Over the last five months here at the studio, the game and teams have been undergoing a near constant transformation. From the shape and features of Elyria across the different servers to the features and mechanics of the game - even the very offices we work in - everything has been changing at break-neck speeds.
Back in October of 2018, what seems like just a month ago to those of us here at the studio, we declared the beginning of Release 0.5.0. And then, just a month after that, many of us were neck-deep in Map Voting, then Server Selection, then the Lost Vault event, and then finally our winter vacation.
Meanwhile, the rest of the team began moving forward with integrating gameplay features into our new client, as well as re-writing the UI system, which were together the focus of Release 0.5.0. As a reminder, our goal for the completion of Release 0.5.0 is to have a complete, playable game, composed of all the many features we've worked on over the last 18 months or so. We knew it was going to take a lot of work, and so the studio entered a bit of a heads-down, focused mindset.
No longer content to just tell you about what we're working on, the team was committed to showing you.
All of these changes together have created an energy and electricity about the office that is thrilling. There's a sort of anticipation, if you will, as we work to complete Release 0.5.0 and deliver Domain & Settlement Selection. Two things which will no doubt be a major focus of 2019, both for us as well as for all of you. And while there's been a lull in our messaging and communication, this is no sign of slowdowns or delays. Quite the opposite. What must have felt like a deafening silence by us over the last few months was just the quiet before the storm. And the storm is about to break...
Over the last 5 months of Release 0.5.0, the feeling in the studio has transitioned from one of solemnly marching forward, with what seems like an interminable list of features, to one of energy, inspiration, and the strong sense of achievement.
The team comes in on Mondays excited to be back in the office. We are focused, eager to collaborate, and more productive than ever. At any given point in time the office is either quiet as a mouse, with people silently working on their tasks, or abuzz with team members standing outside of the design office talking about a mechanic that is currently in development. Our "company" has become a "team" and nothing makes me happier than seeing the team excited about the project.
Speaking of offices, last October the team moved out of our old studio and into a new one that is almost twice the size! Rather than just being in a single, big, open-office environment, we're now spread out between two open-office floor plans as well as half a dozen private offices. We've got an extra conference room, a larger kitchen, a larger film studio, a larger motion capture studio with higher ceilings, and we've even got a server room now. No more storing our file servers in the kitchen!
The single, open-office we had before.
The old office with our Soulbound Studios mural.
I'll admit it was bittersweet, however. The old studio was, while not the birthplace of the company, where we spent the majority of its early years. Moving on from one location to the next marked the transition from an infant or newborn company, into a company outgrowing its youth and becoming something more mature and capable. Remembering the NERF fights in the old studio is simultaneously happy and sad. On one hand, I can still remember when Aurora dislodged Strider's retina with a well-placed NERF bullet. On the other hand, every studio has to grow up just a little when they're ready for success.
Our new reception area.
Half of the new office space.
The wall mural in its new home, seen through the office window.
Part of the excitement and energy in the studio comes not just from the new digs, but from the new blood in the office. As we carve out huge chunks of gameplay features and world generation and prepare for players to get their hands on the game, it's become necessary for us to once again grow the team. So, over the last month, we've been running candidates through the office to meet the team, show off what we're working on, and grill the candidates in what seems like a never-ending parade of interviews. But seeing the excitement by the candidates has further ignited the passion of the team! And while the process can be a little disruptive at times, it's also resulted in some great new team members.
A few weeks ago we brought Willie, a new animator, into our office. Willie has been working with our Sr. Character Animator on combat animations. We've also just recently hired two new Technical Designers that begin on Monday. A very experienced Sr. Technical Designer named Steven, and an impressive, talented Jr. Technical Designer named Jasmine. We're really excited about having them as part of the team, as that'll make implementation of gameplay mechanics go that much faster.
But those three aren't the only new people we're looking at. I got a chance to look at my internal HR board and, over the last month, I've overseen up to 17 different people going through the interview and hiring process. That includes engineers, designers, animators, environment artists, graphics designers, UI/UX designers, and even a new Director of Marketing.
The sheer number of interviews and hires we're doing right now is a sign of the growth we're looking for in 2019. And that growth means faster development, quicker releases, and more polish on the work we do. In short, the new spark of talent in the office is what's adding to that electric feeling in the air here at the studio.
You've probably heard the saying "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result," and while I can tell you that is not, in fact, the definition of insanity, I can tell you there is still some merit to the idea. For us, it insinuates that if we attempt to build Chronicles of Elyria in the same way as every other MMO, using the same tools and methodologies, we'll likely end up with a game that is very similar to those other MMOs, will take about as long to develop as they did, and will cost just as much. None of that is attractive to us.
So we develop CoE using slightly different paradigms than people may typically be used to. Furthermore, we use every opportunity to innovate, to try something new and different, and to employ best practices which either increase productivity or reduce overhead. This all results in us trying some things that may seem impractical to some, but are ultimately designed to allow us to do more, with less.
If this is the first State of Elyria you've read, or if you're unfamiliar with our software development paradigm, let me quickly catch you up.
First, we approach Chronicles of Elyria with the idea of developing "breadth first." That means that once we've demonstrated to ourselves that we know how to do something or are capable of doing something, we often move on to the next thing without making much further progress on the previous thing. That may seem a little backward, but it's designed to get the hardest challenges out of the way as quickly as possible.
As an example, in the earliest days of CoE, we established that we could move around the world and interact with things using our male character model. There wasn't, at the time, a need to develop our female model as it didn't provide any additional validation for that use case. So for the longest time, we didn't have a female model.
This type of approach has continued in all areas of development. For example, we established that we could create our own architecture and build our own structures. We did this with the Neran style of architecture as it was the architectural style with the most available source material. We didn't need to focus on any other architecture at the time, as it didn't provide any additional validation. But just like with the female model, we're now going back and working on some of the additional architectures and buildings.
Another thing I wanted to comment on is our philosophy on iterating when it costs the least and provides the least amount of overhead. It's commonly understood in the game industry that it's cheaper to modify a concept piece than it is a 3D model, and it's cheaper to manipulate a model before it's been weighted and animated than after. We apply this same principle to all areas of development, not just content.
As a result, we architect our game such that the client and server can be iterated on independently of one another, and we even go so far as to develop multiple clients that allow us to iterate as quickly as possible during each stage of development. But just like a concept is ultimately used as reference for a model, and a model is needed before you can animate anything, our different clients either become part of the final game, or provide a frame of reference in which we can build our final client upon.
The development of an early test client is a core part of our different development stages and is pivotal to our strategy of iterating quickly. And in case you're unfamiliar with the typical development road-map, here is ours.
It's important to note that because of our different approach to game development as well as our procedural and systems driven approach to both gameplay and world building, it's not always easy to show visible forward progress. Sometimes we're focusing heavily on the server, which doesn't show well. Sometimes we're working on stuff that can be visually represented, but we've stopped just far enough into development to validate a mechanic, but not so far as to make it visually appealing to the players. As a result, there are often periods where there is more progress than we can reasonably share without expecting people to look at it and go, "You're not as far along as we thought." In truth, we're probably further; it just isn't obvious due to our development methodologies.
So where are we in development right now? Let's talk about it.
Chronicles of Elyria is currently in the Pre-Alpha phase of development, which both describes a deliverable as well as the type of work we're doing. As a deliverable, the Pre-Alpha phase for us means delivering a client and server that allows our Alpha 1 backers to get in and play a subset of the Alpha 1 features in a fully playable game. As a descriptor for the type of work we're doing, it means we're focused on getting a functional client and server, as well integrating a lot of the game mechanics we've worked on in various prototypes previously. In specific, the Pre-Alpha includes the following feature areas:
Now, most of the server work was done back in 2017 and 2018, so the vast majority of work being done right now is on integration and iteration of the above gameplay mechanics into our client, as well as work on our new user interface. Since October of last year, we've been iterating on all of the above mechanics in one way or another, and progress is coming along at a speed and quality that makes me indescribably happy, because I am finally seeing my vision of Elyria being forged into our shared reality.
Beginning in January of this year with a Pre-Alpha release quickly approaching, we decided to start sharing screenshots, gameplay videos and animations, and some proposed updates to the various systems with our Early Access community. Being able to share rough, in-progress animations and videos of new gameplay has given us the opportunity to get feedback from a smaller, controlled group without having to worry about showing something that isn't a final representation of the game to too broad of an audience.
So every two weeks, in sync with the end of the previous sprint and the beginning of a new one, we create a forum post in the Early Access forum containing, sometimes, a dozen or more screenshots and gameplay videos for the people there to provide feedback on. So far, the mechanics we've shared have been everything from character creation and combat (melee and archery) to dynamic environments, equipment and inventory, survival mechanics, and world interaction. While I don't want to get in the habit of sharing NDA assets. I know people have been eagerly awaiting some indication of how progress is going. So here are a few images and animations we've shared with our Early Access folks.
As a reminder, our "Prelyria" client is a low-poly, low-fidelity client designed to allow us to iterate on mechanics quickly, while spending a fraction of the time on visual assets. So as you look at the images below, it's important to remember that these are not in the final art style of Chronicles of Elyria but are instead designed to be a visual approximation of CoE while still having all the same gameplay mechanics. If you think these images look good, you'll be amazed at the final client.
With all that said, we're about three-fifths of the way done with the features we have planned for the Pre-Alpha. The other two-fifths will focus mainly on artificial intelligence, NPC interactions, and the procedural story engine. That's right. The time for us to really dig into the procedural story engine has finally arrived! And nobody is more excited than me. (Edit from Vye: Except maybe for me!) We've just begun the NPC interaction work and have started on some animations in our testing levels.
In the following videos, the greeting and the dismissal of the NPCs are based on the reputation the player has with the NPC.
The barkeep really likes you.
Either your reputation precedes you, or you smell funny.
With about 40% of the feature work remaining in Release 0.5.0, we've still got another couple months to finish up release 0.5.0. While I don't have an exact date I can provide, it will likely take until this summer to finish up. But stay tuned! We've got a very big announcement for the community coming up in the next couple months, as the Pre-Alpha may not be the first opportunity for players to jump into the world of Elyria!
Soulbound Studios is really divided up into two teams. There's the game team, and the Community & Outreach team. But it's not at all uncommon for key members of the game team to occasionally go on loan to the C&O team. In particular, Raevantiel, Vye, Snipehunter, Heat, and myself occasionally must switch our attention away from the game in order to help out with a promotion, an event, or something similar. This was especially true with Map Voting, and we knew it would also be the case with Domain & Settlement Selection.
With so much happening in the way of the Pre-Alpha, I've been hesitant to pull those resources off of the game and onto something else. But the community has waited long enough so I recently allocated those resources back to the C&O team. We are all-in on the next leg of our epic, world-building journey: getting from the high-level maps generated for Server Map Voting to the more detailed level needed for Domain & Settlement Selection, as well as the web interface players will use to actually select their settlements and domains!
With D&SS coming up there are a few things that need to happen. These, and other related website features, will be gradually rolled out over the next month.
As people may or may not know, we reward people periodically for the things they do that contribute to the success of Chronicles of Elyria. Sure, spending money in our store helps keep development funded, but that's not the only way people help us to succeed. So we award people with Influence to thank them for their service to the community. And it's time for a final round of rewards before D&SS!
In the coming weeks we'll once again reward people with Influence and Store Credit for the following:
We'll let you know when the awards have been applied. And with D&SS coming up we know people are looking for other ways to increase their influence, so we'll have one more promotion before D&SS begins. It will be your final opportunity to raise your influence before Domain & Settlement Selection begins!
In addition to the Influence Awards, we know there are people out there who purchased a package previously that included a title they didn't necessarily want. So we're rolling out two new methods in which people can abandon their titles to different outcomes. The first is title transfers. This is being worked on now and should be available next week. Once it hits the website, people will be able to go into their inventory, re-bundle a title (along with all the stuff that goes along with the title), and then send it to someone who is the same backing level as them or lower. This is to encourage people redistributing the titles to people who need them, and not transferring them up to people who do not.
The other method to get rid of your title is to exchange it for EP. Similar to title transfers, members who have titles in their inventory will be able to bundle them up, and then either exchange the bundle for EP, or exchange it for a combination of EP and the next lower title. So if you have a count title in your inventory, you'll be able to either exchange it all for EP, or get back EP and a mayor title if you're simply looking to reduce your responsibility.
If you didn't skip everything before this in order to get to this part of the blog, I commend you. For those that did, here is the info you've been waiting for: Domain & Settlement begins the first part of April.
We're being intentionally vague at this point as development on D&SS continues and the work isn't complete yet. So this gives us some flexibility as to when it'll be ready for launch. Once we get to the beginning of April we'll provide the official launch date for Domain & Settlement Selection.
I know Domain & Settlement Selection seems like something that's only for people who purchased the Aristocracy or Nobility Packages previously. But that's not the case! We believe that having a world, and especially titles, predominantly filled with players at launch is optimal for a few reasons.
So for the above reasons, we'll be launching a new event after Domain & Settlement Selection ends which will begin as part of our third Kickstarterversary. This event will predominantly be for people who do not have a domain or settlement by the end of D&SS. Through this event, players who have a Bloodline Package or higher will have an opportunity to purchase an unclaimed settlement or domain directly from the Domain & Settlement Map at a discounted price. Note that these titles do not include EP or any of the other benefits of the traditional packages, but does include the title.
And in a crazy effort to add a bit of game theory to the Dance of Dynasties, these settlements and domains which exist after D&SS ends will receive progressively higher and higher discounts! So the question will become, do you snag that available domain or settlement in an effort to take advantage of the event, or do you hold out longer in hopes of getting a better deal but risk losing the domain or settlement you've been eyeing to someone else?!
As a final bit of information in this State of Elyria, we at the studio have been doing monthly live streams with our Exclusive Access backers, per their package benefits, but with Map Voting, The Lost Vault, the winter holiday, and our heads-down, focused effort at bringing the Pre-Alpha to our players, we overlooked the fact that we hadn't done a public livestream in... uh. A while.
So, we'll be doing an open, public, livestream again on Wed., March 27th at 1pm PST. Set an alarm. With it being so long since our last one, and with so much happening with Chronicles of Elyria and Domain & Settlement Selection, this'll be one you won't want to miss!
This year, 2019, is an exciting year for us. Each day the energy in the studio grows and our ability to contain the excitement diminishes. From now until the completion of Release 0.5.0, we've got Title Transfers and Trade-ins as well as Influence Awards and Domain & Settlement Selection. Around the time of Release 0.5.0 we'll have other new community engagement events such as personas, a recruitment fair, and the Sedecim. But none of that will prepare you for what comes right after Release 0.5.0. The winds of favor are beginning to blow in our direction, the tides are rising, and there's an electricity that's not yet visible but is just beginning to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
Over the next few months we will be engaging more and more with the community as we quickly build up momentum and unleash the tempest. While things have been quiet up until now, they will not be that way for much longer. Last year people told us we weren't strong enough to withstand the storm. This year, we are the storm.
Pledged to the continued development of the Soulborn Engine and the Chronicles of Elyria, - Caspian