In Conifer Games' first project you get to be the barbarians sacking Rome.
It's a simple story, really, one you've heard a million times before. Boy plays game. Boy makes mod for game. Boy gets hired to work for game company. Boy makes a great game. Boy quits, joins another company. Boy quits ... again ... and starts his own company to make the games exactly how he wants to. Ok, it's not really that of a common story, but Jon Shafer's joining the ranks of game designers who see more promise in developing niche titles independently rather than as part of a large, corporate-backed team. The game he announced he's making on Kickstarter today is a turn-based strategy game called At the Gates and it offers a unique take on the era after the downfall of the Roman Empire, focusing on barbarian tribes like the Vandals and the Huns rather than the Romans themselves. The small team of Shafer plus two other part-timers means there won't be fancy 3D graphics, but that frees up time to work on new design ideas.
After serving as the lead designer and programmer of Civilization V at Firaxis, Shafer left to join Stardock to work on Elemental: Fallen Enchantress, amongst other projects. He quickly learned the company wasn't a perfect fit because he missed being hands-on as a programmer, something he got used to at Firaxis.
"There's a unique role at Firaxis that is almost nonexistent elsewhere - the lead designer/programmer. Instead of a team of designers and a team of gameplay programmers, all of these duties are wrapped up into this one single job," he explained to me. "I was stretched pretty thin on Civ 5 between my duties on the game, managing a team of 50, setting the project's direction, etc. As a result, I do think that Civ 5 suffered to some extent."
At Stardock, he pulled out of the programming role to concentrate on a more managerial design role, but that didn't work out either. "I eventually came to the realization that I really missed getting my hands dirty in the development. While I love working directly with great people, my true passion is creation," Shafer said. "There was [only] one way to get where I wanted to be: starting my own company. Fortunately, the emergence of Kickstarter and the innumerable opportunities to sell your games digitally means there's never been a better time to start up an indie studio."
As you've seen from the huge number of campaigns in the last year, crowdfunding has definitely shifted the paradigm to allow designers to create games without publisher investment. "Crowdfunding is absolutely revolutionizing the games business," Shafer said. "There's no way I could sell [publishers] on At the Gates, a historical 4X game with 2D graphics where you play as a group of barbarians! I have complete confidence that the game will do well and make quite a bit of money, but the 'quite a bit of money' I'm talking about is the kind of thing AAA developers lose in their couch cushions."
So it's up to Shafer to sell us on At the Gates instead. Luckily for him, there's a lot there to be excited about, especially if you're a historical strategy fan. First off, it's refreshing to think about tribes of barbarians as your factions instead of adversaries. "There have certainly been games about Rome and even its fall, but the barbarians who helped bring it about have always been relegated to serving as antagonists, rather than being the stars of the show," Shafer said. "It's a very evocative theme, regardless of which side you view it from."
At the Gates starts in 375 AD, "a few years before the momentous battle of Adrianople, when the Goths completely destroyed the Eastern Roman Empire's army," Shafer said. You'll take turns moving units across a hex-based map of Europe, but the terrain will change and shift with the seasons and I'm intrigued by how the weather has a random element to it.
"Most tiles will have a 100% chance of 'snow' in January, but it could be 85% or 15% in other months," he said. "This gives players the opportunity to adapt and switch up their strategies. An invasion might be delayed when you expect a river to still be frozen, but it thaws a bit early in the year. Or maybe a tile stays fertile an extra month or two, allowing your armies some free foraging you didn't plan on. So it can both help and hinder you."
You can play as one of 8 barbarian factions in Europe, vying for resources against each other and the remnants of the Empire. Inevitably, you'll have to pick your friends and Shafer promises diplomacy between the barbarians will feel more like you are negotiating with a proper rival. "A flaw in many diplomacy systems is that they're confusing, boring or half-baked," Shafer said. "What many people (both designers and players) forget is that AI leaders are just another system that needs to adhere to the same game design rules as any other system. You need to know what's going on and have interesting strategic trade-offs to make."
In order to make diplomacy in At the Gates "feel right" Shafer says he'll make sure you know what you need to do to make a friend and keep the personalities consistent. No Gandhi dropping nukes all of sudden, for example. "Some leaders should be complete backstabbers. Others should be very generous when trading. One guy might always go naval, while another fields nothing but horse archers," he said. I like that he's aware distinct characters don't always make the best gameplay decisions. "These might not be optimal playstyles, but optimal basically means 'completely homogeneous and unrecognizable,' which is obviously very much antithetical to the goal of satisfying diplomacy."
Watch Jon Shafer's Kickstarter pitch video below: