Show Posts

This section allows you to view all posts made by this member. Note that you can only see posts made in areas you currently have access to.


Topics - Jon Shafer

Pages: [1] 2 3 4
1
AtG - Developer Updates / August 2016 Update
« on: August 25, 2016, 05:50:42 PM »
Hey all,

First off, apologies for the lengthy absence - I was dealing with some health problems earlier in the year and just as I was getting back to work I broke my ribs and have been recovering from that over the past several weeks. Needless to say, it's been a tough year! As you might have guessed, this will push back the release of AtG a bit, but development on the game is still very much underway and now returning to full steam. I'm in the middle of updating the schedule and will let you all know what things look like here within the next few weeks.

Speaking of which, to better keep you guys in the loop we'll be hiring someone to handle the communications side of things so that the rest of the team (especially yours truly) can continue to focus on the nitty-gritty details involved with finishing up the game while still ensuring you guys aren't in the dark along the way. So hopefully no more lengthy periods of radio silence from here on out!

As for the game itself we're still knee-deep in AI work but one of the fun things I've started getting back into the swing of things with is unique factions and traits. For those of you in the alpha program I posted a new build last week (v22.1.6) that includes some basic functionality on this front, and a lot more will be coming soon. The goal is for a faction like the Huns to play very differently from a more basic one like the Goths (think completely nomadic, no structures, etc.). To commemorate this feature I'll give you guys a sneak peak at a couple of fun new leaders: Alboin of the Lombards, and Cerdic of the Saxons (both of whom also happen to have names whose modern versions swapped some letters around - hooray for pointless trivia!):

Alright, back to work. More soon!

- Jon

2
Hello again from the Conifer team!

At long last, we're finally back with a new edition of 'Jon rambles for too long about some esoteric game design topic (and along the way mentions AtG once or twice)'. Today's lucky recipient of this most distinguished spotlight is the game's user interface, or "UI". I know this topic might sound roughly as exciting as watching paint dry, but I really do encourage you to stick around because once you've seen things with your own eyes I think you'll understand why our bold claim of AtG's UI being "revolutionary" isn't just pre-release marketing hype.

It may also come as a relief that this update is actually a 3-for-1 deal where 'Jon waxing poetically about his eternal love for UI and the beautiful soul it hides from the big, bad world' is reinforced by two additional features.

The second member of our update trifecta is a fairly detailed bullet point outline of what's new and cool with AtG's UI, and provides the most bang for your buck if you only have a couple minutes to spare. I've attached it to the end of this article, so to check it out just scroll to the very bottom of this article and then back up until you see "UI Feature Outline" in big, bold text.

The real the star of our show though is this hands-on video preview of the UI (total of 66 minutes, split into 2 parts roughly a half hour long):









The old "seeing is believing" mantra sums up UI perfectly, and so much so that even a designer and UI fanboy like me can't do it justice simply by describing it. So even if you don't normally watch game videos I strongly encourage checking this one out. If you're in a hurry skip ahead to the 11-minute mark, as that's when we introduce AtG's secret weapon.

The rest of this article makes up the final member of our trifecta, and is a dive deep into a number of UI-related topics that include: why good UI has never been (and never will be) the kind of 'sexy' bullet point that helps sell magazines, why in spite of that developers should still care, what makes UI design so difficult, where the idea for AtG's Adaptive Tooltips came from, some of our UI design 'rules', and a look at the design process behind a few UI features we've put a lot of thought into so that players won't have to.




Discipline of Shadows


The first thing that came to mind when I started writing an update about UI was "Won't this sound boring to most people?" An encouraging start, I know! But given what we had to show off I remained confident in the idea, and the second thought I had was "Why?" It's a complicated question to be sure, but the simplest way to approach it is to put ourselves in the shoes of each of the two stakeholders: players/press, and developers/ownership.

From the player's perspective UI is something that might as well live in the ether, as it's forever out of sight and out of mind. Even truly terrible game UI is rarely identified and lambasted as such. Players who bear the brunt of it rarely play for more than a couple hours, whereas everyone who sticks around eventually grows accustomed to it, eventually reaching the point where they genuinely don't even see the flaws any more.

Ultimately, the mythical "perfect" UI from any player's perspective would be labeled such precisely because it's so intuitive that it becomes completely invisible. Our ability to learn, adapt, and tune things out is part of why we enjoy games at all and helps us in many other ways, but motivating us to pressure profit-driven companies into fixing endemic flaws in their consumer products certainly isn't one of them!

But what about the developers? Unfortunately, a large number simply don't find UI very much fun to work on. Most programmers want to spend their time building systems and solving interesting problems and not on tedious, never-ending polish and bugfixing (there's no better example of the ninety-ninety rule in game development). Most artists want to express themselves by creating something beautiful and admired, not something where recognition is inversely correlated with quality, and many of those who do actually enjoy working on UI still approach it like any other art task, striving for beauty and admiration.

But someone ends up stuck making the UI for every game, whether they like it or not, and as you'd expect the end result is usually something well-architected and beautiful, but not necessarily intuitive or feature-rich from the perspective of those actually playing the game.

Crafting a good UI requires putting yourself in the shoes of your players and actually experiencing your creation as they would. This requires a certain degree of skill and know-how, but far more important is simply the dedication it takes to spend months or even years playing your own game over and over again, then come back the next day and tackle whatever new tedious bit of polish you think might make the game 0.0001% better. With a smile, preferably.

To be sure, there are amazing graphic designers and user experience (UX) specialists out there… but the problem is these talented individuals already command far higher salaries outside of game development. And because the value provided by UI is intangible the same is true of its impact on sales, and without that data even supportive members of management will be fighting an uphill battle making the case for adding those big salaries to the books.

So in the end there's rarely pressure from below or above to make UI a priority, and so it remains trapped in stagnant purgatory.










What UI Don't Know Can Still Hurt You


Okay, so only a few people actually care about UI. What's the big deal?

As I hinted at above, UI is really just a subset of "User Experience", a field which encompassing not just games or even software but every single man-made object we interact with throughout our lives.

Installing new carpet that feels like walking on a cloud (and happens to be in your favorite color) has a very real effect on your quality of life, even if the bristly mustard-colored stuff you replaced it with never seemed so bad. A pair of headphones that fits so well you can't even tell they're on is a similarly huge upgrade over a pair that was always a bit too tight and got uncomfortable after a while, even though you might have owned the latter pair for years and never really gave it much thought. Hell, even replacing a noisy fan with a quieter one can improve one's environment and therefore mood.

Just because we don't think about something affecting us that doesn't mean it doesn't affect us. Games take this a step further because learning and acquiring information the road to mastery is, in many ways, the whole point. This is especially true of strategy games, where both the challenges and the satisfaction of overcoming them is often elevated.

But that road to mastery quickly stops being fun if you start getting the feeling you're lost without a map or anyone around who might be able to give you directions. Strategy games are fundamentally about making tough, meaningful decisions, and to feel confident in and responsible for them you need information. Without it you're just stabbing in the dark, and it becomes easy to blame the game for any misfortune which befalls you, and from there it doesn't take much to just give up and never play again.

And that outcome is bad for everyone whether you're the player himself, the dev who likely loses sales, a fan of the game who wants it to succeed, or even someone who's not but might have become one had more people been talking about it.

On the flip side, there are several very real, if subtle advantages to investing seriously in UI. Gamers who've had an interest in the genre but bounced off of other titles within it might give yours a shot if they hear it's easier to get into. UI is a lot like a AI: neither has an impact you can easily measure, but go the extra mile and people will notice. Many will become your biggest supporters and lifelong customers, but even those who don't are likely to speak fondly of your game any time it, a similar game, or even the genre as a whole comes up in conversation - and for not just a couple weeks or months but years to come.

"Making a better UI" also shouldn't be misinterpreted as "simplifying your game to make it easier", and in fact the opposite is true. Information is just information and there are no rules or limits on how it can be presented. Packaging it in the right - or simply, a better - way actually creates room for more depth and complexity. This can result in an amusing bit of irony where the biggest beneficiary of a more intuitive UI isn't the casual player who's still probably won't play for more than a few hours, but instead the hardest of the hardcore, and the one most likely to scoff at the idea of spending precious development resources on UI!










A Problem of Perspective


Remember that mythical "perfect UI" we talked about above that's invisible to the player? Well, when we say "the player" what we really mean is every player. And that's not only total newbies to the genre and top-10 ladder players, but people who simply will not read a block of text more than two sentences long, people who are colorblind, people who have screens so enormous the corners (AKA the best place to put UI) falls outside their field of vision... okay, I think you get the picture.

The biggest challenge by far though is balancing the interests of new players against those of experienced ones, especially when designing a strategy game. You can try to imagine yourself in the shoes of either group you'll never actually be able to see things as either one does. You're too close to the game to have a chance at noticing most of the issues that will trip up newbies, and although your perspective is much closer to that of the veterans the depressing truth is that the best players will only only be far better than you, but you're also too close to the game to see things from their perspective.

Experts don't have any preconceived notions about how things should work. If it's possible to open up the diplomacy screen and check in with every leader every turn and use a loophole in the trade AI to exploit them for a bit of cash, then, well, that's how your game plays! At that point it doesn't matter what your intention was. This example obviously a problem that extends beyond just UI design, but it still highlights the disadvantage you as the UI designer are at.

To be honest, this is one part of UI design where there really is no substitute for experience, skill, and intuition. But even that only makes it possible to create a good UI, not guaranteed. The most important ingredient is dedicated playtesting and iteration and the massive time investment that entails, and even then there will still always be one more thing you could add or tweak. You just eventually reach a point where it's time to put a bow on things and actually ship something people can play.

Alright, that's enough metaphysical navel-gazing, let's bring things back to the game this article is purportedly related to!




Meanwhile, Back at Conifer HQ


There's a lot of potential to do more than what's been done already - it's just a matter of actually doing it. Fortunately, I'm one of those people lucky enough to have been born with both a passion and at least some aptitude for UI design. I think we really raised the bar for strategy game UI with Civ 5, but not being some sort of all-powerful Game Development God working all by my lonesome on Mount Olympus there was never an opportunity to lock myself in a room for two months and focus exclusively on UI.

Well, fast forward a few years to when AtG is first starting up and things have changed a bit. While I'm still no deity of any mythical mountain, I'm now at least a minor spirit in charge of that one hill people sometimes use for sledding. But hey, at least it's my hill! Anyways, as supreme overlord of my little mound of dirt I decided this would be the game where I'd hunker down and see how far we could push the envelope.

Naturally, I dove into the deep end of this concrete pool head-first by tackling the most difficult - but also most impactful - challenge of all: making it so that learning the game was, you know, not nigh-impossible for a human adult of above-average intelligence.

At the same time though, I absolutely didn't want to achieve this by simply "dumbing things down" and making the game mechanics themselves simpler. You see, that's cheating. And I'm no cheater. So where do we go from here then? My starting point was the UI design tenet which shapes pretty much everything I've ever made: don't put more on the screen than you absolutely have to.

The problem is that every player has their own opinion as to what 'has' to be visible. And to complicate things further, that opinion will inevitably change as they become more experienced. What we needed was a UI that not only adapted to different types of players, but could also 'evolve' with them.










Laying the Groundwork


In some games not only can you mouse over UI elements to get a basic tooltip, but if you keep the cursor there a little bit longer the tooltip will 'transform' into a far more detailed one. I'd considered this approach for AtG, but I didn't like that there were some pretty big holes in it: not only does it force experienced players to endure that delay hundreds or even thousands of times, but neither is it really ideal for the new players who are apparently expected to get everything they need within that 3-second window.

But I could tell there was still some untapped potential in the concept, it was just a matter of rearranging the pieces in just the right way. And then it hit me: why not make the trigger condition position-based instead of time-based?

Virtually all computer programs use what I like to call "ghost" tooltips that can be seen but not interacted with, but there's no reason why that has to be the case. Let's say a tooltip remains fixed in place after appearing and then remains so as long as the cursor is over either it or its 'parent' control... suddenly each tooltip is just another UI control like any other. I knew this could be something big, something that could transform the ethereal into the corporeal. Over several months that tiny spark would not only catch fire but eventually mature into an unstoppable inferno: AtG's Adaptive Tooltips system.

From there it was just a matter of how we could best take advantage of the system. While cramming tooltip-laden panels and buttons into the tooltips of existing panels and buttons would come in handy, I felt that there was the potential for something truly revolutionary if we took things a step further and made it possible for individual words to have their own tooltips. Have no idea what "Apprentices" are, how they work, or if they're even worth worrying about? If words can have tooltips then it becomes trivially easy to find answers for not only those questions, but virtually any question.

Of course, that was easier said than done. Getting this feature online and fully functional took several weeks, mainly because much of the UI system had to be rewritten to not only allow for individual blocks of text to masquerade as UI controls, but to do so while still contained within other UI controls. If one of those parent UI controls is hidden, or moved, or told to allow clicks to pass 'through' to controls behind them, then so too must the text be.

We ran into several other technical hurdles along the way, none more aggravating than ironing out the endless parade of issues related to overlapping tooltip stacks. Sometimes a tooltip halfway down would think it was the one on top and everyone else above him would just vanish. Or you'd click on a button deep within a stack of tooltips, but some other part of the UI would think it was being clicked on. I probably spent the equivalent of two full weeks tracking everything down, and let me tell you, I was pretty sour by that point.

A couple weeks is just a drop in the bucket compared with the amount of time it takes to flesh out a truly polished UI. With the foundation for the Adaptive Tooltips system now in place it was time to zoom back out and focus on the design.










Inside Santa's Workshop


At this point it's probably best to switch gears and focus more on the sorts of high-level design principles that helped shape AtG's UI, rather than a blow-by-blow account of every decision we made. After all, life is too short, this article already too long, and we've only scratched the surface with the tooltip system, let alone the rest of the UI.

One of the most important traits for a UI designer to have is contextual awareness. How should everything fit together? How does it right now? What do players actually care about? What do they not care about? If I move this piece to there does it make the tower stronger or weaker?

No decision is made in vacuum, and losing the forest for the trees can have far-reaching consequences. Even a seemingly-benign choice like what background color to use can reverberate throughout your game.

A good real-world example of this in AtG was our choice to make the 'fog of war' tiles you haven't yet revealed look like parchment paper. What at first appeared to be a single decision would eventually balloon into dozens. A paper background means the screen usually dominated by a light, warm color. Anything we place over the top of the world that we want to stand out now needs to be dark. Well, if every background panel and popup in the game is going to be dark that means our text needs to be light.

If AtG instead had light panels and dark text it wouldn't make the game unplayable or anything, but it would make things just a little bit tougher for some people. Even if each incremental upgrade or downgrade only grows or shrinks your audience by a tiny amount those little slivers eventually add up.



Button Color


Something else I'd like to talk about that our choice of background color also had an effect on is our buttons. Another big "Jon Shafer UI Design Rule" is that anything you can click should share a clear and consistent style visually distinct from everything else in the game. We decided to make all buttons in AtG either solid gold or at the very least have a gold rim around them (e.g. the Profession buttons in the Study Screen).

So why gold in particular? There are actually several reasons. Even long before we came up with the current art style I liked the idea of making all of our buttons look like some kind of metal. Why metal? Between the bronze age and the invention of plastic most man-made items we manipulated with our hands were metal, be they weapons, tools, or toys, and as a result whenever we see a shaped metal object a tiny voice deep inside tells us it must be something we can use. This was definitely not the case for the stone buttons in our old UI, and given how, uh, non-interactive most rocks are I doubt that voice was whispering anything nice about them into our ear!

After the gold buttons had been in for a while we actually considered changing them to silver or iron because we was worried gold was too close to the parchment background, but in the end we kept it for a few reasons. For one, most of the time when you push a color closer to white or gray the more indistinct and unimportant it seems. If asked what white reminds us of "blank pages and empty walls" is more likely to be someone's answer than "interesting thing I want to use or learn about". With silver now off the board, iron isn't far behind, mainly because it just doesn't have nearly the appeal of gold, a metal that's universally desirable not only throughout time but across cultures.

I also came to realize that the gold buttons not standing out as much over the top of the paper fog may not actually be a bad thing. The only buttons which don't have some kind of dark panel behind them are part of the basic World Screen, which of course is what you're looking at 95% of the time. It won't take long for players to familiarize themselves with this screen and its contents, and the fact that the buttons don't 'pop' as much actually improves the overall feel of the game.

This is a good reminder of the fact that few rules in UI design are hard and fast, although I feel pretty strongly that the "consistent, distinct style for buttons" rule I talked about is one of them, and unfortunately many devs break with gleeful abandon. This is usually done in an attempt to make their UI more "beautiful", but in a tragic twist of irony for most new players the thing they notice the most about the UI is that it's nearly impossible to tell anything apart.



Don't Cross the Streams


Which brings me to our next 'rule': UI is UI and the world is the world, and trying too hard to blur that line usually only makes it harder to learn your game. It's great if a creature's posture changes with its mood, but you probably also want to stick a big icon over their head to make sure it's crystal clear. Because otherwise it probably won't be, and not only will many players be in the dark as to what individual creatures are up to but they may mistakenly conclude things are just random and downgrade their opinion of the game generally.

That's not to say your UI has to look gaudy and ugly. I think the on-map unit flags in AtG look quite nice on the map, despite packing quite a bit of info and being completely out of scale with other map elements. But we made it that size for a reason, and had we instead tried to push things too far by making them in-scale with everything else on the map we'd be spending time on something only the developers care about. On the whole players are very accepting, and most don't even notice or think twice about incongruities which keep developers up at night.










Leave Room to Breathe


Another similar rule is that smaller isn't always better. While you probably don't want half the screen to be covered in UI at all times in map/world-based game, today's monitors have enough pixels that you don't need to cram everything together so tightly that it looks like it came out the other side of a trash compactor. A UI needs room to breathe, and negative space is an essential tool for establishing a hierarchy of importance.

This rule also has an important corollary: Don't be afraid of text. Many games try to save space by replacing words with icons wherever possible, but this is a huge no-no in my book. A lot of the time these 'naked' icons appear inside tooltips, but unless the tooltips work like AtG's there's no way for you to actually figure out what it is. Once you have it memorized, sure, those extra few pixels are nice, but the price paid is completely disproportionate with the payoff.

But what if those few pixels here and there do add up into something veteran players legitimately care about? Well, then just make two versions! Yes, this requires work, but so does everything! If building a good UI that works well for all types of players is actually one of your priorities then these sorts of features start looking like really smart investments.



Consistency and Learning


Our final rule is a simple one: Be consistent. As new players are learning your game they're subconsciously building a mental map of how things fit together, what that icon over there means, which screen contains X and which contains Y, and so on.

By establishing everywhere in the game that red text indicates something negative or bad but then make one exception for the announcement which appears at the top of the screen when you win a battle you damage the player's faith in their mental map. They usually compensate by erasing something, leaving a gap that may never be filled in. The player would have actually been better off had you not attached ANY color to that announcement text. Preventing these sorts of traps is rarely difficult, and usually only requires establishing a clear style guide early on and being diligent about sticking to it.

An even better (or worse) example is sometimes found in more complex games with lots of screens. In providing multiple ways to navigate to the same screen or accomplish the same task might think you're doing players a favor, but much of the time these good intentions backfire. When learning one of these bad boys building that mental map takes much longer but is even more important, but if the player discovers that there are two or even three ways to get to the same screen that map starts to unravel quickly. They'll start looking for locations they remember being next to those they've erased next to one of the others, further undermining the map. The end result is often players simply giving up, or 'quarantining' much of the UI and never venturing outside of the few areas of their map they still have trust in.

But like most UI design rules this is a "soft" one that's more guideline than dogma. Including hotkeys could be thought of as providing multiple entry points, but they're not only accepted and often expected, but I can't even think of any drawbacks aside from the time it takes a developer to add them.

A less clear-cut example from AtG is our inclusion of two independent methods for training a clan in a profession: while in the Clans Screen clicking on one of the 'clan cards' will open a new screen showing all the professions it can be trained in. The Clans Screen also has a button at the bottom you can click which allows you to pick the profession first and then the clan. So why offer both? Because even though the end result is the same the actual process involved in getting there is not. Sometimes you know you need an explorer and it's just a matter of figuring out which clan is the best fit, and others you have an idle clan that needs something to do but you don't have anything in mind yet.

Will some players be confused by this? Without a doubt. But UI design is an art, and like all art you sometimes just have to go with your gut and accept that it won't - and can't - be for everyone.












***






Phew... Alright, I think that's probably a good stopping place for now,  I do truly enjoy working on and talking about UI, though if you've actually still reading this that's probably pretty obvious! If you haven't already I encourage you to check out the video we just posted showing the UI in action.

'Til next time!

- Jon






***





UI Feature Outline



Adaptive Tooltips - Links
  • The key feature of AtG's UI
  • Tooltips Within Tooltips - "like Wikipedia, except with tooltips"
  • Even words can have tooltips
  • Confused or interested? Dig deeper to learn more
  • Simpler on the surface, but more powerful under the hood
  • Makes it easy to see how things "fit together"


Adaptive Tooltips - Customization
  • Complex tooltips are broken up into expandable panels
  • Customize in 'real time', instead of from an options screen
  • Allows the UI to evolve with you as you learn
  • Game-Wide Memory, by type (e.g. Professions VS Structures)


Other UI Features
  • Hotkey Hint Display when mousing over button or pressing ALT
  • Can use WASD keys to move camera (along with traditional controls)
  • Upgraded versions of Civ 5's 'Notifications' and 'New Turn Banner'
  • 'Floating Text' appears when a resource is produced or spent on a map tile
  • Colored 'Sticky Notes' can be attached to Clans or map tiles
  • Cursor color changes subtly when mousing over something with a tooltip
  • In-game Patch Notes, its contents filtered using the date you last played
  • Localization Framework now makes (unofficial) translations possible


Other Customization Options
  • Screen Complexity Filter
  • Grid Intensity
  • Increase/Decrease usage of Icons in Text
  • Can Disable... Button Flash, Turn Banner, Tooltip Sound, Cursor Tint, Hotkey Hints


Look & Feel
  • More modern style that's less skeuomorphic
  • Light stone replaced by dark wood + watercolor
  • Rounded corners
  • Cleaner fonts for text


Layout
  • Less dense, more balanced
  • Grouped more logically, e.g. Notifications next to the End Turn Button
  • Buttons emerge from screen edge


New Fog of War
  • Old 'watercolor paper' looked anachronistic
  • Now looks like parchment
  • Better fit thematically
  • Less repetitive, more visually interesting


Better Color Usage
  • All buttons are gold, making it easy to see what is and is NOT clickable
  • Profession Button colors now match their Discipline
  • Icon panel color in Study & Training Screens hint at type/effect
  • Important words now colored by type, e.g. object names, concepts

4
AtG obviously isn't in Rock Paper Shotgun's list of the 50 best strategy games ever (just yet, anyways!), but it's still very cool to see it get a shout-out near the top.

- Jon

5
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. 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!


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.


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.


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+

6
AtG - Developer Updates / 2015 January 27 - Economics, in Ink
« on: January 29, 2015, 01:38:43 PM »
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 (almost 2 hours long!) covering much of the same ground I'll be talking about below.

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.



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.


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?



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.



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.


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!



A few of AtG's new professions.


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.


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...



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.



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....



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.


****


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.




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

7
AtG - Developer Updates / Progress Updates
« on: November 25, 2014, 10:18:16 AM »
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. Edit: The updates are now also posted to our official subreddit - along with this very thread!

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.

- Jon

8
Hey all, I'll keep the post short because you'll hear me talking plenty more in the video! Make sure to watch in HD so that the art and text aren't garbled by whatever YouTube defaults to.

- Jon

9
AtG - Developer Updates / 2014 August 14 - Progress, Pacing & People
« on: September 15, 2014, 01:34:41 PM »
A few months ago I hinted at the possibility of some big changes - well, said "possibility" has turned into reality, which means some exciting new features to talk about. But before getting into the details I think it's best to explain why we have "big changes" to talk about at all.


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.


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?


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?


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...


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!


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:

***

"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."

***

"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."

***

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

10
AtG - Developer Updates / 2014 June 4 - Alpha II and Beyond
« on: June 04, 2014, 04:51:07 PM »
What's New in Alpha II?

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



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.



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.





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!





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.



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!



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!



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.



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!

***

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




11
AtG - Developer Updates / 2014 May 20 - Welcome to Alpha II!
« on: May 20, 2014, 07:14:57 PM »

I'm excited to announce that as of today At The Gates is now in Alpha II! Hooray!

So, uh... what the heck is "Alpha II", anyway?

"Alpha II" is the new name for the milestone we had been calling "Beta" for the past 15 months. So why the switch?

When most people hear that a product is in "beta" their immediate expectation is that it's, you know, almost done. AtG is coming together, but with over a year of development left it would be unfair to set the bar quite that high. Calling it "beta" has lead to some confusion among both players and partners over the past few weeks, so I decided to bite the bullet and give it a more appropriate name.

What this all means in the real world is that if you contributed or pre-ordered at the $50 level you can now download AtG from the Humble website!

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

Alpha II also, at last, includes working Mac and Linux versions! These gave Jonathan and I a bit of a headache over the past couple months, but I'm already glad we spent the effort, and I'm sure our non-Windows fans will agree.





(As an aside, you can pre-order the "Early Access" bundle from our website at any time, should you be interested in joining the Alpha Test Group. I'm no longer able to refund Kickstarter pledges because of how much time has passed, but if you are willing to buy the Early Access version I'd be more than happy to refund your pledge via PayPal instead.

I should note that while AtG is a lot more fun than it was back when alpha testing started in October, it's still very, very rough. If you want a complete, polished experience I would honestly recommend holding off for now.)

I know many of you will be patiently waiting to play AtG until it's officially released, so I'll use this post as another opportunity to provide a peek behind the curtain of game development. In the next week or two I'll also be posting an in-depth review of the cool new features we've been busy with, along with our plans for the next few months. Later this year I plan to start streaming my playtests on Twitch.tv. In the meantime, feel free to follow or bookmark my new account, and I'll make an announcement once we get rolling.

The AtG Test Group will continue to be 'closed' and private, as I want all our effort to remain focused on our one and only goal: making the best strategy game of all time. The relationship between these might seem tenuous, but both this and my decision to rename the Beta milestone are rooted in the same logic. Let's dig into the issue a bit deeper.


Why Games Keep Secrets

If I were granted just one wish by the game development genie, I would ask that the only factor which determines a game's financial success was its quality at release. But alas, there are many examples of how this isn't the case. Consumers have a budget of both money and time, and few are willing to spend a large chunk hunting around for the 'ideal' entertainment product.

However, an advantage game developers have is that those who play games tend to be pretty invested in their hobby. Not only do they talk about it with their friends, but many also read gaming websites, watch YouTube videos, visit forums, look up review scores on Metacritic, etc. But this marketing head-start can turn into a ball and chain if you're not careful.

It never takes long for a 'narrative' to be woven around a game once it leaves the shroud of private development and goes 'public'. This is usually beneficial in the Age of Social Media, where more eyeballs is always better - but there are times when the narrative skews in wild and unexpected directions and the court of public opinion renders final judgment on a game long before it's finished. Needless to say, this can seriously hamper a game's chances of doing well.

Developers put a lot on the line when they offer their game up to the world, so they naturally want their work to shine. Many projects have been compromised because of how much time was spent making a game look good for the public, press or upper management. That isn't to say this is always a dumb route to take. The very survival of a project or studio can based on how shiny their pre-alpha looks, and I absolutely do not envy developers in that position.

Strategy games in particular take a while to come together. Much of their charm is the way every system makes up a massive interconnected web, but like an actual spider's web the price you pay is that pulling a single thread too hard causes the entire structure to unravel.

To be sure, it's also possible to be too protective of your game, hiding it away for so long that the perfect diamond you finally end up forging is only enjoyed by a handful of people. Putting out one cult classic after another might be good for the ego, but it doesn't keep food on the table!

So later this year we'll be loosening the screws a bit on AtG and allow people to post impressions, videos, etc. outside of our private forums with the goal of spreading word about this awesome game we're making far and wide.

But how do you draw that line between "not ready" and "ready"?





There's never a perfect answer, and for me it's one part gut feel and one part analytical process. A few weeks ago I sat down and thought again about what AtG "is" and made a list of what's truly essential and what's just complementary. My rule of thumb is that anything that goes unnoticed by someone mildly interested after playing for an hour can probably wait for later.

Based on this line, my list of essentials includes things like Competent Tactical AI and Finalized Art Style. A strategy game with a heavy emphasis on war obviously needs an AI that can at least defend itself. Major intercontinental invasions would also be nice to have, but can definitely wait for later.

While hardcore strategy gamers might roll their eyes about my second requirement, first impressions are hugely important in the entertainment business, and the way something looks is obviously the first thing you notice. I probably wouldn't have shown AtG's pre-pre-pre-alpha screenshots back during the Kickstarter campaign had that been an option! (On a related note, we have some really exciting things coming on this front - stay tuned.)

Unique faction abilities and victory conditions are a couple features I've deemed less important, so they will come online after we open up a bit. Both have an important role to play and are absolutely necessary for a finished release, but take either one away and the core essence of AtG remains unchanged. And alas, it pains me to say as a UI junkie, but making the game easier to play and learn also falls into this bucket.

But this is all just my opinion. I'm good friends with developers who disagree vehemently, and believe that a developer should get their game out in front of people as soon as possible. Being an indie would sure be a whole lot easier if marketing and PR were as straightforward as programming!

****

I'll be back with another update soon to talk about what we've been up to the past couple months and what's coming up next. 'Til then!

- Jon

12



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

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


The Plan

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

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

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

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

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


The Plan v2.0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sight to the Blind

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

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

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

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

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


Not Given, But Earned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Loose Ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rubber, Meet Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Too Prepared?

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

Fatigue.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Looking Back

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

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

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

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

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

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


Looking Ahead

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

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

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

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

- Jon

Official AtG Website | Follow @ConiferGames on Twitter | Like us on Facebook



13
AtG - Developer Updates / 2014 February 20 - Art
« on: March 06, 2014, 12:15:10 PM »
In this post I'll be talking about our recent progress on the art side!






Borders

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

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



Units

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




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

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





And here's a video showing what it looks like in the game after we sprinkle it with Jonathan's magical fairy dust of code.

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

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

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



On-Map Interface

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




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

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

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

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

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

...

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

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

- Jon

P.S. Yes, yes, I know, the date I put this up and the date in the thread title don't match. Just catching the forum up to the Kickstarter page!

14
AtG - Developer Updates / 2013 December 1 - Economics & Schedule
« on: December 09, 2013, 11:13:22 AM »


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

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

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

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

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

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



Recent Changes

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

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

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

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

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




Roadmap

So what’s next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Jon

15
Forum Announcements & Questions / Avatar Size Limit Has Been Increased
« on: November 01, 2013, 03:44:54 PM »
The previous size limit was 80x80, and I decided to bump it up to 125x125. I figured I'd announce so that everyone interested knows they have the option to upgrade.

- Jon

Pages: [1] 2 3 4