Well met, one and all, for the March / April newsletter! As many of you know, a lot has happened since our last newsletter – the most important of which is the public release of the Freeplay beta. If you weren’t aware of that and would like to participate, there are details on how to do so in the rather extensive section below this arbitrary introduction. In fact, let’s end this arbitrary introduction and get straight to the best bit.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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!
— Slug Disco (@SlugDisco) August 5, 2017
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!