AtG Update: February 2018

Hey all,

Been a while since I’ve posted an update about the game here, although the plan is to do so from now on. To check out the past few game updates you can head over to the AtG Kickstarter page.

In this update we’ll be focusing on two things: the basic design thinking behind the diplomacy system, along with showing off some new elements of the game from a recent playtest of mine in screenshot-form.

The post started to get a bit long, so I’ve decided to save the specific details as to how diplomacy will work (e.g. Relationship Levels, Global Reputation, Leader Personality Traits and Interaction Types) for the next update. We’ll start off though with a high-level look as to the challenge of diplomacy in a complex strategy game.

 

What “is” Diplomacy?

Diplomacy is one of the biggest challenges in the strategy space, in large part because it’s trying to simulate something that’s hard to wrap your head around even in the real world.

There are some basic tenets that people agree on when it comes to good military strategy: divide and conquer, pay attention to supply, hold the high ground, etc. But what does “good diplomacy” look like? Sometimes negotiating averts a major war, while other times it simply brings “peace in our time”. What looks like prudent flexibility to one can be seen by another as an unforgivable betrayal.

So, yeah, a tough thing to model!

Of course there are elements we can try and incorporate such as personality, trading, making promises, punishing liars and traitors, etc. but it’s much harder to simulate all of this than a simple resource-based economy (and even those are hard to get right). Is there room to make something really nuanced and revolutionary here? I think so, but probably not as just one feature among many in an already-complex game.

A few weeks ago I asked on Twitter what people thought made for a good diplomacy system, and I received a lot of good answers. There was certainly some common ground, but the biggest lesson I took was that there was no general consensus – I think mainly due to the challenge I spoke of above.

Another challenge is that diplomacy is meant to simulate the nuance of human interaction. We’re not necessarily trying to represent systems here, but more, well, feelings. Alas, this isn’t really something that game AI is up for at this point in time, in large part because it’s AI, and there’s nothing you can do as a developer to convince players otherwise. Regardless of individual moves, it simply feels different playing against a computer. That is starting to change with the kind of work Google’s DeepMind has done with AlphaGo, but that is the crown jewel of a multi-million dollar research studio on a game whose rules have been fixed in place. So we’ve got a long way to go before the 4X genre will be revolutionized in this way.

 

The AtG Diplomacy Design Pillars

So what are we doing in AtG then?

The focus is to come up with an approach that does something interesting and new while most especially making sure to avoid pitfalls of past games, and with that goal we’ve settled on three fundamental pillars.

 

Distinct, Predictable Personalities

“Oh wait, I know this guy… Awww man.”

The biggest problem with most diplomacy systems is that they’re too random. While there are probably always well-intentioned rules under the hood which enables AI players to reevaluate their situation and change their minds when it makes sense to do so, in reality this usually ends up turning into, “AI declares war, then asks for peace 10 turns later, then declares war again 10 turns after that”.

We’ll specifically be avoiding this pitfall in AtG in a couple ways. First is through a focus on Personality Traits. If Attila with his ‘Aggressive’ Trait finds you nearby then you can be pretty sure war is coming soon (unless, of course, you bow before him and give into his mostly-symbolic demands that you know will soon be on their way). Sometimes war will be a good idea for Attila. Sometimes it won’t be. But most important of all is the fact that he wants it. Not every Leader will be this extreme, of course, but it’s important to know what you’re getting.

 

Tough, But Clear Choices

“Ugh, I was trying to be friends with both of these guys…”

A common problem I see with diplomatic systems in other strategy games is a focus on minutiae, particularly on the trade front. Having a really complex trade system seems like a neat idea, but it usually ends up turning into a game of, “always trade X for Y, then try to exploit the AI out of all their money”. In AtG trade will not be a focus – in fact, it won’t even be present at all. Instead, the focus will be on the relationships between leaders.

One leader might demand that you choose between him and another leader. In line with the first design pillar though this should always be somewhat predictable – if you try and be friends with a leader with the ‘Jealous’ Trait you know that also trying to be friends with someone else will trigger him to challenge your loyalty.

Most of the time it’s going to be impossible to make everyone happy and keep all of your stuff and your pride – but that’s part of the fun of figuring out how to best adapt to and “solve” diplomacy.

 

A Few Basic, But Powerful Player Knobs

“I’m going to tell this guy to pound sand!”

The final pillar is based around the concept of player agency, and ties somewhat into pillar #2. Players should still be able to steer things diplomatically, even if a lot of the game will be responding and adapting to the other tribal leaders.

Sometimes you just want to vent frustration at someone, and in AtG a lot of the time you’ll be able to get your way. A leader with the ‘Meek’ Trait might always give in to the first Demand For Tribute, making the strategy here more about optimizing what to ask for and when. Demanding something from ‘Proud’ Attila might be guaranteed to fail every time, and draw his wrath – but in return your Global Reputation might receive a large boost, allowing you to build a friendship with another leader.

 

In the next update I’ll go into more specifics as to how diplomacy will work in AtG (the 7 Relationship Levels, how Global Reputation works, the list of possible Interaction Types, etc.), but for now we’ll wrap things up here. But before we go we’ll go over some new screenshots and show off some of the new recent additions to the game.

 

Screenshots!

The first couple images here show off the new tutorial system.

It’s mostly made up of basic popups triggered by particular events (e.g. if you’re running out of food), but the cool part of the system is that most of it is optional. This supplements the fancy tooltips-in-tooltips system we started working on early in the project, and together should provide a much smoother on-ramp into the 4X experience than any previous title.

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Optional tutorial follow-up explanations.

The system is also cool in that the tutorial messages themselves can be nested multiple levels deep.

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Tutorial messages can now be embedded and link to one another like tooltips.

We’ve also made sure everything is accessible in one place, just in case you want to go back to something later, or maybe turn off the tutorial system entirely and explore the in-game help at your own pace.

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The game help screen.

You can access this screen either by pressing the ‘?’ button in the upper-left or by pressing the ? key. Not particularly fancy, but it gets the job done!

Speaking of ways to make the game easier to play, I may I’ve touched on the ‘Notes’ system in the past, but I can’t help but show it off here now, as it was a really helpful feature in my latest playtest.

Right-clicking on any Clan Card brings up a screen which allows you to attach a colored note to the bottom.

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Adding a note to a Clan Card.

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Clan Card notes in action!

This feature is rather handy, as it makes it easy to keep track of who you want to do what, something that’s pretty important in a game in large part about managing Clans! It’s especially useful when you have to stop playing for the night and would otherwise have no clue what you were up to the next time you pick things back up.

It’s also possible to write notes on the map itself in order to keep track of spatial information, e.g. where to construct that Logging Camp or cut a path through the forest in order to make it easier to get around.

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Tile notes revealing my grand plans for the forest.

The last screenshot I’ll include shows off the new ‘Declare Kingdom’ button you might have noticed in one of the previous screenshots. It doesn’t show much in and of itself, but I promise the button does work! Just need a bit more Parchment…

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Declaring a Kingdom! Well… eventually.

These screenshots are actually from a pretty interesting playtest that I’ve been writing up notes for. I’ll probably compile them into a future update post giving a more in-depth look at how the game plays out.

This was a pretty tough and interesting game where I found myself in the far north without many Resource Deposits but plenty of Forests to harvest Timber from. It also brought up some interesting design questions (How accessible should Resources be? How much variance between starting locations should there be?), so it would be a fun game to explore in more depth.

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Brrrrr…

That’s it for now. Thanks again for reading, and we’ll be back with another update soon!

– Jon

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A Preview of AtG’s Revolutionary UI

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Hello again from the Conifer team!

At long last, we’re finally back with a new edition of ‘Jon rambles for too long about some esoteric game design topic (and along the way mentions AtG once or twice)’. Today’s lucky recipient of this most distinguished spotlight is the game’s user interface, or “UI”. I know this topic might sound roughly as exciting as watching paint dry, but I really do encourage you to stick around because once you’ve seen things with your own eyes I think you’ll understand why our bold claim of AtG’s UI being “revolutionary” isn’t just pre-release marketing hype.

It may also come as a relief that this update is actually a 3-for-1 deal where ‘Jon waxing poetically about his eternal love for UI and the beautiful soul it hides from the big, bad world’ is reinforced by two additional features.

The second member of our update trifecta is a fairly detailed bullet point outline of what’s new and cool with AtG’s UI, and provides the most bang for your buck if you only have a couple minutes to spare. I’ve attached it to the end of this article, so to check it out just scroll to the very bottom of this article and then back up until you see “UI Feature Outline” in big, bold text.

The real the star of our show though is this hands-on video preview of the UI (total of 66 minutes, split into 2 parts roughly a half hour long):

 

 

The old “seeing is believing” mantra sums up UI perfectly, and so much so that even a designer and UI fanboy like me can’t do it justice simply by describing it. So even if you don’t normally watch game videos I strongly encourage checking this one out. If you’re in a hurry skip ahead to the 11-minute mark, as that’s when we introduce AtG’s secret weapon.

The rest of this article makes up the final member of our trifecta, and is a dive deep into a number of UI-related topics that include: why good UI has never been (and never will be) the kind of ‘sexy’ bullet point that helps sell magazines, why in spite of that developers should still care, what makes UI design so difficult, where the idea for AtG’s Adaptive Tooltips came from, some of our UI design ‘rules’, and a look at the design process behind a few UI features we’ve put a lot of thought into so that players won’t have to.

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AtG Update + New Let’s Play Video

Hey all, I’ll try make this post short and sweet (by my standards, anyways!), as I just posted another massive “let’s play” video which does a better job of showing off what we’ve been up to than I can with words alone:

Weighing in at a whopping 3 hours this video is by far the longest yet, but don’t let that scare you off! I’ve broken it up into six 30-minute parts that should be much easier to work through in multiple viewings. Much of Part 1 covers the recent changes I’ll be talking about below, so if that’s all you’re interested in feel free to pass on the other five parts. If you prefer text to video though, well, read on!

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AtG Update: Economics, in Ink

A few of AtG’s new professions.

Hello again from the Conifer team!

We’ve been hunkered down working hard on At The Gates these past winter months, and I figured it was finally a good time to come back up for air.

If you’d like to stay completely up-to-date with all things AtG we’re still posting updates every few days on the Twitters, but I know there’s at least a couple of you out there who enjoy my 20-page treatises. And should you enjoy updates in the form of colors and shapes moving around we’ve also just posted a new ‘Let’s Play’ video (2 hours long!) covering much of the same ground I’ll be talking about below.

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Daily AtG Progress Updates

Because it’s usually a month or two between major updates (and when they do finally appear they tend to be… a little long) I’ve started providing daily progress updates via the official Conifer Games Twitter. In case Twitter isn’t your cup of tea I’ve added the feed to the AtG website and also post everything to our Facebook and Google+ pages.

The daily updates offer a new way to stay plugged into all things AtG, but we’ll still be posting beefier updates for those who prefer reading consolidated, high-level summaries. Speaking of which, one should be up in a couple weeks covering what we’ve been up to since posting the ‘Let’s Play’ video. ‘Til then!

– Jon

At The Gates ‘Let’s Play’ Video

Hey all, I’ll keep the post short because you’ll hear me talking plenty more in the video! I’ve embedded it below, but make sure to watch in HD so that the art and text aren’t garbled by whatever Kickstarter/YouTube defaults to.

– Jon

AtG Update: Progress, Pacing & People

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A few months ago I hinted at the possibility of some big changes – well, said “possibility” has turned into reality, which means some exciting new features to talk about. But before getting into the details I think it’s best to explain why we have “big changes” to talk about at all.

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Iterative Design – Not Just a Buzzword!

I’m sure some of you are thinking “What do you mean ‘big changes’? Wasn’t the game supposed to be done by now? Has AtG succumbed to feature creep? Has Conifer run out of money? Do you guys have any idea what you’re doing?”

Given the state of Kickstarter these days I begrudge no one for having perfectly-justified concerns of this sort (hell, I’m in the same boat with quite a few still-unreleased projects I’ve been looking forward to!). Thankfully, I can state with zero reservations whatsoever that AtG is in great shape. There are no gaping holes in the gameplay that may or may not ever get filled, nor dark clouds portending a studio closure looming over the horizon. The game is fun, all features are at least roughed in and we still have plenty of money (mmm, ramen…).

Make no mistake, we’re going to overshoot the projected release date I came up with back in late 2012 by a pretty healthy margin, but I’ve never by shy about the fact that our one and only priority is delivering a great game – regardless of how long that takes. I know I sound like a broken record here, but that truly is Conifer’s “mission statement”. No one remembers when a game is late, but no one forgets when a game is bad!

Okay, okay, let’s all assume that AtG is in fact as amazing as I say – why are we making “big changes”? And how do we know the game actually is in good shape? The answer to both of these questions is simple: external feedback.

As one might expect from such a mature and supportive community, a number of amazing playtesters have stepped forward as huge contributors to AtG’s development. Not only have these individuals provided great insight and suggestions, but they’ve also provided honest assessments about the state of the game. I really do appreciate constructive criticism, and the AtG Test Group has certainly delivered on that front.

A few months ago and back before the “big changes” much of the feedback we were getting could be summed up as: “The game is good… but it feels like something is missing.” After journeying to a mountaintop and meditating in raging blizzards for a couple weeks I returned to my desk having come to the conclusion that they were right.

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Alpha II and Beyond

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Alright, let’s talk about what this milestone means for the game itself!

 

Seasons & Map Generation

This was actually a bit of a detour from the original plan, but I had long known serious work was needed here, and the map is so crucial to everything else that I decided to bite the bullet.

The old system for creating and managing the seasons was extremely primitive – and it showed. Climate zones were assigned in thick bands based on latitude, with small modifications made near mountains. Randomness was leaned on heavily in an attempt to add some fuzziness. In the end, rather than getting large cold fronts advancing from the north you were instead treated to obvious and unrealistic stripes, with the occasional snow tile peppered here and there.

Climate and terrain is closely linked, so when I decided to redo the former I felt it best to step back and add map generation to the task. What we want are believable maps that contain regions with strong character, but the old logic could do little more than produce an even mix of terrain across the entire map. I decided to basically burn everything to the ground and start over.

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Welcome to Alpha II!

At The Gates - Now in Alpha II!

I’m excited to announce that as of today At The Gates is now in Alpha II! Hooray!

So, uh… what the heck is “Alpha II”, anyway?

“Alpha II” is the new name for the milestone we had been calling “Beta” for the past 15 months. So why the switch?

When most people hear that a product is in “beta” their immediate expectation is that it’s, you know, almost done. AtG is coming together, but with over a year of development left it would be unfair to set the bar quite that high. Calling it “beta” has lead to some confusion among both players and partners over the past few weeks, so I decided to bite the bullet and give it a more appropriate name.

What this all means in the real world is that if you contributed or pre-ordered at the $50 level you can now download AtG from the Humble website!

If you haven’t used the Humble Dashboard before just head over to Humble’s Key Resender and enter the email address you had associated with your Kickstarter (or PayPal) account when you contributed. This is also where new versions of the game will be posted, so keep the address handy.

Alpha II also, at last, includes working Mac and Linux versions! These gave Jonathan and I a bit of a headache over the past couple months, but I’m already glad we spent the effort, and I’m sure our non-Windows fans will agree.

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From Microphone to Ploughshare

TGDRT

Episode #70 is live! And it’s with a heavy heart I share the news that it will be my last as co-host of The Game Design Round Table podcast.

I talk at length about the reasons behind my decision to retire during the episode, but it basically comes down to having the time and energy to ensure At the Gates is the best game it can possibly be.

I’ve talked about my unique work patterns in the past, and how they can be a double-edged sword. Diving head-first into incredibly complex projects (like building a hardcore 4X with a team of yourself plus a few part-timers!) is what I live for, and I’m very fortunate that this passion allows me to have such an amazing career. The price I pay for this is that I’ve never been good at keeping more than a couple plates spinning at once. And it goes without saying that AtG is a really, really big plate.

Deep down I always knew this day would come, the question was just how long I could go before AtG was at a point where it would need my full attention. I love doing the show, playing and talking about games with Dirk and interacting with our awesome community. It makes my day every time I get an email thanking us because one of our silly discussions actually helped someone. But with AtG’s final big features coming online, the beta starting up soon and the project as a whole transitioning into its final phase we’ve finally reached that point.

It’s tough to leave something behind that you’ve invested yourself in for years, but I know the time is right. I’m really, genuinely excited about where At the Gates is going – especially now that the pieces are starting to fall into place. I won’t be talking about it on the podcast any more, but you can be sure I’ll have a lot more to share over the next year both here and elsewhere across the Internet. Stay tuned!

– Jon