Year in Review

First of all, happy new year!

So a year is nearly gone… what has been done, and what’s left to do?

I decided in mid-2017 to start using the AMS (Advanced Memory System) for the game, which gave me tons of CPU memory to work with. I started a massive redesign and by the end of 2017, I was creating a music player and a title page for the game, and reworking the original engine code to make use of the added memory.

Looking back, I’m actually impressed with the amount of work I’ve accomplished. At the end of 2018, the engine is 99% complete and undergoing alpha/beta testing. I’ve even created a brand new dynamic battlemap system that wasn’t present in the original engine!

Content has largely stayed at the same level of completion because I’ve been trying NOT to work on it until the engine is done. That’s going to change soon, though. I can’t really draw a world map until I know what the whole thing looks like. 😀

The reason the game was stalled for so many years is I wasn’t certain I could finish it. The baseline “high-end” TI system had only 32 K of CPU RAM, and I was starting to realize the complexity of a CRPG engine strained it to the upmost. The fact I had to start using a cartridge to get an extra 8K RAM was definitely a sign my ambitions were getting too far.

So I kept putting it off, delaying the inevitable conclusion that the game was not possible to do. The original game engine would not have worked, not on hardware anyway. Pushing data to disk helped mitigate CPU RAM consumption, but the cost in read time would have rendered the game unplayable.

And now? It’s no longer a case of IF I’ll finish the game, but when. 🙂 And I’ll definitely finish in 2019!

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I swear I saw a…

A new video! I still need to make some adjustments to direction determination for monster special attacks, but pretty good!

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Twas the Night Before

If you celebrate Christmas, a merry Christmas eve to you! If you don’t, happy holidays of whatever form of winter solstice festival you choose to observe! 😉

I’m just about finished testing out spells. I’ve gone through all the different spell schools and cast most of them. In the the process I discovered several bugs and improvements to be made.

For example, I realized it wasn’t clear WHAT monster was taking a turn or at all. If you cast spells that immobilize them or put them to sleep, you had no idea if they were just not moving or what. So I added a “blink” effect on each monster’s action that causes them to flash white, much like the players do. That way you know it’s cycling through monsters and can see if one tried to do something and failed. I considered adding notifications like ‘Bandit is held!” or “Bandit is asleep” as well, but I don’t want to slow down the progression that much. I’d have to wait at least a half-second on each text notification so the player can see them.

So my last couple engine tasks are:

  • Test the last few spells (disarming traps and unlocking doors mainly)
  • Fix regressions in boss combats
  • Reactivate monster special attacks

The numerous fixes I’ve made in other areas may have rectified a lot of the bugs. My next video should be a fight with something big…

After that, I need to start a fresh game from scratch and start playing the game through legitimately, checking that quests, content, and other elements all look good. I only have the first world disk completed, but I want to make sure I personally test all of it before I start involving beta testers.

Also, before I can start getting other people involved in testing, I need to complete the documentation. 🙂 That requires testing and feedback just as much as the game itself!


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Phone a Friend

I’ve finally reached my end of year vacation time, hurrah!

Besides holiday stuff going on, I also have a new cat in the house, a beautiful tuxedo long-hair I rescued from Petco. She’s slowly getting used to the house and my other cat, Jack. Currently she isn’t sure about him and hisses if he bounds too close. For his part, he’s ready to worship her!

CRPG work has been ongoing and making steady progress. I’m presently working through every single spell in the game to test code and ensure everything works! I’m a little over halfway through now.

I’ve made several small refinements to the game as I’ve gone along. For example, if you target an enemy one round, on the next round it remembers which one you targeted and defaults to them. I also fixed animation so that all animation occurs when you move. This helps stop the “water doesn’t move when I do” effect which was a little weird. Several spells were tweaked, as was how damage is calculated.

But enough talk, time for another video! In this one, you can see the “Guardian” spell at work, which summons a spiritual ally. Three different random types (bear, wolf, and eagle) are available. There is also another spell which allows you to summon a demon… although their degree of control the summoner has is far less.

Hopefully before the end of the year I will have finished enough to start some closed beta testing with others!

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Bug Hunt Blues

Happy upcoming holidays to everyone! Crawling along with the work… Bugs are becoming a major hassle.

I implemented monster and mob movement, which have been disabled for quite some time. This created a perplexing bug where suddenly the game would just screeching crash for no apparent reason… it turned out my NPC mobs were moving onto my player and trying to trigger themselves! This didn’t work because a return stack wasn’t aligned for it.

Another bug happened after I cast a mass heal spell, and the game locked up. It turned out my “generate ally unit” list was including non-existent units, which caused all sorts of unexpected side effects and crashes. I suspect there are further bugs here because I’m still having the odd crash when a monster starts their turn.

And I haven’t even tested all the spell effects yet!

The program is big and complex enough now that small changes can cause regressions in other places I didn’t expect. This is a pain in the neck, to say the least… I want to get the engine to a complete enough state I can start getting some help with play balance testing instead of engine testing.

I was noticing that my party was wiping the floor with most of the monsters, so I increased hit points across the board. I think I may have gone a bit too far that direction, but I think I’ll wait for independent confirmation before any further changes. Rations are super-effective in recovering fatigue, almost TOO much, so they may need to be slowed.

There are plenty of lower-priority bugs as well. I noticed that monsters are spawning in spots they can’t get out of, many NPC’s are missing a “Leave” option so you’re trapped talking to them forever, map exits don’t come out where they are supposed to, and so forth. Content is relatively easy to fix, fortunately.

At some point I’ll also go back through the sound library and rework some of the sounds. I removed the original victory tune because I really wanted something different from Tunnels of Doom.

I also expanded the amount of sound memory available to 8K from 4K, so I actually have more space for complex sounds than I did before. For example, the lightning bolt sound from Tunnels of Doom takes over 360 bytes because it’s an unrolled loop of subtle frequency and volume changes. I don’t think I’ll do anything quite that large, but I definitely want to revise some sounds which I lifted from other TI games and make them my own.

The scariest bug, incidentally, is one on the hardware. I noticed when testing the game engine there that suddenly my party wasn’t able to hit the monsters in melee at all, and the monsters were hitting my characters and critically striking every single time. A very curious behavior… which does not repro in the emulator. I have a suspicion that the timer clock I’m using for the random number generator MAY be skewing things, but I haven’t had time to dig deeply into it yet.

Santa won’t be putting the game in your stockings quite yet, 99’ers… but we’re close!

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Trimming the Grimoire

I’ve been hard at work with the game the last few days… There are many bugs to hunt down and features to test!

Part of the fun of playing the game is the refinements you can add to make gameplay better. For example, I realized that swapping between player statistic screens was a bother, having to go back out to travel mode and press a different key. So I changed it so you can go back and forth between characters while on a stat screen by pushing left and right.

Another change was to have it so you can select a player while using services in town; previously the active character was automatically selected. I decided the whole “active character” thing is best kept in travel mode only.

I’m running close to empty in most of my modules for space; several modules I only have around 100 bytes or so of free space left. This means no major new features can be added, and it makes me nervous about any huge changes that may need to happen.

So on the topic of spells…

One thing I’ve noticed after playing the Ultima series is how under-utilized spell systems tend to be. In Ultima III the most used spell in the game was disarm traps, because it was the only way to safely open chests left by monsters. In Ultima IV many spells weren’t used because you had to mix them before you could cast them, which made improvisation in combat difficult. Ultima V had some fun-looking spells like Flame Wind which NOBODY ever used because by the end game your party was strong enough using magic axes to not need spells.

So when I wrote up my spell list a long time ago, I had a goal. I wanted a spell system that was easy and fun to use, and had spells you would WANT to cast because they were cool or useful. In particular, because it was tactical 2D combat, I had a bunch of spells that altered the terrain by creating walls of fire, barriers, and similar things.

But now that I’m actually PLAYING the game, I’m not using those spells at all. In fact, the list of spells is very long with ones I haven’t touched or needed to. So now I’m asking myself “Is this or that spell really needed?”

I originally had 72 spells in the the game. I realized that most of the spells in the first book were getting ignored because they were just pale copies of more powerful spells. I also changed a damage type in the game which meant I had a serious spell gap where the players would have no means to cause that kind of damage. As for the terrain altering ones, they are consuming a lot of memory to support and create, and passive effects like them are just not as fun as I thought.

So now I’m taking a moment to remove the code for these spells and tighten up the spell list. I now have 60 spells instead, which I think is more manageable for both the player and the designer. That also means I can free up a little space in the combat module as well.

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Great Balls of Fire

Another video, this time of the fireball spell. I did a video in the older game engine some years back, it was by far the most popular video I did. 🙂 It’s also the one that comes up most frequently in search engines.

One advantage of writing up an FX testing program is I can actually refine the FX a lot easier. I noticed before my fireball’s circle of sprites was moving too slowly and creating a blocky effect. By speeding it up, it actually makes a proper circle.

I’ve also noticed, with the speed of my effects, that four sprites actually looks like a LOT more on the screen, because I’m moving them fast enough to create the optical illusion of more.

And if I change colors at 1/60 of a second rate, it actually creates a pleasing weird hybrid color on the actual TI monitor! (Classic99 doesn’t do this, it in fact occasionally creates a weird optical effect that looks like two sprites of different colors slightly out of sync with each other.)

I’ve still got debugging to do though with the actual effect map of the spells; fireball worked fine but cone attacks didn’t. They are directional so they’re a little more complicated. Onwards…

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Anchors Away

Another video, this time of the sailing in action!

The hardest part of it is plotting the ship’s course, which is stored in a transaction. This particular map is slanted which made counting the steps particularly difficult…

Ranged weapons are implemented, as are thrown weapons. The latter are certain melee weapons (like daggers) which you can throw one time per combat. Since this also disarms you and leaves you fighting with bare hands, it’s not always the best option… There are of course some weapons in game that magically return to you each round.

I’ve done a bunch of work with large monsters as well, there was a lot of complications there to sort out. I originally had special attacks enabled and I was surprised and pleased to see my dragon breathe sleep gas at the party! Unfortunately it was also accompanied with a bunch of video buffer overruns and it looks like the sleep state isn’t working quite as intended…

So next is to make sure monster ranged attacks work as intended, and get the special attacks sorted out. I also need to test every single spell in the game to make sure they all work as intended.

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Combat 2.0

Combat in action! I still need to re-implement ranged weapons, thrown weapons, and test all spells but looking good…

 

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Many Thanks

A very happy Thanksgiving to everyone! I am always thankful that I have at least a few people paying attention to my project. Despite taking WAY too long on it. 🙂

I’ve been working on an FX tester recently. FX is a huge part of spellcasting in combat, and I need to be able to fine tune that code specifically in isolation so that I can make it perfect without having to hack the game.

There is a lot of aesthetics going into the design, so I need to be able to play with graphics, colors, and other factors quickly. My original “move sprite from A to B” code wasn’t quite perfect either, often over-shooting the mark. I’ve come up with a design that both allows different speeds by only opening interrupts to display sprite position changes at given intervals, and is also completely deterministic so they won’t “shoot past” their mark.

Hopefully I can get most of the engine work done and focus on content… I may have to start beta-testing with only the first 25% of the content complete.

Posted in Assembly, Coding, CRPG, Screenshots, TI-99/4a | 2 Comments