Thursday, May 2, 2013

Q&A For Skyward Collapse (Plus New Screenshots!)

Even with a recent detailed interview that we did about our upcoming game Skyward Collapse, there have been a lot of questions about the game from our players in the forums.  Rather than make you hunt through forum threads for the answers we've provided, we've collected them here!

Note: these are all taken out of context, and were originally comments where we are soliciting criticism of our marketing copy.  None of these questions were asked in an antagonistic spirit.

Q: You've mentioned "Villages," which sounds kind of tiny and small scale, like I'm giving Bob the farmer a pitchfork to go stab Cletus on his donkey.

Well... this is a good point in some ways, but in other ways you've about got the right of it.  Maybe "towns" instead of villages would give a better impression.  This is not an all-out war on the scale of something like AI War, where there are vast armies going around.  You are training professional military units, it's true, along with mythological creatures that do great harm.  And it's also true that there are bandits that pop out to get you, etc.  That said, this isn't army-on-army battle.  It's about individual units running around and doing stuff for the short while that they survive, generally. ;)

In other words, the combat is consistent and potentially intense, but the scale of the units never gets too huge (that would also get tedious).  In some respects that makes this a bit like a tactics game, except you can't control the tactics and you're using strategy to make the tactics play out (most likely) how you want.  But I've drifted off point: what I originally was trying to say that the combat tends to stay small-scale because guys don't live very long.  They're all bloodthirsty, and you can't tell them not to fight, so only one of two things are going to happen: a) they are going to go ravage the other side's towns while you do nothing; b) you're going to help the other side raise a counter-force and thus that first bloodthirsty dude is going to die.  And back and forth from there.

Anyhow, there's also a distinct town-on-town flavor here.  You can build multiple towns per faction (and in longer games, will need to), and each town pretty much just wars (or tries for diplomacy) with its nearest neighbor.  If one town falls then it flips allegiances, and the balance of power swings pretty heavily.  That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you're going to wield your god powers.  At any rate, it makes the town-on-town aspect pretty important.

Q: You've mentioned "artifacts" a few times, but what really are those?

1. Mythological Tokens (Global Effect): These are kind of like "global enchantments" in MTG.  Basically, you place one of these for a faction (at a hefty specialized resource cost), and then something happens to all your dudes (or all the enemy dudes, or all buildings of a certain sort, or whatever) for X number of turns.  Typically something substantial changes for 3-5 turns.

2. Mythological Tokens (Unit Pickups): These are kind of like "enchant creatures" in MTG.  You place one of these for a faction (again at a hefty specialized resource cost)... and then various units vie for it.  Typically the first 5 units of either side (or bandits) to reach it will get whatever the bonus is.  Some of them are limited to only ranged units or only mythological creatures or whatever, so everyone else ignores it.  But these things confer a permanent status effect of some sort onto the units that pick them up, making them more powerful in some unique way.

3. Ruins (Unit Pickups): Sometimes you can control these, a lot of times (depending on the map type) they just pop up themselves.  These work basically like mythological tokens in that they give status bonuses to the first 5 dudes to reach them.  Anybody but a god can go visit these, and will, of their own accord.  There's a set list of more generic bonuses here, rather than the faction-specific stuff from the mythological tokens.  But these upgrades can still swing the normal balance of power around in a moderate fashion for a short while.

Thus far, the first three things we've talked about are all "moderate effects" for the most part.  These have a sizable effect on the game, but it's not nuclear-warhead levels of drastic.

4. God Tokens: Each god has 3 of these, so there are 48 of them in all.  There are a very small number of duplicates between gods (maybe 6-8 out of 48, I've not counted it up), but the gods themselves are all unique.  These god tokens range from "very serious" in consequences to "cataclysmic."  Holy moly are these OP.  That's not exploitable, that's actually a problem for you since you're trying to maintain balance.  But if you want to really do well, you need to use these things... and then figure out how to recover from what you just did to yourself. ;)  The mechanic is that the god related to the token immediately seeks it out once you place it, and then when they reach it the effect immediately happens.

A few example god tokens:
Mjolnir (Thor): When he reaches Mjolnir, he immediately destroys the entire nearest enemy town, including the town center. This token cannot be placed on a building.
Reginnaglar (Njord): All allied buildings that currently exist get a permanent 100% bonus to their health based on their base health.
Skadi's Skis (Skadi): All allied units currently on the board gain the power to cross mountains at no movement penalty.
Gjallarhorn (Heimdall): All non-god units on the map, allied, enemy, and bandit -- all get killed at once, and his faction gets the destruction points for all of them.  (This is the horn he blows at the start of the end of the world, in mythology).
Bow (Apollo): All allied archery range units on the board at the time become invulnerable for 10 turns.  (Um... ow.  Archery units are already really intense as it is, since they can attack from range without taking damage).
Necklace of Harmonia (Athena): Every unit on her faction is killed, however your resources are increased by 4x the number of resources required to create each unit.
Serpent (Ares): All bandits on the board join your faction.

And so on and so forth.  So when it comes to "artifacts," I was referring to these various kinds of tokens.  These aren't things that just come out of the woodwork to mess with you (ruins aside, and those don't have an enormous impact most of the time).  They are things that you willingly, intentionally, do to yourself.  "Bring me the whipping switch, boy."  In order to to win, these are things you have to inflict on yourself.  And then once you've inflicted one thing on yourself, that kind of sets of a chain reaction of things you have to do in order to continuously try to maintain that balance of power.

Round 1 of the game is comparably tame because you don't have any gods or god tokens yet.  It's all positioning and setting up your towns, and other moderate effects like the mythological creatures and mythological tokens.  You can rack up a lot of success there, and it's an important part of the game, but you're not likely to completely blow your leg off by accident in that round.  Once the gods come out... watch out.

Q: I get the impression that a town is a single-tiled object that contained a list of building, and units will spawn from these building. Do they instead sprawl and visibly grow as you develop then?

Yeah, that's a good point -- our screenshots thus far have not shown that, or even the units, for that matter!  Will have to rectify that soon.  At any rate, town centers are a single tile, and then there are two rings of town buildings possible around them (for a total of 24 buildings that can be ringed around a single TC).  We started out with just one ring, aiming for smaller (more specialized) towns, but with just 8 slots for buildings it's impossible to fit everything in.  Towns need a variety of buildings to stay healthy and not succumb to bandits or the other faction.

All of the raw-resource producers (as opposed to "finished goods" producers) are also located in town.  The raw resources generated by these can be used in any town, but the finished goods require a producer in a specific town for when it comes to military units that are auto-produced there, though.  So your store of pigs and sheep from outlying pig farms is universal, but your supply of bacon or mutton at a single town depends on the presence of a butcher.  Same with the need for fletchers, carpenters, stone masons, and so on and so forth.  As you unlock further things, you get into stuff like wells and breweries.

Q: It's clear that there is no doctrine of total-war intrinsic to the people, but they fight and many of the example artifacts boost that rather than work on towns themselves. There also does not seem to be an over-arching empire with each town doing their own thing with every other town (i.e. not killing their allies).

Right.  It's a collection of independent towns.  There's no organization of the units at all, they all pursue their own independent agendas.  The agendas are fairly predictable (except when things get complicated), so you can guide your folks by guiding the circumstances.  That's a big part of how you "trick" your guys to doing what you want: give them few options in a given circumstance, or put them into a situation where you can predict their reactions with some fairly high degree of accuracy.

Q: How many god tokens are there versus mythological tokens?

Overall there are 64 tokens, and 48 of them come from the gods.  8 mythological tokens are available to each faction throughout each game, and then a further 3 god tokens are available to each faction per each god they choose (so by round 3, if both your gods are still living at a given faction, you've got 14 tokens total available to you).  So it depends on how you look at it: in the course of a given game, the larger number of tokens are actually the mythological ones.  But overall the god tokens vastly outnumber the mythological ones.

Q: Whenever I'm describing AI War to people, the part I always talk about is the attack on the AI Home Fortress: my fleet of thousands upon thousands of ships, firing everything they've got at this massive, impenetrable shield while the AI's gigantic guns hammer back.  Dozens or hundreds of ships dying with every blast of the fortress's cannons.  That, for me, is the defining moment of that game: the experience it offers that no other game does.  Is there a similar defining moment for Skyward Collapse, and if so, what is it? 

It's hard to say, honestly.  Even with AI War, it's hard to say to some extent -- that's the defining moment for you when it comes to AI War, but to me that's just kind of the last formality.  It's not that victory at the end of a long game is a formality, as you know (unlike other RTS games), but what I mean is that it's just not that exciting for me.  What I love most in AI War is split between the early and middle game: a) I really love the expansion into nearby planets, and the sense of that "gold rush" to set up an early empire based on what I find before the AI can really react; and b) I absolutely love the back-and-forth in the middle of the game, when I am overreaching myself a bit and the AI and I are trading control (militarily speaking) of a central planet or two while I look for further targets to jump off to.

In other words, I think that the defining aspect of the AI War experience is that it makes you feel like an awesome space commander, based on what most people have said and how I myself feel.  But what evokes that feeling most varies from person to person.  I think that some people get that feeling most just from the mere fact of playing 10/10 difficulty games and being in a constant struggle with the AI.  So in other words, I think that the defining feature is more of an emotion, more of an abstract feeling, rather than a specific event -- when you're talking about general people, not a specific individual.

Speaking of Skyward itself... I think that the emotion (to me) boils down to a few things:

1. Building a really pretty and satisfyingly functional landscape.

2. Having the godlike power to really smash up anything I feel like.  If bandits are really giving me problems, I have some pretty huge things I can use against them if I've played it smart up until that point.  In other words, really feeling somewhat all-powerful despite the challenges and constraints that are put on you.

3. Figuring out ways to kick myself in the teeth as hard as I can, and then get back up and use that as an actual advantage.  Most of the god powers, in some senses, are a kick in the teeth.  Josh has actually been a bit worried that people won't use the more powerful ones, some of which I detailed above.  Those things are devastating to whatever you were doing.  But the thing is, if you want to win and win well, there's so much cleverness you can exercise with those god powers.  Which gods you choose matters, and which god powers you activate when matters, and how you set up your towns prior, during, and after that matters.  You can do all sorts of (for lack of a better term) combos with those pieces, to get desired effects.  To me this sort of thing is fun, because I'm setting the bar higher and higher for myself, and then struggling to reach it.  The difficulty levels set minimum bars, and those bars can be insanely high, but there's also a certain "what awesomeness can I pull off today" aspect to the game, which gets expressed as a high score.  Normally I'm not the sort to care about scores, but I think it's more interesting here.

4. Speaking of emotions, this game is mostly pretty chill.  Like Sim City or Pharaoh or Civilization, I find all those games pretty relaxed.  They are turn-based, the music isn't trying to freak you out, and the pace and scale is such that you can understand things from the starting small scale and then all along as the scale grows.  It's really different from AI War where it's hugely intimidating from the start, both in terms of complexity (as a new player) and in terms of the scenario (in terms of your odds of winning even if you are extremely experienced).  That is in no way saying that Skyward is an easy game (heck, SimCity and Civilization are both extremely difficult, or can be), but I think that being fairly chill is common to most simulation games and god games.  Sure there are times when you are ripping your hair out or screaming at the screen, but it's different from being on a clock or being David vs Goliath.  I don't think I expressed myself very well on this point, but hopefully that makes some semblance of sense.

Q: Just to clarify. Are you actually building the continent? Or are you just building on it?

Yes, you are building the continent itself.  You can't place buildings on existing land, for instance.  Instead, you place pieces of land that have buildings on them, making the continent bigger.  You can also directly place land pieces yourself, or smite them and replace them (which sometimes you want or do not want a mountain range, or want to use some marshes to your advantage, or whatever).

Q: At the moment, I don't quite see how the replayability will be extended beyond the number of woes I choose to take and the units I can set loose.  Does the creator controls almost every variable in the eponymous creation of the island? Where are the potential sources of randomization?

In terms of controlling every variable: no, you don't.  Most of the land tiles that pop up are not by your choosing, and the bandits popping in are also not by your choosing.  We also have some other stuff that we probably won't introduce before profiles reach a few levels in (to give players a bit of breathing room at the start).  Josh and I have talked about a "suggestions" mechanic from The Master, but lately I've been thinking a "propositions" (not in that sense) mechanic from units themselves might be more interesting.

There's also randomization in a very butterfly-effect sort of fashion.  In other words, just having a few tiles different, or a guy making a random roll slightly differently, means that the outcomes are different.  For instance, I had a scenario that I was testing just last night to make sure something worked: Adamantine, a mythological token.  It gives the one dude who picks it up 100x his normal health and attack -- holy heck, right!?  But it also spawns 20 bandits at the end of that turn.  In one outing of this, he killed all the bandits within a few turns and had 65% of his health remaining.  In another 14/20 of the bandits were remaining after he died.  The difference there was both in which bandits appeared, and where.

Anyhow, there are already a triumvirate of goals in any game as it stands:
1. Make it to the end without failing your goals or having one side obliterated.
2. Make the highest score possible... because, come on, it shows you're awesome. ;)
3. Survive all the crazy Woes the game throws at you.  Between the bandit keeps and the Woes, you'll definitely have to be pretty reactionary in some respects each game.  You only partly get to set the tempo.

In other words, for $5 the replay value is completely off the hook.  I wouldn't say that it has AI War levels of replayability by any stretch, but neither did AI War when AI War first came out.  If Skyward takes off, I hope to do with this what we've done with AI War, in terms of the combination of free DLC and paid DLC to keep it growing for a long time

Q: When I create the island, do I play a game of Carcassone with all the tiles in my hand?

It's funny you mention the randomization of what you can place in Carcassone-like fashion.  That's exactly how this game started and was conceived.  And oh MAN was it not fun.

Q: Or do I play whatever is available to me at the time so I can't easily do things like place village on hill -> make killzone with marsh -> stock archers -> village become invincible to melee units.

Bear in mind that everything costs resources, and you are pursuing multiple objectives at once.  It's like trying to balance an equation, and constantly having a remainder.  You put in minotaurs to save one village, then have to save the other side from the minotaurs.  If you had no outside stressors, like the Woes and bandit keeps, then sure you could just set up a stalemate in various ways and everyone would be safe and happy.  However, if you don't create military units then your cities crumble before bandits and Woes pretty fast.  And your military units won't stay still if they have access to enemy towns or enemies in general: they will run off and attack.  So that archery stronghold you mentioned would instead be a breeding ground for archers running around the map, not staying where you wanted them to.  If those archers prove TOO effective, you're going to be struggling against yourself on the other side to fix what you just wrought.

On the other hand, if you block off your archers so that they can't reach the enemies directly but can just shoot at them, that actually would work... for a little while, until you die. ;)  See, the military units won't actually move unless they have an enemy in their sight range or an enemy town center that they can path to.  So if you make the enemy fortifications perfect, you'll get a backup blockage of guys in your "perfectly safe" town.  That sounds fine, until you learn that more than one unit can't stand on a tile.  And that military production facilities can't produce units while someone is standing on them.  And then there's bandits and woes, which can strike in unpredictable places.  It's not a good idea to leave any part of your empire just absolutely exposed.

The whole "do I do whatever I want" sort of argument is kind of like saying the same thing in any any strategy game.  And I know the next argument in that: "but you're playing against a (human or AI) opponent there, rather than playing both sides."  Which is true, but here you are playing against an equally challenging... let's call it "environmental situation."  If you just doodle around, the game kills you.

Q: I can bring into being any god in every game?

Nope, the gods get randomly rolled for you.  So depending on the gods you get dealt, and the Woes, and the other environmental things that happen, there's a lot of randomization there.

Q: I foresee complaints along the lines of "I buffed the Greek archers with invincibility, but they didn't go on the attack!"  Free-will is a fickle thing.

Your archers will never just sit around if they have any route to enemies.  If they are sitting around, it's your fault.  The complaints would come in the form of "argh, you made small decision X instead of Y, and now my larger schemes need some adjusting."  That's part of what Josh and I both were adamant the game needed somewhat predictable AI in the units.  If you have archers, and they have somewhere to go, you can be 100% sure they will start heading out.  Which exact place they go, or who they meet and how they fight along the way... that's a different matter.  But since this plays out over turns, you can kind of see how things are developing and airdrop minotaurs or whatever where needed. ;)

The free will here isn't terribly fickle: it's where the rand() you're looking for comes from.

Q: The AI is sounding a lot like Dwarf Fortress'.  The potential for carnage is unlimited!

DF is a lot more complex in that you can set rules for individual dwarves, whereas here the rules are built into the unit type from the get-go.  But otherwise, yeah; I think there's some similarity there.

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