For episode 18 of Aes-y Listening, we did “The Rise of Scientific Education,” by Louis Pasteur. As one of the major figures of 19th century science, we felt his words had a significant place in inspiring Aes.
Version 10, “Alpha’s End,” the newest version of Aes, has finally been released! This has been a long, extended undertaking for us, fraught with delays, but also yielding some very high quality results.
Testing time: 15 months
The first major difference: time. Version 10 had the longest development cycle of any single version. In the 15-month span it took us to finish this, we’d completed the first eight versions of Aes!
We’d like to say all of this was testing and refining. Indeed, quite a lot of it was. We wrote entirely new crafting material and went through several versions for each. We added dozens of pages of lore. We radically altered how distance and motion work in the game’s engine. However, there was a distinct delay in development caused by personal life issues during this time. We’re only human, so we’re glad we were able to work through it in the end.
No surprise version 10 was tested at the most conventions of any version before it. This was the first one tested twice at the same convention and the first to be used twice for other annual events in the fall. We doubt it will be the last in this regard. For weekly sessions, we actually paused running Aes in stores for a few months to help focus energy on development. However, even with that pause, there were well over 50 sessions of Aes run using this incarnation. The extended testing cycle meant we caught a lot of typos and the wording for several faculties got tweaked several times to be easier to understand.
The new content is evident in the other numbers. Compare them to the stats of version 9. Fifty-seven new pages and that’s despite cuts! We removed items like charges and serums we felt worked better in expansion material.
As for material added, we had 23 new faculties (a modest gain), but a crazy 232 increase in modifications! This is not shocking given how much crafting we added on: vis tinnabulators, thrumbines, simuloids, capes, and bucklers. With their addition, we now have the fully realized stock of tinnabulators and turngears we wanted for the core book. We also added faculties supporting armor usage and some new tricks for Volition.
And the changes went far beyond more faculties and mods. Lore has been greatly expanded. Taking a recommendation to focus on Laton as the main setting rather than the entire nation of Aeneam, we zoomed in on the capitol city. There’s enough lore and hooks for each sector of Laton that an Invisible Hand can likely think of some clever ideas. Memberships have been implemented, accompanied with lore on several major groups in Aeneam that players can join.
To improve accessibility to new players, character creation has been revamped to flow even better. There are a lot of steps, but that’s because we unpacked each one for maximum clarity. Down the line we might group some of them together, but for now this highly detailed breakdown has tested well with new players. At the end of the book is now a glossary so all the jargon and pronouns are succinctly summarized for quick and easy reference.
We also did one of the first major system changes since version 5 and 6. Motion and distance are no longer measured in exact numbers. Instead, they are listed as relative speeds and proximities. This allows the Invisible Hand to “fudge” things in combat. The main benefit is an explorer caught in the wrong place during combat doesn’t have to wait as long as to come running in if they’re slow. It can be said just a single turn running is enough.
Range is now a set of approximate distances from one another, rather than a carefully calculated sum of meters. This addresses one of our major issues from testing since day 1: the accounting mini-game. Explorers want to play the game and do crazy maneuvers and stunts. Running the math to see if they can run and then attack with the AP they have and then being disappointed if they come up a little short goes contrary to good action. Now the Invisible Hand has greater freedom to handwave it away. (The official term for running an Aes game is “invisible handwaving.”)
The other major change we made relates to an earlier post about the Armor Problem. We’ve dropped the health point / body point system. Now, explorers start with sturdiness from armor. Once their armor breaks, they start taking damage to health. Health is hard to recover (only 10% per respite), so taking HP damage is quite dangerous. That leaves explorers to balance the downsides of taking heavier armor over ensuring they aren’t killed in the field.
Version 10 is the end of the alpha phase for Aes. At 2 years and 4 months, this is longer than we anticipated, but not well outside expectations. It can take RPG’s 5 years or more to see completion.
Our next version will be the beginning of the Beta. This will be noted in the numbering. When we began, we numbered the alpha versions as 0.01A. We later scrapped this in favor of 1.0A, 2.0A, etc. since people were reluctant to play a game with decimal iterations. With version 10, we’re now at 0.10A. The beta will begin at either be 0.1B or 0.2B – we’re still de-beta-ing (ha). We’ll likely refer to them as 1.0B and 2.0B, but the goal is that 10.0B will in fact be version 1.0 of the game – the final release copy.
To get the first beta version ready, we have several long-term tasks. First, talents need to be balanced and revised to match the lore focus on Laton. Second, the Invisible Hand section is going to get an overhaul so we can grow the number of game runners.
Third, and the largest task, we’re going to a broad meta-review of every faculty and mod to evaluate exactly what play styles and combinations are currently at work. We’ve already observed that certain faculties are more popular than others. We have a rough idea of what works as an individual faculty that makes explorers want to use it. Insight into synergy is what we’re missing at this stage. We want to make sure that many common types of explorer behaviors – combat and non-combat – are supported and encouraged in the core book.
These three issues will take time. As we begin work on them, we’re going to resume running games. Our focus is going to be developing a suite of adventures for Laton we can formalize and release to go with the core book down the line. It’ll also let us see what content is most relevant to the setting and what we can move to other planned releases in the future.
Version 10, the end of the alpha stage for Aes, is currently in the final stages of being printed! Before that’s finalized, we wanted to give the summary of how version 9 came to be, as we see it exiting the testing landscape.
- Pages: 332
- Faculties: 226
- Modifications: 486
- Testing time: 4 months
Looking back at the numbers for version 8, several things are clear. Version 8 was focused on removing content we knew would not be a focus for the core book, such as sand shapers and grit tech. Version 9 focused on moving us closer to beta by adding core content: 34 more pages, 27 new faculties, and 122 new modifications.
On the faculties front, hurled weapons finally got support through specialized faculties. There were also additions made to self-defense and invention.
With crafting, the two biggest additions were charges and thrumbines. Players now had the chance to customize explosives, making a demo man a viable player type. Thrumbine mods allowed for personal vehicle creation, a definite thematic necessity. A new type of hybrid between mods and faculties – habits – were added, finally allowing explorers to customize their animal companions, at least a little bit.
Two major systems implemented with version 9: memories and vending points. Memories had been on the character sheet since it was first drafted. We always knew we wanted a system that players could use to signify special in character knowledge. It also gave us a way to impart more lore about the world from a “first person” perspective, so that players could put themselves into the minds of their explorers more readily. Version 9 saw memories added for each of the four main nations, with Aeneam and Zahnrad being the main focus.
Vending points are a system of special “chits” players can cash in once per game session. We’ve discussed their implementation and relation to the five ideals already.
In terms of testing duration, version 8 to 9 had one of the longest periods to date with 4 solid months and multiple conventions. There were 2 regular sessions a week for much of it, so the total sessions alone were easy above 20. That allowed for robust testing of all the new material and helped identify some bugs.
However, this length of testing time was quickly dwarfed by version 10’s dev cycle. Version 10 featured cuts and additions, but overall sported very different numbers from version 9, as we’ll see in its upcoming “By the Numbers” breakdown. We’re planning to have the print version ready before the end of November, in time for the holiday season and to close out 2017 on a high note!
For episode 17 of Aes-y Listening, we did a reading of “If” by Rudyard Kipling.
Here is the full text of the poem:
Earlier this year, we posted about some of our first hand experiences with convention sponsorship. Since then, we’ve had many more cons reach out to us, several very good and one incredibly bad (to the point of needing legal intervention due to theft). One topic we didn’t get into with the previous article was how to select a con in the first place.
As indie game devs, you have limited resources. You want to get the most bang for the buck with your marketing resources. Proper con selection is a crucial element. Throwing thousands in marketing materials at a con that doesn’t do anything with them wastes time and money. It’s a risk roulette whose lever you need to pull. Here’s what we’ve seen as factors that contribute to whether a con will “payout.”
First, this is good behavior for you. Do your homework on a con before you send in your materials. Have they delivered? Are their vendors and sponsors happy? Who owns the con? Is this their main source of income or a hobby? What about the staff?
Look at who has sponsored them in the past and see if that changes a lot or if the same people keep coming back. Have they grown their sponsor base over time, stayed the same, or lost them? If they use crowd funding, are they meeting their goals? If they’ve ticked off their base, they’ll fail them or set them low. If they’re doing great, they’ll be hitting stretch goals.
1. Determined support levels
This seems obvious, but a convention that knows how to accept donations is more likely to use them well. Look for cons that have a published sponsorship packet. If they don’t, ask via email and clarify as much as possible. You want things in writing.
Big cons are attractive – lots of people, lots of eyeballs. But you’re a small dev. Big cons attract big devs, like Wizards of the Coast. You’ll run the risk of both being overshadowed and having to spend money to get the con to advertise you.
It’s much better to go after a small convention within your target demographic (at least starting out). They’ll be more grateful and might offer extras if you’re nice to work with. Plus, you’ll be more likely to be the only advertiser attendees see, ensuring they won’t confuse your game for a release by someone else.
3. Material Donations
Indie devs are big on creativity – and light on wallets. A lot of advertising options involve money. You’re going to spend a bit on promo materials, like it or not. The best advertising has you distributing materials to attendees directly. Tactile connection vastly supercedes a simple banner.
Even better is if you can make the materials being handed out the entirety of the donation. A con that will let you give them your handouts as payment for distribution is the best. You only have to pay once, not twice, for those materials.
4. Tabletop Schedule
Sponsoring a convention is great – and even better if you can demo and attend in person! For this, there needs to be a) tabletop space and b) a way to get a table for product demos. There are times when you can promote with a con lacking tabletop, but that does mean the folks there aren’t going to be as interested. Having dedicated space for gaming means some of the people there love gaming – and they’re your customers.
Assuming they have tabletop, what game stores do they work with? Does the game store help promote the con? We have one huge store locally that a few cons tap for their board game library – but they do very little to promote the events. Having a store that helps signal boost can help you in turn. This can also help you get a relationship with a FLGS, necessary when you want to launch and want people to carry the game.
1. Art as Sexual Harassment
A new trend with some conventions is to treat art – such as prints or in books – as a form of harassment. You can find this in the rules conventions post (and those that do this will post it). They’ll say that they reserve the right to ban art they feel depicts women badly.
What a con will say is that overly sexual art harasses female attendees. They try to make it a safety or diversity issue. The truth is the opposite.
In reality, conventions that have this rule use it to ban LGBT artwork and generally be sex negative. For example, we had prints of 2 of our main characters embracing. They were fully clothed and nothing was touching other than hands on arms. Yet a con ruled that this piece of SFW artwork depicting a same sex couple was “harassment.” It wasn’t because the art was sexual – it’s because the art positively represented a same-sex couple.
Do not promote or support any convention with this clause. It’s a huge red flag that it’s run by anti-expression sorts who want to police art to suppress what they personally dislike.
2. Prop weapon bans
We’re a steampunk game. So if a con bans prop weapons, like modified costume NERF guns, they’re telling every steampunk, “Don’t bother with our con.”
Apart from the direct relevance of making a convention a terrible for us in particular, this kind of ban – like the ban on depicting same-sex romance in art – indicates a bad kind of leadership culture. Prop weapons cannot hurt others (apart from being blunt instruments). Banning them does nothing for safety nor does it solve any issues. Yet it does make many feel unwelcome and increases instances of “gotcha” con attendees can have with security. A leadership that doesn’t care about the enjoyment of those who attend is one that isn’t building a healthy environment worth associating your brand with.
Note that we’re not referring to bans on actual guns or swords. Those are in place because of liability and insurance. Don’t fault a con for that.
3. Serial Con Running
This ties back to doing your homework about a con. Look at the folks running it. Have they been running the same con for a while? Or do they keep starting new ones and letting prior cons die out?
It’s okay for a convention to have new leadership. People move on and new people ascend. But if you have a group constantly jumping from one new con to another, they lack commitment. That can also mean they don’t have the skills to ensure a steady, loyal audience – something you need among those you promote with.
4. Potpourri Vending Hall
Ideally, you’ll be able to personally attend the cons you sponsor. If so, look at the vending room. Are the vendors there geek oriented, or do you see the odd presence of mundane stuff? For example, do you see mainly comic and anime retailers? Or are there people selling insurance or time shares?
This has become an issue in recent years as some cons – mainly comic cons – struggle to make ends meet so they allow anyone and everyone to vend, just so they can stay in business. This is a warning the con is circling the drain. If the con is doing well, they’ll attract enough vendors they can afford to be picky and turn down a car insurance company.
Don’t associate your brand with cons in trouble like this. You’ll risk being seen as irrelevant to attendee interests as the vendor trying to sign people up for a condo in Aruba.
To conclude: go after small cons that accept material donations and have defined sponsor levels, preferably with an established track record. Avoid cons of any size that ban “sexy” art, prop weapons, are one of many in a string of serial convention startups, and that will let just anyone vend.
Hopefully these tips help you. Ask us any questions that we might answer in a future post!
We love it when we find solutions to problems in the game, even if it means having to change how the game works a bit. It’s one reason we’ve kept Aes as an alpha for over a year and a half: it’s easy to change what’s rough (as John Lasseter has said).
In the current version of the Metric Steam Engine (the game system that powers Aes), there are five tiers of armor players can choose from. We noticed a problem, though, with how they interact with this: they would either have nearly none or maximum. The middle 3 tiers went largely untouched.
Contrast this with our weapons. Every weapon comes in 5 types, with varying damage and limitations. Larger equalizes require bracing to shoot straight. Larger blades require 2 hands. Players often picked a variety of sizes, from the small to the very large. The problem with armor selection was not an issue with the tiers themselves.
Like weapons, armor also varied by tier in benefit and trade off. Heavier armor soaks more damage. However, it reduces speed and give penalties to dodging attacks. The bottom tier armor soaks a little while giving no penalties, while the maximum tier armor slows an explorer down and makes them easy to hit while absorbing considerable damage. Players were choosing either max soak or max speed and nothing in between.
This problem isn’t new, either. We based how we model weapons and armor on other RPG’s that use a similar increasing rank method. The idea is that rather than trying to differentiate hundreds of different kinds of items, they’re grouped broadly by fundamental characteristics. Players then add whatever flavor they prefer. In these games, developers noted a similar problem: only the first and last tiers of armor were used.
More specifically, most players tend not to utilize much armor at all. Those who used max armor tended to play specialized tank characters. They use faculties allowing them to mitigate the penalties of high tier armor. They are in the minority. Most players simply choose to take no penalties and low soak over even medium armor.
The reasoning, based on this behavior, appears to be that players value a lack of penalties over the ability to absorb damage from being hit. They’d rather leave their dodge higher to avoid being struck rather than be able to take a hit well. What we realized as a solution to the problem was to find another trait of the armor they might value and have the game system encourage players to choose it as a focus. But what?
What we’ve done is restructure health points. In Aes, armor, like all items, has durability. Before, a player had health and body points. Health were combat points that measured the ability to sustain controlled injuries. Body damage was more severe. In our new system, armor durability replaces HP as the first line of points depleted in combat. Health replaces body, where losing health represents taking damage to your physical form.
What does this accomplish? Adventurer’s now have a reason to take the middle tier armor, because higher durability means a higher buffer before serious damage is taken. For non-combat types with low health, this buffer can be very important. Early testing has shown it does change player decision making with armor choice.
We feel pretty good about our solution to this design issue. We’ve also revamped range and speed. We’ll post more on that later.