Wednesday, May 4, 2016

That New Minecraft Server Smell

I love new Minecraft worlds. That feeling of limitless possibility: new machines to build, new landscapes to explore, new ideas to try. So for 1.9 I've reset my Minecraft server.

My first goal for it was to try something a little new with respect to landscapes, so this time I've made it generate using the AMPLIFIED terrain type. What this does is basically turn everything into extreme biomes, with extremely exaggerated vertical features. The result is lots of super high mountains all the way to build height, very deep valleys, floating islands, massive overhangs, and all in all it looks absolutely gorgeous.

World Spawn
The above image is just the area where World Spawn is, and already you can see a number of floating islands in the distance, and crazy mountainous terrain. I cannot wait to start exploring some deserts, mesas, and ice spikes biomes to see what happens there. There's a swamp to my right in that picture, and swamps became superflat, so that'll make for some awesome slime hunting at night. There's also a witch hut in a stone throw's distance, so I may finally get to make a witch farm, too.

The house there is my communal spawn hut. I'm hoping as folks join the server they'll make shops and services in the (relatively) flat plains area. For now I've created a mineshaft, a basic house, a cow farm, a tree farm, sugarcane, and a carrots+wheat farm. All manual of course. Took me about 4 hours, so not so bad.

Inside is very basic still.
But given just how up and down the terrain is, and all of the overhangs, exploration in an amplified world is a fair bit more dangerous than a normal world. Mobs spawn during the day under floating islands and overhangs and sudden drops will kill you quick, plus exploration in general is slower because there's so much more climbing.

I've already died twice: once from a creeper dropping in from above me and exploding, and another time falling to my death. Still getting used to the 1.9 combat mechanics.

Anyhow, for my Twitter/Facebook/Blogging/Battle.NET friends, if you're interested in playing, drop me a line and I'll be happy to have you on. I'm going to keep my invites to folks I interact with semi-regularly to keep the possibility of griefing low. Note that it is a Vanilla server, no server mods, but frankly I'm okay with that. Anyhow, server is new and pristine, and playing with friends is fun!
#Minecraft

Thursday, April 28, 2016

[IndieDev] How Three Strangers Won PAX East 2016

PAX East 2016 was a total blast. I could talk about how so many people told us Eon Altar was unique, or I could talk about how busy we were, or I could talk about the hiccups we ran into during setup and after.
Eon Altar @ PAX East 2016
Instead, I want to tell a story. A story of three totally disparate strangers, who all showed up at our booth around the same time and forged what will probably be a lifelong bond, but also showed us as developers what our game is really capable of.


Excitement in the Air

After the slow start we had on Friday, Saturday was full of promise. We had gotten all of our technical difficulties solved, and some of us finally had a decent night's sleep. We were rarin' to go and meet the crowds.

As the day progressed, we had plenty of folks in and out of our booth. Most people who sat down for a combat arena session would get to about Wave 7 before falling apart, but they all left the booth with smiles on their faces. To me that was probably the biggest compliment of all: seeing folks legitimately enjoy the game we put together over the past couple of years. It was invigorating.

About halfway through the day, just after lunch, we had someone stop by the booth. He was so stoked to try out Eon Altar; it looked unique and pretty cool. But of course, as is wont to happen on the show floor, there was a line to play the game. But he was willing to wait. Shortly thereafter, a couple more guys stopped by, and they were pretty interested too.

Soon a demo station opened up, and Haydn--our executive producer--sat them down on the grey and teal beanbags, handing them each a cell phone. Once the combat arena had booted up, the game was afoot. Or a game. The game was on, in either case.

The Intrepid Trio discussing strategy
They didn't plan ahead really. They just grabbed characters that appealed to them at first glance. Baryson the Paladin, Muran the Battlemage, and Shasek the Sellsword. The first few waves whetted their appetites for the blood of their enemies--well, really it just allowed them to get a handle on the unique controls--but quickly they realized that there was more value in working together.


Cooperation Isn't Just For Sesame Street

The thing about PAX is that you often hear of stories of people making friends for life. In lines, in random games, at panels, whatever. At PAX Aus, I made a number of friends who're such an amazing amount of fun that I went back again two years later. While PAX Aus was a draw unto itself, meeting my Aussie friends a second time was honestly the better part of it. But I don't think I've ever had the chance to watch the process happen.

A different group of three players strategizing. They already knew each other going in.
Our intrepid trio, having never met before in their lives, began to talk about their characters' capabilities. Other groups had kept to themselves, often not chatting up the strangers playing with them. Not these guys. And very quickly they realized that they were a fighting force to be reckoned with.

Thanks to some pointers from Hadyn on how some of the more in-depth systems worked, such as ability, weapon, and armor advancement, and equippable/craftable consumables, the group fell into a cautious, tactical pattern as they chewed their way through wave after wave of enemies.

A few groups had managed to get past Wave 10, the second boss wave. Nearly none had managed beyond that point. Outnumbered three to one (or more!), and outgunned by Arbolek Spine Tyrants and Hound Masters, without cooperation those groups were doomed to die.

Arbolek Spine Tyrant
But these gentlemen managed to not only slay those waves, but did so with nearly full health and energy by the end of each wave. By Wave 15, they were stopping every turn to discuss their options, and combine their powers in ways we--the developers--hadn't thought of. Baryson keeping the party healed, buffed, and protected while the mage and sellsword cleared the way.


Amicis, Rei Militaris

I'll be honest. I never expected them to get as far as they did. I also didn't expect them to take five minutes a turn--or longer--as they leaned in and discussed all of their options. I knew we had worked hard to design a game that had an interesting combat system. We had good bones so to speak in the original design by Christoph Sapinsky, and Scott Penner took the reins on combat with further iterations, with some input by yours truly. But I admit I took it all for granted a little. I thought our game wasn't actually that difficult or complex combat-wise.

These newfound friends proved me wrong.

By the time they had completed Wave 25--the furthest nearly any of us had ever been excepting Luke Reynolds, our finance guy, playing solo--over two hours had passed. Two hours at a demo station! On one hand, I was concerned that we were preventing others from taking a shot at it. On the other hand, we had three people who were now all heatedly cooperating and friends for life showing us things about our game that I don't know we knew or believed. I didn't want to stop them.

Alas, some UI confusion did them in on Wave 26, and one of the trio died permanently. Shortly after the other two folded like the beanbags they were sitting on. But they had set records, and they were absolutely pumped. They had basically won PAX East 2016, as far as any of us were concerned.

These guys won so hard, it's true.

Aftermath and Emotion

We had others come through our booths attempting to replicate that feat, many of them having watched part of the epic run, but none came close. One group managed Wave 16 on their second attempt, but we had to boot them in favour of bringing more people through eventually.

Two of our heroes came back on Sunday to talk with us about our plans for the future. I'd like to say we had everything they ever wanted covered, but everyone knows indie dev can't work like that. It hurts to have to tell people, well, perhaps not "no" but "we'd like to but we can't afford it right now."

But seeing their excited faces and hearing their super intense tactical talk was absolutely like nothing else I've experienced. I enjoyed working for Microsoft, but no offense, spreadsheets can't compare to seeing people viscerally love what you've built. It's the most amazing feeling in the world. That moment alone made all the difficulties of PAX East 2016 worthwhile to me.

So thank you, strangers, for coming to play our indie game at our indie booth, and showing us how to play.
#IndieDev, #GameDevelopment, #PAX

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

[IndieDev] PAX East Bound! Marketing and Conventions

Just a quick update post, Eon Altar will have a booth with the Indie Megabooth for PAX East this year. I'll be headed out with the band to help man the booth, which is a super fun time. This will be my third convention for Eon, so I'm definitely getting the whole booth thing down. It helps that I have a few years of retail employment under my belt, as well. Not something I expected to ever use as a software developer, but hey, whatever works, right?

Our PAX Prime 2015 Booth, before the floor opened
Our booth should be even better than our PAX Prime booth, which was awesome but cramped. We've learned more about good ways to present our game, and just have more space in general. We also have a bit of help now from folks who actually have marketing experience, such as Kristen Beane of The Game Doctors, which should also help.

Speaking of help, we have Ali Baker, of Machinima and RoosterTeeth fame also helping us with our booth this time, which is pretty cool.
A lot of this comes down to as indie developers, we may know how to make games, but marketing and presenting them is another matter entirely. From the work I've done so far on the marketing side, I literally have no idea what I'm doing. I can throw together neat features in relatively shorts amount of time, I can help design our UI and mechanics, but hawking our wares? Shooting in the dark.

However, I'm still (sorta) the face of the dev team, being the most active member on social media, our forums, tech support, blog posts, and the like. And I plan on continuing in that role! But it'll be great to have people who do this sort of thing for a living to help guide us.

Marketing the meta-game around couch co-op is...difficult
So yeah, PAX East, woo! We should also have a fun patch dropping around the same time that has been "Coming Soon!" since our initial Early Access release, so keep an eye out for that too!
#IndieDev, #GameDevelopment, #PAX

Sunday, April 10, 2016

[WoW] Classic Blizzard-Run Servers? Code, Logistics, Marketshare Point To "No"

Wilhelm over at TAGN had a great post the other day on Blizzard's shutdown of the Nostalrius Classic WoW private servers, talking about the potential market and reasons why or why Blizzard might not go the route of creating their own Classic WoW server.

Personally I'm of the opinion that no, we won't see Blizzard-run Classic WoW servers anytime soon. Mostly because of code, logistics and possibly not enough profit to make the investment risk worthwhile.


Code
"...you get the old hardware, the old code, because the old code is meant to run on the old hardware, the old data, the old bugs, all that kind of stuff. Of course the natural expectation is that well you would fix all that stuff." -- Tom Chilton
The biggest barrier for Blizzard's entry is probably just getting old code up and running. As Tom Chilton's quote above indicates, assuming they could get the old code out of their backups--depending on how their code repository stores 10 - 14 year old data, which is a huge potential issue by itself, especially around art assets--they also need to rebuild the old hardware for the server code. There'll be code that relies on timing or performance characteristics of CPUs, RAM, internal networking, etc.

And if they couldn't get the old hardware again, they'd have to fix any number of potential bugs that would be caused by moving to a new hardware profile. Trying to figure out if that timing issue is a bug that existed in Vanilla, or due to hardware modifications.

That also doesn't take into account that their server OS--likely a Linux or UNIX variant--has had 10+ years of security, performance, and API tweaks. They certainly don't want to use a 10 year old OS for security issues, but the code may not even compile correctly anymore because OS modules have evolved over the years. Heck, for both client and server, they may need to be adjusted for newer compilers in general. Not to mention that Blizzard's current build pipe has evolved such that it would take more work to adjust Vanilla WoW development to fit the build pipe.

Speaking of security, WoW servers would have had a number of bug fixes over the years for security and anti-cheating technology that would be wholly missing from Vanilla WoW. Blizzard certainly wouldn't want to ship security holes even if they decided the anti-cheating tech wasn't worth the effort, just because it could potentially leave the rest of their network compromised. Those bug fixes would have to be identified and ported back.

Also, Blizzard's Authentication servers have evolved over the years, including support for 2-Factor Auth and likely protocol changes to the auth service itself for security reasons. Those would have to be back-ported into Vanilla WoW.

Then there's also the client itself, which would possibly need tweaks to handle newer graphics cards. Theoretically DX11 and DX12 are both backwards compatible with DX9, but that's not to say there aren't graphics card specific issues. Even on Eon Altar for Unity we've hit the occasional graphics card that just barfs on things and needs a specific solution. The cost here is almost entirely on the test team rather than the engineering team, but it's still not cheap.

There's no Battle.NET integration in Vanilla WoW on the client or the server, so that's another feature they'd have to port, and that one's a doozy. Part of it likely would come with the auth server changes (since they hook up with BNet), but current friend lists across games would need to be re-implemented.

It also ignores any further bug fixes to the game. These might include networking optimizations to make the game more responsive/efficient, content issues, systems bugs, and so on. While folks might be okay with Blizzard shipping a buggy game as is for nostalgia value, Blizzard's quality bar internally is probably set higher than that.

None of the above is impossible. Just an immense amount of work, and not all of it easily identified, especially in the cases of security and hardware bugs.


Logistics
"But kind of maintaining that many different versions of the game is just not really feasible. Particularly in a world where people that are playing right now really want more content, not less." -- Tom Chilton
Let's say we've identified all the potential code issues and now it's a matter of assigning people to perform the work. If we pretend that five programmers are sufficient--say, 1 senior lead, and a junior plus mid-level programmer pair for both client and server--for a year, you're talking about $600,000 to $750,000 for salary, benefits, HR, legal, equipment, and so on.

That also doesn’t include testers, build teams, deployment teams, server hardware, server ops people, data center hosting costs, marketing, and more I'm likely missing. Testing alone would be a massive endeavor, and a lot of the testing would have to be extremely technical in nature given the hardware and security issues we've potentially identified.

All of those people could be working on the next Hearthstone or Overwatch instead, so there's an opportunity cost here that's harder to quantify. Or, even working on more current WoW content as Tom Chilton mentions above. Splitting their development team when they can barely put out content fast enough as is doesn't seem wise.

I'll ballpark a figure of $2M over the course of a year for this project, though I may be undervaluing it significantly. I don't have good figures on how much marketing, testing, or data center hosting costs. Suffice to say, MMOs are expensive, even if you're starting with an existing code base.


Profit vs. Risk

If $2M is the price to beat, then Blizzard would have to sell ~133k subscription months to break even at $15/month, and that's if we ignore taxes. If I ballpark a ~16% corporate tax rate from these investor values, they're actually looking closer to ~155k subscription months to break even on the initial layout. That doesn't take into account operating costs for support, test, devops, community managers, game masters, data center hosting costs after the initial deployment, further marketing, and so on.

Nostralius was free, but they claimed to have 800,000 registered users and 150k active users on their server. Alyson Reeves used micro-transactions to net a cool $3M from her private server before she got shut down hard. So there is clearly money to be made, but the question is, is it enough?

If we assume a 100% retention rate for Nostralius customers transferring to Blizzard--which is ridiculous at face value--then Blizzard could likely break even, and make a little profit potentially.

It's not really an apples-to-apples comparison, mind, because Nostralius was in a gray area at best, and a Blizzard run server could garner customers uncomfortable with gray or black market activities, similar to how Blizzard did the same with gold buyers and the WoW Token. But it's also not a fair comparison because it's highly doubtful all of those people would pay $15 a month to play Vanilla WoW again. Similar to how RIAA claiming that 100% of pirated music count as lost sales is spurious--many of those people wouldn't have paid for the music regardless.

As an extremely rough guess, if we assume that a Vanilla server probably would mostly get 1 month tourists who wanted to just get that warm fuzzy nostalgia feeling, then if we pretend that 650k of those Nostralius users were 1 monthers and the 150k active users were 6 monthers, that turns out to be about 1,550k subscriber months. Or 1,302k after 16% tax, or 1,169k after the initial layout is subtracted. $17.5M is nothing to sneeze at if subscriber months netted $15 each (without taking into account operating costs).

But it's also a dead-end. They can't monetize Vanilla WoW the same way they can monetize Hearthstone, Heroes, or WoW. They can't release new content for it the same way WoW expansions work today, short of repeating the process for TBC, Wrath, etc. Also, no WoW Tokens, no cash shop, and do we really think Vanilla subs will actually pay $15 a month for an old product?

So yeah, they could grab a decent chunk of change for a one-time fee, but it's not a slam dunk and it's not actually that much as far as a Blizzard investment is concerned. It'd also be interesting to see if they could actually get enough employees interested in such an endeavor that they'd choose it over a newer project with more opportunities, and as mentioned in the previous section, the opportunity cost and potential of taking these employees who could be building new stuff could be lost profit as well.


Signs Point To No



There's a lot of things to keep in mind, and I'm sure there's a lot things I missed.

Assuming Blizzard could actually get the correct code, get the hardware, and get everything set up for the modern Internet and modern systems, they could probably make a neat profit. But because there's little to no room for growth after that layout, I don't see them making a huge investment here. It just doesn't seem worth it in the grand scheme of things.

At the end of the day, Blizzard--and all video game companies--are still a business.

#Blizzard, #WoW, #GameDevelopment

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The False Dichotomy Between Artistic Freedom and Work For Hire

Let's talk about butts. Hold on! Don't run away yet! I promise there's a link here!

Yes, butts. Recently, there was yet another internet kerfuffle over Blizzard removing a pose for Tracer in Overwatch, one which was the stereotypical comic book "peeking over the shoulder to show off her butt" poses. Someone complained, Blizzard removed it with barely any explanation, Internet exploded, then Jeff Kaplan posted a more complete explanation:
While I stand by my previous comment, I realize I should have been more clear. As the game director, I have final creative say over what does or does not go into the game. With this particular decision, it was an easy one to make—not just for me, but for the art team as well. We actually already have an alternate pose that we love and we feel speaks more to the character of Tracer. We weren’t entirely happy with the original pose, it was always one that we wrestled with creatively. That the pose had been called into question from an appropriateness standpoint by players in our community did help influence our decision—getting that kind of feedback is part of the reason we’re holding a closed beta test—but it wasn’t the only factor. We made the decision to go with a different pose in part because we shared some of the same concerns, but also because we wanted to create something better.

We wouldn’t do anything to sacrifice our creative vision for Overwatch, and we’re not going to remove something solely because someone may take issue with it. Our goal isn’t to water down or homogenize the world, or the diverse cast of heroes we’ve built within it. We have poured so much of our heart and souls into this game that it would be a travesty for us to do so.

We understand that not everyone will agree with our decision, and that’s okay. That’s what these kinds of public tests are for. This wasn’t pandering or caving, though. This was the right call from our perspective, and we think the game will be just as fun the next time you play it. ( http://us.battle.net/forums/en/overwatch/topic/20743015583?page=11#post-210 )
tl;dr: The art team were already working on alternate poses, and input from the community just reinforced their original issues.


Artistic Freedom in Making Games

I'm a game developer working on an indie game where artistic freedom to create the game we envision is incredibly important to us. So important that we've insisted on maintaining near complete creative control in any negotiations we've been in so far. It wouldn't be Eon Altar if certain aspects of the gameplay were changed by some external party who doesn't share our vision.

But at the same time, the game we're creating is still for others to play. That's why we do things like have play tests, focus groups, and early access: to get feedback. Find out what resonates with players, and what turns them off the game.

Not all feedback is equal, mind. Sometimes we'll look at a piece of feedback and conclude, "not our target audience." That's okay. Not everyone has to love our game. Other times we'll look at a piece of feedback and say, "hey, they're on to something here, it really is not fun in this section." Then we'll take that feedback, discuss and dissect it within our team, and decide whether we want or can take action.

When someone says "artistic freedom" I immediately get the picture of an artist in front of a canvas, painting whatever the heck they want, in whatever style they want. And if you can afford to do that, fantastic! But there's a lot more than one person's artistic freedom involved in making something as large as a video game.


Design By Committee

If and when you get hired into a company to help create something--be it a video game, video streaming software, a movie, whatever--you're part of a larger group of artists or developers working towards the exact same goal: making a compelling product people can enjoy, and therefore want to purchase. Building something of this scale is nigh impossible for one person, and therefore is generally left to a larger organization like a company.

Often times, there's a single person--like in the case of Blizzard's Overwatch, the game director--who is the be-all end-all of the vision. But the entire game might not be their vision. They're the tie-breaker when difficult creative decisions come up, or sometimes when things go off the rails and something just isn't working within the framework of the game/world/product and they need to intervene. The work itself is (usually) a product of many people coming together to build something cool.

Even for Eon Altar, we have our Creative Director, but he leaves a lot of decision-making to the rest of us. It helps that we have a small team and we're all generally on the same page when it comes to the ultimate vision of the game--we still have clashes on occasion though. But if we can't set aside our differences--maybe because we have equally logical reasons for our own ideas--then having someone who's the tie-breaker helps us move forward. Sometimes that tie-breaking is also fueled by customer feedback.

The concept of "artistic freedom" as the Internet likes to envision it where you have someone dictating how all aspects of the product should be and their vision is sacrosanct is almost entirely absent from most creative productions in real life. Heck, even novels have editors and beta readers who provide feedback to novelists, despite the actual writing of the novel usually being driven by a single person.

There are exceptions. Barone's Stardew Valley is one recent one. He is the only person actively working on the game, but even then he still takes into account customer feedback. Adding more post-marriage content is one that he decided was worthwhile feedback to implement, for example, which alters his game and his vision. And he still rejects other suggestions as well. His work is malleable, on purpose. Yet no one is decrying his artistic vision being impugned by others.


Work For Hire

There is a tension between being able to create whatever you like, and having to create something somebody else wants. Unless you're working entirely by yourself in a vacuum, your own artistic vision will be altered, nudged, changed, and influenced by others: your team, your customers, and the culture around you. Sometimes it will change during the creative process itself!

With customer input comes difficult decisions, though. You want to make a fun game, you have an idea of what would make it cool/great, but then you get feedback from many customers who hate it. See: nixing flight in World of Warcraft. Some folks saw the return of flight as Blizzard caving to people who wanted to dictate how the game was made. Some folks hailed it as "listening to their customers". Sounds similar to the consumer narratives around Tracer's butt pose in Overwatch to me. Personally I saw it as the game designers taking the feedback, and returning with a clever system that let them deliver their vision and give customers what they wanted. Win-win in my mind there.

At the end of the day, you're still creating a product to sell. If you don't want to sell it, by all means, do whatever you like, but chances are you're not part of a large team creating it if that's the case. But even if you're creating to sell, it doesn't mean you can't create something awesome (e.g.: Mona Lisa, Sistine Chapel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the original Transformers movie, all works created as work for hire).

Artistic freedom and work for hire aren't always at odds with each other, and even then, one could argue pure absolute "artistic freedom" doesn't exist outside of a vacuum anyhow, or at least total monetary freedom. It sounds like I'm contradicting myself, but I'm not. They're potentially correlated to each other, but there's not necessarily causation.


Game Devs Do What Game Devs Do

Game devs can still create whatever product they like, generally. Hatred as a game exists, it sold copies. GTA does extremely well despite critics of its hookers and violence. The Dead or Alive series has tits and asses as far as the eye can see.

In Blizzard's case, they're targeting a broad audience, which means creating many characters that fit many different archetypes. I mean, they're already shipping Widowmaker, who's fits the comic book-esque woman to a T, so it's not like they're removing everything "sexy" from the game. They've decided that's just not Tracer's style. And that's okay; it's ultimately their decision--a decision potentially of consensus internally, or top-down from the game director. But it's still their vision, their game, and their target customers are part of that vision.

#IndieDev, #Overwatch, #GameDevelopment

Monday, March 21, 2016

[Stardew Valley] A Charming, Slightly Flawed Masterclone

The game on everyone's Steam account these days is the same one I've been playing: Stardew Valley. A one-man developer job over the course of four years, it is an extremely impressive undertaking. Even more impressive that he managed to ship something, anything, let alone ship a complete and enjoyable game.

Many folks liken it to Harvest Moon with combat and many of the irks removed, but many seem unaware of Harvest Moon's cousin series, Rune Factory, which is also described as thus. In fact, I'd liken Stardew Valley as a Rune Factory with more charm but shallower combat rather than a Harvest Moon clone. But I guess people don't call Diablo-Clones "Torchlight but with <blah>", so expecting folks to be familiar with every offshoot of a given genre is probably unreasonable.

But there's been no visible game like it in the PC gaming space, and Barone knew there was a huge hole to be filled. Stardew Valley is to Farmville like Puzzle Quest is to Bejeweled. At a 40,000 foot view, they might be described as similar games, but they diverge extremely quickly. And given the popularity of Stardew, we've seen just how big that hole really was.

CAULIFLOWER DAY! I made like 77k off all that cauliflower.

Indie Development

Four years is an immensely long time. When I first heard of that timeline, I looked at what Stardew delivered and scoffed. I could probably program 80% of it in 8 - 10 months. But here's the thing, Barone didn't just program it: he designed it; he composed it; he wrote it; he drew it; he debugged it; he iterated it; he marketed it; he patched it. The game evolved significantly over that 4 years. Programming is just the tip of the iceberg. I certainly couldn't do all of that, let alone in 8 - 10 months.

Barone redid the project numerous times over his 4 year stint, saying when he had "first started [he] had no pretty much no experience." And of course, that last marathon to the finish to getting the game out in a complete form is no quick and easy march. On Eon Altar we've learned what I like to call the 20/80 rule: the last 20% will take 80% of your time. We've had most of Eon's core systems programmed relatively early in the product cycle, what's eaten our time has been iteration and polish. I imagine Barone's experience is likely similar.

He also likely struggled significantly over his time period due to industry inexperience as in the Kotaku interview, he mentioned,
"I know that any patch I release or anything, if it causes problems for people, there’s thousands of people that are going to be experiencing these problems. I have to just make very sure that everything I do is precise. Which is kind of something I’m new to. My whole development process I’ll admit was pretty sloppy. I’m not that professional. It’s like it is true indie game development, not super streamlined and polished. I’m getting used to it, and I’m starting to learn how to do this in a good way, but it’s pretty stressful."
For Eon Altar, we have the benefit of professional experience: nearly every employee has worked in AAA gaming or a big name software company previously. We've shipped products before, and thus we can bring that experience to the table at Flying Helmet Games. Disciplined practices around risk assessment, reduction, and management; estimates and timelines; what to cut, what to ship. Oh, we make plenty of mistakes, but they're usually mistakes of judgement, not necessarily obfuscated and compounded by a lack of process and experience.

That said, while Barone might have made that 4 year stint way harder on himself than he really needed to due to reinventing the wheel as far as development processes go, he's still done something many indie devs have not: shipped. And to be honest, I think he kicked ass. Pretty sure 60 hours of Stardew Valley so far can attest to how much I enjoy the game!

My farm is pretty organized, I guess.

Charms

The core loop of the game--the day/night cycle--is a satisfying just-one-more-day mechanic that rewards making plans. Tomorrow your tomatoes will be done and you'll make a few thousand gold; Thursday is the festival and you have the perfect crops to show off; Friday you want to check the wandering vendor for miscellaneous goods, and then hit the mines for more iron so you can spend Wednesday's gold on upgrading your pick-axe. The list goes on.

Now, this core loop is lifted directly from Harvest Moon--Barone has no bones about it, and that's all right: don't mess with what works.

What makes it more engaging to me than Rune Factory--the closest comparison to Stardew Valley--is how I interact with the townspeople, and concrete goals.

Rune Factory is a JRPG at heart, and thus often falls victim to anime conventions as far as personalities are concerned. That's not to say Stardew doesn't have its own stereotypes, but as someone who lives in North America, I fully admit I find the North American stereotypes more relatable--which really should show folks the importance of localization. But no localization required for me, as it's been developed in North America. Makes me wonder how European or Japanese folks would interpret the cast were it to be translated to those locales.

Also, I fully appreciate being able to romance characters of my gender. Getting the football--er, sorry, gridball jock out from the clutches of the vapid cheerleader was definitely an enjoyable experience once I got past his assholish exterior. Actually, most of the characters have really interesting back stories once you get past their mopey, day-to-day doldrums.

Farm wedding in my farm hat. Also, too bad, Halley. That boy is mine!
The other aspect that I really appreciated was the Community Center. It only took me about a year to get everything done for it, but having concrete goals to complete to guide my farm's initial growth was very helpful. The Rune Factory series has quests, but most of them focus on the combat aspect, and less on the farming aspect. Ideally I'd like something that has some sort of combination of the two, but I definitely enjoy how the Community Center was set up: here's a bunch of goals, you know them all in advance, have at 'em!


Flaws

Of course, no game is perfect, and while I love Stardew Valley to bits, there's one aspect that made me nearly quit in sheer frustration multiple times: the controls.

I use the gamepad controls, but there are some things that pretty much necessitate me switching to mouse/keyboard: buying stacks of items requires a shift-click; placing wallpaper in my house requires my mouse to target the wall; placing trellis-based crops like beans is pretty close to impossible without the mouse; placing anything like paths or sometimes even just talking to NPCs basically starts wonking out unpredictably.

A lot of these control issues boil down to the fact that gamepad support was tacked on after the fact. Most of the UI is mouse-based. In fact, the right stick controls the mouse cursor on screen, and you pretty well have to manually shove it in a corner to get the gamepad controls to act in a consistent manner, or your targeting tries to follow where the mouse cursor is on the screen. This is somewhat ameliorated by the "show target" setting, but it's still extremely messy and unpredictable. Menus are inconsistently controllable via the controller: most times them involve manually pressing an arrow on the screen with the mouse cursor rather than a simple button to scroll.

Rune Factory provides controls to crab-walk for easier crop watering/planting/hoeing, and that sort of control is sorely missing here. The number of times I've accidentally watered the middle of my crops rather than from the edge because my target jumped a square as I lined myself up is innumerable.

Controls for me are the biggest bugbear. By hour 10 I was ready to give up until I realized that the controller couldn't be used standalone, and I was stuck with some sort of chimaera control scheme. Once I figured it out, it was easy to eventually compartmentalize certain tasks to mouse vs. controller, but this is extremely frustrating.

The other issue for me is combat. Combat is extremely simplistic. There's no depth, aside from the literal depth of the given mine you're in. It's an okay diversion from farming, but I'd like to see more here. Rune Factory provides this in spades: special attacks, spells, severe weapon differentiation, boss fights. Stardew doesn't really press my button as far as combat goes. It's a serviceable system, but I bet Barone can do so much more with the tools he's put together for this stuff. I'd say he's at that last 20% place as far as combat is concerned. It could use more iteration in my personal opinion.

Taking a leek.
The Future

Stardew Valley has sold by the bucketload. Over half a million copies. That's nearly unfathomable to me to be honest. And frankly, he absolutely deserves the success. Despite my issues above, Stardew is an impressive and fun game without taking into account it was a solo job.

Given his inexperience, I'm a little concerned about how he's going to bring multiplayer about. Honestly, that's going to be a many-month job unto itself, with many frustrating bugs and desyncs. Trust me when I say multiplayer networking is a very difficult task. But it'll be a fantastic learning experience at the same time.

I'm happy he released the solo game though, before sitting down to do multiplayer. It shines brightly without it, and I'm absolutely enjoying my time on my farm with my husband.

Smoochin'

#IndieDev, #StardewValley, #FirstImpression