Archive for July, 2010

Alexander: DoE Post-Mortem

Friday, July 30th, 2010

ADoE has now been out in the wild for a full month, clearly a good time to take a look back at the lessons learned. ADoE’s reception has been both incredibly positive and a crushing disappointment. First, the positive side: a magnificent traffic peak and some great feedback. About a week after launch, ADoE hit its popularity peak at 300k views per day, about three times higher than my previous best. This was right on par with the peaks I’ve seen on some of the most popular flash games. A very promising beginning, and a sign of the potential of strategy games. Then came some excellent feedback praising my excellent unit balance, graphics and challenging gameplay. Furthermore, a couple people seemed to be sincerely hooked on the game and had probably played it even more than I have.

But then came the negatives. After its impressive peak, ADoE has been steadily plunging towards what appears to be an early grave. Currently it’s nosing down below 80k views per day. To be fair this is still excellent traffic by most standards, and all games fall down from the initial peak. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a peak at all, now would it? Still it has been a rather fast slide, and its causes are obvious in retrospect. Without a doubt, ADoE is a deeply flawed game whose many shortcomings are now clear after weeks of critique. The game has been called a completely unoriginal Warlords rip off, which I think is a little harsh but not entirely off the mark. I myself have called ADoE a Warlords clone when describing it to friends, and I originally envisioned the game as Warlords with more map-level strategy. I’m not claiming that it’s hugely innovative, but I would still argue that the many map-level elements do make it rather different from Warlords. Yes, the lane-based combat is very similar, but so what? How much mechanical difference is there between Modern Warfare and Bad Company? Besides, the differences in my combat system are not insignificant. ADoE uses a resource pool for unit spawning rather than cooldowns, its battles are far more fast paced, its units can’t pass each other, it has a limited number of units, and it has stronger counter relationships than Warlords. And it has six lanes instead of eight, so take that! Completely original it ain’t, but then again there’s absolutely no such thing as complete originality.

The other points of critique are more valid, and many of them I saw coming well before launch. The most unexpected one has been the flood of bug reports, mostly about issues I’ve never been able to replicate and can’t fathom the causes for. In future projects I should clearly pay more attention to testing and learn more about debugging tools. But for the players that manage to avoid the game-breaking bugs the most common complaint is the brevity of the game. This is something I was always well aware of, and it’s a factor that just on its own prevents ADoE from becoming a fully fleshed out strategy game. It takes no more than two hours to conquer the entire map, and the game becomes stale long before that. It starts on a strong note, but becomes somewhat repetitive over time and all too easy towards the end. There are different difficulty levels, but no other reason to play a second time. There are no multiple factions to choose from, no additional maps, and no achievements. ADoE is quickly dying because it lacks any lasting value.

Why would I leave such an obvious flaw in the game? The chosen setting is largely to blame for having just one faction, and a series of quick solutions is to blame for the unsatisfactory map-level gameplay. I originally decided to have an end turn button, because I didn’t want to force players to attack when they weren’t ready for it. I saw this as a problem in late game Warlords, where I would keep losing but could get barely any further upgrades with the measly rewards given for defeat. Then, to prevent the player from hitting ‘end turn’ again and again until they had everything, I added AI field armies that would attack you periodically. This was difficult to balance but worked pretty well. It made sense to me for these armies to spawn from Persia itself, and then to stop spawning after Persia was taken. But removing the field army mechanic at this point made the rest of the conquest trivial. But I didn’t want to force an end to the game right after Persia, nor did I want to move the field army spawn location somewhere else. Even before taking Persia, the field armies have the somewhat illogical habit of growing ever stronger as the Persian faction loses territory. This issue would be compounded if the field army kept moving around amongst the last remaining provinces, still growing steadily stronger for no reason other than to provide a challenge for the player. Historically, it would also make little sense, as there was no serious contest after Gaugamela and the surrender of Babylon. To be accurate, the challenge really should end even earlier than it does. Egypt should also surrender and greet you as a liberator, but that might be taking things a bit too far.

There are certainly some smaller flaws in there as well. Unit balance and the upgrade structure aren’t perfect by any means, and could have used more testing. Still, they’re not too bad, and have benefited from minor tweaks I’ve made in response to feedback.

Financially speaking ADoE was only a modest success. There was little sponsor interest initially, but fortunately Jason from finally swooped in with a decent offer. Considered as a stand-alone project, it’s arguable whether the whole thing was worth the time invested. The equation isn’t quite that simple though. I think of this game as a proof of concept and a vital learning opportunity that can carry me on to much bigger and better projects. I’m still very much a fan of the lane-based combat mechanic, and believe more can be done with it. It has unexploited tactical potential and it’s a wonderfully easy way to make large battles, with units only traveling in straight lines and having to only track other units within the same lane. Also, some of the feedback has convinced me that there is very much a demand for strategy in flash gaming. Most importantly it’s not as much of a casual demand as most other genres. People get invested in these games to the point where they’re willing to pull out credit cards. And once your players become worth more than a tenth of a penny, you can start to build more of a niche, where the game relies more on depth than breadth. ADoE isn’t there yet, but it’s a start.

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ADoE Released

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

My new game of grand strategy is finally available. It’s been a bigger task than I ever expected but that’s usually the way these things go. There’s also plenty of things I’d like to improve on. Faction selection and terrain effects in particular would be cool. Though the former addition would obviously need some more factions. Obviously, more units would be welcome as well and there could be more environmental variety, perhaps with some background scenery. If ADoE proves popular and my sponsor is interested I may get around to doing a Julius Caesar sequel with at least some of these features. Early numbers on ADoE look promising, but let’s see how it goes.

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