This will be the last newsletter of 2023, with one more vlog to come in December. 2023 has been a formative year for Empires of the Undergrowth with the freeplay / custom game mode being brought much closer to its final form, and the bulk of the systems and level work on the final stages of the game being done.
The end is, finally, in sight – but there’s still a stretch to go. To that end, the main feature of this newsletter is an updated roadmap that might take us all the way to release (we’ll have to see how things go!). We’ll spend the majority of our word allowance going over that.
Our product marketing manager Dan has also been writing up full development blogs for 3 of our publishing projects recently: Horticular, Ecosystem and Adapt – we’ll talk about and link to those later on.
The Empires of the Undergrowth roadmap gets updated every six months, with the optimistic thought that one of them may unexpectedly be the last one we have to do. Is this that one? We don’t know – probably not, but hope springs eternal as they say. Feast your arthropod-hungry eyes on this beauty, as we then go through each step in turn:
A couple of changes from the last one include using year quarters to refer to time instead of seasons to help our friends in the southern hemisphere, and giving a slightly longer explanation at each station. If there’s no ballpark date on a step then that’s because we’re not comfortable putting one there just yet, although we are aiming to get everything done as swiftly as we can. The ordering and timing is, as always, subject to change.
First up is achievements. These have been thoroughly detailed in both the previous newsletter and the most recent vlog, so I’ll keep this section brief. In short, more than 100 new achievements are being added for all of the existing campaign and seasonal levels. We still intend to run an optional beta on Steam to test out some of these, and with any luck we’ll have some news on this very soon – keep your face orbs unshrouded.
New Custom Game Maps
A while back we held a contest to design a custom game / freeplay map for Empires of the Undergrowth, picking one winner from YouTube / Discord entries and another from Bilibili. We had a good time going over the finalists (in a pre-recorded video for the Bilibili one and a fun livestream for the YouTube one) and ultimately settled on our winners – Strawclutch, and Imprisoned.
We have already very nearly completed work on bringing these designs to the game – our level designer John has built them, and our environment artist DanC has decorated them. So, let’s talk about each one in turn.
Strawclutch (designed by Noctazar) will, at least in its skirmish form, be a fast-paced map with short overall playtime. The four colony spaces are in close proximity to each other, and in the very middle of the map is a large growth of aphid-bearing milkweed plants. These act as the main food source when played as a skirmish game, and there will be early and repeated quarrels as the colonies vie for control of this territory.
Our Bilibili winner is called Imprisoned (designed by 鶴轟), and it features a locking mechanism that will put colonies in direct conflict with each other only periodically, as the water level changes. This had to be adapted somewhat from the original concept to work without fire ant bridges (see later in the roadmap for more information about that) but the basic premise remains the same – for most of the time in this map, colonies can only get to each other via a long road, but with the change of the water level there will be fighting.
It was a lot of fun running this contest and there’s a very strong possibility of us doing more stuff like this in the future, perhaps post-release as part of ongoing content after we reach version 1.0.
There is one more custom game map coming along at the time of this update: Sand Spit, which is designed for 3v1 setups. We detailed this map more back in the July newsletter – so have a look back there for some more detailed information (and some pictures). All 3 of these maps will be coming simultaneously, and with any luck will be part of the upcoming beta test that focuses on the achievements as well.
For anyone wondering about other work-in-progress custom game maps that we’ve shown glimpses of, such as Archipelago and Wetlands – they are dependent on fire ant bridging being completed for custom games and we’ll discuss more about this later on.
New Year’s Feast Updates
The New Year’s Feast event level will be returning in January and February to coincide with Chinese New Year – with a whole bunch of achievements attached. This time around we’ll be making a bit more of an event of it, too – with some new cosmetic updates to make the map a bit more thematically pleasing, as well as a much-needed balance pass to bring the map up to speed with the food rebalancing that happened back with the 0.31 update.
For those of you who haven’t played it yet – it’s a whimsical themed level based around fire ants collecting ingredients for a hotpot, with an explosive twist and a fantastical ending. Check out the trailer above for a preview – the level will reappear on January 8th, marking its return with a lantern in the main menu.
Further Custom Game AI Changes
Version 0.31 of the game introduced some sweeping changes to the way AI colonies worked in a freeplay / custom game. Whilst they’ve been successful in lots of ways, it’s clear that there are some further things we can do to make it more effective without too much cheating.
One of the issues we’ve had recently is quite simply just playtime – taking time to play the mode exhaustively ourselves outside of the context of just having it working or fixing it. We spend all of our time developing and playing in chunks – we listen to a lot of external feedback from testers and players, and implement it based on general consensus. However, this is often lacking the personal context of lots of time just spent playing for the sake of playing.
Our devs have gained good momentum on tier 5 right now and we don’t want to disrupt that – so we’ve put aside several days in the new year to do nothing but play custom games and take notes. Rather than immediately run off and fix every issue we come across, as is usually the case with development work, we will absorb the experience in its entirety. We hope this will give us some sounder knowledge for what we should prioritise in making the mode work better.
Tier 4 Challenge Mode
This is another thing that we’ve spoken about extensively before, so I’ll be brief – right now tier 4 challenge mode is waiting for the aforementioned tier 5 momentum wave to crest. Once that spike of activity reaches its zenith and dies back down again, the six-spotted fishing spider will finally make its long-awaited appearance, wearing its pirate hat if you want it to.
Fire Ant Bridging
Fire ant bridging in custom levels is tricky for several reasons. How do we handle multiple colonies competing for the bridging spot, for the most obvious example – these problems have been mostly solved, but the more time-consuming issue of allowing fire ant bridges to be save-able in a custom game has not. Once it has been, fire ant bridging will be introduced to appropriate maps.
New Extra Levels / Custom Game maps
We will inevitably hit a period of time where we’re getting everything finalised and ready, ramping up the marketing effort and preparing for the very scary task of bringing our first project to full release for the entire world. How long this ends up being is complete guesswork right now, but it is likely that at this time there will be enough of a gap to squeeze in an extra level / custom game map or two.
John (level designer) told me recently that he’s had some ideas that he’s itching to try out, but he’s being very good and concentrating on getting the game to 1.0 right now. This period of time is when he might have a few spare hours to bring these to fruition.
It might be here that custom game maps Archipelago and Wetlands make their appearance – they both have some aspects to them that will require input from all 3 of the devs to work, though, so we’ll have to see how we do with the implementation of fire ant bridging in custom games.
Finally, after years of work, we will be here – and this is now a real horizon-loomer. Final release will feature the last 3 story / campaign levels (the fifth tier will have 3 levels, instead of 2 like the others) and the ultimate formicarium challenge that the scientist has been preparing your colony for. I hope you’re all ready.
Our Other Projects
Although this newsletter concentrates mainly on our in-house project Empires of the Undergrowth, Slug Disco also acts as a publisher for several other games, 3 of which are currently in active development. Our product marketing manager Dan has recently, with the help of their respective developers, written up some project updates. I’ll provide a brief summary below, with a link to the full posts for much more in-depth information.
Garden builder Horticular has recently had a new trailer, premiered on KatherineOfSky’s YouTube channel – definitely worth a look to see the improvements since the last one! Developer Robert is currently working on better ways to integrate animal habitats into your garden, improving the Hortic Day, and improving the UI for handheld devices such as the Steam Deck (he’s now a proud owner!). Link to full dev update
After the recent combat update to marine evolution sim Ecosystem, developer Tom has been working on performance optimisations and what he’s calling a “behaviour update” with the intention of giving the evolved creatures a richer life outside of mating, fighting and feeding. Link to full dev update
In his ‘Spore-like’ creature survival game Adapt, Paul has been working on a way to interact in a deeper way with wild creatures by fulfilling requests they make. In its initial form, these may take the form of a food item or objects such as sticks or rocks, but in the future it will be expanded to be more quest-like with requests taking the form of a rescue mission or suchlike. Link to full dev update
Time for some pretty Empires of the Undergrowth screenies! If you’d like to be featured in this section at some point in the future, the easiest way is to join our Discord and post on the screenshot channel there. Other than that, I’ll occasionally trawl through the community tab on Steam to see what’s been going on there. By default, press F9 to enter photo mode (hiding the UI) – hold down shift while you do that to uncouple the camera from the floor for some neater angles.