..better than your new stuff. Chronicles post-mortem.
In a previous post, I asked for ways in which people thought Book of Dread (the previous game in the series) was better than Monsters’ Den Chronicles. Based on the responses to that, as well as general feedback on the game since it’s release, I’ve identified some common complaints. I’d like to talk about these factors, explain why they went the way they did, and perhaps figure out how they can be corrected in the future.
Be warned: this is a long one..
1. Slower Battles
A lot of people feel like the pacing in Chronicles is off. Whether people realize it or not, this is really two separate issues:
Waiting For Turns: With the change to the battle system, there is now often a short wait between character turns, where nothing much is happening. I don’t see this as a significant problem, and since launch there’s been an option to accelerate time between turns which mitigates this to a large extent.
Performance: This is the more significant one, and what most people with this complaint are really talking about. All of the battle timing in Chronicles is actually taken from the old games– animation length, the pause after action, and the slight pause before enemy action. It’s the same as it ever was, because I was very hesitant to mess with what I thought was a good balance between keeping the battle moving at a decent pace but also making it readable and comprehensible. The issue is simply performance– the game running slower than intended on some computers because of graphical effects and animations. During development I was quite worried about this. As I got towards the end and made a few simple optimizations, the game ran smoothly on even my 4 year old laptop, and I stopped worrying so much. What I now realize, of course, is that a lot of people still play on machines less powerful than that laptop. After release I added an option to disable battle animations entirely, which is an extreme solution but will definitely help on underpowered machines. Lesson learned: if I’m not able to optimize performance better, I should at least make sure there are more options to disable or tone down graphical bells and whistles.
2. Predefined Characters
Chronicles was a chance for me to experiment with some new ideas when it comes to the structure of the game, and the persistent characters and inventory was one of those. To streamline the process, the game started with a roster of preset default characters. Not everyone liked this. One recurring problem was that the customization screen proved hard to find for a lot of people, so there was the assumption that these characters were actually completely fixed. Coming from the previous games, I’m not surprised that seemed a shock. In reality, Chronicles has more per-character visual customization than either of the previous games. Clearly, the customize option needs to be more obvious next time. Another sticking point was the all-male cast. As I’ve explained before, this was a budget issue during production. After release I had the money to get the female art finished, and it’s in the game now. There’s no doubt that the fixed character classes afforded less freedom in party composition than the previous games (although with the Premium Content characters, it’s much closer). Some people were just immediately turned off by not being able to create the characters from scratch, feeling less ownership of them. In the next game, I intend to take a hybrid approach. Players will be free to create all of their characters from scratch, or pick from default characters if they can’t be bothered.
3. Classes and Skills
Some were disappointed that Chronicles went back to the five base classes of the original game, after Book of Dread bumped it up to seven. This is because I wanted to have greater variety within each class, and include sub-classes. In Chronicles there are actually ten subclasses (two for each core class), but because of the limited skill system the differences are fairly minor.
Again, this is predominantly because of the way Chronicles came into existence. I had planned on more complex skill trees for Godfall, but with the decision to cut down the scope of the game, it largely became a case of going with the skills that were already complete (or at least conceived). Limiting the skill count to only enough to fill the bar kept things manageable.
Having to choose from a randomly selected set of skills on level-up was also controversial. The intent was to force players to consider skills that might not normally jump out at them, and prevent them always making a beeline for what were considered the most powerful skills. I needed a streamlined structure for the reduced Chronicles skill-sets, but in retrospect this was probably the wrong way to go. It’ll be completely different in the next game.
4. Lack of Content
There are fewer enemy types in Chronicles than in previous games. There are only three factions, and only one of them is new. The art budget ran out, and I was limited to what I already had– it’s not any more complicated than that. This should definitely be corrected in the next game.
Chronicles actually has a much greater amount of unique items, but some people were disappointed by the lack of real items above purple rarity. Coming up with the items is actually surprisingly draining, creatively speaking, and by the time I had finished the slate of purple items I couldn’t face doing a big list of oranges as well. Thus, the Spark of Legend was born, and players were invited to create their own legendary items. I think this actually works decently well, but I do understand the desire for higher grades of rare loot. The whole loot system will have a drastic overhaul in Godfall (more on this another day) and hopefully I can pace myself better on the item creation.
There are also no legendary monsters, which were popular in Book of Dread. I had planned to implement something similar, and it was a feature that was always on the verge of being implemented all the way up until the deadline. One encounter like this is actually in the game, but disabled. In the end I couldn’t do it justice, because as well as implementing and thoroughly testing these encounters with unique mechanics, there’s also the implication that they should have unique loot. This missing feature is probably my biggest regret about the game.
5. Scaling Enemies
For the first time in the series, Chronicles breaks the fixed relationship between the party level and the level of the monsters. Because of the experience system and the static roster, it’s very possible have characters facing off against monsters either higher or lower than their own level. Somewhat surprisingly, players actually seemed to resent the scaling enemy levels more in this context.
Obviously the intent of trying to match enemy levels to the party is to increase replayability and game length by always supplying a challenge. However, the audience clearly breaks down into a group who want this, and a group who don’t. I had not really realized how many people want to be able to beat up on underlevelled and underpowered opponents. In hindsight I shouldn’t be surprised.. it’s a way to really feel how powerful your characters have become.
If it’s a case of whether to scale or not, I have always leant towards it. In future I plan to redesign the system to sidestep that choice, and hopefully make sure everyone can get what they’re looking for.
I had a lot of complaints that the game was too difficult, and others that it was too easy. In general I feel comfortable with the balance of something if I have players arguing in both directions, but I think it couldn’t hurt to have a wider range of difficulty settings. This is something I probably should have learned from BoD.
Part of the problem, I think, is that I still don’t do a good job of teaching the game to new players, so it seems confusing and more difficult than it is. As much as I hate trying to create tutorials, I need to do better next time, because this was a real failing. Complicating the issue is that even players used to the previous games may have been tripped up by some of the mechanics changes.
7. Saving Issues
While the earlier games has a few save issues (and some level of it is just part-and-parcel of working in Flash) it was nothing on the scale and number of separate issues which have afflicted Chronicles. What an absolute nightmare.
1. During the beta, there was a serious issue with save games becoming corrupted. The root cause was somewhere deep in the bowels of how Flash handles “cookies”, and in the end I solved it by explicitly saving to disk less often, and mostly relying on the automatic save that the Flash Player does when closed. This still created problems if the Player happened to crash, but for the most part it worked okay. Until..
2. The game was released, to a flood of people saying the game would not save. Something was seriously wrong, and I was stumped: why hadn’t this come up during the beta test?
The save footprint for Chronicles is larger than many Flash games (about 150kb). If a site is not authorized by the user to store enough data, the Flash Player pops up a dialog box asking them to allow more space before the data is saved. Normally, this dialog box is triggered only when a call is made to save to disk. This works pretty well.. unless your game has been changed to save only on closing the Player. People whose storage settings were too low were never getting the message that they needed to increase them, and since the beta testers had already been playing before this change, they had already been prompted to increase their storage settings to the right levels.
Once I realized the cause of this it was an easy fix, even if it didn’t make me feel like an idiot. I thought the problems were finally over..
3. At the request of users (many burned by the earlier bug, no doubt), I implemented the Armor Save cloud storage system for save data. This is an awesome service, and it’s worked very smoothly. There was one outage that lasted for a few days, though, and some people were unable to access their data or lost it during this period.
4. I am still angry about this one. The Chrome browser team decided to write their own version of the Flash Player, called “Pepper”. Since it’s a different Player, however, it can have bugs that don’t affect the normal Adobe Player. One such bug was introduced, that meant Pepper didn’t handle save paths/filenames above a certain length. The end result of this was that the inventory data in Chronicles stopped saving in Pepper, failing silently. This persisted for months, although I think it is now (finally) fixed. Initially users could disable Pepper and use the regular browser in Chrome, but that option was later disabled– leaving users no option but to use a different browser.
It’s frustrating to get the blame for something like this, and it’s annoying to have my users suddenly suffer for their choice of browser.
5. I still get the rare bug report for unknown save issues. At this point I do not think there are any bugs left in the save code in the game itself. Random combinations of operating system, browser, plugins, Flash version, “cleaner” utilities, spyware, and user error will always mean loss of data in Flash games. I believe that Chronicles has finally settled down to that baseline level.
I am proud of Chronicles, and I do think it’s a better game than Book of Dread. At the same time, I am unhappy with many aspects of it– it is, after all, not the game I set out to make.
Godfall is still a long way off, but I hope the lessons learned from Chronicles will help it be a better game.
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