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4Xtra: Jon Shafer Explains At The Gates

Friend Or Foe?

RPS chum Joe Robinson talked to Jon "Civ V" Shafer about the formation of his new studio, Conifer Games, and his new game: At The Gates. As you'll see below, Shafer has renewed his mission to bring vigour and innovation to the 4X world. Read on to find out why At The Gates is the first step in his mighty quest.

The old ways are dying. The great 4X Empire dominated by the likes of Civilization and other variants there-of have become stagnant, decadent, and the vultures have begun to circle. The barbarians are at the gates, waiting for their opportunity to strike and topple the great Empire that has kept them down for so long.

Jon Shafer is the man leading the charge – once a prominent modder in the Civilization community; he rose to fame and glory by being hired by Firaxis themselves, before finally taking the lead role in the development of Civilization V. From there, he moved to Stardock and worked on their ill-fated Elemental franchise, and now he’s preparing to strike out on his own. He sees a problem with 4X games, a problem that’s not really their fault, just an unfortunate by-product of their design, and he’s here to help:

“I’ve played them; games like Warlock, Fallen Enchantress which I helped work on, Endless Space… I have enjoyed them, but I feel that in many ways they are working form the same formula, and that they have the same issues: The fact that the mid-game loses momentum.”

“After you’ve explored the entire world, you’ve filled the map with cities. You’ve gotten really powerful so that no-one can compete with you and you’re like ‘Eh, let’s quit and start another game so we can do the fun part again.’”

Shafer wants to change that experience.

“I think for a lot of 4X games, it’s all about that first half of the game, where you’re exploring and expanding. That’s the fun part for most people… Obviously there’s been a lot of work done on making the late-game interesting. You have to be fairly creative and imaginative, be fairly out of the box. And obviously most of the design focus is about that early game, because that’s where most people spend their time. People don’t even plan that much for the late game, because if the early game isn’t fun nobody is going to get to the late game.”

This is where Jon Shafer and his newly founded studio, Conifer Games, come in. Their debut title, At the Gates, is a turn-based 4X strategy game based during the fall of the Roman Empire(s), where you get to choose one of eight barbarian factions as you strive to become the new dominant power in Europe. Given the type of game this is, and given Shafer’s background, you can expect then that this will have a lot of elements similar to Civilization – the exploration and expansion, building up and managing and empire, and so on. Shafer hopes though that a couple of key changes that he’s made to the formula will prevent the mid-to-late game stagnation he believes afflicts so many other 4x games. He explains:

“We’ve made a couple of important changes to the formula. The first of which is that the environment changes over time. So instead of having random maps, these maps will evolve as you play. We do this via seasons: each turn represents one month, and there are 12 turns in a year which help represent the changing seasons. So in the summer the dry areas will burn up and stop producing food, in the rain the marshes will flood etc… In the winter, the rivers will freeze, making large rivers like the Rheine and the Danube passable. The changing of the landscape is a really important feature of the game, and it really changes up the experience. You have to really plan ahead when launching a military campaign, and even when you’re running your economy. Farms, for example, don’t produce any food in the winter, so you have to make sure you plan for that.”

He also wants a time pressure on players. When resources run low, it's time to make your move:

“The other big feature is the different pacing compared to other 4X games. Instead of where it peters out about mid-way through … In At the Gates, the more interesting bits are later on in the game. So the first third or so is similar to Civilization, but the resource deposits on the map will deplete over time and run out. So this forces you to get more resources by either capturing them from your neighbours or migrate your tribe to somewhere else on the map. Eventually all the resources run out, which makes things really tough so you basically have to wrap things up and try to ‘win’ the game.”

“Winning” in the context of the game is a bit more focused then you’d see in other 4X games. Whether you’re playing on the historically accurate map of Europe, or playing one of the 100% randomized maps you can generate – the typical layout of At the Gates has both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires starting out in a fairly centralised position, and dominating most of the map. The goal, as one of the eight barbarian factions, is to capture the capital of either empire, so either Rome or Constantinople. Jon has design the game in a way though that means you can’t try and rush this too early:

“The way it works at the moment you have to amass a certain amount of prestige or glory, and you do this by winning battles, completing requests etc… so over time you’ll be focusing on getting glory through whatever way you can, there’s no specific way to do that. Then, once you’ve built a reputation for yourself, you can then go in and capture Rome/Constantinople and you’re basically saying ‘we’re here to stay and we’re replacing Rome’.”

There’s also the fact that at the start of the game, the Romans are pretty powerful – the game is basically set up so that it’d be idiotic to try and go toe-to-toe with them early on, especially by yourself. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it didn’t fall in a day either (apart from that one time where Rome was sacked, but we don’t talk about that). As a people on the outside, you get to watch as the Roman Empire(s) slowly fall into ruin: they’ll either fight each other, fight other empires, and then there’s also a dynamic random event system which will negatively impact them over time. Jon cited an example of the Emperor dying and being replaced by a child-Emperor.

Obviously, a game themed about the fall of the Roman Empire has a fairly martial slant to it: the combat is based around manoeuvrability, positioning and using the terrain to your advantage, but there’s also the changing seasons, for example, especially in terms of supply:

“With the combat system we really wanted to bring out some of the other features that we had in the game, like the seasons and the weather system. The way that works is that supply becomes a major part of warfare, so each tile has a certain amount of supply available on it, which comes partially form the terrain – a green lush, fertile tile gives more supply than a snow tile, which produces none, and it also comes from your settlements or supply camps. So if you’re within range of a supply node, you get a big boost there as well. You can basically chain that supply by using supply camps, so if you have a settlement, then six tiles away you can have a supply camp, another six tiles away you can have another supply camp. So you can extend your radius that way, but that makes you vulnerable as someone could just come in and destroy your camps, which means you’ll be out of supply. An alternative is try and live off the land and get whatever you can from the surrounding tiles, but it’s really hard/impossible to do during winter so you can choose whether to obey the elements or try and set up your own supply chains.”

It’s not all about fighting though. Being a true 4X game, there are paths to victory other than martial, and diplomacy especially will weigh heavy on a leader’s mind as they lead their tribe to glory:

“There’s also a pretty heavy diplomatic aspects. The way diplomacy work is that you have a relations value, and several things feed into that. One of those is Religion, so each leader has a religion they’ve adopted, and leaders with similar religions get bonuses, different religions get penalties. Obviously if you switch out of a religion you get even bigger penalties with the members of the religion you just switched on – they feel insulted by you turning your back on them. That system is pretty simple – there are no missionaries or conversion or anything, we wanted to keep things pretty high-level, and keep it focused on the diplomatic side of the game.”

Shafer also wants diplomacy to have a more robust logic to it, as he explained:

“The real ‘meat’ of the diplomatic system though is the requests system. Requests are something that AI leaders have on their diplomacy screen that you can do to get relations with them. These will be things that make sense based on what’s going on with their empires. So, for example, in real life if you were just walking down the street and you meet someone for the first time and give them a cheeseburger, they’d probably look at you funny. If however you’re walking down the street and you see someone who’s obviously starving and give them a cheeseburger, they’ll probably be very grateful to you. That’s the way we wanted this system to work – if you just give them a gift they’ll be like “err… ok, thanks”, but if you pay attention to their specific situation, help them out in their time of need, then that’s really how you make friends. You’ll want to keep an eye on the situation and take advantage of things. The diplomatic side of things is pretty heavy.”

Technological progression is a key element of any 4X – keeping your army competitive with everyone else, researching new techs that allow you to exploit more resources… it’s the easiest way to measure ‘progression’ in a sense that’s meaningful to the player (outside of combat). Given the time-frame of At the Gates though, things have to work a little differently:

“It’s not specifically technology or research, as the barbarians obviously weren’t reading Plato or doing analytical geometry, but over time they become “Romanised”, and in the process they acquired new techs. So in At the Gates there is a system where, if you complete a quest for a Roman faction or take over one of their cities, you’ll be able to choose a ‘Romanisation’ perk. These cover a variety of things from being able to build Galleys, to creating big siege weapons, to the ability to use stone etc…”

Romanisation is not optional, it seems, so you have to engage in this system in order to say competitive. It does require a big investment though, either to capture a city or to complete tasks, so you’re allowed some flexibility in the rate in which you interact with thisarea. You’re also allowed to refund any perks you purchase in order to pick new ones, just in case a particular strategy isn’t working out for you.

“If you get backed into a corner the game can get a little mean at times, so we don’t want people to have no-way out, so we want people to be able to switch perks and switch away from siege weapons to naval warfare, or whatever. We want to hit home though that this is a fully featured 4X game, it’s not just about combat, and there’s a number of different paths you can choose to win.”

Intrigued? Excited? Grabbing your favourite spear? Well, there’s a way you can help the war-effort. At the Gates is, perhaps unsurprisingly, on Kickstarter, and at the time of writing the campaign should have already launched. Shafer’s team – basically three guys in a house, with only Shafer himself actually working full-time – already has a working prototype made up and ready to show off, so their Kickstarter goal is a fairly modest $40,000. I asked him if he was worried if the whole Kickstarter craze was beginning to die down, but he seemed fairly confident he could meet his goal:

“I think we’ll be in pretty good shape. Our funding goal isn’t as big as most other games, we’re only looking for $40,000. I mean if we get more than that that’s awesome, but considering we already have a fully working prototype with all the features in it already, we can get away with having a smaller goal than other teams. But you never know … you have to put faith in the product you’re working on, and hope that people want it.”

But will people leap on this like they have the other "neglected" genres?

“I think they will because… 4X games, there’s a couple that come out each year, but that’s it. There are not a whole lot of companies that make these types of games, and we’re looking to innovate and add new things to the genre as well. Like the changing map, the different arcs of the game experience. It’s not just another Space 4X game, which can certainly be fun, but there hasn’t really been a lot of new ground covered there lately. We’re really hoping that trying to do something different, and doing it in a genre that doesn’t see a whole lot of entries will do us a favour.”

Shafer has plans for if the funding does exceed the goal as well – adding in the Roman’s as a playable faction, adding in mod tools, enhancing the aesthetics of the game (it’s all 2D sprites at the moment)… perhaps even multiplayer, which isn’t in the initial design at the moment. There are also plenty of aspects of the game that still need to be figured you – like the different tribes/factions and the kind of unique differences they will have. There’s a lot of room for improvement:

“These are all things we have definitely thought about, and we could definitely expand the scope of the game without too much trouble. If we raised like $5 million, that could be a little tough, but that’s a problem I’d love to have!”

So, what’s next? Shafer already has several articles written out that will be going up over the course of the Kickstarter campaign, and you can also check onto his website ( for any further information regarding At the Gates, or Conifer Studios and what they are up to. Alpha testing is expected to start in a couple of months, and one of the Kickstarter rewards is to be included in that testing phase. Other than that, you’re going to have to sit tight on your war chariots until well into 2014 before you see this game release.

Meanwhile, Shafer will be gathering his warbands, waiting until the day he can make that final push. Does he consider himself a barbarian at the gate, coming to show a decadent people how 4X is really done?

“[laughs] Well, maybe. Some of the barbarians were squished pretty quickly though. Others just showed up, broke some things and then disappeared… hopefully that’s not the analogy we’re going to be working with.”

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