One of the key things I’ve resolved to do of late is actually *play* Epitaph. The truth is, I haven’t done nearly enough of that over the past few years simply because developing the game combined with my real world obligations make it difficult to carve out even a few hours to just play about. There’s also a sense of, ‘Well, I know the game already’ since I’m responsible for coding large swathes of it. But, before we patched last time I created a new character (over here on Black Ops) and I just played for a bit. Rather than spending whatever down-time I had watching a movie or even playing another game, I decided to sink some of my play-time into the project that consumes so much of my development time.
The good news is, I enjoyed it very much. It’s obvious, right from the early minutes of the game, that it’s not a game for *everyone* – it puts too much responsibility on your shoulders as a player to be a genuinely relaxing experience. It’s too unforgiving of mistakes in a world where, barring a few intentionally difficult titles such as Demon’s Soul, players expect to be swaddled in cotton wool and prevented from tasting failure. That’s fine – it doesn’t really matter if much of the potential audience is sometimes filtered out of the game as soon as the tutorial. I always wanted Epitaph to be a game that *I* would enjoy playing, and the hope was that others would also share my sensibilities and find the joy in it. I’ve never been a believer in design by focus group, or stripping a game down to its most fundamentally accessible form. The true guiding principle since the start has been ‘what do my instincts say about this’, and that’s what drives the acceptance or rejection, in the main, of those idea reports that come my way. Those instincts say that it would be a huge mistake to aim for a game that was more ‘welcoming’, since it would just create a false impression as soon as people made it out of Alphabet Street. It’s the apocalypse – whoever said that it was going to be easy was lying through their teeth.
The last time I played the game with any real focus was perhaps two years ago – before we launched, even. Things have, of course, changed a *lot* since then – the patch notes that have accumulated since version 1.0 are evidence of that. So, I started from scratch in the newest version of the game to see how it fit together and I have been enjoying myself immensely!
The bad news is that we’re still quite far away from what I want Epitaph to be. The truth is I will never be satisfied with Epitaph, I’ll always believe we can do better. My first eight or so hours of play have revealed a significant number of areas in which we fall short just within Alphabet Street. There’s more polish needed everywhere, and my rule is now ‘If it doesn’t work the way I expect it to when I play, make sure that issue is addressed’. As a result, if you’ve been paying attention to the patch notes you’ll see there’s a lot of ‘under the hood’ tinkering going on. It’s all designed to make for a smoother playing experience. The focus on that will shift as my character progresses – I’ve left Alphabet Street (after some tweaks to the difficulty of the game) but exploring is still pretty tense. As I advance, the challenges will shift and so will my attention. Expect to see changes all the way along the level curve of the game as I gradually make my way from beginning to end.
I do think we’ve managed to create the right kind of play atmosphere. That tension, I find, is very agreeable. I look ahead before I move. When I see clusters of zombies, I back off and find another route. When I’m caught by one, I fight it out, hoping that the battle is ended quickly enough to avoid being swarmed by more. Combat is hard, visceral, and tactical – I’d like more tools in my tool bag in the early game, but I don’t ever feel like *all* I can do is wait for auto-attacks to land. I weigh the cost of wimpy, roll and my second winds and spend them sparingly. I make liberal use of terrain, and I scurry back to Alphabet Street when things get a little too hairy. I’m striking out, but it’s fraught with peril and that’s what you need in a game that is essentially about survival horror. I can see pretty easily why many new players quit almost instantly – it’s so unlike any other MUD I’ve played that the experience is actually a little alien. There are few familiar tropes on which to plant your feet. There are scant concessions to the ‘hack and slash’ style of most on-line games. Go out with the ‘kill everything that moves’ attitude and you’ll find very quickly that the only thing that stops moving is you. That was always the design goal, so I think we’re on the right path there.
Even so, a few key deficiencies are obvious in the newbie experience. I reduced the danger levels of the streets immediately outside of Alphabet Street, because I couldn’t even get three or four rooms out before being set upon by a horde. I felt like I needed some relatively ‘safe’ combat experience, and so in this patch I’ve added a new building off of Alphabet Street where you can get some experience with combat in an easier environment. Since I’m playing on what is essentially a private server, issues of the ‘player economy’ are also keenly felt. I’ve added a new doctoring system for this patch too, so that decrepitudes and persistent damage can be dealt with even if nobody on-line knows how to treat wounds. These are the kind of changes you’ll see making their way into the game over the next month and a bit. Some of them will be fixes, some of them will be re-balancing, but they’ll all be based on my own sense of what needs to be done to make it a better game overall.
I’ve always been vaguely suspicious of game developers who don’t play their own game – I’ve long felt that the experiences that a developer has of content is so removed from that of players that it may as well be two completely separate systems. I’ve felt bad for some time that I haven’t been able to find the time to really check that my development decisions work in the game. I’ve felt guilty for some time that I haven’t been more proactive in addressing issues of game-play. Epitaph, first and foremost, has to be a game that I willingly, as a consequence of my own enjoyment, make time to sit down and experience as a player. I’ve found myself making more and more time for play since I createdl’il Cascade.
Despite a few meatier systems than I had anticipated being added in for the next patch we’re still well on track to patch again in very early May (3rd of May is my estimate). Mostly what I want to do with this coming patch is this kind of ‘game-play tweaking’ along with dealing with whatever issues 1.1.0 brought to the fore . The patch after that will be similar (aimed for the end of May), although since my teaching will have ended I might have a bit more time to make some progress on my wish-list of features. The one after that (*hopefully* the end of June) – well, I hope for that to bring the Stronghold system into the game, which will be a reasonably significant upgrade. If i get that finished, its inclusion will be pivotal in bringing us, if all goes well, up to version 1.2.
Feels good to be out in the apocalypse, though. Feels good to be a bad-ass, even if that ass is black and blue from all the kickings it’s been getting.
 In terms of sociological accessibility, rather than physical accessibility
 I had thought it would purely be bug-fixes, more than anything else.
 I’ve been keeping an eye on runtimes over on live though, and been hot-fixing as I see problems.