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Game Updates Comms - Part 1

May 3, 2024

Thank you all for your patience, we know that we’ve been a bit quiet for a while! We are now really excited to get the chance to share some of what we've been working on since you all played the Ultra Deep dungeon, and also explain what you can expect from Ember Sword this year, and beyond.

We have a lot of information to share with you, so we’re going to break the updates up into three parts, and release each one separately over the coming weeks.

So here is Part One, thank you for your continued support for Ember Sword, and stay tuned for more soon!

Part One: What we’ve been working on since Ultra Deep

Thank you to everyone who played, and especially those who sent us feedback. We look at and read everything! Based on the feedback we got from the playtests last year, it was clear to us that we needed to double down on some of our core game systems, to get them right by the time we enter Early Access later this year. We are hugely excited for you all to get your hands on Ember Sword soon, because it feels like it has taken a huge leap forward. Read on as what we’ve done, and why.

We’ll break this info down into two parts: Game Updates and Engine. After them, you can find information on a couple of other notable improvements and a more comprehensive list of many of the specific changes or improvements we’ve made in more of a release notes style format.

Game Updates

So many things go into whether a game feels good to play, but coming off the back of the two playtests last year, we identified the following areas of focus:

  • Camera
  • Controls
  • Character
  • Abilities
  • Enemy Behaviour
  • Visual and Auditory Feedback
  • Responsiveness

Camera

Originally we had planned for an isometric view for Ember Sword, but so much of the feedback we received mentioned that people preferred the standard 360 view like with other MMORPGs, and so we have now fully implemented this change.

We had already started to experiment with it around the time of Ultra Deep, but have made a lot of progress since then. We think it improves gameplay and immersion tremendously, but it meant that we needed to do a lot of work we had done previously because much of it needed to be tweaked to work with the new camera (things like we didn’t have the rear side of buildings!)

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Controls

Along with the shift in camera, we changed controls to use the more typical WASD style of movement versus the click and point style of MOBAs or ARPGs that we had been using previously. We’re happy with the impact this has had in terms of gameplay feel, but it meant we needed to go back and rework combat, gathering, and other systems to really work well.

Up until Ultra Deep we had been trialing both types of controls, but it became clear that the combination of WASD and the new camera was the way to go, and when you get to play we think you’ll agree.

Character

We have refactored and refined our character systems to support a vast array of costumes, accessories, equipment, weapons, visual effects, and animations. All which will look and feel epic when wearing and playing with them – especially with the new camera.

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The work we’ve done here isn’t super flashy as it’s more back-end work, creating systems that unlock potential for us later on, but with this work done we’re now working on our character creator, and all the different weapons and armor that will be available for Early Access and beyond.

Speaking of which, we’ve been hard at work designing weapon and character cosmetics, and by the time we enter Early Access we will have cosmetics at four different types of rarity. We have been working on the cosmetics roadmap for the end of this year and beyond, and the designs our art team have done are absolutely incredible, and we can’t wait to show you some examples in the coming weeks!

Abilities

We’ve put a lot of work into the abilities for Sword and Shield, to make everything look and feel much more impactful and satisfying.

An example is whirlwind where we’ve tweaked the speed, area of impact, cooldown, sound effects, visual effects and more. On the surface it might look similar to when players got to use it in Ultra Deep, but as soon as you play you’ll notice how much better it feels now.

Enemy Behaviour

Up until Ultra Deep, anything that wasn’t a boss had pretty similar logic with relatively simple aggro and behavior mechanics. We’ve now designed and implemented a deep behavior system which allows for several different archetypes like pacifists, aggressors, cowards, whose actions will change based on your level, and other factors. These behaviors can also be further fine-tuned in terms of personality. An example is our boars:

New Boarhaviors

  • Circling their target
  • Following from distance
  • If you get close, you will be attacked
  • More “animal/predator” like

We’re still implementing this system across all of our other creatures, and we’re excited about what this system does for gameplay.

Visual and Auditory Feedback

A big part of a game feeling satisfying when you play is it giving you the necessary feedback whenever you take an action in the world. Whether it’s chopping down trees or chopping down enemies, you want to see and hear the impact of what you did, and based on the feedback from previous playtests, this was a big area of improvement for us. We’ve implemented a lot of front and backend changes to improve things, and we’re excited for you to play with the changes we’ve made.

As mentioned in the Abilities section, we’ve put a lot of work into really upgrading visual effects, both to make abilities feel more satisfying but also to help you understand as a player what’s happening at all times. The smaller-scale playtests we’ve been running have given us confidence that we have been able to make substantial progress here.

Responsiveness

Many of our team play games online at a high level, and so we understand better than most what online games need to get right to ensure players get the experience they expect.

In addition to putting in the right infrastructure, we are also working hard on both the Engine and the game side of things to get key things like latency compensation, behavior prediction, and game streaming optimization right. All of these things add up so that when you play, the game feels the way it’s supposed to. This is one of the areas where our custom Engine shines and helps us bring the Ember Sword experience to more players around the world, even those with less powerful computers and slower internet speeds.

Some of these things are very technical and hard to explain, but for a broader look at what we’re doing with our Engine (and why) check out the next section below!

Engine

At Bright Star Studios we are making our dream game: Ember Sword, an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online game) with vast landscapes, thousands of players, and servers running 24/7.

This is a massive undertaking on its own, which requires a lot of custom technology, but we decided that wasn’t enough of a challenge on its own!

Today we want to shed a bit of light on why we made those decisions, and what implications that has, both good (performance, bandwidth) and bad (time!)

Technical Requirements

We’ve all been there. You finally get a couple of hours to play your favorite game with friends, but it’s been a while since you last logged in. You fire up the launcher and are greeted with a progress bar which is moving very slowly. You get that sinking feeling that most of your gaming time is going to be browsing filler content on Reddit and YouTube whilst you wait for your game to update.

Taking a more global view, this problem hits players in some parts of the world on a whole different level where broadband isn’t ubiquitous and they rely on mobile internet to game and connect with their friends.

These felt like problems that were important to solve.

To properly achieve and deliver on our mission to redefine how games are built, accessed, and played, we decided that we needed to deliver on a unique core promise to players: from the moment you hit play, you load in and start playing very quickly, anywhere in the world. By doing this we open up Ember Sword to a global audience in a way that no other PC MMO has been able to before.

The solution to the points above felt obvious – we should make Ember Sword playable in a web browser. It cuts out the need for huge upfront downloads and bespoke game clients, as well as utilizing software that is common across nearly every kind of gaming device in the world. As far as your Ember Sword account is concerned we will allow you to use one of the many different online services you are already signed up to, to login into Ember Sword.

Target Platform Woes

So we were excited to develop Ember Sword as a game played in a browser, but the web is a very different platform compared to PC operating systems and consoles – there are extreme technical limitations. For instance multi-threading, a standard feature of CPUs for over 20 years now, and a core feature that modern engines are built on, is severely limited.

Additionally, since there is no installation process and we don't want players to download gigabytes of data up front, all data needs to be streamed on-demand. So while you run around the world, the game has to load data in the background and it should continue running smoothly while doing so.

Constraints often offer a creative challenge. All these technical limitations also represent exciting opportunities for us, that we design our experience within.

In the Beginning there was Unity

We didn’t jump straight into building our own Engine.

We built our early prototype of Ember Sword on Unity and the intention was to build the full game with it. However, general purpose engines like Unity and Unreal Engine are not built with the web in mind. Consequently, we ran into many issues trying to achieve our vision of making Ember Sword available to as many as possible.

We didn’t want to compromise on our vision for Ember Sword, but unfortunately there was no off-the-shelf solution available that would suit our needs. So, our CTO and Lead Software Architect started work on an early version of what became our Engine to prove the concept we were aiming for. After four months of prototyping our Engine was delivering in three major areas: performance on low end devices, memory footprint, and streaming (our ability to serve Ember Sword one bitesize at a time). Even at that early stage, our Engine was outperforming rivals by a factor of five in terms of frame rate, whilst being only 3.5 MB in total size.

With such promising results, we felt like it made sense to commit fully and build Ember Sword using our proprietary technology and editor.

Custom Tech

We chose to build our Engine using the C++ language, a systems-level programming language used in highly performance oriented scenarios. It is compiled for the web using Emscripten. Since C++ is the de-facto standard in the games industry for writing engines, this immediately gives us access to a wide range of solutions, such as NVIDIA's PhysX. It also makes hiring easier, since it is the language that game engine developers are familiar with.

The combination of C++ and Emscripten gives us the best foundation for high performance. On top of that we built the Engine using an Entity Component System (ECS) fully utilizing data oriented design principles. In layman's terms, we used a state-of-the-art approach for executing our game logic.

Whilst we are streaming data to players, we don’t do it in the same way that most cloud gaming platforms do. Ember Sword runs natively on every device it's played on. This means there is no additional input lag, and nearly all game data gets streamed on-demand. The players only need to download the minimum amount of data to start playing, and they only download additional data for areas as they visit them.

This is incredibly exciting, however it means that all other gameplay logic needs to be built around the fact that data may not yet be available, so it has a big impact on how both the Engine and the game work.

Custom Tools

When we talk about the 'Engine' we often mean the code that gets executed while playing the game. The game logic, the rendering, the networking, sound, AI and so on. However, to a game developer the most important aspect is what they use in their day-to-day work, and that are the tools to actually design the game. The better these tools are, the easier it is to make your game. Building tools, like a powerful level editor, is often vastly more effort than the actual Engine itself.

On the other hand, these tools are also always built around the capabilities of the Engine. Creating huge levels has traditionally been difficult, because of the amount of data involved. Since our Engine is already streaming all data on-demand, we utilize this strength of our technology for editing as well.

Custom Problems

While the benefits from having our own engine (speed, our ability to highly optimize, and controlling our own destiny) the decision came with a trade-off. The three topmost downsides are: work, work, and more work.

In addition to the improvements we are making to the game, we are spending considerable effort on making the Engine and the tools required to support both. This is by no means an easy task, and we always have to be careful to prioritize things in such a way that the game team can work on one part, while the engine team builds the infrastructure that is needed for the next part.

Custom Talent

It's very easy to underestimate the sheer scale of what we are trying to achieve, and it's also easy to overestimate one's own capabilities. That's why we at Bright Star started very early hiring people with years of experience in the industry. And to our delight many capable engineers were eager to join and build something special with us. We have gathered a great team that is laser focused on making Ember Sword a reality.

The Road Ahead

So while the work is plenty and the road is a bit bumpy, we know what we need to do. We have the talent that is able to do it and we have full control over our technology. As always, the one thing that we could use a bit more of, is time, but if that wasn't the case, we wouldn't be ambitious enough.

Full Release Notes - Closed Beta 1

(changes since Ultra Deep, will release further updates in the coming weeks)

Gameplay: Combat and World

  • Controls, camera, and feel
  • WASD movement, new camera angle and logic
  • Abilities revamped – mechanics and consistency
  • Hitbox detection upgraded
  • New particle system implemented
  • Complete overhaul of abilities, some have been removed and replaced, others have been reworked
  • You can now cast abilities while moving
  • Better movement responsiveness and acceleration/deceleration
  • Added new default/starting gear
  • Added iframes to dodge rolling to create small periods of invulnerability
  • Existing audio reworked and upgraded to give better player feedback
  • New sound effects and music added across the board
  • Complete buff and debuff overhaul
  • Complete potion system overhaul
  • PVP arenas have been refined
  • Looting redesigned to make it easier, clearer, and more intuitive
  • Upgraded combat text/damage numbers
  • Added ability progression and unlocking
  • Improved performance across a range of browsers and hardware (including macOS)
  • Increased player movement speed
  • Loot tables reworked
  • Procedural environment tooling scoped, prototyped, and implemented
  • Added status icons to help you understand when you are in combat
  • Added XP orbs for various different things – character level, weapon skills, gathering skills and more
  • Improved Idle and combat behavior of enemies and NPCs
  • Overhauled aggro system
  • Reworked armor system and formulas
  • Updated walk/run speeds for various creatures
  • New trading UI

Gameplay: Gathering and Crafting

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  • UI and UX overhaul including new icons and VFX
  • Changed to keypress to initiate gathering from all resources (mining, herb gathering, chopping down trees etc)
  • Refined the gathering experience overall
  • Complete item overhaul including different armor tiers and cosmetic types (split by rarity)
  • Upgraded resource VFX to adapt better to different biomes and environments
  • Updated loot tables for all gathering nodes
  • Crafting recipes updated
  • Leatherworking reworked
  • Bowyer reworked
  • Weaving reworked
  • Crafting stations update

Art

  • All models and textures upgraded to look good with new camera (moved from isometric to 360 view)
  • Sword and shield VFX upgraded
  • Combat VFX upgraded across the board
  • VFX added to help players identify statuses visually
  • Added/upgraded particle FX like smoke/gas/dust
  • Implemented new custom shaders
  • Upgraded level-up VFX
  • Animations overhaul to have everything look and feel much better
  • New icons for almost everything including abilities, items, crafting and more
  • Added new buildings for alchemy and other crafts
  • Added better clouds
  • Game UI overhaul
  • In-game creature overhaul
  • Created creature catalog / lineup to help with scaling/sizing
  • New character rig, armor and weapon designs to support cosmetics including 4 types of rarity
  • Set up the workflows required and produced the first cosmetics for Early Access

Infrastructure

  • Moved back to main world instance from Ultra Deep
  • Networking upgrades to handle increased CCU
  • Added network RX visualization to help diagnose network issues
  • Added many prerequisites for network prediction
  • Network replay for collisions
  • Implemented timeline sync with fast forwarding and prediction acknowledgement stops.
  • Reworked lag compensation system for hit detection
  • Improved game logging for gameplay, server, zones and more
  • Networked hit detection improvements - players with manageable latency (<300ms) can consistently perform dodges and not get hit -when they feel they shouldn’t
  • Started building the infrastructure required for Early Access

Player Research and QA

  • A ton of bug fixes
  • Test automation
  • Automated information retrieval from game code
  • Improved reporting and traceability
  • Created test plans and cases to help with future tests
  • Regular closed playtests with testers onsite and universities
  • Framework for player experience measures
  • Survey and study design
  • Compiled player feedback from Ultra Deep

Engine

Core engine improvements:

  • Improved loading times
  • Improved UI framework
  • New system for character animation and loadout
  • Completely new base infrastructure for more control and better performance
  • Revamped object transform updates for better performance
  • Rewritten object culling system for better performance
  • Rewritten navmesh generation
  • Added system for particle effects
  • Made engine and tools gamma correct
  • Major rework of the streaming system

Major renderer improvements for better performance:

  • Rewritten shadow rendering code
  • Completely revamped lighting system
  • Switched to a different SSAO method (shadows)
  • New shaders for ground rendering
  • Rewritten bloom/glow post processing

Massive editor overhaul:

  • Much improved tools to work with assets
  • Hot reload for most assets, such as textures, shaders, models and prefabs
  • Added tools to validate assets for correctness
  • Many improvements to asset processing

Networking:

  • Rewrote networking infrastructure from scratch
  • New implementation of the player login queue
  • Wrote botnet for testing game with artificial players

That’s it for now in terms of what we’ve been working on for the last few months, we have a lot of very exciting stuff to share with you very soon, so please stay tuned for Part Two: Ember Sword in 2024!

Thanks for your continued support.

The Ember Sword team.