Civ 5 designer kickstarts Jon Shafer's At the Gates

By John Keefer, Feb 06, 2013 8:15am PST

Civilization 5 lead designer Jon Shafer has kickstarted a new 4X turn-based strategy game called Jon Shafer's At the Gates, coming from his new three-person indie studio, Conifer Games. The game is about half-way complete already and he is looking for a modest $40,000 target to get it officially off the ground.

"The core aspects of the game are all in-place, but a lot of the peripheral, more 'boring' work still needs to be done," he told Shacknews. "Things like sound effects and hotkey systems. We also want to polish up the art and add nice 2D animations for all the units and the landscape. The gameplay also needs iteration time. The features are in but the game hasn't had much playtesting, and I'm sure it's not very much fun to play at this rough stage! There’s also a lot of AI work still left to do."

Shafer has already taken a cue from the Sid Meier school of game naming. "Making games is a tough business, especially as an indie," he said. "You really have to take advantage of every possible opportunity to spread the word about what you're up to. I was very fortunate to have been chosen as the lead for one of the biggest strategy titles of the past decade. As a result there are a few people who actually recognize my name. If putting that in the title will help increase the chance that the game succeeds. As a brand-new businessman I have to take advantage of that. Though, yes, I do feel a little bit dirty about it."

At the Gates lets the player take on the role of a barbarian tribe battling the Roman Empire in its waning days. It may look a bit like a Civ game, he said the differences run deep.

"The fact that the game transforms as you play is a huge difference," Shafer said. "The effects of the seasons means that you have to be more flexible and plan ahead more. Sending an army off in the winter without making sufficient preparations is a death wish. And if you don't have enough food saved up your people will starve. Much of the time in a Civ game you can pretty much just play on autopilot. Hitting the end turn 10 times in a row might not make much of a difference. Well, in ATG that would be a really, really bad idea."

When seasons change, rivers will swell, farms stop producing food in winter, and coastal areas can turn to ice. Shafer said the game's resources will deplete over time, so you can't sit back and hunker down waiting for the enemy to come to you. You will need to continue to explore, meet new leaders and be diplomatic.

"The main way of building relations is through completing requests, and these requests are all situational," he said. "You can't just give another leader some food and expect them to like you. Just imagine how that sort of thing would go over with someone you've just met. But if that same person is starving to death and you give them a meal the context and effects are completely different. That's the idea behind diplomacy in ATG."

Shafer said that there is a possibility of modding for the game as well. "We've been thinking about XML modding, a map editor and even releasing some source code for the game, but it all takes work. Honestly it depends on how the Kickstarter campaign does. ... We'd really like to flesh out the modding side, as well as add more factions and gameplay options. If the campaign does really well, we might even look at crazy stuff like making the Roman factions playable."

With the modest crowdfunding goal, Shafer is optimistic. "Our scope is tight. We don't have a complex, expensive 3D engine, nor are we including multiplayer. We know what we want from the game and there's very little risk," he said. "One of my goals with ATG is to really mix things up with the 4X genre. I feel that there hasn't been a lot of innovation in that space during the past decade, and I'm hoping that ATG shows that there's still a lot of meat that we haven't yet gotten to. I strongly feel that the 4X genre has been underserved and people really want more of these types of games. The fans are a passionate group, and I think they'll be really excited by ATG."

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