All posts by Michael Connor

February 2018 Newsletter

Hi all – gosh, March already! Time flies when you’re having fun – and for that reason it certainly flies when you’re developing a game about ants. We’ve recently been assessing the way we tell you all about the future of the project, and we realize there’s a deep need for us to communicate better – as we posted in a mini-update a couple of weeks ago. Although we have been developing Empires of the Undergrowth for several years, we only launched on Steam in December and therefore we’re new to having a big community that we have responsibilities to. We want you guys to feel justifiably assured that things are progressing well (as they are) – and for this reason we’re going to be doing our best to communicate here. We’ve been doing these newsletters for some time – but this is the first time we’ve worked out that we can actually post them properly formatted to Steam, rather than just a link to elsewhere. Always learning.

Screenshot credit: Garenator on Steam

We’re certain that we don’t want to rush – and that’s always been the case. Our modus operandi has been quality first – ultimately, we’re making our dream game here and we want it to be great just as much as you do. Given our limited resources (our team size is 3) we’ve made decisions – like not releasing small, incremental updates and instead focusing on the bigger picture with larger updates. That’s because the whole process of an update is a drain of resources and time. In a larger team or for a game of lesser scope, this might be doable. We feel we’re in the right place here.

With that clarified, due to many understandable requests, we’ve made what is often referred to by makers of early access products as a “road map”.

Road Map

A road map refers to a rough outline of how a developer intends their project to progress. It’s usually an abridged version of the internal plan the developer has, as it is in our case. This is ours for the remainder of 2018.


You’ll notice that it’s rather vague – this is deliberate; as we’ll talk about later in the newsletter – software development is so unpredictable that even the most seasoned veterans have real difficulty in pinning down exact release dates. However, you can see that we plan on releasing the third tier of the Formicarium in the summer (Major Update 1), and the Freeplay mode before that. All of this, by necessity, comes with the caveat that it’s subject to change.

Freeplay

John, after moving house, has been continuing his work on Freeplay mode. He’s recently been working on the vast amount of options that the mode will allow – the difficulty slider will feed in to many different things that affect how the game will play. In this stream recorded in February, you can see him tweaking things such as creature temperament, and connecting all the disparate systems that need to work in harmony in order for this game mode to become a reality.

A poppy head “landmark” – this will drop seeds for your colony in Freeplay

It’s clear from the complexity of Freeplay that a lot of its enjoyment factor will come down to the setting of parameters – and for this reason it’s definitely going to be a mode that will be balanced and tweaked extensively. We’re going to need your feedback on that one – and that brings us to the matter of when we release it. As mentioned earlier (and is discussed more extensively below) deciding on an exact release date in this line of work is folly until you’re sure – and even giving vague guesstimates is usually pointless. The best we can give on this is “a few weeks”. We hope you guys understand why.

A tiger beetle guards a dead fish in Freeplay

John is continuing his streaming after a short break for the aforementioned house move – it’s usually on a Thursday afternoon, Greenwich mean time. For now, John is working the notice on his day job and that will continue until the Easter break. After that, he’s a bona fide full-time Empires of the Undergrowth developer and the streams are likely to become more scheduled and regular.

A landmark occupied by aphids – landmarks can take a wide variety of forms.

A Little About Leaf Cutters

As previously announced, the next species of ant added to the game will be Atta cephalotes – a South American leaf cutter ant. These ants don’t eat meat – although they can give you a particularly nasty defensive nip with those huge mandibles, they’re in it purely for the leaves. The colony forms distinct trails as it searches for suitable leaves, before cutting them down in a variety of ways and transporting them back to the nest. Here, the leaves decompose due to a mutual relationship the ants have with a special kind of fungus – and it is the fungal growth itself that the ants feed upon.

Although we’ve had a bit of variation of sizes between ants before (between workers, soldiers and upgraded ants) that’s just peanuts to leaf cutters. Atta cephalotes is a very distinctly polymorphic species – meaning it has within it several “castes” of ant that exhibit obviously different traits. The “minors” are undeniably tiny compared to the “majors” – which can be several times as long and more than 100 times the mass of the minors. They have unusually-shaped heads that house the huge muscles needed to power their slicing jaws. There is also an intermediate “medium” caste.

An Atta cephalotes major, giant mandibles and head muscles visible. Photo by Alex Wild.

In our game, the majors will certainly be formidable in combat – huge, imposing and a target for enemies (we will be introducing a “taunt” mechanic that makes enemies want to attack them preferentially). However, all 3 of the castes will be intrinsically involved in what leaf cutters do best – cutting leaves. Each one will have a distinct role that, when used efficiently, will speed up production of your colony-sustaining fungus. We don’t want to spoil it too much, so we’ll leave it there for now!

Dealing With Delays aka “when it’s done”

So, a bit of self-reflection and commentary on development as a whole for this section of the newsletter. “When it’s done” has become a meme relating to game development for good reason. We suddenly have a large audience – and with that comes expectations. That’s been a bit daunting but we’d like to think we’re learning quickly from the experience.

Delays are frustrating for both developers and consumers. It’s a considerable risk to even give an estimate of when a feature or product will be ready without total certainty. A recent example that unexpectedness for us is the way that we’ve been decorating our levels – the Unreal Engine that powers our game has changed in such a way that the method we were using is no longer viable. So, Matt has been working on a custom plugin to help him do the artwork – as a necessity, but it’s a drain on time we couldn’t have predicted before it happened. On the plus side, in this case – the new method comes with a performance boost.

In 2015 we failed our first Kickstarter – and took a philosophical approach to our failings. We’re always learning.

Communication is key – from the point of view of our small team of 3 developers and 1 social media guy, 3 months is not a long time between updates – however, in the eyes of the consumer who is used to quick patches for their games, it sets off alarm bells that the game is abandoned (we’ve heard that word used more than once in concerned forum posts). This isn’t the case – we’re just a smaller team and things are going to take time to be done properly. We don’t have the resources of the team behind the excellent Factorio, for example.

In a small way the early access model doesn’t help these concerns – people know they are paying for an incomplete product and therefore have to have some faith that the investment they’re making now will be returned by a great complete product. We’d just like to assure you all that things are progressing well, and the deep transitional phase that Slug Disco is currently undergoing will soon be finished. Once is it, we’ll have 3 full-time developers working on Empires of the Undergrowth.

Screenshot Central

We like to trawl through the Steam screenshots of EotU every so often. Here’s a few of our favorites from the past few weeks! To get some great screenshots yourself press F9 (by default) in-game to enter Photo Mode.

It’s all about that butt – because that’s where the eggs come from. Credit: Serafine

Invaders! Credit: Charles the Bald

Sorry beetle, but our queen is hungry. Credit: vervedan

What We’re Up To – How EotU Is Coming Along

Hi ant fans! We’re increasingly hearing complaints that we’re not being communicative enough. We do our best – but we’re new to this, so we’re always learning. This isn’t going to be a full newsletter (that will likely come next week) but just a bit of a round-up of what we’re up to currently.

We’ve heard a lot of people fearing that the project is abandoned or in trouble due to a lack of updates – far from it! In fact that the game has been successful enough on Steam that all 3 of our developers have been able to quit their day jobs and will soon (but not yet) be working full time on the game! Given the small size of the team we prefer to release larger, more complete updates rather than lots of smaller ones. Every time we update development is slowed for the testing and compiling processes – so you can see why this is our preferred model.

All 3 of our developers will, from April, be working full-time on the project. Naturally the pace of work will speed up then, but please be aware that 2 of the 3 are still working their day jobs up until then. So please welcome John and Liam, the newest full-time Slug Disco employees!

 

Thanks to Exquisite Bolagnese for this screenshot!

We’d hoped to get Freeplay mode out to you in February, but that is unlikely now and it’s looking more like March. These things happen all the time in game development (as I’m sure you’re aware – even the really big developers have trouble pinning down release dates for features) and although it’s frustrating we’re not going to give you something we feel isn’t fun and worth playing.

We are doing some new stuff for Freeplay – check out this poppy head model! This is one of several “landmarks” that can appear in a Freeplay map – the landmarks will take random forms on loading. The poppy heads will drop seeds for your ants, giving you a regular food supply – but free food won’t go unnoticed.

We’ve recently finalized our plans for the third formicarium tier – which will feature leaf cutter ants (Atta cephalotes). The mechanics they’ll use to harvest leaves for food will be integrated closely with the different castes that exist in their society – which includes really huge Major ants, as well as Medium and Minor castes. We’re excited to be adding some more complexity to the game mechanics in the levels going forward.

And finally, we’re working on the challenge mode for 2.1 and 2.2. “Ant” and “lion” should rarely be uttered in the same sentence, let alone the same word!

January 2018 Newsletter

January Coalescence

Aah, the heady mists of winter! As we put the plum pudding aside and wipe the final crumbs of mince pie from our ever-increasing chins, the fog has lifted and we’ve now had enough time to collect our thoughts and make our plans going forward. Levity aside, we’ve not been idle over the last few weeks – far from it. Matt has been making some fundamental changes to the game’s workings and John has been continuing on his Freeplay mode project – which we’ve done a lot of streaming for.

How we feel after Christmas – screenshot by Steam user Limey21

A lot of the current work involves deep changes to the underlying workings of the game – “under-the-bonnet” stuff – which isn’t that immediately exciting, or visually pleasing. However, it will pay for itself in the future given the time investment. That isn’t to say there’s nothing to look at, though – so let’s get to it!

Deep Changes

Our resident Unreal Engine 4 specialist Matt has been making some fundamental changes to the way the game works. Most notably, the player would not be able to switch colony mid-game in the way things are currently set up. This is now a possibility – and it has some intriguing consequences for future content. This is yet to be unveiled; as we continue work on the upcoming content we may be hinting as to what these features might be – so keep an eye on our social media as we charge forward into 2018!

The queen’s new dress – screenshot by Steam user redmoth27

Freeplay Continues

Freeplay mode development is continuing apace. We wanted this mode to be driven by the community – and boy have you lot delivered. You’ve come along to John’s streams, you’ve sent us suggestions and you’ve just simply cared. That’s the thing that drives us the most.

In January, Mike visited John for a week and they streamed every day. This was a set-up that worked quite well – John could get on with the development and Mike relayed interesting ideas and questions from the viewers to him. We’ve been slowly putting the VODs from these sessions on YouTube – see below for one of them (and visit our YouTube channel for the rest).

How Freeplay will Work

Things change as they are developed, but during his streams John has been talking about the core premise of the game mode and what you can expect from it. In short – it’s a much longer-form mode which has lots of initial starting options you can set up which will dictate how the game will play.

The Freeplay Setup Screen (work in progress)

As you can see from the prototype launch screen above, you will have detailed options that will allow you to play the mode in many different ways, depending on your starting conditions. Below are some detailed bullet points explaining the current options.

  • Colony Name and colour is fairly self-explanatory, but of course you’ll be able to name your Freeplay colonies in the same way you can name your Formicarium ones.
  • Colony Species will allow you to either choose a particular species (such as wood ant, black ant or the upcoming leaf cutter ant) or as is the case here – choose one of your formicarium colonies to import! This does not mean you’ll import an exact copy of the colony, but if you choose one of your formicarium colonies you’ll acquire the upgrades and unit decisions you’ve chosen in that colony.
  • Unit option is relevant when choosing to play as, say, wood ants – where you will choose between rapid fire and mortar.
  • Map selection will be a thing – with the initial release of Freeplay mode there will be one map (The Dunes) but John has been designing Freeplay to be specifically map-agnostic – meaning he can add more maps in the future with relative ease.
  • Setup refers to a sort of preset and choosing a Setup will change the other options. It might include an option called “Peaceful” which will produce a game mode without any existential threat or “Crazy” that is meant to be particularly hard!
  • Difficulty type will affect how the game’s director (as John is calling it) will decide to ramp up the difficulty for you. Ramp with spikes, as seen in the picture, will mean the game difficulty slowly ramps up over time and occasional gets much more difficult for a short time. The idea with that is to provide a gentle increase in threats with regular challenging moments. Other options include a simple ramp, constant and random.
  • Start difficulty affects how fast things become tough. Hardcore players who like a true challenge might want to set this as high as they can before they start!
  • Creature options are fully configurable and you can choose if you’d rather not have a particular creature spawn by choosing “Advanced creature options”.
  • Nest invasions is a critical decision – if disabled, your colony will never die since nothing will come after the queen. That might be your thing – just an endless sandbox-type experience!
  • Day/night cycle, time of day and nocturnal/diurnal settings will all affect how the game responds to time. Nocturnal and diurnal refer to creatures that are active during the night and day – so if you have a day / night cycle active then certain creatures will spawn at different times of the cycle.
  • Uber creatures will be rare, super-powerful versions of their base creature. They will be visually different in some way but we haven’t worked out exactly how yet. Nothing gets the adrenaline pumping like a tiger beetle that’s 10 time stronger than normal!
  • Landmarks deserve their own discussion, so please see below…

Landmarks

As much as we’d like to do a 100% randomly generated map, this simply does not work for the way our game is set up. Artwork is painted manually after a map is finished, our path-finding AI is reliant on certain things being in place (such as ramps) which would create a huge headache if trying to make things by chance. However we do want the Freeplay experience to be different each time, so the approach John has taken is to create points on the Freeplay map called Landmarks.

Landmarks are areas set aside that can take the form of a variety of things, randomly selected when the game starts. A landmark might have a large dead fish on it, giving a potentially huge source of food to your colony (but also attracting pesky enemies too). It might be the lair of a sinister funnel web spider and her sisters, who will snatch away your ants until they are overwhelmed – and plenty more besides. This approach will mean every time you play Freeplay it will be different, with literally thousands if not millions of possible combinations.

A funnel web spider nest occupies this Landmark spot – from a dev stream

We expect a non-infinite Freeplay game to last in the region of 6-9 hours once ended. Unless you set it not to, the difficulty will slowly increase until your colony finally falls. As mentioned, though, Freeplay will also appeal to people who want to simply keep a virtual ant colony – all tasks in Freeplay will take longer than in the campaign (digging, hatching, etc) so will feel a little closer to reality. Just disable those nest invasions and Her Majesty will be safe.

Full Time!

Some very good news here – we are very happy to announce that all three of our developers – that’s Matt, John and Liam – will soon be working full time on the project! The generosity of you guys in ensuring we’ve had a successful Steam launch has meant that both John and now Liam – who last month wasn’t quite ready to commit – will soon be joining Matt in being full-time Slug Disco developers working on Empires of the Undergrowth.

We announced that John was able to do this last month – but just beware that both John and Liam are leaving long-held full-time positions and it won’t be an immediate thing. They both have their notices to work, but once that has been done the pace of the project will naturally accelerate.

Everyone welcome Liam to the full-time EotU workers!

This also means that Slug Disco is currently in a phase of deep transition and we’re just asking for a little more patience from you lovely people as that happens.

Some Relaxing Piano Music

Liam (who is our composer) has put the two movements of his piano track “Experiment 1” up for listening. This is the music that plays in the Formicarium – the first movement is much more easy-listening, with its cello and gentle disposition. The second movement is deliberately somewhat unsettling; the music changes to this when you activate one of the Formicarium challenges and your colony is under assault. Still, both have their charms – I’ve personally found the second movement makes good listening music when walking my dog. Go and have a listen! Also, would anyone be interested in some sheet music for these tracks? We recently had a request by a piano teacher – one of her bright young students wanted to play them. Let us know!

Screenshot Central

Here are a few of our favourite screenshots from the Steam page over the past few weeks! Press F9 by default to enter Photo mode, then press F12 by default in Steam to take your pictures. You’ll be given the chance to upload them when you quit the game.

Destroy the interloper! By Steam user wooki

What happens when you play after the level has been won. By Steam user jd001

Extreme tiger beetle closeup. By Steam user Exquisite Bolagnese

Youtuber Highlight – IngeniousClown

IngeniousClown has been covering our game for quite a while now. We’ve always enjoyed his approachable, friendly attitude to playing games and he did a particular think-piece on the “dungeon management” genre of games which EotU somewhat falls into (we are of course inspired by Dungeon Keeper) which we found rather touching. Check out his channel – and linked below is one of his many EotU videos!

Other Insect Games We Like – Beetle Uprising

During Mike’s week-long stay with John early in January, they took a little time after the working day was done to play an insect-based game called Beetle Uprising, by Iocane games. We have something of a friendly rivalry with Iocane on Twitter (curse the matriarch!) but when we sat down together to play the game we discovered remarkable depth and a very well thought-out genetics system – something EotU doesn’t have.

It takes a less realistic approach than we do – and that gives it license for broader experimentation. The game defies genre definition – it’s part house management like The Sims, part genetic experimentation like Niche, part real-time tactics. And it’s all the better for it. It’s out on Steam in early access, like us – give it a spin if you’re hankering for some more insect titles whilst waiting for us to release more content!

Beetle Uprising on Steam

December 2017 Newsletter: A New Year

“As the sun rises over a new day, the tide recedes. The nocturnal creatures return to the shadows and once again, the harvest must continue.” – The Narrator

A new year dawns. It feels like Empires of the Undergrowth has been out for at least a decade now. It’s been just under six weeks! A very happy new year to all of you – let’s talk about our plans in the context of 2018 and how well the game has been doing. In short, it’s done way better than we’d dared to hope and given the small size of our team, that has some quite profound implications. On to it!

More Development time!

The best news for the project itself is that the game has done well enough to secure Matt for the foreseeable future and open up space for John to join him as a full-time Slug Disco developer. Up until now we’ve only had Matt full time on the game since that was all our crowd funding allowed for – John and Liam have been working in their spare time. Thanks to the amazing support from you guys, we can look forward to increasing the pace of the project once notices have been worked at current day jobs.

Freeplay Mode Live-streams

During the last month John has done a few live-streams of development for the upcoming Freeplay mode. In this endless game mode, your colony will grow at a slower pace than the missions as you deal with threats from creatures, the environment and the weather. The idea is to set up initial conditions to the player’s choice, such as – what species do you want to play as? At what pace would you like threats to ramp up? Would you like super-tough enemies to appear every so often? The game will be saveable so that you can come back to your colony and play with it for a while.

For now John’s live streams are unscheduled due to his day job, but in a couple of months there’s the opportunity for them to become much more regular when he goes full time on the project. For now – keep an eye on our social media for details of when John is going live. John wants Freeplay to be a community-driven project, so he encourages maximum involvement with his live-streams!

Quality of Life Updates

It’s fair to say that we’re new to this. Although we have a group of trusted testers we rely on to give us feedback before we make releases, it’s practically impossible to create a perfect microcosm of what the general public will make of the game’s features. This has led to some issues where things are unclear and in some cases entirely missed. We’re improving on this, and we’ve released the first of what are best referred to as “quality of life” updates. Here are the key points from our December patches:

Digging out the nest entrance to the tunnel is now much more like digging any other tile

Although we liked the padlock symbol and its progress bar-like feature, ultimately too many players thought the padlock meant the surface was locked and inaccessible – which in hindsight is obvious. Curse you, hindsight! The new system makes digging out the nest entrance feel more like regular digging.

The nest entrance is now marked for excavation like any other tile

Formicarium abilities can now be swapped for full cost

Players found themselves having to make permanent choices for abilities without informed feedback of what they were deciding against. This change allows the abilities to be swapped, albeit at the full royal jelly cost so the initial decision still has some gravity to it.

Formicarium challenge buttons changed

Too many players were assuming the buttons to launch the Formicarium challenges (which are required to move on to the next level) were simply headers for the missions below them. We’ve reworked the buttons to hopefully make it more obvious that they need to be pressed, but there’s likely more we can do here.

Don’t worry – I added the red in MS Paint!

Players are alerted to seeds on the surface after a challenge

A common complaint was food rewards. Unlike royal jelly and territory, food is a physical entity that must exist in the world, and so when the Formicarium colony is granted a food reward it is deposited on the surface to be collected. Combined with the above confusion about the padlocked nest entrance, this led to many players thinking their food rewards were not granted. A text alert is now given to help assuage this.

See? There’s loads of food up there!

Photo Mode

There are many reasons we’ve put a little time into this – who wouldn’t want a better candid snap of their queen? By default, press F9 to enter Photo Mode. Matt’s artwork for the game is incredible and finished to a much higher fidelity than is strictly necessary for a top-down RTS game but Photo Mode allows you to pause the game, move the camera into a much less restricted position then snap away. We’ve been really enjoying the community’s experimentation with this feature and it’s produced some stunning results. Below is a small selection of some of our favorites. Submit your snaps on Steam!

Steam user MorPacke

Steam user Odahx

Steam user redmoth27

Steam user TeRroR

Steam user TheVicelion

Steam user Ubiquitously Obnoxious

The Trail Ahead

We spoke about this in the previous newsletter and not much has changed, but it’s worth reiterating here. Whilst John is working diligently to get the basic form of his Freeplay mode out to you guys, the next set of Formicarium missions are being designed, scripted and implemented. The next species of ant you will play as will be a species of leaf cutter – specifically Atta cephalotes.

We’re deep into the design of this species, and it promises to be an exciting addition to the campaign. Whilst we’ve taken artistic license in giving our Formica species distinct roles when in fact their colonies are relatively homogeneous, we can be a little closer to reality here as Atta cephalotes has specialized castes in its society.

A photograph of Atta cephalotes. Source – Wikipedia

For simple time restriction reasons, all of the levels in the game so far have been set in the beach environment. As we continue to expand the Formicarium campaign, different art assets will be required – and leaf cutters are jungle ants. Matt certainly has his work cut out for him in creating new tile sets, new flora, and ultimately new fauna to populate these rain forest environments.

Expect the basic Freeplay mode to be the next major content update – it does not contain any spoilers for the Formicarium campaign (so we can be much more open with it) and as previously noted, John wants it to be a community-driven project. The Formicarium missions are an entirely different beast – as well as lots of careful design choices and scripting to be done, there’s also voice lines that have to be recorded, music that has to be composed, new creatures that have to be designed and implemented, and a long round of balance that has to be done before we can unleash it upon the world. We take some pride in the idea that the missions that exist in the early access build are completed to a high degree of polish; we didn’t want an individual mission to feel half-finished. We will continue this philosophy going forward.

Have a great 2018

It’s difficult not to get a little emotional when talking about the support you guys have already granted us for our weird little game about invertebrates crawling around in the dirt. Your kind support and encouragement has meant that we have the drive and resources to meet 2018 with a profound sense of optimism in where the project is going. Each and every one of you has been entirely lovely and interacting with you has become a joy. Thanks so much – we really mean it.

The Slug Disco team x

November Newsletter: The Launch Edition

It’s a little bit difficult to know where to start with this newsletter, given the massive kaleidoscope of experiences and emotions the last week has given us. Let’s just blurt out the immediately obvious stuff. The game launched on Steam. The game has been doing very well on Steam. The game has a very positive reaction on Steam.


To say that we’re grateful would be a comedic understatement. Whilst we’ve always been confident that we had a good idea when we went about designing Empires of the Undergrowth, we were never sure if other people would agree. I guess we should have picked up that other people thought so too when we had a successful Kickstarter, or when we had a bunch of YouTubers cover the game without us even asking, or when the demo was consistently in the top games of IndieDB, often topping it, and still is. But we’re a bit too thick apparently.

Enough of the humble bragging – the game is launched and it’s performing well. The most pressing question is what comes next? Well, we had a meeting.

Freeplay Mode

The first thing that we will be getting out now, after many requests and also ourselves getting antsy to work on it, is freeplay mode. Freeplay will be a much slower-paced, longer-form game mode where your colony will grow slower, taking on increasing threats in a saveable environment similar to the formicarium but separate from it.


John in an old development stream; expect these to be more frequent for freeplay

It’ll have a surface, a variety of starting options (including which species of ant you wish to play as, or if you want to import the properties of your formicarium colonies) and over time it’ll be added to with new creatures, artwork, level options and balance changes. The nature of this mode means that it can receive updates much more frequently than the formicarium story mode.

It’s John’s baby, and he’s really keen to get working on it as soon as he can (for now we’re still dealing with bug reports and fallout from the early access launch). He hopes that it’ll be much more of a community project than the formicarium mode, and he’ll be doing live streams that you can join in, watch him do some development, and suggest things / ask questions. These are likely to be irregular at first, but in the new year they could well become scheduled and regular.

As far as time scale goes – we really want to get this fast-evolving game mode out into the wild sooner rather than later, and we’ll be getting our closed beta testers on it as soon as we can. In a basic form, we may be able to get to that stage within a few weeks. After some closed testing (but highly unlikely to be as long as the early access beta period was), we’ll get it out to all of you guys. The thought of watching your colonies grow over a longer time period delights us.

New Levels

In the next stage of formicarium mode (3.1, 3.2 and Formicarium Challenge 3), we want to introduce some new ants. In real life, leaf cutter ants form long trails to gather cuttings from the surrounding foliage, which they take to underground chambers. Here, a fungus grows from the decaying plant matter which is very nutritious and provides the colony with much of its sustenance. We have some ideas for introducing this mechanic to the game and some great community suggestions. The mechanics tend to evolve as we develop them, so we can’t realistically talk about their final form just yet. But you know where we’re headed!


A video about leaf cutter ants

Time scales are more difficult for this – there’s a lot that needs to be prepared for a full-fledged level (as well as the design, there’s a ton of custom scripting, artwork, music, and voice acting that needs to be written and recorded). Whilst John does regular updates for freeplay mode, you can realistically expect the next set of levels to be a few months into the new year. Again, as we all know from past experience, to put exact dates on things like this is fatal – issues crop up, have to be overcome, and things change. I think practically every developer working on an ambitious project has experienced this, and we’ve had plenty of these issues already!

Steam

Those of us who followed our launch day will know it didn’t exactly go smoothly. At almost literally the eleventh hour, EotU was rejected for not meeting the standards Steam required in its file packaging. This was totally on us and our frantic race to get everything sorted for the deadline. We were sort of heartbroken but we tried to stay focused and transplant our launch day to itch.io.

The Empires of the Undergrowth Steam store page

The guys at Itch were terrific and accommodated us promptly and efficiently. We really can’t thank them enough for giving us a light in the darkness for what at that point we assumed was a missed Steam deadline and a dud launch. Launch day really can make or break a project, and at this point we thought we’d missed that opportunity. Seriously, to all those involved with Itch – thank you. You gave us hope when we were at our lowest. So we were able to launch, and several hundred people did indeed buy through Itch – which included a Steam key so when we were eventually approved (which we assumed would take a few days) they could activate the game there.

The Empires of the Undergrowth Itch store page

Then, just as we were getting used to that idea, the guys at Steam performed a miracle for us and approved the updated build. John says that he’s never made such a sound before when he read that confirmation – and he probably never will again. Finally able to tell people we WOULD be launching on Steam on December 1st after all, our mood improved hugely. We even managed to muster together the enthusiasm for a live stream leading up to launch! Watch it below. We highly recommend the Ereptini that Mike devised if you like slightly bitter, more herbal cocktails!

We’re not quite ready to talk about sales numbers just yet, but let’s just say – our pessimistic predictions did not line up with the actual sales. We’ve actually done really, really well – and we’ve been trending on Steam for quite some time. Thanks so much to the YouTubers and streamers who have given us a constant trickle of publicity – it is no doubt you guys who are the reason for the game’s wide reach. Over time we’ll be highlighting some of those people. Which leads us on to:

YouTuber Highlight: KatherineOfSky

KatherineOfSky plays her games in a logical, well-thought-out manner and keeps the viewer informed of the reasons behind her decision making process. In this respect her videos work very well as a tutorial guide for people new to EotU. Outside of that, she’s simply so entertaining to listen to that it’s entirely no wonder that she’s quickly become a dev favorite.

The whole of Formicarium on medium difficulty is now in her early access coverage, and she’s now returned to try hard mode!

Reviews

The game has been getting some great reviews on Steam! We’re loving reading ways you guys have been enjoying the game and what you think needs improving. If you’ve played the game and haven’t left us a review on Steam, please do – it really helps us out! We’re interested in your honest opinions, and we’d love to hear what you thought we did really well and where we can improve. Follow this link to the game’s Steam page to leave your review!

The Ereptini Recipe (after some post-stream adjustment)

For the Formica ereptor: Campari bitters
For the Formica fusca: Coffee Liqueur (Kahlua or Tia Maria)
For the Formica rufa: Lemon juice
For the future Leaf Cutters: A few sprigs of mint
To celebrate early access: Prosecco
For balance: Simple syrup (50/50 sugar water mix)
Cheers!
1) Take large glass and half fill it with ice. Add a couple of crushed mint leaves to the ice and shake for 5 seconds to release the mint flavor.
2) Add 50ml of Campari and 50ml of coffee liqueur
3) Add a few dashes of lemon juice
4) Add 50ml simple syrup
5) Top the glass up with prosecco
6) Stir the cocktail quite quickly for 20 seconds
7) Strain the cocktail into a tall, chilled glass with fresh ice

To the future!

Thanks for reading the newsletter, and thanks for joining us on our continued, danger-fraught journey into the Undergrowth. We feel safer stepping forward into the unknown knowing that you are there with us. No tiger beetle will turn our path; no wolf spider will poison our resolve. As we stride out into the Undergrowth – together – we know that we’re strong.

The Slug Disco team x

We cannot launch on Steam today; Launching on itch right NOW!

TLDR: We cannot launch on Steam today however we are launching on itch.io RIGHT NOW and you can buy and download the early access version of the game from here RIGHT NOW:

https://slugdisco.itch.io/empires-of-the-undergrowth

This includes a Steam key that when it does release on Steam next week will allow you to download it from there!

We’ve messed up a bit.

As you’ll no doubt have gathered by the multitude of YouTubers playing the game, Empires of the Undergrowth is ready to go into early access on Steam. Outside of some small intermittent issues, this has been the case for a few days now. We were hoping for a smooth release to Steam and were looking forward to sitting back a little and watching you all play, like proud parents watching their toddlers seeing the snow for the first time. Sadly it didn’t work out quite as idyllically as that (what does?) this time around. And we’re somewhat to blame.

Steam has very rigorous standards for the curated set of games that live there. In our haste to prepare EotU for release to the platform, we’ve forgot to set up a few things in our Windows and Mac builds (with some noted irony given the headaches it’s been causing us lately, the Linux build is the only one that passed!) and have therefore run afoul of some rules owing to the UE4 engine we use. Being entirely new to it, we hold our hands up and take the blame – it’s our fault. Unfortunately the way that the review process works, we are unlikely to be able to launch on Steam until next week.

So, the question is, what do we do now? The game is ready for early access as far as we’re concerned and we’d love you all to play it as soon as you can. So – we’re going to make the game available through itch.io! This will include a Steam key so when it does finally come out on Steam next week you will also be able to download it from there!

We are really sorry about this, this is our first game on Steam and we will learn from this.
In the meantime the game is now available on itch.io!

https://slugdisco.itch.io/empires-of-the-undergrowth

October Newsletter (yes it is very late)

A very late October newsletter – but for a good reason! As I’m sure many of you are aware, we’ve finally announced the release date for early access – December 1st. As the media guy who isn’t directly involved in development of the game, I’ve been holding off on the newsletter since I was well aware that the guys were planning on an imminent announcement. And now that has happened! So I no longer have any excuses for procrastination.

So, yes! December 1st, 2017, is when we’ll be unleashing our little game about little ants upon the not-so-little world. Being an early access title it won’t be feature-complete, but we’re taking a very specific approach to the early access model. We’re doing our best to release the game in polished, fit-for-purpose chunks rather than releasing glitchy messes that we expect the community to dissect for us. We’ve been really lucky in that we have an honestly lovely group of beta testers – from our Kickstarter campaign – who have been extraordinarily dedicated and helpful. They’ve helped us shape the game into what we hope will be an eminently playable yet challenging RTS.

On to the fun stuff.

Micro?!?

Although complex micro skills are not the focus of Empires of the Undergrowth, it’s perfectly possible with a little practice and some planning to micro with the best of them. Here’s a pretty simple maneuver – let’s call it the “formic flank” – using pheromone markers to get round the back of these devil’s coach horse beetles that have been let loose in our formicarium. Getting a good surround on them from both the front and the back traps them, and the game’s up for the invaders.

As a nice bonus, there’s also the victory screen at the end!

Level Previews

It’s been ages since we had a GIF. Everyone loves a good GIF, right?

A little taster of the levels will be given before you play them by short videos showing a little bit of them. This one showing a horde of ladybirds (or ladybugs) enjoying a little aphid snack is rather pleasing to look at. We’ll also use these short videos to show how a particular mechanic works.

Has Science Gone Too Far?

The scientists have been studying a unique polymorphic species – Formica ereptor – for a while now. They’re a fascinating artificial species, capable of exhibiting the traits of many natural ones. It may soon be time to push them to their limits.

Lurking in the Darkness

These Formica fusca ants have a problem. Lurking in the dark of their nest site is Segestria florentina, a funnel web spider. They have tripwires radiating from their funnel-shaped webs and can feel the slightest vibration. Any ant that gets too close will be snatched away in the blink of an eye.

Attack of the Killer Mole Crickets

The queen is in imminent danger! Unfortunately for her, the nest site she’s chosen is infested with omnivorous mole crickets. They’ve had their fill of roots for the day, and are now on the hunt for protein-rich invertebrates. Such as ants.

In Empires of the Undergrowth, some levels have a “challenge” mode, where you can replay them with a special twist for more rewards. In this case, the first two levels can be replayed with the threat of mole crickets invading.

Special thanks to JeZardin, the Kickstarter backer who added the mole cricket to the game as part of their reward tier. It is a fine addition to the Undergrowth!

THE BETA HAS BEGUN!

“Ah. I see the queen has taken well to her new home”.

Those of you who backed the beta tier of the game on Kickstarter or Paypal – THE BETA HAS BEGUN! Your current Steam copy of the demo will update to become the new beta build.

If you backed the beta tier but don’t have a Steam copy of the game yet, please check your emails. A few months back you will have been sent a key to the email associated with your backing method. If you cannot find it, please send us a message and we‘ll do our best to sort it for you.

But for now, go and play! We look forward to your feedback on our official forum.

September Newsletter

Aah, the temperate winds of October. To get the obvious out of the way – as predicted in our last newsletter, we haven’t hit the target we set ourselves of summer 2017. It’s now autumn / fall 2017, no matter how you spin it, but there’s no point looking backwards. We’re not making excuses, and we’re going to try to be as transparent as we can be. A recent internal audit of the work left to do to get the game to beta stage revealed that we’re likely several weeks out; in short we’ve underestimated.

We’re not the first developers to do so and we won’t be the last, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating for everyone involved. We’ve opened our big optimistic gobs too soon and are a bit annoyed at ourselves for that. That said, development continues more intensely than ever.

A Formica rufa colony

To talk realistically about release dates – if everything goes as planned (and honestly that hasn’t been the trend recently) we’re talking closer to the end of this month for closed beta. Still, we refuse to rush it through and give you something unworthy of your time.

There’s an adage that more seasoned developers than us are very familiar with – the last 10% takes the longest, and we now understand that. If Empires of the Undergrowth were a piece of Ikea furniture we’d now be at the point where it’s basically assembled, but in tightening one bolt you realize another one needs more work, then that you’ve put a piece in the wrong way round, then another loosens – and boy do we have a lot of bolts to tighten!

That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been progress – there has, some of it really beautiful to look at – so let’s crack on.

Rise of the Colony

This short cinematic view of the rise of a colony was made by John. We had to ask him to double its length and make it a video rather than a GIF because we thought it was so good. A Formica fusca (black ant) colony rises from its humble beginnings.

Day / Night Cycle

As the sun sets and day becomes night, the shadows lengthen and the creatures of the Undergrowth stir. Many are more active after dark, meaning more danger for the colonies that live here. Perhaps it is best to stay hidden in the safety of the nest until dawn comes – as it always will, heralding a new day and new opportunities. The ever-changing landscape of the Undergrowth breathes as if it’s a living entity itself.

A lot of levels will have a day-night cycle that signals changes to the creatures you’ll be facing, in some cases making it safer to stay in the confines of your nest until day breaks. But sometimes desperation means you’ll have to venture out into the night – this is the balance you’ll have to strike if you hope for your colony to survive.

Victory / Defeat

Will you be leading your colony to defeat… or victory? Either way, you’ll have these to look at! A traditional part of RTS games and we wanted ours to be comprehensive and satisfying. You’ll get stats on your activity during the level, an overall score and an overview of the level’s achievements. Please note that the score screen itself is made up of placeholder information since it is a work in progress – sadly, there will be no dinosaur god in the game!

Melodramatic Death

Think a game about insects carving nests out of the dirt can’t do drama? Think again. As a progression from the above victory / defeat screens, Liam and John thought it was all a bit impersonal. So they went about giving you a decent excuse for having a little cry about losing a level.

It’s all over. The queen is dead; her enemies are feasting on her corpse and some beautifully dramatic music is playing. If you don’t succeed in a level of Empires of the Undergrowth, you will at least be caressed into oblivion by a wonderfully mournful composition.

Long-form Music

The music in Empires of the Undergrowth is responsive and modular – if your colony is engaged in conflict, it’ll sound more military than it will when they’re at a temporary ceasefire with the neighbors. This means there’s a lot of music to compose, and it’s been immensely satisfying for us to hear this as Liam completes it. Here’s 11 minutes of a track, which shows just how much has to be done.

Arachnophobia Mode

Well now – look at this dapper young chap, off on his morning stroll along the beach, greeting his neighbors as he goes, dressed in his best top hat! “How d’you do?” he seems to say, in finest received pronunciation.

A brief look at one of the more whimsical features we’re including in Empires of the Undergrowth – arachnophobia mode! Off by default and completely optional, of course. We’re hoping the charming selection of headgear will make the spiders a little less threatening for those who don’t like them – and unlike Team Fortress 2, we’re not going to make you unlock them!

August Newsletter

Is it September already? Goodness. Welcome to the newsletter – this last month we’ve made some major changes to the interface, made huge strides with our ambitious early access levels, fine-tuned a dynamic music system, and improved the fidelity of the artwork.

There is one important issue that needs to be discussed right away – it’s looking increasingly likely that we won’t hit our summer 2017 target for early access build. This is as frustrating for us as it is for those of you waiting for it, but let us be clear of the reasons. We’ve realized that we simply can’t rush to meet that deadline, because that would affect your experience with the game. You’ve all been incredibly patient, understanding, enthusiastic and just downright lovely about our little project – and you deserve as good a game as we can make. We’re unwilling to compromise on quality for the sake of time. Our hope is that our game will feel very polished for an early access title, with several hours of solid game play and all the supporting systems working properly.

A baby hermit crab

We’ve been working on a strict interpretation of what counts as “summer” – in the UK, where the team is based, September 22nd is its final day. We still hope to have our closed beta ready for around this time. The beta will take a few weeks, after which we will be unleashing early access upon the world. So, given this plan, you can see that the delay is weeks rather than months or years.

Now, to more cheerful matters. Here’s what we’ve been working on over the past month.

Beautifying the Beach

Our game starts on a beach. Once John, our lead level designer, finishes a level he hands it over to artist Matt for what is known as an art pass. Matt adds plants, stones, and variations to the textures to make the whole thing look beautiful.

This month, Matt has been working on making the textures better for the beach and its various flora. We’re very pleased with how the game is shaping up visually.

Debugging and Balance

There’s one overriding rule when working on any form of software – nothing works the way you intended it first time. In a game this is down to two things – glitches (or bugs) in the software, and issues with balance.

Debugging is a crucial process, and Empires of the Undergrowth deals with some rather complex algorithms for things like path-finding (a creature working out the best way to get from A to B) and decision making. In the video below, John has set up a simple visual representation of the area the hermit crabs are trying to get to, in the form of cubes. If they don’t get there, he can see that something’s wrong. It’s often very helpful to create simple visual aids like this during the development phase. Don’t worry – there will not be random cubes appearing when you play the game!

When we say “balance” we mean the adjustment of numbers such as creature health, speed, and attack strength / frequency. Because units are tied to a food cost, it is possible with the change of a single digit to make them horribly overpowered or pathetically weak. In the below video, John has made a simple level that allows him to spawn any unit for two opposing armies. By observing how well they do against each other, he can ascertain if the various units are fairly priced or statted. Without seeing it in action, it’s a very difficult thing to predict. As a side note for this video, we asked if you would like such a tool to play with opposing ant armies, and you seemed enthusiastic! Look out for that.

User Interface Changes

As much as we liked the more natural looking, rocky theme of the interface in the demo (and even the plant-themed one from older builds), as we continue our plan to make the surface a major component of the game we realized the darker, earthier look is too contrasted with the usually brighter surface, so we’ve slimmed it up and made it more functional.

You’ll notice some extra buttons and functions too – we’ll be talking a bit more about them in the future. In short, the UI changes are designed to make the whole game feel more cohesive, whilst giving us more space to add extra functions, because we know you RTS fans like your options to be open. As an added bonus – the way we have things set up with the new UI, there’s no reason that we couldn’t in the future add a way to move the modular windows around to your personal preference.

A Little Music

As Liam composes the music for Empires of the Undergrowth, he tests how it’ll work using Audacity (an open source multi-track audio editor). As you see here there are several tracks playing in unison. Liam simulates the dynamic music system he’s implemented by fading some tracks out and others in.

In-game, the scenario here would be that the ants engage in battle with some creatures, causing the music to become more dramatic and military-sounding. Once the battle is over, the music settles down again to something more baseline. We’re hoping the dynamic music system, which responds to how your colony is faring, will really increase the immersion levels and increase the “documentary” feeling we’ve been going for along with our narrator.

Battle Detection

Empires of the Undergrowth is a real-time strategy game. So we have the same concerns a traditional RTS has – such as alerting the player to an attack! In the below setup, Liam is testing code he’s made to identify where on the map a battle is happening, and how severe it is. The location of the spheres that appear is where the code has identified a threshold level of damage being done, and the size of the sphere represents how intense the fighting is.

This will allow us to add alert icons to the minimap – informing the player of a fight and giving them a chance to respond. Our narrator will also do his best to keep the player up-to-date with their colony’s conflicts.

Saving your Game

Saving and loading is no easy task for a game. Essentially when you save you must decide on each piece of information you will need to restore the game on loading, then store them. You can probably appreciate with an ant colony game that is a lot of different objects (tiles, food, eggs, ants, creatures). Additionally, you must be able to restore the AI if you wish the creature to be doing the same thing when it loads. Saving is of course only half the battle. When a level is loaded, the default setup of the level opens first, then all default food, creatures, eggs and other things are removed.

New objects are created for everything (so for example the queen is an entirely new queen on load) and these are then fed to stored values from the save. It is a slow process to get right. Saving will initially be available in Formicarium mode at early access launch. This is crucial as your Formicarium colony is one you will be returning to after you have finished a mission. All creatures, dug out tiles, built rooms, eggs, food items, pheromone markers and what the ants are doing are restored in this game mode (as well as your resources) so you should be able to keep all progress of your colony.

Tech Tree

Here’s how the tech tree / upgrade system is looking at the moment – more to come on this over the following weeks!