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Friday, May 28, 2004

HEADS UP! (GAMING THE SYSTEM, PART VII)

Deus Via, the strategy-puzzle entry from the team headed by Tiger Crossing, is designed to be a simple, "easy-to-learn-but-difficult-to-master" casual game, similar to those from PopCap, makers of Bejeweled. It features a board of giant, colored tiles, four chariots, and an ash-spewing crater, at the center. But what's probably most striking, when you start a game, is the heads-up display that suddenly appears on your screen, the moment you mount a chariot. The display tells you which colored tiles you can move your chariot to, and which power-up spells you've collected, so far. It seems to be a secondary display added onto the Second Life interface, but that's just a clever optical illusion.

"It's small and hard to see from the ground," Tiger tells me, pointing above my chariot, "but if you go up and look, you can see them up there."

And so they are. Invisible to the naked eye, but viewable if you select the Edit function on the chariot, you can see the heads-up display, translucent from the ground, and floating twenty feet above it. You can only see the HUD when you stand on the chariot, because your camera view is automatically fixed to the one angle where you can.

"There is a group of prims attached to the chariot hung up in the air," says Tiger, "right behind where I lock the camera. It is painted on the ends of long invisible prims, because small objects that far from the chariot couldn't be linked [together]. It's been a real pain to implement, but it WORKS. Arito Cotton and I spend several evenings in internet voice chat discussing ideas." What they came up with was this elegant sleight of hand, which seems to totally alter your Second Life display. ("Arito is the one who made the elementals, the basic chariot, and this kick-ass stadium," Tiger adds.)

The "elementals" are the giant creatures made of air, fire, earth, and water, which emerge onto the board to wreak havoc on the players.

"They come out of the pit in the center when you cast one of the four spells," says Tiger. They don't kill you, but "They WILL be able to knock you to a corner, taking away any spells you have, and some of your collected icons/score. But that's the one feature that's not ready yet."

Then again, lots of other features have been added and discarded, along the way.

"This game has been nothing if not a long sequence of change after change," Crossing says. "It looks very little like the original model I have." In the game as initially conceived, the object would be to "[C]ross your opponent's trail, collect orbs, and gain altitude by completing a path between any two towers. The green tubes were... Something. I have no clue now. It was too ambitious for the resources we were given, however."

I ask him about the AI scripting for the giant fire elemental clambering out of the pit, and the rain elemental that casts storms everywhere it passes.

"The originals had a whopper of an [AI] script that I'm really proud of," says Cotton. "They could head to any point on the field, avoiding obstacles in their way. (And there were more things on the field then.) The current elementals have been very cutback in what they know, to speed the game. The sim just can't handle that intense of a script load! I re-wrote their AI last night in an hour. Now they wander randomly, erasing the board as they go. They still avoid the well in the center and the edges. And they sense when an avatar on a chariot is nearby and pounce.

"We're still adding things here, you see... These [game competition] sims opened for us to begin development [on] the day before my daughter was born-- a month early. That's put a big kink in our schedule. Now it's just a matter of listening to players and adding the remaining features.

"I just want to make something very addictive," Tiger Crossing finishes, "Yet not something that requires a huge investment of time to learn or play."

As we talk, a number of furry avatars mill about on the Deus Via board, playing the game or idly watching.

"A lot of these have been my avid playtesters," Tiger Crossing notes. "I've gotten a lot of bug reports from them."

"QA Furries!" I exclaim.

Crossing smiles. "Animal testing at its best, I guess."

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