It’s a new decade, and Exon is officially six years old. That’s three times as old as my previous record holder, the WC3 total conversion Project Y4, which clocked in at two years. And it’s not even done yet! Not even close to done!
The Arena, however, is done. You can jump in, smash up some bots, and either win or lose. Which means it’s time to FEATURE CREEP YEAAAAAAAAAH! (It’s not feature creep if they were planned all along.)
The Most Productive TIme of the Year
Okay, it’s not all been fun and games.
The main aim of the Arena is to provide a big stress test of the core combat loop. This also means managing difficulty, and since I hate arbitrary numbers, I want to do this with personality traits instead — with easier units physically doing less optimal things and harder ones being quick on their feet. Needless to say, when I tried to start doubling down on this, cracks began to show.
Luckily, this was all happening in the festive season — traditionally the Most Productive Time of the Year. So, I spent most of the run-up to crimbo rewriting the entire bot control stack, from states of mind to target selection and ability usage. It took a while (and I rewrote that main behaviour/state of mind system twice in my week off before crimbo) but I’m much happier with the final setup. Now, when I give a bot traits that should make it more successful (e.g. faster reactions, the ability to use more than one piece of equipment at a time), it actually does get more successful (on average; they’re still not geniuses).
(I spent the weeks after crimbo playing Deus Ex and Invisible War; fair’s fair! Also it’s research.)
With a solid and (hopefully) robust core loop, I moved on to doing more superficial things.
The Arena scenario itself, of course, still needs decorating, so I amped up my pipework and non-specific industrial buildings to keep things visually interesting while also chopping up the actual playable space (i.e. so it’s harder for bots to get a clean line of sight for a rocket charge).
In order to even the odds with all the new bot behaviour systems, I also filled the compound with items. Numerous health and armour packs now dot the Arena so a quick player can get ahead of the competition. There’s also a special equipment spawner on top of one building (which alternates between dropping a Super Health and an Energy Thrower stun gun), plus a few runs of smaller health vials and armour shards…
Around the Arena
All of which means the central compound is now complete, and it’s time to move onto the surroundings.
Since Exon is an really RPG, it’s important to me to start pulling in that side of things, so I’m embracing the old “what if you could talk to the monsters” adage and adding… a green room. Yes, once you’ve fought up to 7 other players in the Arena, you’ll be able to talk to them about the match.
This has brought me back to the conversation system, which needs a bit of a tune-up but is in otherwise decent condition. I did the Baldur’s Gate-style dialogue engine ages ago, and refined the pop-up speech bubble system for the Arena combatant taunts, but in order to make the green room dialogue adapt to the result of your previous match, I’m going to need to add conditionals that change what dialogue nodes come up. Fun.
I’ve also split up the mechanism that manages the moment-to-moment Arena gameplay from the mechanism that sets one up — it is now possible to trigger a 4-player match or a full 8-player one. It’s amazing how the feel of the game completely changes with the number of combatants. Four is much less frenetic, there’s more room to move and more time to relax between encounters, so it’s a much much better introduction to the game.
With the bot characters now being more segmented by their personality traits, I’m kind of angling towards a short tournament ladder, or at least a suite of matches roughly organised by difficulty level. Right now every game picks a number of combatants from the one big pool, so it’s pot luck whether you get a slow-moving scrub on your team or a relenteless killer. I reckon at least a small level of predictability will be nice.
Along with that, it’s high time to fill out the Arena’s other function — as part of a training ground for new exons. Wrapping around the area will be The Gauntlet, an assault course tutorial that’ll take you through the finer points of movement, combat and more. Anyone can take a shot at the gauntlet for free — or rather, for the price of taking part in an Arena battle at the end, as the facility is funded by selling tickets.
The main thing about the Gauntlet is that it’ll be optional: you can go straight to fighting in the Arena, or even (once I’ve drawn the rest of the fucking owl) ignore the lot and walk straight to the the campaign proper. Although I’m developing Exon: Arena as a stand-alone vertical slice, it will keep on being the first level of the full game after that.
Exciting, isn’t it? If we’re lucky, I might even manage to ship something this year…