December Producer’s Letter – Year End Wrap

2023 Year in Review

The year is coming to a close. To say it’s been hectic is an understatement. The small, talented, scrappy, driven, resourceful, gritty Visionary Realms team has been moving at breakneck pace for as long as I can remember. There have been triumphs and stumbles in 2023. But despite some fumbles, Pantheon has progressed further in 2023 than any year prior.

As I write this, Alpha pledges are experiencing Pantheon for the first time. And the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. While I know I should be looking through our Discord for some testimony about their experiences to add to what I write here, instead, I’m going to log into Pantheon and see how people are doing.

The Korecera Realm appears to be best populated now, so I’ll pop in there. I choose my warrior and enter the world. The chat window scrolls by with people sharing information or looking for group mates. It’s night, the moon is not out, so it’s really dark and the sky is filled with stars. I hear insects trill, a wolf howl (I hope that was just a wolf!), then I get bashed over the head by a thug. And then its friend joins the fight and I’m down. Nighttime is dangerous around here. If I were on the Development server I could type a secret command and make it bright and sunny (and slightly safer) midday, but this server is live, people are playing – this is real – I can’t just randomly change the time of day…

Yep. This is live. Thousands of people are experiencing Pantheon. It’s not done, it has some rough edges. It needs more content. But this world is live, playable, dangerous and fun.

I’ve found a safe place to hole up while I type this in real time. Looking back at the screen I notice the cliffs far off in the distance are bathed in light as the sun rises. The insects have stopped trilling, birds start chirping and some of the more threatening night creatures retreat to wherever they go during the day. I stash my torch, climb a rock to a higher vantage point and enjoy the sunrise through the swaying trees. It’s a little hazy this morning with some light fog, but maybe it will clear up and be a beautiful day.

But who am I fooling? I can’t sit here on this rock and watch the sunrise! There are quests to be completed, monsters to defeat, XP to be gained, new abilities to learn, treasures to be found and a group that’s forming near the bridge needs a tank to take on the skeletons outside Avalia. Maybe I’ll be able to loot that missing metal I need to craft that breastplate I’ve been working on? Or it could all end in a group wipe… A cleric runs by so I climb down the rock and go to say hi. And so a new adventure begins.

Many of us have seen hours melt away as we become utterly immersed in a well-crafted game world. That’s what I’ve just done, so I’ll log out.

Nah… I’ll go invisible and teleport to watch that group battle the skeletons while I write. Easy just retrieved his corpse, Moxie has his magelight glowing (I love the color magelight throws off), the group buffs up and starts pulling skeletons. This group is mostly level 5 but Vikik is only level 3. He still pulls his weight. Love watching the teamwork. I’ll check in with them from time to time while I write.

So, now I sit here writing this in the middle of the night, even though it was due hours ago.

OK. Here goes…

2023 in review? So much happened. Like any great quest, there have been stumbles along the way. But in the end, what matters is the outcome. Leaving 2023 with Alphas playing fulfills a core goal set at the beginning of the year. And I couldn’t be prouder of the team.

What we’re doing isn’t easy. Due to scale and complexity, MMO’s are among the most difficult games to make. Taking on an MMO as an indie developer with limited resources makes it even harder.

So gamebuilding tools are a critical force multiplier. We need to leverage technology to make everything this small team does more efficient. And we started 2023 with excellent gamebuilding tools in place. We call our toolset ViRGE and it’s really impressive.

For a while, art style was a sore point for us. While we had some spot examples of cool art in the game, overall our art style felt dated, bland, uncompelling, lacking any unique identity, was challenging to light properly, had performance issues, and was taking too long to produce. It wasn’t compelling and it wasn’t going to scale.

After extensive internal discussion, we arrived at a more stylized painted style, but not comical, rooted in reality, with some grit. Our first pass was admittedly too cartoonish, but we’ve been moving closer to our goals as time allows. One element of the design goal that is still missing is what we call “grit,” that real world dirtiness that makes everything more believable. Ironically, adding grit takes time. For now we are focusing on producing art quickly, but with the realization that the grit needs to be there eventually.

We do understand some people don’t like the new art style. For some reason it doesn’t show well in stills and video. But many of the critics of the art style feel very differently after actually playing the game – it’s a consistent comment that we see frequently. It works, and it works well, but you have to play to feel it. If we find a way to bring this across in stills and video that will help, but nothing helps more than allowing people in to see for themselves, so that will be a major theme of 2024 – more people playing Pantheon, seeing it for themselves. And we are considering some very bold steps to get more people into the game.

Speaking of art, while I’ve been typing this, apparently Chris Joppa Perkins has been spilling lots of visual beans over on Discord. For those of you who might have missed those beans, here’s our Ogre, the new Thronefast Guard in Heavy Plate, an early look at the Goblins and the Goblin Cultists. Looking at these, I’m quite happy with where the art style is headed…

Whoah! Back in the Alpha session, it’s night again and someone just cast a spell that made this huge crashing sound and lit up the ground yellow then exploded outward. I haven’t seen that spell in action yet. It’s nice when devs can enjoy a fresh surprise. I wonder what spell that was?

Anyhow, back to the year in review… It gets a little bumpy from here…

As we increased VIP testing frequency in early 2023, we ran out of content after a few months. MMO players are notoriously voracious content consumers so we needed to find a way to make content last longer to allow us iterate quickly on features and functionality and gather testing data without testers becoming bored. One of the best ways to make content last is to make it replayable. Thus was born our ill fated 247 Test Mode. Originally envisioned as a way to keep the testers happy and radically accelerate Pantheon feature and content development, while also ideating on a future PvP mode of Pantheon, 247 Test mode launched us forward on so many fronts. Everything accelerated, but when the concept was introduced to the community and we mentioned that we were considering monetizing it to help fund accelerated Pantheon development, the community quite literally freaked out. They thought we were abandoning Pantheon (we weren’t) and made it painfully clear that they didn’t like 247. We listened and shifted right back to full development focus on the MMO mode of Pantheon, almost overnight. And as we promised, thanks to how 247 allowed us to rapidly iterate, Pantheon was much further along too, which allowed us to fulfill our commitment to bring Alphas in before the end of the year.

Once again, I am sitting on a rock in game, watching the clouds move across the sky, casting shadows on the ground as they pass. The water ripples across the small lake at the entrance to Avalia while the Elkhorn Toads croak behind me. It’s a perfect place to sit and contemplate what’s coming in 2024.

The goals for 2024 are simple:

  • Better communication (internal and external)
  • Accomplishing our stated goals on time
  • More playable content, faster
  • More resources to allow us to accelerate production
  • More people playing Pantheon, which means making it available to a much broader base of players.

Watching the chat window while up on this rock, I see a group forming to try and take on the Gloom Infected Rat in the Gloom Fracture. There are a fair number of LVL 5’s in this realm and most of them will probably have to help. I guess we’re off to do a raid with a group of LVL 5’s?
I love the fact that it’s even possible and I’m not going to miss it.
This awaits…

See you in game soon.

Chris Rowan, CEO
December 20, 2023

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