Elemental: Sneak Peaks

Published on Sunday, July 11, 2010 By Brad Wardell In Elemental Dev Journals

imageAs some of you know, Elemental BETA 3-B is the last public beta prior to the Modding beta (Beta 4). The modding beta will take things into a different direction while the team focuses on polishing, fixing bugs, and adding your requests into the main game in time for both the DVD release version (August 6)  and the Day 0 release version (August 24).

Having done these beta programs over the past 17 years, we’ve gotten a lot better at addressing beta tester concerns after the beta closes. Part of that is obviously the tech – until 2003, we had to do all our communication using public Usenet groups or static web pages. Not an ideal format as you can imagine.

In addition, starting with Galactic Civilizations I (2003) the retail gold and digital gold versions started being different.  This was fairly nice as it gave us an extra couple weeks to add other niceties based on player feedback.

So here are some FAQs we have gotten over the years and I’ll do my best to answer them:

Q: How much will the the released version be different from the last beta version?

A: Historically, a LOT.  Sins of a Solar Empire’s last public beta didn’t have infinite resources for instance.

Q: Why does so much change between the last betas and the release versions?

A: During the final stages of the beta, stability becomes our primary concern. The last beta cycles allow us to catalog the typically massive amount of crash and other stability problems that we then address as the beta closes. Then, with the game stable we get to look closer at all the great ideas people had and start incorporating that in. Tweaking gameplay and such is not time consuming.

Q: What is Stardock’s position of Elemental’s multiplayer?

A: Elemental has multiplayer. To ensure that it is robust, we basically threw money at the problem (i.e. set up servers around the world to just host the game) rather than monkey around with trying to get players to connect with one another.  However, Elemental IS a single player game that happens to have multiplayer.  Out of the box, Elemental’s multiplayer will be essentially skirmish on fixed maps that have been pre-balanced (i.e. not randomly generated). 

Our standing policy continues to be that we won’t sacrifice the single player experience for multiplayer. That is, if we want to have a cool feature in single player that would de-balance multiplayer, we’ll just disable it from multiplayer rather than not have it in the game at all.

Over time, we will gauge the interest in expanding the multiplayer to see how many resources to put on it. 

Q: I want to know more about tactical battles

A: Without putting too fine a point on it, Elemental’s tactical battles are designed to be fairly similar to Master of Magic’s tactical battles. If you liked those, you’ll probably like these.  It’ll be an area getting the most refinement over the next 30 days and beyond since we hope to release mini-game modes that let players just play tactical battles.

On a personal note, I don’t like tactical battles normally. However, I do like MoM’s tactical battles and I do like Elemental’s tactical battles.

What is the most challenging in terms of doing tactical battles “nowadays” is that the bar on visuals is so high now. So we’re having to gather together a lot of animation assets, spell effects, unit moves, etc.  That’s what has made doing tactical battles so lengthy.  Elemental has a lot of monsters and each one has to have its own series of attack, hit, defense, casting, etc. animations. Beta 3B will basically have just a core set of these that will get greatly expanded over the next 2 weeks internally (though I did make a fuss about units “stabbing” with a club).

Q: How come there doesn’t seem to be a lot of worry about stability?

A: I’m going to show my age here. The tools for debugging nowadays are simply insane. In MY day, if we wanted to find a crash, we had to use beeps. We’d ask people for saved games and then try to reproduce it.  We’d measure crash fixes by N per week.

Now, if we get a .dmp file, we can load it up in Visual Studio and see the line of code it crashed in and the call stack.  That’s sick. Now, one person can go through an entire forum of crash dumps and fix them all before lunch (as in literally, before 12:00pm EST).  Modern developers are sissies.

Luckily, I personally try to add as many bugs each week as I can to help even the odds.

Q: How are you dealing with video card stuff?

A: Now this is trickier. There are certain video cards that are giving us fits, especially with advanced lighting. That includes blurred graphics. Corrupted graphics. White textures, etc.

In the old days, I’d email a user having the problem and ask them if I could call them on the phone and go back and forth (hey, we’re one of the few indie developers left).  We couldn’t afford to buy every video card out there.

Luckily, now, nVidia and ATI send us their cards and because of our non-game work, we have a compatibility lab set up which we’re hijacking starting this week to speed up the process.

Q: Where does the AI stand?

A: That’s what I’m working on from here on out. I’ve had to do a bit more on other areas of the game than I had intended but now I’m getting back to it.  My position on AI, however, doesn’t change. If the AI can’t use a feature, it comes out of the game. Period. Sorry.  Modders are certainly free to go nuts but in terms of officially sanctions “stuff” I only let that stuff in if the AI is able to use it.

One of the reasons why the game has changed (improved) so dramatically in the past month is because of the AI. The same frustrations you humans have the AI has double. Economics too slow or research too long? The AI notices it very fast.

Q: Will you keep us informed on what happens after the beta ends?

A: Absolutely. Users would be shocked I think to find out just how much of the forums we read and how many ideas we get that aren’t necessarily directly suggested.  Plus, I have Jason Ocampo (former editor at IGN and Gamespot) and Brian Clair (former editor of Avault) yelling at me every day on the things they don’t like.