Posted on Feb-08-2005
Ah, much to discuss this time around. Much news, as well as much that is new; this is going to be a long one covering a wide range of subjects. We had intended to post this a couple weeks ago, but several dates had to be firmed up and confirmed with our partners; we wanted to be confident talking about them. So, to paraphrase Bette Davis: "Buckle up, boys; it's going to be a bumpy ride."
About Throne of Destiny, I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is: we have merged the two separate development trees, the User Interface/Graphics Upgrade tree and the Content and Game System tree, into one big honking tree and it works pretty well. Well, for the most part. This merged the new UI code and graphics engine work with the new quests and game systems and much of the new art, so we could debug more effectively.
It also gives us a chance to see just how the new content and systems will react to all that new UI code and graphics engine changes, which scared us a bunch every time we thought it. One of the larger risks of this project, if not the largest, is the sheer amount of old code we've had to touch to get an improvement in the graphics display and make the user interface easier to deal with. In the biz, we call this "legacy code."
Some of the legacy code we're working with is going on eight years old; that's enough to make any sane engineer mad as a loon. As an example, imagine you are an engineer and someone gives you the task of upgrading one of the top ten selling games from 1997, such as Dungeon Keeper or Diablo,* but because you don't have two years of development and six months of debugging to work with, you have to keep most of the underlying code. You need to make sure it works on today's machines, graphics cards and operating systems, which have changed a number of times in those eight years, and that it has a better graphics look to it, but you can't just toss is out and start from scratch, which is what you'd normally do.
And just to add to your joy, imagine some of the previous developers who wrote some of this the code, people long gone from the company, didn't provide frills such as documentation or commenting the code, so that those who followed after would know what those various bits of the code were supposed to do.
Can you imagine the conflicts you'd run into trying to do that? That old legacy code is going to be an issue every step of the way. It can be done; it just has its own set of unique issues with which you have to deal and you never know when something you didn't anticipate is going to rear up and bite you in the butt.
Which brings us to the bad news: We are running into some of those legacy code issues and it is slowing us down. We actually expected to be code complete by now and into nothing but bug fixes; however, because of some of those legacy issues and the need to get them scoped out and fixed right now, we're behind schedule. That's going to affect our release date; more on that below.
And because someone is certainly going to ask: Yeah, we did plan a lot of extra slack time into the engineering schedule long before we began coding, more than I've ever planned into a project before; I'm talking about a full man-year of padding just for legacy issues. We ended up being bit harder than we thought we would by those issues.
First up, you've probably already heard about the distribution agreement with Sony Online Entertainment's Station Publishing. Throne of Destiny will be on the shelves of most, if not all, of the major retailers, not just GameStop and EB. There will be very strong retail support including pre-order boxes, posters, and even shelf and counter displays at key locations.
This is all to the good; it means wide distribution of the game and, we fervently hope, bunches of new players coming in the door for a look-see. To back up the launch, you'll also be seeing advertising in major game magazines and online sites. All this takes time to get in place; for example, advertising, box covers, compositions of the boxes, manuals, et al, takes time to design and approve, then to be duplicated and be ready to go for the gold master. For another, the major mags need everything in place 60-90 days ahead of the street date. All in all, though, this is coming together nicely.
We also have a price cap: We expect the Suggested Retail Price to be at or around $29.99. If the SRP is going to end up much different than that, we'll let you know immediately.
Right now, pre-orders of the retail package are scheduled to be available about a month before ACTD launches. You'll be able to pre-order at retail software stores and we're offering a couple incentives for doing so. All those who pre-order Throne of Destiny will receive both:
- A new gem for each character when that characters logs into the Expansion for the first time. This gem is called Asheron's Benediction. It is an eternal, bonded and attuned gem that provides a 10% increase in health for 24 hours. It may be used as often as you wish. If you die, for example, you can reuse it immediately. The effect does not stack; for example, if you use it three times in a short period, you don't receive a 30% increase in health, only the 10% increase.
- Blackmoor's Favor, a gem that increases Natural Armor by +50 for 24 hours. As with Asheron's Benediction, this gem is eternal, bonded and attuned and is 24 hours per use and may be reused immediately at any time. Again, the effect does not stack.
These items will automatically be dropped into the inventory of every character when they log in. If there is no inventory slot available, the game will just hold onto it until the character logs in with an open slot.
Since the gems are bonded and attuned, they won't be tradable; they'll only be useful to the character they were given to originally. Essentially, we're handing out perma-buffs, two of them if you pre-order, one if you just buy the expansion when it hits the shelves.
Testing: Closed Player Beta Coming Up
We're ready to start inviting more people into the testing. Beginning next week, we're going to start offering invitations to some players to be involved in the first round of closed Beta player testing. We've had plenty of requests to be involved and we thank you for those; later on, we're going to throw open the doors to more people for load testing. However, for the first round of player pounding, we're going to stick with a core group of about 300.
So, if you don't receive an invitation for this first round, don't worry, you may get a chance to preview it later on. There will be a pretty hefty download involved, around 400 MB; you've been warned. You'll also need an active account on the Turbine Billing system to be part of the test or preview. If you haven't yet migrated your account and want to be involved with the test or preview, now is the time, :D.
Right now, we're currently deep in internal testing. On the front lines, we now have a larger dedicated team assigned from QA exclusively to the Throne of Destiny project, including a couple senior testers with years of MMO testing experience that we stole made the move to Turbine from a competitor. We also have large external teams standing by to do hardware/software compatibility and performance testing on the CCC builds; the sheer number of hardware configurations among personal computers boggles the mind and we have to test as many as we can. For example, every test that is performed on a computer running Win XP with an Nvidia card has to be completely duplicated on a computer running Win98 with an Nvidia card, and then on a PC running Win98 with an ATI card... you get the picture. This takes literally thousands of hours.
As you might imagine from the Development section of this letter, we're spending quite a lot of time on graphics upgrade and UI issues. Sometimes, the bugs we see can actually be pretty funny. Check out the screenshot of a data bug from an older build. We wanted to check that the building texture redraws from our art outsourcer were lining up and degrading properly, so we put them in an old ACDM tree for a quick look. The buildings ended up looking like they were designed by crazed tuskers:
Thankfully, this was one of those bugs that can be – and was – easily fixed, though it had us scared for a few minutes.
The really tough news here – certainly the toughest to talk about – is that the delay has other consequences. To have a
The test hardware for the player betas is being set up and burned-in now. This will be a new world, matching the number of servers and the software set-up of our current worlds, so we can get an accurate measurement of how the server-side of this expansion is working. Testers will be accessing it from the Turbine launcher with a special build of the game.
While this isn't directly related to the expansion pack, I want to discuss hardware in general. As most of you know, when we bought the game back from Microsoft, we inherited the old equipment used to run the game – servers, routers, hard drive arrays, et al – as part of the deal. Some of those servers are seven years old and are starting to act funky; remember the SQL servers that died last year? Some of these funky-acting game servers are bound to start failing soon; hey, you'd keel over, too, if someone kept you working for seven years straight without a break.
We've been replacing hardware as it fails, but we're going to accelerate that process a bit. We can't replace everything all at once; my budget doesn't allow spending the millions needed to do that. Our current short-term plan is to replace the seven or eight machines that are showing signs of senility and all the machines on two worlds with fresh hardware. Then we'll take the old machines that still work adequately and distribute them among the other worlds to A) help increase performance and B) act as a safety net in case one or more machines on a world dies.
After tossing out the senile machines, this should result in at least two extra servers on every world still using the old hardware and, in most cases, three of them. If we can recover the senile machines without having to rebuild them (trying to find parts for seven-year-old quad processor servers is about as easy as finding a politician at an honesty contest), we'll add them in, too.
Our NetOps crew has much of the equipment in hand and we're hoping to get this done before the expansion launches (everyone send good vibes, please; those guys are so overworked that it isn't even funny). When we do make the replacements, the two worlds that are getting the fresh equipment will be down for most of a day while we transfer the databases; we'll give you plenty of advance notice on that.
Which worlds, you ask? This question scares me, because everyone is going to want the fresh machines for their main world and we can't please everyone. One world is an obvious choice: Darktide. The nature of the combat on that world is such that it makes sense to have it running on our best hardware, so Darktide will be getting one of the makeovers. As for the second world: we'll look over the logs and make a choice based on a number of metrics, including the number of active accounts and overall use. If two or three worlds are close on those metrics... I don't know, maybe we'll hold a raffle or take bribes, :D.
And what you really want to know...
So, one might ask, just when will the expansion pack ship? If you've read this far, then you know we're running behind where we wanted to be and that player testing is starting late. And we want to have a meaningful round of player tests, so that we can have multiple iterations of the test/debug/retest process and catch everything we can before the launch. It doesn't make much sense to do that until we've run our own tests internally and with third party compatibility and performance testers to fix the obvious bugs. On top of that, we need to turn out the master duplication disc (the "Gold Master" in game-dev jargon) at least one month earlier than the launch date, so the game can be pressed onto discs, slipped into boxes and trucked to the stores in time to hit the shelves.
To make a ship by the end of March, which would be in our original ship range of the first quarter, we would have to make that Gold Master sometime in the next two weeks. Folks, we're just not ready to do that. Based on that, we're pushing out our original ship range of "1st Quarter 2005" to May. Our target date is May 11 and we're basing all our testing, manufacturing, box distribution to retail, marketing and PR schedules on it (as some GameStop customers know from last Friday's posting at the GameStop web site). This is a six week push from the end of the 1st quarter, but we think it is absolutely critical that we have a chance to react to as much player feedback as we can before we launch.
So, please accept my apologies for the delay, but I hope that you understand– and believe that you do understand – the necessity of it. I think we'd all rather take the extra time than ship too early.