Gated Community: At The Gates’ Painterly New Art Style

At The Gates somehow feels like a lifetime ago, and I’ve never even played it. It’s the turn-based strategy game that Civilization V lead Jon Shafer turned his hand to after parting ways with Firaxis, and it turned up at the tail-end of the Great Kickstarter Gold Rush of 2012-13. I’m quietly relieved that his Conifer Games are taking their sweet time over it. That suggests care and craft, which is what a turn-based game needs.

Also suggesting care and craft is a switch to a new, watercolour-like art style, as demonstrated in the full hour of narrated footage below.

That is rather pretty. And a rare hint of what strategy games working outside the traditional commercial sensibilities reservation can do.

Must admit I’m not wild about the menus and their fonts however – they do look a bit late-90s. Still, this is very much an alpha build, so all is subject to change.

I can’t totally get a sense of how this is going to feel to play, and what’s going to matter most to me minute-to-minute, despite getting a full hour of footage above, I guess because my mind’s too much in ‘analyse the features!’ mode, but I’m glad to see that it’s very much not just Civ with a new skin. Fresh takes is what any genre always needs.

At The Gates is due for public release late next year, but ‘pre-ordering’ now gets instant access to alpha builds.

43 Comments

  1. qribba says:

    Can’t really say I like the art style. Looks like a freemium game to me.

    • Jambe says:

      I can really say I like it. See:

      I like it.

      I’m not watercolor fan but this looks quite nice to me.

    • Rizlar says:

      From the screenshot I didn’t think it looked very good. Particularly the background/fog of war texture looked so visually distracting, it felt like your eyes would eventually rebel.

      But then I watched the video and as soon as animated units appeared it felt totally different. I can imagine a map full of little sprite dudes walking around, exploring and working, with the map itself changing with the seasons, rivers flooding, trees changing colour, it will all look absolutely gorgeous.

  2. killias2 says:

    I’m quite excited about this game. Unfortunately, it’ll be forever before it comes out, but… that’s probably a good thing. Do it right!

  3. Wowbagger says:

    I’ve never heard of it before, I love the look and the promise of emergent gameplay based on seasons is promising.

  4. phanatic62 says:

    I’ve been a long time listener of The Game Design Roundtable podcast, and the last update that Jon Shafer had left me a bit worried about At The Gates. It seemed like he wasn’t sure what they were doing with it, or just that changes were happening all over the place. For someone that seemed to have such a strong vision for the game at the start, having major changes to the core gameplay so far into development sent up some red flags for me.

    However, after watching that video I felt a lot better about the direction Confier is taking the game. I was actually getting a bit frustrated watching Jon hem and haw over decisions, but more in a “JUST LET ME PLAY IT” sort of way. I’m loving the numerous decisions that await you in just about every turn, and I can’t wait to get my hands on this. It is too bad that it’ll be a long time before it’s released, but I have faith that Jon Shafer & Co. is going to get this thing right the first time.

  5. RedViv says:

    Looks like he has far more of a defined idea of what the game will be by now. That’s grand. Was a bit worried there before, from interviews and all.

  6. Zyx says:

    I love how it’s so much like Civilization without being anything like Civilization.

  7. Premium User Badge

    SoundDust says:

    It takes booze to train a bard in this game – finally an accurate portrayal of musicians in a game. Although, booze is more essential to making sure he stays a bard..

  8. oyog says:

    The soundtrack kind of reminds me of the Arcanum soundtrack. Good stuff.

    This definitely looks like something I’ll buy when it’s finished.

  9. noodlecake says:

    This is looking pretty good! I’d never heard og King of Dragon Pass before either. totally going to check that out now. x

  10. klops says:

    Storylines and KoDP mentioned. Interesting.

  11. Jon Shafer says:

    Hey everyone! Just wanted to say thanks for checking out the video and help answer any questions you guys might have about the game.

    – Jon

    • wengart says:

      So I’ve read about the game a few places and looked over the website and it seems that you start the game as a single moveable town and over time you become more settled. So while in the earlier parts of the game I might have a moveable settlement or two near the end the player will become more Romanized and have more permanent settlements?

      • Jon Shafer says:

        In one of the early versions of the game you could indeed build multiple settlements, and constructing walls or becoming Romanized would result in them becoming fixed in place. I ended up changing the design such that you only ever have a single settlement, as this fits better with the clans system. I didn’t want clans popping up in a bunch of different places and people needing to spend brainpower simply trying to figure out who showed up where and what they were doing.

        In fact, that’s a good example of our overall design philosophy with AtG of “fewer, tougher decisions”. This differs quite a bit from many other 4X games which tend to bog you down with bunches of cities/planets/units that you don’t really care about. More is not always better.

        There’s also now a clear emphasis on constant movement. You won’t ever stay in one place for too long, regardless of what strategy you adopt. A central pillar of AtG is pressure: there’s always something pushing on you, and often something pulling back, tempting you to stick around a bit longer in order to squeeze out a little bit more gold from that mine. However, if you allow players to settle down in one area for a lengthy period of time you lose a lot of that.

        One of our testers recently suggested an ‘Empire Mode’ where you can have multiple settlements which are fixed in place, making AtG play out more like a traditional 4X. It’s something which sounds cool, but I’m not sure we’ll have time for it. At the very least it will be easy for modders to implement (although teaching the AI how to handle it will be tough!).

        – Jon

        • RuySan says:

          That is great to know. More and more i lose interest in the late game in every 4x, as i can’t be bothered with all the micromanaging anymore.

          • caerr says:

            Indeed, city spam has been problem in pretty much every 4x game ever. It’s very interesting to see how this concept plays out.

            If questions are still answered, I got curious about all that sea. Is it going to be traversable, or are we going to be stuck on land?

          • Jon Shafer says:

            I’m always open to questions!

            And yep, there is also a naval aspect to the game. It takes more than a year to get to, but you can eventually study knowledge unlocking galleys (which can fight and transport units) and supply ships (which can provide supply to foreign shores). My plan is for the Vandals in particular to be especially well-suited to a ‘piracy strategy’.

            – Jon

          • caerr says:

            Thanks Mr. Shafer, I’ll be sure to throw a raiding party or two at release day! :D

          • Jon Shafer says:

            My pleasure – hopefully you’ll have as much fun playing AtG as I’ve had making it!

            – Jon

  12. Jon Shafer says:

    Oh, and to address the concerns Alec had regarding the UI in his opening post I’ll note that we are in fact planning on completely redoing the interface, from top to bottom. That will also include look and feel, as the UI needs to fit in with the watercolor style of the world behind it (something the current ‘stone block’ look definitely fails at!).

    – Jon

  13. Kaeoschassis says:

    Yes. Yesssss. More turn-based strategy. Yessssssssss.

  14. Sirbolt says:

    Looks great! I’m hoping for a scenario named “Kingdom Gone” as well though…

    • Vegard Pompey says:

      Wonder if we’ll get to conquer any Cities of Screaming Statues.

  15. Rae says:

    I like the art style but not 100% sure about preordering w/o reviews.

  16. boldin says:

    Deeply respected mr. Shafer! The game looks truly interesting, but could you be a liiitle bit more decisive in your decisions during the demonstration? It’s really hard to listen for more than an hour of you thinking outloud if you should do this or that… or maybe this? No, that would be better. But I don’t want that, hmm… mumble-mumble… I’ll go with… not that, it’s still silly, but this… no, it’s not good again.
    No insult meant, sorry, It’s just damn painful to follow. Without it the whole demo could be 20 minutes long and still have all info on the interesting mechanic provided. You’re not going to show us the whole walkthrough, only the 1st year in the game, what’s the point of being so picky?

    • Jon Shafer says:

      Haha, I understand, no offense taken. What can I say, there’s a reason why I don’t play RTSes! Anyways, I’ll try to be more decisive in future videos to help improve the watchability. At the very least my frequent contemplation serves as a good demonstration of how the strategic decisions in AtG truly are as tough as advertised!

      – Jon

      • boldin says:

        I’m very glad you are not offended, I’ve tried to minimize my ranting, ’cause I really like the game you are making and I wish you the very best in finishing it. As Zyx said here above – I love how it’s so much like Civilization without being anything like Civilization. I’m TBS guy myself and I really second that we need more civ style games out there.

      • Rizlar says:

        Yeah, I had assumed some of the weighing up of options was to show the viewer how things influence decisions in the game. But since it seems a genuine affliction, your multiplayer partners have my deepest sympathies.

        (Also your game looks really cool.)

        • Jon Shafer says:

          @ Rizlar

          Oh, I’m sure my tabletop gaming group would appreciate your support. As you might expect, I, uh, have a bit of a reputation…

          – Jon

      • McGuit says:

        Mr. Shafer,
        Here are my concerns.
        You took my cash for AtG.
        Then, you said only those that paid at a certain (higher) level would have access to the alpha.
        Then, you come out and say, “Hey we have pushed out the date another year.”
        No email contact from you, nothing about new dates, nothing about when we will actually be able to play a game that has been paid for in these notes.
        Right now AtG is a prime example of why not to invest in a game/project until it is completed.
        I really wanted to believe in you sir.
        Frankly, no communication at all except for your marketing of a game that is still off in the future.
        Highly disappointed.

        • Jon Shafer says:

          @ McGuit

          I’m genuinely sorry to have disappointed you. I take the support and trust of my backers and fans seriously, and I’d much rather take a personal or financial hit than mislead or hurt them in any way.

          In an update I posted this past winter I did note that the game wouldn’t be coming out until 2015, but I covered a lot of different topics in that post, so it would definitely have been easy to miss. On top of that we don’t have the backing of a big publisher or PR firm, so those Kickstarter updates are really the only means I have of communicating with backers who aren’t ‘pounding the pavement’, following our website, forums, etc.

          I assure you that taking backers’ money in exchange for a poor product (or none at all) is the complete opposite of my intention here. I’m still the only full-time member of the AtG team, and it goes without sying that I’m definitely no marketing or PR specialist.

          The question I’ve received the most the past month or so is “What’s going on with the game? We haven’t seen it in over a year!” My goal with this video was to address those concerns, and marketing didn’t come into the equation at all. In fact, because the game is still so far out showing as much as I did in this video it actually hurts us on the marketing side of things, where you really want a slow-but-steady buildup to release.

          Speaking of which, we’re currently aiming for a late 2015 launch, but I’ll be honest, it’s possible I push that back to early 2016 in order to ensure AtG is a truly polished game with a top-notch AI. As I’ve tried to express whenever possible through the Kickstarter updates, my one and only goal is to deliver the best strategy game possible. My apologies for inadequately communicating what our plans are to get there, I’ll try to be more clear on that front from here on out.

          As I said at the start of this post, I don’t take anyone’s support for granted. If you still have any concerns feel free to email me at [contact(at)conifergames.com] and I’ll see if there’s a way we can address them, or make it up to you somehow. At the very least, I’m always willing to offer anyone unhappy with the development of AtG a full refund via PayPal.

          – Jon

          • McGuit says:

            Jon,
            I am NOT looking for a refund.
            Just wanted to know where we stand and when I could expect to touch the game.
            Story here said all early backers could get into the Alpha.
            However, I have not received any information from your group that states I can get in now.
            Is this option on available for those that paid more during the fund raising campaign?
            Is this statement in error?
            I want you to be successful in your endeavors and only wish you the best.
            Just didn’t see any late information on where we stand today.
            McGuit

          • Jon Shafer says:

            Everyone who has contributed or pre-ordered at $50 or more can now play the latest build of the game. Those who contributed less but would like to play development builds now can ‘upgrade’ by pre-ordering a higher tier on our website, and I can provide a refund of their original pledge via PayPal.

            Emails were sent out by Humble with a link to the download page last October and this past spring when it became available to the two early access tiers. Anyone in that group who didn’t receive the email can use Humble’s key resender to find that page (don’t have that URL handy at the moment, but I can post it later this evening if anyone needs it).

            – Jon

  17. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    The game looks pretty interesting. Jon was getting on my nerves, though. Not entirely sure why, but it’s probably a combination of him providing not enough information and some of his deliberations. Mostly the unspoken ones.

    I suppose it’s also the frustration of wanting to do it differently or just do it myself. So that’s also a sign the game hits the mark there.

    • Jon Shafer says:

      Haha, yeah, I’ve heard that a few times. I’ll try to make sure future videos are more action and less me sitting around thinking really hard!

      – Jon

  18. eggy toast says:

    To me, this looks like someone took all the technical abilities that are available now and applied them to Civ2 to create an updated game from an older, more complex and rich foundation. This looks a million times better than CivV, to me.

  19. Enkinan says:

    Looks interesting, I like the idea of being forced to move around instead of just growing from a set spot. As was said before it leads to tedious late stage micro management. You end up focusing on the edges of your territory instead of the whole thing, and as stated by Jon, plenty of “who cares” units that just sit there.

    The art style is also refreshing and more natural feeling. Hopefully that doesn’t detract from management.