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News from 2004

         Thursday, April 29th, 2004         
      Get Ready, Get Set... The Beta Form is now offline, and after a couple hours of reading through the applications, 118 new testers have been added to the 72 from before - 190 total, plus me. An initial email was sent tonight to everyone on the list, although half a dozen did bounce back as undeliverable. Chapter one opens for testing this Saturday, and if you were selected, you'll receive a follow-up email then, with information and instructions on how and where to sign up your character. Basically, the starlock.com URL will go live (as of today, it's still just a redirect to this news page), but sign-ups will be restricted to the beta 1.1 members only.

         Friday, April 23rd, 2004         
      One Week & Counting: The StarLock beta is still on schedule for May 1st, and that's only one week away. By this time next week, I'll be getting everything set up on the server, for Saturday. The beta form will be up for a few more days, and then I'll pick additional testers late next week from the applications submitted.

         Sunday, April 11th, 2004         
      Three Weeks & Counting... until the closed beta begins! I've been working harder than ever this month to finish the final Chapter 1 quest, polish the game up, mark more off the to-do list, and get StarLock ready for an open launch (after the beta). Some great improvements have come about this month, including automatic health recovery (30 minutes for a full recharge, one minute faster each level), and automatic engine energy recharge (several hours, but faster with better rigs). Until now, HP could be recovered only by casting an aura, using a life elixir, or finding a place to sleep. Auto health recovery isn't a substitute for any of those, because it is purposely slow, but it does serve to help get a player un-stuck if none of those options are available and a fight is necessary to proceed. The same is true with auto energy recharging. Until now, a rig's engine energy was fully recharged only during midnight maintenance. But, in order to help a player get past a "stuck-in-space" situation, engine energy can be slowly recharged for that added push. In addition, after three cargo deliveries to any of the nine outposts, players will now be able to recharge engine energy when visting that particular outpost again later.
      Other changes are too numerous and minor to list. Nothing new has been added for the 11th quest, but I'm still very confident that Chapter One will be wrapped up by the May 1st start of beta 1.1.

      Inspiration: Two or three weeks ago, I found Everquest Evolution (the basic game and the first five expansions) at EB Games for $30. I've never played, and decided I should. I haven't played much -- a few hours total so far -- but I can see why it's so addictive. Although being browser-based with a text interface puts StarLock in a completely different genre, I may draw inspiration from EQ in the weeks to come.
      I've also discovered that our cable company recently added G4 to their digital cable line-up. It's the video game channel, and even if it might get boring and repetitive later, I'm really enjoying it so far. I watched a good interview with Peter Molyneux, the creator of Populous, Black & White, the upcoming Fable, etc.

         Saturday, April 3rd, 2004         
      Beta Sign-Ups: The StarLock beta is scheduled to begin on May 1st. Of the 400+ Beta 1.0 testers, 70 responded to the prior probe email to continue in Beta 1.1, and of those 70, even a few of today's email announcements bounced back. The Beta Application sign-up form is now online, to recruit more testers. If you would like to participate in StarLock beta testing, fill out the form as completely and accurately as you are able (especially the additional comments section). This will be a closed beta - only those of you accepted from your applications (plus those of you from Beta 1.0 who received todays confirmation email) will be able to sign-up, log in, and help test when the beta opens in May. I'm anticipating a fairly short beta period (most likely to run a month or two, perhaps even less) before the game opens for live, public play.

         Tuesday, March 30th, 2004         
      Still On Schedule: With plenty still to do before the beta, April is going to be a busy month. The beta 1.1 sign-up page will be up maybe when the next news is posted - early April, at any rate. We haven't decided whether to start the beta on the Lunatix Online server (restricted access and fewer players means a lesser load), or to go ahead and arrange for the initial live server (I have my eye on a leased 2.4 GHz Dual Xeon system).

      Auction Improvements: Several things have started to take shape since the last news was posted. More has been done on the eleventh quest, and part of a new "lotto" feature for the Marizen Market was started. The most notable recent development involves the auctions. I'm hoping to finish quite a few auction-related items on my to-do list in the next couple of days, and much of it is already done. In Beta 1.0, the minimum auction duration was 1 day, because that would also determine the length of time the winning bidder had to pay for the item. The reason for this was to be considerate of the different play schedules of different players. But, this has been changed to allow both a duration time and a max payment period to be set by the seller, so bidders can pick auctions that suit their needs. This has also allowed for more realistic and real-time auctions, and durations can now be set as short as one hour for quick-end auctions, or as long as five days. Maximum payment times can be set as short as six hours or as long as three days, to accomodate your bidders.
      Auctions can now be designated as being open to all bidders, only open to newbies, or only open to "oldbies." Although I'm not satisfied calling them "newbie" and "oldbie" auctions (email me if you have a better suggestion), it's working as-is. Some players may not want potentially fickle newbies bidding in their auctions, while some might prefer to sometimes offer auctions that the veteran players can't dominate. Bidding will be automatically unavailable to players with too many negative reputation points (negative rep points are given when not paying for auctions, not finishing tugging jobs, and so forth - but one negative point is erased each day so that a "bad" player can make good after a few days).
      Sorting and searching options are well on the way to being fully revamped for Beta 1.1. Bidders can now add or remove auctions from a "watch" list, prior to placing any bids. The auction list can now be filtered to show only the auctions you (as a player) started, the ones you're bidding, the ones you're watching, any eligible (based on your newbie status) for bidding, and even the potentially massive full list of all auctions. They can be further filtered to show only active auctions, new auctions, or auctions that have already ended (a dilemma in beta 1.0 was that since all the ended auctions appear first in the full list, with no way to filter, it was difficult to find the active ones without starting on the last page).
      Searching options, not yet added, are also on the way. I would like to include a text search/filter, so players can locate certain items of interest without paging through the full list (a pretty important feature to make auctions fully useful, but difficult to do efficiently because of how MySQL handles table indexes). One last thing I plan to change -- and it was only done this way originally for the added realism -- is to change the current method of having an item delivered to the winning bidder in the same amount of time it took for that bidder to pay for the item. It might not be realistic to pay for the auction and receive the item(s) immediately, but it's one more thing to really make the whole StarLock auction system more usable.

         Wednesday, March 24th, 2004         
      Beta 1.1 Soon! In the next few days, I plan to open the Beta Test Sign-Up form again. Those of you from the original Beta 1.0 who already replied to the probe email a few weeks ago with your intention to help again will already be on the list. Expect another confirmation when open sign-ups happen, just so you're sure. I am expecting to open the game to beta testers on Saturday, May 1st. The success of this testing phase will determine how soon StarLock will be ready for public play.

      Quest Development: Significant progress on the last Chapter 1 quest was made over the past few days. I don't really have many more details to give about it - only that the next part requires quite a bit of scripting for an area on the planet Graulor-Manisto. I am also trying to inject preliminary portions of this quest at earlier stages, to spread it out over more of Chapter 1 (as opposed to a single linear quest at the end of the chapter).

      More, More, More: Several things from the "must-do" portion of the to-do list are finished. StarBus #3 now makes stops between the Emmansa Village and the StarBus Station (public transportation plays a role, even though as a player you can borrow, rent, or even buy your own rig). The Apeville Chef's pies and teas now have legitimate uses, for Health, Vitality, and Vigor recovory. An item in the Preferences menu controls the space options overlay opacity (un-jargonized, this means that the space graphics become more or less dim when options are viewed). The need for this preference becomes apparent when working with monitors of different brightness levels, such as laptops, where a dimmer background is necessary for the superimposed text to really stand out and be visible against the background.
      Also, tugging job properties have been modified in a way that's much more newbie-friendly. In Beta 1.0, there was very little leniency in this aspect of the game. A 6-hour job might have a 2-hour grace period. An 18-hour job might have a 5-hour grace period. The "minimum pickup" and "minimum delivery" times were removed from these low-level jobs shortly after Beta 1.0, for these same reasons. Now, these initial Outpost supply runs (the nine beginning jobs, assigned by contracting with Chuckle Tugging), have long grace periods, ranging from 20 to 60 hours. Added to 5, 10, or 15 hour "max delivery" times, players will now have a day or two in which to complete a delivery. Although this really only takes about an hour, this will accomodate players who must unexpectedly leave, and resume tomorrow. As a result, I've also lowered the pay for each job, in preparation for additional freelance or contract tugging jobs that will re-introduce the more difficult aspects (minimum pickup and delivery times, shorter grace periods, etc). One of the important things I still need to do for Beta 1.1 is to work in these more advanced (and higher paying) jobs, perhaps by using a freelance job center and/or by adding another contract tugging company (tentatively, Clark Industries).

         Saturday, March 20th, 2004         
      Major Update to the FAQ: I spent several hours last night and early this morning updating the FAQ. It's definitely worth reading! Most notably are the revisions to the explanation of the three membership "tiers," and especially the information on the background story that sets the game in motion.

         Friday, March 19th, 2004         
      Spring Break Progress!: Although I haven't been in school (college or otherwise) for more than a decade now, I'm taking a Spring Break off work. Part of this time will be used for StarLock development. I have worked some on the eleventh quest (including four new "picture puzzles"), and right now I'm improving the introduction portion of the game. When players begin (after several paragraphs of intro story), they are in a private area (Gainden's StarCar). This allows new players to get a feel for the game interface and the options, learn a little about what to do first from the Gainden NPC, and not simply start out totally clueless. This will also serve to filter out players who lack the patience or the motivation to read. In addition to adding a new intro topic or two, I'm making the intro links turn gray after used, to better indicate what the player must finish to pass the intro.

         Sunday, March 14th, 2004         
      Your Rig Has Been Impounded: Impounded rigs can now be retrieved at Outpost Prime. I believe I'm ready now to move forward with the creation of the last Chapter 1 quest. And that's all, for a brief news update!

         Wednesday, March 10th, 2004         
      Outpost Prime: Nothing new for the next quest beyond laying out the maze floor plans, but the "Impound Lot" at Outpost Prime has taken shape. It has been added as a stop for StarBus 1, and citizen-owned rigs are now sent there upon a player's arrest. The main thing to finish in regards to rig impounding now is to provide a way to "release" the rig. After being released from jail, a player should travel by StarBus to the outpost to claim the rig. This will involve interaction with an NPC, or some other means of getting the rig out of impound.

      A Discussion - Text/Graphics Hybrid: This is just an observation of mine - part concern, part comment. There really is no way around it aside from severely complicating the graphics, or else severely diluting the text. What I mean is, the constant and necessary discrepency between the graphic scenes of each area and the text descriptions for the same area. It's far too late now to second-guess a decision that was made years ago, but maybe some day we'll launch a "StarLock 2" that renders in real time and doesn't focus as heavily (if at all) on a text interface. Speculation aside, what bothers me a little, and what's likely to bother at least a few players, is that none of the action described in the text is actually depicted in the scenes. I shouldn't say none - there are some exceptions, such as Chuckle coming and going on que at Chuckle's Pub (in the scene or not). That's the exception, though - not the rule. It just isn't practical to pre-render the thousands of combinations of every single scene that would be necessary to accurately match the action going on in the text. It's already a big job to render scenes for different times of day and in some cases, seasons. Even if this was done, it would then restrict what could happen in the text, because new versions of the affected scenes would be required. So, the result is, the scenes are a starting point for the player's imagination, but not a substitute for it. I think many (most?) players are going to do well with the concept, but if the game has a weakness, this is probably it. Unfortunately, as a browser-based game, there really is no solution aside from removing the graphics altogether.

      Scratch Variables: Here's a lengthy technical note - skip it if you're not interested in this sort of news, and especially if it hurts your head. :). If you've worked with the Lunatix IGM "LunScript" language, you know about the limitations of loading/saving variables, not to mention the confusion of keeping all the numbers sorted out and defined. StarLock's version of this scripting engine uses "named" variables, without the 50-string, 200-numeric limit. Still, the values are only workable when loaded into VAL0-VAL9 or STRING1-STRING6. Granted, it's easier to load and save them in StarLock scripts than in LunScript, but there was no easy way to increase the "scratch" variable space. It could be done by saving/loading as needed, but then there is overhead to check the variables database for that value and flag it as deleted afterwards. So today, I improved this by adding a specific variable prefix for temp variables, ones that are neither loaded nor saved, and are valid only before the current script exits. If you've never seen LunScript, the benefit probably isn't obvious, but since StarLock will also allow player-made PPDs, it's going to make programming easier for those who choose to do it.

      For the morbidly curious among you, here is one example of how it all fits together:

      ### Remember VAL2 and STRING1 as scratch space first.
      /SETVAL:X_WhateverVar=|2; #Remember VAL2 as scratch.
      /SETSTRING:X_WhateverStr=|N; #Remember STRING1 as scratch.

      ### Now load our working vars - "%" loads/initializes
      /VAL1=%SomeDumbVar; #Normal User-Specific Variable
      /VAL2=%G_AnotherVar; #A Global Variable starts with G_
      /STRING1=%SomeString; #Normal User-Specific String
      /STRING2=%G_AnotherString; #Global (shared by all) String

      ### Then, do whatever calculates are required.
      /VAL1+|2; /VAL1*10; /VAL2=|1; #Just doing something here.
      /IFVAL1>100; /STRING1=hello; /ELSEVAL1; /STRING1=goodbye; /ENDVAL1
      /IFVAL2>25; /STRING2=morning; /ELSEVAL2; /STRING2=evening; /ENDVAL2

      ### Now, save whatever changes we made back out to the database.
      /SETVAL:SomeDumbVar=|1; #Save User-Specific Variable
      /SETVAL:G_AnotherVar=|2; #Save the Global Variable
      /SETSTRING:SomeString=|N; #Save User-Specific String
      /SETSTRING:G_AnotherString=|O; #Save Global String

      ### And finally, because we don't want to lose VAL2 and STRING1,
      ### load them both back out of the scratch space and we're done.
      /VAL2=%X_WhateverVar; #Load from scratch-type "X" variable.
      /STRING1=%X_WhateverStr; #Load from scratch-type "X" variable.

      In practice, it doesn't have to be structured like that. You can load and save variables (normal, global, or scratch) at any point in a script. For really complicated routines, in which a large number of variables are needed and the "working" VAL0-VAL9 and STRING1-STRING6 just won't do it, it's easy to trade vars in and out on the fly. Because they're named, it's less confusing to remember (or make note of) what the variables actually mean. For player-made PPDs, there will probably be a limit on "saved" (normal and global) variables, and a forced prefix will probably be required to keep names unique across all PPD scripts, but for those of you who plan to create StarLock content, you can see the flexibility. Also notice that "/ELSE" conditions, not available in LunScript, have been added to StarLock. That's only the beginning of the improvements. Full instructions will be available when PPD-creation ability is added.

         Saturday, March 6th, 2004         
      Happy Birthday, StarLock! Development of StarLock started on March 6th, 1999... and the news goes all the way back to the beginning. That's a long time to be working on one game, especially without a public release! Although I'd rather work than reminisce, it's interesting to think about what all changed in that time. Originally, the character creation screen had options for "race" (Angoran, Fraenic, etc). Once the story really took shape, that became unnecessary. Most of the early graphics and screenshots are no longer part of the game. Much of what was done in the first year was eventually scrapped, when a first-person perspective to the gameplay was established. At first, a "StarLock" was the term used to refer to a tugging job. It sounds a little strange now, but the original idea was primarily the "truck driving" angle - almost exclusively that. When accepting a job, the player would have a "StarLock," meaning the job was accepted and locked-in. Although this aspect of the game is still integral to the design, "StarLock" is more meaningful. It's the spherical energy barrier that surrounds and bounds the game galaxy. It's the eventual focus of the story - a mystery that guides the story.

      Moving Right Along: I finished that mini-quest I mentioned in the March 2nd news post. I've also decided to use a problem with the rendered perspective of the Block #5 Marizen Market graphics as inspiration for the eleventh quest. I don't mean to type jargon - basically, I changed a property of the "camera" when I created some of the Marizen Market graphics, way back years ago when they were first created. I'm not sure why I did it (probably trying for an artistic perspective for that scene), but the result is, the opposite end of the market looks just as far away from any side as it does from the middle. It's like one of those creepy camera effects in movies. Anyway, as part of my touch-up efforts, I re-rendered the scene correctly, but thought of an interesting "gravity disturbance" explanation for the original pics, which will actually end up playing a part in the story.
      Part of the eleventh quest will involve labyrinths - mazes. Although the mere mention of it can bring groans from modern gamers, the focus will be on solving the puzzles, not mapping the maze. In fact, an auto-mapper item that works similar to the Gambit's Maze Factory map display will help.
      I also made an improvement to part of the script processor. It wouldn't make much sense if I explained it, but the end result is improved speed when doing loops/jumps. The need for it became clear when repeating the auto-mapping code for 64 cells (for the new maze feature).

      Coming Up Next: This weekend, I hope to make good progress on the eleventh quest. I also want to spend some time on some of the other things (for instance, I need create an "impound" lot at Outpost Prime - it wasn't needed in Beta 1 because players could only rent and borrow rigs, never own one - rigs were returned upon arrest, but that's not possible if you own one, hence an "impound" lot).

         Tuesday, March 2nd, 2004         
      Loose Ends: Over the past few days, I've been working to wrap up the loose ends. Most recently, for instance, I've almost finished a mini-quest that was started weeks ago. It involves Banzen, and ends with a pretty decent reward. I've also finished the "dream" sequences for Chapter One, although some additional between-level cut-scene text is still needed (these new cut-scenes weren't part of the original beta, so it's going to be an interesting twist to those of you who participated in phase 1).
      One of the most difficult things at this point isn't any of the touch-ups that will need to happen before the game goes live, and it isn't even the last Chapter One quest -- it's the dilemma of how to handle a break/end to Chapter One. The original concept was for twenty-five levels, not five sets of five levels. It will be the same thing when all five chapters are eventually completed, but in order to make it work, there must be clear chapter endings that lead into a "coming soon" bit for the next chapter. That alone isn't necessarily an issue. What could be a problem is making sure the non-quest content is enough to fill the gap between the Chapter One ending and the introduction of the next chapter. Also, it's likely to have serious consequences for the economy. Items priced appropriately for a Level 5 player at the end of Chapter 1 might be far too cheap if players have spent weeks or months of wait-time just earning and saving Galactic Credits. Will this lead to "twinking," where the veteran players become super-rich simply because nothing requires any spending at that point? What about skill-based experience? It's very likely that weeks or months spent just waiting for the next phase of the game's story will allow players to accumulate so much experience that these new challenges will be too easy when they finally do arrive in-game - not a problem if Chapter 2 was immediately available following Chapter 1. Some of these things can be solved by temporary limits (no extra experience for skills that are at the Chapter One max, taxes to help curb the millionaire syndrome, etc). It may not be a good idea to remove part of the appeal of playing between chapters, though. The subscription model will make it do-able for players (play now, go idle for a while, and come back to continue later), but it's better to keep a player than to entice a player back.

         Saturday, February 28th, 2004         
      Emmansa Village Apartments: I haven't started work on the final "Chapter 1" quest yet (which is meant to wrap up the first part of the game's epic story). However, I have done work to the Emmansa Apartment scripts. Something I have planned is to introduce a new (more elite?) group of apartments in each chapter. The Emmansa Village is the first. I already have graphics for the next (village as well as interiors), and the village graphics for the third (no interiors yet).

         Wednesday, February 25th, 2004         
      It's Finished! The tenth quest, that is - not the whole game. I finished the last bits of the tenth quest today, and I only need to give it a final run-through before I move on to the last quest required for Chapter 1. This, and a few more touch-up things, and it's going to be ready for Beta 1.2. A little more to do with Emmansa apartments, more space location descriptions are needed, more room entry/exit messages to map out, the "cut-scene" text between some of the levels, and a few other things, and it'll be ready to move forward. There are other features that will be needed before the live launch, but those can probably be done during the days or weeks of beta testing. I'm not ready to announce any definite start dates yet. It still depends on whether or not the current rate of progress can continue uninterrupted.

         Sunday, February 22nd, 2004         
      Weekend Work: I finished a few touch-ups for the apartment invitations feature. In the process, I found a pretty major flaw in the "auctions" feature, which wasn't found in the first beta. If on the "bid" screen at the time an auction ends, a player could actually submit a late bid, and it would take! It's fixed now, but that kind of thing really emphasizes the need for solid, pre-release beta testing.
      I rendered a new scene inspired by a screenshot from the Dungeon Seige game box (saw it at the store on Friday). It was a scene of a flat-topped pyramid, with big leafy plants around it, misty green fog all around. My version isn't as detailed, and I built it from memory (you'd probably be unable to recognize one as being inspired by the other) -- but it did turn out pretty well.
      I also finished four new puzzle graphics, needed for the quest I've been working on, and another graphic (with an icon) for an item in the same quest. Development progress was a little slow this weekend, but I think in general it's moving along at a rate that will see "Chapter 1" launched this spring.

Pictured above are three of the “inspired” scenes - various seasons and times of day are shown.

         Thursday, February 19th, 2004         
      Be Our Guest, Be Our Guest... The Press Buzzer feature is working! I still need to figure out how/where apartment owners can buy or earn the ListMaster item, but that's the easy part. If the “Primary Resident” is in the apartment and you're on that citizen's list, you can press the appropriate buzzer in the Emmansa Village to enter the apartment. If the “PR” leaves, logs off, or removes you from the guest list, you'll automatically exit back outside. Visitors have limitations. For instance, an invited guest can't pick up items that have been dropped (except at the entrance), so that a player (citizen) can safely use other areas of the room for item storage. Secondary Residents (citizens who have been given a key to your apartment) can come and go any time, although they can't host for guests. It's all working very well!

      Touch-Ups: Something I noticed while testing the “Guest” feature is that many (most) of the room links haven't been mapped to entry/exit text. What this means is, when Player1 and Player2 are in a room, Player1 should see "Player2 just exited to the north" if Player2 leaves to the north. If Player3 is in that room, then Player3 should see "Player2 just entered from the south." Or, "Player2 just exited into an apartment" or whatever. It's something that's patterned (like several features in StarLock) after MUD style games. The messages appear in the chat area (see the screenshots for examples). This is one of those things that won't break the game - without the messages, it'll just say "Player2 just appeared" or "Player2 just vanished" - but it's just not as polished and realistic without it. The same is true for most “space” location descriptions, and several other features.

      Coming Up Next: When all I have left to do are the touch-ups, the game will probably be mere days away from beta 1.2. But, it's not there yet. Now that the Guest List feature is working, I think I'm ready to move forward with the final portions of the tenth quest. I'm really anxious to find out how long the current content will keep player's occupied, before hitting the Level-5 “Chapter 1” limit. Moreso than in the first beta, I think the extra content added in the past 16 months will help keep players busy - playing Cordwixal's booth games in the Marizen Market, or Billiards in the Epso Gamma Sky Orb, or hosting parties in the Emmansa Village!

         Sunday, February 15th, 2004         
      ListMaster 1.0: The "guest list" option was added this weekend, and allows players to create lists of other citizens, as explained in yesterday's news. The beginnings of the "knock on a door" (actually, it's the "press buzzer") option were also done. This will facilitate social events (parties) for starters. An apartment resident can create a guest list using the "ListMaster" in-game item (can't actually be obtained yet, but soon), and those on the guest list can enter the appropriate Emmansa Village apartment if the primary or any secondary residents are home. A primary resident is the apartment owner - a secondary one is an authorized user, who has been given a key. Very soon, the whole guest list and visitors feature will come together.

         Saturday, Valentine's Day, 2004         
      Upcoming Work: I finished another "optional" part of quest number ten (earning a clue, which can be skipped by the more clever players). I'm also going to need to work on an "invitation" list next. It will be used for several things, one of which will be an "allow" list for inviting other citizens to an apartment (perhaps for a party or something), so that each guest doesn't have to carry a coded door key. Apartments have been done for months (needs some script/text touch-up perhaps), but previously the only way to enter was with a door key (which wouldn't really lend itself to the idea of social events). An "invitation" list will be maintained by a citizen (sort like the "Crazy Comrades" option in Lunatix Online). This will lead up to the "Knock on Door" options at the Emmansa Village (and maybe elsewhere), as well as other uses, such as inviting another citizen to a "date" at the Charello cafe (only in concept, right now). I've partially worked out how this list is going to work, and with luck, I'll be able to make headway this weekend.

      Citizen-Made PPDs: In StarLock, a "PPD" is a Portable Programmable Device. Several are built-in game items (and more will come). A PPD is basically a launcher (an entry point) for a custom script. The scripts can be whatever and do whatever - for instance, a mini-game, or the StarBus schedule. The interesting thing about a PPD, and what makes it a step beyond the same type of thing in Lunatix (Elevator IGMs) is that the PPD is Portable. Imagine carrying around The Psycho Scramble with you, wherever you travel in the game world, to be used whenever you find the time (or to pass the time). It's like that.
      I decided this morning that I am going to allow player-made PPDs. I had disregarded the idea early on in development, for several reasons. StarLock scripting allows much more in-depth access than Lunatix scripting, and this could easily lead to abuse. An "offline" kit would need to be developed, which would be a big undertaking. The review process before adding new PPDs, if StarLock proves more popular, would be a full time job. But this morning, I think I've resolved all of that. Citizen-made PPDs will only allow a subset of the StarLock script engine. In other words, things that are a potential for abuse won't be available. The developer's kit can be entirely virtual - inside StarLock - fully created and tested in-game. PPD authors can then sell their creations in-game. Inclusion wouldn't hinge on a review process, either, since an "OFF" button can be added automatically to escape from any buggy script. GCO law can dictate the DO's and DON'Ts of PPD design, so any offensive or misrepresented ones can be reported by other citizens, leading to steep consequences for the author. This is a pretty exciting idea, really, since it could lead to quite a bit of cool stuff (a PPD review community, maybe a "PPD Author" Class type, in-game income opportunities, and more).
      I don't plan to start working on the PPD authoring ability yet - maybe not until Beta 1.2 is underway (or even later) - but I only expect it to take around two solid weeks of work to implement.

         Tuesday, February 10th, 2004         
      The Tenth Quest: I've done a little more over the past two days -- graphics for another new NPC, some internal improvements including an easier way to allow "buy all" options (automatically detect how many of an item can be held in inventory, and use that as the default when buying things like Gems), and some work on the tenth quest. Actually, that quest it's close to completion. It deals with a radiation cloud on the planet Equadus.

      Writing: A big part of this is the text. When I'm writing NPC conversations, or room descriptions, or quest log entries, or anything really, it's not like programming. Writing code isn't really hard, and it's all behind the scenes. The story isn't. More time is spent getting the text just right, writing NPCs that don't seem so flat, being descriptive throughout all the text. As an example, the five panels of text for one portion of the tenth quest took three hours tonight, to write. Of course, I was watching TV at the same time. I think maybe when StarLock is finished and released, I'll try writing a novel or something. :)

         Sunday, February 8th, 2004         
      Moving Right Along... Since the prior news, I have added two more topics to the information booth (Marizen market, block 5) - information on Aura Casting, and information on Classes. I've also finished the graphics for three new NPCs (not yet in the game), and I'm realizing that many of my female aliens are somehow ending up rendered with large breasts. Then, some other minor behind the scenes changes (for instance, there was previously no Vitality usage required to create an Aura, which could potentially have allowed a player to max out Aura Casting experience quickly). I have also been thinking on the next part of the tenth quest, as well as a side quest involving a monster in Chuckle's Cave (and those of you might recall that in beta phase 1, no such place even existed). Also, I briefly revisted balancing issues of the difference Classes, which will probably need adjustments once they're put into actual use.

      Phase 2 Server: For Phase 1, we leased a second server, exclusively for StarLock, with the mistaken notion that live play would be launched soon. I actually kept the server around for ten months (and it wasn't cheap), not wanting to let it go simply because we will need one or more servers exclusively for this game, and because I kept thinking the launch was just around the corner. Back around August last year, that server, which was just sitting idle and unused on a rack in Chicago, had a RAID-1 failure (if I recall correctly), and my provider had difficulty in rebuilding it. So, we made the decision to let it go, and work out hosting details later. Now, with "Phase 1.2" testing closer, I need to decide if beta testing will be small and controlled enough to share a temporary spot on the Lunatix server, or if we should go ahead then and finalize our deployment plans for the live game. The idea is still to launch in chapters (five in all), where the first chapter is really close to completion.

         Tuesday, February 3rd, 2004         
      Touch-Ups & Improvements: Today's progress was centered around polishing up various aspects of the game - minor improvements to the engine, etc. These things will probably make more sense to those of you who participated in the first Beta, but here's a rundown. A "Cast Aura" link is now provided immediately after "creating" an Aura. Previously, you would return to the main menu and cast the aura from there. Basically, it's a time-saver that eliminates one extra click. Next, I added section numbers to the Apeville crops. This is one of the early areas (early, as in, two or three years old), and it wasn't consistent with newer parts of the game. Now it is. Third, I made an internal change to the script processor, basically as a time saver for scripting - basically a "is this variable's value a part of the following list" instead of having to do multiple comparisons. This was done as an aid for the next change, which involves "using" inventory items. Previously, anything that has no use at the current location, at the current time, would give a simple "you can't use that right now" kind of message. I've begun to customize those messages, providing text that better fits the item you've attempted to use. For instance, using a key at the wrong place explains that it doesn't unlock anything here. Last, and perhaps most embarassing, I was at a loss to come up with the right word for "leaving" a StarBus, when that part of the game was originally coded. I ended up with "deboard," as in "Deboard the StarBus" to exit. YIKES! It wasn't "the word" and I didn't think of it until tonight. Call me silly, but I finally updated all the "deboard" text, changing it to "disembark." Much better. :) Apparently, "deboard" isn't even a real word! I also figured out that "cemetery" has no "a" in it. I've been putting off a full text spell-check for quite a while, since it involves parsing the game scripts... but I'm going to have to get that done before the game goes public.

         Monday, February 2nd, 2004         
      Just Updating the News... I said I'd keep it current, so that's what I'm doing. I've been working on a new NPC, sort-of inspired and prompted by a joke. He's Banzen the Butt Peddler, found along the path between the Marizen Market and the Marizen Cemetery. He's going to serve several purposes, one of which is to provide a method by which players can convert Vitality to Vigor and vice-versa. He's also part of a mini-quest.

Banzen the Butt Peddler - NPC Images

         Saturday, January 31st, 2004         
      Development & News: I'm going to (try to) keep the StarLock news up to date. In recent development, I have made a few minor improvements to the game code, dealing with inventory items. One involves fixing a flaw in item "rolldowns." For example, A two usage "tea" would start out as a full glass, then when used it rolls down to a half glass, then when used again, an empty glass. Although this was already working fine, the system wasn't factoring in these different versions of the same item when calculating whether or not something can be held in inventory. So, if you're able to hold 2 glasses of tea in inventory, using each of them once (so they roll down to half glasses) would actually have allowed you to hold two additional full glasses. It's kind of difficult to explain, but will help keep game balancing on track.
      I have also progressed in the tenth quest a little more. The first "chapter" of the five planned (I have no better term for it yet) requires eleven quests. With that finished, and with a few smaller filler/bonus quests, the game will be ready (again) for beta testing.

      Beta Test: Sorry, no announcement yet. Of the 400+ testers from phase 1, I received 70 replies back from my November announcement (most of my emails bounced back, undeliverable). Most likely, I'm going to open up public beta applications again when the time comes, so if you've worried about missing out because you weren't around the first time, chances are, you have a good chance to be included.
      Because it's going to be chapter-based (5 parts total), I may not call this "Beta Phase 2." It might be beta 1.2 (part 1, second phase). Same thing, just makes it easier to distinguish plans for beta testing the future chapters.
      Speaking of beta, the upcoming StarLock beta was posted to BetaWatcher -- if you're looking to beta test games, it seems like a great place to start!

         Thursday, January 22nd, 2004         
      Woops! Okay - no beta by the end of 2003. The largest, most original BBG ever created seems to also be one that's never actually released. We're coming up to the five year mark. Soon... soon... soon...

      Free-Form Gaming - A Rant: Online games thrive, in part, because players are able to distinguish themselves from one another - "do their own thing" so to speak, and play in a way that suits their wants and needs. What I've seen, though, is more and more of a push towards a kind of gaming experience that attempts to put everything into the hands of the players. When I've read comments by other developers, they seem to be intent on one-upping each other in this regard - leaving more and more up to the player, to the point that massively multiplayer games are simply "worlds" attempting to mimic with greater realism the physics and interactions of a simulated life. Does this make the developers "God" of their own virtual worlds, watching with (or without) interest as players strive to entertain themselves?
      I don't aspire to that. I'd rather tell a story, the way we used to do it before we collectively decided that the most expendable and useless part of a "roleplaying" game was the story. When did that happen?
      StarLock isn't going to appeal to everyone. In general, today's gamers believe in the notion "the less text, the better." The industry feeds off this, and likewise, the attitude of the mass market steers, guides, and defines the mainstream itself. This certainly works for the big-budget developers - those guys with $4 million on the line, eyeing potential profits in the tens of millions. And they have a good thing going. Gamers expect big-budget games. Anything less appears as an amateur effort.
      Prowler Productions isn't a big-budget developer. Our games are created, published, and marketed all in-house. This naturally makes the "mainstream" a large, massive iron door than cannot be opened. But being an "indie" developer opens other doors. We can offer this kind of game, filling a niche the big devs can't, taking chances (and time) to create what we believe will be a fresh, welcomed experience for gamers who aren't satisfied with what the rest of the industry tells you to enjoy. StarLock focuses on storytelling, yet delivers it to you in a massively multiplayer browser-based adventure game, fleshed out in a non-linear universe with unique but familiar RPG gameplay. This is a game - not a free-form world merely masqerading as one - and a story.

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