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An April Fools Postmortem

Friday, April 4, 2014 1:46pm
jeff
Lead Developer
As is our custom, this year we ran the servers for a special event on April 1st. I had already decided that as the previous April Fools events had been graphical then lore-based in nature, it seemed a good year for a April Fools surrounding Antilia's gameplay.

An important consideration in planning these events is the value of our developer time. We tend to choose events that we believe we can reasonably pull off in around 2 weeks, and I prefer it if a good percentage of that work has value even afterwards. For the 2013 April Fools, we created the 'Monohorn Awareness' event, and in the process we also started the framework for in-game books and documents. For the more recent Chatoi/Lost event we created a "global variable" system which would allow us to make global changes to the game instantly as the script called for it. Designing an event that is a good use of development time, is unexpected, is partly absurd for April Fools, and is something we can do in a couple weeks turned out a little more challenging this year than others.

While the Monohorn event had been planed months in advance, it wasn't until the second week of March this year that we suddenly had the idea of Antilia Hard Mode.

(Considering the radical changes to gameplay, we opted to give players an outline of what to expect upon entering the game.)

Creating Antilia Hard Mode


It didn't take much effort to convince the other developers that we could have a lot of fun with this concept of a hardcore survival version of Antilia. The idea played very well with our existing gameplay and content, and we even had assets like firewood laying around that never found a use in the game. There was an irresistible draw to the idea of taking our relaxed casual game, and making it a frantic time pinch. There was an opportunity to do evil development here.

Adding perma-death and starvation were immediately assumed. We already had the food bar, and with a few lines of code it would be draining and decreasing health when it reached zero. I've long described Antilia as the kind of place that you need to find shelter at night, but that's never been a strong reality. Sure, in previous tests there have been a few extra iichii wandering around at night, but nothing you couldn't just run past and not encounter again in a run half-way across the island. There wasn't much actual danger in running from the mining camp to the base camp in the middle of the night, nor in collecting domynii fruit in the southern grasslands after the sun set.

For hard mode, it was time to make good on all that promised danger.

(The iichii finally did own the night.)

It was always planned, in fact, that the fire pits would only repel enemies at night if they were lit. We'd even added firewood to the game early on, but never got to implementing the fire pit mechanic. I was happy to see that finally make it into the game, along with the fuel requirement for cooking and smelting stations. When it came time to creating "The Void" - needless to say that didn't require much in terms of scene complexity or content creation.

An Opportunity To Experiment


One of the best things about this April Fools event was that it provided us an opportunity to experiment. We decided we would need to empty player inventories so that they would be forced to play, rather than use previously accumulated stockpiles of food. Because of that, the event became a perfect opportunity to try unique, non-stacking fish and food. In the process I discovered a bug in the fish distribution algorithm that resulted in the creation of a much better system, and cooking received a radical overhaul whereby the value and utility of cooked foods was directly related to the quality of the ingredients and player level.

One fear we had was that with so many iichii out at night, players would be inclined to crowd into base camp more than ever. To counter this, we experimented with spreading required resources out more, and making other camps like Maulei Beach more 'livable'. Maulei Beach was designed to be more convenient for general cooking, as it is close to ocean fish as well as mushrooms, and now features fishing and cooking supply merchants.

Our final experiment was in the removal of instant teleportation. While teleporting is convenient, it inevitably destroys the possibility of isolated local economies as well as the sense of adventure and commitment in moving from one place to another. Teleportation eliminates potentially interesting player decisions, and reduces the reward for good planning and strategy. By disabling the teleporters, the event provided an opportunity to experience the game for the first time without that influence.

The Joke was on Us


It was impossible not to feel the anticipation for this year's special event on the website and in Steam chat. As the day drew near, some were literally counting down the hours. I was a little late into Steam voice to hear the initial response as the server came online, but when I did arrive the response seemed to be one of surprise and enjoyment.

What was perhaps less successful was the event as an actual April Fools prank. It wasn't absurd like the Monohorn Event, and it wasn't even hard enough to be considered impractical. We discovered some of this while testing ourselves - in hard mode, suddenly Antilia had a goal: to survive. For the first time Antilia required planning and strategy, and paired with the gameplay improvements - it may not have been as good of a chat room, but it was a better game. Granted you starve a bit too quickly and perma-death isn't really a great idea in and MMO for numerous reasons, Antilia Hard Mode wasn't really hard enough, perhaps at best it was a little harder than "just right".

What the event may have lacked in that perfect "gotcha" moment I think it made up for by providing long-term improvements and a good time, and for that I think the joke was partly on us.

(I think I saw a perfume ad like this once.)

What We Learned From This Event


We experimented with a lot of changes in this release, and so the event provided us a lot of opportunity to learn and collect feedback. Obviously some features like the perma-death "Void" are not in line with our vision for the game. The idea of more difficult areas - perhaps isolated to a portion of the map or an instance, I think would add something to Antilia. Starvation should never be an issue if you're at your tent/house, or in a social setting like an inn or tavern, but I could see it coming into play in isolated areas like a desert. I want to reduce the convenience of free, instant teleportation, as it eliminates strategy from the game and encourages over-crowding of areas. We've begun a new campsite layout on the Isle of Kasau, adding more full-service specialty camps to create a sense of character progression via exploring and spending time at different places across the island.

While inventories and equipment will be restored to normal, several of the changes we made for the event will be incorporated into the game and will continue to be improved.

A New Model for Testing


We are asked frequently by new players if their character will be wiped when Antilia is released, and our plans have always been that alpha and beta players would be allowed to keep their players - an ambitious goal. When dealing with systems that aren't fully implemented or only surface tested by the development team, there is always the possibility of a bug or exploit suddenly appearing that can quickly destroy inventories or whole economies.

As we move toward a time where player trade and economies become a reality in the game we must put better safeguards in place. There have been a couple bugs that have been left open to exploit for too long, and I don't want to create an atmosphere in Antilia whereby cheating or exploiting bugs is acceptable under the guise of "testing". In this event three bugs were discovered that could be used to quickly circumvent the spirit of "Hard Mode". I don't think I've ever set a public rule as to what to do when such a bug is discovered, so I don't feel that the individuals who discovered them did anything particularly wrong. But it did unfortunately lead to one rushed patch and in one case some sour feelings. Hearing that another player is being openly permitted to exploit a bug demoralizes players who just wish to enjoy the game authentically, and if I've appeared permissive toward such abuse I apologize.

For players to be able to keep their characters, skills, and inventory we need to create and maintain an environment which isn't tainted with currency and items obtained through exploits. The first step in doing this is to separate testing from early-access playing. By doing so, we can clearly define the rules and community expectations on each server, and work to discover the most significant exploits in an isolated environment.

To that end, this year's April Fools Event will be our last public alpha test. What is currently the alpha server and all of the characters created on it will become the "early access" server, and we'll work to clean up characters that have become unfairly advantaged through game imbalances or bugs.

Testing will continue on a whole new server, with a limited group of selected testers. Please do not mail me asking to be a tester - there will be an application process announced before testing resumes. We'll select testers on a variety of criteria, and it will require some commitment from testers in completing personally assigned tasks.

From Dev/Alpha to a Game People Play


As those of you following the project are aware, we are also moving our development tools to a new package this year as well, Toi Studio. Over the next several months Antilia will be going through several major transitions: we'll be moving our dev process to a better tool set, expand the volunteer team, begin improvements to Kasau, create a new testing team, create a test to release process, and bring the polished game online on a full-time server.

We'll keep you informed on how that transition is progressing, as well as new volunteer and testing opportunities as they become available.

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