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Witchfire GGU Diary 2: Rambo, Time Stealers and Dark Fantasies

Explaining the design pillars of Witchfire

Explaining the design pillars of Witchfire

This isn’t the easiest blog post to write.

No, nothing bad happened. It’s just that we had our Witchfire release party – hey, better late than never – last night. It started innocently enough…

…but many bottles were opened that night and after the dinner we all went back to the studio and talked, accompanied by even more wine, until 5am. So yeah, all I dream about right now is to disappear under the blanket and play a game or watch a movie. Mmmm…

But, as they say, noblesse oblige, so here’s another GGU (our first big Witchfire update) diary entry.

The Date

Let’s start with the date, because we’re seeing people expecting the GGU to hit any week now. That is not going to happen. In the road map post, we wrote:

Planned for the second half of November but may slip to December if it needs to: we’d rather delay than cut the scope.

And it will slip because we have actually increased the scope. This is our first opportunity to shine, and we do want the GGU to shine.

The release might not even hit December, but for a different reason this time. What do you think it’s the biggest enemy of a nice content update for an Early Access game? Is it some big title releasing on the same day, stealing the spotlight?

I mean, obviously this can be it. You probably should not release a game or a big update around the same time GTA6 launches.

But that’s not it. So what it is, is it bad luck?

As previously, sure, this can be it. Our friends at Starward Industries have just released The Invincible, their sci-fi adventure based on a certain book of Stanislaw Lem. But on the same day the reviews hit the web, the first episode of the highly anticipated second season of the animated TV show, Invincible, premiered on Amazon.

So yeah, the world was talking about nothing else but Invincible, just not the Invincible that Starward have released. Talk about stealing the spotlight, not to mention the confusion that followed.

But that’s also not it.

It’s the sales.

Both shops, Epic and Steam, have their seasonal sales. If you want to murder your game, go ahead, release it during a sale. I guarantee this will work.

And the second half of December is more or less when the Holiday/Winter sales begin.

But is it still as bad if you just release an update, though? To be honest, no idea. Please remember, we’re new to this. Collectively, we have hundreds of years of experience in game making. But none of us has ever released an Early Access game. So …maybe?

Actually, let us know if you can. Our Discord, X, Facebook – whatever works for you. What do you think about releasing the GGU during the Holiday sales? Would you play it or would be busy with your new purchases?

Rambo and the Coward

It is extremely hard to write a diary about making a thing while not wanting to spoil the thing. Sooner or later we will have to start revealing new weapons or spells, but until that happens, let me talk about the way we approach the design of these things. If you’re curious how games are made, you might find this interesting.

Internally, we have divided the players into four categories:

  1. Rambo Skilled. This is an aggressive player, one that loves to push forward and attack first. They love the mayhem and have the skills to survive the combat that is up, close and personal.
  2. Rambo Unskilled. The player who loves the chaos and prefers shotgun to the sniper rifle but just does not have the skills to survive for long, be it due to the simple skill issue or not fully grasping the mechanics and intricacies of combat.
  3. Coward Skilled. The goal is more important than the heat of the fight. Will do whatever is necessary to win and is a bit risk-averse, as survival is everything. Understands the mechanics and systems well, and chooses the right tool for the job.
  4. Coward Unskilled. Prioritizes defense and safety, will take as much time as needed to thin the enemy numbers from afar before pushing in. The problem is, does not have experience, manual skills, or understanding of the mechanics to be efficient at the game.

To be clear, “Coward” is not meant to be an insult, just something that’s opposite to “Rambo”. For example, I would personally place myself as Coward Skilled.

All players either belong to one of the above four categories, or, depending on the mood or opportunity, switch between the two core personalities, Rambo and Coward.

Now, how does this apply to the design of Witchfire?

Let’s take a look at how we designed the four core elements of our magic. We have Fire (Fire), Water (Ice), Air (Shock) and Earth (Decay). Hmmm… Four player types, and four elements, what a nice coincidence. Should each element support a different player type?

It should, and that’s how we designed them.

Let’s start with Fire. When applied to enemies, it makes them burn. Burning enemies receive more damage. The effect lasts a few seconds.

This is obviously a Rambo Skilled element. It allows a skilled player to eliminate enemies faster, and control the flow of the battle. As it lasts only a few seconds, you need to be good at killing. And to have it recharged quickly, you need to murder fast. And so the fearless players with excellent awareness, movement and aim will benefit from Fire the most.

For Rambo Unskilled, Shock will be better. Shooting a Shocked enemy sends out the Shock bolts to all nearby enemies, including those the player missed to notice. So this benefits players with weak situational awareness not only by weakening all enemies around them, but also by actually pointing out these enemies. If the damage applied is high enough, the bolts will also knock back these nearby enemies, meaning the Rambo Unskilled can continue the slaughter despite not quite controlling the battlefield.

Then we have Ice, which works great for Coward Skilled. It decreases the chaos on the battlefield and allows the player to focus on escalating the weapon, like placing proper headshots to boost the Hunger’s damage.

Finally, Decay might be the favorite element of many Cowards Unskilled. Apply Decay, then run away or hide. The enemy is being damaged while you’re safely chilling behind cover.

Now, does this all mean that, for example, Rambo Skilled should never reach for the Ice spells? Of course not. On the contrary. Note the Skilled part. A skilled player understands the mechanics. And so Rambo Skilled will either use Ice to escalate the weapon and then wreak havoc to enemy hordes, or to temporarily remove some enemies from combat. Approach a group of enemies, freeze them, then ignore them and focus on the non-frozen enemies. When you’re done, that first group will unfreeze and re-enter the combat but if you’re Rambo Skilled, you probably have only them to deal with now …and the Ice spell recharged from killing the others.

So this benefits the skilled players, but what about the unskilled ones?

Well, this is where a good build or …luck come into play. For example, I said that Fire is a Rambo Skilled tool. But how can a Coward Unskilled use it? Well, there’s an Arcana that makes it so any shot on a burning enemy counts as a critical shot. Imagine. Throw the Fireballs at a group of enemies. They start burning, and you just spray them with bullets, without aiming for the head because now everything is a crit. So you lack a bit in the skill department but who cares, they are all dead and you’re not.

This design philosophy is applied to everything in Witchfire. Spells, items, weapons. And we make it so you can juggle between personalities and make anything work for you.

But if so… What is the point of being skilled, when unskilled can also make progress in their quest to hunt down the witch?

And so here’s the final element of this puzzle. While you can win the game being any of the four player types – although worth noting that “unskilled” does not mean you can suck at the game and still win, this is a very relative “unskilled” we’re using here – only the skilled players are able to consistently escalate the weapons and achieve the highest damage and efficiency. Hunger lovers will confirm what the ability to consistently land headshots does to the numbers…

The Time Stealer

In the previous entry I mentioned a game development lesson I would keep for this installment, so here it goes.

Until today, when you launched the game, the screen was just black. After the menu and the level loaded, the menu was displayed and you could start the game. But until that happened – 100% darkness.

To some people, especially those with slow HDDs, or those launching the game for the first time and having shaders compile, this was concerning. Did the game freeze? Is it even loading? What is happening?

So we’ve decided to deal with the issue and make it so something is displayed on the screen immediately after launching the game. Preferably something animated, so it’s clear the game did not freeze and it’s just loading.

Sounds easy but it’s not. UE supports displaying a video for cases like that, no problem. But we wanted even more control, in case we’ll have some genius idea of what the loading screen could display. And so we achieved that …but it took us a week. A week of investigating, seeing how others solved it, programming the solution.

It’s good that we have it now and a skull’s flame animates during that initial loading and we can display some nice Bible quotes, like:

A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.

Leviticus 20:27

But …is this something we truly needed for GGU? Let’s be honest: probably not. You would not have listed that in your top ten things you’d like to see in the update. So we should have done something new for the game instead, something that is clearly new content or new feature. Animated loading icon could have waited.

Oh well, lesson learned. Actually, we knew it wasn’t the right choice a few days into the thing, but then the sunken cost fallacy stepped in and told us to finish the feature. So we did.

Lesson learned. We’re now filtering any new feature by asking ourselves the question: is it useful or is it exciting? If it’s useful, it takes the back seat. We want the GGU to excite first.

Till next Wednesday!

Question of the Week

Yep, we will continue the push towards the darkness. One of the two big new maps is definitely something very atmospheric, and the other map will be straight horror.

FWIW, this requires a true design discipline on our side. We do have the tendency to go a little crazy, so to speak. If you ever played Painkiller, you might notice a certain trend. The game begins as pure dark fantasy. The first level is a cemetery, the second features undead monks, the third is literally catacombs full of ghouls.

But then… Things start going in, let’s say, unexpected direction. Opera house full of ninjas, because why not. Or modern Docks with fat gangster types as enemies.

Yeah, we had a lot of fun designing these but let’s be honest, this yolo design would never fit Witchfire.

It’s not the only example of how we get carried away. I remember that before Bulletstorm, Epic asked us what game we wanted to make. I send them a few proposals and they chose Bulletstorm. “Heh, you’ve chosen the one that’s the most normal”, I said to Mike Capps, who was the head of Epic at the time. “Yeah, because I know that if this starts normal, you will end up making it crazy. But if you start with crazy, such game might end of being a mess.”

You gotta admit, the man was right. Bulletstorm did end up being a bit, cough, crazy. Forever in our hearts, Waggleton P. Tallylicker.

So anyway, yeah, Witchfire is made with iron design discipline, and the dark fantasy direction is something we love and want for the game. What exactly do we do to support this is a good idea for another blog post, I think.

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