25 March

State of Elyria: Into the Abyss

By Caspian

It's once again time to update the community on the current State of Elyria. As you'll read by the end, the period since the last State of Elyria has been one filled with huge successes, public failures, a sense of achievement, a feeling of loss, and hope for the future. Overall, this is a bittersweet State of Elyria. But let's jump in and take a look at what the studio achieved in the last year.

CoE Adventure Mechanics (Milestone 0.5.0)

The most significant work done over the last year was on Milestone 0.5.0. This milestone was about bringing together all the gameplay mechanics we had prototyped and implemented previously into a single, playable experience. Unfortunately, not a lot of gameplay footage of this was shared outside of Early Access, as it utilized our pre-Alpha client which we dubbed "Prelyria" - short for "Pre-Elyria". There were, however, a few notable exceptions.

Traversal Mechanics

Wetlands Soundscape

Dungeon Walk-through

As a quick reminder, the art style used in the Prelyria client is made up of low-fidelity, low-polygon models with nothing but vertex shading, allowing us to focus almost entirely on gameplay functionality, quickly integrating the game mechanics we had already implemented, as well as re-implementing the mechanics we'd previously prototyped. In most game companies, this would be considered one step above "gray boxing." We chose not to share much of this outside of the Early Access group because, well, this type of media isn't really intended for the broader public. It is, after all, an early look into the mechanics. In the few occasions we did share footage of the Prelyria client, we found we received a mix of feedback from people who might not have been aware that it wasn't the intended art style for CoE or a pivot to something less high fidelity, and was instead just a part of our development process; like an artist sketching before putting ink to a piece of paper.

While our inability to show much of the Prelyria art style did us no favors, the major win for us was that it allowed the design and engineering teams to iterate quickly, without having to wait for the art team. Likewise, the low fidelity models lent themselves well to less fine-tuned animations, which meant the design and engineering teams weren't blocked waiting for the animation folks. This approach of allowing art, design, and engineering to make forward progress without a ton of inter-dependencies on each other is a hallmark of the way we managed development.

And, in case you missed our announcement about the launch of our Pre-Alpha testing, here's a list of some of things that were implemented in the last year. Let's take a look:

  • Basic and advanced traversal mechanics and animations
  • Combat, NPC Combat AI, and animations
  • Combat combo system and combo management
  • Basic Survival mechanics (food, water, shelter)
  • NPC personalities and AI routines (go to work, sleep, hang out with friends, etc)
  • NPC interaction and animations
  • NPCs giving the player contracts
  • Events unfolding by the Story Engine
  • Giving and receiving information using the Knowledge System
  • Procedural dungeon generation
  • Character attributes as they apply to survival, combat, etc
  • Equipment, Inventory, and management of both
  • Environment exploration for the Tropical Wetlands, Semi-Arid Desert, and Lower Montane Forest
  • Creature models, animations, and AI
  • Interacting with objects and stations in the world for contracts, stories, etc
  • Character skills a they relate to all of the above activities

You can see a good percentage of this, earlier in the development process, in this gameplay video from back in September:

Prelyria Playtest Footage - Sep. 2019

All-in-all, a ton of work was done over the last year and while we weren't quite ready to launch a public pre-Alpha, we did feel it was time to start working our way through the above list, getting focused feedback from players in various formats for each of the above mechanics. So with respect to the core gameplay loop, this last year ended with us putting the Trial of the Tested pre-Alpha experience into the hands of our Alpha 1 backers. While there were some bugs here and there, which we'd expect from a pre-Alpha, the feedback overall has been quite good.

As I've communicated to a few people, the thing I liked most about getting these locomotion mechanics into the hands of players is it a did much better job of demonstrating the "high adventure" feel of the traversal puzzles in Chronicles of Elyria. Going back to our earliest version of the website, and even on the site now, under our core design pillars there is talk of Elyria being a world where the heroes must be truly heroic, and there being a blending of player and character skill. The locomotion mechanics in the recent pre-Alpha test including platforming, sprinting, vaulting, tightrope walking, balance beams, etc. reflect some of the range of locomotion mechanics people will experience in CoE.

It should be understood, however, that they won't generally all be present in a single location. Instead, each of them represents a use in other mechanics, such as traversing the jungle, maneuvering through town - high atop the buildings, or swinging from ship to ship at sea. I love that players finally got a chance to see and provide feedback on some of what it means to be an adventurer in Elyria.

Domain & Settlement Selection

The other significant work done in 2019 was our work on world generation, necessary for getting the Domain & Settlement Selection event completed. While Domain & Settlement Selection was, on the surface, an event allowing the aristocracy and nobility to pick their settlements and domains, it was so much more than that underneath.

In order for people to make informed decisions about their chosen settlements and domains, and to ensure we weren't breaking game balance while generating the worlds, we spent a significant amount of time tuning and balancing each of the biomes. This included balancing the amount of food in each biome, including both hunted and gathered foods such as game, fish, farmland and plant-based foods. It also meant balancing the amount of wood and other non-renewable resources such as stone, sand, clay, and mineral deposits. This time-consuming tuning process was done to ensure that we weren't introducing too many or too few resources into each of the settlements and domains, a task that is extremely difficult without play testing.

This of course, was on top of the process of generating four unique continents that each fit into 96km x 192km bounding boxes, down to a 4m resolution, including running water simulations that calculated where the lakes and rivers would be, based on soil composition and biome parameters. All-in-all, this was a feat never attempted before in a gaming studio, definitely not one as small as our little studio.

When all was said and done, there were technical issues with our website which delayed both the launch of Domain & Settlement Selection, and then the launch of Settlers of Elyria. These delays cast long, dark shadows on what should have otherwise been a celebration of real and meaningful advancements in game design and engineering.

To learn more about the world generation process, check out our YouTube video created by Snipehunter. Make sure to watch the very end where he gives an idea of the real size and scale of Elyria.

Map Generation Demo

Core Game & Online Experiences

In addition to talking about some of the things we achieved in the last year, I also wanted to talk briefly about some of the things we learned; and changes we made to help in our path forward.

Around November of last year (2019) it occurred to us that we'd been emphasizing the wrong things. As long-time game developers it was important to us that we spend the most time developing and testing the things that were going to impact the most people. As a result, we began developing CoE from the "ground up". We implemented character creation, character management, and all the above adventuring mechanics because "hey, everyone has to move around, use skills, and survive right?" That mindset drove the largest part of development because that's the way games have always been developed in the past. Get the core game loop down, focus on the things that will impact the most people, and polish those first.

The problem is, while it's true that those things impact the most people, they don't impact the largest number of our current backers. The reality is, at this point in our development, the vast majority of active, engaged, contributing community members are gentry, aristocracy, and nobility. And it's not to say that they don't care about the previously mentioned adventure mechanics, they just care more about the things that define their roles as gentry, aristocracy, and nobility. They care about kingdom management, criminal justice, technology & research, religion, land management, crafting, settlement management, casus belli, seiging, and more... But those were all the mechanics we'd pushed to the Alpha 2 milestone to implement. This resulted in the people most engaged in our community being repeatedly told "we're not there yet," "we don't have answers to that yet," or worse, we occasionally gave the best answers we could, only to discover later, when we dug deeper into those mechanics, that we were wrong.

This left our backers feeling a bit alienated and ignored. So in November of last year we hired a new producer and split the company into two teams: The Core Game Team, still focused on the Alpha 1 adventuring mechanics, and the Online Experiences team, focused on the Alpha 2 mechanics.

The plan was to let each team make forward progress in parallel, releasing a public, playable demo to the community every four months, staggered by two months. The Core Game Team was going to ship playable, testable experiences related to the above adventuring mechanics, while the Online Experiences team was going to focus on shipping web experiences that enabled testing and validating the kingdom management, land management, economy, settlement management, and other Alpha 2 mechanics.

The first milestone for the Online Experiences Team was the December Settlers of Elyria event, since it was already planned to release in December, with the Core Game Team releasing their first playable demo, the Trial of the Tested in March. The Online Experiences team would then follow that up with Personas, Organizations, and other mechanics in May, during our annual Kickstarterversary.

It was a solid plan. Unfortunately, issues with the website, and problems with 3rd party partners blocked the release of Settlers of Elyria until March. Pushing back the OX team by several months. Fortunately, the Core Game Team was on point, on schedule, and delivered a playable demo that met our high quality bar, even for a pre-Alpha experience. In an ideal world, the story would end there. Unfortunately, the delay of Settlers of Elyria, Covid-19, and our infernal need to crowdfund has led us down a dark path, into the Abyss....

Into the Abyss

For the last four years, since May of 2016, Soulbound Studios has been a crowdfunded company. Our first game, Chronicles of Elyria, has been funded, thus far, almost entirely through the pledges and generosity of our backers. But that was never our intent. When we launched our Kickstarter back in 2016, it was with the plan to use the money to hire additional staff, put together a playable demo, and quickly attract publishers who would be willing to fund the remainder of development. So our plan was to use Kickstarter to, you know, kick-start the development process.

We were fortunate, or unfortunate as it turned out, to attract publishers very early on in our development process. We had publishers from all over the world flying in to meet the team, see our development progress, and get hands-on with the game. But after being in production for just a few months, there wasn't enough to show yet. So the conversations generally went something like "Either work faster, show us more, or we're going to want to take over development and make changes to the business model." This was unacceptable to us, and one by one the conversations with publishers fell silent. Fortunately, we were able to continue crowdfunding for another couple years, at which point we felt like we were finally ready to start talking with investors. The problem was, by two years into development, and two years being crowdfunded, our inability to get a large influx of several million in cash meant development was going slower than we'd have liked. It was all good development, necessary, and even appropriate for our team size, but slower than we'd have liked.

Unfortunately, we weren't able to find investors who understood that operating in a cash-lean environment doesn't allow for growth, and stifles velocity. What we did find were several investors who said "Why are you talking with us? If you're confident crowdfunding will sustain you, then you don't need us. And if you're not confident it'll sustain you, then we're not confident enough to invest." For better or worse, we suspected that in order to get an investor, development was going to have to be far enough long that they simply couldn't refuse because we were so close to being done. So our goal for the last year or more has been to push forward as hard and fast as we could, relying solely on crowdfunding, until at least the Alpha 1 was complete. And up until now, we were successful....

But to our great sadness.... with the failure of Settlers of Elyria, and five long months of only limited crowdfunding revenue coming in, Soulbound Studios has officially run out of money. Last night I was forced to do something I never thought I'd have to do. I closed the online store, put the SoE map back into read-only mode, and laid off all the employees...

Before taking the store down and laying off all the employees I had a long conversation with Vye and Snipehunter. We considered long and hard about launching our Kickstarterversary early this year, and being open with the community about our need for additional funding. We were pretty confident that if we made all of our previous promo items available for sale on the store, and were transparent about our needs, that the community would rally behind us, pledge more support, and sustain us long enough to get more playable content into the hands of our backers. With gameplay that was directly relevant to the aristocracy and nobility, with more information about kingdom and land management, that might have been enough to sustain us until we could get to Alpha 1 and land some investors.

But we decided not to. While we had no doubt that our backers would come to our aid, we're living in a volatile period in our world's history. With unprecedented changes to society caused by the Covid-19 outbreak, and with economies beginning to suffer all around the world, I made the hard decision not to try and get additional crowdfunding. I knew doing so would mean having to close the studio. But it was the right thing to do. I'd rather people spend their money on games they can play now, or better yet, food and shelter, rather than on the continuned development of Chronicles of Elyria.

So, with no additional funding, the Chronicles now descend into what is often referred to in the monomyth or the Hero's Journey as "The Abyss" or "The Ordeal." It's the period in a story where the protagonist reaches their lowest point, and is often marked by a figurative or even literal death, allowing them to travel into the underworld. And so, for the time being, Chronicles of Elyria heads into the darkness...

Metamorphosis & Atonement

So the next obvious question most of you are asking yourselves, immediately after thinking, "way to bury the lede!", is "is this the end of Elyria then?". The answer is, I hope not. Continuing on with the Hero's Journey, the stage right after the Ordeal or "The Abyss" is Metamorphosis or Atonement. It's the period of the story where, having to transform themselves in order to make it out of the abyss, the hero becomes something better than they were before. Leaving the darkness behind, they emerge into the light, atone for their failures, and then move forward into the real growth-point of the story.

In spite of the fact that I had to lay off all of the employees, many of them communicated to me that they approved of our current trajectory of building the Alpha 2 mechanics into something playable, something like a "Kingdoms of Elyria". Many of them, in their relentless passion, volunteered to continue working on it in their spare time. We all agreed that there's still a ton of unexplored lore in the different religions of Elyria and there's still more stories to tell of the different tribes. Nobody here at the studio is really willing to let go of the world we've created.

To date, there are hundreds of Discord servers out there with gentry, aristocracy, and nobility role-playing and fantasizing about the world we've been creating. And we don't want to see that end. We believe there's still a future for Elyria, we're just not sure in what shape or form it'll take, and when it'll be available. But we still believe in the vision we had, and in the world we were creating. So for some of us, the journey continues...

Back in November of 2014, before I even had images on the CoE website, when it was just a note written in black & white text, I posted a dev journal that referred to Chronicles of Elyria as a journey of a thousand miles. It has indeed been a journey of thousand miles, but I hope it has also been a journey with a thousand faces, and that this isn't the end of the journey, just a transformation into something that will some day be even better. To that end, I plan to leave the forums and Discord open, so that the communities that have been built over time can remain connected and engaged as long as possible. I don't know if or when Elyria will resurface, but when it does, you'll all be the first to know. From myself, Souzou, Vye, Snipehunter, Serpentius, and all the rest of the Soulbound team, thank you for your love and support. We'll see you around.

Pledged to the Continued Development of the Soulborn Engine and the Chronicles of Elyria,