A Week of Polishing

Right now we’re finding bugs and tuning the game. What exactly does that mean?

Liana stressed one of the game’s new features (using it as much as possible in a complete game), and wrote up a bunch of issues: it was inconsistent, wasn’t clear enough, didn’t feel like good value for the cost, and felt too generic. So I reviewed what was going on. Some of the inconsistency was actually just feedback and advice that was out of date. I added a new way to see all the effects. There are new side effects to help add value. And there is now the possibility of interactive results instead of a boilerplate response. These are new situations that need to be exhaustively tested, so that’s now on Kati’s plate. Some of these changes needed to be mentioned in the manual, too.

Liana had previously played a game where her main goal was to increase the size of the clan. I had fixed some of the specific bugs this revealed, and also started applying some new consequences and activated a new scene I had written the previous week.

I tracked down and fixed a bug which could make the game unplayable if you made peace with a clan right before it was scheduled to raid you (due to previous events).

Report buttonAnother timing bug (reported by a playtester) had to do with when the followup for an omen occurred. And another was a possible conflict with the seasonal calendar (you might be willing to ignore the harvest, but would your allies?).

One bug had to do with dead emissaries returning with gifts. This seemed like an issue that could happen in scenes other than the one it was reported for, so I swept the entire code and found another six places.

Raided By: NoneOne game had very few raids. I looked at the logs and data, and made some adjustments to what are probably the underlying causes. (Raids look at many factors, such as relative strength and different aspects of inter-clan relationships.)

While playing, I was surprised not to get a relevant bit of advice on one situation. The exact set of advisors makes a huge difference on what advice is given, as does the context in the story, but I ended up changing the priority of one advice type. In theory this is a big change, but I believe it is more in line with how Robin and I used that type. We’ll need to play for a while and make sure you still get good advice.

A conversation with Zack sparked an idea that I need to implement this week.

By the end of the week, there were bugs relating to the new interactive results, so I fixed those.

And there were a number of typos and text edits.

So that’s a fairly typical week of polishing a game which is at the alpha stage.

Where We’re Going

It’s been a while since we hit feature complete. That shifted game development into a different phase: making everything work. This is both a matter of finding and fixing bugs, and balancing and tuning the economic game and the overall story to make sure things are fun. There’s usually not a lot of interesting things to say, which is partly why there hasn’t been a development blog post in a while. We found bugs, we fixed bugs. Day after day.

We did notice that two of the story themes could intertwine a bit more, so Robin Laws wrote two scenes to deal with that, and another three that deal with individual leaders. Those are now coded.

We invited a small number of outside playtesters to give their feedback, and have been trying to improve and clarify things based on that.

It’s possible to win the game without encountering bugs: one playtester said, “I’m embarrassed to report I haven’t found an obvious bug yet. Did complete a play in easy.” But there still are a lot of issues we need to fix. They may show up only when you get two scenes in a particular order, or have a specific combination of advisors, or choose a play style. Any one player won’t see them, but they need to be fixed. It’s hard to know how many of these there are. And analyzing them can be tricky. Did someone run out of cows because the game is broken, or because they made poor decisions, or because the user interface let them trade away more than they intended?

Between QA and playtesters, we’re still finding enough issues that I don’t think the game is high enough quality to ship in the near future. And a few areas aren’t completely tested (such as making sure every achievement can actually be earned).

the goose peopleThere’s another complication to figuring out a ship date: we’re moving. After five years in Philadelphia, A Sharp will be returning to the Pacific Northwest next month. (We’re heading to Tacoma, mostly for family reasons.) Coordinating this and physically moving across the United States is going to take a fair amount of time.

Without a reliable completion date, and with relocation thrown in, it doesn’t make sense to try to release the game this year. (“This year” would realistically mean “before the Christmas holidays,” so there are only 2 months left anyway.)

So we are moving our guess at a release date to 2018. We want to make sure the game is done right, and we want to have some lead time to start marketing.

I’m disappointed that we aren’t done yet, but I think the project is in good shape. As a complex bit of software that’s in alpha, the number of bugs feels reasonable. And one playtester wrote, “I have been spending waaaaay too much time playing this game. I am every bit as addicted to it as I was to KoDP the first time it was released, and I thought I was over that kind of behavior.”

Feature Complete

On Monday I decided it was reasonable to consider the game to have hit the Feature Complete milestone.

Watercolors In Progress

In software this is sometimes also called “Alpha.” It means that everything we plan to include in the game is complete, at least to a reasonable level of quality. There are still known bugs, and some of the art is still being worked on. (All of it is at least inked, however — see the example work in progress.)

In terms of the project, it means we can invite a small number of external playtesters to try the game and give feedback. The emphasis is on small, because there are after all known bugs, and there are likely to be confusing bits. It doesn’t help if a dozen people tell me that an icon is unclear. Better to hear that from one or two and then iterate.

It turned out that one of the important bugs we found was actually in our bug reporting. The game now does a better job of capturing information about an issue, so playtesters don’t have to jump through hoops to do so.

We’re also starting to get data on how the game is actually played. This has led to some minor tuning, and will surely result in more. We’ll also learn if systems work well, or if anything else would help.

Meanwhile, the QA team is continuing to make sure all the game situations have been exercised and make sense. (We recently had a discussion about whether one scene should be dropped entirely because of changes that had been made since it was written.)

At some point, we’ll have all the art complete, changes made, and bugs fixed. That will put us at the “Beta” milestone and we’ll look for more playtesters. (Don’t ask now! I’m not sure exactly what we’ll be looking for at that point.)

And I still can’t figure out a release date. That will depend on how alpha testing goes. But we are definitely progressing.

July Status Update

Six Age has a lot of art, and it’s almost all complete. I just sent out the final assignment today. We may still do a little reworking of illustrations and UI assets, but technically what’s there now could ship.

The music is in similar shape. We’ve been trying to track down some bugs (are they in the underlying engine? my code? the music itself? the operating system?).

QA is still pushing to get all scenes and events exhaustively tested. Bugs range from typos, to logic flaws, to “after a failed, interrupted cattle raid, the news after a heroic combat doesn’t show up at the right time.” (That’s not quite how it was reported, it took much of a day to figure out the first part.)

We’re also playing the game. It’s quite possible to win and to lose. Unlike when we did KoDP, I’m capturing data so I can see what went wrong (or right) — a recent loss was an event that turned out to be much harsher than we expected. There’s a lot of randomness in the game, but I’m trying to tune it so one unlucky break (or one bad decision) won’t sink you.

Not yet. Sorry to interrupt, but I know you were going to ask if you could beta test. There are still a few last features I want to get finished. (In theory I could drop difficulty level, but it’s on the list to go in.) And there is no point sending it out with known bugs. At some point we will be looking for outside testers, but it will still be a while.

March Update

the Manual and Help buttonsThe game is still missing a bunch of assets (both art and music), but the user interface is basically complete. There’s a first draft manual, and the game has been winnable for some time. So we’re starting to look at tuning and polish.

QA is still rigorously testing every scene. 89% are completely tested, and most of the rest have at least some coverage.

We’re still finding plenty of bugs, though usually you can keep playing (that is, they’re not severe enough to crash or prevent progress).

Part of the tuning process has been figuring out what the game still needs. I just added a new scene this week, which is one of the reasons it’s still hard to talk about a release date.

October Progress Update

troll warrior leans on a spearI’ve been working full time on Six Ages for over two years, but it’s still not done. How far along is it?

Answering that question is a little hard, partly because I haven’t devoted as much time to managing the status as I have on creating the game. I am pretty sure of one thing: it will not be released this year, as I had originally hoped.

Other than that, I’m pleased with the progress. One important reason is that the budget needed to be significantly less than King of Dragon Pass, and even as development continues longer than I had planned, we’re still OK on costs. And game play is complete enough that you can play a complete game, so we can start improving that. And complete enough that we can tell a lot of things are working pretty well.

One reason that things are taking longer than my original plan is that as we developed the game, it became obvious that it would need more scenes and accompanying art than I had first thought. We now have 40% more scenes, and 59% more scene art, in fact!

More scenes means not only more art, but more time needed to write them, more time needed to code them in our scripting language, and more time needed to make sure that all branches are tested. As I’ve written before, we are done with the writing. We’ve also completed script coding. Testing is harder to measure (since some branches depend on external conditions or chance), but over 3/4 of scenes have had all branches exercised. (Our automated testing isn’t as thorough, though it adds another level of confidence.)

Children cheer, dressed for winterIf the art needs hadn’t grown, we would be completing the scene art this month. But there are more scenes. And on top of that, since it’s a different game than King of Dragon Pass, we can’t reuse some art in the same fashion. So there’s still a bunch to go. On the other hand, we have a lot of really good art.

The game is certainly far enough along to start its tutorial. The first draft is nearly complete. Thanks to those who gave input!

Besides finishing the art, a few big tasks remain: music, manual, user interface polish, and a lot of game tuning. That will clearly take us past the December holidays and into next year.

So It Is Written

Rune of writingThe game just hit an important milestone: our writer/designer Robin D. Laws has completed his work. All of the interactive scenes and myths are written.

This doesn’t mean the game is almost done. If I recall correctly, Robin also finished his work on King of Dragon Pass well before anyone else. But it does shift gameplay development into a refinement phase.

Other aspects of the game have only barely started, such as music and a tutorial. And there’s still a lot of art to draw.

And it’s possible we’ll need a few new scenes, though someone else will likely write them.

A very approximate guess as to how much Robin has written is 400,000 words. (The scene compiler outputs a text file with all the strings, which we will be spell checking. This file contains 402,293 words, though some of these are names of music or other aspects of implementation.) That’s as much as ten short novels!

While you’re waiting to read Robin’s work in Six Ages, you can check out some of his other recent work, which has been nominated for ENnies Awards.

April Progress Update

One big change since the last update: the development blog has moved. That’s the first step in improving the game’s web site.

A recent development focus has been combat, and what King of Dragon Pass called “heroic combat” is now in the game. These are 27 situations where the normal combat flow is interrupted by an opportunity for an individual hero. (King of Dragon Pass had only 16, though one was called “Ten Path Battle” so it’s about the same.) There are also additional opportunities that may occur, which players choose instead of another combat option. (I still need to write “A Chance for Slaughter.”) So while the game still takes a fairly abstract approach to combat that favors narrative, players will get to make more choices during battle.

The Otherworld was another recent focus. We have an artist creating the illustrations, and all but one of the Otherworld travels is written and in the game. This hasn’t been a major focus of testing yet, but they do seem playable.

We continue to test as we go. The game is not complete, but it’s possible to winTrying to lead a clan of 675 people is impossible (thanks to liberal applications of cows from the Debug dialog, Liana has twice won the game). This has given us some feel for what the game still needs, and Robin has been adding scenes to flesh things out or adapt to certain play styles.

There are now 272 scenes coded and 224 that Liana has fully tested. We’re not done creating them, but this is almost as many in the game as were written a month ago.

It’s not technically a scene, but we’re using a script to show a page on the Lore screen that reflects your choices in the initial questionnaire. I’ve probably said it before, but we’re making a lot more use of scripts (compared to King of Dragon Pass).

jewelry designWhile we completed the basic concept art for the game a while ago, we’ve been working on some more specifics (both individuals and Gloranthan cultures). The shared Dropbox folder of sketches and reference material is now 864 MB…

Big tasks coming up soon: starting to think about a tutorial, and music.