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.