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I suggested this might begin last week, but that didn't work out. It's possible this might happen this weekend, but it's more likely it'll happen at the start of next week instead. For those unfamiliar, this will take the form of one or more maps that the player can download and play through to give us feedback on how much they like them and how they can be improved. I've sat down and over the last few days I've blocked out a layout for all but the final UFO type and a basic layout for the first alien base type. Testing these internally has demonstrated a number of issues we've been working on fixing before public release - multi-tile doors not working, aliens spawning inside solid walls rather than in rooms etc - and we've also been busy ironing out the obvious bugs in the code that hides the UFO walls, but that's all pretty much done now and I think we're good to start testing them out. Unfortunately, there's still a few more things holding up the level testing as a whole. Firstly, the levelsetup.xml functionality that lets us set the number and equipment of the Xenonaut troops in a mission isn't in place yet because we've been busy with the UFO stuff. That'll be done shortly. Also, the new GC UI has just been implemented (just updated graphics really) but that has a few issues we're still working through as well. So ideally we need to iron out those problems before we can release the map-pack too, as we'll need to provide an updated .exe with the map-pack so the UFO stuff works properly. So yeah, we've been busy this week and hopefully the end is in sight and the level testing can begin soon. It'll be very useful to hear people's thoughts on the scale of the later UFOs, as we're at a stage where we can still quickly change and adapt the layouts if they're not well-received.
Probably time for another update here. This week I've mostly been working on the level design stuff in preparation to start iterating the maps with the community. I've got three main maps in production with their layout mostly done - one Industrial and one Farm map that can be used for Light Scouts, Scouts and Corvettes plus a small alien base map. These will be the first few maps we'll be iterating. There's a few things holding up their release. Firstly, there's a few annoying issues with the Level Editor we'll need to resolve (should be done today and tomorrow) but will vastly increase the usability of the program when they're finished. Then we need to set levelsetup.xml to control the starting equipment of the Xenonaut troops in the mission too, as this'll be necessary for the small alien base mission. I figure the player should have laser weapons and Wolf armour by the time they encounter bases. Thirdly, we're being held up by the AI. It's not strictly necessary to play the maps, but would add a lot. GJ has been having a few issues with the way the game mechanics work. Apparently it's unusual for a game to have random outcomes in the AI turn; for example in the new XCOM if you save the game and press "End Turn", exactly the same series of events should happen if you loaded the game up a second time and pressed "End Turn" again. The downside of this is that the AI knows in advance whether it is going to kill one of your men or not, and can plan around it. In our system, the AI has to react to whether its own shots get lucky or not, which is difficult. So he's busy with that at the moment. Oh, and I'm playing with the layouts of the new UFOs using the new UFO interior / exterior system that was discussed on the forum. These layouts will be in the new maps for community iteration, but they're blocked out using soil blocks and generic ground tiles. The implementation of this is nearly done. I'll talk about the plans for our iterative testing at the bottom of this post. Next up, our ground combat coder has been working on the Desura file packing stuff. There's good news and bad news. The good news is that it works, and will reduce the Desura files down to a workable level. The bad news is that the game engine is once again causing problems. Essentially, it can only ever support 1.3gb of packed files, so we're not going to be able to pack up all of our spritesheets so we'll still have tens of thousands of files. Our ground combat coder has therefore been working on a tool that lets us filter which files go into the archive and which folders they are drawn from. Basically this just lets us stick the .XML files associated with every spreadsheet and all the ground tiles and associated XML files in the archive, which comes to about 250mb and reduces the files number of the dev version from 120,000 files to about 40,000. We can reduce that still further just by packing up more files into the remaining 1gb of archive space we have, so I think our Desura issues may be a thing of the past. The only complication with this is that you'll likely have to download the standalone if you want access to all the game files for modding purposes, as that won't be packed up. But that's a relatively niche thing, so it shouldn't affect too many people (installing mods is still easy even with the files packed up, don't worry). Excitingly, I also implemented the company's accounting system on Monday. This is basically because I had to do a load of admin to get the payroll set up now Aaron is here and has a salary (I don't have a salary), which means both he and the employer have to a pay a variety of taxes on it. We've also sat down and had a bit more of a think about the new UI for the game. Giovanni is on holiday this week but is in the process of implementing the the new GC UI background, so that should be in the next version. We're also getting the topbar of the current Geoscape UI redone by the same guy to be prettier and easier to use, which will be a prelude to the final upgrades of all of the screen. Next week I'll probably be looking at the research tree in a bit more detail to make sure all the required items for the research tree spawn in the UFOs, and blocking out the sizes and interiors of the larger ones. This should allow the game to be played right the way through. I'll also be finishing up the level design, which neatly leads me onto the iterative testing. Initially I just wanted to do this for the levels, but the more we've thought about it, the more applications it will have. GJ has done some work implementing a server that records gameplay stats, which I'm very interested in. The long game we're working towards is releasing a few ground combat scenarios for public consumption, say 4-5 in all. The purpose of this would be to get some really wide-ranging feedback on the game balance, all of which would be collected automatically. How many aliens were killed and how many soldiers lost in each mission on each difficulty setting would be automatically collected, as well as loads of other stuff we can use to get a picture of whether the missions are too hard or too easy or too long or if some weapons are not properly balanced etc. The most valuable information, though, would be on the AI itself. It's a bit difficult relying just on you forum guys for testing because you're all X-Com (and usually Xenonauts) vets and therefore you'll be better than average at the game. Discovering if an inexperienced player can beat a mission on Normal (and if so, how many troops they generally lose) would be incredibly valuable for us. We're looking into this stuff at the moment. Also, GJ has a few concerns that he might end up making an AI that is just too good at the game to beat, despite them not cheating. I'd be very interested in seeing if that is the case - though I think you underestimate gamers at your peril. It'd be good publicity if they are indeed that good though!
Just thought I'd post an update here on what our plans are with V9.1 - we're planning to release it this weekend, probably Sunday evening (UK time). Sorry for the radio silence, we're still working through a few problems and I can't definitely confirm which features will be in it yet. Fingers crossed it'll be everything planned but we'll see how it all pans out.