beta Phase 3
What I will talk about in this post, really broadly, is the overall direction shift that this release signifies.  We're not yet done with beta phase 2, but we're getting close.  My goal is to be done with this phase of beta by the end of next week, and to have:

1. The game in a fun, closed-loop state (meaning that there is a reward cycle and a challenge cycle that feed upon themselves and allow for unlimited play in the sense that early beta phase 1 versions of the game did -- we're almost to that point now, but not quite).

2. Multiplayer in a non-alpha state, meaning a few key bugfixes and most importantly the smoothing for player and monster positions.  If we also had time for server lists that would also be a plus, but we'll see how that goes.

3. In general all the core subsystems working in a final-for-1.0 state (they won't be perfectly balanced, but their premise would be set).  Missions are getting darn close, the crafting and materials are now pretty much there, and most of the other core mechanics are already there now.  But we still are lacking side/secret missions, guardian powers, a finalized enchant system, and a finalized warp system (though the current one is seeming less crusty lately, it could still be better).

More on all this in a bit.

A Brief Timeline Of This Beta
Beta phase 1 was all about refining the core engine and mechanics of things like shooting and physics and all that sort of thing.  We also found out a lot about what people did and didn't like about the game, and that determined the future course of the game to a huge degree.

Back in September, I couldn't have predicted that the game would ever be in the state it is in now, and yet the current state is a much purer version of the core concepts that we've been striving for since last January or even before.

Beta phase 2 was chiefly characterized by violent change to the game.  The brainstorming subforum was an enormous help, as were players, in helping us to transform the game into what we really wanted it to be.  A lot of things of the "sounds great on paper, is less fun in practice" variety were thrown out, and a lot of new concepts came into play.

Figuring out how to tie all the parts of the game together without over-extending our time budget or without making the game itself a confusing mess, was a chief challenge.  But at the same time, figuring out how to introduce more strategy and tactics into the game was really on my mind.

Ultimately we've wound up with an interface that involves way fewer subscreens and menus, and which has stripped away a lot of the clutter from things like the world map and the settlements, and even the number of types of crafting has shrunk from six types down to one.  Lots and lots of streamlining.

But at the same time, we've been trying to figure out ways to make the remaining mechanics a lot deeper, and to give the players a lot more choice.  That's a big part of what this specific release is about -- the new Enemy Progress counter gives you way more choice than you had before, but it keeps a very stiff opportunity cost for each action.  The new tiered crafting system does the same.  And soon, when we add in guardian powers and secret missions, you'll have even more decision-making latitude.

Beta phase 3, when we reach that point, is going to be all about finishing what we have and making it a focused, awesome 1.0 experience. Post-1.0 we're going to want to explore new things and layer on more stuff, but prior to 1.0 we're going to want to make sure that we have a lot of content: plenty of enemies, spells, hazards, enchants, guardian powers, missions, unlockables, loot, and so on.

In order for your choices to feel meaningful and varied, there has to be enough content that you don't fall into a set routine.  Even compared to a month ago, things are already much better on that front, but there's more we want to do before a 1.0 version is ready hopefully in March.  And of course there's also polish -- we've been working on polish the whole way through, but there's still going to be more to do between now and 1.0.

So How Does This New Version Support The Game's Goals?
Once again, the release notes talk about all of this in depth.  But a few specific points:

1. The new level-less progression system is more organic and vastly more flexible.  There are more ways you can customize your character and your civilization (versus all the numbers just going up across the board every time you level up).

2. Not having region levels really lets us make better use of space.  Rather than each continent being a fairly linear "you must play in this section now because it's the only part that matches your level," it's instead far more open-ended and you can choose the sections you want to spend time in. 

Wherever you go, the challenge is appropriate, and this even helps to encourage revisiting old areas -- heck, after moving on to another continent we can even introduce reasons to come back to older continents, come to that.  That wasn't very easy to do in the older style.  Nor were things like vortex pylons, which were previously removed but which will be making a comeback.

3. In general, the game is mostly moving away from having an overall progression of power, instead having per-continent progressions of power.  However, there are still some progression of enemy strength/complexity and of personal power that cross continents, so keeping going in a single world is still going to be more interesting in most cases compared to starting a new world after you win a continent.  More on that here.

4. In general, the game is coming down to two main activities: missions and side exploration.

Prior to our power-coding phase a few months back, there was no central driving force (aside from the distant goal of killing overlords), and so the game was all about exploration in an infinite world.  That really appealed to some people, and really didn't to others.  And myself, I was on the fence.  Having freedom is awesome, that's something that is really important to me in an adventure game.  But having no central direction... well, that had never been the idea we wanted for this game.

So during the power-coding period we introduced missions, and made a lot of things centralized through this missions mechanic.  That was met with some dismay from folks that wanted the free-roaming experience they had been accustomed to.  And while I felt the missions system was an enormous improvement, I could also understand how the feel of the game had changed, and not for the better in the case of freedom.  It was kind of missions or nothing for a while there, and that had never been what we wanted for the game, either.

Growing pains!  With this release, the final balance is starting to become more clear.  The average player will spend about half of their time on missions, and about half of their time out on self-directed exploration.  There are a lot of things in this release that you can't accomplish any other way except to go out on some self-directed exploration.  It's not just about gathering supplies, it's about unlockables and non-rare commodities and all that sort of fun stuff.  But by the same token, the missions remain the only way to accomplish certain other tasks: putting up wind shelters, rescuing NPCs, getting rare commodities, etc.

Secret/Side Missions Are Still A Missing Link At The Moment
In the coming week or two, we'll be pushing this duality of the free-exploration and the missions even further, with the secret/side missions, which get found via exploration rather than showing up on the world map.  These will let you do things like rescue NPCs that you find in a cavern, which is a fun thing to do, but it will still tie into the EP cost system without your having to undertake a formal mission from the world map. 

The ultimate goal for us is to make it so that the game automatically responds to however much freedom or structure you seek, providing the experience that matches your personality or even just how you feel that day (example: you spend a lot of time exploring, and thus accomplish a lot of side missions with no need to do the ones on the world map; or you stick close to the world map because that's easier, and thus aren't forced to go off and explore the wilds much if you don't want to).

More to come soon.  Enjoy!

This is a standard update that you can download through the in-game updater itself, if you already have 0.500 or later. When you launch the game, you'll see the notice of the update having been found if you're connected to the Internet at the time. If you don't have 0.500 or later, you can download that here.

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