Friday, March 29th saw us putting down our pencils for the Forge Re-Launch, due end of April. With this patch we will have successfully completed the Forge we set out to make, but were just shy of back in December.
This latest development push had us reexamining all the things we did wrong (and right) in launching Forge. While there were so many things that made Forge what it is, including the development model – which we wrote about previously on Gamasutra – as well as talent, methodology, etc. we are limiting this list specifically to high level, core game stuff.
Right: We built a fun and balanced combat game
Forge is fun. Very much so. The core game is balanced and performs how we intended. We set out to make a grind-free experience that pit players against each other with nothing but a core set of skills and the player’s own talents. Each class has enough variety of skills that it keeps combat interesting and gives players a lot of room to define their own combat style. No other game allows players to fight with MMO-style skills in a twitchy, FPS-style battle. The overwhelming feedback from players is that it is a bridge that has been missing in PvP, and that we got it right.
Wrong: We launched too early
We know we launched an incomplete game. Being an indie studio we did not have the luxury of spending four more months developing Forge without seeing any revenue. While Forge is an indie, it’s not like we’re 4 guys in a garage living on Top Raman and KFC Bowls. We had 50 team members at one point during development, and a regular skeleton crew of 25. These are all talented and industry-experienced people with families to feed and bills to pay. We raised enough money to ensure we could recruit and maintain the team we wanted. Our funding was finite though, and we had no choice but to launch the core game on Steam in December. At that point, we believed we had enough of a game to get people hooked so that by the time they were fully vested in the game we would have updates ready for them. While we did get people hooked early on, we still felt some backlash from players who wanted a bigger game at launch. We don’t blame them. If we had our way, we would have waited to ship in April instead of December so everything after that could have been gravy, not biscuit. Gravy takes time, however, and money, and we needed to start seeing a return from sales or risk starving. We had to hold off on some of the biscuit and ship it with the gravy. We took our chances on an early launch and felt some of the pain from that. Thankfully it was relatively mild pain and our community is still just as behind us as they were when we launched the beta. We stand behind that choice, but it wasn’t ideal for sure.
Right: We built the community first
A game like Forge is only as good as its players. 6 months before launch we had amassed a very enthusiastic core fan base through our forums. We engaged with them daily, released screenshots and concept art and solicited feedback from them constantly. By the time Forge shipped we had 30,000 fans ready to start playing. We did this with no marketing dollars. None. Zip. Instead, we hung out with them online, talked about what we were planning, asked them what they wanted to see most, and showed them a whole lot of cool pictures as they came off the press. Building this community was one of the smartest things we ever did. We were able to tell early on that we had something good. The Forge concept obviously struck a chord with a lot of people who felt that it was a game that was missing and needed to be made. Enough to have a community who checked in with us daily and did their own leg work as well, helping spread the word. Likewise, they also gave us valuable feedback as to what we should focus on most and what we should avoid. We had the kind of focus group that big publishers spend a lot of money on and ours came to us of their own accord, out of pure enthusiasm for the concept. Free.
Right: Steam Greenlight
We also launched in the middle of Steam’s Greenlight transition and that actually worked out pretty well for us. We were the second wave to be approved for Steam and that got us a lot of exposure and helped us gain new fans before launch. We know not everyone had a good experience with Greenlight, but timing is everything and we were at the right place and the right time with a near-finished game.
Wrong: We launched without server Browsing and Matchmaking
Technically this is part of the “launched too early” category, but it is something we should have made a priority early on and launched with, even back in December. Our first generation of players, the ones who had been with us since beta launch, have become badasses. Just really amazing players. On top of them we also had professional players in our community and they just smacked around any new player who came in to learn the game. It was a massacre. This is especially problematic because we built Forge to be a session-based PvP game that would allow gamers to play for 15 minutes to an hour, have a great time and get out. It’s hard to accomplish this when you are being tooled by 15 hardcore Forge vets. You know it’s a problem when many of the games developers can’t get a kill in.
We recently included server browsing and skill matchmaking and it has changed everything. We really wish we would have launched with it, but it’s there now and not a second too soon. The pros have a good challenge fighting other pros and the newbies have a chance to get better together.
Wrong: We didn’t focus enough on the tutorial
For us, the tutorial was an afterthought, as oft is the case in games. This was a big mistake. Forge starts you off with 8 abilities and unless you have someone walking you through each one and explaining what they do, you end up relying on 1 or 2 the whole time. This seriously limits your depth of play, and you can forget all together about the subtleties of a healing class. For us to achieve our goal to make a game for those of us without a lot of time to grind, but who want to jump in and play a session, we needed that tutorial to be as clear and concise as Team Fortress 2.
For this April launch we are including a very thorough tutorial that walks you through every single class and ability. We did look to TF2 for inspiration, as Forge is closer in spirit to that twitchy gem than it is to WOW or Guild Wars 2. Thanks to our new tutorial, even the most inexperienced players stand a chance in the battlefield. This is no small feat.
Right: We built for no grind or pay to win
This was very important to us. We believe we achieved it. Our lead designer had a very particular vision for Forge and much of it had to do with the fact that he couldn’t invite friends in to play the games he was into. They would join but he was so far ahead of them, no amount of grinding would bring them up to where he was at, and visa versa. The easiest fix for that is to let people buy their way up, which just doesn’t fit with our gaming ethos. We wanted Forge to reward those with skill, not money. This is, and always will be our vision for the game.
Our next biggest goal is to build the progression in a fashion that rewards players for their time and skill. This April we are introducing armor swaps which is really our first true DLC launch. The first set is the “Divine” armor which will allow players to mix and match the classic armor sets with the new ones. Divine is the first of many sets which we will mix up between rewards and purchases as well as special unlocks for achievements giving certain players exclusive access to rare sets.
Along with armor sets we are introducing a brand new map called Den of Fenric. Den is the culmination of all we have learned in the making of Forge maps and emphasize vertical gameplay. It is just the right size for maximum action and keeps players oriented with huge hero objects like temple ruins and statues. Plus it’s gorgeous. We are really proud of this one. Future DLC will involve tons of new maps in new locations that reflect the style and personality of the factions, which we also have big plans for. Again, these will be available as both rewards and purchase items.
Right: We launched with a good variety of classes
The 5 classes we launched with made for a balanced set and it was more than enough for players to be introduced to Forge. We have 2 more classes for the current faction – the Ravager and the Tinkerer. The Ravager will be released in the April re launch and Tinkerer shortly after. This brings the total number of classes to 7, with 9 being the goal. We feel 9 is an ideal number of classes per faction, although we don’t want to limit ourselves this soon out of the gate.
The first class, Ravager, is a vertically challenged ball of pain. Think Yoda covered in razor wire on a PCP bender. The Ravager is pure offense and gives the more aggressive players a healthy outlet for their rage. The second class is the Tinkerer. She is a brilliant, but slightly deranged inventor of dangerous objects built from scraps of metal and the discarded bones of animals. The fact that her inventions never quite work the way she intends makes her all the more fun and dangerous. She reminds us of a Myazaki character raised in the pits of Thunderdome. Players can expect interesting interpretations of all these classes in future factions.
Mixed: giving players 8 starting skills per class
This is a mix because many players love the variety of skills they have to work with, but 8 is a large number to get acquainted with properly. The tutorial greatly helps with this, but new players will have a bit of a learning curve to wield all 8 skills effectively.
We will be giving players even more options with the addition of “Focus Skills,” which are alternative takes on existing skills. Players will still only have access to 8 skills, but they will be able to customize those skill sets with similar versions. We can’t say what exactly those Focus Skills will be but imagine having 2 types of Molten Bola to choose from and 2 types of Smoke Cloud, and so on and so forth. This adds more depth to the gameplay and offers more experienced players the ability to master new skills. We are banking on new players, and existing players who haven’t quite mastered their skills to spend some time in the tutorial. If anything, it doesn’t hurt to get reacquainted with the different classes.
Mixed: We didn’t focus on lore and story
Many of us on the dev team wish we spent more time expanding on the game’s story and providing a little more emotional connection to the game’s world and its characters. This is mixed because we didn’t muddy up the core game with any fluff, just pure PvP combat, but Forge has a lot of unsaid story that can be deciphered from the clothing, weapons, and architecture if you look hard enough. There is not a single piece of the Forge universe that doesn’t have a backstory. That backstory just isn’t told. It sits in the glyphs of the motifs, the metal that was used, the stone that was cut, and the animals that were harmed in the making of the clothing. We like that the story is hidden and leaves so much up to the interpretation of the player, but we would have loved to produce cut scenes and cinematic elements for each character. This is something we will be putting some focus on in the future, but for now we leave it up to the player to read their own story into the game.
We did add a few brief cinematic moments to the tutorial which emphasize mood more than story, but just those little pieces add so much to the overall experience. You can look forward to those in April and many more in the following months.
Wrong: We didn’t put enough work into the UI and the shell
In all honesty, this was low priority when resources demand that we choose gameplay over the shell but we wished we had more time to spend on the overall presentation of Forge. We have so much art in Forge and so much of it hasn’t been seen by the players. We used much of it to inform the design and the in-game assets but it hasn’t seen the light of day. In retrospect, we should have incorporated all those pieces into the shell so players could be surrounded by art from the beginning. We have made some new additions to the April re launch and it definitely gussies up the whole experience but we have a lot of plans for future releases. Shell is on the schedule and you will see a major front-end facelift in the coming months.
Right: We scrapped the companions before we spent too much time on them
Each class has its own companion animal/creature. We have these built and animated and had them in the game for a while. They were originally intended as companions and at one point the players transformed into them for a whole new set of skills. We just couldn’t get it right and we caught that in time before we spent any more resources on them. We have them in our back pocket and intend to put them to use when we have the time to devote to them properly. They are such a cool part of the game that we didn’t want to release them half-baked and risk not doing them justice. We think this was a smart decision. We know from experience that a lot of time and resources can be spent on an aspect of the game that isn’t crucial, because the team gets emotionally attached to them. We had enough sense to avoid this and we think it will pay off in future releases when we can introduce the animals properly, in a way that strengthens the experience and adds depth to the combat.
TBD: AI , PvE and added game modes for re launch and future releases
Players can look forward to bots in the April release, although no new PvE game modes will be released for a few more months. The tutorial gives players the option to practice against bots before they try their hand against real players which takes some of the stress off when jumping in for the first time. We have some pretty big plans for PvE in future releases and we are looking forward to giving players the option for a single player mode.
One of the modes we are most excited about is Labyrinth, which we originally had planned for April but decided to put that off in favor of focusing on shipping the game we intended to ship. Labyrinth is a whole new game mode where players get to play the boss and minions in a new take on the classic raid. This adds a whole new variety of play for Forge and we think it will be a very popular addition.
Into the future: Building a brand, not just a game
For us, Forge was the opportunity to start a franchise utilizing Steam as the primary platform. No other platform, currently, offers the ability to build something like this from the ground up. Steam is an ideal vehicle for Forge. It allows us to launch a core game and build on it over the course of years, constantly providing fresh new content and giving players a long term experience in a PvP universe. We don’t foresee a Forge 2 and 3, we just foresee a game growing up and evolving with its player base. If we are successful, Forge will be as ubiquitous as WOW but on an entirely different level that doesn’t compete with games like WOW. Valve has done a great job with its own franchises, carving its own PvP niche and we see a future where Forge is the dominant go-to when you are craving combat without the guns and grenades.
Paul Culp is the CEO of the Oregon-based video game Art and Animation firm, SuperGenius. www.supergenius-studio.com