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.  

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.