Horizontal Slice

My last couple of blog entries started off with “it was a slow week” or “I didn’t get any real work done” or whatever, and that’s indicative of a loss of momentum I had been feeling as the sorts of tasks I was focused on were thinning. I’m reaching a point where a large majority of moment-to-moment gameplay systems exist in some form, and that left me wondering what to do next.

On Thursday, I plotted out a list of rough milestone definitions that will help me better understand what I should be working on and how it will help me reach a shipping state. Up until now, my pattern has typically been to prototype a single instance of each thing: one melee weapon, one enemy, one boss, and so on. This was done with the understanding that I would necessarily have to revisit these things in the future as I expanded the set of content.

I’m calling this my vertical slice. It’s not really a vertical slice on account of the fact that it’s missing some core elements of the high-level roguelike experience, but I don’t feel like those features would make sense to prototype yet in the absence of a wider array of content to pull from. Most of the immediate gameplay systems can be demonstrated in the current build, so…”vertical slice.”

The next step is to go horizontal and increase the breadth of content. For the foreseeable future, my tasks will consist of building new instances of the same sorts of things I’ve prototyped in the past: weapons, enemies, playable characters, and so on. My expectation is that as I produce more content, I will identify failings in my tools or places where I can better generalize code to support everything I want to do. I’m not done building features, and I don’t expect any milestone to completely displace the preceding tasks, but I do expect the workload to shift. I’ve already seen a shift away from editor, tools, and engine tasks to gameplay code over the course of the last few months. For this milestone, I anticipate spending more time in my editor and art tools producing content versus coding up new features.

At some point, these tasks will start to thin as well, and I’ll transition to the next milestone. I don’t have a good name for this one. Maybe alpha? We’ll see. This will be the point where I have a wealth of content and I can start assembling it into randomized levels. This is where I’ll start to see the roguelike nature emerge and where I’ll be able to get a real sense of the scope of the gameplay experience. As with the preceding milestones, I would expect to see some overlap in the nature of tasks here; it’s hard to imagine that implementing randomized levels wouldn’t bring new feature and content needs along with it, but those shouldn’t dominate my workload.

If that’s my alpha, then my beta will be to balance and tune the existing content, implement whatever lingering features haven’t found their way into the game yet, and try to find and enhance the long-term appeal. Some of the core promises of what Gunmetal Arcadia is probably won’t show up until this milestone. The concepts of faction conflicts and how each game session will shape the next have existed in my head since before I started keeping this blog, but I probably won’t be able to implement those in any real, meaningful way until the game is nearly complete. I can already tell that will be a stressful milestone, and one where it will be easy to want to cut corners. I can’t afford to do that.

Once I’m happy with the beta, I can think about release plans and whether it makes sense to put the game into Early Access at that point. I can imagine there would still be a fair amount of tuning and balancing to be done, especially as more players get their hands on the game. Regardless of how I release the game, the taskload for this milestone should consist strictly of bug fixes, polish, and balancing. The game should be feature- and content-complete at this point. Any features or content that have been cut can be evaluated for future updates, but my goal at this point should be to produce the highest-quality release candidate I can.

Post-launch, who can even say? In a perfect world, there would be enough interest and revenue to be able to continue supporting the game after launch with new updates and expansions. That will all depend on how well the game is received on its way to launch and beyond.

I haven’t attached dates to any of these milestones. I’m bad at estimating task durations, and too many specifics are still up in the air anyway. If I had to make a gut estimate, I’d say I’ll probably have wrapped up the horizontal slice by July when I do the expo rounds. Alpha feels like it’ll take me a few months, which would put beta near the end of this year, and then I could be ready for release early next year. But I don’t trust any of those estimates, and neither should you.

That turned out to be a whole blog post in itself, so I’ll just quickly go through some of what I worked on this week.

I wrapped up the boss prototype from last week, which involved refactoring my attachments system to better support attachments existing across multiple animation sequences. In theory, this puts me in a good place to attach armor or decorations to the player character, although I haven’t prototyped this yet, so I can’t say whether there would be any stumbling blocks there.

There are now three primary melee weapons in the game: a dagger, a short sword (the one from the previous test build), and a long sword. These all inflict the same amount of damage at the moment but vary in range and speed. They don’t necessarily all feel good to use yet, but I’ll be playing around with these values and more as I continue adding weapons to the game.

GunArc 2015-03-21 15-02-02-365

I added a “Medusa Head” sine-wave-traveling enemy to my test map. This required a couple of new features that I hadn’t yet supported; these things need to be spawned dynamically on a timer, whereas my existing placeholder enemy (the slime) was placed by hand. These also don’t collide with the environment and don’t need to be serialized when leaving a room and returning. Because they spawn indefinitely, I’ll probably also want to limit their loot drops, but I haven’t yet looked into that.

I’ve started refactoring items and upgrades into a more generalized “equipment” system. This will handle primary melee weapons, secondary throwing weapons, salable items like gems, stat upgrades, and so on. I’m in the process of figuring out how to dynamically author dialog boxes in order to list inventory contents from the status screen or when selling things to a shopkeeper.