I think, for the first time, I’m willing to say that Epitaph is a playable game. It might be surprising to hear that I have thought it has been basically unplayable since the start – especially so for those who have managed to make their way through the gauntlet and actually succeed. I have though – I’ve been pretty upfront from the start that any time we have a number in the game, it’s basically a place-holder. We needed a number, so I threw one in. That goes for damage, well-being values, regenerations, XP rewards, XP costs and more. The sum totality of that numerical indifference is a game where nothing was really balanced against anything else. I think now I can fairly say that, at least in my view, the game is now roughly within the ballpark of being ‘balanced’.

As you know, I have been playing the game quite a lot of late – Cascade, my little player character, now represents 63 hours invested in just exploring the game and making notes. Hundreds of changes have been made as a result of this, both in the previous patch and the patch to come. I suspect hundreds more will be made before I’m done. And then, when I’m done with that, I’ll create another character and begin from the start again. Those 63 hours have been fun, and that’s my main deliverable for the game – but they’ve also been instructive to a number of unexpected and unplanned barriers to progression through the world.

To start with for example, combat with zombies outside of Alphabet Street was so one-sided in terms of numbers that it essentially meant that I was penned in there and couldn’t explore any further. That was good to begin with – it created an agreeable sense of tension and risk. But it did mean that after a while I felt ‘You know, I really should be getting out there but I can’t’. So that led to a fixed limit on just how heavily zombies could ‘cluster’ in the areas around the game, with the number and danger of the enemies increasing the farther you got from the Winchester. That has meant that the world has opened up to me in stages – first Alphabet Street[1], and then the streets adjacent to Alphabet Street (making available a wider scavenge area and more opportunities for salvage and gathering). Those streets open up two new factions, which also opens up a wider range of opportunities. After a while, the Docks become available if you fancy making a run for it, and that opens up another opportunity. That works a lot better than the incredibly penned-in progression of before. You can wander more widely if you like, but I hope you’ve brought your Vaseline because you’re gonna get shafted.

But even with that, I often encounter an obvious imbalance that I didn’t really appreciate. Holy shit, did you guys meet the quick zombies? More like dick zombies, am I right? My first encounter with one of those led to me being dead within seconds. I like that there are enemies like that even in the relatively *safe* part of the game, but they were just too much. So they got a bit of a nerf. I’ve fought and killed two now – one killed me in the process, which was a little bittersweet, but the other I managed to do some ‘hit and run’ action on and took it down with only minor wounds to myself. That felt great, and that simple act of victory has meant that I now feel confident in exploring the whole of the north of the city – not carelessly, but carefully. I still haven’t made it into the south of the city, but those days are coming.

That kind of thing is balance you can’t tell from a spreadsheet, because mathematically the quick zombies work out – they fill a game NPC niche on a spreadsheet. It just turns out out that niche in reality is too brutal to really be worth keeping. Play is the only way to uncover these kind of issues because the numbers will lie to you.

More than anything though I’ve felt that the first great expansion of your horizons is a little limited in terms of opportunities for advancement – some quests open up, but not an awful lot. So I added a new location in this patch with a few quests in it to act as a reward for getting that far. The accumulation of command points, again, was a ‘placeholder’ calculation that I never really revisited. So now they are gained in a much better fashion I think. Progression in that respect doesn’t feel impossible, but it does require work. Tying command points into missions (and streamlining the reputation system) was a good fix in that respect – you can choose, if you want, to work towards that next knack or command by working with the factions. If you want relatively low impact play, you can just work through missions and still feel like you’re making progress towards your long term goals.

I mentioned in the last post how difficult it can be to really estimate ‘time taken’ for activities if all you have is a spreadsheet, and the new faction rep system seems to deal with the problems caused with that – there’s always, right up to the 100% mark, a reason to acquire rep with a faction. Every new percentage point of rep you get opens up a wider range of skills that they’ll teach. Before, that was another unexpected road-block because working to the next tier of faction skills was such a long, time-consuming chore. It was feast or famine – you spent too long with XP you couldn’t spend because you hadn’t accumulated the faction standing to spend it. And then, when you got access to the next tier of skills, your XP was gone within minutes. That problem, I think, is now properly solved.

Please understand though that I’m not saying Epitaph is *fully* playable yet – I haven’t reached very far, even now, in the game. Playability improvements are now an ongoing deliverable for each patch – I have a little timetable of what I plan to work on within any given patch cycle[2] and part of that is ‘play the game and make changes’. A lot of what’s involved in that isn’t world-shattering – sometimes it’s just tweaking a number in a header file, and reassessing its impact[4].

It’s a lot like the parable of the engineer, who is summoned to a factory where production has ground to a halt. The engineer walks around the factory, humming and hawing, before marking an X on a pipe with a piece of chalk and saying ‘Replace that’. He then submits an invoice for $50,000.

The factory owner baulks at this, and sends an angry letter demanding a full breakdown of costs for what was just placing a mark on a piece of factory equipment. The fully itemised invoice arrives:

$1 – Marking an X with a piece of chalk
$49,999 – Knowing where to mark it

Playing is the process of knowing where to make those changes, and it takes a lot of time to do that properly. In certain respects, I already have people submitting many thoughtful reports on where *they* think the X needs to go, but the problem with that is that I have to take a different view of where the marks need to be made. My ‘victory condition’ here isn’t the same as a normal player’s – I need to be thinking not just of the immediate return for myself, but the long-term return for everyone. I need to consider it in relation to the past, the present, and the plans for the future. As useful as player reports are, and they are extremely useful, they’re no substitute for doing that part of the evaluation yourself.

There’s still lots of important work left to do – for example, I think it might *possibly* still be the case that you get too little reward for too much work – but you can just look at the notes for this and the last patch to see just how much has already changed in the game, and I think that it’s all very much for the better.


[1] Which has also been expanded to provide more to do for those hours of being penned in.
[2] In any given month of four weeks, I likely have about 8 days I can sink into Epitaph during weekends. The extra days I can claw back for that are mostly eaten up by the days I lose due to other obligations, so 8 days feels about right. The plan from now on is that of those 8 days, 3 days will be bug-fixing and implementing ideas; 3 days will be new game content and game systems; 1 day will be improvements to the mudlib[3]; and 1 day will focus entirely on player experience – which is what my playing with Cascade is doing.
[3] These will likely be invisible to players, but it will include things like improving performance and re-factoring code, as well as tidying up and, urgh, documentation.
[4] A lot of the honours students at work[5] do games for their projects, and many of them get sent my way. One of the things we talk about is how testing games isn’t like testing other pieces of software – you might spend days testing a game with the only change you make being to turn a 0.5 into a 0.75 in a config file somewhere.
[5] For those who don’t know, I’m a computing lecturer at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen.