Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Elemental Update

After I made the Elemental post last week, I received an interesting and varied assortment of e-mail.I'm going to use most of these excerpts anonymously, because I didn't ask people for permission (with one exception), but I think it gives you a window into how conflicted people are about this game.

First, as a brief discussion before we get to the game itself (which, in the end, should always be what's most important), there were a few strongly-worded e-mails about what I wrote about Brad Wardell. Two, in particular, are interesting. Here's an excerpt from the first:
The patch on the 23rd was a no-win situation for Stardock, and it's really not terribly ethical journalism to smash someone for being in a no-win situation. Best Buy, among other retailers, broke the release date by several days, and the pre-order customers were promised early access to the release version of the game as part of the pre-order deal. Stardock HAD to release the game to them early or be slammed for reneging on their promise. That mean they had to accelerate production and release of their Day 0 patch (which is the SOLE anti-piracy measure, remember) in order to get it out to those people. That's what Brad was referring to by saying that the 1.01 patch wasn't expected to be played by the public.

In other words, Stardock had to either renege on their pre-order deal (which would have gotten them slammed) or release a not-quite-ready-for-release patch (which got them slammed). And don't say "They could have just waited until they could put the patch on the gold master", because then the game would have been forced to wait until March (IIRC) of next year before it could be released. A 6 month delay for the minor issues between patch 1.01 and 1.05.whatever is NOT a reasonable request. Brad covered that issue before the August release date was finalized, several months ago; those two were their only available retail dates.

That's kind of my point, really: Brad was in exactly the kind of situation that other developers get into all the time, due to the realities of retail. He's always elevated himself above those other developers, and chided them for releasing games early.When he gets himself into one of those situations, though, he does exactly what he's chided others for doing.

However, another e-mailer sent in a comment that I think is very fair:
Let me start out by saying Brad/Stardock messed up big time here. I can talk about what (in my opinion) are many mitigating factors involved, but the bottom line is that he messed up. No argument there.

But your portrayal of him is completely unfair in my opinion.

...when he makes a mistake, watch how he responds to it in the fullness of time.

While I don't agree that my portrayal of Brad was unfair, I do think it is a fair comment to talk about "the fullness of time." Most of the time, after Brad goes gas can on someone, he eventually calms down and apologizes. That's usually true of other issues as well--he might dispute them initially, but in the end, they are generally acknowledged and resolved.     

All right, let's get on to the game itself, and again, the opinions are all over the map. Instead of commenting after each one of these, I'm just going to put them all in and have discussion at the bottom.

The game is actually pretty great. I know they released it early as a preorder bonus and what they released was basically their beta code, but they also released two substantial patches one on day zero as they put it (the 24th) and then another one today (25th)...There are a lot of awesome ideas here (one in particular being a research branch that basically unlocks potential allies, quests, and notable discoveries) and some of the things they're doing give off a Solium Infernum vibe.

The game is being enjoyed by a lot of people, [even though] there are issues, and the game could be a lot more polished.

Also Stardock has a great history of thoroughly patching their games to make them better and better.

Brad does fully deserve some backlash, but I guess I have been following the game for so long (I did play a bit of the beta, but not much) and reading his journals you could see the love he and his team felt for the game.

The game is very playable with yesterdays patch. Some people do have issues, but looking around on the forums more than most are able to play with the latest patch.

I've got to say I must be lucky because I am not having a single problem cited in the PC Gamer article and I've put in probably 15 hours already in the campaign game. Are there some issue?...sure. But i haven't had a crash, or been unable to dig into tactical combat etc. The Day 0 patch fixed almost every issue i had with the UI and lack of a tutorial.

Hey Bill, I bought the game and have played up through beta to the final release where Impulse removes beta code and installs fresh. With that, since loading the release version I have not had one crash at all so I’m not one of the folks experiencing any issues.

What went out to distributors was a smoking crater of a game, and the Day 0 version was only marginally better. The Day 1 patch improved things enough that at least the basic save/load functionality and alt-tabbing worked, but there's still a TON of bugs in the game, and serious design problems -- for instance, magic is grossly underpowered, and trying to play a caster hero is a quick trip to the morgue. There are cosmetic bugs like multi-figure units not regenerating their figures back after damage correctly, even though they fight normally. The UI is badly confused... it's obvious that they were tacking on features as they went, and sticking the new functions wherever it seemed appropriate, with no real overarching sense of what should go where. Sometimes right-click cancels, sometimes it does nothing, sometimes it's the same as a left-click. Finding a given function is a total crapshoot of clicking random buttons and looking in random windows until you find what you want.

The actual state of the game once the "day one" patch was released is significantly better. The patch they released the next day improved things as well. If they hadn't done the early release, I strongly suspect that those people who are upset with the game release would be a lot less vocal right now. In fact, a lot of the criticism now in various places isn't so much about technical bugs as it is about design decisions and game mechanics, which is arguably a different issue then releasing a "beta."

I haven't hit the bugs others have mentioned, but I am *deeply* disappointed in how unready the game is in an equally fundamental way.

There is no useful manual. The in-game "opedia" is sketchy and useless. The UI is extremely clumsy, to the point that I had to go search the Impulse forums for how to get my avatar to actually wield the weapons I'd bought for him. (There is a tutorial hint for this, but it is clearly a last-minute hack because unlike most of the tutorial hints it isn't saved in the game log, and even if you read it carefully it is useless. It says "use the equipment button", but doesn't tell you that the "equipment button" is NOT with the other action buttons that come up for your army, it's in a special place.

Even if the game mechanics themselves were completely working, the UI is just apalling. In my (basically professional) opinion as a software engineer specializing in UI, it needs a complete review by somebody who hasn't been playing the betas and about 4-6 months of work just on the UI.
As you can see, those opinions are all over the map. Collectively, though, some general themes emerge:
1) there are interesting ideas in the game
2) the game has personality
3) the interface is a mess
4) program stability seems to vary widely by user

As someone who wants to play an interesting game, and isn't in any particular hurry, #1 and #2 bode well for the future.

There's also one other hopeful angle. I always talk about  the best games generate the best stories.  Robear on the GWJ forums wrote this jewel about the game:  
I have a two city kingdom now, and an ongoing conflict with Gilden. That's where I got my second city; they had planted one right in my expansion area, so I just... took it. Their king came by a few turns later, but decided my peasants were too tough and just pretended he'd just wandered by. Yeah. I left him unconscious in a meadow with a note pinned to his shirt that said "Alle yr Cites Ar Be Long to Ye Kingge Relias". That kept him away for a while.

So I finally got my defenses in order, and set off to found a third city. Just as I was getting to a good area, what do I see but one of Gilden's pioneers! The guy decided his only hope was to build a shelter with all that new city gear, which I then promptly took off his hands. Voila! Another city, courtesy of Gilden! And I still have my pioneer. Life is good.

Then I see King Mirkin of Gilden heading purposefully in my direction with his familiar, some soldiers and a huge soulless rock *thing*. I immediately head for home, leaving the city to it's own devices, but he caught up with me. I forced him to flee, killing his soldier in the process, but his magical beasts bested me. Not only did they run me off, but they caught me after I fled, and administered another beating. In ignomy, I fled to my closest city, and am working to get the damned seal of Gilden carved into my forehead removed as painlessly as possible. (In truth, I once thought these cack-handed baboons were *scholars*, if you can imagine, but they all quake at my reasonable requests to FIX MY GODS DAMNED FOREHEAD! The peasants will administer beatings until the situation is resolved.)

Now I sit with my spellbooks, plotting revenge, sipping cheap wine (but you should smell what the peasants drink) and wondering when that damned walking rockpile will show up at my city gates. I desperately need a nasty surprise for that animate heap of gravel...

That's a terrific story, and it's enough to make me try the demo, no matter else what else gets said about the game.

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