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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. Read more

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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.

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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

Alpha II and Beyond

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What's New in Alpha II?

Alright, let's talk about what this milestone means for the game itself!

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Seasons & Map Generation

This was actually a bit of a detour from the original plan, but I had long known serious work was needed here, and the map is so crucial to everything else that I decided to bite the bullet.

The old system for creating and managing the seasons was extremely primitive - and it showed. Climate zones were assigned in thick bands based on latitude, with small modifications made near mountains. Randomness was leaned on heavily in an attempt to add some fuzziness. In the end, rather than getting large cold fronts advancing from the north you were instead treated to obvious and unrealistic stripes, with the occasional snow tile peppered here and there.

Climate and terrain is closely linked, so when I decided to redo the former I felt it best to step back and add map generation to the task. What we want are believable maps that contain regions with strong character, but the old logic could do little more than produce an even mix of terrain across the entire map. I decided to basically burn everything to the ground and start over.

I spent a week researching climate, precipitation, ocean currents, temperature patterns, drainage basins and much, much more. I then came up with a design that centered around the two elements I felt most important: each tile's moisture and winter warmth. The game already calculated elevation based on proximity to the ocean, mountains and hills, but I rewrote most of this system as well to produce the results I was aiming for.

After a couple weeks the game was producing maps with lush forests, bone-dry deserts and everything in between. I'll let the results speak for themselves:

Ensuring these interesting worlds are playable and balanced will require spending more time on the placement of resources and starting locations, but we now have a solid foundation to work from.

A couple months ago I made another change to seasons, but this one was a little more abstract.

Part of what makes seasons important in the real world is that they stick around for a while. After a month or two you get used to it being winter or summer. Years had always been 12 turns from the very first day AtG was playable, but in the back of my mind a small voice was continually whispering that the seasons were rushed. Most invasions launched in the spring would be bogged down by snow before even reaching their target. After receiving similar feedback from others I doubled their length.

There are times when features are clearly imbalanced or broken, but this was a good example of the kind where there's nothing to guide you but your own gut. Brainstorming and playtesting are the only tools you have, and with several games under my belt since the change I'm confident it was the right move.

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Sages & Roman Technology

But the length of seasons wasn't the only major game feature that felt weird. The concept behind Romanization Perks was to allow players to add and swap bonuses around as the game situation changed. But "forgetting" how to build boats just didn't sit right. Plus, what the hell is a Romanization "perk" anyways? Perk? Really? That's the best term you could come up with? Every game abstracts a few things along the way, but sometimes you can go overboard and completely lose sight of the theme.

The original AtG design doc actually called for a Romanization system and a Tech Tree. I merged the two because they were quite similar in form, but in the end I decided to turn back the clock and split them back in two. But conceptually, what bonuses could make sense to switch around? The default in Civ games is your government, but knowledge of any real sophistication barbarian tribes might have exhibited here are now lost to the sands of time. And even if it wasn't, it's probably fair to say that radical changes weren't made every year or two.

But what could make sense are the individuals who served in the government. One feature from King of Dragon Pass that I'm particularly fond of is the advisers. You select men and women who offer unique traits from a pool, and can hire or fire them as you see fit. From this seed, AtG's "Leadership Council" was born.

"Sages" appear every couple years and offer their services. I wanted the choice of who to hire and dismiss to be a tough one, so there are only two "Minister" jobs available. After a minister has served for a while you can 'demote' them and they'll stick around until re-appointed, but firing them too early is an insult, and results in their permanent departure. I liked the balance this offered between keeping folks on that you like and encouraging you to cycle through and 'collect' new Sages, growing your pool over time.

I feel it's important that players not stick with the same Ministers forever, as this is the exact opposite of the strategy genre's goal of providing "interesting decisions". You should feel like you can switch at any time, and this meant purposefully omitting 'ongoing' bonuses like lower food requirements. At first this is cool, but eventually you grow accustomed to it, and what was once a bonus becomes a permanent crutch. "Man... Food is so tight already, I can't possibly justify firing him!"

Instead, I've opted for bonuses that are either very in-the-moment or stick around forever. An example of the former might be extra rewards for taking out bandit camps, the latter a permanent reduction in food cost for units trained while the minister was in office. This approach comes with problems of its own (why not just keep a sage on for one turn, train a ton of units, then fire him?), but these are much easier to solve than the ones which have plagued 4X for decades that I tackled first.

Another aspect of sages I really like is that they provide a way to nudge players strategically in the early going. In many games there's so much you could do that very little stands out as a good, clear option. However, if a sage shows up that increases your chances of finding horses you suddenly have an interesting opportunity that might be worth switching gears for.

I actually like what the sage add to the game so much that they've prompted me to consider a much bigger change to the overall economy of AtG. But we'll get into that soon...

With the introduction of sages I decided to change the name of the "Romanization Perks" to "Roman Technology". People are already very familiar with the concept of researching/learning/acquiring technologies, and the term now makes a lot more sense for bonuses that are permanent.

The Leadership Council screen isn't much to look at yet, but the gameplay is shaping up nicely.
The Leadership Council screen isn't much to look at yet, but the gameplay is shaping up nicely.

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Mac & Linux Versions

Getting AtG running on non-Windows platforms has been the project's biggest technical hurdle, and the primary dividing line between Alpha I and II. The game is built in XNA/C#, which means by default it only runs on Windows and XBox 360. Jonathan and I have spoken about switching to another tech base at some point, but this isn't really the kind of change you want to make mid-project.

Fortunately, a "wrapper" named MonoGame exists to port XNA to other platforms, including Mac and Linux. Way back during the Kickstarter campaign we were able to get AtG running on both, but it was basically just a tech demo to see if it was even possible. We put the porting effort on the back burner while focusing on getting the game playable, but we knew the day would come when we'd have to take the plunge.

There were two main challenges associated with this task.

The first was purely logistical, and involves the creation and maintenance of a "project" file containing MonoGame "links" to the thousands of C#/XNA-specific files that make up AtG. Jonathan and I were initially considering doing this by hand, but it became clear that this would ultimately add up to dozens, if not hundreds of hours. Not only would we have had to manually modify the links any time a file was added, moved or renamed, but this process would inevitably resulted in countless errors which would also require time to track down, fix and test.

We opted to instead write a small utility program to take the existing project file and automatically make any necessary changes. With a single press of a button we can prepare AtG for deployment on all three platforms. To simplify our lives further we have them all bundled up into a single deployment package, though this adds an extra ~80 MB, so we'll probably split them up before release once we're posting updates less frequently.

However, even with the utility the project file links still gave us some trouble. Windows doesn't care how you capitalize file and folder names. OSX and Linux do. I think you know where I'm going here...

But all of these tasks were just a matter of grinding through and doing it. The second, more daunting problem was finding the right combinations of settings, libraries and add-ins to get AtG to actually run at all. And this was by no means a sure bet.

MonoGame is neither professional middleware nor a free solution from a big vendor like Microsoft, but an Internet hobby project. A very good one, but a hobby project nonetheless. No one is officially in charge of it, different individuals had different versions of the code, documentation was very limited and some features were just plain abandoned.

After countless dead ends, problems with getting audio files to play and running into errors with zero useful information or leads to work from we finally stumbled around in the dark long enough to concoct a strange brew that reliably worked on both platforms (many thanks to Port Master Ethan Lee for his help!).

After having a near heart attack when the strange collection of files we'd gotten working was thought lost, we packaged everything together, made a half-dozen backups and finally established a pipeline for deploying the game on all PC platforms!

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What's Next?

Now that all of AtG's major features are at least roughed out our focus for the next half-year or so is improving the game's feel and pacing. The following three tasks are what we've identified as being most crucial to that. I'll go into more detail on each as they're checked off the list in the coming months.

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Combat & Supply

Despite being a huge chunk of the game, the current design for this is basically still a 'rough draft'. It was one of the first features implemented, but is now one the last to receive real love. It's functional, but not terribly interesting or clear.

Our goal is for combat in AtG to focus on maneuver, positioning, the terrain, and the seasons. Many games claim this as an objective, but unless you really go out of your way brute strength is usually all that matters.

To avoid this, there needs to be a legitimate way for a weaker army to defeat a stronger one without engaging it directly. With seasonal change being one of AtG's keystone features, it was obvious from day one that simulating supply made sense for both gameplay and immersion reasons.

The plan is for supply to be fairly simple, as we want winning to require good strategy and not just obsessive bean-counting. The supply available on tiles will range from 0 to 3, with most unit types requiring only 1 and more expensive cavalry units requiring 2. You can chain together fixed supply depot structures to improve the supply of tiles near them and allow for winter campaigns far from home. But if this chain is broken units will quickly lose morale and health, making them extremely vulnerable to attack.

One last ingredient for spicing up combat that I'm particularly excited about is a new unit: the skirmisher. In most games light infantry is virtually useless, as they often fall into the brute strength is always better trap. But supply offers a way for us to avoid this.

Light infantry is characterized by high mobility and survivability. AtG's zone of control system prevents units from 'sliding' past one another, and while skirmishers don't inflict much damage they also don't suffer much. Like a fly, they're far more annoying than dangerous. Constantly harassing and delaying larger armies might slow them down just enough for winter to arrive, or at the very least provide enough time to muster your own army.

Well, that's the idea anyways - we'll find out soon if it adds up to something fun!

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Economics

Every six months or so I like to step back and really put a microscope on AtG's design, and the introduction of a new group of testers is a perfect opportunity to do so again. Reviews of this sort often re-affirm what you've already believed, but there are also times when they lead to sweeping changes. AtG's economy may be the latest 'victim'.

This is a game where nothing lasts forever. Resources deplete and eventually you have to move on. Unlike other 4X games there's very little to commemorate your achievements, aside from still being alive. There's a certain charm to that, but I do think there's a void there that could be filled with something. We don't want players to feel like they're just treading water.

Inspired by the sages and tester suggestions, I'm considering shifting the design of the economy from being structure-centric to people-centric. A farmer wouldn't just build a farm and disappear, but have a name and a history. He'd have unique traits, and his skills would improve over time. If his farm floods he might get pneumonia. Over the course of a game you'd get to know him, and if he's captured or killed it'll hurt a whole lot more than if yet another generic farm was pillaged. At the end of a game your trophy wouldn't be a mighty empire of shiny buildings, but an interesting cast of characters, each with their own story.

Of course, all of this could end up going nowhere, but I want to at least fill you in on what I'm thinking, just in case radical changes are made. Either way, I'll be sure to describe the process and its conclusion in detail for you here in a few months!

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Economic & Tactical AI

Nearly all of our testers have noted that the roadblock to AtG "taking the next step" is an improved AI. AI leaders are capable of the absolute basics right now, but this is where the large majority of the remaining work on AtG remains.

The first order of business is teaching the AI how to perform more advanced economic tasks, such as building new Settlements, developing plans to address resource shortages, and migrating.

Of course, it's of little use for the AI to build up a mighty economic engine if it's just going to be captured by the human player. The AI is already capable of "missions" like taking out nearby bandit camps and the like, but it's still woefully inadequate at defending itself. Once the combat system is in better shape it will finally make sense to invest more time here.

Finally, once the AI can protect itself we'll want to give it some fangs. For the player to take the AI seriously, it at least need to be capable of plowing through a weaker foe with a big pile of units. Full awareness of supply lines, amphibious invasions, the capacity to plan ahead and compensate for winter will come, but not until the basics are taken care of.

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Diplomacy & Personality

The final ingredient necessary for AtG to make the jump from promising-prototype to actually-fun-strategy-game is instilling its leaders with character. Excellent diplomacy is one of AtG's priorities, and we have a long, long way to go on this front. Good ideas, design and code are all helpful, but by far the most important element is time.

To begin with, there's just a ton of dialogue and AI behaviors to write. If we want AI leaders to warn you to stay away from their borders, remember whether you do or not, comment on that fact and account for it in their future diplomatic planning we have to actually add each of those pieces by hand. After that you need to test it at least five or ten times to make sure it's even working the way you expect it to. It likely won't be, which demands yet more time for tweaking and evaluation.

Once the guts of the system actually work, it'll be time for me to put my writing cap on, because there's a looooot of dialogue that needs penning. There are twelve factions, each of which needs an interesting, unique voice.

On top of that, I'll probably want to write two to three times as much dialogue as absolutely necessary to minimize immersion-killing repetition. Seeing the same line just twice immediately breaks the illusion of the AI leaders being thinking, feeling characters. Ultimately, this is inevitable, but with enough time we can at least push it back to the third or fourth playthrough.

Anyone who's written professionally or just for fun knows how hard it is to come up with even one well-crafted sentence, let alone a whole book's worth!

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So that's what's on the agenda. We're now past the halfway mark, but not by much. Possible changes to the economy aside, the updates will probably start getting a little less sexy, so be prepared for the regular refrain of "Hi guys, been playtesting and tweaking, it's coming along great!" But hey, that's strategy games development for you. Thanks again for your patience and support!

- Jon