One week and a day later came Atlantis.
It sounds like I've been drinking too much of our own kool-aid, but I think I'm hooked. I've done several Atlantis runs over the last week, and while I was first going to check up on folks and how the large ships were doing as an OM, I started getting sucked in to the jumping-from-puzzle-to-puzzle excitement of it, poring over the prize lists when we'd get to port and divvy, ogling the pale Atlantean blue items.
As part of this major release, we've brought back the post mortem, an official article written about the development behind the release. You can read the Sea Monster Post-Mortem here.
Pillaging and the social group dynamic has always been the beating heart of Puzzle Pirates, and much the same way that the parlor games of a few years ago built on one another, such as Hearts, Spades, and Poker using the same card art, the same deck randomizer, and the same inn table interface to access the games, so have the last set of oceanfaring releases built on one another, using features such as group AI, blockade boards, and the timing of round breaks in common. We're hoping to take this even farther with new sea monster releases featuring new units, new maps, and new sorts of treasures, but to keep the existing interface and method of getting sea monster maps and getting to the spots the same.
One of the more exciting things to me is looking back over the last six months or so, even prior to the release of the Brigand King Blockades and remembering the discussions and meetings that led to the creation of many of the aspects of sea monsters we see now, such as treasure hauling.
Laying a groundwork and building features onto it over time makes sense not only because building a new feature on existing code makes it easier to test, easier to find bugs, and makes a smaller download overall for the client but also because we wanted the first set of sea monsters to be at least somewhat familiar and instinctive for our existing players as they'd be the ones leading voyages into the areas. we also had to add exciting things unique to Atlantis, lest folks think that we were simply recycling the same content and grow bored with it quickly. You only get one launch of a release, and there's a tricky balance of making each large new addition to the game a combination of the new and exciting, so that people will go and check it out and tell their friends, yet intuitive to people familiar with Puzzle Pirates, else they'll find it overwhelming and discouraging.
In the first sea monsters meeting, we knew we wanted to add treasure chests to the game, but then the problem of how to distribute their contents came up. Obviously dividing them equally amongst all participants would conflict with our goal of rewarding the vessel owner who had risked his ship in a sinking situation. Furthermore, we wanted to reward those who did well helping the vessel against the sea monsters, so we needed to add a bonus to those who did very well in the duty reports. We also had to reward the navigator, the brave soul who had gotten everybody to safety. Lastly, we needed to give all of the jobbers on board some goodies, as without some sort of random element there would be no excitement over a lucky prize, and no incentive for any but the strongest and most experienced puzzlers to enter Atlantis. Again we faced a difficult balance, this time of scaling rewards to the talented playerbase while not taking away payment from the majority or unbalancing things completely for a privileged few. Nobody likes insane ocean inflation.
In that first idea meeting the idea of the saboteur was also hatched. While no one who was there can remember who first brought up the idea of the Atlantean jumping aboard, the idea gained popularity in the meeting room quickly. We discussed needing some sort of new puzzling experience in Atlantis, but since we were trying to get the release ready before fall, there was not time to make an entirely new puzzle. The popularity of Treasure Haul, despite the fact that it was a relatively quick variation of bilge was encouraging. Five color swordfighting was suggested.
Being challenged to a swordfight would certainly break the monotony of duty puzzling for long periods of time, while not being that different from the periodic brawl and swordfights of pillaging. We had to naturally decide who the saboteur would challenge and how, since challenging only Ultimate fighters would make Atlantis too elitist, and challenging only greenies might make it intimidating. Furthermore, if we had the penalty for losing to an Atlantean too great, people would only want their top fighters to duel them, thus making the puzzle exclusionary.
The problem was that we couldn't do the group fight like we did a pillage, since that automatically takes everybody off duty stations for the fight. Leaving a vessel grappled, stuck in one spot, and no one generating any movement tokens or repairing damage in a group sea battle situation was bound to doom it to either sea monsters or opportunistic pirates in short order. (We played briefly with somehow phasing out the ship and making it invulnerable for the duration of the brawl, and discarded the notion, though it later came back to us in the form of The Citadel.) Thus, the XO position and the ability to volunteer to defend the vessel grew out of our collective experience involving skellies and difficulties managing large ships. In addition, we thought it would be handy to encourage people to take in full vessels, even more than there were duty stations, to better haul treasure, rotate duty stations to break the monotony, socialize, and defend the vessel in brawls against saboteurs.
In the end, it worked out that the saboteurs became a way to bring the action of the battle board onto the ship and to the duty puzzlers.
On the art side, the Atlantis release was a pretty heavy demand. Greenbones, Nemo, and Bluebeard ended up all taking part to get the beautiful artwork into the game in time. Some interesting things you may not realize- the skellie head that you see on the black ship and in skellie fights was used as the base upon which Greenbones built the Atlantean features, and the female Atlantean helmet had to be redone a few times, both because Bluebeard didn't know about the recent addition that tucked female hair under helmets and he'd made it too large to accommodate the Princess Leia buns, and because the female walk apparently has an extra movement added to it that the male avatar does not have, to make her sashay her hips from side to side, thus making the original incarnation of the helmet judder back and forth disturbingly while she walked. Until the official artist artwork was checked in, Cephalopod made a number of amusing "developer" art pieces as placeholders for sea monsters such as the scary sea monster entrance and the special sea monster sea battle interface. It provided a good laugh while letting the programmers bug test and check code while the artists simultaneously worked on the final versions of the artwork to go into the game. A good past example of this is this extremely rough version of blacksmithing.
On the marketing side of things, one of the largest stresses this year was trying to balance giving the first look at sea monsters to the folks that had put in a great deal of time and effort to solving the conch puzzle and to the other conch winners.
In addition, Ice testing for major new features is absolutely necessary, but we found ourselves asking if we could prevent Ice from becoming where you had to go to see "the next big thing". While aspects and artwork from upcoming releases are often posted in the forums, we wanted people to feel the excitement from seeing the truly new features for themselves when Atlantis debuted on production oceans.
To avoid the collectible items, trophies, and new art from being spoiled in the forums, we decided to black out the Atlantean artwork. While this clearly doesn't protect many of the functional aspects of the update from being shared on the forums, we hoped that hiding the "look and feel" of the Atlantean world would help retain some of the excitement. This caused its own flurry, as we had to try to keep track of every file that we had replaced with a blacked out item for release. Some, like Blackhat's great five color swordfighting background, escaped into production still blacked out, though the initial discussion of whether we should censor the Atlantean background or not in which he proposed blacking out just the Atlantean itself cracked up the entire Puzzle Pirates team.
The pillars were Greenbones' creation, and I got to wander around each ocean appreciating the geography and choosing which islands and locations to place them on. Sophocles did the pillar placement at staggered days and times to prolong the puzzle. Then we added an auto-response to the support toolset for the OMs who would no doubt get tons of questions, and waited.
What began as a side project for Nemo creating the pillars and code rapidly spiraled into a multi-ocean co-operative search and decipher mission. It gained popularity and word spread about the mysterious pillars far more quickly than we had anticipated.
With the first release of Sea Monsters, I feel that we've crested most of what Cleaver outlined in his rough plan two years ago, and can now spend some time working on checking up on how our recent creations have worked their way into the Puzzle Pirates world and what can be fine-tuned. Whew!