Thursday, April 30, 2009

Warriors and clerics

Today, I installed a bunch of changes to the game - the first major skill updates in quite some time. The overall additions were:

Potion throwing - mid level thief, increases chance of spells being cast when potions are thrown at mobs. This whole potions being thrown at mobs thing is pretty new in itself.

Potion bottling - allow conversion of liquid container brews into potions suitable for later use or throwing.

Iron claw - mid level warrior skill to lower the chance of disarm.

Revenge - seriously amped up berserk when one of your group members dies.

Protector - single target tanking, another group skill.

These skills took me on average about 4 hours each to build, test, and install. It's a pretty short period of time all things considered, but a couple of them were pretty simple to do as well. I've had single skills in the past that were substantially more complicated and time consuming to set up.

One of the comments I saw after all this was installed was along the lines of "I'm surprised that warriors don't have more attack skills", which is a valid complaint (of sorts.) Warriors really -don't- have a lot of single attack skills. One of the main reasons I haven't added more is that I didn't want to create a whole bunch of cookie cutter skills that are basically all the same stupid generic damage thing.

At the same time, mage has something similar to this: there are a number of damage spells, often the only difference between them being the damage type or mana/damage throws. Perhaps having a bunch of similar kinds of skills for warrior isn't really any different, and might make people happier. I'll have to think about that a bit more.

I always viewed mage and thief as being the 'standalone' classes, the ones best suited to soloing. Cleric and warrior have always struck me as being more group oriented. The available skills seem to reflect that, in that thief has basically no group skills and mage can cast spells on other people. Cleric and warrior are the glue that hold groups together, and a lot of the skills I've added for warrior reflect that.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Remapping of cities

In the quest for linearity and mapping in the game, the answer for towns and cities is clear and obvious: all rooms are the same size. I remapped and expanded the main city in Alter Aeon today, which really cleared up a lot of conflicts and has left no rooms on top of each other. It maps clean, and it wasn't even a lot of work. Here's an example of the client map for the new version:

Example map of Ralnoth from the AA Client

There's lots of roads, lots of places for shops and other stuff, and a few dead spots to allow for expansion. Most of the player comments have been positive, which is surprising - generally anything that messes up someone's directions causes all kinds of havoc.

This doesn't address the issue of how to handle large expanses of space though, for example forests and other linkage areas. You really don't get an idea of how big the world is until you put into perspective the relative size of cities.

Take for example, my home town. It's a small town of 5-10k people, and from the recent Google maps it's a little over a mile in diameter. Meanwhile, the state in which in which it's located is around 250 miles in diameter (except that its squarish.) Take a penny and tape it to your wall. That's the size difference, and that's just one state, not an entire continent. For a continent, tape a quarter to skyscraper.

I'd like to think Ralnoth in the game is probably about the same size. The currently expanded Ralnoth is about 12 rooms wide and 25 tall; let's say 15 for the sake of argument. Meanwhile, the entire game is perhaps 400 rooms across and tall, neglecting portals to islands and the like. This makes the entire Alter Aeon mainland around 30 miles in diameter.

We have entire mountain ranges, jungles, swamps, other cities, and the shores of two oceans on the mainland. All within 15 miles of the central city of Ralnoth. Starting to see the picture?

A more reasonable continent size is on the order of 500-1000 miles. Even for a 500 mile wide continent, the scale of Ralnoth would imply walking through a minimum of 7500 rooms to get from one side to the other. This is probably not reasonable from a gameplay standpoint, so we need to find a different approach.

The simplest and easiest is to simply define cities to be much larger than they are. If we declare Ralnoth to be ten miles across instead of 1, we end up with a much more reasonable room count. But in that case, even the smallest house represents half a square mile of land area.

A better approach seems to be to change the size of roads and paths, such that the desired distances can be achieved. This kills the dull/boring wilderness areas and gets people out into the world to do something interesting.

I think there's a couple of different ways to handle this. One is to have different sized rooms and render them as best you can. Perhaps using terrain or other flags you can automatically decide what rooms are what size.

But it seems to me that a far better and easier way is to separate large and small sized zones from each other. When you leave one, you end up in the other with a different set of maps. For example, leaving a town shows the town zooming to a small size relative to the forest you're walking in. So many games have done this in the past, that it's a trivially obvious feature. It also happens to be a very good candidate for my overall mapping problems.

I'll let you all know if it works out.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

More PR

Over time, you tend to run out of things to say on blogs, and I think I'm hitting that wall. It's not so much that you run out of stuff entirely, it's that you tend to repeat the same things over and over.

I'm rapidly finding out that running the game as a business very much falls into this category. You're never done with PR, web page improvements, enhancements to the newbie experience, game additions, etc, but there's only so many ways you can say "I worked on the web pages today." I suppose such is the drudgery associated with a business.

This pretty well explains what I've got to look forward for the next few weeks. I've found some new avenues to pursue regarding getting traffic to the site, and as usual there are articles to post and other PR work to be done. This is all slowly paying off, but it's definitely slow - I suppose like guitar, if everyone could learn it in two weeks, it wouldn't be impressive. The PR:4 thing is a real boost however, in that it shows that it's actually possible to improve things. I hope to hit PR:5 by the end of the year, but I suspect we're a long way away from that.

I just got more advertising set up for Alter Aeon on Top Mud Sites, though I suspect it will drive the same type of people as the Mud Connector. This market for players is really limited, but in the short term it's going to have to be our bread and butter.

(Another neat web site I stumbled across is Mud Stats, which collects periodic statistics from games and sorts them. Stats collection appears to be every few hours, so it's pretty up to date.)

On a somewhat depressing note, I shut off the Google ads completely and the overall newbie load does not appear to have changed by any noticeable amount. It's only been a few days so far and the stats may yet be bogus, but if it's really that hard to pull in true newbies the future of the game could be very questionable. I need to look at this a lot harder I suspect.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Setting Priorities in a Business

Something I need to constantly remind myself about is prioritization. There's only one of me, and there's way more things that need to be done than I have time for. One has to prioritize. You're not choosing between things that are right and things that are wrong; you're optimizing to get the most out of your time.

Here's what I'd consider a rough priority list, not necessarily in any order:

- Improve the Mud Connector banner ad to drive more traffic
- Improve the main AA pages - add a couple of images, some player quotes
- Release another client version with true non-mudder additions
- Improve level 5-29 experience, especially in groups

Some of these are easier than others, but of all four of these, I note that none of them are on my board. Not that the things on my board aren't important, but somehow, these irritating bottlenecks have managed to avoid being written there.

How exactly do the four most important bottlenecks not get placed on the todo list? There are multiple reasons; first and foremost, these bottlenecks are continuous, persistent things. They almost always require improvement, and focusing on them exclusively would mean nothing else gets done.

It could also be that they are too obvious - of course that needs to be done! Or it could simply be that I lack the incentive to work on them. I find incentive to be in short supply these days.

With the influx of newbies from the Mud Connector and other sites, things appear to be going reasonably well. But as I've told others, the Mud Connector is a limited market that will saturate in just a few short years, if not sooner. We have to work on other things as well.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Improving Google PageRank

In a totally unexpected twist of fate, the main Alter Aeon web pages breached PR:4 over the weekend. I was actually not expecting this at all; it's only been 3 months since we went from 2 to 3, and I figured we were well below the required popularity for this jump. If this increase is anything like the last one, our traffic and the quality of our web hits should increase substantially. In fact I only noticed it because the web hits were abnormally high today.

This leaves the very open question of how to get to PR:5 though. I haven't submitted links or done link propaganda in a while, mostly because I was running low on quality sites to hook up to. I'm pretty sure getting PR:5 is going to be a lot harder than 4.

Also related to this, I've been setting up ad campaigns at a few other sites. These should be coming on-line in the next few days.

All this advertising is actually paying off (though in a limited, short term kind of way. More on that later.) The rate of verified, saved unique newbies has doubled since November; the actual number of logins has tripled. Pretty much all of the stats agree on the relative increases, so I know that I'm seeing something legitimate. How long it will take for that to push up the average userload is an open question however.

One unfortunate aspect is that these logins are fairly expensive. I'm not tremendously over budget with ads, but I'm not breaking even either. I need the userload (and associated purchases) to increase between 50 and 100% in the next few months for things to work out.

Now, the short term aspect of things: nearly all of the new advertising is on mud lists and other mudding related sites. This is a problem, as the total pool of mudders is small, and the pool size is shrinking. I saw a statistic somewhere that the total number of mudders is only on the order of a hundred thousand; if things go well this advertising market will saturate quickly.

The only real answer to this that I've been able to come up with is to focus more on the custom AA client. To get a million accounts, I'll need to pull from the global pool of ordinary, non-mudding gamers. In order to do that, I need to get away from text-only interfaces and complex clients.

There's enough web work to keep me busy for a while, and I have to get the game's taxes done this week, so I won't be improving the client for a while. But it's becoming clear that the client is very, very high priority.