AI War 2 v0.756 Released! “Retrieval of the Lost Arks” Plus an Essay, Apparently.

Release notes here.

Okay, this one has some huge marquee features, and I have some other things on my mind, too.  Let’s get to it!

First off, it’s pretty obvious that there are absolutely copious numbers of bugfixes in here.  Also, if you downloaded this build within the last couple of hours, then you’ll want to restart Steam to trigger a re-download, because we fixed yet more bugs (and added a couple of other bits).  I say “we,” but I really mean “Badger did.”

My favorite bug that was fixed recently was the one where ships would visually explode when going through wormholes. :)  I knew there would be some fallout from the overhaul I did of the ship rendering code, but I didn’t expect one that funny.

Now, onto the big-deal stuff.

Arks Return!

We’ve been talking about Arks returning since we laid out the pivot document a few months back, and the idea was always to make them basically like Champions from the first game.  The lobby doesn’t handle these super gracefully yet, but basically if you select an Ark then you get a nifty unit that is powerful and can fly around and attack stuff.  Their stats DO vary, so it’s not just cosmetic.

What’s different about these from all other ships, however, is that after a certain amount of killing-of-enemies on the same planet the Ark (either by the Ark or by other ships of yours), you’re able to spend some science to unlock a higher-level version of the Ark.  Do you do it?  That’s up to you.  The higher-mark ones have new abilities, like a shield, zombifying gun, etc, etc.  They basically become like Golems.

If Arks die, they go to remains and you have to go repair them with engineers.  WARNING!  If they die in enemy territory, you’ll have to capture that planet before you can repair them to working status.  Ouch.  So do be careful with them.

Unlike the pre-pivot versions of AI War 2, these are not required to be part of your game, and nor are they the “king unit.”  Your home command station is your king, as was the case in AIWC.  It can’t leave the planet it started on.  That just feels a lot better.  All the various other things from Arks in pre-pivot AIW2 are also gone, like the Arks aggro’ing enemies majorly when present there, or being required for hacking, or being the source of warhead deployment.  All that’s gone.  Hackers will do hacking, missile silos will spawn warheads — as with AIWC.

Arks are a bit of a funny beast.  They definitely change up the game and give you a major edge, too.  So what’s the AI going to get in order to counterbalance this?  Well… nothing. :)  My goal is going to be for Arks to be optional, but for the game to essentially be balanced around assuming you have them there.  So if you play without them, you’re just playing at a handicap, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.  But Arks themselves should be things you don’t fear to use, and that don’t come with a lot of negative consequences — they should feel powerful and fun.  Playing without them should feel exciting and dangerous, like playing down a rook from the start of a Chess match.  Both should be a lot more positive experience-wise compared to if we started applying a stick to people who use Arks.

Arks will continue to evolve prior to Early Access and into it, I’m sure.  We also have a bunch of other Arks that we’re going to add, that we already have graphics done for.  I think it’s 6 or 8 more, I can’t even recall.  Blue did fantastic work on them months ago, and I just haven’t had time to integrate them yet.  For the moment, there are 5 arks to choose from.

I’ll need to adjust the story some regarding the nature of the arks, but the canonical story will be assuming an ark is present, as now.  I suppose rather than the last bastion of humanity, it’s now more like the Starship Enterprise or somesuch.  Sorta.

AIs Re-Taking Planets Again!

This was a really Big Deal feature that people always wanted in AIWC, and that we had in pre-pivot versions of AIW2.  As part of the pivot, they were stripped away.  Now they’re back, but in a new form.  They come as waves, give you notification, and have to be turned on in the lobby as an option.  This is a really exciting thing to have back in a new form, because this is one of those marquee features, so far as I’m concerned.

Waves Against Other Factions

This is a fun one.  For factions that go about capturing planets, the AI now gets pissed and sends waves at them, too.  So now you’re not the only one singled out for that.  Should make for even more organic chaos going on that you can take advantage of (or hide from).

Destruction Points For Certain Techs

Remember how I said the Arks have to have a certain amount of destruction happen around them before you can unlock their techs?  Well, we have a version of that which is for “whatever else,” too.  In this case it only counts AI ships that are immobile.  So it’s offensive destruction done by you personally (not allies).  You can’t farm waves, etc.

The purpose of this is to gate certain techs until later in the game.  We won’t be using this a ton, but it’s a useful mechanic to have.  It accomplishes a couple of things:

  • Because of this, you’re able to get access to new stuff beyond the start of the game without actually having to capture specific planetary targets.  This is a pretty big new idea, because most everything else is territory-based.  This is, instead, territory-agnostic.  You have to have been doing SOMETHING to earn these unlocks, but the specific geography doesn’t matter.  I can see us using this in a variety of ways.
  • This is a way for us to gate off too-powerful-if-early techs, if we want or need to.  But rather than it being something lame like a time limit (people play at different speeds), it’s based instead around your offensive progress.
  • This is also a way for us to mildly gate off too-confusing-for-new-folks techs at the very start of the game, and these pretty much overlap with the category mentioned above (too powerful).

Now, before the inevitable complaint here: there’s plenty going on at the start of the game, and nobody should be feeling like we’re intending to dumb down the early game in some sort of forced tutorial.  This isn’t a tutorial mode.

Right now the only item that uses this is the Auxiliary Space Dock, which is something that is potentially exploitable if someone is willing to waste clock time in the early game to just rack up salvage, etc.  The auxiliaries (AIWC-style mercenaries) are meant to be an outlet for excess metal in the later game, not a crutch in the early game.  It’s worth noting, however, that even seasoned AIWC players were a bit surprised and confused by the presence of mark IV auxiliary ships on their planets early in the game.  Making these have a moderate destruction point cost, and a very mild science cost, solves both problems at once.

One other unit I’ve been thinking of putting behind this is the mobile builder, although I’ll be honest I don’t have a super good justification for that.  It just feels right, somehow.  I’ll be curious if anyone has any thoughts on that.

Beyond that, I see this as being for the first bullet point — a territory-agnostic way of revealing late-game stuff that is new — rather than something that gates off things you’re already used to.  So please breathe a sigh of relief. ;)

More Factions Can Be Selected!

We made some hacky changes to the existing lobby — which is still slated for ripping-out, and which we’ll be sharing some designs for to get feedback on soon — so that there’s now room for you to select more factions at once.  So now you can actually test more than just two at a time, which is very nice.

That GUI…

I’ve done a fair bit of technical work on that for this release, a lot of which isn’t really that exciting for you if you’re just looking at it.

But the text is more crisp now, which is a win, and part of that is because of my switch to the perspective camera (orthographic cameras can’t be used in deferred rendering mode, which we’re now using only for the gui camera, specifically to get that crisper text).

It’s also now possible for us to do things like rotate and tilt the GUI, or to mix 3D objects in with the GUI with that having proper perspective.  That was something I was planning to make more use of, but after testing that out it didn’t really look all that good, so for now that’s shelved.  The capabilities being there is still a win, though, and this was still required work in order to get the clearer text rendering.

The big thing that has been bugging me lately with the GUI is the theming of it, and what that should be.  I’ve had people say that they don’t like how colorful it is, and I get that to a certain extent.  Badger has also noted that he wishes it looked more like a military display, like the first game felt, and I definitely agree with that.  I think that a military display can have attractive colored sections on it like I’ve been doing thus far, but the theming just isn’t correct yet.

The problem is that I’m trying to avoid anything too glitzy and crazy when it comes to how the GUI looks, but at the same time theme it so that it feels… cool.  Like something you want to be looking at, but subtle enough not to feel cluttered and like it’s dazzling your eyes.  That’s a tough order.  I’m trying to tackle a lot of that myself, because I’ll be honest I don’t really have funds to pay for Blue to go through iterations on it right now.  I’m not quite sure what I’d even ask her to do, just yet, anyhow, so it’s moot at the moment.  There are some pre-designed GUI skins that I’ve been thinking of adapting and building in from graphic river, but there are none that are fully what I want, and I’m in a money-shy position where I’m not just jumping on a bunch of them at once.

Anyhow, so it’s something I’m thinking about.  One thing I spent a goodly amount of time on today was coming up with a way to put blue and red pixels into a single image, for glows, and to then colorize the result based on that.  Aka, having the main color get applied where it’s white and red, with red being darker sections, and having the border color go where it’s blue.  It was a clever bit of shader code, and it works well.  I can also push the colors into the HDR range by doing this, which would be intersting for bloom.  But the actual result wasn’t any better than what is there now, so I shelved that for now and just hung onto the code.  It’s there in the ModdingAndGUI project folder, if you want to look at that.  A test image and material, too.  I may wind up returning to this in the future as a way of having more compact dictionaries and less overdraw, and thus saving some work on the GPU, but for now I have bigger priorities.

Speaking of bloom, that sort of glowy GUI is something I keep experimenting with.  We did that sort of thing in The Last Federation, for example.  But when you do that sort of GUI, it can be pretty hard on the eyes after a while.  And that was a much more sparse GUI than what we have here with SO many icons.  And I can’t really get a good result, by hand or with bloom post-processing shaders, that doesn’t just wind up looking smudgy.  I was hoping more for a computer screen look, but I just am not feeling it thus far with that.  That’s part of why I’m not yet sure exactly what I want the GUI theming to look like; the nature of the icons that go on them, and in particular the ship icons that are a big part of it, has to fit with what’s behind it or it just feels very disjointed.  I’ll figure it out, but it’s been a frustrating saga so far.

Coming Up Soon: Stats Revamp… and Procedural Stats???

Right, so I buried this one pretty low in this long, long post (thanks if you read this far).  I wasn’t trying to hide it, I swear. ;)

First of all, right now the way we have stats set up in the game is really confusing, coming partly from a spreadsheet dumped out of AIWC, and partly out of a lot of very-indirect xml.  I’m going to normalize all that data, and then dump it back into the XML in an easier-to-adjust-and-mod fashion.  It will be harder to make mass edits, but it will be easier to mod specific units (and their descendants, mark-level-wise). So that’s coming up, and then I expect folks will start tuning some things along with us a bit more.

Anyway, the spreadsheet was intended to get us to having “exactly AIWC” as the balance for the first part of the pivot, which was a big goal of the pivot.  However, despite that, we’re just frankly not having “exactly AIWC.”  The squads throw things off, and the way that the AI behaves and is seeded is too different.  There’s more to making it exactly AIWC than just the stats.  I will say that we’re a lot closer to AIWC, and it feels like a proper sequel now rather than some other game, so I’m calling it good on that.

Prior to “calling it good,” we were supposed to hit a point where we verify “this game is fun.”  Are we there yet?  I’m honestly not sure, but I think so.  I think a lot of that comes from the work Badger has been doing with all the new-style content, though.  Moving back to having core AIWC-style mechanics has made it so that what the player does is more familiar, and that’s a big part of making it fun again, too — but the big thing is having new and interesting things to explore.

One of the continual themes of the content Badger has been adding has been “more chaos,” though, I think it’s worth noting.  Basically more factions out there, doing what they do, and it makes it that much harder for you to predict what the heck is going to happen in the game.  That was, in a sense, my original goal with AIWC all along.  You can go back to my posts from 2009 where I was talking about how I didn’t want every campaign to play out the same, even from the very first few minutes of a campaign, and how I wanted people to be forced to find themselves in unexpected situations and then adapt.

Well… with all these factions running around, the amount of simulation complexity (in a good sense, not a CPU-draining sense thanks to multithreading) is WAY up.  It’s a lot more like The Last Federation, or Galactic Civilizations or Star Control or something.  It’s NOT any of those games, and doesn’t go to the depth of any of them.  This isn’t a 4X in the sense of having politics or any of that stuff.  But that sense of having Others out there doing things that often don’t involve you is… cool.  Being able to stumble across opportunities that are genuinely unique to a given campaign just because of the luck of timing and the specific things that were seeded in this galaxy that were not in the last galaxy you played.

And THAT brings me to the topic of balance, and randomness, and my original intent with the plethora of units in AIWC.  Here are a few observations:

  • In a PvE strategy game, true per-unit balance isn’t super important as long as you have a fun time, are challenged, and ultimately feel like you have a fair shot at winning.
  • The biggest risk is boredom, or always choosing the same strategy, in this scenario; having super-units that are clearly better than everything else every time, so be sure to pick them, stinks big time.
  • The individual unit-type caps, rather than a global cross-unit-type cap, is one way that we already try to combat this.  Having tons of types of units, and not all of them being in the game at any given time, is another.
  • A huge challenge for us, however, is that with all that content it can take a LONG time before super units are teased out.  We don’t have enough manpower or testers to make it so that someone’s first experience with the game won’t be them finding a super-unit and just blasting through the game and remarking on how poorly balanced the thing is.
  • THAT said, when it comes to roguelikes and dungeon crawlers with procedural loot, and you happen to get an exceptionally awesome sword or whatever… it’s worth noting that your thought isn’t “this is poorly balanced,” but “wow I’m lucky this go-round, I’m going to enjoy this power while it carries me for a while, because I won’t see it again.”  And you’d be right.

So what that brings me to is thinking about having randomized stats and modifiers on all ships that you and the AI control.  At least on the fleetships, starships, and turrets, anyway.  The idea here is that you’d be trying to tease out what is most useful in your CURRENT campaign, and not relying on an external wiki or overly-generalized advice like “always pick parasites,” or whatever.  The ships would still be based around an ability or a general theme that would stay constant, but what they are strong against, how strong and fast they are, how much health they have… those things would vary, and would be part of the name.  So you’d have things like Vicious Sluggish Fighter in one game, and Generalist Hardened Fighter in another, potentially.

With a change like that, the fact that we don’t have the manpower to balance things goes out the window, and frankly it feels like a marquee feature to me.  I’m curious what others think, but to me it’s very much inline with the idea of “discovering unique situations and dealing with them using whatever you have.”  Some games you’ll have a flamethrower, other games a box of hammers, and you need to figure out how to deal with things either way.  Obviously the idea would be to make it so that you have a realistic number of good choices in all cases, but we’ve certainly been around the block on that front many times in the past.  It’s a much more tractable problem than trying to individually balance hundreds of ships, and lets myself and modders and players focus on more interesting problems.  And it creates genuinely interesting new gameplay… right?  Am I missing something?  Why didn’t I think of this before??

ALSO as part of this, something that I’d be able to do is cut down on the number of crazy bonuses and immunities and such that all the ships have.  The tooltips are a mess just like in AIWC right now, and there’s no good way to solve that.  Eric has been tearing his hair out.  That’s a huge barrier to new players, and it’s a pain even to experience players trying to read all that junk.  I want to have ships have just one type of hull they get a bonus against, and have that be picked from one of a few possibilities in a given campaign.  So if you need to kill something with neutron armor, you can quickly look at your ships that hit neutron armor hard, but other than that it’s a matter of intuition and how you use your ships.  The damage bonus needs to be huge against that given type in order to be worthwhile, and there may be certain types that you just have to take on without any bonuses.  And vice-versa when the enemy is attacking you.

I want to then focus more on bringing a few crazy new ship abilities into the game that hopefully rely more on the background threads (where we have room on the CPU, still) versus just relying on “yet more ships and shots on the screen.”  I still have more conceptual work to do there, but my hope is that drags things yet further into the “what the heck is this new situation” territory.  Ultimately that’s what this game is about, for me: coming up with a goal you know you have, and then having to study the problem and attack it a few different ways before you crack it.  It shouldn’t be about repetitive maneuvers hoovering around with your fleetball (unless you crank the difficulty down).

I know it seems like the 11th hour in terms of this stuff, but we are not getting enough people testing anyway, and this will only take me a day or three to implement (the procedural stats), so it seems worth a go.  If people hate it, we haven’t lost that much time.

Curious on your thoughts, though, to be sure.  This has been ultra-long.  3700 words!  That’s like 15 freaking pages.  Sorry about that, and thanks for reading. :)

The Usual Reminders

Quick reminder of our new Steam Developer Page.  If you follow us there, you’ll be notified about any game releases we do.

Also: Would you mind leaving a Steam review for some/any of our games?  It doesn’t have to be much more detailed than a thumbs up, but if you like a game we made and want more people to find it, that’s how you make it happen.  Reviews make a material difference, and like most indies, we could really use the support.



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