I had planned to release a patch on Monday, but it’s been held back a bit while we do some last things. Hugo is putting together an exciting new area for you all (because he’s a little cracker, is our Hugo) and I’m plowing through the mountains of bug-reports that have built up while I’ve been busy with other things. I want to chip away at that a bit more before we release 1.0.15. It’s shaping up to be a good patch though – in addition to Hugo’s area, we’ve got a new prestige system coming in. I wanted to use today’s blog post to talk about that (you’ll find more info on Hugo’s work over at his blog).

Since we opened we’ve been largely operating on a ‘caveat emptor’ basis for game balance. Disproportionately bad things happen to people without recompense, which is balanced out by the fact that disproportionately good things also happen without punishment. In many respects, our live period has been the real ‘testing’ phase of Epitaph. Everyone has been a lot more willing to really pour their efforts into the game when they know that effort won’t be unilaterally reset at the end of some arbitrary period. As a result of that enthusiasm, we’ve had a chance to look at advancement, risks and rewards and see where they need tweaked. We’ve seen how long it takes our dedicated players to excel in certain skills, and balance that against how long we think it should take. That’s already resulted in some changes to the taskmaster, but it’s something of an ongoing calculation.

But, what that doesn’t do is put the genie back in the bottle – accomplishments gained are accomplishments retained, in my view. No skill cuts, money purges or character wipes are on the board for Epitaph. Instead, I want to handle things a bit more organically. Prestige is the first of the techniques for that. Prestige is a system that is designed to encourage people to refresh by giving them access to special rewards and powers and such when they do. The amount of prestige they gain is based on the accomplishments they had as a player – skills, money, faction reputation and so on. However, it’s also subject to strict diminishing returns – refresh early(ish) and refresh often(ish) is the way to maximise your benefits from this system.

It’s not a case of starting back from square one though – unlockable rewards through prestige include new and more powerful professions, special knacks that ‘ordinaries’ can’t have, and more. The range of these rewards will be increased as time goes by, but they’re supposed to be powerful inducements to participate in the system. You’ll never be forced into it, but if you don’t choose to ‘cash in’ you’ll find yourself eventually being outpaced by those that do. They’ll level up faster, have more commands, and be able to attain greater bonuses than you. It’s your choice really – continue along with the creaky early model of yourself, or start again with a character that has a higher top speed.

Prestige is also designed to help us deal with the (temporary) content gap. We can’t put new areas and such in the game every patch because they take a lot of time and effort even with the rapid development strategies we have. As such, when people outlevel the challenges provided, the less enticing the game becomes. I’m hoping prestige will be a way to get people to get more ‘oomph’ out of our game content and experience it from different perspectives. Trying it out with a character with a different build or set of knacks will ideally give it a new freshness. If not, it’ll at least give people something to do that is an actual challenge – once you max out a certain combination of skills at the moment, there’s little to do except become disinterested. It’s always been my intention that the highest skill levels in the game should be attainable as long as there are challenges there to warrant it. It’ll just take us some time before we can make sure that there is enough content for everyone.

That’s what prestige is for then – to help us continually tweak the risks and rewards in the game, and to get extra mileage out of the content we already have. It’s not an original system – in many ways it’s similar to the old ‘remort’ system of DIKU muds. It’s the first time we’ve tried it out here though.

Encouraging people to refresh regularly isn’t the only thing we have planned for dealing with high skill levels. We’ll be introducing a new range of zombies soon to the game. For those of you who find little to fear in the game any more, well – I think our next few beasties will change your perspectives. If you ever played AD&D and a chill ran down your spine when you encountered a vampire then you might have an inkling of what I have in mind – zombies that can drain skill levels (for reals and forevers) and XP away from you. If you don’t fear for your life, you’ll undoubtedly fear for your invested time. Obviously a mechanic like this is a big change to the game, but it won’t be gratuitous – everyone will encounter creatures like this at some point in their play, but they won’t be so common as to make it pointless to advance. They’ll always be a risk, and the risk will be greater for some areas than others, but faint heart never won fair lady and all that.

I’m also mulling over the possibility of death running the risk of you losing some skills too – not as a decrepitude, but as a chance in any lethal encounter once you’re past a certain character age. Again, for those who have managed to get into a cosy little system of death and regeneration, this would add the chill of risk to what you’re doing. Epitaph is supposed to be survival horror after all – no matter how well situated in the game you are, there should always be the risk of real loss.

Level drain isn’t scheduled for this patch – it’ll need some careful balancing before I’m ready to unleash it. I just want to give people a heads-up that the world in which they are adventuring is about to become a mite more dangerous.

[1] Has it really been that long? Crikey – it has.