Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Gratuitous Tank Patching

Another, and possibly the final pre-release patch has been released for Gratuitous Tank Battles. I put more emphasis this time on the whole topic of stability and performance, rather than squeezing in new features. The full list of changes in 1.007 are as follows:

version 1.007
1) Fixed bug where the deployment icons on the battle screen were no longer showing their popup windows.
2) Fixed crash bug when using very high amounts of muzzle smoke.
3) Increased minimum range of missile modules.
4) Fixed bug in displaying certain bonus effects on the design screen, notably for missile launchers.
5) Replaced 'gratuitous shaders' option with a toggle for the distortion effect.
6) Sped up the drawing of unit shadows.
7) Fixed yellow-screen corruption bug
8) Fixed bug where the progress bar for the score would not always draw correctly.
9) Performance improvements allow for higher quality visuals when zoomed out on higher spec PCs.
10) Infantry do not now talk as frequently when onscreen in large numbers.
11) Some variety introduced in the placement of tiny props next to certain turrets
12) All turrets now have surrounding 'splats' to merge slightly with the terrain.
13) Special props can now be hidden from the editor.
14) Fixed bug which displayed an empty unlock dialog on certain occasions.
15) Some optimisations to speed up drawing of drifting smoke, and reduce particle effects when framerate drops.
16) Fixed unit design bug preventing ammo loaders being selected if a rate of fire aug was already fitted.
17) Fixed bug where a map would not tolerate starting supplies being higher than the mid-game supply cap.

The ones that really matter are 5,7,17 and 17 which were pretty critical functionality related things. I still have a bunch of purely aesthetic improvements I’d theoretically like to make, but they can wait. I am hooping that what is currently in the game represents a big list of features to attract buyers, and at the same time is also pretty fast and stable. Modding support is the next big thing to get my teeth into, but that is all under-the-hood stuff which won’t really affect 90% of the players.

The only thing (barring reported major bugs) between now and release is going to be making a new launch trailer that shows stuff like the extra maps and the airstrikes etc. Making trailers always takes an absolute age, and I’m never happy with them, but I should put some time into it because GTB looks so much better moving than as still images. I plan to capture and record a fairly high res trailer this time so it looks as good as possible. the trouble is Fraps can only record so big before it slows down the actual game and makes performance look bad when it really isn’t. That, plus the nightmare of uploading and rendering out massive video files.

I might try and take half a day off tomorrow. Yay!

Explaining “A Valley Without Wind.” What The Heck Is It?

(Guest Blog Post by Chris Park)

Just what is this game “A Valley Without Wind” from indie studio Arcen Games all about?  Read on to find out.

Procedural World Filled With Choice And Customization
At first glance it looks like your average 2D Metroidvania title, just with magic instead of guns.  The difference is choice: except for a brief linear intro mission, this is all a procedural open world.

Rather than linear levels, the emphasis here is on tactical combat and strategic planning.  The overlord is strong, you’re weak, and you need to figure out how to fix that and go kick his or her butt.  In a lot of respects the mentality is that of a strategy game (makes sense given our past games, eh?), but rather than it being an army of characters you control, it’s just one character at a time.

The amount of customization is pretty crazy.  There are “only” something like 40 spells you can directly craft at the moment, but there are also passive enchant buffs that you can apply to yourself.  Enchants change anything from how you move; to how your spells behave; to how you light your way, or if you can breathe underwater, etc.  Enchants are procedurally generated like loot in Borderlands or Diablo, and there are a few hundred thousand unique combinations possible at this point.  Various items can be scavenged out in the world, too, such as magic scrolls to turn yourself into a bat, heatsuits that make lava easier to deal with, and so on.  Figuring out how to best customize your character to match your skills as a gamer is one of the cooler aspects of the game.

The Community Vs The Self, Permadeath, And Thinking Outside The Box
When you choose your first character, the game warns you not to get too attached.  It’s not a question of IF your character is going to die, but WHEN.  Upon death, the character is gone forever — and most of the time, a vengeful ghost arises from their corpse and makes the area you died in even harder.  So, uh, tactical retreats aren’t just for the faint of heart in this game.

It’s not like permadeath in a roguelike, though, where the mechanics are overtly punitive — we’re not out to punish the player.  When you die you get to choose a new character immediately, and you keep all your inventory, enchants, and general progress in the game.  There are some minor character-specific things that are lost, but it’s nothing remotely heart-breaking.

We’ve also tried to emphasize choice with “community focus versus focus on self.”  There’s a lot more that we want to do in that area in the future, but what is there is pretty nifty already.  You can rescue NPCs and construct buildings for them, and in return those NPCs can help you out via long-range magic scrolls, for instance.

I really love games where players get an opportunity to show their cleverness, rather than just jumping through a set of hoops the developer set out.  In your average Metroidvania title, each challenge has one solution (see red door in Metroid = shoot with missiles), and that can be really fun in its own right.  But in AVWW each challenge tends to have four or five solutions (at least), each with their own pros and cons.  If you play as a bat you don’t have to worry about jumping, but you also deal less damage, get blown about by the wind more, and can’t go into lava or ice age areas.  And so on.

I like to tell the story of this one player who, during the beta, made essentially a melee fighter using the spell Death Touch and some jump-related and defense-related enchants; he managed to kill an overlord with this build, and I was blown away that this was even possible.  It took a lot of sideways thinking to make the build in the first place, and then a lot of skill to bring down an overlord using that build.  That’s what I mean by encouraging players to show their own cleverness (as well as skill).

Adaptive Gameplay, And True Freedom Without Being Directionless
In a linear game, the difficulty curve can be set by level designers.  In an open world, that’s not possible because we don’t know where you’re going to go.  So what we did was make it adaptive to how you play: monsters have a general baseline difficulty to start with, and then they upgrade as you demonstrate your proficiency.  Killed 100 regular bats?  Okay, we get it, you’re good at killing bats.  Time for… bats on fire!

You can literally go almost anywhere you see in the open world — including right into the overlord’s keep at any time.  Come on, it’s no secret where the oppressive dictator lives.  The problem is that the monsters surrounding his keep will probably kill you before you even reach his front stoop.  But if you’re so good that you could avoid getting hit at all by enemy shots, you could just go right into his keep and take him out with your starting pea shooters.  Realistically it’s a lot more fun to actually play the game and buff your character appropriately before going for the take-down, but even then you get to choose when and how that take-down is going to happen.

Each world is literally endless.  When you beat one overlord, and thus save one continent, a new continent that is bigger and more complicated opens up.  Some things carry across continents, others don’t.  It’s kind of like a “New Game+” option that a lot of RPGs have, except better because you can still go back to your old continent any time, and there’s a lot more direct continuity.  Each continent should take most players 8-14 hours to complete, but that really varies enormously depending on how much side exploration they do.

One immediate worry with a game of such scope, with such long-form goals, is players feeling directionless.  That was certainly something we struggled with early in the public beta, and with AI War as well.  Thanks to the help of our core fanbase, we’ve managed to put together a system that guides without being directive.  The “planning menu” in the game gives you suggestions on what to do at all times based on your current status, but you’re free to ignore those suggestions and do whatever you see fit.  It also includes the equivalent of an entire wiki right in the game itself, so that you don’t have to go looking at external sources to find out where arcane ingredient #7 is, etc.

Where We Hope To See This Go Next
This has been our most successful beta so far by a factor of at least 4:1, and we had really positive showings at both Minecon and PAX East.  Players willing, my hope is to be able to focus on building more of this game for the next 3+ years to take it from what is already massive (30-40 hours to even see all the content at the moment) to something gargantuan like AI War.  As with AI War, the hope is to do tons of free content on an ongoing basis, and then a few optional paid expansions with larger content-drops along the way.

Speaking of AI War, that game has been out since May 2009 and we’re still doing almost weekly free updates to it; and we have at least two more expansions planned regardless of how well AVWW does.  We know that some folks’ faith in post-release content has been shaken in light of various recent events with other developers, but we have a three-year track record of being there on an ongoing basis.  We don’t intend to stop that anytime soon.

Knowing where to aim : The PR conundrum

PR and marketing for indies is not easy. I would suggest there are a number of factors determining how tricky they find it:

  • Your age (young hip trendy kids know a lot of people through school./college etc, probably wider game-playing circle).
  • Your time in the industry (I know a lot of people who I’ve met voer the years at conferences, meetups etc).
  • Your personality (shyness sucks here. outgoing people make more contacts).
  • Your attitdue to PR (If you hate self-promotion, that will count against you a bit).
  • Your numbers. (4 people teams have 4 times the time, the friends and the contacts).

Of course, this can all be adjusted and overcome, but it’s worth realising not everyone starts from the same position. I guess I win on time in industry and attitude, and outgoigness, but suck on numbers and age.

Given that it’s not an equal game, there is also the issue of where to concentrate your limited PR/Marketing firepower. Here are a number of alternate strategies.

  1. Make the game so awesome everyone just HAS to tell everyone about it. Forget about PR. (this *can* work. ever seen dwarf fortress get promoted?).
  2. Blog like crazy, Build up a huge blog following who will buy and promote the game for you.
  3. Social network! run a popular facebook page or twitter feed you promote everywhere. Hope the virality works for you.
  4. Advertise! Actually spend money on banner ads. (This works, everyone says it doesn’t but they don’t stick with it. I *know* it works.)
  5. Reviews! Be and grovel for coverage from every journalist in the universe. Hope reviews drive traffic to your site.
  6. Sales channels! Make your game available from everywhere, and hope people see it enough, and check it out.
  7. Press-the-flesh! Go to conferences and shows like E3, PAX and so on, and actually talk to real-life gamers about your game!
  8. Forums – Talk about your game on any indie-friendly forums you can find, try to encourage discussion of your game on all the big name web forums, and sites like reddit etc.
  9. PR-firm. Hire someone professional to do all this for you.
  10. Youtube. Try to get those influential lets-play style video-bloggers to talk about your game.
  11. Cross-promote. Work with other indies to do guest blog posts or stuff like showmethegames

All these methods have advantages and disadvantages. I’ve tried them all (except hiring), to a greater or lesser extent. I wish I could tell you I knew which ones really work the best, and it depends on your personality in some ways. I am paranoid about being called a shill if I mention my own game on a forum. I live in the Uk and am an eco-geek so don’t fly to E3, Pax etc. The semi-autistic bit of me enjoys the number crunching of running ad campaigns. Your mileage will vary.

In general I think it makes sense to focus your PC on a specific area, otherwise you are going to just ‘bounce off’ and get no measurable results, like most indies do with advertising. I am time-limited, and work on code-heavy games, so my time is super-limited. Plus it’s just me. As a result, I’m thinking the time-intensive (social networking/conferences) stuff may not work for me. One of the main sources of PR for my stuff is actually this blog. If you scan the archives you’ll know I’ve blogged a LONG time, and this blog is surprisingly popular. of course, the blog predates the social-networking and youtube-videos explosion, so that’s not to say those aren’t better channels. I have facebook pages for gratuitous space battles gratuitous tank battles and redshirt, but I don’t have the time to really promote them as much as I should (feel free to like em!). I’m always re-assessing my priorities, but the answer keeps changing.

What do you use (if you are a dev) and as a gamer, where do you first hear about new games?



Gratuitous Patch Battles 1.006

Ok, so patch 1.006 for Gratuitous Tank Battles is now live. There are, as usual a bunch of minor tweaks and improvements, but here is the stuff that you will notice more than the rest:

  • Airstrikes are in! You only get them as defender, and be warned they can damage your units too, so aim carefully :D You need to unlock them before they are usable:

  • There are some new augmentations available that work on defensive capabilities, such as boosting armor and shields etc.
  • Defensive AI now takes into account attacking unit movement and tries to build ahead of the enemy, not just right on top of them (which often means they built turrets too late, and were useless by the time they were built).
  • The tab key now cycles through all your divisions, if you have multiple ones set up, shift+tab reverses it.
  • New progress bars in the UI to show supplies and victory progress.

Hopefully this all improves the game and makes it more polished. It’s funny how adding stuff such as the supplies / victory progress bars and the tab-button stuff makes it so much easier to play, but I hadn’t realised they were needed all this time. Nothing beats just playing & playing & playing your supposedly finished game :D

Existing buyers should get their game auto-patching today or tomorrow. Make sure you have entered your serial code and picked a username or it won’t happen. New buyers get a ready-patched 1.006.

Tempted to pre-order now? Here you go.

Gratuitous Air Strikes

It’s taken me a while, but I have air strikes in the game, although they still need balancing. Here is a brief demo video:

Air strikes currently come in 2 flavours (although it’s all controllable by text files so modders should have fun). And are presented to the player just like a deployable unit from the deployment bar. I might have to fiddle with that a bit later, because currently they ignore divisions, which might annoy some people?

Air strikes last for a set duration and then drop fairly high damage blasts onto random 9and not-so-random) locations within the given radius over that time. Balancing them will be a pain, but currently my thinking is relatively low cost, high-impact and long recharge times, so that you use just 3 or four of them (max) during a battle.

The difficult bit, as ever, is the knowing you have balanced them right, but I’m sure people will let em know if I haven’t. This is probably the last pre-release added feature for the game, the rest will be mod support, bug fixing and minor tweaks and refinements.