All posts by Liam Comerford

New surface control system and EGX

While John, Matt and Hannah are away showing Empires of the Undergrowth at EGX 2016, I thought I would take a moment to update you all on how the surface control mechanics are coming along (and share some EGX news too).

We announced last month that we were working on the surface control mechanics and that we would be posting more specifically about what we are implementing soon.  We actually got quite a number of suggestions from players and we are weaving some of these ideas into our approach.  

For those of you who have been following us for some time, you might remember that we had something of a plan for surface mechanics in place.  This framework was quite limited and based on a very linear ‘tug of war’ battle between two colonies.  We are still fond of the idea, which was born out of a need to simplify fast-paced strategic play to make the game more enjoyable on tablet computers (which was our original target platform).  However, since January this year we have been developing a PC version of the game and we have found ourselves with more freedom when it comes to control systems.  This move to PC prompted the unexpected, but very popular ‘pheromone marker’ mechanic that you can find in the underground demo.  We decided that we really wanted to keep this, and that for gameplay to flow smoothly when switching from underground to overground, we needed a to extend this system for the surface.  

zoomedOutSurface2

Here you can see ants heading in multiple directions on the surface.  If you want a more in-depth description, read on.

The New System

The new control expands upon the single point pheromone marker system. The player can now produce multiple points at once, this means the colony can be split (where before you had to command all ants at once). This allows you to defend on multiple fronts but also means you can use the same controls to group and send workers to do jobs on the surface.

Your colony will only go to the surface when you have placed a marker there for them to do so, and if they spot food on the way to the marker they will gather it and bring it back to the colony.  The same goes for soldiers too (that’s right, soldiers will be able to collect food).  We wanted to blur the line between ‘worker’ and ‘soldier’ as it’s not so strict in nature. Soldiers will have varying efficiency ratings when it comes to collecting food, they will also have different priorities than workers, i.e., fight first, harvest later.

To assign ants to a marker, you will have to get used to thinking about your ants in terms of which chamber they were born in. A chamber consists of all of the tiles of a single type that are connected.  So if you have 12 worker tiles all in one place, touching each other, you will only be able to send them to one job at a time, but if you dug out two separate chambers of 6 tiles each, you would have two groups to give orders to independently.  This will mean you need to put some extra thought into how you design your base in future.

zoomedinsurface

The interface for this has yet to be properly implemented so I don’t want to go into too much detail.  All I will say here is that we are moving towards a more standard RTS user interface and that a lot of this ant-group information will be displayed in the bottom-centre of the screen.  

zoomedinbuttons

However, as your colony expands, this may not be enough space to manage groups in the most effective way, so we are also planning a large overlay that gives the big picture which you will be able to toggle on and off.  You may have also spotted the double mini-map in the bottom left, this is our solution to keeping an eye on the surface and the nest at the same time.

maps

We believe these approaches provide a level of control that lets you feel like you have an immediate impact, but also still feels organic and, well, ant like.  A lot of this is being tested out for the first time at EGX 2016 right now so I think we will probably be making a few adjustments after speaking to and observing players, but by the sound of things, the new surface control system is going down very well.

EGX 2016

It is really important for us to take the game to a few big shows. It is a great chance for people to ask us questions face-to-face and for us to observe how players react to the game for the first time. It’s also a perfect opportunity to share ideas with other developers and to make connections with gaming industry veterans and press.  Without the successful Kickstarter we wouldn’t have been able to attend so I just want to say another big thank you to our backers!

EGXteam2
John, Hannah & Matt (left to right)

EXG is the biggest games event in the UK and takes place in Birmingham (not too far from where Matt, our lead programmer & artist lives) so it is really ideal for us logistically.  John, Matt and Hannah (our event helper) are there right now with our latest build of Empires of the Undergrowth. Unfortunately I couldn’t make it, but it looks pretty intense so it’s a good job one of us stayed behind to man the fort.  After the rest of the team returns home I am sure there will be another more thorough post-EGX blog post to follow, but for now they have sent me some photos of our booth and some other developers they met.

neighboursFirst of all, this is where we are set up, sandwiched between “My mom is a witch” and “Drive! Drive! Drive!”.  Funnily enough I had already spoken to one of the developers of My mom is a witch before the show, it was a big surprise that they ended up next to us.  I am not sure exactly what is going on in the picture, but it looks to me like our team have become ants, and have persuaded Gordon (the one in the hat, @differentcloth) to join them… unless that is how he drives.  The others in yellow seem to be on broomsticks, but that’s just my best guess considering their title contains the word “witch”.  This one is on Steam Greenlight at the moment, so if you are interested, check it out here.

unboxsmal
There were many other interesting games and familiar faces, we really liked the look of UNBOX.  It’s a really cute 3D platformer that will immediately take you back to late 90’s console gaming.  It is very well made and the reviews on Steam are insanely good, so if you fancy yourself rolling around as a box, take a look.

JalopySmalI met Greg Pryjmachuk, developer of Jalopy, back in 2015 on a trip to GDC paid for by Creative England.  Since Jalopy moved to early access on Steam it has become incredibly popular. The point of the game is to “build, repair, refuel and drive a dilapidated old car on a grand journey through the territories of the former Eastern bloc.” Greg has become hard to track down these days, even at his EGX stand, though we can’t blame him, as he is the sole developer of the game.

frozen2smmall

Some of the Mode7Games team checked out Empires of the Undergrowth too.  We were very pleased that the developers of the 2011 hit turn-based strategy, Frozen Synapse, appreciated what we were doing. I hadn’t realized there was a sequel in the works though, Frozen Synapse 2 is due out this year!

If you want to know more about our trip to EGX, keep an eye on the blog.  The next update is likely to be about the feedback we got at the event and where we will be concentrating our efforts in terms of the surface for the next few weeks.

Time for a “behind-the-scenes” update

It’s been a busy summer for the team so far.  We are working hard behind the scenes, tightening the bolts, oiling the chain, oiling the brakes, cleaning the oil off the brakes, you shouldn’t oil your brakes… I digress.  The point is that the work is currently quite technical and there isn’t much to show.  We have identified some major bottlenecks in the way the game runs and are smoothing those out.  This has involved converting a number components created in Unreal Engine’s “Blueprints” (which is a type of visual coding that looks like a flowchart) into C++.

Anyway, seen as things are quiet on the update front, and we don’t have any new insect eye candy, I thought I might be able to interest some of you with a peak into our development process as a team.  Our company is technically based in Birmingham, UK but only our lead developer, Matt lives there.  A dedicated office is totally out of our price range and so we live and work separately with myself and John in Hannover, Germany and Liverpool, UK respectively.  We use a mix of different technologies to collaborate effectively, with new things creeping in all the time.

I think I have to say that our biggest friend so far has been Google Drive. Google Docs

The ability to create spreadsheets, documents and throw in whatever else into shared folders is invaluable.  However, there has never been any strict organization of file structure so navigating is not as efficient as it could be, especially as we now seem to have 3 “Slug Disco” folders spread across our accounts.  It is also where Matt uploads his development ‘lecture’ videos for the rest of the team, I thought I would take this opportunity to share a snippet with you.  His diagram drawing skills are second to none.

We have also started using a team project management tool called “Asana”.  It’s nice for creating & assigning tasks with deadlines – perfect if you enjoy receiving tons of notification emails.

Asana Graph

To remain in contact generally we use good old Facebook, because you can always reach someone there.  Though, again, not always the most efficient.  The following conversation went on much longer than the screenshot suggests, sometimes you need a doodle.

betterThanDoodle

If you have any questions, comments, feedback, game suggestions etc, we always want to hear from you.  Contact us on our Slug Disco FB page or throw us a Stomt.

P.S. Thanks to all the Youtubers who have been covering our demo, the response is incredible, and this build is really only a snippet of what we have in store.  TheWillyrex just had a go; it’s at times like this when we wish John had paid more attention in his Spanish lessons!

More flexibility, more efficiency, more ants!

It’s been three weeks since our last major post so it’s probably about time for an update. The dust feels like it has finally settled after our intense crowdfunding campaign and it’s back to business as usual.

During the run up to the kickstarter, and over the course of our campaign we focused our efforts in the direction of game aesthetics, music, and level design for the demo: all very marketable developments, with lots to show off. But now it’s time to revisit the workings under the hood: upgrading skeleton systems that worked well for the demo, but that now need to deliver more: More flexibility, more efficiency, more ants!

The team is currently working in parallel on three separate areas of the game. Matt has conducted the first complete analysis of code efficiency for Empires, otherwise known as “profiling”. His task is to find out where the bottlenecks are in our game when it comes to CPU and GPU effort. Not only is this necessary to ensure that we don’t demand out-of-this-world PC specs to run the game, but by doing this sort of analysis now, we can be alerted to issues and avoid over-using processor-heavy methods when building new systems. He has also got our mini-map working properly!

Minimap is functional

After an intense 5-hour Saturday skype meeting about the nature of the surface world, including resource collection mechanics, territory and level of player control, John got to work implementing new AI routines for the ants. We want there to be similarities between the control systems above and below ground so that the two environments merge together as seamlessly as possible. However, there are a number of key differences and rules that the ants must obey in the over-world and this means big updates to their little brains.

I have once again been updating the ant job management systems. Trying to find the balance between an autonomous colony-like look and feel, but with enough player control to call our game a “real-time strategy” and not a full-on simulation. The kickstarter demo saw big improvements in this system, but there are still some important changes to implement that will make the workers more predictable and reliable. With the move to the surface there is also a whole host of custom swarm mechanics that need to be moved from the old build and re-created in Unreal Engine.

I hope this explains why there have been no new creature gifs recently. Don’t worry, we will have some new models and flashy mechanics to show off as we start properly testing out the over ground. In the meantime, if you fancy watching John fight with the ant AI, check out his dev stream at https://www.twitch.tv/slugdisco tomorrow at midday (01/07/2016 12:00 BST)

Learn with Slurn

Our lead developer, Matt Kent, has done an amazing job of creating an e-learning framework to help make light work of the Columbia project.  Things are dropping into place nicely and we will definitely be re-using the Slug Disco learning engine on future projects.  Of course, a good, reusable engine needs a memorable name that people will recognize and trust, something that reflects its use and purpose – just as “unity” says “our fully visual IDE has everything you need to bring your game to almost any platform”, “Slurn” says “we pushed the words ‘Slug’ and ‘Learn’ together and it sounded funny”.  Great work team!

Super Professional International Business Relations Company Project Meeting Success

Success!  Our first educational business!  On a recent trip to the Civil Engineering department of Columbia University, USA related to my studies, I was greeted with a request for proposals relating to “hybrid learning technology”.  If you really want to know more, check out Wikipedia for “Blended Learning” and “Flipped Classroom”.  Long story short – we have been commissioned to make some educational software for real cash money value, $$$.

Announcing the educational wing of Slug Disco Studios!

If we really want to develop and survive as a successful business we are going to have to take some eggs out of the EOTU basket and spread them about a little.  John and Myself have a history of educational software development and the time has come to draw upon that experience in order to keep our dream alive (that dream being of an in-game event where a battalion of fire ants rips apart a scorpion and carries it away in chunks with epic 3d splendor).  Time to sniff around the universities for e-learning projects…