The Path to Next Year

Last week I announced that starting in a few months I planned to have an entire year of full-time development on URR. The response here and on other websites has been overwhelming, so I must give a huge thank you – I’m amazed at how excited and positive everyone has been, and I cannot wait to start the year! My objective is to do everything currently on the Development Plan page, and I think that is very achievable within a full year. This year will be starting within a few months (a little bit into the new academic year) and that’s what I mean when I say “next year” within this piece.

Sigil Line

Until then, however, I do (alas) need to actually finish my doctorate. I estimate this taking 2-3 months, so I expect to start the full-time year some time in September, depending on exactly how long it takes, when I move house, and various other factors. The second half of next week’s announcement is that my best friend has got a PhD in Game Studies in Lincoln, so we’re both moving there in September, at which point I’ll be starting my full-time year (with a little bit of game studies publication on the side, hopefully). As mentioned last week there will be no Kickstarter, though I do appreciate the willingness many have stated to donate to help me out this year. I may add the possibility for this, but I’m more likely to wait the full year and then evaluate. If, however, the entire coding year goes by and I haven’t yet found a job and I find myself ~15 months from now suddenly entirely lacking in money, I may then set up some form of donation system to potentially keep myself afloat. But that is in the distant future.

Sigil Line

So, what now? Well, these next few months I’m unfortunately going to have very little time to program, though I hope to snatch a few hours of coding here and there. The past week I’ve been making a little progress on some more fortress archetypes and the mysterious standing stones in hunter-gatherer settlements, but not enough for a full update. Thus, instead, for these next two months we’re going to have primary game criticism updates. I know a lot of people have enjoyed these in the past and I’ve got a line-up of interesting ideas. I’ve had a bunch of things in the work for a while now, so here’s your schedule for the next few weeks (with one or two coding updates thrown into the mix):

I’ve had this one in the mix for a while. Some time ago I thought of the question – to what extent should AI behaviour be predictable and totally understandable? – and this entry is my attempt to answer this question. Should you be able to figure the AI out perfectly? If not, how do you prevent that – from randomness, or complexity?I think it’s very relevant to roguelikes, especially those with complex combat systems, where the AI’s decisions might be the difference between life and death.

Major1

I’ve decided to extend my little side-helping of level design analysis on this blog into the FPS arena, specifically with Perfect Dark. It’s one of my favourite games, and the re-release a few years ago on XBLA got a lot of negative criticism about the apparently poor level design. This entry is going to analyse these claims, the changes in FPS level design over the last decade or so, and look closely at three of the smartest levels in the game, and why I think these critiques are, for the most part, totally unfounded.

Major2

In URR, maps are going to be essential. There are map stores in cities (and some towns) and acquiring maps are going to be a crucial part of the strategic layer of the game to figure out where you actually want to go. I was reminded recently that Alpha Centauri allows you to trade maps, and this raised an interesting question – in a game with money, and items with monetary value, can you assess the numerical value of a map?

Major3

This entry has also been in the works for some time and is mostly finished. Dark Souls is likely the game I love most on this Earth, but Dark Souls 2 was a colossal disappointment. This entry is a detailed analysis of the strengths of DS1 – story, level design, mechanics, NPCs – and why DS2, sadly, falls so flat by comparison. It also describes some of the links between Dark Souls and URR (or rather, some of the ways DS1 has inspired me).

Major4

The third entry in the world-renowned (…sort of) serious of level design analyses of the Command & Conquer games – this one now moves on from C&C 95 to Tiberian Sun, the sequel, and covers three missions, two of which are from the expansion. As with the others, this series tries to highlight some clever level design in a genre of game that isn’t generally renowned for clever level design, and these three levels especially focus on some of the unique units and setups developed for this game.

So! There will likely be one or possibly two short URR updates to keep everyone up to date on what I’m working on when I have a little bit of spare time from academic work, but the blog is going very games-crit-heavy for the next couple of months. Many of these are already at least half-written (some fully written) and it’s just going to be hard to find the time to set down and really do that much coding. Hopefully you folks like the look of the delicious offerings listed above, and we’ll be starting with one next week (probably Perfect Dark or Dark Souls 2). Some time in late September remains the current target for starting the full-time year, and see you all next week…

The Big Announcement

So, last week I hinted towards a big announcement that had come through about URR’s future, and today I’m actually able to talk about it.

Short version: I’m going to be working on URR full-time for the next year, starting around September! And not a Kickstarter to be seen.

Trend

I’ve been thinking about this a while. As regular readers will know, URR has rapidly become the project in my life I care the most about, and whilst I’m currently doing a doctorate in one field of social science, I want to move into game studies before my first academic job. It started to seem that taking a year “out” would be the perfect way to combine these objectives – I could finally work on URR full-time and push ahead with it, whilst simultaneously having time to start publishing in game studies in anticipation for jobs further down the road. With a full year I know I can easily finish the entire worldbuilding segment within a year’s full-time, and that’s hugely exciting to me, and I really want to finish this block off. This means adding currencies, ships, ocean travel, mountain passes and caravans, and not to mention building interiors, NPCs, and weapons, armour, and combat mechanics!

However, even if I was fixed on the idea, there were still questions of where I was going to live, how I’d get by financially, and so forth. At first I considered doing a Kickstarter or similar – I’ve been critical of many KS campaigns in the past, and I continue to feel it can turn into a very problematic situation, but that was what I first considered. However, through a combination of trying to live frugally and the kindness of a family member, I’ll be able to survive this year. I recognized I could still have tried a Kickstarter instead, and I feel I would have had a high chance of success, but now I’d been given this option I specifically decided not to go the KS route. Sure, it would boost the publicity of the game somewhat, but it would also take several months to start the campaign, run the campaign and do the rewards (even  if they were all virtual/game ones). Having been given the option not to, I don’t want to “waste” months of my URR year not actually working on URR! I also didn’t want to blur the line somewhat with URR and the involvement of money – right now it’s free, will always remain free, and I didn’t want to introduce money to the equation if I didn’t have to.

Another reason to not do KS, alas, is that in the next few months I’m not going to be able to do much URR work. Through no fault of my own the completion of my doctorate has been dragged out beyond what it should have been, and the next few months (July/August and probably September) are going to have to be very thesis-heavy. It’s annoying that this might eat slightly into my URR year (as I’ll be moving house in early September), but there’s nothing to be done, and focusing on my academic work now means that as much of next year as possible will be free. Doing a KS would just further eat into the year, and as above – now I’m lucky enough to have the option to not KS, I think the arguments for KS falter against the arguments for not doing one and starting URR coding the moment my thesis is submitted.

I’m… more excited than I can say about a year of full-time URR coding with some game studies on the side. I’m amazed things have come together after what was probably the hardest year of my life (for reasons I may post in a later blog entry and that had nothing to do with my PhD) and I’m already now figuring out the right order to go about the coding in this next year in order to achieve the worldbuilding-completion goal. There’s also a second half of the announcement I can’t say until next week, which – whilst very significant from my perspective – is secondary from the perspective of you fine blog-readers, but is just to do with my living arrangements for the next year and my continuing academic shift into game studies.

There you have it. The next two or three months will have unfortunately have little URRing due to a very unfortunate position I find myself in academically, so 0.6 will be pushed back a few months, but from the screenshots I’ve been posting in the last few entries, I hope you’ll all agree it’s looking like it’ll be worth the wait. The next few months will therefore have some URR updates when there is stuff to update you on, but also probably a greater number of general games criticism pieces than usual. After that, hopefully starting at some point in September, I’ll be working on URR full-time for a year! I cannot wait. Thanks to everyone for your support thus far, and I hope you’ll join me in the UNCONTROLLABLE HYPE for next year.

Fortresses

For the first time in living memory, my prediction about this week’s update was spot on – fortresses. Where hunter-gatherers dwell in settlements and feudal civilizations dot the landscape with cities and towns, their nomadic brethren survival via a combination of caravans (which will be implemented later, probably in 0.8) and fortresses. These are dotted throughout the deserts of the world along what will later be major trade routes the caravans pass through. Whilst they are home to some people, the population count of nomadic civilizations is small compared to feudal nations, and many of their people live “in” the caravans anyway. Aside from some homes within these fortresses, however, much of their land is given over to military barracks and facilities, and open-air markets – yes, that’s right, open air markets will exist! Several people have asked for these, and whilst I felt I wanted everything in feudal nations to be focused in distinct shops (black markets, once implemented, will still roughly follow the “shop” model), open-air markets and bazaars seem very appropriate for nomads. For now, these markets are shown by the white %s in the images in this post; these stands will display items with a shopkeeper “patrolling” the area around them. Whilst each fortress has a lot, not all fortresses will spawn with markets (though most will), and some “stalls” might be shut, or unused, whilst others will contain useful things. My intention is for most stalls to be akin to general stores in feudal cities – almost any item may spawn – but possibly a few specialists in the mix as well.

Now on to the layouts of these fortresses. There are twelve different presets for fortress shapes, as shown in this illustrative and highly detailed diagram I created in the leading contemporary graphical software package, MS Paint:

Fshapes

Most of these are self-explanatory – the ones with dots are ones where the entire fortress is not “enclosed” within walls, but many of the buildings surround the main towers of the settlement instead. It’s a rare variant, but one that I thought would add some nice variety. At time of writing five of these have been coded, and I hope to have the remaining ones finished in the next fortnight, then probably moving back to cities for a while. Below is one example of the “concentric circles” archetype. In the outer layer we see housing, and in the inner layer one region of barracks and military buildings with a second region of open-air markets. Gates in this case happen to have spawned in the west and east, and there are bridges for crossing the rivers, making sure every region of the fortress can be reached on foot. In all fortresses areas near the core are likely to be of soil or even have some plantlife, whilst the outer areas will remain covered in sand. Bear in mind, as ever, that screenshots of an entire map grid always look wildly different from a close-up (which you’ll have at the end of this post). Nevertheless:

TerrainTest

As you can see from that picture, the web of bridges and gates ensures that every area of the fortress can be accessed. In future versions once caravans are implemented there will be buildings and encampments around the fortress which will come and go as caravans and seasons pass, but these are the “stationary” parts that will remain constant.

Lastly, here’s two more screenshots, one from me entering a “square” archetype fortress, and one from a square fortress which had a river running through it, and its inhabitants had evidently decided to use it as a form of extra defence or a way to separate the different areas of the fortress, rather than just considering it something that had to be built around like those who crafted the circular fortress above.

TerrainTest

TerrainTest

TWO FINAL VERY IMPORTANT THINGS

Firstly, I’m going to be submitting my thesis within, I hope, a month (or at the most, perhaps a month and a half). This means the next 4-6 weeks are going to be very academically busy whilst I do the final edits to my hundred-thousand-word abomination masterpiece. I don’t yet know how many edits my supervisors will want (we’re meeting on the 4th of July to discuss this) and how long these will take to do, but whilst weekly updates will continue as ever, they may be shorter, or I may deploy some non-URR pieces I’ve had in the works for a little while. I think August remains a realistic target for 0.6, but we’re probably looking at the end of August, though it must be said this is the biggest release in some time. 0.7, by contrast, I would expect to be significantly shorter in duration.

Secondly, some absolutely incredible news has just come through regarding the next year of URR’s development (starting in two months once my thesis is submitted). I’m not really allowed to say any more on this topic yet, but by next week (or if not, definitely the week after) I should be able to make the appropriate announcement. GET HYPE.

Upper-Class Housing, Banks, and the Panopticon

Upper-Class Housing

This week’s main project has been on upper-class housing. There will only be one of these districts in each city and will contain three manors for the most important families in that civilization (including your family); a number of smaller manors for the “second tier” of wealthiest family within that nation; then a range of large houses (larger than what any other district offers) for other wealthy families but ones who cannot quite afford one of these ostentatious manors. In this version you will begin the game in the courtyard of the manor for your family, whilst in other versions once the early-game story introduction is in place, you’ll spawn within the manor (though once you know what the introduction is, you will naturally be able to leave right away and begin the game).

TerrainTest

For the sake of interest I also put together an image to show the four different levels of housing. Note that this is four screenshots stitched together – hence why the roads do not match up between districts – but remains nicely illustrative of the four different levels. I’m very pleased with the kind of variation between upper class/middle class/lower class/slums and can’t wait until the point where I can put together an entire image of a city in all its glory. Markets as discussed before are finished, recreational and medical districts are being removed (and absorbed into others), and my next district is probably going to be military districts, though that requires quite a bit of thought first about what exactly I want spawning there.

Trend

Banks and Currencies

For the most part currencies are scheduled for a few releases hence (at least the generation of their images, exchange rates, etc), but since I came up with an interesting idea for banks on the strategic level of the game, I realized I need to implement at least the names of the currencies now even if their full realization would have to wait. As in the real world, the overwhelming majority of coins are metallic, though there are a very small number made from rather more unusual materials that you may come across (no more than one or two per game). Each currency is termed according to the material of its construction and the image that will be on the coin – you might encounter civilizations that deal in Golden Stags, Silver Wolves, Steel Fires, Bronze Axes, Copper Dragons, etc. Some also break down into lesser denominations like shillings, pence, cents, etc (a quick Google for a large number of these terms proved incredibly helpful).

Now, each civilization (Feudals only) will have a central bank with branches in some of its middle-class districts. I wasn’t sure at first what role these could play, but I had an interesting idea for the strategy layer of the game. As I’ve talked about before, the strategy layer of the game will involve navigating the world map in a range of difference ways. Different terrain types and elevations will take different periods of time to go across; some nations will be friendly, some hostile, some unknown; whilst mountains can only be crossed with a mountain pass, deserts with a caravan, and the ocean by finding a trade route and someone willing to accept you onto their ship. One other aspect of this layer is money – different districts will cost different amounts to enter, some exchange rates will/won’t be in your favour, and as you move around the world, you’ll quickly leave your home civilization far behind. Thus, once the strategy layer is implemented you will be able to invest your money into the bank in any civilization you pass through, and interest will accrue, but only in increments of one month and can only be collected if you pass back through that civilization again. The one-month requirement prevents farming (there is no way you can wait around a full month!) whilst it will raise another interesting strategic decision. Do I leave some money here on the assumption I’ll come back later to collect it? How much currency do I think I’ll need on my journeys before I next return to this city? Etc. It’s just a small aspect, but banks now spawn in middle-class districts, ready to receive future customers.

Special Buildings

Some more work on special buildings. There are going to be roughly twenty-five in total, and whilst they will not all spawn every game, a decent number of them will; they will then be distributed through-out the world’s cities. This means not every city is going to have one, but most cities will, and these special buildings will be especially prominent in world histories. Some will relate to the core quest, some will relate to other things, and they’ll generally add a little more variety. They will also allow me to further explore some of the sociological themes I want to get at in the game, so below is a screenshot of the player walking around the outside of the Panopticon prison (which this time happened to spawn in a near-polar nation):

PanopNext week, I can safely predict (for once) I’ll be talking about nomadic fortresses as I’ve been working on those the past couple of days. They’re starting to come together and have also helped me come to some conclusions about the role of military districts in cities, certain things to do with weapons (coming a few releases hence), and also to think through some other things about the strategy layer I’ll share next time. Until then, hope you enjoy the Ominous White Pentagon and the city districts, and let me know what you think.

Markets, Farms, Towns, Settlements

I’m thoroughly back into the swing of coding now and have been making significant progress on 0.6 this week. Today’s update is therefore very screenshot-heavy, and focuses on four things – market districts, farms, towns and settlements.

Markets

Market districts are now finished. They generate a large number of shops, a warehouse for each of those shops (each of which will have a key located somewhere, or in someone’s possession), and an auction house and a currency exchange (the ‘+’-shaped building and the octagonal building respectively), though I am still figuring out the exact mechanics for auctions. They can now also handle rivers and various road layouts correctly, and all the shops spawn with shop signs on them so you know (assuming you can deduce the meaning of the symbol!) what kind of shop it is. Here’s one without a river and with the warehouse districts quite spread out…

TerrainTest

… and here’s one with a river. Note that only the largest roads are turned into bridges for crossing the river, and due to the placement of the major roads, the warehouses are clustered in the upper-left corner.

TerrainTest

I’ve also taken the graphics for shop signs out of my graphics file and integrated them into the game, as well as finishing off a few final signs I hadn’t sorted out (like those for auction houses and currency exchanges). Each market contains a lot, but you won’t be going back-and-forth to the same district over and over; once the story is implemented and you know your objectives, I wouldn’t expect you to visit the same market more than a couple of times at the most, but therein lies another strategic decision about returning to the same market for an item you couldn’t afford last time, or pushing onwards. Anyway, with this graphical integration you can now look at the shop sign and get a symbol depicting the use of that shop, as in this screenshot with the player wandering around a desert city:

Arena

Farms

I’ve finished farms. All graphics for crops and fruit trees are implemented, the generator is now more varied, farmhouses and other appropriate buildings spawned (which will one day be connected to the “sidequest” generation – perhaps a wanted criminal is hiding out in one?) and a few remaining bugs with them have been fixed. Farm generation has also been tweaked a little to make things more appropriate for different terrains and climates, and I’ve started to put in the appropriate data structures required for later handling things like animals in climates where crops might not grow so readily. Needless to say, farms are not exactly a core part of the game, but I think it’s important that even tangential parts of the world are highly detailed. So many fictional worlds (games and otherwise) fall apart on their unexplained aspects, and it’s hard to imagine empires being sustained without some kind of food source…

Farm1

Settlements

More progress on hunter-gatherer settlements. They now spawn with an appropriate kind of building material for all their buildings. The settlement below is built from stone, but these materials include wattle & daub, wood, stone, mud bricks, blocks of snow (in polar regions), and many others. In the middle of this settlement you can see the house of the Wolf-Chieftain who ruled this civilization, the town hall (the long building), and also a ‘?’ within a walled-off area. I’ll be talking more about that ‘?’ next week, since as long-time players know, a ‘?’ is always something that can be viewed and read – an inscription, a shop sign, or in this case, a standing stone.

TerrainTest

Towns

Lots of progress on towns. They now spawn actual buildings rather than lava placeholders (though I am sure some will be saddened by this news), doors spawn everywhere needed, shops now spawn (there’s only a very small number with a limited potential set of shops that can be chosen upon generation), and various other important buildings like town halls, barracks (if the civ is sufficiently militaristic), taverns, small graveyards and the like also generate. One of the things I need to work on next is getting religious buildings to generate, since each civilization’s religion will have a unique generated layout for its churches (or abbeys, chapels, basilicas, mosques, rectories, pagodas – whatever term that civilization prefers). I’ve also handled towns that spawn at the end of a road or spawn on no road at all (very rare), as those were causing a few issues with generating appropriate road patterns when there was no “core” road pre-existing on the map grid to go by.

TerrainTest

I’m now going to renege slightly on my promise from last week to  “never predict the next update”, and state that the standing stones mentioned above will definitely be included, though beyond that I’m not sure what else. Possibly some graphics, or another city district if I’m feeling like it. I’ve been doing a lot of draft work on paper to think about how docks and upper-class housing districts are going to generate, so it’s possible one of those will be coming next. Anyway, thanks for reading, and let me know what you think!