GamesBeat: A lot of games have turned out pretty well that were just one person and a few contractors.
Shafer: It’s true. It’s not a bad way of making games. For me, having all of that work on my own shoulders, that’s something I don’t think I could do again. I am ready to evolve into a new stage of my career, where I am more in the director role and less in the front lines all the time, every time. It’s fun writing localization systems and tutorials and all sorts of the stuff that — it’s the grunt work that needs to happen to make a game. I find it satisfying to do that and do that well. But it takes a lot of energy, and I’ve done that. I think I can pull lessons from that and scale things up a bit. The reality is, I wanted to do something like multiplayer for At the Gates, but it just wasn’t possible because it was me by myself. Making a 3D game would be fun. That’s something where you can also add a lot of value just in terms of making an immersive experience. That’s what the point of a game is, even a strategy game. These are things that I can’t do all on my own. I have to change my approach. That’s something I’m excited to do. I like changing. I like doing and trying new things. That’s part of what makes this fun. I don’t want to make At the Gates again, the same way I made At the Gates. I want to do something different and do something that can hopefully reach more people.
GamesBeat: You’re talking about how much time you spent on just redoing little things. How many times did you end up rewriting At the Gates?
Shafer: There are certain parts of it that have seen more work than others, to be sure. Things like interface, I’ve iterated on that a great deal. Things like concept text, how different mechanics are explained in the game. How structures work, how resources work, writing the descriptions for that stuff. The diplomacy system is something I basically redesigned and started over on three times before I finally settled on something. I think I’ve figured out something that works pretty well. I need to add some more content to the system. It’s still a bit light on that front. But it’s in a good place where I’ll be able to do a lot more — not only on this game but in future games as well. It took a while to get there. I took some wrong directions at first. A lot of that was due to the fact that I didn’t have that ability to focus or plan or prioritize and say, “This is what’s important. This is what I need to look at.”
Now, I know. I can weigh different things and say, “OK, well, what needs to get done first and why? How does that affect something else? When do we start playtesting? What sorts of changes are we willing to make at that point, or not?” There’s so much time that I spent on things that didn’t need that time. A lot of time was spent on things that did pay off. I think the tooltips system in At the Gates is honestly the most powerful tooltips system of any piece of software ever made. There’s so much there. I think a lot of people are going to get a lot out of it. That took a lot of time to do, a huge amount of time, and it wouldn’t have been possible had I not spent that time. There are certainly some examples of where all that time did add up to something, and then definitely many where it didn’t. If I had to say the breakdown — it’s hard to say, but maybe 50-50, which may not be that uncommon for games. It’s certainly a much higher percentage of redoing or spent effort in places where it didn’t necessarily belong than I am happy with and want to aim for going forward.
GamesBeat: What system has benefited the most, you feel, from the way that you’ve worked on it over the years?
Shafer: Hmm. That’s a good question. Probably the tooltips or the clan system. The clans are kind of like characters. This is one of the biggest innovations, I think, within the 4X genre that At the Gates brings. It’s something that really adds a character and a story element to a genre that’s typically remembered more for its mechanics and its numbers and its maps. I love maps, but I think the future of growing strategy — and I think we’ve seen this with games like XCOM and Crusader Kings, but I think there’s even more there. That’s where I’m pushing with At the Gates, in a way. It’s a system that got introduced a couple of years after I started on At the Gates. That’s one of the reasons the project took so long. It developed for a while, and then, I realized it wasn’t fun. There wasn’t a progression to it. You felt like you were constantly starting over because you kept moving your tribe around, and there was nothing to build up or develop. I said, “I need something new here.” That’s where the clan system came from. It wasn’t there at the start, but it’s turned into the core feature of the game.
GamesBeat: You sound proud of these tooltips.
Shafer: Oh, I am.
GamesBeat: What makes them so special?
Shafer: The marketing pitch that I have is that they’re basically — if Wikipedia was tooltips. You know how you can end up in a Wikipedia article, and then, you see a reference to something else in that article, and you say, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and you click on that. Then, you read that next article, and you see something else. Oh, that’s interesting, and you click on that. Before you know it, you’ve spent two or three hours reading about the Russian royal family or whatever. There’s so much there. It’s so cool. I love it. That’s basically how this works. Every concept word, every word that’s in yellow text, you can move the mouse over, and it brings a tooltip that explains that. You can do this from within other tooltips, so you can have 30 tooltips open, and you can just dig into the information, whatever you want. It’s kind of like taking the manual or the game help or the wiki or something and just making it instantly accessible from wherever you are in the game. You don’t need to go to a help screen. You don’t need to leave the game. It’s just right there, wherever your mouse is, whatever you’re looking at at the time. You just open up a tooltip, and if you see something else, you think, “Oh, I wonder how that works.” You do it again, and you can leave whenever you want, or you can get back there. I think it really will revolutionize how strategy game interfaces are made. I truly believe that.
GamesBeat: Was there one particular Wikipedia entry you were doing this with, and it was just an a-ha moment? Or is it something you gradually realized?
Shafer: I don’t remember now. I think the connection I made to Wikipedia came later. It wasn’t how it started. I just thought about, OK, if — there’s a problem with strategy games and complex games in general. You want to understand how something works, but leaving the game and looking it up online or opening up the help system in the game, it’s such a point of friction. Nobody wants to do that. You do it if and when [you] have to, but really, you just want to know, what does that stupid icon mean? I thought, well, every icon should have a tooltip. Why can’t we do more there? It’s kind of weird, I guess, but why not? It’s like the decision that we made with Civ V, introducing hexes into the series. Now, almost every strategy game is hexes. Back then, it was actually a pretty controversial, or at least perceived, controversial decision. The old generation of designers and players thought of hexes as what the nerdy wargamers played. We don’t want Civ to be that. But the reality was, they just worked better. They looked better. They were more organic shapes. They modeled movement better. They made the units look better on the map because when you have units facing straight up and down, that looks weird, but with hexes, you don’t need to have that. There were benefits across the board. We did it and hey, it worked. I think the tooltips are going to kind of be like that, except even bigger because not every game needs hexes, but almost every game, at least on the computer, needs tooltips.
GamesBeat: Has the game’s scope gotten bigger or smaller over the years? Adding clans sounds like it would make it bigger.
Shafer: For the first half of the project I would say it kept getting bigger. Maybe the first two-thirds of the project. And at a certain point, it started to get smaller. It ended up being definitely bigger than the original plan, but it did shrink from its peak, I suppose. And part of that was deciding what to focus on and what to maybe save for later, either an expansion or free DLC or whatever. You can’t fit everything in. Things always take longer than you expect them to. Even your most optimistic planning, there’s no way you can come close. You have to prioritize. I ended up cutting a lot of things. But it’s still a fun game. That’s the thing. That’s the good lesson I’m going to take from this. Even if you do take the scissors to it, there’s still so much there that — it’s much better to have a finished game than one that matches the initial creative vision 100 percent.
Kick in the pants
GamesBeat: How patient have your Kickstarter backers been?
Shafer: [Laughs] Very much, very much so. There were a couple of years there where I was barely posting at all. I think in part, people got used to the fact that Kickstarter campaigns basically always get wrapped up late. This one just happened to be later than most, but it is happening rather than just disappearing. I think expectations changed there a little bit. Part of it is that the strategy game community is a pretty mature group. They’re less likely to get extremely upset, compared to maybe fans of other genres or larger genres. Strategy games are pretty niche. You have to be a thoughtful person to like strategy games. One of the [advantages] of working in this genre is that people are pretty cool. Some people have definitely been upset. That’s definitely true. There are some people who still follow me around the internet telling everyone how I ruined Civ V and how I ruined At the Gates as well. Of course they haven’t played it, but you know. There are some people out there. Maybe they weren’t Kickstarter backers in the first place. But, for the most part, people have been pretty understanding. They were excited and interested when I announced the game was coming out soon. I think now people are back on board. It’s been cool to see.
GamesBeat: Have you had to give a lot of refunds over the years?
Shafer: Not too many. I have done a few. Probably less than 10 or 20.
GamesBeat: That’s amazing.
Shafer: Again, I think — I can’t entirely explain it myself. All I can do is say that the people have been really cool. Maybe I was fortunate in that the original people who backed it were cool people. It’s definitely been a better reception than I would have expected. My kudos to everybody for that. It’s pretty incredible how people have remained supportive and patient. It’s been cool.
GamesBeat: Did you get many, or any at all, after you had a long lull of updates — did you get people saying, oh, I forgot that I backed this game?
Shafer: A couple, yeah. I wonder how many people read their email, though. However many people have Gmail or some Gmail under-the-hood service, that stuff goes straight into the updates folder that probably a lot of us never look at. Maybe they just forgot. Then, you hear about it on Twitter, and you spot that in your email eventually. I’ve heard that a few times. Not a ton.
GamesBeat: Have you figured out your next idea yet, or are you focused on getting this out and doing support for it?
Shafer: Oh, I’m focused on this right now. I have ideas, but all my time is going into this project right now. That’s going to be true for quite a while after the game comes out as well. I have six months of full patching and updates planned, and then beyond that, I don’t know yet. There’s definitely going to be a lot of new attention on At the Gates and new things coming in after the game is officially released. I’ll stick with it for a while, and then, I’ll decide on something, probably later next year.