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This week's blog post ended up being a general-purpose article about MMO design. I'm working on revising the Shield skill's mods today, and I figured it might be interesting to talk about how a game designer does something like this.

 

Making The Model

Balancing an MMO isn't a science. It can't be. This is surprising to many gamers because they think that it should be possible to perfectly balance a game. It's just a simulation, right? Just figure it out! With math! But an MMO is much too complex for that.

Here’s an example I liked to use from Asheron's Call 2. (I've probably got the details wrong -- it's been a decade -- but you'll get the idea.) An archer could stand on the bank of a river and shoot a monster on the other side of a river. That was a good strategy because monsters moved a bit slower when they had to cross water -- they had to transition animations from standing to swimming, then back, which slowed them down by a second or two. As the monster got out of the water to attack, the archer could run backwards, still shooting, forcing the monster to chase it, all the while using obstacles like trees and bushes to confound the monster. But there was a catch: arrows in AC2 had physics, so if you didn't have a clean shot, your arrow would miss and hit a tree. Being an archer required a little bit of real skill, and situational awareness, and a tiny bit of planning.

So... how do you represent that situation with formulas? Well, you start with some observations to make a simpler model, something that approximates the bigger factors, and then you iterate. In other words, you make something up. MMOs are complex 3D spaces with obstacles and surprises. But even if it were a 2D game you would have similar problems. In fact, unless the game is turn-based (and pretty simple!), it's never possible to model everything. You have to abstract away most of the complexity -- leaving the right parts, and in the right structure, to get down to something you can deal with.

In the example above, we might say, "An archer tends to have time to make three attacks before a melee-only monster can reach them." That’s a guess we'd make after play-testing for a while. So we'd make a formula around this idea. Depending on our goals, we might give the monster a certain amount of extra health to compensate. Or we might make other kinds of monsters that archers have a much harder time with, or a million other things. But it's all based on that earlier simplification. In other words, it's all just bullshit formulas that we make up. Then we test them, see how they work, and repeat.

But ... how do designers actually do it? Spreadsheets. Lots and lots of spreadsheets. The spreadsheets are exported to custom tools, and those tools generate the data that the game server and client use.

(An aside here: I've been on development teams where the systems designers were expected to use fancy graphical tools that the tools engineers built just for them, for that game, to enter damage and health and so on. These tools are always worse than spreadsheets. Spreadsheets have had decades of development and they're really good at formulas. I sincerely suggest that MMO teams never waste time on graphical data-entry tools. Tools for object placement? Pathing? Appearances? Those tools are very helpful. But if something can be done in a spreadsheet, find a way to do it in a spreadsheet! As a bonus, training time is reduced because all professional systems designers already know how to use Excel. In fact, we've always known how to use Excel since birth. It's in our DNA.)

It takes a lot of these bullshit formulas to model combat. For instance, here are just a few of the balancing formulas for the Unarmed skill:

  • Regaining 1 point of Armor is as good as dealing 2 damage
  • Regaining 1 point of Health is as good as dealing 3 damage
  • Regaining 1 point of Power is as good as dealing 5 damage
  • Dealing 150 damage over a 10-second time period is as good as dealing 100 damage immediately
  • Taunting +15 is as good as dealing 1 extra damage

With a whole bunch of these formulas, I can then "balance" the abilities and mods. If one mod deals +50 damage, another might restore 25 Armor. Balance! Of course, it's not balanced at all -- regaining 1 point of Armor is actually WAY better than dealing 2 extra damage! But since I only expect Unarmed to have a couple of mods that restore Armor, I've artificially inflated the formula so that they're more practical. More fun.

If the Unarmed skill ends up being too powerful, I'll revise some of these formulas as needed. But the first step is to make them fun, and only then do you try to clamp down on overpowered things. Sometimes a fun thing stops being fun after it's balanced. In that case it has to be thrown out. There used to be a mod that let Fire Mages stun with their Super Fireball. This proved impossible to balance. I tried turning it into a combo, but eventually decided the combo wasn't fun either, and ultimately I just threw the mod out. But that's rare. Usually a fun-but-overpowered idea can be watered down to make it fun-but-less-overpowered.

 

Living With The Formulas

Sometimes when a formula changes, it only affects a few things. If I decide tomorrow that Unarmed is regaining too much Armor, I can fix it in a few minutes. No big deal. But some formulas are ingrained into everything. For instance, there are formulas that determine how generally useful a mod should be, based on how many abilities the mod affects, how much Power they cost, and how fast their reset time is. When I change THESE formulas, everything breaks. In the October 31 update, I changed those formulas so that an ability's reset time is less important in determining the power of mods. Changing that formula meant that every single mod needed to be re-calculated. It sucked. But that happens sometimes because these formulas are just educated guesses about what will be fun without being too overpowered.

And sometimes, you just ignore the formulas. Here's a snippet of one spreadsheet (click to make larger):

balance-spreadsheet-example-B.png

 

This shows some of the balancing data for the mod that turns Hip Throw into an AoE attack. See the "Balance Problem!" column? Anything that's over- or under-powered turns red like that. I can either fix it, or write in a reason why I'm leaving it overpowered. (I deleted the "reason" from one of the columns so it would turn red for the screenshot.) I've decided that this particular mod is a "signature mod" for Unarmed, so it doesn't matter what the balance formulas say: it's staying. Every skill has a few of these. Almost all mods that turn a single-target ability into an area-effect ability fall into this category. Some other abilities just do really weird stuff, unique things that are probably not overpowered, but that I don't have any formulas for. In that case, I can either spend the time to make more formulas, or if it's a one-time effect that probably won't show up again, I would just leave it "overpowered" and write in an explanation in the "reason for overpowered" column.

But they can't all be special cases! Most of the mods need to fit into my formulas. This is where I get to be clever and creative. I have a "budget" and it's my job to make the most fun thing I can within that budget. I'm working on revising the Shield skill right now, and one of Shield's mods makes "Take The Lead" restore Health. This is a mediocre mod because Take The Lead is supposed to be used BEFORE combat begins, when you probably don't need healing. So I'm changing it to wait 15 seconds before giving you health. That gives you time to get hurt before the healing happens, and as an added bonus, my formulas say that delayed healing is cheaper than instant healing, so now the mod heals more than it did before. Finding clever ways to fit interesting mods into these formula budgets is a fun part of the job.

But I can't go too crazy because it's easy to break the formulas. For instance, if I made fifteen or twenty different Unarmed mods that all restored Health, Unarmed would be really overpowered. It wouldn't matter that each particular mod is "balanced" by my formulas, because the formulas were made with the idea that there wouldn't be very many healing mods! The formulas are only approximations and simplifications, and a lot of times the "corner cases" (as programmers call them) don't come out right. Basically, I have to avoid certain kinds of extremes.

Systems designers are constantly evolving their balancing model for as long as they have time. And there's never enough time! Each time I iterate, I need to see how it plays out. I'll collect combat metrics over a month or two to see if it seems to be working, if players seem to be using certain abilities, and so on. Then, if there's time, I improve things. I could easily do this as a full-time job and never run out of things to work on. In fact, an MMO could easily have two or three systems designers all working full-time on these spreadsheets, play-testing, studying metrics, and iterating. And they would still be saying "there's not enough time!" Systems designers always say that. It's always true, because the job is never finished.

 

Conclusion

I could ramble about this forever, but my break time is long over and I have to get back to the spreadsheets. I hope this was interesting to people who are interested in game design! Let me answer a few likely follow-up questions:

  • Yes, this is a horribly inaccurate model of the game -- there are tens of thousands of numbers involved, but it's still a super-simplified representation of combat! And yet, it's the best approach available.
  • Yes, this is what most systems designers do throughout the industry. Some designers are better at it than me... some are a LOT better at it than me, actually... but the basic idea is the same in every MMO.
  • Yes, this means no video game will ever really be perfectly balanced. Even games that pride themselves on balance use this sort of model; they just spend more time improving it. In the case of a genre like RTSes, designers might use the trick of letting the AIs play against each other, then deciding that real players should be X% better than an AI, and make formulas from there. But underneath all the techniques we can use, it's still just a bunch of made-up formulas that are found via trial and error.
  • Yes, that's Excel in the screenshot. I prefer LibreOffice because it's free, but none of the free spreadsheet apps can handle the complexity of an MMO's spreadsheets! (Yet.)

Finally, an observation: the MMO with the best at-launch balance I've ever seen was Aion. I played it in 2009 and it was surprisingly well-balanced. I haven't kept up with the game since then, so I have no idea how the balance is now, but at the time, the designers had restricted themselves to only using a few VERY simple ability types. This made it much easier to model the combat balance, which is extra important for PvP. But... well, the combat was pretty boring. (Unless you like PvP a lot more than I do.) That's the trade-off that MMOs always have to make: the more complex and interesting the combat is, the harder it is to balance.

Happy Thanksgiving, and I'll talk to you again next week!

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So ... What’s Next?

We’ve just come through a major combat update that took forever to get to you because of all the interconnected pieces. But really long gaps between updates are pretty rare.

Usually, I prefer to put out "snapshot" builds every couple of weeks. Snapshots tend to have a lot of smaller stuff and not a lot of big-ticket features to get excited about -- but they give me much faster feedback and bug reports. I needed to rest up a bit from the last update, but I'm back at work now, and it's time to go back to faster iterations.

This next update will have a lot of little stuff. But little stuff is important, too! Let's talk about some of it.

 

Newbie Island

Anagoge, a.k.a. the newbie island, is getting some minor tweaks in the next update. We're making it safer for newbies to explore right around the starting area. (No more spawn-camping spiders!) We’ve also added some visual cues to help newbies find the path up to the lighthouse more easily.

There's also some more new newbie-island content in the works, but I'm not sure if that will be in this update or the one after, so I'll postpone talking about that for the moment.

 

Hammer

I haven't been focusing on skill revisions the past couple of weeks -- I needed some time away from those -- but there will be at least one updated skill in the next patch: Hammer.

As with the other revised skills, I've removed treasure effects that were underwhelming and replaced them with new stuff. Since Hammer is all about damage, I resisted the urge to branch out in too many different directions. Instead, there are more ways to synergize damage and more strategies for maximizing DPS.

Hammer has a unique stun-like effect called Knock Down, which actually causes humanoid enemies to visually fall over... or it will when I get the bugs fixed. (Animal enemies, like cats and so on, don't visually fall over because they don't have animations for it at the moment, but they still feel the full effects of the debuff.) Anyway, there are new treasure mods that do lots of damage to knocked down opponents, and a new way to knock people down.

I also added some treasure mods that deal extra damage to monsters with a mostly-full Rage bar. Hammer has no Rage management, but the idea here is that you can Knock Down a mostly-Rage-filled enemy and then start beating the crap out of them. Or combine Hammer with another skill that has Rage control (like Psychology) to keep the monster's Rage meter in that mostly-filled state for longer (and beat the crap out of them). I'm not sure how fun this idea will end up being, but I think it has promise, so we'll test it out and get your feedback.

There are also three new abilities for Hammer: two new electricity-oriented abilities and a new group buff (which of course buffs damage). The electricity abilities are most impressive when combined with electricity buffs from another skill, but even if you don't make a "lightning build", you might end up using the new Hurl Lightning ability just to get some ranged attack damage.

I also tried to fix a few things that were obviously really overpowered, but balance isn't the main goal of these skill updates. First I want them to be more fun; THEN they can be balanced as necessary.

 

Rahu

Rahu is finally coming back onto my radar! Since Rahu is currently at the very farthest end of the game world, it hasn't seemed like the highest-priority thing to work on for a while. But in the final game, Rahu is an important crossroads city. (Remember that skills go to 125, so this level 60 city is a "mid-level city".)

For this update, I've been working to make Rahu feel more like a home that players can enjoy spending time in, rather than just a place where some NPCs happen to be standing. This time around I've been focusing on fleshing out some of the NPCs themselves, giving them personalities, quests, hangouts, that sort of thing.

This has led me off on some small side-tangents: some of these NPCs have new minor skills and tricks to teach you. I don't want to spoil them, though! You’ll have to visit Rahu to see for yourself.

 

Development Cycles, This Update, And Beyond

The last update took a very long time. I'm working on returning to a much faster update cycle -- ideally there should be just a few weeks between "snapshot" updates. As I mentioned before, frequent snapshot builds give me much faster feedback and bug reports, and just makes the whole development process smoother.

The down side is that these snapshots can be underwhelming to players because there's no big-ticket feature to get excited about. It’s also frustrating to players when some bugs get fixed (because they happened to be in the path of development this week) while other, possibly nastier, bugs aren’t fixed yet.

I use these dev blogs to give you a look at the upcoming patch, but sometimes, only looking at what goes into a single update can be misleading. There's always a whole lot of stuff going on here! It's just really hard to tell when all the pieces will come together. I don't like to talk about stuff that's more than a few weeks away because it tends to build up hype that I can't always meet in alpha. Since we use an iterative process, the first version of everything is going to be kinda crappy. Then we iterate!

But just off the top of my head, here's some stuff that I've worked on, or a team member has worked on, in the past two weeks: the new fairy race, a new combat skill, two new outdoor land areas, a new dungeon, mounts, new forums, a new main website, Steam integration, a major GUI overhaul, a new NPC feature, and fixes for a bunch of complex bugs. I don't mean that all those things are about to appear -- some are months away. And I don't mean to hype any of these things because they will probably be crappy when they first launch and need some iteration before they're fun.

But I feel like NOT talking about them at all is also kind of weird. I'm doing these dev blogs every week, never mentioning fairies, and then suddenly one week it'll be "fairies are almost here!" I dunno, it seems sort of disingenuous. But the fact is that most of MMO development is very boring to talk about anyway, so I'm not really withholding a lot of fascinating details. I'm just trying to bring you highlights!

I expect to put up a new build this week with whatever features are ready to go. There won't be any changes to Halloween drops in this update -- keys and pumpkins will continue to drop. (And we'll give a few special keys and tools to Hammer users, to help them get up to speed... but Hammer users may want to start saving up some spare keys now, if you have extra.)

That's all until next time, when I'll bring you more highlights of... whatever else I can get into this update!

 

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The big update arrived on Saturday morning, and it's gone reasonably well! There are some bugs with the new gear and abilities, and while those are easy to fix, I still haven't done a hotfix. The problem is that I didn't anticipate how tired I would be after two months of 90 hour work-weeks. So damned tired! On Saturday morning I watched the bug reports come in, and when I was confident that the servers were stable, I found myself doing the most astonishing thing on a patch day: I went back to bed. Been resting on and off ever since. I'm slowly getting back to work now, but I'm still not going at full speed. I'll need another day or two before I'm back in the swing of things. But I do expect to put up a hotfix of ability and gear fixes tomorrow evening.

While I slept, the rest of the team kept working hard. srand has been cataloging and prioritizing all of your bug reports, and Silvonis put the finishing touches on our IndieGoGo campaign, which is live now! He's also putting the finishing touches on the new forums.

 

"Pre-Legacied" New Gear

In between sleeping, I've been fixing reported treasure bugs, like gear buffs that only last a few seconds and fire mods that ignite you instead of the enemy. Not much to say about those, but I figured I'd talk a little bit about one bug that's kind of interesting: some newly-made loot is being marked as Legacy as soon as it's created. What's going on there? From the examples I've seen, the problem comes from weapons and off-hand items that have mods for unlikely skill combos.

An example is the easiest way to explain things. First, you kill the monster, and the monster's loot profile determines what items drop. Let's say a hammer drops, and let's say it's a Legendary hammer with 5 mods. Nice! But you're using Unarmed+Mentalism, so this is an Unarmed+Mentalism hammer. The game easily finds three mods for Mentalism, but when it tries to add two Unarmed mods to the hammer, there's only one mod that's eligible. So you get that one. Then it fills in the remaining slot with a generic mod because there's nothing else for it to do. Then the legacy item detector immediately flags the item, because it has 3 Mentalism mods and 1 Unarmed mod... its two skills aren't balanced.

The bug here is that there is one Unarmed mod that can be applied to hammers. In actuality, there should be zero! When that one mod stops being applicable, the game will fill both remaining slots with Generics. Then it's a one-skill item with an even balance of generic mods, and that's fine.

In this particular example, it's easy for me to decide what to do because it's not likely that a player actually wants a hammer with Unarmed mods. It's still theoretically valid, because you can still punch with your other hand, but in practice any hammer with Unarmed mods is going to be considered junk anyway. So after the hotfix, hammers will never have Unarmed on them.

But in other cases it's harder to decide what to do. A necro orb with Sword mods? Well... hmm, yeah, okay... that's viable. You could be a Necro+Sword player and want to wield an orb in your off-hand... I guess. So in that case, the fix is to make sure there's plenty of Sword mods that are eligible to be put on necro orbs.

I have to take it on a case-by-case basis, and I don't even know what all the cases are, so that's where you come in. If you find a pre-Legacied piece of new gear, please report it! I need to know what kind of item it is (claw, shield, etc.) and what two skills are on the item. I can usually figure out the problem with that info.

(There is another known Legacy bug: if you use Shamanic Infusion on an item it will become Legacy. That bug will be fixed in the hotfix, and those items will un-Legacy. No need to report them.)

 

Halloween Pt 2

After the hotfix tomorrow, the town invasions will end. They're fun, but there's such a thing as too much of a good thing... and we're getting close to reaching that point.

However, for people who didn't have much time to play last weekend, I want you to still have a way to get replacement loot, so the Halloween keys (and other Halloween special items) will continue to drop from ordinary undead like skeletons and ghouls. But there'll be a slight change to the keys after the hotfix: there will actually be several tiers of keys. What I'm worried about is high level players going into the Serbule crypt and just blasting all the newbie skeletons to bits, leaving nothing for actual newbies. (Most of our alpha players are very considerate about stuff like that, but the temptation will be too great for some.) So newbie skeletons will drop keys that only work in the 10-20 chest. Mid-level skeletons drop mid-level chest keys, and so on.

If you still have Halloween keys from before the hotfix, they will continue to work -- they will be able to unlock any chest, just like they do now. But new keys will only work for one specific level of chest.

After the next round of skill updates (for the skills I didn't have time to fix yet, like Hammer or Cow), we might bring a new version of these chests back, but tie them specifically to the updated skills. I'm not 100% sure of the details there -- I have some other ideas that might work better -- but the point is that you won't be forgotten: when your skill is revised, we'll make sure you have a chance to get replacement loot in one form or another.

 

Please keep reporting bugs, that's very helpful! And please check out the IndieGoGo campaign. If you didn't get a chance to back our Kickstarter, this is the last chance to get special rewards. If you DID back us already and want to help us out, it's hugely helpful to share the link to our campaign in your social media circles. Thanks for all your help, and I'll talk to you next week!

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/project-gorgon-pc-mmo

 

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It wouldn't be an alpha update if I wasn't working on it right up until the last second! I am still coding as fast as I can here to get the most obvious problems fixed. The plan is that when I can't keep my eyes open anymore, I'll call it done, and kick off the build process. When I awaken in the early AM tomorrow, we'll put the update live. If something goes wrong the update may have to be postponed until Saturday evening/Sunday morning, but I doubt it'll need more than a day of delay at most.

No time for a long blog post today, I'm just typing this up while I eat lunch and then it's back to debugging Halloween. But here are the notes I wrote on the other two skills that I had time to revise.

 

Archery

Archery is supposed to be a versatile damaging skill. Where fire magic is basically just murdering 24/7, archery can mezz, manage aggro, and so on. But the non-murdering parts of Archery weren't very fleshed out. I added some new supporting loot effects, much of it aimed at supporting an Animal Handling pet, for the classic "ranger" vibe. There's some equipment that boosts taunt and some that reduces taunt, depending on how you want to play it with your pet.

The skill also didn't have a full complement of either abilities or treasure, so two new abilities were added along with corresponding treasure. Restorative Arrow is a Major Healing ability that can only be used on an ally, not yourself. The primary use case would be to heal a pet (including an undead pet!), but it can also be handy when in a group. It uses Reservoir Arrows. Mangling Shot is a new attack that stuns at range. It's pretty great. It uses Long Arrows.

I had a hard time dealing with the "heavy archery" abilities (Heavy Shot and Heavy Multishot). They don't really make a lot of sense in the modern game. I originally envisioned them as being just flat-out better than other archery attacks, but requiring very expensive arrows. But now I don't want to balance around the difficulty of obtaining ammunition, at least not on a per-ability basis! For now, I've revised these abilities to be very-slow-reuse mega-attacks. That way they can be better than other attacks, but not overpowering everything else entirely.

My "vision" for Archery doesn't really include Epic Attacks -- I've always felt like archery should be a fast skill that's good at reacting to new situations, and slow attacks don't help that. But in practice, the heavy attacks seem fine. I mean, they do a lot of damage, and hey, who doesn't like assassinating things from afar? But still, I may replace those abilities entirely in a future revision, and repurpose the heavy arrows into quarrels for the upcoming crossbow skill.

 

Druid

Druid is the king of debuffs, a duke of heals, and a ... whatever's just below duke... of killing stuff. I found the skill to be in reasonably good shape, compared to some of the others I revised. It just needed some fleshing out and the removal of a lot of "50% chance to do blah" treasure effects. I added a few new treasure effects for healing, a few more debuffing effects, and a bunch of DoT effects. Druids can gear up to do either poison or nature damage-over-time (or a mix). The DoTs are very effective in soloing. The debuffs really shine in a group, when used against big Elite monsters. (But the debuffs are still quite useful when soloing, too.)

The ability Cosmic Strike was refactored into a VERY big damage-dealer with a very slow (45 second) cooldown. I wanted it to have a really big damage number, to give it that "Dreva says you're supposed to die now" kind of finger-of-death vibe. But to do that it needed to be slower and cost more Power. At 45 seconds it's still usable in most fights, and it's quite satisfying to use.

Like Archery, Druid was missing some abilities to fill out its treasure table. I added two new abilities: Cloud Sight causes partial blindness, which is a debuff, and also does very respectable damage. Pulse of Life is a smaller targeted heal for people who want to focus more on the supporting aspects.

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When is the Update?

The top question on everyone’s mind is probably: When is this update going to happen?

I have good news and bad news on that. Since the last dev note, I've been revising treasure for each skill as fast as humanly possible. And it’s going pretty fast, all things considered! But each skill represents a ton of interlocking changes, and if I don’t want to leave these skills in a worse place then they are now I have to invest the time in doing them right.

I am very sad to report that I can't get the revisions done any faster than one skill per day ... and most take two. This is frustrating because completing all the skills at this pace will take another couple of weeks. But I really need to start fixing bugs, dealing with unexpected side-effects ... and getting your feedback so I can start adjusting anything that’s broken or un-fun. In other words, I need to get the update out the door!

So I've decided to finish the treasure revisions for a couple more skills, then switch to polish-mode on the skills that are already done.

Most animal-form skills, Battle Chemistry, probably Animal Handling, Ice Magic, and a few others won't be revised in this update. They will still be updated to use the new formulas -- the changes to Power cost, reuse timers, and damage that I talked about a few weeks ago -- but they won't have new treasure effects or abilities yet. It’s not ideal, but then alpha is rarely ideal. As soon as this update is pushed out the door (and we deal with any immediate hot-fix bugs), I can start working on these other skills.

 

Notes on Revised Skills

I’ve jotted down some notes about each skill that I've finished revising so far. Keep in mind that my goals and my execution are two different things. I wouldn't be surprised if half of the things I'm excited about in these notes don't pan out as being fun enough or viable enough yet.

But I wanted to share these notes because it gives some insight into my goals, and you can give feedback about how well I met those goals once the update is live.

 

Sword

Sword is the first weapon-skill that players get, and it's supposed to be a solid middle-of-the-pack combat skill with both good damage and good survivability. It's distinguished from other combat skills by having the best Rage-management tools of any skill.

Unfortunately, Sword has also been a testing ground for lots of experiments and changes over the years that I've been developing the game. I've removed a lot of crufty weird treasure effects and cleaned up the abilities too. (There are no new abilities, but the existing abilities' intended uses are more emphasized.)

Now, I'm hopeful that the skill can be geared to emphasize several different things: pure damage, rage management, or survivability. (For example, when paired with Archery or Necromancy, it could serve as the second line of defense when monsters get into melee range.) Its signature debuff is very powerful, especially against elite monsters, and it's just a good general melee skill.

Decapitate is the Swordsman's epic attack. It's much more epic than before, but still as slow as ever. In solo situations it's very useful, but in group situations it can't sustain DPS as well as other abilities. Instead, in a group scenario it's probably best used to deal with "adds" -- monsters that wander into your group's combat while it's already in progress. With a few pieces of gear, Decapitate can insta-kill many weaker non-elite monsters, or send them fleeing in terror.

Rage-depletion effects have been improved across the board (not just for Sword, but most noticeably for Sword). And for swordsmen that want to be able to manage the Rage of boss monsters in group situations, I've made it easier (and more effective) to use both Parry and Riposte together. In solo situations, using both of these abilities at the same time is probably overkill... or not. You can try it and decide for yourself.

Most of the weird target-specific treasure effects have been removed, like goblin-killing and cat-killing and so on, but I tried to salvage a few of them by making them apply to a much broader range of monsters. We'll see how that works out.

 

Mentalism

Mentalism is primarily a support skill that shines in groups, and I wanted to buff that aspect up a bit, but I also wanted to make sure that the offensive aspects are viable. Mentalism isn't supposed to be anywhere as effective as Fire Magic or Hammer for killing things, but it should let you solo well enough if you gear for it. (After all, "pure healers" have to be able to solo somehow, right? A player using Mentalism and, say, Psychology to play support roles will probably need a different suit of gear for soloing and support, but both jobs should be doable.)

On the offensive side, the biggest change was the addition of a new epic attack called Agonize. (It replaces the ability Mind-Armor Wave.) Agonize deals Psychic damage, and it deals a shit-ton of it, so things that give you a percentage boost to Psychic damage are quite impressive with this ability. Mentalism and Psychology have always gone well together for support roles, and with this trick they have a bit more synergy on offense too.

Mentalism also has strong Electric attacks, and I've tried to make sure that they'll work well both stand-alone and in tandem with other Electric-attacking skills (like Hammer, Druid, or eventually Weather Witch).

On the support side, some of the treasure-effects for the Psi-wave abilities were combined into a smaller number of multi-use effects. This makes it more plausible for a mentalist to switch which psi-wave they're using in different circumstances. The most important treasure effect for a psi-wave-using mentalist is the one that boosts the potency of all three recovery waves. Because it's very important, it has a higher chance of showing up than most treasure-effects do.

 

Staff

Staff is the weapon-skill with the most survivability. It can be used by tanks or by "squishy" skill users like fire mages or even archers.

As it was, Staff's treasure was very boring and crappy and it needed a lot of rewriting. It was actually QUITE powerful as a defensive skill already, a bit too much so, but its offensive abilities were unreliable. Staff isn't supposed to be a top-tier DPS skill, but you should be able to gear it up to be a very solid attack skill.

A new Staff ability called Phoenix Strike was added. This is an Epic attack that deals Fire damage and gives you fire-"thorns" -- that is, if melee attackers hit you, they catch fire. While quite useful on its own, it has obvious synergy with Fire Magic. Several new treasure effects can heighten this synergy. There are also treasure effects that synergize with other skills, like Ice Magic and even Unarmed (for that staff/claw build that I'm still trying to make viable).

One of Staff's distinctive flavors is that it can take extreme advantage of Vulnerable targets. I've tried to beef that up and make it possible to build your gear around this idea, with some new ways to trigger monsters' Vulnerability and take advantage of it. But I've also isolated most of the skill's vulnerability-related stuff into a few abilities and treasure effects so that it can be ignored if you want to. (But I do think a carefully-built Vulnerability build is going to be very powerful!)

Also noteworthy: the staff ability Deflective Spin is now an area-effect attack as well as a powerful defensive buff. The defensive aspect is still the main priority, but it helps flesh out Staff's crowd-management options.

 

Werewolf

Werewolves were overpowered in the same way that most of the animal forms suffer from: they have too many treasure effects for too few abilities. When I was fleshing out the animal forms and making sure they each had enough treasure effects, I neglected to make sure they had enough abilities! Werewolf had several abilities with a dozen treasure effects each. This made it pretty easy to do very high damage, but it wasn't very interesting or versatile -- every werewolf ended up playing pretty much the same. I've added two new abilities to finish out the skill's basic toolset, and along with new treasure effects, there should be a bit more diversity to builds.

Werewolf is intended to be a skirmishing combat skill, with lots of quick and dangerous attacks that synergize well with other wolves. While it should (obviously) be great at soloing, it's most impressive in the company of other werewolves, where you can trade off aggro with each other and keep the monsters disoriented. (Or, barring a werewolf friend, pets like bears, cats, or skeleton swordsmen should work well too.) That's the idea, anyway. In this update I've tried to bring some of that flavor out in the treasure, and with the new abilities.

The new ability Skulk lets you become "sneakier" (monsters have to get closer to you in order to see you). It's a tool to help you move around in tight dungeon spaces more safely, and it lets you start combat with a bang. Treasure effects can turn it into a potent pre-combat buffing ability, or alternately it can be turned into a very big mid-combat de-taunt, giving you some healing and a moment's respite from aggro.

The new ability Blood of the Pack heals you and buffs your group's Trauma damage. It can be geared to work as a personal healing tool, or it can be geared to emphasize the group-support aspect.

 

Psychology

Psychology is currently the only combat skill that I don't really expect players to be able to use as their primary damage-dealing skill. (It does have some powerful attacks, but they're intended to accompany the attacks from some other skill.) But Psychology is unparalleled in its versatility. It has taunting, de-taunting, healing, rage-reduction, mezzing, some big-burst damage, unique buffs and debuffs, and survival tools like fire-dispelling. Psychology is supposed to be a big toolbox of tricks to help you build your character the way you want. If none of the other skills seem like a good match for your secondary skill, Psychology should work.

Because it's a very old skill (one of the first I coded), the treasure was pretty bad for many of these "roles". I think the skill will need some more iterations to reach the goal of "universal tool box", but it's definitely getting better. Its offensive abilities have more synergies with other combat skills; when used as a group-support skill, there's some new ways to keep your party alive; and when used by tanks, it can keep you alive as well as help you maintain aggro. There's a new ability, Mock, which helps in the tanking role. It's a basic attack with a small built-in taunt.

Psychology is still missing a core ability -- I haven't decided what it should be yet, but there's a space in the treasure-effects tables for one or two more major abilities.

 

Fire Magic

For a skill that was noticeably overpowered at high level, Fire Magic had some pretty shitty treasure. A few treasure effects were VERY brokenly good, but so many of its treasure effects were crappy. The overpowered treasure effects have been toned down significantly, but other treasure effects help pick up the slack and allow fire mages to try several different builds with different focuses.

I've always thought of fire magic as a "sloppy" kind of offensive skill -- it can deal a lot of damage, both to single targets and to small groups, but it's dangerous to fight with fire -- things can go very wrong very quickly. One way that this has been represented in the game is by Rage build-up -- fire attacks generate twice as much Rage as other damage types. I've also tried to bring some of this "danger" aspect to the treasure effects, with gear that's very powerful but has a small chance of backfiring. I didn't want to go overboard in that direction since some players want to be very precise, but it's there, and it's something I may build on at higher levels.

One particular goal was making it easier for Fire Mages to easily switch to using cold attacks in the field (perhaps with a couple of equipment swaps, but not requiring an entire wardrobe change). There's now more treasure that boosts both fire and ice at the same time. This also opens the door to better fire/ice combo builds, and even using Fire Magic + Ice Magic together, but I haven't spent a ton of thought on that yet. You can experiment and see how well it works for yourself.

 

Unarmed

Originally, Unarmed was a skill with two very different target audiences: martial arts was the main use of the skill, but it was also supposed to be a viable combat skill for players that were turned into animals. Since animals can't do fancy martial-arts-type moves like Barrage, or throw people over their hips with Hip Throw, new abilities were made just for animals -- Bodyslam and Headbutt being the two main animal-centric abilities. These abilities were (and still are!) taught by an NPC that is only friendly to animals, to help reinforce that these are the animal variants. But since anybody can learn the abilities given enough time, it's really just seen as an annoying roadblock to unlocking these abilities.

Since I imagined that you would only be able to use one or the other of each of these abilities, most gear for Barrage and Hip Throw also covers Bodyslam and Headbutt, respectively. But since you CAN use both abilities at once, a few specific gear+ability combinations were a bit too powerful. But nothing too insane, and I liked the general feel of being able to use all the abilities at once. So a few updates back, I made it so that animals can just use the regular abilities like Barrage and Hip Throw. The original problem is gone! There is now only one audience for Unarmed: martial artists, whether they be humanoids or extremely implausible kung fu spiders.

I've revised the treasure effects with the idea that all of its abilities can be used in tandem. There's still a lot of dual-ability-boosting treasure, but it feels a little less "split up". Maybe a bit more organic. And some crappy treasure effects have been replaced.

There is also a new ability, Infuriating Fist, which is intended to make Unarmed a bit more useful to tank builds. (Remember that Unarmed is animal-friendly now, so tanky animals like Cow and Deer can use Infuriating Fist too.) There's also some new aggro-building treasure effects, but I've tried to keep them split up since Unarmed should be useful for a lot of play-styles, not just tanking.

(By the way, I still need to make it easier for non-animal players to unlock the old animal-abilities like Headbutt and Bodyslam, and conversely for animals to learn the human-centric techniques like Knee Kick. I haven't done that yet, but it's on my to-do list.)

 

Necromancy

Necromancy is supposed to be a hands-on pet management skill -- your minions go forth and you use abilities like Provoke Undead and Heal Undead to keep them healthy and working well. Unfortunately due to a huge oversight, these very same hands-on abilities were the most neglected in the treasure system. There was NO treasure for the ability Heal Undead, and very little for Provoke Undead or Rebuild Undead. I didn't realize how bare these abilities were.

How did this happen? Just an alpha mistake -- tech comes online at different speeds, and when I first launched Necromancy, I was missing some tech that would let me isolate the buffs to only your undead allies. So for instance if I had a treasure effect that said "Provoke Undead boosts all skeletons' Slashing Damage", that effect wouldn't just buff your skeletons. It would also buff you, any non-undead pets, and any other allies in your group! So due to code limitations, there wasn't much I could do with those abilities at first.

Well, I fixed that technical limitation, but when It came time to fill out Necromancy's treasure profile, I completely forgot they weren't already represented in treasure. I added extra pet-buffing treasure instead. Way too much pet-buffing treasure.

I've replaced more than half of the pet-buffing treasure effects with new effects -- mostly ones that improve Heal/Rebuild/Provoke Undead, but also more treasure for some other under-served abilities. The remaining pet-buffing treasure is more general, making it a little easier to switch which skeletons you use.

I've also made Heart's Power and Spleen's Power available to be placed on the side-bar, since they don't have any treasure. (As a rule of thumb, if an ability isn't going to have any treasure effects that buff it, it should be a side-bar ability.)

Working on Necromancy caused me some angst because I want to replace the way in which skeletons are summoned. I have a fun new idea I want to try out... but I just don't have time in this update.

 

So When *IS* the Update?

As I write this, I'm partially through with Archery. I may have time to do one or two more significant skill overhauls, but then I need to switch to polishing, sanity-checking, and adding all the missing bits. I'm shooting for the 28th as the big launch day, but even though that's 8 days away, it will require a lot of hours of hard work to hit that deadline... and a bit of luck. So wish me luck!

 

Q&A

This is already a really long dev blog, but I did want to address a couple of questions I saw popping up after the last few dev blogs.

Additive + Multiplicative Effects: Someone asked how additive and multiplicative bonuses stack. This is a meaty topic with lots of special cases, but in general, there are four steps. Let's look at an example using Super Fireball 4. I picked it because it just happens to do 250 base damage, a nice round number. It's also the "Core Attack" for Fire Magic.

  • Buffs that add flat amounts (+5, +10, etc.) are added to your ability's damage first. ("+25 to Super Fireball"= 275. "+25 to Core Attacks" = 300.)
  • Buffs that multiply a particular ability's damage are applied next. ("+20% to Super Fireball" = 360.) Note that the percentage-boost mods also boost the flat amounts.
  • Next your "Base Damage Mod" is added in. This one surprises people: Base Damage Mods ONLY look at the ability's base damage. (Hence the name.) So it's always the same amount of bonus for each ability, regardless of what other treasure is applied. If you have an ability that deals 250 base (un-enhanced) damage and you have a +35% Base Damage mod, it always adds 87 damage to the ability, no more and no less. ("+35% Fire Magic Base Damage" = 447.)
  • Damage-type bonuses and vulnerabilities are applied last. ("+10% to Fire Damage" = 491.) This is why boosts to Fire, Psychic, etc. tend to use much smaller numbers than the other bonuses -- they can get overpowered very quickly!

(edited to fix math!)

 

Organic Combos: I noticed some concerns about the example of "organic combos" in last week’s dev blog. The skill revision details above might give a better overall picture of how I see organic combos working, but let me hit it more directly here.

"Organic combos" aren't real combos -- there's no requirement to use specific abilities in a certain order. Instead, ‘organic combo’ is just a way to think about those treasure buffs that affect several abilities in different skills.

When soloing, equipment with these buffs does make specific ability orderings more beneficial than others -- but that's true in general of all buffs: if you have equipment that buffs an ability, you use the buff before you use the ability.

In groups, things become more chaotic. Other people may have equipment with treasure effects that can bestow these buffs on you at arbitrary times. So who you’re with, what abilities they use, what equipment they’re wearing today, and what role you’re filling will all factor into which organic combos you may choose to use - and which you choose to ignore.

Organic combos are sparse enough that for most combat skills you can completely skip them, replacing them with other kinds of treasure effects. Some skills don't even have any buffs of this variety. It depends on my vague personal interpretation of how the skill should "feel".

Anyway, that’s the idea. Once I get this update out the door, I’ll need your feedback to see if you think I got anywhere close to my goal.

 

Halloween: Lots of people have been asking about this year’s Halloween festivities. It’s going to be tight, but if I get this update out the door on time, you’ll have some Halloween stuff for Halloween. If not, Halloween will come a little late this year. But it will happen.

 

Ability Categories: I've mentioned ability categories like "Core Attack" before. Here are the current set of cross-skill ability tags. Some are old, some are new:

  • Basic Attack: these are fast-reset abilities with no Power cost. There are very few treasure effects that buff Basic Attacks, but there's a couple.
  • Core Attack: every combat skill has at least one medium-speed (8-10 second reuse timer) attack ability. I've chosen one such ability for each skill and called it the Core Attack. It may not be your personal "core", or even be on your ability bar at all. It's just a name so I can break up the abilities.
  • Nice Attack: all combat skills have a larger attack that's slower but more impressive. To give you an example, the Nice Attack for Sword is Finishing Blow.
  • Epic Attack: a few skills have an attack that's on a very long (30+ second) reuse timer and deals a ton of damage. These are tagged as Epic Attacks.
  • Signature Debuff: this is an offensive ability that debuffs the target somehow. Most combat skills have one of these. (In non-debuff-oriented skills, the skills' stun-attack is often their Signature Debuff.)
  • Signature Support: a few support-oriented skills have a slow-reset buff that helps the whole group.
  • Major Heal: these are abilities with a slow reuse time (30 seconds) that target a single person. First Aid is a Major Heal, so everyone has access to at least one of these.
  • Survival Utility: these are slow (20-30 second reuse) abilities designed to help the player stay alive -- usually they're a personal heal, but some skills have an offensive buff here, because sometimes the best defense is a good offense.
  • Minor Heal: a few healing-oriented skills have a targeted healing ability with a faster reuse time. There are only a few Minor Heal abilities in the game.

Despite the names, these tags aren't intended to define how a skill is used -- they're just a way to group different abilities across skills. I made sure that all combat abilities have a Core and Nice attack, and eventually all will have a Basic Attack as well, but other than that, it's up in the air. I didn't feel like these tags were important enough to heavily revise a skill just to make a tag apply. For instance, neither Fire Magic nor Werewolf happen to have long-reset attack abilities, so they have no Epic Attack. Not a big deal.