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A Valley Without Wind Proceeds...Procedurally

Before A Valley Without Wind was released I excitedly emailed Jim to demand we discuss the game verdict-style after he’d told everyone wot he thought. I was bewitched by the idea of exploring the worlds it built and was even determined to be that guy, the one who actually liked the graphics. Once I read Jim’s words and played for a while myself I realised that we were of similar mind so a verdict would involve us nodding sagely at one another over a decanter of port, occasionally ‘harrumphing’. I couldn’t even make myself like the way it looked, even as an exercise in contrarian lunacy. Version 1.1 promises significant changes though and Arcen might just be on to something.

Reading the details of the update it all looks rather significant. I almost expected to load up the game and find myself playing gentleman’s rules foosball against a clean-shaven Fidel Castro in a small Danish bar on the island of Mallorca. That’s how different something should be when the release notes logging changes weigh in at around 48,500 words. It’s a silly number of words, let’s be clear about that, and it does cover the changes from early beta versions right up to the present day. Here’s what happened when I perused it earlier…

Note – that picture is not an illustration of what happened. That would be weird. In actuality, I started thinking about AI War and how much post-release support improved it is what happened. And then I read Chris Park’s design blog about the 1.1 update for A Valley Without Wind. It’s like a post-mortem at times, equal parts ‘players got it wrong!’ and ‘we also got it wrong!’ That’s not to say it’s all about regret because Park’s argument is that it’s the delivery or the detail that was in error, not the content or the concept. So when people, like me and Jim both, say that there is too much grinding, Park says this:

One of the things that our beta players were urging us to put in our marketing materials was “it’s like an RPG without the grind.” Which we were, of course, very proud of — but thankfully that didn’t make it into our bullet points.

Because, naturally, one of the biggest complaints about 1.0 that some people had was the amount of grind. Go figure.

The lessons here aren’t just lessons about game design – that’s the lesser part of it – the bigger learning experience relates to feedback and how the experiences of beta players might have little relevance when people come into a game cold, without training but with a different set of preconceptions. What do you do when the experiences of one group don’t tally with the experiences of the other? Ch-ch-ch-changes.

There were many, many changes that we made to the game to combat the grind that came to our attention post-1.0.

Perhaps the largest was the removal of Civilization Progress (CP), which was previously the measure of escalation of the conflict on the continent. The problem was, the best rewards were tied to CP increases, and so this was encouraging all sorts of un-fun behaviors in even experienced players, adding to the grind.

By removing CP, we removed the anxiety that went along with playing missions on the world map. Now it’s a discrete and player-controlled event that escalates things on the continent: the killing of a lieutenant. We also went out of our way to make the lieutenant towers more varied and interesting (and briefer), and now they are something that happen periodically rather than all at the end of the continent. It’s kind of surprising we didn’t think of that one sooner, but oh well.

Oh yeah, another thing to do when people playing your game say their experience isn’t as you expected it to be is to admit there are some issue you should have thought of sooner. Park is clearly proud of A Valley Without Wind, what it is now and what it might in the years to come, but he’s willing to admit that there are things that need to change. What prevents his blog post from being a post-mortem is the fact that he and the rest of the team seem to be willing to go back in and make those changes. That’s admirable, sticking to your guns and the coherency (or lack thereof) that is part of your creation, but showing a willingness to compromise, learn and react.

There are more obvious mistakes too, ones that seriously hampered the exploration that was the main draw for me going into the game.

With the terrain and object seeding and room seeding in this game, that’s something we had gotten very good at. Although, there was one bug that was causing the room layouts to be frustratingly homogeneous (relatively speaking) at 1.0. We had hundreds and hundreds of room layouts created by our staff and by players, but only dozens were actually being seen at 1.0 because of that bug. Facepalm.

There’s more of everything now and there’s also a lot of stuff that was already in the game that should be more useful, or, in the case of enemies, should crop up more often. There are small changes, such as allowing the player to name characters, and there are more significant alterations such as the addition of ‘infestations’ that add unpredictable elements to each region. What I’m hoping for is a greater sense of discovery.

You can read all about it here and even if you have no intention of returning to the game, it’s a fascinating insight into the design and existence of a complex and difficult game.

As for me, I’ve had another look today but I don’t have time to see how much difference all of this makes to me. Maybe soon. Oh, and here’s a 1.1 trailer.

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Adam Smith

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