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What's Goin' On.

Hey everyone, a few words about recent progress and where we're headed. In my last post, I talked mostly about the addition of Voice Chat, and mentioned that we were getting back to work on more "game" oriented aspects of development. Beyond some new missions and other stuff, you haven't really seen much of this as of yet, so a few explanations are in order.

For one, the last major release (1.8.25, last Friday) put into production some of the final touches of Ray's redux of our object-handling system. This has been in the works for quite awhile, I've made mention before of "database changes" and whatnot, and this is basically what I was referring to. Prior to this, all the actual game-content definitions in our game, the ships and weapons and so on, were statically defined in a Lua file contained within the game client. Whenever we wanted to add a new ship, change the behaviour of a weapon, and so on.. we had to release a new version of the game. This wasn't really too bad, since we have a frequent release schedule, but it became rather time consuming and unwieldy to prototype and test new ship or addon definitions. Plus, it made more "dynamic" content definitions more problematic, like those that might be used under special mission circumstances, or perhaps for player Events.

This new system, on the other hand, makes a lot more dynamic data manipulation possible. For instance, we can now (in theory) change most of the parameters about in-game objects live, on the fly, and have the changes propagate out to existing instances of the objects in the game. There are caveats to this, of course, and I won't go too deeply into our various architectural trade-offs. The important fact, for me, is that I can now make new "game stuff" (ship definitions, addons, whatever) and prototype them on the test server, and then push them into production.. all on my own, at any time. Of course, we haven't actually tried doing this yet, and I'm sure there'll be some testing and tuning to go through, but the functionality and toolset are now in place, which is a pretty huge improvement.

For one thing, this makes balancing new items a lot simpler. Instead of the old see-sawing weekly release process, where I could only tinker with nerfing and buffing every week or so, changes can be implemented immediately.. and instantly impact all previous instances of a given item.

This also has a lot of cool potential for player Events and such, where it might now be possible to actually create event-specific game content. New graphics would not be feasible (that still requires a patch), but new stats and behaviour should be easy.

In the slightly longer run, this hold a lot of potential for our crafting system, as it makes the "creation" and tuning of a large array of items and equipment a more easily handled reality. We're still working out the details of how we're going to implement our Manufacturing system (our version of Crafting), but I'd like to shoot for something a bit different and more open-ended than I've seen elsewhere. Of course, this has lots of balance concerns, and the ability to instantly correct issues within the game would be a major boon.

Anyway, this system is still being polished up. Ray is hoping to complete his work on this by tonight (Fri) and move on to other topics. He and I will be getting back to working on the Faction/FF system and universe redux immediately after, hopefully next week. We all know there are plenty of problems with these systems, and they need to be addressed.. Now.

In other news, Michael has been doing some cool work on a web administration interface for us, which could make our support issues a lot simpler to deal with. Currently our support system is all handled via email, which is far less than ideal. Under the new mechanism, users will be able to submit forms via the website (when logged in) which will then open a support ticket and inform various people, allowing us to spread things around and make sure no one falls through the cracks, so to speak (or falls through the spam filter, or whatever else). I'm sure this isn't really the most exciting thing to you guys; but anything that frees up my time, or makes it easier to distribute responsibility, gives me more time to work on gameplay, both current and long-range.

Michael and Andy are also at work on the mechanics of bot-handling for the PCC missions. We currently have two mechanisms for handling NPCs: the older "legacy" system constructed for the PCC editor, and the newer "Kourier" Erlang-based system built for the Hive/Border Skirmish/etc. Kourier is our intended long-term mechanism, it properly handles a lot of uncertain cases, and makes continuous bot control a reality. The PCC missions, however, still use the older system, which makes a lot of desired PCC features more troublesome to implement, and also makes the missions less reliable than we would like. So, Andy and Michael are trying to transition the PCC mission editor, and related aspects, to work with Kourier.

Aside from the obvious mentioned cases of increased reliability, this also makes bot persistency and grouped missions a lot more realistic. Our PCC beta members have long been asking for a tool that would let them create persistent NPCs within the galaxy, each with specific behaviour, reactions, dialogue and the like. With the old system, this is possible but.. inelegant and kind of bad. With Kourier, this is not only possible but exactly what the system was created for. One of the common newbie complaints is how "empty" the universe can sometimes feel. Obviously, player counts and our extremely large galaxy have something to do with this. But also, there really isn't nearly as much automated "Stuff" floating around as there should be. It was always my hope/intent to have a great many types of NPCs flying to and fro at any given time, some of whom might just have interesting drops (the trivial case), while others might have missions and news and secrets/stories, or simply present an unusual challenge. Peculiar NPCs who crop up in specific places at specific times, pirate clans who rove to and fro but can be wiped out by the players, and so on. The more powerful the toolset we have to create this kind of thing, the more diverse and interesting the NPC/bot population will become. And that, I think, will make our universe a great deal busier and more interesting.

Last but not least, there will be a game sale promotion happening over this coming weekend (July 19th and 20th) with Mac Update. So if you have any friends who you think might like to try out the game, this will be a great opportunity to get a couple of months of time at a discount (1/2 price, roughly). I believe there will be a banner ad and some other info posted on their site over the weekend. Hopefully we'll get an influx of newbies from this, so, as always.. please be nice to them :). Show them how we're different from many other MMO communities.

Take care everyone, thanks much, and have a good weekend.