Alpha II and Beyond

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

 

Seasons & Map Generation

This was actually a bit of a detour from the original plan, but I had long known serious work was needed here, and the map is so crucial to everything else that I decided to bite the bullet.

The old system for creating and managing the seasons was extremely primitive – and it showed. Climate zones were assigned in thick bands based on latitude, with small modifications made near mountains. Randomness was leaned on heavily in an attempt to add some fuzziness. In the end, rather than getting large cold fronts advancing from the north you were instead treated to obvious and unrealistic stripes, with the occasional snow tile peppered here and there.

Climate and terrain is closely linked, so when I decided to redo the former I felt it best to step back and add map generation to the task. What we want are believable maps that contain regions with strong character, but the old logic could do little more than produce an even mix of terrain across the entire map. I decided to basically burn everything to the ground and start over.

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Welcome to Alpha II!

At The Gates - Now in Alpha II!

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

So, uh… what the heck is “Alpha II”, anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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From Microphone to Ploughshare

TGDRT

Episode #70 is live! And it’s with a heavy heart I share the news that it will be my last as co-host of The Game Design Round Table podcast.

I talk at length about the reasons behind my decision to retire during the episode, but it basically comes down to having the time and energy to ensure At the Gates is the best game it can possibly be.

I’ve talked about my unique work patterns in the past, and how they can be a double-edged sword. Diving head-first into incredibly complex projects (like building a hardcore 4X with a team of yourself plus a few part-timers!) is what I live for, and I’m very fortunate that this passion allows me to have such an amazing career. The price I pay for this is that I’ve never been good at keeping more than a couple plates spinning at once. And it goes without saying that AtG is a really, really big plate.

Deep down I always knew this day would come, the question was just how long I could go before AtG was at a point where it would need my full attention. I love doing the show, playing and talking about games with Dirk and interacting with our awesome community. It makes my day every time I get an email thanking us because one of our silly discussions actually helped someone. But with AtG’s final big features coming online, the beta starting up soon and the project as a whole transitioning into its final phase we’ve finally reached that point.

It’s tough to leave something behind that you’ve invested yourself in for years, but I know the time is right. I’m really, genuinely excited about where At the Gates is going – especially now that the pieces are starting to fall into place. I won’t be talking about it on the podcast any more, but you can be sure I’ll have a lot more to share over the next year both here and elsewhere across the Internet. Stay tuned!

- Jon

A Winding Road – Diplomacy in At the Gates

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

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

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February 2014 AtG Update: Art

Why, hello there! I know, I know… it’s been a little while since we’ve last spoken. Sorry about that!

Make no mistake, the At the Gates team has been busy with over these cold winter months, especially yours truly. In this post I’ll be talking about our progress on the art side, and later this month another article will explore my adventures with the diplomacy system in, frankly, absurd detail.

In the interests of full disclosure, my original plan was to cover both topics in this update but I just today discovered that Kickstarter imposes a word limit on these things. Woops! Well, at least we now have something else to look forward to. In the meantime I’ll be polishing up what I’d already started. But enough of that – let’s talk art!

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New borders: better than old borders! (Click to see full size image)

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TGDRT #67: Game Phases & Pivots

TGDRT

Episode #67 is live!

Rob joins Jon and Dirk to discuss phases (the early game, the late game, etc.) and ‘pivot points’, which are moments when focus shifts from one aspect of a game (such as economic engine building) to another (scoring points). Some of the titles brought up during the conversation include Chess, Monopoly, Dominion, Lords of Waterdeep and Zimbabwe, the game that got Rob thinking about this topic.

Pacing is one of the great dark arts of game design where you have to work almost entirely on gut feel. Should a game wrap up in a 60 minutes or 30? Should the ‘end game’ comprise the last quarter of a game, or simply the final turn? It’s almost entirely personal preference.

We also got touched on one of my favorite punching bags: victory points. It’s certainly possible to have major pivots without them (e.g. an RTS where you build up economically in order to craft an invincible army), but their extreme abstraction often leaves a bad taste in players’ mouths.

The most poignant example I brought up during the episode was Dominion, which is particularly bad. Once you shift over to the ‘grab as many points as you can’ phase the whole strategic fabric unravels pretty quickly. Because points rarely have any gameplay value a point chase for its own sake is rarely very interesting.

I do admit that VPs are probably necessary in certain types of games, but I’ll still always be attracted by the design purity of victory conditions.

- Jon

TGDRT #66: Diplomacy in At the Gates

TGDRT Episode #66 is live!

Jon and Dirk cover many a topic in this episode, but the main discussion revolves around Jon’s plans for diplomacy in ‘At the Gates’, how they’ve changed, and why. Also covered are game structure in Starbound, the business of games and a brief update on Dirk’s projects.

I’ll be sharing my thoughts on diplomacy in AtG in much greatly detail shortly so not too much to say right now, but hopefully this podcast whets your guys’ appetites in the meantime!

- Jon

TGDRT #65: Real-Time

TGDRT Episode #65 is live!

Dirk and Jon are joined by Geoff Engelstein to talk about his work, design philosophies and podcast. How do you create a real-time tabletop game? What makes inspirations special? How important is theme compared with mechanics?

Geoff’s career really spans quite a gamut, and it was great hearing about his experiences as both a gamer and designer.

Plus, I got to geek out a bit about the venerable Napoleonic wargame Empires in Arms, which in many ways was the seed for my love of strategy gaming. The combat system in that game was fairly simple, but involved some extremely tense rock-paper-scissors style decisions when it came to what general strategy your army was going to employ.

RPS might not sound terribly interesting, but David Sirlin does a great job outlining how uneven payoffs can really spice things up. This was a prominent feature in EiA where the ‘best’ tactic was ‘outflank’, as it had the greatest potential to damage the enemy, but of course both sides know this, and thus a bit of a mind game ensued as each player tried to suss out what the other had at stake and how everything fit into the broader strategic picture.

Anyways, that’s probably enough about a game we only discussed for a few minutes! Go give the rest of a podcast a listen too.

- Jon

TGDRT #64: Conflict

TGDRT Episode #64 is live!

Jon and Dirk are joined by Soren Johnson once again, this time to discuss conflict in games. Topics covered include: What is a conflict? Why is its representation in games nearly always violent? What other types of conflict are there, and how can designers best utilize them?

Most games prominently feature conflict of some sort so this topic was probably long overdue. As such, we covered a lot of ground from different types of conflicts (military, economic, diplomatic, political) to how conflict plays out during a game (symmetric, asymmetric, lopsided).

I’ve long wanted to see a good game about political conflict, but the sheer immensity of this task is hard to overstate. Humans are naturally very attuned to the traits and mannerisms of other humans. Most of us are familiar with the disconcerting ‘uncanny valley’ resulting from a close-but-not-perfect visual representation of a human, but less obvious is the existence of an uncanny valley for behavior as well.

Over the past few years I’ve become more and more sure that it’s impossible for a game AI to come anywhere close to passing the Turing test. The task is simply too demanding, as even the tiniest flaw will be noticed and judged mercilessly. On top of that knowing ahead of time that your opponent isn’t a human might make the task actually impossible. We’re wired to regard human behavioral quirks as ‘personality’, but computers are not afforded that luxury – for them it’s simply random or flawed logic. Nearly all of us understand computational mathematics at a basic level, but human thoughts are inscrutable and forever unknowable. At least, that’s what most of us believe, and that’s all that really matters to pragmatic game designers.

Is it possible to make a game that roughly matches what we think of as politics or diplomacy? Sure, but it’s not the same. Representations of war in a game can truly feel like fighting a war. Armies take casualties, terrain is captured and lost, a daring flanking maneuver can turn the tide of battle. The same is true of economic simulations, where amassing a massive pile of eMoney feels very much like having a big wad of real-world cash in your real-world pocket.

But when it comes to representing human interaction we have no choice but to veer into the truly abstract. I’d say that King of Dragon Pass and Crusader Kings II are the titles which have come closest, but they work because they construct a fairly rigid framework of decisions around the human player rather than trying to make their AI characters seem truly alive.

I have no doubt we’ll see impressive breakthroughs in academic AI in the coming years, but I do doubt those achievements will ever trickle very far down into gaming.  It’s not a matter of feasibility, but economics. AI programming is quite difficult and the vast majority of players are just as happy with a mediocre AI as they would be with a nearly-sentient one. I’ll still be holding out hope though, as success here will mean nothing less than a revolution in game design.

- Jon

TGDRT #63: Theme (Plus, My Thoughts on Abstraction)

TGDRT

Episode #63 is live!

Rob Daviau pays a visit for a discussion about theme. How much theme is enough? How much is TOO much? How do you actually translate theme into gameplay mechanics. And heck, what IS a ‘theme’, anyways?

We jumped around all over the place in this one and, alas, didn’t get around to even describing what we think a theme is until the very end. This is an interesting topic that deserves more time, so I’ll be expanding on it a bit here.

As I noted during the podcast, my own definition for a “theme” is basically an element that evokes a feeling. Or, to be more specific, how our  brains translate abstract systems, names and numbers into a relatable experience. I would say that a game has a theme of discovery if it relies heavily on mechanics where you explore and make use of your surroundings. This differs quite a bit from the opinion shared by my co-hosts that “theme” is simply the story or background, and has no direct relation to mechanics.

The reason why I’m willing to blur this line is that regardless of what kind of game you’re making the goal is always to make your players feel something. This could be feeling like you’re living inside the familiar Star Wars universe, maybe even a specific battle therein. Or your objective might be for players to feel like bold explorers laying claim to mysterious territory filled with potential.

Stepping into the shoes of a 16th century conquistador or a 23rd century star admiral in particular is indeed more ‘thematic’, but these are simply deeper layers of theme. The added specificity is nice, but even the basic term ‘explorer’ evokes a clear feeling of what sorts of challenges and accomplishments await. ‘Explorer’ and ’16th century explorer’ are members not of different universes, but a single continuum.

Some might argue that to call something ‘thematic’ should mean it exhibits an especially high level of specificity, but you run into fuzziness even at the extreme end of the spectrum.

Let’s say our theme is playing as that 16th century explorer we’ve talked so much about. Within short order we realize we need to get a bit more specific as to what we actually mean by “a 16th century explorer.” Are we a violent conquistador willing to slay any native for an ounce of gold? Or are we a man of the sea, driven on by the unmatched thrill of being the first to lay eyes upon virgin landmasses on the horizon? Are we playing as one particular explorer from history?

Most likely we’re actually playing as a not-really-all-that-specific amalgamation of careers and highlights from several different individuals. Even if you are in fact assuming the role of Hernan Cortez from May 26th-August 13th 1519, you’re probably not forced to deal with the sticky and unpleasant the summer humidity, or how your horse’s injured front-right leg makes it impossible to reach a full gallop on rocky-but-not-too-rocky ground.

Reality is a mesh of near-infinite complexity. A supercomputer with the brainpower of every human that has ever lived would have no chance of fully representing even a tiny sliver of our universe and the physical forces which define it. Our grey matter doesn’t even bother wasting time on such tomfoolery, and instead very intentionally throws out the vast majority of data it collects. Rather than actually experiencing reality we swim within a model created internally containing only the tiny fraction of stuff we find important or interesting. This is virtually identical to, you guessed it: a game.

(As an aside, the same is true of dreams, which is why the passage of time within them feels so odd. If you’d like to learn more about this topic and how the brain works generally I HIGHLY recommend reading David Eagleman’s Incognito. I listened to the superb audiobook version narrated by David himself.)

Anyways, the takeaway here is that when you’re talking abstraction it isn’t a question of “if” but instead “how much?” Even the most thematic games are highly abstracted, and it’s up to our brains to flesh out what’s there.

So what do you think? Do you agree with my more general way of defining ‘theme’, or is the narrower interpretation held by my partners more in line with your own? What does the term mean to you?

- Jon

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