Sunday, November 26, 2017

Shake It Off

Part twenty-two in a weekly(🏃) devlog.

Standard development disclaimers apply. This is pre-Alpha content, everything is subject to change, features may not be present in the final version, there's a chance none of this will ever be released, etc. etc.

There shouldn't be any plot spoilers in these posts, but there will be occasional discussions related to characters, locations, mechanics, and other aspects of my potential upcoming Shadowrun campaign (tentatively titled "CalFree in Chains"). You may wish to skip them if you'd like to be completely surprised.

Happy belated Thanksgiving! Another week with slower-than-usual progress, but still some cool milestones crossed. The big one is that I've started my initial playthrough of the game. This is the first time that I'll actually roll a character and take them all the way through the campaign, scene by scene, to the end.

This is another opportunity for spotting and fixing bugs. As I mentioned before, a lot of issues only become apparent when experienced within their context: an isolated component may look great, but when you plug it into the surrounding content problems will occur. I already cleared out a lot of hub-related bugs of this type, and now I'm encountering and fixing similar issues for the actual missions. Carrying forward certain items or characters or plot flags may cause unexpected problems to crop up.

The single biggest thing I'm focusing on now, though, is the game's difficulty balance. Everything up until this point has just been stabs in the dark: "I dunno, maybe five enemies in this group will be okay?" "Uh, this one has a grenadier and a mage, so maybe just four?" Now I'm actually encountering these as a player would, with a certain build and amount of karma and nuyen and health, and can get a sense for how they feel.

The answer is, they are too hard! Of course they are too hard! This is the fifth Shadowrun campaign I've made (six if you count the port of Antumbra Saga to DFDC, which did revamp the combat), and I always start out making it too hard and then gradually dial it back until I can beat it. I honestly don't know why I can't just make them easier to begin with, I have plenty of data points by now that show I should tune it down from the start.

I guess maybe it's because I seem to end up with a decent difficulty, maybe after more thrashing than is strictly necessary. My standard process is to play through on the most difficult setting (Very Hard for Dragonfall, Hard for Hong Kong), using the archetype I'm most expert at (Rifle decker in DF, cybered adept for Hong Kong). I want to get to a point where this feels hard but not frustrating - ideally no more than 1 party wipe per scene, and being forced to use at least some consumables to get it through.

I think this ends up as a fair proxy for overall difficulty. I'm not the most hardcore player of these games, and I'm not playing the most optimized min/max build. But I do have the enormous advantage of knowledge capital: I know exactly what is in each mission, how much further I have to go, whether I should toss out all my fetishes on a given combat or hold them in reserve for the next one coming up. Other players will have less certainty, but Hard should still be beatable with ideal builds or brilliant tactics. I'll ultimately recommend players to play on Normal, but I want to make sure that Hard is feasible, and I can't make that claim if I can't beat it myself.

My initial thoughts:
  • Money feels a bit too plentiful. I'm currently holding about 3k and haven't unlocked the second-tier merchants yet. I've bought armor (replacing the 1 Armor starter with the 3 Armor upgrade), but with my particular build there isn't much I want to get until the better cyberware becomes available. I'm thinking of giving the player more nuyen to start (500 at the start instead of 0) and dropping down the per-mission rewards for the early missions. That will make it easier for the player to buy a decent upgrade on their first hub visit and/or hire a merc if they need one.
  • I'm dying a LOT. I initially followed the Hong Kong design where some companions have medkits, others have Doc Wagon, some have neither. But particularly in those early levels, low HP and armor values means it's very easy for people to get killed. I'm now granting all companions one Doc Wagon and at least one medkit. That's more generous than Hong Kong, but there's also a lot more fighting in my mod than in Hong Kong so I think that makes sense. I might need to revisit this at higher levels... it would feel weird to take away Doc Wagons later on, but I suspect they'll be less needed.
  • I really like the pace at which companion upgrades are unlocking. You stay at Level 2 for a while as new optional companions come in, so you can gradually build out your team instead of configuring everything at once.
  • So far it isn't feeling too talky to me. That was one of my biggest concerns while working on this game; there's more words here than in Caldecott, and I was worried that it would seem too wall-of-text. I still haven't gotten to the talkiest mission of the game yet, or the talkiest hub visits, but at least so far it hasn't seemed overwhelming (and I am reading every word as I play, though I may not be able to keep that up for subsequent playthroughs). Granted, I do have a higher tolerance for reading to begin with, so it's very possible that my players may disagree about the narrative volume.
Short update... I don't think I can really share any videos or screenshots at this stage, most of this is pretty spoiler-y. But yeah, so far I'm cautiously optimistic about how things are coming along. It's been a while since I've done this and I don't have a great memory for what the process was like on Caldecott, but I imagine that I'll continue along this for at least a couple of weeks until I've convinced myself that the game is beatable and start letting other human beings look at it.

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