This post is the first half of a two-part article on Jon Shafer’s At the Gates, at launch. You can read part 2 by clicking on this link.
I have to confess that what sold me on getting Jon Shafer’s At the Gates right out of the gate – considering the game’s lukewarm reception at launch – was reading Shafer’s account of his personal descent into hell while making At the Gates, and how he turned the situation around to ship the game.
Reading Shafer’s story, I was reminded of the indie game development nightmare (and utlimately, success) stories of Eric Barone, developer of Stardew Valley, or Sean Velsaco and company of Shovel Knight, as related by Jason Schreier of Kotaku in his book Blood, Sweat and Pixels. Or, Ed McMillen and Tommy Refenes, developers of Super Meat Boy, and Phil Fish, developer of Fez, ruining their health and sanity over producing their games, as we follow them in Indie Game: The Movie.
To be clear: even if our culture glorifies workaholism, I don’t find “martyrdom for the cause” to be intrinsically virtuous. And it’s here that Shafer’s story provides additional insight beyond the usual self-sacrifice mythos of the indie video game developer. His “survivor’s tale” presents martyrdom as a sickness. It is perhaps this core message – Shafer surviving his own darkness – that resonated most with me. So my purchase of the game at launch and at full price came from the desire to support people like Shafer, who not only are passionate about making innovative strategy games, but also are willing to share their tribulations to help “level-up” public discussion on mental health issues.
Certainly, Shafer wanted to share his story as a way of reaching out to people who are also staring into the abyss, having staked their lives on the success or failure of a single project. Going indie may be glamorous for those who succeed, but many pay a high price for their entrepreneurial gamble. As more and more stories surface of the successes and failures of indie devs, I’m hoping the “personal cost issue” of indie game development becomes less of a taboo subject, and that labor relations in the video game industry also continue to receive more coverage. Still, you have to wonder: in an industry that normalizes labor exploitation with the “team-building” heroics of “crunch”, what do we make of indie developers who, under extreme social and financial pressure and out of fear of failure, become their own worst tormentors?
Shafer’s own lifestyle changes here might provide us with an example of a better way to redesign productivity, with respect for human limits as guiding principle.
At the (Bright and Early) Gates
Conducted a few months prior to this campaign, Shafer’s interview with Emily Bembeneck here on Play the Past makes for a fascinating read. Shafer presents At the Gates as “a game about leading a barbarian tribe,” exploiting the fissures of declining Roman rule. From map randomization, to tribal survival gameplay, to faction differentiation and “Romanization perks”, to the religion-tinged diplomacy, you can read how much of Shafer’s detailed vision was already contained in the early development phase. His hope and enthusiasm for the project also comes across palpably in the interview. With our 2019 hindsight, reading his words back in 2013 is a little foreboding…
If all the features discussed in this interview don’t appear in the released version of his game, Shafer was already driving the point home in 2013 about making a game that gave players a sense of the historical period being modeled:
Bembeneck: So underwritten in this domination narrative, is there an underlying notion of inevitability? Are you trying to make a point about history, about the rise and fall of empire?
Shafer: Yes. This is where the point that this game is about history comes into play. I want to model the incremental fall of Empire, because Rome didn’t simply fall one day and the Empire was over as may be a commonly held idea but one that is very incorrect. It was gradual and complex. But I’m also trying to create an interesting play experience which also means delivering on players’ expectations about the period. The barbarians are coming; civilization is collapsing. There’s no way to prevent that.
One of my perspectives on history is that yes, there is a certain inevitability about everything. People will come and go; empires will rise and fall. There’s no way to prevent that. That’s simply the nature of everything. The Roman Empire was going to fall eventually somehow whether it was running out of food, being conquered by the barbarians, civil war or something else. There is always something that will happen in history that shifts things into the next phase. Nothing is static; everything is evolving.
Ever-shifting fortune would soon intervene in Shafer’s development cycles. Painfully, in the years that followed the Kickstarter Campaign, Shafer’s project – and daily life – lingered into the stretchy void of imminent disaster, and collapse. As project lead, he continued to communicate with backers, which may account for the support he continued to receive during times of “radio silence”. Over time, Shafer’s “slow and difficult 4X” slowly took shape, and development resumed when Shafer rebooted his entire lifestyle around the novel concept of “looking out for #1”, i.e staying fit and sane. By mid-2018, Shafer was finally in the running (with his small team at Conifer games) for shipping version 1.0 of At the Gates… in early 2019.
Game at Launch: What the Critics are Saying
I’ve compiled critical reception around At the Gates (AtG) at launch – not because it’s a fun exercise – but because we can read in the many viewpoints expressed how well (or badly) critics describe the novelty of Shafer’s vision and design, and how the game currently succeeds at (or falls short of) achieving this vision.
Reading official reviews of AtG, I am struck with the evolving practice of product reviewing in an industry which has been steadily shifting toward a blended product/service business model. Since the advent of big-ticket MMORPGs, digital distribution and Early Access (and the plague of “seasons passes” and pre-purchasing for AAA titles), gamers now have access to games as products that continue to evolve after release. On the marketing side of things, the games industry still operates around highly-publicized fairs, expos, and official releases. Game reviewing for the most part follows this model – notably with the make-or-break metacritic score. But because both AAA game and indie game development now follows the blended product/service model, critics find themselves reviewing released games that are still products in the making, with the assumption that so-called “official releases” have achieved a minimum level of polish.
AtG is case in point. The game’s long and difficult birth pangs reflect both Shafer’s personal difficulty, and the industry-wide trends that have made room for the production (and sale) of niche indie games. As you will see, critics have mostly been of two minds about AtG. Many have been indulgent toward the game’s “work in progress” status, given the novelty of Shafer’s effort and approach. But many have also identified design flaws that may or may not be resolvable with more development time and resources.
Only time will tell if AtG’s potential will be fully realized. For the time being, we at Play the Past have the luxury of calling our first encounter with the post-launch version of AtG “First Impressions” 😉
So what do the critics say about AtG?
To John Jacques at Screen Rant (3.5 out of 5), At the Gates “is a familiar-feeling rogue-like title with beautiful water-colour visuals and deep strategic gameplay”. If Civ pitted players in inter-civilization competition and conquest, AtG’s player versus environment focus tweaks 4X rules toward adaptation, over expansion. Shafer’s design forces players to make the best of “the hand” of clans they are dealt with in a given environment. The procedurally generated maps and changing weather systems spice up the challenge of survival, especially in the early game. Jacques:
“Each game played in At The Gates will feel very different from the last. On an obvious level, this is because the game uses procedural generation to create each watercolor world. Like any true rogue-like, though, this random generation might lead to one game being a relative cakewalk compared to the unforgiving nature of the next. Players may find themselves in an area well-suited to march armies into Rome in one game, but find themselves half a world away in the next. The randomness and unforgiving nature of the world will force gamers to adopt new strategies in each game, adding a nice layer of replayability to the title.”
Anthony Marzano at Destructoid (9 out of 10) notes that if the ex-Civ5 lead developer’s pet project “stays in the shadow of the colossus” (of Civ5), Shafer’s rendition of 4X gameplay manages to “carve its own identity”. He muses that AtG is, at core, a survival game masquerading as a strategy title. W.B. Mason at Cultured Vultures (8 out of 10) also feels that AtG is very much its own thing, despite superficial similarities with Civ5. For one, “Instead of running and building an empire, At The Gates charges you with taking one down.” Mason adds that if AtG somewhat looks and runs like a Civ, its survival game feel reminds him of playing Banished. The unique art style and bare-bones audio track are also reminiscent of old-school Civ games. Mason:
“What Jon Shafer’s At The Gates gets totally right is that feeling of ‘just one more turn’. It really pushes you to continue playing, expanding and exploring the world. There is a certain satisfaction when it comes to building your kingdom, building it up from nothing to take on the might of the Roman Empire, and there’s also a certain crushing depression when it is demolished by another tribe.”
Calling AtG “an ascendancy simulator for nomadic tribes”, Sergio Brinkhuis of Hooked Gamers (7.2 out of 10) notes the early game trend of pushing players into trial-and-error experimentation:
“I don’t know of any game that has made the starting location as significant it is in At The Gates. It doesn’t just determine who your neighbors are, or your ability to build ships, or even the immediate availability of a specific resource. No, it’s all those things – plus – how you will shape your empire throughout the game.”
Visiting caravans can episodically rescue players who are nearly trapped in a near zero-growth spiral. For the most part, AtG players will spend time scratching their heads on the best way to optimize clan skills for survival and expansion. Ultimately, the devil is in the details: clans can in principle take up any profession, but in practice, clan traits, desires and experience often forces the player to hold on to a clan/profession pairing.
To David Wildgoose at Gamespot (7 out of 10) “Shafer’s pioneering vision [in AtG] is of a genre that is narrower in scope and more concerned with how players respond to the figurative hand of cards they’re dealt”. The player must make the best of the map she starts with, and above all, with the hand of “clans” she has available to train in professions, and manage in traits and behaviors. Wildgoose:
“Balancing the demands of the map with the skills of your clans is the core strategic concern of the entire game. Along the way–and this is where At The Gates really starts to shine–there are many ways that relationship between the map and your people can change.” AtG offers tough decisions around clan/environment management choices; its weaknesses are glaring when it comes to AI and diplomacy.
For Javy Gwaltney at Game Informer (8 out of 10), AtG shares deep affinities with both 4X and rogue-like genres. AtG’s “RPG-lite system is effective because your units become more than little statistics you march across the map, but instead characters whose needs you have to manage.” The depth and slow pace of AtG’s is both its strong point, and greatest weakness: the turn-based mechanism, ideal for thinking through complex decisions also makes progression painfully slow. The barebones combat resolution and diplomacy options make AtG comes across as a weak implementation of Civ combat and diplomacy mechanics. Gwaltney:
“At The Gates is at its best once you’re past the steep learning curve and can see the payoff of your careful planning and shrewd tactics in the distance, whether it’s a bounty of food or a significant technological advancement. The slow pacing, difficulty, and confined historical focus might prove a barrier for some, but I loved carving out my own empire of riches in the roughs on grit and determination alone.”
Joe Robinson at Strategy Gamer (3 out of 5) does not take AtG’s hommage to the fall of the Roman Empire “to be historically accurate, but rather [as an attempt] to capture the essence of era from the ‘outsider’ perspective.” Though the game offers two main paths to victory – “economic” and “military” – against the declining Roman Empire, unlike Civ5 “there’s nothing remotely close to a tech or culture type victory at the moment.” Turning the 4X premise on its head, AtG also apparently covers the decline of a civilization, the Romans – though Robinson has not been able to assess, in gameplay terms, the downturn of Roman might. Robinson:
“At the Gates has all the foundations of a wonderfully unique 4X game, but it’s also incredibly spartan when viewed as a whole. The early game is definitely compelling and fairly re-playable, but there is an obvious lack of depth and breadth in a lot of areas. Diplomacy is non-existent, warfare is simplistic and can basically boil down to Civ 4-like stacks with minimal tactical depth. The AI (apart from the bandits) is incredibly passive, especially if you move your clan away from their starting areas. Once you get your economy into a more permanent and sustainable state, resources stop becoming an issue and thus the economic game stops being interesting. Essentially, this has the same weak mid-to-end game issues all 4X’s suffer from, but there is an added dimension of it being fairly lean.”
At PC Invasion (2 out of 5), Jason Rodriguez muses how AtG works as “a simulation of sorts on how nomadic migrations ended the dream that was once Rome” (Rodriguez also gives historic examples of the game’s two paths to victory). If Rodriguez appreciates the clan system as a substitute for specialized units in typical 4X titles, he finds the hairsplitting of professional functions pointless and frustrating. As deep and detailed as the tech tree may appear, it also needs some serious streamlining, and the “depth and complexity” of AtG’s core mechanics seem mostly a design conceit.
For Khayl Adam at Twinfinite, (3.5 out of 5) “[the] choice of culture can give you an advantage, but it’s the addition of rogue-like elements that give At The Gates such incredible replay value.” The ability to switch up classes and match them to traits will be the decisions players spend the most time agonizing over. Resource depletion is tied to “extractive” profession or function, and so players will be forced to find complementary specializations to make their settlements more sustainable. The economic complexity of the game is given counterpoint with the hand-drawn art style. Adam:
“At The Gates is a brutally hardcore strategy game that will keep fans engaged for dozens, if not hundreds of hours. The amount of time it takes to learn even the basics, coupled with its simplistic art style and obtuse menu-based UI, will scare off newcomers. But veterans of the genre and fans of games of this pedigree will find an engaging strategy title that stands shoulder to shoulder with the games that inspired it.”
Writing for PC Gamer, Fraser Brown (57 out of 100) acknowledges the “multi-genre roots” of AtG, blending turn-based 4X mechanics of Civ5 to the worker placement of Agricola, to the map and weather systems of survival games. One historically immersive feature of AtG is that “the barbarian kingdoms are agile, adaptable up-and-comers, in contrast to the inflexible Roman powerhouse.” But the contrast between complex player-managed barbarian kingdoms and the simplistic AI often breaks immersion. The abstract units of typical 4X games are humanized in AtG’s clan system, with clan traits, desires, moods, and flexible professions. Underneath this humanizing facade the player still becomes obsessed with minute optimization of her economy because of environmental pressure. Helped in good part by regular caravan purchases during hard times, the creative optimization efforts of the player eventually pays off… with lack of challenge toward the endgame: “without adversity, At the Gates is a pretty straight line to Rome. Or Constantinople, if it’s closer.”
Ben Rose at The Indie Game Website (6 out of 10) considers dysfunctional and un-expellable clans to be a design flaw in AtG. Beyond micromanaging clan skills “the multi-layered decision-making as you explore each procedurally generated world map is unique and shows off At the Gates at its best.” The important role seasons play also adds simulation value to the game. Sadly, mastery of the economic engine leads to the player acquiring a conquering capacity that’s somewhat anticlimactic.
TJ Hafer at IGN (4.8 out of 10) compares AtG to an innovative “concept car” that doesn’t perform well at the basics (like braking). As a clear spiritual descendant of the 4X genre “At the Gates holds no cow sacred – and that’s the best thing about it.” Faceless units become characters (clans) in AtG, and the player chooses how they develop. Two interlocking sets of dilemmas – “internal” clan management and “external” resource allocation – make for some interesting decision-making. A flexible settlement system breaks with the territorial expansionist trend of your typical 4X. Other design issues are puzzling though. Diplomacy is un-immersive, and trade is predictably tied to a cyclically visiting caravan. AI tribes appear passive, bereft of life. Conflict in AtG is unrewarding and lackluster.
“The ultimate goal is to defeat either the Eastern or Western Roman Empire, but fighting them is even more bizarre. Their legions seem to sit inert in their cities, waiting for you to come and beat them up, and I never once saw them attempt to take back an outlying farm or mine I had captured. I never saw them move at all, come to think of it. The Roman factions control a lot of land, and since settlement capture seems to do pretty much nothing for you, I found that actually getting to Rome or Constantinople and ending the campaign was a massive slog that involved sending armies back and forth between my home base – the only place you can heal – and the far-flung lands of the wine-drinkers.”
Chris Tapsell at Eurogamer.net notes that AtG offers a pared down structure of 4X: one settlement, and character-centric economic deployment (instead of buildings and additional settlements). Tapsell became frustrated with the clan training system, and the settlement presence requirement for training and healing. This is the equivalent having “to pluck core parts of your economy out of the economy itself to actually progress them.” The turn-based system of training also involuntarily encourages players to leave specialized workers out in the field. Pressure to re-tool optimally isn’t incentivized properly, and thus “it feels like the game is built for you to stagnate.” The harsh winters require good planning to survive, which is difficult to achieve due to the mental load of character skill and task management over long turn cycling. The game is also lacking in proper feedback mechanisms, leaving the player to learn through many bad surprises that could have been avoided with proper warning. But the worst design sin for AtG is, in Tapsell’s estimation, that “it doesn’t give you a reason to play on”. Survival for survival’s sake isn’t a winning proposition, and the game poorly conveys its objectives beyond the two stated victory conditions.
For Lewis Packwood at Rock Paper Shotgun, “Jon [Shafer’s] lovingly crafted 4X strategy game takes the world-spanning ethos of Civilization and focuses it down to a more human level of collecting wood and picking berries.” In this way, it’s reminiscent of The Settlers, in a 4X skin. Packwood’s review emphasizes the plodding aspect of Shafer’s design:
“Because you can only train one clan, only research one profession at a time, it takes an absolute age to get anything done. I was three hours into my first game before I even contemplated building a farm, for example. This isn’t helped by the clans’ painfully slow movement. On one occasion my Explorer spotted a fruit bush on the outskirts of my map, and it took nearly two in-game months for my Gatherer to reach it and start picking. And if you stumble across an ‘unidentified’ resource, it takes four turns to ‘identify’ it, which just seems like a needless waste of everyone’s time. I pictured my Gatherer stood staring at an ‘unidentified plant’ for weeks, scratching her head and rubbing her chin, occasionally breathing in sharply through her teeth.”
Add to this the harsh winters, which turns an already slow game into an exercise in grinding grit. The game caps the clan maximum at 40, and with more available professions and changing environmental pressure, forces the player to constantly switch up clan professions – ever so slowly, of course. There’s almost ludonarrative dissonance in the way combat gets quickly resolves, and the time it takes to train a clan for soldierly tasks. The verdict:
“At The Gates has an impressively complicated set of interlocking systems, but the amount of time and patience it takes to actually get anywhere is ridiculous. Civilization is hardly a rip-roaring roller-coaster ride, but the key difference is that your decisions in Civilization feel momentous. By contrast, At The Gates feels like a slow war of attrition against mundanity. Rather than making decisions like ‘Should I press on and take territory from Gandhi’s empire or concentrate on building my naval fleet?’, you’re faced with choices such as ‘Should I go and see what that bush is over there or explore a bit further to find some cows?’”
Aside for having the catchiest title of all the covered AtG reviews – “At the Gates Review – Destroying the Roman Empire in Watercolor” – Ruby Salt at COG Connected (6 out of 10) correctly identifies the game’s unspoken motto: “Just keep working at it.” For Salt, “The simplicity of the controls are misleading,” and even for seasoned Civ players, AtG will remain unintuitive many play-throughs over. Aide from the ingenious tool-tips, the UI guidelines to assist the player in AtG’s main gameplay loop of training, scouting, harvesting, and deploying clans are minimal at best. The one-dialog-box-at-a-time approach for the user interface is a huge time sink – multiple windows are a must for resource allocation mechanics. On the plus side, the water-colour aesthetic matches well the period and perspective played, from the player’s standpoint. The sound design, if minimalist, is overall quite pleasant.
Colin Campbell at Polygon recognizes Shafer’s attempt at “redefining the 4x genre by focusing on people, rather than buildings.” At heart, AtG is “a people-management sim,” with a sharp focus on a small window of history: the rise of so-called “barbarian kingdoms” at the periphery of the declining Roman Empire. Uniquely, AtG ties the 4X expansion mechanic with the player’s proper management of clan traits. “The urgent strategic point is to direct my research towards the resources at my disposal.” The unique geographical features of a given starting point forces the player to properly allocate training time and available characters, to the required tasks for survival. This means that “I do not expand for the mere sake of expansion. […] When my native homelands are stripped of usefulness, I can pack up my people and move them.” Campbell feels there is a disconnect between training character for optimal specialization, and the constant pressure to have grunts ready to exploit the immediate environment. Ultimately:
“[if] Civ games are famed for their addictive “one more turn” capabilities, […] At the Gates is more of a “one more game” affair, in which I hone and sharpen my strategic bones.”
To conclude this first part, here’s a summary of the key points made by most critics who have played Jon Shafer’s At the Gates at launch.
- The game blends 4X and economic sim mechanics in a way that fits with the historical theme.
- Instead of building an ever-expanding civilization, the player tries to build a tribal kingdom to become a contender of Rome. The scope of the 4X is really well thought out.
- The transformation of traditional 4X units into the personified “clans” mechanic adds immersive value to Shafer’s design.
- The watercolor aesthetic is quite beautiful, sound design is minimal but elegant.
- Thanks to a single, movable settlement, unlockable tribe factions, rogue-like map generation and seemingly limitless clan trait and profession combinations, the game has tons of replayability.
- The “strategic decisions” around allocating clans often feel like micromanagement.
- “It takes forever to do anything”. Though some critics enjoyed the slow pace, many found it excruciating.
- Short-term survival is the main motivating constraint given to the player. The long-term objectives are simply one of two paths to victory. Given the lack of mid-term objectives to strive for, the main gameplay loop feels repetitive.
- The game does not provide adequate feedback to players of relevant events, such as loss or capture of a clan, or operations such as upgrading or ennobling a clan. Likewise, the relationship between inputs and outputs of the economy are bare-bones – they are explained in the tool-tips, with gains and losses in a given resource are signaled all at once when a turn is executed.
- The A.I. is passive, diplomacy options are bare-bones. Kills immersion.
- The early game can be quite challenging, but once the player gets her economic machine going, the mid- to late-game are much less of a challenge.
- Overall the game feels unfinished for an official release.
In part 2 of this article, I will provide to interested readers an analysis of At the Gates’ interpretation of history. Stay tuned!