Pre-Alpha Update: Tech notes, update notes, ramblings

Tech: Holding Up Well!

The pre-alpha is going well. We’re averaging about 3 people online at a time, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but given that it’s a limited-access, incredibly early, short duration test, it’s actually pretty great!

I’m not sure what the highest capacity has been, probably about 15 people — which unfortunately isn’t anywhere close to stressing the server’s load capacity — but it’s certainly found a lot of bugs and issues.

We’ve fixed the last known server crash bug, and the server has been stable with continuous players online for over 24 hours. (However, some players are reporting severe lag spikes — which looks like real-world internet lag, but it’s too early to tell for sure.)

So on that front, I’m pretty happy. When we combine this real-world testing with our load emulation, I’m confident that our server architecture will build out just fine. My biggest fear was that the server-side physics and pathfinding would be too slow, but it’s been fine, too.

This pre-alpha version is also the first one that isn’t built on top of SmartFoxServer. Instead, I wrote my own custom networking layer with the netty library. There were some early bugs as a result, but we got them under control pretty quickly, and the low-level stuff is now pretty awesome. I have to say that it’s a lot easier to add features onto our own custom architecture than it was to shoehorn them into SmartFoxServer’s architecture. Plus, it saves us thousands of dollars in licensing fees, too.

Anyway, there’s lots more tech development to come, but we’re more confident in the tech plan than ever before.

Feedback: Tons!

Thanks again to everybody that’s offered feedback! We’re still digging through it all. We’re fixing small bugs immediately, and recording the rest for later.

Your feedback has indicated that the newbie experience is working okay — if a bit ugly — and that you’re able to understand the basics of gameplay easily. My guess is that the newbie experience could even have a few more puzzles and things to discover, and it still wouldn’t be too overwhelming. (I feared that we had packed it as heavily as we could without blowing newbies’ minds, but ideally I’d like it to be a little denser.)

The biggest reported weakness is in group combat, which we already knew — it’s very chaotic and rough. And it’s been hard to spot real issues with the underlying combat mechanics (the roles, the abilities, the monsters, that sort of thing) because there are so many minor issues in the way, like a crappy HUD, difficulty targeting, and bugs that make monsters and abilities not work right.

So we’ve been focusing most heavily on group combat the past week, and ignoring crafting, puzzles, gathering, and quests. Please don’t think that’s indicative of the final game! It’s just that group combat needs the most help right now, and it’s easiest to test group-combat stuff while there are people online to try it out.

We’ve also gotten feedback that Gathering is boring — it’s a perfectly typical MMO gathering system, but it turns out that gathering is kind of boring in all MMOs. I agree with that sentiment. We’ll think about ways to make gathering more interesting in the future, without going overboard.

General Sentiment Seems Positive

Of course, the play-testers are a self-selected group of people: they’re people interested enough to pledge Kickstarter money! So they’re more inclined to like the game than an average person. But even so, most players seem to be having a good time — or at least not a bad time. Given the early state of the game, that’s good news, too!

A bunch of people sent feedback saying that they were impressed with the game. Reading between the lines, I think a lot of people were saying “whoa, this is actually a real game,” as opposed to a vaporware idea. Which is great!

Kickstarter Failure: A Setback, Not Death

There’s a long way to go, and without the Kickstarter money, the road is even longer. Some people have suggested we set up a PayPal pledge system instead, and we’re considering that and other possibilities.

A few people have also volunteered some assets and resources, and that could end up helping a lot, as well.

But in any case, our original timeline is probably impossible now… especially if we have to stop for a while and gather more money. So yeah, this setback sucks. But it doesn’t mean we’re throwing in the towel. We’ll find a way to get this game finished!

Lessons from Kickstarter

Doing a Kickstarter for the game has had two big hurdles. The #1 complaint we heard was “wow, this game is ugly.” We saw that on forums and blogs all across the net. And someone would always pipe in “well, that’s why they’re doing a Kickstarter,” but it’s really hard to fight that first impression. Gamers aren’t game developers, and they don’t know whether a game is going to be fun or not, so they use graphics quality as a shorthand. That’s why every big company hires an artist before they hire any engineers — and it’s why so many game trailers are just cut-scenes instead of gameplay footage. That shit works.

We understood this on some level, of course, but I think we were blinded by our experience in the MMO niche. We know that making an MMO is incredibly hard, and we hoped that by showing people we’d already done the hardest parts, that would help sell it. And it probably did, but only to people who got past the ugly screen shots.

If I was going to do a Kickstarter again I’d spend a lot more time getting screen shots that were as flattering as possible. I’d also approach the Kickstarter “risks and dangers” section less seriously. Instead of an actual analysis of possible risks, I’d put in the usual BS about “the biggest risk is that we make a game that’s too fucking awesome and the internet explodes.” It was incredibly frustrating to see bloggers freaking out about all our risks and assuming we wouldn’t make it because it was so risky. Our risks are incredibly small, especially compared to other ambitious games on Kickstarter. But the problem is that nobody else on Kickstarter is being realistic with their risk assessment section. So we shouldn’t have either.

Kickstarter is supposed to be a funding system, but that doesn’t mean you should approach it like a pitch you’d make to an investor or a publisher. It’s actually a hype machine, so you need to put your prettiest face forward, not admit to any weakness, and use a lot of exclamation marks. We’ll know better next time.

The Missing Killer Feature

The other big problem wasn’t due to the nature of Kickstarter. It’s that we don’t have a killer feature that instantly stands out and sells the game for us. Is our game different and fresh? Yes! I think people who played it could see some of that. But it’s really hard to explain how it’s different, especially to people who never played an MMO before World of Warcraft.

I don’t know how to solve that. And it will be a problem going forward, because if we can’t pitch the game in a few sentences, how are we going to advertise it?

The Future

Anyway, it’s been tough. I’m frustrated, as I’m sure you can tell. But I’m also extremely happy that almost 300 people were interested enough to pledge their hard-earned money. You guys are amazing and I’m really thankful for your support!

Going forward, the pre-alpha will keep running until some time on Monday, with updates each day. We’re going to keep focusing on group combat, plus a smattering of new recipes and quests. We decided not to put Necromancy into the game, because it’s still pretty buggy… we’d rather focus on getting what’s already there working a bit better. (So if you find an item that requires Necromancy, you might as well toss it. Sorry about that!)

If you have a chance to play, we really love getting feedback about your play experience, both good and bad! You can use the in-game feedback tool to send us anything, or post here, or send us Kickstarter mail, or whatever. Thanks!

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26 Responses to Pre-Alpha Update: Tech notes, update notes, ramblings

  1. Conor says:

    I’m skeptical of your “lessons learned” section. A lot of pitches have art but no gameplay, so they play to their strengths and show the art. You have gameplay, but poor art, so next time you’ll play to your weakness and show faked art?!?

    If there is a next time (and why not? it’s been done before), I really think the server should be publicly available all month long, and the first thing out of your mouth should be “go HERE to play the game!” :)

  2. Eric says:

    I don’t mean to say we’ll use fake graphics, just that we’ll have to spend a lot of time getting the best shots we can. It takes a ton of time to stage and frame screenshots, and we didn’t spend much time on that, since we were using placeholder art anyway.

    But we needed to spend the time, because graphics are really important to the sales pitch. (Even if the pitch is “our graphics suck, help us buy more.”)

  3. Matt says:

    I’ve been following your blog for a while and just wanted to let you know that the game looks great. Kickstarter is a place where pretty-looking dreams get funded because the people backing projects usually don’t have much business sense.

    As a fellow game developer, I know how hard getting good art can be; especially on a shoe string budget. I’m honestly impressed with what you have accomplished up to this point already.

    In my opinion, I wouldn’t bother with art just yet. There are plenty of people who would play it with placeholder art and will happily pay you for it. If you’ve got the server architecture you should start charging subscriptions for anyone wanting to see your progress. I know I’m interested.

  4. Ancaritha says:

    “Some people have suggested we set up a PayPal pledge system instead, and we’re considering that and other possibilities.”

    Where is the +1 button?

  5. Eric says:

    Thanks, Matt! I’m a little worried about burning people out if I charge them so early, but on the other hand it would be great to have people around to test the group combat with, so … hrm.

    Conor, you have a good point that we took too long getting the pre-alpha running. Largely that was me being afraid it wasn’t ready, tech-wise. But for our next promotion attempt, we’ll definitely have a public playable front-and-center. And I just went and turned on “guest mode” on the pre-alpha now, so people who wander by over the weekend can dive in and poke around.

  6. Conor says:

    Sounds good to me!

    Sorry, “faked” wasn’t the right word earlier — obviously I didn’t mean to imply any kind of dishonesty.

    I just don’t want to see you get sidetracked trying to create the perfect presentation for people who think the game isn’t pretty enough; they’re probably not your audience anyway. The Minecraft reference is apt once again. :)

  7. Craig says:

    I’ve only been in game twice so far, but hope to put in some hours this weekend. It _IS_ fun already.

    For what it’s worth, the reason I was willing to toss some kickstarter money your way was largely due to your “risks and dangers” section – I understood what you were saying about having done the heavy lifting. I’m not suggesting you alter your lessons learned, just hoping you don’t go too far to the dark-hype side. I may have missed this gem completely if you had done so the first time around.

    Next time you will have the gaming environment ready, so let folks in for a mimimal pledge. I think the game sells itself to poeple who are the actual audience.

    Also consider having an optional modest fee (either periodic or one time) for those who want to go along for the alpha-ride or check in occasionally to see how things are progressing. As Matt said: I know I am interested.

  8. Scoboose says:

    You can add me to the list of people who will pay to continue play testing.

  9. Anon says:

    I would have donated to the Kickstarter, but the problem for me was that I had already backed FOUR different Kickstarter projects and I was stretched too thin.

    Best of luck, Eric!

  10. Rauxis says:

    I think you did not create enough “buzz”. I read a quite a few websites focusing on MMOs, but you weren’t there – or at least not “prominent” enough.

    Rauxis, chosen of CAT

  11. Kickstarter is largely, despite protestrations to the contrary, a store. As Psychochild pointed out, the big successes this year have frequently been either real or spiritual sequels and or products that are basically complete. If you were making a multi-million dollar game, I don’t see why your investors wouldn’t FORCE you to do a kickstarter campaign just to prove that you have revenue potential through the number of paid-in-full pre-orders of the future product.

  12. Matt Adcock says:

    You definitely need to crank up the hype machine if you try another Kickstarter. Far less credible projects have managed to get far more publicity and raised far more money as a result.

    Good luck and I look forward to seeing more.

  13. Eric says:

    We actually spent a ton of time pitching and pushing our game during the past month. Press releases, interviews, email solicitations small and large. We even got pro help in doing the press releases. We worked our asses off and we got pretty sub-par traction. ( We’ve both done solicitation for games in the past, so we can tell what good reception looks like… and this wasn’t it. :) )

    This is one of the reasons that I think art is so important. Large sites didn’t seem to want to touch us with a ten foot pole… most likely because they don’t want ugly screen shots on their sites.

    We couldn’t even get on Rock Paper Shotgun, which stung, since they cover so many other Kickstarter games weekly.

  14. Jon W says:

    Why use screen shots when you can commission some concept art? Seriously — it will look a lot better, and be just as authentic a snapshot of the creative process. Worth a few hundred of investment!

    Also, indiegogo apparently lets you keep what is pledged even if you don’t make the goal.

  15. Godwin says:

    Quote:
    “I’d approach the Kickstarter “risks and dangers” section less seriously. Instead of an actual analysis of possible risks, I’d put in the usual BS about “the biggest risk is that we make a game that’s too fucking awesome and the internet explodes.””

    I’d be very disappointed if you were to do that. I think your risk section was good, informative and didn’t say anything scary. I like candor, openness and realism. Your game is great and it should be able to make 100K with the right buildup and presentation, without needing to resort to lies. Maybe 90% of the kickstarter lie their faces off, but that doesn’t mean that you should make the same mistake.

    Aside from this point: I wish you all the best, the game is so promising and great… Good luck!!

  16. Jeshua says:

    I don’t know if you gave it enough time to promote the project. There are quite a few of us old-timer gamers that don’t keep up on news, or even play games anymore. I didn’t find out about this project until like 4 days ago.

    I think the art is fine. I was very impressed with the graphics and models. Yes the animations needed work but I understood it was pre-alpha.

    I always thought a sandbox game needs more player content, so there is less work for the devs. Where people can create their own quests for others to complete. Also you mentioned harvesting being boring. Have you considered something like hiring an AI farmer, (much like the harvesters in Star Wars Galaxies) but with a medieval theme. No one likes to harvest manually, but it’s fun to oversee the operation, or scout out good locations.

    Let us know if you continue to need a handful of pre-alpha testers! Keep up the great work.

  17. Rauxis says:

    “Why use screen shots when you can commission some concept art? Seriously — it will look a lot better, and be just as authentic a snapshot of the creative process. Worth a few hundred of investment!”

    THIS! Concept art and a “proof of concept” game mechanics might have made a better impression.

    I would not call your Project Gorgon at the current state Alpha btw – but a concept study of the game mechanics :)

    Rauxis, chosen of CAT

  18. Lolin says:

    To be honest, I was surprised the art looked as good as it did. But then again, I am not your average gamer. I played AC, WURM, currently play UO, and was involved in Metaplace with Raph Koster before they went on to make FB games. I know what the important parts are. In MMOs I am easily distracted and thats the way I like to play. Gorgon already has those distracting elements. Crafting, gathering, fully fleshed out alternate forms….I mean really! How fun is being a cow?! Fishing as a cow? As an artist, my mind is wild with that.

    Eric, I am all in. And I would gladly pay a modest monthly to stay involved in play testing. I have already emailed you some samples of my art. Let me know how I can help.

  19. JeremyT says:

    Eric:

    First of all, I’m sorry to see the Kickstarter fail. I’ve really been pulling for you guys and I wish you the best of luck.

    In terms of marketing, a focus on having some visual assets is smart, but I have another general recommendation for you: make a really good pitch video. With a good script. With good audio. And good cameras. And good production quality.

    That little video is a chance to go above and beyond just showing pretty pictures, and it’s an opportunity to convey to the world that *you’re for real*. It’s your first and in many cases last impression. Having attractive game assets in there is good, but this is the chance to communicate to the world what you’re making and why it’s awesome – so you should probably make that *message* awesome, too.

  20. Lolin says:

    On JeremyTs idea, what about including a group hunt with voice. Use Skype or Vent or whatever.

  21. Ken says:

    With the Pre-alpha over I am just wondering if the account will used for the next Alpha test. I am also wondering if we will be able to play our pre-alpha characters too. As a tester I don’t expect that, as a player I would like it.

  22. Ken says:

    Sorry for double posting, this time I read the whole blog entry and I wanted to address your feedback request.

    I have been playing MMORPGs since about 1996. I have played many, liked a few. This is one I like, it is definitely incomplete, but the core game-play elements that have been implemented makes it fun already. I played it for 2 weeks and I feel like I could play it for several more weeks before I got bored with the existing content. On top of that the game has attracted a small community of good people who I enjoyed playing with in the dungeons. Things like local chat, groups/parties, PC client, better camera and targeting will be nice to see. More content will come in time.

    People who complain about the graphics will never be happy until they figure out what makes games fun for them. Don’t let them get you down. Focus on what you know, because you are doing well with it ;)

  23. Tad says:

    Harvesting. You need common-rare-ultra rare – to make harvesting interesting and then you need the rarity to effect the crafting recipe. Vanguard allowed multiple people to gather which resulted in higher amounts of an item (i.e. a full group of 6 could combine to mine an ultra-rare node resulting in roughly 2x the usual amount of ultra-rare ore)

    Special Sauce/Killer Feature – First I think you need to decide what game you are making. Are you making a game for groups? In which case your 3 person groups are just too small. Or are you making a solo game. In which case your 3 person groups are too large. Are you making a spiritual successor to AC or to EQ? I’m not sure you can do both succesfully. Finally are you making a game that appeals to casual or hardcore players? Again I don’t think you appeal to both succesfully given your limited resources. Obviously I’m more interested in a spiritual successor to EQ but maybe that’s not your natuarl base, maybe you need to focus on the AC aspects of the game.

  24. Rick says:

    Sorry I did not find out about the game and kickstarter before today. I really have to wade through my backlog sometime soon. I really do think you have a differentiator in this game to the others in the market. From the videos that I saw, the game seems much more social with smaller groups and goals. This seems more like the style that we had in the old days when I developed text based online games.

    The art style right now is rough, but I would concentrate a lot more on gameplay and game systems. The art will come when it is ready. people will appreciate being able to test out the game in Alpha as the artwork is smoothed over and brought to production quality.

    Hopefully I can keep my eyes out for more developments here in the future, as I do think you have something worth developing further.

  25. Razak says:

    <-Feels bad

    Somehow in all of the craziness of life I completely missed your kickstarter. =/ On the bright side, my money wouldn't have put you over the top, but I still feel bad. I would have liked to have shown my support for your project!

  26. Samantha says:

    Unfortunately, I came to your kickstarter a bit too late in the game, (after it had already ended) but none the less, this game has intrigued me. I must say that after reading through your campaign page, it was incredibly refreshing to see someone posting seriously and not about “our game is too awesome” yadda yadda. I think you might have had some nicer screen shots (read: photoshopped to the quality you aim for) but I think in the long run, not lying about your aspirations and risks., and not leaning too heavily on your art to promote your game has definitely earned you more respect and a stronger foothold in the indie MMO community. While it may not seem like it now, I think you guys are set on a greater road to success than most kickstarters, and I am personally very sad I didn’t get to pledge ): Keep up the best of work!!