Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Avadon Developer Diary #5 - Getting It Done.


This will probably be the last developer diary for Avadon: The Black Fortress. We hope to release it for the Macintosh at the end of February. Then the process of porting it to Windows and the iPad shall commence. Of course, I could get the flu or be hit by a truck, which will alter the release schedule slightly.

The first preview of Avadon recently appeared on Inside Mac Games. There's a lot of good information there.

I've already written diaries about the origin of the game, the tone, the sorts of decisions that need to be made, and the character classes. For me, the longest, most grueling part of writing the game is making the scenario. Dungeons have to be designed. Dialogue needs to be written. Gold coins, clay pots, and spoons need to be placed. In other words, the game itself needs to be made.

That process finally ended last week, meaning that we're in the endgame. Time to wrap up all the odd details and kick the game out the door! This is what I generally call the OHGODOHGODITBURNSGETITOFFMEGETITOFFMEEEEEEEEE phase.

This process, during which everyone involved is pretty much running off fumes, has several parts: Odds and Ends, Endgame Balance, Bug Fixing, and Getting the Game Stable.

Odds and Ends

There are always lots of aggravating parts of the job of writing a game that I put off and put off. Now they can't be put off anymore. Every job I hate. Doing the sound effects. And writing the documentation (and hint book). And making the game icon, and the installer. Nothing can be delayed anymore.

A lot of this work is very important, as they determine a player's first impression. Things like the icon and the starting music and art are the first things a player will experience. These details require a lot of attention, so I work on them at a time when I can focus on them as much as possible.

For Avadon, I've put a lot of work into directing the art at the beginning of the game so that they help the player understand a complicated world, with a lot of intricate politics. The early moments of the game can't be wasted. I want to intrigue the player with the story at every possible moment.

Endgame Balance

Balancing the end of the game is particularly difficult. There are several reasons for that. First, there is a wide spread in power levels among players. The dedicated grinders and min-maxers have made characters that are about as powerful as the game allows. More casual players have characters who have fallen farther and farther behind. An encounter that is challenging to a hardcore player will be impossible for a casual player, and an encounter that is tough for a casual player is probably painfully easy for the serious player.

It's a very difficult target to hit, complicated by the fact that at least some of the epic battles at the end of the game should have some pushback to them. They should feel a little tough.

So I try to make the late game fights hard but not impossible for the more casual players. I also try to put in some optional endgame fights that are a real challenge for the toughest players. These two targets are actually tricky to hit precisely, and it requires a lot of feedback and rebalancing.

In Avadon, I want the player to be able to challenge Redbeard for control of the Black Fortress. I want this fight to be soul-crushing, but, with great skill, preparation, and luck, winnable. This is an extra-difficult target to hit. Making something almost impossible is hard. Still, I think I'm getting close.

Bug Fixing and Getting the Game Stable

Of course, this should happen. Now that the game is mostly done, I am getting to the point where everything has been tested and is basically playable. Now that I am trying to actually release the game, I am trying to get it to the most stable, functional point I possibly can.

It's tricky, because Avadon has a lot of player decisions that can make big changes in the ending. Fortunately, my industrious beta testers are doing a great job of trying out all the different possibilities.

This is actually a much more complicated process than it sounds. You see, whenever I make a change, even the most seemingly tiny, innocuous change, there is a chance that I just broke everything.

Games Are Like Giant Cubes of Jello

One of my favorite books on software development describes an unshipped piece of software as a ten by ten by ten foot cube of jello. When you finish it, it is wobbling and shaking. Then, slowly, the vibrations stop and it becomes stable. However, whenever you poke the jello, it starts to wobble again and it takes a long time to become still.

Avadon is a huge cube of jello that is wobbling like mad. As testers play it and don't find serious problems, it stops wobbling. When I make a change, any change at all, I poke it. When the jello is almost still, I go, "OK, I will release the game ... NOW!" and hope it isn't broken. This is how the process works at its best.

So fixing bugs now is a process of triage. When I get a bug report, I think, "Is this serious enough to risk fixing it, bearing in mind that my fix might completely mess up the game?" As we get closer and closer to the ship date, more and more minor issues get kicked off to the v1.0.1 release.

If you've ever wondered why games ship with bugs, this is part of the answer. There is no excuse for releasing a broken game. However, small flaws are always tolerated in order to avoid disaster. Perfection is for v1.0.4.

So Back To Work

If you've been reading these diaries, thank you! I hope I made Avadon sound interesting, and I hope the game is to your liking. It's been a very long road. I've put a lot of myself into this game, and it really is the sort of game I would want to play. Thus, if it turns out to be a failure, I'll have a lot of thinking to do.

Thanks for reading, and I'll see you on the flip side!

20 comments:

  1. You are releasing it a week before DA2? You are killing me. I was hoping to have it to bridge the time between.

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  2. Well I'll do your sound effects for you if that's the thing holding the game up.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is the first time that I hear something about an iPad version. Are there more details on this?

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  4. It's great to hear that you being hit by a truck would only alter the release schedule slightly. I always worry about your safety at these critical points in time. I can relax now. :D

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  5. Hey Jeff I was wondering if you ever dabbled into trying to dynamically balance a boss fight. For example developing some equation that takes health, damage over time, etc to change a monsters stats.

    I would love to hear an experts opinion on what does and doesn't work. Maybe a future blog post?

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  6. Hi Jeff, I would love to know, how do you plan to port your game to the ipad? Will you convert the code to a third party engine for the ipad or are you literally going to convert your engine for the ipad?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Exile: Escape from the Pit was my introduction to gaming. I never was able to buy any of the original Exile games (I was only 10 when Blades was released), but I played through the demos many times over. The Avernum games were some of the first I bought with my own money, and I've racked up 4 playthroughs of Avernum 6 to date.

    It's been 15 years since I first loaded up Exile, and Spiderweb Software is still my favorite game company. I know you've got a niche market, so I'm ecstatic to see how much success you've had in it.

    You're awesome, your games are awesome, and as much as I loved Dragon Age, I know which game I'll be spending most of my time on this spring. Godspeed.

    ReplyDelete
  8. There is a conspiracy afoot, and Jeff Vogel and George Martin (abetted by HBO) are the prime culprits. Someone, somewhere, is organizing the world so that every single distracting thing is scheduled for the next few months, and its all OBVIOUSLY a plot to prevent me from getting my masters thesis done by April.

    Damn you Jeff Vogel!

    ReplyDelete
  9. iPad? Interesting. It will be priced like pc/mac or you'll follow the race to the bottom? ;)

    ReplyDelete
  10. It's been fun reading this Diary series, thanks for that! I hope Avadon turns out to be a success story.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The iPad/iPhone game price war exists because 99% of the games (even the $10 ones) are little gimmicky disposable toys, not huge, well-written RPGs.

    If you make one of those for the iPad, your potential market is much smaller, but your competition is near zero. $28 might be pushing it slightly, but $24.99 for a real game sounds nice.

    ReplyDelete
  12. iPad?!! fantastic news... I hope it turns out well and you decide to re-issue some classics on iOS.

    Since you're going the iOS route... what are your thoughts on the Mac App Store? Prices seem to be somewhat stable there, even with Apple's 30% take. Will Spiderweb be offering some games through there?

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  13. It's great to hear that you are porting to the iPad. There is a huge lack of good RPGs on the device.

    ReplyDelete
  14. The race to the bottom in pricing on the iOS app store has nothing to do with the quality of the games, which are often excellent. It has to do with the structure of the market, the level of competition, and the relative power of publishers, consumers, and Apple itself. As long as the market remains in its present form, it is going to be very difficult to generate many new sales from new customers in the app store. However, it certainly should be possible to generate additional revenue by selling the iPad version as an additional option to Spiderweb's existing customer base. The only difficulty will be ensuring that you don't cannibalize existing PC/Mac sales with lower-priced iPad sales.

    ReplyDelete
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