To my favorite Octopals,
The Ghost in a Bottle corporate death squad wishes you all an amorphous new year. To celebrate, we are going to share the latest and greatest scoops regarding everyone's favorite simulation software. This post will have a lot of text, because I don't know when to shut up. Put your seat belts on and get ready for another journey into the wonderful world of cephalopod trivia.
Chapter 1: The Fat Lady's Song, or: The Plan
Last update someone asked me to make an estimation based on the current pace and progress. I've always been wrong about these estimations. It's easy to be optimistic and to make plans that don't pan out. There's always the gut feeling that if we work hard then we can get something out soon. This feeling is strongest when the year starts, because initially the year feels like a long time, and wonderful things can always happen. But more often than not, bad things end up happening and you repeat past mistakes. Instead, I went over past and current data. How much did we do each year? How much work are we doing now? Exactly what is left?
Long story short, at our current pace, we're looking at a late 2019 release. Yes, that's right, 2 more years for a project that's already 3 years late. It was a bit of a surprise for me as well, because I want to believe that we can do better. The two main reasons it's taking forever are (1) it's big, detailed and ambitious, and (2) we have a small team working part time. I'd rather not give up on (1) even if it means taking more time, but at the moment I can't do much about (2). Hopefully that can change in the future, but for this estimation let's assume we'll continue with the same pace. Instead of wasting your time with apologies and excuses, let's be pragmatic and come up with a workable plan.
2014 was by far our most productive year. There are several reasons for that, but the main one is actually focusing on getting the demo out. It took us a lot of time and energy, but it was also a deliverable and specific goal. For 2018, I want to have specific deliverable milestones as well. I considered cutting the project in half, but people (rightfully) didn't like the idea. That's why you're going to get not one, not two, but three demos in 2018! The demos will have different audiences and goals, but ultimately we want to speed up our development while also getting feedback and communicating more with you. Here's how it'll work out:
Backers Demo: The New Intro - March 2018
The 2014 demo taught us a lot of things. Watching let's plays and seeing players actually interact with the city was a great experience. Based on what we saw, we completely redesigned the beginning of Octopus City Blues to gently introduce the city and gossip mechanics without being an explicit tutorial (that took time, but it's worth it!). The result is self-contained segment that includes a series of small but open-ended quests culminating in a final evaluation of everything you did. This is basically a pocket experience of all that Octopus City Blues has to offer, and it can be played over and over to experience different outcomes.
We want to present that as a demo for all backers. It's a good milestone because almost all the required art and music for the section are completed. However, we still need to implement the main menu and do a lot of polishing and bug fixing. The demo will also serve to get your feedback and see if we're on the right track.
Beta Testers Demo: New Main Quest - August 2018
The 2014 demo introduced the Professor's main story quest, as well as the beetle war dream. There are several main quests in Octopus City Blues, and of each of them has both an Octopus City component and a dream component. For this demo, we want to introduce a different quest we're excited about. Without spoiling much, the dream component has a western theme as Horse-Kaf and an Outlaw work together to escape ruthless bounty hunters. The Octopus City part is a mystery where you have to find the identity of your enigmatic target.
This is intended for backers at the tester level or above, as it's more likely to spoil some things. Instead of the old beta tester forum we'll figure out a better way to distribute this (itch.io has nice tools.) I picked this quest because, while much of the art for the dream section is done, we still need to actually implement the quest and work on new areas. The demo would then serve as a good motivation to focus on wrapping the quest up.
Public Demo: New Intro and Professor's Quest - End of 2018
The final demo isn't focused on new materials (there's always the risk that we're showing too much.) The goal is to present the mature and finalized version of what we tried to show in the 2014 demo. This public release will be very similar to the final version, and will include both the new intro (after taking your feedback into account) and the Professor/Beetle Queen quests. We actually had to cut some content for the 2014 demo, and some scenes were merged into exposition-heavy monologues. We want to do it properly this time, and balance the choices so people are more likely to get different endings.
Final Version - 2019?
Like I said before, with our current pace we expect a late 2019 release. I hope that releasing these demos will push us to do more and hopefully finish it sooner, but that's my optimism talking again. Instead, let's see how many of our goals we can accomplish this year. You can expect a similar post early next year with more details.
Chapter 2: Tearful Tentacle Town MMXVII
2017 was interesting in terms of progress. We did several things that actually slowed us down, but we did them knowingly because we thought it was worth it. In the beginning of the year we had a long chat about the state of things. We concluded that attempts to take shortcuts and simplify things were frustrating us and hurting the vision we shared with you in the beginning. This doesn't mean that we'll kick back and take infinite time to make the perfect product, but quality will always come first. We won't release something we aren't proud of.
The original 4:3 aspect ratio of Octopus City Blues wasn't a deliberate decision. The earliest prototype was made in an engine with a boxed default resolution, and we kept using it in subsequent versions. It helped that there was less to draw on the sides of the screen, and that some early Android devices supported 4:3 aspect ratios.
Octopus City Blues is not really meant to be "retro", even though it's heavily inspired by the aesthetic. We break the rules more often than not, and we are trying to build something fresh and unique. In today's world, where widescreen resolutions are a given, we want to reach as many people as possible. Unfortunately, this meant going back and redoing over 30 scenes. In some cases we took the opportunity to substantially improve them as well.
Somewhere along the line I decided that one measure to release the project faster would be to simplify the scheduling system as much as possible. Instead of having NPCs walk around they would simply pop up in different places as time passed. Furthermore, many of the schedule-based mechanics were removed or simplified. The main benefits were having to draw less sprite frames, reducing the potential for path finding bugs (e.g. characters getting stuck), and not having to write a detailed schedule for every single NPC (there are over 120!)
That sounded good on paper, but in practice it didn't turn out very well. It was weird to leave a location only to see the NPC from the previous location already waiting for you in the new one. The city felt less lively and dynamic as well, contrary to one of our major design goals. After fixing several path finding bugs, the system was revamped to bring back many of the old features while also keeping it a bit simple. NPCs will now walk and enter/leave locations from the proper exits, instead of popping up somewhere else. Most NPCs still won't have full schedules, but there will be enough to bring life to the simulation.
As seen above, the system was also extended to allow NPCs to talk to each other and perform various actions as part of their routine. This includes the ability to perform actions at random intervals, and to interact with the environment and other characters around them. This took a lot of work as the code was basically rewritten, but I really like how it works now. For example, you can learn new gossip by following NPCs and listening to their conversations.
Performance Improvements and Fixes
These are the kind of changes that are hard to show. Major issues with the game engine were resolved this year, allowing Octopus City Blues to run very efficiently on older hardware. This includes one of the oldest bugs, where the frame rate would drop whenever text was displayed. Text rendering was also improved, and the editor is now easier to use.
Of course, Marina has been busy with the art as well. In addition to the stuff we've shared in 2017, several new scenes were completed and we also have unique cabinets for different arcade games. Currently we're working on the evaluation section of the first planned demo, where you'll receive a unique card based on your choices. Marina is painting and drawing each card traditionally, and will later digitize them for Octopus City Blues.
Chapter 3: Octoblood Made Me Do It
So there you have it. Congrats on making it this far! I initially wrote even more, including a full chapter about what we did every year since 2012, but maybe it's better to focus on the future rather than dwelling on the past. I want to start the year with an optimistic and pragmatic outlook, and the demos seem like a good way to do it. There might be delays and setbacks, so I'm counting on you to yell at us and ask for updates. An Octoblood junkie can only get better when their family and friends tell them to get off their lazy bum and get a job scraping squashed beetle remains off the sidewalk.