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News from 2001

         Wednesday, December 26th, 2001         
      After-Christmas News: Not as much was accompolished as I would have liked over the 4-day weekend, but here it is. A "sneaking" skill was added (necessary for several quests). Fighting Level is no longer the "main" level - in other words, your skill in attacking monsters isn't the driving force behind your advancement. Yes, it still plays a role, but more in-line with the other skill-based levels. The master Experience and Level values will be earned and rewarded by way of quests, and as the story advances - not by arbitrary, mindless math.

      Another new feature is that the "vitality" and "vigor" (two types of turns) required for a given task will now "pop up" (ala the "FONT TITLE" tag) so players can see (instead of guessing by trial and error). The level of various tasks is shown in the same pop-up. I realized that it would be next to impossible to determine to base skill level of a given task (for instance, if you're a level 4 climber attempting to climb a level 6 wall, how would you ever have known) without showing it. However, these things may come by way of some in-game item (for instance, the "Eye of Armadon" or some such trinket), instead of working as a default.

      Also, the game now has a gap limit for tasks. Since each task becomes harder the bigger the gap between your skill level and the task level, a task should be "impossible" if that gap is too wide. This not only prevents the player from wasting turns on a "difficult" task, but it prevents a player from being so persistent that they willingly waste vitality just to eventually access areas for which they aren't yet ready (for instance, swimming across a level 10 lake as a level 2 swimmer).

      In addition to finishing the "cottage on the hill" graphics (three scenes were posted last time), I'm reworking a model from many months ago (the small brick cabin on a barren gray landscape with a red-pink sky). It generally looks the same, but now has shots from 14 different points, and a lower camera point (to give a more 1st-person feel). It also uses 5 skies (instead of just the original two, day and night). I will probably re-work many of the older models to provide a larger and more useful "area" than originally intended.

      Some Observations: When my fiancee was playing Final Fantasy 8 a few days ago, I noticed something. StarLock has a master map (the "Galaxy Map") on which courses to various points can be plotted. Some planets and some stations have "points of interest" which can be visited. This reminded me of FF8!

      Quite a while ago (and something I failed to mention in the news) is that I did away with the multiple playable alien races, for several reasons. One is that you can't tell a story when you don't understand your protaganist, and especially when you can't make assumptions about him or her. For instance, Star Wars wouldn't have been much of a story if Luke Skywalker had been a Hutt instead of an up-and-coming Jedi. A story involving a trip across a scorching hot desert would end pretty abruptly if the protagonist were a vampire (without some crafty explanation). The same is true of StarLock, although the reasons don't become clear until later in the story.

      Many games resort to "free-form" roleplaying. That's fine, if that's what you're into. In my opinion, an empty world that exists merely for players to develop their own stories from their own roleplaying habits is extremely negligent - even a cop-out. That's not to say free-form roleplaying can't take place - and even in a structured world like StarLock provides. However, you don't buy a novel expecting to find blank pages and a pencil, do you? There are plenty of other games for people who want no in-game story - probably an abundance of such games. I believe story development is one of the few true areas where advancements in game design can still be made.

      Moreover, how do you "roleplay" as a completely new, fictional alien race? People know how trolls might behave, or how a hobbit might behave, or how a vampire might behave, or how an elderly wizard might behave because those things have been explored already. It would border on impossible to fully explain the social motivations and personalities of an entirely new fictional race, in a way that guarantees they'll be role-played as anticipated. Otherwise, you have a very shaky foundation on which to build a story.

      For these reasons, StarLock will weigh heavy on the "adventure" scale. It's an RPG yes, and I hope players do get wrapped up in their roles. However, there is no point in having multiple races when it does nothing to advance the story. Perhaps I'll work on an option that does allow additional player races. I may even be able to come up with detailed histories that can fully explain these aliens, and allow players to take a more active role in what were previously NPC-only races. But, it would have to be outside the main story, perhaps for players who just want to socialize in other ways - players who win the game or don't wish to win. That isn't my primary and immediate focus. I want to tell a story, not just create an interesting series of settings.

         Saturday, December 22nd, 2001         
      New Scenes Posted: I'm on a 4-day weekend (the first of two in a row). Despite the holidays, I hope to get as much accompolished in StarLock as possible using this extra time. At the moment, not much new to report. So, enjoy these nine new scenes (some from the same areas at different times of day or different seasons). I particularly like how the scenes of the cottage on the hilltop turned out. The skies are just beautiful. Shown below are three of seventy scenes which bring that area to life, plus six more recently designed areas.

Here are nine images from the game -- just the scenes, not the whole game screen. Click each thumbnail to enlarge. Enjoy!

      Don't Forget the Polls: THANKS to everybody who has taken the time to click and submit an answer in the two Polls at the bottom. I'll post more polls as I think of them. One of my next questions will be "Where did you hear about Starlock?" I'm interested in finding out how many of you are from Lunatix Online, and how many came here through other routes.

      More Interactivity: Soon (just how soon, I don't know), I want to add a StarLock forum (for now, questions or comments can be directed to the General Forum), where fans can interact. I've also been considering add-on ability (Lunatix has IGM's which are player-made levels) for StarLock, although making it work well and stay consistent with the style of the game would be tricky.

         Tuesday, December 18th, 2001         
      Two Poll Questions: Two
Poll Questions have been added below the news. Although these are just for fun, I hope you'll answer honestly. Replies are anonymous, but you're welcome to leave a comment for me using the available blank at the bottom of either poll.

      Progress Report: I finally got around to adding "global" (or "shared") values for the script data save routines. A database holds various script-related variables, based on each player's ID code (something internal to the game that nobody playing it ever has to worry about). Having shared variables was an easy thing to add, and will allow for multiplayer interaction within scripts. For instance, this would allow one player write a message in the sand at some beach, to be seen by everyone else who passes by. Or, it would allow a player to paint the walls of a room a certain color, so that every other player would see the same change. It's a very important capability, and it turned out to be very easy. This is one of those things that will have hundreds and hundreds of uses - I just hadn't needed it until now.

      Another thing just added was the ability to level up in various stats. Sure, that's a fundamental part of the game, but again, I just didn't need it until now. I need to revisit it at some point though, since eventually there will be "something" necessary to have (or to do) to level up. For now, it simply allows the player to level up when enough experience has been earned - simple and easy.

      Two other additions involve validations (more changes to the game engine). The first is a check to make sure a player still has Vigor remaining (Vigor is basically "fight turns") before being able to attack monsters. The second was a method to prevent course plotting in certain situations. For instance, it wouldn't make sense to warp out of a hollowed-out asteroid - realistically, the player should have to move his or her ship out of the asteroid before plotting a course to some other quadrant.

      In addition to finishing the "Ape Crops" graphics, I built a room inside the Ship Yard where a computer terminal can be raised (from the floor). This is where players will go to buy (or upgrade) their rigs, although I'm still a while away from being ready to add those capabilities to the game. Having the images done will make it easier when the time comes. I also worked some on the Apeville quest, which crosses paths with Pigly's quest.

      Fans of StarLock: Some people have already emailed me to say thanks for keeping the news page updated now. I'm glad you guys are reading! One person asked if I had a button or ad of some kind for "StarLock: Coming Soon" -- I don't, but I'm going to make one in the next few days for anyone interested in helping promote it.

         Sunday, December 16th, 2001         
      Weekend Update: Three engine-related features were done this weekend. One, an improvement to the "script" engine (originally based on the Lunatix Online "LunScript" parser) will now allow a "pick a player" selection. This will be handy, for instance, in picking friends to invite to a private in-game party at your in-game house. These kinds of things are being added to the script engine since that's how most of the game is being built. The "spawn" command (to call non-scripted StarLock PERL code from within a script) was done long ago. This is what allows complicated features (ones not written as a "script") to be linked within a script.

      Related to this, a character name look-up function was added (hard to explain, but it's used to match a non-changing Player ID to that player's current character name). Also added this weekend was the method by which room "entry" and "exit" messages will be shown. It isn't enough for the chat portion of the screen to simply announce that other players "entered" or "exited" the room (which is what it previously did). At the same time, not all locations are mapped out by North, South, East, and West (for example, when in the StarBus ticketing booth and stepping up to the counter), so it wouldn't make sense to force a "direction" into the message in all situations. Even so, I think it's better to say "Wyndo just entered from Chuckle's Pub" and "Wyndo just exited to the Landing Zone" wherever possible, instead of "Wyndo just entered from the north" and "Wyndo just exited to the south" (although those are used too).

      It has taken several days just to render all the scenes for the Apeville "crops" due to the combinations of 4 locations, over 4 seasons, with 5 different skies, but only 3 more images remain. Bryce is a great program, but if you're not careful with your textures, images can take a long long time to render. The crops - built from simple rectangular boxes, use a semi-transparent (though simple) texture that turned out to be VERY slow.

      That's all for now. Stay tuned for more!

         Wednesday, December 12th, 2001         
      StarLock Design Journal: One cool thing about
Lunatix Online is that it was developed with frequent news updates. It's interesting to read through all the old news from years ago (it's all still there in the "old news" sections) and read about the features that were added and updated. StarLock may be nearing a point where it's possible to have more frequent news updates... a just-for-fun kind of thing, to keep a "design journal" of ongoing development progress. With this in mind, I'll try to scare up bits of news to post more frequently, such as the bit of trivial info below.

      Recent Progress: The past few days were spent working on "Nefrilia's Quest" which involves an AWOL Marizen Merchant, an ant-infested trench passage, and a graveyard. I also completed a great set of scenes for "Apeville," which is part of a different (but somewhat related) quest. The Apeville scenes turned out better than I thought they would. Today, I catagorized all the ape "faces" (NPC's rarely appear directly as part of the pre-rendered scenes - it's more flexible that way), which turned out to be a population of 20 (these guys will probably show up all over the galaxy, since the player's contacts in ApeVille only require a half dozen of them).

      Also over the past three days I've been working on inventory item images - a couple items related to quests, and a virtual wet-bar of various drinks. After all, one of the first places you visit is Chuckle's Pub, and there are additional such places (Charello Cafe, and another as-of-yet unnamed cafe of some sort). Drink items include things like glasses of milk, water, orange juice, mixed drinks, goblets of beer, cups of coffee or tea, and more. Overkill? Probably - but it sure is fun! I'm not sure yet what each of them will do. Perhaps they'll heal a set number of HitPoints (which makes more sense than the current "life potions" in the game). Maybe some will be involved in quests, or provide temporary extra strength or other abilities.

      Another recent development are the new skills. Many games provide skills related to occupations -- smithing, mining, crafting, and just about anything else you can imagine. That just didn't fit in with StarLock's gameplay, and would do nothing to advance the story. Instead, the various skills a player will master are things like fighting (just like your "level" in most battle-based games), climbing, swimming, running, and so forth. These are things actually related to character advancement. Each skill has its own experience points. You get "climbing" experience points when you successfully "climb" something (for instance, when you climb over the Marizen Market wall). Each of these sorts of tasks is also assigned a difficulty level, and a calculation is done to determine the chances of the task succeeding. For example, Somebody with a level 2 "climbing" skill might try 3 or 4 times to make it over a level 2 wall, but a level 4 climber might be able to scale it every time. A level 2 climber trying to climb a level 5 wall, on the other hand, might waste numerous "vitality points" (aka "turns") trying it, and only succeed after 15 attempts (wasting vitality on each attempt). Harder tasks are worth more experience points, so while a person could repeat a low-level task, it wouldn't provide as much experience as attempting tasks closer to their level. Sounds complicated, but it fits in perfectly with limited-turn play.

      In the efforts to keep the story flowing right, and keep players from getting lost in a huge game with hundreds of places to visit, locations will work on a "must-know" basis. There will be places the player will "know about" at the start of the game, but some locations only open up once a tugging job takes you there, an NPC mentions the area, or it becomes involved in some quest. This also will help keep things balanced. Also, and best of all from the standpoint of designing the game, StarLock can seem like an enormous, boundless game without actually being one. It provides a built-in explanation as to why many planets cannot be visited. As long as the planet itself exists, new areas can be added later, at which point the game will allow the player to "hear about" this new place. The game has limitless potential to "grow" this way.

      Another area of recent change involves the beginning of the game, and a player's first few turns. StarLock is designed to be intuitive. Options are given, and it's pretty easy to figure out what you're supposed to do. But, I want to avoid flocks of new players all arriving at the same place, begging each other for hints, yelling "What do I do? What do I do?" At the start, the player enters a situation where there aren't any other players. This intro-quest involves talking to the available NPC, who provides the info the player really needs to get started playing. In essence, the new player already IS playing, and learning how at the same time, without being allowed the "I'll just bug everybody else here until they answer me" crutch. On one hand, this might be a turn-off to some people (they log in and find that they're alone at first), but overall I think it's a smart way to start the game. After all, nobody will bother reading the instructions until they've already been playing for a while, so this is a good way to start.

         Wednesday, November 28th, 2001         
      Update to the FAQ: The
Frequently Asked Questions have been updated to include the new information (mentioned last time in the news) concerning the 3-tiered membership levels (including FREE play). Not much more to tell at this time, except that there is a strong possibility that StarLock won't be ready for testing in December after all. Check back though, it's still steadily taking shape.

         Sunday, October 21st, 2001         
      Long Overdue Update: Wow -- 7 months, and no update. Fortunately, that time has been spent hard at work, creating the game. Now though, it's time I updated the news!

      New Screenshots: I've posted not one... not two... not three... but 24 new Screenshots at the top of the Screenshots page. You'll get a glimpse of a variety of places you can visit, as well as several shots from space (orbiting planets). This is the first time this much information has been shown. Pay attention to the "chat" section of the screenshots (lower left section). Here, I chat about (to explain) each screenshot, providing some great information to anybody anxiously awaiting the release of the web's greatest browser-based game. This is by no means a complete representation of all the characters you'll meet and places you'll go. But, it's a start. :)

      A Little Hype: If you're familiar with browser games, you know almost everybody chooses the "easy" path, creating strategy games that are generally indistinguishable from one another. Not true with StarLock. Although fun, development has been anything but easy, as we aim to out-do every other BBG in existence. Finally, a browser-game will fill the RPG/Adventure void by providing a huge world (a large section of a galaxy), well-written text and quests, and more visual appeal than any other BBG out there. This is a browser-based game. Don't let the interface fool you. It isn't Java. It isn't Shockwave. This is a game built of dynamic web pages, and you can play from any 4.0+ browser-enabled computer (work, home, school, the library, etc).

      Discussing the Fees: One of the "complaints" of "paying" for a game is that people feel obligated, even "forced" to play a lot to get their "money's worth." While I don't entirely agree with that, we're considering three types of memberships. One -- FREE. Yes, a completely free membership. Essentially, everybody will be given a few hours a week (possibly 2 or 3) to play the game. Since you're limited on time and aren't taxing the server like "paying" players are, you may be able to maintain a StarLock account at no charge. The second level, a "credit" level, would require you to purchase time that gets used like credits. This will make a great option for those people who complain "but I only play a few minutes a day." You could buy credits, at something like $0.50 an hour, and simply play on your own time. If you go idle for a couple weeks, you didn't waste any money! The third level, much like our Lunatix accounts, would be $5 each month for unlimited play. This is a great option for people who like to spend a lot of time in the game, who would potentially spend too much if they play using "credit" time instead. I say "unlimited" play - because a player can log on as often as necessary, but as a turn-based game, you aren't awarded unlimited turns. This will keep the game fair for everybody. Although this 3-tier membership plan hasn't been finalized, it's looking like a safe bet on how the game will operate.

      About the Story: So, just what is this StarLock? The StarLock is a massive system of emmiters surrounded a portion of our galaxy, which produce an energy grid completely encompassing it. Its purpose has been debated and theories abound. One thing is certain; it's inpenetrable. Those unfortunate enough to be inside it - including Earth and dozens of other planets, are stuck. The thing is an ancient relic, dating back at least a thousand years, presumably created by a super-intelligent race who may have wished to trap the inhabitants of this part of the galaxy. But, nobody knows for sure. Religions have their own views. Some have tried to destroy it, with no success. Some have studied with, yielding very little.
      The second mystery - almost as strange as the existence of the StarLock itself, is that "new" people arrive (although not as frequently as in prior times). These "new" people appear in unpopulated areas, with some form of amnesia. They offer no clues as to their origin, or how and why they came to appear. It is widely known that this region was unpopulated for hundreds of years. Everyone here is a "new" person, or a descendant of one.
      Long ago, as a means of preventing chaos, pooling resources, and surviving in a strange galaxy, the Galactic Council for Order (GCO) was formed. These are the lawmakers. This is the galactic government. They assign jobs, and make sure alien races cooperate to the mutual benefit of all. Recently, as the population galaxy-wide has grown, their usefulness is dwindling. It no longer seems as vital to work an "assigned" job. Those with the desire to see other worlds, for instance, are just beginning to gain the right to do so. As the manager of McDeadstuff (a popular fast food franchise), your dream has been to see the stars. The best way to do this is to become a tugger - a galactic truck driver. You've just been authorized to begin your new career.
      With the GCO poised to restructure itself via the first ever "Galactic Election" for president, and with a new career on the horizon, things couldn't seem brighter. But, things aren't always as they seem. Under the surface of a peaceful galaxy, an ancient mistake threatens to destroy this new society. When people can't remember who they are, who they were may be far removed from who they've become.

      About the Game: The best thing about any quest-based game is a common theme. In this case, it's the situations and events leading up to some surprising discoveries about the nature of the starlock and its builders as the game comes to a close. Along the way, the player will be treated to multiple branching stories, quests, and other things related to the StarLock and its inhabitants. This is an exciting way to design a game. One main story is threaded with and supplmented by side stories and quests. The point is to experience it - to live the story we're telling - not just to play it as an outsider.

      A Release Date: Nothing is set yet, but the current plan is that testing will start this year, perhaps in December. For all the time spent coding, writing, and designing, much is still to come. It simply isn't ready to play, much less open for testing. Stick with us. This one will be worth the wait, even if we miss this tentative deadline. I might know - and perhaps soon - a better estimate of exactly when we'll start requesting beta testers. But, not yet. For now, I hope the new info and the screen shots will help. :)

         Wednesday, March 21st, 2001         
      New Site Design: Looking back, it doesn't seem so long, but StarLock development started more than TWO years ago. Although frequently hindered by other things along the way, I've been working on it again non-stop since December. I've taken a moment to redesign the home page here. You will notice new links for a more organized Screen Shots page, a FAQ (finally), with more to come.

      Development: Things ARE taking shape. Every day, the engine is improved and new areas are rendered. One of the largest recent changes involves changing the data storage method -- instead of using flat text data files (like Lunatix Online, which is fine but less efficient for high usage), StarLock will take advantage of a relational Database. Not only should this prove faster when many players are logged in, but it allows the ability to do more advanced things, such as sorting the player list in different ways (and in real-time).

      Information: There is so much to tell, but it just isn't the time to do that. One of our chief concerns (and a justifiable one, in fact) is that some other site will "save time" by copying our ideas and putting out some cheap knock-off game. If you look into the arena of "free" web games, you won't see much originality, or innovation. (Even today, our Lunatix Online may be the only game to allow for player-created add-ons.) We'll expand the site to include much more information when the beta phase nears.
      I will say, though, that this is NOT based on any existing game. It isn't a "TradeWars" or a "Space Merchants" clone. It's primarily Role Playing and Adventure (not strategy). While it will initially set the player up as a space trucker, the point isn't to sell and profit from the cargo -- merely to deliver it for a fee. Trading among players is included, but in a way (to my knowledge) never seen in a game.
      That's only the beginning. We're hoping to do something with StarLock that is very rarely seen in any game (aside from text-based interactive fiction) -- tell a story. Yeah, I know -- most games do "have a story," but it's simply a backdrop. The story is there to justify the game. StarLock will be a game to justify a story. Doing this in a multiplayer environment isn't easy, but the result should prove very worthwhile.
      I'm anxious to describe more of the game and begin posting updated screenshots. For now -- if you've really been waiting on this game as many of you have told us -- just know that it IS progressing. We're doing our best to finish it without that "rushed" feeling that plagues so many games, and we think it's worth the wait.

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