After leading design on the critically acclaimed Civilization V, Jon Shafer went indie. The result is the recently released At the Gates, a 4X strategy game focused on the final days of the Roman Empire. We recently spoke with Shafer on how At the Gates came together, how he broke into the game industry at a young age, and his advice for indie developers struggling to make it to the finish line.
Q: You were involved in modding for Civilization 3 and it helped you land an internship at Firaxis at age 19. To me that’s crazy, I can’t even imagine that. I know I had no idea what was going on when I was 19. What was that experience like, becoming so involved in the industry at such a young age? How much has changed since then and now?
A: I have a much better idea of what I’m doing now. When you’re 19 or 21, regardless of what you’ve already done, you have a lot more to learn. I certainly did as well. The games industry wasn’t as mainstream back then as it is now. That was back in 2005. Games weren’t unknown by any means but it wasn’t everywhere as it is now, when games are bigger than movies, and music and tv combined...it’s something everybody knows now. If you’re under a certain age you’ve almost certainly played computer or video games. That’s something that has changed. If you go back to 2005, there wasn’t a clear path, and there wasn’t a clear idea of these jobs existing. There were small communities of very hardcore fans or people involved in development in some way, but it wasn’t as mainstream, like today if you said you wanted to make video games it wouldn’t be as weird as it was back then when it’s “well, how do you do that, what’s the path there?”
Q: There are game design degrees you can get now.
A: It existed [back then] but it was very rare, it was like “is this a scam or…?” It was certainly less common then. So if you ended up in games, you had to figure out your own way in. Especially when it came to design. Hiring people out of school, with a degree in game design, wasn’t a thing. Basically the designers were people who had been in other disciplines, usually programming, and then shifted over, saying “Well, I’ve been making features and I have some designs of my own.”
It was a very weird path in, and there was no typical kind of pipeline. And there’s still not. People go straight from being indie, some people go to big studios, there’s a lot of options now. Back then there was really no road map at all. I was really active on the forums and I kept poking people. I said “This is a thing I want to do, can I do it?” At a certain point they said yes. And it wasn’t just being persistent, I was looking for ways to make myself valuable. Before I started my internship, this was while Civ IV was being developed and I was a beta tester for Civ IV at the time, they were adding Python scripting to the game. This was the first time a Civ game had scripting for modding purposes and development purposes. They released this code to the beta forums but it wasn’t documented, there were no comments, no instructions, nothing, just “here’s the code.” As an 18-year-old, I decided I wanted to document this and figure out how everything worked, so I wrote a 13 page guide on how to use Python for Civ IV. So it was a combination of being persistent but also showing I could provide something of value that a company would want to have and maybe I could do other things. That was the thing that opened the door originally for me.
Q: You went on to become lead designer of Civilization V at age 21. It seems like that’s a very big responsibly for somebody so young. Did you have to do much convincing? How did that process work?
A: I had to be proactive about that as well. Typically the way games were made at Firaxis, I don’t know if it’s still true since I haven’t been there in quite some time now, but up through Civ V for sure, it was the Sid Meier model. Sid would make a game, and the game would be released. Over time it got more complex and had more pieces and had more art and had these other pieces glued onto the core, but the core was developed by Sid. It was the model from the start, there’s a designer who can also program everything, and they are going to make the game, and we trust them to make the game and understand how it fits together. That’s the model that got started back in the 80s with Sid and then as the company itself grew, back then it was MicroProse, Ryan Reynolds was another programmer at MicroProse, and he said “Hey, I can make a game in a similar era, Colonization. So in 1994 between Civ 1 and Civ 2, he made Colonization, basically on his own, in the same model that Sid had. And that did really well and sold really well. So there was a pattern established, “Hey, wow, this model works, this is how these games get made.”
Going forward at Firaxis it was basically the same all the way up to Civ V. When it was time for a lead designer on Civ V, well, who is that person going to be? It needs to be somebody who can program, somebody who knows the genre and has a certain degree on energy, enthusiasm, and focus. I happened to be at the right place at the right time. There were not a huge number of people who fit all the qualifications. There were designers who had been there for a very long time but they couldn’t program, so it wasn’t ever really a consideration for them. You could say that’s right or wrong, but that was the model, and the model hadn’t proved to be incorrect at that point.
I also spent a lot of time prototyping ideas for Civ V. Looking for things to do, kind of like when I was writing the scripting guide for Civ IV, I started prototyping ideas for how combat could be spread out over the map, different things that could be done with resources, I started prototyping them in Civ IV. The leadership team saw that and said “this person’s already part way there to doing it, they’re respected, they meet all the qualifications we have for the job, they’re young, but okay. This seems like the next person in line.” They made the decision, I wasn’t in the room when they made it, maybe there was some concerns that were never shared with me.
Q: You launched a Kickstarter for At the Gates back when Kickstarter was becoming the big new thing for funding game projects. How was the experience of using Kickstarter, and how did it affect the development of the game?
A: Back in late 2012 was when I was thinking about what I was going to do going forward, and Kickstarter was really taking off at that point. It wasn’t quite at the peak but it was certainly close and on the upswing. It offered an opportunity to make a game more independently than you would if you needed to get external funding from a publisher or wherever else. So that provided new opportunities to fund the games passionate creators wanted to make.
It does mean having a very open and transparent development process. You have this new constituency that you need to keep in the loops of things. If you make big changes they are going to want to know. One of the good and challenging things about Kickstarter is you aren’t just investing in an idea, you are investing your feelings. You become part of the project. People want to become more involved so you can use that, but it’s also more you have to manage along the way.
Q: You being mostly on your own during development, that’s a lot more resources you have to put into managing the community. Do you think overall it was a positive for the development of the game?
A: It was something that definitely helped the game, I got a lot more feedback if nothing else. One of the things that’s important for strategy games is getting feedback and iterating. One of the most important features, the clans, the character system, was entirely absent until about a year and a half of development. Now it’s hard to even imagine the game without that. Part of that was getting feedback from people playing previous versions of the game saying “This is fun, but there should be more here.” There were seasons, and migration, and resources, but you didn't feel like you were progressing, you didn’t feel like you were going anywhere. Part of that is because in most strategy games like Civ you are building something that spreads over the map, you can see it developing and upgrading, the technology getting better, you are building wonders of the world and that sort kind of thing. In At the Gates you just kept moving around. So people were saying “there’s not a lot here, it’s a cool concept”, but it’s thanks to that feedback I was able to introduce the feature that At the Gates in known for, or will be as more and more people play it.
On the development side it was super useful. It was a lot of work though. Ideally I think I prefer to make games with a slightly larger team so I don’t have to do literally everything, it is a lot. I don’t get to spend as much time on the game as I would like because I have to answer emails or do paperwork or whatever, that’s just reality.
Q: You mentioned having a sense of progression. Currently in the game, to unlock the different factions you have to ally with them or conquer them. Can you talk about how you decided to go that route instead of having them unlocked at the start?
A: Yeah, so that was a decision I made fairly late in the project actually, so maybe six or nine months ago. Factions were one of the last things to be designed and go in. I wanted to do something a little bit different from other strategy games that give you access to everything. When you’re first playing, by and large, you don’t really know what you’re doing yet. If you have access to 20 factions you’re not going to know what the difference is and what makes them meaningful. And that can be okay if you are playing a much more well-known theme. If you are playing all of history and you want to play as France, or Germany, or India, or Japan, or Churchill or Genghis Khan or whatever, very recognizable names. People naturally gravitate towards playing them for roleplaying reasons.
But with At the Gates that wasn’t really a factor. Everybody has heard of Attila the Hun but 99 percent of people are not going to be able to name, or even have heard, of half of the leaders. There’s not really a sexy factor there. It gave me the opportunity to try something different as well because if there were more well-known and everybody wanted to play as France or Germany or Japan or whatever, it would be more restricted. I drew on my experience playing more roguelite games like The Binding of Isaac, where you actually unlock a lot of things between playthroughs. And that seemed like something that could be really interesting. I think achievements can be fun, but when they aren’t attached to anything more meaningful they don’t have as much appeal to a lot of players. Some players love them, a lot of players just don’t care. But if you can tie it to actually unlocking something in the game, this can really increase replayability. That’s something I noticed in The Binding of Isaac, where maybe there’s 10 characters in that game and most of them are variants of the one you start playing as. They are all fun in their own way, but they all have niche gameplay approaches, like somebody has flying but they can only shoot a very short range. That became fun when it was something I unlocked, whereas if it was available at the start I might not have ever played it.
I thought about that and said “I could do the exact same thing with At the Gates and it would work really well.” Most players aren’t going to unlock all 10 factions, but that’s okay. I think the game is still fun if you play for 5 hours and get your money’s worth, that’s okay. For a lot of players it adds an element they can earn through play.
Q: Which is your favorite faction to play as?
A: I think the Alemanni are pretty interesting. I probably like the Goths the most because they are the generic faction you start with and that’s the core experience, that’s what I designed the game around. The Alemanni are fun though because they only get really good clans. They don’t get clans that have bad traits, but they get a lot fewer clans. So you have to be more economical with what you do with everybody and be very frugal with your application of professions, you have to plan ahead a bit more. The Saxons are fun too, they start with a boat so you can really get your exploration started in a really strong way with the Saxons.
Q: I know you were inspired in part to make At the Gates by The History of Rome podcast. What historical elements from that time period that you learned about in the podcast did you want to try and capture? Why did you think that was such an appealing time period?
A: The time period really worked because there are a limited number of themes in history that lend themselves well to a 4X game. You have all of history, which is Civ. You have the colonization era, where Europeans appeared in different places and started from a very small point, and that’s Colonization, another strategy game that exists...that game was another inspiration for At the Gates. This is another opportunity, at least in Western history, there’s probably more in all of world history, but in terms of what a Western and European audience is going to recognize, this is kind of a reset of what was going on in Europe. You have the opportunity to use that in a 4X game in a way you can’t really do with other periods of history.
In terms of other specific elements though, one of the things the podcast focuses on is the dynamic between the characters and it’s a story. This is something I found interesting because normally when history is taught it’s names and dates and it’s super boring. As somebody who loves history, I acknowledge the way history is usually taught isn’t that interesting. But if you tell it more as a story with characters, which is really how it was experienced, I think you can get a lot more there in terms of fun gameplay experience. This is something I think strategy games should be doing and I think we are seeing more, more use of characters and stories and having different games play out in different ways.
One of the issues I’ve long had with most of the Civ games is that they kind of play out in a similar way. You usually have your order you go through in the tech tree, you want to try and implement certain strategies, the resources and starting locations are roughly symmetrical, but that’s not really how history was and that’s not necessarily how a strategy game has to be. It can be a little more asymmetric from game to game and focus more on, “Oh, this one time this happened and I got this character to do this thing.” It’s something that worked from a gameplay perspective but also just listening to this really long and good explanation of a period of history, it was like “Oh, yeah, this can be framed in a different way.” It was kind of timing in a way. It was this was a thing I was listening to and I’m going to work on a prototype, “Hey, why not?”
Q: What updates are you looking to make to At the Gates and what is the long term future of the game in terms of new content?
A: My main focus is going to be on gameplay and improving the interface. That’s something a lot of people have asked for, something like a clan management screen where they can see where their clans that aren’t in the settlement are and I can understand that. So that’s one of those small interface focused things. A lot of it is going to be the strategic balance and the role of other factions in the mid and the late game. The early game is quite a lot of fun, but once you hit a certain point where you have enough food and you are starting to compete with the other factions, they don’t do as much as they could. The challenges of the game go away a little bit. You probably not going to starve once you’re 100 or so turns into the game unless you really, really make a mistake. So I want to rebalance that and make the late-game a bit tougher.
I also want to add full mod support for the game. There was a lot of work done in this regard before the release but wasn’t able to get it all ready right at release, and that’s probably fine since most people are playing. But at a certain point people will want to start poking at things themselves. So yeah, adding mod support in terms of being able to change XML files, it’s already possible to change the art files, change the interface, change the AI, that sort of thing. We’re going to have XML files, you can change data values, we’ve put everything in the XML instead of the game code so you can change how many clans you start with, how much it costs to buy iron at the caravan or whatever, you can make small tweaks like that. All the way up to we are going to be releasing the source code for part of the game, don’t know exactly what all will be released yet, but definitely things like the interface and the AI will be available for people to do big things with, and we’ll add some hooks so that people can change the gameplay and do things that way as well. So if they want to have dragons that act in a certain way there will be places where they can plug in some C# code and make them function differently from other units if they want.
Q: I think At the Gates really benefits from being focused on a very specific era in history. What other historical time periods do you think would make for a great strategy game?
I think if we went super early, like the beginning of civilization, that could be pretty cool. It’s skipped over pretty quickly in the Civ games. If you’re covering all of history, you can only focus so much on one particular era. But 10,000 - 5,000 B.C. or 10,000 - 1,000 B.C. time period sounds interesting to me in part because it’s hasn’t really been touched before. If you look at just about everything else, it’s been represented in an existing 4X game or certainly a Paradox game. They all have really interesting interesting interpretations of those, so the most interesting thing for me would be seeing something that hasn’t been done at all and that’s backing the timeline up more.
Q: You recently wrote a long personal essay about the struggles you overcame over the course of the development of At the Gates. I just wanted to say thank you for putting that out there for all the world to see and letting people understand what you went through. What would you say to an indie developer who is struggling to finish their project and feel like they no longer have control?
A: I think the most important thing is to back up and recognize you still have time. You still have time and you can ask for time from yourself. The biggest challenge is the pressure indie developers put on themselves, in part because there are so many games out there and people know how much competition there is now.
You have to be able to step back and say “I’m going to find a healthy way exist in life and exist working on this game.” And that includes getting outside and exercising, getting enough sleep, getting enough rest, getting away from the game and having a realistic plan on how to finish it and not just grinding away as much as you can until it’s done and there’s nothing left of you, because you probably aren’t going to get it done and it’s not going to be very good and you’re going to be completely burned out anyway. Even if the only thing you care about is the quality of the game in the end, you have to look after your physical and mental health in order to make that happen, in addition to living a happy life. It’s something where you have to be able to step back and say “Maybe this takes longer, I need a break, maybe it’s time to let it go.” Being able to say you can have some space between you and the game and that’s good for both you and the game.
For more on At the Gates, be sure to check out (or add your expertise to!) the Official At the Gates Wiki.
Cameron is a Wichita, Kansas based writer whose love for gaming spans all genres and platforms. On the rare occasion when he is separated from a keyboard or controller, he enjoys fencing and obsessing over the latest and greatest Godzilla film.