Hail and well met, Elyrians!
We’ve been hearing from you about the evolving design of CoE, and there’s a lot of passion and concern regarding the future of many of our gameplay systems, biome details, release timeframes, etc.
At the moment we’re meeting every morning to work through our upcoming release of D&SS, but today the discussion was focused on this topic and how we talk to our community about the inescapable realities of Game Development and the challenges we face in this process.
To be clear, it isn’t our goal to turn our community into educated Game Developers, or to make some deep understanding of the Game Development process a requirement of posting your thoughts or concerns. Not even a little bit! You’re our customers and our advocates. We’re here because of you! We want to hear from you whenever something is on your mind. What we see is room to make the conversations more productive.
We want to arm you with an understanding of the challenges we face, and give you information that’s going to help you focus your feedback on areas we can impact. There’s a lot about the process of making a game that we can’t control, but we’re constantly listening for your voice in areas where we can make a change to delight you! This is our everyday goal at Soulbound Studios, and you’re the community we’re thrilled to serve.
This also gives us an opportunity to set healthy expectations for the future. CoE is a game that we’ll be servicing for as long as there’s a community there keeping it going, and the game will always be evolving – we’ll be updating systems, balancing professions, adding new elements into the mix that impact complex economies, and otherwise always incrementing on what the experience is. So we really need to get you guys used to change as a constant!
Welcome to life at Soulbound Studios and the complex journey to put CoE in your hands.
Let’s talk about making games. We’re going to be quiet for a minute and let others explain it in their own words.
This is a presentation we could watch over and over again. 17 years later it’s still a poignant and honest thesis on the realities of Game Development and how games should be made.
This is Mark Cerny discussing his approach to making games, which he called “Method”. That’s the same Mark Cerny behind Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon, and the architect of the PlayStation 4. This was all the way back in 2002 when folks were still making PS2 and original Xbox games. When you understand the ways in which making games is difficult, listening to Mark explain this philosophy and speak very truthfully about those problems is almost jarring. He’s being very candid at a time when many of us were convinced we could still schedule these things. The practical ways he offered to structure business around the cost of finding the fun was equally exciting.
But even he would tell you that this isn’t a new idea and he didn’t invent developing games in that way. Holistic and iterative game development – that is to say, the process of having an idea, implementing and experimenting, learning from your design and iterating to make it better – this practice has been the bedrock for many of the most successful and enjoyable games ever made.
It’s the way Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo make games and introduced the world to Mario:
It’s the way Valve made Half-Life and changed Shooters forever:
It’s famously the way that Blizzard has cultivated a portfolio of some of the most beloved games of the last 30 years:
And it’s how No Man’s Sky went from being one of the most visible controversies in recent years to a successful game with an active community
It’s also something that’s incredibly hard to do, because businesses want predictability. They want fixed costs, fixed timeframes, and predictable outcomes. It’s a pretty normal MBA bias and, if we were making Big Macs, it’d be easy. You can figure out the line, optimize the price of ingredients, manage uniform labor and performance standards, and spend your years driving down very predictable costs and increasing your margins – you can literally min/max burger manufacturing in a spreadsheet and make people happy! We really wish making games was anything like making Big Macs. We really, really do.
Instead, it’s a process that starts with tons of variables and unknowns, and pretty much the only thing you can be sure of at the start of the process is that you’re going to be wrong about a lot of things – hence the title at the top of this post. Game Development is a process of discovery, so let’s roll up our sleeves and talk about the messy work of creating something fun to play.
We sometimes refer to it as certain uncertainty. Game Design and Game Development starts with assumptions, and as you get more experience making games you develop an awareness for just how much you don’t know when you’re starting new projects. Sure, you have a strong vision, and it’s usually always well informed by industry standards and your prior experience. But underneath even the best plans are a series of assumptions, and every single one of those assumptions – big or small – is going to be challenged and have to fight for its life.
Some things wind up being pretty well defined if we’re starting with technologies or creative concepts we’ve already worked with, and those are great wins! But any time we say we want to innovate or try something new, we introduce a handful of new problems we have to solve and, by nature, a lot of uncertainty. It winds up being a matrix that’s a bit painful on all sides.
It’s a process of implementation, discovery, and iteration that can be pretty brutal to work through, because the margin of concepts that don’t work as planned are typically pretty high. In the case of some of the examples above (a favorite being the story of Half-Life’s development), teams threw out entire almost-finished games in favor of making pivots with just a handful of proven mechanics.
Here’s what all of this boils down to. Making something fun is actually pretty damn difficult, and it takes a lot of time to answer the questions and solve the problems that pour out of that churn. Our day-to-day work involves a constant process of creative failure and, it turns out, that creative failure is the most important tool we have. Every little failure can teach us things, and when we iterate using that hard-earned learning, we’re able to make things better and get closer to something special. Sometimes the adjustments are minor, and sometimes they can represent fundamental shifts in how things need to work in order to be balanced and entertaining. This is what we’re describing when we use the term “finding the fun”, and it it’s a bit like the scientific method. You have to be loyal to the truth and follow it, even when change impacts your vision, challenges your bias, or makes you feel like an idiot.
You’re all very familiar with our vision and how we’re thinking about things but, as we work, we discover. This means stuff is going to change. Even if certain gameplay systems launch exactly as we initially described them, we’re going to get tons of player feedback that rolls into a constant process of balancing and updating the game.
In this process, please always share your voice with us. Share your thoughts, concerns, ideas, nitpicks, praise, frustration – all of it. Because we’re going to be listening and taking action. Why? Because you’re also a point of discovery and, as we learn from you, it helps us shape the world of CoE and do our best work in delivering an experience that you enjoy.
What we’ve said so far is general and abstract. Let’s talk about some specific examples from CoE.
We worked through development of the four world maps with a very top-down approach, e.g. “the Neran live in the grasslands and they build houses out of stone and wood!” It turns out this didn’t create the sort of pseudo-realistic environment we were trying to create. Sure, our assumptions weren’t wrong, but the assumptions also weren’t good – this design took away our ability to give you the challenges and potential of the game world that’s equally important. From life being so easy no settlement needed to change or grow, to the wilds being smaller and emptier than any adventurer would like, we discovered that our initial designs were actually working against our vision instead of contributing to it. We learned that the only way to get what we were looking for was to take a different direction and build the world from its bones out – a bottom-up approach – and then using our generation algorithms to simulate growth and change. The results are a lot closer to what we imagined Elyria should be. Looking back at an earlier example, stone is not a common resource in the grasslands today. Sure, we could have included it artificially, but that would have been apparent and felt like a hack, and the last thing we want to do is present a game world that mostly immerses you. Who wants to play a mostly-immersive game? It sounds as ridiculous as it felt typing it.
It’s not just about the world content either. We end up having to deal with this at a systems level too. You’re all very familiar with the many varied and complex systems in CoE, and by design we have to bring a ton of assumptions into implementing these systems and trying to achieve our shared vision. Not all of that has worked as we thought it initially would. The core skill mechanics are a good example. When we realized that character knowledge had to be tracked for things like gossip and reputation in order to function properly, we didn’t just add a system for tracking knowledge. That realization rippled across other systems as well, to the point where we completely redefined the skills each character can learn, as well as the way your soul preserves your skill progress from lifetime to lifetime. It even changed the way players acquire new combat techniques and crafting recipes. The result is different than what we imagined, but the change brought us closer to what we all collectively want CoE to be.
Crafting is yet another example. We knew we wanted to do more with crafting than simply clicking items and buttons and watching progression bars fill. So our original designs were based on integrating almost party-game style mini-experiences to add skill and gameplay to crafting. The idea was that creating a new shirt would be something like a game of tracing the shape of the pattern and then coloring it. What we discovered through implementation and iteration was that this just didn’t fit – it felt out of place next to many other mechanics within CoE that are more grounded and “real seeming”. Party games don’t fit well next to complex narrative systems, it turns out. Back to basics then – crafting had to be more than a bar, but it also had to be more than a displaced set of party games. Struggling through this system led us to how crafting works today, where each step of the crafting process feels as close to doing the real thing as possible, but still fun and not too simulation-obsessed. Like the knowledge system, that affected the skill system and created a kinda web of techniques and recipes that lay out a whole new path of progression and growth for crafters. All it took was completely overhauling our initial design. Fun!
But this is the nature of the game, so to speak. And these are just a few of the highlights from recent months that speak to the challenges we’re talking about overall.
If you love games and you’ve been following a few favorite Game Developers for a while, then a lot of this won’t be new. But it’s kind of our thing to offer transparency and updates around everything we’re working on at any given time, how it’s going, what our priorities are, how things are changing, how much complexity is involved in Game Development, and how much of that can be unpredictable despite any risk mitigation we may put in place. This is especially new if we’re trying to do something innovative, and CoE is a kitchen sink full of big ideas!
So we wanted to reset the conversation and calibrate expectations. As we develop and learn, CoE and its features are going to evolve. Whenever you think about CoE and your interest in certain parts of the experience, this evolution is a fundamental truth we want you to keep in mind. We want to keep you engaged in our process and keep YOU a part of the feedback and comment cycles we thrive on. Keep giving us feedback and keep letting us know how you feel about the work we’re doing, because we’re definitely listening!
Now, that doesn’t mean you have to like those changes. By all means, if you think we’ve made a mistake we want to know! But we want you to expect that as concepts make their way into code and demonstrable gameplay, we’re going to be learning and CoE will be evolving. This is the very nature of how we develop games. And this would be true even if we weren’t saying it, but we are so that you know what to expect as the months and years tick by. Just like Elyria is a living world, so too is the process of bringing this world to life. Change is the constant you can count on.
Please make sure you post that feedback in our forums – good or bad, we want to hear it and we’ll be reacting. And thank YOU for joining us on this long and winding road. We can’t wait to put D&SS in your hands!
Pledged to Your Continued Adventures in Life, Both Actual and Fantasy,
Vye and the entire Soulbound Studios team