Update the Game Already!
At the start of September we decided to upload a chunky new update of Atomic Society to our small but (slightly) growing band of pre-alpha players. I’d been resistant to putting out 0.0.4 for ages, wanting to get saving and loading in, but that's a whole other story (see below).
In the end I thought “what would I want if I was a player?” and uploaded the version we had. So 0.0.4 is now available to download. One day I might get the hang of finding the line between too much and too little content in an update!
Favourite New Bits in 0.0.4
There's quite a few things I'm happy about in 0.0.4 with hindsight. First up I'm pleased with the stats screen, which Adam coded. It basically shows you the problems are in your city. That lets you build around them. And solving problems by building stuff is the game so it's become indispensable. With its help I’ve been able to get settlements of 150+ people quite quickly with a clearer idea of what’s going on and who's dying of what.
Secondly, we made it faster to manually build stuff as the Town Leader character. And you can now correct your mistakes by demolishing stuff. It makes the game feel more active. More hands-on. Atomic Society isn't a game where you can sit back and relax, you really have to get involved if you want to prosper. It's quite unique for a city-builder I think. The relief is that there's no game over. Just a big mound of corpses and failed cities. But you can always recover.
Thirdly, the new tutorial. Seeing one hapless Youtuber try and play our game was enough to make this a priority. It’s now in the game. It's nothing too fancy but I don't like tutorials that restrict you. I enjoyed working out how to teach the player in the fewest words possible.
Fourthly, I think our graphics have reached a milestone. My experience in AAA testing taught me games get prettier in tiny degrees. One day you’ll hit a tipping point and the game will suddenly look “not bad”. I think we’re almost hitting that point. I'm constantly tweaking and finding a line between realism (which is hard to do on a budget) and having a unique style, as indie games tend to. AS doesn’t look like a prototype anymore.
Fifthly, it's cool how citizens now tell you what they’re doing. This another Adam Gwin task. As a player (and a tester), knowing what my citizens are doing is vital. Now you can find out just by clicking on them. A lot of them seem to be “performing trait” (which means they’re shanking each other).
Finally, we squashed a few persistent bugs and glitches that were irritating, such as citizens who refused to enter a storehouse and take out food they desperately needed. Oh, and for a few weeks the citizens were immortal, so we sorted that. Mariana also managed to make executed victims hang from their necks rather than then their bellies and I tweaked the animation to stop citizens seeming to slide on ice.
You can read the full patch notes for 0.0.4 here.
The Ultimate Hybrid
Mariana was until this month “just” the game’s model/UI artist and accountant. Now she’s also a part-time programmer. It’s rather awesome having a hybrid developer on the team!
She spent the last month studying an online course about how to code C# that wasn’t actually crap (apparently they do exist - though bear in mind we purchased this at 75% off!). She’s now able to help us fix minor bugs with hopefully bigger things to come. It’s fantastic having a new hand on deck to solve small stuff. 10 minor bugs equal at least 2 serious bugs in terms of impact. Nick and Adam can't solve them because they’ve got more serious stuff to do. She can.
Maybe, Almost, a Videogame?
This month I realised that Atomic Society feels like a game. It's playable. The gaps in the code that stopped it being game-like have almost been plugged. If saving and loading was in, I could (if I were mad) release it as an extremely basic city-builder. Of course we're a long way from that but the the core is there. We can start to think more about adding content rather than building systems. It's quite a relief as it's taken 18 months to get to this point but we're there at last.
Dawid, Scandinavian music lord, must have snorted some Grade-A creativity this month because he decided to produce 4 new songs. He's produced so much great music lately in fact that I can now say our soundtrack is done, give or take maybe 1 track. There is so much music I was able to start actually removing songs that didn’t fit into the larger “sound” of AS. A little bit of pruning has really helped give the game a cohesive musical backdrop.
Dawid has also been a gentleman this month when it comes to dreaded contract re-negotiations. Dawid is the first contractor I’d ever had to hire and it’s taken a lot of learning. Signing contracts when the future of the game and the entire company is so uncertain is hard, but Dawid's been a pleasure to work with from day 1.
As the months roll by I think I have a better understanding of where ideas might go wrong in advance. And I’m getting better at turning ideas into systems. Game design appears to be the meeting point between lofty art and engineering.
Simplicity is still my guiding key when working on the game. Ideas can be complex but then must be converted into a system that has to be slick and streamlined. For example, I’ve been planning the Faction system, which is a feature we’ll implement later. The idea of citizens having different political leanings and reacting to your leadership in different ways is complex. But working out how to turn that into gameplay requires a robust yet simple system that one person can code in a relatively short amount of time.
My design approach is to work out precise flow-charts for the idea and then try and break that down until it's so simple and elegant (in my view) that I can offer it to Nick, our lead coder. Working so closely Nick has sped up my learning process so much.
I also have my boring day job to thank. Cleaning and repetitive maintenance turns out to be great for contemplating mental problems! If this game ever pays a wage, I wonder how I’ll cope without that enforced space to just daydream. I'd need a replacement.
Saving and Loading Still “Coming Soon”
I didn’t want to write about this again but so be it! The saga of implementing saving and loading consumed yet another month of heavy-duty problem solving and copying and pasting code by Nick. He even had to battle illness on top of that.
Touch a lot of wood, Nick has at last beat Unity into submission and he should be about to throw AS over its biggest hurdle to progress since we started. We have saving and loading working at our end. Now it’s a case of tying up the loose ends and sorting the last bugs. In theory, we could release it to the public but the last thing you want is a buggy saving and loading system.
All it takes is one citizen to reload in a slightly different position and the complex clockwork simulation that is Atomic Society can unravel, (and then crash). These bugs can be really hard to spot.
Personally, I’ve gone through the 5 stages of grieving when it comes to the deadline on this particular task. I’m now at acceptance.
We Haz Newsletter
I felt bad for the people who check our forum every day for an update on 0.0.4 that I decided to reinstate our email newsletter. You can sign up for it halfway down our front page here and receive periodic emails when something big and newsworthy has occurred with the game. Quite a few people have done so already. I recommend anybody who is following the game at a distance, waiting for that “yeah I’ll buy that” moment to try it.
A Note on Combat
As our close followers might remember, I've been pretty against putting combat in the game. I want this to be a game about social stress. Not battle stress. However, this week I was playing the game as normal and had that feeling of vulnerability as a player; I’m building a town in a post-apocalyptic wilderness here. The borders of my town felt exposed. Who might be out there, watching us?
It did make me rethink my previous position, especially as almost weekly somebody out there asks for combat to be in the game (and mutants and zombies too, but I draw the line somewhere!).
The truth of the matter is we need to focus and perfect the core experience of the game first. This will be a game about building a town full of weird and controversial social issues and will remain that. Only when we've achieved that goal could we add in some kind of external threat.
So combat (or at least building defences to keep them out) has now shifted from the “nope” pile of ideas to the “maybe” pile. It's kind of redundant, as we have so much to put in the game first, but I'm definitely more open-minded about it than I was.
That’s about it for this month's blog and pretty much the end of our second summer working on Atomic Society. The nights are getting longer again here. It’s crazy how far we’ve come looking back at last summer’s dev blogs. How many more summers are left to the end?
From time to time I do regret inventing such a complex city-builder as our first ever game. It certainly goes against the grain of common sense. But I love Atomic Society and I can see it, month by month, becoming the game it should be. It’s like slowly excavating an artifact from the dust.
Tomorrow is unknown and for all I know I’ll never get to make a second game so I’m glad the one I am making is what I care about the most.
As always, if you'd like to support the development of Atomic Society and try the pre-alpha out today, do so here.
See you in October.