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Topics - Jon Shafer

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AtG - Developer Updates / 2013 May 28 - New Thoughts on Victory
« on: May 28, 2013, 02:16:29 PM »

At times Iíve been "accused" of being a theme-first designer. While this is true to some extent, itís not the whole story. My philosophy is that (most) games need to evoke a strong theme and build on it with mechanics.

With AtG virtually every idea started with ďso what actually happened in history...Ē However, the enjoyment of a game is the result of interesting mechanics, and your theme is meaningless if you canít translate it into something thatís fun to play. So I always start with and lean on theme, but only when doing so doesnít get in the way of mechanics.

What this means for AtG is that Iím first and foremost looking for ways to make the experience of playing the game feel like forging a barbarian kingdom. Migration is a very cool, innovative feature, but itís only included because, well, thatís what barbarians did.

So what does this have to do with victory? This thinking is critical in the decision as to whether your game should incorporate victory points (VPs), where you perform various actions and winning is a matter of having the highest score, or victory conditions (VCs), where there is a single, unified objective (such as ďconquer the worldĒ).

As Iíve explained on my podcast and in my writing, I dislike VPs because they really donít play nice with theme. If youíre counting your score and chasing points youíre not really going to feel much like a barbarian chieftain. A game that utilizes VPs might very well still be fun, but youíre no longer playing a game about whatever the nominal subject matter is. Thatís a big loss, and one that shouldnít be accepted without a fight. Sometimes a design leaves no alternative to VPs, but you should always first make a strong effort to do without them.

VCs have issues as well. They can absolutely take over a game and funnel players down a single path. Oh, the objective is to conquer the world? Okay, I wonít bother with all of that ďdiplomacyĒ and ďcultureĒ stuff then. Such a result is probably inevitable for any design featuring a single VC, unless itís incredibly tight, everything feeds into everything else and you can switch gears at any time. Games that pull this off are almost nonexistent, but David Sirlinís Puzzle Strike is one good example.

A related issue, particularly common in games with VCs, is the tendency for players to pursue the same strategy in every game. People who like fighting will always try to conquer the world, while builders will always hide away in a corner and train just enough of a military to keep neighbors at bay. While the designerís goal isnít to stop people from doing what they enjoy, the whole point of playing a strategy game is coming up with clever solutions to difficult problems, and if your experience is identical every time you play things start feeling a little dull.

The purpose of my brainstorming over the past week has been a design which provides an environment that rewards strategy, allows players to change course without too much fuss, and ensures every game doesnít play out the same way.

What Iíve settled on (for now!) is three VCs. One is still taking down Rome, but there are now also two ways to win diplomatically: either by forming a confederation with other tribes, or winning the favor of Rome and be declared as its successor. I also considered a true builder victory, but I felt this really doesnít fit into a game about the fall of Rome. Additionally, economic victories are kind of weird in general because they reward simply having powerful tools, rather than leveraging those tools into achievement.

So how am I planning on avoiding the problems of funneling and lack of variety inherent in VCs? Well, my priorities are to 1) allow players to easily jump into and out of strategies, and 2) make their viability heavily dependent on the situation.

There is a balance between allowing players to change their mind whenever they want and asking them to plan ahead and commit. When in doubt though, you should lean towards the former, as flexibility empowers players and keeps them engaged. There need to be consequences, but nobody enjoys playing a game for several hours waiting for an early choice to play out, only to watch it slowly fall of the rails knowing thereís nothing that can be done. Even if things do work out, your later involvement confined to going through the motions, rather than making interesting choices that have a real impact.

This tends to be a big problem with games that feature VCs. ďIím playing a diplomatic strategy!Ē Well, if your best ally gets wiped out by someone else, then what? Unfortunately, the answer is usually ďstart over.Ē Games that make it hard to switch gears really struggle here.

In AtG my aim is to make it fairly easy to change strategies - saving a neighbor from sure destruction might win you a friend for life, and this is an action that can be taken at any point in the game. Youíll still want to cultivate relationships over time for the head start and tangible goodies this offers, but having a shot at winning diplomatically doesnít require such an approach from turn 1.

Another goal of mine is to discourage players from using the same strategies in every game. People naturally fall into a comfort zone, and unless you provide an incentive to not do that your game will be labelled by many as ďboring.Ē Iím not going to completely close doors off, but circumstances will definitely point players in certain directions. Letís look at a couple examples.

If a neighbor is up against the wall and you have the chance to save him, and in so doing earn a huge Relations bonus, that suddenly makes a diplomatic approach rather tempting. If you naturally enjoy playing diplomatically you can still utilize that strategy even without these sorts of opportunities, but itíll be a much harder climb. If you donít start near the water, a naval strategy will be tough, but if you are so lucky then the reward of hard-to-access resources and free, continuous food are hard to pass up.

While this philosophy addresses the biggest issues with a VCs approach, I canít claim itís a silver bullet. At some point in the late game players will have to commit, and eventually it will be too late to switch gears. And at times there will be opportunities that only help specific strategies, where players pursuing a different path wonít be at all tempted to take advantage of them. But I feel this design captures the best of both VPs and VCs, and is absolutely worth trying out. At some point you just have to plant your flag and see what comes of it!

- Jon

AtG - Developer Updates / Game Distribution, Preorders & Victory
« on: May 24, 2013, 12:38:44 PM »

Hi everyone, I have some more news regarding how the game will be available!

At the Gates will be delivered to those who have contributed through Kickstarter and PayPal with the help of the folks over at Humble Bundle and their new store. Some of you might be thinking, ďwait, the Humble Bundle is a... store?Ē Which was also my reaction when I first heard about it! And yes, they do. But itís not a store so much as a system that allows developers to easily sell and manage direct downloads of their games.

A good example is Grim Dawn, another project that was funded through Kickstarter. The awesome folks over at Humble build a database and handle all of the logistics of hosting the game, offering a location for people to download it, and a way to easily send purchasers the info they need.

When the game is ready, everyone will be sent a URL to a custom page that includes links to the download, the Steam key and any other associated goodies youíll receive as part of your contribution/purchase (e.g. the strategy guide and designer notes). You can also create an account with Humble Bundle to manage all of your games purchased through their store, instead of having to keep that original email in a safe place until the end of time.

Needless to say, this is much better than me sending out a few thousand keys by email manually!

On a related note...

In the next week or so weíll be switching from collecting contributions through PayPal over to a formal pre-order system powered by the Humble Bundle Store. Once this happens youíll only be able to purchase the game by itself for $30, or the game plus strategy guide and designer notes for $35 so anyone that hasnít yet contributed but wants the $5 early-bird discount should do so soon!

Lastly, a quick update on how things are going on the development side.

Iíve put AI work on the back burner for a bit (hence the lack of update on that front last week - sorry!) and have instead been focusing on victory and strategy.

Anyone thatís listened to the game design podcast I co-host knows that I havenít been terribly happy with the design I came up with for victory in AtG, and Iíve recently been working to come up with something better. Iíll have an in-depth post on that soon, but to give you all a tease Iíll at least say that youíll be able to win in a couple new ways that donít involve destroying Rome.

I think thatís about it for now. Thanks again everyone!

- Jon

AtG - Developer Updates / At the Gates on Steam
« on: May 13, 2013, 09:09:11 PM »

Iím very excited to officially announce that AtG will be available on Steam! Everyone who contributes at least $25 through Kickstarter or PayPal will receive a Steam key, along with the ability to download a version of the game directly from Conifer with no bundled 3rd party software.

The fact that AtG will only be available via download coupled with Steamís position as the dominant digital retailer means this is very good news. Putting the game in front of a larger audience increases the likelihood of financial success, and that means more patches, content and opportunities to develop unique titles down the road.

Weíll also be using Steam to streamline the process of distributing alpha and beta builds, which we expect to updated roughly once a week. This makes me personally very happy, as managing the logistics of a testing group 500+ strong is a bit daunting.

So, whatís going on with the development of AtG?

Iíll have a hefty post relating to the design of the AI up in the next week. ďStill designing the AI?Ē you might be asking - well, yes!

Planning and crafting an AI for a complex strategy game is almost like building a second game. Youíre evaluating every last detail from a completely new angle. Itís a lot of fun (I love big, challenging projects, in case it wasnít already obvious), but also a ton of work and you canít cut corners. But Iíll have more to say on that soon!

- Jon

Conifer and the Games Industry / How Do You Become a Game Designer?
« on: April 30, 2013, 10:53:53 AM »

Game design: it's like being a rock star, only... with a computer.

In a recent interview I was asked some questions regarding how and why I became a game designer. I've reposted it here, in hopes that it proves helpful for anyone out there thinking about pursuing a career in this field. Design is an amazing line of work and I wouldn't want to do anything else - but I've been very lucky and it's not all roses and puppy dogs.

What made you want to become a game designer?

I've been designing games for as long as I can remember. I started programming simple games back when I was 8, moved on to more complex ones (that I never finished) by the time I was 12, and in high school I spent much of my free time creating detailed mods for strategy games like Civilization 3 and Paradox's Hearts of Iron. By the time I could really consider what I wanted to do for a living, I'd already been doing this kind of work for a decade!

Another factor in me gravitating towards games, both for entertainment and as a creator, was an early interest in history. My mother was a teacher and we always had a bunch of history books around. I particularly grew fond of historical atlases, and it was a fairly natural transition over from this to light PC wargames like SSI's Panzer General.

Was there anyone who inspired you to pursue this career?

There was no industry giant I looked to and said, "Yes, that's what I have to do!" Honestly, I didn't realize there was even a games "industry" until the late 90s, and my exposure to games up to that point was limited to CompuServe shareware and the small rack of games at the local computer store.

My father was the reason I learned to program at such a young age. He'd always wanted to develop games back in the early 80s when he was younger, but instead ended up coding professional flight training software for United Airlines (for 30 years!). To entertain me he'd create basic programs of things like digging tractors, really more toys than games. He taught me some of the basics and would answer questions or help fix problems when I got stuck.

This got me started down the path, but it took me a very long time to actually learn the craft of design. Up until the past few years I'd say I was more fumbling around than truly understanding what I was doing. It's a field where there's truly no substitute for experience.

What were some of the challenges you faced?

The big one is always getting into the industry. A vast number of people want to get into games - most of them without knowing what such a career involves. You have to stand out from the crowd if you hope to break in, and this is especially true with game design. It's much easier to show that you're a good artist, or that you're capable of programming an engine on your own than it is to demonstrate understanding of mechanics, feel and flow in real-world situations. Because of this, design positions typically go to those with seniority who have shown an interest and aptitude for design. It was not my "skills" as a designer, but my knowledge of programming that served as my gateway into the industry.

The other challenge I hinted at earlier is how hard it is to actually get good at design. Everyone thinks they know how to build a fun game, but reaching the point where you can do so capably and reliably really takes time, making mistakes and learning from them. I've been fortunate to have worked with great people that gave me a long leash to grow into the developer I am today.

Do you enjoy the career you have chosen? How long do you intend to stick with it?

I love making games and can't imagine doing anything else for as long as I have to continue "working." I've had incredible and enviable opportunities though - I own and run my own development studio and have the ability to work on whatever I want every day. Not everyone is quite so lucky!

What do you enjoy most about working as a game designer?

A huge part of this job is solving problems, and that's probably what I like most about it. Many people mistakenly believe that being a designer is about coming up with ideas. That is the privilege granted to a handful of very senior devs (and only occasionally), but the majority of design is being directed towards a chunk of work - and instructed to find a way to make it fun. This involves brainstorming, trial and error and learning new things.

Additionally, because my company is so small I must wear a wide variety of hats. It's not typical, but I'm actually designing our games from the ground up, entirely by myself. This allows me to jump from one task to another as need and mood dictate. What I'm working on week-to-week and often day-to-day is always changing, which is often daunting but always rewarding.

Are there any specific tips you can give to those thinking about game design?

Something I often tell people is that if they aren't completely confident this is the line of work for them then they should steer clear. Making games sounds glamorous and is considered by many to be a dream job, but it's really just that - a job.

You're being (under)paid by someone else to do what they need done. The fun stuff is likely being done either by the people paying the bills or those who were there on day 1. Most devs work at large companies on projects they're not particularly excited about, often work frequent overtime, and live with the risk of being laid off at any time. The average length of a game "career" is only 5 years - an absolutely tiny amount of time compared with other industries. A large percentage of people I know in this business... are not happy.

In other words, if you're not already spending all of your free time making games or mods, this probably isn't the line of work for you.

That having been said, for those who do live, breathe and die games development, this is the best career you could have. It's exhausting, frustrating and not nearly as sexy as it seems from the outside, but if you can find a cozy corner of it to call your own - you'll never be happier.

What would you do if you couldn't be a game designer?

Game design has basically been the path I've walked my entire life, so that's a tough question. I briefly considered joining the military and spent a year of college in ROTC (partially motivated by my long-running interest in military history), but that was only a fleeting flirtation.

If I had to leave games behind, I'd probably switch over to a UX/UI (user experience/user interface) role at a tech company like Apple or Google. A big part of making games is crafting the player experience, and good designers spend a lot of time thinking about what it's actually like to play the game. This might sound obvious, but it's easy to lose the forest for the trees when you're working on a project for years, lack the capacity to play it "just for fun," and can't ever know what it's like to come in completely fresh.

Since I've mainly developed strategy titles up to this point, user interface is particularly near and dear to my heart. There are typically a multitude of buttons and text to stick somewhere, and you want to organize it in such a way that it's not impossible for someone to jump in for the first time. A UI position at a big tech company with the time and resources do to things right seems like it might be fun.

Do you need a degree or education to be a designer?

I have a bachelor's in history. I studied computer science for a couple years as well and at one time had the intention of majoring in both. I ended up leaving school early when I had the opportunity to participate in a programming internship at Firaxis. While still working, I re-enrolled in a Maryland university a year or two later and on the side finished up my history degree.

I'm often asked what the best education is for a designer. There are basically two approaches that can be taken.

The first is to focus on programming and get a comp sci degree, and leverage this skillset to wedge your way first into the business, and then later into design. As I noted above, very few people are hired right out of college as designers, and most have earned that position by only after transitioning over from another role. Programming allows you to create something tangible that you can show off to prospective employers. Additionally, the importance of problem solving is shared with game design, so it's a good primer as to the sorts of high-level thinking you'll need to do. If I didn't know how to program, my path into games would have been much, much harder and very different.

The other non-technical approach is to focus heavy on design and try to diversify your experience as much as possible. With this route, the exact degree you get isn't important, so it's mainly about broadening your horizons. History, psychology and philosophy are all great subjects that can really inspire the out-of-the-box thinking that characterizes successful designers. However, without the ability to program you'll face an uphill battle just getting a job. If you don't have any kind of degree that's a second strike against you, and at that point you'll have to be distinctly spectacular in some other way just to get an interview.

If someone truly wants into this industry, the best way to set oneself apart is to spend as much time as possible doing what game developers actually do. Program simple games or engines, create pen-and-paper or cardboard game prototypes, or - best of all - make mods for existing games using the same tools as professional developers. Companies want to hire individuals who they know can produce useful work right off the bat. If you have "potential" or "ideas" but no hands-on experience, then you have no advantage over the hundreds of other people aiming to be hired for the same job. Think about it... if you were hiring someone and investing a huge amount of your own time and money in them what would you want?

How long have you been working in games?

As of May 2013, I've been in the business for a little over 8 years now.

Where do you work and what is your official title?

I am the president and owner of Conifer Games.

AtG - General Discussion / Design Docs Now Available!
« on: April 19, 2013, 11:19:22 AM »
As I'm sure many of you have already read on the Kickstarter page or through email, access to the AtG design documents has been granted to those of you who contributed $125 or more. I've sent a Kickstarter message explaining how it works.

For those of you who would like to join this group, you can do so at any time by contributing the difference between the pledge you've already made and $125 over at our website.

I'm not one to leave the rest of our generous supporters out in the cold, so I've also shared another meaty design doc excerpt!

- Jon

Late last year I brainstormed in detail how the economics system ought to work. It would have been easy enough to just say, "Okay, there's metal and wood and population and this unit costs 50 and that building is 75... BAM! Done."

But a starting point like that is not what you want when building a complex strategy title. Even those decisions which seem unimportant can trigger a chain reaction that dramatically alters your game. Identifying exactly how every piece is supposed to fit together is crucial.

Is a unit intended to be powerful, but expensive? What implications does that have? In what way is wood different from metal, and what strategies can players build (or not) around each? What are the broad goals for pacing and feel?

After switching the economic focus from a social classes to depleting resources, I already knew the rough form the economic system would take. But these were the sorts of in-depth questions I still needed answers for. What follows is the brainstorming I used to find them.

- Jon

Economics Brainstorming

Updated: 2012 November 16

How often to players have to put out fires? How long can they keep taping over problems before a real crisis occurs?

In the first 24 turns or so players will be able to address all of their needs by capturing Improvements owned by the Independents and Hostile Tribes. After that, things start to get dicey.

What Happens after the Freebies are Gone?

There probably needs to be a way to build up a big surplus of something that can help alleviate the pressure for a while. Maybe this is where pillaging becomes vital? If you just capture everything then your maintenance will eventually catch up with you. The only way to get ahead of this curve is with big payouts, and the only way to get that is through pillaging.

When and How are NEW Resource Locations Harvested?

Do players need to earn Romanization Traits before they can construct Improvements for themselves? This seems overly harsh and possibly unfun.

Maybe thereís a bit of a race for the best ResLocs, which are one of the few economic items which arenít a long-term net loss.

If Everything is a Net Loss, Then...

That means there constantly needs to be new input into the system, otherwise it will crash almost immediately. This is true even In the early-game when players are acquiring ďfreeĒ Improvements, because they still cost maintenance. And if building new Improvements also has an up-front cost itíll be basically impossible to survive.

Which means there needs to constantly be new input.

So Where Does the New Input Come From?

In the current design there are only two places: Goodies and pillaging. The first is a trivial and quickly-exhausted supply. The second is good, but can it carry the entire game on its shoulders? Probably not.

Maybe Resource-based Improvements arenít a net loss, but they do become exhausted and need to be replaced. However, non-Resource ones still are. Letís do a quick example.

  • Farm:    +2 Food, -1 Wood
  • Log Camp:   +2 Wood, -1 Metal
  • Iron Mine:   +3 Metal, -1 Wood

The above ecosystem is stable, producing 2 Food and 2 Metal. Another Logging Camp would reduce Metal to 1 but add 2 Wood. As soon as the Iron Mine runs out though things crash. The Logging Camps will shut off once the Metal surplus is burned through, followed by the Farms once the Wood is depleted. As soon as new Metal is available, everything else comes back online.

However, doesnít this just reduce the game down to ďget the MetalĒ? Not if Logging Camps deplete as well! Maybe all Improvements require Wood, even Logging Camps themselves. The trick is then:

Get as much Metal as you can, because itís vital to both economics and military.
When your Logging Camps are about to deplete, build new ones. If you donít have enough because of other pressing matters, then you need to find something to pillage.
These two things combined with Wood for Supply Camps, Ships, etc. should really be pretty interesting.

What about Wealth?

Units require a LOT of Wealth in Maintenance (as well as a fair bit of Food). But Population produces Wealth - in fact, with few enough units (letís say ⅓ or less of a playerís Pop is in Units) then the player will make money.

Is Keeping Track of Depleting Improvements Overwhelming?

It could be, but the goal is for individual turns to matter more than in a traditional 4X - no hitting end turn five or ten times in a row in this game and then realizing you skipped past something. Thereís basically zero ďCity ManagementĒ in AtG, and this ďImprovement ManagementĒ fills that void in a way. In other words: maybe it is a lot to manage, but thatís what the game IS.

Is Population a Net Economic Drain?

If it is, players will find ways to kill off their people, which is probably not what we want. Maybe they eat less Food than Units, so Food can be stable as long as oneís standing army is tiny? Seems good. Pop points can each eat 1 Food, and Units 2.

The Wealth produced by Pop is also valuable, and needed to pay for Units. I like the 1-to-1 relationship, so letís say just like Food each Pop point produces 1 Wealth per turn, and Units require 2. This means to be break-even, players need 2 Pop in Cities for each Unit out in the field.

Units in Cities could use less... should they be completely free, or still cost 1? Free is ďcleaner,Ē but it kind of lets people off the hook who build a ton of units. So I think they should still cost 1 per turn.

What Should the Rate of City Growth Be?

Right now itís 0.1 per turn just because thatís a nice, round number. Itís hard to say what this should be without more data, but we can at least lay down some goals.

Letís say the player starts with two size 3 Cities, producing a total of 6 Wealth / turn. After 10 turns theyíd be up to 4, producing a total of 8 Wealth. If they each train one Unit income drops to 4, which is completely eaten up by the two Units. If theyíre stationed inside a City their maintenance drops to 2, meaning the player will start collecting 2 Wealth again. After that 10 turns the player will have another 2 income, allowing him to support 1 more Unit (or 2 stationed in a City). A new supportable Unit every 10 turns feels pretty good to me!

Scouts are nice because they only cost 1 Maintenance instead of the usual 2 (although thereís no discount for putting them in a City).

Do Larger Deposits Produce More Per Turn, or Last Longer?

Because of how fragile the entire economic system is lasting longer would be much, much easier to get the pacing right for, so thatís the direction Iíd like to go.

Where does Pillaging Fit In?

Should pillaging an Improvement give you a bunch of what it produces, or a bunch of something else? Still not sure about this one. The same type is definitely simpler. This would make sense if either A) you needed a bunch of that Resource NOW, or B) you canít afford the maintenance (usually in Wood) of owning it. I can see both situations arising - the former for obvious reasons (to train a Unit, to pay for your armies, etc.), and the latter because your Wood supplies are already low and youíre going to need to it to replenish your stock of Logging Camps.

How much of a resource should pillaging provide? It canít be too much, as owning the Improvement already requires you to also spend maintenance. In general, players should want to own rather than pillage. So the equivalent of 5 turns of ownership seems right.

Pillaging should also provide the player with a small bit of Wealth. This helps pay for the troops out in the field, and it also makes logical sense. The amount received should be roughly half of the resource amount pillaged, with a bit of variation depending on the type of Improvement (more valuable ones net more Wealth).

What happens if the Improvement being pillaged is close to running out anyways? Does it give the full amount, or a smaller ďpro-ratedĒ one? Probably should be the latter, but pillaging a half-depleted Iron Mine for only 7 Metal isnít much to write home about. Maybe the most you can get is half of what remains - so an Iron Mine that still has 40 Metal left inside would provide the full 15 for pillaging, but once its down to 20 it would only give 10.

Can players pillage their own Improvements? Pillaging Farms for Supply will probably be a fun, painful strategy so we definitely want to allow that. I think we do have to permit it and allow it to provide the full amount, otherwise players will try to do things like let the enemy capture Improvements just so they can pillage them for the resources.

Forum Announcements & Questions / Forum Email Now Working
« on: April 10, 2013, 08:59:55 PM »
Anyone who tried to reset their password or anything like that probably noticed that, well, the email it said was sent never actually showed up. Well, that's finally been fixed now. Never would have thought that my custom ConiferGames email domain would have to sent out via a custom Gmail SSL address...

- Jon

Conifer and the Games Industry / Your Feelings on Mobile Games?
« on: April 09, 2013, 11:22:34 AM »
As I'm sure all of you know, we'll be making an iOS version of AtG. In part, this is an experiment to see 1) how difficult it is to do so, and 2) whether or not complex strategy games are really viable on that platform. Given what I've seen thus far, I'm expecting the answer to #2 to be "no," but you don't know until you try. Plus, I'm a mobile junkie (although not with games), so the prospects of working on that platform seem fun.

What do you guys think of mobile games? Obviously the majority of the current selection isn't really targeted at strategy gamers, and the business model in some are a bit exploitive. But how likely would you be to play AtG or games like it on mobile platforms? And how much would you be willing to pay for them?

- Jon

The state of games development is something I spend quite a bit of time thinking and writing about, and I'm curious as to your guys' opinions.

For me the most exciting opportunities are with indie development and Kickstarter specifically. We're starting to see a wave of new games and teams popping up, and this should give us a number of exciting new games.

My biggest worries are related to that, along with more traditional development. The budget of AAA games isn't really sustainable any more. When you're spending 20-50 million dollars on every project, all it takes is one or two to completely torpedo a company. I'm obviously a big indie guy, but I also enjoy my Skyrims, Red Dead Redemptions, etc. I really am concerned that these will become ever more rare, particularly with the new console generation, which is sure to increase budgets even further.

On the indie/Kickstarter end of things, I think there's a lot of optimism out there, but the harsh realities of the business will start to come knocking soon. The majority of projects by well-funded and experienced development studios either produce bad games or nothing at all, and it's likely the failure rate will be even higher for those setting off on their own.

I've touched on this in other threads and articles, but I wonder what the overall impact will be on crowdfunding. I'd be surprised if it were killed outright, but it will likely become much more "closed off," and the tendency we already see for big names and titles built on nostalgia succeeding while everything else struggles mightily to reach their funding goals. This will increase the temptation to set a low target in order to scrape by, which is likely to exacerbate the problem. We might very well be seeing the "golden age" for a team with an interesting idea having the best shot of succeeding.

Regardless, I like the generation direction things are heading in. Just hoping that Microsoft eases up a bit, and we're not stuck with a PC future with a closed store - that would be the worst case scenario, at least in my mind.

- Jon

AtG - General Discussion / Other Games Similar to AtG?
« on: April 08, 2013, 06:31:54 PM »
Do you guys have any suggestions for titles that are similar to AtG, or simply include one of its prominent features? These can be computer games, board games, etc. The goal of this thread is partially to help give the dev team new research material, but also to give everyone else suggestions for games that could occupy their time while we're working on the game. :)

- Jon

AtG - General Discussion / Official AI Questions/Suggestions Thread
« on: April 08, 2013, 06:29:34 PM »
I know this is a topic I threw out with the AI mini-update, but I decided to shift things over to a more centralized location with a less specific focus.

FYI, in the next week or two I'll have a bigger, "chunkier" update with more details as to what we're planning. Pretty excited for this, as I feel really good about our approach addressing many of the common issues and providing a solid opponent. :)

So what do you all feel should be our priorities with the AtG AI?

- Jon

AtG - General Discussion / Biggest Problem With 4X Games?
« on: April 08, 2013, 06:23:32 PM »
If you had to pick just one issue that you have with past 4X games to be fixed, what would it be?

For me it's the tendency for these titles to get easier as you play. I love the opportunities and challenges in the early game, but so often this dries up in the midgame once exploration and expansion have been basically wrapped up. This is obviously something I'm aiming to address in AtG, and it's fortunate that this subject matter offers some obvious and interesting solutions. :)

- Jon

AtG - Developer Updates / 2013 April 2 - AI - Mini Update
« on: April 02, 2013, 12:16:57 PM »
Woohoooo, the first update! This is going to be a fairly short one, but I wanted to let you guys know what I've been up to, lest you worry that I've run off to a Caribbean island something. My intention is to post one major update every month, with smaller unplanned ones in-between going up here on the forums.

So for the past couple weeks I've been heavily focused on designing the basic structure of the AI. As I've noted in previous articles, the basic goals are effective behavior and minimal mistakes, achieved with simple, targeted systems.

I've been creating several "scenario sandboxes" in the AI brainstorming docs to establish what an AI response should be to various situations, along with the process for how decisions are made. [Shameless Plug] If you'd like access to these and other documents, you can use PayPal on our website to get up to the $125 tier! [/Shameless Plug]

Right now my brainstorming has led me to an AI design with four main systems:

  • Objectives AI (OAI) - The meat of the AI where strategic plans are laid. Its varied Objectives range from "I'm out of Metal... spawn an Objective to grab that Iron deposit over there" to "The resources in this area are diminishing, I need find and head for a more fertile one" to "I don't like the Picts and they'd be easy to attack, so let's prepare an invasion."
  • High Command AI (HCAI)- This divvies up the player's Units between various "Military Goals" and orders them around. If we're trying to muster an invasion force on the eastern flank and need to draw strength from various parts of the kingdom, the HCAI is what makes that happen.
  • Tactical AI (TAI) - This system takes over from the HCAI when there are very specific, intricate tasks that must be accomplished (typically when there are enemies nearby). It runs through and scores a large number of possible action combos, choosing the best option. An approach like this is necessary if the goal is to reduce the number of mistakes to the absolute minimum - trying to teach it to "do everything right" in one go is basically impossible when there's as much to consider as there is in AtG. If the TAI slips up just once and forgets to protect a single Supply Camp, it could very easily be the end of everything.
  • Economic AI (EAI) - This handles production, spending of resources, etc. For the most part it hums along happily enough, just keeping things running. However, the OAI and HCAI can make "requests" of the EAI, such as "build more Units, ASAP!" (because we're being invaded from two sides - but the EAI doesn't know or care about that). The EAI does its best to balance these competing priorities.

There's a lot more detail I could go into here, but I'll save that for future updates, as I want to keep this one fairly high-level. In your guys' opinion, what should the AI always/never do? What's the most important thing for it (and me!) to focus on?

- Jon

Off-Topic / Fairness, Discovery & Spelunky
« on: March 26, 2013, 07:16:13 PM »

What is the secret recipe that makes Spelunky so wonderfully addicting?

Spelunky is, without a doubt, my favorite game of the past several years. I was extremely excited when its brilliant designer, Derek Yu, agreed to come on our podcast a few weeks ago. (And perhaps even more so when I heard today that a portable PSVita version is in development!)

So what kind of game gets a designer so excited? Well, I'm glad you asked! The answer is one that is extremely, incredibly and completely... unfair. Wait, hold on? Haven't I said that "unfairness" is a bad thing?

What is Spelunky?

Before we start digging into details, we should first explain what Spelunky is. The game is a roguelike platformer with random levels. You play as an Indiana Jones-esque adventurer exploring abandoned mines, jungles and temples. Along the way are a variety of traps, enemies, items and equipment that can either aid or thwart your quest. If you're curious what all of that adds up to, check out this YouTube video.

I could go on at length about how great the randomly-generated levels are, but I've already covered that ground in other articles. Today, I'll be talking about the other (not so) secret ingredient which helps make roguelikes addicting - their brutal unfairness.

If you lose all of your health in Spelunky, it's game over. There's no saving or reloading - death is truly the end. And it's exceptionally easy to die, as many traps and enemies will kill you with the slightest touch. Pretty unfair, right?

What is "Unfair?"

A game is unfair either when the consequences for failure aren't commensurate with the resulting penalties, or when players feel like they've been subjected to a penalty due to circumstances outside of their control. It seems fairly obvious that Spelunky is unfair on account of it violating Section 1A of this definition.

A point I've made in the past is that fairness is tied to expectations. The first time I played Spelunky I had no idea what it was, other than a neat little platformer. After dying a few times I still hadn't figured out how to get back to where I was. A friend told me the horrible, deflating truth - the only way to get back was the hard way. Every single time.

At this point a part of my brain suggested that maybe I should just put this game down. After all, touching one lousy enemy and losing everything is completely... unfair! Right?

At this point you might as well just make it spikes all the way across.


I'm the kind of gamer (and person) who enjoys a huge challenge. Regardless of the style of gamer you are, much of the satisfaction provided by interactive entertainment is the feeling of accomplishing something. Whether it's finding the perfect arc in Angry Birds or beating Spelunky the hard way, we're all seeking to be a part of something we're proud of.

And this is why many of the rules for game design are not law. As long as the player feels like he or she is accomplishing something - i.e. having fun - it doesn't matter how they got there.

That's not to say that Spelunky is fun due to sheer dumb luck or in spite of being a poorly-designed game. While some might find it to be a humble platformer that stands out simply because it's more than a little unfair, there's a lot more going on under the hood than meets the eye.

What Spelunky Does Right

Much of Spelunky is in fact "fair," according to our dictionary definition. While it has some of the heaviest consequences of any game out there, virtually everything that happens is within the player's control. Let's look at a few examples.

Enemies can jump out of pots and hurt you if you whip them, but there's no risk if you instead pick them up and throw them. Arrow traps can always be spotted ahead of time, and you can nearly always avoid them or trigger them with an object (should you happen to be prepared and carrying one). All enemies have very specific movement and attack patterns that can be anticipated and exploited.

In spite of the first impression it gives off as a twitch game, the quality Spelunky rewards most is patience. Take a methodical approach to every obstacle you face and there's a very good chance you'll make it all the way to the end. But that assumes you know how to overcome those obstacles. And here's where the critics who say Spelunky is unfair have some ammunition.

Do you have enough information to decide whether or not to buy the mystery box? Sure you do - you know that you could get literally ANYTHING. The game does not hide this fact.

Fairness & Information

Spelunky is a roguelike, not just in the sense that if you die you have to restart, but also in that nothing is explained to you. "Welcome to our world! Here's how you jump. Good luck!"

What is the activation distance of that arrow trap? How much damage does a big spider do when it hits you? What does it take to kill it? Is the camera really worth $15k?

There's only one way to find anything out: the hard way.

One of my design tenets is that players need complete information in order to make strategic decisions (and by extension effectively accomplish something, and have fun). Spelunky and other roguelikes seem to completely eschew this rule, and yet it happens to be one of my favorite games ever. So what's going on here?

The trick is that you do have all of the information you need - everything can (and will) kill you. This isn't a case of bad user interface or a designer accidentally under-equipping players to deal with the challenges they will face. This is a game that you are supposed to try, fail at, and try again. By no means does this approach appeal to everyone, but it is not a mistake or flaw.

Discovery & Focus

Learning and experiencing new things is one of the most enjoyable aspects of games. Roguelikes take this concept to the absolute extreme. Once you're run out of new experiences the game is done. If you're able to accept that losing your progress is simply the part of making this journey roguelikes open up an entirely new world of gaming.

However, this isn't a design philosophy you can sprinkle in to improve the flavor. It has to be the fundamental core. If a large RPG like Skyrim was identical except for death being swift and permanent it would have been nowhere near as successful, as Skyrim is about exploring a large world while also continually building on past progress.

Could a big game like Skyrim have worked as a roguelike? Perhaps, but Bethesda chose to spend their resources building a detailed, fixed world. And wisely so. It's impossible to have a landscape of that quality, size and scope that is also randomized. And roguelike without a procedural environment loses a great deal of the very exploration that makes it appealing to begin with.

Without exception, you would always rather have one amazing game than two mediocre ones stuck together.

Even after 1,200 playthroughs there were parts of Spelunky I'd never seen before. Now THAT'S replayability!

What Spelunky Does "Wrong"

There is one aspect of Spelunky that is less defensible from the perspective of a mechanics-focused game designer.

Spelunky features what I like to call a "living" world. Players can affect it with their decisions, but with or without input it will continue running along just as well. Spiders jump around, traps fire when something moves nearby, tiki men are killed by spike traps, bomb frogs explode when damaged, etc. This is a very attractive quality, as it leads to emergent behavior - gaming's holy grail.

The problem is that this living world coupled with the game's extreme brutality can result in some truly unfair situations. The best example involves the infamous shopkeepers. Their stores sell items, many of which are incredibly useful and also expensive. Players have the option of buying the items, trying to steal one of them and escaping, or killing the shopkeeper and snatching all of his goodies.

Because of how lucrative the latter two options are, the game imposes harsh penalties for engaging in funny business. The shopkeepers have extremely itchy trigger fingers and will lose their minds and start jumping around and shooting at the slightest provocation. From that point on, every shopkeeper will enter this state upon spotting you, and extra one is placed near the exit of each level just for good measure.

Well, if an exploding frog happens to be struck by a trap and lands near a shopkeeper, guess what happens? It's possible for the shopkeepers to declare total war on you without you ever having seen one.

Less... dramatic examples of unfairness can also be found. There are rare times when you start a level with a trap or enemy armed with a boomerang pointed right at your face, with little or no chance to escape. If you happen to be desperately clinging to a single health point, this means game over.

When Unfairness Works

Is this truly unfair? By now you might expect me to say something like, "it might seem that way, but..." Well, in this case there's no denying it!

But we should ask whether or not this is bad. The shopkeepers going insane because of something  outside of your control is overtly unfair, but it isn't unlike having a promising run where you have the jetpack and shotgun "derailed" by a random dark level - something else that happens in Spelunky. Would I change either of these things, were I the designer? Honestly, probably not.

Spelunky is an experience game. You immerse yourself in it, play it hundreds or even thousands of times, grimace after tragic near-victories, and pump your fist when you pop open a crate on level 2 and find a super-rare jetpack inside.

It's a game you tell stories about months or even years later. The best stories are the wacky ones that you never forget - fair or not. Games with extremely tight design can sometimes be so locked-down that crazy, memorable stories all but disappear. This is one of the reasons why many older titles still have dedicated followings. The "rougher" style of 'anything can happen!' design turns many people away, but those who stick around are treated to some of the best gaming experiences out there.

The difference with Spelunky is that this comes together not by accident or experiment, but by precise intention. It's certainly not for everyone, but let's be honest - no game is.

I often say this, but it bears repeating. There are very few mechanics that can always be called bad game design, and certainly none that are always good.

What is always good is having a clear idea of your end goal and what does and does not fit into that. The designer has two jobs: establishing an initial vision, and then acting as sieve and gatekeeper. This is the lone metric by which all game design should be judged. Spelunky is an excellent example of how a game that superficial appears to incorporate "bad" design can, in fact, be one of the most finely-crafted titles ever produced.

- Jon

AtG - General Discussion / Biggest Concerns for AtG?
« on: March 26, 2013, 06:47:03 PM »
Now that I've heard from you guys what you're excited about, I'd like to hear what aspects of AtG give you pause. This could be game design stuff, art, our ability to get [X] done, etc. Don't hold back now - I want to hear your honest feedback, as that's the only way you can make sure you're on the right track. :)

- Jon

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