Welcome to Design journal #19: Pre-Alpha Experiences. The last Design Journal we had was back in May of 2016 and was over 4,000 words! Well, sit back and relax because this one is longer. While it has been a while, the time has come to return to our origins and once again spend some time talking about what we're doing differently in Chronicles of Elyria and why it'll make for a better overall game.
Given that our last DJ was on Kingdom Management, and that we first mentioned our Pre-Alpha experiences back in June of 2016, it should be no surprise that in this DJ we're going to dive into those Pre-Alpha experiences in greater depth. So let's get started.
In most modern MMOs the developers spend a non-trivial amount of time in research and development experimenting with different engines, taking their existing engine and re-purposing it for a new game idea, and creating tech demos to verify the validity of their ideas before even beginning production.
Once production begins there's generally still months (if not years) of early development to get to a point where they feel comfortable showing it to the world at large. This 'Pre-Alpha' milestone is an indication that, while the game isn't yet feature-complete, its overall direction, features, and visual style are more or less 'locked in'. At that point, all that remains is implementation of the remaining features and iteration on the current ones until they reach a state of quality that the studio feels comfortable calling them complete.
The problem is, by the time a game hits pre-alpha it's often too late to make any significant changes to the design of the game. Aside from cosmetic, easily-altered items or things so game-breaking that the game would be lost without it, modifications to the core design are often viewed as too costly to change at this stage of development.
In a formulaic game that sticks close to the typical features of a genre, this is generally a safe bet. But Chronicles of Elyria is anything but typical. With the vast number of new, never-before-seen features and the re-imagining of several well-established ones, it's extremely important that we have an opportunity to change tack on anything which could jeopardize the overall fun of the game.
Our solution? Pre-Alpha Experiences. Put plainly, Pre-Alpha Experiences are opportunities for players to jump into some form of the game as early as possible - even before pre-alpha, to provide feedback.
This has many advantages to us (and to you) beyond the obvious. Let's look at them a bit shall we?
Perhaps the most important reason is the opportunity for early feedback. Obviously, the sooner we get feedback from our target audience, the more likely we are to be able to make changes in a timely fashion. There's nothing mysterious here. The key is finding a way to get feedback from players before development progresses too far!
A slightly less obvious but equally important reason is community engagement. For an MMO to be successful it requires a certain 'critical mass' of players. For existing intellectual properties or well-established companies it's still difficult, but possible, for them to gather that critical mass of players within the few months leading up to the launch of the game. But a grass-roots game like Chronicles of Elyria requires a slow, rolling boil. It's going to take between now and launch with us continuously reaching out and growing the community for us to hit our target numbers.
But all the outreach and evangelizing in the world is useless if players come to the site, see the game is in-development and then immediately bounce. We need a way to capture and retain players throughout the development process. The pre-alpha experiences give players something to do in the interim. This also has the pleasant side effect of preventing players from becoming idle. So it serves as not only a good tool for maintaining player engagement, but is also just a good cure for boredom.
Player-investment in History
Next, one of the biggest challenges any MMO - or really any RPG – faces, is connecting players to the rich history of the world. This is often done by placing books in the world for players to read, or creating quests and story arcs that talk about the history of the world. When players feel a sense of connectedness with the past, it naturally makes them more concerned about and responsive to potential futures.
By making the events of our pre-alpha experiences persistent - that is, by accepting the events that occur in the pre-alpha experiences as part of the game's history - it gives players the unique opportunity to be a part of, to experience first-hand, and to drive the history of the world. There's no stronger connection to the past a player can have. By the time launch happens, players will have been responsible for writing the history of the previous 30-50 years. So, when the books and NPCs talk about recent events in history, those players who were part of it will feel a stronger connection.
Speaking of recent history, one of the things we've learned in the last year is how important it is to temper expectations and to prevent a NMS (Not Much t'See) situation. By that I, of course, mean years of us talking about the features and mechanics of the game only to have you get into the game and discover none of it is there. We prevent this by gradually adding the mechanics to our Pre-Alpha experiences. This should increase confidence in what we're doing and give you all a strong impression of what is and isn't going to make it in the final game.
Ok. With all of that out of the way, let's dig in to the three Pre-Alpha Experiences for Chronicles of Elyria. Note that each of the following - Prologue: The Awakening, ElyriaMUD, and Kingdoms of Elyria - each provide a different user experience and are designed to best meet the objectives outlined above as quickly as possible.
One of the main objectives is, of course, to get feedback on the different features of the game. So the main thing to know as we move forward is that each of the three pre-alpha experiences are designed to test a subset of the roughly 40 different feature areas and hundreds of individual features of the game. When I talk about each experience I'll highlight some of the most important feature areas we'll be testing.
The first of the Pre-Alpha experiences I wanted to talk about is the Prologue. Put as succinctly as possible, the Prologue is an offline, playable demo (desktop UE4 client) of Chronicles of Elyria. But, like many of our approaches to game development, game mechanics, marketing, etc., the Prologue serves a dual purpose.
As an offline demo, the Prologue provides us, and players, an opportunity to jump into the world to experience the 'feel' of the game. While it's somewhat difficult to define the 'feel' of a game, what we mean is the overall user input, user interface, user experience, and responsiveness of the game. Some of the main feature areas we'll be testing with the Prologue are:
There are likely to be small amounts of features from other feature areas, such as Identities but, as some of the Pre-Alpha Experiences provide more direct opportunities to test these features/areas they'll only make a cameo appearance in the Prologue.
Now, in addition to being a sandbox in which to experiment with the aforementioned game mechanics, the Prologue also provides players an opportunity to experience a pivotal moment in the history of Elyria - The Awakening. Thus, the Prologue provides a narrative experience which will take players from the town of New Haven, down to the mining village of Silver Run, and back up again. Because of the subset of features provided, as well as the narrative story arc, Prologue should play like a short, single-player RPG.
While not a stand-alone game, and initially limited to a small set of crafting professions, combat trees, etc. the Prologue will continue to be iterated on throughout development, and will act as a test-bed for new user-experiences as they're added.
By the time players complete the Prologue, they should have a good idea what the 'feel' of the game is, but will still be lacking an understanding of how the multiplayer elements of the game will work, as well as the features of the dynamic story engine. To really understand those requires jumping into the second Pre-Alpha Experience.
The second Pre-Alpha experience is ElyriaMUD. When we first talked about ElyriaMUD about nine months ago we initially described it as a traditional text-based MUD. However, in December of 2016 I took a trip over to London to visit with Improbable. While there, Herman Narula, the CEO of Improbable and I sat down and had a conversation about the scope of the Pre-Alpha Experiences. He made a compelling argument about the accessibility of a text-based RPG and how likely we were to get the player-engagement we wanted.
At the same time, I realized that providing ElyriaMUD as a 2D, sprite-based game would allow us to further test the positional queries of our game. Things like 'If I'm within X of this building, provide Y passive bonus.' The result is that we've transitioned away from perceiving ElyriaMUD as a text-only RPG, and instead intend for it to be a richer, more accessible 2D Graphical MUD. Instead of using a traditional MUD client, we will instead build a simple 2D game client - likely using Unity.
Ok. So where Prologue is a single-player RPG experience, mostly focused on the UI, UX, and 'feel' of the game, ElyriaMUD is the exact opposite. As a multi-player game ElyriaMUD will focus first and foremost on the multi-player mechanics of the game. Things like:
In addition, where Prologue is designed to take place over a couple in-game days, ElyriaMUD is intended to span anywhere from 30 to 50 in-game years. This allows us to incorporate other mechanics which aren't available in the Prologue. Things such as:
And, of course, like with the Prologue, ElyriaMUD will have cameo features as well, such as survival mechanics, combat, crafting, etc. These are there as necessary elements to test the other intended features of the game, but aren't there to validate those specific mechanics. In many cases, such as combat, they exist in ElyriaMUD as a shadow or completely disassociated version of the final system. I.e. Don't expect combat in ElyriaMUD to work like it does in Prologue / CoE. Likewise, while there will be crafting in ElyriaMUD, it's more to validate the overall system of gathering resources, converting them into crafting materials, crafting components, and then constructing them into objects. The user experience of crafting will not be the same as Prologue / CoE.
In terms of game-play, where the Prologue has a narrative story intended to expose players to The Awakening, ElyriaMUD will leverage the Soulborn Engine to expose characters to a dynamic, evolving story-line in which they have control of the narrative.
And like Prologue, not all feature areas and features will be available as initial release. Over time we'll continue to integrate new features and functionality into the Graphical MUD.
Finally, ElyriaMUD takes place before the events of the Prologue in the overall history of Elyria.
The final Pre-Alpha Experience we're working on is Kingdoms of Elyria. This is, in some ways, the lightest in terms of its features and mechanics but, in many ways, has been (and remains) the most difficult to design.
In Chronicles of Elyria, as players shift in social status from adventurer to aristocracy to nobility, their play experience changes, quite necessarily. Where once they focused on their individual deeds - whether that be exploration or crafting - their focus now begins to shift to something larger than themselves.
As a member of the Aristocracy - Mayors & Barons, the focus of the game grows to include concern for the welfare and development of their settlement. This is everything from ensuring that it has the necessary resources, to making strategic decisions about the benefits to inhabitants. In this way, it plays a lot more like a settlement simulation (SimSettlement?).
Likewise, as someone moves from Aristocracy to Nobility their scope continues to increase. Counts must now be concerned about everything that goes on within the boundaries of their county. That includes resource management, roads & infrastructure, trade between neighboring counties, and the shared wealth of the individual settlements.
Dukes must also care about the safety and security of each of the counties within their duchy, and must enforce the law to protect its inhabitants from thieves, murderers, and other miscreants.
Finally, Kings and Queens must determine the overall trajectory and win-condition for the Kingdom.
In all cases, each tier of aristocracy and nobility are responsible for setting laws and tax rates within their domains and settlements so they have enough resources to complete their objectives. As you can see, as you move up the hierarchy of Nobility the game plays more and more like a Kingdom Management game.
Taking all of the above into consideration, Kingdom of Elyria focuses on the following mechanics:
It should be noted that while there will again be cameo features in KoE, they're significantly fewer in number. Instead, there's shared features with ElyriaMUD which are intentionally added. This is because the two games, while potentially different game clients, are linked. Reputation & fame, government conflicts, broken laws, and the changing economy are all shared between the two games.
But what is the actual play experience of KoE? We're still iterating on it. At the moment, the plan is for KoE to be a top-down, 2D graphical overlay game - likely built with Unity, much like a traditional Kingdom Management game. From this birds-eye view, the players will be able to open up the UI to change laws, alter manufacturing goals, set new tax rates, and specify technology to research.
In the event that someone was to obtain a casus belli, this perspective allows someone to direct markers to indicate where the armies should mobilize. It even allows the players to send couriers to mobilized military to change their orders.
Direct markers? Send couriers? Why not just issue the commands to the mobilized military directly? When I first mentioned Kingdoms of Elyria back in June I said 'Kingdoms of Elyria is intended for the nobility and aristocracy. But what about the gentry or other players...' After which I proceeded to talk about ElyriaMUD. What might not have been obvious is that these are not just sort-of linked, but intimately linked.
When a Count changes the tax rates on their map in KoE, it changes the tax rates of the people who call the same settlement home - in ElyriaMUD. When a Duke issues commands in KoE to a mobilize a military unit on their map, it's a request to the members of their duchy to mobilize at that location - in ElyriaMUD! And when a Duke sends a courier to a staged army on a nearby border telling them to cross over and attack the neighboring duchy - it's a request to those people stationed at that encampment to engage. A King, Duke, Count, or Aristocrat's success in Kingdoms of Elyria is based largely on the support of their followers in ElyriaMUD.
One of the advertised goals of our Pre-Alpha experiences is to allow players to alter the history of their world. But to do this, the actions of ElyriaMUD and KoE must be persistent. This naturally raises questions about what can and cannot be done in KoE and ElyriaMUD. So let me take a moment to talk briefly about that.
First, let me dispel with peoples' concerns right away. Kingdoms of Elyria and ElyriaMUD are prequels to Chronicles of Elyria. When you purchased a title from our online store or Kickstarter you were purchasing your opportunity to be a King, Duke, Count, or Aristocrat at launch of Chronicles of Elyria. This means that you cannot / will not lose your titles either through playing or not playing KoE or ElyriaMUD. These are entirely optional play experiences.
That said, what you didn't buy during Kickstarter or through our online store was a domain of a specific size. As previously advertised, counties, duchies, and kingdoms come in all shapes and sizes. Nobody is guaranteed the largest (or the smallest) of the domains.
Throughout Kingdoms of Elyria, the actions of the players will dictate the previous 30-50 years of history of the Kingdoms. This includes the positions of the borders. It is possible, through KoE, to grow & shrink the size of your domain. We recognize that not all players like the idea of directly engaging with enemy player-kingdoms and would be much more comfortable playing against NPCs. We also recognized that with 100% of the kingdoms, duchies, and counties in a region occupied by players, your only option would be direct PvP with other players. So we've gone ahead and mitigated this.
When we first announced our intentions to allow people to purchase titles and to govern lands we were basing it on a system of a random distribution. That is, we were planning to have 3-5 kingdoms per continent, 6-10 duchies per kingdom, and as many as 50 counties per duchy.
We did this with the idea that players would quietly sit in the forums for the next year and talk with anxious excitement about the game until Settlement / Domain selection. At that point, they'd go ahead and form alliances, enemies, etc. In short, we expected the Dance of Dynasties to begin with Settlement / Domain selection. We were wrong.
People started dancing the Dance immediately and, within a short period, there were well-established Kingdoms and Duchies and a slew of Counties that had already pledged their allegiance to one Duke or another.
That was great, but it did cause a problem. With random distribution of numbers there were no guarantees that the number of domains in a region would accommodate the number of players that had pledged to a liege lord. For example, early on Adam Burrfoot came to me as said 'I've got 8-10 dukes pledged to me, how many duchies will my kingdom have? I need to know so I can make sure I've got room for everyone.'
I couldn't answer him. All I could say was 'We'll find out during settlement / domain selection.' But the longer I thought about it, the more I realized that it was counter-productive to the community building the players were doing and that we were encouraging. I needed to find a way to solve this.
After spending several months thinking about it, last month during the Exclusive Q & A with the high-level backers I proposed my solution in order to get feedback. The proposed solution was to change from a random distribution across servers to a fixed number of domains per region.
Once I had decided to lock in the numbers of Kingdoms, Duchies, and Counties per server it was just a matter of knowing how many. My first response was just to take the averages of the ranges we'd previously defined. That would have resulted in about 4 kingdoms per continent, 8 duchies per kingdom, and around 36 counties per duchy. But then I looked at the store purchases and realized that there were far fewer counties being purchased than I expected, which would leave a lot of empty, unowned land.
At the same time, I realized there were more kingdoms being purchased than expected and worse - people buying two kingdoms and duchies! So this suggested I should move up to the maximum number of kingdoms & duchies and the minimum number of counties, which would have resulted in 5 kingdoms per continent, 10 duchies per kingdom, and around 16 counties per duchy.
This was a reasonable approach, but then I remembered Kingdoms of Elyria. It occurred to me that if I increased the number of Kingdoms, Duchies, and Counties a bit it would result in slightly smaller starting sizes, but would give players the opportunity to attack and engage with their NPC neighbors. This would allow them to once again grow their domains back to their original - and perhaps larger size. This seemed like a win-win to me. The players got more control of their final domain sizes, and players who didn't want to participate in KoE would likely hold onto more of their domains due to buffer zones.
As I said, I presented these ideas during the January Q&A with the high-level backers and got mostly - aside from the Oceanus server - positive feedback.
So moving forward, the domain sizes are fixed per server and have the following numbers:
This gives everyone room to breathe and grow during KoE, and lets you be the masters of your fate. Keep in mind again, it's impossible to lose your domain, but it is possible for it shrink or grow - potentially even consuming neighboring NPC domains entirely!
I know, I know. It'll be ok. For those of you out there who do not currently have titles, I don't want you to feel left out. Kingdoms of Elyria & ElyriaMUD are exciting opportunities for player engagement, collaboration, teamwork, and community growth.
Thus, we'll be offering Store Credit (and Influence) for certain activities and participation in KoE and ElyriaMUD. This means it's theoretically possible for someone to gain enough credit to purchase a title they didn't previously own. We don't expect this to be a hugely common occurrence, but it is possible for new Mayors / Barons to emerge from KoE. It's extremely unlikely, anyone could earn enough Influence / Store Credit from KoE to become a new Count.
As you might guess from the name, the Pre-Alpha Experiences are just that, pre-alpha. As a result, they're very early iterations on many of the mechanics. We'll be rolling ElyriaMUD, Prologue, and KoE out first to the Alpha 1 backers, then Alpha 2, then Beta, then Beta 2, and finally to those people who've purchased only the basic game.
Note that events in ElyriaMUD and KoE only become official once it's rolled out to all paid players. The earlier waves/releases are for testing and stabilization.
We've spent a large part of this DJ talking about the different Pre-Alpha experiences, as well as the benefits of the Pre-Alpha experiences. But what about the costs? Surely there's a ton of work involved in the development of these extra games? Wouldn't we be insane to try and do three games in addition to Chronicles of Elyria?
If we were attempting to create three additional games we would be. But we're not. It's important to note that, aside from the UI and the inexpensive 2D graphics we're adding for KoE and ElyriaMUD, all the mechanics and functionality for these three Pre-Alpha experiences are already required for the complete version of Chronicles of Elyria. All we're doing is detaching the features from the final game in a way that allows us the benefits listed above. But how?
Interface-Driven Development. Consider a microwave oven plugged into a wall socket. A microwave oven is a fairly complex piece of equipment with microwave emitters, electronics, mechanical components, etc. At the same time, the system of infrastructure on the other side of the wall socket is equally complex. You've got a full house of wiring and grounds, local substations, and complex power stations.
So you've got two sides of a complex system that depends on one another to provide value, but neither of them really care what's on the other side of the wall socket. In theory, you could plug a high-powered battery into the wall behind the wall socket. So long as there's an AC adapter on it, the microwave oven won't care you're missing the wiring, substation, or generator. It needs power, it's getting power, that's all it cares about.
Likewise, while you could plug a microwave to the wall socket, you could just as easily plug in a lamp, game console, or a cell phone charger. Either way it completes the circuit and draws power from the back-end.
The key point here is that the wall outlet creates an interface between the two complex systems.
An MMO is much the same. On one end of a network you've got a client and on the other you've got a complete back-end server. Both require the other to function properly, but neither really care - if done correctly - what lies on the other end.
While we are developing our Prologue as an offline demo, we're doing so with the knowledge of our future plans. So rather than developing the offline demo to, for example, pull the list of characters you've created directly from disk, it does so through an implemented interface. This interface, in the case of the Prologue, hides a system behind it which pulls the character list from local storage, but the Prologue doesn't know that. This means that by replacing that hidden component which pulls data from disk with another component that pulls data from the cloud, the client continues to function the same.
Similarly, while we're writing our back-end server as an engine on top of SpatialOS, our engine uses a well-defined protocol for receiving messages. So long as the messages come in the correct protocol, it doesn't care what kind of client is sending them. It could be the Chronicles of Elyria game client... or it could be a 2D Graphical MUD client. The presence of a network layer creates a sort of 'wall socket' for us that allows us to make forward progress without caring about what's on the other end.
The final question I want to address is when will the Pre-Alpha experiences be available. We don't know yet. We continue to make progress on all three of them simultaneously and, once we've reached a critical turning point in their development, will have a more solid idea of when they'll be available.
What I can say is that our order of development hasn't changed. Right now we're primarily focused on the implementation of the Prologue and ElyriaMUD, however we're also focusing heavily on World Generation and the web for the purpose of Settlement Selection.
Our next major milestone is Settlement Selection and after that, the Prologue, ElyriaMUD, and KoE are likely just a few months away.