Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Launch Trailer #2 For TLF!

From the creators of AI War: Fleet Command comes an all-new grand strategy title with turn-based tactical combat, set in a deep simulation of an entire solar system and its billions of inhabitants. You are the last of a murdered race, determined to unify or destroy the 8 others.  But you must work from the shadows, using superior technology -- bring your cape and cowl. 
Check out its game page for details, or swing by the forums for the game.  This is Arcen's largest title ever, and we're really excited to share it with folks.

Alpha Information! Private alpha testing with players is currently in progress, and we will be adding more players throughout the coming weeks leading up to release.  If you're interested in signing up, please see this forum post.
It's funny how divided opinions can be, isn't it?  With our last trailer that I posted yesterday, I got a lot of "looks awesome!" to "pretty good" to "this is the worst trailer you guys have ever done" (which was later amended to "second worst," at least).

Realizing that not all trailer styles are going to appeal to all people, I've renamed the prior trailer to be the "Grognard Trailer," as that's the target audience it is aimed squarely at.  And then now we have this shorter, more general-purpose trailer to go alongside it.

Enjoy!




Grognard Trailer for TLF! And Ruminations On The Throughline From All Our Past Games.

From the creators of AI War: Fleet Command comes an all-new grand strategy title with turn-based tactical combat, set in a deep simulation of an entire solar system and its billions of inhabitants. You are the last of a murdered race, determined to unify or destroy the 8 others.  But you must work from the shadows, using superior technology -- bring your cape and cowl. 

Check out its game page for details, or swing by the forums for the game.  This is Arcen's largest title ever, and we're really excited to share it with folks.

Alpha Information! Private alpha testing with players is currently in progress, and we will be adding more players throughout the coming weeks leading up to release.  If you're interested in signing up, please see this forum post.
The Last Federation really is a milestone for me as a designer.  This isn't something that I designed all by myself by any stretch.  Josh Knapp was instrumental, and Keith LaMothe also helped enormously along the way.  And of course there's been tons of feedback from our many, many alpha testers (up to 160 as of tonight), all of which helps to shape the game.  With a game the scope of TLF, it really does "take a village," to use the cliche, and it's not any one person's sole accomplishment.

That caveat out of the way, for me personally this game really does bring together pretty much everything I've been trying to do as a game designer since I started working on "Alden Ridge" in 2008 (which later became the 2013 release Shattered Haven).  How's that, exactly?  Well:

1. With Shattered Haven, I really wanted to create a sense of story and atmosphere and place.  I wanted there to be some emotional connection to what was going on.  That game was by far our most successful at emotional storytelling (particularly if you play all the way through the game), but TLF also gets at that same sort of itch for me.  There's a lot of personality to the various races and characters here (a lot of that written by Erik Johnson, and a lot by me), and that really gives me the sense of living characters more than any titles of ours beyond Shattered Haven and Tidalis.

2. With AI War, I've remarked in the past that originally that started out as a turn-based game in space.  Kind of like what TLF morphed into, actually, except that I couldn't figure out how to make it work back in 2009.  So AI War became realtime, and for the sake of that game, I'm glad it did.  But there were a lot of ideas that I tried and then shed with AI War, including the concept of true "squadrons" of ships, of mobile flagships that deployed said squadrons, and so on.  TLF, interestingly, picks up pretty much all of those ideas, plus a ton more, and (in my opinion) executes on them really well.

AI War and TLF are kind of two sides of a coin to me; they each do things that the other does not, and in fact TLF does a lot of the things that the AI War engine specifically cannot handle because of the nature of its design.  As an example, having politics and multiple true factions just doesn't work in AI War, but it's a cornerstone of TLF.  For another, having more realistic physics for the ships and shots just doesn't work with a game with the insane unit counts that AI War has.  TLF has more modest unit counts during each battle, although they are still very sizeable.

3. Tidalis wasn't a game I was lead designer on (that was my friend Lars Bull), so I don't count that one here.

4. A Valley Without Wind originally was something where I wanted to create a procedurally-generated world where you could be kind of a Link-like (from The Legend of Zelda) character running around and doing things.  I wanted to have procedural stories develop, and really get a sense of meaningful places out of procedural code.  AI War accomplished the latter already, so I thought I could do that.

We succeeded in a lot of things with Valley 1, but the procedural storytelling was not one of them.  But with TLF, that is something that I really get the sense of very strongly.  And with added quests in TLF -- another mechanic I wanted in Valley 1, but never could get to work a way I was happy with -- the game goes even further in that direction.

5. Also with Valley 1, it was essentially a SHMUP mixed with a sidescrolling platformer.  TLF went through a phase where its combat was pure SHMUP (its combat went through phases where it was a lot of things, to be frank), but even though that is no longer the case, the influences carry forward into the turn-based combat that did result.in TLF.  Each combat iteration that TLF went through actually left a permanent mark on the game, and I don't think we would have the current (awesome) combat model had we not gone through all the intervening steps.

Anyhow, by having some SHMUP-like elements in a turn-based combat model, TLF finally achieves another thing that I tried for years to do with AI War, but never could: create proper "terrain" in outer space.  Having to navigate through the shifting mazes of bullets in TLF is endlessly entertaining for me, and really has a lot of tactical though to it what with having to manage your power levels, choose whether or not to use special abilities on a given turn, and decide whether to get into ideal firing position or ideal don't-hurt-me position.

I tried a whole ton of things with AI War in an attempt to create that sort of feeling, and in TLF I found that feeling completely by accident!  Who knew that making a turn-based tactical SHMUP would be the answer to that problem.  It would not have occurred to me, but that sort of revelation is one of the many things I love about iterative design: you arrive somewhere awesome that you wanted to get to, but didn't know the precise address of to begin with.

6. Valley 2 was really a refinement of Valley 1 in a lot of respects, although it did switch away from being a SHMUP to instead being a Contra-like.  But a big (and perhaps overlooked) thing that we really experimented with in that game was a heavy blend of both procedural and hand-crafted content.  The result of that was something that I really loved, although it was something that I felt like we had only scratched the surface of.

With TLF, we take those concepts to an extreme.  There is procedural and emergent behavior all over the place -- ideas going all the way back to AI War and then carrying forward into most of our games -- but at the same time, all of the races have extremely distinct personalities that are hand-crafted, and we have a lot of hand-crafted actions, political deals, quests, and so on.  The mix is something that I feel is super compelling, and it's so incredibly flexible that I feel like we could spend another 5 years on TLF (as we have with AI War since its launch) and still not remotely run out of things to do.

7. Skyward Collapse was kind of a "solitaire" strategy game, if you will.  You play as yourself (kind of a god-figure), and oversee two bloody-minded factions, their gods, and so forth.  The control you have over them is pretty indirect, and basically the game is a matter of managing chaos and kind of trying to herd cats in an indirect fashion.  It's a really cool concept and really fun, but after one expansion and a bunch of free post-release support, I realized that basically there was nothing too exciting more to do with the concept.  Unlike AI War, this wasn't a game that had the legs to just be expanded and expanded and expanded.  It is what it is, and it's really cool, but it's not going to keep growing.

Anyway, the main point I was trying to make is that Skyward was all about indirect actions and controlling a strategy game basically by being a "bystander."  Unlike in AI War, you aren't a major participant, you are instead trying to "handle" the major participants, if that makes sense.  Well, with TLF, that is precisely what you are doing as well, except it's not as chaotic as in Skyward.  In Skyward there was a lot of humor value in having there be a ton of random chaos, and games are short enough in that that that's okay.

But with TLF, everything is based in some fashion on the underlying simulation, so when something happens, it isn't just completely out of the blue random -- which is what Skyward was.  So in TLF, that means that you get an awesome feedback loop, where you have to deal with what the simulation gives you (as in Skyward, or actually to some extent AI War as well), but then you also heavily alter the simulation through your own actions, thus really affecting what sort of things the simulation gives you in the future (to a degree that none of our other games remotely come close to).

8. Bionic Dues was about a lot of things, but two main things stand out to me in relation to TLF.  First of all, it was the first game where we really made a huge effort in the accessibility department, and where I think we succeeded.  Bionic also has a duality between a light strategic layer and then a quick-moving tactical layer.

TLF, of course, has an immensely heavy strategic layer, but then also has a quick-moving tactical layer.  I really like that combination, and they are very complementary.  The shift to turn-based combat for TLF was really perfect, because it made the tempo and thoughtfulness of the macro and micro levels match -- which was also the case with AI War and Bionic, but not the case with the Valley games (which caused friction with players who liked one style or the other).

At any rate, TLF also has been something that we've striven for accessibility with, and to make it something that could be exceedingly complex (ala SimCity) without being something that you can't hop into and do something with (again ala SimCity).  We started that sort of process with Bionic, and I think we were successful, although it is a far simpler game.  We carried what we learned there forward into TLF.  For that matter, that also goes for the art that Blue and Cath were doing -- so much of what was learned in Bionic was carried forward into TLF, even though TLF was a huge new challenge.

Anyway, long writeup, I know.  But when I say that The Last Federation is the culmination of what I've been trying to achieve in my career so far... well, the above is what I mean.  There have been many things that I've tried over the years, with varying degrees of success (though I am proud of every game we have ever made, even if the market and/or press didn't always love each one).  And I feel like TLF takes all the right lessons from all of those.

I really hope that this is going to be our new flagship title, so that we can take it on the same path that AI War has been on (and still is on) re: expansions and free updates.  I guess we'll find out soon enough!  Thanks for reading.



Tuesday, April 8, 2014

New TLF Screenshots!

The Last Federation is a really unique game in that it is a strategy/tactics game set inside a simulation game.  Check out its game page for details, or swing by the forums for the game.  This is Arcen's largest title ever, and we're really excited to share it with folks.

Alpha Information! Private alpha testing with players is currently in progress, and we will be adding more players throughout the coming weeks leading up to release.  If you're interested in signing up, please see this forum post.

Screenshots for you!  The launch of the game is less than two weeks away, so these are the launch screenshots -- these particular screens aren't going to be changing much in terms of how they look between now and then, although some others are still very much in the process of being polished.





















Enjoy!



Friday, April 4, 2014

Video - 0.818 Alpha Update - TLF Combat Refinements

The Last Federation is a really unique game in that it is a strategy/tactics game set inside a simulation game.  Check out its game page for details, or swing by the forums for the game.  This is Arcen's largest title ever, and we're really excited to share it with folks.

Alpha Information! Private alpha testing with players is currently in progress, and we will be adding more players throughout the coming weeks leading up to release.  If you're interested in signing up, please see this forum post.


This update shows off the further-refined turn-based combat of the game, with better physics and balance, refined HUD elements, and more.

There's actually quite a bit that I had to gloss over, like weapons selection and target resistances and so forth, and I only showed a couple of mission types that both were delivery-style. And both on an abnormally high difficulty.

Still, it's a pretty good view of what things are like now. I wanted to show the pilot escape pods and the waypointing system, but didn't manage to fit that in, either. I'll have to do another video next week.
Enjoy!



Friday, March 28, 2014

Video - 0.813 Alpha Update - TLF Combat Becomes WeGo Turn-Based

The Last Federation is a really unique game in that it is a strategy/tactics game set inside a simulation game.  Check out its game page for details, or swing by the forums for the game.  This is Arcen's largest title ever, and we're really excited to share it with folks.

Alpha Information! Private alpha testing with players is currently in progress, and we will be adding more players throughout the coming weeks leading up to release.  If you're interested in signing up, please see this forum post.

This update shows off the next evolution of our combat model for the last federation. The basic gist is that we took what we had, which was something of a twitch-based SHMUP, and we refined it into a thoughtful turn-based tactics model.

You'd be surprised how little we had to remove and add to make that transition -- or, at least, we were. This is something we were kind of naturally building towards as we've gone through our four major combat modes.

The SHMUP version of combat was really quite fun -- it just didn't fit with this game. Twitch action in one mode and deep contemplation in the other made it a bit schizophrenic. With the shift to turn-based combat here, it's grand strategy on the large scale, and tactics on the small scale, which is what we originally wanted anyhow.

But! Since the SHMUP version was so fun, we're going to split that off into its own game later this year, built up around those mechanics specifically. Essentially this game has split into two much more cohesive pieces. And boy... this turn-based combat is the most fun version we've had yet.
If you want to read about the behind the scenes of the combat iterations in the game, here's a cool article about it: Behind The Scenes: Iterative Combat Design In TLF.

Enjoy!



Saturday, March 22, 2014

Behind The Scenes: Iterative Combat Design In TLF

The Last Federation is a really unique game in that it is a strategy/tactics game set inside a simulation game.  Check out its game page for details, or swing by the forums for the game.  This is Arcen's largest title ever, and we're really excited to share it with folks.

Alpha Information! Private alpha testing with players is currently in progress, and we will be adding more players throughout the coming weeks leading up to release.  If you're interested in signing up, please see this forum post.

One concern I've seen lobbed our way every so often at Arcen in general is that some folks don't like the idea that we "crowdsource" our design ideas.  Aka, that we listen to player feedback, really.  The common way this is phrased is that we should step up and "be the designers" properly, with a singular vision that we won't compromise for anyone.

That's... all well and good, I suppose.  If you have a singular vision for a game, go right ahead and do that.  And if it's perfect on your first try, that's amazing.

But the thing is, we're not "crowdsourcing" our design ideas at all.  We get feedback.  It's the same thing that authors of novels do when they show their rough drafts to their spouses, to their reading group, to their test readers.  They aren't trying to pander, they aren't trying to get other people to help write the book themselves, or anything like that.  They want more sources of data from which to consider their creations from alternate points of view.

To the specific matter at hand, the changes in TLF's combat system from the earliest RTS-like versions to the current system have all come squarely from me, in the end.  Players were enjoying the RTS-like stuff in alpha, sort of, and were giving lots of feedback on things that were annoying them or that needed to be refined to make it better.  There was a sense that "something is really missing here," but the feedback was all really in the vein of "how can we fill in the missing links with what is here."

 The old RTS-style combat model with ship deployments, from earliest alpha with player involvement and our first public video of the game.

I looked at all that feedback and felt something else.  Familiarity.  It was getting too similar to AI War, and to solve the problems we were having here, we'd have to move increasingly in the direction of AI War.  Which is all well and good -- I still love AI War -- but the battles here were supposed to be a lot shorter than that, and not always against an entrenched enemy, etc.

One player in particular, I believe it was Cyborg, had noted (to paraphrase from memory) "the combat has this really different feel from the main game, where you are a little guy doing things in a wider solar system; the combat is more about clashes of equal forces."

So I took a step back, and said.  "Okay, we're supposed to be 'Batman in space' here, so that's clearly a problem."  We were in territory that was familiar in a way that I didn't want to get into again (there's more we will do with AI War, but I don't want to try to do that in this game as well).  And any solutions I thought of with the combat as an RTS would make the individual battles take longer, be more complex in terms of controls and keybinds, and in general be way more divorced from the solar map sections.

Originally this game had 1v1 ship combat from a side view, and it was more of a minigame.  This was before we had any players testing it at all, it was just us.  We were excited about the ideas, but eventually we ran into problems I felt were intractable, so we had shifted to the RTS model.  I really loved what the RTS model had brought to the table... except I really wanted to get back to having just a single player ship.

 A very early prototype screen from when the game was still side-view 1v1 ship combat.  This is the first time we've ever actually shown screenshots from this version of the game at all!

So that's what we did!  And players had also noted that they wanted to see multi-sided battles, which has been something I've always loved, too.  That was one of those "why didn't I think of that?" sort of moments.  So we made that a big focus, too -- again it made the combat more like the solar map in terms of the overall feel of you being the little guy caught in larger scuffles.

We spent about a month working privately on this, without giving any new builds to our alpha players.  I wasn't happy with it enough yet to bother getting feedback, because they would just be telling me things I already knew.  If I didn't enjoy it yet, then nobody else would, either.  That's one of our mantras, is that somebody on the staff has to enjoy the game or else we're really doing it wrong.  Almost always, that person is me.  The exceptions are when I'm not the lead designer, which has only been on Tidalis (which I did quite enjoy) and the aborted Exodus of the Machine project.

Anyway, we got the multi-faction stuff working, the combat scenarios, the single-ship stuff, etc.  All of that was my design, it wasn't "crowdsourced" or even discussed with players.  Though Josh Knapp (former staff member) and I did discuss it quite a lot during the first week or so, and he was instrumental at that period.  But it evolved from there.

We got all that working... but still it just felt "off" to me.  It was doing everything that I wanted, but I found that without the need to order squadrons of ships around, there wasn't enough for me-the-player to do.  I was setting courses for my ship, and watching it auto-fire, and so forth.  It was... boring.  The overall tactics of the battle were there, and working perfectly, but the moment-to-moment stuff was dull as dull could be.

The solution quickly came to me, really -- based on our past work with things like the A Valley Without Wind games, it sprang readily to mind.  I needed a gun that I could point and shoot myself.  That sort of rotational shoot-anywhere gun from Valley 1 is just super fun.  So we put that in, and suddenly I was having a blast.  It took more balancing and tweaking, but after another week or so we finally released that version to our alpha testers (and let in a new batch of alpha testers) after a month of being incognito.

This is how the combat looked around that time.  We already had the special abilities in place, but note that there are only 5 of them, and none of them are equip-able weapons.

So this is the point when I created the hour-long gameplay footage video of the game, which showed off not only the new combat, but also showed off the solar map stuff for the first time.  Alpha players were by and large loving the new combat just as much as I was, and much happiness was had.

But.  There were still two issues, both of which were niggling at me personally, and also which some players picked up on and commented on. 

Firstly, the combat felt a bit shallow in the moment to moment bits.  The tactical aspects were still there, but since you could only have one gun at a time, your solution to any incoming ship was "shoot it a lot."  That is fun in a bubble-wrap-popping sort of way, but it's not something that is sustainably interesting.  And it cuts out some of the moment to moment tactics.  Yes you had 5 special abilities to pop off here and there, but your main gun was in general so effective (and had to be) that this was only of some real use.

The solution to that did come from a player, not from me, and it was another of those head-smacking "why the heck didn't I think of that?" moments.  Histidine pointed out that having only one gun, and not being able to switch guns, was limiting.  Durr.  In that short space of time, he was the only one to comment on it, and I didn't see it yet.  I'm sure I and the other alpha testers would have figured it out before too long, but he saw it immediately. 

So within two days I put together a new build that had a bunch more guns, rebalanced combat around specializations, and six overall "abilities" on your bar, although 3 of them were just guns that you could switch through (reducing the former trigger-style abilities from 5 slots to 3, in other words).  I put in a bunch of other things to differentiate the flagships from one another, and really beefed up the uniqueness of all the classes. 

This was over a weekend, and I was working alone, incognito, away from players and staff during that period.  I'm not saying that to brag -- great ideas come from all sorts of sources, and often those sources are not me.  But to someone who thinks that we're "crowdsourcing" our games, I feel like it's important that they actually understand what's going on.  This is how you want game developers to work.  You want them to listen to you, and you want them to then use their feedback to fuel their own vision, rather than just blindly following what you say, or sitting you down in a conference room to have a design-by-committee.

This is a screenshot I took 5 minutes ago, of combat with the new weapon-switching at the bottom and the various other enhancements.

So here we are.  The combat is really fun in the moment-to-moment bits, and it's also much more mentally-involving in terms of making sure you not only use the battlefield properly, but also use the right weapons for the right enemies.  You can adjust the play speed to whatever you want, so it doesn't have to be a twitch game if you need time to aim.  Me, I like it fast and twitchy, and play on a more moderate difficulty level to compensate.  Play as suits you.

This brings us to the second problem that I mentioned (a while back) above, and which is as-yet unresolved, but next on my to-do list: identity crisis for the game.  Is this a thoughtful 4X, or is this a SHMUP-like?  Valley 1 and 2 both struggled with this exact same identity crisis.  You could love one part and loathe the other, and that would make for a challenging time.  Personally I loved both in both, but limiting our audience to the intersection of two rather disparate genres would be... well, stupid.  That's a good way to go out of business. 

It was worrying me from the start, and players all immediately brought it up, too.  In all their cases except for one (Cyborg, as it turns out), they were loving both sides, but were worried others would not.  Cyborg tried to like the new combat, but just ultimately can't stand it.  And I understand that -- I loved the Total War titles, for instance, but I loathed their realtime parts.  So I just used auto-resolve and played it as a 4x and had a great time.  For everyone else who liked the realtime parts, they were free to play that, and that's great.

But it comes down to even more than that.  Much as I love the action-oriented combat here in TLF, sometimes I just want to get on with it.  That's another thing with Total War: by auto-resolving all the battles, I could just play one continuous, fluid strategy game.  I wasn't constantly interrupted by 5 or 10 minute battles where I would then have to go "now what was I doing again?" when I finished them.  If I clearly had the superior force for a battle, I also didn't just have to go through the motions, either, it's worth noting.

So that's currently my thing: making an alternate combat mode that is a little more involved than your traditional Total-War-style auto-resolve, but at the same time quick and fluid and cerebral-only.  In other words, keeping it a pure 4x if you use that instead of going into the action bits.  And you know what?  Much as I love the action bits, I plan on using that feature quite a bit myself.  Sometimes I just want to get on with things, as noted above.  And this way I can play the action-y combat exactly as much as I want, without ever having to weary of it.  Which is important.

The solar map portion of this game is a big, beautiful 4x simulation that is way more involved and interesting than anything Arcen has ever done before, in my opinion.  I would hate to exclude the very type of audience that most appreciates that simply because they hate SHMUPs.  And I also don't want every game I play to take me 12 hours because I'm in combat for half the time.  I want to play it the way I want to play it, when I want to play it, based on how I'm feeling at that moment.  That's what's coming.

And that's how we listen to our players.





Thursday, March 20, 2014

TLF - Ending Credits Music "Lay Down Your Arms"

The Last Federation is a really unique game in that it is a strategy/tactics game set inside a simulation game.  Check out its game page for details, or swing by the forums for the game.  This is Arcen's largest title ever, and we're really excited to share it with folks.

Alpha Information! Private alpha testing with players is currently in progress, and we will be adding more players throughout the coming weeks leading up to release.  If you're interested in signing up, please see this forum post.

This quickie video for The Last Federation shows off the first half of Pablo Vega's latest vocal track, featuring Hunter Vega and Corinne Tabor.  Unlike vocal tracks for our recent games, this one is actually for the end credits of the game (if you win), as opposed to the title track.  Accompanying the music is some various in-game footage from various pre-release alpha versions ranging from 0.805 to 0.809.

Enjoy!



Sunday, March 16, 2014

0.806 Alpha Update - Last Federation Combat With Weapon Swapping!

The Last Federation is a really unique game in that it is a strategy/tactics game set inside a simulation game.  Check out its game page for details, or swing by the forums for the game.  This is Arcen's largest title ever, and we're really excited to share it with folks.

Alpha Information! Private alpha testing with players is currently in progress, and we will be adding more players throughout the coming weeks leading up to release.  If you're interested in signing up, please see this forum post.

Two days ago I posted an extended gameplay trailer that showed off both the new combat and the solar map.  As so often happens, our players and viewers are extremely clever and had some great feedback.  This video shows off what's new in the last two days, and it's quite significant.




The additions were inspiring in particular by viewers who pointed out the limited nature of only having one gun at a time.  So -- three guns at once, among other additions.

TLDR Of What's New
1. You now have 3 main guns, and can switch between them, rather than only having one.
2. You now have 3 special abilities beyond that, rather than 5 (no room).
3. You really do need to switch weapons depending on the targets you are after, or even if their shields are up at the moment or whatever, because the right tool for the job suddenly makes a big difference.
4. Balance is revamped pretty well everywhere.
5. Three or four new guns, don't recall which.
6. Flagships no longer start out in the boonies.
7. The extreeeeeme imbalance with Bargaining Power is addressed.

Or here's the full changelog.

Until next time!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Extended Gameplay Video For The Last Federation - Solar Map And Combat

The Last Federation is a really unique game in that it is a strategy/tactics game set inside a simulation game.  Check out its game page for details, or swing by the forums for the game.  This is Arcen's largest title ever, and we're really excited to share it with folks.

Alpha Information! Private alpha testing with players is currently in progress, and we will be adding more players throughout the coming weeks leading up to release.  If you're interested in signing up, please see this forum post.

Earlier this week I wrote about the upcoming major changes to combat, and promised that a video would follow soon to show it to you in action.  Well, here you are!  And for good measure, there is also the first footage of the solar map in here -- I didn't mean for this video to run for an hour, but so it goes.  There was a lot to show!




There are also a lot of new screenshots for you!
















Until next time!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

New Alpha Round For The Last Federation, Heavily Revised Combat

The Last Federation is a really unique game in that it is a strategy/tactics game set inside a simulation game.  Check out our preview discussing simulations in the game, the description of your role as an independent agent in the solar system,  details on the alien races, information about the "butterfly effect" in the game, and the final scene art for all the alien races, some of the planetary art, and screenshots of the solar map.  Oh, and the forums for the game are filled with lots of other detailed tidbits, too.  This is Arcen's largest title ever, and we're really excited to share it with folks.

Press about the game from RPS and PC Gamer.

Alpha Information! Private alpha testing with players is currently in progress, and we will be adding more players throughout the coming weeks leading up to release.  If you're interested in signing up, please see this forum post.  Right now we do have open spots still, but we may wind up needing to close signup past a certain point, because we definitely have a pretty huge list of people at this point (and there's only so much feedback we can process at any given time).
Hidey ho there!  Has it been a month, really, since the last blog post?  Indeed so.  So what gives?

New Release Date
For a variety of reasons, some of them relating to the game itself, and some of them relating to other titles that we don't want to get stomped by in the marketplace (cough Titanfall cough Diablo 3), we've decided to push back the release date of this game into April.  It may be as early as April 2, or a bit later on in.

New Round Of Alpha Testers
It's been a month since we've added any alpha testers to the testing pool, and it's also been a month since we gave our existing testers anything new to do.  We've been working away behind the scenes all this time, which is a first for us -- going a month in the middle of a testing cycle without releasing anything new to test.  Now we expect to be back to our usual rapid-cycling schedule.

I have not sent out the PMs yet, but if you have signed up to be an alpha tester, I will post the list of the people being added in this round on the forums here in a bit.

Note for testers: for the updated list of what still needs obvious tidying, please see this document.  It's not really all-inclusive of what we still have planned for the game prior to 1.0, but it hits the notes about things that we think are impeding the new-player experience in particular.

More Videos Coming Very Soon!
As you will see below, the existing combat video could not be less representative of the game at this point.  The combat isn't really even the same genre anymore.  We showed you RTS-style tactical combat before, and now the combat is still tactical but is entirely different.  I also will be getting you some video of the solar map stuff in action, although I did post a few screenshots of the solar map a month ago.

What's This About New Combat?
All right, so this is I believe pretty close to the combat interface that I showed you in the last video:


Basically it was always you against some other single ship -- an enemy flagship or an enemy outpost or whatever.  Your health and shields on the left, theirs on the right.  You both had squadrons of ships inside your flagships, and they would auto-deploy at various speeds.  You then control it like an RTS, mainly.  Whoever kills the other enemy ship first, wins.

There were a variety of things that made it more complicated from time to time, but overall that was kind of it.  The biggest complexity was in the solar map, and that's where the real "meat" of the game was.  Unfortunately, the combat just really wasn't something that was holding up its own weight in this sort of model -- it just lagged behind the rest of the game in the fun-factor, and so that was something we sought to address in a number of ways.

Here's a partially-evolved view:


For one thing, the above interface is a lot more attractive, and it was also more functional in a lot of ways.  Not shown in this particular screenshot is the "special abilities," of which you could have up to three.  These were special flagship-based abilities that you could trigger to do something like cloak your fleet, or loose anti-swarm lasers, or whatever.

That added an interesting element to the game, and it was something our testers played with some, but it frankly just wasn't enough.  What I'm about to say is why we don't use Kickstarter if we can at all help it.  One of the reasons, anyhow.  I get asked about this all the time, so here's a great example of why: we decided to radically alter the way that combat works, based partly on the feedback we were getting from testers, and then based on our own testing, too.

Here's what the combat interface looks like now:


Whoa, what's all this new stuff!  And where did a whole bunch of that old stuff go?  Let's go through it bit by bit:

No More Enemy Health/Shields
There are now quite a few more enemy flagships than just one (or even 5, as there were in one version of the game).  There are also a lot of allied flagships, potentially, too.  So you still see your own shields and health in the upper left, but that's it.  Other large ships and structures show increasing amounts of damage on their hull (you can see that on the Pirate Raven in the middle-right of the screen), and show their shields dimmer (and then gone) as a quick visualization of their status.  You can also hover over them to see what is going on if you like.

You Control Only Your Flagship, And Have Direct Guns
Yeah, this is no longer an RTS at all.  Right-clicking or using the WASD controls gives your flagship movement orders, and then holding down the left mouse button lets you spray bullets in any direction you choose.  Your flagship also still has passive guns that act without your input, just like it used to, but your main gun and your special abilities are far more powerful.

It is possible for you to get other ships that are "yours" at times, but you still can't control them.  They run on predetermined AI depending on the type of ship they are.  BUT!  Usually they also have guns that are triggered when you trigger your main gun, which is really cool.  So you can cause them to aim at your mouse cursor just like your flagship does, and fire when you fire.

Allies, Enemies, Neutral Parties, And Betrayal
It is now possible to have up to 5 "sides" involved in a battle, not including you.  So 6 in all, if you include yourself.  Each of these sides have either an allied, neutral, or enemy stance towards one another, and towards you.  You, in turn, either can have a guns-free or hold-fire stance toward each side.  All of your relationships to the other sides in the battle are shown on the lower left of the screen.

In this particular example, you can see that I am enemies with the Thoraxians, and by default I am guns-free against them.  It's rare that you'd want to hold fire against someone who wants to kill you, but you can.  You can also see that I am allied with the Acutians and the Andors in this particular battle.  They and I are cooperating to attack a very dangerous pirate convoy, as it turns out.  Whatever our relationships in the larger game are, we've come together for this one battle, anyway.

Of course, if I go guns-free against them, I can stab them in the back.  Depending on what I shoot, they may not notice right at first (there is a percent chance of them noticing).  But if I do much against them, their noticing is pretty much assured, and they will change to being my enemy for the remainder of the fight, as well as me getting a negative Influence penalty against them in the larger game.  Why would I ever do that?  Well, sometimes the best way to get behind the lines of someone is to pretend to be their friend for a bit.

Incidentally, in the screenshot above, a squadron of yellow (Acutian) interceptors have decided to take up an orbiting guard stance around me.  How sweet!  Every so often, an incoming missile clips one of them instead of hitting me. ;)

Minimap, Viewport, and Zoom
Previously, the viewport and zoom worked basically like AI War or Bionic Dues.  You could pan around at will, zoom incredibly far out, etc.  The ability to pan is now completely gone, and your ability to zoom is a lot more limited -- you can still zoom out, but not very far.

Basically this is somewhat simulating your "line of sight," but mainly it facilitates you actually being able to aim your direct guns.  There are a lot of reasons this works better in the new combat model, but it just feeling more natural and fun is a big part of it.  Not being omniscient on the battlefield is well-known as a fun thing (hence the fog of war in many RTS games), and being focused on your immediate surroundings helps to make the experience more immersive in my opinion.

Not that I'm saying I would change AI War or Bionic Dues, or that that zooming/panning model is wrong for them.  It's perfect in those contexts, to me at least.  But this game is now a lot more divorced from them, and so for this particular context this new view style makes a lot more sense.

Replacing the ability to pan and to far-zoom, and that old (hard to see) "enemy offscreen in that direction" indicator, is a nifty new minimap that you can toggle between three different sizes.  This minimap is pretty omniscient, but all it shows you is three types of blip: "something important," flagship, and squadron.  So you can find stuff around you, but you don't have details of exactly what each blip is beyond its category.  This turns out to be a really happy medium between being completely blind in a fog of war (not fun in a large space) and being omniscient (in this context, also less fun in my opinion).

Special Abilities
Your flagship now has five of these.  In the last combat video, they didn't even exist yet.  In the last tester builds, you had only three, and they were not categorized.  Now they are categorized by slot:

- 2 slots for secondary weapons
- 1 slot for an "operational" ability
- 2 slots for "special" abilities

Secondary weapons are either things that you trigger with a quick keypress or mouse-click and which do AOE damage around you or home onto a specific enemy or whatever, or they are things that "arm" an additional weapon that gets added to your left mouse button (so that you fire both your normal primary weapon and the newly-armed secondary weapon at the same time).  Your primary weapon has infinite ammo, but your secondary ones (and abilities in general) do not.

Operational abilities typically either call in help from outside forces (inviting mercenaries to come in as an enemy to everyone, including you, for instance), or spawn squadrons or orbital bombers or what have you.  Each type of operation pairs both a special variant of squadron ships with unique stats/abilities, with AI appropriate to them.

The special abilities are then just kind of a catch-all for everything else.  It might be to do with cloaking or other forms of stealth, trading shields and health for extra attack power for a brief time, or doing something like restoring your shields or throwing out a debris field to block incoming enemy shots.

Better Combat Speed, And Control Of Combat Speed
The default speed of combat is now about half as fast as what was shown in the last video.  It's something that people went "wow that seems way too fast" as the main complaint there.  You can easily slow it down even more if you prefer, to whatever floats your boat (or speed it up, even).  You can do that when you start a new game, during battle, whenever.

Also during battle, you can temporarily slow it down 4x by tapping the Slow-Mo hotkey or on-screen button.  If you're worried about the ability to aim at ships in a crunch, this is one way to get around that.

Fast-Forward has also been joined by Super-Fast-Forward, which is something I use a lot when I want to zip across a gap of space.  Since these are more dangerous than slow-mo, these you have to hold down the button to make them go faster, rather than tapping them to toggle.  Sometimes there just isn't anything that I need to make decision on for a moment, and there's no sense in me just sitting there waiting out the clock.  Being able to quickly adjust the flow of time really helps to make the pacing feel super smooth at all times, because the pacing is exactly whatever I want it to be.

Withdraw Replaces Retreat, And Is Improved In General
"Retreat" can be such an ugly word.  It implies failure.  In the new combat model, however, it is entirely likely that you may enter a battle ostensibly with one set of goals, but really you actually have some other secret goals that you have set for yourself.  You then set about doing whatever it was you wanted to do, and then you withdraw.  In that case do you "fail" the main action that you were hired to do?  Heck yes.  Do you care?  Not a bit, because your acceptance of the main action was just a ruse in the first place.

Other times you'll be withdrawing because you simply are outgunned, and it really is a retreat to save your hide.  It's important to know when to do this.

And still other times, withdrawing successfully is simply the last step in successfully resolving a battle.  Your goal frequently has nothing to do with "just go in and murder everyone."  Instead the enemy forces are an obstacle to your going in and destroying or capturing special enemy ships, or whatever else your target is.  The enemy forces are understandably pissed after you do this, so the last step is managing to actually withdraw successfully without getting killed.

Better Integration With The Solar Map Part Of The Game
This is a really key thing.  Previously, the combat was a bit too mini-game-ish for my taste.  That's how it was originally conceived, but that bothered me increasingly much.  The fact that we had an auto-resolve option in the game was kind of a testament to the fact that combat was basically just a skill check.

No longer.  Now, things that you do during the course of combat have a lot of effects on the larger game, so the auto-resolve is actually gone.  You may destroy civilian installations, causing various positive and/or negative consequences.  You may wind up poisoning the atmosphere of a planet through your excessive use of nuclear missiles.  You may whittle down an enemy armada and then retreat, utterly failing the immediate mission but still creating an opening for an ally of yours to break through.

On the flip side, the solar map feeds a lot more data in to combat, too.  Races that are allies in the larger game may send in squadrons to help beleaguered allies.  When races are besieging a planet, you can choose to come in and help out either side, and even be a turncoat in the middle of battle if you choose to.  And so on and so forth.

All in all, the solar map previously had this cool feeling of you being the small guy in a much larger living ecosystem of aliens, but at the same time you being able to affect things from the shadows in a very powerful way.  Combat did not have that feeling.  Now it does.  I tend to really think of the new combat as being "Batman in space," in a lot of ways, heh.

Handling Of Health And Ammo
As mentioned before, your guns don't have ammo, but your 5 special abilities all do.  Previously, you had to visit any planet or outpost to get the ammo replenished.  That meant that conservation of the ammo between multi-stage battles was important.  In the end that didn't add much, so now you just get all your ammo back after each fight.

Health previously worked the same way, in terms of you getting that whenever you visited any planet or outpost.  But THAT tended to cheapen health, and reduce the tension in ways that I didn't like.  The goal with that auto-restoration was to make it so that you didn't have a fiddly case of having to go and heal constantly at some specific location, and wade through menus to do so.

As it stands now, normally you gain no health back at all, except under two circumstances:
1. You go to the black market and take what amounts to a bit of a bad deal to get repaired.
2. You successfully complete any friendly military action for any race, and they'll heal you for free in gratitude.

This makes it so that health is a bit more scarce in some circumstances, but not in others.  It's a pretty interesting dynamic, and I find that it makes things pleasantly tense in fun ways.

So What Now?
We're continuing to test and refine, of course.  There are also some straggler features and content, most of it relating to the new combat model, that we want to get in there.  There's also some visual stuff that we haven't had time to polish to our liking, and the sound effects are yet to be added (although probably 80% of the music is in place now).

Hopefully this will prove to be a comfortable schedule, but it really depends on what testers other than myself start finding.

Thanks for reading!