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
“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!
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Here’s how the tech tree / upgrade system is looking at the moment – more to come on this over the following weeks!
And so July rolls around to August, so it’s time for our July newsletter! I think we can best surmise July for us using various clichéd yet accurate adjectives such as “busy”, “stressful”, “productive” and “challenging”. As we approach something close to an announcement time we’ve weeded out various long-standing issues, delved deeper into the Unreal Engine 4 code than we ever intended to, and animated a ladybird. Pretty standard for us.
Ladybirds & Aphids
Ladybirds, or ladybugs depending on your parlance, are of course famously insectivorous beetles that love an aphid or two. One of our Kickstarter backers – Maggie – requested they be added to the game as part of her reward tier so here they are! In our game, you’ll be able to harvest honeydew from aphids but your capacity to do so can be severely diminished by the ladybirds. Check out the GIF below – a beetle flies into the scene off-camera, walks over to the aphids, takes one to eat then flies off. They’ll needed to be fiercely contested on some maps to ensure your colony has an ample food supply.
A ladybird snatches a honeydew-producing aphid
Funnel Web Spider
Something that took us somewhat by surprise is the popularity of the arachnids that will be featuring in our game. When we started posting pictures and videos of the finished models we decided to add an arachnophobia warning to the posts, since we know that is an issue for some people. We’ve relaxed on this over time since we figured by now people pretty much know what to expect from us, but we still decided to warn people about Segestria florentina, a European funnel web spider.
Everything about her screams menace, and our animator Matt has once again done an incredible job of bringing this fearsome spider to EotU. We can’t wait to show you her lair – she sits at the entrance to a tunnel made of her own webbing, which is attached to long tripwires which allow her to sense the slightest movement. If an ant strays too close, it’s lights out for them. Watch her animation set in the GIF below.
The animation set for Segestria florentina
Some species of ant specialize in conducting raids on neighboring colonies to take their unhatched young. Most of the stolen pupae and larvae are eaten, but a few of them are raised as new workers and soldiers for their captive colony, hence the name of slave-makers. In one of the early access levels, your ants will encounter a colony of Formica sanguinea, otherwise known as blood-red ants. When they take your young from their nursery tiles, that tile will become unusable for a significant amount of time – so unless the slave-makers are dealt with soundly you’re going to find yourself outnumbered very quickly.
Slave-makers steal pupae and larvae from a helpless Formica fusca nest
Woodlice are likely familiar to practically everyone who’s ever looked under a dead log in their garden. They’re isopod crustaceans that feed mainly on decaying plant matter. In nature, they’re too tough for most ants to take down. We still want our in-game ants to be aggressive, so to represent the innate toughness of the armor-covered woodlouse, we’ve given it a “bunker down” ability as you can see in the GIF below. When it enters this mode, the woodlouse takes significantly less physical damage. A tricky critter to take down.
A woodlouse bunkers down to fend of its attackers
Music & Sound
Our composer and sound designer Liam has been working through some challenging technical difficulties to get his dynamic music system working. The issue he was having was to do with the timing of new clips starting or ending, which because of the way the engine works could sometimes be a beat out of sync and therefore sound wrong to the ear. He believes he’s now solved this issue with some workarounds and redesigns, and has now got back to the task of finishing up the music needed for early access.
Liam has also started the task of getting the voice of the narrator – played superbly by the talented Callum Edmunds – into the levels. He’ll speak as the levels progress, commenting on the evolving tale of your ants, and introducing new creatures the colony encounters. He’ll also provide some more traditional RTS commentary, such as informing you when your queen is under attack or when your ants see an enemy.
Level Design & Balance
John is furrowing his brow regularly as he works to complete the six levels required for early access. One particularly ambitious level (known internally as “2.1”) is keeping him up late as he works to include all of the planned events and timings.
With such a small team (3 developers and 1 social media guy), the issue of balance is obviously very difficult when we’re in the developments stage. This is why our beta before the main early access starts will be so vital – we have in the region of 900 people who bought into the beta tier on Kickstarter or Paypal, which should give us a large enough player base to get significant feedback for the numbers we need to tweak. Obviously we will continue to balance and change things after early access starts – so if you’re planning on giving the game a spin later this summer now would be the perfect time to get registered on our forums and introduce yourself to the small but passionate community of ant fans already talking about the game there.
As John completes the preliminary designs for the levels, he hands them over to Matt for an art pass. This means that all the pebbles, plants, and intricate texturing gets added after the layout and scripted features of a level are done. We hope to have all of the levels playing and looking nice in time for early access to start, but as mentioned feedback on all of these points will be very much appreciated.
June was an extraordinarily busy month for us. All of the core mechanics, tools, and setups are finally in place and we are now deep, deep into asset creation (basically artwork, sound and level design) for the Empires of the Undergrowth early access.
All three of our developers are putting in lots of hours and it’s really starting to pay dividends. We’re very happy we chose this summer for starting early access – we feel we’re in a really good place to release a solid game that we can build on going forward. It also feels like we’re homing in on a general timescale for early access now, and it won’t be much longer until we feel confident enough to decide on a date, so keep an eye out for that!
Here’s some of the more major developments from the last month. As with with May’s newsletter, please keep in mind that these changes will only happen when early access starts – we won’t be updating the demo until after we enter that phase.
Long-requested has been more control over how the ants behave. Whilst we’ve been reluctant to give too much direct control over to the player (we don’t want to risk the colony losing its natural, instinctive feel), John has found an area to give more whilst still being thematically consistent.
Players will now be able to toggle attacking and gathering behaviors for individual pheromone trails. This means you could have a group of black ants who are purely aggressive, fighting anything in range and never picking up food, or a group of worker ants who won’t attack enemies and will just gather food. Or vice versa, if you wanted. This should please players who like to micromanage a little more without making things overly complex.
This first part of this video shows the new toggle-able attack and gather mechanics; the second part shows how nursery and food storage tiles will now slow ants
Ant speed / nest layout
Something we’ve struggled with for quite a while is – how do we encourage sensible nest building? In nature, ants that dig usually create separate chambers for different purposes – nurseries, food storage, etc. Often in EotU players will carve out large swathes of the map without thought for its layout, which is our fault for not providing decent incentive to do so.
In our current internal build, ants walking over a food or nursery tile will suffer a significant speed penalty – currently 50%. This is to encourage the construction of corridors of normal surface where the ants will move at their full speed. We’re not sure we’ve quite got this down yet, and it’ll need lots of feedback (which is where you will come in, eventually!), and it does throw up a few problems. Should enemies suffer the same penalty? Would that encourage people to use food tiles as enemy traps? Would it be a bit weird if enemy ants didn’t suffer that penalty but yours did? It’s up for discussion, and it’ll come down to testing.
Models and Animations
Beach Wolf Spider
Our artist Matt has very nearly completed modelling and animating the list of creatures needed for our early access plan (of the 20 needed, he has just 3 and a half left to do, which is some impressive going!). Matt has genuinely astounded the rest of us with the quality of his work in this area. The above GIF shows the amazing beach wolf spider going through her animation set – walking, attacking, idle, lunging and death. But she also has a more maternal side – check out this video of her defending her recently-hatched brood from a patrol of vicious acid-spraying wood ants (Formica rufa).
Equally impressive (and significantly cuter) is the hermit crab. These crabs hide in shells they find to protect their vulnerable hind. The ones in early access are babies so they’re very small – not much bigger than the ants themselves. Check out the video below to see them in action. You’ll notice when they enter their shell to hide, they become invulnerable and gain a significant portion of their health back, which makes them pretty tough for their size. There’s certainly a threshold level of forces you’ll need to take down one of these cute little crustaceans.
And how about something a little easier to digest? In the below video, our ants encounter a pocket of woodworm. They’re defenseless, and struggle hopelessly to get away from the attention of the young black ant (Formica fusca) colony. The woodworm provide an easy source of food for the colony. Also, listen to the dulcet tones of our narrator – who will talk you through the game world and provide valuable information.
Our composer and sound designer Liam has been giving himself far too much work with his unique dynamic music system. He estimates that he’s completed about half of what is required for the early access release.
As well as composing all of the music, he’s designed a system whereby it responds at jumping-off points to how well the player is doing. Seamlessly, the musical tone will change from calm, to suspenseful, to panicked, to joyful, to triumphant. This means he’s essentially had to create the same musical score repeatedly in different emotional tones! But that’s okay – he’s not one to be afraid of hard work and it all sounds fantastic. Listen here for a little preview of the theme for a totally friendly and not at all terrifying spider.
A number of our players have asked if there’s a way to back the game and get access to the Backer’s Demo. We did have a way set up using PayPal, but it was a clunky system that was causing us several problems, so that option hasn’t been available for some time now.
We’ve settled on a way for people who wish to support the project to do so before we enter Early Access in the summer and have started selling the game on itch.io, which you can get to by going to the EotU main website and clicking “Support the Development”, or just visiting its page here. Itch.io is well respected, completely secure and automated. Also, unlike when we had the PayPal setup, you won’t need to wait for one of us to manually send you the links!
The price using this method is $19.99, which is what we will ultimately be selling the Early Access / final version of the game on Steam for also. This will give you immediate access to the Backer’s Demo which includes the exclusive “Holdout” endless score mode. You’ll also get a Steam key that will give you Early Access as soon as that begins in the summer.
This is perfect for those of you who have very kindly expressed a desire to help us out, and for those of you who weren’t aware of the project when the Kickstarter campaign was on and missed the chance then.