You can read more of Jon's thoughts on design and project management at his website. You can also find him on Twitter.
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!
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.
Seeds of Destruction
Having chosen AtG’s basic themes, I decided I wanted the game to break some new ground for the 4X genre – the experience would grow more difficult as time went by, rather than the typical trajectory of becoming easier. This was early in development though, and I was still a ways off from understanding how migration, supply and even basic economics would shape the game.
On the economics side I started with resources. I knew I wanted to avoid Civ’s more “tactical” approach of population points that worked tiles, but something needed to fill its place. The concept of population still interested me, and expanding on it through the representation of social classes seemed appealing. Instead of managing individual people, you had to try and weigh the interests of competing factions. I might be onto something here!
It was at this point the seeds of destruction were sown. Instead of worrying about how this system fit into the theme or helped accomplish my high-level goals for the game, I was fixating on what this single idea could do in isolation. But we’ll get back to that later.
The rough idea behind social classes was that each kingdom has warriors, farmers and clergy. Each had an “approval rate” which represented how happy the group was with the job you were doing. They had unique likes and dislikes, and placating all three was necessary if you hoped to maintain a stable kingdom.
If a class’ approval rate was too low it would revolt, resulting in penalties relating to their field of “work.” At the other end, a high approval rate provided bonuses. For example, if the farmers were upset, your ability to supply troops from home would be cut off, but if they were really happy you’d receive extra supply from your camps and settlements.
Sounds pretty interesting, huh? Well, I certainly thought so. But there’s a big difference between something sounding cool and something actually being a strategic, interesting mechanical system in a game…
Trouble At the Gates
One of my earliest objectives was to provide a tension where players felt the need to go out on a limb and take action when they wouldn’t normally. I decided that the social classes system would be a great vehicle to make this happen. And how would this work? A countdown timer. Each turn, your approval rate with each class would drop by one point. To prevent revolt you would have to regularly perform actions to make them happy.
This was basically the same approach I took with city states in Civ 5. However, there are issues with this model. For one, it’s fairly arbitrary. Shouldn’t there be something you can do to earn permanent favor? The ever-decreasing meter just feels like a strange way of representing human relationships.
Another problem is that there really aren’t many obviously interesting things to do to bump the meter back up. Gifts of wealth – alright, that’s an easy one. Not terribly exciting though. Building special structures like farms and churches? Ehhh, okay, that could work. Aaaand… what else now?
To make matters worse, each class needed to be unique not only in its effects but also its inputs. Farmers and warriors both like money, but enlarging the army is probably not going to excite the peasants you’re about to draft. It was quite a challenge coming up with interesting “quests” that didn’t require me to completely redesign the game.
At one point I even added “Relics” that could be found scattered across the maps. Whether you found it on the map or captured it from another player, acquiring one made the clergy really happy. I was pretty proud of this solution, as there was some potentially interesting gameplay possibilities here. The only problem was that relics weren’t really a big deal until centuries after this era. In doing some research I winced as I read this, but was determined to push on because, come on, I needed something interesting! This, my friends, is never a good sign.
I was a bit stumped, but I felt that these were challenges that could still be overcome. I just needed to do a little more brainstorming…
Unfortunately, the biggest issue of all had been hiding in plain sight the whole time: the social classes system was taking over the game, and every time I tried to add a new bandage to correct a problem it became even more all-encompassing. So what?
Well, AtG is a game about being a migratory barbarian tribe taking down Rome. It’s not about building churches and finding relics in order to keep the clergy happy. The game I’d wanted to make and the game I was making were two completely different games.
Back on Track
I came to realize the error of my ways after receiving some particularly helpful comments from one of the individuals whose design feedback I trust most. The gist of what he said was, “you’re trying to do X, but you’ve done Y instead. You’ve been doing it all wrong.” This was tough criticism to swallow, but swallow it I did. After all, he was right.
After their two glorious months as AtG’s centerpiece feature, I put the social classes system up on the shelf. It’s remained there ever since. The question was now what to do instead?
I went back to the drawing board and reverted to an economic system as simple as it could be. There was nothing but resources and the improvements which collected them. I noodled on some ideas, and one that stood out to me was maintenance. Units already consumed a small amount of Wealth each turn… maybe I could increase that. And maybe I could add a new “food” resource that they (and the population) would have to eat. Food coming from farms makes more sense than them making farmers happy, after all.
Maintenance is all well and good, but as long as you always have enough to pay the piper there’s not a whole lot of pressure. Sure, it would be nice to have even more iron so you could build extra units, but… I’m busy, you know? One option would be to have everything require more in maintenance than it produced, but trying to balance this would be a nightmare and a single mistake (by either myself as designer or the player) could cause everything to fall apart. But I knew I was onto something…
Finally, the eureka moment hit me. The missing piece. Resources that deplete over time. My logging camp requires metal each turn, and stops working if I run out. In turn, my iron mine produces metal each turn, but eventually runs out – time to find more iron! I knew this kind of system would also be tough to balance, but it was intuitive, straightforward, realistic and had the exact effect I wanted.
And not just that, it also opened up a wide array of exciting new possibilities. Players would have the option of pillaging and destroying improvements to gain a pile of resources when times were desperate, or capturing them and exploiting their long-term benefits. New resource deposits could appear anywhere on the map, even in patterns that I as the designer could shape, allowing me to nudge players into migrating. Unlike social class approval, resources could be traded between players, so this also improved the diplomatic aspect of the game.
Across the board, the switch from a social class system to a depleting resource system just… worked. And not only that, it fit perfectly into the theme. Some people have commented that a depleting resource system isn’t realistic. I would argue that the opposite is in fact true, and that it’s far more realistic than what you find in most 4X games.
One of the reasons why the Dark Ages were so “dark” is because the infrastructure which existed during the Roman Empire fell into complete ruin. It took centuries to rebuild, and in the meantime many parts of Europe were almost entirely depopulated.
People lost easy access to the goods necessary to maintain a civilized society. Without advanced tools and materials they weren’t able to produce as much food, lumber or metal each year, and all it took was one bad harvest, disease or enemy raid to wipe out entire communities.
The lack of a continued stream of accessible resources in AtG models this general trend. If your army is slain and you run out of metal it’s not game over. But it does basically mean you’re dead in the water though – the exact state in which most dark age kingdoms existed for hundreds of years.
Many of the ideas behind the social classes system were sound and still excite me. There’s a chance it might see the light of day in the future, either in an expansion to AtG or perhaps in a completely different game.
When you design a game you’re performing a tricky dance. You want interesting mechanics, but that’s not all that matter. Unless you’re making an completely abstract game, your project also needs to evoke a mood or theme which resonates with players.
The complexity of the job makes it nearly impossible to keep track of everything, and sometimes you need friends to slap you back into perspective. I’m very thankful to be surrounded by talented individuals who are willing to provide constructive criticism.
Standing here at the closing edge of our Kickstarter campaign I can’t wait until we’re able to expand that community even larger. Thanks again everyone for being a part of this project!
If you’d like to discuss this topic further (or anything else related to AtG!) be sure to stop by the official Conifer Games forum, and become a member of our growing community!