By: Tibberius Bane
A cold wind whips across a grassy plain near a famed landmark known as Stoneshill, which in the land of Agatha will forever be remembered for the great battle that is soon to take place here. This wind is strong and it pulls at the leaves of the trees and the blades of the grass relentlessly, it is cold enough to have driven most of the animals in the area into whatever shelters they could find. This wind whistles around the mountain pass where it chills the skin of many well equipped soldiers waiting there. One man is further up the path than the others and he is crouched there, looking over the ledge towards the enemy force that is marching towards his men. This man does not shiver at the wind, for this man has fought many a battle, and this man knows composure must be kept if there is any hope to win. He unsheathes his blade and bellows a cry to his troops just as the enemy thunders through the pass below “CHARRRGEE”. This man is not afraid because this man is a true warrior. This man is certain of his victory, because this man loves his country. This man thirsts for battle because this man is you, and you are in the Age of Chivalry.
This article will act as a reflection of the time myself and the team have spent creating the HL2 Mod “Age of Chivalry”, it touches on some of the things that went wrong, as well as some of the things that went right over the course of development. It also has some tips for aspiring mod/indie developers and I tried to make it appeal to a wide audience by including AOC specific examples as well as general advice that anyone could apply to any project.
Five Things that went wrong
1. Movement System
One of the biggest problems with the actual gameplay of the game even in the current public version has been the standard HL2 movement system. At first it may be difficult to understand why something so simple as movement should need to be redone- and that’s what we thought too. Unfortunately in doing so we overlooked a major difference that is prevalent in our game that is not nearly as large of a factor in gun-based games.
The importance of the movement is amplified when engaged in close combat and there has probably never been a better example of this than our game. Veteran players are able to exploit the lacking movement system with “Mouse-whip” techniques that allow them to turn on a dime, even at full speed. This lead to some very frustrating situations, especially for new players where their opponents felt like they were equipped with not-so-medieval rollerblades and this took away from the game for a lot of people. We made a weak attempt at addressing these issues with the “Toe-to-Toe” system, but in the end it only watered down the problems of the movement system and created other problems.Essentially what we struggled with here is something all games struggle with at some point in their development and that is the freedom of movement available for a player versus the game-play. In our case, we should have had a much more strictly defined movement system that complimented our game but still felt natural, it is “the one feature that got away” for me, being that I am also an avid fan and player of the game.
2. Testing Process
UGH. That should begin to describe how unfortunate our testing situation was. I think our average weekly testing session attendance was probably around 3 maybe 3 and a half members… We used mantis, a free bug-tracking software and it was great, but as with all great tools, they must be used by people to have any benefit. Our testing team appeared to consist again of about 3 solid dedicated members who actually reported and updated bugs on the software. For those among you who are developers of other mods or games, I cannot stress enough the importance of playtesting and testing your products, it will be PAINFULLY obvious to your fanbase if your testing team was not up to par. Further more I suggest very strongly that you enforce internal testing, that is, getting your development team to actually partake in testing themselves and gain a true understanding for the game. This will actually raise productivity in the end, because they will understand the game and won’t just be making assets blindly. Basically, if you expect other people to play your game, you better make sure that it is running smoothly and fun. You wouldn’t expect to sell a house that you didn’t bother to clean before showcasing, no matter how nice the house was, the garbage and dirt would stand out far more than any of the nice features the house offered and the same applies to games.
This article is not intended in anyway to slight the beta team for Age of Chivalry, I can admit that it was the failing of the development team ourselves to implement a proper process and recruit the right people. I urge all future and current developers to learn from our very poor example and take the time to critically think about how to reach the most valuable testing people in your community and keep the testing process interesting for them, it will save you from a landslide of negative effects that we had to deal with over the course of the development cycle. The testers that stayed with us despite our flawed structure for the beta team and lacklustre communication with them cannot be thanked enough, they are the only reason what exists today is playable!
3. Team Member Recruitment Process
The recruitment process for our game was something that was very poorly done at the start and it is actually the underlying cause for some of the most obvious failing points of the current game. Our inability to find sufficient talent was solely because we simply were not looking hard enough and when we were looking, we were doing it wrong. We know this now because lately we have had way more success in this area, so this is something that was really lacking for us and has had a truly negative impact on the game but it’s also something we feel we have managed to turn around. The primary department in which our recruitment failings impacted the game is the animation department. We had no one to do the animations for our game and our game requires far more animations than the average shooter and the quality of the animations themselves actually are far more critical to the players enjoyment of the game for our project. The result was that we had a guy step up from the development team and do the animations as “placeholders”, which never ended up getting replaced… They served their purpose and allowed the project to continue but it really was something that could have been avoided with a proper recruitment process.If you don’t have the right talent working for you and can’t find it, what do you do? Do it yourself of course! This is a common and potentially dangerous decision often made in mod/game development, so often in fact that I think a lot of teams don’t even recognize it as a problem. Sure you can load up new software and begin producing reasonable assets within a couple solid days of learning it but you will never be able to do it as well as someone else who has only that to focus on. I would suggest to all game designers that they know who their team members are, what their main proficiencies are and encourage all team members to pick one or two primary roles within the team and stick to it. Often times, being a jack of all trades means you are a master of none. I will close this section with a couple tips for others based on what we learned over the development of our project.
Tip 1: The first is to develop team policy standards that outline exactly what is expected of team members, so that they are aware of what is expected of them, you should make these standards as clear and specific as possible because you may use them as grounds for dismissal at a later date. Make sure you know how many hours a week each team member is expecting to be able to put into the project, this is a good recruitment question.
Tip 2: Second, no team member should be brought on the team without a proper and formal application as well as an interview with the team lead, it may sometimes seem like a silly formality, especially if the member is a friend of another member, but in the end it will make them respect you more and as a result they will be more likely to take the project seriously.
Tip 3: Third, all new members should be subject to a “trial period”, we use a 2 week process for this, but you may adjust the duration of this period as is needed. Ensure that the trial members are aware that if their performance/activity levels are not satisfactory that they will be removed from the team. What this does it is sets an expectation level for new members right from the start and makes it more likely that they will continue to be more productive than if they had not been made to “prove themselves worthy”.
Tip 4: Fourth, This information is all well and good you say, but what good is it to me if I cannot manage to recruit talent in the first place? Well, one of the best ways to recruit talent is actually to do it informally. Sure, job postings are great, you should do them. However they are only read by people who are actively thinking about joining a team and their formal tone tends to put off many would-be applicants. What I would suggest you do instead, is to post your WIP assets on various related forum boards and start a topic there about the asset itself to get discussion flowing, then at the end of your post, just informally write a line that says “oh yeah and I’m doing this model/animation/art thinger/feature for this project I’m working on. We’re looking for people, check it out at www.yourgame.com”. This avoids the “cold-contact” feeling of a formal job posting as applicants feel more connected to this person who is acting as a member of their community and it also shows them the level of quality you are looking for and how seriously you are taking your project.
Employing these 4 tips should go a long way to helping you turn around your recruiting/activity issues on your team, letting you focus on the fun stuff!
4. Balancing the Game
One of the biggest things we realized on this project was a very hard lesson to learn. I actually resented the majority of…well the world when I came to this realization but that doesn’t change the fact that it is true. Gamer’s, much like common folk, hate change. The more you tweak, adjust, modify and tune small values, the more they will complain, rage and start forum brawls. It actually does not matter if the game becomes significantly more balanced due to your changes, most people, during the initial stages anyway, will hate your guts for the changes. Do not despair however as this is an avoidable evil! The best way to avoid having to make massive changes to the balancing and “fairness” of your game is actually to not make the mistakes we made in #2 – Testing Process. Testers are a unique type of human being and they do not passionately hate all balance changes you will make because they expect to be subject to such events, your fanbase however is much less understanding. Tweak as much as you like during testing, because unbalanced games are as horrible to the fanbase as re-balanced games, so you will want to make sure you get it right the first time you release. I would suggest spending a very significant amount of time SOLELY balance testing before even considering releasing the game, it seems tedious and all you want to do at this point is release your game to the masses, but resist this urge and you will be rewarded in the long term!
5. Learning Curve
The game’s ability to be “picked-up and played” was quite poor actually and this was something that always held us back from achieving more success with the mod. I really feel that the majority of players who were turned off by our game left within the first hour of playing the game- because that is the time the game is the least fun. With no single-player options, in our game you were forced to compete against other online, often against much more talented opponents in combat right from the start and it led to a very harsh and sometimes frustrating experience for new players. Earlier in the games development it also almost totally lacked any indication of what the objectives of the maps were, which also lead to a great deal of confusion and made it difficult for gamers to understand how to play each map. This was a very exaggerated problem in our game because each of our maps played essentially as though it was it’s own game mode and players were forced to learn each new map by memory in order to understand how to play. It was an unfortunate design failure and the causes were numerous but included lack of critical testing, being blinded by our own knowledge about the game and incomplete feature implementation. The lesson that can be learned from this is essentially that all features; no matter how grand and deep they will make your gameplay, MUST be not only communicated to the player, but also very simple to understand- on the outside at least. This will allow new players to achieve a base level of success and encourage them to explore the rest of the game. The most critical moments for any player with a game is the first ten, if your game isn’t fun and understandable on a base level in the first ten minutes, you’ve lost half your potential audience.
Five Things that went right
This is of immense importance for all mod teams and/or indie developers because it is your main advantage over large commercialized firms. You must pick a game that you are unrelentingly passionate about, something that you literally think about day in and day out, because without that kind of passion there is no hope for you to have the dedication required to complete a project.On our project this was a very key contributing factor to the success we had. I will be honest, there were times team policy was so lacking, confusion levels were high and team morale was low and I honestly believe that the unifying passion the majority of the team members have, not just for game development- but also for medieval times era, was the sole thing keeping the project together. Passion is not enough on it’s own but it sure can be a great driving force to helping you accomplish whatever you need to do to complete your project.
2. Selecting a Unique Niche
Before making a mod or indie game it is imperative that you critically think about what the role these groups play in the industry. You cannot expect to pick a fight with a multi-million dollar company in their own back yard and win, instead you have to take to the rooftops, explore new ideas and take risks that they are afraid to. If there isn’t something unique, significantly different and immediately recognizable about your project, it’s going to be much harder for you to achieve success.I can be honest and say that a big part of the reason Age of Chivalry achieved as much success as it did is because we were doing something that no one else had really done. There is a huge gap in the professional industry for the first person medieval genre and this allowed us to fulfill a need for many players craving this type of game. I don’t believe that our team is necessarily all that much more talented than many of the other teams out there, I just think that we have a game that is something people genuinely want- and that’s something all projects have to make sure of before they start, by asking that simple question, do people want this?
I won’t try and sugar coat this one, the addition of Age of Chivalry into steamworks was more or less luck, lucky that we chose an engine with very mod-friendly developers in Valve and also lucky that they happened to enjoy our game. I have no idea what criteria they used in the selection of the mods to be given this wonderful opportunity but I can say that myself and the rest of the team are very grateful to have been considered worthy enough for this level of support from Valve/Steam. Unfortunately the total number of downloads via steam is not something that was made available to us but it would have been really interesting to see how much reach we were able to generate for our mod as a result of steamworks. The only thing we can go off of to estimate the reach of the game is the number of current players online at any one given time and just a few days following the release on steam we managed an impressive 3,300+ simultaneous players! Unfortunately the flaws in the game were too numerous for most of those players to stick around and the amount of players online fell steadily for the next several weeks. Still we consider it an eye-opening experience as to how much interest there is in a game of our genre and it helped make us understand how critical some of the major flaws in our game were. Overall it seemed overwhelmingly that the casual steam fan (who may have had little to no prior exposure to mods) felt that the game was fun- but seemed to make little sense to them in terms of mechanics and this lead to frustration which ultimately effected the staying power of the game. This painted a clear picture for us that our idea had potential, but that we were not yet doing this potential justice for the casual gamer.
4. Objectives – Replay Value
Had we decided to forgo objectives in our game and simply make our game a team death match we almost certainly would not have been able to retain players. Some will argue that retaining players is not nearly so important as capturing them in the first place and as such you will continue to see many games that are visually impressive and utterly miserable excuses for entertainment products in terms of gameplay and replay ability. In addition you will continue to see games that are lots of fun in the short-term that you will fall in love with for the first 10 minutes, maybe even the first hour, but eventually you will become bored with it and move on to another game rather quickly. It is an unfortunate reality of the gaming industry that impressive visuals and epic CGI animated videos make more initial sales than anything that actually denotes the gameplay quality and that’s because replay value is not something that you can read off a box for the game. However, I would argue, especially for indie, mod and smaller scale professional studios that the longer a game can appeal to a player, the more success it will enjoy. The reason for that is because these studios tend to rely more on word of mouth and the longer a gamer enjoys a game the more friends he is likely to expose it to. So there you go, some business reasons why replay value is important as well. The objective system in our game went a long way towards improving the replay value of our game because it allowed each map to play like it’s own game mode. Maybe for your project objectives in the same way we have done it wouldn’t be appropriate, but you still need to ensure that your game has enough variety and options available to the player to captivate them time and time again. In the end it’s about why you are making the game and what your goals are. Are you solely looking to cash in on this product or is there a deeper more passionate goal to make a ‘good game’ and develop a strong community that will allow you to gain from sequels?
I will loosely define “candy” in a video game context as any features that are primarily implemented to make the player’s gameplay experience more fun without a direct gameplay need being addressed by the feature. Candy is a very important tool in a video game because it can provide variety, humour, intensity and many other high-level emotional connections for the players who experience it. The best thing about candy in video games is that it gets people talking about your game to other people; another benefit is that it doesn’t cause diabetes. Take for instance this masterful example about two people talking about Age of Chivalry…
Person 1: Hey man, have you played that medieval HL2 mod Age of Chivalry?
Person 2: Nah, haven’t gotten around to it, looks alright I guess.
Person 1: Dude, you have to play it you can DECAPITATE people with swords!
Person 2: Haha no way, will have to give that a try then!
Case in point… anything that leads to a moment of surprise, is highly satisfying, awe, a ‘rush’ or even a laugh is absolutely critical to the success of word of mouth to your game. Too many games these days focus in on crazy impressive visuals and really fail to recognize that a game’s primary purpose is to entertain. Ever find yourself playing your game of the month and suddenly realize… this isn’t fun. I am merely content when I win and angry when I lose, that’s exactly the type of feelings your players will have if you fail to provide them with “Candy” features. Don’t be afraid to get a little silly from time to time, if you can create any of the emotions I listed earlier for your players on a regular basis- people will talk about your game and you will have a much better chance at being successful. Of course if all else fails you could just add zombies, as that technique seems equally effective.
A long article but hopefully it has had some important insights for you that you can apply to your situation. We covered some of the issues we faced over the last few years developing the game as well as some of the things that helped us reach the level of success that we have so far. I feel like this has project has been a great learning experience for all of the team members especially myself and even though we learned most of these lessons the hard way it should serve to only make us stronger in the long run. So in closing I’d like to thank all of you players who have sliced and diced and chopped and battered your opponents in Age of Chivalry and I hope you continue to support and follow Team Chivalry’s projects as we look to set ourselves up as a successful independent studio. We’re looking to build upon the success and things we’ve learned with Age of Chivalry with our new commercial title, Chivalry: Battle for Agatha. Thanks for reading and goodluck to all gamers, modders and indies in the coming years!
Find out more about our projects:
New Chivalry Game Website – www.chivalrythegame.com
Age of Chivalry Website – www.age-of-chivalry.com
Our Facebook Page – Facebook.com
Our Twitter Account – Twitter.com
Our Moddb.com Account – Moddb.com
Age of Chivalry Moddb.com Account - Moddb.com
Our Youtube Page – Youtube.com
Download Age of Chivalry – Steam Store Page: (Store.steampowered.com)
Download the map pack here: Moddb.com