Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!
about 2 months ago
– Tue, Apr 24, 2018 at 01:42:47 AM
Hey all -- Chris here.
We've hit a juncture point with AI War 2. We’ve built a lot of cool things, learned a lot, and now it’s time for a soft reboot. The current plan is to pivot the gameplay to very closely resemble the original AI War, but on our new engine, and then build up from that foundation.
Achievements So Far
So very much is going right with this game, from a technical level and an engine standpoint.
The game is crazy moddable.
- It's multithreaded to take full use of modern computers.
- The 3D aspect is working out well.
- We've figured out a variety of new tricks that definitely do improve on the first game, and can be kept.
- The UI has already been dramatically improved by the introduction of a tabbed sidebar in the main view, and streamlining of several other mechanics that felt very difficult in the past. Eric (as a volunteer) has been a godsend for the UI, and we have pages and pages of more designs from him that we’re going to be working on in the next two months or so.
- Badger (as a volunteer) has been an incredible tester, volunteer developer, and general help to getting us this far at all; he’s created the Nanocaust faction, as well as a new and better implementation of both Human Resistance Fighters and Human Marauders, among many, many other things.
- Folks like zeusalmighty, chemical_art, Draco18s, and Magnus have been wonderful sources of thoughtful feedback, commentary, testing, and even map creation.
- We’ve got art for over 130 distinct units (not counting different mark levels), and we’re set up well to finish off the rest of the art despite the staff changes noted below.
- We’ve got over 1500 lines of spoken dialogue from more than 25 actors, focusing primarily on the human side at the moment; we have a few hundred lines of AI-side taunts and chatter, some of which is recorded but just not processed yet.
- There are hundreds of high quality sound effects for a varied battlefield soundscape (with distance attenuation if you’re far away, and positional 3D audio if you’re down in the thick of it), all routed through a tuned mixer setup for optimal listening to all the various parts.
- We have a set of music from Classic that is over four and a half hours long, and the new music from Pablo is partly in, but mostly set to be mastered and integrated within the next week or two.
- There’s also a ton of map types, many of them new, and with a lot of sub-options to make them even more varied.
- We’ve created half a dozen custom Arks as backer rewards, we have another four in various stages of completion, and there’s a lot of cool variety from those folks.
- With a lot of the other custom art-related rewards (custom flagships, fortresses, and gold merc paint jobs -- 21 backers affected in all, when you include the custom Ark folks), since we’re having staffing changes in that particular area, we’ve offered alternative options to those backers, yet said we’d honor the original reward if they prefer. We’ve had a mix of both responses, both of which are fine, and things are proceeding well there.
- Other backer rewards are either already delivered (game keys of all sorts, many of the custom Ark rewards, backer badges, antagonistic AI voice line writing), or something that are still on the todo list but easy to handle prior to 1.0 (custom wallpapers, planet names, cyber ciphers, antagonistic player voice lines, custom AI personalities, and other non-art merc bits).
New Teaser Trailer!
On that note, here’s an excellent new teaser trailer that Chris and Craig created together. It’s light on details, but it’s just a teaser, after all:
The Sticking Point
The new game just isn’t living up to the first one’s legacy. We started out with a lot of design shifts away from the original AI War, and the design just hasn’t been as robust or fun as the original.
- In AIW2, so far, there was no real sense of logistics. Things felt too simple.
- The combat was basically getting you to just “fleetball” all the time, though that wasn’t our actual intent.
- The defensive options felt too limited no matter what we tried, and player Arks wound up sitting away in a corner with their offensive fleet having to return home frequently to help with defense.
The Two Paths
We’ve done quite a lot of engine work to make the actual game that runs on top of it mostly data-driven, so we have a pretty decent amount of flexibility here. For the last few months, we’ve been chasing various issues in gameplay, trying to tidy those up, but it just kept feeling less and less “like AI War.” So, we had two options:
1. Keep doing that and hope for the best, particularly that it magically starts feeling “like AI War” again.
- 2. Go back and actually make AI War again, at least the base game, and then build from that foundation rather than starting way off somewhere else.
As you have likely already gathered, we’re going with option 2. As players, Keith and I have been really let down by how different certain sequels felt from their predecessors, and we really didn’t want to do that to you folks.
We want this to be the sequel you truly wanted, that takes the original game and then goes forward in a refinement fashion. Total Annihilation turns into Supreme Commander, not SupCom becoming SupCom 2. Age of Empires 1 begets AOE2, not AOE2 morphing into AOE3. All of those games listed are good, but there’s a reason that the second in each series is typically more acclaimed than the third.
We do know that some of you backed for something more radical in departure from the original game. Why have the same old experience again? That’s certainly a valid point, and that’s why we talk about this as being a foundation for future growth.
Look at how much the first game grew from version 1.0, way back in 2009, through six expansions and version 8.0 in 2014. They’re radically different games. That said, we were constrained at every turn by an engine that was designed for street racing, and that we were trying to take offroad. That just doesn’t work.
The new engine for AI War 2 is so robust and flexible that we can take it street racing, offroad, or underwater. Maybe we can have our cake and eat it too, at least eventually? Based on the underlying engine, there’s nothing stopping us from having n factions, xyz ships, and all sorts of new sub-games and mechanics on top of it if the response to the baseline is positive enough.
One example: We’ve floated a variety of crazy ideas about hacking in the last few weeks, for instance; and while those are Way Out Of Scope right now, there’s nothing stopping us from implementing those exact systems or something like them a year or two from now, once we know the baseline game is fun and feels “like AI War.”
Second example: in the preliminary design document we’re working on, check out the section way at the bottom about using Arks as champions. That’s something that we want to attempt sooner than later, and it could be an enormous leap forward on the “radical new ideas” front. Same with the mercenaries section in that document.
At this point, we’re looking at Early Access (the “fun point” fulcrum) being sometime in July. That will give us a lot of time to further implement Eric’s UI and refine some visual elements and whatnot while we’re at it. Obviously, schedules change, and this is a tight one on the side of Keith’s core gameplay work.
THAT said, the transition toward the fun point is going to come in 5 overall waves of core features from Keith. The 1st wave being minimum set of units to have a functional, winnable and losable game; the 2nd focusing on core variety; 3 and 4 focusing on various toys on human and AI sides; and 5 wrapping up the last toys as well as adding the minor factions noted on the design doc as being pre-fun-point. (Nemesis and Spire are both post-1.0)
Hopefully we’ll have a general idea of our progress, and people’s reactions to it, throughout those five waves.
After Early Access starts, there’s a bunch more stuff to add and tune, and we think the 1.0 can still be October. Some of the stretch goal content (Spire, interplanetary weapons, possibly some merc stuff) may be after 1.0, but that was always the plan, anyhow.
All the above said, this is not coming without cost; it's a major financial blow to the company, and unfortunately we can’t afford to keep our longtime artist Blue after April. She’s been with us for five years, and will be sorely missed, but we've known for a while this might be something that had to happen (as did she).
We're basically folding back down into a quasi-one-man company, although that's giving me too much credit. I'll be the only full-time employee, at any rate. Keith is part-time and has been for some time. With the AI War 2 project being almost a year over schedule, something had to give. For myself, I've taken on a lot of debt, and am about to take on more.
We Remain Committed
You better bet that the game is going to come out; we’re working hard to make this truly shine, not just as a half-baked, unenjoyable mess. We’re determined that this will arrive at 1.0 as something that we can be proud of and that you can enjoy for many hundreds of hours.
This Isn’t an Engine Overhaul
We want to emphasize this! The AI War 2 engine framework isn't changing much. The engine we built basically kicks butt, with all the moddability and support for advanced UIs and multi-threading, and so much more.
What's changing is what we do with that engine, back towards something we know was fun on a different (much worse) engine. That solid baseline will be something we can have confidence in, and will be a great place from which to grow.
Example question: “Is the engine is flexible enough to go back to the original vision of mobile Arks as your king unit, and no stationary home command station?” Answer: an emphatic YES. The engine is so flexible that you can designate a king-unit option in XML and select it through the interface. That king-unit could be a squadron of fighters if you want, or the largest spirecraft with steroid stats. All of that can be done, at this very moment already, without any need for more than XML edits.
The 40+ Page Design Document
Measure twice, cut once. We’ve just spent the last week going back and planning things. Here's the detailed design document.
In general there are a few upcoming stages:
1. Working on getting it to match the AIWC base game. (The Pre-Fun timespan.)
- 2. Players declare it is as fun as the base game of AIWC was. (The “Fun-Point.”) We may take it to Early Access at this point?
- 3. We start bringing in more features. (The “Post-Fun-Point.”)
- 4. We release the game to 1.0, probably in October.
- 5. We do more stuff to meet our obligations as well as our personal goals. (The “Post-1.0 period.”)
At this point, Keith and I are feeling like the feature set as planned for the pre-fun-point is pretty darn huge on its own, and then there’s a variety of stuff planned for pre-1.0 that makes it even larger. We weren’t trying to expand the scope, but such is life.
There are also a number of ideas of varying tentativeness for after the fun-point that we want to try, such as bringing Arks in as a champion style. Things like that should really make the game feel like it has been taken to the next level compared to the first.
Looking for Modders!
Did you know:
ALL of the game data is in XML in AI War 2?
- Adjusting ship stats is as easy as using a text editor to change a few numbers?
- Adding new ships is just a copy-paste and then edit situation in those same XML files? You can use temporary graphics, and we can do real ones later.
- All you need is Visual Studio 2015 Community Edition (which is free) or similar in order to edit tons of pieces of code for the game.
- You can program map types with ease, GUI things with pain (that’s just UGUI for you), and make AI tweaks and similar somewhere in the middle of those two poles?
We’ll provide as much help as we can in getting you the info you need, and documenting all of this as things go on. If you have questions about where anything is, you can always ask Keith or Chris. Badger probably also knows, and before long we hope to have a solid stable of folks who know this well enough to help others.
Further, I feel it’s worth pointing out:
If you disagree with us about something relating to balance, you have the option of tuning the numbers yourself in your local copy and then showing us why we’re wrong. (Of course you can still ask us to do it, as has always been the case -- but we’re no longer a bottleneck.)
- If you make something particularly cool, then with your permission we’re happy to integrate that into the main game as an option that people can access without having to download something separate.
- We wouldn’t have some of the cooler features that the game has right now, like the Nanocaust or some of the more interesting Dyson Sphere behaviors, if it wasn’t for Modder #1 -- Badger. We know there were more of you who wanted to get involved in that sort of capacity, and now’s as good a time as any.
What do we WANT from modders?
A good question was raised: what are we really asking of modders, here? Honestly, that depends on the modder.
Some folks like putting in interface bits to solve personal pain points that they had with the original interface. Others have ideas for creative extra factions -- for instance the Nanocaust -- and we’d love to have those be something that you’re working on as we move toward 1.0, rather than as we move toward 2.0. If it’s all the same to you, anyway, it’s more valuable to us sooner than later, if that makes sense?
But in general, it’s kind of a “hey, if poking around at games like this is your sort of thing, we’re throwing a party and you’re invited.” We’re happy to show you around the house, not just throw you into the deep end of the pool without floaties.
Short Term Goals
We’re going to be aggressively pursuing the Fun Point, with Early Access to follow; and meanwhile building up and refining the UI, controls, and so forth to be the best that they can be.
Long Term Help
On the further volunteering end of things: if you want to help out with any sort of balance testing or custom unit design using the mechanics that we decide on as final, then the XML is easy to edit, and our doors are always open on our forums and on mantis.
Thanks for your continued support!
GUI Progress, Main Menu Updates, Shields Verdict, Beta News, Trailer Help Request, and more.
3 months ago
– Tue, Mar 27, 2018 at 12:54:58 AM
Progress report! The rest of the staff haven't even seen this in actual practice yet, since I can't check anything into our source control since this overhaul temporarily breaks EVERYTHING. But it's an amazing new experience coming up based on these changes, plus others not yet shown.
Actually if you're curious, you can check out my trello for some more details on what is coming: https://trello.com/b/tz2k8Q15/chris-ai-war-2-todo
New main menu! I was tired of that ship going by, and didn't want some generic battle or other ship just sitting there. During the kickstarter, I really liked the red and blue planet aesthetic that we had going on, but it was highly unrealistic of course.
But that got me thinking about doing something more stylized: a blue circuit-boardy or borg-like planet (wound up going with the former) that is larger and more sedate feeling, and then a smaller and more burned-out or desert version that is glowing more red (wound up going with the former). The one represents the AI, the other the humans, and in both cases it's showing how Earth sentience has symbolically moved on and lives on even though Earth itself was destroyed. I particularly like how the human planet almost crashes into the AI one, but just barely misses.
The symbolism of the asteroids rushing past the two planets is hopefully also obvious. I thought it was just a neat thing to do, and it seems very appropriate for the game and like something that would be mesmerizing just to sit and look at, which is always fun. When I added the little blue satellite line around the AI planet, that really brought that part together for me.
The Verdict On Shields/Forcefields (For Now)
Shields/forcefields are indeed gone for now, although we might bring them back in a limited capacity on the human side only. So far that doesn't seem to be needed, though, and that's largely because of the impressive new power of tractor beams and turrets, and some of the new gravity mechanics that you can get a bit of a hint of in the new sidebar, above.
Anyone With Trailer-Making Skills Want To Help Out?
We're running at full capacity even with awesome volunteers helping us out in a variety of areas. We already have two trailers in progress at least conceptually (one in practice), but we'd really like to have at least a third in order for the game to be presentable in a variety of ways that people might find appealing.
I recall that Minecraft had a trailer-making contest and they had people who made way better trailers than either some marketing firm unfamiliar with the game could, or the developers themselves could. I can't really offer a bounty or anything on that, but if there are folks who want to come explain the "AI War experience" in general in trailer form, please feel free to email me at chrispark7 at gmail.
Oh, the other catch on that: we're running low on time (about a month and a half until launch), and the visuals aren't going to be fully finalized for another few weeks. !Fun! ;) Such is life, though, and at least the game itself is coming together really fantastically.
Obviously any of you can play the game right now or tomorrow or the next day, if you want to. But we're trying to get to a state where we can invite a huge number of you in and have you have a good and coherent near-final experience with the game, balance aside.
We'll need your help figuring out where balance breaks down, because the game is huge and people have wildly divergent playstyles. Plus it will be more bughunting time that then Keith and I can spend fixing issues from.
We're not there yet, but one of the main things holding that back is the introduction of the new GUI, which is finally coming along. Eric designed that much faster than I was able to implement it.
Anyway, please do stay tuned on that front -- we hope to have a couple of dozen of you come in and really hit this thing hard during the beta. Out of the few thousand of you that currently have a copy, surely we've got a few dozen for that... ;)
Thanks for reading!
Poll: Would you be okay with us removing shields/forcefields?
3 months ago
– Sat, Mar 17, 2018 at 01:39:00 AM
Basically my assertion is that this needs to happen, and I want to see if people agree. I am referring to the big forcefield bubbles.
1. These are at least some drain on the CPU, how much is up to debate.
2. These are a huge and ongoing source of micro or frustration on the part of players thanks to needing to keep their stuff under it. There is likely no perfect solution to this, and anything we try likely causes more CPU load.
3. By their very nature, they tend to look bad or at best kinda funky. A bunch of big balls of forcefields all over the place can only look but so many ways.
4. They make everything else feel less powerful by their very existence. If the survivability of certain ships depends on shields, then that strikes me as a problem with that ship.
5. They just feel... antiquated, to me, personally. It takes away from the feeling of space naval battles from so much sci-fi lore. Neither Star Wars nor Star Trek have shields that protect other units, EXCEPT as a big MacGuffin in the case of the shield around the second Death Star. I just finished reading the Bobiverse books, and a while back I was reading The Lost Fleet, and it really strikes me how there are never giant shield bubbles there. Any sort of naval engagements never have that, either.
6. Just in a general sense, I really, really feel like we're borrowing trouble with shields in general, and I greatly regret having ever added them to the first game. I feel that these will continue to take up dev time that could be better spent in other areas of the game, making the entire experience more fun if they did not exist.
I know that these were a thing in the first game. And we do already have them in the second game. But part of good game design is knowing when to trim fat. Can they go? Will you be upset?
This discussion is also on our forums: https://forums.arcengames.com/ai-war-ii/poll-would-you-be-okay-with-us-removing-shieldsforcefields/
P.S.: Answers of "let people use them if they want to turn on an extra option" are not okay, because that would destroy balance and reintroduce all the other problems if we have that. This is black and white, they are either in or out. :)
Character Bios, General Backstory, and -- Updates!
3 months ago
– Tue, Mar 13, 2018 at 11:41:15 PM
Chris here! Long time, no speak. We have been very, very busy making things increasingly awesome.
Big Picture, What's Going On?
The GUI focus group was a big success, and we've found ourselves with an excellent volunteer GUI designer on our hands; he's Eric Edwards has been shaping things up really well for us in discussion and documents, and I'm translating that into the game starting pretty recently. This will take another week or two.
Badger continues to be our main playtester beating on the balance of the game, and he's had a lot of great insights lately. He's also been a volunteer coder doing TONS for us in the last few months, and those influences are showing through very well. Things don't feel quite right yet, but between these ongoing refinements and the complete revamp of the GUI, I am feeling like we're going to be ready on both fronts within a few weeks.
On the visual side, Blue has repainted ALL of the ships in the game (130-something models) in the newer PBR style overlaid on the cel-shaded style, and Craig/Pepisolo has gotten almost all of those graphics integrated now. This is super exciting! Part of this also has involved getting better intra-squad formation visuals, and making them more efficient as well, which is also now done.
On the voice recording side, we have 24 voiced human characters at this point. All of their recordings are pretty much done, and about a third of them are integrated. It really brings the battlefield alive. There are two human roles -- the science officer, and the Ark chief of staff -- which both need a lot more lines written for them. In the former case, I still need to cast that role, too, although I have someone in mind. Most of these actors have about 70 to 100 spoken short lines, basically like barks in an FPS game. They're from all over the world, and it really gives a sense of humanity being united against the machines, as well as some personality to the specific kinds of ships they oversee.
The last voice recording role is for the AI itself, and it's by far the most voluminous. Some of that has been recorded, some of it is still being written with the help of backers, and there are hundreds of lines for this role alone. Nathan Frisson is voicing the AI, and doing a fabulous job of it; though none of that is integrated to the game just yet.
Anyway: lots of progress all over the place, basically.
Character Bios and General Backstory
For the most key characters (the councilors, mainly), I've also rendered visuals for them. I'm quite pleased with the design of them, and their suits (notice the little AI War icon that I digitally embroidered on them, heh). The below backstory is available in the game itself now in a (presently ugly, but functional) screen that gives the extra info if you want that sort of thing.
The short answer to the question of how this story relates to the first AI War is that this is a full reboot. It's related in the sense that Keaton's Batman is to Nolan's, and that's it.
We're still a few weeks away from launching a wide-scale beta that we hope you'll participate in (though of course everyone here can check the game out at any time, naturally). But in the meantime, I wanted to give you the above update and then share the bios/backstory and character graphics below:
Thanks for reading!