Sneaking a Peek at Strongholds Part Five

It’s gonna happen people. It’s gonna happen at the end of the month. I’m pretty sure everything can be done by then and I should even have a weekend to do some bug-fixing of the game ‘proper’ before we patch up to 1.2. These are truly exciting times. The patch after will be much more modest than this one – it’ll be a maintenance patch, with maybe some new minor content[1], and we’ll probably have a minor content/maintenance patch a month after that. I’m planning to go into mostly a maintenance mode for Epitaph for a while, without any deep and intensive development on the game. That’s not because I’m drawing back, but because I’m repositioning to improve Epitaph by tackling one of our issues sideways. I’ll be splitting most of my free time between fixing bugs/minor content work and development on the graphical client. That’s the absolute next thing on my major to-do list, and it’s likely to be a gargantuan piece of work. I will, of course, post more about it as I go on because I am super enthused about it. I genuinely believe this is what turns us from a tiny band of brave survivors into a thriving community of cut-throat mortal enemies jostling over the limited supplies that could so easily be ours.

But on to strongholds.

It’ll come as almost no surprise to anyone that I lost a week of my life to Fallout 4 – the influences of Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas are pretty obvious in Epitaph. I spent every spare moment of my evenings playing it, and then poured a massive amount of time in last weekend. I managed to finish it on the Monday evening, and since then I’ve mostly been idly picking at it in a few down moments to search for side-quests and hunt for bobble-heads. I’ve delved pretty deeply into it though, and the thing that most caught my eye was the settlement system. I worried, strange as it is, that we’d maybe been scooped – that when Epitaph’s strongholds come into play, they’d just look like a copy of the Fallout 4 system.

Turns out, not so much. There are overlaps, yes, but the Fallout 4 settlements are closer to the Fallout Shelter ones than ours. They’re ultimately pretty shallow – yes, you can put stuff down and build defences and plant crops and so on, but it’s really all set dressing. In many ways, it’s less interesting as a system than the simple house-building of Skyrim – the settlements are larger, but your ability to really personalise them are much more limited. Ultimately too, it feels empty – you can recruit dozens of settlers to your new utopia, but they don’t do much. You can assign them to work the field, or man the turrets, or staff the shop. But meh – ultimately it just doesn’t feel substantive. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy Fallout 4 – I enjoyed the hell out of it, and I look forward with considerable eagerness to the mods and DLC that will come. It’s just that the settlement system seems like an isolated, disconnected sandbox without any real meat or incentive to participate.

That’s not the impression I get with our strongholds though – I think they’re a much richer system with a lot more to do. So if you’ve been playing Fallout 4 you’ll see echoes (as a result of convergent evolution rather than plagiarism), but I think we’re going to have something better in our own modest, text-driven way.

In the last post I said I wanted one more opportunity to outline some of the smaller things that I hadn’t discussed before. So, in no particular order:

Maestro

Maestro takes an interest in what you’re doing – the bigger your stronghold is, and the noisier it is, and the more notorious it is, the more of an interest he takes. At the moment, I haven’t enabled the stronghold invasion Maestro events (I want you all to at least know how the system works before you’re thrown into defending it) but that’s not to say he’s not working behind the scenes. He’s hiding your supplies, or occasionally making more supplies available. He’s causing your hirelings to fall down and break their legs. He’s making them practise their skills in their down-time, or making them forget what they’ve learned if they haven’t had a chance to use their abilities in a while. More and more maestro events are planned, and these are likely to also be the delivery mechanism for a future system that will make its way in later – stronghold dilemmas. I’ll talk more about them when it’s appropriate.

Luxuries

It’s not enough to meet everyone’s basic needs. If you want people to be happy, you’ve got to feed their souls too. The books that you find in the game are now things you can donate to your stronghold to build up your library. Your hirelings will make use of the books (the more books you have, the more likely they’ll find some appropriate reading matter) and that’ll help deal with morale problems. If you’ve got electricity, you can hook up a TV and a DVD player, and also provide your own DVD library for people to enjoy. The more luxuries you have, the happier your NPCs become. You can directly hand off luxuries to them too (a sad NPC may appreciate a roll of toilet paper in these troubled times). You can also improve their sense of wellbeing by making sure you have nice furniture and decorations in your rooms – a well appointed room will be something that contributes to the morale of your little people.

Knacks

Your stronghold will gain points for configuration as it goes along – some of these come from clan investment, and some as a result of other actions taken within the system. These points can be used to buy special knacks for the stronghold.  These’ll improve your NPCs, increase the size of the stronghold, expand your capacity to store items, and so on.

You won’t be able to buy all of these, so you’ll need to be careful when deciding what you want to spend your budget on. But this is how you’ll make available shops and trainers or diplomatic missions. As usual, more of these will appear as time goes by.

This is the last of our sneak previews of the stronghold system, because by the time I’d be able to write a new post you’ll already have it available in the game. But I just want to round off by explaining why we’ve done all of this and what the intention is.

It was always my plan, from day one of Epitaph, for it to be something like Fallout meets the Sims. Strongholds were one of the key features I wanted right at the very start, but all the other game architecture had to come first before we got to this stage. Essentially, I always wanted to make it so that going out into the big bad world was only one possible way people could play the game. I wanted it to be possible for people to make a living[2] doing the back-room infrastructure stuff. You’d have scavengers who would go out and collect raw resources, and you’d have crafters back at the base that turned those resources into useful equipment. You’d have soldiers that cleared the dangerous enemies from buildings and forests, and then you’d have your lumberjacks and foragers that went out and harvested in relative safety. You’d have farmers who were interested primarily in making sure there was enough food, and ‘leaders’ who served to manage your diplomacy and negotiated settlements. We’re still a long way off where we need to be to make all of that a reality, but in order for it to fully work it needs two things:

  1. Enough of a player base to allow communities to cohere. That’s what the graphical client is aiming to address.
  2. A sense of place around which a community can cohere. That’s what the stronghold system is for.

I think we already do a reasonably good job of rewarding different play-styles – I’m struck for example when playing as my little isolated character[3] how viable crafting is as a way of earning experience and opportunities for advancement. I think the fact we award XP very freely for almost every activity[4] allows for a lot of support for something more than the pure hack and slash experience. Indeed, I think one of the things that’s alien to genuinely new players is that hack and slash is the easiest way to get yourself killed to death unless you know what you’re doing. If you go out, machete waving, without preparing for your journey you won’t make it past the first few rooms. That’s not a design flaw, that’s a design *goal*. There are hundreds of hack and slash games out there – we’re aiming for something more unique. It is an unusual inversion of expectations that the stealth system is more important for new players than the combat system.

I fully intend for us to keep developing the range and breadth of the world, but strongholds are going to give us the necessary focal point to allow for longer term play-styles to be supported. Claim a field[5], plant some seeds[6], and tend your crops. Set up your trading links with the local strongholds – supply them with the food they can’t otherwise get. Earn money and experience doing nothing more violent than ekeing out a living from the soil and putting an end to any passing zombies. That’s your game. And yet, a single computer away, someone else is bathing in the blood of their enemies by playing the part of a faction heavy, slaughtering the unworthy with a minigun. That’s theirs. Balancing for danger, time and effort I want it to be the case that player A gets as much out of the game as player B. That calls for deep systems, and many of those deep systems are going to connect pretty heavily into strongholds. Some of the decisions taken in the past should be viewed in that light – such as our prestige system which incentivises people to ‘cash in’ their characters. I don’t want people thinking of their character as the default unit of the world. I want them to think bigger.

So, don’t think of strongholds as just ‘fancy player housing’ – these are intended to be living, breathing settlements full of risk, reward and ongoing engagement. You might not get to see that in action for the first implementation of the system (because there’s only a few of us), but that’s the direction we’re going.

Drakkos.
[1] Unless Hugo can get his new system up and running for the patch to come.
[2] In Epitaph terms, this means money and XP.
[3] All alone on the development server. :-/
[4] Where a resource is being consumed, which may mean a gathered node, or a wandering NPC, or a cool-down period.
[5] Not yet, but likely in the patch after this one.
[6] Also not yet.

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