I have been saying that I want to demo Exon at a live event for… well, ever since I bought my big dev laptop. Which, according to my calculations, was seven years ago. I have not managed to demo Exon at a live event in that time. Oops.
But now something’s coming. Soon, Exon WILL go to the ball! Luckily I already have a demo that can be exhibited, but its structure is maybe not ideal for showing off to wandering crowds. There must be something small and quick that I can add that’ll be a little more appropriate…
I am a solo player myself, so of course Exon is designed to be played that way first and foremost. Since Fragment is simply the prologue chapter of the final campaign, there’s a lot of dialogue and a lot of “empty” space to meander through; it is structured for a single person to explore at their own pace, to soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the little details.
All that “dead time” of exploration works when you’re alone in your home, just doing your own thing. It’s maybe less engaging in public; passers-by aren’t going to sink into a multi-hour epic at an event, where there’s a constant churn of bystanders in motion and shoulders being watched over. And, well… this is an opportunity to advertise, so I feel like I need something a little more eye-catching than one person reading conversations and struggling to pick up items for ten minutes.
As always when this topic of conversation comes up, my thoughts turn to the Arena.
One reason that I built the Arena first was a plan to make the game demonstrable in a fairly short, snappy and engaging way. Self-contained arena battles seemed like a good way to do that, while also stressing out problems with my enemy AI by putting them in the most complex scenario.
I discarded this plan because I didn’t want people to get the wrong idea — Exon is not a multiplayer game, but the Arena’s team battles against complex bots can make it look like it maybe should be. That’s the opposite of what I want. The Arena is merely an optional amusement; after all, what RPG is complete without a gladiatorial side quest? But a casual observer who saw only the Arena might make the wrong assumptions and ask the dreaded question, “is it multiplayer?”
However, the structure of the game has evolved again since those days. When you press New Game on the main menu, there is now a campaign selector.
I wasn’t expecting to add this feature for years yet — I wasn’t planning to have more than one campaign until I’d finished the main one and started on any “expansion packs”. However, the project to get Exon running on my little laptop led to the creation of the Ultralight mini-dungeon, a very short — but distinct — bonus campaign. Ultralight is, of course nowhere near ready yet, but the fact that game mode selection is now a first-class citizen offers us an avenue worth exploring.
Consider: somebody sits down in front of Exon and they can choose to either try out the full power of the prologue or dive straight into an Arena match. It would be clear that this is a side dish rather than the full meal. Since the main menu is accessible from anywhere, as soon as that person moves on from my booth, the next person can either pick up or go back to the main menu and face the original choice. They can read the short descriptions and Know.
The rub of course is that the Arena is nestled at the heart of a fully-fledged RPG campaign map. It’s large and dense and there’s no easy way to jump straight to it. Unless…
I haven’t touched any of the Arena or its logic for ages — it has been stable for quite some time. That means it’s ripe for me to just copy and paste it, then trim off all the surroundings. This leaves me with a tiny little level that contains only the Arena and a few triggers for setting it up.
Funnily enough, the resulting Arena compound is quite small and although it contains a lot of items, it only ever has a maximum of eight units running around inside it. This suggests that this stripped-down version might even work on my little laptop — which would make it ideal for demonstrating even more, such as at regular local gamedev meet-ups. This could make Ultralight irrelevant. Oops.
Either way, deleting swathes of level is always fun. Burn it! Burn it all!
With the Arena safely compacted into a standalone scenario, the next step was to make a menu from which to enter it.
Instant Action is not quite the same as a campaign so this took a little bit more thought and engineering than you might expect. Although you always come in to an Instant Action match with no strings attached, you still need to be able to customise your character — and for those customisations to persist between games. However, you’re never going to “save” your progress — it’s only the customisations that need to be remembered. That calls for a trimmed-down save system, which can maintain your hero’s name and colour scheme from the first Instant Action match you play and forever after.
(A part of me wants to also keep track of your Arena winnings, so you can just accumulate money forever. Given the way my save/load system persists character customisations, it might already be doing this.)
I had the first draft of Instant Action ready and rolling within a single afternoon — and that was after I’d hastily cobbled together an extremely niche joke for April 1st! Another morning’s work fine-tuned the character settings and cleaned up a few rough edges.
Given the event in question is on the 31st of May, that leaves me with something like six weeks to spare. I always said I wanted to get Exon‘s engine to the point where I could pump out content pretty quickly, and although Instant Action required a small amount of new logic, it came together fairly naturally on top of systems that already exist. All those years of restructuring are finally starting to pay off! I told you it would happen!
I suppose I now have an obligation to make some alternative Arena maps, so there is more than one choice of where to battle. Indeed, there’s nothing explicitly “Arena” about Instant Action, so I could even experiment with other types of short, high-octane scenarios. No rest for the wicked…