The past and future of Empire

eI wanted to write a quick post about Empire, which I haven't really been able to focus on recently, due to finishing my book and all the madness about getting Auro out. This is a little bit like a "post-mortem", but not quite. For one thing, I resent the term; it reeks of the old "release it and forget it!" model for games, which as you might know is the opposite of the way I treat my games. But also, I don't know whether there will be future work on Empire or not. I am ultimately not in control over whether there is or is not future development on Empire. The game is owned by Crazy Monkey Studios, and right now I know they are working on another project totally unrelated to Empire, not designed by me. That doesn't mean that they definitely won't come back to it - they may, but it's not directly in my control. If it were directly in my control, if I could just make builds myself as I can with Auro, I'd be making balance patches every few weeks, as needed, essentially forever. Before I go into specifics, if you want there to be more work on Empire, probably the best thing you can do is help us get it passed on Greenlight. Probably even Empire's detractors would agree that it should be on Steam if some of the other games on there made it on through the Greenlight process.

On Empire

I still think the game has a long way to go. There were dramatic changes happening in the last few patches, as people probably know. These were attempts to make higher level changes to fix a fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is that there are two "screens" - the overmap and the combat - and they fight with each other. This is not something that can be solved with high level changes. One of the two "screens" needs to be dramatically reduced in complexity. In other words: the fundamental problem, funny enough, is that Empire does not conform to the Clockwork Design pattern, which is what I just spent the last year writing a book about. How the hell did that happen? Well, I actually designed Empire - the core of it - around three years ago (~2011). At that time, Auro was in its infancy; we didn't yet know that it was going to be all about "bumping". I didn't quite grasp the concept of "core mechanism" and how important that was. Somewhere in 2012 I guess, I was approached by CMS about making a game. I had the design doc for Empire lying around, and I had even tested a paper prototype version of the combat, so I was very excitedly like, "let's do this!" One of the members of the team had previously worked on the Age of Wonders series, so it seemed pretty natural to do a "4X" style game with them. So like Auro, Empire started out as a "copy of a non-thing" (a non-Clockwork Design). In Auro's case, that non-thing was "a Rogue-like." In Empire's case, it was "4X Strategy games", whatever that means.The difference is that I was able to spend the years required to mold Auro into a thing, whereas I wasn't able to with Empire. So the solutions thus far with Empire have been essentially stopgap solutions. There were some reactions out there from the Empire changes that we were changing way too much about the game, and turning it into a completely different game. I agree with that, and that's a totally reasonable response, but what those people didn't maybe know is that I think the game needs even more drastic changes to really work.

Going Forward

Again, I have no direct control over whether there's ever another patch or any other Empire thing, but I'd like to talk about some ideas for what I would do if I get the opportunity. Like I said, there's a fundamental design issue, which is the two different screens. I think that of those two screens, the combat-screen is the richer, more-ripe core mechanism. So the question is, how do we focus on that? I haven't really begun any formal process of digging into that yet, but I have a rough idea in my mind of how we'd approach it. Essentially, I would start by trying to see if we can completely remove the other screen. I'd try to make it work somehow by just being "combat-combat-combat-combat", with maybe some very simple screen in between that showed score/stats in between. With this change, I would add more cards that do more with deck management, and some cards that produce units. If this didn't work, I would start to scale up a bit from there, and see if there are elements from the overmap that can be used. Another question is how do we actually offer this? Ideally, I would actually have this mode over-write the existing mode, since the existing mode really just is not up to snuff. However, for a lot of practical reasons, we probably won't do that. An inoffensive way to offer it would be as a "mode" in the Empire app, like Blitz mode or something. Or I'd be fine with it being another app, like Empire Blitz, or, much less preferably, Empire 2. I'm still excited about the future of Empire! I hope that we can continue to make changes to the game and eventually get it to a really good place. Again: help support us on Greenlight - that's the best shot we have for the future of the game. Thanks for reading!

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EMPIRE is out!

Yesterday EMPIRE, a game I've been designing for Crazy Monkey Studios for the past 8 months or so, was released.  It was a pretty quick turnaround - after working on 100 Rogues, which took about a year and a half, and AURO, which so far has taken nearly two years, it's nice to design a game, make it, and put it out there. It was a pretty different experience, process-wise.  Unlike AURO, I really knew what EMPIRE was going to be at the get-go.  The game that it ultimately was released as was very close to what I had in mind from the start - especially combat, which I feel is very strong in version 1.0. screen1136x1136 Despite the fact that I'm really happy with where EMPIRE is now, I feel that version 1.0 is just the beginning.  I have a lot of other plans for the game in future updates.  For instance, I'd like to change the way that monsters work on the overmap.  It would probably be good if monsters had the bases that they have now, but also sent out troops which milled about randomly until they came in contact with the player's city.  That way, there's a bit more life/emergence to the monsters, and it also makes the whole "I target you, you target me" thing - which is kind of strange at the moment - less of a problem. Monster cities would never "attack" you, only launch wandering monsters.  Monsters themselves would attack, but simply by walking onto your city.  Since you and the monsters are already very asymmetrical, it makes sense that the way they attack would be different than the way you do. Another thing that I think the game might need is some third resource - perhaps "gems", or perhaps "settlements" - that you can see through the fog at different locations on the map.  These would be required for certain tech things (such as perhaps Shaman's Huts), but also finite, and could be wiped out by wandering monsters.  This would give exploration a much-needed boost in its coherence as a mechanism. Anyway, overall I'm so excited about having another game I designed out there.  I can't wait to hear what people think of the game.  If you know anyone who wants to review the game, send me an email and I can probably get you a promo code.

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Introducing: EMPIRE

StyleSketch1Today I wanted to introduce people to a new game that I'm designing called EMPIRE.  In order to do this, I think it makes sense to first talk about what already exists, and then talk about what I'm doing that's different. EMPIRE is my take on the so-called "4X Strategy" genre of digital games.  I've always been a fan of games like Civilization, and even more so of Master of Magic.  I do have a number of problems with the genre, problems which have not been getting better.  For instance, Civilization V, the latest game in the Civilization series, did not correct most of the games worst problems.  You can read about my problems with that game, which are fairly similar to my problems with just about every game in the genre, here. Suffice it to say that with EMPIRE, I have an opportunity to do what I did for 4X games what AURO does for roguelikes:  namely, find some kernel of an actual core gameplay mechanism, and build a carefully constructed system around that.  So unlike most videogames, this game will be system-based, not component-based. Why does that actually matter?  Well, because it means that we can have an elegant design, which in turn means that we can have a system that's both extremely easy to learn, and equally difficult to master. In short, EMPIRE is a modern, elegant solution to the problems of 4X strategy games.


EMPIRE is a game centered around the concept of maintaining a growing set of resources. I often start with some thematic metaphor to help me in designing a game, and with EMPIRE, that metaphor was one of "the rise and fall of an empire".  I think it's very interesting and dynamic how a real life empire can grow more and more powerful, but sort of break under the pressure of its own weight after awhile. I've also been playing a lot of Puzzle Strike, and before that, Dominion, and I feel that the "deck-building" mechanism is a fantastic way to express that.  So, the "set of resources" that you're maintaining in EMPIRE are digital "cards" that you use in battle and win from victories. So, in a sense, EMPIRE is the world's first Deck-Building 4X Strategy game! Right now, the game is in an early alpha stage, so you should expect some of what's written here to change in the coming months as more playtesting begins.  Also, keep in mind that all screenshots and such are very early - excuse the temporary buttons and such! [caption id="attachment_585" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Working Alpha prototype.  Forgive the temporary art and menus! Working Alpha prototype. Forgive the temporary art and menus![/caption] EMPIRE In Detail EMPIRE is not only built to avoid the pitfalls of traditional 4X strategy games, but it's also built primarily for mobile, and the game is being designed around this.  I'll explain some of the rules to show you how it works. Essentially, EMPIRE is a war-game.  This puts it in stark contrast with most other 4X games which have a more toy-like "do whatever you want" feeling to them much of the time.  In this game, you are trying to conquer other civilizations in a constant need to take new territory.  Eventually, your civilization will fall, so it is a matter of surviving for as long as you can and winning as many battles as you can to achieve the highest score possible.  To return to the metaphor, you could say that this reflects entering your empire into the textbooks of history as one of the world's greatest. When you start the game, you have enough resources to found one city.  When you do create a city, that city starts sucking up resources from the surrounding tiles each turn.  Eventually - and this is one of the most different things about the game - those tiles will produce fewer and fewer resources, until they finally become "desolation" tiles:  scars on the earth that not only produce no resources at all, but actually spawn dangerous monsters. So, this means that you must stay on the move to keep a steady flow of resources coming in.  And if you don't keep that steady flow of resources coming in, and a nearby Empire does, well, then you can guess that he'll likely overpower you.  So, there's a natural struggle for new, un-desolated territory.


I started with the question, "what are cities, really, in a game like this?"  If we can identify that at its core, this is a war game, then cities are a stepping stone towards creating your army.  With this understanding, we can realize that the system for cities is not central, and should be limited in its complexity. The system for how cities work is extremely simple, yet still has enough resolution to support expressive gameplay choices.  A city is taking in "food" from nearby tiles, and when it reaches a certain threshold, it "levels up".  When it does this, you can choose between a choice of 2 buildings.  Once you choose one, that choice is permanent.  You can't go build the other building now.  Eventually, you'll level up again, and now you get another choice of 2 different buildings.  This is "Tier 2", and there are 3 such tiers. So, you basically have 3 rounds of choices to make, which leads to somewhere around a dozen or so possibilities for the city's configuration (someone else can do the math for this and let me know the exact number!). Of course, you can also have more than one city.  We're currently working with a system where the maximum number of cities is 3, but even to have 3 is difficult.  So, having 1 city is tax-free, but when you have a 2nd city, there's a decently harsh tax on all income.  So, if you'd normally be sucking up 10 food a turn, now it's reduced to 8 food a turn, or something.  Which might be totally fine while the surrounding resources are good and healthy, but makes the desolation tiles even more of a threat.  3 cities is almost never sustainable for very long due to a significant tax that's imposed.  If you have 3 cities, you need to either be constantly winning battles (winning some battles can yield some resources) or just moving quickly to new areas (this would probably require winning battles anyway!). The primary role of cities is to suck up resources from the land, produce new military units, and produce new Action Cards (which I'll get to in a second). [caption id="attachment_589" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Ignore the text and HUD stuff, it's all temporary! Ignore the text and HUD stuff, it's all temporary![/caption]


This is probably the biggest area that "it being a mobile game" helped influence the design, but honestly, mobile design is good design, in a way.  What I mean is, you never want a game to be super fiddly UI-madness;  you always want interacting with the game to be as simple as it possibly can. With armies and units, one thing I wanted to do away with was the concept of "moving units around from city to city".  It's extremely fiddley, and even when you have a mouse it's just annoying.  Grouping units together, waiting for that last swordsman you just produced to walk allll the way over the map to get to the rest of the group, etc.  I didn't want to deal with any of that. So in this game, your army is ever-present.  It's like a resource.  If you attack something, you have your whole army.  If you're attacked at any of your cities, your whole army defends.  Making an attack on something takes time, by the way - if you want to attack an enemy city, that city is alerted to it, and it takes a certain amount of time (this amount calculated by distance, the terrain covered, and how many Mounted type units are in your army). This way, we can avoid any fiddling.  It should make for a really pleasing, easy to use, yet still super strategic experience.


It may be surprising to know that cities are not central to this game.  Armies are also not central.  Armies, too, are merely a resource that is used in combat.  So what is central to EMPIRE? The EMPIRE Action Deck.  In the game, you start with a deck of about 10 Action Cards.  These are used in combat to give your troops commands.   One of them might say "all archers advance", one might say "soldiers fortify", or "all units retreat".  Some of them have special effects, like making one unit invulnerable for a turn, or even summoning monsters. When a battle begins, the game draws a number of these that you may use on your turn. First, your troops advance on their own, and then you may use an Action Card from your "hand".  Then, any combat that is possible happens and is resolved.  It's a really simple system that's still highly tactical and interesting.  I made a paper mockup of the combat which worked really well. Here's where it gets really interesting, though.  Winning fights is of course, the objective of the game.  And when you do, you gain points.  But here's the rub:  those points are given to you in the form of a Victory Point card, which goes into your action deck.  Players of Dominion are very familiar with what I'm talking about right now - what this means is that your deck is slowly getting clogged up with more and more useless cards.  Late game, you may have added lots of fantastic, magical, powerful cards to your deck... but you've also likely won a good number of battles, and have a good number of Victory Point cards.  This means that on a given turn, it's increasingly likely that you might just draw 2 or 3 VP cards, severely limiting your combat options! Old empires can get Action Cards that re-draw hands to help mitigate this, build buildings to increase hand size, and even sometimes trash some old unneeded cards, but these all come at a cost. Combat is fought until 3 units are killed on either side, OR the base-line of a side takes 5 damage (it can be attacked). [caption id="attachment_587" align="aligncenter" width="319"]Obviously, this is just a conceptual mockup - not artwork at all! Obviously, this is just a conceptual mockup - not artwork at all![/caption] Throughout the game, not only will young new Empires spring up to try to take power away from your old, mighty empire, but Monsters are also spawning with increasing frequency.  It's always a dangerous, unsafe world in Empire.  When your last city is destroyed, the game ends, and your score is tallied.


I should mention that EMPIRE is not a Dinofarm Games game.  Instead, I'm working with a new team, as lead designer.  The lead artist for this team is a guy named Martijn Holtkamp, who has Age of Wonders 2, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic, and Divinity 2 on his resume. [caption id="attachment_588" align="aligncenter" width="650"]Concept art by Martijn! Concept art by Martijn![/caption] The theme for the game is loosely inspired by Conan the Barbarian illustrations by Frank Frazetta and other similar artists, but also blended with a touch of stylized cartoonyness.  This is all really Martijn's domain, which maybe I'll get him to write more about in a future post, but for now suffice it to say that I think the game will look unique. We expect the game to be out Fall of 2013.  As for platforms, the game is being created in Unity, so where ever Unity can exist, EMPIRE can exist. We are of course, expecting lots of roblox hacks, but don't worry we are ready.  Certainly iOS, Android, Windows, OSX, just to name a few. So that's EMPIRE!  What do you think?  I'd love some feedback on the idea, and I've created a forum over at Dinofarm Games to talk about it.  Eventually, we'll likely start a beta phase, and if you subscribe over at Dinofarm, you'll be the first to know about it.  Thanks for reading!

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