In At The Gates, a frozen river makes all the difference when virtual barbarians invade Rome
When I asked ex-Firaxis employee and Civ V lead designer Jon Shafer what made his upcoming game At The Gates special, I was a bit surprised by his answer: weather. The addition of weather and how it will affect maps and your developing armies is a major focus in At The Gates, and it's no small task to pull off.
When hell freezes over
At The Gates takes place during the barbarian sieges of Rome, with you in control of nomadic hordes. You'll build armies, collect resources, and explore the world around you on tiled maps which are constantly changing. Each turn in At The Gates represents a month's passing, so after 12 turns you'll have gone through a calendar year, and all four seasons. This passage of time and the seasons' effects on game play are what set At The Gates apart from other 4X games, Shafer told me. A river might flood in the spring, restricting movement, or it might freeze in the winter, allowing you to cross into a previously inaccessible area. A field of crops could dry up in the summer drought, and so on. “You kind of want to step back and think about, 'Alright, when I think about this period of history, when I think about this era, what comes to mind?'” Shafer asked. “Obviously barbarians coming in and taking down Rome is a big part of that, and if you've read anything about the history of the period, you know that there were a number of battles between the barbarians and the Romans, and weather played a pretty major role in them.” “It was an important part of the era and something that honestly, I've been wanting to do with a strategy game for awhile.” Shafer said that he's been kicking around the idea for a little more than two years. “I felt that this theme, and this particular implementation of the mechanics fit the idea of what I wanted to do in my head.” Shafer's idea for maps that shift constantly was born of a desire to challenge players. He said one of the core tenets of 4X game design is forcing the players to adapt and think on their feet. “You can't just develop a plan and push the button and watch it happen, you have to remain actively involved, you have to be changing course along the way,” he said. “It's kind of interesting where, if you want a game to be more interesting, you actually have to restrict the player more rather than giving them more freedom in a lot of cases. You want to give them freedom, but within boundaries.” Shafer said that the weather – an uncontrollable force of nature – would act as such a boundary in At The Gates. It wasn't the first idea he tried, though.
Shafer told me of a scrapped economic model for the game, where various classes of society such as clergy, farmers, soldiers, and so on, would affect your settlements. The happiness of each class would determine your resources, and each decision impacted classes differently. “I put the idea and the prototype in front of somebody I really trust with design, and they said, 'This seems more like a game about managing social classes and less like a game about leading a barbarian kingdom.'” Shafer told me. “And I thought about that for a bit, I stewed on it, and I came to the realization, 'Yup, he's right. This is a game about managing social classes, this is not a game about leading a barbarian kingdom.'” Shafer threw out the idea and reverted to the more familiar depleting resources model, where natural resources in the environment like wood and iron can be refined and used, but are finite in supply. “I thought it was pretty cool, but honestly, it wasn't the game and it didn't really fit, so I ended up cutting it and that hurt. I spent a couple months on it probably,” he said. “I had to do it for the game and I'm glad I did. I take a lot of pride in the fact I can throw things out and admit I'm wrong and change directions and that's okay.” “It was my work, it was my mistake. I can swallow that and I can come back, use what I've learned to make some things better.”
The road to Rome
Shafer has had an interesting career path: he began his rise to fame as a Civilization modder, which caught the eye of Firaxis. He was then brought on as lead designer for Civilization V, but left soon after the game was finished. From Firaxis, Shafer went to Stardock, where he served as a director. “A big part of why I ended up leaving Firaxis is that working in really big teams – our team on Civ 5 was up to 50 people – and trying to do direction and management in a team that large along with trying to do hands-on time with the game in that designer programmer role is really just too much work for one person,” Shafer admitted. His time at Stardock, however, didn't quite fit him either. “When I went to Stardock, I decided I was going to get away from that and focus more on the high-level issues. But over time I realized I just really wanted to be that hands-on person. That was the reason I got into the industry, that was the part I wanted the most,” Shafer told the Report. “Stardock had a number of projects in the pipeline and at that point it wasn't really a situation where I could go and say, 'Hey, I, Jon Shafer, want to do something fun for me, let's de-rail everything for that!' It was a situation where the best option for me at that point was to set off on my own, and build a studio and team in the image of the way I like to build games.” That studio is Conifer Games, and that game is At The Gates. Shafer has the game in-hand, almost ready to be pushed out the door, but he needs one final financial push. He hasn't been able to pay the team working for him yet, and Shafer said it's time to upgrade from “The Jon Shafer Ramen Fund” to “The Jon Shafer Canned Beefaroni Fund.” He needs Kickstarter for that to happen. At The Gates went live on Kickstarter today, and Shafer is asking $40,000 from the community to finish the game and polish the final product. With all his talk of implementing his vision though, I couldn't help but wonder: if At The Gates is a crowdfunded project, wouldn't that mean taking suggestions from the backers? What if they didn't like his weather idea, or found the graphics too simple? “I think you have to have a certain confidence in your vision for the game, and you have to be able to tell people that that's what you're making,” Shafer said. At the same time, he acknowledges that he's not perfect, and neither are his games nor all of his ideas. The failed economics system based on class attests to that. “The very basic ideas behind At The Gates have stayed the same the whole time and they always will remain that way, but the specific details can and probably should change over time as you learn more and get better.” “I feel good about what we're doing.”