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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TGDRT #63: Theme (Plus, My Thoughts on Abstraction)

TGDRT

Episode #63 is live!

Rob Daviau pays a visit for a discussion about theme. How much theme is enough? How much is TOO much? How do you actually translate theme into gameplay mechanics. And heck, what IS a ‘theme’, anyways?

We jumped around all over the place in this one and, alas, didn’t get around to even describing what we think a theme is until the very end. This is an interesting topic that deserves more time, so I’ll be expanding on it a bit here.

As I noted during the podcast, my own definition for a “theme” is basically an element that evokes a feeling. Or, to be more specific, how our  brains translate abstract systems, names and numbers into a relatable experience. I would say that a game has a theme of discovery if it relies heavily on mechanics where you explore and make use of your surroundings. This differs quite a bit from the opinion shared by my co-hosts that “theme” is simply the story or background, and has no direct relation to mechanics.

The reason why I’m willing to blur this line is that regardless of what kind of game you’re making the goal is always to make your players feel something. This could be feeling like you’re living inside the familiar Star Wars universe, maybe even a specific battle therein. Or your objective might be for players to feel like bold explorers laying claim to mysterious territory filled with potential.

Stepping into the shoes of a 16th century conquistador or a 23rd century star admiral in particular is indeed more ‘thematic’, but these are simply deeper layers of theme. The added specificity is nice, but even the basic term ‘explorer’ evokes a clear feeling of what sorts of challenges and accomplishments await. ‘Explorer’ and ’16th century explorer’ are members not of different universes, but a single continuum.

Some might argue that to call something ‘thematic’ should mean it exhibits an especially high level of specificity, but you run into fuzziness even at the extreme end of the spectrum.

Let’s say our theme is playing as that 16th century explorer we’ve talked so much about. Within short order we realize we need to get a bit more specific as to what we actually mean by “a 16th century explorer.” Are we a violent conquistador willing to slay any native for an ounce of gold? Or are we a man of the sea, driven on by the unmatched thrill of being the first to lay eyes upon virgin landmasses on the horizon? Are we playing as one particular explorer from history?

Most likely we’re actually playing as a not-really-all-that-specific amalgamation of careers and highlights from several different individuals. Even if you are in fact assuming the role of Hernan Cortez from May 26th-August 13th 1519, you’re probably not forced to deal with the sticky and unpleasant the summer humidity, or how your horse’s injured front-right leg makes it impossible to reach a full gallop on rocky-but-not-too-rocky ground.

Reality is a mesh of near-infinite complexity. A supercomputer with the brainpower of every human that has ever lived would have no chance of fully representing even a tiny sliver of our universe and the physical forces which define it. Our grey matter doesn’t even bother wasting time on such tomfoolery, and instead very intentionally throws out the vast majority of data it collects. Rather than actually experiencing reality we swim within a model created internally containing only the tiny fraction of stuff we find important or interesting. This is virtually identical to, you guessed it: a game.

(As an aside, the same is true of dreams, which is why the passage of time within them feels so odd. If you’d like to learn more about this topic and how the brain works generally I HIGHLY recommend reading David Eagleman’s Incognito. I listened to the superb audiobook version narrated by David himself.)

Anyways, the takeaway here is that when you’re talking abstraction it isn’t a question of “if” but instead “how much?” Even the most thematic games are highly abstracted, and it’s up to our brains to flesh out what’s there.

So what do you think? Do you agree with my more general way of defining ‘theme’, or is the narrower interpretation held by my partners more in line with your own? What does the term mean to you?

– Jon

TGDRT #58: Death in Games

TGDRT

Episode #58 is live!

Jon, Dirk and David discuss the role of death in games. What is it for? How does it interact with narrative? What games has it been represented well and poorly in? And how can it be improved?

Okay, okay, #58 has actually been up for a while now – apologies for the delay in putting up this post. I’ve added a bit more meat compared to this podcast announcement, so hopefully all is forgiven. Christmas day is perfect for catching up on things!

This has been a topic rattling around inside my head for quite a while, but it came back with a vengeance while playing Chucklefish’s Starbound. There are several elements of the game that I really like (and even more in Re-Logic’s spiritual prequel Terraria – which I’ll be talking about at length soon), but what stood out to me the most was how unhappy I was with their representation of death.

When you die in Starbound you get zapped back up to your spaceship, and in many cases this is actually helpful. You don’t lose any equipment, and if there’s a monetary cost I certainly didn’t notice it. By contrast, Terraria offers three interesting options for the player to choose from. Upon death you either:

  1. Drop (but not lose) half your money and respawn at home (“Softcore”)
  2. Drop all of your equipment and items (“Mediumcore”)
  3. Permadeath

In Terraria money is useful but not the end-all be-all so losing just about any amount isn’t a big deal. Additionally, you can (and probably will) return to the location of your death and recollect your cash, which remains sitting there politely waiting for you until the end of time. (Edit: Just FYI, @Tegiminis on Twitter pointed out to me that items actually do disappear eventually.) And of course, if you stuff your loot under your mattress at home before venturing off there’s no chance of losing it, so the penalty for dying in Softcore is basically just a slap on the wrist.

Mediumcore raises the stakes quite a bit, as losing not just your items but also the equipment you wear all the time in a particularly hazardous or far-from-home place is a really big deal. Not only do you always want to head back to reclaim your stuff, but it’ll also be a much weaker version of you making the journey. And if a particular item was required to even get there? Well, death basically means losing all of your items for good. Needless to say, this is something you’ll work very hard to avoid.

I really like this three-pronged approach, and in doing some research about Terraria I discovered that it only came about through iteration – originally there was no Softcore mode, then the penalty was removed completely before the developers settled on the current setup. I love permadeath but it’s obviously not for everyone. The other two options are particularly brilliant from a game design perspective as they not only dangle the omnipresent sword of Damocles over players, but dying actually provides new goals.

Oh, you died? Well, you don’t just appear back at the starting line, but you’re going to be racing along a slightly different track now.

This approach isn’t ‘perfect’ in my book as it still doesn’t feel like death, but even so, it’s far more interesting than 99.9% of what’s out there, and is exactly the kind of creative design I hope to see more of in the future.

Allowing players to die, respawn and try again a hundred times with no penalty, disincentive or new gameplay attached is not just a missed opportunity but a ‘feature’ that cheapens the rest of your game. Player actions are only meaningful when they have consequences – both good and bad. I understand why many developers feel the need to take a light-handed approach, but as both a designer and a player I relish seeing all of the new ideas popping up in the smaller and/or indie games that don’t need five million sales to break even.

– Jon

The Strategy of Playtesting

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?

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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.

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Ethics in Game Design

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?

 

Environmental Products

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.

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New Thoughts on Victory

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.

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AtG Economics Brainstorming

 

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.

– Jon

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AtG AI Mini Update

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:

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Fairness, Discovery & Spelunky

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?

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