In development: 0.3.5 overview

Posted On 23 Jun, 2016

3.5 is a big update. We often spend a bit longer making an update that changes some large systems, and takes a while longer to polish, but I think this may rank with some of the biggest. It’s inflation to the rank of largest patch to date went something like this:

  1. There were bugs which made me think I needed to overhaul the world engine.
  2. I realized that overhauling the world engine meant I needed to plan ahead for adding the economy
  3. Rewriting map rendering went well. no problems yet…
  4. Oh great now we need a world generation screen before starting a game
  5. Realization that planning to add the economy and adding the economy are the same process
  6. Adding a dynamic economy unexpectedly involved upgrading factions and loot
  7. Adding the economy requires adding new station types and new item types
  8. Guess we need to build a screen for actually buying and selling goods
  9. Adding new stations requires new interior modules and artwork
  10. Oh hey look I got it to run for the first time…what month is it?


…and now we are at the stage of trying to get it sufficiently debugged to give to testers.

So to summarize, lets discuss how gameplay is going to change via list of paragraph-style explanations. If you don’t care about the justifications or the tech stuff, you can read the titles like a bullet list of changes. The core gameplay is going to change in a lot of interesting ways. Note that this means your save files are doomed. There’s no sense transferring a save if everything in the save is meaningless. (I’ll look into exporting ship designs)

Money is a thing now

All items have always had a sort of monetary value attached to them, but in the early parts of the alpha there wasn’t much purpose to that value, or at least the system wasn’t fleshed out yet. We are essentially overhauling the entire monetary progression system as a by-product of adding an economy. The old system allowed you to simply throw an unlimited number of items into a furnace to increase a generic number which could be spent on research. In the new system the matter furnace is gone, and money will actually be used to buy and sell goods on the market. This should make progression more intuitive because it fits the play style that’s common in this genre.

My design philosophy here is make things insanely complex under the hood so the simulation is as good as it can be, and then abstract all of that complexity with a meta-game that people are already familiar with. If players understand that Zero Falls is a space trader, or at least that it has space trader elements, then they should immediately know how to get started in a new game. That’s one of the biggest things this change should accomplish. However don’t worry that this means Zero Falls is going to become another generic space trader. We want to build something crazy and new on top of a familiar framework, this patch is just adding the familiar framework.

You will purchase ship upgrades

From day one of this project, the design intent was that you should be able to board any ship you see, go inside, and fiddle with the crew or the ship’s contents. That isn’t changing with this patch, because it is fully baked into the engine. What is changing is the fact that you can simply stroll onto the bridge of any ship and take it for yourself. Ships now know who owns them, and they are much harder to simply capture. Instead of spending your time trying to disable the biggest ship in the game and board it we suspect players will make money via trading, piracy, and exploration in order to buy a better ship design blueprint.

The justification behind this is actually surprisingly technical in nature. We always wanted some form of mechanic where you could fail to steal a ship, but this patch forced us to add it early for an unexpected reason: the economy required it. Specifically, trading with stations required it. It’s not something you probably think about, because in most space trading games your character is a ship, so trade with a station is between the station and the player. The problem in Zero Falls is that the player is a crew, and the ship is a location that may or may not exist.

So when you are simply dragging items from the shop storage to your ship’s storage, consider the magic going on behind the scenes here. How does the shop even know which ship is yours? What would happen if you had no ship at all? What if you have multiple ships? How can you drag and drop between a window and a ship, when a ship is a huge space full of assorted modules? These are all questions I had to answer when making the trade screen, and one off-shoot was that the game now has to track ship ownership for all crew members in the universe, and “stealing” a ship is an actual action that the game now tracks.

Also note, the idea of purchasing your first ship upgrade instead of capturing it is a lot friendlier to new players. Our simulation is pretty hardcore and ship combat isn’t exactly stacked in the player’s favor like it is in most RPG games, so having multiple routes to progression is a net benefit for everyone.

Research is still a thing

With most of the progression now being based on earning money, you would suspect that we would get rid of research and have you buy blueprints. However there’s a reason I don’t want to do it that way, and that reason is exploration.

I want to reward players for exploring, and so obviously finding the shops which sell rare upgrades fits into that system very well. The issue of course is that space is huge and finding the upgrade and then not being able to buy it would really suck. My solution then is to preserve the research system and allow the bulk of the cost to fall on research, not blueprint purchasing. That way you are rewarded for exploration and discovering new things with buying new research items whenever you find them, and you are rewarded for earning money by actually researching the unlocks you want.

With most of the cost still being in research, we can allow the discovery of blueprints to be more organic and it also means hiding some really cool blueprint in a hidden wreck or an abandoned station full of monsters doesn’t need to break the progression of the game. Finding secrets is now both a reward, and a reason to play the game, instead of simply the end-all of activities.

Piracy is awesome now

We designed Zero Falls to support the idea of attacking a ship in order to get its cargo, but this is the patch that finally adds the cargo.

The content of ships now depends on what they are doing. If you destroy or board a ship, the stuff in its hold came from somewhere and is going somewhere else. It will be missed if it never gets delivered and you can sell it yourself for some easy money, assuming you have cargo space for it. The value of different cargo types also depends on what they are used for and where they came from. Gold wire is worth more than iron ore, so a smart pirate will hunt between a smelter and an electronics lab instead of outside a silicon mine. Stations can also run out of supplies which will create dynamic price hikes or emergency situations. A station’s crew needs to eat, so an effective blockade can fully shut down a station and change the entire economy of a region over time.

Existing ship diversity matters more

There used to be only 1 activity: combat. As a result, ship design was essentially a gun placement simulator. However with trade goods having actual value, new activities will come out of the woodwork such as piracy and trade, which will make the ship selection and design process more interesting. Suddenly you might find yourself considering the value of an extra cargo bay or faster engines because “shooting” has become “shooting and looting”.

We’re also adding new ships and new modules. Not a ton of them, but we are focusing on things that can make ships unique or interesting such as attack drones.

Weapon balance overhauled

We aren’t done adding weapons to the game, but we finally have enough of them in there to try making some semblance of balance out of the mess. As a result we are sitting down with a big spreadsheet of all weapon types and considering the types of damage they do as well as the amounts. Our plan is to tweak every weapon at least a little bit so that weapon progression works properly. A huge gun that takes up 8 times the space and energy of a pea shooter should be both more exciting AND mathematically better than a pair of pea shooters, so we are going to adjust all of the things. Progression is more fun when new things are more powerful than old things.

New Environments

We built an entire economy from nothing, and not all of that could be done using existing assets. You will see a lot of the same stations you have seen before repurposed with new upgraded interiors that allow them to serve as factories or mines or trade depots while still filling the role of a station with a bar (and now toilets!). However we have also added an entire new tier of stations that are bigger and more epic than what existed before. These new stations include T2 factories, T2 trade hubs, T2 malls, and T2 shipyards, and they come with new interior artwork with a more open and luxurious feel than tier 1 stations have. These new stations will also offer new shop types that will sell consumer goods such as items you may want for your character, or blueprints for new technology, so keep an eye out for them.

We also added a new biome type to the game. It’s epic and green, but I won’t rant and rave about it much for now because it is currently nothing more than an area for future improvement. Most of the new environment content for this patch is in mapped station interiors.

New Visuals

The universe navigation screen is fully rewritten from the ground up. It uses a 3d camera, even more threading, and now it even uses the GPU to generate visuals on the fly while you look at it. The short version is that it simply looks amazing now, but it’s important to also note that the universe itself is generating differently as well, so this isn’t just a visual upgrade.

Also worth pointing out that the rendering rewrite for the universe map involved a lot of integration with our in-house mod API which means everything you see in game when looking at the new universe map is now something that can be added via extensions and will be available to mod makers in the future.

For the future

I’m not going to say it’s planned, but the way the economy works right now does support the idea of adding new nodes to the economy during the simulation. I could foresee some day allowing the player to own and operate their own stations. However with that aside, the existence of the economy and what I would like to call the final version of the world engine gives me new hope for being able to work on content that I have been putting off for ages. There are certain types of things, like quests and dialogue and scripted events which are hard to design before you know the environment they will exist in, and now we have an early version of that environment in place. I know I always say this, but I think it is always relevant so I’m going to say it again: The coolest thing about this patch is all of the stuff it will enable us to add in the next patch. Of course I’ll have to finish this one before I can start thinking about any of that.

Release date

When its done.

Just because all of the things in the paragraphs up there are technically in the engine doesn’t mean they are working, or debugged, or polished. The process of overhauling a system is like flipping your lego castle upside down and stomping on it, then using the pieces to build a new castle. We have something that looks like a castle again, and it’s better than the old castle, but there are still a lot of pieces scattered around on the floor which need to be cleaned up before we want anyone inspecting the moving parts.

We are working to get this to testers ASAP, and then after they give the seal of approval it will move to the stable release branch. It goes to testers when I can run the game for more than 2 minutes without finding something obviously wrong that needs fixing, and it isn’t there yet, so stay tuned for future updates.

At some point I may even finish that video I was recording.