Work-In-Progress Spotlights
September 4th, 2014 by Leif Ericson

The Merchant

A project by Stormwind Studios

The Work in Progress Spotlight returns once again! This time we are featuring a project made by the Stormwind Studios design team: The Merchant. An effort of at least a half dozen designers, The Merchant has been in the making for quite a while, but it has been under the radar during most of its production. That all will change after this feature.

Here's a quick overview: Rylus is a young merchant who is looking to make his way in the world and earn a profit from trading produce and luxuries. He recently inherited his cart from his uncle, Silas, a successful and respected merchant who recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Disappearances of this sort are commonplace, however, as the region is fraught with danger- bandits, brigands, and even competitors do what they can to rob merchants and travelers, making armed mercenary guards a necessary investment and overland travel--a venture necessary for merchants in this land--quite dangerous.

Quite simply: The goal of the scenario is to earn as much gold as possible through trading goods, completing quests, and even assisting the political figures of the region in their various agendas. However, as Rylus earns more money and becomes more powerful and influential, he begins to attract the attention of all kinds of characters, some less savory than others. The land is rife with political tension and disorder, and the underlying mystery surrounding Silas' death presents an additional enigma. Rylus's success will eventually lead him into the midst of the political balance, and before he knows it, it will be too late to turn back.

Here's the catch: From the beginning of the scenario, your actions determine what happens later on. The central plot that drives the story remains fairly unchanged at the basic level, but with so many possible paths and choices to make, the chance is slim that you will have the same experience when playing the scenario any given time. A gunpowder cart might end up providing you with a source of gold, or providing your enemies with deadly military technology, depending on whom you sell it to. Some sidequests are only available at certain times, and open up whole new plotlines for the player to enjoy. I haven't done all of the math to figure out all of the different possible paths and outcomes, but I'm fairly confident that you can play the scenario at least 10 times and still have several choices and plotlines to discover.

Furthermore, on a basic level, this is not a standard RPG/FF game of AoK. There is a complex trading system that involves buying goods with which to load your cart and then finding the best location to sell your goods (supply and demand play major factors here). As the scenario goes on, you can acquire more carts, allowing you to buy, carry, and trade more goods. However, the number of carts in the game is limited, making them incredibly valuable. With your money, you generally want to buy a troop of mercenaries to protect yourself from danger, but judgment is key here- a counter determining an ingame "week" will continuously run down and reset, and at the end of each week you must pay upkeep for your mercenaries. If you don't have enough gold, then your mercenaries will take all you have and vanish.

Even when you get to a B&D situation, it's far from conventional. Numerous factors determine the enemies and allies you have from game to game, your population limit, and even the available buildings. Who knows, a quest you completed early on in the scenario might give you a nice bonus during the B&D. Furthermore, the plotlines and rivalries that Rylus develops all have several different possible outcomes. Even the main plot has several possible endings, one of them being an ingenious boss fight that Julius designed, which (imho) is the most creative un-modded duel sequence done in AoK to date.

Of course, with a project like this I had to catch some of the designers of the scenario to get the inside scoop. I managed to scoop up two of the designers, HockeySam18 and Julius999. You'll want to read what they have to say.

When did the project start? Was it the brainchild of a single designer, or did the ideas for the project come together as a group effort?

HockeySam18: Back in May 2013 when I joined the team, the project was already in full swing, and had been for a few years. Julius has led the charge from the beginning with regard to the main ideas for the story and gameplay style/contents of the scenario- he’s definitely the man with the plan! If I recall correctly, the scenario at that point was quite far along- it was playable from start to finish, and the main plot was all planned out, along with many of the choices and features that contribute to replayability, as well as much of the map design. In short, the framework was all there and much more, but as a group we continued to come up with idea after idea to make the scenario better and better, definitely prolonging the development quite a bit but leading in the end to a far more desirable result. All active members of the team have had a hand in the project in one way or another, which has been quite nice considering the amount of designing talent that the team has to offer.

Why merchants? I presume most players out there prefer combat and military strategy over other parts of the game, so why take the route of trade and politics?

Julius999: Every designer dreams of creating that exemplary new campaign that pushes the boundaries of AoK and opens everyone’s scope to a whole new plane of ideas. What better way to start by moving into uncharted territory? We’re working with a 15-year-old scenario editor here, but what you can achieve in it is unlimited, provided you’re willing to put in the time and effort. The scenario is built around an extensively triggered slew of mechanics that simulate a merchant’s life in the world that we’ve created, so it certainly changes the game as you know it, but still keeps that distinct AoK feeling throughout.

Sam: That said, the scenario is by no means devoid of combat and military strategy! The world that we’ve created is quite dangerous, but instead of looking at it as a ruler, you see things through the lens of a more or less common man looking to make his way in the world. Things can be challenging enough for any man looking to become great, but when money and politics get involved, it can hit the fan. Merchants can amass a lot of coin, though, and what better way to use money in the Middle Ages than to field armies? All told, I think that players will find the balance between familiar and new mechanics quite manageable and enjoyable.

What's it like having several people work on the scenario together? What are the positive and negative aspects of this approach?

Sam: In a team effort like this, communication is key. Given the size of the team and a large collection of diverse schedules and different time zones, proper planning is an absolute must, and has made a collaborative project like this quite a cool experience, to say the least. The positives are unlimited, though. For one thing, being able to pass the project around from member to member means that it will generally be seeing attention at all times, so RL tends to slow progress down a little less than it otherwise might.

Julius: Planning things as a group is always rather nice, as it can save you from the pitfalls that might beset a solo designer at times. Another great plus is the mix of design styles, which goes a long way in creating a diverse and realistic map. I can look around the map and see the work of several different people just by moving the screen a bit, and yet it all meshes seamlessly.

Would such a project have been possible without a design team? What makes working with a design team different from just collaborating with different members of the AoKH scenario design community?

Sam: The AoKH community is truly a unique and wonderful thing- when you look at the people, community feeling, and environment here, it’s hard to imagine any reason not to be an AoKH forummer. In a design team, the level of camaraderie is much like what I’ve found in my experiences on sports teams. Everyone knows each other quite well and is quite committed to the goal of producing quality work.

Julius: Over on the team forum, everyone participates in the discussion, pitches ideas, and talks about the common goal. It takes all the great things about the design community and normal collaborative work, and brings it to a whole new level. Inspiration never runs out because you always read that encouraging comment or exemplary idea, and the team atmosphere pushes you to want to achieve more.

The project is currently sitting at 98% in the Forge, so its release is just around the corner! In the meantime, here are lots of screenshots to make it harder for you to wait: