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
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
Woohoooo, the first post-Kickstarter AtG 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 or something. My intention is to post one major update every month, with smaller unplanned ones in-between going up here and over on our 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:
Posted by Jon Shafer on April 2, 2013
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?
Posted by Jon Shafer on March 26, 2013
A few people have asked me why At the Gates doesn’t actually have “Rome” somewhere in the title. Wouldn’t that help inform people of what the game is about? I can see where this question comes from. However, its exclusion is very much not accidental.
The Empire may have defined this era – but their time is over. They still have an important job, but are ultimately a tool to achieve an end. Let’s dig into what that means in terms of gameplay.
Posted by Jon Shafer on March 5, 2013
We’re entering the final stretch everyone! In just over 5 days the campaign will be ending, so please help spread the word and let’s see if we can get those last couple stretch goals! As a “thank you” we have a full slate of articles planned for next week, with a new one being posted every day!
If you haven’t done so already, I ask that you check out the At the Gates Kickstarter page. Our goal is to innovate and take strategy gaming to the next level, but this campaign will be our sole source of funding for development. And hint, hint: the more successful ATG is the more articles you’ll have to read in the future!
To those of you who have already contributed and helped us reach our funding goal, I offer my most sincere thanks!
In our last update we talked about how AtG’s combat system works. But the favored seat warfare holds is somewhat misleading, as the game’s most important feature is none other than its foil: diplomacy. No matter how clever a tactician you are, if you’re outgunned 4-to-1 you’re simply not going to win. Well, unless you’re Napoleon, and even then you’re still just living on borrowed time!
Diplomacy has long been a sore spot for 4X games. AI leaders have been boring and crazy. They’ve ganged up on humans because they’re winning or simply because they’re human. Occasionally they can be reasoned with. But they’re never to be relied on. So what’s the problem, anyways? Why hasn’t this been figured out yet?
The issue is that with diplomacy the designer is trying to accomplish opposing goals: acting like a believable human while still playing the game competently. This schizophrenia, coupled with a lack of focus has long plagued our beloved genre’s least-successful feature.
So is there an answer? I’m confident there is, and that AtG will prove it.
Posted by Jon Shafer on March 2, 2013