State of the Game 7/9/14

  • (this came from a post on another site where I was addressing an assertion being made, but ended up making a segue into the state of the game and the plan over the next 8+ months.  My plan was to post that part here as a blog, so here it is).


    My goal has been to keep Pantheon alive no matter what and to ride the storm out. Instead of joining the debate and argument, especially when it got ugly, I focused on building a new team. It so happened that I had a friend who had been working on a religious niche MMO for years using a volunteer only team. I tapped into her knowledge of volunteer and remote team building and much to my amazement was able to start reassembling a team far more rapidly than I thought possible. She knew people who knew people and we now have a larger team than before, full of people with energy and a strong desire to be part of an MMO team and to do so with little to no compensation and to do so remotely.  I was skeptical at first, being accustomed to funded projects and a job site where we all met every morning and worked together and in person. 


    My friend and now co-lead and Pantheon Producer, Laurene, has done the amazing and we have a very solid team of lore writers, world builders, artists, programmers, IT people, etc., who have joined the new team. I purposely avoided the debate and arguing and focused instead on team building and starting a real development process again.  Some of the dust has settled and some has not. I've now made this post and the one before it to address some flat out misinformation (that I never paid the team) and I do so at the risk this re-ignites the negativity and bad feelings and the character assassinations.  But my gut told me to go for it.  To test the waters, so to speak. 


    Regardless, though, I am not returning to be the Pantheon evangelist at this time (which is the wrong time).  I am far too busy and involved both managing and working on the Pantheon project.  Here's what's really important that you may not know if you haven't been following the game, maybe because you thought it was dead or something:


    Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen is indeed fully back in development mode. We are focusing on the MMO foundation that needs to be in place upon which you build the world, implement game logic, create content, etc. The game is now truly client-server. When you run the game you log in or create an account, select a character, and then enter the world in a zone called Halnir's Pass.  Your game client is connected to a world server and a zone server on a server box we control. You can move around, see other players, and chat.  Your movement and status are controlled by the server; in other words, the server is authoritative. You can then exit Halnir's Pass and zone into a labyrinths of caves deep underground. This is actual zoning and you leave the control of one zone server's process and are transferred to another. Your persistent data is being kept track of by the world server, your actual data being saved to an MS SQL database. 


    We have been revising and extending the lore and story behind the game. We should have a world map in the next couple of weeks. We've settled on the races and classes we want to have at launch. We've decided that there will be nine playable races to start out with and three starting cities on three separate continents.  We want players to be able to find their friends quickly in Pantheon because this MMO is all about grouping and working together and playing your role effectively as a team player. You'll be able to teleport between the three starting cities with ease, again to facilitate grouping, guilds, and the player community in general.   That said, the game is also about exploration and adventure, so don't assume there will be teleports out in the rest of the world.  Keeping your group together and replacing one group member with another when the first has to leave will be very doable. Teleporting around the open world so you can avoid danger, not so much. 


    Recently we've been growing our world building team and we currently have four on that team. We will need more, but so far so good. They are using World Machine along with other tools that work well with our engine, which is Unity 3D.  Using this tech and tools has rapidly accelerated development in many ways.  Ultimately what it allows us to do is to build the game in the sequence and order that makes sense from an MMO development standpoint. In 1996 when we started work on EverQuest, this was not possible. In 2002 when we began work on Vanguard, this was not possible.  In the past much of the team was gated much of the time. MMO projects would begin with lots of discussion and documentation, usually far more than what was truly beneficial, because the designers and artists we're waiting for and gated by programming. You had to wait for a display, even a simple one. You had to wait for the engine to exist to the point where you could actually build a zone and run through it. You had to wait on even a simple UI because it really wasn't that simple. You had to wait for real character models to at least be initially designed before you could enter a zone and run around.  


    Bottom line, the tech of the day forced you to implement your game NOT in the order that made sense.  What is really the stuff you want working first?  It should be the aspects of the game that are game defining and what sets your game apart, what's unique or key to the vision behind the game. With Pantheon, that's adventure and combat, followed by item acquisition, with important features like character customization and presentation coming just about last.  Note I said it was important. Just because it doesn't make sense to implement something until much later by no means makes that feature or tech or mechanic less important. 


    But you do need to identify the features and mechanics of the game that are fundamental to the games success.  With Pantheon, much like EQ1, Vanguard, etc,, as mentioned, it's all about adventure and combat. If exploring the world is boring and if fighting a group of mobs mundane, then the game has failed regardless of how good it looks or how realistically your avatar is rendered.  The problem in the past was that you couldn't really log in, explore, and do battle until, say, 3 or more years into a 5 year development cycle.  Sure, you could write up detailed low level design documents.  Sure, you could create an intricate and detailed world in Campaign Cartographer.  But you couldn't play it In-game.  You had to wait and wait on tech and tools before you had the opportunity to really play the game and make changes and tweaks. 


    Today, in 2014, that's all changed. With Unity and all of the plug-ins and tools and tech you can rapidly get to the point where you are really working on the true game itself. That's why, if you have been watching announcements and screen shots and movies since April, you are seeing a pre-alpha game that seems to be missing things you might have expected to be there.   Again, with Pantheon, the core of the game is adventure and combat.  So the plan to get from point A (starting real development) to point B (adventure and combat) is to implement only what we MUST to get there.  The game must be client-server.  The game's servers must be authoritative (so hacking is difficult). You must be able to log into the server and then choose a character and enter the game. You need to be able to travel from one zone to another (adventure and exploration). You need to be able to see other players, communicate with them, and then group with them. You've got to be able to create mobs, assign them characteristics, put them into an encounter, place that encounter in the world, and then have the zone server keep track of them, tell your client to display them, etc. And then you need to be able to fight them. You need to be able to create abilities and spells, and assign them to player characters and NPCs.  And, finally, you need tuning knobs, allowing you to adjust abilities, levels, defense and offensive values, preferably in real time.  


    That's pretty much it, although I'm sure I forgot a detail here and there.  Are there other aspects of the game that are also important, and maybe even essential?  Of course. How about items and looting?  How about different modes of travel?  How about how exactly you level and progress?  GUI? Inventory?  Character creation?  Character appearance and customization?  All of those are super important and they need to be worked on and made impressive and polished.  But we don't need them now.  Our goal is to make adventure, exploration, and combat working pre-alpha.   That gives us pre-alpha, alpha, and beta to make what's fundamental to Pantheon is polished, balanced, configurable, tweak able, and, wait for it:  FUN. 


    And that is why I'm so crazy excited about this game and this development process.  We're going to be grouping up, exploring, and killing mobs in a matter of months, not years.  Let me segue back to what we've accomplished and do a quick recap. We have real client-server, so I can log in, choose a character, and enter the world. I can interact with other players, albeit primitively. I can see them and chat, but not group up. I can travel from a zone to another.  The tools, plug-ins, and tech needed to create an outdoor or indoor zone have been chosen and implemented (thanks Monty!). So what's next?  Well, we have to get two separate paths in production and not gated by someone or something.  First, if adventure and exploration are fundamental, then we need a detailed world map with cities, dungeons, points of interest, climates, etc. laid out using a vector based app (Campaign Cartographer) so we can zoom in, add more detail, and then zoom some more. Then we need to break that world up into zones and decide what zone connects to what other zone and where. Then we need small design docs describing the zone with text and pictures if possible.  Finally the world builder has his map and design doc and he or she can start actually creating the zone using the documented procedures and plug-ins and tools and tech. And if you want a huge world, then you want an army of world builders working in parallel, hopefully not gating each other. What about the art assets that go into the zone?  Well, here's where we have a huge advantage again that didn't exist in 1996 or 2002:  


    We have the unity store where we can purchase already made art assets.  Are we going to ship the game full of purchased assets?  Of course not. But, and this is key, the world builder is not gated by the art team, waiting on assets to be created in Maya so he or she can then plug them into their zone. In fact, even though the funding is not there to hire those artists yet, the world builders can proceed and make measurable forward progress. Again, where are we at? We have identified the plug-ins, tools, and tech that work with Unity and built one outdoor zone and one indoor dungeon zone. This process has been documented as well. And we have 4-5 world builders who have begun their first zone. And the map and zone write-ups have begun, but they're not where they should be.  Hey, just keeping it real. 


    Back to the game.  We've logged in and we are exploring and zoning. Next we need to be able to create mobs, define zones, and then create encounters. Encounters are defined by one or more mobs and have various attributes. Once you've made the mobs, zone definition, and encounter, you need to place those encounters into the actual zone. Then when the zone is run, it has the data it needs to show those mobs in-game.  Where are we at?  The windows app that talks with the database was started by yours truly about 2 weeks ago. You can create mobs, zone definitions, and encounters. Next we need to be able to place the encounters and then the zone server needs to get all of that data from the database when the zone is loaded up. Then we will start seeing mobs when we enter the game and start exploring.  How close are we to this point?  A couple weeks max, hopefully sooner. 


    So that's where we are at.  And we've made it to this point building on what was there in April plus stuff that we had to re-write or add. Add in the time it took to build this team and I think we've achieved something extraordinary in a little over two months.   I want to pause here and let you know one reason I've written all of this up to this point. Because we are a crowd funded game at least up until we find that first round of funding (likely an accredited angel investor) I feel we owe it to everyone whose donated to us their hard earned money examples and proof of measurable forward progress. This is why we recently committed to the community that we would show examples of this measurable forward progress at least every 1-2 weeks.  And I hope it also convinces many of you who may still be sitting on the fence to pledge money to us sooner as opposed to later.  We need money to buy tools and plug-ins and servers and Unity licenses.  And then, even though the team is technically volunteers at this point, I do like to paypal them some $$ when I can.  Every little bit helps, trust me.  


    Ok, then what?  Well, we continue to look for more world builders. We need an army and we need world builders now, as volunteers, and then we will need more once funding comes in at which point 1. Our volunteers can become employees and 2. We can hire world builders that need a salary before they can climb in board. Ok, back to coding.  In a couple of weeks, as mentioned, we should have NPCs spawning in zones. Now comes the fun part:  turn combat back on. If you looked at the movies I put together back in April to show you all what the original team had accomplished, you'll remember that primitive combat was working. In fact it was set up so you could choose different classes (ability sets) dynamically.  This was classic combat prototyping which enabled us to get a good feel for how our action/reaction combat system would function. We've talked about this in interviews and on the games web site, but I'll do a quick recap here:  it's sort of like real-time Magic: the Gathering. You have a set of spells and abilities you've learned and earned. When you are prepping for the next fight, you memorize a subset of your spells and abilities. Some are use once until you mem them again, while others might have re-use timers where you can keep casting the spell or triggering the ability until you run out of the appropriate mana type.  And, like in M:TG, you don't just mem spells and abilities you want to use against the mobs, but you also mem Answers. You mem counter spells, deflections, etc.  In fact, if you don't bother yourself with answers and focus only on the cool things you want to do, you're a noob and you're probably going to die hard. 


    Ok.   So a lot of this was in the game pre-April and it was great being able to mess with how combat was going to look and feel. Now, in our new client-server set up, using MMO centric networking tech, we need to integrate that old code into that future current build.  That's going to take some time and we want to do it right. We also need to revise and extend the functionality. Essentially you need to be able to in-game set your level, race, and class in real time.  Same with the mob(s). Their initial values will be loaded in from the database, but then we want to be able to tune them in-game in real time.  Then it's time to implement grouping.  And then it's time to start playing this game, at its core, initially a bit primitive, but it will be for real. It won't be a demo or even a prototype.  Yes, all of this so we can make adventure, exploration, combat, and grouping actually in-game and real within the first year of development. 


    So that's the road map for at least the next 4-8 months.  What about everything else?  Like I mentioned earlier, there's still a lot of important features, assets, and mechanics that need to be implemented before beta, which ideally will last a year or so, and also ideally the game is at least close to feature complete.  A lot of the timing also depends on when our first round of funding comes in. But here's a perfect place to address an 'issue' that comes up sometimes when we post a movie or screenshots.  Under this plan and with this tech I have hopefully explained why using Unity and the Unity Store is so key to our development plan and the sequence and order within that plan.  To be clear, you are going to see a lot of store bought assets in the movies and screenshots probably up until the last year or so of development. This allows the world builders to lay out intricate and challenging dungeons without having to create art assets themselves or wait for a 3d modeler to create them in Maya. Character creation and customization? Can't ship without it, but we can also have that be one of the Last big technical hurdles as opposed to it being one of the first like it was in EQ or Vanguard.  We can choose our character tech towards the end of the development cycle. This means, amongst other things, that we don't choose one now, put a lot of time and resources into it, but then much better tech appears during the last year of development and we either keep the old stuff or we painfully transition to the new tech (and this happened several times both during EQs and Vanguards dev cycles).   So, in summary re: character models, you're going to see store bought models likely for quite some time.  And yes, there's a method to all of this madness.


    Items, climates, vehicles, customizable user interfaces, etc, etc.  All of that happens in a sequence and order I can talk about another time. The main points here were to talk about the team, what we've accomplished, why you see store bought assets, the road to combat and adventure, etc. 


    -Brad "Aradune" McQuaid

  • CanadinaXegony
    CanadinaXegony As a gesture of faith in what you do..I have invested a tiny bit more as of yesterday. Keep up the good work, keep our faith in your skills and what you do'll get there. Can't wait for alpha/beta wherever you are allowing people in to...  more
    July 10, 2014 - 7 like this
  • Jason
    Jason Thanks for the update Brad, lots of great info there and lots of things to be optimistic about
    July 10, 2014 - 3 like this
  • Max63
    Max63 Thanks for the update Brad! I look forward to playing this game in the future!Don't give up!
    July 10, 2014 - 3 like this
  • Max63
    Max63 Thanks for explaining about the character models. I look forward to the day I can see my beautiful dark elf character.
    July 10, 2014 - 3 like this