Lost Coastlines Postmortem, Career Postmortem, and future plans

This is going to be a long post so strap in. Yes there are annotations, deal with it.

It’s my intent to write a postmortem of Lost Coastlines, as well as my career writing preposterously large text-based RPGs in ADRIFT. It was always my intent to close my text RPG career with this game, and while I intend to submit a smallish ADRIFT game for Spring Thing next year, this is likely my last ADRIFT game of any substance as well as my last IFComp.

A little about my background in ADRIFT: Back in about 2002 I got an idea for a text game in the same vein as Hitchhikers Guide, and located ADRIFT as a way to make that game a reality. I spent more than 15 years abandoning that project and picking it up again before it became Six Silver Bullets, my first ever IFComp entry, in 2018. Six Silver Bullets was an atypical game for me: it’s structured like a puzzly-parser, where the player plays a very specific role and the story has a single definite conclusion, though far afield from what the player expects. Six Silver Bullets was…not well received. A small number of people realized what I was going for, and wrote me to thank me for making an interesting game, but most people saw it as a hyper-punishing slog.

To be fair, games like Six Silver Bullet are not my element: most of the games I tinker with are sprawling role playing games with a significant open-world component. I like to make games where the player can make up their own story, facilitated by a computer-generated world of my own devising.

IFComp got a taste of this in 2019, when I submitted Skybreak!, an extremely large menu-based science-fantasy RPG set in an open world where the player moves semi-randomly through the cosmos, making one and only one decision on each world before moving on. Skybreak! is much, much larger than Lost Coastlines, but its randomized movement system means that a typical player sees only a tiny fraction of the universe on any given playthrough. Lost Coastlines feels larger, no doubt, but this is simply because there are fewer constraints on player movement.*

Lost Coastlines predates Skybreak!, if you can believe it**. It began on a random Sunday walk through Loring Park, in downtown Minneapolis. I realized, while walking, that pairing random objects in my head according to certain patterns gave rise to interesting location names: “Teasquirrel street” and “Seedsewer city” and so on. The process was so fun that I raced home and systematized it, building an engine that could generate thousands of names using the same basic patterns…I then began building a game around it in ADRIFT.

…that was in 2017, following a failed attempt to make Six Silver Bullets and before I’d even heard of IFComp. Before I even started building Skybreak! Lost Coastlines has been in development since that fateful day and now, 4 or 5 years later, it’s finally out there for people to play. Obviously it got a lot more sophisticated over time, but at heart, it’s still at bottom a game about discovering places with weird names.

Following the release of Skybreak!, I redoubled my efforts to make Lost Coastlines, and resolved to make a very different sort of game than Skybreak!. I had rather expected it to be far better received than Skybreak!, simply because it has significant “quality of life” features Skybreak! lacked: for one thing, you can actually choose your destination. The difficulty of rolls is clearly telegraphed, and the player’s skills and inventory more closely hew to a standard fantasy universe (unlike Skybreak!, in which a player’s History skill is as important for navigating the galaxy as Astronomy).

This prediction, it’s fair to say, did not come to pass. I have no idea what score Lost Coastlines will receive in the Comp, but it seems clear from the reviews (some by the same people that enjoyed Skybreak!) that the ultimate reception, and the game’s likely legacy, will be more like Six Silver Bullets: a game with a tiny core of admirers and a lot of people whose overall reaction is “what???”

Am I disappointed? Not really. Between this and Skybreak!, I’d much rather people play and enjoy Skybreak!, a game set in a world I’ve been collaboratively building with a few close friends since I was a child. I’m also well-aware that my games are not exactly mass-appeal material, and I don’t intend them to be. I know these games are not for everyone. I don’t tend to make user friendly games. In part this is because of the ADRIFT system, which is inherently janky. In part this is because I see games like Lost Coastlines and Skybreak! as essentially computer-facilitated imagination: they’re at their best when you, the player, take an active role in dreaming up the world and finding your place in it. I encourage players to, for example, draw their own map or take copious notes on the routes to take to return to exotic destinations. Many people don’t want to do that…

Am I confused? A bit. There is absolutely no question in my mind that Lost Coastlines has a smoother, more user friendly experience than Skybreak!, in which the player can spend half an hour bouncing between the same 3 destinations, encounters don’t even bother to tell you how likely you are to succeed or fail, and half your inventory items are puzzling things like beetles and human brains.

So why did people like Skybreak! more? It’s possible that as a procedurally generated universe, Lost Coastlines felt a little hollow, a little empty and random, whereas Skybreak! is a bespoke setting where each world has abundant lore the player discovers as they play. Several reviews have lead me to believe that it’s also possible I just fundamentally screwed-up certain balance issues. I’m not so sure, but at any rate this merely deepens my confusion because I actually did extensive testing on Lost Coastlines’ balancing, while Skybreak!'s balancing is almost entirely ad hoc.***

It’s also possible that, counterintuitively, adding more player control made the game much more complicated, and therefore less fun. In Skybreak! one doesn’t have to stress over where to go next. There are no supplies to provision out, there is no character inventory to manage. Reviews of Lost Coastlines and Ferkung’s four hour playthrough of my game**** suggest that players struggled with this complexity.

Part of the disparity, though I’m convinced not a very big part, is probably simply because Lost Coastlines was a buggier game. While this game underwent extensive playtesting, it’s simply too complex to be fully debugged (indeed, it may be the most complicated game ever created in ADRIFT, at least, I know of no other ADRIFT game that has done so many tricks with procedural generation). Naturally, this detracts from the user experience, but Skybreak! was also buggy, so that’s not a full explanation, especially since Lost Coastlines’ bugs were less likely to softlock players, a notorious problem upon Skybreak!'s first release.

Did I do a good job? I think so, though it could have been better, and a bit more polished. I am hoping that, as time goes on, this game will have the “unheralded master work aspect” that at least one reviewer saw in the rough. As this reviewer correctly pointed out “no one is going to play this game” but “the people who do” will enjoy it for years. if you happen upon Lost Coastlines or this review, even years later, drop me a line at Theodidactus@gmail.com if you enjoyed it…it will make me very happy to know that the game brought joy to someone.

What now? As aforementioned, I’m largely retiring from making new games in ADRIFT, and I likely won’t submit to another IFComp. I’ve reached the point in my career where I need to get serious about making games that I can try to sell. I do intend to continue debugging Lost Coastlines and Skybreak!, and releasing new expansions to both (the fourth, and largest, expansion for Skybreak! will be out January 1st, 2023). I’m expecting this project to continue for many, many years, which means that someday this game will be far bigger and more complex than it is now.

I’m going to leave below two lists of spoilered text. The first are tips to play the game that I think many people missed, or misunderstood. This is not to be critical of the fine reviewers, because it’s incumbent upon a designer to make this stuff obvious, and I clearly didn’t. The second is a list of questions about stuff I hope you found. Write me if you have a good answer.

Some tips:

  • Lost Coastlines is a game about exploration. It’s not easy to build up pleasance (which functions as both a way to tabulate a high score, and the game’s currency) while moving between a few cells. It is likewise difficult to get rewards from travelling over long distances aimlessly. I strongly encourage players to KEEP TRACK OF THEIR FINDS and EXPLORE CREATIVE WAYS TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THEM

  • In particular, keep track of places that have a high probability of giving you treasure: there’s a beach full of diamonds right at the game start, and a market to sell them as well. The map is scattered with ruins that are overflowing with plunder.

  • You cannot die in this game. Instead, the game continues as long as you want. While you will slowly accrue Sadness, Madness, Fury and Worry from bad decisions, there are ways to discharge all of these. You will find them as you explore. I encourage players to be patient and methodical in their exploration. There are places out beyond the horizon where you can lose all your worries and exchange your fury for pirate treasure.

  • That said, there are significant consequences for accruing too much of any one form of unpleasance. A lot of reviewers felt like there were no consequences, especially for failing to feed their crew and repair their ship. If you neglect either for too long, or if your unpleasance grows too high, terrible things will occur.

  • Your character will continue to grow more powerful as the game goes on: you’ll collect more items that increase your abilities and situation bonuses, and your character will encounter more and more experiences that increase their might, talent, seacraft, shadowcraft, and dreamcraft. The game is punishingly hard at the beginning, especially the nightmares you encounter, however, as the game goes on, you’ll find yourself prevailing over more and more encounters, until by the end, even scalpel-hands man won’t frighten you.

  • Don’t open the spider door

My questions for you, the player.

  • Did you fall in love with someone wonderful?
  • How many Gilmore Girls references did you spot?
  • What was your favorite mixed drink?
  • Did anyone open the spider door?

Footnotes

*Lost Coastlines has about 4,000 unique actions that affect game state (though many are complex, involving hundreds of subroutines). Skybreak has 7,000 (and far, far more lines of prose text)

** Technically, the universe Skybreak! is set in has been under constant development since the first time I started doing silly fantasy worldbuilding circa age 6, but I didn’t start putting the world into ADRIFT until 2018.

*** Lost Coastlines had a dedicated tester whose only job was to try to break the game’s scoring system and provide me with extensive notes on game economy. This tester was given extensive notes by me on how easy or hard certain things should be. Skybreak!'s only balance tester is myself, and I have absolutely no idea how common or uncommon brains should be.

**** For which he deserves some kind of medal, particularly for correctly pronouncing Schneckloth’s name, and reading all his dialog in a crypt-keeper voice. Did you know that Schneckloth’s name comes from a criminal case very important in my day job? Now you know.

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I’ve very much enjoyed all your games, and I appreciate your work and support your future plans.

I think the negative reception of Lost Coastlines as compared to Skybreak! is almost entirely due to the difficulty in keeping enough supplies and food. From the very beginning those went down fast while being very hard to replenish (no easy way to stock up), so it felt like drowning. All other parts of the game felt great to me, but I just couldn’t keep up with the constant drain on those two core resources and limited ability to gain new ones. I suspect that just tweaking that alone would get a reception more like Skybreak!. It’s like a FPS where you are constantly losing health and spend almost all your time replenishing it (that’s actually how The Long Winter is with its cold meter, and I quit playing that game for the same reason).

I really enjoyed the ending I got with going up to the top of a tower I was repeatedly told not to go up. I also liked the long heist where you do one step at a time with a thief (although I think I locked myself out by failing once).

But I actually think coastlines will do pretty well in the comp. It’s hard to guess, though; I could see it being anywhere from top 10 to top 30. I know I gave it a very high score.

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None! I have to set sail again immediately!

I will be one of those players who will enjoy this game for years to come. I have a few games in my Big Large Games folder I want to play after the comp. The winter months are best for spending a lot of time on one game.

As I said in my review, I intend to do a much more prepared playthrough of Lost Coastlines, setting goals for myself as I go along and, as you recommend, making a large annotated map to help immerse myself in your dreamworld.

I for one liked your game a lot (and scored it accordingly.)

I hope you fare well in your future endeavours.

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Thanks so much for submitting Lost Coastlines. It was extraordinarily ambitious and I love that kind of game.

I often find that, in competitions, the games that do well are the polished gems. But I much prefer the ones that reach for the stars and try something new.

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For what it’s worth, I enjoyed both Skybreak! and Lost Coastlines, and rated them highly. :slight_smile:

I think that’s partly right, yes. In Skybreak!, if I recall correctly, I had more of a feeling of “okay, I’m in for a wild ride, let me see what happens”; whereas in Lost Coastlines, I started to make a map, took more notes, and felt obliged to think more about optimisation.

But I don’t think that this necessarily leads to less fun. Maybe it’s really just a matter of balancing, tweaking a few numbers (consumption of resources, occurrence of negative encounters), and making it easier. For example, I encountered the tentacle-trees relatively often, especially when I’d hoped to get some much-needed resources from islands.

Actually, while playing Skybreak! and Lost Coastlines, I’ve thought that with a bit of polish, nice packaging, good UI, maybe some illustrations, you could make a commercially viable thing out of these or similar games.

I don’t want to go too off-topic on your thread, but here’s an example of an ASCII choice game which started as a free demo on itch and became relatively commercially successful on Steam (30k copies sold across both platforms): Warsim: The Realm of Aslona by Huw2k8

  1. I met “a person worth knowing. Vayor is a comely girl with a perpetually furrowed brow and a superior attitude. She has very little hair on the top of their head and icy blue eyes. She wears fur robes, like most of the locals. She has a tragic past”
    Later, tragic things happened: “You set your sights on %rival2[%romanticrival%]%”
  1. 1 (Stars Hollow)

  2. I don’t know, but I liked that Scarlett Johannson was the bartender.

Good job on the games, and I’m looking forward to any potential future endeavours of yours.

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I enjoyed both this game and Skybreak!. I particularly liked the setting in Lost Coastlines, even though I was one of the people who struggled a bit with the mechanics. Good luck with your future career!

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You mention three possible causes for why Skybreak! was better received than Lost Coastlines, and I think all three held true for me. First, the universe is Skybreak! felt more narratively meaningful, whereas that in Lost Coastlines seemed more empty and random. Second, there was what you call balance issues, but which I now believe (after reading the postmortem and some other reviews) may be more accurately called perceived balance issues: the feeling that you are spiralling down into Unpleasance without any way to find the way back up. Here, merely setting expectations might help! And third, yes, I loved the fact that in Skybreak! you don’t choose your destination – it helped me get into the ‘onward to adventure’ vibe! Though I don’t particularly mind having to navigate a map.

I’ll be certain to check out the game again, armed with more knowledge about how it is meant to be played.

Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to catch a single Gilmore Girls reference, since I never watched it. (Twenty years ago I had some flat mates who watched it, so I think I’d recognise the actors maybe, but that’s about it.)

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Well, I hope you’re proud of yourself!

I’m firing up the season 3 Gilmore Girls DVD as we speak.

Cafeine-overdose-fueled witticism-back-n-forths coming up!

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While creating the procgen dictionaries for this game I used a bunch of weird pop culture sources but learned heavily on Gilmore Girls, mostly because I realized that most characters on the show have names that are good names for tall sailing ships: Paris Geller, Lorelei Gilmore, Luke Danes, sookie st. James, and “the nardini girl” in particular.

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While I wouldn’t expect an update/expansion for Lost Coastlines before the summer, a lot of the private reviews requested a desire for a “main storyline”

I’m not doing this, but I am going to implement a series of quests that trigger based on the item you select at gamestart.

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