Hi everyone, Oliver here. Today I’m going to be talking a little bit about the challenges and opportunities of inventing a religion for the game.

In many games, you have an in-game religion or set of gods that either definitely are or definitely aren’t real, within the game’s fiction. Fantasy games, in particular, do this all the time – all their pantheons, even the mutually exclusive ones, tend to be unproblematically there, working approximately as advertised. Any philosophical issues thereby brought up tend to be swept under the carpet, in time-honoured style (Judaism was originally henotheistic in this kind of way, about three thousand years ago, and indeed the word ‘Baal’ – now thought of as naming a demon in Christianity – means ‘lord’ in Hebrew and originated with a Canaanite god known to the Israelites simply as ‘the Lord of the Canaanites’). This didn’t seem like a satisfactory solution for Alliance.

Having the Empire’s religion simply be true would be a cop-out from the idea of faith, to start with. You don’t need to have faith in Tolkien’s Valar, for example, any more than you need to have faith in your refrigerator – they’re just there. But we didn’t want to simply opt for an absentee God, either – the player’s natural assumption in that case would be that the religion is simply false and cynical. Much as the Alliance of the Sacred Suns universe is full of falsehood and cynicism, we didn’t want to do that, either. It would be too easy.

What we chose to do, in the end, is take a third way, more interesting than either of those alternatives. In Alliance, you are personally acquainted with Sol Invictus (the God of the Solarian religion), without it being clear whether he actually is all he claims to be. On the face of it, it’s quite possible – he has a plausibly Godly agenda, he has unexplained knowledge, he speaks with the narrator’s voice (something that just happened naturally when I was writing the first dream scene in which you encounter him) – but there are tensions at the very heart of the idea of the sort of God who picks favourites and pursues agendas within his own creation, and you can get the chance to tug at one or two of these, depending on how you play the game, and see how he responds and whether you find it convincingly Godlike or not.

This, of course, means I have to convincingly write the voice of God.

Wish me luck!

Oliver

Hi all, Oliver here, with our first mockup of the military screen!

mil-sys-planet-mockup-v4

This mockup – which Ogi produced in Unity, meaning that the finished article will look a lot like this – shows a massive battle happening on a planet. Your forces, arrayed down the left-hand side, are ranged against the enemy, in red on the right. Each Force can have up to six units – which might be anything from ground-pounding local militia to massive starships and superweapons – each of which has its own Captain, under the command of the Force’s General. At the bottom of the screen, just above the ‘selected Force’ panel, you can see a tooltip for a unit, showing its strength (or damage dealt last turn, as this is a battle!), its health and the damage it took last turn, its icon (currently a khaki blob, but we’re working on it) and its Captain. You have to think carefully about who to put in charge of your units and Forces – military skill can turn the tide of an entire war, but a disloyal Captain might leak secrets to the enemy, making your Force much more vulnerable to interception and attack, while a disloyal General might run off with the whole Force!

As well as your commanders’ loyalty, though, you have to consider the loyalty of their troops. Every Force has a single homeworld, and the affection of the Pops on that homeworld for you and for their commander determines the loyalty of the troops they support. You can think of the troops as simply their homeworld’s Pops, abroad. Thus, if you oppress a Force’s homeworld, you’d better watch out – sedition in the ranks can lead to civil war. If, on the other hand, you have a Force from a world that loves you to pieces, you can be relatively sure that their General won’t be able to run off with them – unless they impress them sufficiently with their charisma and command ability. Even where the Force is posted matters – a Force far from their homeworld will be much less able to join in rebellions there. All these considerations – inspired by the troubles of the classical Republic of Rome – will impact on your military decisions as Emperor.

Now to return to the battle screen , you can see that at the top of the screen, just under the Action Points counter and button, you can see the planetary Devastation and the balance of power. The balance of power shows which way the war is going – wars on planets can take a number of turns to complete, as each turn represents a month, creating a strategic back-and-forth as you redirect your fleets and try to prosecute or stymie an invasion. Devastation represents the horrors war inflicts on the poor, suffering population of the planet. It drives waves of refugees from the planet, dramatically depresses its economy, and outright kills Pops. Certain units will cause more Devastation than others – in particular, Xyl forces will wipe out every human they come across. Wars can have wide-ranging consequences in Alliance of the Sacred Suns, far beyond diplomacy and conquest, and as Emperor you will have to find a way to handle them – for better or worse.

I hope you enjoyeed this preview of the military system – until next week, Ave Imperator!

Oliver

Hi all, Oliver here! Today we’re showing off our first mockups of the Intrigue view. In this mode, you encounter the seedy underbelly of your court – the plots, the schemes, the secrets and lies! And this isn’t just a spy-assignment minigame, oh no. The idea is to collect parts of secrets (for example, ‘Baron Nogood is plotting something with Count Crapula’ ‘Count Crapula is plotting an assassination against somebody‘ ‘Baron Nogood is plotting something against you’) and try to match them together into accusations that your Inquisitors can use to take out the culprits (such as ‘Baron Nogood and Count Crapula are plotting to assassinate you’). But how, I hear you ask, do you actually do this?

intrigue mockup clean.png

The way we have it working is very simple. On each planet, system, and star (on which more later) you have a list of Clues – incomplete pieces of information, displayed like sentences with character portraits in place of names and so on – and at the bottom of the screen, in the selection area, you have the cases you’re currently working on. Clues are supplied by your Inquisitors’ diligent monitoring work, gossip you hear or overhear at court, and characters you charm or coerce into revealing them. Each clue also has one or two leads – characters who are listed as potentially knowing other, connected clues. You just click-and-drag the clues you think belong together into the selection area to put together your accusation, and when you’re confident you’re right, you can click ‘ACCUSE’ and fire it off! You’ll choose which of your limited number of Inquisitors to send it with, and shortly (or immediately if they’re in the same place) you’ll hear the outcome…

Now the Imperial Inquisition is a unique and frightening institution. They will never convict an innocent man – this is the reason the Great Houses allowed the institution to continue – but the experience is nightmarish for the accused. If found innocent, they and their family will despise you not only for the insult, but for the accused’s having to endure the mind-bending horrors of the Inquisitorial process. So beware!

One thing you might still be wondering is: ‘Why have separate lists of clues on each system and planet? Surely it would be less of a pain in the ass to just have one big list?’ While we do indeed have one big list available in the summary screen (accessible from a button in the top left of the screen), the point of dividing up clues this way is to prioritise them. At the start of the game, when you’re mostly dealing with individual planets, the doings of individual characters on those planets will be of paramount interest. But as your empire grows, you’re going to be moving up through the levels of control, simply because you only have so many Action Points in the turn. By hooking the clues to game locations, putting clues to bigger and more important plots at higher levels, we can make the same process of moving up through the levels that you’re engaged in with regard to the other facets of gameplay work here, too.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy playing with the Intrigue system! Ave Imperator!

Oliver

Hey everyone!

First of all, it’s very exciting to see so many new people on the blog! Thanks to RPS for their very positive article!

We wanted to announce that we are releasing .4 this week (codename: Constantine) and we are moving right into .5 (codename: Theodosius). This means that most of the UI is now complete, the Projects and Action systems are in, the new game creation system is in, and the 3D graphics have been updated with most of the planets being replaced and all of the stars. We are very excited about working on .5, which will include the following:

  • Council System
  • Budget System
  • Emperor Screen/Diary
  • Unrest/Tension system
  • Constellations
  • Start of AI System Implemented
  • More Projects/Actions
  • Sound/Music

We are working hard on getting the AI implemented and the gameplay balanced as our testers will be working on this. Look for more screenshots and an updated video shortly on our YouTube channel!

Also, with the release of .4, we will be increasing the tempo of blog and forum updates, as well as working on our web site design. We will move to http://www.allianceofthesacredsuns.com shortly once our new web site is live. This blog will be moved there as part of that redesign.

Most exciting, we are planning to release our Phase One of our early access build before the end of the year! We will add more information about pricing and dates shortly.

Stay tuned for more info!

-Steve

 

 

Hi all, Oliver here. Today I’m going to be talking a little bit about redesigning the military system, our carrot-shaped design strategy, and not being afraid to kill your darlings when you’re hammering out a design.

We’re right at the end of build .4 at the moment – we’ll probably have it out to the alpha testers this week – so we’re looking ahead to the next few builds. Coming up in .7 is the military system, which we’ve had the design for sitting around since we finished the GDD (Game Design Document), but which we’ve not really touched while we’ve been putting together the other elements of the simulation. When Ogi and I took a preliminary look at it, we realised it was too fiddly – there were a lot of cool ideas in there, but the amount of information conveyed and control required would be out of step with the rest of the game. For example: I’d written in a ‘tour of duty’ system, whereby you would be able to adjust the amount of time your troops spent on deployment versus home on leave, trading off their morale and loyalty against the immediate strength of your forces. It could have been an interesting system, and might have worked well in another game, but in AotSS it would just be too much detail – not something the Emperor would personally control – so that’s getting scrapped.

Similarly, we were going to have a slightly involved system whereby you would give your forces orders, but the orders would have a ‘lead time’ before they could be executed, with a fixed cost for giving any number of orders on a single turn. The point of this was to encourage the player to set up queues of orders that the AI could then spy on and use to intercept your forces. Again, this could have been a cool system in principle – but in a non-combat-focussed game like AotSS, it would probably be too complicated and unintuitive. Instead, we’re allowing you the player to spy on enemy war plans and find out where they’re planning to move and attack, but enemy spying will simply provide their forces with extra damage against yours and allow them to intercept you in deep space (which you can only do if you know where the target fleet is going to be). This keeps the fun bit – finding out the enemy’s plans and foiling them – without subjecting you the player to the weird constraints of the original design, making the game much more responsive and playable.

This all ties in to our overall development strategy. Although obviously when we wrote the GDD we didn’t realise that specifically these features were going to be streamlined, we knew that streamlining would be happening down the line: knowing how easy it is to get caught up in feature creep, we made a conscious decision to get all of ours in right then and there, and from that point onward only cut features, not add them. That’s a strategy we’ve largely stuck to, and it’s allowed us to stay focussed and on-task through our development process. Of course, it’s much less fun cutting things than adding them – part of the reason we’re making AotSS is that we like the idea of having a massively detailed universe simulation happening underneath your feet while you play, hence the Action Point restriction, the systems for delegating power, and so on – but it means we’ll make a better game on a shorter timescale than if we just let our maximalist instincts run wild. And who knows – maybe the features we cull this time around will make it into another game in the years to come.

Until then, Ave Imperator!

Oliver

Hi all, Oliver here! Today I’m going to be talking in a little more detail about how our AI system will work.

Because Alliance of the Sacred Suns is a turn-based game, the AI isn’t constantly calculating what to do. Instead, each character, including the player, takes a turn, and over the course of that turn, the (other) AIs mostly just react to the active AI’s actions. (We may do some clever things with AI decision-making in the background of other characters’ turns, in order to shorten the turn calculation time, but the basic principle is IGOUGO.) The active character, in contrast, will be running quite a sophisticated algorithm to decide what exactly they’re going to do with their time.

First of all, they have to take stock of their situation. At the start of each character’s turn, they check their Attention Bidding System. This is a function that chooses between different possible goals for the character to work towards, based on weights assigned to those goals. For some goals, such as getting rich, these weights are pretty constant, only varying with the character’s fundamental personality and Ultimate Goal (their overall desire in life). For others, the weight will depend on their circumstances – ‘Survival’, for example, takes a weight determined by the highest Threat Level of any character to the active character. (Threat Level is a figure set by a combination of a character’s Power with modifiers for other factors, such as threats they’ve made and Secrets the active character knows about them.) The goal they’re currently working towards also has a bonus to its weight, to make sure characters stay plausibly focussed.

Once the Attention Bidding System’s check has been made, the character then starts moving on the Strategy Tree. This is a branching tree of hand-written decision nodes, designed to try and emulate real human reasoning by proceeding from ultimate motives, through general strategies, to specific actions. But rather than starting from the top of the tree each time, unless they’ve changed their end goal, the character will pick up wherever they left off at the end of their last turn. (Again, this is to make sure they maintain coherent courses of action over time.) The character will then proceed through the tree according to the rules on each node they come to, until they come to a node telling them to perform an action of some kind. When they come to a node of this sort, they will spend an Action Point, perform the action, and then check their Attention Bidding System again, to make sure circumstances haven’t changed what they ought to be doing – for example, if they’ve Challenged a character more powerful than they are, they may suddenly need to move to the Survival branch of the tree! Then, if they have Action Points left, they will start moving through the tree again, repeating the process until they run out of APs.

So that’s the overview of the system. Let’s have a look at an example, to see how this’ll work in practice.

Mancy Ononoke is the young viceroy of the planet Lucidia. Her Ultimate Goal in life is Wealth, which means that’s one of the goals she has under consideration, and since she’s a very Driven young woman, its weighting is quite high, outbidding the moderate threat from the popular Gaius Locke, also resident on Lucidia, for her attention. Now since she was busy on a pilgrimage until last turn, she starts from the top of the Wealth branch of the strategy tree. First, she decides what broad strategy she will pursue to make her money: since she’s a Viceroy, she makes the easy choice to Develop her Territory (a node directly under ‘Ultimate Goal: Wealth’). Now, how to do that? ‘Develop Territory’ has three child nodes, but two of them are available only to senior clergy and province governors, respectively. So she opts for the third, ‘Improve Economic Sector’.

‘Improve Economic Sector’ is a node that can be accessed from a number of different places, so it has options for which planet and sector of the economy to improve. Choosing which planet to improve is easy when there’s only one option, but selecting which sector to improve is more complex. Mancy considers unemployment, production capacity, and the skill of her workers in order to pick the Energy sector. She then, following the node’s script, determines that the best way to improve that sector is by building more power plants. Therefore, she moves down to Adjust Build Plan, and spends an Action Point to alter her planet’s build plan to favour building them. The instructions then tell her to wait to see how effective it is, so she discards the rest of her Action Points, and the turn ends.

Mancy doesn’t have to just sit around waiting, of course. Many goals can be pursued as ‘break activities’, meaning they can interrupt other activities without disrupting them completely – once the break activity is finished, the character goes right back to what they were doing. ‘Survival’ – in this case, tackling the threat of Mr. Locke – is such an activity, and, since she’s waiting, she gives break activities a higher weighting in the bidding for her attention. So, next turn, she might decide to deal with Locke once and for all! But she might also choose to start building a family, spend time with her friends, do something for the Church, or any one of a number of different things. There are over 500 nodes on the strategy tree, with twelve different goals bidding for characters’ attention, and many different ways to achieve those goals, creating a dynamic, storytelling system in which characters act plausibly in pursuit of believable motivations.

Not only that, but since the system is completely modular, modders will be able to add new nodes and modify existing ones. Different branches can cross-reference one another (with a customisable limit on absolute tree depth, to prevent infinite loops) meaning that some nodes added to one branch can be used intelligently by characters pursuing other goals. (Assuming, that is, the nodes are well-written!)

Now some of you will be reading this and thinking, ‘That’s all well and good, but how many hours am I going to have to sit and wait for each turn to resolve?’ We’re very aware of the potential performance issues involved in such a procedure, so we also plan to iteratively develop an ‘AI director’ system to switch characters between this process and a much simpler, more efficient one, in order to provide the player with a better experience. This other system will be much lower-fidelity and have many fewer options, making the decision process much faster, but crucially, you won’t know which character is running what at any given time – a character who doesn’t seem to be doing much proactively might not be, but on the other hand, they might be busy plotting behind your back…

It’s a very exciting time for me right now, because having worked on the detailed design of this system for almost a year, we’re on the point of beginning to implement it! Keep your eye on the blog – we’re going to have a lot to show off in the coming weeks and months.

Ave Imperator!

Oliver

IMPORTANT NOTE:  This blog has been significantly updated, to the point where I am considering posting it as a new blog since much has changed.

PREMISE:

Alliance of the Sacred Suns is a 4X game where you have just reached your majority as an 18-year old trying to rebuild humanity’s old empire after a cataclysmic war forced humanity to move to a new quadrant of the galaxy. It is over 1000 years later and you are thrust into a position where, after a string of weak emperors, everyone from planetary viceroys, to system and sector governors, to scheming Primes (basically cabinet heads) is forward to taking advantage of your inexperienced and timid rule.

But you have no such intentions.

You were born with a strange ability: to read and change the minds and thoughts of others. As a leader, this ability is very valuable to determine who you can trust. Your goal is simple: to restore the Empire, to reclaim your standing as Emperor of Human Space, and – perhaps – to guide Mankind into a new and immortal era.

But there is another threat, looming beyond the light-years: the Xyl. Hybrid life forms that first appeared over Earth’s skies over a thousand years ago and forced humanity from their dying world after 2 bitter years of total war in the Exodus of 2033.

Nearly 400 years later, after humanity had found refuge in another corner of the Milky Way Galaxy – escaping through a star-gate of mysterious origin – the Xyl attacked again, and this war stretched out over 2 decades. Finally, humanity managed to introduce a nanovirus that appeared to stop the alien threat, but the ancestors of the year 3050 may have sealed humanity’s fate – just in slow motion.

CONCEPTS:
In AotSS, you do not have unlimited power. Unlike virtually every other 4X game out there, you can not do anything at anytime. You have a small pool of Action Points that you spend to do basically anything, from planning empire-spanning Projects, to communicating with characters in the game, to meeting with your cabinets, to even going hunting. As you age, your pool will gradually increase, reflecting your increased familiarity with how to ‘make things work’ as an Emperor. Most importantly, the Action Point limit puts the kibosh on micromanagement, allowing us to simulate your empire in unprecendented depth without thereby forcing you to spend hours optimising every last trade fleet. Your choice of where to intervene becomes a matter of careful deliberation – the Emperor’s time is precious!

Project are another major difference from other 4X games. In Imperia, you might simply change a planet’s name by clicking the button, typing in the name, and that’s that. In reality, changing an entire planet’s name would have serious repercussions! So what you might have used to simply ‘do’ in other games now require Projects. Projects are massive undertakings that can only be done with stellar-level hardware and resources. Projects allow you to do things like reorganize sectors, change a system or sector capital, build or upgrade starbases, change what a planet produces, etc. Where this mechanic radically differs from most 4X games is that it is your Characters who actually enact the Project – they contribute a portion of their available administrative clout or ‘ADM’ (gained from their position as viceroy, system governor, etc) as well as providing the financial backing to enact the Project. Characters who back a large part of a Project will expect favors and prestige, therefore you must balance allowing Characters who stand against your Empire to grow more powerful, with how important the Project is to your long-term strategies. ADM represents all the planning, infrastructure, transport, ships, manpower, etc. to do planet-shaping things, and abstracts nicely the concept while eliminating micromanagement.

While your word as Emperor is law, there is no way to force how long an Project actually takes to plan, execute, and complete. And this is where the other major system of Imperia comes in – the character system.

Characters populate AotSS(much like Crusader Kings games) – they have their own stats, age, wealth, traits, and ambitions, like you or me. They can be manipulated to do what you want – if you’re cunning. You will often find yourself bribing or sweet talking a system governor who is holding up an important economic stimulus in their system, or perhaps calming down a sector governor who you just took away an entire system from to give to a closer sector, or promoting a loyal viceroy all the way to a sector governor who will be absolutely loyal to you – the character system in Imperia is a powerful and immersive aspect of managing your empire. Character stats are hidden from you until you reach a certain intel level (increased from interacting with them through Actions, or placing your dread Inquisitor squads in positions to gather information), and even then the number is a wide range until your intel increases sufficiently. This is a problem when a character’s love or fear of you is reported as 88 (out of 100) but it it actually a 41! The rule of thumb: Watch what characters actually do, not what they say. They also gain traits that affect their decisions and relationships with you as they age. They can die and retire, or be ‘retired’ by you – either by forcing them out of office or by more ‘direct’ measures. Don’t get caught!

The containers that are populated by Characters are called Houses. These are multi-generational organizations that have been around for centuries, and they often have their own Holdings of planets or systems. In fact, the Celestial Empire consists of the sum of the member House’s Holdings (most of which are held by the ruling House, yours). There are 3 sizes of Houses: Great Houses, which typically have Holdings, a personal military, and a vast amount of resources; Minor Houses, which are still formidiable but generally do not have Holdings, nor the great resource reserves that Great Houses enjoy, and Common Houses, which are all the ‘normal’ Houses that do not have a special history or any real power in the Empire.

Great House Leaders are, other than Primes, the most powerful and important characters in Imperia. Anger a Great House enough, and they may try to break away from the Empire – or to take it for themselves!

You yourself have a starring role as well through Influence. As you make choices through your rule, you will start to gain different types of Influence. Benevolent Influence is the ‘good’ Influence, which calls people to action for your Empire and the pride of humanity. Tyrannical Influence is the ‘evil’ Influence, which is used to threaten and intimidate characters into doing your will – but using it will have other repercussions. In addition, craven characters will gravitate to emperors who stray into Tyrannical decisions, and vice versa – you may have to make some tough choices about removing (or trying to!) governors who can’t stand your alignment!

The game is about less micro and more about making the large-scale decisions that shape an Empire. You will not be building 10 Science Labs to accelerate research; instead you will designate a planet as a Scholarly Conclave and try to install a viceroy that is aligned to the need for research, allowing that planet to grow organically – they will build Academies and attract academia themselves, with a few nudges along the way. You will not be building transports and endlessly clicking materials to go from planet to planet – instead, you will set up trade hubs that serve as collection centers and build starbases of appropriate sizes to move materials and food along from your Imperial capital to sector capitals to system capitals to normal colonies.

From an ‘explore’ standpoint, no longer do you have to build and design scout ships, set a destination, and micromanage exploration and colonization fleet. Would a real emperor do that? Projects cover just about everything you would want to do as an Emperor on a exploration level, from surveying new planets and unexplored systems to creating outposts to creating colonies. You just create a Project on an unexplored planet or system and your people will do the rest (eventually).

As mentioned earlier, planets are not micromanaged. They are very complex entities whose actions are governed in part by their population, the stats of the planet itself, its viceroy, and most importantly its Focus. All planets have at least one Focus – examples would be a farming world, a manufacturing center, a heavy military world, a scientific conclave, a prison planet, etc. Focuses basically shape how a planet will evolve. Depending on the size of the planet, up to 2 additional ‘secondary’ Focuses can also be assigned to more round out a planet’s development.

The population of your Empire will ultimately decide whether you live long and prosper (ha) or die at the business end of a pulser. Populations have their own unrest, age, type, job class, popular support, and needs. Each 1 million people are considered one ‘pop’ (similar to the Victoria system, but much more granular) and they can change jobs, age, die, have kids, migrate to other planets, or even leave your Empire altogether! They can also starve, grow angry, and revolt. They have their own cultures and House affiliation, and careful massaging of public opinion will be needed to ensure your vital Reforms pass without trouble.

And looming out there, making their presence known through your psychic abilities, are the Xyl. They have returned… but when? And will humanity be able to stand against them when their seeds have shattered across the quadrant?

You must pull together the Celestial Empire once more, research military and social technologies that will aid your efforts, unite your Houses against a common enemy, and prepare your subjects for war… a war that no one knows is coming… but you.

That is, if you’re not killed by your people first… in Alliance of the Sacred Suns, the 5th X is… eXist.

Good luck, Your Grace.