Hey all, it’s been a couple months so I figured it was time again to let you know where we’re at with AtG.
Alpha testing started up in October and has already paid huge dividends. We have of course found many bugs and made innumerable small improvements, but the biggest benefit has been highlighting the important, high-level questions marks we still need to address.
The biggest hole we’ve identified relates to structure and goals. Most of the planned big gameplay features are in, but what does it all add up to while you’re playing? Sure, you can explore the map, survey and harvest resources, migrate from one place to another – but why? What the heck are we trying to do here anyways?
Posted by Jon Shafer on December 2, 2013
The first playable alpha version of At the Gates is now available! For those of you who generously contributed $80 or more, a download link for the alpha version of AtG should be on your Humble Dashboard along with a complimentary Steam key.
If you haven’t used the Humble Dashboard before, just head over here to Humble’s Key Resender and enter the email address you have associated with your Kickstarter (or PayPal) account. This Dashboard is where new versions of the game will also be posted, so keep the address handy.
Didn’t pledge at the $80 tier, but all this talk of steamy, hot, barbaric, ‘frozen-and-crossable-rivers-in-the-winter’ strategic action just too much to resist? Well, no problem! You can still join in on the fun by pre-ordering the At the Gates Early Access Bundle.
Posted by Jon Shafer on October 8, 2013
Episode #47 is live!
Our hosts discuss Dirk’s recent experience playtesting ‘At the Gates’, dive deep into what makes ‘Agricola’ great, and lament the loneliness of the skill curve in ‘Go’. They also touch upon the simple-but-effective worldbuilding in ‘The Last of Us’, and the enjoyable gameplay but still-questionable monetization of ‘World of Tanks’.
Dirk and I met up last weekend and covered a lot of ground. I gave him a demo of Spelunky on the Vita, we did a 2-hour playtest of At the Gates which went really well (some minor UI quirks aside), and then spent the rest of the day with Agricola.
Playtests are always a little scary because you never know what someone is going to think, and usually a player’s first experience with a game is the toughest, especially in the strategy genre. Even so, Dirk really enjoyed the unique aspects AtG brings to the table, and that was highly encouraging. We still have a long way to go, but it’s clear we’re on the right track.
Playing Agricola was also quite a bit of fun, and I’m now convinced that you have to play a tabletop game at least twice when first learning, as your first game is inevitably going to be filled with a few parts confusion and a few more revelation. If you then move onto something else immediately you never get a chance to apply that new mastery, and should you return to it sometime later you’ll likely be right back near the starting line again. Of course, this is probably a topic we’ll dedicate an episode to very soon, so I won’t dig into it too much now!
Posted by Jon Shafer on September 30, 2013
Hey all, just a short update on recent goings-on, plus a special a peek behind the curtain regarding how developers decide when to pull back said curtain. I know many of you are very eager to get your hands on the game, and we’ll be kicking the alpha off in a few weeks. So what have we been up to, and why the wait?
Posted by Jon Shafer on September 4, 2013
Hey all, fairly short update this time – news I’m sure many of you are rejoicing over!
The plan is to kick things off in late August or early September. I’ll be wrapping up a couple more big features next week, but before spending a lot of time on playtesting I want the AI to be capable of the basics: defending itself, claiming resource deposits, taking out hostile tribes, etc. We have a good idea of how it will do this, and now it’s time to actually put that in code. AtG is very much playable right now, but ultimately, until the AI is competing with you it’s impossible to get a good feel for what state a strategy game is in.
As you all know, in AtG it’s important to be thinking about the opportunities in front of you, be it migrating, claiming a valuable resource that just appeared, or taking advantage of a surprise diplomatic request. Resources in particular are a major factor which drives the game, and lately I’ve been working on how they’re distributed across the map, and the rate and manner in which new ones appear.
Posted by Jon Shafer on July 19, 2013
What are the ethical responsibilities of a game designer?
That is the question which has been rattling around in my mind ever since a recent discussion in a recent episode of TGDRT regarding the “ultra-violent” Hotline Miami. This article is my proposed answer to that very difficult inquiry.
But let’s first back up a bit – why are we even bothering to ask this question?
Few of us even think about it, but most of what makes us “us” is the sum of our subconscious wiring. Much of which is, in turn, shaped by our past experiences.
Consider a phrase or mannerism you’ve picked up from a close friend. Or the time someone dragged you along to try out a new type of strange food you now love. Or how a hobby you just didn’t “get” before has become one of your favorites after your significant other introduced you to it.
Everything we encounter reshapes us, even if only a tiny bit. Needless to say, games are no exception.
Posted by Jon Shafer on July 17, 2013
The AI is one of every strategy game’s most important features. The bread and butter of the genre is offering difficult decisions in a replayable environment where success requires constant adaptation. Good AI enhances all three of these elements – whereas a bad one can derail the entire experience.
In the context of game AI, “good” means more than just “smart.” The job of computer opponents is more than just standing in for humans – they’re a part of the world and a gameplay system just like economics, diplomacy and warfare. Attila the Hun isn’t just there to provide a roadblock to victory – he’s there to be Attila the Hun, the frightening warlord who races in with a massive horde of horse archers, burns everything in sight, and runs off before you can muster a response. Is such a strategy productive? Hopefully! But it’s in many ways that’s only a secondary concern.
That having been said, a good AI must also put up a competent fight. This is especially true with features like combat, when the AI’s decisions are front-and-center and mistakes cannot be tucked under the rug. Such competency requires AI players to craft plans and be capable of course correcting as necessary.
For all of this to come together, you too as AI developer must have a plan. To that end, I’ve spent much of the past couple months putting together an insanely detailed breakdown for every AI subsystem and the logic each will perform. Think of it as a “first draft,” where the second will be the translation to programming code. I’ve run through repeated thought experiments to test my design and I’ve scrapped more than one critical feature when it became clear that intention and results weren’t in harmony.
I won’t be posting that work today (or ever… it’s already well over 200 pages and still growing!). But I know many of you would like to see how I envision everything fitting together, so what I will be doing is sharing my basic outline for the components that will make up an AI player. As with all of game development I have no doubt the details will change a thousand times over, but I’m fairly confident this general structure will be maintained until the game is completed, and very possibly for several future titles.
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Posted by Jon Shafer on June 24, 2013
Hey all, time again to provide a quick update regarding recent news and progress. Most of our updates have skewed heavily on the design and theory side, so this time we’ll be delving into the more artistic ends of the project.
Early next week I’ll also be posting our massive outline for the general design principles behind every AI subsystem. I was originally planning on including that with this post, but the length was starting to get a little crazy so I decided to hold off and split things up.
The team has started on the rough animation work for the units. These will eventually be painted over, but I figured you guys would enjoy a little sneak peak.
The schedule and budget call for around 180 unique unit animations which run the gamut from running to fighting to dying. We’re starting with the run cycles.
Posted by Jon Shafer on June 20, 2013
At times I’ve been “accused” of being a theme-first designer. While this is true to some extent, it’s 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 “so what actually happened in history…” However, the enjoyment of a game is the result of interesting mechanics, and your theme is meaningless if you can’t translate it into something that’s fun to play. So I always start with and lean on theme, but only when doing so doesn’t get in the way of mechanics.
What this means for AtG is that I’m 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 it’s only included because, well, that’s what barbarians did.
Posted by Jon Shafer on May 28, 2013
Late last year I brainstormed in detail how the economics system for At the Gates 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.
Posted by Jon Shafer on April 19, 2013