We’ve had our noses to the grindstone and are getting very close to being finished. We’ve been conducting extensive team reviews of all content, and making final punch lists of historical issues, bugs, and art that need to be polished. The third, and hopefully final, version of the Beta is now available to all Engage-level backers and above through the Humble store. Just log in at Humble.com with the email you used to back Meriwether. Please contact us privately if you’re having difficulty logging in.
The most important feature of the new Beta is the addition of in-game tutorials. These address the biggest issue that arose from the previous Beta, which was that many players had difficulty learning some of the specific mechanics, especially of the medicine minigame. We have added tutorials for that situation, as well as earning facet skill points through dialogue, reloading, basic interaction, plant and animal discovery, the command mechanic, and more. These appear as text overlays at appropriate times, and stay up until you perform the associated action. They don’t force you to do the action right away, but they do encourage you to do it relatively soon. (Plus often it will be at a point where you can’t progress without performing the associated action anyway.)
One thing that’s been a thorn in our side since the beginning of the game has been how to handle translation in conversations. Lewis encountered dozens of different languages on his journey, and translation, or the lack thereof, was a monumental challenge he had to deal with. However, it’s also important to us that the game is readable and that you’re able to have nuanced, interesting conversations with the American Indian characters throughout the game, despite the fact that communication was often difficult. After all, the Corps of Discovery often had weeks, sometimes months to discuss matters with the American Indians. Our conversations are distillations of the history: what players experience in minutes may have taken the Corps an entire season.
Throughout the years of development, we’ve tried everything from ignoring translation to adding mechanics and interpretation minigames, but ultimately we’ve finally settled with a simple but effective solution: each translated conversation starts with a narrator node describing that it’s translated, to the effect of “translated from the Oto by Faufong and Dorion,” as you can see in the screenshot below. This particular conversation is your first interpreted conversation and it helps reinforce how awkward, confusing, and stilted things could get. This convention reminds the player that there are others present, even if they rarely materially participate in the conversation, and that while it’s all written in English, the characters are all speaking in their various languages. It also has a bit of a literary flair, which we feel helps best convey the style of the game.
UNITY 5 IMPROVEMENTS
Just prior to our previous Beta release, we had updated our development environment to Unity 5, which gave us a lot of improvements, but also broke a lot of what was already working.
Since then, we have fixed and improved a number of these issues. We ripped out all of the old Image Effects (some dating back to Unity 3.x with lower quality and lower performance than their more modern counterparts) and selected some key Unity 5 effects to bring the game up to a better standard. Note that most of these, other than Unistorm, were added after we tested and built the Beta, so we’ve included screenshots of them here since you can’t see most of them in-game yet.
The most obvious thing you’ll notice in the new beta is that we finally moved from an ancient version of our dynamic weather and time-of-day system (Unistorm) to a new Unity 5 supported version. The harsh edges on the skybox are gone and things are looking significantly better overall. The different in the skybox between the previous build is, well, day and night.
From there we had a few key image effects in mind that we knew we wanted to add into the game. The largest contributor is undoubtedly bloom; it’s an effect that the industry has definitely overused in the past, but it’s absolutely instrumental in getting that sun-kissed, outdoor look Meriwether relies on. On top of that we are dropping on simple full-screen antialiasing and screen-space ambient occlusion.
Ambient occlusion is a very powerful rendering technique that tries to approximate the darkness you would expect to see in all of the creases and corners of the geometry in the real world. In Meriwether it means that our few indoors scenes are looking better, our grass is starting to have some real depth to it, and the details in the characters are more pronounced. You can see in our comparison shots that it brings a lot of depth to the scenes, especially when there is intricate geometry visible. It’s not perfect yet (the edges of the room need improvement for sure), but like the rest of these effects this is simply our first pass and we’ll definitely be tweaking things as we move towards the full release.
You may have also noticed in these comparison shots that the outline shader has finally made a return. Our original shader was broken when moving to Unity 5, and even beforehand, we weren’t satisfied with the look. Recently, we decided to bring the outlines back, but with an updated behavior. Now when you are at a distance from the object the outline is not at all visible (where as before it was overdone)—as you move closer to the characters, a subtle outline appears to help distinguish them from the background.
Finally, we have one last new visual touch we are experimenting with. This one needs the most improvement, but we are excited to hear your thoughts on this early preview. One issue we’ve had with the dialogue system is that it can be difficult to separate the characters, and especially the dialogue UI itself, out from the world; we’d like them to pop more. To accomplish this, we have added a "depth of field" effect to the game that appears only when in a character interaction, placing the characters involved directly along the focal plane, and therefor blurring everything in the background, just a little bit. We’re also going to experiment with adding this feature to other interactions, such as plant discovery.
We need your detailed feedback right now. We’re particularly looking for feedback on two aspects:
1. The placeholder voiceover that plays while you’re traveling across the world map. Do you like how this works stylistically? Any final edits we should make to the text before we record the final voiceover with a real voice actor?
2. The popup tutorials. Do you like how they look? Do you like where and when they appear? Is the wording clear? Do they give you all the information you need in the most succinct way possible? Once we get some more feedback on these we can finish up and polish this feature.
Here’s a list of the major tasks we still have left on our plate:
1. Record Voiceover: Carlos’s placeholder recordings have treated us well so far, but all the writing is now final enough that we can be confident it won’t change. That means it’s time for Jim to hire a voice actor to record the voiceover for real. We’re going to wait about a week or so in case any of you have final feedback on this.
2. Flora Replacement: The current foliage in the game represents only a subset of the actual plants we want to include. Barb has meticulously researched which plants should appear in each level, and we need to revise these plants accordingly and regenerate the procedural terrain with these new species. We have been waiting to do this until we could incorporate Speedtree, which was supposed to be supported by Unity 5. Unfortunately, we have found that they implemented it poorly and so it is way too slow for any actual game to use. So, we are back to regular Unity trees--now we just need to go in and replace them with the proper species. We also need to create the matching sketches for the plant observation mechanic.
3. Polishing and bugfixing: our artists and programmers are now primarily focusing on cleaning up and polishing what we have. There’s a few minor assets and features we’re adding, but mostly it’s just a matter of finalizing what we already have.
4. Reward fulfillment: since Carlos is now essentially finished with writing, other than an occasional edit or revision here and there, he is now working on getting the physical rewards manufactured and sent out to you!
Please, check out the Beta build and give us your feedback. Next update we will be sending out a preliminary build to everyone!
Josh & the Meriwether team