So, release week is still on-going and it’s been a combination of great fun and back breaking labour.  We’ve managed to put together two follow-up patches and some emergency ‘on the spot’ fixing as necessary.  While the game still isn’t balanced or flawless, it is at least, I think, playable.  People seem to be enjoying it [1], and despite all the reasons to say ‘you know what?  I’ll come back in a few patches time’, people are persevering.   I think the improvement in the quality of the game is noticeable and it’s clear that we’re working our little bum cheeks off to fire-fight issues as they occur.  Those willing to give it a couple of weeks should find their patience to have been worthwhile.

The rigidity of the patching process has been somewhat called into question though by actuality.  A patch was supposed to have a knell of finality about it.  We patch, and then we fix problems on Dev and patch again.   What tends to happen though is that we patch, and then we do some spot fixing where needed on Live[2] and then backport those changes to the development server.  That’s not something I want to see become a habit, but for now it’s necessary.  As time goes by, we’ll get better at patching but it’s never a thing any of us have had to do for a live game before.  We basically have a week’s experience at it, but already we’re getting more disciplined.  A few patches down the line, and all you’ll know from when we patch is that the game just got better.

There’s nothing quite like having players to really explore the cracks and crevices of a game.  They’re like water – they will expand out to find the flaws.  Every different perspective on play has given us more of an insight into what needs to be fixed, or changed.  We’ve already altered a fair bit on the back of it.  But, players also show the longer term consequences of any emergence you’ve built into the system.  We’re currently experiencing vast herds of zombies on live because of the way they converge upon players and combat.  Zombies are getting gobbled up into vast crowds of dozens and dozens, and then lingering around the streets outside the safe area.  Since people have learned how to make molotovs, they’ve started banding together to thin those herds.  I’m enjoying seeing the survivor culture emerge and the way in which game wisdom is accumulating.  It must actually be a little surreal to come into a game like this and miss all of the supporting information you’d normally expect.   Large parts of the game are unmapped.  The wiki is still under populated although growing.   The standard tropes of MUDs are not necessarily honoured.  And against all of that, people are playing, finding issues and reporting them.  Together, we’re making the game that Epitaph needs to be.

It’s the violation of game tropes thing that is causing most angst for new players though, as far as I can see.   One player said ‘There should be more weapons available on Alphabet Street’, which is a fair point from a ‘standard’ perspective but not what we’re really about.  Epitaph isn’t a game in which you get the best weapon you can and then hit things with it – it’s about getting the best weapon you can sustainably use.  A wooden stick you can repair is better than a tungsten sword than you can’t.   A terrible wool sack is in many ways better than a high-end leather backpack because wool is plentiful and easy to work with.   In some ways, you don’t pick a weapon – you pick an advancement path around what weapon you have.   That’s wisdom that’s starting to be inculcated into the community.

The second trope that is being pretty savagely beaten is that of the expectation of hack and slash.  If you go out, cleavers waving, you’re going to die.  Not always, and not forever, but certainly if you head out of the newbie area without heeding the many warnings, you’ll find yourself meeting a sticky end at the jaws of a zombie.  Likewise, if you head too far beyond what is safe for your skills, you’re going to die.  You can minimise your risks, take precautions and so on – but basically, indiscriminate hack and slash is a failing strategy.   That’s counter to how most games work, and overcoming that expectation is a key to understanding what it is we’re doing on Epitaph.

The final major trope that’s being challenged is that of ‘safety’ generally.  We have a safe area for newbies, but it’s not *safe*.  It’s just safe(r).  The wellbeing system is almost entirely designed to force people from Alphabet Street, and in many ways before they’re ready.  There is food and water on Alphabet Street but not enough – there’s not supposed to be *enough*.   You can put social mode on if all you want to do is sit around and talk, but if you want to advance you have to be constantly aware of the fact you’re hungering and thirsting.  If you’re the only one there, maybe Alphabet Street will sustain you indefinitely.  The more players there are, the more tension there is to head out.

That seems unfair given what I said above, but remember – it’s a game about survival.  One of the things I repeated early on is ‘the apocalypse is not a solitary affair’.   Missions such as ‘gather ten <rare supply>’ underline this – I’m not expecting people gather these by themselves.  I’m expecting that they horse-trade.  ‘I found a vial of dye – I’ll trade it for two large batteries’ .  The nature of scavenge ensures unreliability, and that’s intentional.   You can increase your odds by scavenging at the right places and maybe beating people to the punch, but that’s just managing randomness.   Not everything is perfectly setup there of course – sometimes missions are asking for things that are too valuable for people to reasonably want to trade.  We need to see how the game economy shakes out in the real world though – in many ways, the things have the value that people put on them.  Rarity by itself isn’t necessarily significant, and I’m not enough of a social psychologist or economist to predict what the game economy, or game culture, might be like in a week, or a month’s time.  It’s entirely possible survivor wisdom will say ‘don’t bother with these electrical items because batteries are so hard to come by’.  Despite their power sources being rare and valuable, the disinterest in having to maintain a supply may make them largely decorative.   I don’t know how that will shake down, but I’m interested to see.

A lot of the issues over the past week have been caused too by the ‘bunching’ effect.  When the first WoW expansion was released, it was almost unplayable for a week because of a vast army of level 60 players descending on the same zone and using up all the quest mobs.  A week after that, it was fine because they’d all moved on at varying speeds and a proper distribution across the zones was observable.  We’re suffering from that now in many ways – on day one, nobody could clear away zombies so it was suicide to leave Alphabet Street.  On day two, people were leaving but herds were accumulating.  On day three, people learned how to make molotovs… on day four, the streets were on fire but the weaker players could start to go out and explore.  As time goes by, the proper ‘balance’ of the game will emerge.  I’m very cautious at the moment about over-steering – making things easier when what’s really needed is time.  Or, the other way – making things harder.  We need to be very careful of trying to do too much to balance when we’re looking at a distorted picture.

So, Epitaph 1.0 may have taken about a year to arrive, but Epitaph 1.0.2 arrived within five days.  That’s what I mean by our focus changing – our key focus now has to be on the live game, not on our plans for Epitaph 1.5 and beyond.  Thanks to those of your who are still with us – for our all flaws at the moment, I think we’re shaping up nicely.  Every patch brings us closer to the point whereby we can realistically start phase two of advertising.  We have some money available, some venues for announcements and so on.  You guys are helping immensely with the work that needs to be done before we can realistically start courting a larger player base of people who may not be quite so forgiving of what 1.0 software means.

Drakkos.

[1] Even if some find it frustratingly difficult – mentally replace every instance of DayZ in this review with Epitaph to get a feeling for it: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/zero-punctuation/6276-DayZ

[2] No plan survives contact with the enemy, as the saying goes.