This is going to be long. I beg for forgiveness up front.
So for those of you just tuning in, Elemental has just completed a marathon 8 month Beta 1 cycle. The purpose of which was to explore all kinds of new game mechanics and try different things out. It went so well that in our next game, I’d like to bring the beta people in even earlier.
For Beta 1, we stripped out the graphics engine forcing users to play on a “cloth map” interface. We went through considerable lengths to ensure that beta 1 was unpleasant to play. The goal was to get people to think about what makes a good game rather than thinking about graphics or features per se.
From that marathon beta we got a incredible amount of feedback, online discussions, and lots of debates. We read them at length and they made us think about a lot of different things that we hadn’t thought of before.
So what was the impact? Below I’m going to walk you through the tangible differences to the game based on the betas and the beta tester debates.
No one will ever agree on the single best way to make Elemental. No matter what we do, there will be dissatisified people. It’s inevitable because (and I consider this unfortunate) the gaming industry has reached a point where there is a severe lack of what we call “new IP”. That is, games that don’t include a roman numeral after the name. Worse, when we do get new games, they’re increasingly designed to work on both PC and consoles which means that their feature set has to work on the lowest common denominator. As a result, Elemental has a lot of hopes behind it.
But we have to be careful. Anything designed to be all things to all people is doomed to failure. So with Elemental, we’ve had to really consider what the game is about and focus on that game.
Camp #1: The Settlers Camp
This is the camp I’m nominally from. That’s where you mine resources which in turn get processed into one thing and then turned into another before being used as yet another. The economic system in Elemental was (early on) very much like this. You mined metal. This metal was processed into metal bars which in turn were turned into weapons, armor, etc. Which in turn were shipped to where you wanted to build the unit.
This was one of the concepts that the beta program jetisoned. Not because it was a bad idea but because A) there is a “Settlers” game already and it would so overwhelm the rest of the game.
Camp #2: The Master of Magic Clone Camp
I am nominally part of this camp as well. This camp’s input tended to be “Master of Magic had X” and that itself was enough to argue that Elemental should have it. While Elemental is almost certainly the most similar game to MoM since MoM itself, it is, by no means, a clone of it.
Camp #3: The Fall from Heaven Camp
The popular Civ IV mod has lots of fans (myself included). There’s certainly plenty of items in Elemental that are similar to what is in Fall from Heaven since both ultimately are civilization style games.
Camp #4: The Panzer General / Magic: Total War camp
This is the group that argued, quite correctly that with a subtitle “War of Magic” that it made sense to focus on the warfare elements of the game.
Camp #5: The SimFantasy camp
The term isn’t meant to be dismissive of those who would like a truly organic world. At the one extreme, you have Elemental as a board game and at the other extreme you have Elemental as a fantasy world simulation.
5 Major changes from the beta group
So what are some of the big changes that occurred because of the massive beta?
In no particular order:
- The Economic System was completely changed. Early on, like Civilizaiton and countless other games, Elemental had resources stored at the city level rather than the “civilization” level. Beta testers successfully lobbied for a system that has turned out to be a lot more fun where resources go into a global pool but if a city gets put under siege, it is taken out of that global pool. This makes siege warfare meaningful while at the same time letting players focus on their Kingdom (or Empire) rather than dealing with a particular city. It has also, in play testing, helped eliminate two age old problems: City spamming and late game grinding.
- A new technology system. The tech tree system in Elemental was completely changed based on feedback. This was largely due to the sense that Elemental’s system should be more about recovering lost techs than “discovering” the wheel. This is a world where one researches an area and recovers a certain technology. This has had a tremendously positive impact in making each game feel differently in our internal testing.
- A better spell system. The old spell system is still in the screenshots. We were married to it but beta testers successfully made the case that spells should be learned through acquiring spell knowledge and then “purchasing” those spells. Since Magic is such a central part of the game, giving players the temptation to grab some weaker spell early (or go for the more powerful spell behind door number 2) was more compelling.
- Tactical Battles. Tactical battles haven’t been part of the beta but they’ve been heavily discussed. Originally, tactical battles were designed to be RTS. Then Continuous turns. But as time has gone on, it’s become clear that the gameplay that people (and frankly that we enjoyed the most) was more closest to XCom. That is, turn based. Tile based. Moving units to the best spots. And eventually working to have your units in spots that are easy to spot the enemy while they themselves are hard to find.
- The role of NPCs. Early on, NPCs were just going to be recruitable fighters. But during the beta, it became clear that was far more interesting to give players the option to go out and find units that could help their kingdom economically versus being forced to build a city on turn 1. Now, players have a realistic choice between city build up right away versus going out and trying to find some good allies right away. Both strategies have risks but now they’re both viable strategies.
With Beta 2 expected in the next couple weeks, we’ll have a pretty good idea whether release is going to be this Summer or next Winter. (Fall is “booked” at retail). I personally believe that late Summer is still likely but we’ll see. Beta 2 will give us a pretty good sense of where things stand.
The big questions in our minds will be the role of the NPCs in the world and the role of quests in the world. Their inclusion are the most obvious “differentiators” for Elemental. We’ll be balancing and enhancing those features for years to come.