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The Roleplaying Section - Thoughts and Lessons Learned

Sunday, October 10, 2010 9:11am
Lead Developer
We've run a few scenes now in the Roleplaying section (I know it's only been 3 for the players - but it's been 6 for me), and it seems a good time to share some of my thoughts on it. The roleplaying section has certainly rekindled my interest in storytelling and game design.

So, some of the positive things, and of course I'd love to hear the community's opinion of these things as well:
  • Skill Based Gameplay - I've always been a fan of skill-based games, as I've mentioned before, and it has been awesome to see it in action with regards to Antilia. This has been a chance to really think about what weapons and skills are important, to consider some new skills I hadn't thought about before (tracking?), and think about how they might be implemented in the context of a 3D game. There are some things that are easy to implement in RP, but surprisingly difficult to do in an mmmorpg. Sometimes, it's just a matter of finding a 'clever' way to implement them that works, and in some cases if you can't do it right - best not to even try. Experimenting with some of these ideas in RP has been interesting.
  • Non-Battle Gameplay - Of course, the whole reason I like skill-based games instead of level-based, is for the potential to create and play a non-combatant character. For example in a sandbox-style mmorpg, Decker226's character Norii might avoid battle situations entirely, traveling via magic from place to place and engaging in a completely different playstyle than a warrior would. I love that idea.
  • The World - I've really enjoyed the opportunity to explore and expand the world. At times I've had to do so in something of a mad-rush... but even then I think it's a good thing. I still think there's a lot of places to refine and explore that haven't even been mentioned in RP yet - but already I think Antilia has the potential to portray a really unique and solid game world.
  • The Game Engine - One thing that makes me very hopeful about Antilia is that the underlying code - while more sophisticated than the forum section - is still pretty simple. Of course, the real experience of the game is in the posting and storytelling - but even so - the RP section has systems to track stats, items, and skills and are to a small degree even automated. An mmorpg implementation wouldn't necessarily be radically different, other than in scale. One thing that really worked for the RP section is the use task management and iterative development. Rather than worrying about the 'whole RP section' - each time I sat down to work on it, I only worried about implementing 1 tiny thing, and that was all. Over the course of a few weeks, those individual things added up to a playable game - and when we started the game, item and skill tracking was very primitive, but it was still playable. This kind of 'one thing at a time' design is something I'm seriously working into my plans for Antilia now. Get a basic game running, then each time I work on Antilia, just worry about adding one thing.
Perhaps the players might have something to say on the topic of flaws of the RP section, the only one I want to mention that really surprised me (and I'm not sure why) - was the amount of time it requires to run it. For example, on Friday the 'A' group fought a battle, which turned into a sort of mini boss fight. To make that happen required about 5-6 hours of posting that night - while also trying not to neglect the 'B' group. Every time a player requests a list of books on a bookshelf, or list of items in a store, or skills a trainer trains - that means I have to stop and document those things... which isn't always instant. If a new enemy enters an area, I have to take the time to create it, describe it, set up stats for it, give it skills, figure out what it drops.. (although, nobody has tried to loot a corpse yet). When a player attacks, it means opening up that player's character sheet and reducing energy/ammo, then opening up the target's sheet and modifying health.. it is all quite time consuming. I really want to make it a quality experience - I even originally planned to create area/dungeon maps for each scene - but it all adds up to a lot of time. To start each scene generally requires a couple of hours worth of planning, writing, proof-reading, and creating new content. And when it's done, I have to switch over to the other scene and do it all again.

To be perfectly honest, while those 5 hours on Friday night were fun - at a point I had to ask myself "why am I not spending this time coding the actual game?" It was an awkward question to have to ask myself. I'd say the RP section has averaged about 16 hours per week of my time, and some weeks more than that. Honestly, I hadn't intended to run the section myself because of this time cost - but things just didn't work out how I thought they would.

I'm going to have to reconsider how much GM'ing I can do while developing Antilia. 16 hours a week is quite a commitment, and I'm really wanting to get back into some full-swing development.

While I'm on the subject of development, a bit of an update: I spent Tuesday and Saturday this week working on the project again. I've decided to model the game after the way I implemented and launched the RP section - Break the game into the most basic of parts, and find the simplest least-amount-of-effort way to implement each of those parts. At this point, the next big milestone HAS to be a game client. For the first release we have just a few basic parts:
  • Login (completed) - Just a simple box to enter your name and password to connect to the server. I basically just copied this straight from the Antilia Editor for the first release.
  • Auto-update (completed) - It's a pain for everyone to download the latest version each week of a project that's constantly being updated - so this system is a must-have. And fortunately again, it was something I could pretty much just copy straight over from the editor with only a few changes.
  • Character Select Screen - Again, to start with nothing special - just a simple list of names will display that lets you pick which character you want to log in as.
  • Character Create Screen - For the first release, there probably won't even be any options - just a window to provide a character name. As we go along, options for race/sex will be added, and of course down the road a 'pretty' version can be made to replace the dev version.
  • In-Game - Extremely bare-bones to start. Everyone will play as the same character mesh, hopefully animated. Player will be able to move around on a small bit of land, and chat to the local area via a single chat window. That'll pretty much be it to start.
So, as you can see, I've *really* stripped it down. Then each week after that, I'll just focus on adding 1 or 2 new things. Might be a new race mesh.. or some new game objects, a new area... one release might include an 'inventory' system,.. and then later a simple 'skill' system. Game systems that can't be deployed in an 'evolutionary' way will probably have to be re-designed or removed (for example the 'storytelling system' just doesn't evolve nicely, it's all or nothing). Initially it'll just be the volunteers that play this 'pre-alpha' game, but I'll try to include anyone who is interested in testing as I am able.

Yesterday I covered two whiteboards with diagrams and to-do lists, breaking everything that absolutely must be done into 1-hour chunks. Right now, I'm looking at about 70 hours (in project management you typically 'pad' things to take 2-3 times the initial estimate, however) for the first version. It's just not that much work, with the bells and whistles removed. Now that we have a nearly finished mesh editor and a solid game engine, all that remains is primarily stuff I've done before.

I think it's been a decent year of development so far, starting out with the new terrain system, and then moving into the mesh editor - which really took more time than it should have, but it did solve a significant problem for me. I'd love to end this year on a high-note - by getting that first foundation set for the game.
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