Dragon Age: The Last Court

So, anyone who plays RPGs on PC/Console is probably aware that Dragon Age Inquisition is dropping in a few days. I’m looking forward to hearing/seeing which new ideas they have come up with in that game, although – given my schedules – it will probably be Spring next year before I have a chance to play the game. Not to mention that I still have Dragon Age 2 in my backlog, so I really should finish that first.

I have been messing a bit around with The Last Court, though; which is Failbetter Games’ text-based adventure game where you, as the Marquis of  a small province/town with a mysterious and shameful past. Like other Story Nexus games, this is a text-based game about resource management, which makes it right up my alley. And there’s a lot to like about this.

The writing, as usual with Failbetter, is one of the highlights. The short story snippets which are their hallmark are well written, and are often really evocative. The resource management is pretty neat, once you learn it – there is definitely the “feel” of having to balance the concerns of an estate/barony in terms of dignity, prosperity, and freedom. There is not a perfect balance (freedom, for instance, seems a lot harder to raise than the two others), but I don’t think there has to be – the important thing about is it how it reflects what it is trying to “simulate”, and I think it does a good job there. You are rarely surprised about which stats will rise for a given action.

The game system is pretty straightforward – you draw three “cards”, and can then select the order in which those cards are resolved (you pretty much always want to resolve all the cards, since every card has some value to you = the more cards you process per action, the better). Every real-life day, you get a “Market Day”; special cards that can kick off some special events.

This brings me to one of the things that I don’t like about the game: energy mechanics. You have a limited number of actions (maximum of 20), which are slowly replenished during the game (3 per hour). If you want to carry out more actions than that, you need to pay. Now this is not as bad as it sounds, because this is clearly not a game where you need to pay to win (I had essentially won the game on Day 2 of 7, without paying anything), but it still grates. It is intensely annoying to get a card that will start a quest line, knowing that you probably do not have enough actions on hand to finish it. IMO, adding energy mechanics to a game like this was a terrible decision. It is deeply frustrating to a player to be told you can’t play any more. Worse, you’re fundamentally telling players to go away. How many Dragon Age players with ongoing games of the Last Court will abandon the game and never pick it up again when DAI comes out tomorrow? My guess is the vast majority. Having essentially already won the game, there is very little incentive for me to continue playing except to see the Market Day cards (on their own another “energy” mechanic, since they are gated for every 24 hours). Am I going to bother with this for a full 7 days? I’m not sure.

Which brings me to the other weakness; too little content. Each action, you “draw” from a pile with the same set of 20-30 cards. Each of those cards have a limited set of things available that you can do with them. Most likely, you have seen all of the possible events by the end of your first 24 hours. What there is, is well-written, but it’s not interesting the third time around. Which leaves only the market day cards as entertaining. Gathering resources is just a grind that you partake in to gather victory points and resources for the market day events. I do feel that they could have done more here, but I suppose its questionable whether it would make much difference. Double the events, and you’d still eventually end up “looping” around to the same events.

What you end up with, then, is a game which starts out interesting, but quickly ends up being repetitive. The latter is – I think – a problem that is intrinsic to procedural narrative style games; certainly, this is definitely a weakness in Pirates and Traders, and will probably be a weakness in Dwarf Kingdom too. What I try to do to counter-act this tendency in Pirates and Traders is to have the circumstances influence the story elements. Different destinations, obviously. Shifting nationalities (with all that it implies if you attack an erstwhile ally). This is one of the things that I want to emphasize more with the narrative system in Pirates and Traders 2. One  element is to let the (randomly generated) character traits impact on the stories/quests. Another is to let the world state affect more heavily the kind of missions you get. So if a port is under blockade, you will be more likely to be offered a job to run the blockade with weapons and/or food. Or the outbreak of war between two nations results in your being offered smuggling missions from a trader who has often traded with that nation, Even better if the stories can be chained together; e.g., being given a smuggling mission, you use the mission to collect evidence against the trader, which you can then use to blackmail him for even more money, or – alternatively – turn it over to the Governor or Commander for approval and a relationship boost.

TLDR; hopefully, the missions in Pirates and Traders 2 will be a bit more dynamic and varied than in the original.


Plans and Progress

By far the most frequent question I get is “when will Pirates and Traders 2 be done”. The answer to that is the annoying – but unfortunately accurate – “when it is done”. Software development is my passion, but developing games is only the part of that which I do for fun. This means I have to balance game development time with all the other activities of my life, which means my work hours are limited, irregular, and ultimately need to be at least a little fun (otherwise I burn out). The latter is one of the reasons why I decided to combine the three projects that I’m currently working on – it may not be the most efficient way to develop, but being able to switch contexts every once in a while or experiment on something different, is one of the ways in which I maintain motivation. But I digress; the point of this, of course, is to note that this situation makes it completely impossible for me to say when anything will be done. There are just too many variables that can affect the situation.

What I can do, is try to describe the status of things right now, and what I hope to do in the coming months. Just … keep in mind that all developers (myself included) are invariably hopelessly overconfident, so take any timelines here with the huge grain of salt that it deserves.

Small Battles is currently in a playable state; i.e., you can start up a battle, take your turns, have the AI take turns, and at some point you either win or lose. There are a few bugs in the gameplay still and the AI is still not good, but overall, I believe that the game engine is solid now (testing has not turn up any crash bugs). At the moment, I am working on adding some of the remaining missing features (e.g., making it possible for the player to deploy their forces) and handling the end of multiplayer games, but once that is in place, the game is pretty close to being release-worthy. Assuming no unforeseen issues, I hope to get most of this work done by the end of the month, and would like to try and release an open beta of Small Battles before the end of the year.

Pirates and Traders 2 development is going well. The story engine is looking good, sea combat works, and map movement is OK (the latter two still need some tweaks, though). A big part of the work remaining is to script the port interactions, and develop the user interface to give proper feedback. It’s not difficult work, but it is time-consuming; and given the things on my calendar for December-January, I’m not going to get through that work on this side of the New Year. Once I’m done, though, I plan to do the first round of beta testing. I would love it if this was possible to do before the end of the February, but that is probably my optimism talking.

Dwarf Kingdom shares a lot of code with Pirates and Traders 2, so a lot of the work that needs to be done there is stuff I’ll be doing while working on the latter. In addition to that, of course, there is a bunch of game specific mechanisms that need to be implemented. Some has been done already during earlier work on the game; the rest is waiting to be done. This has been taking longer than I would like it to, but my hope would be to move right from the beta of  P&T2 to implementing the last remaining bits of this game, and hopefully starting up that beta during the summer of next year.

So that’s the plan. In a perfect world, where I could guarantee spending 15-20 hours of my free-time a week working on that plan, this might even be doable. In the real world, though? Not a chance… one, if not all, of these goals are guaranteed to slip. So when they do… don’t be too disappointed. But there you have it.

TLDR; games are done when they are done.

Character Generation in Pirates and Traders 2

Seeing as how I just posted a peek at the character generating screen from Pirates and Traders 2, I thought it might be an idea to write a few words about it.

intro_traitsPlayers of the original game will feel that they are in familiar territory with this screenshot. I am retaining the basic character creation structure from the old game, as I’ve always been fond of defining the character through “backstory”, rather than just doing a +1/-1 skill choice.  The mechanism is a classical one, of course – it was used to excellent effect in several old RPG games such as Ultima IV and Challenge of the Five Realms. I’ve never heard anyone complain about it, so I assume most of the people playing the game are OK with this as well.

A new element in the starting creation is that your character now also starts out with personality traits (as shown in the screenshot). These personality traits provide bonuses (e.g., your fearless character gains a bonus to willpower in combat – i.e., less chance of breaking) and also affect what other characters think of you (e.g., fearless characters tend to be admired by others). The traits are not equally useful, but none of them are useless. For example, being craven might seem like a bad trait (since it is a social handicap and can negatively affect your battle performance), but it comes with a hefty bonus to perception (being afraid, means that you are always attentive to danger), and the likelihood of suffering fatal wounds in battle are significantly reduced.

As a player, you should want to chose traits that fit with your playstyle, and the kind of character that you wish to play. Did I mention that you can both gain and lose traits during the game? So, e.g., if your “Fearless” character continually turns down challenges to duels and runs away from battles, people will eventually see through the facade, and you lose both the trait and the benefits that come with it.

One element in character creation that exists in the old game that disappears is the ship selection. In the new version, here, the starting ship is tied to the character template you choose. Instead, the full version of the new game will contain a number of different starting backgrounds (I’ve got 10 planned, so far) leading to a variety of starting ships.

Another difference from the current game is that the difficulty level will be customizable, even beyond the current level. I haven’t decided on exactly which parameters will be possible to tweak yet, beyond those already mentioned (i.e., wind effects on the world map). Generally, I would like to make it so that players can tailor the game to their preferences within reason.

Of course, the quick-start option will remain, for those people who prefer to just jump right into the game with a reasonable, pre-generated character.