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Topics - Jon Shafer

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AtG - Developer Updates / Mid-April 2018 Update - Playtest Thoughts
« on: April 18, 2018, 09:20:27 AM »
Hey all,

This mid-month update will be dedicated to some of the general thoughts I've had while playtesting. It's more or less a copy of my own notes, and should give you an idea of what sorts of things I'm thinking about as both a player and a designer.

I've actually decided to just provide a link to a Google Doc this time around, as the text formatting options here are pretty lame and rather than spend an hour copying everything over and making it look nice it's a whole lot easier to just point you all at something that already works (something I may do again in the future for similar posts!).

Here is the link to the playtest thoughts doc.

We'll be back in a couple weeks with a continuation of my playtest log from last update.

'Til then!

- Jon

2
AtG - Developer Updates / April 2018 Update - Playtest Report
« on: April 04, 2018, 03:49:23 PM »
Hey all,

As I'm working on the diplomacy system the next few updates will follow along with my broader playtesting efforts, which I try to spend at least an hour on every day. Along the way I'll be detailing what's in the game, what needs work, and most important of all: what it's actually like to play AtG. The format will more or less follow my own internal notes that I use to log what happened while playing, what decisions I made and why, and then in a couple weeks I'll post another update with some analysis of how different aspects of the game are working and what might need attention based on my recent playtesting.

(Note: this playtest is for the March 5th Group Game that's now available in the latest Steam build, and it's quite a fun one so if you already have access to the game I might recommend holding off on reading this post until you've had a chance to play.)

This first "chapter" of the playtest report is a turn-by-turn account of the game. I end this post on turn 43, which might sound like a weird number but ended up being a natural stopping point given in-game events that I won't spoil just yet. We'll pick up the story of this game in May's update, so stay tuned!



March 5 Group Game Playtest - Turn Log





Our very, very dry starting location




Our initial lineup of clans.


Turn 1 … April 400 AD ... Nothing pushing me too far in any particular direction right off the bat, so going to start with an Explorer and plan on training Clan Adelmar (level 5 in Discovery) as a Surveyor. Clan Ulfert being both Adaptable (no extra training for switching Disciplines) and Eager (-1 turn to train) will definitely come in handy, and since my Explorer will definitely be retrained within a couple years I decide to make them my initial Explorer.

Turn 2 … New Clan Ahlert (Adventurous, meaning extra movement and vision but unable to Dig In for a defensive bonus or Encamp to avoid supply damage during the winter) is sowell-suited to being an Explorer I just can't resist - time to add another! This is probably a bad idea, but whatever. One of the things I like about AtG is that it sometimes will push you into trying new things, and this is a good example. First Explorer will head southeast and wheel clockwise back to the Settlement, the second will start northwest and do the same.

Turn 3 … New Clan Wilmot (Intimidating, meaning no other Clans on the tile may commit crimes, and Obedient, which means no extra training time for switching Disciplines but gains XP slower) will make a solid Gatherer, as we'll want to retrain them as something else before too long. Looks like the NW passage might be sealed off by bandits, but we'll find out shortly.




Bandit Central. We'll need to be polite and pay the neighbors a visit some day...


Turn 4 … Nope, not sealed off! Can just barely sneak through. That bandit camp will be a pain though. Just realized that Clan Habel, which is quite bad at a lot of other things (due to being Esteemed, and thus double training time in Agriculture, Livestock, and Metalworking Professions) would make a great Wood Collector, especially given that they're also Efficient (+50% Resource Production). Also going to start heading towards Archers, since it seems we have a couple of uppity bandit camps nearby that should be cleared out before too long. The 30 Wealth I got from the goody hut to the SE will be helpful in buying more Weapons.

Turn 5 … June 400 … I find two Tribes to my east. Kind of annoying given that it seems like a lot of good resources are over in this area, but by focusing on Archers early I should be able to maintain the advantage (though with the AI still a WIP I doubt there will be much real competition in this game). Going to have the Surveyor head south to the plants first, as this will allow me to start surveying immediately, then move onto the mineral to the east. My Gatherer can survey the plant north of my Settlement during the winter once its unable to continue foraging Berries.

Turn 6 … First Caravan has nothing particularly special, though the Stone on sale is kind of tempting (Caravans can have special deals, both surpluses on discount and shortages which offer extra cash if you're willing to sell) - will hold onto my money though, as this will allow me to buy more Weapons later. Only 3 Weapons for sale! Geeze. [Fixed this by increasing the amount for sale to 5. This is the nice thing about being the designer: if I run into something I find annoying in the game I can fix it in real time! I originally had this number really small so that players couldn't easily buy up an arsenal, but changes to the economy make this less of an issue in the current version of the game.]

Turn 7 … Decided to go for a Wood Bundler, as it provides a large multiplier on Timber foraged by Wood Collectors, and together will allow me to stockpile a bunch of Timber fairly early. Not sure what I'll do with it yet, but if nothing else I can sell them in order to afford other stuff I need early on.

Turn 8 … New Clan Ottokar is also Esteemed! Should make a pretty good Wood Bundler though (makes me wonder if noble clans should be alright with Crafting professions... hmmm). Couple of goody huts to the southwest are guarded at a chokepoint by bandits. Probably worth the risk though! I contemplate if it's worth having my Wood Collector hold off on Foraging until my Wood Bundler is online, but in the end I decide to simply go for it.




The whole area is pretty flat and dry.


Turn 9 … First Archer is done! Where to send them… First order of business is probably protecting our Surveyor to the south, as there are bandits not too far off.

Turn 10 … Starting to run out of Clans... Just discovered some Flax to the south, so going to pack up this turn and move S-SE in order to grab the Flax and a still-unidentified mineral. Would like to besiege the bandit camp with my Archer, but they outnumber me, so no dice (you need to outnumber the enemy army in order to besiege them, which is usually a really good idea since you can cut off their supply and destroy them without taking any damage). So, yeah, gotta get another Archer online ASAP! So much to do… Might be time to start thinking about bringing one or both of my Explorers home, since I need some more folks working. Speaking of which, my Explorer to the SW has successfully snuck around the Bandits and now has two Abandoned Ruins to feast upon next turn. Woohoo! In terms of research I think it's time to start going after that Flax soon, but winter will be setting in before too long, so it might make sense to wait until next year and have my next Clan become an Archer.

Turn 11 … September 400 … The first Ruins site contains… Bandits! Oh dear. Let's hope our intrepid Clan Ahlert (Explorer) can remain alert and make it out alive. It's going to be tricky now though, as our friend is now quite pinned into a tight little corner of the map, surrounded on all sides.




Not looking good for Clan Ahlert!


Turn 12 … Ahlert managed to avoid being attacked! Phew. Would have been really bad if we'd gotten stuck, as losing a clan this early would have really, really hurt. Now to grab the other Ruins and escape. And the second Ruins provides us with… 10 Weapons! Wow. Quite a haul, and definitely one we can make use of - too bad I already spent all of my Wealth buying the new Caravan's supply. Oh well, can definitely make use of them anyways (especially now that it's possible to spend Weapons to 'Fortify' Structures and increase their Control (Border) range). Our Wood Bundler is now online, providing us a massive +9 Timber per turn. Time to start having Clan Wilmot (Gatherer) survey for a bit, as we've just hit 24 turns of Food (and beyond that you suffer spoilage, so it's quite inefficient to keep driving that number up higher and higher). Training Clan Ewout as an Archer is going to take forever, but whatever. We need more Archers and we don't have a lot of options. Not gonna be doing a lot for the next few turns while we wait!

Turn 13 … Clan Adelmar (Surveyor) finds... GOLD! Wow. This game should be fun. And it might be time to start thinking about changing my plans. The Flax suddenly seems a lot less interesting now. Clan Ulfert (Explorer) has just about returned from the north, which will give us a solid new Clan to train. Maybe a 3rd Archer is in order?




GOLD!


Turn 14 … Going to bank some progress towards researching Woodcarvers while I wait for my current Archer to finish - once that's wrapped up we can move on to getting that Gold Mine online. The question is, do we want to make it out of Stone? (Timber-based Structures degrade after a year or two, while Stone-based Structures last forever, and are thus a huge upgrade - but extremely expensive to bring online.) This should be a tough question in the game, and at the moment I think it is, although it will take more balance testing to say for sure. It's incredibly hard getting enough Stone Blocks to get the thing online, but the fact that it's 10 Wealth per turn until the end of time… well, that's hard to pass up. Let's see how hard it actually is to pull off! Really should have bought that Stone on discount a while back… Our plan will be to buy normal Stone from the Caravan, then have a Stone Cutter turn it into Stone Blocks ourselves. I think having someone speed up our research would be quite handy though, so we'll take a detour towards Lorekeepers.

Turn 15 … Getting really cold and Clan Ahlert (Explorer) is Adventurous… meaning they can't Encamp. Oh yeah. Damn. Well, that complicates things. Time to get home ASAP! Wish I'd known that before. What a brutal-but-fun trait. [This is where some of the roguelike elements of the game really shine, IMO, although I know not everyone will feel the same way. Sometimes you just get bad traits or bad clans and that's the way it is. Figuring out how to make the best of them is part of the game though.]

Turn 16 … Lots of plants to the SW. Should be useful down the road.

Turn 17 … December 400 … Clan Adelmar (Surveyor) uncovers... Sheep. Seems I have the potential for quite the Cloth engine, between these little guys and the Flax I found earlier. That said, there's only so much you can do at once in this game, and with my attention focused on getting that Gold Mine online it'll probably be some time before Cloth enters the equation. Clan Ulfert (Explorer) is trapped in a Blizzard! Well, at least they can Encamp. Clan Ahlert (Explorer) has been quite lucky, and hugging the mild-weather coast has thus far avoided any additional supply damage. As I suspected early on training two Explorers probably wasn't the best idea, but finding the Ruins to the south paid off at least. A bandit has left the camp to the SW, so it seems it's about time for the bad boys to start stirring up trouble.

Turn 18 … Second Archer is finally online! Of course it's now late December, and no one is going anywhere to do anything particularly useful. A new Clan (Ingel) has also finally joined… and happens to also be Adventurous (no Digging In, no Encamping). Great. Given how harsh the winters here are I'm not going to be holding my breath in terms of everyone getting to go run off all the time like they seem to want to. Gonna be a while before another Clan shows up though (7 turns), so it's definitely time to start thinking about how to increase my Fame. Unfortunately Ingel doesn't look like they'll make a very good Archer, so I'm in a bit of a bind there. Making them Miners for the Gold probably makes the most sense, since they don't need as much time to train in active professions.

Turn 19 … Nothing much to report this turn. In the dead of winter. Don't even have anything to train in the Settlement (which isn't great from a game design perspective - will be addressed!). [Despite my earlier comments, I now realize that it might actually make sense to train Clan Ingel as another Archer - despite their inherent weaknesses in the role, they could at least stay within our borders during the winter. Might make sense to give the player the option to write notes upon saving and exiting, in order to remind themselves of what they might have wanted to do before.]




The dead of winter.


Turn 20 … Both Explorers finally return from their adventures, and Clan Ahlert is chosen to become our Lorekeeper (although not started yet in our reloaded version of the game where I went back and turned Clan Ingel into an Archer).

Turn 21 … Not sure what to train this turn. Clan Ulfert (the Adaptable Explorers) as a Stone Cutter once that's done in 4 turns? Might make sense.

Turn 22 … Finally time to begin the siege of the bandit camp! The weather in the area just turned, so we no longer need to worry about supply. [Picking the game back up on this turn after a long hiatus, and I'm now realizing I really should have left myself some notes before taking a break. Think I'll add a "Add notes before you quit?" prompt to help alleviate this.] We definitely need to start thinking about what our next source of food will be, as the Berries are only going to take us so far. The vast field of wheat to the south is quite appealing, but pretty far away. It might be time to spend some Weapons and Fortify my Settlement (increasing its Control range), as that would definitely help. I could also use this turn as an opportunity to move south towards my prize. I decide to Fortify first, spending 5 of my 8 Weapons on the task. I can then retrain Clan Wilmot (Gatherer) into a Farmer and start bringing in a ton of Food - our current stockpile (14 turns) should last long enough to get the Farm online. I shift Clan Ewout (Archer) west to protect Clan Wilmot as they finish surveying.

Turn 23 … March 401 … Time to pack up and move south. Not much else to do this turn. The siege continues.

Turn 24 … Warm again! Just as in real life it's nice to see the color return to the landscape. A wounded marauding bandit appears to the west (Slaves actually - interesting!), making my placement of Clan Ewout (Archer) quite fortuitous. Clan Adelmar (Surveyor) uncovers a Large Herd of Deer, which probably won't factor much into my plans. I'd really like to start surveying some more minerals in order to grab Stone or Coal, but nothing is too well-placed at the moment. A rock to the northwest is too close to a bandit camp for comfort, although Clan Adelmar could always help out on this front. Caravan has just arrived, and it's time to trade a ton of Timber for Stone (and some Parchment to help out with training as well). Going to switch Clan Ulfert (Explorer) over to Crafting in preparation for them starting their task as Stone Cutters next turn.

Turn 25 … Looks like a new bandit has spawned on the besieged camp. This would normally be incredibly annoying, but since I actually have 3 Archers it shouldn't hurt me much. Gonna have to send Clan Adelmar (Surveyor) to a herd of animals to the west rather than the mineral to the northwest, but so it goes. New Clan Askan starts with 3 levels in Crafting… how handy! Can now use Clan Ulfert for something else. Making them my Gold Miners seems like kind of a waste though, given how flexible they are. Maybe this is a job for Adelmar instead? Lines up nicely with finishing the Metalworking Tech next turn, giving them a head start.

Turn 26 … The new bandit attacks us! And the battle does not go well for them at all. Time to find new trees for Clan Habel (Wood Collector) to chop. The northeast is a bit unguarded, but will have to do for now.

Turn 27 … Our bandit camp is starting to feel the effects of the siege. Shouldn't be much longer before we can wipe them out. We definitely need to start thinking about how to increase our Fame, as the pace at which Clans are arriving is incredibly slow now. With our Vast Wheat Farm online coming soon a Feast Master is probably the right fit. Maybe something for our versatile Clan Ulfert to do? Bringing a second Stone Cutter online for a bit might not be a bad idea though, as waiting 20 turns for our 20 Stone to turn into 20 Stone Blocks seems brutal.




The siege.


Turn 28 … Clan Ingel (Archer) joins our combined army, which is just about ready to pounce. This will be just in time as well, as it's time to retrain Clan Wilmot (Gatherer) as a Farmer. Our Stone Block operation is now active as well - and once we get our Gold Mine online we should have a nice, steady stream of Stone Blocks for the foreseeable future.

Turn 29 … June 401 … Bandit Camp cleared out! Thanks to our successful siege we take zero casualties as well. Wondering if it might be time to start dismantling my Timber operation in order to repurpose the Clans its monopolizing.

Turn 30 … That final bandit makes a suicide charge at us. Still 2 more turns until the Wheat Farm is online… yikes. This winter might be close. Might need to retrain someone as a Hunter or something just to get by. Wiping out that Bandit Camp gave us 20 Wealth which we can use to buy a bunch of fun stuff. First off is some Tools for our second Stone Carver, and another 10 Stone for him to make use of. I send Clan Ingel (Archer) south to finish exploring our little corner of the map, and discover an unemployed Neutral Farmer (Clan Everard). Hello there, stranger! I think it might be time for us to start farming some Flax! The remaining Archers fan out to the northeast and northwest to fortify our secured area. I'd like to go after that Slave Camp to the northwest, but there's probably not enough time left in the year to take a shot at it - something to look into in 402. Before we end the turn I decide to try upgrading Clan Ulfert from level 1 to 3 in Crafting before starting to train them as Stone Cutters. It'll cost me 1 Parchment but save me a turn, which is probably worth it. I decide to start researching Watchmen instead of Woodcarvers, as I kind of feel like it'd be cool to expand. Might not be the smartest idea, but oh well!

Turn 31 … Okay, time to decide: a second wheat farm, or a flax farm? We are running low on Food and can always convert the surplus into Fame and Alcohol. Probably a safer bet than starting to invest in Flax, which I can't really use yet anyways. Fine, we'll play it safe for now.

Turn 32 … Seems that was a good idea, as our food surplus after getting the vast wheat farm online is still only 1.2. Yikes. Okay, maybe we will need a Woodcarver to increase our Fame rather than a Feast Master… Archers are spreading out and securing the perimeter - everything looks safe for now.

Turn 33 … Up to 2.7 Food per turn with the second Wheat Farm online. Looking better now. Will need to invest more in our Food infrastructure in 402 though. Time to train Clan Adelmar as a Miner… oh wait, I forgot to buy an extra Tool from the Caravan. Great. [Jon proceeds to cheat to remove enough Timber from his stockpile to have afforded to buy 1 Tool.] This definitely reminds me why base Professions shouldn't need fancy Resources to train… [Will get into this more in the next update post.]




The Goths are expanding!


Turn 34 … Bandit launches a surprise attack on Clan Ewout (Archer) in the northeast. Was not expecting that, but the bad little boy is dispatched without trouble. Good thing I had my perimeter fence in place! New Clan joins: Eldric, who is Obedient but Impatient. A bit annoying, but should still be useful. Next Clan arrives in 10 turns, so we have a bit of a wait ahead of us. Woodcarver time? Will require 10 Tools though, so gonna need to pay the final Caravan of the year quite a visit. Might be easier to just retrain Clan Ulfert (Stone Cutter) into a Blacksmith and convert the little stockpile of Iron I already have. But I need another 6 turns of him in his current job. Hmmm. I can probably make things work if I sell off some other stuff, as I really want to buy up every piece of Stone I can.

Turn 35 … September 401 … Miner is ready, but the Stone Blocks are not. Hurry up and wait… Starting to wonder if it might make sense to declare a kingdom soon. With my massive amount of Wealth coming in I should be able to buy the Parchment I need, and the huge boost in Fame would definitely be welcome at this point. I could settle down out west near all the Unidentified Plants, and Fortify my Gold Mine in order to grab the nearby Flax and Sheep. Only challenge with that setup is that I would have no reliable source of Timber. Might be worth setting up a Watchtower in the dense forest to the east (once the AI is online this won't be so easy though, and would likely require a war - exciting!). Or it might just be better to move my Settlement over there and set up a Stone Block-based Woodworks the old-fashioned way.

Turn 36 … Last Caravan of the year. I sell Timber in order to buy enough Cloth to raise my popcap, and decide to trade in my raw Iron for Tools in order to get my Woodcarver online (I have JUST enough to afford this). I spend a Parchment to continue training up Clan Eldric in Crafting.




The known world.


Turn 37 … Not much to do this turn, for once! Nothing to train even. I decide to use this as an opportunity to pack up and move my Settlement east so that my Wood Collector can continue foraging for Timber throughout the winter - I could actually move all the way as far as I need to in order to get my stone-based Woodworks up in the ideal spot in the large forest, but that moves my Settlement out of range of the Gold Mine, so I'm unfortunately unable to kill multiple birds with one stone.

Turn 38 … I can, however, at least move up a bit to the NE to cover my Wood Collector this turn, when things have turned cold and removed his free supply. We finish researching Woodcarvers, but Clan Eldric will still take 5 turns to train because of his unfortunate set of traits, so I decide to level him up with Parchment one more time. For my next research project I go with Bread Makers, as increasing my Food production will allow me to do a number of other things (e.g. Feast Master, Ale Maker). I pull back my picket Archers so that they don't take supply damage.

Turn 39 … Moved some units around, but that's about it. Farms are now offline, but we have 19 turns of Food in the bank, so things are looking pretty good on that front for the next year. The real question is how to get the next batch of 20 Stone Blocks for my Woodworks. Waiting 20 turns for my soon-to-be-solo Stone Cutter is a bit… eh. We can probably just brute force it with the help of our Gold Mine, so I won't worry about it too much for now. I'm starting to think that turning Wood into Coal into Stone Blocks might not be a bad way to go. A bit roundabout, but doable, and would require only 3 Clans in total to bring in 2 Stone Blocks per turn. To get things online sooner I abort my Bread Maker research to start on Coal Maker, as I want to get Clan Ulfert (Stone Cutter) working ASAP.

Turn 40 … We start switching Clan Ulfert over to Metalworking. We will finally have 20 Stone Blocks and can start on our Gold Mine next turn!




The settled clans of our tribe.


Turn 41 … December 401 … As I start working on the Gold Mine I realize that I'll also be able to assign Apprentices to the Mine, allowing me to really supercharge my economy (Apprentices are Clans in the same Profession as the Clan which built the Structure, and basically increase output by an additional 100%. Only Stone Structures can be assigned Apprentices). The cost is simply another Miner and 10 Alcohol. Think I know what I need to buy next! So many different things to do in this game - one of the big reasons why I love playing it so much.

Turn 42 … Someone new (Clan Warren) finally joins us! And wow, are they built for battle: Wild and Tough, giving them extra Power, Morale, and reducing the Damage they suffer in combat by half. Damn. Makes me want to knock some heads together. Might be time to bring back the Adventurous Clan Ingel (Archer) and retrain them in something where they don't need to be able to encamp… I decide to research Spearmen after finishing up Brick Makers, pushing back Bread Makers yet again. Just imagining Clan Warren as a Spearman makes me giddy. Making them Lancers would be even more fun, but there's definitely no way I'm amassing Warhorses at this stage of the game.

Turn 43 … PERMANENT GOLD MINE IS ONLINE! Now is when the fun really starts. Clan Ulfert is now making Coal, and it's time to switch Clan Askan over to turning that into Stone Blocks - I think this should be a nice, reliable way of producing my permanent Structures.




Gold Mine is now online!



...



And with that we'll wrap things up for now. In the May update we'll get into some of the fun things I do with that Gold Mine!

- Jon

3
AtG - Developer Updates / March 2018 Update - Diplomacy
« on: March 02, 2018, 10:11:38 AM »
Hey all, in this update we'll be taking a quick tour of the design for the new diplomacy system.

In last month's post I talked a lot about high-level design goals, but another important consideration is how things actually play out from the player's perspective, especially with an abstract system like diplomacy. What is the actual thing that you're doing? What is the player trying to achieve? You know, what's the point?

This being a game about Barbarians in the Dark Ages diplomacy in AtG is pretty blunt and straightforward. Your goal isn't building trade networks, spreading your religion, or anything particularly nuanced - the focus here is on war and relationships which lead to it (or not). Having someone declare war on you is the punishment for unsuccessfully navigating the turbulent waters of international politics, and remaining at peace (and thus able to follow through on whatever agenda you're pursuing) is the reward for success.

Success won't come easy though, as some leaders are naturally cranky while others might be in the midst of a feud and expect you to take sides. Who you support and who you snub is a big deal in AtG, because make someone mad enough and you can be pretty sure that they'll show up on your doorstep with lots of unhappy friends.

Furthermore, once you've made an investment in a relationship there should be a tangible reward for having done so. This is often where diplomacy systems in other strategy games fall short, as the fickle whims of the AI RNG can easily spoil a lot of hard work. If the decisions you make don't effectively keep you out of war then everything falls apart pretty quickly, so we also need to make sure relationships in AtG are fairly reliable.

With all of this in mind here are the elements we've included, and the very specific roles we have in mind for them.



Relationship Components


Leverage

Leverage is simply the sum of the player's Relationship Level, Influence, and Reputation (see below) that is or would be spent in a single transaction in order to get an AI Leader to do something, such as declare war on another Leader. After a transaction is finalized, the Influence and Reputation used in achieving it is spent and forever gone, while the Relationship Level remains unchanged.


Relationship Level (RL)

The most basic metric into diplomatic relationship is your Relationship Level. RL determines how favorably or unfavorably disposed an AI Leader is towards the player. It shapes that Leader's behavior, e.g. willingness to make Demands or go to war. In terms of specifics, it is a fundamental component of how a Leader decides which "Approach" to use (see below) and RL is a factor in determining Leverage when negotiating a transaction. The RL scale ranges from -4 to +4 and normally starts at 0, but can be modified based on a Leader's Personality Traits (e.g. -2 RL if 'Belligerent'). Having 9 total levels provides both enough room to do interesting things but also not so many that keeping track of where you are on the scale becomes a chore - each level matters while still providing enough wiggle room to move up and down with varying granularity based on the situation (refusing a request for aid is bad, but declaring war is really bad).


Influence (Inf)

Influence is, in essence, diplomatic currency with a Leader. It can be spent alongside RL and Reputation in order to increase your Leverage with a Leader when negotiating a transaction of some kind (e.g. asking the Leader to Denounce someone else, or publicly Declare Friendship). Inf is usually earned and lost alongside RL - doing a small favor for a Leader might increase both your RL and Inf by 1. This gives players the option of achieving some kind of bigger diplomatic option once, after which the Inf is spent. The player's options will be more limited after that, but they will still remain friends with the other Leader. The Player can proactively earn Inf by Offering a Gift or Holding a Feast in a Leader's honor (see below).


Reputation (Rep)

The fourth and final Diplomatic metric is Reputation, which is similar to Inf except for being a global currency that can be spent with any Leader (in addition to or instead of Inf). Rep is fairly hard to earn, and usually comes from facing down some kind of difficult situation (e.g. agreeing to help a Leader in need, or refusing a demand from Attila knowing he will go to war as a result). The effect and usage of Rep can differ based on the Leader and their Personality Traits (e.g. an 'Isolationist' Leader might ignore Rep entirely, while it might have double the effect on a 'Gullible' Leader).



Diplomatic Actions

The game contains a list of core actions that can be taken by either the human player or AI Leaders. The full list is as follows:
  • Denounce
  • Offer Gift (Wealth)
  • Hold Feast (Food Gift)
  • Request Aid (Food)
  • Request Alliance
  • Request Denouncement
  • Request War
  • Demand Tribute
  • Demand Denouncement
  • Declare War
Each Action has different requirements, costs, and effects associated with them that I won't bother to list out in full here, as it's a lot of numbers and I mainly want to focus on mechanics. For the most part Actions can usually only be performed once, so it won't be possible to butter someone up by holding feasts in their honor every few months or anything like that (though you can of course declare war more than once).

The effects of an Action are pretty much fully predictable. If Attila Demands Tribute of you, then you know that by accepting your RL will increase and he'll leave you alone. Refuse and it will drop, making you a target but also earning Rep that you can spend with other Leaders (should you survive long enough to take advantage of it!).



AI Leader Behavior

The final piece of the puzzle is how the AI leaders actually decide what to do on their end, and this is ultimately defined by their "Approach" towards each other Leader. Different leaders will have preferences for different Approaches, but the effects of the approaches themselves is fairly consistent.

The early game doesn't involve much diplo - players are simply exploring the map and run into each other. Not much happens on the diplomatic front during the first 48 turns - from this point on things start to get interesting though.

Early interaction mainly takes 3 forms:
  • Bullies trying to put other Leaders in their place, primarily through making Demands (and then following up with war should they refuse to give in).
  • Friendly Leaders (especially those with the 'Social' or 'Needy' Personality Traits) making requests.
  • Leaders who dislike each other trying to undercut their rival with the Player's help.
These behaviors are defined by which one of several Approaches an AI Leader has chosen to adopt for each relationship:
  • Ignore
  • Bully - Active
  • Bully - Inactive
  • Adversary
  • Enemy
  • Appease
  • Support
  • Friend
Similar to the Diplomatic Actions above there are a lot of numbers associated with each of these that I won't bother with here. Which Approach an AI Leader chooses for a relationship very much depends on the RL, with Personality Traits and to a lesser extent randomness also being factors.

A Leader's Approach will often change based on game events, such as being denounced or given a gift. Valid Approaches, along with the percent chance of transitioning between them after different triggers (e.g. receiving a demand) are defined by the Leader's Traits. These Approaches don't predefine what a Leader does, but do define the pool of options and the likelihood of each being chosen after how long (e.g. if demand refused 50% chance of denouncing 3-6 turns later).

I thought a bit about whether or not a Leader's Approach should be visible to the Player, and after going back and forth for a bit I decided to go ahead and make it public and announce all changes via notification. Transparency is very important in a system like this, and having something which fundamentally drives an AI Leader's behavior hidden under the hood felt like a mistake, especially given how straightforward the rest of the system is (RL, Leverage, etc.).

Making Approach visible means announcing changes via a notification is necessary, as the last thing we want to do is encourage players to check the diplo screen with every Leader every turn! This was a flaw in some early Civ diplo systems that I very much don't intent to repeat in AtG. On the plus side, this will help highlight the system for newer players, as although nothing is changing mechanically it reminds you that diplomacy is, you know, a thing, and if other Leaders are starting to get upset at you that you need to get up off your butt and be proactive.

As one last aside, I considered adopting some kind of "storyline" system where different Leaders would follow somewhat pre-structured plans for their diplomatic endeavors, but ultimately deemed it to be too much work for this game - perhaps a project for a future game!


That's it for this month's update. Given that diplomacy is the last big system to go in from here on out we'll probably be focused more on details and less on high-level design concepts.

Thanks as always for reading, and we'll be back in April!

- Jon

4
AtG - Developer Updates / February 2018 Update
« on: February 08, 2018, 12:02:53 PM »
Hey all,

Been a while since I've posted an update about the game here, although the plan is to do so from now on. To check out the past few game updates you can head over to the AtG Kickstarter page.

In this update we'll be focusing on two things: the basic design thinking behind the diplomacy system, along with showing off some new elements of the game from a recent playtest of mine in screenshot-form.

The post started to get a bit long, so I've decided to save the specific details as to how diplomacy will work (e.g. Relationship Levels, Global Reputation, Leader Personality Traits and Interaction Types) for the next update. We'll start off though with a high-level look as to the challenge of diplomacy in a complex strategy game.

 

What "is" Diplomacy?


Diplomacy is one of the biggest challenges in the strategy space, in large part because it's trying to simulate something that's hard to wrap your head around even in the real world.

There are some basic tenets that people agree on when it comes to good military strategy: divide and conquer, pay attention to supply, hold the high ground, etc. But what does "good diplomacy" look like? Sometimes negotiating averts a major war, while other times it simply brings "peace in our time". What looks like prudent flexibility to one can be seen by another as an unforgivable betrayal.

So, yeah, a tough thing to model!

Of course there are elements we can try and incorporate such as personality, trading, making promises, punishing liars and traitors, etc. but it's much harder to simulate all of this than a simple resource-based economy (and even those are hard to get right). Is there room to make something really nuanced and revolutionary here? I think so, but probably not as just one feature among many in an already-complex game.

A few weeks ago I asked on Twitter what people thought made for a good diplomacy system, and I received a lot of good answers. There was certainly some common ground, but the biggest lesson I took was that there was no general consensus - I think mainly due to the challenge I spoke of above.

Another challenge is that diplomacy is meant to simulate the nuance of human interaction. We're not necessarily trying to represent systems here, but more, well, feelings. Alas, this isn't really something that game AI is up for at this point in time, in large part because it's AI, and there's nothing you can do as a developer to convince players otherwise. Regardless of individual moves, it simply feels different playing against a computer. That is starting to change with the kind of work Google's DeepMind has done with AlphaGo, but that is the crown jewel of a multi-million dollar research studio on a game whose rules have been fixed in place. So we've got a long way to go before the 4X genre will be revolutionized in this way.


 
The AtG Diplomacy Design Pillars


So what are we doing in AtG then?

The focus is to come up with an approach that does something interesting and new while most especially making sure to avoid pitfalls of past games, and with that goal we've settled on three fundamental pillars.

 

Distinct, Predictable Personalities


"Oh wait, I know this guy… Awww man."

The biggest problem with most diplomacy systems is that they're too random. While there are probably always well-intentioned rules under the hood which enables AI players to reevaluate their situation and change their minds when it makes sense to do so, in reality this usually ends up turning into, "AI declares war, then asks for peace 10 turns later, then declares war again 10 turns after that".

We'll specifically be avoiding this pitfall in AtG in a couple ways. First is through a focus on Personality Traits. If Attila with his 'Aggressive' Trait finds you nearby then you can be pretty sure war is coming soon (unless, of course, you bow before him and give into his mostly-symbolic demands that you know will soon be on their way). Sometimes war will be a good idea for Attila. Sometimes it won't be. But most important of all is the fact that he wants it. Not every Leader will be this extreme, of course, but it's important to know what you're getting.

 

Tough, But Clear Choices


"Ugh, I was trying to be friends with both of these guys…"

A common problem I see with diplomatic systems in other strategy games is a focus on minutiae, particularly on the trade front. Having a really complex trade system seems like a neat idea, but it usually ends up turning into a game of, "always trade X for Y, then try to exploit the AI out of all their money". In AtG trade will not be a focus - in fact, it won't even be present at all. Instead, the focus will be on the relationships between leaders.

One leader might demand that you choose between him and another leader. In line with the first design pillar though this should always be somewhat predictable - if you try and be friends with a leader with the 'Jealous' Trait you know that also trying to be friends with someone else will trigger him to challenge your loyalty.

Most of the time it's going to be impossible to make everyone happy and keep all of your stuff and your pride - but that's part of the fun of figuring out how to best adapt to and "solve" diplomacy.

 

A Few Basic, But Powerful Player Knobs


"I'm going to tell this guy to pound sand!"

The final pillar is based around the concept of player agency, and ties somewhat into pillar #2. Players should still be able to steer things diplomatically, even if a lot of the game will be responding and adapting to the other tribal leaders.

Sometimes you just want to vent frustration at someone, and in AtG a lot of the time you'll be able to get your way. A leader with the 'Meek' Trait might always give in to the first Demand For Tribute, making the strategy here more about optimizing what to ask for and when. Demanding something from 'Proud' Attila might be guaranteed to fail every time, and draw his wrath - but in return your Global Reputation might receive a large boost, allowing you to build a friendship with another leader.

 

In the next update I'll go into more specifics as to how diplomacy will work in AtG (the 7 Relationship Levels, how Global Reputation works, the list of possible Interaction Types, etc.), but for now we'll wrap things up here. But before we go we'll go over some new screenshots and show off some of the new recent additions to the game.

 

Screenshots!


The first couple images here show off the new tutorial system.

It's mostly made up of basic popups triggered by particular events (e.g. if you're running out of food), but the cool part of the system is that most of it is optional. This supplements the fancy tooltips-in-tooltips system we started working on early in the project, and together should provide a much smoother on-ramp into the 4X experience than any previous title.





Optional tutorial follow-up explanations.



The system is also cool in that the tutorial messages themselves can be nested multiple levels deep.





Tutorial messages can now be embedded and link to one another like tooltips.



We've also made sure everything is accessible in one place, just in case you want to go back to something later, or maybe turn off the tutorial system entirely and explore the in-game help at your own pace.





The game help screen.



You can access this screen either by pressing the '?' button in the upper-left or by pressing the ? key. Not particularly fancy, but it gets the job done!

Speaking of ways to make the game easier to play, I may I've touched on the 'Notes' system in the past, but I can't help but show it off here now, as it was a really helpful feature in my latest playtest.

Right-clicking on any Clan Card brings up a screen which allows you to attach a colored note to the bottom.





Adding a note to a Clan Card.





Clan Card notes in action!



This feature is rather handy, as it makes it easy to keep track of who you want to do what, something that's pretty important in a game in large part about managing Clans! It's especially useful when you have to stop playing for the night and would otherwise have no clue what you were up to the next time you pick things back up.

It's also possible to write notes on the map itself in order to keep track of spatial information, e.g. where to construct that Logging Camp or cut a path through the forest in order to make it easier to get around.





Tile notes revealing my grand plans for the forest.



The last screenshot I'll include shows off the new 'Declare Kingdom' button you might have noticed in one of the previous screenshots. It doesn't show much in and of itself, but I promise the button does work! Just need a bit more Parchment...





Declaring a Kingdom! Well... eventually.



These screenshots are actually from a pretty interesting playtest that I've been writing up notes for. I'll probably compile them into a future update post giving a more in-depth look at how the game plays out.

This was a pretty tough and interesting game where I found myself in the far north without many Resource Deposits but plenty of Forests to harvest Timber from. It also brought up some interesting design questions (How accessible should Resources be? How much variance between starting locations should there be?), so it would be a fun game to explore in more depth.





Brrrrr...



That's it for now. Thanks again for reading, and we'll be back with another update soon!

- Jon

5
AtG - General Discussion / An Apology
« on: February 08, 2018, 11:51:00 AM »
I'd like to apologize to everybody here on the forums who's invested their time, energy, or love into At The Gates while I've been away for the past couple years. I burned out pretty hard trying to steer the development of a hugely complex strategy game, and I know now that I bit off more than I could chew. We got most of the way there, but I hit a wall and that was pretty much it. I needed time to step away, and instead of letting everyone know this I tried to fight on, and the harder I fought the harder it became to stick with it. So I apologize to all of you for both the fact that the game has obviously been very-much delayed and also for not being honest about the situation. I should have been better about communicating what was going on, and promise to do so in the future.

Despite that, at its core AtG truly is a great strategy game, and I'm committed to putting in the time and work needed to make sure that it achieves that potential. I didn't launch this project or Conifer in order to achieve riches or glory or fame - it was in order to make something awesome, something that all of you could join in and experience as well.

So where do we go from here?

Anyone who has contributed at least $25 to the Kickstarter campaign can send me an email (contact@conifergames.com) and request a key in order to play the game right now. If you want to play the best version of AtG I would recommend holding off, but all backers deserve access at this point and will receive it if they so choose.

Additionally, I'll be providing a project update on the 1st of every month from now until we ship the game. The plan is to wrap things up by the end of August, but we may go a bit beyond that as necessary in order to finish up diplomacy and make sure that the final experience is polished enough for a full release.

This game will definitely be released in 2018 though. Diplomacy is the final major feature to go into the game, and after that we'll be focused on polish. The hat I'm wearing now is mainly that of producer, rather than that of designer - and the producer's job is to make sure the game gets done. We already have a solid foundation to work from, and it's already a great deal of fun to play. It just needs to be finished now.

If anyone has any questions or concerns I'll be happy to answer them. I'll be here and active on the forums from now on, so let me know if there's anything you need. I'll be going through my PMs over the next few days as well, and if you haven't heard anything in a few days poke me again and I'll get back to you.

Thank you to all who have contributed to and cared about AtG over the years. I know it's not always been an easy process, but we're getting close to the finish line.

- Jon

6
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

7
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

9
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

10
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+

11
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

12
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

13
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

14
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

15
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




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