Reflections on GDC 2018

 (From Casey/The Consultant - CEO of Ship of Heroes/Heroic Games)

My reflections on GDC 2018

1. About Epic Games: Epic had a huge booth, as usual, not too far from the Amazon Lumberyard booth. There seemed to be less of a focus on engine developers this year, except for these two. Epic was in fine shape, and we had some very meaningful tech discussions with them and made a couple of new contacts for the future. This year Epic was busy explaining how they made Fortnite, in an entire series of talks. This was, in many ways, the technical highlight of the convention for us. We're still watching and re-watching the videos form a couple of these talks. One of the key conclusions was that upgrading to UE 4.19 is very significant for any team making an MMO with Unreal. Shortly we'll have a newsletter out about what we are doing with the SoH engine version, and why. But changes in 4.19 are significant enough that a lot of key tech suppliers are also releasing updates geared around the 4.19 release from Epic.

2. We were able to speak with a lot of industry insiders and experts at the convention. Not only do they often present, but they are generally accessible before and after their talks, as well. We walked the show floor multiple times as well, speaking with devs from SpeedTree, TrueSKY, and many others about their technology.

3. We were able to set an appointment in place with the founder and CTO of PopcornFX, with their superb game FX technology. This was really exciting, since Epic is moving away from their Cascade system and toward a newer system called Niagara, but has fully enabled PopcornFX in the Engine. We are going to be doing much more with PopcornFX (this also relates to engine version for us), which is part of our strategy to upgrade and also level the FX from superpowers in Ship of Heroes. It's hard to convey how exciting the Popcorn stuff is, when you see it. But our community is going to be seeing more and more of this kind of advanced stuff in-game.

4. On a personal note I had a number of very meaningful meetings and lunches. I have a favorite little Thai restaurant near to the Moscone Convention Center. I was able to meet Gordon Walton of Crowfall for lunch there one day. Gordon always offers me insights into MMO development -- he's an incredibly smart and generous person that I first met several years ago at GDC 2016. I also had a really fun meeting with Andrew Ross of Massively Overpowered. This was the first time I'd met Andrew, and we had a wide-ranging, fun talk, which became a very in-depth interview on MO. If you have not read it, it is worth looking at.

But one of my favorite moments was meeting up with one of our coders in person at the show. As some of you may realize, SoH is a small team, but we've still managed to get two guys named Casey, two named Chris, two named David and two named Justin. We also have two surnamed Smith (no relation). So here we were, in my favorite Thai spot -- the two Casey's, talking shop. As a virtual team, this was an unexpected bonus to the trip.

5. Summarizing: we spoke with many people, listened to many talks, and visited many booths. Some of my takeaways are the following:
  • The big move in MMOs is toward having more players on the screen. This is a good thing for SoH, as the underlying tech issues for this feature are significant, and every tech company that helps with this feature is directly good for SoH's development.
  • In single player games, the big trend continues to be in the direction of movie-quality visuals.
  • AI is big and gets bigger every year. Applications are apparently unlimited, from writing dialog to monitoring chat.
  • I think there is a move back toward subscriptions for MMOs and multiplayer in general.
  • More and more people and organizations are pushing back against toxicity in gaming.
  • I did not see anything that suggests to me that a niche game like SoH will not succeed. Just the opposite in fact.
  • I am always interested in the stories of other development teams and what kind of market research they utilized, when they decided to make a new game. I think this is an under-published field, along with some confusion over the difference between features and benefits, in gaming. Features are about the game. Benefits accrue to the player.

Anyway, this post has become far too long. But I enjoyed the conference, as I do every year, and I learned a lot. We're still following up on meetings we had last week. Now it is back to work for me. :)

The Map of Apotheosis City

  Just released - the official map of Apotheosis City

Every new MMORPG gets to the point where they can begin sharing the current version of the persistent level with their community.  Ship of Heroes is at that point right now.  The map above is the first viewable version of the map of Apotheosis City.  While every part of the city has not be allocated to a zone yet, it is clear that there will be about a dozen zones in the first playable level.

Apotheosis City is one of the most important cities on the FHS Justice and benefits from its proximity to the engineering level. It was one of the first 8 levels built of the Justice, while still in Earth's orbit and is the one of the most Earth-like environments, including a body of water, green spaces with grass, trees, and vegetation, and a holographic Earth-like sky, which will offer night and day and eventually changes in season to accommodate its human residents. Of course, many engineers live in Apotheosis City – it also has a special problem with Prometheans who inhabit unmapped access ways under and through the city and the Ship at large.

The Apotheosis City level is large – larger than the starting maps in City of Heroes and probably also SWTOR, for any of the first four game-entry worlds.  It is a large open world, not unbounded but large by modern game standards.  The devs have managed to avoid the dated look of endless prairie, desert, or similar-looking Soviet architecture that became common 10 years ago.  Comparing to modern games, Apotheosis City is about the same size as the map of Fornite’s Battle Royale, for example, but with much more urban space.

The FHS Justice uses a modular in construction with 20 levels (and sublevels) along with helm and engine levels, each level is .75 miles in diameter, like Apotheosis City but very different in function and appearance. The ship is 20.4 miles long. As the game grows, each level will become playable area for missions, careers, harvesting, and possible bases but there is a literal universe of potential expansion with alien and human ships and other worlds. 

This map will become a tool in-game, as well as providing fans with the ability to zoom in and place some of the scenes they already become familiar with – such as the Arch, the Science Park, Heroic Plaza and the Warehouse District.

The maps were created by the environmental art team at Ship of Heroes and exactly replicate the in-game maps from the beginning of 2018, which was used for the successful combat Alpha which was just completed.  The map will be periodically updated, and the next update will likely be in April of May.  Now that the first combat Alpha is over, the devs have a backlog of improvements to install into the game, and some of these will affect the map.

The devs at Ship of Heroes know that it can take an Indie team a long time to make a playable space really immersive – it’s all in the details – so they have been giving regular updates on the persistent level of Ship of Heroes for 15 months, and still have the rest of 2018 to complete the planned portion of the map before Beta begins.  The devs plan their newsletters, videos, livestreams and Alpha activities to showcase sustained progress in creating the new world aboard the FHS Justice.

The Devs of Ship of Heroes will be describing the zones in greater detail in future updates - for now players can speculate on the roles that each zone will play in Apotheosis City, the base level for launch where the adventure begins in Ship of Heroes. 

What Was Learned from the Combat Alpha

Heroic Games have released a newsletter listing the things they are working on and are intending to seek more thoughts from the community on as a result of their first combat alpha runs.They've listed some of the main points from the Alpha Run Highlights Video they released last month.

The points they're raised are as follows (you can, as always, read them on the official site as well):
  • 0:16 Characters like Sword Blossom and Ambassador should be able to sheath or holster their weapons. We’re working on this now, starting with the animations.
  • 0:59 Unbalanced FX. Some powersets like Fiery Blast are too visible.  Dark Magic Blast is in the middle, while Dual Swords is invisible in the fiery holocaust.  We’re evaluating possible improvements.
  • 1:52 Recharge times on some powers are too long. We need more instant-cast powers, and we are reviewing our global cool-down for powers.  This will also become a poll question in the future.
  • 2:36 One of Sword Blossom’s blink powers has developed a flaw. She has gained the unwanted ability to teleport outside of the ship, but not to return.  We’re fixing that.
  • 3:01 Enemies should attack relentlessly. We have already begun an enemy AI upgrade.  This upgrade will be affected by the poll results you’ve given us on this subject.  Our goal to is to add a new level of challenge to the AI.
  • 6:56 More combat stances are needed. You can see that while some of the powersets have combat stances, Iris and Green Pants Man simply return to a standing pose between attacks.  We will upgrade this soon.
  • 7:42 The jumping ability in SoH is different from most MMORPGs. One element of this is that we have realistic physics; you cannot jump into the air headed South and change direction to move East in mid-air.  But in many games you can.  We’ll be running a poll soon on the website to see which option the community wants to embrace.
  • 8:24 Rooted vs non-rooted balance of powers. It has been suggested that we should reduce the time spent rooted.  This is going to be discussed, and polled, in the near future.
  • 10:54 Sound FX needs review. Some loved the sounds associated with the powers, some disliked a few.  We’ve added a game sound designer to the team to review what have now, and review again as we add additional powersets.

  • As always, the place to share your thoughts, and shape the development of the game, is on the SoH  website and forums, at:
  • You can donate there as well, to help create this new game and establish a community with a positive, fun atmosphere.

 And Some other important points Heroic Games wanted to make about the Alpha Combat tests:

Many dev teams solicit feedback from their alpha activities.  Only a small fraction of dev teams will come out and publish a list of things they are going to upgrade as a result of community feedback.  The devs at Ship of Heroes just made the grade, once again showing true transparency and a commitment to continuous improvement of their new MMO.  Their closed combat Alpha began in February and is just wrapping up right now.

By identifying nine issues that have come up in their Alpha, the dev team is committing publicly to work on those issues, and to have either answers or improvements in the future.  Of course, one man’s improvement is sometimes another man’s unwanted change, so we’ll have to see how the SoH devs do with their list.  But simply by publishing a real list, and being open about how they are developing Ship of Heroes, this dev team has set a high standard. 

Showing video of actual gameplay by non-devs, and then making improvements based on the feedback are critical steps that should be taken before any MMO goes to Beta.  The Ship of Heroes team still has nine months before their projected Beta launch in December of this year to complete this set of upgrades, along with other work.  They have enough time to make the upgrades they are describing.

The devs at Ship of heroes are conducting an ongoing progression of Alphas, preferring to involve small groups of their community at many stages of development, and then openly share the feedback and results.  In 2017 they completed a first Alpha on their character creator, allowing players to work with the Alpha version of their CCT for weeks, and to publish characters (some beautiful, and some kind of monstrous) as a result.  Now they are allowing players to make combat runs and give feedback on the powers, enemies, movement and other elements of the current version of the game.  Next up, the dev team wants to enable players to test some kind of raid situation.  Testing raids in Alpha is unheard of for MMOs.

Anticipation for the Beta launch of Ship of Heroes is growing.  The dev team has been highly organized with their development activities, and watching their videos and reading their newsletters is like taking a course on how to develop a new MMO step by step.

Ship of Heroes expects to begin Beta testing at the end of 2018.

CEO of Heroic Games going to GDC2018

Spotted on facebook!

Ship of Heroes will be attending GDC 2018 next week! Casey [the CEO of Heroic Games] will be attending sessions, doing interviews and meeting with other devs, so keep an eye out for updates and photos (and if you are a developer or press and will be there, let me [him!] know).

Casey on SoH Alpha Feedback/PC Req/Optimization

Note from The Consultant (Casey McGeever) about the computers used for testing:

You can see it on the thread on the official website.

"We have a few other comments about using the lower power computers. First, we will likely give an option to turn shadows off. This actually doubles (or more) FPS without doing much damage to the player experience at all. Also, simply choosing 1280x720 (which a lot of games are built for) also doubles (or more) FPS on my laptop. Also it is important to realize that we see much higher levels of performance from desktop 970GTX than from the laptop versions, except in some circumstances. So the other elements of the hardware (like the CPU) do matter, as does your connection speed.

And we will have pull-down menus for helping with lower power computers, which UE4 enables now. And we are looking at the option of turning off the FX from other players (whether your computer is robust or not -- it seems some people like this option because they have used it in other games, so it has become a matter of personal play-style, and we are about enabling personal play-styles).

But finally, we also need to remember that we are putting a lot of effort into optimization, and we are not done yet. All of the pieces are not in place at this time. Just since we made the Night of the Clones video we've implemented a bunch of additional changes to enable higher speeds, and more importantly, more players in the game simultaneously.

Most dev teams really spend the last few months trying to optimize in a sudden rush before launch. We're working on these issues throughout development. This extra work kind of annoys our coders and artists, to be honest, but we think it is important to plan and implement our plan as we go, and not to rely on fixing under-performing systems and processes at the last minute. We will likely end up fixing things at the last minute anyway, but the year+ that we've been focused on optimization already gives us a better starting point than many MMOs.

If we were making a single player game, or accepting that only 20-25 players could be in a city zone at once, we would not need to do all of things we're doing. But that is not our aspiration."

More Alpha Runs Planned

On the official Ship of Heroes forum, Consultant said they they are planning a live stream with Neith today at 1:30 Eastern Time (presumably that's pm!). He also said he's looking for some volunteers to do an alpha run!

Quote from the thread:
We'll likely be starting to make runs this week, during the afternoons (US Eastern time) around 2:00. We'll be looking for a few volunteers who want to give it a whirl on a weekday, so if you are really enthused, send me a PM.

Latest from the February 2018 Alpha

Here's the press release:

This documents summarizes why the Ship of Heroes team thinks the Escorted Combat Alpha video is very significant (a direct quote from the press release):
  • Ship of Heroes has released video highlights from their successful combat Alpha, which focuses on team combat.  The team of six is comprised of three supporters who have never played Ship of Heroes before and three developers.  With one exception, each team member is playing a signature hero from SoH, and employing superpowers shown in previous videos. Sword Blossom, the Dual Swords Brawler, shows off a new offensive melee powerset for the first time.
  • This Alpha comes almost exactly one year after the devs first published a sneak peek at combat in early 2017, with a single character fighting a small group of Nagdellian raiders.  SoH has advanced a great deal since then, showing team combat, healing, tanking, buff and debuff, five offensive powersets, and three enemy groups.  The fight concludes with a boss battle against a giant mech lasting just over one minute.
  • The devs tell us they are making improvements, bug fixes, and expansions almost every day.  They’re also listening to their community; for example, some supporters on the SoH forums requested X- and Y- axis inversion as an option, and it has already been added to the Alpha.  In fact, one supporter was playing with his mouse controls inverted during the video.
  • The devs at Ship of Heroes plan to continue repeating this successful Alpha test with new groups of supporters for some time.  Dozens of people will get the chance to play the game, and give immediate feedback to a few of the senior developers.  It’s an unheard-of level of transparency for a pre-launch MMORPG.  We’re told the devs also plan to livestream at least one Alpha run.
  • The devs at Ship of Heroes usually record their videos in-game using a client-server arrangement to provide the same appearance that a player will experience, and they did it again in this video.  Each of the six participants downloaded a client, and then logged into an SoH server and played the game.  Participants for these tests were located all over the US and in Europe.
  • The three enemy groups in this video all pursue different combat strategies and possess different powers.  For example, the Nagdellians use ranged weapon attacks and can beam in reinforcements during the fight.  The Yekus can ignore taunt, and identify and attack the team’s healer, draining her energy.  The Promethean boss at the end can hit a large area with a powerful AOE attack, and can also target individuals with a nearly-lethal strike.
  • Ship of Heroes is making remarkable progress.  The SoH devs are using a process of continuous integration, expansion, and improvement, not trying to build a final work product in secret.  As a result, the Alpha video shows familiar elements such as the characters that have been made in the SoH character creator, the same persistent map – including recent improvements – and upgraded versions of previously-revealed FX.
  • This is the 20th Ship of Heroes video published in just over a year. A timeline of progress would show the first two devs getting started 22 months ago, recruiting a mixed development team of players, volunteers and contractors, and delivering steady progress.  Less than 16 months have passed since the SoH website went live, and 14 months since the first video, which showed Apotheosis City, appeared.  A previous successful Alpha test of the SoH character creator (CCT) occurred five months ago, and the devs are reported to currently be working on a CCT upgrade based on community suggestions. 

Ship of Heroes is being developed in the Unreal 4 Engine, and is planning a Beta launch at the end of 2018.

And here's my take on things so far:

  • I was lucky enough to be invited along for one of those runs and I was very impressed with the way the city looks: Yes, it really is that clean and shiny and new and you can jump up onto things and run around all over the place... and we did.
  • The signature heroes we played were created in the character creation tool that Heroic Games have built. The same one that the players will use.
  • The combat is smooth. There was no lag at all connecting from Europe with Skype (yes, I know!) running in the background.
  • I mostly played as Iris, the witch. Her dark powers activated without any issues apart from the global cooldown on most of them and the block on using them while moving - both of which I promptly complained about mentioned as possibly requiring further consideration :)
  • We identified a few things that we thought should be changed, such as the aforementioned overly enthusiastic block on using powers when moving and the current lack of feedback when you hit an enemy as melee, and the devs were receptive to the ideas. In fact they'd identified a lot of those themselves but hadn't had time to change them while preparing for the alpha tests.
  • The sound effects are the same placeholders as in other videos.
  • The enemies, as we found out, have vastly different aggro ranges and tactics they can call on by design. It's going to be interesting meeting these for the first time in the live game.
  • Most components of the UI can be moved around and locked in place and, yes, we do now have an x/y mouse invert (yay).
  • We also found out that Sword Blossom is a trouble maker...

All in all, considering this was an early alpha run to get feedback from players, it was very impressive, as well as being reassuring that things are going really well. I'm looking forward to the next updates and waiting (im)patiently for the game to go live. Open beta is currently planned for the end of 2018.