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How Redesigning One Core Feature of Witchfire Changed the Date to Early 2023

Who knew? (Everybody sane)

Who knew? (Everybody sane)

In the blog post with the Summer game Fest trailer, we wrote:

We’re aiming for Q4 2022. But we will not release, not even in Early Access, until we’re happy with what we have. You only have one chance to make a first impression and we respect your time and money.

It’s only the second week of Q4 2022 but I am here early to tell you: we are not going to launch to Early Access in Q4 2022. We are now aiming for early 2023. That is three “early words” in one paragraph. No, wait, four.

Usually, games miss their target date simply because developers underestimate the time needed to make a good game. It’s as simple as this. While we have not 100% committed to a day, month or even a year, we can also admit we will release later than anticipated. However, in our case, the reason is different.

And that reason is: we have redesigned the core experience of the game.

Well, not all of it. But a certain crucial element nonetheless.

To be clear, Witchfire is still a rogue-lite dark fantasy first person shooter. That did not and will not change. But the way the player experiences the world has changed significantly. We’ve upgraded combat and exploration from arena style to semi-open world style, and that took time.

I honestly thought that if we were ever late it would be because we tried to make a game that was too big or too complex for a small team like ours. While that is somewhat the case, there’s a pretty big chance we would have released in a month or two if not for the redesign.

All right, so what that redesign is about?

Originally, Witchfire offered you these vast regions to play through in a specific, very rogue-lite way. You enter an area, fight some monsters, and then have a choice: take this reward and go left, or take that reward and go right.

Hades is a good example of this approach. Here is the hero/player deciding between two rewards and thus paths:


There are many rogue-likes and rogue-lites with such design. From The Binding of Isaac through Slay the Spire to Returnal. Basically, the game world in such games is a series of connected areas, each with two, three or four exits:

Slay the Spire. Sometimes it’s a choice between Treasure and Treasure and that’s ok.
Returnal. Like Hades, built out of (wonderful) prefab arenas.

But how did it work in Witchfire? Don’t we have, as I just said it earlier, “vast regions”?

Well, here’s where magical barriers enter the play. Two years ago, in one of the updates, I wrote:

We need a barrier system […]. Basically, in games like Painkiller or Devil May Cry (see the example image below), magical barriers appear, blocking you from leaving the current arena. Even Soulsbornes do it for bosses [with the mist].

A magical barrier from Devil May Cry.

And barriers made sense. They helped control the flow of the game, and lore wise, they were witch’s traps. They were invisible from far away, and only materialized when the player got pretty close to the edge of the combat area. So they were not obstructing the view, and never got in the way. Well, other than blocking the player from progressing until enemies were dealt with.

In theory, then, we had the best of both worlds: barriers that served the rogue-lite gameplay while being kind of invisible.

Let me share a secret now, one additional idea we had (and prototyped, was working great) was that every new area finished by the player was merged with all the previously conquered ones. So imagine starting the game in the Camp near the castle, then fighting on the Bridge, then entering the Castle Hall. Because at this point both the Camp and Bridge are yours, you could retreat from Caste Hall, have enemies follow you through Bridge to Camp, and fight them over there.

But you could only retreat to the previously conquered territories, never push forward. Because: barriers. Still, the feature was something we have not seen before, and was quite fun.

A couple of months ago, though, I realized I hated the barriers.

Sure, they made sense, blah blah. But they felt old school, looked kind of bad, and limited the potential of the game. I knew I could not stand them anymore.

“Look, guys. We have these beautiful open regions, but during combat it’s all merely a decoration. It’s fake. I can’t use the environment to the max because I am limited by the barriers. I propose we remove them and redesign the game for that semi-open world experience.” – I said during the next meeting.

Almost everybody protested. Barriers are fine. We are too close to the Early Access release. This is too much for the player to handle. You get the idea.

Karol, who designed a lot of the game and implemented most of the gameplay, was protesting the most furiously. He argued that redesigning and rewriting all the systems connected to combat and traversal will take months, and it is not clear that the outcome will be even worth it.

However, I am not only a seasoned designer but was also a lead (and only) programmer for quite a few years early in my career. So looking at the systems and what we had I felt he was overreacting and the task was very much doable and relatively easy and fast.

I was, of course, wrong, and Karol was right.

Clusterfuck is maybe too strong of a word, but things were going neither smoothly nor fast. And whatever little we had was indeed just …bad.

After almost two months, I was ready to give up. I asked Karol if maybe we should go back to the barriers.

I expected an easy yes, because he was clearly not a fan of the new direction. Instead, he replied with: “No, hold on, I am actually seeing potential in this…”. And I knew he was having fun again, and if he was having fun, we were on the right track after all. So the new direction was not cancelled and we continued working on it.

To give you a small example of why this feature was a pain to develop… With the barriers, you trap the player, spawn the monsters, and voila: either they kill the player, or the player kills them, the barriers go down and we can move to the next area. Clean. Under supreme control. Easy.

With the semi-open world, the player can enter the area, spawn the monsters, then …escape. Should the enemies stay? Should they follow? But what if the player runs to another new area and triggers even more spawns? Should both groups of monsters merge? If so, what reward should the player get: one from the new area, or from the old one, or both? If both, isn’t it basically an incentive to run away to a cave and kite enemies to a narrow corridor? And what about the player just running amok and triggering one area after another, can the game handle a hundred enemies at once? Certainly not, so what do we do? Despawn? Freeze those behind walls?

Etc. etc. Hundreds of questions that needed answering. Hundreds of small solutions that needed implementing.

The feature is now 95% implemented. It makes the game better. It is kind of hard for me to imagine the player did not have that freedom before. Sure, you can still be trapped by the witch in this or that spot, and some doors will be closed until you find a key, and it might be too dangerous to enter areas closer to the boss before you are ready – but the world is wide open for you to explore in almost any order, and you can both push forward and retreat as you please.

It’s funny, but the whole thing made this fantasy game more …realistic.

But yeah, the cost of this is we are not ready with the game just yet. We have “lost” a few months with the redesign, and are only now back on track with the regular development. The good news: a great programmer and designer joined us recently, so the team got a bit bigger and that should help keep the development nice and steady.

Last but not least, expect something nice in a week or two. Let’s call it Witchfire Halloween Week. It won’t be any gameplay footage or stream or such, but if you are interested in the story and the world and great 2D art, it’s going to be a treat.

Question of the Week

Facebook or Twitter, we keep seeing this question:

We already said it when announcing that Early Access is exclusive to Epic Game Store, but of course some people might have missed the message, so here it goes again. After the Early Access phase, we will release on other platforms.

Epic is fine, Epic Game Store is fine, we like our cooperation. But the choice of where to buy Witchfire is yours. If you want to support us and play the Early Access version, it is coming to EGS soon. If you prefer Steam or maybe you don’t even play on PC and want a console version, just please wait a little longer, until the game is done. As simple as this. Peace <3

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