The Epitaph Report Card

Just a few more days people and we are officially OPEN FOR BUSINESS. Epitaph 1.0 gets pushed over to http://epitaphonline.co.uk on Friday. From that point on we need to treat that server as our actual going concern rather than just ‘that place where players occasionally log on and find broken stuff’. It’s been a long time coming, but I’m delighted that we made it. Many MUDs are started, very few of them get enough content to justify letting people play it, and even fewer get to the point where they have a fully released game. As I’ve said many times before – this isn’t the end of our development, and in many ways it represents the *start* of what we need to do. We’ve got a world for you to explore, our job from now until the day the doors close on Epitaph is to make sure you enjoy your time with us for as long as we can entrance you. Epitaph 1.0 then represents that first enticing glance of our frilly gameplay underwear.

What I wanted to do today was reflect a bit on what we managed to achieve and how well I think we did. Epitaph started its life way back on the 17th of December, 2009. It started with a bare bones Discworld mudlib, more modern than the one most people can get, but bare bones. It had no areas, no commands, no significant features that weren’t part of the default game. We hammered away at that mudlib until it was all but unrecognisable, and then we built Epitaph using it. Along the way, we renamed the lib to Epiphany[1] to underline the fact this was a very different way of building a game. A better way, I think, but then – I *would* think that.

I think to do our ‘report card’, we need to break the topic up a bit. I’ve put together seven rough categories I want to discuss before giving a final grade [2] in each. These are – the game architecture, the game world, the game features, the game atmosphere, the newbie experience, the project management of the game over the years, and finally accessibility. Let us begin!

Game Architecture

I’m not going to lie – I think our lib is amazing. We’ve done a lot to make building a word faster[3] and more expressive that is remotely possible within Discworld. I should know – my first areas on Discworld MUD were coded way back in 1999, and I was intimately involved with the MUD from then until 2005, and then again from 2008-2009. My dirty fingerprints are all over the Discworld lib, and I have a reasonably impressive resume of things I coded within it.

It’s not that we’ve cut corners (although in some places we’ve gone down a different design philosophy[4]), more that we have streamlined the rather clunky setup required for objects, areas and NPCs. Along the way, some creator expressiveness has been lost[5], but that’s always been part of the problem in development. There were too many decisions needed to put an object in the game. If you want to code a weapon here, you just give it a description, a category, and some common materials out of which it is made. The lib itself handles everything else, including weight, damage/protection, and durability. I consider it a good day’s work if I remove a line of code that someone needs to add to an object to make it, and our ‘mandatory’ code statements now are pretty streamlined.

I’ve written a lot about Eek’s amazing work before[1], but I can’t emphasise enough how important it has been to modernising our lib. We don’t need to use creaky LPC blogs and boards – we can integrate with external tools. As such, our boards and blogs have all of the features anyone could possibly want. They’re hosted externally too, so they’re available even if the MUD isn’t. As great as that is, in many ways it was just a *side effect* of Eek’s architectural framework.

To go along with this, we’ve really gutted out the lib from the inside out. New handlers and new inherits have been installed, each precisely designed to accomplish our Epitaph goals. Old handlers and inherits have been removed and rewritten too, so even when we have a handler with the same name, it’s often entirely new code.

I find coding on Epitaph to be a joy, and the things I found to be a chore on Discworld[6] are now amongst the things I enjoy doing the most. I think Epitaph shines here – obviously, nothing is perfect but what we have is just so much better than what we started with – and I am actually a *fan* of the DW lib. Epiphany is just so far ahead of the other mudlibs I know and have experimented with that it’s crazy. An A+ for Epitaph here.

Game World

An architecture of a MUD is nothing without a game to go with it, and building content is easily the most time consuming thing developers on a MUD do. It’s one thing to code an awesome new player facing command – it’s another still to give that command enough meat to entertain people beyond the novelty factor. We need to rate game world here then as ‘as would be expected given the development time’. We’ve been developing Epitaph for over three and a half years, which is along the lines of what a graphical game might take to develop in a ‘proper’ games studio. We’re not a studio though – we’re just some guys and gals putting whatever spare time we can into building the game. We don’t have any full time employees (although truth be told I’ve probably poured a full time job into Epitaph – it has consumed almost all of my spare time for years now). We don’t even have a huge number of developers. And yet, with all our limitations, we’ve managed to put together something pretty beefy. We’ve got one reasonably large city (Dunglen), and eight chunky areas outside of there. Many of those areas are linked to factions and so any one player might not get to see all of them. But that’s pretty great considering the size and scope of each. Back in ‘the day’, a MUD might open with a main area the size of any of our smaller factional areas and nothing else. People thought smaller back then of course. Expectations weren’t quite so high. The competition didn’t have twenty years head start on area development.

And it’s not that these are empty, dull areas. They’re chock full of quests, factions and back story. Any one NPC in any area may have around a thousand words of dialog you can tease out of them with conversation. Our quests come with opening text and closing text, and many of them come with followup mails. There’s plenty to do and plenty to kill, and a whole world of emerging back story to unpeel.

I think it’s a great size of a game for the time and effort invested into it, and while parts of it will need more attention and polish as we go on, I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished. It’s an A here.

Game Features

We’ve got a lot here for you – this isn’t the game experience you get everywhere else. Very little of our gameplay is ‘stock’. We have combat, but it’s different. We have crafting, but it’s *different*. Everything on Epitaph is designed to integrate, which required us to develop a lot of systems that are completely invisible but still have huge gameplay impact. Our systems mesh, which was always a hugely important thing for me coming as I did from a MUD where that wasn’t even kind of true.

We’ve got a huge number of things to occupy your time – exciting battles including meaningful ranged combat, random event generation and compelling wellbeing mechanics. It’s always been my philosophy that the tired wisdom of ‘this is a terrible game feature’ is broken thinking. Any feature can be fun if you do it properly and if it underpins your game design. Would you believe me when I say we have an eating and drinking system that’s both mandatory and fulfilling? I bet you wouldn’t, but I think we have.

Our crafting system is, if I may blow my own horn for a moment, phenomenal. Seriously, every time I have to do something with it I come away thinking ‘This is so cool’. You can take a block of red oak wood, shape it into a handle, forge a curved scimitar blade from copper and then assemble the two together. You create an item that precisely mirrors what went into it in terms of how well it was put together (player skills), material properties *and* the descriptions of the items. We have about 150 crafting patterns for release, and we’ll be adding more and more of these as we go along. Don’t be surprised if in a few months time you’re picking out exactly the right kind of wood buttons to bring out the silver in the zipper of your red, white and blue elephant-leather gimp mask. It’s a system that is only going to become more and more expressive as times goes by, and I think that’s very exciting.

There’s more of course – no end of great things to get excited about. But you’ll see those as you play. For now, I’m giving Epitaph an A for this too.

Game Atmosphere

Back when I started Epitaph, I wanted a particular feel for the game – more survival horror than hack and slash. The version of Epitaph over there on live doesn’t do that at all beyond the first few hours of newbie life. I think Epitaph 1.0 goes a long way towards fixing that – the fact that NPCs converge on you from adjacent rooms turns combat into a tense affair that easily slips away from you. The more enemies you face at once, the harder everything is to do – large groups of even ‘trash’ NPCs can really mess up your day now.

But, for all that, I don’t think we’ve quite *yet* captured the tense atmosphere of the best kinds of survival horror. In many ways, the goals of survival horror (keep you feeling powerless) are diametrically opposed to those of RPGs (let you level up and overpower your challenges). As such, players can out level the challenges that we provide, and at that point it’s only carelessness or bad luck that leads to your downfall. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of both of those things that we work to bring about, and it’ll (hopefully) be a long time before anyone gets to that point (by which we’ll hopefully have new tiers of challenges to patch across). I’m not disappointed by any stretch of the imagination – it’s just – we haven’t quite yet captured this in the way I would like. So, it’s a B here.

Newbie Experience

Epitaph 0.5, the one that for a long time has been on live, hasn’t been a good game in my opinion. There are all kinds of reasons for that, but undoubtedly the most important one is that it’s completely an arbitrary version. We split off into live and development MUDs and whatever the game was at that point – well, that was the game. 0.5 is not a ‘designed’ patch – it’s just ‘whatever state the game was in’. With that in mind, it’s a borderline miracle that it works at all.

The newbie experience though is something that is especially lacking on Epitaph live. You get the newbie area (which is great and all) and then thrown out into the world to fend for yourself. You get an achievement that takes you through some of the key commands and such, but then – well, good luck buddy. Let me know where to send your stuff when you die. There’s vast amounts of depth in the game that you really need to hunt for, and we never gave you much in the way of a shovel.

The contextual help system we have for 1.0 though really addresses that issue. Now, Maestro is your constant companion, providing help, advice and command suggestions as they become relevant. You don’t get screens of text at the start with the expectation that you learn it. Instead, you get Maestro saying ‘Hey, it looks like you’re fighting. Let me tell you a little about how this works’. It’s a much smoother and more accommodating system, and that’s incredibly important. You keep or lose players, in the main, in your first hour of gameplay. In many ways, you keep or lose them in the first five minutes of gameplay. I think we’ve done very well here in putting in the architecture of a system that helps people deal with the complexity of the game.

Having said that – I’m not a newbie. I’m not even close to being a newbie. On Epitaph, I am literally the farthest thing from a newbie you can possibly have in any axis you choose. It is hard for me to assess generally whether we *have* done as well as I *think* we have. That’s going to need players to try it out and respond. As such, I’m going to give us a A- here, purely because while the foundations are there we need to make sure reality aligns with our expectations.

Project Management

Haha, oh dear.

Looking back over various blog posts, I’m struck by just how often I promised the game was ‘opening soon’. In the end, I always bottled out and made it a new testing phase, or a further beta, or whatever. At the beginning, I thought ’18 months and I’ll have a working, playable MUD released’. I was at least a little bit right – after 18 months Epitaph was working and playable, but it was underwhelming. You had to want to find the fun, we didn’t do a lot to make fun available for you. The horizons were much closer too – once you made it into the south of the city, you’d seen most of what we had to offer.

That was very obvious at the point whereby we would have released if Past Drakkos was in charge. So, the development time was extended to make sure that the Epitaph we released was the best it could possibly be. Along the way, we’ve become a lot more disciplined about the way we do things. The two MUD system means that we can start structuring development more formally, with actual patches replacing the ad hoc ‘throw it into the live game’ strategy we had for most of our life. So, we’re releasing well past our estimated deliver date (taking over twice as long as what I had originally estimated), but we are at least releasing on budget and over featured.

But, the number of times I promised a release is pretty galling, and the fact that we’ve been at this so long is sobering. It’s a C here, and that’s because I am a generous marker.

Accessibility

A mixed bag here. We’ve done a lot in terms of adding in accessibility features to 1.0, and you’ll see those if you have a look at our patch notes. We started off from a reasonably accessible base too – Epitaph Live needs you to do a bit of fiddling about before the game is playable with a screen reader, but it does give you the option. But, 1.0 is a lot better in that regard, down to asking at character creation whether you need screen reader settings enabled. We’ve got quite a lot that can be done to optimally configure the game output – my favourites of these features are that you can move the ‘room inventory’ line before the description so that you know the zombies are there right away, and the ‘change’ look option which gives you brief look when you move unless the room description changes significantly.

But, we have quests that are completely inaccessible, and that’s a huge problem. It’s not one that I’m ignoring, but it’s one that I’m struggling for ways to fix that aren’t entirely token. I have considered a kind of ‘force solve’ command whereby you could replace in game quest solving with a character based skill check (pass these skill checks at these levels and you get the quest), but that seems awfully dismissive. It’s not solving the problem, it’s just bulldozering over it. But, the solutions that I had envisioned for it are just not technically possible at the moment. There’s a lot of work out there on ways to make accessible games, but very few of them translate very well to the kind of usability issues we have here. I wanted to do some kind of MXP mouse over sounds for the inaccessible quests so that they would be solvable in that way, but AFAIK that’s not possible with MXP and I don’t know of an MXP equivalent where it is.

The technology and protocols are really what’s letting us down here, but I absolutely haven’t given up. We’ve made some good strides towards accessibility, but we’ve got a long way to go. B-.

Overall

Overall, I think we’ve done really well. We’ve messed up in some places, but some measure of that is inevitable given the way MUDs are actually developed. The most useful part of self reflection processes like this is that they help you understand for the future what you have to do – and I know what needs to be done for future patches to make the game really shine. We’re a 1.0 release, and we all know what that means in software development jargon. While there are parts of the game that really show that version number, in other areas we’re well past it. Averaging out our various self assigned grades gives us an encouraging B+ overall. Plenty of things we could have done better, plenty of things we will do better in the future, but also a lot to feel very proud about.

And so, I say to our (hopefully bright eyed and bushy tailed growing playerbase), where would you guys rate us? I’d be interested to see your report cards in the comments!

Here are those scores again, for those interested to see how I broke it down for us:

  1. Architecture: A+
  2. Game World: A
  3. Game Features: A
  4. Game Atmosphere: B
  5. Newbie Experience: A-
  6. Project Management: C
  7. Accessibility: B-

Looking forward to talking to you all at the end of all things,
Drakkos

[1] http://epitaph.imaginary-realities.com/wp/?p=533
[2] From A to F.
[3] http://epitaph.imaginary-realities.com/wp/?p=453
[4] http://epitaph.imaginary-realities.com/wp/?p=404
[5] http://epitaph.imaginary-realities.com/wp/?p=444
[6] http://epitaph.imaginary-realities.com/wp/?p=725

  2 comments for “The Epitaph Report Card

  1. aiden
    August 15, 2013 at 3:22 am

    People would only be able to score the launch 1.0 version after actually playing it but I suppose I could briefly rate the stuff that’s playable now (without being too boring but nobody else has commented so hey)

    Game World – Smallish city but it doesn’t feel small (B)

    Game Features – Being able to gain xp from doing things other than killing is great but I feel like I’m missing something with the crafting system. It feels pretty strange where I’ll spend close to 1 day play time and not be able to even think about crafting anything except bandages out of all the schematics I’d found up to that point. (B)

    Game Atmosphere – I do enjoy the atmosphere (A)

    Newbie experience – concise, helpful and sets the tone for the game but could do with as you said a little more direction after the initial scripted events (B+)

    Accessibility – Not being a screenreader user I can’t comment on using them but another thing perhaps that falls under this category that has slightly annoyed me at times is syntax. Games of guess the syntax are relatively rare but still off putting especially when the command is obvious but the necessary fluff around it is obtuse. (B)

    If you’re reading this Drakkos what kind of fantasy did you want the player to experience? Disempowerment (ala silent hill 2, amnesia) or empowerment (ala any shooter/rpg going.

    The theme feels like it should be the former but obviously with rpg elements it’s more likely to be a combination, initially more disempowerment but then more “I can survive the apocalypse because of what I learned/gained”.

    Aiden

    (reading your blogs from new to old is… interesting)

  2. drakkos
    August 15, 2013 at 10:24 am

    Really what I wanted was it to always feel tense, that you were always one mistake away from calamity. More survival horror than hack and slash, and I don’t think we’ve accomplished that *yet*. We’ve made some strides towards it for sure, but we’re not there yet. You should feel empowered to deal with the apocalypse, but always aware that it’s a dangerous world out there no matter how powerful you get.

    The syntax issue is hopefully better in 1.0, but we could certainly do with doing a ‘compatibility’ check over various commands to make sure that they don’t use their own little variants and variations. We can look at that more deeply though. :-D

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