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Messages - Jon Shafer

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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 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

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.



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.


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

- Jon

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 ( 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

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

AtG - General Discussion / Re: This game isn't coming out.
« on: May 13, 2016, 02:15:01 PM »
Thanks Rick, it's good to be back!

- Jon

AtG - General Discussion / Update
« on: May 13, 2016, 07:03:38 AM »
Hey all, apologies for the lengthy radio silence. I've been dealing with some health issues the past few months and had to take some time off. I'm back in the saddle as of today though, so no need to worry about whether the game will be finished or not - you should start seeing updates to the game again next week!

- Jon

AtG - General Discussion / Re: Update?
« on: February 24, 2016, 09:45:44 AM »
Sorry for keeping you waiting guys - another big update will be coming in March!

- Jon

November 24 Update …

The long-awaited project roadmap update has been posted - and includes a release date!

- Jon

November 4 Update …

We've been busy getting a complete, finalized project schedule nailed down over the past couple weeks, and should have it ready to go to the presses soon. As such, the next big project update which will detail exactly that should be posted next week, so stay tuned!

- Jon

October 27 Update …

Finished writing a script which automates the process of building and deployment of new game versions - what used to be 19 tedious and error-prone steps now only requires a single click!

AtG - Developer Updates / Re: Progress Updates
« on: October 24, 2015, 01:44:05 PM »
I was recently a featured guest for the Game Designer's Vault, a site dedicated to the discipline and game development generally. My bio page there includes a brief career recap along with recommendations for design-related blogs and podcasts I've found informative. If you're a current/aspiring game designer or simply interested in the craft I definitely recommend stopping by the site and checking out all the other great content it has to offer.

- Jon

AtG - Developer Updates / October 20 Update
« on: October 20, 2015, 12:44:46 PM »
October 20 Update:

Weekly Challenge #1 (titled "Fame & Fecundity") has begun! In this inaugural game whoever owns the most clans on turn 100 will be declared the winner. Everyone who enters a challenge can earn forum 'badges', and each winner receives a cool reward, and the top prize this time around is an autographed box copy! Additional details for this challenge specifically along with the whole concept generally can be found in a new subforum for the private alpha test group.

While challenges are only available to members of the private alpha right now our goal is to build them into a major post-release feature. Monthly challenges have long been popular within the Civ community, but a lack of in-game support has always limited their audience. Another feature that should help AtG stand out on this front is built-in support for goals and rules differing from challenge to challenge. This was originally envisioned as only a design tool, but it turned out to be a plus for players as well because it pushes you to try out new strategies that you might otherwise have never given a shot.

(Oh, and I should probably also mention that sound effects finally work on Mac and Linux as of the latest build! Found a nasty threading bug in a third party audio library… #$@%!)

- Jon

AtG - Developer Updates / October 16 Progress Update
« on: October 16, 2015, 05:42:13 PM »
October 16 Progress Update

Just posted a new alpha build featuring 'weekly challenge' games, ala Spelunky!

AtG - Developer Updates / Relocation + More Updates Coming Soon!
« on: October 05, 2015, 02:38:53 PM »
Hey all, apologies for going dark over the past few weeks - Conifer HQ had to relocate on short notice and we're now finally getting settled back in. In case you're wondering we're now based out of Maryland, a place that very well might be the 'capital' of hardcore strategy game development. Not only that, but we happen to now be working out of the same office as our friends and brothers-in-strategy Stardock Baltimore, Oxide Games, and Mohawk Games!

As for the game, a new update detailing the production side (schedule, budget, etc.) of AtG's development will be going up in the next few weeks, so hang tight!

- Jon

AtG - General Discussion / Re: What's up with ATG?
« on: October 04, 2015, 11:53:43 PM »
Hey guys, apologies for going dark over the past few weeks. Conifer HQ had to relocate on short notice and we're just now getting settled back in. (In case you're wondering we're now based out of Maryland - which very well might be the 'capital' of hardcore strategy game development.) In fact, we're now working out of the same office as friends and brothers-in-strategy Stardock Baltimore, Oxide Games, and Mohawk Games.

A new update detailing the production side of AtG's development (schedule, budget, etc.) will be posted in the next few weeks. Hang tight!

- Jon

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