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.


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.


TGDRT #67: Game Phases & Pivots


Episode #67 is live!

Rob joins Jon and Dirk to discuss phases (the early game, the late game, etc.) and ‘pivot points’, which are moments when focus shifts from one aspect of a game (such as economic engine building) to another (scoring points). Some of the titles brought up during the conversation include Chess, Monopoly, Dominion, Lords of Waterdeep and Zimbabwe, the game that got Rob thinking about this topic.

Pacing is one of the great dark arts of game design where you have to work almost entirely on gut feel. Should a game wrap up in a 60 minutes or 30? Should the ‘end game’ comprise the last quarter of a game, or simply the final turn? It’s almost entirely personal preference.

We also got touched on one of my favorite punching bags: victory points. It’s certainly possible to have major pivots without them (e.g. an RTS where you build up economically in order to craft an invincible army), but their extreme abstraction often leaves a bad taste in players’ mouths.

The most poignant example I brought up during the episode was Dominion, which is particularly bad. Once you shift over to the ‘grab as many points as you can’ phase the whole strategic fabric unravels pretty quickly. Because points rarely have any gameplay value a point chase for its own sake is rarely very interesting.

I do admit that VPs are probably necessary in certain types of games, but I’ll still always be attracted by the design purity of victory conditions.

– Jon

TGDRT #57: Stepping Back, Goals & Pacing


Episode #57 is live!

Jon and Dirk discuss general design topics relating to their recent work, including playtesting, extending the development of projects, providing players with goals, instilling a game with good pacing and ensuring there are always interesting strategic options to choose from.

Dirk and I decided tweak our ‘update’ episodes a bit and focus more on topics, rather than details. This is the first show in that format, and I really like the results. Our two main discussion points were pacing and strategic variance.

Pacing is interesting because it’s even less defined than most game design. Training a Unit requiring 10 turns VS 5 turns is more about ‘feel’ than it is ‘correctness’. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if your mechanics even match up with the vision inside your head.

Strategic variance is a bit easier – having it is good, not having it is bad! The challenge here is finding a happy medium.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of having only one good choice – meaning there’s really no choice at all. But players become overwhelmed when you load them up with too many choices, resulting in them becoming equally meaningless. What you want is a handful of digestible, always-viable options. Which is, of course, easier said than done!

This is particularly tough for designers crafting the opening of complex procedural games (like AtG or Civ), as the core experience  is based on a tapestry of overlapping systems, and meddling too directly can ruin what made it fun in the first place!

This is why I’m convinced that there’s no substitute for playtesting, iteration and spending the time to do it right. There’s no secret game design formula that always works. The only recipe you can rely on is experience coupled with trial and error.

– Jon

December 2013 AtG Update: Economics

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?


Social Classes – AtG’s Design Dead End

Today I’ll be sharing the story behind social classes, among AtG’s most important features – and also one that no longer exists.

Part of game design is walking down several dead ends. Although we’re still very early in the development of AtG, I already found myself staring at one such dark corner several months ago. In this article I’ll be describing the biggest mistake I made with AtG, and the killer feature it ended up transforming into.


Replacing Rome


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.


Design Doc Preview: Game Pacing

First, a quick note. As part of the “Alive and Kicking” event I’ll be talking about At the Gates this coming Sunday, February 24th at 12pm EST. It should be a lot of fun, so stop on by if you’re free! Now then, back to our regularly-scheduled update!


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!

A few folks have asked me about what my design docs look like, some out of curiosity and others because they’ve either considered contributing to the $125 tier or have already done so. I figured it would be both helpful and interesting to post a section of one of my brainstorming docs, and give you all a taste of how I develop ideas.

The document from which this excerpt is taken is dedicated to gameplay pacing and progression. As I always like to say, everything is liable to change, so don’t regard anything I say in this article to be set in stone. Hell, I’m sure some of it is already way out-of-date, even though I last updated it in late November!

This doc was extremely helpful though, as it helped crystallize some of my ideas for how the mid and late-game of ATG should play out. It also helped inspire the exchanging gifts “minigame” that occurs when you first meet another leader.

This article is a bit “tighter” than a lot of my brainstorming, since I’m outlining how I want things to work and stepping back to see if there might be opportunities or flaws I’d been missing with earlier brainstorming.


Negative Space


Both developers and players spend a serious amount of time and energy focusing on how we might get more out of games. More features. More content. More tough decisions. It’s easy to forget that sometimes… less is more.

Most titles where a single session lasts longer than a few minutes are best served by providing players at least a small measure of downtime. This “negative space” of game design is an important ingredient in proper pacing.


Good Pacing… Bad Design?

Games often incorporate features that might be considered a bit “boring” with the express purpose of giving players  a breather. If a game is 20 hours long and every last second of it from naming your character to the final credits is over-the-top intense, most people would be too stressed out to get anywhere close to the end!



Asymmetry between players is one of the designer’s best – and most challenging – tools. Not only does it spice up the experience of playing the game, when implemented well it also greatly enhances replayability. Let’s look in detail at the impact it can have, along with why it’s sometimes so hard to incorporate.


What Does Asymmetry Add?

The more new experiences a game can provide players the more replayable it is. One of the best ways to expand that variety is with asymmetric factions. In the original Civilization all of the civs were identical, so outside of one’s imagination there was no reason to ever play anyone but the default. In Civilization 5 this is no longer the case, and the goal of the design team was to have factions that were unique enough to all be worth playing, but not so much so that these differences stole the show from the core mechanics.


Turn-Based VS Real-Time

One of the strategy genre’s most important dividing lines is the manner in which time passes – is it continuous, as in the real world? Or is it segmented into phases designed to restrict player activity? Many strategy fans favor one over the other and the “debates” between these groups often grow contentious. When a prominent series switches sides it often leads to proclamations of imminent doom, or at the very least a fair bit of teeth-gnashing.

While there’s certainly been a great deal of conversation pertaining to this topic, rare are truly comprehensive studies which seek to identify what differentiates turn-based games from their real-time cousins. Good designers need to be well-versed in the strengths and weaknesses of both.