Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Grognard Trailer for TLF! And Ruminations On The Throughline From All Our Past Games.

From the creators of AI War: Fleet Command comes an all-new grand strategy title with turn-based tactical combat, set in a deep simulation of an entire solar system and its billions of inhabitants. You are the last of a murdered race, determined to unify or destroy the 8 others.  But you must work from the shadows, using superior technology -- bring your cape and cowl. 

Check out its game page for details, or swing by the forums for the game.  This is Arcen's largest title ever, and we're really excited to share it with folks.

Alpha Information! Private alpha testing with players is currently in progress, and we will be adding more players throughout the coming weeks leading up to release.  If you're interested in signing up, please see this forum post.
The Last Federation really is a milestone for me as a designer.  This isn't something that I designed all by myself by any stretch.  Josh Knapp was instrumental, and Keith LaMothe also helped enormously along the way.  And of course there's been tons of feedback from our many, many alpha testers (up to 160 as of tonight), all of which helps to shape the game.  With a game the scope of TLF, it really does "take a village," to use the cliche, and it's not any one person's sole accomplishment.

That caveat out of the way, for me personally this game really does bring together pretty much everything I've been trying to do as a game designer since I started working on "Alden Ridge" in 2008 (which later became the 2013 release Shattered Haven).  How's that, exactly?  Well:

1. With Shattered Haven, I really wanted to create a sense of story and atmosphere and place.  I wanted there to be some emotional connection to what was going on.  That game was by far our most successful at emotional storytelling (particularly if you play all the way through the game), but TLF also gets at that same sort of itch for me.  There's a lot of personality to the various races and characters here (a lot of that written by Erik Johnson, and a lot by me), and that really gives me the sense of living characters more than any titles of ours beyond Shattered Haven and Tidalis.

2. With AI War, I've remarked in the past that originally that started out as a turn-based game in space.  Kind of like what TLF morphed into, actually, except that I couldn't figure out how to make it work back in 2009.  So AI War became realtime, and for the sake of that game, I'm glad it did.  But there were a lot of ideas that I tried and then shed with AI War, including the concept of true "squadrons" of ships, of mobile flagships that deployed said squadrons, and so on.  TLF, interestingly, picks up pretty much all of those ideas, plus a ton more, and (in my opinion) executes on them really well.

AI War and TLF are kind of two sides of a coin to me; they each do things that the other does not, and in fact TLF does a lot of the things that the AI War engine specifically cannot handle because of the nature of its design.  As an example, having politics and multiple true factions just doesn't work in AI War, but it's a cornerstone of TLF.  For another, having more realistic physics for the ships and shots just doesn't work with a game with the insane unit counts that AI War has.  TLF has more modest unit counts during each battle, although they are still very sizeable.

3. Tidalis wasn't a game I was lead designer on (that was my friend Lars Bull), so I don't count that one here.

4. A Valley Without Wind originally was something where I wanted to create a procedurally-generated world where you could be kind of a Link-like (from The Legend of Zelda) character running around and doing things.  I wanted to have procedural stories develop, and really get a sense of meaningful places out of procedural code.  AI War accomplished the latter already, so I thought I could do that.

We succeeded in a lot of things with Valley 1, but the procedural storytelling was not one of them.  But with TLF, that is something that I really get the sense of very strongly.  And with added quests in TLF -- another mechanic I wanted in Valley 1, but never could get to work a way I was happy with -- the game goes even further in that direction.

5. Also with Valley 1, it was essentially a SHMUP mixed with a sidescrolling platformer.  TLF went through a phase where its combat was pure SHMUP (its combat went through phases where it was a lot of things, to be frank), but even though that is no longer the case, the influences carry forward into the turn-based combat that did TLF.  Each combat iteration that TLF went through actually left a permanent mark on the game, and I don't think we would have the current (awesome) combat model had we not gone through all the intervening steps.

Anyhow, by having some SHMUP-like elements in a turn-based combat model, TLF finally achieves another thing that I tried for years to do with AI War, but never could: create proper "terrain" in outer space.  Having to navigate through the shifting mazes of bullets in TLF is endlessly entertaining for me, and really has a lot of tactical though to it what with having to manage your power levels, choose whether or not to use special abilities on a given turn, and decide whether to get into ideal firing position or ideal don't-hurt-me position.

I tried a whole ton of things with AI War in an attempt to create that sort of feeling, and in TLF I found that feeling completely by accident!  Who knew that making a turn-based tactical SHMUP would be the answer to that problem.  It would not have occurred to me, but that sort of revelation is one of the many things I love about iterative design: you arrive somewhere awesome that you wanted to get to, but didn't know the precise address of to begin with.

6. Valley 2 was really a refinement of Valley 1 in a lot of respects, although it did switch away from being a SHMUP to instead being a Contra-like.  But a big (and perhaps overlooked) thing that we really experimented with in that game was a heavy blend of both procedural and hand-crafted content.  The result of that was something that I really loved, although it was something that I felt like we had only scratched the surface of.

With TLF, we take those concepts to an extreme.  There is procedural and emergent behavior all over the place -- ideas going all the way back to AI War and then carrying forward into most of our games -- but at the same time, all of the races have extremely distinct personalities that are hand-crafted, and we have a lot of hand-crafted actions, political deals, quests, and so on.  The mix is something that I feel is super compelling, and it's so incredibly flexible that I feel like we could spend another 5 years on TLF (as we have with AI War since its launch) and still not remotely run out of things to do.

7. Skyward Collapse was kind of a "solitaire" strategy game, if you will.  You play as yourself (kind of a god-figure), and oversee two bloody-minded factions, their gods, and so forth.  The control you have over them is pretty indirect, and basically the game is a matter of managing chaos and kind of trying to herd cats in an indirect fashion.  It's a really cool concept and really fun, but after one expansion and a bunch of free post-release support, I realized that basically there was nothing too exciting more to do with the concept.  Unlike AI War, this wasn't a game that had the legs to just be expanded and expanded and expanded.  It is what it is, and it's really cool, but it's not going to keep growing.

Anyway, the main point I was trying to make is that Skyward was all about indirect actions and controlling a strategy game basically by being a "bystander."  Unlike in AI War, you aren't a major participant, you are instead trying to "handle" the major participants, if that makes sense.  Well, with TLF, that is precisely what you are doing as well, except it's not as chaotic as in Skyward.  In Skyward there was a lot of humor value in having there be a ton of random chaos, and games are short enough in that that that's okay.

But with TLF, everything is based in some fashion on the underlying simulation, so when something happens, it isn't just completely out of the blue random -- which is what Skyward was.  So in TLF, that means that you get an awesome feedback loop, where you have to deal with what the simulation gives you (as in Skyward, or actually to some extent AI War as well), but then you also heavily alter the simulation through your own actions, thus really affecting what sort of things the simulation gives you in the future (to a degree that none of our other games remotely come close to).

8. Bionic Dues was about a lot of things, but two main things stand out to me in relation to TLF.  First of all, it was the first game where we really made a huge effort in the accessibility department, and where I think we succeeded.  Bionic also has a duality between a light strategic layer and then a quick-moving tactical layer.

TLF, of course, has an immensely heavy strategic layer, but then also has a quick-moving tactical layer.  I really like that combination, and they are very complementary.  The shift to turn-based combat for TLF was really perfect, because it made the tempo and thoughtfulness of the macro and micro levels match -- which was also the case with AI War and Bionic, but not the case with the Valley games (which caused friction with players who liked one style or the other).

At any rate, TLF also has been something that we've striven for accessibility with, and to make it something that could be exceedingly complex (ala SimCity) without being something that you can't hop into and do something with (again ala SimCity).  We started that sort of process with Bionic, and I think we were successful, although it is a far simpler game.  We carried what we learned there forward into TLF.  For that matter, that also goes for the art that Blue and Cath were doing -- so much of what was learned in Bionic was carried forward into TLF, even though TLF was a huge new challenge.

Anyway, long writeup, I know.  But when I say that The Last Federation is the culmination of what I've been trying to achieve in my career so far... well, the above is what I mean.  There have been many things that I've tried over the years, with varying degrees of success (though I am proud of every game we have ever made, even if the market and/or press didn't always love each one).  And I feel like TLF takes all the right lessons from all of those.

I really hope that this is going to be our new flagship title, so that we can take it on the same path that AI War has been on (and still is on) re: expansions and free updates.  I guess we'll find out soon enough!  Thanks for reading.

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