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.
Screenshot credit: Garenator on Steam
We’re certain that we don’t want to rush – and that’s always been the case. Our modus operandi has been quality first – ultimately, we’re making our dream game here and we want it to be great just as much as you do. Given our limited resources (our team size is 3) we’ve made decisions – like not releasing small, incremental updates and instead focusing on the bigger picture with larger updates. That’s because the whole process of an update is a drain of resources and time. In a larger team or for a game of lesser scope, this might be doable. We feel we’re in the right place here.
With that clarified, due to many understandable requests, we’ve made what is often referred to by makers of early access products as a “road map”.
A road map refers to a rough outline of how a developer intends their project to progress. It’s usually an abridged version of the internal plan the developer has, as it is in our case. This is ours for the remainder of 2018.
You’ll notice that it’s rather vague – this is deliberate; as we’ll talk about later in the newsletter – software development is so unpredictable that even the most seasoned veterans have real difficulty in pinning down exact release dates. However, you can see that we plan on releasing the third tier of the Formicarium in the summer (Major Update 1), and the Freeplay mode before that. All of this, by necessity, comes with the caveat that it’s subject to change.
John, after moving house, has been continuing his work on Freeplay mode. He’s recently been working on the vast amount of options that the mode will allow – the difficulty slider will feed in to many different things that affect how the game will play. In this stream recorded in February, you can see him tweaking things such as creature temperament, and connecting all the disparate systems that need to work in harmony in order for this game mode to become a reality.
A poppy head “landmark” – this will drop seeds for your colony in Freeplay
It’s clear from the complexity of Freeplay that a lot of its enjoyment factor will come down to the setting of parameters – and for this reason it’s definitely going to be a mode that will be balanced and tweaked extensively. We’re going to need your feedback on that one – and that brings us to the matter of when we release it. As mentioned earlier (and is discussed more extensively below) deciding on an exact release date in this line of work is folly until you’re sure – and even giving vague guesstimates is usually pointless. The best we can give on this is “a few weeks”. We hope you guys understand why.
A tiger beetle guards a dead fish in Freeplay
John is continuing his streaming after a short break for the aforementioned house move – it’s usually on a Thursday afternoon, Greenwich mean time. For now, John is working the notice on his day job and that will continue until the Easter break. After that, he’s a bona fide full-time Empires of the Undergrowth developer and the streams are likely to become more scheduled and regular.
A landmark occupied by aphids – landmarks can take a wide variety of forms.
A Little About Leaf Cutters
As previously announced, the next species of ant added to the game will be Atta cephalotes – a South American leaf cutter ant. These ants don’t eat meat – although they can give you a particularly nasty defensive nip with those huge mandibles, they’re in it purely for the leaves. The colony forms distinct trails as it searches for suitable leaves, before cutting them down in a variety of ways and transporting them back to the nest. Here, the leaves decompose due to a mutual relationship the ants have with a special kind of fungus – and it is the fungal growth itself that the ants feed upon.
Although we’ve had a bit of variation of sizes between ants before (between workers, soldiers and upgraded ants) that’s just peanuts to leaf cutters. Atta cephalotes is a very distinctly polymorphic species – meaning it has within it several “castes” of ant that exhibit obviously different traits. The “minors” are undeniably tiny compared to the “majors” – which can be several times as long and more than 100 times the mass of the minors. They have unusually-shaped heads that house the huge muscles needed to power their slicing jaws. There is also an intermediate “medium” caste.
An Atta cephalotes major, giant mandibles and head muscles visible. Photo by Alex Wild.
In our game, the majors will certainly be formidable in combat – huge, imposing and a target for enemies (we will be introducing a “taunt” mechanic that makes enemies want to attack them preferentially). However, all 3 of the castes will be intrinsically involved in what leaf cutters do best – cutting leaves. Each one will have a distinct role that, when used efficiently, will speed up production of your colony-sustaining fungus. We don’t want to spoil it too much, so we’ll leave it there for now!
Dealing With Delays aka “when it’s done”
So, a bit of self-reflection and commentary on development as a whole for this section of the newsletter. “When it’s done” has become a meme relating to game development for good reason. We suddenly have a large audience – and with that comes expectations. That’s been a bit daunting but we’d like to think we’re learning quickly from the experience.
Delays are frustrating for both developers and consumers. It’s a considerable risk to even give an estimate of when a feature or product will be ready without total certainty. A recent example that unexpectedness for us is the way that we’ve been decorating our levels – the Unreal Engine that powers our game has changed in such a way that the method we were using is no longer viable. So, Matt has been working on a custom plugin to help him do the artwork – as a necessity, but it’s a drain on time we couldn’t have predicted before it happened. On the plus side, in this case – the new method comes with a performance boost.
In 2015 we failed our first Kickstarter – and took a philosophical approach to our failings. We’re always learning.
Communication is key – from the point of view of our small team of 3 developers and 1 social media guy, 3 months is not a long time between updates – however, in the eyes of the consumer who is used to quick patches for their games, it sets off alarm bells that the game is abandoned (we’ve heard that word used more than once in concerned forum posts). This isn’t the case – we’re just a smaller team and things are going to take time to be done properly. We don’t have the resources of the team behind the excellent Factorio, for example.
In a small way the early access model doesn’t help these concerns – people know they are paying for an incomplete product and therefore have to have some faith that the investment they’re making now will be returned by a great complete product. We’d just like to assure you all that things are progressing well, and the deep transitional phase that Slug Disco is currently undergoing will soon be finished. Once is it, we’ll have 3 full-time developers working on Empires of the Undergrowth.
We like to trawl through the Steam screenshots of EotU every so often. Here’s a few of our favorites from the past few weeks! To get some great screenshots yourself press F9 (by default) in-game to enter Photo Mode.
It’s all about that butt – because that’s where the eggs come from. Credit: Serafine
Invaders! Credit: Charles the Bald
Sorry beetle, but our queen is hungry. Credit: vervedan