Exploring A New Strategy Frontier: An Interview with Jon Shafer

Jon Shafer knows 4X games. After all, he's spent at least half his life on them. Starting in high school the 30 year old games designer slowly climbed the ranks at Firaxis, first as a teenaged Civilization III modder, then as a Civilization III expansion beta tester, to programming intern and later, full time designer and programmer on the Civilization IV expansions.

After conquering the development ranks by reaching lead designer and principal gameplay programmer for Civilization V, he moved on briefly to Stardock to work on an unannounced title but left two years later to found his own studio, Conifer Games, where he remains today working on At The Gates. This Kickstarter-funded strategy title pits the player as barbarians playing against the Roman Empire, competing for land and dwindling precious resources as they strive towards the superior society. 

I spoke with him recently about At The Gates, strategy games, what it's been like to carry a studio on his own shoulders, and whether Kickstarter has helped or hindered the creative process. He was very generous with his answers, even when I asked (because you know I just had to) about those oh-so-controversial hexagonal tiles in Civilization V. Read on!

Unlike other 4X games, At The Gates is played from the perspective of the Barbarians, eschewing the typical empire-building in favor of a more nomadic-style pursuit of victory. Was this inspired at all by Civilization and its use of raiding Barbarian camps? As I read up on At The Gates, I felt myself lamenting that Civ 5 does not have a mode that allows you to go against city states and civs as a Barbarian camp/unit. 

To a certain extent that is true given that you could draw a line from pretty much everything in At The Gates back to Civilization, but I'd probably say the most direct inspiration was simply wanting to do something new and fresh within the 4X genre.

In the years prior to starting work on it I’d been bouncing around ideas for a strategy game that would prominently feature map evolution, and the fact that it took shape into one about barbarians taking down Rome was a result of my interests at the time combined with a random, lucky stroke of inspiration designers usually get while walking the dog or taking a shower or something.

Back in mid-2012 my friend and fellow designer Scott Lewis told me about a scenario he was creating for Civ based on the fall of the Roman Empire, and specifically some interesting mechanics which bucked the usual 4X trend and made the game grow tougher over time. Also at his recommendation, I’d been listening to Mike Duncan’s excellent History of Rome podcast obsessively for several months.

With my brain merging challenge, Romans, and transforming maps into an eclectic mental soup (resulting in some really strange dreams) it eventually hit me that this was actually a perfect recipe for a real, interesting game. However, it became obvious pretty quickly that for such a game to still play anything like a 4X its protagonist couldn't be the decaying Empire everyone is used to playing given that their days of expansion and exploitation were long past but instead their 'barbaric' counterparts. For someone with both a history degree and a penchant for pushing the envelope the fact that this new game would put players in the shoes of a people nearly always thought of as the antagonists was very much a cherry on top!

By comparison to major civilizations, the Barbarians lived a more nomadic lifestyle, which presents thematic issues in a game where resource-building is key to victory. This however seems to be addressed by the “finite resources” aspect, forcing both the player and their opponent to fight for key necessities til the end. In what other ways have you adapted At The Gates to better fit the narrative of the historical Barbarians?

Oh there are a ton, which has certainly been one big reason why this game has taken so long to make. And it's not just a thematic challenge either but also a mechanical one, together forming a sort of design 'tug of war' in which the best games eventually achieve a harmonious equilibrium. The Civ community especially enjoys a good 'realism vs. gameplay' debate, and the truth is that having both is in fact possible if you put in the time and effort. In terms of AtG specifically, the two best examples of this back-and-forth are the finite resources already mentioned and the clans system.

Our natural human inclination is to find a nice cozy spot and then hunker down there until, well, forever! The change to make resources finite you mention was envisioned as the primary tool to get people off their behinds and instill the game with that 'nomadic' feel. After all, anyone who's run out of iron and wood and can no longer build anything will realize it's time to pack up and move… right? Well, in reality I found that actually wasn't enough for some players, who were content (if not particularly happy) to sit around doing nothing for as long as the game would let them.

After racking my brain and trying out a hundred different things I eventually discovered that there's one unique things which pretty much everyone can be motivated by: starvation. I found this was true even when there isn't actually a tangible penalty attached to it, unless some scary-looking red text counts! So finite food in particular now serves as one of the game's primary motivating forces. And although food is an important resource in pretty much every 4X, hammering out the details of where you can find it, what different types there are, how to harvest it, when it runs out, whether you it can be bought from caravans, etc. have been one of AtG's unique design challenges.

The other big fault line where AtG's theme collided with typical 4X mechanics was with the exploitation 'X'. A big part of every strategy game is a sense of progress and achievement, and in the Civ games this manifests itself in numerous ways but the most important all have something to do with the map, such as expanding your borders, founding new cities, building farms and roads, constructing libraries and wonders, and so on. The visible stamp players leave on the world is a constant reminder that they've actually made something.

By far the biggest problem we kept running into was that none of those things are possible in AtG because of its migratory theme. With only a single settlement and no buildings how do you actually make the game satisfying? We tried adding resources, giving units new abilities, and adding a tribal council, but none of these changes really fixed things.

We eventually did so through a radical redesign in early 2014 which saw the introduction of 'clans' to the game. This was inspired in part by Crusader Kings 2, King of Dragon Pass, and Colonization, all of which being well-known as 'special' strategy games with more personality and greater appeal than is typical of strategy titles. AtG's generic population numbers were now replaced by specific individuals with unique names, portraits, traits, and personalities. No longer were you training "1,000 population" into archers, but the aggressive and superstitious Clan Hereweald, and over time Hereweald might be trained in several different professions, learn new skills, increase in size, and might even die on the battlefield.

Clans added a new dimension to the game and flipped what had been its biggest weakness into its biggest strength and what games-marketing-folk would call a 'killer' feature. Not only does it add an element of personality and storytelling, but it just makes sense. Our lack of knowledge about the Germanic tribes of that era might seem like a disadvantage compared with the background material behind Civilization, but I feel it's actually the opposite because it provides us with plenty of room to apply some imagination.

It's unfortunate that so many people associate history with that boring class in high school where Mr. Didn't-Really-Want-To-Be-A-Teacher made them memorize the year Henry VIII died and the names of all future monarchs he sired, because history is actually the story of people. People just like you and I with their own unique hopes and fears and quirks. We may not have actually heard their stories, but I have no doubt those journeys of desperate, hungry, and scared families from one end of a continent to another were very personal, human, and relatable, and I'm really proud that we might be able to capture even a little bit of that with a game like AtG.