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!
In my December 2013 update I unveiled the new borders system, including a sneak peak at the heinous placeholder art that was in at the time (something my illustrious art lead still hasn’t forgiven me for, I should note…).
Thankfully, Kay and Jonathan have since given the borders a serious face-lift, which you can see in the screenshot above. I’m sure Kay will continue making tweaks right up until we ship, but it’d be a bit of an understatement to say the new look is an improvement. Jonathan even went the extra mile and made the border width, gradient, etc. completely XML-driven, so hey, why not keep fiddling with things as long as you can?
As expected, these little guys ate up a sizable percent of artist time over the past few months, and will continue to do so until the game is finished. We now have rough drafts done for around half of the planned units. Here’s the concept art for the Surveyor, one of the game’s newer (and cooler) units that I talked about back in the July 2013 update:
Additionally, a few units are almost finished. Here’s a short video showing the Scout giving his new-found mobility a spin:
(The [YouTube] button at the bottom-right of the video will take you to the larger, higher-quality version)
Each frame of animation is a subsection of a much larger sprite sheet. An XML file associated with the sheet specifies the order of frames and how long each should be shown. Here’s what the Scout’s attack looks like:
Aaaaand here’s what it looks like in the game after we sprinkle it with Jonathan’s magical fairy dust of code:
Making 2D animation by hand like this is a pretty insane amount of work when you consider how many frames are needed for every unit times the number of animations times the number of facing directions – but the payoff is equally huge.
Gameplay is always the #1 priority with a strategy game, but there’s also real value in offering players a more immersive experience. 99% of gamers aren’t willing to play a game that features ASCII art, regardless of how good the mechanics are. Everything beyond that minimum bar is just a matter of degrees.
Immersion is particularly important for AtG, as our ‘main character’ is the world itself. There’s a lot going on in the game to be sure, but the procedural, cyclically evolving maps are the framework upon which everything else rests. The mechanics already create the illusion of a living world – the art should reinforce that.
We have a lengthy polish process still in front of us but even at this early stage we’re always looking to improve usability and flow. One recent example is the addition of icons signifying a unit’s current command to its ownership flag. This makes it possible to see what someone is up to without needing to even mouse over it:
The plan is also to display the number of turns remaining before said mission is completed nearby, and I’m sure the team and test group will come up with other enhancements as well.
Some developers might wait until the end of a project to bother with this sort of work, but that’s just not how I’m wired. I obsess over user interface and experience and if I feel like a new UI feature will make the game easier to play or learn I’ll usually set aside what I’m doing and plug it in right then and there. There are times when I have to slap and remind myself that feature X is a higher priority, but hey – if something needs to get in anyways you might as well knock it out while you’re thinking about it, right? A stitch in time and all that.
Okay, quick tangent time. I know I’ve talked about this before, but I just can’t help myself.
This kind of freedom is the reason to be a tiny self-or-crowdfunded indie. Keeping even a ‘small’ team of ten on track requires a non-trivial amount of planning and management, and this kind of overhead grows exponentially with head count. It doesn’t take much before a dedicated producer becomes more than just a luxury.
By contrast, AtG’s core team recently grew to two full-timers. The obvious downside of such a skeletal team is that developing a big, complex game like AtG demands a long and patient dev cycle. And sure, I still have to answer emails, file taxes, etc. But I’d estimate at least 80% of my time is spent designing or programming. This ain’t the right model if you’re aiming to make a first-person shooter, but I don’t anticipate one of those creeping onto the schedule any time soon!
Anyways, that’s about it for recent highlights on the art side. Stay tuned for my upcoming opus of an update which will retrace the twists and turns taken by the diplomacy system over the past few months. I’ll also be sharing some more details about the start of beta testing, which I expect to get rolling in late March.
Your support is sincerely appreciated, and should you have any questions feel free to leave a comment or fire me a message! The road ahead remains a long one, but I have no doubt this game will be amazing once we’re all done.