Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!

Hey all — Chris here.

We’ve hit a juncture point with AI War 2. We’ve built a lot of cool things, learned a lot, and now it’s time for a soft reboot. The current plan is to pivot the gameplay to very closely resemble the original AI War, but on our new engine, and then build up from that foundation.

Achievements So Far

So very much is going right with this game, from a technical level and an engine standpoint.

  • The game is crazy moddable.
  • It’s multithreaded to take full use of modern computers.
  • The 3D aspect is working out well.
  • We’ve figured out a variety of new tricks that definitely do improve on the first game, and can be kept.
  • The UI has already been dramatically improved by the introduction of a tabbed sidebar in the main view, and streamlining of several other mechanics that felt very difficult in the past. Eric (as a volunteer) has been a godsend for the UI, and we have pages and pages of more designs from him that we’re going to be working on in the next two months or so.
  • Badger (as a volunteer) has been an incredible tester, volunteer developer, and general help to getting us this far at all; he’s created the Nanocaust faction, as well as a new and better implementation of both Human Resistance Fighters and Human Marauders, among many, many other things.
  • Folks like zeusalmighty, chemical_art, Draco18s, and Magnus have been wonderful sources of thoughtful feedback, commentary, testing, and even map creation.
  • We’ve got art for over 130 distinct units (not counting different mark levels), and we’re set up well to finish off the rest of the art despite the staff changes noted below.
  • We’ve got over 1500 lines of spoken dialogue from more than 25 actors, focusing primarily on the human side at the moment; we have a few hundred lines of AI-side taunts and chatter, some of which is recorded but just not processed yet.
  • There are hundreds of high quality sound effects for a varied battlefield soundscape (with distance attenuation if you’re far away, and positional 3D audio if you’re down in the thick of it), all routed through a tuned mixer setup for optimal listening to all the various parts.
  • We have a set of music from Classic that is over four and a half hours long, and the new music from Pablo is partly in, but mostly set to be mastered and integrated within the next week or two.
  • There’s also a ton of map types, many of them new, and with a lot of sub-options to make them even more varied.
  • We’ve created half a dozen custom Arks as backer rewards, we have another four in various stages of completion, and there’s a lot of cool variety from those folks.
  • With a lot of the other custom art-related rewards (custom flagships, fortresses, and gold merc paint jobs — 21 backers affected in all, when you include the custom Ark folks), since we’re having staffing changes in that particular area, we’ve offered alternative options to those backers, yet said we’d honor the original reward if they prefer. We’ve had a mix of both responses, both of which are fine, and things are proceeding well there.
  • Other backer rewards are either already delivered (game keys of all sorts, many of the custom Ark rewards, backer badges, antagonistic AI voice line writing), or something that are still on the todo list but easy to handle prior to 1.0 (custom wallpapers, planet names, cyber ciphers, antagonistic player voice lines, custom AI personalities, and other non-art merc bits).

New Teaser Trailer!

On that note, here’s an excellent new teaser trailer that Chris and Craig created together. It’s light on details, but it’s just a teaser, after all:

The Sticking Point

The new game just isn’t living up to the first one’s legacy. We started out with a lot of design shifts away from the original AI War, and the design just hasn’t been as robust or fun as the original.

  • In AIW2, so far, there was no real sense of logistics. Things felt too simple.
  • The combat was basically getting you to just “fleetball” all the time, though that wasn’t our actual intent.
  • The defensive options felt too limited no matter what we tried, and player Arks wound up sitting away in a corner with their offensive fleet having to return home frequently to help with defense.

The Two Paths

We’ve done quite a lot of engine work to make the actual game that runs on top of it mostly data-driven, so we have a pretty decent amount of flexibility here. For the last few months, we’ve been chasing various issues in gameplay, trying to tidy those up, but it just kept feeling less and less “like AI War.” So, we had two options:

  1. Keep doing that and hope for the best, particularly that it magically starts feeling “like AI War” again.
  2. Go back and actually make AI War again, at least the base game, and then build from that foundation rather than starting way off somewhere else.

As you have likely already gathered, we’re going with option 2. As players, Keith and I have been really let down by how different certain sequels felt from their predecessors, and we really didn’t want to do that to you folks.

We want this to be the sequel you truly wanted, that takes the original game and then goes forward in a refinement fashion. Total Annihilation turns into Supreme Commander, not SupCom becoming SupCom 2. Age of Empires 1 begets AOE2, not AOE2 morphing into AOE3. All of those games listed are good, but there’s a reason that the second in each series is typically more acclaimed than the third.

Future Growth

We do know that some of you backed for something more radical in departure from the original game. Why have the same old experience again? That’s certainly a valid point, and that’s why we talk about this as being a foundation for future growth.

Look at how much the first game grew from version 1.0, way back in 2009, through six expansions and version 8.0 in 2014. They’re radically different games. That said, we were constrained at every turn by an engine that was designed for street racing, and that we were trying to take offroad. That just doesn’t work.

The new engine for AI War 2 is so robust and flexible that we can take it street racing, offroad, or underwater. Maybe we can have our cake and eat it too, at least eventually? Based on the underlying engine, there’s nothing stopping us from having n factions, xyz ships, and all sorts of new sub-games and mechanics on top of it if the response to the baseline is positive enough.

One example: We’ve floated a variety of crazy ideas about hacking in the last few weeks, for instance; and while those are Way Out Of Scope right now, there’s nothing stopping us from implementing those exact systems or something like them a year or two from now, once we know the baseline game is fun and feels “like AI War.”

Second example: in the preliminary design document we’re working on, check out the section way at the bottom about using Arks as champions. That’s something that we want to attempt sooner than later, and it could be an enormous leap forward on the “radical new ideas” front. Same with the mercenaries section in that document.

Schedule Changes

At this point, we’re looking at Early Access (the “fun point” fulcrum) being sometime in July. That will give us a lot of time to further implement Eric’s UI and refine some visual elements and whatnot while we’re at it. Obviously, schedules change, and this is a tight one on the side of Keith’s core gameplay work.

THAT said, the transition toward the fun point is going to come in 5 overall waves of core features from Keith. The 1st wave being minimum set of units to have a functional, winnable and losable game; the 2nd focusing on core variety; 3 and 4 focusing on various toys on human and AI sides; and 5 wrapping up the last toys as well as adding the minor factions noted on the design doc as being pre-fun-point. (Nemesis and Spire are both post-1.0)

Hopefully we’ll have a general idea of our progress, and people’s reactions to it, throughout those five waves.

After Early Access starts, there’s a bunch more stuff to add and tune, and we think the 1.0 can still be October. Some of the stretch goal content (Spire, interplanetary weapons, possibly some merc stuff) may be after 1.0, but that was always the plan, anyhow.

Staff Changes

All the above said, this is not coming without cost; it’s a major financial blow to the company, and unfortunately we can’t afford to keep our longtime artist Blue after April. She’s been with us for five years, and will be sorely missed, but we’ve known for a while this might be something that had to happen (as did she).

We’re basically folding back down into a quasi-one-man company, although that’s giving me too much credit. I’ll be the only full-time employee, at any rate. Keith is part-time and has been for some time. With the AI War 2 project being almost a year over schedule, something had to give. For myself, I’ve taken on a lot of debt, and am about to take on more.

We Remain Committed

You better bet that the game is going to come out; we’re working hard to make this truly shine, not just as a half-baked, unenjoyable mess. We’re determined that this will arrive at 1.0 as something that we can be proud of and that you can enjoy for many hundreds of hours.

This Isn’t an Engine Overhaul

We want to emphasize this! The AI War 2 engine framework isn’t changing much. The engine we built basically kicks butt, with all the moddability and support for advanced UIs and multi-threading, and so much more.

What’s changing is what we do with that engine, back towards something we know was fun on a different (much worse) engine. That solid baseline will be something we can have confidence in, and will be a great place from which to grow.

Example question: “Is the engine is flexible enough to go back to the original vision of mobile Arks as your king unit, and no stationary home command station?” Answer: an emphatic YES. The engine is so flexible that you can designate a king-unit option in XML and select it through the interface. That king-unit could be a squadron of fighters if you want, or the largest spirecraft with steroid stats. All of that can be done, at this very moment already, without any need for more than XML edits.

The 40+ Page Design Document

Measure twice, cut once. We’ve just spent the last week going back and planning things. Here’s the detailed design document.

In general there are a few upcoming stages:

  1. Working on getting it to match the AIWC base game. (The Pre-Fun timespan.)
  2. Players declare it is as fun as the base game of AIWC was. (The “Fun-Point.”) We may take it to Early Access at this point?
  3. We start bringing in more features. (The “Post-Fun-Point.”)
  4. We release the game to 1.0, probably in October.
  5. We do more stuff to meet our obligations as well as our personal goals. (The “Post-1.0 period.”)

At this point, Keith and I are feeling like the feature set as planned for the pre-fun-point is pretty darn huge on its own, and then there’s a variety of stuff planned for pre-1.0 that makes it even larger. We weren’t trying to expand the scope, but such is life.

There are also a number of ideas of varying tentativeness for after the fun-point that we want to try, such as bringing Arks in as a champion style. Things like that should really make the game feel like it has been taken to the next level compared to the first.

Looking for Modders!

Did you know:

  • ALL of the game data is in XML in AI War 2?
  • Adjusting ship stats is as easy as using a text editor to change a few numbers?
  • Adding new ships is just a copy-paste and then edit situation in those same XML files? You can use temporary graphics, and we can do real ones later.
  • All you need is Visual Studio 2015 Community Edition (which is free) or similar in order to edit tons of pieces of code for the game.
  • You can program map types with ease, GUI things with pain (that’s just UGUI for you), and make AI tweaks and similar somewhere in the middle of those two poles?

We’ll provide as much help as we can in getting you the info you need, and documenting all of this as things go on. If you have questions about where anything is, you can always ask Keith or Chris. Badger probably also knows, and before long we hope to have a solid stable of folks who know this well enough to help others.

Further, I feel it’s worth pointing out:

  • If you disagree with us about something relating to balance, you have the option of tuning the numbers yourself in your local copy and then showing us why we’re wrong. (Of course you can still ask us to do it, as has always been the case — but we’re no longer a bottleneck.)
  • If you make something particularly cool, then with your permission we’re happy to integrate that into the main game as an option that people can access without having to download something separate.
  • We wouldn’t have some of the cooler features that the game has right now, like the Nanocaust or some of the more interesting Dyson Sphere behaviors, if it wasn’t for Modder #1 — Badger. We know there were more of you who wanted to get involved in that sort of capacity, and now’s as good a time as any.

What do we WANT from modders?

A good question was raised: what are we really asking of modders, here? Honestly, that depends on the modder.

Some folks like putting in interface bits to solve personal pain points that they had with the original interface. Others have ideas for creative extra factions — for instance the Nanocaust — and we’d love to have those be something that you’re working on as we move toward 1.0, rather than as we move toward 2.0. If it’s all the same to you, anyway, it’s more valuable to us sooner than later, if that makes sense?

But in general, it’s kind of a “hey, if poking around at games like this is your sort of thing, we’re throwing a party and you’re invited.” We’re happy to show you around the house, not just throw you into the deep end of the pool without floaties.

Short Term Goals

We’re going to be aggressively pursuing the Fun Point, with Early Access to follow; and meanwhile building up and refining the UI, controls, and so forth to be the best that they can be.

Long Term Help

On the further volunteering end of things: if you want to help out with any sort of balance testing or custom unit design using the mechanics that we decide on as final, then the XML is easy to edit, and our doors are always open on our forums and on mantis.

Thanks for your continued support!

Best,
Chris

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