The Alpha demo for Draft of Darkness is now playable for a limited time (7th October to 18th October) on Steam! It's a survival-horror roguelike deckbuilder with party and resource management. Recruit survivors to fight infected creatures and government robots in an eerie post-apocalyptic world. This demo comes with the huge dungeon exploration and character art update. If you want to get more updates and follow the game progress more closely, I invite you to join our Discord server below! By entering the server, you will get bi-weekly updates through the Alpha version of the game. You can also gain access to the future closed beta by being an active tester or unlocking the "Savior" achievement in game!
Journey from 2D to 2.5D: A New Horror Dungeon Experience
While the overall gameplay loop of Draft of Darkness was pretty much complete, the exploration phase of the game was always one step behind the rest of it. The card combat mechanics, namely the encounter phase, was really fun and strategic; but the dungeon exploration part, which occupies a significant portion of the play time, did lack in both of these aspects. You basically walked towards wherever your "Detector" points to, and face whatever events randomly occupy the tiles on your path.
This design of the exploration tries to invoke "fear from the unknown", but the problem is that it leans into this premise 100% and completely discards the decision making. You can't choose between a shop and an encounter, because they are all in the dark! Granted, it's possible to utilize items such as flares to see a part of the hidden tiles, but by default, you were effectively blind. This resulted in almost fully eliminating the player choice during the dungeon navigation.
The second problem was that everything you encountered during the exploration was "one time only". You encountered a shop; well, guess what? That was your only chance to buy something you'd seen there. You weren't able come back to any event unless it's an ally you had rejected, or an encounter you had fled from. This was another missed opportunity to introduce player choice to the exploration.
Lastly I wasn't really happy with the top-down visual style, since it limited my range of adding details to the maps to invoke the eerie feeling through atmosphere. I know that this is a subjective point, since there already are really good examples of such atmosphere implemented (ex. Darkwood). Nevertheless, I wanted to go for a new perspective, giving me more space to work with (hopefully another whole dimension will be enough space, am I right?).
Before I started working on this, I organized a poll in our Discord server to see what people think about the state of the dungeon exploration. I split the matter into two questions, one regarding the visual style and one for the gameplay aspect. Although the results weren't cut-and-dried, players were in favor of the 3d visuals and more adventure style gameplay instead of going for a more strategy game approach. I also participated in a roundtable with some fellow game developers, where I got great feedback about Draft of Darkness. Big part of the feedback was on the exploration and all that helped me finalize my decision.
Three months later, I am proud to announce that the big exploration rework is complete! The switch from 2d to 3d was totally worth it. I feel much comfortable with working with 3d models and I'm really happy with how the game's atmosphere turned out.
I'm also really happy with the new mechanics. While there aren't huge differences in the gameplay, how the vision and events are handled really changes the feel of the game. You can now see three tiles around the player instead of being completely in the dark. In addition, shop events are now re-visitable, meaning you can now go back to buy something you couldn't afford before. Similarly, in some of the decision events, you can come back to resolve it after finding a key item.
During the rework, a lot of the development time was actually spent on the map generation algorithm. I've basically re-coded the whole system for a much more flexible procedural generation. The new algorithm includes room themes, event generation on top of other scenery, exterior style scenery placement (demonstrated with the streets area) and other cool stuff. I would be happy to write a more detailed article on the generation algorithm itself, if anybody is interested.
Character Art Redo
Even though the exploration rework was complete on the two months mark, there was another blocker for the update to be released: the sprites did not have the movement animations in the map. Since I was already thinking of replacing the sprites, I didn't want to bother with adding temporary animations. As a result, another month of a huge transformation had begun: replacing all the character art.
I am satisfied with how the new sprites turned out (although I gotta admit the old ones had their own charm in a way). Ultimately, the new character art fits the rest of the game going with a more realistic, grungy style. I was having a bad time replicating that style with the traditional pixel art so I think the new sprites turned out pretty good in comparison!
Future of Draft of Darkness
All in all, it's great to be freed from the heavy feeling of working on a huge update, instead of being able to put out small patches. As a solo developer, working on reworks like this completely stops the game content and mechanics from advancing. After this point on, I'll be going back to bi-weekly updates and I don't plan to do another two or three month update. There are a few more overhauls that I want to take on, including the UI and input system updates, but I believe those can be completed with regular two-week patches.
For now, my short term goal will be to work on the polish of the game, do a lot of improvements and get the game ready for the Steam Winter Festival. I'm planning to continue focusing on the look & feel at least until December. This means that the game won't get a lot of content updates for the time being. Rest of the content for the early access version will be added after switching to the private beta.
How to Gain Access to The Closed Beta
If you want to play Draft of Darkness in it's full glory, join our Discord server to become an alpha tester. I'm planning on switching from open to closed testing for the beta phase, so join now and become an active tester (or get the "Savior" achivement in-game) to keep your access to the game during the beta as well!