Welcome to the latest dev blog for Atomic Society. Right now, we’re all becoming a bit manic as we prepare for the Steam release. It’s been a hectic month as usual.
Latest Video Version
My little experiment recording myself reading the dev blog last month seemed to work out well. Some YouTubers randomly re-posted it, and over 6000 people discovered it on one person’s channel alone, which was rather nice although slightly terrifying at the same time.
If you want to hear and see this blog in video form, you can find it here...
New Bug-Fixing Update Released
We’ve spent the whole of June fixing bugs, and have just released another large update to the game. Anybody playing the pre-alpha can upgrade to version 0.0.9.1 right now if they download the game again.
This new update contains over 25 bug fixes, including solutions for issues that have been in the game for ages, the kind of fiddly bugs that always got put at the bottom of our to-do list when we were feeling exhausted. There's still a lot to do of course, but the game is definitely running more reliably than ever before.
If you remember last month's blog, I was concerned about the number of bugs in the game as Atomic Society became bigger and bigger. I didn't know whether to divert onto fixing them, or press ahead and get as much content in the game as possible before Steam. Both routes had advantages.
In the end, we chose to focus on bug fixing, and I'm glad we did. It’s amazing what a month of bug-fixing can do for our sanity. Every bug fixed is one less thing to store in our heads and fret over. I feel slightly more confident about the game surviving its Steam launch now, though we’ll have to see.
Full patch notes for the update can be found here.
Some of the most bizarre and complicated bugs we've fixed involved raiders stealing corpses out of the old people’s home, and drug-users overdosing on their own supply even though they were dead. Nick (our main coder) also did a complete redo of the storage system to make it much more robust. You’d think NPCs using a storehouse would be pretty simple, but it isn’t when various things can happen to that NPC on the way there. Perhaps he’s murdered, or arrested, or raiders kidnap him, or disease gets him, or he simply decides to wander into the wasteland. The storehouse has to be aware of where every item is. Multiply that by 300+ citizens and you'll get a few bugs. I think we've fixed most of them now though.
To help find bugs for this patch, I started playing the game in a way I absolutely hate. For each gameplay decision, I worked out what I really wanted to do, and then did the complete opposite. I built the worst post-apocalyptic settlement possible and hated every law I implemented.
It felt horrible and was also surprisingly tiring having to override your own views constantly, but at least it helped with the testing process.
Current Views on the Project
Considering we're on the verge of what might be the biggest shake-up to our lives as indie devs since we started, I’ve been thinking about the process of making this game quite a lot lately.
Steam has been on our minds since early 2015, but we kept delaying our Early Access release over and over to add more content, which annoyed a few people. I've always had in my head that the game should be worth $15 when it hits Steam, but it took us 3 years to get to that point in my opinion. Fortunately we had pre-alpha players who were willing to pay based on the game’s potential, and that kept us going.
We've definitely changed as people since 2015. We began as clueless beginners, and had that naive optimism that helped us get going. We had no idea how complex and time-consuming Atomic Society was going to be at the time, and there was still a romantic air around making indie games back then. Blind optimism started to fade around Summer 2016. That’s when the market became obviously oversaturated with games, and I started to realise how long it would take us to get Atomic Society in a good state.
To be totally honest, I still don't know if the game is good enough for Early Access. I've been playing the game so much recently that I've lost my objectivity. I still like playing it, which is a good sign, but perhaps I have terrible taste. I need to take a break from playing it for at least a month to gain some perspective, but I can't see that happening anytime soon.
I keep telling myself nothing bad can happen when we launch on Steam. Even if the game is a disaster, it's not going to hurt, but I'm having a weird sense of renewed optimism and hope, and with that comes a risk of being disappointed later down the line. There is a remote possibility I could be a full-time (paid) indie dev by the end of the year. That would be my dream job. It's hard to be a pessimist with that career possibility even being on the table. I feel like a man who’s been waiting 3 years to find out if he succeeded at a job interview.
New Features Ready For Steam
Focusing on all the things to do before Steam has kept me grounded. While Nick was working on that bug-fixing patch, Adam (our other coder) has been busy working on the new social issues I mentioned last month. I'm pleased to say that abortion, homosexuality and breeding are now fully working. They need balancing and bug-testing of course, but we were able to get the core work done in a month.
For breeding, it’s now the case that when you build a hospital, survivors will decide it must be safe to start raising families, and young kids will begin spawning periodically. Back when I was first designing this game, I planned a massively complex system with citizens falling in love and forming relationships and so on, which sounds great on paper, and then you realise players would barely notice any of it. When they’ve got 300+ people to keep alive, there isn’t time to inspect who's sleeping with who. Fortunately player's imaginations fill in all the gaps.
Abortion is now working too. Female citizens who have just given birth won’t be able to work until they’ve physically recovered. Obviously a woman who has terminated her pregnancy will be available. If you're short on workers, or just overwhelmed with new kids to feed, there could be a cold practical reason to tolerate or encourage abortion in your town. This was also the first social issue where I had to decide who should be punished if you choose to condemn it, the woman or the doctor? In the end, I decided to go with just the woman, as I felt that would make the choice more dramatic.
Homosexuality was a bit challenging because there has to be a town planning aspect to everything, and it’s not always easy to connect someone’s sexuality to building a settlement. In the end we made it so that gay survivors will come to your town but not all of them will come out of the closet, to speak. Some of them will keep it hidden, and this will affect their productivity. If they do come out, it will affect your town's birth rate slightly, and you can decide how accepting to be.
I’ve struggled a bit trying to make it so the morals and laws you pick are meaningful, but you can still go in whatever direction you personally think is best. I don’t want this game to be sentimental or full of guilt trips. My hope is the important social issues come with built-in emotions, because we’re all human at the end of the day, but it means accepting people are going to do awful things with our game.
Choosing A Release Date For Atomic Society
We have finally decided to commit to a September Early Access launch. It will be one day that month, unless the whole team dies between now and then (in which case, I shall put it in my will to release the game). We have a basic target at last and it will not change, even if we end up coming out on the last day of September. No matter how much better the game could be, or if feature X was ready, the time has come to face the music. I don't know if all teams decide like this, but for us we emotionally need to share this game with a wider audience. I’m tired of hiding away.
Technically, the game is on Steam already. This week Nick integrated the game with Steam, and it is currently sitting in our personal game libraries. It doesn't actually work, but merely seeing it there is exciting. I've also started looking up how to give our pre-alpha players their Steam keys, which will be important when we switch from Humble to Steam. The process doesn't look too difficult at the moment, but there’s a lot to learn.
I think the mood on the team has changed now we’ve committed to a release month. There’s an energy in the air, and the 4 of us seem more focused on the game than ever before. I still see Early Access as a journey, not the destination, but if we're this excited now, I can't imagine how manic launch day will be.
Progress On Religion
The religion feature has now been fully designed. I'm really hoping we can squeeze it in before Steam, as it will fill a missing gap in the game. Out of everything I've designed, religion has been the hardest thing to get right. I'm not sure why. Perhaps the challenge has been turning something so personal into gameplay without resorting to clichés. The system I've come up with is either going to be really good, or really awful.
When we’ve coded it, religion or your ideology will help explain why the survivors listen to your Town Leader when he tells them to imprison vegetarians for example. Your moral authority - and therefore people giving a damn what you say – will be linked to people sharing your belief system. However, rather than converting people, I'm more interested in making players decide how to get rid of those who disagree with them, for better or worse.
Hopefully this feature will be in the Early Access version on the day we launch, but that will be very tough, considering how big the feature is. I could just delay the game until religion has been finished and tested, which might be the smarter option, but right now we’ll keep hoping. I always believe we can do it, no matter how many delays there have been in the past. Worst comes to the worst, religion will be the first patch after Steam.
There’s also another feature to add as well, which could really make the game last longer, but I’ll talk about that next time.
Although it sounds like the boss of an RPG, Dungeness is actually a place in England. Nani (our artist, also my wife) went with me on a short break recently, because even poor indie devs need to get away when they work and live in the same place day after day. We travelled to the south-east of England, where I used to live, mostly to meet family, but I also wanted to visit Dungeness, which is a very weird place I used to visit as a kid. It's sometimes called the only desert in England, and you can't build there. The people live in shacks in the shadow of a giant nuclear power station, which you can walk right up to and even see people fishing in bubbling hot waters where the station vents into the sea. The area is a bit more touristy these days, but it still has that Cold War bleakness that appeals to me. As you can see from the photo above (which I found online), it basically looks like a level from our game. As a post-apocalyptic fan living in boring old England, Dungeness is the closest I’ve found to stepping into a Fallout-like environment, minus the rad scorpions.
Stuck in the Past With Unity
We have finally locked down the version of Unity we're using, which was already a year out of date. Updating it any more would give us some nice treats, but would break too much of the game's code, so it isn’t worth the hassle.
It's strange that we'll never have to upgrade Unity again on this project. It ties into what I was saying last month, that we're coming to the final phase of development.
We don't have any regrets about using Unity, especially considering it hasn't cost us a penny yet. The only small hassle has been working with third party assets. A few shaders in Atomic Society were made by others, and most of them have been abandoned by their creators over the years. We had to fix them ourselves to keep them working, but it didn’t delay us too long. I’m sure we’ll use Unity again, if we ever make a second game.
End Result of Gaming Abstinence
Earlier this year I wrote about how I’d taken a complete break from the gaming industry and social media. I stopped checking gaming news and forums, and gave up buying new games. I had to do it because I was going crazy spending about 10 hours working on a game, and then trying to relax by spending even more time with games. Day after day, year after year. That's the problem when your hobby is your job, even if you're doing that job for love.
This detox lasted about 6 weeks. It was amazing how much extra time I gained back in the process, but I couldn’t find anything else to plug the hole video games had vacated. I love games too much and I can’t suppress my passion for long, even for my own mental health. I still get the same pleasure seeing a video game today as I did when I was 7 years old and saw Pong for the first time. Some things just fascinate you, there’s no explaining it.
So I'm back to being a gaming addict again. The break has done me good though, I don’t feel burnt out right now, but we’ll see how long it lasts before I need to retreat again.
Wrapping It Up
That's about it for now. Next month’s dev blog should be a fun one because we'll be days away from taking a gamble on Steam. Where will our review score even out? Will I be able to give up my day job anytime soon? I haven't got a clue. Whatever happens, we're launching next month. That fact feels like a black hole. We can't escape it.
I’d like to give a huge thank you to everybody who’s bought the game so far and enabled us to get to this point. The pre-alpha phase has been a fantastic 2 years on the whole. I genuinely feel like everybody who’s bought it has been doing me a personal favour. We’ve met some really nice players, and been able to improve the game in ways that definitely wouldn’t have happened if we’d hidden the game away. That’s why we won’t be carrying on the Special Edition rewards after we hit Steam, even though it might benefit us financially. They’re just for the people who helped us get to this point.
I'll see you next month.
Hello and welcome to another development update for Atomic Society. This blog is a few weeks overdue because we’ve been busy finishing the latest - and possibly biggest - update to the game so far. Version 0.0.9 is the final big update we’re going to release before coming to Steam later this year.
Audio Version of This Blog Now Available!
I've decided to try an experiment with this month's blog and recorded myself reading the words below, over some footage of me playing the latest version of the game. It's a little rough and ready, but if people enjoy it, I'll keep doing it from now on. It's the exact same content as the written version.
You can check it out here:
Or if you prefer to simply read about the making of the game, then read on...
New Pre-Alpha Update Released
After several months of hard work, update 0.0.9 is now available for our pre-alpha players to try out. This update brings several new features including: hostile outsiders to make or break deals with, 4 new buildings to construct, custom difficulty mode, story elements, town leader upgrades, and numerous other improvements.
Pre-alpha players can download the new version by finding the email from Humble, which would’ve arrived when you purchased the game. New players will access the latest features as soon as they buy the game.
Full patch notes for the version are here for those who want to read them.
Right now, we’re taking a few well-earned days off to recover our strength (writing dev blogs aside) and then it’s back to work turning this pre-alpha into an alpha.
My Thoughts on Making 0.0.9
The game has a life of its own nowadays. There's so much code in Atomic Society, and so many gameplay elements rubbing up against each other, that the game pretty much tells us what we should add to it next. It’s not a blank canvas for ideas anymore. If we want to add anything now, it has to fit in with so much that already exists. The “invention” stage is gradually coming to an end. Now we’re entering the long “improving” phase.
It definitely feels we're working on a downwards slope, which is great after wandering in the wilderness for years, with so much to create, and only hope and a few strong ideas to keep us going. I can see the end of the project when I play the game now. It's just a case of filling in some rather large gaps and applying a heap of polish. I think that by summer 2019, 12 months from now, Atomic Society might be at the point where we could say “yep, it’s done”.
That doesn’t mean we will stop there. There's still tons I want to do with the game if it’s financially possible. I have pages and pages of ideas, as there’s so much you could do with this game, but it's going to be more and more a case of improving what already exists rather than inventing completely new systems. For years the team has been swimming in a big ocean but now we can see land. We can finish this!
That’s quite a comfort, because there's a short time during every version where I think “making games sucks”. It’s a feeling that comes when things are taking massively longer than I predicted, when the new features are half finished and unbalanced so the game isn't fun, when sales and media coverage are relatively slow, and when the team is busy with their own tasks (or real-life troubles) and there isn’t that social aspect to making a game.
And then, about 10 days before release, the whole thing comes together and I can actually play the game like a player and not a frustrated developer. Then my motivation becomes sky high, and I want to make games for the rest of my life, and I truly love what Atomic Society is becoming. I become a cheerleader for the game all over again, the team is happy, and I think AS could actually pay a salary one day. This pumps me up so much that I'm desperate to start on the next version and make the game better and better.
There’s light at the end of the tunnel now. Whatever happens, we're going to have a computer game out of this crazy project, plus some new friendships and supporters. More importantly we can spend the remaining time making the game more fun instead of having to invent the fun out of nothing (which is a lot harder).
I guess the only analogy my frazzled brain can think of at the moment is moving house. We have finally moved in most of the boxes. Now we get to unpack and make the rooms feel like a home.
Or maybe it's way too hot in the UK this week and I need to move on.
Making the Final Features For 0.0.9
It's been a while between blogs so there's a few features that slipped into 0.0.9 which I haven't discussed before.
You have to be pretty careful what you put into the game near version release, as testing takes ages, but we had some negative feedback on the game and nothing makes you want to work harder than fixing something people dislike! I love getting well written, polite, intelligent feedback, even if it’s negative. Perhaps I don’t love it at the time all that much, but afterwards it always makes the game better, and as I don't have a private army of user-testers to get feedback from in my home, I rely on the public.
Here’s a look at some of the last things we squeezed into this version…
Based on feedback, we made the custom difficulty feature a priority, which is now in the game. This lets you make the game ridiculously easy or impossibly difficult to suit your taste. You can now start a game completely on your own, without any citizens for that Omega Man vibe, or start with 49 trained engineers instead if you like building things really quickly. You can also make it so the migrants who come to your town drop dead instantly, or make them as well fed and rested as pampered VIPs. My theory is that you know how hard you want the game to be better than I do, and if you don't like any of our balanced presets, there's now an alternative.
Because context is important, and words are cheap to produce, we also added in a few story elements to this version, which should help explain things like why you start the game standing in a field with a bunch of strangers (play the game to find out). This is the closest our budget will get to cutscenes. You can totally ignore this story, or read it if you want to get immersed.
Adding story elements forced me to write fiction which thousands of people will experience. This was daunting, as I’ve never knowingly had so many people read my words. However, it was also enjoyable. I’m a writer at heart, and coming up with post-apocalyptic fiction is a pleasure to someone like me.
We don't usually dare throw in a new building into the game right at the end of a version, as it can generate a lot of bugs, but this one was an exception. The Enforcer Outpost is essentially a stripped down Town Hall. It acts like a mini police station, which lets us keep the existing Town Hall building as something unique and special. We had plans for doing this eventually, but hearing someone in a YouTube video talk about it made us push the feature forward.
I still watch every single YouTube video about the game by the way, even the ones in Spanish or German (and I still feel horribly anxious while doing so!)
Bugs Are Getting Nasty
The longer we make the game, the harder the bugs become to squash. Finding them isn’t too difficult, but getting them to repeat on command, which lets us see if they’re truly fixed, is becoming harder and harder. I tested this version to the point of exhaustion, but as soon as the public got their hands on it, serious bug reports from players started to arrive. It’s a little disheartening.
We always fix the most obvious bugs, but there’s still dozens of cryptic ones lurking in the code. For example, we really struggled with a bug this version where someone died in the old people’s home, which caused the whole town to die of diarrhoea (I guess at least our bugs are humorous).
We thought we’d fixed it, but we couldn’t be sure as it was impossible to repeat on demand. Turns out it’s still in the game, in a modified manner. If you’re playing the pre-alpha right now, please make multiple and frequent saves, for your own sake!
However, even when we fix the big bugs, we discovered they were concealing 100s of small ones. When the game was an early pre-alpha, we could ignore certain bugs, but I don't think we can anymore. The public’s tolerance for bugs drops as we become more mainstream with each version. Unfortunately, fixing bugs takes time that could be spent making new features, so I have a decision to make. It'd be really nice if there was enough content in the game we could devote ourselves to bugs, but there isn't really. Not yet.
Which brings me onto...
The Last Pre Alpha Version!
Well, despite what I just said about bug-fixing, we still have to squeeze some new content into the next version, even if it ends up a bit buggy…
In fact, Adam has already started work on the first new feature for 0.0.10. The breeding system.
At long last, the citizens will start having sex with each other.
This is going to be quite a shake up for the game, which until now has relied solely on migration to control town growth. I'm quite nervous about it actually. It could change the feel of the game quite dramatically. This feature has to be done though. We can't make a game about setting laws and moral choices while leaving out sexual topics.
But whatever we add has to affect gameplay as well, and the most obvious way to do that is to tie sexual moral choices into birth rates. If you want to grow your population in a more predictable way than random migrants, you'll need more babies. But that requires certain laws. And if you don't like those laws, its back to migration for you.
As regards AS, we're going to skip the infant phase, because there isn't time for them to grow up while you’re playing the game. It will probably be the case instead that older children spawn at hospitals (if you have them) and we’ll see how it goes. I'm hopeful I can balance it into something fun.
Citizens shacking up leads me on to 2 social issues I've wanted to put into the game for a while. And it’s probably easier if I do it before Steam…
Homosexuality and Abortion
There are going to be gay men and women in the next version, who you can choose to make welcome or condemn. If you at least tolerate them, they'll be happier individuals and more productive workers. However, in Atomic Society if you encourage something, you get more people who are affected by that issue coming to your town, so it could affect procreation.
As for abortion, I've always wanted to put really big life issues into Atomic Society, and this has to be something players decide for themselves. Having lots of pregnant women and new mothers is going to hurt the productivity of your town, and there will be women who choose to abort their pregnancy. We leave the motivations of the citizens up to the player's imaginations, as it makes for better storytelling, but I can imagine some grim towns coming in the next version!
I guess I am a little anxious about adding these issues because you know what the internet is like with anything remotely controversial, but so far the audience for Atomic Society has been really mature and chilled, so I think it'll be okay. Anyway, it's what the game needs, so I've just got to roll with whatever happens. I'm bored of games that ignore topical issues.
If you’ve been reading past dev blogs, you might remember me discussing features like religion, radiation and electricity. Rest assured these are still in the early stages of development, there just wasn’t time to put them into 0.0.9. When the time is right to work on them again, we’ll do our best at finding fun ways to add them into the existing simulation.
Steam Draws Ever Nearer
After two years of our game only being available through our website, we are finally working on getting the Steam release ready to ship. Last week we met up in person, as we do from time to time, and discussed what could be the biggest milestone in our journey as fledging indie devs. We sketched out the new version and pencilled in a possible release date. As soon as I think we can hit it, I’ll make sure everybody knows, but I’d like it to be within the next 3 months.
In the meantime, I have to work out what to do about the Special Edition version of the pre-alpha. We put a time limit on selling it, because I want to reward our earliest backers by making the rewards unique for them, but the Special Edition sells well and has kept us going at times.
There is so much to do. At least launching on Steam must be easy from a technical point of view, given the incompetent garbage that pours onto it every week, but it's still a huge thing as it could decide whether game development becomes a job for us, instead of being a hobby that pays expenses. The overly optimistic and overly negative parts of my brain are at war right now, trying to predict the future. As the designer, I'm probably more terrified of the reviews than the money, but money has its uses. It's not like I'm going to starve to death whatever happens, but I’d love indie dev to be a little more financially secure so we can make a second game one day. Ultimately I haven't got a clue what's going to happen. Am I going to be kicking myself for turning down various publishers or dancing around the room? Does it matter either way?
Anyway that's enough rambling for now. I am still incredibly proud of the new version and the work that went into it, to the point I even dared do some marketing and social media afterwards. I'm really looking forward to making the game bigger and more reliable over the next year, and the work is always worth it in the end no matter how it all turns out.
See you next month.
The Road to Release
Every month we release a personal and honest look at the making of Atomic Society.