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Interview with Conifer Games on At the Gates

By on August 27th, 2013 12:36 pm

Jon Shafer's At the Gates

Earlier this year, developer Conifer Games was able to successfully kickstart a new strategy title called At the Gates. This game caught my eye because of its unique features, namely the terrain and weather changes, the diplomacy system, and the technology system. Also, in a role reversal from the norm, it also has you playing as the barbarians rather than the Romans.

I had questions though. How would the AI cope with these new systems? How different will diplomacy really be from what we already see today in strategy games? Would the limited technology and construction options available hinder one’s sense of progression? With these questions and more bouncing around in my mind, I decided to reach out to Conifer Games. I asked them about the game, their design process, and the kickstarter process. Jon Shafer was kind enough to take the time to answer all my questions without hesitation. If you’d like to brush up on some of the game’s features before reading the interview, you can do so here. Enjoy!

SS: How long has the concept behind At the Gates been in the making, and what was your initial process like? Since design appears to be an ongoing process, how did you know when your initial design was ready for prototyping?

JS: For the couple years I’d been bouncing around ideas for a new strategy game that would prominently feature map evolution. The fact that it took shape into At the Gates, which happens to be about barbarians taking down Rome was really just the result of what I was interested in at the time.

In mid-2012 one of my friends who is also a designer told me about a scenario he was creating based around the fall of the Roman Empire. He talked about some of the mechanics he was incorporating where the situation would actually make thing tougher for players rather than easier.

Also at his recommendation, I’d already been listening to Mike Duncan’s excellent History of Rome podcast for several months. All of these factors combined in my head, and the prospect of creating a strategy game unlike other seemed exciting. There have certainly been games about Rome and even its fall, but the barbarians who helped bring it about have always been relegated to the role of antagonist rather than being the stars of the show.

At the Gates - Rome is Ablaze

It was basically from that very early stage that we started building the tech and basic gameplay systems. I only had a rough idea of what mechanics I wanted at that point, but prototyping is always a very fluid process. I knew I wanted tiles, units, weather, etc. so there was a lot we could work on while I was still narrowing down the design details.

SS: You’ve posted some glimpses of your AI design outline, but you’ve made it clear that is just the tip of the iceberg. You mention testing your AI design through experiments, to see what works and what doesn’t, before translating to code. Could you share with us some of the methods you use to put your AI theories to the test?

JS: Before you start coding it really just comes down to setting up a likely scenario, then running through all of the logic step-by-step.

Let’s say we’re trying to decide how to distribute units between various tasks. I’ll assume I have 3 infantry and 4 tasks with varying priorities. I’ll tabulate the score for each unit’s suitability for a task based on its distance, what types of units are suited well or poorly for the task, etc.

We now have a big grid of numbers which, when formatted correctly, explain what units go where. Much of the time the answer I actually get isn’t quite what my gut feeling says should be the case. I then look deeper into that problem, tweak the algorithms to get something closer to my expectations, and then run another test.

Once you’re actually coding, the focus is on getting something simple in ASAP just so that you can see how it’s working out. There are always surprises with AI, and you need to be reacting to what’s actually happening in the game, rather than following a monolithic plan and just hoping it will pan out.

SS: A big feature of At the Gates is the seasonal effects system it has in place. It certainly seems like being in the right place at the right time, say to cross a frozen river, will play a big role. Along the same lines, getting caught out of position during a harsh winter without supply could be absolutely devastating. How difficult has it been to get the AI to plan ahead for these types of situations?

JS: Oh it’s been a challenge, no doubt about that. But on the plus side, we’ve adopted a very “top down” architecture with At the Gates’ AI, where decisions are made at a high level and then filter down to the lower-level subsystems, limiting what each one it forced to worry about.

To give you a concrete example of that, the AI layer in charge of deciding when to fire off invasions or missions must account for current and future weather conditions, but the individual units themselves don’t need that kind of foresight. Like soldiers in a real army, they’re simply stuck dealing with what the higher-ups have ordered them to do!

At the Gates - In the winter, rivers freeze and farms don't produce

As long as the AI layer in question has a rough idea as to where each army will be when, it can plan ahead fairly effectively. It will take some playtesting and iteration to get it smart enough to compete with a good human player, but that’s the case with all AI work.

SS: One thing that immediately caught my eye about At the Gates is the lack of emphasis on city building. It seems like city building has been a core mechanic in these types of empire builders since they first began. Research, as well, is being done quite a bit differently. Instead of the traditional tech tree, you’ve gone with a Romanization perk system. Since these are typically progression mechanics in this type of game, which design elements are intended to fulfill this role and keep the player engaged?

JS: Romanization is kind of like research and government stuck into one. You have a variety of “perks” which give you bonuses, but also the ability to switch between them at any time. There won’t be as many perks as you would have technologies in other games, but the tougher decisions of what to run with make up for that.

This is really the approach we’ve taken with At the Gates across the board. There will be fewer turns, fewer units, fewer cities, etc. but what you do with each one is much more important. You won’t be hitting the end turn button five or ten times in a row in this game!

As for economics, you’re correct that we’re shifting the focus away from individual cities, but we’re now placing it on your empire as a whole. Cities are still very important for training units, but your resource gathering is done by improvements scattered across the map.

At the Gates is a game of limited resources, and much of your time will be spent thinking about how to spend them. Most resource deposits deplete over time, so unlike most 4X games you can’t let your kingdom run on autopilot and trust that it’ll take care of itself. You should keep a close eye on how much iron, wood, etc. you have, and always have a plan for acquiring more.

SS: At the Gates was originally going to have 8 playable factions, and now it is going to have 10 playable factions in the game since it met one of your Kickstarter stretch goals. In terms of these factions, how different should we expect them to be from one another, in gameplay terms? Should we expect different mechanics, or more subtle differences?

JS: They’ll all play quite differently from one another. The Huns were a nomadic tribe that never really settled down, and they actually won’t be able to build fixed structures. Instead, their focus is on constantly moving around and pillaging whatever they can find. Not all of the factions will be this extreme, but that should give you a taste as to what we’re going for.

SS: Diplomacy appears to be a very important aspect of At the Gates. One thing you’re doing different is basing your interactions and reputation with other faction leaders around fulfilling their situational desires. What benefits should the player expect to see from pleasing these other leaders? Should we expect other factions to come to our rescue in times of trouble, or is pleasing them primarily an exercise in securing certain borders?

JS: There are three big advantages to good diplomatic relations, and you’ve pointed out two of them. The world of At the Gates is not a friendly one, and everyone is always looking for their next meal. You will be fighting, it’s really only a question of who and when. The more friends you can secure the more likely the odds will be in your favor.

When relations between two leaders are strong enough, it is possible to become allies and work together, but you’re not always guaranteed assistance. Friendly AI leaders try aid you when possible, but there will be times when they themselves are in bad shape and can’t afford the distraction. And, of course, a few of the leaders are naturally untrustworthy, so you’ll have to be wary about relying on them too much.

At the Gates Interview - Attila the Hun

The third benefit to diplomacy is trade. We’ve already talked about the importance and scarcity of resources in At the Gates, and you’ll often be faced with shortages. Just like in real life, some factions will have more of something you lack and less of something you have in abundance. If a leader hates you then it doesn’t matter how much benefit he’ll derive from working together, he’s never going to help you out. But friendly leaders will look for opportunities to trade early and often.

SS: Do you have a target turn length in mind for At the Gates?

JS: I actually don’t. It all depends on the feel and flow of the game. Many 4X games tend to drag on long after the fun parts are over, and that’s not the approach we’re taking with At the Gates. My guess is that the turn count will end up in the 200-300 range, but that’s really just a guess at this point.

SS: Are you planning to implement difficulty levels, and if so, how will these impact gameplay?

JS: We will have difficulty levels and we’ll be doing something a little different with At the Gates.

One of the first choices players will make is what “game style” they want. We’ll have a handful of modes which emphasize different elements. Some players are very hardcore and want a brutal challenge, and for them we’ll have a mode there which pulls out all the stops and hits you with the full force of weather, resource depletion, etc.

Other players enjoy 4X games because of, say, the exploration aspect. For them we’ll have a mode which maintains the sting of all the existing systems, but tones it down to a level where a single mistake won’t kill off your entire army.

For each mode we’ll probably also have difficulty levels as people traditionally think of them, where the goal is to provide a similar experience but ramp up or down the challenge. There will probably be some overlap, but the overarching goal is very much to offer different kinds of experiences to different players. Not everyone enjoys the same parts of every game, and we want to provide as much freedom as we can while still being true to our design vision.

As of right now it’s undecided whether AI players will receive bonuses of some kind on the highest difficulty levels. The goal is for that to not be the case, but it ultimately depends on how strong the AI is as we get close to release. One guarantee I can make is that the AI won’t be able to see your units in the fog. That’s just plain cheating!

SS: If money were no object, and any existing game systems were fair game to use, do you have any thoughts on what your dream game would look like?

JS: Hmmm… good question. From history to astronomy to biology to technology, my interests really are all over the map. I honestly don’t have a single “dream idea” I want to see realized, but there’s very much a vision for the direction I’d like to take Conifer in after we finish up with At the Gates.

At the Gates - Conifer GamesAt the Gates - Conifer GamesAt the Gates - Conifer Games

I prefer working with small teams, as that way you can be more hands-on with what you’re making. A small team almost necessitates your game being 2D, and that’s where I’m planning on staying in the future. Random maps are a must. And I always want to stick with “hardcore” games, as I enjoy diving deep into the various nooks and crannies of projects, trying to flesh out as deep and replayable an experience as possible.

So I may not have anything specific in mind yet, but that should give you an idea as to what might be on the menu in upcoming years!

SS: Your Kickstarter campaign was 265% funded. It would seem like you had a fantastic experience with it. Were there any surprises during the process? Do you have any advice for indie developers who are looking to get their project recognized and potentially funded?

JS: Yes, there were a few surprises along the way.

The first was the sheer volume of questions and supportive messages we received. I’ve always tried to respond to every message I get, but for the first week or two I was getting over a hundred messages per day, and my willpower was very much tested! But the activity did eventually calm down a bit and I managed to survive.

It was also great to see people I’d never met or spoken with take up the At the Gates banner and wave it as their own. When people say that Kickstarter is as much marketing campaign as it is fundraising platform, they’re not kidding. This wasn’t something I’d ever thought about before, but based on my experience the effect seems to be very real.

Another surprise was the number of other companies that reached out after learning about the Kickstarter campaign – and many of those inquiries came through Kickstarter. Investment, distribution, localization, porting to other platforms, IT, music… you name it, I’ve been asked if we’re interested in buying it!

As for advice for indie devs… I could probably double the length of this interview if I really dug deep into that one! I’ll do my best to keep things under control though.

Ultimately, success as an indie comes down to how good of a job you do building an audience. You always need to have made a great game for this to happen, but alas, many times that alone isn’t enough.

I obviously already have a fair bit of experience in this industry and both the press and public were willing to pay attention when I had something new to show off. Without a track record, few people are going to pay attention to your finished projects – forget about your unfinished ones. All you can do is start small and cross your “t”s and dot your “i”s.

If you make great games an audience will eventually grow around that, even if it’s only a small one. From here your goal is to nurture it in any way you can. Be very active on Twitter. Have a professional-looking website that’s updated regularly. Give out a free demo. Email press outlets. Make contacts in the industry who can help attract eyeballs to your projects. Consider paying a PR agency a few hundred dollars to send out a press release once you have something you’re really proud of.

And make sure you’re really proud of it. Most of the time you’ll only get one shot, and if your game disappoints that’s the end of the road. This is more true when you’re actually releasing a finished game, but it’s also something to think about when just pitching ideas. As they always say, first impressions last a lifetime.

Some people get really lucky and hit it big with their first project. But these are extreme outliers, and counting on being among that group is like counting on winning the lottery instead of working for a living. Game development is tough work, and sometimes you just have to be patient and grind it out.

It really helps to think about selling and marketing your game from the perspective of a customer – why should they care about what you’re doing, anyways? It’s natural for all of us to ask ourselves “What can I do to be successful?” But the secret recipe for success is instead asking “Why is this thing I’ve made worth everyone else’s time and money?”

SS: Thank you very much for your time.

At the Gates is currently scheduled for a late 2014 release. Conifer games has teamed up with the Humble Store to make the game available for pre-order on their site for anyone interested. Of course, you can always wait for more SpaceSector coverage first as well.

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  1. Benji says:

    very enjoyable interview! The proof of the pudding is in the eating though, civ5 was a big @#% mess the way Jon Shafer et al. designed/released it.

    • Keith Turner says:

      Thanks Benji.

      Glad you enjoyed the interview. I think a lot of people feel the way you do.

      I’m hoping he can pull it off as I really would like to see some different variants of the 4x and/or grand strategy formula emerging. In concept, it seems like this could work. My biggest worry is how long it will be able to remain interesting, and also how well the AI will perform.

      The good news is they have a lot of time to work on those aspects. I’ll be playing it whenever it releases, so everyone can simply watch and wait for our eventual review (likely not until late 2014 it seems).

      • Benji says:

        This is so true. I’ve been getting a bit burned out on 4x gaming lately. It’s always ± the same. civ5 is awesome of course. Distant worlds is potentially awesome but I keep getting annoyed by the crappy GUI and AI/bugs. And that’s about it. It seems like scifi 4x games have a really hard time delivering when it comes to being polished/bug-free, interesting game-play wise and having a real fun universe to play around in.

        Guess I could try some of the fantasy games. Age of wonders 3 looks really good.

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