Much Love at AVCon

It was wonderful to return to my home city of Adelaide to introduce gamers there to Forts during AVCon. After a bit of difficulty getting our passes we made our way to set up on Friday evening. Eventually I had a couple of power cords tested and tagged and then we hit the town for a bit of last minute shopping. I needed two cordless mice and a network cable for showing multiplayer. This time we had three machines: two laptops and a PC. After that Anna and I had dinner at the famous Yiros shop on Rundle Street.

Brad who organised the Indie Game Room did a stellar job. There must have been 50 odd games on show altogether. We were between the venerable and popular Armed with Wings and a new developer called Somewhat Interactive showing a meditative mobile game called Slidance, involving sliding squares around the screen. Across the way was Mighty Kingdom’s mobile game Boombot and Volnaiskra’s platformer Spryke – a fun but challenging game featuring a fish as the player character.

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My good friend from Ratbag days, Szymon, showed up in the morning to assist for the day. The morning started slowly but soon we had a steady stream of players checking out the game. I had spent some time crafting a new map to exhibit at shows. Previously we used a more-or-less symmetrical map with a combatitive AI. This showed players the core gameplay, but the learning curve was too steep, causing frustration.

This time I gave the AI a larger structure but fewer powerful weapons: several machineguns and one heavy mortar. This minimises enemy attacks and reduces the number of fires the player must put out, while still showing action and putting a time limit on the game. The player has a complete array of weapons to wield with a short gap to bridge in order to control two missile launchers. Of course most maps do not start like this but we want new players to experience an exciting introduction to the game.

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This new strategy turned out to work almost perfectly. I could show people how to select and fire a single weapon, how to group two similar weapons and how to repair damaged structure. This would keep them going for a while. If they really got into it I would show them how to extend the structure to control the missile launchers, which are more complicated to aim and fire. If players happen to suffer critical damage they could restart to give it another go.

One young man play the game for over 2 hours. I had to ask him to give other players a go – and he gracefully gave up his seat and then started teaching the new players. There were many youngsters of six years old and up who also gave it a good bash, showing that the usability improvements we have made since PAX Aus last year have paid off. D1DLC had me on camera for a short interview, and today Forts appeared on Brad’s top picks for AVCon.

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There were a few minor issues with the map. The first was the absence of tech buildings, so if any advanced weapons were lost they couldn’t be rebuilt. Another was that due to the fog of war feature, which hides the internals of the fort, it was not obvious where was best to target or what the AI was doing. I addressed these issues on Saturday night, making a mod to unlock all weapons, and turning off fog of war in the mission script. Sunday was busier than Saturday and the changes improved the experience. We managed to set up a few multiplayer games too, which are always fun to watch and coach.

One of the highlights for me was seeing Anna teach a more mature woman the ropes, and then see them defeat the enemy fort. The game appeals to a wide range of ages and both genders. Feedback was very positive and one gamer told Anna he loved the game even before he played it. We managed to collect about 60 email addresses for the mailing list, and gave out perhaps 100 cards.

All this is very encouraging. I’ve got a few more ideas on how to improve the introductory map, and a list of small changes that should reduce building frustration and make aiming easier. These smaller events are very useful for getting feedback and refining the user experience. Big thanks to Brad, Szymon, Anna and the AVCon organisers and volunteers for helping to put on a great show.

Making the Forts AI Whole

Work continues apace. Nick has been developing the single player campaign and touching up a few of the graphics. Jeff has started on the music but we’ve yet to hear it. We know it will be great!

I’ve had my head buried in optimisation, bug fixing and filling holes in the AI. In Forts you can connect to ‘neutral’ structures and instantly gain control of them. The AI was able to do this, but if the neutral part of the structure was destroyed it couldn’t replace it.

Now it can rebuild even if the whole structure is gone. At the beginning of the match it scans the world for structures it owns as well as neutral ones and builds actions from them for reconstruction. It ignores structures it never intends to connect to. Additional joint creation actions need to be added where the human recorded AI fort pattern connects with the neutral structures in case the destination node is gone.

Sometimes the AI gets stuck on a particular action, unable to execute it. I’ve introduced a frustration system so after several attempts it gives up. Frustration levels of all actions are decayed periodically, so any frustrated actions will be attempted again. Some actions can execute but form unstable structures that soon collapse. I’ve got to detect when this happens and add frustration so the AI tries something else.

Another thing the AI had trouble with was the ropes. They are treated differently to other materials in that when the player (or the AI) creates a rope the game creates a series of linked invisible and unselectable joints along the length of it. Any of these links can break, but the AI had no knowledge of them and so could not replace them. Now the game follows the rope back to the end joints and reports these to the AI script. It is also told about which link actually broke, which allows it to attempt reclaim of the dangling bits of rope.

To help me quickly test this functionality I’ve build specialised maps. The image below shows the AI rope test map. You can see a (dark) neutral structure in the bottom right; ropes don’t claim them. When you attach bracing, armour, etc. to the structure it lights up and you can manipulate it and any weapons on it.

Testing the AI reconstruction of ropes