Jon Shafer’s been at the gates for years.

The veteran strategy game designer released Jon Shafer’s At the Gates in Steam Early Access on January 23. That Shafer’s first independent game (this one is about setting up a civilization among the crumbling remains of the Roman Empire) came at all is remarkable. He ran a Kickstarter for it in 2013, with an eye for a 2014 release date. This was the debut of his Conifer Studios. That date came and passed, and he took a gig at Paradox Interactive in 2017 before leaving to work again on At the Gates.

Now, At the Gates isn’t the first nor the last indie game to fall behind its original release date. But the story behind Shafer’s journey is compelling, and he shared it in a remarkable blog post in January. His experience is one that applies beyond game development (though it does have plenty for designers and devs to learn from, too). It’s one that resonates with me as well. I know what it’s like struggle with weight, with mental health.

I just had to chat with the Civilization V lead designer about it. In our chat, we talked about our health, the lessons you learn about improving your health, and the little things Shafer discovered about making an indie strategy game — and how to let go of your ambitions and obsessions in the design docs in your head.

Here is an edited transcript of our interview.

Personal journey

Jon

Above: Jon Shafer, founder of Conifer Games and lead designer of At the Gates.

Image Credit: Jon Shafter

GamesBeat: I’ve gone through [your] blog and some of the updates. How are you today?

Jon Shafer: [Laughs] I’m doing really good, honestly. That wasn’t always the case. I think that’s often true for game developers. It’s a pretty rough job, really. Everybody wants to do it, but the reality is very difficult. And that’s especially true when you’re on your own like I have been, now for almost seven years. It’s been a pretty hard road, but I’m doing really good right now. I’m excited for release. I’m happy and healthy, and I have a ton of energy. I can honestly say things are really good.

GamesBeat: When it comes to your health, was it the process of game development and your work that did [ruin] your health? Or was it something else that resulted in you not being healthy?

Shafer: Well, I think a lot of it was driven by my desire just to make something amazing. I think this is true for probably every independent game developer, but for me, ever since I was young, I had this energy and this drive to do something and make it perfect. Which isn’t the healthiest thing in itself. That can develop in a lot of dangerous ways as well — if you don’t recognize that in yourself and work to address it. I was driven in a way that wasn’t healthy. I worked every day for 239 days to finish up Civ V, and that was before I left and started my own company. I’ve always had this feature and flaw in me, and it’s something I’ve learned how to [manage] a lot better and, in particular, how I spend my time. It’s something that I think stemmed from just who I am originally, and it probably would have been similar if I were in games or something else. I have something in me that says keep pushing more.

GamesBeat: At what point did you learn you had to change that or find a way to cope with it?

Shafer: I was in a situation where everything had fallen apart. I hadn’t worked on the game in a while. I wasn’t [answering] emails or paying bills or talking to people or anything. Everything just completely shut down. I reached a point where there was no way to look at the situation and say, “This is OK.” It just took a lot of hard work from that place and around that place to get back to being a person…. For a long time, for multiple years, I didn’t do — I couldn’t do anything. It’s hard to come back from. It’s something I did do, but it was tough.

GamesBeat: Was there anyone to help you with this? Or was this something that you came to realize yourself, and you pulled yourself out of it?

Shafer: I’d say it was a mix. I had some friends who had helped out. I found a new partner here in Sweden after I moved to Sweden. She was a big part of that. I was motivated in part just to try and put things back together because when you care about somebody, you want to do that. It wasn’t something I shared a whole lot about, just because in a similar way to being a driven person, I’ve also always been a person that doesn’t really share much about themselves. There’s something to do, work to do. It’s a distraction. It’s not important. It’s not necessary. I could be pretty ruthless in that sense. That’s also a thing I’ve learned about myself, that it’s not healthy, even if your only goal is just productivity and efficiency and performance. You can’t sustain that for very long before that lack of balance catches up with you. You can look at people like Steve Jobs, who did it for a while, and obviously, he died very young. I have no doubt that a contributing factor to that was just the way he lived and the way he worked. You have to recognize that you need to have that balance. You need to be able to connect with other people. That’s what people do.

Lessons learned

Above: Jon Shafer is the lead designer of Civilization V, and one of his innovations for the series is hex maps and killing the unit stacks of previous Civilizations.

GamesBeat: It’s easy to say, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from this seven-year journey of going on your own and working on At the Gates? But to me, it feels like it’s not just one lesson. It’s a group of lessons.

Shafer: Oh, for sure. Many, many hundreds.

GamesBeat: When it comes to your focus, did you learn that you need team members around you to help you with that? Or did you learn that this is just something that internally you had to work on?

Shafer: For me, it was all internal. Working — I was in a work environment for a short period of time, and that was definitely engaging and energizing, but in terms of productivity, I tend to be distracted very easily. Just being in an environment with other people is inherently distracting. It’s tough when you’re trying to do a lot of very focused work — programming or technical writing. There’s lots of elements of game development that require a lot of focus. For me, it was optimizing my routine, optimizing my environment, finding what worked for me and what didn’t.

I found that establishing a routine where I do the same thing every morning — I start with coffee and a spoonful of peanut butter for a small breakfast. I study Swedish for a bit. I go to the gym basically every day. And then, usually nothing too intense. Just riding the exercise bike for about 30 minutes. That gets my energy up. It makes me feel better the rest of the day. I come back and have a salad for lunch pretty much every day. And then, I take a shower, and I’m good to go. It’s 1 in the afternoon already, but I have so much energy I can dedicate to whatever I want.

During that time in the morning, I’ll be thinking about what I should be doing that day, planning out what’s important. And then in the afternoon, I can take those learnings and those plans and apply them. Every day is its own little project. That’s probably the biggest lesson among the many that I’ve learned. You need to have a plan. You need to be looking forward. You need to have a road map to accomplish whatever you’re trying to do. You don’t just end up doing things accidentally. You have to add a lot of intention, especially if you’re taking on big challenges like making a game or becoming healthy from a place where you were very much not. That’s probably the thing that I’ve come away with the most. It’s something I expect to stick with. I’m going to have this kind of routine, or a similar routine, that I keep tweaking for a very long time. That’s been a huge factor in making things happen…. I was just talking with my girlfriend the other day about — everybody tells you you should eat healthier and exercise, and usually, it comes from some kind of moralistic perspective. You should do this, you know. But the reality is, when you’re able to make that work and build that into your routine, you find that you feel so much better. You have so much energy. Who doesn’t want to feel good and have energy to do stuff? That’s the biggest draw for me, honestly. Maybe it still indicates that I need to be a bit more balanced, but … even if you want to be that brutal about what the criteria are that you’re looking for — you feel good, and you can get lots of stuff done — that sounds pretty good. I’ll make that deal. I’ve felt horrible, and I’ve felt amazing. There’s definitely a real difference there [laughs].

GamesBeat: In your post, you talked a couple times about you and being ambitious. Have you learned that you need to rein in that ambition yourself, or do you need a colleague or collaborator to help you rein in your ambitions?

Shafer: I think it’s something I need to do. I’ve always been the kind of person that, if somebody tells me what to do or provides advice even in a loving way, it’s something I’ll think about, but a lot of how we spend our time that we have in our lives [comes] down to what our values are. What’s important to invest this time in? For some people, it’s family. For some people, it’s charity and giving. For some people, it’s money or climbing the corporate ladder, all sorts of different things. For me, I want to make things that are great. I don’t think there’s any way to get away from that. If someone says, “Hey, you should spend less time to be more healthy and make something a little less great,” I’m going to say, “Eh, thank you, I appreciate where you’re coming from, but come on.” It’s something that I need to push myself on. And it’s something that I’ve gotten so much better at because I do recognize the fact that if I’m just so focused all the time, it’s not good for me or the project or my ability to enjoy the time that I do spend on things. It’s something that I have to constantly push myself on, but it’s something that, like a lot of other things — there are days that I’m not super excited about going to the gym, but I do it anyway. Sometimes, you have to push yourself and say, “This is the right thing to do. You know it. Stick to it.”

Above: Like many other strategy games, At the Gates starts small as you expand your territory.

Image Credit: Conifer Games

GamesBeat: When it comes to what you’ve learned about yourself and about game development, are you going to stick to game development, or are you going to try something else?

Shafer: I’m definitely going to stick with games. It’s something where I really feel like I’m hitting my stride now, in a way that I never did before. I’ve been in games now for almost 14 years. That’s a pretty long career in terms of game development, but for me, I feel like this is the point at which I’m finally figuring things out. A lot of my early career was driven based on that energy and that passion, but it took time for my ability to analyze and my ability to plan and my ability to see the big picture to come in and complement that. It’s something that I plan on taking advantage of now. I’m really excited about a lot of the things that I learned about this game — not just in terms of big broad lessons but specific mechanical things that I now know work, that I didn’t know before. Or that I know don’t work that I tried. These are all things that you keep with you, that become added to your stockpile of wisdom. That’s not something that I want to step away from yet. I’m sure that will happen eventually. There’s just only so many games I think each of us has. I think I have at least a few more big ones.

GamesBeat: Talking about wisdom, is that something you felt was lacking when you started this process?

Shafer: Absolutely. I hate to point any fingers at age or youth, but in a lot of ways — I started in games when I was 19. I was named the lead on Civ V when I was 21. I remember doing that magazine with you. You probably remember how young I looked. When you’re 21, you have 21 years of experience. When you’re 33, you have 33 years of experience. That’s just more. It doesn’t mean that you’re always the average 33 year old who’s always going to be better than the average 21 year old, but you have different tools. You have tools that are just not possible for a person less experienced to have. … It comes down to experience. If you have more time to experience things, that’s going to add up. A lot of it is making mistakes and seeing how that goes. This is one of the most important elements of leadership. Until you’ve had to lead and seen how your approach works, or not, you will have a hard time with that. But you can become better because we all learn. If we have the interest in learning, we absolutely can. There’s so much to be gained from looking back at the things we’ve done before and trying to take lessons from them. It’s really valuable. It’s something — I spend some time every day now just thinking about the decisions I’ve made. Not all of them every day but specific ones that might be particularly contextually appropriate. If I’m working on the diplomacy system, I think about, OK, how did I design that back in Civ V? How did that go? What worked and what didn’t? You can’t just throw that stuff away. That’s valuable information. It takes time and energy to process it. But it is valuable. It’s how we get better at what we do, whatever that thing is.

Independent attitude

GamesBeat: You’ve now worked at three of the larger dev houses for strategy games. You’ve worked independent. Are you going to remain independent?

Shafer: I’m going to remain independent. I think that’s a lot of where the lessons I’ve learned have borne some fruit. Even in the past couple of months, I’ve learned so much about how to get videos and articles out there. What time of day you want to release them? What do you want to emphasize? How do you prioritize what you say in that first paragraph of something? All these things that you never think about until you’re in the position where it matters. Oh, yeah, I have to write a press release, don’t I? What should that say? If you’re not experienced enough, maybe you just copy the format that everybody else does, and you don’t really think about it much, or you think about it as much as you can, but you don’t have the experience to draw on. Maybe I should emphasize this especially. It’s not what other games do, but it makes sense for this game. Taking a lot of those kinds of lessons is something I’m excited about as well. It’s building a business in addition to making games. Going forward, I’m definitely going to be independent from here on out, and as part of that, I’m looking to eventually build a bigger team and make some bigger games, at least bigger than one person with some friends and contractors anyway. Nothing too huge. I’m not looking to be on the stock market.

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.

Above: Snow day!

Image Credit: Conifer Games

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

Above: The choice is yours!

Image Credit: Conifer Games

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.