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Developer's Desk 2024 Istaria Community Manager
April 25, 2024

Hello Istarians! Welcome to our inconsistently annual Developer’s Desk. For those unfamiliar with our DDs, this is our moment to talk about what has happened in the past 12 months, and what we are planning to accomplish in the near future

This year started off with a bang as we released our biggest update ever, Back to the Battlefield - also known as the Combat Overhaul update. While we are incredibly proud of what our small team has been able to accomplish with such a massive rework of our archaic systems, we also sacrificed a lot of time to this singular update, resulting in a multi-day downtime to bring it live and over a year of content drought.

With the huge update off of our plates, we are thankfully able to return to a more normal schedule of updates and work on items we have been putting off due to the looming overhaul. Before we talk about that, however, let us talk about the overhaul and what we have observed thus far.

Aftermath of the Combat Overhaul

The Combat Overhaul, or CO for short, was the biggest systemic change we have ever made to our game. The backend code of Istaria’s combat had been largely the same since the game started development back at the turn of the millennium, over twenty years ago. Much of how the game functioned was very opaque, for both you as the player and us as developers.

For those of you not reading our many releases about the CO, some of the problems we faced in the backend was a complete inability to estimate the strength of enemies and contributions of their stats against a player. We also could never entirely guess what a player’s stats would do to their character, nor how an average battle would play out. A lot of your damage, armor effectiveness, and so on was leveraged not only on your statistics, but that of your enemy’s.

The majority of our changes involved ripping out these uncertainties and the randomness of encounters. The amount of damage your weapon does no longer depends on its delay, for instance - previously, the damage calculation formula directly involved how fast your weapon swung to increase its damage instead of just using the damage we assigned it. Your ability to evade an incoming attack is no longer based on how accurate your enemy is and, instead, is now based on how evasive you are (An enemy’s accuracy now just judges how much they outright miss). These are just a few examples of the hidden systems we’ve messed with.

To you, these are not entirely the most visible changes; they probably passed under your nose as you never truly were able to interact with them directly. What is likely most obvious to you are the changes we made to your armor’s effectiveness, your accuracy and evasiveness, and other calculations.

 

Your Feedback

We have received feedback from many sources - in-game, on Discord, through support tickets, on the forums… you have a lot to say, and we thank you! Much of your feedback comes from an understandable place.

So far, we have adjusted some calculations on your armor mitigation, especially against high-level enemies to remove some double-penalties. This resulted in some funniness in high-craft edge cases, so we are reintroducing a high-level monster to low-level player mitigation penalty to address level 1 tanks without diminishing the bonuses high craft gives against on-level monsters.

Moving forward, we are adjusting some of the balance regarding Mystic and Arcane damage types. Currently, Mystic is the ruling king due to its increased effectiveness against armor compared to Arcane; we have thus made the decision to bring these two in line with one another, meeting in the middle. Arcane will deal slightly more damage and Mystic slightly less. We want to encourage you to find and exploit enemies’ weaknesses rather than popping a Spirit crystal like candy.

This results in a situation where Mystic Resistance and Ward will now be less useful than Arcane. We are currently talking about bringing these categories back to their originally defined composition, to create an equal spread of the two types of magic. At this time, we don’t have the spread for you.

Other comments we have seen, but have not addressed entirely just yet, are the following:

Tactical Mastery is hard to affect. Currently, there are very few sources of Tactical Mastery, but a relatively high cap to reach. In fact, there are only five sources - blighted weapons, a weapon technique kit, a T3 technique kit, your school, and training points.

Tactical Mastery has a relatively high ceiling for how far we expect you to be able to take it, but with the amount of sources, it’s not possible to get near that ceiling. We do intend to add more sources of Tactical Mastery, but it might take some time.

Critical Rating can’t be increased. Critical Rating is in a similar boat to Tactical Mastery, except the only source is blighted weapons currently. We do intend Critical Rating to be a bit harder of a statistic to obtain, similar to how DPS modifiers are, but not unobtainable. This therefore falls into the same boat as Tactical Mastery.

Accuracy and To-Hit Modifiers. We have heard requests to add Accuracy to your statistics panel. This one is hard, as accuracy can vary greatly depending on the weapon skill you are using - we would need twenty entries to show all of them. It also depends on level, which makes this even more complex.

Beyond base accuracy, to-hit modifiers are opaque, but these are very hard to display. They are not a direct addition to your accuracy - an 80% to-hit increase does not add to a 75% chance to hit for a >100% chance. It works through a more complicated method that reduces your chance to miss in a manner that isn’t very conducive to being displayed. This is added on top of the aforementioned problems, especially when you consider that to-hit modifiers are often locked to spells or attacks alone.

We are still debating on how to approach this, but we have heard your thoughts.

Bugs. By now we’ve tackled many sneaky bugs that remained with the Fixer Update released on March 26st, we recognize that there may be some still creeping along and we aim to fix any we are made aware of as swiftly as possible. As always we greatly appreciate you, our community, making us aware of any through whichever media you prefer; in-game, our support site, or our dedicated bug-report channel in the Discord.

 

The Future of Balance

As we introduced the overhaul, we always explained it as a precursor to balancing the game easier. This remains true, as it is far more understandable to look at players’ statistics to gather where and how they are struggling and being able to better estimate how monsters will challenge you. Of course, balance does not happen overnight, and this is where we will always need your help.

AmonGwareth recently asked for feedback on underperforming abilities across the game and we received a ton of abilities to look at and consider. We have heard that you hate linked abilities and we have unlinked many of them. We’ve reviewed some conflicting spells and removed the conflicts outright. We want Istaria to be a fun and versatile world for you to explore, but our small team can only scratch the surface of the thousands of hours many of you have put into it.

We ask for your feedback, thoughts, and advice to guide us as we move forward. What do you want to see? Where do you want us to go? What are you finding the most fun and the least?

Especially with the Combat Overhaul, we have crafted a survey to send to all of you to gather your feedback. We ask you, if you wish, to please take the time to answer our questions (anonymously!) to help us understand where issues may lie that have yet to be said or addressed.


Plans in the Year of the Dragon

2024 is the Year of the Dragon, dawning on us just shortly after our 20th anniversary. We are so humbled and excited to still be around 20 whole years past launch and we owe this to you, our devoted and caring players. We genuinely and wholeheartedly appreciate every last one of you, your feedback, love, care, and dedication to our corner of the ancient internet. As long as you all keep turning up, we will be keeping the lights on.

Unfortunately due to the massive undertaking and the huge update that resulted in Back to the Battlefield’s launch, we did not entirely have the time or resources to devote to crafting 20th anniversary celebration in-game akin to our 10th or 15th. We have not forgotten about it, though. We released a video looking back through the years we have been around, and in the future, we still hope to introduce some celebratory items for you to enjoy - it just might be us celebrating our 21st year instead, when our game is legally old enough to drink in America. (How old does that make you feel?)

 

Content and Design

After putting the pedal to the metal for nearly two years, our content and design teams are taking a well-needed rest from massive projects and undertakings. Instead, we are focusing on smaller changes, balance tweaks, and follow-up changes to the overhaul.

We do have some big plans brewing in the background, with large swathes of content written for both early and endgame. While we continue gluing the broken pieces together from the overhaul, though, we do not want to make any direct promises as to what is on the horizon.

Rite of Passage

A fitting change for the Year of the Dragon, we will be giving the Rite a much needed facelift. Updated story, balance, and making use of new technologies we've added over the years such as NPC actions.

The New Epic

Some of you may recall that in the 2022 Developer’s Desk we teased a potential new epic, and this new baddie is still on the table to be unleashed upon you all. Progress has made steadily on this project though we have run into a bottleneck or two trying to make sure it’ll wow all of you who are excited for more end-game content. We cannot promise that this new threat will terrorize the gifted within this year, but we’re putting our best foot forward on bringing this new chapter into the game.

Spectacle across the Lands

Community builders get your hammers ready! With some long awaited stability fixes now being part of the client, and more to come (more on that in the section below!) we are once again moving forward with beautifying the landscapes of Istaria and its neighboring realms. In 2024 our world builders are hoping to bring both small, like further decoration of Spirit Isle and Memorial Isle, as well as larger projects like the finalization of Scorpion Isle to you.

Not only that, but at the tail-end of 2023 a large amount of new plot decorations have been thoroughly put through QA and we’re now practically bursting at the seams with these new additions, 100+ new decorations will be gracing your plot planner soon!

 

Technical Changes and Improvements

The technical team has been very busy with this update as well, although what we’ve been working on hasn’t been as dramatic as Back to the Battlefield, everyone can agree it’s very important work, that is bugfixes, bugfixes and more bugfixes!

We at Virtrium are of the firm belief that we can’t make Istaria the best game it can be without having a strong technical foundation, so we’ve been spending our time correcting issues with the game’s framework - low level things like texture memory management on the client and database loading on the server. These certainly aren’t the most glamorous things to be working on but the results of having these things working properly make a much better game for us all to play and completing these projects has had a fantastic impact on the game and server’s stability! For example, let’s take a look the recent texture memory fixes:

Many of us who have played Istaria have noticed the game unfortunately becomes unstable when you travel to many areas with high detail - visiting places like Sslanis, Tazoon and New Rachival and playing in these areas for extended periods of time was almost certainly a cause for a game crash due to the game running out of memory - solving memory usage and memory leak issues in a game is especially challenging if the game does not keep track of what it’s using memory for, and unfortunately Istaria was never designed for memory profiling - so we assigned a programmer to go through the game code and analyze everything it was doing in attempt to figure out why places like Tazoon were using so much memory, and the results were surprising to say the least:

  • Textures in Istaria were in the worst case using three times (3x) the amount of memory that it should - and as Tazoon uses so many different textures, this was adding up fast! It also explained why players who were using high-resolution texture mods were having a much poorer game experience as well.
  • Monsters who were humanoid shaped (such as the enemies outside New Rachival and Welger) were having a duplicated texture for each of them - so if you had 50 identical monsters, there would be 50 identical textures - a massive waste of memory for sure.
  • The creation and deletion of textures in Istaria was manual - without an automatic system that deleted textures when they were no longer needed, it was up to programmers to write perfect code which always deleted textures when they should no longer be needed - such a system was inherently imperfect and also led to other bugs like item icons turning into white squares when the item was deleted for example as well. When this system didn’t work properly, textures experienced memory leaks, further increasing Istaria’s memory usage as well!

When it became clear how problematic the texture management was in the game, we completely removed the original system and created a new one from scratch, employing the best possible techniques available - automatic management of textures, the sharing of identical textures instead of duplication and using the minimal amount of memory possible - this system is now live in game and the results surpassed all our expectations, with game stability massively improved even when visiting all the problematic places in the past! This was just the first stage of the memory optimizations so we are very pleased with how this worked out - and there’s more we can accomplish related to memory as well!

We’ve made great progress on our quest to fix all of Istaria’s technical issues and there’s a very extensive list, today’s Istaria now enjoys a much more stable experience with higher FPS and reliable code and we have no intention of stopping there - once everything is in perfect shape, we can’t wait to start adding even more features to the game and have some big plans in that regard!

Now that we’ve talked about what we’ve accomplished in the past, let’s talk about the future - with the technical issues resolved we’re looking forward to improvements in all aspects to the game - new game design possibilities, new features for players, upgrades for the graphical element - if Istaria has it, we want to make it better, and if it doesn’t have it, we’re looking forward to adding it! It’s very gratifying to finally see the light at the end of the tunnel with the bug fixes, and it’s a great milestone for Istaria to see issues that have existed since the game’s launch finally fixed - and we’ll be putting our vision towards what exciting things we can add! Although we can’t speak to specific plans at this time, with our focus now being able to shift from bug fixing and stability to work to new features, we’re looking forward to showing our playerbase what we can do!

The complexity of releasing Back to the Battlefield exposed some issues with our delta process. We normally deal with those things manually, but Back to the Battlefield was so massive, it turned a small number of manual steps into something that was difficult to manage. We’ll be making a number of internal plumbing changes to improve our ability to take a delta, release a delta, and of course improve our server startup times for internal development. Our goal is to make it easier to get content from the development server and onto the live servers. As a side benefit, various parts of the world and content will load / work just a bit faster.

 

Visuals of Visions and Art

Many of you have been on the edge of your seats waiting for the teased ‘Visions’ update to drop, but we have encountered some very fun technical hurdles we are trying to battle while working on our human model. With tech assisting design in the overhaul, this has led to the changes being in a murky standstill for some time.

One of our hurdles is very human- and human-adjacent specific, wherein we are attempting to determine the best course of action for skin colors. To peek behind the curtain, let me explain how the game currently works.

Dragons and dryads use what we call a tint-based system. Their textures are in complete black-and-white. The game uses gradient maps to color in these textures from darkest to lightest using a sort of key. For these two races, it works out fine, as they have ‘unnatural’ coloration with little variance in hue across their body. It looks ok to your eyes as you do not have a basis for what a fairy or a dragon needs to look like in terms of color.

For humans, this is different. Our current bipeds, outside of dryads, use pre-colored textures. Humans, half-giants, gnomes, and dwarves all have slight hue changes on their body; their lips are redder and their cheeks are rosy. If we made a gradient map for these, suddenly, all of their bodies would look the same shade of skin and become unnatural. To account for this, the original textures were just colored.

Nowadays, we do not want pre-colored textures like this, as it makes adding new skin textures and variants hard. We cannot make an ‘old man’ skin texture with bags and wrinkles without coloring it about ten to fifteen different ways. Introducing a new skin color would add another texture for every base texture we have.

Therefore, we have been at a minor impasse, attempting to determine how best to handle skin colors and skin textures throughout the game. We want players to be able to create their character in all shades of the human rainbow, rather than the slight variants of off-white we have right now.

This is one of the problems we have run into over time, but not the only, resulting in humans going on hold while we try to design around it. However, we have not stopped moving forward - we are toying with other races to make sure that our texture map layout is sound and workable for all 10 bipedal races (which has resulted in some changes!) and finalizing ideas for how exactly we want character creation to work for our revamped models.

Speaking of character creation, we have some information to divulge on that front, as well.

 

The Character Creator

We have been planning and brainstorming what features and changes we want to introduce. One of the biggest things we want to tackle and revamp from the ground-up is the character creator.

Our creator isn’t entirely poor, but the way it works is very limiting for items that have tons of options - looking at you, Ssliks with 40-something fin types, and dragon accents! It can be painful and hard to remember these when scrolling through, so we want to change the UI to be far more visual and easy to navigate.

On top of this, we want to tweak the creation hall. I, personally, love the creation hall - it is very nostalgic and speaks to a simpler time. However, it is also limited for viewing your character - which is the entire point of character creation!

Our plan is to instead change the hall into a loop, wrapping around a central pillar. We keep our classic look of choosing your character from their themed inlets, but instead of being forced to design them in there, you have them placed onto the central pillar with bright, neutral lighting and an orbit camera.

 

Work in Progress - Ancient Size Comparison

 

Work in Progress - Exterior View

 

“Stretch goals” - or rather, our hopeful but untested ideas - would include adding either emotes or poses to the creator to let you get a better look at hard-to-see places like the underside of your dragon’s wings.

We hope this format brings much-needed freedom to those desperately trying to see their ancient’s head in that cramped inlet, while also retaining the beautiful, classic, and nostalgic look that our character creation gives.

 

An Update on our Web Presence

While more of a combination effort between our tech gurus and artists, we wanted to give a small update on the progress of our website revamp.

In 2022, we posted a sneak peek of our front page website revamp to the community site in response to a Q&A question. Since then, we have been quiet about it. We’ve been making slow progress on it in the backend, mostly figuring out how best to host the site and make it easy to update and maintain in the future.

Fingers crossed, we hope to launch the new front page sometime this year. We’ve settled on a good format and just need to polish the missing information.

On top of this, we have also been working on revamping our dinosaur of a community site and forums. For years, our forums have been locked down very hard - largely due to our outdated software, which also requires us to disable features that present security risks these days (such as forum avatars).

We’ve settled on a new content management system that integrates both the forums and community site, including the ancient gallery, letting us keep everything updated in one place. You will be able to comment directly on new update notifications, upload your screenshots, and finally set yourself an avatar!

The design of the new site mirrors the new front page, intending to keep the two visually cohesive and invoking a classic, but modern, feel.

Work in Progress - An earlier version of our new forum testing

We’re very excited to update our websites and hopefully breathe some life into our dusty old URLs, which have been woefully neglected up to this point.

Conclusion

A lot has gone into Istaria over the last year and we’re very proud of what we released. We’re keeping a close eye on any fixes / changes needed, but it’s starting to feel that we’re approaching stability and can set our sights on some bigger goals. As with anything this big, there’s bound to be changes as we progress forward, but you can be assured that we’ll be carefully listening to your feedback and doing our best to create some really amazing things for Istaria.

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