As I write this we’re just days away from Steam release. It’s a strange mood to be writing a dev blog in and there’s a lot to cover…
Final Release Date Confirmed - Monday 15th of October
After what seems like years of hard work (3 to be precise), we’re finally ready to share our little game with the audience on Steam. There’s no turning back now.
Atomic Society will be released on Steam Early Access on Monday the 15th of October.
After using such professional marketing techniques such as “what should we charge for it?” and “I don’t know, what would you pay for it?” we deduced it should cost $15, (or whatever Steam converts that to in your country). That’s the same price we’ve charged during the pre-alpha phase, and we feel comfortable with it for now. There won’t be a launch discount so feel free to buy it whenever you want to.
We've spent the last 3 long months adding in the last key features before Steam, and I like how it's turned out (after that horrible mid-version period where everything is broken and I want to cry). Every new version turns the game into something more people can enjoy, and let's us iron out some long-standing issues. The game is slowly becoming something you can sink your teeth into. I got to watch someone so hooked on it they stayed up until 3:30am playing it the other day, even with its Early Access glitches and missing features, so moments like that make all the hard work feel worthwhile.
We’ve delayed our Steam release about 8 times (literally) in order to add content and fix bugs, and at times that felt like insanity. It has especially felt like insanity since September 1st when we stopped all sales of our pre-alpha and therefore cut off our tiny income entirely in order to leave a clear gap. I don’t know if we might the right or wrong call on waiting so long, but I’m cool with making mistakes, and I’m happy with the current state of the game, so let's hope that pays us a few basic wages in our future!
Behold our shiny new gameplay trailer...
The last trailer I made for Atomic Society was about 18 months ago. The game has moved on a huge amount since then. I can barely watch the old one these days. I kept convincing myself to wait to remake it, because feature X was just around the corner, and making trailers is hard. Really hard. All the playing and recording hours and hours of footage to make a 90 second end result, and by the time you’ve got that 90 seconds, you so exhausted and blind to the whole thing you can’t even tell if it’s good or not. And it’s not exactly as if a town building game is visually grabbing or our graphics are anything stunning. However, enough whining, it's finished now.
There’s a shorter version on our Steam page. Wanted to keep it even briefer on there so people browsing their discovery queue get straight to the action, and I know from making past trailers most people give it 30 seconds tops before their mind is made up.
Steam Keys for Pre-Alpha Backers Now Available!
Pre-alpha players can add the game to their Steam library today.
I’m so glad this is done. There was always a gnawing fear at the back of my head that Valve might not give me all the Steam keys I needed to give to our pre-alpha players, and that would have put me in deep trouble. Just one of the fun aspects of being totally reliant on an anonymous corporation for your potential income.
But Valve (who have so far been great with us) fortunately had no problem with it, and I was able to dish out pre-alpha keys to everybody. If you bought the pre-alpha when we were selling it on our website, you can go and grab your key right now and add it to your Steam library already (even if you’re reading this before we officially launch). It won’t let you play it before launch, but it will be there in your library looking all pretty and starting with A so it’s near the top of your list.
Find out how to claim your Steam key here if you already bought the pre-alpha.
We’re finally out of the pre-alpha phase! It still hasn’t sunk in. Right now, at time of writing this, I simply do not believe that within a few days our game is going to be on Steam. I know anybody can get on Steam these days but I still have a vague nostalgia for old Steam from the days when I bought Half Life 2 in a shop and the assistant had to explain to me what an online activation was. We were even Greenlit (remember that?) I think they should bring back Greenlight. It got us our initial burst of attention from players and seeing your game climb the rankings of popularity was actually very useful info. Plus it saved us paying $100.
I've never sent out a press key to someone before.
In fact, that’s a mini-lie, I did actually send out 1 key to the Yogscast when they asked (because it’s the Yogscast and my mum probably knows who they are). But I took so long wondering whether or not it was morally right to send them a key that they got bored and bought the pre-alpha anyway. So I guess that worked out.
Now we’re finally hitting Early Access, I’m suddenly all about those streamers or Youtubers or whatever folks call them. I have emails going back to 2015 from random Youtubers that I am now facing the daunting task of actually replying to. I did reply quickly at the time, telling them “we’ll be in touch when we have more to show”. And that took… 3 years. So if you’re a streamer who contacted us over the last 3 years, rest assured I’m currently in the slow process of dusting off my emails (assuming your channel even exists anymore) so you might hear from us soon if we have codes to spare. Unfortunately we can’t send them to everybody who contacted us, but we'll do what we can.
Funnily enough the first ever streamer type person to contact in July 2015 was none other than Karak of Angry Centaur Gaming back before we was a big internet man. He was the first person to see the potential in our game even when it looked like a budget N64 title and for that he is awesome in my eyes. At the time, he said in this email that he had a channel with 50k subscribers to impress me. He now has 500k subscribers. Time moves on. Moves on so much he doesn’t even seem to cover obscure indie games anymore, so he won’t be interested in us. Progress!
What About the Game?!
I know this dev blog has focused mostly on business and marketing stuff so far because that’s where my brain is right now. I haven’t been this amped/scared/stressed since our wildly popular Kickstarter (look at those beautiful 175 backers – heroes all of them!). That’s after a rough month where all I’ve been thinking when it comes to the game is “why is this piece of crap so buggy?!” (it’s not anymore, thank you coders) or “This UI looks like arse!” (it’s not anymore, thank you artist).
However, there is actually a bit of game stuff to talk about. There has been some progress that wasn’t even in the most recent patch notes.
Terrain System Improved
This sounds like a boring change, but it’s possibly the most game-changing one out of everything in the latest update. We have finally solved a long-standing issue in the game that people couldn’t build structures close enough together. Check out old screenshots and you’ll see in some of them all the towns look a bit spread out. The days of spreading out are over!
We actually knew what the problem with this was for years (map resolution), but never got around to fixing it because building X isn’t close enough to building Y never seemed to be a small-fry problem. But I didn’t want to launch on Steam and face more people complaining about stuff we already know about, so fear of social pressure encouraged change. It should now be the case that you can build much, much more compact towns. This doesn’t sound like much, but in a game that revolves around placing buildings, anything that buffs the core game mechanic feels great. I’m extremely happy we could get this done in time.
Save Times Drastically Improved
Right now we are mere days away from release and Nick casually mentioned that he’s managed to improve saving times by over 90%. This is huge for us as saving and loading has always been a weak spot in our game and could take ages in the pre-alpha if you had a big town. In all honesty, adding saving and loading to the game was the closest we came to burn-out as a team, our darkest hour. For one reason or another, everything that could go wrong on that task did and it delayed everything by 5 whole months. It’s never been 100% since then, but Nick kept going and I think players are going to be a lot happier with it now.
Considering he only told me this was in game a few hours ago, I can’t say for certain it will be in there for day 1 of Early Access, as I shall now try to ruin his hard work by finding bugs with it, but it’s coming soon.
Mini Patch Notes 2.0
Here’s some of the things we added just in the last few weeks (including those I've already mentioned)…
Religion and Goals Working Mostly Well!
After stressful weeks of fixing bugs, last minute tweaks and general hoping that designs I made months ago would actually turn out okay in reality: Religion and Goals, Breeding and Sex Issues are now all finished and actually making me happy. The new Goals feature adds some much needed direction to the experience and also makes the game last much longer as you’re forced (assuming you follow the goals) to get into areas of the game you might have ignored before. Breeding is actually not that dramatic – in reality it's just more kids to die in your town – but it needed happening. Sexual issues are working well, as they make compelling moral decisions. And the religion feature is adding that extra layer to the game that I really hoped it would. There’s definitely more we can add to it in future updates, but just giving players that extra way to think about their society is nice.
At least I think so... I'm sure the Steam reviews will tell their own story in a few days!
Verge of Release And Feeling… Calm?
That was the original title of this paragraph when I started drafting this blog weeks ago. If you’d spoken to me 2-3 weeks ago, when the version felt like it was never going to get finished, I was feeling oddly chilled. “It’ll get done when it’s done”, and “we’ve been through worse”, etc. Now we’re days away from launch I am in that state of mind anybody’s who been to a job interview or driving test might be able to relate to. I’m confident, but I’m also bricking it. I’m insanely happy to have even made it this far, but also conscious if the game flops on Steam, my hopes of being a full-time game developer are going back on ice for a few years, or possibly permanently. Everybody on the team needs this game to sell, sometimes badly. And nobody has any idea what is going to sell. We have no idea what our financial future is.
The slightly comforting news is if 10% of the people who wishlisted us actually buy the game, we'll be doing okay. But will they? I have no idea how wishlist numbers are going to convert into sales.
I will reveal all in next month’s blog…
What About After Launch?
Atomic Society is not done, not by a long way. We waited 3 years so the base experience you'll get on Early Access is fun and worth the money, but there’s so much more we want to do with this game. We just love the setting and possibilities of it so much that I could work on it for years to come. But that depends on many things.
Rest assured even if the game sells 5 copies on Steam, we’re committed to this for at least another year of updates. We’d rather be a good looking unpopular corpse of a game than cut and run. People call me grim for saying this, but it’s still the truth that only the death of a team member could stop us from finishing this game. I have a feeling by the time it’s all over, we’ll have spent 5 years making Atomic Society in total. And 5 years to make a videogame you’re proud of, when you love games so much, is a worthy transaction of mortality in my view.
In next month’s blog then you’ll get to read my reflections on the Steam launch and what a terrible disaster/greatest moment of my working life that was, I’ll start discussing what changes are coming in the next big update. I’ll also probably confirm everybody on the team is still alive.
Stay tuned and from everybody on the team, we really hope you enjoy playing the game when it hits Early Access on Monday the 15th.
Here goes nothing...
Welcome to the latest dev blog for Atomic Society. Right now, we’re all becoming a bit manic as we prepare for the Steam release. It’s been a hectic month as usual.
Latest Video Version
My little experiment recording myself reading the dev blog last month seemed to work out well. Some YouTubers randomly re-posted it, and over 6000 people discovered it on one person’s channel alone, which was rather nice although slightly terrifying at the same time.
If you want to hear and see this blog in video form, you can find it here...
New Bug-Fixing Update Released
We’ve spent the whole of June fixing bugs, and have just released another large update to the game. Anybody playing the pre-alpha can upgrade to version 0.0.9.1 right now if they download the game again.
This new update contains over 25 bug fixes, including solutions for issues that have been in the game for ages, the kind of fiddly bugs that always got put at the bottom of our to-do list when we were feeling exhausted. There's still a lot to do of course, but the game is definitely running more reliably than ever before.
If you remember last month's blog, I was concerned about the number of bugs in the game as Atomic Society became bigger and bigger. I didn't know whether to divert onto fixing them, or press ahead and get as much content in the game as possible before Steam. Both routes had advantages.
In the end, we chose to focus on bug fixing, and I'm glad we did. It’s amazing what a month of bug-fixing can do for our sanity. Every bug fixed is one less thing to store in our heads and fret over. I feel slightly more confident about the game surviving its Steam launch now, though we’ll have to see.
Full patch notes for the update can be found here.
Some of the most bizarre and complicated bugs we've fixed involved raiders stealing corpses out of the old people’s home, and drug-users overdosing on their own supply even though they were dead. Nick (our main coder) also did a complete redo of the storage system to make it much more robust. You’d think NPCs using a storehouse would be pretty simple, but it isn’t when various things can happen to that NPC on the way there. Perhaps he’s murdered, or arrested, or raiders kidnap him, or disease gets him, or he simply decides to wander into the wasteland. The storehouse has to be aware of where every item is. Multiply that by 300+ citizens and you'll get a few bugs. I think we've fixed most of them now though.
To help find bugs for this patch, I started playing the game in a way I absolutely hate. For each gameplay decision, I worked out what I really wanted to do, and then did the complete opposite. I built the worst post-apocalyptic settlement possible and hated every law I implemented.
It felt horrible and was also surprisingly tiring having to override your own views constantly, but at least it helped with the testing process.
Current Views on the Project
Considering we're on the verge of what might be the biggest shake-up to our lives as indie devs since we started, I’ve been thinking about the process of making this game quite a lot lately.
Steam has been on our minds since early 2015, but we kept delaying our Early Access release over and over to add more content, which annoyed a few people. I've always had in my head that the game should be worth $15 when it hits Steam, but it took us 3 years to get to that point in my opinion. Fortunately we had pre-alpha players who were willing to pay based on the game’s potential, and that kept us going.
We've definitely changed as people since 2015. We began as clueless beginners, and had that naive optimism that helped us get going. We had no idea how complex and time-consuming Atomic Society was going to be at the time, and there was still a romantic air around making indie games back then. Blind optimism started to fade around Summer 2016. That’s when the market became obviously oversaturated with games, and I started to realise how long it would take us to get Atomic Society in a good state.
To be totally honest, I still don't know if the game is good enough for Early Access. I've been playing the game so much recently that I've lost my objectivity. I still like playing it, which is a good sign, but perhaps I have terrible taste. I need to take a break from playing it for at least a month to gain some perspective, but I can't see that happening anytime soon.
I keep telling myself nothing bad can happen when we launch on Steam. Even if the game is a disaster, it's not going to hurt, but I'm having a weird sense of renewed optimism and hope, and with that comes a risk of being disappointed later down the line. There is a remote possibility I could be a full-time (paid) indie dev by the end of the year. That would be my dream job. It's hard to be a pessimist with that career possibility even being on the table. I feel like a man who’s been waiting 3 years to find out if he succeeded at a job interview.
New Features Ready For Steam
Focusing on all the things to do before Steam has kept me grounded. While Nick was working on that bug-fixing patch, Adam (our other coder) has been busy working on the new social issues I mentioned last month. I'm pleased to say that abortion, homosexuality and breeding are now fully working. They need balancing and bug-testing of course, but we were able to get the core work done in a month.
For breeding, it’s now the case that when you build a hospital, survivors will decide it must be safe to start raising families, and young kids will begin spawning periodically. Back when I was first designing this game, I planned a massively complex system with citizens falling in love and forming relationships and so on, which sounds great on paper, and then you realise players would barely notice any of it. When they’ve got 300+ people to keep alive, there isn’t time to inspect who's sleeping with who. Fortunately player's imaginations fill in all the gaps.
Abortion is now working too. Female citizens who have just given birth won’t be able to work until they’ve physically recovered. Obviously a woman who has terminated her pregnancy will be available. If you're short on workers, or just overwhelmed with new kids to feed, there could be a cold practical reason to tolerate or encourage abortion in your town. This was also the first social issue where I had to decide who should be punished if you choose to condemn it, the woman or the doctor? In the end, I decided to go with just the woman, as I felt that would make the choice more dramatic.
Homosexuality was a bit challenging because there has to be a town planning aspect to everything, and it’s not always easy to connect someone’s sexuality to building a settlement. In the end we made it so that gay survivors will come to your town but not all of them will come out of the closet, to speak. Some of them will keep it hidden, and this will affect their productivity. If they do come out, it will affect your town's birth rate slightly, and you can decide how accepting to be.
I’ve struggled a bit trying to make it so the morals and laws you pick are meaningful, but you can still go in whatever direction you personally think is best. I don’t want this game to be sentimental or full of guilt trips. My hope is the important social issues come with built-in emotions, because we’re all human at the end of the day, but it means accepting people are going to do awful things with our game.
Choosing A Release Date For Atomic Society
We have finally decided to commit to a September Early Access launch. It will be one day that month, unless the whole team dies between now and then (in which case, I shall put it in my will to release the game). We have a basic target at last and it will not change, even if we end up coming out on the last day of September. No matter how much better the game could be, or if feature X was ready, the time has come to face the music. I don't know if all teams decide like this, but for us we emotionally need to share this game with a wider audience. I’m tired of hiding away.
Technically, the game is on Steam already. This week Nick integrated the game with Steam, and it is currently sitting in our personal game libraries. It doesn't actually work, but merely seeing it there is exciting. I've also started looking up how to give our pre-alpha players their Steam keys, which will be important when we switch from Humble to Steam. The process doesn't look too difficult at the moment, but there’s a lot to learn.
I think the mood on the team has changed now we’ve committed to a release month. There’s an energy in the air, and the 4 of us seem more focused on the game than ever before. I still see Early Access as a journey, not the destination, but if we're this excited now, I can't imagine how manic launch day will be.
Progress On Religion
The religion feature has now been fully designed. I'm really hoping we can squeeze it in before Steam, as it will fill a missing gap in the game. Out of everything I've designed, religion has been the hardest thing to get right. I'm not sure why. Perhaps the challenge has been turning something so personal into gameplay without resorting to clichés. The system I've come up with is either going to be really good, or really awful.
When we’ve coded it, religion or your ideology will help explain why the survivors listen to your Town Leader when he tells them to imprison vegetarians for example. Your moral authority - and therefore people giving a damn what you say – will be linked to people sharing your belief system. However, rather than converting people, I'm more interested in making players decide how to get rid of those who disagree with them, for better or worse.
Hopefully this feature will be in the Early Access version on the day we launch, but that will be very tough, considering how big the feature is. I could just delay the game until religion has been finished and tested, which might be the smarter option, but right now we’ll keep hoping. I always believe we can do it, no matter how many delays there have been in the past. Worst comes to the worst, religion will be the first patch after Steam.
There’s also another feature to add as well, which could really make the game last longer, but I’ll talk about that next time.
Although it sounds like the boss of an RPG, Dungeness is actually a place in England. Nani (our artist, also my wife) went with me on a short break recently, because even poor indie devs need to get away when they work and live in the same place day after day. We travelled to the south-east of England, where I used to live, mostly to meet family, but I also wanted to visit Dungeness, which is a very weird place I used to visit as a kid. It's sometimes called the only desert in England, and you can't build there. The people live in shacks in the shadow of a giant nuclear power station, which you can walk right up to and even see people fishing in bubbling hot waters where the station vents into the sea. The area is a bit more touristy these days, but it still has that Cold War bleakness that appeals to me. As you can see from the photo above (which I found online), it basically looks like a level from our game. As a post-apocalyptic fan living in boring old England, Dungeness is the closest I’ve found to stepping into a Fallout-like environment, minus the rad scorpions.
Stuck in the Past With Unity
We have finally locked down the version of Unity we're using, which was already a year out of date. Updating it any more would give us some nice treats, but would break too much of the game's code, so it isn’t worth the hassle.
It's strange that we'll never have to upgrade Unity again on this project. It ties into what I was saying last month, that we're coming to the final phase of development.
We don't have any regrets about using Unity, especially considering it hasn't cost us a penny yet. The only small hassle has been working with third party assets. A few shaders in Atomic Society were made by others, and most of them have been abandoned by their creators over the years. We had to fix them ourselves to keep them working, but it didn’t delay us too long. I’m sure we’ll use Unity again, if we ever make a second game.
End Result of Gaming Abstinence
Earlier this year I wrote about how I’d taken a complete break from the gaming industry and social media. I stopped checking gaming news and forums, and gave up buying new games. I had to do it because I was going crazy spending about 10 hours working on a game, and then trying to relax by spending even more time with games. Day after day, year after year. That's the problem when your hobby is your job, even if you're doing that job for love.
This detox lasted about 6 weeks. It was amazing how much extra time I gained back in the process, but I couldn’t find anything else to plug the hole video games had vacated. I love games too much and I can’t suppress my passion for long, even for my own mental health. I still get the same pleasure seeing a video game today as I did when I was 7 years old and saw Pong for the first time. Some things just fascinate you, there’s no explaining it.
So I'm back to being a gaming addict again. The break has done me good though, I don’t feel burnt out right now, but we’ll see how long it lasts before I need to retreat again.
Wrapping It Up
That's about it for now. Next month’s dev blog should be a fun one because we'll be days away from taking a gamble on Steam. Where will our review score even out? Will I be able to give up my day job anytime soon? I haven't got a clue. Whatever happens, we're launching next month. That fact feels like a black hole. We can't escape it.
I’d like to give a huge thank you to everybody who’s bought the game so far and enabled us to get to this point. The pre-alpha phase has been a fantastic 2 years on the whole. I genuinely feel like everybody who’s bought it has been doing me a personal favour. We’ve met some really nice players, and been able to improve the game in ways that definitely wouldn’t have happened if we’d hidden the game away. That’s why we won’t be carrying on the Special Edition rewards after we hit Steam, even though it might benefit us financially. They’re just for the people who helped us get to this point.
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.