Back in December of 2016 I started a tradition by writing my first annual "look back." It was my first annual because I wasn't expecting to write another one until next December. However, starting as early as May I began feeling like another was necessary. I wasn't entirely sure why I felt that way, I just knew I did. Then, earlier this week, when in a meeting with our leadership team I realized what it was.
In our meeting the subject of our company's core values came up. One of our values is transparency, and that stood out to me. I reflected on the last few months and realized that we'd become less transparent with our community and, as a result, we weren't upholding one of our studio's core values. So I started thinking about why that was and what we could do about it. And this is what I came up with...
When we first started working on CoE we were extremely transparent. We regularly sat in IRC or Discord and chatted with players about everything - what we were working on, how progress was going, etc. We regularly shared screenshots and we even had "Caspian Story Time", where I'd leak bits of lore in the form of stories about the various Qin of the Qindred faith. It was as close to "seeing how the sausage is made" as we could possibly get.
But as time went on and our audience increased, so too did the number of people who didn't have the same stomach for seeing what's in the sausage. And I can't blame them. Game development can be a messy process. There's a ton of iterations, throw-away work, slipped milestones, resource shortages, illnesses, and everything else you can imagine. And seeing all that can leave a bad taste in someone's mouth. It's a lot like seeing those videos on YouTube about how gelatin or hotdogs are made (Don't do it, it's a trap!).
In this regard, transparency is a double-edged sword. People want to feel connected to the project they're supporting (and we want them to!), but getting too much visibility into the process can actually reduce confidence and make people question their support. In other words, sometimes it can make you lose your appetite. As we started realizing that exposing too much information could be counter-productive we began shifting the information we shared from raw and wriggling, to something more broadly appetizing.
Regardless of our intentions, it's clear we may have overcompensated in our desire to shield the community for the messier parts of game development. Where once we chatted with the community about how the build was failing, we instead only shared work that we were proud of or was farther along in development. Where once I sat in IRC discussing lore as it was being written down, I now had to spend my time working with the growing team to develop the ideas I came up with, and we were careful not to share things that were half-baked that would set unrealistic expectations among our fans. And, most noticeably, where once we shared even the dates of our internal milestones, we now no longer shared even what year the game was going to ship in. In short, we went from being fully transparent to sharing only about as much as the average game studio (not enough!). And that's not the studio we want to be.
So, this State of Elyria is an attempt at getting back to where we want to be; to revealing those things we've kept close to the vest, and to answering those questions we know you've been asking. So, like the ghosts of Elyria Past, Present, and Future, let's take a look at what we've done so far this year, where we are now, and where we're headed.
In the tradition of my first State of Elyria back in December, I wanted to take a moment to look at where we are now, relative to where we've been. This gives me a chance to reflect on key differences between now and then, and shine a light on some of what we've accomplished.
One of the biggest differences between now and December is the people we have working at Soulbound Studios. Back in December we had a very talented team - primarily artists and animators - who, aside from one or two people, didn't have a ton of experience in the MMO space. We were a passionate team of experienced game developers, and knew the problems that would arise from creating an MMO, but were for the most part untested when it came to developing MMOs.
Since then we've expanded our engineering team by several hundred percent and hired a Technical Art Lead; most of which whom specialize in the creation of MMOs. Some of our hires in the last six months include...
Lead Programmer, Steve "Cynax" Hoelle - Steve joined Soulbound Studios as a former Lead and Senior Server/Gameplay programmer for companies such as S2, Kabam, EA, Vigil, and Sigil. He's had a ton of experience in the MMO space working on games such as Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, Warhammer 40,000: Dark Millennium Online, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. The range of experience made him uniquely qualified to help us anticipate the problems we might not have otherwise anticipated, and help us solve problems he'd already faced multiple times at previous studios.
Lead Technical Artist, Dennis "Wiz" Price - Dennis joined Soulbound Studios after nineteen years working as an Art Director, Lead Artist, and Technical Artist for companies such as Airtight Games, Turn 10 Studios, and most relavently, a total of over 11 years working as a Lighting and Cinematic Lead for Blizzard Entertainment. His experience has allowed him to jump in and immediately improve the content pipeline and processes we use here at Soulbound Studios, preparing us for the large volume of assets and data necessary for an MMORPG. And this says nothing about the lighting and material improvements we've already made to the game to really make it stand apart from other MMOs.
Lead Animator, Colin "Mudokon" Brown - While Colin technically joined us at the very end of 2016, he wasn't put into the position of Lead Animator until 2017. With over 10 years experience as an animator, Colin joined us after being Lead Animator at Disney Interactive on Star Wars: Commander and just before that a Character Animator at Cryptic Studios on City of Heroes and Star Trek Online. Not only does Colin drive the other animators to do their best work, but having Colin act as Lead Animator has forced us to consider animation in each and every technical decision we make. This ensures CoE looks more like a living, breathing world than an MMO, but does so even with the latency issues that accompany an MMO.
Sr. Server/Gameplay Programmer, Joshua "Glaive" Galvin - Josh joined Soulbound Studios directly after leaving ArenaNet, where he had worked on the MMORPG, Guild Wars 2 since 2013. Having also previously worked as a programmer at Cryptic Studios, Josh immediately jumped in at Soulbound Studios as an architect on our back-end, helping us to develop a technology stack that allows for rapid iteration and perhaps the fastest engineering workflow I could imagine on an MMORPG. The rapid rate of acceleration on the development of our back-end over the last several months is in large-part due to Josh.
I can't over-state the importance and significance of having a leadership team comprised of talented, experienced MMO developers. This leadership team has taken us from a studio with bold ideas and a willingness to take on tough challenges, to a studio with experience taking on tough challenges and a desire to push the boundaries. As any former guild-leader knows, the strength of a guild is dependent on the strength of its officers. And we have an officer core I'm honored to be working with.
We like to say Chronicles of Elyria is a sort of "mid-fantasy, high adventure" game. What does that mean exactly? Well, to start with it means the game is neither high fantasy, nor low fantasy. Unlike most high fantasy games we don't have radically different races with exotic skin tones, fur and scales, and widely varying silhouettes. Similarly, it's uncommon to see the use of magic in general, and there definitely aren't hundreds or thousands of fireball wielding mages wandering around the cities like folks off to market. On the other hand, it's not a medieval simulator either. Elyria is a different world from Earth and the history, lore, religions, physics, chemistry, and biology of Elyria is different from our own. This allows us to do things in-game which generally can't be done on Earth, and in a more fantastical way.
Most importantly, the defining characteristic of High vs. Low fantasy is centered on the types of challenges the characters in the world will face. In a low fantasy setting the challenges facing the characters are generally localized and personal. As a result, the tools necessary to solve those problems typically extend no further than the tools we posses as average humans. But in a high fantasy setting, it's not uncommon for the characters to face world or universe altering obstacles, like Sauron and the One Ring. As a result, high fantasy settings often require tools beyond the average mortal, with things like magic and technology being common go-to's to help overcome those challenges.
Chronicles of Elyria is unique because it is both high fantasy in certain ways, and low fantasy in others. In fact, it's more closely related to Heroic Fantasy or Sword & Sorcery. But it's even more than that. As we've discussed before, the world the players enter into on launch day is unlikely to be the world players will see ten years from now. As the story begins to unfold, and the challenges go from localized and personal to worldly and universal, the genre will gradually shift from more low fantasy to more high fantasy. I guess you can think of it as kind of a "Dynamic Fantasy." Coined it. It's mine.
That all said, there's also this concept of "high adventure." When I think of high adventure I think of stories and IPs like Prince of Persia, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Robin Hood, Indiana Jones, and Goonies. I imagine people exploring deep caverns, discovering the secrets of ancient tombs, facing the challenges of forgotten dungeons, or swinging rope-to-rope while sword fighting during a sea-faring skirmish. You know... adventurous stuff.
A large part of our imagination pertaining to "high adventure" is directly tied to the idea of moving around in the world in a less restrictive way. To that end, we created an adventuring party called, "The League of Extraordinary Locomotion" that spent a significant amount of time during the first half of the year getting the platforming and parkour elements of our locomotion system in place. This included ladder climbing, jumping, hanging, ledge hopping, vaulting, sliding, balancing, and zip-lining. In fact, the mechanics behind our parkour and freedom of movement was so much a part of the first quarter of the year that it became our PAX East 2017 Experience.
As with 2016, Soulbound Studios once again set off to PAX East this year with the aim of making our presence known and revealing some part of what we've been up to. This year we once again faced the two main reasons why you really don't see other in-development MMOs at PAX. I'm going to repeat that because I feel it's worth emphasizing. While we've confidently stepped onto the show floor for the previous two PAX Easts, and will be at PAX West in a little over a month, you generally won't find many other indie MMOs at PAX. And here's why...
Problem 1: MMORPGs don't typically show well at conventions. There's so much involved in MMORPGs such as character creation, the skill system, combat, trade and economics, the environment, crafting, housing, sieging, lore, etc. that in the 3-8 minutes the average PAX-goer is willing to spend standing at your booth, there simply isn't enough time to present a well-rounded, comprehensive experience of what to expect from the game. So even if the pretty graphics draw them in, they generally won't stick around long enough to really grasp the unique selling points of such a complex game.
Problem 2: In-development MMOs are like un-inked graphic novels. There simply isn't enough pretty stuff to show off until there's enough content to make it worth-while for the players. As most MMOs focus on function before form, it's very difficult to show anything worth-while during early development. Chronicles of Elyria is no exception. We're simply not far enough along to show as an MMORPG at PAX.
To get around the previous two problems, Soulbound Studios has continuously taken a different approach to PAX. Rather than use it as an opportunity to show off our MMORPG, we use it as an opportunity to show off a small subset of CoE features which we believe show well, are entertaining, and represent the largest part of the work we've done since our previous convention.
At PAX East 2017 we showed the "Silver-Run Mine." Silver-Run Mine is a curated (hand-created) experience that is part of the Prologue, and is designed to allow players to explore the many things they can do with parkour and the high-adventure freedom of movement in CoE. It's also a vital part of the story-line of the Prologue and has significant meaning to the events leading up to the launch of the game. Overall the demo was received very well, and people who got their hands on it had nothing but positive things to say about the fluidity of movement in the game. That said, there was a regression in our combat system due to ongoing design work, which unfortunately drew some of the attention away from what we really wanted to show off during that PAX.
While PAX East 2017 may not have shown off quite as well as our combat demo in 2016, there's more benefit to going to PAX than just the obvious. For us, PAX is always a point of unity for the studio. Where we may be participating in different adventuring parties through the year, the 4-6 weeks leading up to PAX is an opportunity for us to all come together as a studio and focusing on a single element or experience of CoE. We often work extra hard during the last two weeks, but we've always felt very good about the state of CoE after a little spit & polish.
Another focus of the first half of 2017 has been on getting our animals more fully in-game. This has been the key focus of the Elyrian Zoological Society who've spent time understanding the needs and behaviors of each animal, and adding a metric-ton of animations in order to support the various responses an animal may have to their surroundings. Where once we just had walking and idle animations, there's now a full suite of animations for each animal including walking, running, sprinting, combat, eating, various forms of alertness, swimming, drowning, dying, and in some cases many more... such as mounting and dismounting. Which leads me to the next task the Zoological Society has been focused on.
In many games, mounts are optional or are a reward for hoofing it (pun intended) before being allowed to move on to more expedient forms of transportation. But in a game the size of Chronicles of Elyria, any travel beyond just moving around your settlement is going to require some form of mount or other means of locomotion.
As a result, mounted movement has been a large focus of the second quarter of 2017. While it may not sound like much, mounted movement requires the engagement of a large part of the studio. It requires animations for the mounts themselves, animations for the player-character while mounting and unmounting - as well as while on the mounts (yeah, we animate the character rather than posing them like toy figurines - go figure). It requires the art team to creates the models, rigs, and materials for the mounts, and of course it requires engineering to handle the mounted controls and network code required to communicate the mounted movement between the server and clients.
As a result, however, I feel like we have the smoothest, most enjoyable mounted experience of any MMO thus far. Here... take a look..
Riding around Titan's Steppe
A big focus of the design team this year - in combination with the character and content team - has been the tribes. Dubbed "The Tribe Foundry," this adventuring party has been responsible for taking the concepts of varying bloodlines and cultures and combining them into a set of tribes that feel inviting and uniquely different from one another.
This is a lot harder than it sounds! Chronicles of Elyria is more than a game, it's a living, breathing world. In order to make it convincing we have to take world-building to much greater heights than is seen in most other MMOs. We need not just a few different character models and some passive and active abilities, we need religions, principles, culture, likes and dislikes, and most importantly, environmental adaptations.
You see, Elyria is a lot like Earth - if humans on Earth had continued to adapt through the process of evolution, rather than largely stopping with the introduction of technology. As a result of this continued evolution, Mann-kind in Elyria is similar to humans on earth ... but more exaggerated. They're stronger, faster, taller, smaller, smarter, more agile, more communal, and more aggressive than humans. All at the same time.
They feel things deeper. They have a closer connection to nature. And they rely on their instincts and adaptations in ways we do not. But aside from coming up with the natural adaptations that would occur through evolution as a result of the individual biomes, the hardest challenge with the tribes is giving them unique play styles while still making them attractive to some subset of the population.
Our motivation with each tribe was to create something that about 1/12th of the community would enjoy playing. As a result, we'd have a roughly even distribution of the tribes. In our minds, having a tribe that was universally loved was as much a failure as having a tribe that was universally hated. While the idea of creating something we know roughly 92% of the population wouldn't want to play is difficult for some, we feel that doing it this way allows players to more strongly identify with their chosen (or given) tribe. Which is one of the main ideas behind the tribes. Nobody fights to defend the integrity of their race or bloodline, but they'll fight for the survival of their tribe. Like all things in Chronicles of Elyria, the introduction of tribes creates a source of conflict in the world, and gives players the opportunity to drive the problem to one of several resolutions.
Will they attempt to annihilate a tribe or two.... or eleven, will they breed until there is no distinction between the tribes and their cultures, or will they fight to protect the culture and history we've introduced into the world? We can't say, but we're super excited to see what unfolds after the game launches.
Because tribes are such a complex topic, the design team wanted to make significant headway before bringing in much of the rest of the studio. So while there's concept art of the various tribes, the character team has just recently gotten involved. So far we've been working with tools to help us control the various values of the tribes - as unlike other MMOs, it needs to be possible in CoE for each bloodline to intermix with every other bloodline.
As a result of the tools, we're now able to blend between various skin colors, and are working on the different proportions of the various tribes. Once we've got that on lock, we'll begin to delve into the unique facial features, hair styles, and equipment of the different tribes. In the mean time, take a look at the early tooling and see what some of the skin colors might look like. But remember, there isn't a single skin color for a bloodline, and in the below video the body proportions aren't correct. So if someone looks bulkier or scrawnier than you assumed, you're probably right. That'll be tuned over the coming months.
A brief look at sample skin colors of the various tribes
Speaking of body proportions, one of the cornerstones of Chronicles of Elyria is for it to feel like a living, breathing, dynamic world. To that end, we like to say that character customization begins after character creation ends. One such way we do that is with the body dynamic system. While there's still a bit more work to be done on the back-end to support the body dynamic system, the client-side work is largely complete. As you can see from this screenshot, earlier this year we showed off characters of varying body types.
In addition to being able to create bodies of varying styles, we've also begun work on the character customization via hair styles. Here's some work we did earlier this year to test out a couple hair styles. Note that as the work on tribes progresses, so too will the work on character customization. While we don't plan on enforcing individual hairstyles for different tribes, we do want them to tend toward a specific cultural norm. of course, like all of CoE, the players have the ability to change that norm over time.
Another key mechanic we've been working on the first half of this year is the equipment and clothing systems. Chronicles of Elyria uses a different equipment system than is used in most MMORPGs. From a strict, character customization and equipment standpoint, CoE uses a unique layering system where each layer is designed to address a different survival mechanic. The base layer is generally for homeostasis, the second layer is generally for protection from the environment, and the third layer is either protection from exposure, or protection from combat.
Beyond that, CoE adheres to an older school of thought, where the equipment you wear effects your overall survivability, but doesn't have a huge impact on you as a character. For example, equipping a sword or armor doesn't make you stronger, or more agile. Those are character attributes that are independent from the equipment you wear. Putting it in terms of traditional game mechanics, you won't find any +200 Str items. Indeed, you won't find any +Str items. You want to get stronger, you have to work for it.
That said, you might find weapons that are sharper, are more durable, are resistant to rust, are more flexible, are toxic, etc. And yes, you'll occasionally find items which are artifacts or relics, which bestow the user with some magical properties. However, these still don't affect the character directly, and are generally very situational.
As a result, the specific clothing and armor you wear in CoE is largely aesthetic, and is about building up the persona you want. In order for that to be truly effective, it needs to be as customizable as possible. To that end, The Proto-Tailors here at Soulbound Studios has been working on what we believe is the most comprehensive and customizable crafting system to date. You can see the variety of styles, patterns, and fabrics in some of the animations below. And note, while we've started with the equipment system, virtually all of the objects in CoE will incorporate some degree of customization, with literally every item in CoE being craftable.
The last thing our content team has been focusing on the first half of this year is various biomes and the dynamic nature of the world. While we showed off a bit of our dynamic weather system last year we continued to make improvements to the system this year. You can see some concepts below of what a settlement might look like under various lighting and weather conditions. Beneath that, you can see where we are with the dynamic snow accumulation system today. As we move into the next phase of development, the environment team will begin building out the various biomes of Elyria, with screenshots and video being presented as we make progress.
The final thing I wanted to focus on during this look back over the last six months is the Order of Online Play. While we initially started the studio with a single client programmer - which necessitated we begin work on CoE from the client-side - over the last six months we've filled the studio with three new server programmers. This has allowed us to take Chronicles of Elyria from a single-player, offline demo, into a true, multi-player online world.
When playing a multi-player online world, there is obviously communication between the client and server. But as our servers are fully authoritative, it doesn't really matter what our client is or looks like. When developing our back-end systems we can pretend we're talking to our Unreal client, or a completely different, web-based client. For that reason, we set off to begin development on ElyriaMUD - a 3D, graphical version of Chronicles of Elyria constructed entirely with voxels, and built entirely on web-based technologies. A few months ago we released these mood board pictures to our exclusive backers. Let me share it with the rest of you now so you can get an idea of what our visual target is for ElyriaMUD.
And of course, more recently we shared with you all the render of the ElyriaMUD characters. You can see those again here:
While those screenshots are pretty to look at, the benefits to us in having ElyriaMUD cannot be overstated. To begin with, developing the back-end workers and gameplay mechanics of Chronicles of Elyria against a light-weight, voxel based client means we can develop and test our mechanics in the absence of fancy animations, graphics, or user interfaces. This speeds up development of core mechanics A TON. And, with the way the server is sitting now, this will allow us to roll out new mechanics faster than anyone has seen before, and way faster than people anticipate.
But to make ElyriaMUD and CoE possible, a ton of back-end work has already been done over the last six months to the Soulborn Engine to get it talking across the wire, and more will be done throughout the rest of the year. While SpatialOS solves the problem of scalability, there's still a ton of systems which aren't spatial in nature and won't be using SpatialOS. Even among the systems that will use SpatialOS there are a lot of core features which must go in place before you can really call something an MMORPG. That's one of the main reasons why we haven't had a lot of new client-side gameplay to show over the last 3-6 months. Virtually all of our engineering resources have gone to back-end infrastructure in the Soulborn Engine, and allowing our server to talk to a client.
Of course, one of the key benefits of developing our server the way we have is it no longer cares what client it's talking to. In fact, it's possible to have multiple, completely different clients all talking to our server at the same time, and seeing a shared, universal state across all of them.
For example, we can have ElyriaMUD and Chronicles of Elyria both talking to the server at the same time. It looks something like this:
A side-by-side view of Chronicles of Elyria in both the Unreal Client, and the ElyriaMUD client
That wraps up the stuff we've done over the last six months. I hope your takeaway is that things are moving along great, and we're extremely happy with the progress. That said, I think many of you want a clearer picture of where we are in the overall timeline, and by how much we've been off on our estimates.
The truth is, our estimates were pretty accurate. However, as you'll soon see, there's a difference between timelines and schedules, it's possible to be accurate with one, while the other drifts apart.
Before we jump in and take a look at the new, estimated schedule of development I wanted to take a moment and talk briefly about timelines vs. schedules.
In project management, the key difference between a timeline and a schedule is the presence of dates. When talking about a timeline we're generally focused on the order in which events will occur, and the relative work involved, in man-hours, man-weeks, etc., of completing some set of tasks.
Because timelines focus on concepts such as order, priority, and time, they tend to change less often and are more reliable than schedules. With that said, they do sometimes change due to outside influences and either way, a thoughtful, carefully planned timeline is essential to having any kind of believable schedule.
On the other hand, schedules are created when you take a timeline and lay it over a calendar. Once you incorporate vacations and sick-leave, weekends, holidays, etc. you're able to create a rough approximation of when things will be worked on and when things are likely to be completed. But because unplanned events are still prone to occur, schedules are always more unreliable than timelines.
I say this so that as we take a look at the new approximate schedule you understand that what we're showing is still prone to change. Furthermore, aside from a few key alterations we're making now, while our schedule has shifted from our original predictions, our timeline generally hasn't.
We always predicted about 6-9 months of early, pre-alpha development, and about 12 months of active development focused on the various game-mechanics. For the most part, we're right in line with our timeline. We started focusing on core server work about 7 months ago, and are now moving into gameplay mechanics. Unfortunately, while our timeline has been fairly accurate, our schedule has slipped.
You see, when we first launched our Kickstarter last May and gave our estimates of an 18-month development cycle, we made two invalid assumptions.
First, we assumed that we'd be able to lock ourselves away and quietly go about development while the community patiently waited. Heh. Nope. We've got an extremely enthusiastic, extremely passionate community that demands nothing but the best player experience possible. We love it, and wouldn't have it any other way! But... keeping engaged with the community, and working to ensure a positive player-experience takes time and resources. Time and resources we didn't account for.
Second, we wrongly assumed that having a kick-ass game design, a rock-solid team of core employees, and a successful Kickstarter under our belt would immediately draw in world-renowned talent. Again, nope. While we have slowly drawn in the best talent we could hope to work with, it's taken time - primarily in recruiting our engineers. We continued to have only a single engineer from May until December of 2016. That had a huge impact on our ability to maintain our intended development schedule.
In effect, we began a relay race with no runners on the track. Then, at some point after the race started, people slowly began to step onto the track with our pennant on and immediately hauled ass to where the next person should be. At first, there was nobody there and so our engineers were forced to do a second lap, but as time has gone on and we've gained in credibility, more runners have joined our team and now we're starting to catch up. We have a team of rockstars, but no matter how fast they are, they simply won't be able to close the gap in the time we've lost.
In short, while we're actually right where we should be, we're obviously not when we'd like to be. Let's take a look at the new estimated schedule.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this State of Elyria, we went from a point of giving precise dates on internal milestones to not even providing information about which year we expected the game to ship in. That was obviously a radical shift in transparency, a mistake, and something we intend to remedy now.
That said, I don't think players expect or really even want exact dates at this point. In fact, I'm not certain our backers want to know when work will be completed. I think more than anything what they want to see is a clear sense of progress and an idea of what we're working on at any given time.
To that end, below is an approximate schedule - not of when we expect the work to be complete - but when we expect to be under active development toward a particular deliverable or milestone. Providing a timeline in this format allows us to have an open, transparent, candid conversation about what and when we're working on something, while still giving us the freedom to make changes sprint-to-sprint and change the dates of our internal milestones to suit our development needs.
For easy reading Q3, and Q4 means "Quarter 3 and Quarter 4." T1, T2, and T3 means "trimester 1, 2, or 3," and implies a 4-month window. S1 and S2 means "semester 1 or 2" and implies a six-month window of time.
Now that you've seen the new, revised timeline I wanted to take a quick moment and talk about the "Cone of Uncertainty." The Cone of Uncertainty is a project management phenomenon typically described as a graph which can be seen here.
What this graph means is that the further you are from achieving some kind of task the harder it is to predict with any accuracy the date, quality, or cost of completing the task or project and the higher the variance.
Put differently, if I were realistically one day from completing a task I'd be able to say with a high degree of certainty that the task will be completed "tomorrow." On the other hand, if I were a year from completing a task, it would be extremely difficult to say with any sort of confidence the precise date the task would be completed on. To have any sort of confidence in my estimate I'd have to provide a date with a high degree of variance; say, "some time within this 30-day period."
This is a natural phenomenon and is a result of uncertainty and unknowns, and the acceptance of chaos in the universe. People get sick, people go on unplanned emergency trips, people get stuck at the airport overseas, features take longer to nail down than anticipated, etc. In short, life is unpredictable and attempts at predicting with any certainty when something will happen years, months, or even weeks out is generally unreliable.
As a result, when looking at our updated timeline you'll notice that the further out an event is planned on the timeline, the less accurate the date range. Don't be alarmed, that's just accounting for the Cone of Uncertainty.
Things which are supposed to happen within the next six months are expected to be accurate to within a three month period of time. Things further out become less accurate, first to four months, and then to six months. Again, these are just estimates of when we'll be working on things, but we believe they serve to provide you context on what/when we'll be working on things.
The next thing I wanted to address was a few key changes to the order of events in our expanded timeline. Specifically, if you look carefully you'll notice there there is:
Let's talk about each a bit.
Delay of Prologue
The first topic I wanted to address is the delay of Prologue. When we first started CoE we intended to use the Prologue as both an introduction to the lore and story of the game, as well as a way to get player feedback on the client-side mechanics of the game. That is, how does the game feel. The idea was for the Prologue to include some of the crafting professions, some of the combat mechanics, a small sample area, and the ability to craft, fight, move around, equip/unequip things, open your inventory and paper-doll, etc. Basically, a small sample-set of everything that doesn't really require a network connection to validate.
Well, there were a few problems with that plan.
For the above reasons, we've decided to postpone the Prologue until closer to launch, just before Exposition and Beta. But that comes with benefits as well. It means there will be more content available for people to experience in the Prologue, it'll provide more build-up to launch, and most importantly - we'll already have our world-building systems and architecture tools in place.
So we've decided to not only change the timing of the Prologue, but also release a purchasable add-on to the Prologue called the CoE Adventure Toolkit. While the Prologue itself will be free to download and play as a solo experience, those who are interested can purchase the add-on to build buildings and structures, generate and layout settlements, dungeons, quests, adventures, and more. Those creations can then be shared with the community and played-through with maybe 5-10 friends. We're not sure which approach we're going to take yet, but this will either be run as a locally-hosted version of a mini-CoE Game Server, or deployed to our cloud.
But whichever approach we take, this will allow you to - before the launch of Chronicles of Elyria - create your own unique quests and adventures, and invite players onto your server to experience the adventures you've created. Additional content SBS creates will be made available to purchase as content packs so you can continue to expand your adventures with more creatures, animals, and environments.
We'll have more information about the CoE Adventure Toolkit and game servers in 2018.
Splitting of ElyriaMUD & KoE
Another change we're making to the timeline is the splitting of ElyriaMUD and Kingdoms of Elyria. Before, the two pre-alpha experiences were planned to launch as close in proximity as possible. However, as time has gone on we've realized that the features that make up ElyriaMUD will be available well in advance of those required for KoE, and we don't want to delay the launch of ElyriaMUD for the benefit of KoE. Furthermore, only the features of ElyriaMUD are required for Alpha 1. By separating the two it allows us to release Alpha 1 to the community as quickly as possible, which is desirable with the postponement of the Prologue.
In addition, we can confirm that both ElyriaMUD and Kingdoms of Elyria will use the same client and servers, with only the addition of new UI/UX and additional game mechanics being added between the two. So the experience will be the same for everyone, with the Nobility and Aristocracy getting additional screens and user input modes.
Delay of Domain/Settlement Selection
Continuing on from the previous section, the separation of ElyriaMUD from KoE gives us another unique opportunity. Settlement / Domain selection is only really necessary for Kingdoms of Elyria. It isn't necessary for ElyriaMUD. So instead of having Selection happen BEFORE ElyriaMUD, we're going to put it after.
Why? This gives all paid backers an opportunity to jump into ElyriaMUD at some point before selection and test out the game mechanics, and experience the different tribes and biomes first-hand before having to make a decision about which biome they ultimately want to play in. It also allows players to build up a larger social network before Kingdoms of Elyria, not to mention test your ping to the server you intend to play on!
To do that though, we also need to re-target the goal of ElyriaMUD. The events in ElyriaMUD for the period of time before Kingdoms of Elyria is released will not be persistent. Players will be able to play whatever character they want, in whatever family they want, anywhere on the continent. It'll all be wiped before KoE. We will also likely take the server up and down periodically and move it to different regions of the globe. While it won't help with combat-latency, it'll also give us a better idea of the type of latency and ping issues we'll experience at an earlier date.
All-in-all, this means players will get access to ElyriaMUD and Alpha 1 quicker, and will have more information and have built a larger social network before having to jump into Domain and Settlement Selection.
While we've already taken a look at the long-term schedule of Chronicles of Elyria, I wanted to use this final section of the State of Elyria to talk more about the features of Chronicles of Elyria, the way we'll be presenting information to you all going forward, and what we'll be working on in the immediate future.
One of the things we've come to understand as we've interacted with the community over the last six months is the importance of managing the expectations of the community. It's very easy, in the absence of concrete information, for the imaginations of players to run wild. Unfortunately, imagination soon becomes whispers, whispers become rumors, rumors become fact, and then two years from now we'll be finishing up CoE to the disappointment of all as we reveal that we don't have spaceships, steampunk blimps, terraforming, or the ability to re-route rivers.
So I wanted to, at this point in development, share with you a condensed form of our feature list. Please understand, this isn't everything. The actual spreadsheet of CoE's individual features is significantly longer. This is a condensed version which is intended to give you a good idea, with some application of logic, of what the game encompasses. If you're concerned from looking at this list that something was cut, it wasn't. If we advertised something previously in our kickstarter video, a Q&A, or a design journal, it's still in. We may have simply moved it under a higher level feature, which as a result causes it not to be listed here. One final note, many of the items in the list may not make sense. I have no intention of explaining every single one. But, in the spirit of transparency, here's the list.
Back at the end of June Vye made a blog post titled "What Seams to Be", in which she mentioned the end of updates as we know them. This was in preparation for a change we've been planning, to both the rate at which we release information, as well as the format in which we release them.
In specific, in her post she talked about how instead of a single, bi-weekly production update we would be moving to a system of having several different types of blog posts. In particular, we'd have design journals, production journals, community journals, and Soulbound Studios broadcasts. Well, I wanted to dive in and provide more details.
In a meeting with Kaizen, Vye, and myself, we discussed how our system of doing epics (aka quests) as an adventuring party would also translate well into a system of doing outward facing communication. Instead of just telling you about how things are progressing with the parties, we could provide insight into the entire party life-cycle process. This would range from the formation and retrospective of the parties, to a format of the functional design document we create at the beginning of each quest, and including the production updates we'd done previously.
So going forward, we're planning to use a system that looks something like this:
Step 1: Kaizen posts a public-facing version of our functional spec or design document. This would provide you with insight into our ambitions for a specific mechanic, and details about the upcoming features the party would be working on. It would identify the name of the party, as well as its members.
Step 2: We do a live Q&A about the party. This'll give you an opportunity to ask clarifying questions about the work the party will be doing, as well as any details you might have about the feature work.
Step 3: We provide one or more production updates, depending on the time it takes for the party to complete their work. This would likely include concept art, screenshots, animations & videos, or anything else that helps show off the progress we've been making.
Step 4: We release a final or close-to-final feature video showing off the completed work.
Step 5: We film a retrospective where we discussed the challenges we encountered as a party while working on the feature sets.
The reason I like this model in particular is it provides a bit of orientation with respect to where we are within the current development cycle. Paired with the overall timeline I posted previously, you should be able to easily track the progression of the work we're doing, simply by watching the creation and completion of adventuring parties. It'll also give a much better view of exactly what the studio is working on at any given time. You'll know what features we're working on for the current deliverable, and what deliverables we're progressing on for the current milestone.
And speaking of new adventuring parties... we just created a brand new one! Well, several actually. But we may or may not present them to you as separate parties. You see, with PAX West coming up in just about five weeks, it's once again time for us to buckle down and put some spit & polish on the game. However, as we identified previously, we always aim to focus on a single experience for PAX, which often requires the involvement of the entire company. So, over the next five weeks, our focus as a studio is laser focused on (aside from the V3 website) a single deliverable: The PAX West 2017 Experience.
While we've already got our functional spec written and our parties are already established, Kaizen and I haven't had a chance to put it in a format that is easily consumable. So expect that some time next week, with a Q&A following shortly after that. In spite of us not having the write-up to you yet, we have already begun work on the PAX West experience. So... the Outreach team agreed to allow me to give you a sneak peek of what the PAX West 2017 experience will be about. Enjoy!
Sneak Peek at the PAX West 2017 Experience
We've come to the end of the line. We've already done a look back at the past six months and shown the complete list of features for CoE. We've given an updated schedule of development, and we've even given a teaser on what the next five weeks looks like for Soulbound Studios. What could we end with that could possibly add more value?
Easy - what we'll be doing in Quarter 4 of 2017! As we talked about earlier, the first six months of 2017 has been largely focused on laying down a plethora of functional ground-work, mostly focused on the back-end system which, while not visually interesting, is extremely important to our overall development workflow. If you look back at our projected timeline you'll see that the focus of Q4 is going to be on ElyriaMUD. The time will have come for us to put aside the core systems and begin heavily focusing on the exciting gameplay mechanics listed in the (admittedly) overwhelming list of features I provided above.
That's going to be an exciting time for everyone. We'll be seeing progress happening at the speed of light, and you'll finally get experience the capability of this fully armed and operational battle studio! The team is already chomping at the bit. We know we've got to focus on PAX West for the next few weeks, but the groundwork for ElyriaMUD is already in place. In fact, here's a video Kaizen pulled together of the folks here at Soulbound Studios having some fun in ElyriaMUD.
Roaming around ElyriaMUD, a Chronicles of Elyria Pre-Alpha Experience
Over the course of the last six months I've gotten the unique opportunity to work with an extremely talented team of developers who've made my passion their passion. And furthermore, I've had the opportunity to see a dream I've held and nurtured for the better part of the last 17 years become the dream of so many. As I see the passionate debates in our Discord channel and the, ahem, "spirited" posts on our forums, it's clear to not only me, but the entire studio, that Chronicles of Elyria has become a dream for you all as well.
With that in mind, continue to build the dream with us! Continue to give us your kind words of support and your reminders to get some sleep and to take care of ourselves, as your tender words of encouragement go a long way toward motivating the team through an often daunting and overwhelming task list. But whatever you do, do not give up on the dream. Continue to be patient and supportive and, before long we'll all be hanging out in ElyriaMUD and then Alpha 1.
Pledged to the Continued Advancement of the Soulborn Engine and the Chronicling of Elyria,