Interview with Jon Shafer about Conifer Games’ At the Gates

When was the last time an empire-builder strategy game really offered something outside of the realm of what you’re used too? I’m talking about unique gameplay, combat, micromanaging, diplomacy and concept. Conifer Games and Jon Shafer’s At the Gates is a unique 4X strategy game that puts you in the shoes of a barbarian tribe during the fall of the Roman Empire, starting in 375 AD.

Even though western Rome is in decline, the future Byzantine Empire is on the rise in the east. These empires have years of technological advancements and culture that any budding tribe could learn from. Will you play nice with the Romans to learn their secrets, or will you take them by force? Either way, you are biding time until you can take Rome or Constantinople as a trophy.

Your tribe won’t be the only show in Europe, though. The other barbarians — whether friend or foe — will also be trying their hardest to survive in an ever-changing climate. Resources will deplete as you tap them, the seasons change, and your settlements can migrate. When winter comes, lakes will freeze and food becomes scarce. Did you stockpile enough during summer? By the way, Attila the Hun is asking for a food donation while horse archers wait at your borders. What’s your poison: arrows in the back or a slow starvation? This is just one of the many difficult situations you could find yourself in while playing At the Gates.

Monday, I had the opportunity to interview Jon Shafer about At the Gates. As Conifer Games’ president and founder, he is also the designer and gameplay programmer for the product. Experienced in modding, Shafer is an avid history buff and was the lead designer in Civilization V; you could say this isn’t his first rodeo. While At the Gates’ Kickstarter’s goals had already been met, look up the project and support it if you like what Conifer Games is doing. Check out our conversation below:           

Jon Shafer

GameZone: Of all historic time periods, why did you choose late antiquity?

Jon Shafer: Part of it was, it was just something on my mind at the time, to be honest. One of my friends, who is also a designer, was working on a fall of Rome scenario for the game he was working on, and he was telling me about some of the things he was doing in the scenario. It got my imagination going and all the interesting possibilities in that time period if there was a game built around it. What got me on track about thinking about the game was that the era really fits well with the mechanics I wanted to do with my next game. Mainly an evolving world where the map changes over time and a strategy game where there is more of an arch. You build up, get powerful, then the game gets harder over time. Opposed to many other strategy games where it turns more into a exponential curve where you get strong and stronger and eventually win.

GZ: Besides the Romans, Vandals, Goths, and Huns, who are some other factions you may encounter?

JS: One of them, which is more obscure, which is something I like especially from this time period, different than the big boys, is the Alemanni — a smaller Germanic tribe that was fighting with the Romans a bit. In terms of the full list, it would be hard to nail it down at this point, but we're looking at other factions like the Franks and even the Picts up in Scotland. A good deal of variety. The final list definitely hasn't been locked down, but that's the core of what we're looking at, and there are other options we are considering.

GZ: Will each faction you play as have unique traits and military units?

JS: Yes, yes — definitely so. The Huns will be possibly one of the more unique ones. Obviously, they are going to heavily reliant on horse archers, which are far different from the other Germanic tribes. The Huns as well, a gameplay feature I am possibly considering is not allowing them to actually own anything that is on the map. They would have settlements that can move faster and further than other factions, horse archers which are very powerful, but they can't own farms or cities; they just have to go around pillaging. That's just something I've been thinking about — not sure if it would be any fun. The Huns will probably be one of the more unique ones. I want to differentiate all of them a bit and make them all unique and fun to play.

GZ: I saw there will be an eastern and western Rome. Will the two factions be different or two of the same factions in different locations?

JS: They will be fairly similar. At this point in time, the Roman Empire hasn't technically split in half yet. Actually, they had rejoined for a brief period of time. The game starts at 375 AD; there are huge differences between them, although the factions themselves will have different situations. The Eastern Romans will be stronger and more powerful, and the game begins with the [eastern] Roman Empire being under Emperor Valens, who was an Arian Christian opposed to the western Roman emperors (who were a different Christian). So there is a diplomatic angle to the game and part of that is which religion you are. So each Roman faction will be a different religion at the start, which can change drastically. Over time, you can work with them in completely different ways. In terms of what they have access to and what types of units they have, they will be fairly similar in terms, but their in-game situations will be pretty different.

At the Gate 1

GZ: What role will religion play other than diplomacy?

JS: That's it. We wanted to have a lot of mechanical nobs in diplomacy where the player has control to manipulate the situation. One example of that is religion and another is requests. Religion also fits because it a very important part of this era, and we wanted to represent that. I considered a more-detailed system where you could actually flip populations with missionary units, or something like that, but it really didn't fit into the game as I envisioned it. It isn't about going around converting, but about barbarians running around causing trouble and the fall of civilization. Religion was an important part, but it falls on a more diplomatic or political side where, 'okay who is what religion and what are the implications to that.'

GZ: How important will learning and adapting to your Roman neighbors, even assimilating, be to your success?

It will be pretty important. You might be able to get through a game without becoming Romanized at all, but it would probably be a good idea because the Romanization process is like a technology tree. So you have new units you can gain access to, like catapults, siege weapons, and use Romanization perks to upgrade your improvements and make your farms produce more food. It's very beneficial and you want to be taking advantage of that either by fighting the Romans or helping them out.

GZ: Will there be other victory modes besides conquest?

JS: The ultimate victory condition will always be to capture either Rome or Constantinople. Although, something I definitively want to emphasize is that At The Gate is not a military game; it is not a war game; it's definitely got a more martial sense than say Civilization, but it's a full 4X game. We talked about diplomacy and economic factors to consider, which civilization to take, which perks to take, if you want to be a naval party, if you want to focus on making friends, and other things to consider. But your ultimate goal will be to take down Rome or Constantinople.  

GZ: Diplomacy in other empire-building games could get really fickle and even random; will relationships in At the Gates mean more?

JS: Really looking to improve on that. Religion is one aspect that if you're the same as someone else, that will be a big bonus; if you’re not, though, that will be a big penalty.  If you switch away from a religion someone belongs to, they will get even more upset. If you jump around whenever you want, there will be repercussions to that. The actual behavior of the AI leaders will be fairly consistent based on their relations with you. So if you work really hard and become friends with them, they will reflect and reward that in a way. We really wanted to take a lot of that randomness out, but there will still be some leaders that will be a little more random due to their personality — like a wild card. You never know what they'll do, so working with them could be risky, but they still could help your situation, whereas most leaders will be very predictable based on religion.

The idea behind the diplomatic request is that your situation matters for how you interact with other players and their situations matter. If a player has a really big problem they are trying to solve, like being attacked or being out of food, if you are able to help they will love you. For example, if you're walking down the street and you meet someone you've never met, and when you introduce yourself you hand them a cheeseburger, and they look at you funny and think you're kind of odd. If you are in a not so nice part of town and found someone homeless on the side of the street starving, and you introduce yourself and hand them a cheeseburger, they might be much more happier to receive that cheeseburger. That is the basic idea behind diplomacy behind the request. If someone is in a situation and they need your help  and ask for something and you give it to them, that is a big deal. If you just show up on their door step with a cheeseburger, they'll look at you and be like “Okay, thanks… I appreciate it?” The idea is that it's very contextual and situational. You as the player have to pay attention to that and take advantage of it. You can't just fill up a big pile of gold and hand it off to them and expect them to love you forever.

GZ: Can the player make requests from the AI factions?

JS: You can make requests from them, but not though the same system. It is primarily geared towards the AI sharing its feelings with you and giving you accessible nobs to manipulate the situation. You can ask the AI leaders to attack other players and other things like that.

At the Gate 2

GZ: Will there be supply units to aid your military units away from home?

JS: Yes, there is a supply camp unit. It basically extends the supply radius of your settlement; if you have a supply camp within the radius of your settlement, it supplies a radius around it. And then if you have another, it extends the radius around it, and you can chain them together and build a little network to wherever your attacking. It's very important to protect those nodes; if your enemy captures a supply camp, it breaks the chain and you lose the entire thing. Protecting supplies will be a big part of combat in the game. There's more to it than just knocking some heads together and building the biggest pile of units.

GZ: Can the supply camps be conquered or just destroyed?

JS: Right now you just destroy them, but you might be able to capture them down the line. It's still early.

GZ: Are there settlement improvements or do you just improve tiles?

JS: A mix of both, there are some things you build in the settlement, like walls in case you are going to be under attack, and those fix your settlement in that location. Most the economic development is done though laborers that you send to tiles to farm or make a gold mine. Really wanted to economic focus to be on a strategic empire level; so you have a stockpile of resources you are managing, and then at the settlement level, they are trying to help you out in certain aspects. For the most part, you are paying attention to the broader situation.        

GZ: You can just move your settlement whenever you want?

JS: Yea, you can't move very far, but as migratory barbarians, it makes sense that you can actually migrate. It will be an important part of the game, as well. The resource deposits on the map like metal and wood deplete over time, so eventually you'll have a tapped-out harvested area, and you'll have to move on and find somewhere else that hasn't been emptied yet. It really extends that expansion part of the game that is so good in games likes Civilization. Unfortunately, they kind of teeter out mid-game; At the Gates really wanted to extend that all the way through and make things interesting.

GZ: How many turns will a season be?

JS: Each turn in a month. We start at 375 AD. I don’t know how long the game as a whole will be yet. I expect it will be in the 100 to 200 turn range, but that will ultimately come out in play-testing. Our philosophy with the turns is that each turn is important and has a number of decisions that are significant to make. There will be depleting resources, keeping track of that, watching your area, the diplomacy of your neighbors, the changing of the seasons — all sorts of things. When you build most items, they build instantaneous — you know, all those ships that take one month to build. For the most part, all things are pretty immediate. You’re really doing a lot every turn, even though it’s fewer turns there will be more going on.

GZ: Are there any talks about a multiplayer feature?

JS: There will not be multiplayer.

GZ: How excited are you to see the community MOD At the Gates once it goes live?

JS: Yes, we actually just finished funding the game for our Kickstarter goal, and our first few stretch goals are geared towards modding. So we’re hoping all those get hit. I’m a huge modding guy. I got into Civ and game development through modding, so it’s something we really want to do here and add cool features in that aspect of the game. Users can tweak values, modify the UI, build maps, and that sort of thing. They are stretch goals, so we can’t guarantee they will all be reached, but we’re hoping they will and we’re looking forward flushing that out.

GZ: As of today you still have 25 days to go and you’ve already reached your $40,000 goal; do you have any stretch goals beyond $85,000?

JS: We’ve been thinking about it, thinking about other platforms. It’s Windows-exclusive but we’ve been thinking of some other ones. I can’t say anything specific yet, we’re still looking into it, of course. Other customization features too, like the ability to choose how the maps are generated, how many resources are spawning, that sort of thing. One really big one we’re considering if the campaign does really well is to make the Romans actually playable. That would be an expansion or a sequel sort of thing. If it keeps doing really well, hopefully we’ll have the time to do all that.

GZ: After At the Gates comes out in the first half of 2014, what project do you see Conifer Games working on next?

JS: We’re bouncing around some ideas for other strategy games, but nothing specific yet. My goal is to keep Conifer pretty small. Right now there are the three of us — myself, Jonathan the architect, and Kay our art director. We might hire a few other people to help out. At this point, I’ve worked at bigger companies and bigger studios, but the model I really enjoy the most is having a really small team where you’re flexible and you can work on different types of games. Obviously, there haven’t been a ton of games about the fall of the Roman Empire from the barbarians' perspective. If we had a 10, 15, 20-man team, we would have to feed all those mouths. You’re spending more money and can’t innovate as much. We’re looking stay small and try a variety of different and interesting things.