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Design Notes: Heavily Revamping The Macro Game

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This is one that Keith and I have been talking about off and on for a while, and finally this afternoon we nailed down a lot of what we want to do.  I still expect there will be changes (when aren't there), but the generalities here are pretty solidified in terms of this stage of beta.

At the moment, the strategic map is really just about scouting, and doing a few other things like rescuing NPCs and building wind shelters.  This of course was never the intent of where we were going to stop with the strategic stuff, so having a separate interface to manage all this sort of strategic-level planning and execution was a no-brainer.

THAT said, developing this out as a really complex strategy-game-style interface that is hidden away in the settlements is something we've decided to move away from.  We're still going to be implementing increasing numbers of strategic and tactical decisions into the game, same as we'd been planning to, but we're going to express those choices -- and let the player express their decisions -- in a vastly different way from a traditional strategy game.

If you've read the threads about missions, you know that both the core and side missions that you'll be able to undertake will have various effects on the world and your civilization.  Rather than ordering your NPCs about through a traditional strategy game overhead view, you'll instead walk across the world map -- as you do now -- to a mission icon and you'll undertake that mission.  The successful conclusion of which will change something about your civilization. 

It might make a new resource available to your citizens, for instance, or bring a new citizen into your settlement.  It might increase production of some specific sort, or help a specific citizen build their house.  All sorts of things like that are possible, and you'll be able to weight the results of each mission against your goals for your civilization and your own character, and choose your side missions accordingly.

Thus the very act of playing the Metroidvania parts of the game will actually be directly impacting and advancing your strategic interests, weaving those two halves of the game together very tightly and doing so without the need for the strategic interface.

The current form of NPC exploration is based around revealing what is in region tile on the world map.  It's a fairly limited function, and just serves as some busywork for the most part.  It could have been made to serve various other purposes, and that's what we had been planning, but as it stands we think there's more interesting ways for players to be spending their time.

As you level up your civilization, new sections of the continent will be revealed, as now.  But instead of you then ALSO having to use your NPCs to explore each of those newly revealed sections and what is on them, the game will simply show you those other attributes as soon as the tile is revealed.

In place of the exploration, there will actually be other kinds of barriers (think like pylons) that will prevent you from accessing certain parts of a continent until you break through the barrier.  That's good for a lot of reasons, but it fits well with the no-exploration mechanic in particular because it lets you see what is on the other side and then decide if it's worth busting down the barrier to get over there anytime soon.  Which leads me to...

The turns in the strategic/citybuilding side of the game were just too separate from the Metroidvania side of the game, which was partly intentional and partly a problem.  There's been a lot of discussion on auto-incrementing turns lately, which got us thinking about lateral solutions to turns in general.  Given that we're removing the strategic interface and replacing that with the missions stuff as a way to influence your civilization, the removal of turns was also kind of an obvious thing we then had to do to make this all fit together.

For a lot of thoughts on how all this will fit together, you really need to have read this topic on the side mission structure first:,9539

So, each mission that you complete -- side or core mission, it doesn't matter -- is one unit of mission time, right?  This is the replacement of turns in the former strategic view.  And it's directly under your control, and something that doesn't stop you from going out and enjoying yourself in a sandboxy fashion for as long as you want.

So what else happens on "mission time?"
1. Every time you complete a mission, other side missions count down their mission timers by one, and disappear if their timer has hit 0.
2. New side missions spring up to take their place (think Final Fantasy Tactics Advance in terms of the general flow of some of this part).
3. Bad Guys Do Bad Things

That third one is key.  In AI War, many players have described the AI as playing Risk while you play AI War.  And that's really apt, in a grand strategic sense.  In AVWW, on each individual continent, an AI is playing something more akin to Civilization while you play Metroidvania.  The overlords forces move around and do things, and you'll have to figure out what you want to do to stop them.  Most of the time, once the game gets past a certain point in beta, you won't be able to deal with the overlord's forces just by running out in lone hero mode and attacking them.  Link vs Sauron's Army -- talk about a suicide mission!

Actually, that brings me to something we've been hinting at but mainly keeping under wraps since the very start of this project...

I'll stay away from too many details on the implementation, since Keith really wants to have a working prototype that he's happy with before we start promising specific features about it (which seems imminently reasonable to me).  But the general idea here is that you'll be able to use your NPCs in a group to fight the overlord's forces in a new, tactical game mode.

I think Keith's last estimate was that something like 60% of the code for this is already in the game, but it's been on hiatus since May.  Good thing, too, because with a lot of the recent changes to the game, and the new Personas stuff that Keith is going to be working on, the thinking for how these battles will actually play out has actually really expanded and improved quite a bit.  So I imagine he's much less than 60% done with what the code needs to be to have this playtest-ready, but it's going to be a really cool feature.

This was always how we intended for macrogame combat to play out, I should note, but now the methods for activating said combat are really different.  Rather than you using a strategic interface and clicking an enemy unit to start a tactical encounter, now you just walk there on the world map and start the tactial battle side mission that moves with the enemy forces.

Some of the side missions will undoubtedly be going toward improving your NPCs for tactical battles, and your NPCs will be the willing recipients of a lot of your old spellgems that you no longer need (again, something we've been hinting at forever it seems like).

And, let's see, we're also planning to make it so that the overlord keeps in particular are guarded by what amounts to an army, so you'll usually want to send in some troops of your own to soften the keep up via tactical battles before you go in on foot as the lone hero to take out the remainder and off the master of the keep.  Though I guess if you've got these really amazing Metroidvania skills, and are willing to lose a lot of heroes to the cause, you could try doing this sort of thing without an army to help you.  We really aim to make a lot of playstyles possible.

I can't give too many more details on tactical battles yet, but I just wanted to note that strategy-game-style group-on-group tactical combat is alive and well for the game, despite the removal of the strategic interface in favor of something more centrally integrated.

Update: After consideration of our timeline and what is likely to lead to the most satisfying result for players, we've decided to cut tactical battles for now.  It's just too large and separate of a "minigame" to really fit with the larger game, and so we're going to think about alternate ways to get your NPCs to help you, so that helping them isn't just a "trophy system" but actually matters longer-term in a gameplay sense.  Tactical battles may well return at some point in the future, but for now they're out of scope and we're going to do something simpler and more existing-game-integrated to accomplish a similar effect.  Once we figure out what that simpler thing is. ;)

One thing I haven't touched on yet at all is the citybuilding aspect of the game.  Whither goes that, if turns and the strategic map are exiting? 

Answer: we did consider removing it, but decided it was too cool and represents a lot of opportunities for side quests.  Here's how we're going to integrate that better into the game, though, and streamline it in the process.

Firstly, the citybuilding screen ("settlement management" in the game terms) is going to be renamed to something like "Bird's Eye View Of Settlement" or something along those lines.  Secondly, it's going to become read-only.  You won't be able to order NPCs around or place buildings or do anything of that sort.  No spending of shards, or anything of that nature.

Yikes!  That's quite a change, right?  Well, what you will still be able to do is look at the whole thing, right-click to get details on existing structures and what's going on, and all that sort of thing.  And in place of you giving all those orders manually to the NPCs to have them build up their town, AI logic will instead be employed to let them take care of their own darn business for a change.  You'll be able to watch and see what they do, and most of their actions will probably take place on "mission time" since turns are gone.

But they still need your help!  This is one of the central areas for side missions, actually.  NPCs will have a hard time getting their settlements off the ground in a really sustainable fashion, and maintaining progress in the face of the adversity of the outside world.  They'll run into various sticking points, and you'll have to decide if you care enough to undertake those side missions or not.  After all, you've got armies to defeat, core missions to see to, and personal lone heroing projects to undertake, right?

But to really maintain morale (and, once the overlord is gone on a continent, have some actual NPC happiness rather than just morale), you won't want to completely neglect helping them out in their homemaking and industrial endeavors.  Given that a lot of these NPCs are the same folks that will be coming out to fight for you in tactical battles, suddenly their morale doesn't seem like such a random thing you don't care about, right?

And this is yet another reason why we're trying to simplify the interface as much as we can, and are automating the citybuilding turn-to-turn tasks and decisions: there's a fricking lot of long-term variables for you to consider in this model if you really want to maintain a peak functioning civilization.  For those to whom that sounds daunting, don't worry -- remember, we have a Strategic Difficulty Level just like a the action one, so you'll be able to turn down the complexity there.  For those who are wanting something to noodle on that will hopefully be as complex to manage in some ways as AI War campaigns can be (in terms of hard decisions, not mechancial difficulty), these ARE the droids you're looking for.

We still have a ton to do with all this, but I'm really pleased with how the plans for the macro game have both shrunk/streamlined in terms of their required interfaces and general scope, while at the same time greatly expanded in terms of the actual interesting decisions that the player has to make as they guide their civilization to success or ruin.  NOT letting the player touch certain macro-game things is part of the key to that, and making certain other macro-game things integrated into the normal adventure mode more heavily is the other big part of it.  That brings everything together more, and makes the strategic decision making process a lot more a part of the game than we'd once planned (though, again, you can really dumb it down in the difficulty settings if you don't like that sort of thing and just want to be a lone adventurer more).

This sounds very, very good.

Looks like you guys are coming up with a much more focused, streamlined model, where the parts fit together and enhance each other. Sounds pretty awesome.

My only concern is with the multi-NPC battles and how they'll integrate with the rest of the stuff, but that's off in the future right now.

Martyn van Buren:
D'accord!  This sounds a lot more like what I was imagining when you started describing settlements pre-beta.

Took me a time or two reading through the mission time idea to get a grasp on it, but once I figured it out, sounds quite nice.  Elegant in making players progress time in order to level/ explore further/ do important macro stuff, but never trapping them by advancing if they're trying to farm some pell components or whatnot.

I am a bit curious if the old idea of "Player is a jerk that NPC's hate" as a possible path is still a goal, or if that concept is more the self centered missions to grow the player instead of the civilization that are mentioned.  Or if that concept went away awhile back.  Just thinking it could make for some interesting twisted civilizations and missions over time, but that might be a ways off.

In any case, interesting stuff to see how it all comes together and is imagined and refined.  Good stuff.


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