It's been another busy month as we get ready for our summer 2018 Early Access release. Some big and vital elements of the game are just taking form.
Raiders Are Assembling
This might be the biggest feature coming to the next pre-alpha version, and perhaps one of the largest features we've ever added. Nick spent the whole of this month working on it. I'd say we're about 50% done with it at the moment.
Raiders are what I call a “milestone” feature. In other words they're a game-changing challenge that will occur at a certain point. If you lead wisely and overcome them, they'll be a "milestone" in your town's epic story. Atomic Society doesn’t have traditional levels, it’s one long experience, but I do want to throw memorable moments like this at players to spice up the town building. Raiders will be the first such moment we add.
(Spoiler Warning: If you don't want to know what raiders are going to do to your town when you play, skip this next section!)
So, in version 0.0.9 it will be the case that when your town has grown large enough to be noted by existing forces in the wasteland, you will be contacted an aggressive band of raiders who look greedily at your outpost of civilisation. They won’t attack you immediately. Instead, they will make 1 of 3 random demands of you. It's random what they'll pick.
Give them a percentage of all you have in your storehouse. Or give them a slice of your population to use as slaves (which will be ironic, if you legalised slavery!). Or change a law to please them.
You then decide whether to agree or resist. If you resist, then occasional destructive raids will start on your town on a periodic basis.
You won’t get to know exactly when they're going to attack, and there's no actual combat. Think of it more like a "disaster" in other city-building games. Admittedly, the first time Nick got raids up and working it destroyed his whole town in one go, but we won't make it quite that harsh at release! They'll keep raiding you until they think they've taught you a lesson. Then give you a chance to give into their demands again.
If you’re feeling tough, you can tell them to get lost. However, to resist you will need to start building defences. This is where the new Guard Tower structure we're making comes in (we've also added the ability to convert existing ruins into defences too, which is cool). These defensive buildings will protect nearby buildings when a raid occurs. You’re going to have to arrange your town around these protective structures and also find workers for them.
But it doesn’t stop there. Guard Towers are only good enough to partially reduce raid damage. Not block it entirely. To make them totally effective you’ll need to upgrade these new defensive buildings you've made. To upgrade them requires another new building that’s coming to 0.0.9 – the Weaponsmith... And a lot of scrap metal to make weapons! So you can see it's a pretty big feature that should add a fair bit of complexity to the latter stages of the game. I’ll talk more about it next month, when hopefully it's finished.
It'd be good to know if this approach to raiding sounds interesting to you. It’s been a struggle to design a system for raiding that fits as this is a town-building game, not a game about combat. The eureka moment for me came when I worked out to let players choose whether to resist the raiders or not. Atomic Society is about tough ethical choices after all.
For example, are you going to be willing to change your laws and values to avoid being attacked?
Release News Update
It wouldn't be a dev blog without the latest thoughts on our Early Access release! To be honest, I can't wait until the game is on Steam and I can stop living in a state of constant anticipation. As a team, we've been building up to this for over 3 years now and I'm sick of thinking about it!
As mentioned, we're still on track for this summer (May-July). We'll get the next big pre-alpha version done, spend a few weeks integrating it with Steam, then release, try and market it, and see what happens.
It will definitely be this summer. I couldn't cope with delaying it any longer. I know releasing on Steam will probably cause me as much stress as it solves, but at least the day we press "launch" will be one to remember. The dev blog after release should be interesting!
However, if you're already playing the game because you bought the pre-alpha, that does mean a 5-6 month gap between 0.0.8 and the next update. You'll appreciate why when I post the patch notes for this upcoming version, it's a big version with lots of new stuff to do, but how do our current players feel about such a long gap? Personally, I like games where they release fewer but much bigger updates because it makes playing the game all over again worthwhile, but what are your views? If I get enough feedback, we might try and release an interim pre-alpha version between now and summer, though I'd rather not.
Likewise, how often do the people who are waiting for this game to arrive on Steam feel about long waits between updates - but getting updates that will be really packed with new stuff? What do you prefer? Obviously I'm not counting bug fixing patches, we'll release them as soon as we can.
Survival Rating Added
Another new addition that happened this month is Survival Rating. Or that's what it's called right now as I'm writing this. It changes its name about once a week at the moment!
This feature (and the insane amount of design work it subsequently caused), started off when I began thinking “if our game had a high score, what would it be?” That opened up a whole can of worms, causing me to spend a lot of time nailing down the essential element of skill in our game. What separates a good post-apocalyptic town leader from a bad one? In the end, I figured it came down to survival. If you want to be a complete evil tyrant, or the kindest leader ever, you’re still going to need people who aren't dead.
This led me to scrap the old Approval Rating system we had and replace it with this new Survival Rating. The old system was pretty pointless and doesn't really fit with the setting, as this isn't a game about making people happy necessarily.
Basically, this new rating now tells you how dangerous life in your town is. It shows the odds of someone surviving to old age. A town with a 70% Survival Rating means there's a 70% chance the average person will make it and have a chance at dying the way nature intended (a rare thing in this game).
I felt this was the fairest measure of a player’s skill for now. The next step will be to connect it to actually completing the game. So you have to get good at survival to win. Over time we can add in scores per map, so you can see “oh, I managed to have a really good rating on this map” etc or something like that.
So much to do. I sometimes feel we're only getting started on this game after 3 years of building the basic foundations of it, but fortunately things will accelerate towards the end. This version is proof of that.
Also, Survival Rating is also going to be connected to another brand new building coming in 0.0.9 that I’ll talk about next month. The model has been made, but we need to bring it to life...
Who's going down that hatch?
In this month's behind-the-scenes news, it finally became time to replace some of our team's PC hardware after years of making this game on glorified hairdryers. Unfortunately, it came at a bad moment, with graphics card and RAM prices going nuts, but what can you do?
Luckily, our pre-alpha has sold just enough to provide new PCs that let us keep working, so it's a good job we decided to start selling early! But we weren't exactly keen to burn money on hardware as funds are still tight. However, my old PC was refusing to stay on for longer than a few hours, causing me to lose lots of work when it went down (fun when working on a game!) and Nani’s PC just couldn’t handle Unity. The latest pathfinding update to our game broke it. The game is a mass of code and systems nowadays and running the game in Unity's editor adds a huge performance overhead.
And she doesn't even have the weakest PC on the team! Adam likes to code on a laptop so old he literally had to create a way to disable all the game’s shaders just to make the game run (literally called “Adam Mode”)
Getting some new hardware meant we had to stop working for a few days and force Nick to stop coding so he could help us select the best PCs on our limited budget. And then he also had to build them so we could carry on working. We had a little a team get-together at our house/office and spent a day assembling new hardware, but at least we're more productive now than ever thanks to it. Plus, we were able to get an ATI card and an Nvidia card to help us debug any problems in the infinite hellscape of differing PC hardware.
It's weird finally getting to see your own game run at a framerate you've only ever seen in YouTube videos until now!
New Social Effect Feature Added
I talked about this new feature briefly last month but Adam has now made a lot of progress on it to the point where it's mostly done. Only 1 aspect left to tackle.
The first aspect of this new feature is called “Grim Surroundings”. Basically, you'll want to be careful in the next version where you put your Prisons and Punishment Centres. We've made it so seeing these brutal buildings is going to drain citizens morale faster than usual. You don’t want to build them in the middle of your town anymore.
The second feature we've put in is called “Influence”. Right now, that means that your Town Hall is going to have an influence on people next to it. It will slow down how often they decide to commit a social issue. So for example, a murderer is less likely to go and shank someone near the Town Hall.
On the flip side of that, the Tavern now actually encourages the rate people commit social issues. So you’re going to get a lot more acts of murder and vegetarianism (for example) around the Tavern. Maybe you want that. Or maybe you don’t. Just be careful where you put these buildings.
The last aspect to add, which is still work in progress due to some technical hassles, will affect where you place crematories and latrines. In short: people don’t want to be near these buildings, so build them far away from other stuff or they’re going to negatively affect them. My ultimate hope is this will add an extra level of strategy to where you place stuff.
More Publisher News!
Anybody who’s been reading these updates for a while will know the talks we've had with publishers over the years. We've had several offers but haven't really been convinced they're going to justify their share of our income yet. Some of the publishers have been great people who have done good work on other games, but I think we like working on our own a bit too much. We’re antisocial and like working on our own at our own pace, and I don’t particularly want a lot of marketing fuss! Having a popular game doesn't always = having a fun life.
If a publisher ever does win my heart, they’ll probably be someone who convinces me they really can make my life genuinely easier. Less stress. No one has yet managed to do that. If there's any publishers out there who want to make my life easier in exchange for money, let me know!
However, to prove I’m a hypocrite, this month a pretty big, well-known publisher contacted us out of the blue and wanted to talk and I got all excited like a starstruck indie dev again. Funnily enough, I’d actually pitched to this particular publisher years ago (the only one I've ever approached) and was turned down by the time! But I think they've forgotten about that, or the game has moved on so much, as they’re approaching us now. We’ve got a meeting with them in a couple of weeks. I don’t think it will lead to anything on this particular game, but on our next game… Who knows? Offers like this are educational even if they don't go anywhere. I'm avoiding saying who it is yet in case it gets me in trouble but stay tuned.
Another Essential New Feature Added This Month:
Forget raiders, forget everything else. The most important feature for 0.0.9 is already up and running...
We have now made it so you can now choose your Town Leader's hairstyle!
Adam dusted off his crappy laptop to program this feature as well. So above all the big moral choices in the game, you can now decide: want a beard or no beard? Want long hair or short hair? It's challenging stuff.
There's more coming though, lots of little upgrades. Sometimes I reckon the bottom section of a game's patch notes can make more impact than the top part.
Game Design Evolution 3.0.
We might be slightly odd as a team of 4 in that we have a game designer (me) who can’t code. However, being the dreaded “ideas guy” isn’t always an easy life. Game design is a race when you have a tiny but hardworking team constantly producing stuff. When they’re done with their present tasks, I have to be immediately ready with the next job for them, all written up nicely with detailed steps that make sense to someone who doesn’t actually live in my brain. And it better be a good use of their time.
It’s a stressful job (not that the others team have their stresses). I have to make all kinds of decisions on what people - who are basically unpaid volunteers at this stage - should spend time doing, based on mere instinct and theories. Then I have to hope after 4 weeks (for the really big features) that what I told them to do makes the game any better! Sometimes I have the extra fun job of saying “sorry, that idea isn’t’ working out. Can you redo XYZ?” and add lots of smileys to the comment.
As a guy who suffers from anxiety, I’ve occasionally tried to combat all this pressure by finding a formula that makes game design a bit more predictable. This month I spent an insane amount of time studying games, trying to find their common elements, and even worked out a list of 108 elements a game needs to be good! It busted my brain and took a huge amount of time. And guess what?
Formulas produce formulaic answers. No matter how much design time I spend theory-crafting, it doesn’t help. Every game is different. If there is a universal formula that Tetris, Chess, Doom, and Hitman all share I haven’t yet found it. Looking for it almost drove me insane.
I guess I'll have to keep stabbing in the dark and relying on instinct a while longer.
Not a good idea to stand this close to one of the new radioactive ruins, but somehow so alluring...
Radiation and Religion
To end this month's blog, I’ll talk about 2 upcoming features I’m hoping we can squeeze into the next update as well (told you it was going to be a big one). These are still in the early stages of development but they're on the conveyor belt of stuff that is coming at least.
First up is radiation. Nani has made the art for this but the coding is yet to start. My goal is that radioactive ruins will add a random element to every map. You won't know where they'll spawn each time you play. Naturally these unique ruins will be radioactive and impossible to build near, so you’ll have to plan your town around them. There will be a way to remove them, but at a cost. I'll hopefully discuss more about this feature next month when we're a little deeper into it.
Religion is another "milestone" feature, like raiders, that currently in the design phase. It's definitely something I definitely want to add. Choosing a religion/ideology is a massive element of every society. But I’ve found this one of the hardest elements to design. There might be a reason why so few games make religion a core part of their gameplay! In fact I can only think of the Civ games where religion is big part of gameplay and I personally find their use of it a bit superficial (though Civ 6 was better). Reducing belief to numbers, and all games revolve around numbers, is tricky stuff. We're prototyping various approaches at the moment.
What would you like to see from religion in a post-apocalyptic settlement game?
Time to Get Back to Work!
That about ends it for this month. As you can see from the length of this blog not a day goes by without something being added to the game. And the truly hectic time is yet to start.
Launching on Steam is going to be insanely busy. I don’t really know how I’m going to fit it in around my day job.
However, our passion and love for the game remains. We think we're making something unique and worth all the effort and late nights. The game should be something fun and unique on Steam, and that keeps us going. We just need to take breaks occasionally!
I'll see you next month.
The Road to Release
Every month we release a personal and honest look at the making of Atomic Society.