It’s been a while since the situation has warranted one of these newsletters – we said that after the last one in March, we didn’t want to spoil anything else and just wanted to concentrate purely on getting the fire ant update ready to go, and so we did! Welcome to the first newsletter as the sun rises in a post-fire ants world.
We’ll be dividing this newsletter into a few sections – firstly, we’ll talk about how the fire ant release went. After that, it’s time to talk about the future – we’ll put forth a new roadmap to get us to version 1.0, and detail the steps that we will take to get there, including the development of a specific tutorial level to make player onboarding much better.
After some internal discussion, we don’t quite feel like we want to talk about the tier 5 species and setting just yet – just know that it’s been long-planned, scripted, voice-acted, and partially implemented already!
The Fire Ant Update
First and foremost, we would be remiss in our duties if we didn’t express a heartfelt thankyou to all of our players for fire ant release day and the days after. We absolutely smashed our concurrent player record, which had been unbeaten since early access launch day in December 2017, and for an entire week we were trending on SteamDB’s front page – which is an absolutely mind-boggling occurence for our tiny little development studio.
It’s been an utter delight following the content creators as they post (and continue to post) their coverage of our biggest update yet, whether that was Frazzz feeling the ominous presence of the skimmer, Man of the Antz giving the new camera rotation features a good outing , TheGamingBeaver putting in a very good argument for using Pervasive fire ants in 4.1, Drawing_Pin laughing his butt off at the scientist’s antics or Blitz clearly just living his best fire ant life. As the community manager, seeing the reaction of everyone who’s followed and played this game over its lifetime, and interacting with them, is the best part of my job – so naturally seeing the reactions to cool new stuff is even better.
Yes, yes, we know. Last year we estimated “early 2022” for the fire ant release date, and that was our original intent – but as is always the case with game development, some things take a lot longer to complete than anticipated. We strained credulity of the definition of “early” until we made a final decision to wait until we didn’t have to compromise on the update.
July can at best be called mid-year, not early – see what happens when we give even the vaguest of vague hints! During April, we found that we likely could have pushed out the update in late May, which would qualify us for our targeted early 2022. However, we would have had to compromise in several ways here – there would not have been any new music, and the update would have been lacking that final polishing phase that the decision to wait a short while longer gave us.
We’re very glad we took the extra time! The update is shining from the extra layers of lacquer we were able to generously apply over it. Thanks so much for the feedback on the new soundtrack – it was music to our ears to hear that the new tracks may have supplanted earlier ones as some people’s favourites.
There’s been debate on both our official forums and the Steam discussions about the balance of the 4.x levels, and how it differs from the 2.x levels. Whilst we’ve included many ways for the player to gather food, there’s some frustration being expressed about the relatively low amount given by dead creatures this time around.
We’ve explained this in several places but it’s worth putting our reasoning for the change in design philosophy here, agree or not. In the 2.x levels (particularly 2.1 Rising Tide), there comes a tipping point in which the aggressive creatures provide far more food than is lost respawning ants, and the levels essentially play themselves. The game becomes unintentionally un-interactive, and the other methods of food collection are forgotten.
There are a few ways to address this, but outside of altering the food drop value of the creatures, they broadly involve re-working the narrative and creature behaviour in the missions. We very deliberately want the story of a vulnerable nest under attack; not siege. In nature, narrow-mouthed toads are excellent diggers and ants make up most of most of their diet, so they provide this setting-appropriate pressure in the 4.x missions. If we gave them a more substantial food drop value the problem would exist in these levels also.
That’s not to say that there isn’t room for balance changes here, but it’s too soon to commit to anything just yet. When a relatively large change is made to a game, rashness is more likely in both developers and players, so we are still very much in the “cooling off” phase before we have an internal discussion and decide what changes, if any, are appropriate. We’re keeping a close eye on those discussions as the dust settles, but for fear of inflaming anything unduly we’re keeping to low activity in them for now.
We’ll come back to this at a later date, and perhaps have more to say about it in the next newsletter.
Here’s an interesting statistic for you – of all the Empires of the Undergrowth refund requests, by far the most common reason given is the lack of a proper tutorial or onboarding system. We have relied too much on the optional tips and hints to provide basic training to the player – we have also regularly observed many players completely not noticing or ignoring this system. That is entirely our fault, and the time is ripe to address that.
At this point in development, where version 1.0 is almost visible on the horizon, we want to make sure new players are not left in the lurch as far as understanding the core mechanics at play with pheromone control, nest construction, food gathering, combat and building goes.
For the next few weeks, the development team will be working on ways to highlight the UI and bring up tutorial dialogue in a way that is not easily missed by the player in a dedicated tutorial level. We hope to take this to the Indie Arena Booth at Gamescom 2022 in Germany at the end of this month, where one of our team will be manning a booth and observing new players with the aim of getting some useful, hands-on feedback. If you’re going to be at the event and are in the area, come by and let us know what you think!
It’s been a hot minute since we committed to any sort of roadmap, given the uncertainty of the past couple of years and the time it took to push the fire ant update. However, we are in a clearer position now – and will be in an even clearer one in the next few weeks. So, here we present our August 2022 roadmap, which is likely to be clarified and updated in the next newsletter. Click to see it in all its glory.
You’ll notice that outside of the bug fixing update that will come next month, we are continuing with our policy of not putting dates, even vague ones, on things – although we are certainly resolved to wrap up development up until version 1.0 in a speedier time frame than before, there is still significant uncertainty.
As always, we will give firm dates when we are 100% sure we can meet them, but here are some reassuring words for the remainder of the project: we already have a significant head-start with tier 5 in that it’s been completely scripted, the voice acting is already recorded, many of the creatures are already modelled and animated, and we have a very clear picture of where we are headed with it.
There’s a few things of note here – firstly, the long-awaited leafcutter extra level Adventure is visible on the horizon! It will indeed feature the first in-game appearance of the velvet worm – a soft-bodied predator of the jungle that was originally intended to be in the leafcutter update back in 2019, but was cut for time. It has now been finished and ascended to its full glory, with help of the long-bodied creature animation system perfected for the newt and salamander in the fire ant update.
Other Extra Levels
Outside of Adventure, you’ll notice mention of a “sequel season” for other extra levels. Without giving too much away, we’re going to revisit some of the ideas from earlier extra levels and come up with new spins on them – for example, there is very likely to be a Tug of War II featuring a different set of ants to play with.
The large and (characteristically) vague “interim update period” is likely to manifest as several updates in a relatively short period of time that address the items listed. Most pressing is an update to freeplay – the much more robust and customisable AI systems developed for 4.x will be integrated into freeplay to replace the current inferior one (*sad robot noises*).
Speaking of freeplay – now is definitely the time to let us know about issues you’re encountering in that game mode, big and small, in time for the time that we’ve set aside to do our upcoming changes. Let us know in the forums, or on our social media.
Tier 4 Challenge Mode
We’ve previously revealed the challenge creature that will plague the swamps in the challenge mode for the 4.x levels – it’s the six-spotted fishing spider (Dolomedes triton) that can water-walk in a similar way to the amphibians, and will be a menace to your fire ant’s bridging abilities. The exact details of how this works are yet to be revealed – closer to the time we’ll release a short trailer showcasing her abilities.
Currently, there are only achievements for the 1.x levels and formicarium challenge 1. Before we reach the end of the roadmap, this will be addressed and all tiers will have their own unique achievements. If you’d like to contribute your ideas of what some of these could be, please get in touch – we had a good time streaming some of the development of the 1.x achievements and there’s a non-zero possibility that we can do that again in the coming months!
Speed Running & the ICS
Over the past several months, it’s been delightful to see a completionist / speedrunning community spring up around our little ant game. An offshoot from our official Discord, Insane Completionist Slugs is a Discord server that keeps a track of users who have completed tricky challenges on insane difficulty, and records speedruns for the runnable levels (some levels are on a strict timer and not runnable).
If you’d like to join this community then do so, but be ready to prove your mettle! This Discord is run by Solstitium and Heolx, and we couldn’t be more gleeful and grateful for their contributions to the Empires of the Undergrowth community.
There is also an Empires of the Undergrowth page on speedrun.com – this is not officially affiliated with the ICS server but it’s somewhere else to submit your runs to! Speedrun.com is recognised as the go-to site for fast lookup and logging of speedrun records for just about any game you can imagine.
Tier 4 has increased the graphical fidelity of the game significantly, and that’s led to an absolute visual feast for me as I’ve arrived at my favourite part of writing the newsletter. If you’d like to submit a screenshot for a future edition of the newsletter, then the easiest way is to submit to the screenshots channel on our Discord where they’re easily seen by the team. F9 enters screenshot mode by default.
For the final three, we have to give a special shout-out to Metaxypod, a Discord regular and long-time contributor of art in screenshot form. An exceptional eye for framing and colour makes these screenies stand out from the crowd.