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
Episode #46 is live!
Jon, Dirk and David finally get around to talking about theme, mechanics and how the intersection of the two relates to ‘fun’. What are each? What happens when you favor one over the other? Can you flat out OMIT one? And what are some examples in the games our panelists have actually worked?
An eternal struggle in the field of game design is the role of theme (sci-fi, fall of the Roman Empire, Lord of the Rings) and mechanics (worker placement, turn-based, equipment slots).
In my mind your goal isn’t so much to balance the two, but to incorporate the best of both. My rule of thumb is that theme should serve as the ultimate guide for what does or does not belong in a game, but theme always needs to take a back seat to good mechanics. Everyone has their own unique approach though, and it was great seeing Dirk and David’s perspective on this.
Posted by Jon Shafer on September 23, 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
Episode #41 is live!
Jon and Dirk cover a wide variety of topics this week, notably: the problems with automation and user interface in Paradox titles like Hearts of Iron 3 and Europa Universalis 4, the psychological appeal and the (possibly too-important) role of money in poker, and the challenges of meshing tech and design in At the Gates’ AI.
Dirk and I were all over the board this week – in a good way. A lot of interesting discussion for you guys.
We’ve covered Paradox’s games in the past, but there’s always more good meat on that bone. They’ve built a large and passionate audience by melding hardcore strategy and sim, but there’s tension between those two extremes.
A good strategy game requires clarity and tough decisions, while a good sim is almost entirely about feel. Paradox has done a good job balancing the two, but their user interface has always been where things break down a bit.
We also talked at length about poker. It’s extremely simple, but that simplicity focuses attention on what is there, and results in a very psychologically interesting platform. I cover this at length in the episode, but my big complaint is that this is almost entirely driven by real-money wagering. Playing with nothing on the line is a completely different experience, and not for the better.
Posted by Jon Shafer on August 19, 2013
Episode #38 is live!
Jon and Dirk discuss several games at length this week, namely: Monaco, the new Walking Dead chapter, Super Crate Box for the Ouya and Civ 5: Brave New World. Topics covered include how penalties can improve a game, the importance of polish, and why diplomacy in 4X games always seems to be bad.
This was a long one and we really went into a lot of detail on interesting design topics relating to the games we’ve been playing. The big takeaway from #38 is “polish your games, because if you don’t players will notice – and it will undermine everything you actually did well.”
It’s easy for developers to overlook what they believe to be small flaws, but players have a very different perspective. While the best games aren’t perfect, by either luck or intention their problems tend to be peripheral to the core experience. Unless you’re just naturally charmed, the only way to reach that point is through extensive playtesting.
Posted by Jon Shafer on July 30, 2013
Episode #37 is live!
Jon, Dirk and David discuss the role of failure in games and how it ties in with how people learn how to play. What does punishment add, and where can it go wrong? How do you effectively teach players strategy games? What do PLAYERS get out of failure? And how the heck do you learn a tabletop game without tooltips?
This is a very important topic, and one I feel isn’t given due attention by most developers. A point I made during the show that bears repeating here is that even people who do this for a living feel helpless the first time they play a new game.
In this age of F2P, demos and good ol’ word-of-mouth it’s absolutely crucial that we developers do whatever we can to ease the learning curve in our games. Writing tooltips and help systems and top-notch manuals isn’t fun, but the learnability of your game is really just about as important as whether or not it’s fun.
Some people are willing to grit their teeth and fight their way to the good stuff – but many aren’t. Is the cost of spending another 5% of the effort you’ve put into the rest of the game worth the reward of possibly doubling your audience? The answer seems obvious to me!
Posted by Jon Shafer on July 23, 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