July 2013 AtG Update – Alpha & Resources

At the Gates

Hey all, fairly short update this time – news I’m sure many of you are rejoicing over!


Alpha Testing

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.


Resource Distribution

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.

One of my goals is for different regions of the map to have character, instead of everything feeling like one homogeneous mass. To help achieve this, inside the random map generator I added the ability to produce clusters of items. These can be resource deposits, neutral-owned improvements, goody huts, you name it. I call these “Region Traits,” and down the road I might flesh them out even further and allow for properties that aren’t simply objects which occupy tiles.

I’ve had to make several tweaks in order to achieve game balance, and no doubt many more will be necessary. Fortunately, I knew this ahead of time and the system is very flexible. You can throw down basically any type of object with it, define what terrain must (not) be present, which other traits must (not) be present, etc. The old, scattershot distribution logic is still in there and everything is in XML, so modders should have a lot of fun playing around with all the knobs.


Resource Appearance

The other resource-related feature I’ve been working on is resource appearance. At the start of a game a small percentage of them are visible, and new ones pop up over time. I’ve thought a lot about the best way of doing this… should the appearance of new deposits be completely random? Should you have to send a unit off to find them? Is there some kind of abstract investment players can make to speed up the rate? Unfortunately, there are problems with each of these.

Units manually checking each tile is nothing but tedious busywork, and wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed in SSI’s Imperialism. Overall I liked that game, but there really wasn’t any strategy to finding new resources. Off-map investment is too abstract, and doesn’t fit thematically in late antiquity. And while deposits just popping up out of nowhere works, it’s a shot squarely across the bow of suspension of reality: if everything else in the game requires sending units out to do it, how are you coming across this perfect geographic information?

The design I’ve settled on is a mix of the best elements of those problematic ideas, joined up with a couple new ones. When you first encounter a new resource deposit it’s “shrouded.” You can tell if it’s a rock, a plant or an animal, but not exactly what it is, nor can you use it. To resolve that, a “surveyor” unit has to go out and identify the deposit. New resources do appear somewhat randomly over time, but instead of seeing a “large iron deposit” appear in the fog, the information you’re getting is basically just hearsay that needs to be verified. The deposit may not even exist at all!

There are several reasons why this is the approach I’ve settled on.

First, it dangles a carrot out there for players, and gives them something to get excited about and plan around. It also requires active involvement that can be prioritized, shifted, etc. I didn’t want a system where you just waited around, hoping that at some point in the near future the game decides to be nice and serve you dinner.

And, gameplay aside, what I really like is that it makes sense. While a scout is off running around he might come across a shiny metal in a pile of rocks or find animal dung on the ground, and you should at least have some information about what you just found. Or rumors about some metal to the east might circulate, but there’s no way to know for sure. In the end, drawing accurate conclusions requires someone with experience taking a look.

This new feature will be one of our focal points with the upcoming alpha test. As always, there’s a chance it’s just plain unfun or has other major problems, and we have to go back to the drawing board – but hey, that’s game development!

– Jon

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