As I was preparing this wintery blog for final release, our friends at Valve approved our store page for Atomic Society (in 30 minutes, which bodes well). The game isn't available on Steam yet, don't get too excited, but you can now add it to your wishlist and share it more easily: track Atomic Society on Steam here.
Now, on with the scheduled blog... Oh wait a sec, we made a new trailer to celebrate the latest progress in the pre-alpha, did you see it? Here it is:
Now, definitely on with the blog...
Update 5 Released At Last!
After 8 month’s hard labour, Atomic Society has a proper (though slightly slow if your city is huge) saving and loading system. No longer does quitting the game bring annihilation back to your post-apocalyptic town. Getting this important feature in the game and bug free has been a great Christmas present to us. Now we can stop stressing for a bit and give our customers something to tinker with during the holidays.
If you missed it, Atomic Society Update 5 is available to download for existing players or here to buy. Saving and loading is just one new element. I covered the big new features in the last blog, but you can read the full and final patch notes here if you missed them.
Now that update is done, I can write this dev blog, which I know is a month late. Getting a new version out is exhausting and involves a lot of overtime. There were days when a dozen bugs would be reported and all fixed in the same day, then the version would be checked all over again... Then I'd go to my day job and fall asleep on my feet! Perhaps we over-test for pre-alpha, I don't know. But I do like it when our "report a bug" forum is quiet.
Not that I'm complaining about the work. I love making this game and that loves grows each month. Update 5 has been the biggest hurdle for the team, our biggest challenge. But we overcame it and I feel we've levelled up several times making it, as a team. The whole year has taught us so many lessons. And AS remains one of the best things I've ever done.
There was so much to rebuild after saving and loading was finished. Practically nothing worked when Nick had stripped out the game, by necessity, to put that feature in. But seeing that nothing worked except saving and loading inspired us. And rebuilding the game from scratch (which mostly fell on Nick's shoulders despite our complaints), led us to revisit and improve dusty and forgotten elements of the code and game design.
As a random example, we recently redid how ruins get more expensive to convert into housing when you take salvage out of them. It's supposed to be a risk vs reward thing. It was one of the earliest systems we’d put into the game way back in 2015. Problem was, It just didn’t make much sense! The design of it was illogical and code behind it was in the "don't remember why we did it this way" box. So we redid it because we noticed it, and now ruins get expensive much more logically.
A lot of things got revisited like that: the cost of buildings, the number of employees required, the size of houses, the speed of construction. It’s all been tweaked in Update 5. Maybe it's good to revisit everything once a year, though I doubt we'd do it voluntarily.
The most reassuring sign is for me, I can't play the old version anymore. It feels so sluggish, almost a crime it was ever on sale! Nick’s performance tweaks in Update 5, combined with Nani’s UI improvements, are really starting to pan out. And I know I'll think the same when Update 6 is out in the new year.
Best of all is the feeling of saving my game at the end of the day and reloading it the next morning. Makes us feel like we've made a real videogame, not a pie in the sky fantasy, as it sometimes does feel when you're making things up as you go along.
Back to Work
Time doesn’t stand still in the world of indie dev, where you only earn what you release, so we’re working on Update 6 already (though we'll take a week off for Christmas... maybe). The list of features to put into the game next has been drawn up, and I suspect it's going to be a gameplay-heavy patch after a few systems-focused updates.
However, there is still a little behind the scenes stuff that needs doing,. That's unsurprising, given that Nick has been tied up with saving and loading for months. A few ugly monsters in the basement of Atomic Society need to be cleansed. First up, is our UI. Not the way it looks (though that always gets improved) but how we set it up in the game engine. We have a lot of UI bugs based on the inflexible way the UI was setup during the Jurassic period of Atomic Society development. It’s time to revisit it. The good news for players is that this will fix a ton of bugs.
Secondly, and I can’t quite believe we’ve got away with it for so long, but Atomic Society has no sound effects. Just ambient wind noises and music. One of the perks of making a city building game where the camera is always in the clouds! Good sound effects can add so much to gameplay though, even if players don't notice them, and I think ours will when they come in Update 6. When I play other city building games, it’s not the gameplay that impresses me but the sound effects!
Gameplay-wise there’s a lot to do for Update 6, it’s more of a question of where to get started...
Looking at my list as producer/designer, the big things that stand out to me include a new trait for citizens. We're overdue for one. Racism should be next. Soon we can say that Atomic Society is a racist game... I guess (if players let it be). We might have to dabble with new animations for this one (fighting) which could open a can of worms as we're animation-lite so far.
We definitely need to expand our list of legal solutions. Right now only execution is working, which is a little severe if that's the only outcome for every single crime. I think adding in the prison system will be next to join the game, so look out for that.
Work has already started on (believe it or not this is a player requested feature), toilets. I didn't want to do them but since we added in a plague system I've had new ideas. I think we can do something fun with it. We're concepting a latrine building right now. Can't wait to assign the "code dysentery" task to someone.
We also have 3 cosmetic buildings to add in, things just to make your town more unique. Nani made the models for these a long time ago. They may have some gameplay function if we have time to do it, such as reducing the negative effect of polluting buildings, etc. I'm not sure yet.
Aside from that there at least 5 big gameplay tweaks that I really want to put in, things like making salvaging more fun, which would be relatively easy to do. Things that the player has to do frequently need the most loving.
Stay tuned for next month's dev blog where we will have started on these things, and I can then tell you how much communal hair we're losing trying to get them in the game. But on the whole, stupidly or not, I think 2017 is going to be a more fun and more productive year for us. We've learnt a lot. And even if it is a harder year in terms of tasks, we're hardier folk.
A Look Back at 2016...
As this is our last dev blog of the year that was 2016, I’ll take this moment to review the last 12 months and then I'll gaze into the vortex of yummy that is the future.
2016 really started for us back in February, when we bright, semi-young developers decided to plead for money from strangers on the internet based on optimistic promises. It didn't work out of course. It was an insane time, a period I’d never like to revisit.
Our plan B to sell actual copies of a game for money now seems much saner and honest, though KS is fine if your game hits finds its fans immediately.
I still think our biggest mistake was asking for £69k, an insane amount of money considering we had a crude prototype and no credentials. People saw our goal was never going to happen so we missed the chance to bask in that Silicon Valley glow of self-satisfaction. We’d have been lucky to get 10% of that.
Yet - and this isn't sour grapes - I’m really glad it failed. Because, in all honesty, I don’t think we were wise enough at the time to handle £100k. We would’ve wasted big chunks of it on things we don’t yet need . Lack of money has taught us what we can really do. I feel like one failed Kickstarter was the line where we became hardened game devs, to a degree.
In April, as mentioned, we put the game up for sale on our website (working out how to do that was... fun). Good old version 0.0.1. And to our relief, people bought the game. Not many, but who would at this stage? Those 250+ people were enough for us to earn something, enough to keep going.
In September we had our viral day, aka the remedy for the insecurity caused by a failed Kickstarter! We ended up on the front page of a website where game stuff tends to die (Imgur) with over 140k unique impressions in 24 hours and 4500+ up votes. We sold more copies of the game on 1 day than the whole of 2016 combined. Now, whenever I'm in doubt about whether my idea sucks, I think back to that time.
In September, Adam, our all American freelance coder completed his first year working with us. We get on so well with Adam and he’s a core part of the team now even though he doesn’t have oceans of time, we couldn’t do it without him. Adam might be the nicest man ever made. Dawid Dahl, Swedish composer ubermeister, also finished the soundtrack this year, so sadly I've more or less stopped working with him. I miss that.
As a whole, that whole saving and loading business looms over this year. My heart goes out to all devs trying to work on that. It was a task we were all convinced would take 2 months. It took 8. The stress and pressure of it, the deadline that went back and back... Nick's isolation from the team as he figured it all out single-handily.... The meetings where he reported one approach after the next hadn't worked... There were times I was “We’ve bitten off more than we can chew,” and “People are going to desert us over this,” and “We need more coders!”
But we're still here and our game is still awesome. So that's all that matters.
2017 is possibly the make or break year for us, as we will, sooner or later, have to go onto Steam Early Access. And then we find out if we're going to earn enough to live off this game.
Getting the game on Steam, working out how to promote it, dealing with an influx of new customers (hopefully!) will be big challenges. Bigger than Kickstarter ever was. We’ll start showing the game off to Youtubers, for better or worse, and we’ll have our work cut out adding more gameplay elements under the lens of a public who are perhaps less sympathetic.
But I know we can handle it. My biggest fear making this game was never that Atomic Society would be bad (I think I can fix that if it happens), but rather - will we finish it? Our greatest weakspot has always been a tiny team sticking together despite hard deadlines and lack of pay. But we’re all still here, learning and growing, and as focused and determined as ever to see this project through to the end. Even though we had no idea what we were getting into.
That more than anything is what I hope continues throughout 2017. I'll see you there, in the next dev blog.
The Road to Release
Every month we release a personal and honest look at the making of Atomic Society.