3 Years In the Making
This month marks 3 years since we began work on Atomic Society and I’m more excited about 2018 than any other so far. The basics of the game are where we want them, people are having fun already, and now we can look forward to 12 months of adding new interesting challenges into the mix so the game is longer and deeper. In 2018 I really want to expand the player's drama of making a town.
This week alone I was watched a random person playing the game and they were crying with laughter at some of the black comedy, and then gasping at how horrific it can be. That’s what I’m after (the emotions, not the streamer!) That makes all the stress and work worthwhile. I'm hoping that building a post-apocalyptic settlement in Atomic Society will eventually feel like an emotional journey as you start with nothing, and overcome challenges one by one, fighting for your community's survival.
In all, I'd guess we're probably 65% done with the game, but only 40% done content-wise (in other words most of the work so far has been on behind-the-scenes stuff). This blog will cover some of that new, upcoming content.
Version 0.0.8 Was a Nightmare
We've only just recovered from 4 months of working on pathfinding and bug-fixes that really drained us. 0.0.8 was necessary of course, and people liked it, but the Christmas holiday was not quite long enough time to let us recharge. Especially when January has been really difficult in some personal ways.
0.0.8 wasn’t 100% polished when we sent it out. It was playable, and a lot of people gave positive feedback on it, but there were still a ton of bugs. So over January, although we were sick of it, we had to go back to a version that we’d already spent 1/3rd of a year making to smooth out all the remaining problems. That was tiring.
But now it’s over at least, the game is smoother and more stable than ever. It was really great to fix some bugs that had been hiding for years in the code. Plus, on the whole, 0.0.8 has been popular.
There seems to be levels of people who play games. Until now, only the really committed fans who play random pre-alphas could persevere with the game, but we couldn’t really attract people beyond that. I think 0.0.8 has moved the game on to the point where people who expect a more polished experience can enjoy it too. Not perfectly polished by a long, long shot - but good enough to let us get back to making new gameplay.
We don't feel human again. We destroyed that part of us 3 years ago! But we're operating at peak efficiency again and we might even be able to chill out for a bit!
Patch 0.0.8.2 Released
A January spent fixing bugs means there’s now a new patch available (0.0.8.2). It’s mostly bug-fixes, so don’t get too excited, but if you are one of those wonderful maniacs who enjoys pre-alphas (and keeps us in business), you can check out the full patch notes here. To get the patch you’ll just need to download the game again. New pre-alpha customers will get the update if they decide to buy the game (*subliminal messaging*) before it hits Steam.
Release Date Scheming
I will tentatively (i.e. incorrectly) say that we’re still on track for a late Spring Steam release still. That’s a roughly a year behind where I guessed we would be when we started making the game, but it’s been a necessary delay. My only concern about the release is that I do need to keep a safe distance around a game called Frostpunk, as that game is (on paper) a bit like us and is going to wade in and demand all the press’s attention for a while with its big-budget power pants.
Then, when the dust settles, we’ll appear and see if anybody is still around to throw spare change at us! I'm optimistic as they seem to be going in a different direction with the idea, so there's probably going to be room for us both in the in the digital wasteland of Steam. We can hopefully be the "cult movie" alternative for all you post-apocalyptic society fans out there.
Work Begins On The Next Version
Things are going pretty smoothly with 0.0.9 so far, considering Adam and Nani have been handling it themselves while Nick completed the patch. He has now joined the content-squad and we can really crack on. Nick hasn’t been able to code a single piece of new gameplay for at least 6 months (making indie games is fun!), it’s all been systems and bugs. However, I can’t wait to work side-by-side with him on features again, like the early days.
There’s a lot of new features coming for me to cover in this version and most of it is still dangerously unfinished, so please be cautious. I might end up talking about features that change, or that aren’t as cool as they appear on paper, or we just run out of time to make in this particular version. As the game designer I’m childishly excited about this version and that’s going to hype-up how I write.
So let’s get started with the things that are slightly further along the production chain…
It says somewhere you can’t make a post-apocalyptic game without cannibals. It's illegal. So this month Adam started making them for us too!
People have requested this social issue a lot, and I now think the time is right. In a game where being swamped with dead bodies is a regular occurrence, having a few citizens who might like to dine on the dead is actually fun. They're more like street cleaners... They help keep your town plague-free by devouring the dead before they spread plague.
But everything in Atomic Society has to come with a downside (mostly), so it is the case that anybody who witnesses the cannibals eating a corpse might get just a little bit upset at seeing their neighbour turned into steak and become “Distressed”. In other words they take time off work for a few days. It's a productivity vs free food/corpse removal kind of choice if you look at these things in a completely psychopathic way like I have to as designer.
Town Leader Upgrades
This isn’t a standout feature of 0.0.9, but it is something that should make the basic act of salvaging more enjoyable for a lot of people. Oh, and Adam's almost finished it so I can actually talk about it.
It’s now the case that when you loot a ruin as the Town Leader, there’s a small chance to find a nice bonus item that will enhance the leader’s abilities. At the moment the rewards are backpacks (more inventory space), a toolkit that lets you repair faster, and a construction textbook that lets you help build stuff even faster. Out of these the large backpack is probably the best one as it will let you grab more goodies, which will be really handy in the end-game when useful ruins are spread-out. And it will just be a nice treat occasionally.
New Buildings Coming
Things happening beyond the walls of your town is a big theme of 0.0.9. The maps are pretty big in Atomic Society and right now it's mostly empty space. I want to get the player at least thinking about things beyond their borders.
On that note, Nani has been a 3D-modelling machine this month. There could be - if we pull it off - at least 5 new things to build coming in 0.0.9. The 4 new models in the screenshot above are being worked on right now (some still need tweaks). It’s too early for me to start telling you how they work with any confidence, or why you’d want to build them, because we haven’t started coding them, but there’s definitely going to be brand new problems and threats to deal with as a player.
Being as vague as possible, the buildings above involve food waste, dirty water, the need to make weapons, and radiation. That will probably give you some idea of the new range of problems we’re trying to add in 0.0.9. Oh, and some of them are going to need electricity, so that’s another feature being worked on right now (start planning ahead how to harvest vehicle batteries!)
My goal is just when you think you’ve solved one thing in this game, another post-apocalyptic problem leaps out and catches you off-guard and we'll expand the game like that. Keeping people alive is the reason to play Atomic Society. It’s your primary job as a Town Leader. I want to make that as complex and interesting and dramatic as we know how to.
But don’t worry if you’ve never played the game before. I’m pretty happy with the opening few hours of the game at least, so I won’t be adding much more to that except polish. Right now I really want to expand the mid and end-game phase of town development.
And on that note, you will be able to make towns that are 29% larger in 0.0.9* (aka 350 people) so we have space for this extra gameplay. That itself should 1-2 hours of extra play.
*Subject to the frame-rate not plummeting through the floor.
Time to Get Defensive
It’s happening, finally. This is the gameplay task Nick is working on right now. That mysterious category on your build menu called “Defensive (Coming Soon)” should hopefully have something in it when 0.0.9 rolls around. Fear not, if you don't enjoy combat in this type of game (like me). No wannabe-RTS combat is involved. But you simply can’t make a post-apocalyptic game without some form of defence much like you can’t make even a peaceful nation without any military whatsoever. Think of it as security, not combat. You’re going to build things to scare threats away.
Combat, or the lack of it, has taken me a while as I want to get this feature right, and feel comfortable with it. Anybody who goes way back in these dev blogs will see me writing years ago stuff like “there won’t be any defensive stuff”, followed by me changing my mind and so on. It turns out it just needed the game to mature a bit before I could see the right way for us. Out of all the tasks I’ve designed for the game, it’s taken by far the most amount of words to get right and its going to take a long time to code it too.
Don’t expect big cinematic battles or anything. In fact, if you do get raided it’s probably going to be a text box and a sound effect. But the impact on your town will be the same. And I'd also like to add in ways to get rid of raiders, so there's a moral-choice element.
Making Building Placement Matter
I’m actually in two-minds whether I need to even put this feature into the game, as people seem to imagine building placement matters already! I have never yet seen a stream of the game where anybody builds a prison in the middle of town for example. Everybody naturally builds it on the outskirts and everybody tries to put their Town Hall somewhere noticeable.
0.0.9 is going to make you do that whether you have an imagination or not. Where you put certain “dirty” buildings (crematory, latrines) and certain “mood affecting” buildings (town hall, tavern) is soon going to matter. This should hopefully deepen the town-planning side of the game considerably.
Leaving It There
I better stop talking about 0.0.9 and get back to worrying and agonising over how slowly things take to make. I hope this gives you a hint that this version should be a big boost for the gameplay. This dev blog doesn't cover half of what we have planned. And if it doesn't make it into 0.0.9, rest assured it is coming later on.
Right now, the focus is definitely on the town-building side right now, but there's plenty more social/moral content coming too. It’s too much work to do all sides of the game every patch, so each update sees a certain side of the game boosted. Last time it was general bugs and polish. Now it’s town-building. Afterwards it’ll be expanding the social side of the game again. And we’ll keep going around like that until we’re millionaires or in an asylum.
New Youtube Streams
0.0.8 attracted a few new streamers, and some existing ones, to cover AS so I've finally updated the little list of streams I've found about the game. Check it out here. There's also some more French and Spanish and German ones on that list now, if it suits you.
A Little Note on Suggestions
Sometimes I think it's a good idea (without wanting it to be excuse-making) to lower people's expectations for Atomic Society. Please be aware we are just 4 part-time beginners doing this for love, working from our homes. Pre-alpha sales of AS could pay maybe 1 person’s minimum-wage salary, but we have to split that cash 4-ways and cover all development costs from the same fund so most of us have day jobs to stay afloat. That slows us down a lot.
My only reason for saying this is I want potential customers to know what they're getting into and to make people aware of our limitations when giving suggestions. Sometimes I get some really great suggestions, but they're suitable for a AAA studio. A single social issue in AS (like cannibalism) takes about 2 weeks to design, 3-4 weeks to produce, and 2 weeks to bug-fix with our current means. That’s why AS has the bare minimum of animation - we focus on making it fun as possible and move onto something else.
I hope you like low-budget entertainment as much as I do!
I’ll see you next month.
We made it. After months of hard work, the next big update for the pre-alpha is now available as we journey towards a Steam release in early 2018. Rest assured not a day goes by without something being added to the game, and a lot of progress has been made lately. We've finally got most of the technical problems sorted so from here on we can focus on more and more new cool gameplay and social challenges. 2018 is going to be a crazy year...
Version 0.0.8 Is Out Now (At Last!)
For those trying out the game before it hits Steam check your Humble Store downloads to try the latest pre-alpha version out. This update brings a ton of quality-of-life improvements and 2 new huge maps, a giant new tower block structure, a new way to handle ethical problems, tons of graphical tweaks and improvements, upgraded AI navigation and construction and we’ve also solved a ton of long-standing bugs too (but also added some new ones!). I really like the improvements to salvaging we’ve made as well.
We’re hoping people enjoy the latest update as we recover during the Christmas holidays. But in the New Year we’ll be straight back to work on the next (and final) update before Steam, which will greatly broaden the number of things you have to do.
Steam Release News
As you can probably guess, due to version 0.0.8 taking so long due to all the technical hassles of completely re-doing the pathfinding system in (more on that later), we’ve had to delay the Steam release until the first quarter of 2018.
I'm sure the delay will cause financial problems for us, but it’ll lead to bigger and better game and that’s all ultimately all the matters. Atomic Society is a labour of love and always has been.
The good news is we’re on the home straight now at last and I don’t think there will be any more tedious delays. There’s no more big technical hurdles we have left to do at last, so the next update can be 100% gameplay, which is very exciting for me (as a designer). The last version before Steam will layer in several new challenges that expand the game’s potential, including events that happen outside your town.
Ultimately I want you to be satisfied with Atomic Society's first Early Access version for what it is, rather than what it could become. And we’re getting to that point.
Last Chance to Have Your Name in the Game!
As the next version is indeed the last pre-alpha version before Steam, that means it’s also your last chance to try the game out early and receive the pre-alpha Special Edition rewards.
We will be removing the chance to add your names into the game and be in the credits after we launch on Early Access. Doing so will make the rewards more special for those who players who supported us when the game was a scrappy young pre-alpha and we really needed help. It’s our way of thanking those who could help us when we needed it most.
So, if you’re interested in that, feel free to check out the Special Edition before it’s gone for good!
Version 0.0.8 Was a Mistake?!
So, now all that’s said, let’s cover the last 2 months of hard work since I last wrote a blog (I know I skipped a month, overtime sucks!)
To be brutally honest, making 0.0.8 has felt at times like a mistake. I’ve had genuinely dark days where I regretted making the most recent version. Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted with how the update turned out, but a month ago I was thinking this might could be biggest mistake we’ve made as indie devs since starting the whole project.
The original plan for 0.0.8 was to smoothen out the game, especially the pathfinding that helps the AI decide how to move. It’s a simple thing but it affects everything and could make the game a lot more fun to play if we fixed it. If you rewind to August’s blog, you’ll see me reckoning all the next update would be pretty straightforward. After all, it would just be bug fixing, how bad could it be?!
Turns out the old adage of "make a time estimation and then double it" is still true. I estimated 2 months and 0.0.8 took us 4 months, which is a huge length of time to keep pre-alpha players waiting. 4 months redoing something that already worked (albeit badly)? I was really beginning to wonder if I’d made a huge mistake starting this version in the first place.
It all came down to the usual trade-off: want something done fast or right?
Because we’re indie we always have to pick cheap no matter what. We can’t afford to hire staff. That leaves us before the start of every major task having to decide whether to do it quickly and poorly, or well but slowly. Everything has a downside.
We generally prefer to do whatever is best for the game, not us, and therefore locked ourselves into a huge task.
I really don’t know how Nick handled it all. He has literally just spent the last quarter of 2017 redoing the pathfinding system, alongside the construction system and the animation system. Those are major components. All that working in relative isolation (we don’t have an office) with only his own wits to find the answers he needed, and working for little more than expenses. To do that and keep focused and calm with the rest of us (through illnesses and hassles of daily life) is a testament to his character.
The rest us were stuck asking “is it ready?” or “how much longer do you think it will take?” as summer turned to autumn and then to winter. It was growing harder and harder to keep the faith that making 0.0.8 was a productive use of our time. But we couldn’t go back, and we couldn’t go faster, so I had to battle my own personal anxiety and try not to wonder how much these delays would cost us.
Then last month Nick finally finished the massive upgrades and was able to share his labours. And my very first impression about the new systems for placing buildings, citizen animations, and pathfinding was...
... That all the hard work made the game "slightly better".
"Slightly better" for 3 months work did not feel great. I immediately blamed myself. On the surface would the player, would anybody, actually notice the changes?
To be honest, I'm still not sure, but at the time the main problem at the time was bugs. After he'd redone everything the game was unplayable. Everything was riddled with bugs, which is completely natural, but the game was running at under 10fps, the town leader moved at 900mph (which was kind of fun) and engineers were teleporting everywhere. And that's just the start of the massive bug heap. It’s almost impossible to see how good a change is when bits keep breaking like that.
It looked like being out by Christmas was going to be impossible then, as Nick would also have to fix all these bugs, but I just told myself we can’t do anything about it, and even if it makes the game 2% better it’s going to be worth it. We might never get to make a 2nd game. I told myself let’s make Atomic Society the best we can and stop worrying about a future that might never happen.
And slowly it all came together as Nick waded through the bugs, especially in the last couple of weeks. We had to pace ourselves to avoid burnout, and trust that resting would solve more than crunching, but that's easier said than done. But it worked and slowly his redo of the core systems could shine without all the glitches. Suddenly everything tied together and I could truly appreciate the upgrade had been worth it. Sometime has changed in the game and it just feel a lot more dynamic and playable. And boy, did I enjoy ticking off 15+ pathfinding bugs in one go!
Was it quite worth 4 months and a potential loss in sales and buzz around the game?
My answer is: who cares?
As For The Rest of Us?
While all that hard work was going on over the last 2 months, Adam (aka Mr American Coder) was pumping out all the little additions to 0.0.8. In fact the majority of all the new content in 0.0.8 was put together by him (he manages to do so much on the game despite a wife and kids and a full-time job on the side). He even kept patient with me as we tried implementing some new features like changing how you employ workers, and then changing it all back when I realised the new way I'd invented sucked.
And Nani (despite her full-time job too) was able to revisit all the different character models and basically turn them into "next-generation" versions without having any impact on performance. It’s astounding how she has self-taught herself the artistic and technical skill of 3D modelling without any lessons. Every new model she makes looks better than the last and I can truly say I’m happy with how the characters look at last. They have a good balance between realism and style. For a zero-budget indie game I’m happy.
As for me, the delays gave me a lot of time to really prototype ideas for later versions, which will really pay off in 2018. My own design process evolves each week. Plus I’m happy because the design decisions I made in 0.0.8 have worked out. It’s always a risk designing because you don’t know if you made a good or bad decision until you get to the final bug-free, working version. Only then do you experience it as a player will. Fortunately I’m really happy with how the game is coming together and I think I’m going to be proud of it when we hit Steam, no matter what the public thinks.
Most importantly, I’m enjoying playing the game more than ever. In fact I’m having a blast! I rarely ever enjoy anything I create, as - like a lot of creators - I focus on the flaws and imperfections more than the qualities, but I’m having genuine moral dilemmas and exciting challenges as I play despite knowing how everything works. The feelings I want Atomic Society to stir up in you are being stirred up in me, so something’s working.
Winner For Most Embarrassing Mistake So Far…
Alongside all the recent hassles with pathfinding, I discovered a very embarrassing mistake has been in the game for over 4 months!
A month ago you would've seen me scratching my head trying to understand a few German Let’s Plays videos of the game (we watch all videos of the game to see how people are liking it, even the ones I can’t understand!) and I kept thinking “why do the graphics look so bad for them and not for me?”
At first I assumed they were just playing the game on the lowest graphical setting, but it kept happening. I checked some older videos people had made, and they looked fine.
Then it dawned on me...
The graphics settings in the last version were broken ONLY for new players. So if you bought the pre-alpha between August and December for the first time, you were stuck on lowest graphics even though the options screen said you were on highest! Every new player and streamer was getting to see the game look at its absolute worst while thinking it was as good as the game could look. Talk about a marketing fail.
I guess the good news is people seem to enjoy the game despite it looking hideous! And thankfully that’s fixed now, for new and old customers alike, so enjoy the free graphical upgrade!
(Shout out to a player called Vyllan who also helped us track this down just by posting screenshots of his town that made me realise something was seriously up.)
Mega-Business Mode Activated
For those who want the truly nitty-gritty of making indie games, this was the month we truly entered the dark side of development and hired an accountant. Turns out there’s a heck of a lot tax paperwork and bureaucracy that goes along with running a company and selling a product, even if you’re only earning enough to cover expenses.
In the UK, 20% of all the profit we earn on Atomic Society has to be paid in tax (and this after Humble take off sales tax and their share of each copy sold... And then the bank takes its share for transferring the money from dollars… I think by the end of it all we get slightly less than half the money you pay for your copy of Atomic Society). All that has to be recorded, and tax reports have to be worked out and filed. We’ve got to work out what is profit and what is a valid expense. And how to pay ourselves dividends. And keep it all in neat and tidy records so the taxman doesn't kick down the door holding a flamethrower.
Until November, Nani took all this and did an amazing job of it considered accountancy isn't usually in the job description for a 3D artist, but it was getting riskier and riskier to carry on without some form of outside help.
So we had to take some time off working on the game to find an accountant we could trust. The image of 3 clueless scraggy game developers trying to think of smart questions to ask a boardroom of accountants in a formal office will stick with me, but it worked out and it’s very nice to have someone handling all that stuff now, (and not as expensive as you might think.)
Another Year of Game Development Comes to an End
So here we are. This time 12 months ago we had just released 0.0.5, the very first version of the game to have saving and loading. It’s been a hectic year, from our first ever sales spike when a random famous Youtuber decided out of nowhere to stream our game, to meetings with game publishers and making big decisions on whether or not to work with them (we chose to say no and remain independent), to a ridiculous amount of work in 3 giant versions. It was the year Atomic Society became a game for the first time. 2018 should be the year it becomes what it is meant to be.
There have been bleak moments. Things taking twice as long to do as we wanted takes a toll on the business and our mental health, and public attention (and how it ebbs and flows) has its downsides and stresses. And we're not quite as unique as we were 12 months ago. But that’s business.
But we still love working on the game, and working with each other, and the worst that can happen is we're poor. This Christmas we'll be meeting up at my place to celebrate 0.0.8 being released (and probably curse over 2-player Cuphead). We’re still a team that can work hard, get on each other’s nerves, and then volunteer to spend even more time together hanging out together. Which is more than money can buy.
And as for 2018? In January we start having fun making 0.0.9, and then Steam in early Spring, almost 2 years to the date after we were Greenlit (back when that was a thing on Steam!).
What will that experience be like? Will it make us (relatively) rich or will we flop? Will the wider world enjoy the game or get bored of it in a few hours. I try to ignore those thoughts and focus on Atomic Society becoming the game we all wanted to make slowly but surely.
I hope all of you who managed to read this far have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I'll be back in January.
The Road to Release
Every month we release a personal and honest look at the making of Atomic Society.