First of all, the TLDR: the time has come to push back the release date yet again, this time to September 25th.
Finances (Just Because I know People Will Ask)
So, yet another month — whew. This is now our most expensive-to-make game except for Valley 1, and our most time-consuming-to-make game in terms of man-months by quite a margin.
Arcen just had a reasonable windfall what with the Steam Summer Sale and the Daily Deal for TLF. Between the two of those, that was more than a third of our income so far this year (it’s been a slack year). This delay does raise the bar yet again on how much the game has to gross to break even, but that’s frankly unavoidable at this point.
And I do think that we can really recoup this. Both TLF and AI War have exceeded the amount it will take to break even on this game, and I think this game will be notably more attractive to customers than TLF — if we finish this up right. As for the total yearly income for the company, I think that the biggest blow would be releasing a substandard game rather than a delay of (sigh, yet another) another month.
Diplomacy In Games Kinda Stinks
And that’s me being nice. There are a huuuuge number of reasons for this, and I’m not going to sit here and enumerate issues with other games. But I spent a goodly amount of time reading the complaints of players (both our own and just in general forums on the internet) about diplomacy in other games, and there were a lot of consistent themes. Some of that is in here: [Forum link]Chris: Hiatus from new beta players for a bit (diplomacy), but keep signing up!
The TLDR there is that even with the games that people like the diplomacy in, it’s still in a “well it’s not for everyone, though” and a “it’s also got xyz major shortcomings, but it’s better than anything else by far” way.
People REALLY Want Good Diplomacy In Some Game
It comes up again and again in reviews and forums and so on and so forth. Always has. And I feel that desire as well. There are lots of wishlisty sort of desires that people have, of varying degrees of feasibility and practicality. And people know what frustrates them, too.
There are a lot of possible interpretations of things, but what I’ve chosen to take away as the key requirements are this:
- It can’t be ancillary to the main gameplay, or people won’t use it. It has to be front and center.
- It has to give a sense of personality in order to be very interesting.
- It has to have a certain level of simplicity in order to be any fun for most people, and to not have an insane learning curve.
- It has to have a certain amount of flexibility, or people start feeling like it’s an arbitrary game-y sort of system and not very realistic.
- It shouldn’t be mounds of spreadsheets or text that make things impenetrable. That feels like you’re going down a rabbit hole away from the main game.
- There should be a definite sense of momentum and consequence, where it’s clear that the AIs are remembering what happened and where it’s clear how that affects their future decisions.
- All of this information should be on as few screens as possible (ideally one), in some sort of digestible fashion, so that the player can look at things and understand what the heck is going on.
- This whole thing can’t just be one big feedback loop into the “main” game, or this is just one more way of affecting the main game. Rather, it does need to have some separate systems of its own, but it also needs to have crosstalk with a variety of the “main” game systems, just like other game systems have with one another.
- There has to be a huuuge cost for war, or people will just do that.
My Solution For Diplomacy
Now, I don’t claim to have all the answers on this by any stretch of the imagination — not the One True Diplomacy Model or anything, I mean. But I have designed the framework of a system that meets all of the above criteria quite well, and which I feel like I have “clear line of sight” (as my dad would say) to solutions for the details. There are still tons of details that need to be filled in, but I can easily visualize solutions for ALL of those, which is a real first for me with this area of the game.
The short explanation for how diplomacy will work is this:
- There’s an overall International Relations screen that is new (coming up), which is a new hex grid with sections for all the other races (but not you).
- The cells on this start out mostly blocked out, inaccessible to you. However, as you interact with these races, the cells get filled in by either good or bad icons, and you gain access to larger and larger rings of hexes with each race.
- Most of the bad icons will come from fighting with them, not agreeing to requests from them, and so on. Actually “cashing in favors” will be negative in the sense that it lowers your overall balance with this race.
- Good icons will come from a variety of sources, such as trade, sharing resources, and so on.
- If your relationship is souring for too long, then the bad icons can start overwriting the good ones, and blocking them.
- If your relationship is something you want to focus on improving, then you can remove some of those negative roadblocks by doing exceptional positive things for that race.
- Rather than “dominating” other races per se, you now will win the game (standard victory) by increasing all of the races to have enough rings filled in with positive stuff that they are “no threat.”
- Races that die or become militarily subjugated get darkened on this screen and are no longer someone you have to have international relations with directly in order to win.
- A ton of the positive icons are going to be mutually beneficial, so if you want to increase in power a lot of that is going to come playing nice with others. And if you turn on an ally that is fine, but you’ll gradually lose all the benefits that you otherwise would gain from them. So you have full flexibility to be a turncoat, but you need to really be in a strong position and know what you are doing in order to succeed at that.
You have the tempo:
- This game isn’t about beating the other races; it’s about you finding a safe and established place in an existing complex world that is already long-term established. Therefore, things are more focused on you and your changing relationships with the other races, rather than having the relationships of the other races with one another fluctuate too much over the course of a particular game.
- There are some other cool positional things about races that are near one another on the International Relations having positive historical relationships (long before the start of the campaign you are in now), and those that are very far from one another having more negative relationships. There will be a variety of explanations for why the relationships are what they are, but overall these will be pretty static.
Specialty Victories become mostly cooperative:
- Rather than being the only race to escape into space, you’ll have to work with some other races in a more meaningful way.
- Same if you want to destroy the planet, etc.
- Code-wise this isn’t going to be a major challenge or a major change, but it means that forming some sort of relationships on the International Relations grid as part of accomplishing that is still important.
A variety of subsystems get subsumed by this:
- The old style of diplomacy and trade was already planned to become obsolete, and so of course it comes into this.
- The current system of International Incidents will be heavily, heavily altered to fit this.
- The International Incidents screen will go away, instead becoming a Military Conflicts panel on a new sidebar in the International Relations screen (right above a “Requests For Aid” panel that is new.)
- Overall there will be far fewer military conflicts, and they will matter a lot more. Rather than just guns flying about all the time everywhere.
- The existing Victory Progress screen will also be combined into this, since that’s basically what this is tracking. As a happy aside on that front, your Victory Progress will actually go up in percentage a lot more granularity and a lot faster, since you won’t have to completely dominate a race in some fashion in order to get any percentage points at all. As you progress towards making a race No Threat, it gets progressively higher percentage.
- The idea of dominations goes away, of course, which means that the specialty hybrid victory conditions that I’ve been touting actually become even MORE hybrid, since now inside one race you even get a hybrid way of making them not a threat. Before it was just a mix of how you did things from race to race, but now it’s something that is a lot more varied even with one race, which is super nice.
- Planet rage will also be subsumed in this to some extent, I think. Or at least will tie into it heavily. Not having casus belli and going to war a ton will not win you friends outside of the Thoraxians and Burlusts or people who hate the people you’re attacking. But the planet itself has reasons for not wanting you guys to wipe one another out, at least, and will get more and more threatening if you want to go all genocidal.
What About The Rest Of The Game?
So, we’ve already delayed this game at least twice. How did things turn out, in retrospect, from those?
TLDR: Very, very well. Though I forget all the individual things, and I’m leaving off all the general stuff like performance improvements and bugfixing time on so on, here’s a partial list:
- The shift to Districts instead of Cities was definitely a big win, but had various problems. It was a major step in the right direction, though.
- The further shift to Territories instead of Districts has been an enormous win on all fronts, I feel.
- The military has shifted in a wide variety of ways, becoming further and further streamlined and clear, and it now meets the goals of the original Risk-like design I had in mind.
- Too much fighting gets wearying with the military, but that’s true in most any 4X. The system is so solid that I am feeling really good about having that be something that is a really strong subsystem among many systems for the game.
- The citybuilding has been getting increasingly strong and clear, and has really come into its own as a mature core for the game.
- A lot of the remaining complaints about citybuilding from a really fundamental fashion boil down to some bits needing to be a bit more differentiated from one another, or a bit less fiddly in a few areas, etc.
Just as territories made the military vastly less fiddly (and citybuilding), the new international relations stuff is also aimed at those last pieces of differentiation and fiddlyness-removal on the citybuilding side. I have what I feel is extremely clear “line of sight” on all the issues that players have raised on this area, too.
Valley 1 was a game that we kept delaying and delaying, and we kept making major changes to it, but it was a lot of changing back and forth and wobbling around. With SBR, the changes have all been honing the core ideas that this game is based on, and have been focused on making things simple, clear, fun, and deep — without just tacking on tons of extra complexity or content in the subconscious hope that quantity will make up for quality, heh.
Other Benefits From This Delay:
Erik and I will have time to fully do the marketing the way that we want. I’ll have time to actually do interviews and livestreams that he sets up for me, and then he’ll have time to do… everything else. ;)
We’ll also have a much better shot at getting launch-day reviews, which would be a big win. The reason this is affected is because we can’t let reviewers have the game until it’s a certain amount polished, and if we’re running right up to the deadline on that, then that gives them next to no time.
And lastly, this will give us a longer period for just-polish, which is going to be sorely needed, along with a hope of an extended period of Chris-testing-time, which is also something we’ve identified as key and yet which has been really falling by the wayside lately for a variety of reasons.
Oh, and lastly lastly, I’m more comfortable with late September as a release time of year in general. August is right in the middle of the sales doldrums, which made me fairly nervous in general. Late September is a period where sales are starting to uptick some, but it’s still before the wash of the holiday rush of AAA games. August was already bugging me a lot just because it was August and historically that has not been a good month for game releases, so this solves that.
Anyway, that’s the long explanation of what’s going on, why, and what the plan is. I figured it was time to catch everyone up and to go ahead and make this call.
The diplomacy section is the last truly weak part of the game, and this gives us time to address that and hopefully come out with something that people are excited about not just because it’s good on its own, but hopefully superior to other similar games and meeting a longstanding unsatisfied desire. We shall see. The biggest change in my own head about this aspect of the game is that I no longer think of it as “the diplomacy section,” but rather just expanding on the existing already-good parts of the game and providing a new consolidated interface to track those and how they feed into victory.
The “diplomacy” work is larger than I had expected in terms of the number of changes it’s going to make to the game, so it’s going to take us a few weeks at the absolute bare minimum to complete. Until then there won’t be any new waves of beta players (no point!). Unless I’m really turning out to be missing the mark with this new stuff, then after that point and the initial week or two of inevitable revisions, we’ll be in a position where all the features are settled enough that we’re into refinement, bugfixing, balance, polish, etc, for the remainder of the time.
Thanks for sticking with us through this ride!