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Topics - Jon Shafer

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61
AtG - Developer Updates / The Enemy in the Mirror
« on: February 20, 2013, 02:42:03 PM »


One of the reasons we play games is that they allow us to achieve great things which, quite honestly, we're probably not capable of in real life. While designing ATG I toyed with several ideas for how to provide that sense of accomplishment and progress. What I settled on is the "Romanization" system.

Romanization is actually a fairly recent addition to the game. For a while there was no progression mechanic at all, but I realized we needed more structure and rewards. One of my original ideas was to have two systems. The first was technology as traditionally represented in 4X games. The other was a system that incentivized working with the Romans, as typically there are plenty of reasons to fight your neighbors, but basically zero which suggest cooperating with them.

I eventually came to the conclusion that combining these two was the right way to go. Barbarians doing research doesn't really make sense, and why add a second system that has essentially the same function? At first I was hesitant to merge the two (even for designers your natural inclination is more is better and different is bad), but after stepping back and performing a cold, objective analysis it became obvious this was the best approach.


How Does Romanization Work?

Every time you capture a Roman city or complete a Roman request you earn the ability to adopt one new Perk. How did I decide on this?

I wanted to push players towards Rome - not just diplomatically but also militarily. The Roman factions start off as superpowers you really shouldn't mess with. But I also wanted a tension between staying out of their way and picking a fight when their guard is down. But if there isn't a powerful reward for fighting them, then nobody ever would! Enter: Romanization Perks. They are designed to be so strong that grabbing a few early on can make a huge difference.

Because the Perks are so useful, I also had to be mindful of exploits. In the current design, only one Perk can be earned from a Roman city - by anyone. Without a restriction like this, I can envision players trying to "game the system" such that Roman cities are easier to snatch than they should be.

For example, clever players might leave Roman cities they've captured undefended, allow for them to be grabbed by other barbarians, and then recapture them for another bonus. Loopholes like this take the focus off of the game's theme and instead turn it into an optimization puzzle. Those can be fun, but that's not what I'm trying to build here, so sorry folks - first come, first serve!




Switching Gears

Another important feature of the Romanization system is the ability to "refund" Perks and choose new ones. Why did I allow for reallocation?

As I've spoken about at length in the past, it's important to offer players as many "knobs" as possible, empowering them to adapt their strategies to an evolving situation. Everyone will make mistakes and for the experience to be meaningful consequences are necessary, but most players simply don't enjoy losing everything when they make one wrong turn.

The second reason, which I've also touched upon, is that ATG is hard. Overcoming difficult challenges is very rewarding, but this is only possible with proper tools. It wouldn't be much fun and certainly not fair to play a game of chess where you only had pawns. The ability to shift gears at any time enables players to experiment and continue on when their situation might otherwise have seemed hopeless.

While it may be possible to switch every Perk you've chosen and completely reforge your empire in a single turn, there are consequences for doing so. If there weren't, then ATG would boil down to min-maxing your Perks every turn. I want there to be interesting strategic trade-offs between evolving and sticking with what you've got, but too much freedom transforms the game into something completely different.

The mechanic I settled on to deter this behavior was "instability." Each time you reallocate Perks your "instability counter" is set to 6 turns, and while this is effect your taxation and troop morale are reduced. After the countdown ends all penalties are removed. However, if you reallocate again before it hits 0, the counter is reset back to 6 and the penalties increase. It can eventually reach the point where you're basically bringing in no money and couldn't fight off a swarm of flies.

When it comes to effects that are designed to deter certain "bad" behaviors, I'm not a fan of hard caps, ala, "once you reallocate, you simply cannot do so again for 6 turns." This approach tends to result in collateral damage that hurts all players, instead of just those trying to find exploits (basically the same principle behind software copy protection!). However, escalating penalties prevent exploits without closing off doors. Switching twice in a short period of time may be painful, but if you're suddenly attacked by the Huns on one side and the Romans on the other you're probably willing to bite the bullet and switch over to full war mobilization!

Of course, as with all game development, I might wake up tomorrow and decide I hate this design and throw it out in favor of something completely different! I don't anticipate going this route, but hey, you really can't ever say. If it does happen I'll be sure to let you guys know!

A couple people have commented that allowing Perks to be reallocated doesn't make sense, but I disagree - if you examine how history played out it's actually fairly realistic. Every tribe became absorbed into the new order we today refer to as medieval Europe. The Franks disappeared, and in their place you ended up with the French - an amalgam of Franks, Burgundians, Romans, Gauls and a dozen other groups.

It took centuries for this identity to take shape, and a variety of influences helped dictate the final form it assumed. A tribe might adopt new customs, abandon them, then return to those same practices a couple generations down the road. Late antiquity was an era of change, and not just for the Romans but also for Europe's newer inhabitants.




Inevitability

Another question I've received is whether or not you have to become Romanized in ATG.

Strictly speaking, you do not, but purposefully avoiding it is probably unwise. Perks basically offer the same benefits as technologies in other 4X games, and you don't really want to go without those! It does sound like it might be fun though, so why did I not purposefully build a "non-Romanized" strategy into the game?

Well, for one, that's just not how it went historically! As I touched upon earlier in the article, barbarians that didn't become Romanized were eventually erased from the map and rolled into the kingdoms which did. I could make things up, but there's no roadmap for what a successful non-Romanized kingdom would look like. ATG may not be a "historical" game, but it still tries to evoke the theme and mood of the era, and adding completely fictitious elements would undermine this goal.

The other and more important reason why Romanization isn't optional is because it's fun. Instead of progressing, acquiring new bonuses and becoming more powerful, you could... not? Sure, we could add a completely new system as an alternative, but this would entail a significant amount of extra work to develop, balance, test, etc. I won't close the door on that possibility, but it's certainly not possible with our current scope.

Although strategies that completely omit Romanization aren't built into the game, I like the idea of including a "Never Become Civilized" mode which makes it impossible to select Perks. Only crazy people would play that way, but hey... I'm not one to judge!

- Jon

62
AtG - Developer Updates / The Reason for the Seasons
« on: February 18, 2013, 03:10:44 PM »


One of the most exciting features we've incorporated into At the Gates is seasonal map change. But what actually happens? How random are the effects? What design risks do seasons pose? And where did we get the idea for them to begin with? All of these questions - and more - shall soon be answered!


Why Seasons?

In my last article I talked about how important random maps are in the 4X genre. To summarize: 1) unpredictable environments force players to adapt their strategies, instead of going through the same motions in every game. 2) They add replayability, as there's a sense of discovery each time you play.

However, most strategy games have steered clear of maps that change as you play. In part, this is the result of theme and scope, as a game which covers 6,000 years doesn't really lend itself well to a map that changes from turn to turn. But while understandable, this is still a huge missed opportunity.

This possibility has been rattling around inside my brain for the past two or three years. Coupled with my new design philosophy of finding ways to encourage players to adapt, I found myself seeking out a game idea which could bring map evolution front and center. There are a number of minor features that could fit into pretty much any strategy game, regardless of subject matter (e.g. storms), but I wanted something big.

In mid-2012 I had been on a Roman history kick and a game focusing on that era featuring seasons and a difficulty curve that ramped up over time seemed like the perfect place to start. I also have some other crazy ideas I can't wait to try out, but I'm afraid those will have to wait for my next game - sorry guys!




What Do Seasons Do?

Seasonal effects in ATG have themselves evolved over time. My goal from the very beginning was to make supply a key component of combat, and in the original design the main impact of winter was simply to make warfare more difficult. However, over the past year the seasons successfully wormed their way into pretty much every corner of the game!

Many months ago I shifted the economy over from a social class-based system to one which instead focuses on resource depletion. How much food you had available became a big deal. While doing an early playtest I looked at the map in January and said to myself, "you know, it doesn't really make sense that farms are still producing food in the middle of winter - maybe I could try turning that off?" The change was easy to make and the impact profound - now you really needed to plan ahead to make sure your soldiers and citizens don’t starve. Getting the balance right was tricky, and I'm sure as we continue make changes I'll have to fiddle with the numbers another fifty or sixty times!

Altering the effects of winter got me thinking about possibilities. "We're changing the base terrain of tiles, but why stop there?" After all, most rivers freeze during the winter, shouldn't we be reflecting that somehow? Within a few hours I'd whipped up a system where the properties of a river tile changed when it snowed. "After all, it should be easier to cross a frozen river, right?"

While reading about how the Rhine posed a huge obstacle to invading Germanic armies most of the year, another great idea hit me. "We could have two types of rivers, one of which are actually so large they're impassable... except during the winter!" I was incredibly excited by the possibilities opened up by this.

The ability to do something or not is a huge tool in game design. Having fireballs VS not having them is a much more meaningful difference than having a level 1 fireball VS a level 4 fireball, regardless of what they actually do! In a strategy game, being able to cross into certain parts of the map or not is the functional equivalent.

It wasn't long before I took the natural step of having coastal areas turn into sheets of ice, preventing ships from entering (or leaving) those tiles. I even went one further and added this feature to land tiles as well. Northern and mountainous areas of the map can be hit with “blizzards” that make them impossible to enter or leave. These don't last long, but they can really throw a monkey wrench in your plans, so you have to be cautious when campaigning in particularly harsh regions.

The last set of weather effects I came up with were those not tied to winter. As Kay was working on the art for the rivers, she remarked, "why not have rivers flood as well?" I quickly wrote a system where not only rivers could flood, but marshes as well. While not as significant a change as large rivers become passable, they did help spice up the months which don't see nearly as much seasonal change.

Flooding, in turn, suggested other ways weather could affect the map outside of winter. One obvious candidate remained: areas drying up in the summer. I added a new "hot" climate type which behaved similarly to the existing temperate climate, only with a small chance of tiles becoming "scorched" in July and August. When this occurs, the available supply and ability for resident farms to produce food is lost for that turn.




The Risks of an Evolving Map

All of these cool new features certainly sound promising, but there are a couple big drawbacks that I've also had to be mindful of.

The first is randomness. If a game is too unpredictable, players will have no idea what to expect and won't be able to plan ahead. Should this year's winter be much colder and three months longer than usual it could completely wipe out your food supply and result in everyone starving to death. While certainly realistic, I can't say that this would be much fun for most folks!

As a result, the seasons in ATG lean on the predictable side, with a splash of variation. The way the math is set up (right now, anyways) every type of “climate” has a percent likelihood of being transformed into a seasonal variant in each month of the year. Most tiles will have a 100% chance of being “snow” in January, but it could be 85%, or maybe 15% in the warmer areas. So there's roughly 1 in 7 chance circumstances will be different from what you'd expect.

Maybe that river freezes a month early, giving you the ability to launch your invasion a turn earlier than hoped. Or maybe one of your farm tiles becomes scorched, resulting in a small food shortfall that you’ll have to make up for in other ways. But the impact is never so powerful, so unexpected that you feel completely helpless. Which brings us to the other potential drawback.

As I giggled maniacally while adding flooding to the game, Jonathan remarked, "are you sure this game is going to be... you know, fun to play?" Fair question! I'm sure many of you have wondered the same thing, having repeatedly read about the unforgiving consequences winter can render upon your poor, beleaguered armies!

No doubt, some of the effects are unpleasant, but I purposefully avoided including anything too brutal. For example, units are never instantly killed. In fact, they won't ever die unless they're already on death's door, have completely exhausted their provisions and are still traipsing around in the middle of January.

Additionally, many of these changes are not just obstacles but also opportunities. A river flooding seems like a bad thing, but it might also provide a barrier between you and a hostile neighbor, giving you some time to prepare a defense force. Or maybe a tile stays fertile an extra month or two, allowing your armies some free foraging you didn’t plan on. So the seasons are capable of not just hindering you but also helping you.

However, there's no getting around the fact that most of the effects are not kind. This need not be a bad thing though, as expectations are a major component as to what people do and don't enjoy. If you're playing a game of Civ 5 and suddenly the weather shifts and kills off your army, you're probably justified in being angry! But what about when your sovereign dies in Crusader Kings 2? Certainly, not everyone will like this, but CK2 is a game about characters dying and dynasties being passed on to their heirs. Without that feature CK2 just wouldn't offer the same memorable experience.

The way I see it, taking issue with the negative effects of winter in ATG is akin to being upset that ol' King Stenkil kicked the bucket in CK2. If this is just completely unacceptable, then ATG may not be the game for you. But that's the beauty of "going indie" - not everything we make needs to appeal to everyone. And our goal with ATGis the same as every judiciary: harsh, but fair.

Well... that's the idea anyways! The funny thing about game design is that you don't know what you've actually made until you've put it in front of people! I'm sure we'll hit plenty of bumps along the way, but even so, I'm confident that through iteration ATGwill end up where it needs to be. I hope you're as excited as me to see what form it eventually assumes!

- Jon

63
Conifer and the Games Industry / Building an Empire Builder
« on: February 15, 2013, 03:46:52 PM »


Empire builders (aka "4X turn-based strategy games") are a beloved genre. Unfortunately, they're also somewhat of a rare breed, particularly when compared with the deep yearly lineup of first-person shooters and RPGs.

The problem with 4X titles is that they're not easy to build. Challenges hide behind every corner - not just on the design side but also with the tech and art.

Today, we'll delve into the obstacles developers of these games must face, along with why the end result is worth all of that hard work. And maybe if we're lucky, this article might help motivate someone out there to go and create one of their own!


Designing a 4X Game

Unique gameplay is what sets empire builders apart from all other strategy titles, and a handful of attributes are especially important in this recipe.

The most crucial of these is that you shape the world, not the designer. Players start with a single colonist, city, or planet, and from this lone seed, grow an entire civilization. Everything is shaped by your hand. This level of ownership is empowering, and sadly, very rare in gaming. This is why the deceptively-humble Minecraft can become one of the business' greatest success stories.

The bad news for 4X designers is that an incredibly free-form experience of this sort is fragile. Rather than laying out a clear, controlled path for players, you must instead trust completely in the web of mechanics you've woven. Is it too easy to build a massive empire? Too hard? Is a very niche, unassuming strategy actually so powerful that it's pointless to do anything else? A single flaw in pacing or balance can bring down the entire game.

The risks might be great, but the payoff for successfully walking this tightrope are unmatched - there's just nothing as satisfying as successfully forging a mighty world empire! What are players building this empire on? A map, of course.

But in a 4X game not just any map will do. No, we're talking about a random map. This amazing feature is practically unique to our genre, which is kind of a shame as it's one of the best in all of gaming.




One benefit random maps provide is a sense of discovery. What's out there? Who knows! It's different each time. One of your primary tasks is to venture off into the unknown and find out. Exploring and experiencing new environments is a major reason why some people play other genres, such as RPGs. Well, 4X games have the added advantage of this simply being just one of many excellent bullet points!

The second advantage is the need for players to adapt their strategies to the circumstances. If a single-player game ships with only six maps it's eventually going to be "solved," and boiled down into a small set of optimal strategies, ala tic-tac-toe. But when you have no clue what obstacles, resources and opponents are out there you can never guarantee you have the perfect plan.

These two elements combined are the reason why 4X games are unmatched in terms of replayability. Not only are there are an infinite number of worlds to explore, but every time you play you'll be faced with new challenges and have new opportunities to take advantage of.

So what are the challenges associated with random maps? Well, the biggest one from a design perspective is ensuring your worlds are not just fun to play on but also believable. If you're developing a 4X title based on history and your continents look like big squares then you have a problem! A game doesn't need to be realistic, but it does need to at least be believable and roughly match with players' expectations. Design aside, procedural worlds also have major technical implications, but we'll get to that in the next section...

The final perk 4X games feature that we'll talk about is the value offered by overlapping systems. Wait, isn't this an important feature in pretty much every game? That is indeed true, but the formula used in empire builders is unique. That addictive "one more turn" feeling comes from always having something just around the corner to look forward to. As one aspect of the game is winding down, another steps in to take its place, and by the time you finally check the clock you realize that there's no way you're going to get a full night's sleep!

As with most aspects of a 4X game, proper pacing and balance are the designer's biggest hurdle. It's not easy to craft a ruleset where the pacing isn't fixed but still gives the player decisions and rewards at nice, regular intervals. This is one of the reasons why iteration is so important - your first one, two or even ten attempts will miss the mark. But maybe with the eleventh everything will finally fall into place!




Architecting a 4X Game

When people think of technically-demanding games, rarely are 4X titles the first that come to mind. But most hardware has been developed with one goal: drawing large, highly-detailed 3D models. And how many of those do you see in empire builders? It's hard to say, but the leaders in the recent Civ games are the only example I can come up with!

What 4X games do typically have though are lots small objects. And by lots, I mean LOTS. Between every building in every city, each individual character in the units, hundreds, maybe even thousands of trees... it adds up quickly, and if you're not careful this can bring someone's computer to its knees.

Making a game's art two-dimensional (ala ATG!) can be a huge help, because then you're only drawing one graphic per object, instead of needing to render dozens or even hundreds of tiny sub-pieces for each. However, if you decide to go 3D you're probably going to have to build your own completely-custom suite of technology in order to maximize performance, as middleware engines aren't designed to solve the problems present in 4X games.

Drawing all of those objects is certainly difficult, but managing them might be even worse. We've already talked about the design issues associated with random maps, but the technical challenges are actually far more daunting, which is why so few games include them. Cramming everything you need into the limited processing power and storage space available is already tough. And on top of that you have no idea what the world is actually going to look like? Yikes! For most teams, this is a problem where the available solutions are simply too expensive in time, loss of graphical fidelity or both.

Another demand placed on the programming staff, often overlooked, is the need to make systems modular and allow for rapid and extensive iteration. There's no three-step guide to designing a strategy game, and you're going to make a ton of mistakes along the way. Many features will need to be completely retooled and possibly ripped out altogether. If your code isn't written with this in mind, it can get messy, quick.




Beautifying a 4X Game

The big artistic challenge in every strategy game is balancing clarity with style. Interesting, difficult decisions are the bread and butter of this genre, and for those to exist your situation needs to be clear and the options available to you even clearer.

Assets typically look more impressive when viewed against a blank background and much larger than they'll actually appear in the game. Artists can fall into the trap of making their work as detailed and realistic as possible simply because they can. A realistic unit over a realistic improvement over a realistic resource over realistic terrain will typically give you a jumbled, unreadable mess.

Instead, units should pop off of the terrain. Forests must embrace their role as a canvas for the objects which rest upon them. The interface needs to make it clear what you can and can't interact with, rather than trying to compete with the rest of the art. Each piece of art might not be terribly impressive when looked at individually - but when combined they will transform into something truly beautiful.

The same lessons that apply when designing a 4X game also hold true for the art side. The strength of your game is determined by how well all of the small pieces come together to become one. There is truly no better example of how the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts!

- Jon

64
AtG - Developer Updates / Revisiting the Design of 'Civ 5'
« on: February 13, 2013, 03:50:49 PM »

Upon first telling people about At the Gates I'm often asked, "How does it compare to Civ 5, the last game you designed?" Well, in this article I'll be providing an in-depth response to that very question!

The short answer, though, is that there's no guarantee if you loved Civ 5 that you'll also love ATG, nor that if you hated one that you'll also hate the other. My goal is to lay out the similarities and differences with complete clarity so that both existing and potential contributors know what they're signing up for.

However, before really getting into the details (this is a long essay folks!) I'd like to step back and wax philosophical for a moment.

Civ 5 was a great success both critically and financially, and I’m especially proud of what the team accomplished. But there's no ignoring the fact that Civ 5's gameplay didn’t live up to everyone's expectations.

I have no problem admitting that my design wasn’t perfect - we improve through constructive criticism and self-reflection, and that is another reason why I'm writing this. It wasn't always easy, but I've answered many of the questions that at one time perplexed me. If my past work has given you reason to doubt my talents, I hope that this article might then help replace that with a new confidence.

Below, I’ll be sharing the design lessons I learned during and after Civ 5's development, along with explaining how I'm actually applying said lessons in ATG.

Alright then, it's about time we got this show on the road!




Interface

Out of all aspects of Civ 5 that I was involved with, I'm particularly proud of what our team accomplished with the UI.

Picking up a new strategy game is always tough, and a key factor in shaping that learning curve is how much help the interface provides (or doesn't). We did a great job of focusing the player’s attention on what really matters. The size of each interface element reflects its relative importance, e.g. the end turn button is bigger than the button which shows toggleable map options. Rarely-used actions like disbanding a unit were tucked away into sub-screens. I have very much carried this philosophy forward into ATG.

My one disappointment with the UI was the general lack of "power features" tailored for hardcore fans. Ultimately, we didn't end up with as many information overlays, screens or modes as I would have liked. One of my early goals was to have an alternate "expert" switch that you could flip, adding a significant quantity of detailed information to the screens and mouseovers. User-created mods have added this feature to both Civ 4 and Civ 5, but integrating it into the full games is obviously preferable.

This functionality is already supported in the structure of the ATG interface system, and it won't be much work to flesh it out in full. I'm looking forward to seeing the community's reaction to the finished version, and improving it even further during the alpha and beta testing process!


 

Diplomacy

My experience with developing Civ 5's diplomacy system has had the strongest influence on my present-day game design philosophy; the next most significant isn't even in the same ballpark.

My original goal was for the AI leaders to act human. But humans are ambiguous, moody and sometimes just plain crazy. This can be interesting when you're dealing with actual, real humans, but I learned the important lesson that when you're simulating one with a computer there's no way to make this fun. Any attempt to do so just turns into random, unproductive noise.

I came to realize that while diplomacy is a unique challenge, it's ultimately still just a gameplay system just like any other. Regardless of whether your enjoyment is derived from roleplaying or simply a game's core mechanics, if your opponents' goals and behavior aren't clear then you'll have absolutely no idea what’s going on or what to do.

In Civ 5, you might have been lifelong allies with a leader, but once you enter the late-game he has no qualms backstabbing you in order to win. With this being the case, what's the point of investing in relationships at all?

By no means should AI leaders be completely predictable. However, they do need a clear rhyme and reason behind their actions. The computer opponents in Civ 5 were completely enslaved to their gameplay situation, and as a result they appeared random and very little of their personalities shone through.

They were all crazy, and in the exact same way. In the months after the game was released I modified their behavior to be more predictable, but it was too late to completely change course. The biggest takeaway from this is that the only thing which matters in a game is the experience inside the player's head. It doesn't matter what your intentions are or what's going on under the hood if the end result just isn't fun.

Like other 4X games, diplomacy in ATG is built around your "relations" metric with other leaders. But compared with Civ 5, what goes into that number and what it does is very clear. For example, if you're at -5 with a leader, he'll never trade with you, while at +10 he'll always agree to help out in a war if requested. Rather than trying to decipher what the RNG (random number generator)-based AI is "thinking," your objective is instead to find as many ways as you can (afford) to boost that Relations number. Once you've done so, a variety of options for how your new friend can assist you become available.

Diplomacy is more than just fiddling with numbers though. There is still some randomness in the system, but not nearly as much as in Civ 5. Leaders in ATG have very distinctive agendas and behaviors: Attila the Hun is honorable, but vicious. Athanaric of the Goths is a religious fanatic. Drest of the Picts is kind of crazy, and you know you can't trust him.

Out of everything related to diplomacy, leader requests are probably ATG's "sexiest" bullet point. In many other 4X games the road to friendship often involves little more than giving someone a big pile of money or technologies.

In ATG building up relations is primarily done by completing requests for leaders when specific crises afflict them. Coming to Attila's aid in a war or giving him food when his people are starving in the middle of winter will earn you major, major points. Sure, giving him a fat stack of cash certainly won't hurt, but building true friendships isn't quite that easy!

Our goal with ATG is to produce the best diplomacy system. Ever. It certainly won't be easy, but with what I've learned, a strong combination of character personalities and solid mechanics I believe that this is a goal very much within our reach.


 

AI

The AI in the base version of Civ 5 was... not as strong as it could be, shall we say.

Working on this system was another experience that taught me a great deal about design and development. I wrote the AI code that handled the computer opponents' high-level strategic goals, economy and diplomacy.

Like most engineers, I really enjoy architecting elegant and flexible structures. Civ 5's AI was a beautiful mesh of interwoven systems, and even included the ability to record virtually everything to a massive log file. Unfortunately, my enjoyment of building caused me to fall in love with the design rather than its actual impact. I was very proud of my code. But it really wasn't very good.

What many people don't know about AI programming is that one of the greatest challenges is getting your artificial players to actually do what you think you're making them do! The AI code in a big strategy game is typically so complex that you end up with a variety of pieces that either don't function as expected, or worse, don't do anything.

Another problem with my AI was the randomness, which is something I've already talked about at length. The computer opponents were weighted towards a variety of possibilities, with a healthy serving of RNG (random number generator) on the side. This meant they floated from one "strategy" to another without any real cohesion behind those decisions. This approach is nice in theory, but if you want a strong AI there are times when you need to force it to behave in very specific manner.

What all of this adds up to is that with ATG I'm staying completely focused on the end goal: results. This means a much simpler AI system, which in turn will result in a much stronger opponent. When you as the developer know exactly what an AI player is doing and why, it becomes much easier to recognize bad behavior and fix it. And the fewer moving parts you have the easier it is to tell what's going on.

Along with my new approach with AI design, Jonathan, our architect, is a programming wizard and has several ideas for how we can make this code super efficient. This will allow us to use far more processing power than we could otherwise, while keeping end turn lengths short to boot. I'm by no means the most skilled programmer in the world, but with the two of us together I have confidence the AI in ATG will offer players a very real challenge.


 

Resources

One of the big changes I made to Civ 5 on the economic front was the shift from resources being "boolean" (where you either have them or you don't) to "quantified," where you can have zero of a single resource type, or two of it, or maybe eighteen. I still feel that making them quantified was a solid design decision, but for a variety of reasons the execution wasn't everything I wanted it to be.

Civ 5 featured a "popcap" resource model where eight Iron basically provides eight "slots" that you can use to build (you guessed it) eight Swordsmen, or Catapults or whatever. ATG will instead feature a more traditional "stockpile" resource model where quantities build up over time and are then spent all at once in chunks. This requires more micromanagement than the popcap model, which was one of the reasons why I steered clear of it in Civ 5. In ATG, though, the focus is on the strategic level (empire-wide resource management) instead of the tactical level (city and population management), making this a much better fit.

In Civ 5, players ended up with easy access to a bit of every resource and there was almost no reason to trade. In the real world, swapping goods is worthwhile because of the effects of supply and demand. In Civ 5 there was almost no demand since you could be virtually self-sufficient. This will be completely different in ATG, where the threat of critical shortages will always be right around the corner, and bringing in much-needed resources via trade might very well be necessary for survival.

My removal of the health system in Civ 5 also had repercussions elsewhere. This greatly reduced the value of non-strategic resources (like wheat), and in retrospect it's clear that I didn't manage to fill that void with something else. ATG has far fewer resource types than Civ 5, but the ones which do exist are all very important. The map is absolutely vital in a 4X game, and that needs to be the case for everything on it as well. If you see something on a tile and think it's not a big deal, that is a flaw that needs to be fixed.

Another issue with the Civ 5 resources system was that the difference between having 2 and 5 Swordsmen isn't really a big deal when compared with the possibility of not having any Swordsmen. If I were able to go back and change the design I probably would have resources show up in more limited quantities and make the units and buildings they unlock much more unique and powerful.

Most armies would be composed of "lower tier" of units like spearmen, with the occasional swordsman or catapult spicing up the battlefield by serving as targets or threats to avoid. It would require some work to balance and players would all need roughly equal access to resources of some kind, but I very much believe this type of approach could work.


 

Economics

I made a number of tweaks to the traditional Civ economic system with v5, and as with the resources the results were a mixed bag.

My intention with the global happiness mechanic was to make it possible for smaller empires to compete with much larger ones. The problem was that a global metric butts heads with the natural cadence of the entire genre. I mean, the second X in 4X stands for "expansion" for crying out loud! I lost sight of this as I pursued other objectives.

The problem was that happiness strongly encouraged you to stay small and the penalties for not obliging with this demand were quite harsh. It was virtually impossible to build the large, sprawling empires which had always been a feature in the series and served as the entire point playing for many people. I still believe that there are ways to make smaller empires viable, but it shouldn't come at the expense of those who enjoy expanding. Penalties should be challenges to overcome, not an insurmountable wall to be frustrated by.

Carrying forward lessons from my experience with global happiness, ATG is much more freeform when it comes to expansion. There are factors in the game which discourage mindless spamming of settlements, but none of them are as heavy-handed as exponential maintenance, corruption or empire-wide unhappiness.

For one, the world of ATG is much more dangerous than that of Civ 5. Everyone is hungry and searching for cheap and easy snacks. Balancing economics and defense is absolutely crucial, and intentionally a tricky tightrope to walk. Additionally, the economic value provided by settlements is not particularly significant, as most resources can only be produced by improvements.

Further, each individual settlement you control eats into your food supply above and beyond what the population consumes. Food is extremely important, and wasting it extremely foolish. You can certainly build a massive empire in ATG if you so choose, but always make sure you can feed and protect it!

My removal of the research/commerce/culture sliders also came with positives and negatives. I've always found fiddling with sliders in strategy games to be boring busywork, and in that sense I don't miss them. But the sliders also had a hidden value that I didn't realize until later - they gave players the ability to shift directions at any time.

I've written at length about the importance of adaptation in strategy games. Unfortunately, once the sliders were gone players were basically permanently locked into their past economic choices. There was no way to sacrifice research in order to upgrade your army, for example. Rewarding long-term planning is certainly a worthy endeavor, but you still need to provide tools to allow players to change course when necessary.


 

Policies (Government)

I like both the Policies system featured in Civ 5 and the Civics system from Civ 4, which are simply two different takes on the same concept: the ability to shape the "character" of your empire. With Policies, I wanted it to feel like you were slowly accumulating this identity over time. After all, Japan and Germany changed significantly after World War 2, but they're still Japanese and German, and maintain that legacy of honor, hard work, etc.

By contrast, Civics allowed you to completely reforge your empire on a dime. Sure, there were costs associated with doing so, but it was very much possible to transform from a pious peace-loving people into the warmonger scourge from hell. This is kind of odd, but it has a huge gameplay benefit.

Both systems have their strengths and weaknesses, but I now find the design of Civics more appealing, because of that capacity to make sudden and dramatic shifts.

In ATG we've basically rolled the tech tree and government systems into a single Romanization Perks system. A new Perk can be chosen for each Roman city you capture and Roman diplomatic request you complete. As with Civics, you can later re-allocate your choices, although doing so temporarily lowers the stability of your empire (which reduces taxation, troop morale, etc.).

Along with my belief that adaptation is good just on principle, there's another reason why I took more of a Civics-esque approach with ATG. The game is hard. The seasons are usually working against you. Resources are running out. Your neighbors are constantly eyeing up your improvements. The Romans are significantly stronger than you much of the time.

Players need tools to overcome these challenges, and one of those will be the ability to switch Romanization Perks at any time. This allows you slide into a completely different strategy to deal with whatever hostile and ever-changing circumstances you're currently facing.

Not only is there a good gameplay reason to make it possible to easily change Romanization perks, but there's also a historical one. During late antiquity the identity of the barbarian tribes evolved dramatically over short periods of time. After all, you don't see Goths walking around these days! ... Okay, come on guys, you know what I meant!


 

Combat

By far the most significant change I made with Civ 5 was to way in which wars were fought. Instead of large stacks of units crashing into one another as had always been the case in the previous Civ games, there was now 1UPT (one unit per tile). This forced players to spread out their armies across the landscape, instead of piling everything into a single tile.

This was a model very much inspired by the old wargame Panzer General. On the whole, I would say that the combat mechanics are indeed better in Civ 5 than in any other entry in the series. But as is the theme of this article, there's a downside to consider as well.

One of the biggest challenges unearthed by 1UPT was writing a competent combat AI. I wasn't the one who developed this particular AI subsystem, and the member of the team who was tasked with this did a great job of making lemonade out of the design lemons I'd given him. Needless to say, programming an AI which can effectively maneuver dozens of units around in extremely tactically-confined spaces is incredibly difficult.

The reason why this wasn't an issue in Panzer General was that their AI didn't actually need to do anything. It was always on the defensive, and a large part of that game was simply solving the "puzzle" of how to best crack open enemy strongholds. It was plenty sufficient if your opponents simply ordered a single tank to stir up some trouble every so often.

What made Panzer General fun was you blitzkrieg-ing through Europe while your enemies quickly and dramatically fell before your might. However, in a Civ game, the AI has to be capable of launching full-scale invasions, sometimes on different landmasses. Needless to say, we're talking about a challenge on completely different scale.

Speaking of scale, another significant issue with 1UPT was that the maps wasn't really suited for it. The joy of Panzer General was pulling off clever maneuvers and secretly encircling your helpless enemies. Unfortunately, in Civ 5 nasty bottlenecks aren't uncommon and this tempers much of the natural value added by 1UPT. Ultimately, there just wasn't enough room to do the fun part.

To address this, I could have done something crazy like added sub-tiles to the existing grid. I really don't think this would have been a good idea though, as the whole point in having a tiles is that everything happens on the same playing field, which makes it very easy to tell what's going on. Once you start muddying the waters of what goes where, you lose that clarity and mechanical chunkiness tiles offer. And at that point, you might as well just get rid of them entirely.

Speculation aside, the reality was that the congestion caused by 1UPT also impacted other parts of the game. In every prior Civ title it was no problem to have ten, fifty or even a thousand units under your control. Sure, larger numbers meant more to manage, but hotkeys and UI conveniences could alleviate much of the problem. But in Civ 5, every unit needed its own tile, and that meant the map filled up pretty quickly.

To address this, I slowed the rate of production, which in turn led to more waiting around for buckets to fill up. For pacing reasons, in the early game I might have wanted players to be training new units every 4 turns. But this was impossible, because the map would have then become covered in Warriors by the end of the classical era. And once the map fills up too much, even warfare stops being fun.

So is there a way to make 1UPT really work in a Civ game? Perhaps. The key is the map. Is there enough of room to stash units freely and slide them around each other?  If so, then yes, you can do it. For this to be possible, I'd think you would have to increase the maximum map size by at least four times. You'd probably also want to alter the map generation logic to make bottlenecks larger and less common. Of course, making the world that much bigger would introduce a whole new set of challenges!

In fact, there were technical reasons this wasn't really feasible - our engine was already pushing up against the capabilities of modern computer hardware. Drawing that many small doo-dads on a screen is really expensive, trust me. Well, unless you make your game 2D, like ATG!

Speaking of which, what about combat in ATG? Well, for one thing the game will allow for stacks of units!

The main reason for this is one of my high-level goals for the game. As I touched upon earlier, ATG is designed to be a strategy title which takes place primarily at the strategic level, rather than the tactical. The region of the map where you've stationed your armies, how well you've prepared your supply network, etc. is ultimately more important than if you were able to wheel one of your infantry around the flank of another enemy infantry unit.

A major factor in this decision was ensuring all of ATG's features integrate with its most important one: map evolution. My objective is really to play this up in every way possible. With combat, this is done through the supply system. Units which lack sufficient supply rapidly become useless, similar to Unity of Command.

Every tile has a certain amount of supply available for units stationed there. The largest fraction of this comes from the tile's terrain type which, of course, changes radically with the seasons. The remaining fraction comes from the effect of nearby supply camps and settlements.

And supply is what the entire military side of the game is geared around - Planning ahead to make sure you have enough of it. Fighting in areas which have a lot of it. Ensuring that your supply nodes are safe, and so on.

In fact, the units themselves are almost a secondary concern. ATG is not a game where you follow the epic tale of a single warrior as he levels up and upgrades through the various technological eras. Instead, it's more like a late-game chess match, when nearly any move can settle the battle, and a pawn in the right situation can be just as powerful as a queen.

No doubt, this is a very different approach from the one taken in Civ 5. However, by now it should be obvious that ATG is in no way Civ 5, but instead stands on its own as a unique and innovative new member of the 4X family!


 

Onward

The Civ 5 team was one of the best I've ever had the honor of being a part of. That group put a ton of love and great work into the game, and it really shows in the art, audio and tech.

Civ 5's gameplay had several rough edges at release, but those were all due to decisions I made with the design. My friends over at Firaxis have done an excellent job improving the gameplay following my departure, and I can't wait to see what they do next!

As I promised in the intro, I'm not shy about my flaws. The fact is there's still much I have to learn. But every project is a new opportunity to improve and show everyone what you've learned. I'm very excited about ATG not only for this reason, but also because it's a great chance to spice up the 4X genre and help point it in a interesting new direction.

I'm sure I'll make more mistakes along the way, but I'm wiser than I used to be and can now the see problems from much further away. I ask that you join me on my journey, help contribute to At the Gates, and discover together the amazing places we'll end up!

- Jon

65
Conifer and the Games Industry / Trials & Tribulations of Kickstarter
« on: February 11, 2013, 08:53:20 PM »



This post originally began its life as a humble comment on our Kickstarter page, but after writing for a bit I realized it would be even better as a full-blown article!


What Do You Have to Consider With a Kickstarter Campaign?

Many people don't realize creators ultimately end up with a fairly small slice of the Kickstarter pie. You can immediately cut 20% off the top due to processing fees and failed transactions. Then there's the cost of fulfilling rewards, marketing (yes, it's important), both planned and unplanned contract work, licensing multiple software packages - the list goes on and on.

Oh, and as with everything in life, the taxman always wants his share. It's particularly rough if you make a large amount of money from your campaign, and then nothing for the next two years, as you'll be taxed at a much higher bracket than you would if the same amount of revenue had been spread out. Suddenly that amazing $1,000,000 Kickstarter haul starts to look a lot more like 300 or 400 thousand. Yikes!

In retrospect, I'm very glad I did extensive research on all of this ahead of time. I can see how teams end up in big trouble by overestimating the actual funding they end up with, either due to a lack of research or worse, just sheer excitement. The cost of physical rewards can really sneak up on you, and this is why we've been so conservative about what tiers we're offering for ATG and the $ figures attached to them. This is a sad tale, and I imagine it will be one that's increasingly common. It's particularly depressing because I also have a personal connection with that project.


Kickstarter & At the Gates

In case anyone was wondering, yes, I have done my homework! $40k is not a large budget for a complex strategy game, but it’s possible because I know exactly where every cent will eventually end up going. Having a small, very talented team comprised almost entirely of your friends really helps! (Thanks again, guys!)

That's not to say success is guaranteed - for us or anyone else. There's risk with every large project. This is especially true for games, which can be both beautiful and well-engineered but end up being zero fun to actually play. It honestly surprises me how optimistic people are about the probability of most Kickstarter projects following through on their claims. The rate of failure here is likely to be in the same ballpark as traditional games development... and that number ain't good. It might even be worse, as large companies have staff paid to ensure projects do succeed!

This is why I welcome and even encourage folks to challenge us on not only what we're doing with ATG but also how we plan on doing it. (Yes, that is an open invitation - fire away, I promise I can take it!)

In my personal opinion, Kickstarter is neither charity nor even patronage. It instead serves as a means for customers to pre-order products directly from their creators, providing the funding necessary to develop innovative concepts. Patronage can be a part of that, but only when the chances of ending up with something at the end are very high. Accordingly, there's no way I would launch a Kickstarter campaign without having a fully-playable prototype ready to show off. In my mind you just have to be able to demonstrate what you're actually building, regardless of your track record.

This is also offers a built-in advantage to the developers. We're already about halfway down the road of development, and much of what remains is simply polish work. Not bad!


The Future of Kickstarter

I often wonder how Kickstarter will change once the first big failures hit. I have great faith in the model and believe it's how a significant chunk of future PC games will be funded. There are a large number of people who agree with me on this. But there's no guarantee the larger community will maintain that opinion after throwing thirty, two-hundred or a thousand dollars at vaporware.

What about you? If games you've contributed to go down in flames with nothing to show for it, will it lower the chances you contribute to future projects? And what risks associated with ATG’s development concern you the most? Let me know what you think!

- Jon

66
AtG - General Discussion / Announcing: At the Gates!
« on: February 05, 2013, 09:02:49 PM »
Our team is very excited to finally reveal At the Gates!

Thanks for stopping by the forums, and let us know if you have any questions about the project!

- Jon

67
Off-Topic / Introduce Yourself!
« on: January 29, 2013, 01:31:42 PM »
Thanks for stopping by our forums. Make sure you say hi in this thread so we can give you a warm welcome!

- Jon

68
Conifer and the Games Industry / Welcome to the Conifer Forums!
« on: January 29, 2013, 01:15:59 PM »
Thanks for stopping by everyone!

- Jon

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