Making a better knife fight: Keith Burgun on AURO and Empire

Three-city challenge.

Empire, Burgun’s minimal take on Civilization.

Yesterday we had part one of my interview with 100 Rogues designer Keith Burgun, where we delved into what he considers to be the fundamentals of good game design. In this second part of the interview, we come back down to Earth a bit and discuss more concrete matters: AURO and Empire, the two games that Burgun and his teams are working on right now.

AURO is a pure tactical combat game played on a hex grid — it bears some similarities to Outwitters in fact. Empire is an entirely different proposition. It takes the ultra-streamlined back-to-basics approach that Burgun brought to roguelikes with 100 Rogues and applies it to Civilization-style 4X games.

After the jump, the second and final part of my Keith Burgun interview: how Empire takes the first 50 turns of Civilization and makes a whole game out of it, why there’s no dice rolls in AURO, and why sports do scoring much better than video games ever have.

Owen Faraday: So let’s talk about AURO. This is a tactical game with a sort of surface resemblance to Outwitters, it seems to me. Did you play Outwitters?

Keith Burgun: Oh my god, I love Outwitters so much. That’s actually a video game that’s close to a holy grail of game design for me.

OF: That was a game that I loved personally but it broke my heart that it didn’t seem to make as much money as it deserved to.

KB: Well, the devs shot themselves in the foot making it free-to-play. That’s an absolute premium game through-and-through. I think it launched at a time before people understood that not every game can be free-to-play.

OF: Do you think we’re there, actually? Do you think people realize that now?

KB: Well, I understand that not every game can be free-to-play. Maybe not everyone has yet. When Outwitters came out I was considering making AURO free-to-play because it seemed that, ‘Well, that’s just what you do now.”

OF: The conventional wisdom last year was that free-to-play was the way the market was going. Inexorably.

It's your fault.

AURO, the “pure tactical game”.

KB: Exactly. But I saw what happened to Outwitters, and then [web game portal] Kongregate approached me about making AURO free-to-play and I really tried to find a way to do it. But eventually I saw that it wasn’t going to work. I spent three years building this tight system that you can’t add or remove anything to — I couldn’t just make it free-to-play. People have the game or they don’t, and there’s no in-between. That’s what really taught me that premium-priced games are always going to be around.

OF: I’ve yet to see a successful freemium or free-to-play game that was also balanced in a way that made it fun and interesting.

KB: That’s the thing. My whole model for what an ideal strategy game is can’t co-exist with infinitely adding content [through consumable in-app purchases]. So I agree, it’s an absurd proposition to expect free-to-play games to satisfy people who are looking for real strategy games.

OF: So let’s talk more about AURO. A turn-based tactical game played on a hex grid. Tell me more.

KB: It’s a pure tactics game, really. I started out three years ago wanting to make another roguelike — a super boiled-down roguelike, even more elegant than 100 Rogues. That evolved, and I realised what I wanted to do was make a single-actor tactics game that’s just all about tactics and emergence.

Let’s say there’s only five monsters in the game — that’s a game with an low inherent level of complexity. But as those five monsters come on screen they interact with each other and they’ve got all of these different abilities based on those interactions and you have an ability. There’s so many things to consider about what you should do on any given turn. So that’s really the core idea behind AURO. On every turn it’s about your skills versus the monsters’ skills. There’s also no output randomness, so there’s no dice roll between you and your decision.

OF: This sounds like chess. Or combat Tetris. You’ve got this defined, known set of elements that you’re working with every turn and known, set outcomes from your decisions, and you’re contemplating solutions based on that.

KB: There is one thing from Tetris that we were consciously trying to capture and I think we did. In Tetris, you’re the bad guy. You’re the monster. You find yourself in this horrible situation where you’ve got all these holes in your stack and there’s only one piece that can save you.. who caused that? It was you. It’s completely you.

And that’s also the case in AURO, where you’ll get yourself into a horrible situation that you can’t escape from. Remember, this is a game where the AI behaves in totally predictable ways and the game is super-clear about how all the monsters work. So when you get into a jam, it’s your fault. There’s a lot to consider. I hope that we captured that and I think really that’s an element that every solitaire, single-player game needs. Making you your own worst enemy.

OF: You mentioned that there’s a multiplayer facet to this. How does that work?

One of our most divisive reviews.

Outwitters, a game that Burgun considers close to being “the holy grail” of tactical game design.

KB: It’s kind of like golf, I guess. You play, and then I play, and then we compare scores. But here’s what’s important: I’ll play a quick match and it matches me with you. We’ll both get the exact same random generation seed for a set of levels and then we both play one game on that random seed and it compares our score, and one of us is pronounced the winner. That’s basically how golf works, too.

I did a lot of thinking about score. I’ve been struggling with the concept of score for a very long time because I think video games have never done score even remotely correct.

OF: Scores are so arbitrary in games.

KB: That’s one of the problems. People don’t understand where their points are coming from. There’s just some weird hidden algorithm that just pumps out big mysterious numbers that are like nine digits long. And people can’t process numbers that are that big.

I really kept going back to sports where people really do care about score. Like in [American] football, people really care about the scores. That’s because the scores are really low and really clear. So if you hear that the Jets had 21 points in the game last night..

OF: You can very quickly reverse-engineer how they got those points.

KB: Right, you know that was three touchdowns, almost certainly. You feel like you own those points because you know where they came from and they have a meaning.

With single-player games, the whole ‘high score’ concept is kind of screwed up. Imagine that if you were playing football, and you had to beat the highest score that anyone’s ever got in football. That doesn’t make sense. That’s not a feasible goal, it’s a Guinness world record. So that’s why I’m doing that golf system I described. You play, I play, whoever gets the highest score right there wins. We’ll have an ELO system with rankings and leagues, just like Starcraft or Outwitters.

OF: So how far away is AURO?

KB: August, pretty confident we’ll have it out for August. We want to get it out before PAX, which we’ll be at.

OF: And what platforms?

KB: Definitely iOS. Quite likely Android on release day, but we’re not 100% on that yet. If not release day, then a few weeks afterwards. Then after that: everything else. Not consoles yet, but PC, Linux, possibly a web version. We’re going to do an Ouya version.

OF: Oh man. You might be the only game I know on the Ouya. [laughs]

KB: Well, there’s a launch version of 100 Rogues on Ouya.

OF: Oh is there? Sorry Ouya. So let’s talk Empire. I realize that’s further out into the future. Next year, maybe?

KB: The thinking right now it’s going to be out in August, actually. This is a new team, not the team that did 100 Rogues and is doing AURO — the only commonality is me as the designer.

OF: Empire fascinates me, and I feel like I have a better understanding of why you’re making it now that we’ve had this conversation. Give me the top line view of the game for somebody who hasn’t heard of it before.

You call that a knife? This is a knife.

“Chicago Express is a knife fight.”

KB: The way that AURO comes from roguelikes, Empire comes from 4X games like Civilization. What I wanted to do is attack some of the problems of those games.

My biggest problem with 4X games is that the first fifty turns of Civilization are dramatically different from the last fifty turns. And the first fifty are the more interesting. Every turn, something horrible could happen. Exploration is gone by the middle of the game.

The other thing is that Civ maps are too big. Even the smallest Civilization map is 50 times bigger than it needs to be. Why do I need to have so many cities? From my perspective, everything needs to be as small and as simple as it can be and still provide you with that space you need to have the game.

OF: Well, Civ maps are about what you would call a ‘fantasy simulation’ [see yesterday's interview], letting you role-play Alexander or Ghengis Khan. Or Khan Noonien Singh.

KB: Exactly. That’s the thing with Civ, it straddles that line between strategy game and fantasy simulation. Empire is a pure strategy game, or at least it’s attempting to be.

In Empire you can have up to three cities, and the land gets the resources sucked out of it as the cities use it, so you don’t get that perpetual feedback loop. In Civilization you’re constantly going up up up forever — in Empire you’re trying to go up and there’s constantly forces pressing you back down. You’re fighting to survive, and that can mean you have to attack other cities and take new land, because your land has run out of resources.

There’s a constant leap-frogging where your civilization is moving like nomads. You can build all of these great cities and buildings that give you these cool bonuses, but the resources will eventually be sapped dry and you’ll have to abandon this city you’ve made. As the world gets drained of resources, the more random monsters start to spawn and not only does space get smaller and you have to fight over the last remaining resources, but the world itself is getting hostile. So it’s an escalating struggle.

There’s also a deck-building aspect to it, which is my attempt to streamline a technology tree. It helps give you the feeling of a sprawling empire that’s growing inefficient and decadent. When you’re adding new cards — or in this case, new technologies — it might be the best card in the world but it’s making it harder to pull any individual card. It’s a negative feedback loop.

OF: Is there a multiplayer aspect to Empire?

KB: This game is naturally multiplayer. When we launch I think it’ll just be single-player against bots but I hope that’s one of the first things we’ll do post-launch. We’ll want to do that as soon as we can.

OF: It just sounds so desperate, so cut-throat. I want to play that against real people.

KB: Absolutely. Have you played Chicago Express?

OF: No, haven’t played that. A train game?

KB: Right. Those games have this system where you start out in debt and and you’re clawing your way up to get anywhere, and all of the players are. It’s just a.. a knife fight. And that’s really inspired me a lot. Empire is a 4X game that feels more like a knife fight.

p5rn7vb