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Lead a barbarian kingdom to glory during the final days of the Roman Empire. An empire builder by Jon Shafer, designer of Civ 5.
Lead a barbarian kingdom to glory during the final days of the Roman Empire. An empire builder by Jon Shafer, designer of Civ 5.
3,009 backers pledged $106,283 to help bring this project to life.

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March Update + New Let's Play Video

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Hey all, I'll try make this post short and sweet (by my standards, anyways!), as I just posted another massive "let's play" video which does a better job of showing off what we've been up to than I can with words alone:

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Weighing in at a whopping 3 hours this video is by far the longest yet, but don't let that scare you off! I've broken it up into six 30-minute parts that should be much easier to work through in multiple viewings. Much of Part 1 covers the recent changes I'll be talking about below, so if that's all you're interested in feel free to pass on the other five parts. If you prefer text to video though, well, read on!

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Diplomacy

Coming up with a good diplomatic system is an absolute beast of a task, but the first couple items on my agenda were actually pretty simple.

I started by modifying the map generation logic so that players are placed in groups instead of 100% randomly. If you want interesting diplomacy it's vital to actually, you know, have someone to talk to. In earlier versions of the game you'd often find yourself completely alone, and may not meet a single soul until you were several years in. Games like that can be fun on occasion, but they were so common that it would have been impossible for a diplomatic system of any kind to shine, regardless of its merits.

The second, sexier addition to diplomacy was allowing players to disguise their warriors as bandits. An issue I've noticed in 4X games is players (and I include myself in this) tend to be reticent to declare war. A public, official pledge of animosity isn't a concept we 21st century humans can really relate to. Instead, we tend to be a bit more subtle and guarded when dealing with our "enemies", and this change is meant to take advantage of that fact. Being able to disguise your clans allows you to wage a proxy war of sorts while still keeping everything on the up-and-up officially. It'll take some time to get this new mechanic right on the balance and AI sides but it's a really exciting new tool in the diplomatic toolbox that I'm hoping will help make AtG unique.

Beyond those first two bullet points the plan was to continue approaching the diplomatic system the same way as I had with other gameplay systems... but it quickly became clear this wasn't going to work. When you're adding something like foraging it's easy to come up with a few bullet points outlining how it differs from the pre-existing mechanics for how structures harvest resources, code up something quick and try it out later that day. But diplomacy? There's no other existing system you can even compare it to. How do you break something down that is defined more by the web of events and consequences built up over the course of an entire game than individual decision points?

After banging my head against the wall for a few weeks I stepped away for a couple, then came back with a new plan: iterative playtesting. Basically, I would play the game a ton, identify the biggest problems/omissions/opportunities that stood out along the way, then tackle just those specific items. Now, that's obviously the kind of thing a designer should be doing with every system, but it's especially important with (and may in fact be the only way to pull off) a feature characterized by intangible complexity like diplomacy. It's an arduous process (especially for someone who plays their turns as slow as me!), but I'm now certain it's the right one.

In terms of nuts and bolts, this approach has resulted in the addition of AI Leaders paying attention to your promises to stay way from their territory and calling you out if you renege. There are a number of other smaller changes as well, but nothing worth going on about at length (this is supposed to be concise, after all!). If diplomacy is an aspect of the game that really interests you though I'd strongly recommend watching the playtest video, as it does a good job demonstrating what we're going for.

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Gameplay Changes

Most of the past couple months has been dedicated to playtesting and diplomacy, but I did find some time to squeeze in a couple other gameplay changes.

One involves how resource deposits are identified. The core issue was that only a lone profession was capable of performing this essential activity: the Surveyor. If you wanted to figure out what that rock next to your settlement was so that you could then actually use it the Surveyor was your one and only option, and as such, training one and sending him out to work often felt more like a chore than a fun strategic trade-off. So how do we fix that?

Some test group members had been lobbying to cut the profession entirely, but I'd always liked the niche it had in the game. The solution I settled on was to keep it around but make its ability a bit less... unique. All foragers and builders are now capable of identifying deposits, but the Surveyor is much faster at it and can now also move through rough terrain 'for free' like a Scout. The impact of this was clear in the very first game I played after making the change, as I was surrounded by a half-dozen minerals and excitedly targeted the Surveyor as my #1 priority. I've often talked in the past about how limiting a player can make a game better, but in this case the opposite was true!

One important addition on the gameplay side was a basic scoring system. You now earn points for each clan you control, structure you build or capture, bandit camp you burn, etc. From a mechanical perspective this doesn't change things much, but it does provide a metric for comparing games along with a way to provide players with indirect feedback.

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Polish

I could go on for a while about this one, but I'll use actual bullet points to ensure I keep that promise I made about being concise!

  • In-Game Patch Notes
    It's now possible to see a list of what's changed with the game from inside the game. What makes this especially cool is that it dynamically builds the list and shows what's most likely important to you. If you've played the previous version it'll show the complete list bugfixes and all, but if you haven't played in six months it'll only show major gameplay changes.

  • Group Games (AKA 'Daily Challenges')
    This concept is somewhat inspired by Spelunky, a roguelike platformer I've played way, way too much of. Basically, it allows everyone in the world to play on the same map, which is swapped out every day/week/whatever. It's fun because it allows you to compare how you've done with your friends, and also a handy debug tool - when a Test Group member provides feedback or a bug report we now have a frame of reference.

  • World IDs
    And this was something I borrowed from The Binding of Issac. Games with random maps build them using 'random number seeds', which are numeric values (usually) between 0 and ~2 billion. The basic idea is that if you start from the same seed you'll get the same map. In most games this value is remains in number form and forever hidden, but some (including the aforementioned TBoI) instead use six alphabetic characters, mapping them in code to numeric values. Ever wondered what "JON-ROX" looks like in the form of a map? Well, wonder no longer!

  • New UI Layout
    We haven't yet started on the big, 'real' revamp of the UI, but I've been playing around with the placement of controls in preparation for it, and I'm pretty happy with where the 'world screen' is at now. No doubt things will change though, so don't get too attached to anything!

  • Research Queue
    You can now right-click on 'techs' to add them to the queue. Nothing too sexy, but it does make the game easier to play. It's also especially helpful when resuming a game that you started on a previous day - queuing a few things up before you call it a night can serve as a perfect reminder as to what the hell you were actually thinking before!

  • Sticky Notes
    And last but certainly not least is the feature I might be the most giddy about. You can now attach 'sticky notes' to the bottom of a clan's 'card'. These can be simple reminders, titles you've bestowed upon them, etc. There's a ton of potential here to help out both strategists and roleplayers, so I'm hoping it's something folks will get a lot of use out of.

I show off all of these changes and more in the video, so make sure to check that out if you want to dig deeper. Anyways, I think that's about it for right now. In the coming months we'll continue working on diplomacy, the AI, and shining things up real nice. 'Til next time!

- Jon

@JonShaferDesign | AtTheGatesGame.com | Follow Conifer on Twitter, Facebook, Google+

Economics, in Ink

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A few of AtG's new professions.
A few of AtG's new professions.

Hello again from the Conifer team!

We've been hunkered down working hard on At The Gates these past winter months, and I figured it was finally a good time to come back up for air.

If you'd like to stay completely up-to-date with all things AtG we're still posting updates every few days on the Twitters, but I know there's at least a couple of you out there who enjoy my 20-page treatises. And should you enjoy updates in the form of colors and shapes moving around we've also just posted a new 'Let's Play' video (2 hours long!) covering much of the same ground I'll be talking about below.

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Alright, now that we've got those filthy illiterates distracted let's get to my favorite part: the words!

I always like to take people through the same process I've gone through while developing my games, and this post will be no different. If all you care about is what it all adds up to though skip ahead to [So What's New?] below.

My initial plan had been to shift over to diplomacy after posting the last video, but I decided to make a quick detour instead. We'd been playtesting the game quite a bit and were happy with how things were shaping up, but did feel that once you reached the midgame the game seemed to... run out of steam. Fleshing out the interaction with other leaders would certainly help, but we knew that by itself wouldn't be enough.

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Pacing Problems

Trying to provide enough food to feed your clans is a fun challenge, but the game's population curve is logarithmic. There's no way around this, as becoming intimately familiar with and invested in 200 individual clans is... not really possible. But this also meant the threat of starvation evaporated almost completely as your economy improved. Once you'd reached the point where you could finally feed 20 clans tacking another 5 on top of that wasn't all that tough.

The old food consumption curve.
The old food consumption curve.

Another, similar issue was the relative value of the game's professions and resources. Producing a ton of Cloth is nice but once you have enough to train a Lorekeeper the only thing Cloth was really good for was being sold at a Caravan. While not ideal, that need not be objectively problematic as long as there are things you actually want to exchange it for, but alas, that wasn't really the case. Sure, more food is always welcome and you might need to compensate for a Timber or Weapons shortage every so often, but for the most part the utility of Wealth mirrored that of the overall challenge posed by the game.

Similarly, advanced professions were certainly nice, but rarely something you desperately needed - or even wanted. A profession like the Scribe is really expensive both in terms of research time and resources, but wasn't that much better than the Lorekeeper.

More importantly, learning new professions really wasn't that important once you had enough food. If there's nothing really pushing me any more what's the incentive to increase my Cloth production when I already have far more than I'd ever need, and have already sold much of that for far more Wealth than I'll ever need?

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Fixing the Flaws

If you're cringing in expectation of me saying something like, "That was the moment I knew we needed big changes" ... you may safely un-cringe! The issues we encountered in the past were the result of the game lacking a solid mechanical 'skeleton' upon which we could add or change details. But this time around all of the bones were sitting right there in front of us and we simply needed to pull the femur out of our eye socket. Or something like that.

So our problem was a lack of pressure - in a game about migrating tribes facing the harshness of winter and hostile foes what economic force is most likely to motivate people? For some, simply being unable to do anything because you've run out of iron is enough to get them to act, but others are content to sit around as long as a game will let them. But starvation? Now that's something everyone wants to avoid at any cost!

I noted earlier that relative food costs would actually decrease as a game progressed. Well, the fix for that is obvious: flip it around. Ever-increasing costs are a tenet of nearly every game with an economy of any kind, and the trick would be coming up with something that not only made sense but also felt rewarding.

Changing the rate new clans joined you from logarithmic to exponential was never an option, so the only way for food costs to increase while clan accrual simultaneously decreases is to make the clans you already have eat more.

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So What's New?

Families

When a clan first shows up it has a single family eating a single unit of food, but each year these numbers both go up by one. This results in a food consumption curve that looks something like this:

The new food consumption curve.
The new food consumption curve.

Now that's how you add some pressure! Better still, this small change transforms population growth into something you always strive for, which, in turn, greatly increases the value and sexiness of anything provides it. New clans are now a much cheaper source of labor than the larger clans which have been with you for a while. Those elder statesmen are still important though, as the experience they've built up over the years means they can learn advanced professions much faster than the newcomers.

Okay, so players will need a whole lot more food now. How the hell are they going to produce 80 food per turn on turn 100 when before they only needed 20? New toys which also get exponentially better over time!

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Professions

If a Meat Cutter produces 10 food and a Butcher produces 100 you'll have a strong incentive to get a few of the latter online ASAP. Similarly, if learning how to train Butchers is 10x harder than Meat Cutters you now also have a strong incentive to upgrade your Lorekeepers to Scribes and Scholars before you, you know, starve to death!

Another change with professions was simply adding more of them that either produce food or are indirectly essential to doing so. Training a Hunter now allows you to harvest food from herds of Deer. A Hewer turns raw Timber into Boards, allowing you to build Farms which produce ~4x more food than a basic Farm.

The other paradigm shift with professions was interweaving them to a much greater extent. In the past you could significantly boost your food simply by beelining for the Tiller. Their research cost wasn't that high, Tillers were great all on their own, and aside from time they didn't cost a thing to train. Who needs Boards or Hewers or Butchers when a couple Tillers allow you to ignore every other profession and resource in the game?

Instead of Wine Vintners being superior to Winemakers in every way they might instead boost the output of the Winemakers you already have. If you want more Cloth you can buff your Weavers by training a Loomer or an Instructor. Rather than completely filling important niches with single powerful clans you'll now have a strong incentive (and often, a need) to invest in several.

But the interweaving of professions is more than just a speed bump. Not every profession is viable in every game, and resource scarcity is why.

A few of AtG's new resources.
A few of AtG's new resources.

Resources

Many months ago I cut the 'Tools' resource because I felt it added more more busywork and clutter than strategy. Well, it's back - along with several new friends.

The Tiller is now a late-game profession that requires 1 Steel Tool. Every turn. Training even one essentially means establishing an economic chain that includes Farmers, Steel Toolsmiths, Steelmakers, sources of Coal, sources of Iron, and either Smelters or Hewers to boost your production of those base ingredients to a quantity sufficient to keep your Steelmakers busy.

In some games building your strategy around Tillers will be the obvious way to go. In others doing so will be a challenge, but still possible. In a few it'll actually be straight-up impossible and you'll need to come up with a completely different approach to feeding your tribe. If you don't have any Coal then, well, that's that. You'll have other resources you can utilize to get ahead, but Tillers will likely be out of reach.

There are also new roles for most of the existing resources. Your tribe can support only a certain number of clans, and the only way to increase this is with Cloth. Parchment is still required by most Knowledge-producing professions, but now you can instead spend it switching a clan's discipline, making it easier to train in related professions.

Which brings me to an interesting new way to acquire resources...

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Foraging

Okay, okay... I lied, and there is actually one new feature!

Foraging originally came into being as I was brainstorming ways to spice up the professions, and allows you to harvest resources without a structure. These were originally 'settled' professions where the clan would remain in your settlement, but I decided to try making them 'active' ones that could run around the map.

This added a completely new style of play - and one I really liked. I even tried bestowing upon these new foraging professions the ability to collect resources outside of your borders, giving them a clear unique advantage over professions which build structures out of wood. Not a tree in sight and the resources that are nearby just a bit too spread out to claim all at once? No problem! A Gatherer or Digger is just what the situation calls for.

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Other Stuff

We've also been busy with a multitude of other things, a few of which I'll cover briefly.

Caravans can now have 'specials', where the price or availability of different resources are radically different from usual. This breathes some life into the caravan, as you can no longer know exactly what it's going to have. I played a game yesterday where I desperately needed 10 cloth in order to train a Beekeeper, and the first two caravans of the year had exactly zero. The game and I... had a few words, shall we say.

Armor is on sale! Probably still out of our price range though...
Armor is on sale! Probably still out of our price range though...

I decided to cut the 'Council' feature, as there are now so many things to do with your clans that it felt like an unwanted guest I had no interest in entertaining. Part of being a good designer is recognizing when something is adding more mental overhead than fun - and then doing what you know must be done.

Outside of gameplay mechanics, there are now icons. Everywhere. I'm a big fan of pairing icons and text to help build associations when players are first learning a game, and I finally bit the bullet and went through each of the ~4,000 text entries one by one to replace key terms with hooks into the new icons system. Needless to say, I'm glad to be done with that.

Something else I'm perhaps more giddy about than I should be is the new in-game notes system, which allows you to write reminders to yourself for later. AtG tends to be a difficult, demanding game where planning ahead is really helpful, and having an easy way to keep track of said plans is, IMO, pretty awesome.

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I think that's about it for the really noteworthy stuff. So, yeah, we've made a ton of tweaks but no radical redesigns, and at this point I think we've just about nailed the game's economy.

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So What's Next?

These are our four priorities entering the final phase of development:

  • Personality
  • Diplomacy
  • AI
  • Polish

AtG is now very sound mechanically thanks to the work we've done over the past few months, and in that arena I'd be confident pitting it against any game out there. But it's also still very raw and dry: When clans want something they express this with a prioritized list - in a tooltip. Our goal is to have 80+ unique clan traits, but we currently only have a quarter of that. The AI leaders generally keep to themselves... which is probably for the best, given how incompetent they are. The game may now appear to lean more in the direction of an economic sim than a clan-focused 4X game, but fleshing out the personalities of the clans will bring this back into equilibrium.

We can easily overcome all of these challenges as long as we spend the time it will take to do so. And now that the economy is finally "in ink" that's exactly what we'll be doing. I honestly couldn't tell you how long it will take. A theme you might have spotted lurking behind all four of those bullet points above is "feel". And there's no way to translate something like that into a production schedule worth the soon-obsolete pixels it's displayed on. My first stab at a clan dialogue system might be right on the money, or it might take ten tries. Most likely it will land somewhere in-between.

Game development is kind of like a poker game, where there are ups and downs and even the best players in the world never know how a hand will end. But just as in cards, one way you can stack the deck in your favor is by being patient, trusting in your knowledge of the odds, and playing the long game.

One way they differ though is that in cards how you play is completely up to the individual, while in game development your fate is in the hands of your investors. Our one and only investor with AtG is you, our backers, and soon that investment will pay off. As always, you have my sincere thanks for being so patient and supportive!

- Jon

Daily Progress Updates

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Because it's usually a month or two between major updates (and when they do finally appear they tend to be... a little long) I've started providing daily progress updates via the official Conifer Games Twitter. In case Twitter isn't your cup of tea I've added the feed to the AtG website and also post everything to our Facebook and Google+ pages.

The daily updates offer a new way to stay plugged into all things AtG, but we'll still be posting beefier updates for those who prefer reading consolidated, high-level summaries. Speaking of which, one should be up in a couple weeks covering what we've been up to since posting the 'Let's Play' video. 'Til then!

- Jon

First Developer "Let's Play" Video

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Hey all, I'll keep the post short because you'll hear me talking plenty more in the video! I've embedded it below, but make sure to watch in HD so that the art and text aren't garbled by whatever Kickstarter/YouTube defaults to.

- Jon

Progress, Pacing & People

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We meet again, respected ally of the 'At The Gates' tribe!

A couple months ago I hinted at the possibility of some big changes. Well, the big news today in AtG-land is that said "possibility" has turned into reality! That means some exciting new features to talk about - but before getting into the nitty-gritty I think it's best to explain why we even have "big changes" to talk about.

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Iterative Design - Not Just a Buzzword!

I'm sure some of you are thinking "What do you mean 'big changes'? Wasn't the game supposed to be done by now? Has AtG succumbed to feature creep? Has Conifer run out of money? Do you guys have any idea what you're doing?"

Given the state of Kickstarter these days I begrudge no one for having perfectly-justified concerns of this sort (hell, I'm in the same boat with quite a few still-unreleased projects I've been looking forward to!). Thankfully, I can state with zero reservations whatsoever that AtG is in great shape. There are no gaping holes in the gameplay that may or may not ever get filled, nor dark clouds portending a studio closure looming over the horizon. The game is fun, all features are at least roughed in and we still have plenty of money (mmm, ramen...).

Make no mistake, we're going to overshoot the projected release date I came up with back in late 2012 by a pretty healthy margin, but I've never by shy about the fact that our one and only priority is delivering a great game - regardless of how long that takes. I know I sound like a broken record here, but that truly is Conifer's "mission statement". No one remembers when a game is late, but no one forgets when a game is bad!

Okay, okay, let's all assume that AtG is in fact as amazing as I say - why are we making "big changes"? And how do we know the game actually is in good shape? The answer to both of these questions is simple: external feedback.

As one might expect from such a mature and supportive community, a number of amazing playtesters have stepped forward as huge contributors to AtG's development. Not only have these individuals provided great insight and suggestions, but they've also provided honest assessments about the state of the game. I really do appreciate constructive criticism, and the AtG Test Group has certainly delivered on that front.

A few months ago and back before the "big changes" much of the feedback we were getting could be summed up as: "The game is good... but it feels like something is missing." After journeying to a mountaintop and meditating in raging blizzards for a couple weeks I returned to my desk having come to the conclusion that they were right.

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Empty Carbs

AtG was kind of like eating a candy bar when you're so hungry your stomach is growling. The first bite is great, but a half hour later you're still not really satisfied (sorry Snickers commercial, we're going to have to agree to disagree). Exploring the map, dealing with the ever-changing seasons and migrating was fun, sure, but what was it all for?

If a game is to lure you back to play again and again you need to be able to achieve something, to earn trophies you can point to and say "Look what I did!" AtG 'v1' was a game with several cool mechanics which tested how well you could keep your head above water, but little else.

There's nothing wrong with that if your goal is to create a simple $15 indie game, but we're aiming much higher with AtG. It was clear that for the game to really, truly be one of the best strategy games ever it needed something... more. We're not just a few peripheral features bolted onto the existing chassis, but a full rebuild. A whole new center of gravity. Small tweaks here and there can work when your pacing or balance is off, but when your entire game feels hollow you have no choice but to go back to the drawing board and rethink your core vision.

What made this particularly challenging (and necessary) was that instilling a meaningful sense of progress in a game about tribes which never stay in one place for long... ain't exactly easy. The main reason why information about Germanic tribes of this era is so scarce is that they didn't leave archaeologists much with which to reconstruct their societies. In a traditional 4X game all of your achievements are laid across the map. Cities, wonders, buildings, roads - they're all placed one-by-one by your own hand. That was not an option in AtG.

And so we had our million-dollar question: what do we replace all of that with?

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Power to the People

The answer we came up with? People. Instead of developing cities and structures you would be developing your followers.

While this approach seems kind of obvious in hindsight it was tough to see at the time, in large part because we're entering territory very few strategy games have ever set foot in. Two notable exceptions are Crusader Kings 2 and King of Dragon Pass, which, of course, both happen to be among the genre's most revered titles. With such illustrious company I was feeling pretty good about what this new direction might do for AtG, but how would it work in terms of actual gameplay mechanics?

Step 1 was fundamentally reconstructing the game's core vision and 'holistically' integrating this new concept into the new one. AtG's original themes of migration, dealing with a hostile environment and overcoming hardship would still have key roles to play, but joining them would be something completely new: "Clans", each with a unique name, personality, talents and desires.

Gone was the dry mechanic where a settlement's population stat would tick up turn after turn, destined to be fodder for the future's generic, interchangeable playing pieces. No, Clans would be actual characters living in a place safe from the whims of the player's godlike mouse cursor. A gentle Clan with an agrarian leaning is unlikely to be too pleased if trained as front-line warriors. But hey, if the Huns are coming you can still force them into service. Just make no mistake, there will be consequences.

With this new people-centric focus I decided to lower the number of settlements you control from a max of ~5 down to one. Yep, one. That's it. Ever. Your area of influence can still be expanded by other means, but AtG's economic engine has now been consolidated down to a single centralized system (SSI's Imperialism is a good example of how this can work).

To be fair, owning multiple settlements had always felt a bit odd in a game like this, where there's never been any way to improve or customize them. I briefly considered changing this but shelved the idea in short order, as it was clear that upgrade-able structures are fundamentally opposed to AtG's theme. The big design shift Clans represented gave me the excuse I needed to finally cut the cord.

Reducing the number of settlements doesn't mean the game is any simpler though - in fact, I'd say the opposite is true. Clans arrive in your lone settlement and can then either be trained in "settled" Professions or sent off to harvest resources, explore, fight, etc. Directing their careers and guiding their stories provides a massive amount of new gameplay that simply didn't exist before.

Alright, Clans might seem like an interesting idea, but how would they actually provide a sense of progress to a game sorely in need of it?

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Professions & Pacing

AtG's Clans can have desires, become unhappy, get into feuds and more, but for now we'll focus on mechanics. Clan development is represented in two primary ways: the Professions they're trained in, and how good each is at doing their job.

Professions are the replacement for the distinct, unchangeable 'Unit Types' common in other 4X titles. In those you might build a Scout in one of your cities, but in AtG you train Clan Adelhard as Scouts - and should the situation change you can always send them home to be retrained as something else. While it's possible for a Clan to completely switch gears, doing so means sacrificing the experience gained in the old discipline and starting over from scratch. In the early game this is no big deal, but in the final few years you'll have some tough decisions to make.

For Professions to offer a truly meaningful avenue of development we needed to have either a lot of them or a way to enhance them. After all, if you only ever retrain a Clan once or twice it really won't feel like you've made much progress! In the end I opted for the 'breadth' approach of having a large roster of Professions, as switching between them already strings and I didn't want players to also lose whatever Profession-specific upgrades they might have invested in.

The question of how players would unlock all of these Professions was a tough one though, and this occupied the team's mental energies for several weeks. For a progression system of any kind to be satisfying your pacing must be nearly perfect; hand goodies out too quickly and you dilute the entire system, hand them out too slowly and your game turns into a frustrating grind devoid of interesting decisions.

One of the simplest ways to model progress in a game is a basic 'prerequisite tree'. If this were utilized in AtG this would mean to train a Clan as Weaponsmiths they'd already need to be Blacksmiths, which in turn could only be trained from Laborers, and so on.

The problem with this approach is that when you want Weaponsmiths to make weapons for you what you want is, you know, Weaponsmiths making weapons. This might sound like an obvious and meaningless statement, but it's often the most stupid simple concepts you lose sight of when wading through the waist-deep swamp that is game design. What purpose do prereqs serve? To slow players down, or at the very least gate them in some way. Follow this to its logical conclusion and you realize that Professions like the Blacksmith are little more than 'speed bumps' designed to slow how quickly you can get between what you have and what you actually want.

Worse, the deeper you make your tree the more players run into this. Over the course of an entire game players could be forced to hurdle speed bump Professions dozens or even hundreds of times. Instead of players getting excited about training a Clan in a brand-new Profession as we'd hope, they simply sigh, shrug and queue up yet another Blacksmith. It doesn't take a professional to tell you that this ain't good game design!

Don't get me wrong, the venerable prereq tree certainly can and does work well in many other situations. It's simply a bad fit for systems which require players to make parallel decisions or when it's possible to backtrack (both of which are the case with AtG's Professions).

The second idea we considered was having advanced Professions require advanced resources. In the early game you won't have access to coal... without which you can't make steel... without which you can't train Armorsmiths to make armor... without which you can't train Heavy Infantry. This sounds good and makes sense in theory, but it fell apart quickly once we actually tried it out in-game.

The issue here is that you just don't know what resources are going to be nearby. Sure, we could spread them more evenly across the map, but that dilutes their importance. The whole point of having resources like coal at all is gating access to cool stuff that everyone covets but can't have. Making coal a vital link for a large number of important Professions is basically the same as funneling players into situations where there simply may not be any real decisions to make - if you have coal you train Clans in those Professions, otherwise you might as well pretend they don't even exist. Yawn.

Our next stab at solving the Professions Pacing Puzzle was requiring Clans to have a certain amount of experience before it was possible to train them in high-level Professions. We started with seven different 'skills' experience could be gained in, but this became unwieldy once you had more than a handful of followers. "Okay, Clan Raimond is level 2 in Construction. Oh yeah, didn't they also have some experience in Learning? Maybe I should save them to be a Surveyor instead. Err, wait... am I thinking of Clan Adelhard? Hmmm, I'd better go back and check for an eighth time..."

Trust me, that's not an exaggeration! Even so, the core concept was sound and work keeping in one form or another. In the end we streamlined the design a bit: Clans now have a single 'discipline' which they accumulated experience in, and (as I mentioned above) although this can be switched actually doing so means starting over from the beginning.

This was much, much more promising than our earlier attempts, but as often is the case in game design we were derailed by an unintended side-effect: it suddenly became very difficult to adapt. One of my core design tenets is that players should be encouraged and sometimes even forced to adapt to changing circumstances, so this drawback was no joke. To address it I decided to bring back an old friend I'd said goodbye to and never expected to see again...

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Growing a Backbone

4X is one of several sub-genres of what we call "sandbox" games, where the basic idea is that the flow and pacing is driven not by developers but by the players themselves. This provides an unrivaled sense of freedom, enhances the thrill of exploration and adds incredible replayability - but there is a cost.

Topping the list is that sandbox games are, to put it bluntly, really hard to make! As a developer you have to trust that your abstract, conceptual rules will hold up and keep the game on-track when mixed with the completely unpredictable behavior and tendencies of your players. A good analogy is how driving a car yourself differs from writing the unbelievably-complex AI logic for a car which can drive itself. While I'd say making games isn't quite as challenging (!), things rarely go quite as planned.

AtG had major pacing problems, and my attempts to fix them 'cleanly' by using existing systems driven by players and randomness had failed. It was time to roll up the sleeves and make sure the pacing was right.

One of our playtesters wisely noted that every 4X under the sun has a self-contained research system/Tech tree, and that this isn't coincidental. Research provides our genre with a pacing 'backbone' that, having thought a lot about it lately, I honestly think may have a good substitute. Unit and structure-based prereq trees can work well in 30-minute RTS matches, but in a 4X you're either going to burn through them in no time or run into a glut of speed bumps. So how is research special?

The fact that it's self-contained is the key. The rate you acquire Techs can be completely independent from whatever resources you might or might not have been lucky enough to find nearby, or structures that you may or may not have bee-lined for (or forgotten about!). As a designer I can very easily set a couple numbers in XML and know for certain that players will get a new Tech no fewer than every 6 turns, but also no more than every 12. I can also dramatically increase the cost of Techs playtesters have found to be particularly powerful, or lay out the tree in a different way to ensure that there's literally no way to get them before turn 150.

Another, less obvious advantage of the traditional 4X research system is that it's also 'self-propelled'. No matter what, players are always studying something, always making at least a little progress regardless of whatever else they might be doing. This is important, and not the case in a similar system where you instead purchase new upgrades with money.

Giving players that kind of full, godlike control over pacing means some will inevitably fixate on unlocks even as the rest of their empire falls into ruin (*raises hand*), while at the opposite extreme other players will neglect them completely. Neither of these is necessarily a problem when you're talking about a non-essential gameplay system, but they absolutely cripple one that provides a game's pacing backbone. Just think about what it would be like to play Civ for 500 turns and never leave the stone age!

It's important for us to remember that limits are a big reason why games are fun. There are times when being a good designer means grabbing the wheel from your players and making sure they don't inadvertently careen off the road!

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Looking Forward

Now that AtG's core gameplay is firmly in place from top to bottom my focus for the next several months will be, as promised in the last update, the AI and diplomacy. After that we're talking all polish, all the time. The first part of this lengthy phase of development will be wheeling back around and making another pass on the game's Professions, Techs, etc. What we have in right now is fun, but very, very rough, and it will take some serious iteration before all the prereqs, bonuses, costs and more are in a ship-able state.

I know this update was completely devoid of pretty pictures, but the plan is for the next one to be dedicated to AtG's new art style. Not gonna lie, it's got even me pretty excited. I won't spoil the surprise early though, as we're just about done with it.

Alright, well, I think it's about time to put a bow on this one. When I started writing this post my intention was for it to be a short one, but... well... here we are. I suppose I should know better by now and learn to love the bomb! (Maybe it's time I finally bit the bullet and found someone else to help me write these so that I can spend all that time programming instead!)

We opened with me praising our awesome Test Group, and we'll close things out with the reverse, just to raise the excitement level a notch or two. These are excerpts from the two most recent 'First Impressions' playtest reports, both written after the big redesign described above:

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"The game is very interesting. Right off the bat... the combination of knowledge/terrain/clans gets the gears in the head spinning. It feels well thought out, with a nice balance between options. There was a good 'one more turn' vibe going. Enough so that my notes from the first playsession are very sparse! You've done a great job crafting a fun game with depth."

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"Wow, it's 4am now. After my initial eight-hour play session, I'm extremely impressed by the implementation so far. The game feels like the rough-cut of a precious gem. I can already tell this is going to be one of my favorite games of all time."

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Thanks again for your support and patience, everyone. Like you, we can't wait until AtG reaches that incredible potential our playtesters have already gotten a taste of and we can officially call it "done". While that moment may still be far ahead of us it gets closer and closer every day!

- Jon