A New Year in the Undergrowth!

Happy new year everyone!

I hope you all had a splendid break and the return to work has not been too bad. Our year has started with a mix of code optimisation, improvements to combat systems and planning the year ahead.

 

EGX Rezzed

With that in mind Empires of the Undergrowth will be at EGX Rezzed in London on March 30th to April 1st.

We will be showcasing surface gameplay features as well as a range of new creatures. Additionally we will be testing out multiple ant species at this event too, so if you happen to be in the area, come and see us! More about this later in the year.

 

Optimisations

So what do we mean about optimisation? Well put simply we want you to be able to build more ants! There will of course be a limit on the amount you may build, but we want that limit to be as high as possible, so you really feel like you have a thriving colony.

This has meant Matt has had a proper poke around in Unreal Engine’s movement systems and is implementing our own movement routines, these are specific to our ants’ needs and should help us pump out those extra frames per second.

 

Abilities

One of our goals has always to be to show the variety of things that different ant species can do. Ant games in the past tended to have a generic ant, maybe branching into sub-types of worker, soldier, super soldier etc, but we wanted to do something different and try to show off some of the true range in nature.

John has been putting together a creature ability system that allows us to produce a lot of different types of ant and other creatures efficiently. We do not want to write completely new code each time we want a creature to jump for example and so there has to be a way to make variety quickly, and balance it so it still works in the game.

 

Music

Music is an important piece of any computer game, especially in Empires of the Undergrowth where the tempo helps to set the pace of play.  Liam is currently working on a dynamic audio system that should adapt the musical atmosphere to match the action on the screen.  We are in unfamiliar territory with this one, and we really don’t know what the end result will be, but the basic tunes are already coming together nicely.

2017 is going to be an exciting time for Empires of the Undergrowth, Make sure you have followed us on Twitter and Liked us on Facebook to see the game coming together.

Here’s to a productive 2017!

What are these? Controls for ants?

Empires of the Undergrowth has gone through many iterations in many areas since the beginning. We began building the Unreal Engine version of the game in January this year so soon it will have been in production for a whole year, however the first builds of the game were in our own engine long ago, and the game played very differently then.

 

The Early Concept

The idea started as Dungeon Keeper but with ants for mobile. We went about setting up a game where you would fight subterranean wars with other colonies, tunnelling out food and growing. One of the core gameplay concepts was always to have the player focus on the bigger picture rather than individuals, after all, an ant colony is not about the individual ants themselves.

The question arose: how do you control something that is by its very nature autonomous and numerous?.. managing that would be a nightmare to master. We did not want the player to have direct control as this would defy the point of the game, the creatures should really have their own minds. We decided to automate everything they did, if an enemy appeared they would attack it, if you tunnelled into the enemy colony, your soldiers would head right for it.

Fancying the challenge, we built our own engine… Fast forward a year and a half our buggy engine is running an early build of the game but it was missing something. This subterranean warfare didn’t feel right, it wasn’t doing ants justice.
1eairlybuild

Back to the Drawing Board

The simple fact is ants don’t stay underground, they forage on the surface. Our ambition getting the best of us, we decided that is what we needed. Not a single underground, but one for each colony.

Under this system our automated attacking would play out like a Tug of War. Workers would constantly bring eggs to soldier tiles and new and new ants would be born. These ants would clash with the opponent on the surface in epic battles growing in size;  the player needed to mix up their colony composition to gain an advantage, pushing the opponent back and killing their queen.

In principal this was a tried and tested game mechanic borrowing heavily from a custom map in Starcraft 2 – Desert Strike. This was manageable as well and we could bend it to fit into a campaign idea that had emerged by this point that we had fell in love with.

2tugofwarnew

It was with this concept we launched our first Kickstarter which didn’t completely fall flat, but it did fall short. We were not looking for a huge amount of money, and by the end we had been seen by a lot of people, but the backing was not coming through. Something was wrong.

 

Do people really want a mobile version?

Ask someone who likes our game concept if they want a mobile version as well a PC and they will say yes. Ask them which one they would prefer and the answer seem to heavily favour the PC version. We used the data from the kickstarter the make a judgment on this. Looking at the backers for mobile only and PC only, it is 20 on mobile and 149 on PC. Not huge numbers but it does give you an idea.

So we cut the mobile version, and with it our own engine. We had stuck with our own engine to this point for performance reasons, in order to have so many ants running well on mobile technology, but with that requirement gone we were just making life difficult for ourselves.

And with all this changing, do we really need the controls to be so simplistic? With a mouse we can now give players more control. You could argue that this is feature creep, but until the features match what player will pay for you probably need to add more.

The pheromone marker made its first appearance in the demo we released with our second Kickstarter: A point that soldiers would be attracted to, instantly giving players a level of control but not so much that it destroyed the original bigger picture concept. Players seemed to get on well with this too. This was the first public demo build we had released and streamers had started picking it up. The system was intuitive, responsive and still felt like the ants were in control of themselves. Underground this works very well.

3pheremonemarker1

 

 

Making this mesh with the surface

So you haven’t played the surface have you? We made a test build for the surface just before EGX and we took it along to see what people thought (some will have played it but not many).

The controls worked, but it was not right. With such a wide open space and with groups of ants hovering around a single point it felt a bit strange. Almost too much like a standard strategy game and less autonomous. What was great in the tight corridors of the nest was falling a bit flat above ground.

4singlepointproblem

 

 

Enter trails

In nature ants will wander to and from the nest, feeding other ants on their way if they find a food source thus reinforcing a route that leads to food. Our game being more fast paced than a simulation we wanted a way to replicate this but in a short space of time.

The first iteration of trails is what you see in the 0.0561 build you can download. Ants will head to a point, wander around the point for a few seconds and then head back to the nest. The amount of ants heading to the point is based on the number you have assigned to it and the distance from the colony. It essentially tries to balance the number of ants ant each point of the trail. We built in a mechanism to prevent the player having control where, if you place a new point down, ants must return to the nest before heading to the new point. In principle this should mean when you place a new point, the flow of ants coming from the nest go to the new point so it is still fairly responsive but what we found was when players had few ants (less than about 50) the system felt frustrating. Quite a few liked the system, but quite a few others did not, and we can very much see why. As a developer I have been playing the game constantly as I change things, training myself to think in the new systems and understanding them intrinsically. The updated systems were not intuitive and some people flat out thought they were broken.

5trails

 

 

What is next?

We did a further iteration of the system. We wanted it to feel more responsive but we are trying to avoid something quite specific. Imagine you have a trail of ants going back and forth and you change the end point they are heading to, the whole trail changes direction at once. This looks and feels bad and is not at all like ants.

The latest implementation maintains a number of ants at the end of the trail, and as a new one arrives, one heads home. This keeps a fighting force ready to attack. These ants at the end also respond to new markers being placed and will head to them. Ants on their way or coming back from a trail will remain doing so. In this way we have trails going back and forth, but the system also feels responsive

latestcontrol

As we move on with the game we will be revisiting the controls, and we want to get this new system into your hands as soon as possible so we can get feedback. I think you will agree it is much improved we will continue to improve upon it as the game develops

Controls and Difficulty

Trails

Perhaps the most divisive thing we added in the recent demo was the introduction of trails. This means ants will head to your marker, and then head home from there. If they start heading to a marker they will reach it then return before going elsewhere even if you move the marker.

Part of our design philosophy has been to have the player control the big picture and be less concerned with individual movement. The controls were designed to promote this colony building focus, and be less about high speed plays.

Whilst we feel trails do help achieve this they are admittedly a little unresponsive which can be frustrating (especially if an enemy moves) whilst your colony is still small. On top of this the way they work is not particularly intuitive which has lead to some people believing it to be buggy.

This is a work in progress and it might take a couple more iterations until everyone is happy with the control system.  We have been toying with a alternative few concepts which keep the basic idea of ants forming trails, but with more obvious reactions from the ants when you give them new destinations.

Difficulty

Currently the only level with difficulty settings is the new Surrounded level. These settings change the amount, type and aggressiveness of creatures that attack you however they do not make the creatures weaker or stronger; creature stats remain the same but you get attacked by more of them.

A problem has arisen with this approach. Enemies turn into food when they die which is great, however it causes a situation where the more enemies we are sending at the player, the more resources they receive. This escalates to the point where harder modes can actually be easier.

The amount of food available is a delicate stat to play with. On one hand it is nice to give a reward for defeating a big creature, on the other hand once you get past a certain point defeating a big creature becomes easy and your colony grows exponentially; your massive food stores are full and you can go to bed and let your colony deal with itself.

difficultyimage

You could play pretty infinitely as it only got harder to a point. Thanks to Ingenious Clown on twitter for the image. https://twitter.com/ingeniousclown

This reduced risk takes the joy out of the reward. It is something we will continue to monitor carefully but for now there are a couple of things that will lessen the problem.

Firstly a drop in the food reward will bring things more into balance. Additionally the game can get harder by increasing the frequency of pack spawns, and also the sizes of the larger packs to increase the risk of the kill (currently only 1 Tiger beetle will ever spawn at a time). The level currently peaks difficulty at 30 mins, we can change that also.

The larger creatures of the game or the Titans (we haven’t added any yet) will always be fought individually and so harder game modes will require their stats altering.

Vote for us for Indie of the Year!

Its that time of year where a massive button appears on our IndieDB page. This year we have gone from being an unknown game to being played by thousands of people including many popular YouTube gamers.

So this year we thought we would ask those people if they had a moment to vote for us.

Simply click the link below and select the massive vote button on our IndieDB page!

 

Lets get Empires of the Undergrowth into the top 100!

New Demo Build 0.05 Released

We have just released a brand new build, head over to the file section on our IndieDB page and get hold of it!

http://www.indiedb.com/games/empires-of-the-undergrowth/downloads

This build is for Windows, Mac and Linux!

Although the full game still won’t be available until next year there have been a number of significant changes to the graphics and control system, along with a new level to test out. If you want the full breakdown, we have uploaded a “what’s new” video here:

What are you waiting for? Go get it!

Indiedb.com

Note to Mac Users:

The Mac build is missing some performance enhancements which will be added in a future update. If you spot any problems, please let us know.

Note to Linux Users:

Empires of the Undergrowth requires OpenGL 4 to be installed on Linux systems to render. Unfortunately, due to a problem with Unreal Engine 4.12 (on which Empires of the Undergrowth is built), some of the more complex materials will not compile properly – in particular, the water on the main menu and some of the more complex wall materials. Instead these will show as grey materials. This problem should be fixed in a future update and we will notify the community when a new version of the Linux binaries is available to download. (Note that by reducing the graphical quality using the Visual Effect option slider, the complex wall materials will be replaced with low quality materials which don’t suffer from this problem).

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.

‘Hands-On’ Entomology Afternoon at Harper Adams University

On Thursday we will be at a ‘hands-on’ entomology afternoon at Harper Adams University, Shropshire, UK. You will be able to play the demo build of the game and talk to us in person. John Connor (lead designer and AI) and Matthew Kent (lead programmer and artist) will be there answering questions, showing people the game and talking about the ant species we have in store.

Click here to find out more

Slug Disco at Harper Adams entomology event

Plenty of other things are happening – there will be showings of live bugs and collections by Harper Adams students and “live-handling” with Exotic Zoo from Telford, so if you are in the area come along. If you are lucky we may do a facebook live broadcast as well!

Where?
Harper Adams University,
Newport,
Shropshire,
UK,
TF10 8NB

When?
Thursday 8th September at 2pm

Hopefully see you there!

Level of Control

We have recently had meetings about the level of control the player (and computer players) should have in light of the very positive response we have received from the demo. Not directly controlling units is one of the main differences between our game and a traditional RTS, however we do still want a level of control where the player feels they are directly impacting the game.

As much as players liked the single point control provided in the demo, many spoke about their desire to send the colony in different directions to cover more areas and defend attacks from behind. Another issue was that soldiers just hanging around a single point is not really very ant like and essentially causes one single big fight then it is over.

Single Point Problem

These issues become ever more evident with the introduction of the surface. No longer is the player dealing with small corridors, instead they are faced with wide open spaces.

In the next post we will discuss what we have introduced to combat these issues.

Join in the discussion about this on Reddit:
https://www.reddit.com/r/eotu/comments/509ws8/dev_update_level_of_control/

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)