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Update #30

A Winding Road - Diplomacy in At the Gates

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Krokus doesn't appear to be on the best of terms with Genseric - and it seems we're going to have to pick a side. (Click to see full-size image.)
Krokus doesn't appear to be on the best of terms with Genseric - and it seems we're going to have to pick a side. (Click to see full-size image.)

Late last year I talked about how I was gearing up for a head-first dive into diplomacy. I'm still in that pool, but happy to report I've finally made my way out of the deep end. Without a doubt, this has been the biggest challenge I've undertaken. Accordingly, the whole process has taken a bit longer than I had planned.

But let's not skip ahead, and instead turn back to the beginning of our story.

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The Plan

From the very beginning my primary goal with diplomacy was to put players in the driver's seat. If you've been following along since day one you may remember this article, which outlined my plans for diplomacy, now almost exactly a year old. The core of that design was AI Leaders making requests and you could pick from at your leisure. A few months ago I finally started getting my hands dirty, and it wasn't long before I discovered some serious flaws in the approach.

Topping the list was the dearth of interesting requests that actually make sense. Sure, you have the obvious "Please give me some food" and "Go beat up that guy" missions, but... where do you go from there?

Many possibilities that could work from a gameplay perspective don't make much sense thematically. Attila could ask you to build a big statue of him but, uh, why would he really care all that much? Wouldn't he rather just have your land or some iron? You're Attila's peer, not his official statue carver.

Okay, so maybe Attila is actually that full of himself and asks for his visage to be erected in granite - we have another problem now. Is building statues... fun? Is there even any strategy to it? Empire builders aren't city builders, and plopping down new structures in this genre is rarely super-engaging. It's the same reason why peaceful victory conditions are nearly always less fun than their more militaristic counterparts.

By this point it was clear that building one of the game's most important features on top of one of the genre's weakest was unwise. The question was where to go next.

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The Plan v2.0

I decided to throw out everything and go all the way back to the drawing board.

I started by analyzing the two strategy games which have done the best job with diplomacy: Alpha Centauri and King of Dragon Pass. The common trait they both shared was driving diplomacy through personality rather than mechanical diplomatic knobs Sister Miriam may not have been the most strategically sound leader on the block, but you sure as heck knew who she was and what she wanted.

Taking the same approach would be a pretty big shift for AtG, but I concluded this was the right road to take. As much as we might like to pretend otherwise, there's simply no getting around the fact that interacting with another human is radically different from dealing with a computer. We're hard-wired to think of living organisms as agents with feelings, agendas and preferences. Computers are just logic and math, and it's impossible to truly mask that.

The new plan I came up with was for diplomacy to instead evoke the feeling of an interesting book, only different every time you pick it up. Each story should contain memorable characters and events, not just dry mechanical systems.

So we had a new destination - now I just had to figure out how to get there.

A relatively minor feature from the original design would turn out to be the starting point. One of the AI leader requests was insulting another leader, and doing so would improve relations with the initiator and damage them with the target. I had a thought... "What if this sort of interpersonal drama wasn't just an element of diplomacy, but the diplomacy?"

A big advantage AtG has over other games in the genre is that it's exclusively single-player. Systems need not be symmetrical or even fair. After all, our AI leaders might pretend to have feelings, but they obviously don't actually care who wins or loses or if life's unfair. This freedom to bend the AI to our every last whim is a huge asset, as it means the diplomacy system need not be symmetrical.

At this point I knew I was on to something. I brainstormed for a couple weeks, exploring where this new design could take us.

I realized that instead of waiting around for you to initiate contact AI leaders could take matters into their own hands and force you to answer questions you'd rather not.

In other empire builders it's incredibly annoying when AI leaders pop up between turns and there's no way to progress until you've made a decision, and I knew I wanted to fix this. AtG's single-player-only nature means that putting things on hold until your turn came with no drawback. The game would require a reply before you could end your turn, but you'd have as much time as you'd like to research your options beforehand.

Okay, so AI leaders would ask you to answer tough questions. But what should they ask for?

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Sight to the Blind

Personality. Everything comes down to personality. I kept reminding myself throughout this process, and continue to do so. To bring this out I would have the AI leaders ask you questions relevant to their unique situation and philosophical leanings.

There should be no mystery as to whether or not Genseric and Attila like each other. They should often make comments about one another and trade barbs through the diplomatic channels. But this would get old quick if they kept saying the same line over and over again. It was clear that avoiding this would require AI leaders to be very attuned to what was going on around them in the world.

Genseric might think Attila is a threat and ask if you see things the same way. Either way, your answer will obviously have an effect on how much each AI leader likes you, but it should also mean more than just that. If you do in fact agree that Attila is a threat Genseric should remember that, and expect you to put your money where your mouth is when the time comes.

I also thought about what sorts of things a human player would care about and realized that context-awareness could be elevated to an even higher level.

Let's say you're exploring and come across a valuable iron deposit, and you know that Attila also happens to be in the neighborhood. Wouldn't it be cool if you could, you know, tell him to stay away? Or maybe instead of a demand you could negotiate, giving up small concessions in return? Yes please!

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Not Given, But Earned

I now had many of the basic pillars for the new diplomacy design roughed out, but still hadn't yet figured out how all this would translate into actual gameplay mechanics.

A concern I'd long had regarding diplomacy was that a single 'Relations' value between you and each AI leader wasn't really deep enough. I played with adding other metrics like 'Trust', but came to the conclusion that this was barking up the wrong tree. When dealing with an AI opponent all that matters in the end is whether it's going to be nice to you or not. Splitting this up into different numbers muddies the water and poses some serious problems for a designer (how does an AI leader behave when he loves you but doesn't trust you? Does that even make sense?).

The concept of multiple relationship metrics was certainly flawed, but I was convinced that there was still something there, and maybe it just needed to be utilized differently...

Further brainstorming eventually gave birth to the answer and a new feature: 'Respect'. The key difference between the other failed ideas is that Respect is a global value. High Respect improves Relations and unlocks new diplomatic actions with all Leaders, while low Respect has the opposite effect. If you stare down a bully or aid someone in need your deeds will be whispered of in palaces, great halls and back alleys all across Europe. Conversely, word of you backing down will spread just as quickly, and may come back to haunt you.

Respect offers a completely new axis to consider when an AI leader puts you on the spot. Telling Attila and his horde of horse archers to shove it might seem like a bad idea in the short term, but doing so could also earn you long-term friendship with other members of the diplomatic community. As we've already discussed, AI leaders pay attention to what's going on, and neither friends nor enemies will soon forget acts of extreme courage and character.

To raise the stakes even further I decided that hard-earned reputation of yours would be incredible fragile. As in the real world, the only way to build up a good reputation is by working hard for a long time. And alas, a single slip-up can cost you everything. The benefits of being respected worldwide are great, but the challenge of holding onto them is equally so.

This new mechanical knob got me thinking about another interesting possibility: wishy-washy answers. Maybe instead of always having to agree or disagree, in some situations you could hedge and give a non-committal answer. Doing so would eliminate the risk of a strongly negative reaction by any specific AI leader, but the price would be your global Respect.

There are times when this could save your bacon, but others when it's downright crippling. Perhaps you're good friends with both Attila and Genseric, and one asks if you hate the other. You don't want to risk offending either party, so you play it smooth and give the 'diplomatic answer'. Everyone knows what you did, but at least you've avoided taking sides. Hmmm... smells like the kind of interesting, difficult decisions I love!

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Loose Ends

So far I've covered the big changes to the design of the diplomacy system, but there have been a few smaller ones also worth mentioning.

My original thinking was for AI Leaders to have a handful of personality traits, similar to other empire builders. The list of traits would be lengthy, but some would inevitably be shared between leaders. Not only would this make it easy to hook behaviors in code up to specific traits, but these tags could be shown in-game, immediately giving you, the player, a basic feel for who these leaders are and and how they might act.

After spending several days fleshing out the design for several dozen Traits I stepped back, looked at what I'd made, and decided to scrap pretty much all of it.

The problem with shared traits is that they're actually in complete opposition to our primary goal: making each leader feel like a real, unique character. If Attila and Genseric are both labeled as "Wrathful" we’re already starting off on the wrong foot. This is better than having no clue, but as soon as you see the trait duplicated in another leader the immediate, undeniable implication is that the leaders are very much not unique. And no matter what we do that mechanical, copy-pasted flavor never quite goes away.

There will probably still be visible personality traits, but none will be shared. I’d also like for there to be variation between games so that a single AI leader doesn’t always behave exactly the same. The sweet spot for strategy is when you know enough about the situation to make educated decisions, but not so much that things become predictable.

To switch gears a bit, some of you might recall the ‘first meeting gift exchange minigame’ I talked about a while ago. Well, hopefully you didn't get too attached to it, because it's as dead as our good friend Julius Caesar. From the beginning there was always a niggling voice in the back of my head, and eventually it grew so loud that I couldn't ignore it any more. Along with just being kinda weird, I was never completely satisfied with the strategic trade-offs it offered.

Sure, you could choose to keep some cash in reserve and ensure you were always able to provide a gift, but spending money is a whole lot more fun than, you know, not spending it. And discourages you from utilizing the same approach in every game? In my mind’s eye I saw a future where virtually everyone gave gifts either 100% or 0% of the time. The correct answer being the same every time is pretty important in mathematics, but in game design it's a major flaw.

So alas first meeting gift minigame, we never knew ye. Still, the goal of spicing up first meetings lives on. The idea I’m playing around with now is every AI leader making an offer, request or demand of some kind upon meeting him. Not only does this highlight their personality far better than the gift minigame would have, but it still also puts some pressure on you to respond. If meeting Attila also means him demanding one thing or another it won’t take to establish some pretty clear opinions of the man!

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Rubber, Meet Road

So that's the long, winding story of how the design of diplomacy has changed this winter. Congratulations, we've finished Chapter 1! Yep, everything we've talked about so far was still just the beginning.

A design is just that: a design. Not an actual, playable, fun game. Nearly all games sound like fun when all they are is a design doc. The unfortunate reality is that most fall apart long before the first playtest. I had the design, but not the game. My challenge was now translating all of these interesting ideas I’d pulled from various places into usable logic and code.

It wasn't really a surprise, but it didn't take long before any shred of hope of being past the hard part evaporated. Computer AI is nothing more than rules, math and numbers. Even if you know exactly what you want, crafting an entity with a near-human understanding of context with such crude tools is like building a skyscraper out of Popsicle sticks and glue.

Making a random die roll and deciding an AI leader pops up and say he's declaring war on you because he doesn't like you is, obviously, trivial. But it's a completely different ballgame if he needs to do so because you ignored his second warning about straying too close to his eastern border, stating such in a natural-sounding manner. And let's not forget this is just one possible exchange among many dozens.

When implementing a gameplay feature my usual process is to spend a few days brainstorming the high and mid-level design objectives, then start pounding out code like a fiend. Gameplay code is remarkably fast and easy to write - unfortunately, the remaining 90% of the work is the hard part of iterating, bugfixing and polishing.

Given the scope and complexity of what I had planned for diplomacy in AtG I knew my traditional approach wouldn't work. Instead, I would plan out every last minute detail before writing a line of code, ensuring any architectural flaws or oversights would be caught before causing real problems. The importance of this really can’t be exaggerated. A single structural error in a system as intricate as diplomacy in an empire builder can result in weeks of rework far down the road. In game development surprises are just part of the deal, but you want to catch and eliminate as many as you can while still in the design stage.

So I rolled up my sleeves and prepared for what I knew would be a messy affair, and I may have gotten a little carried away at the beginning. Wouldn't it be cool if AI leaders could mix and match comments relating to a shared topic? I sure thought so. Genseric might talk about how Attila was encroaching on his territory, then note that he'd also stolen an iron deposit, then finally ask you to undermine Attila in some way. Each of these could be combined, separated and used in any number of ways. The sky would be the limit!

Or not. The fatal problem was that the web of connections this results in grows to astronomical complexity in a hurry. Which statements are valid with one another? Which seem close but are subtly incompatible? How do you ensure the grammatical transitions between statements are sound right? Hell, how do you even figure out what order to put things in?

I do still think a system like this could work in theory, but even if it that’s true the end result would most likely be composite statements more disjointed than clever. We're making a game here, not exploring interesting theories in an academic setting.

For my diplomatic design to even be feasible I knew I'd have to step back a bit and start with a simpler foundation. The priority would be an AI that was extremely sharp and context-sensitive within tight limits. Quality, not quantity. Genseric could still complain about Attila getting too close and ask you to lend your support, but this would be a specific package of statements defined in code.

This approach would also allow me to ramp up scope down the road, if desired. Genseric noting that Attila is up to no good would be an ‘Observation’ comment type, while a follow-up statement asking you to go beat up on him would be a ‘Judgement’. That Observation could be used in a completely different situation, perhaps a greeting when you open up the diplomatic screen. Other Judgments could be hooked into it - maybe Genseric notes that Attila is up to no good, then asks you to break off your trade treaty with him. Flexible, but still simple.

I had reached a point where I had answers for all of the big questions on both the design and architecture side. I buckled down. Hard. I spent weeks mapping out the contents and logic for every single class and every single method in painstaking detail. After countless hurdles and breakthroughs I finally reached a point where I was satisfied with my preparation. I was ready to start programming.

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Too Prepared?

However, I faced a mounting problem I’d never anticipated or even experienced before.

Fatigue.

I’d planned out the diplomatic system to such great detail that calling what I now had on my plate ‘programming’ seems like a cruel joke. What I was actually doing was copying text out of a text document into a code window and cleaning up the syntax so that it would compile. Over. And over. And over. Not for hours or days, but weeks. Weeks of copying and pasting text. What started as a massive, exciting challenge devolved into a daily chore I dreaded.

I did finally make it through to the end, but my enthusiasm towards the diplomacy system had waned considerably. I now had a robust framework in place, but a massive amount of work still remained. AI leaders could stitch Observations and Judgments together and figure out whether saying a mean thing about that other guy made sense, but there was basically zero actual content to take advantage of it.

I tried to buckle down again, but this doesn't really help when you have to be creative again. I decided it was best to step away from diplomacy for a little bit. Normally I like to use these opportunities to brainstorm some new gameplay feature, but my brain was too toasted for even that.

Instead, I recharged over the following couple weeks by working on small polish features (hello, unit flag command icons!), catching up on business stuff I’d been putting off (ugh, taxes…), organizing my spreadsheets, penning this epic (!) tale, and fixing bugs.

About a week ago I was ready to jump back in. I started by implemented AI leader intrusion detection, demands to pledge to get or stay out, visualizing the tiles you're not allowed to enter again. A couple more days of testing and we were in business - everything was functioning just as I'd hoped. At long last I could see the fruits of my labor in the game, and all at once the hard work that was needed to breathe life into the monster finally seemed worth it. There’s really nothing quite as exhilarating as watching your baby take its very first breath.

The most exciting thing is that this is just the beginning. Writing the logic for each type of exchange and instilling each leader with a unique personality will certainly take time, but I now know that it can be done. I don't know how long it will ultimately take to get everything in and polished, but I can't wait to see how it turns out.

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Looking Back

For two and a half months solid I ate, breathed and lived diplomacy. Thinking back on it now, I’m actually kind of surprised I didn’t run out of gas sooner. Even so, the core issue wasn’t the amount of time I spent on one single feature - I was changing gears every couple weeks to a completely new dimension of the project.

No, the problem was that preparing so methodically ended up sucking the joy out of the necessary next step of executing said plans. I don’t mind a little busywork here and there, but two straight weeks of literally zero creativity and challenge was too much. I know this is what many people have to endure every day of their lives, and I have a great deal of respect for those who do.

And as much as I wish it were so, when crafting a computer opponent for a game as ambitious as AtG you can't just try harder and push your way across the finish line by sheer force of will. Good AI requires planning, patience and a good bit of excitement to keep you going. It's kind of like building a whole separate game, only one where you can't really see what's going on!

Taking the time to do this right is the main reason why I decided to push AtG back into 2015. These days it's just kind of assumed that strategy games and indie games (to speak nothing of those which are both!) won't be as polished as they could be at release. I don't know how much longer it will take, but I promise you AtG will not be one of those games.

If I were to go back in time and repeat the past three months, I honestly wouldn’t change a whole lot. The key difference would be limiting my planning to high-level stuff, and not writing out the exact contents of individual methods.

I'm sure some programmers swear by this in-depth approach, and it certainly did lead to me sitting on a more robust framework today than I'd have had I coded it up by the seat of my pants. But the cost isn't one I want to pay again. If that means spending a week or two in the distant future rewriting a class or two - well, that's a price I'll happily pay. Games are an extension of the development team's creativity and passion. Lose those and your game loses its soul.

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Looking Ahead

Phew, I think we made it! Now let's put a bow on this thing.

The plan from here is to flesh out the diplomatic skeleton currently in place and dress it up all nice and pretty, finish up a couple medium-sized features (which I'll talk more about in the next update), then kick off the beta test in 4-6 weeks.

Alright then! Time to get back to it. I snuck a quick glance at my other screen and I think Attila is giving me the stink eye. Probably something to do with me putting his logic for declaring war on hold to finish up this post.

Hmmm... On second thought, maybe I should leave that particular feature out...

- Jon

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Update #29

February 2014 Update: Art

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Why, hello there! I know, I know... it's been a little while since we've last spoken. Sorry about that!

Make no mistake, the At the Gates team has been busy with over these cold winter months, especially yours truly. In this post I'll be talking about our progress on the art side, and later this month another article will explore my adventures with the diplomacy system in, frankly, absurd detail.

In the interests of full disclosure, my original plan was to cover both topics in this update but I just today discovered that Kickstarter imposes a word limit on these things. Woops! Well, at least we now have something else to look forward to. In the meantime I'll be polishing up what I'd already started. But enough of that - let's talk art!

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New borders: better than old borders! (Click to see full size image)
New borders: better than old borders! (Click to see full size image)

Borders

In my December 2013 update I unveiled the new borders system, including a sneak peak at the heinous placeholder art that was in at the time (something my illustrious art lead still hasn't forgiven me for, I should note...).

Thankfully, Kay and Jonathan have since given the borders a serious face-lift, which you can see in the screenshot above. I'm sure Kay will continue making tweaks right up until we ship, but it'd be a bit of an understatement to say the new look is an improvement. Jonathan even went the extra mile and made the border width, gradient, etc. completely XML-driven, so hey, why not keep fiddling with things as long as you can?

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Units

As expected, these little guys ate up a sizable percent of artist time over the past few months, and will continue to do so until the game is finished. We now have rough drafts done for around half of the planned units. Here's the concept art for the Surveyor, one of the game's newer (and cooler) units that I talked about back in the July 2013 update:

Additionally, a few units are almost finished. Here's a short video showing the Scout giving his new-found mobility a spin:

(The [YouTube] button at the bottom-right of the video will take you to a larger, higher-quality version)

Each frame of animation is a subsection of a much larger sprite sheet. An XML file associated with the sheet specifies the order of frames and how long each should be shown. Here's what the Scout's attack looks like:

Aaaaand here's what it looks like in the game after we sprinkle it with Jonathan's magical fairy dust of code:

Making 2D animation by hand like this is a pretty insane amount of work when you consider how many frames are needed for every unit times the number of animations times the number of facing directions - but the payoff is equally huge.

Gameplay is always the #1 priority with a strategy game, but there's also real value in offering players a more immersive experience. 99% of gamers aren't willing to play a game that features ASCII art, regardless of how good the mechanics are. Everything beyond that minimum bar is just a matter of degrees.

Immersion is particularly important for AtG, as our 'main character' is the world itself. There's a lot going on in the game to be sure, but the procedural, cyclically evolving maps are the framework upon which everything else rests. The mechanics already create the illusion of a living world - the art should reinforce that.

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On-Map Interface

We have a lengthy polish process still in front of us but even at this early stage we're always looking to improve usability and flow. One recent example is the addition of icons signifying a unit's current command to its ownership flag. This makes it possible to see what someone is up to without needing to even mouse over it:

The plan is also to display the number of turns remaining before said mission is completed nearby, and I'm sure the team and test group will come up with other enhancements as well.

Some developers might wait until the end of a project to bother with this sort of work, but that's just not how I'm wired. I obsess over user interface and experience and if I feel like a new UI feature will make the game easier to play or learn I'll usually set aside what I'm doing and plug it in right then and there. There are times when I have to slap and remind myself that feature X is a higher priority, but hey - if something needs to get in anyways you might as well knock it out while you're thinking about it, right? A stitch in time and all that.

Okay, quick tangent time. I know I've talked about this before, but I just can't help myself.

This kind of freedom is the reason to be a tiny self-or-crowdfunded indie. Keeping even a 'small' team of ten on track requires a non-trivial amount of planning and management, and this kind of overhead grows exponentially with head count. It doesn't take much before a dedicated producer becomes more than just a luxury.

By contrast, AtG's core team recently grew to two full-timers. The obvious downside of such a skeletal team is that developing a big, complex game like AtG demands a long and patient dev cycle. And sure, I still have to answer emails, file taxes, etc. But I'd estimate at least 80% of my time is spent designing or programming. This ain't the right model if you're aiming to make a first-person shooter, but I don't anticipate one of those creeping onto the schedule any time soon!

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Anyways, that's about it for recent highlights on the art side. Stay tuned for my upcoming opus of an update which will retrace the twists and turns taken by the diplomacy system over the past few months. I'll also be sharing some more details about the start of beta testing, which I expect to get rolling in late March.

Your support is sincerely appreciated, and should you have any questions feel free to leave a comment or fire me a message! The road ahead remains a long one, but I have no doubt this game will be amazing once we're all done.

- Jon


Update #28

December Update

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Hey all, it's been a couple months so I figured it was time again to let you know where we're at with AtG.

Alpha testing started up in October and has already paid huge dividends. We have of course found many bugs and made innumerable small improvements, but the biggest benefit has been highlighting the important, high-level questions marks we still need to address.

The biggest hole we've identified relates to structure and goals. Most of the planned big gameplay features are in, but what does it all add up to while you're playing? Sure, you can explore the map, survey and harvest resources, migrate from one place to another - but why? What the heck are we trying to do here anyways?

This is a challenge designers face with every complex empire builder, but it's particularly acute with AtG right now. One reason for this is that true diplomacy has yet to be implemented. Our intention is for the AI leaders to help steer the experience through their demands, requests and general opportunities offered.

The Romans especially have an important job in the early game, as they're basically the 'neighborhood bully' you can either line up behind or defy. Their role changes over time as a variety of nasty events like plagues and civil wars afflict them (but not you!), presenting enterprising barbarian leaders with the occasional chance to flip the balance of power.

Our offensive along this front began a few weeks ago, but there's still a long way to go. We've also made a number of other big changes, which I'll go over in detail.

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Recent Changes

Another issue relating to early game pacing involved migration. In early versions your starting location was fairly cozy and self-sustaining, which meant there was very little reason to move - and when you did it was easier to just spin off small colonies than completely pack up. We've made a number of modifications to address this.

Starting locations are no longer quite so hospitable. You start with a sufficient stockpile to keep your head above water for a couple years, but you now need to start thinking about finding a new place to live right away. This provides a clear goal from turn 1 that the game was previously lacking.

There have also been some tweaks to the economic system. Resources like Metal and Wood are still vital for building Improvements and Units, but maintenance is now paid only in Wealth. Food now serves as a cap on the number and size of Cities that can be supported, and is no longer required by Units. This smooths out some of the unnecessarily complicated wrinkles in the economic system by clarifying the role of each resource without making any of them less important.

Borders are another recent addition, and one that really changes the feel of the game. (You can see our temporary placeholder art in the two screenshots I've attached to this update) Improvements now need to be inside your borders to produce anything, but the high food cost of Settlements discourages them from being spammed everywhere. There is now an interesting tension between having enough Settlements to collect resources, but not so many that you can't feed everyone.

Borders also add some clarity to diplomacy. I wanted each kingdom's area of control to feel 'fuzzy', as this is how it was historically during this time, but gameplay has to win out over realism. You have to know how close is too close, because negotiating with computer opponents is just plain frustrating it's not clear what they want.

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Roadmap

So what's next?

No surprise, our #1 priority in the coming months is diplomacy. Not only is it important in defining the feel and pacing of the game, but getting it right will also take a significant amount of playtesting and iteration. Hand-in-hand are the still-WIP Romanization Perks, which are earned by working with or fighting against the Romans - and if there are no requests to complete for them then it's going to be awful hard to acquire Perks! Once a first pass on these two features are in we'll have a good idea as to the form the final version of the game will take.

Once interaction with other leaders is knocked out we'll be shifting focus to smaller gameplay features that have been on the list for a while: steel upgrades for Units, the valuable Salt resource (which acts like both Food and Wealth), migratory animals, etc. Finally, we'll wrap up the big stuff with important-but-peripheral features like faction abilities and victory conditions.

In the first few months of 2014 we'll open the game up to beta testing and shift over to 'tweak and polish' mode - where we'll remain for a loooong time. I've noted in both the original Kickstarter pitch and subsequent updates that the goal with AtG is not just to make a strategy game that not only breaks new ground but also one that is polished at release. This recipe calls for one key ingredient which has no substitute: time.

AtG could be released as originally planned in mid-2014 as a 'good' game. But would it be one of the best strategy games ever? Probably not. As such, I've made the decision to push back AtG's release until 2015.

I know this is disappointing news, but at the end of the day what we all want is a great game, and our team is willing to stick with AtG as long as it takes to get there. This kind of flexibility is only possible because our funding comes from your generosity, and while painful in the short term it will no doubt pay off over the long term. I think I speak for everyone in saying that what we want is an amazing game, even if it means a longer wait.

Thanks again for your support and patience. As always, don't hesitate to ask if you have any questions!

- Jon


Update #27

Alpha Testing... We Are Go!

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The first playable alpha version of At the Gates is now available! For those of you who generously contributed $80 or more, a download link for the alpha version of AtG should be on your Humble Dashboard along with a complimentary Steam key.

If you haven't used the Humble Dashboard before, just head over here to Humble's Key Resender and enter the email address you have associated with your Kickstarter (or PayPal) account. This Dashboard is where new versions of the game will also be posted, so keep the address handy.

Didn't pledge at the $80 tier, but all this talk of steamy, hot, barbaric, 'frozen-and-crossable-rivers-in-the-winter' strategic action just too much to resist? Well, no problem! You can still join in on the fun by pre-ordering the At the Gates Early Access Bundle.

If you choose to do so but you also made a contribution in the past we're happy to refund your original pledge via PayPal. Just fire us a quick email at Contact@ConiferGames.com and we'll process your refund within a day or two. Those of you who contributed at the beta-testing tier ($50) will be granted access in Q1 2014.

Okay! So before we all get too excited about the idea of playing AtG I'll offer a reminder that THE goal of our test group is to help identify what's fun (or more likely, what isn't). It's not to simply experience said fun. Good games end up good only through hard work. Or, well, luck, but I'm not betting on that, nor should anyone. In any case, AtG is still very rough and it will take time for the game's true form to take shape. And that's completely forgetting the annoying bugs you'll run into along the way (I'm not kidding here - imagine your best gaming experience ever ruined with no way of continuing it. Not fun.).

As you might imagine, personally, I prefer waiting until a game is completely finished before playing it, but I know others feel differently. Conifer would be the proverbial 'barbarian tribe in the winter sans food' without the absolutely invaluable feedback provided by our testers, and we're indebted to them for their efforts. Make no mistake though, this sort of work isn't everyone's cup of tea. If you're hoping to, you know, have fun playing At the Gates... well, the alpha testing group probably isn't for you.

Those of you brave souls who are in fact a part of this distinguished cadre, I encourage you to use the Steam version (included on your Humble Dashboard page). Steam comes bundled with several handy features that make the lives of the dev team easier and should, ideally, result in a better game. In particular, Steam automatically updates to new versions (ensuring everyone is on the same page, saving us time when hunting down problems), provides Conifer with extra debugging tools when the game inevitably runs into problems, and gives us information about what computer hardware our community is using. Of course, if you prefer the direct, DRM-free download that is also (and always will be) an option.

For now, only the Windows version of AtG is available for testing, but the plan is to add support for both Linux and Mac within the next month or two. For a while now our architect Jonathan and I have been completely focused on getting the game testable period, so we now have to spend some time catching the other platforms back up. Fortunately though, all versions should remain in sync and functional once we do reach that point. And my most sincere thanks to those waiting on the iPad version, as the wait there is going to be a while - not until the PC version is done and ready to roll.

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CURRENT FEATURES

Alright then! Without further ado, here's a quick rundown of the major features available in the alpha version of AtG:

In Right Now:

  • Full economic system
  • Full combat system
  • Seasonal map changes
  • Random world generation
  • Supply system
  • Resources and Goody Huts
  • Basic AI logic

Still Planned:

  • Unit animations (except for the Scout, which is already in)
  • The majority of non-terrain art
  • Diplomacy (aside from declaring war)
  • Romanization Perks (a system similar to scientific research in other 4X games)
  • Victory conditions
  • Faction differentiation
  • Modding
  • Smart AI logic

Additionally, many of the on-map items are still represented with (purposefully gaudy) placeholder graphics, and we have several gameplay items on our to-do list for improvement as well (e.g. terrain seasonal effects, combat resolution).

In other words, pardon our dust and please watch your step as you enter the construction zone!

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PROJECT ROADMAP

I know that many of you aren't part of the alpha testing group and this announcement is little more than a cruel tease. As recompense I'll provide an update for our upcoming development road map, which should hopefully whet your appetite, at least to a small extent!

Over the next month we'll be incorporating feedback from the playtest group and making any big changes to the gameplay the team deems necessary. We might have to completely revamp the economic system, or there might only be minor tweaks. There's honestly no way to say for sure, and all I can say right now is "Welcome to iterative design!"

From there, the focus shifts over to diplomacy and player-AI interaction. You can declare war now but not much else. Fulfilling requests offered by other AI leaders and dealing with the Romans are both meant to be major features that anchor the mid and late-game. As such, we need to establish a feel for what we actually have there within short order, then figure out whether if we're actually going down the right path.

After that we'll shift back over to the AI. It's already capable of the basics, such as managing resources, surveying and harvesting new deposits, taking out nearby hostile camps, etc. but more advanced actions are beyond its capabilities. My aim is for AtG to have the best AI of any 4X game ever made, so we certainly still have a long way to go in achieving that goal!

Heading into the new year we'll shift over into 'beta testing' mode where we'll start bouncing around quite a bit and fighting fires as they appear. Again, your guess as to what that involves is as good as mine. The only thing I'm sure of is that a significant percentage of my time from here on out will be dedicated to AI development.

I'm really happy with our progress, but AtG is very much still an alpha, and as such needs a ton of work. We have a long road until release though, so there's plenty of time to polish things up. Thanks again for your support and interest, and I can't wait to find out where we'll all end up!

- Jon


Update #26

The Strategy of Playtesting

8 comments

Hey all, just a short update on recent goings-on, plus a special a peek behind the curtain regarding how developers decide when to pull back said curtain. I know many of you are very eager to get your hands on the game, and we'll be kicking the alpha off in a few weeks. So what have we been up to, and why the wait?

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AI Status Report

I'm in the process of finishing up the first batch of key AI functionality. The basic framework for all AI systems (except for diplomacy) is now in. The AI knows how to explore, account for supply, train new units, defend itself, and survey/improve resource deposits. The last two items on my list are teaching the AI how to take out nearby hostile camps, and migrating once an area's resources start running out. At that point they'll be at least semi-competent at the early game, and - officially - able to play the game.

On a related front, Jonathan is almost done untangling the complex web of pain that is pathfinding, a feature needed by the AI and for the issuing of multi-turn move orders. Among many other benefits, I'm particularly excited about the ability to see which tiles you're able to move to during the turn. Blind trial and error is not most people's preferred method of learning!

Once these tasks are wrapped up we'll be doing a week of internal playtesting and tweaking to ensure the game can be played for at least a few minutes before devolving into a charred mass of fail.

Okay, sure, the game isn't done yet - this is neither news nor a concern if you're a member of our dedicated initial test group. After all, if the game were ready then it wouldn't be an alpha test! So what's the rationale behind holding off for another few weeks?

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Deciding When to Start Playtesting

First impressions are incredibly valuable. In fact, probably the most important feedback a developer can get. They offer a nearly-unbiased metric for what's actually working and what needs the most attention. It's tempting to shrug off early complaints and say "that's no big deal, we'll fix it later." But sometimes "later" never comes. And even if it does, that seemingly minor problem might have been masking one far more insidious. And now that you only have a month left it's far too late to do anything about it. Woops!

Veteran playtesters are crucial in a variety of other ways, but after playing for a while you become blind to certain high-level flaws that newbies spot easily. Your stock of these bullets is limited, and it's unwise to start firing them at an early experience you know to be completely unrepresentative of your final vision. This is true with any game, but let's take a look at a couple tangible examples from AtG.

The supply feature has yet to be tested rigorously and it's pretty much guaranteed the amount provided by each terrain, consumed by each Unit, the effect radius of Supply Camps and so on are all completely out of whack. If we started testing right now most players would find the system completely brutal and (gulp) unfun. But is this because our design vision for supply is completely broken? Or is it simply the result of a few numbers slightly askew? This determination is hard under ideal circumstances, and at this early stage you honestly have no clue until you're sure reality matches up at least roughly with the idealized design that lives in your head.

Exploration might be an even more poignant illustration of this. Uncovering a shrouded map is fun because you're constantly discovering something new - but after you've seen it all that excitement diminishes somewhat. We've invested heavily in making this aspect of AtG very strong, but does it really work? Until the AI is playing the same game as the human there's no way you can accurately gauge this. If you're able to grab all of the goodies you'll develop a highly skewed opinion of the reward pacing. And unlike supply, once you've seen the surprises there's no going back. Sure, exploration is still fun the hundredth time you play, but in a very different way. That's not the kind of blind spot you want to just shrug off.

Playtesting too early isn't even the biggest risk, as it's much easier - and far more dangerous - to pursue the opposite extreme. Everyone is sensitive to criticism and there's always a voice in the back of your head encouraging you to spend too much time polishing your work before opening it up to the world. The problem is that the more you invest the more you waste when you change gears. And trust me, change gears you will. A lot. In the best-case scenario you've wasted a lot of time, and in the worst your game is far worse than it could - and should - have been.

Developers have a tough balancing act in deciding when to reveal their game to the outside world. There's no formula that works in all situations, but there's no doubt in my mind that it's better to err on the side of early.

And lean that direction we shall. Just... not quite yet! Thanks again for your patience and support!

- Jon


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