Slowplay games get deep: Ron Carmel & Noel Llopis on Subterfuge

By Owen Faraday 27 Jan 2014 0
It couldn't have been built anyplace else. It couldn't have been built anyplace else.

Two of the most respected names in gaming are collaborating on slowplay real-time strategy title called Subterfuge -- a multiplayer game of conquest and diplomacy that takes a real-time week (or more) to play. If that sounds a little like Neptune's Pride 2 (which transfixed PT regulars when it launched last year), devs Ron Carmel (creator of World of Goo) and Noel Llopis (designer of Flower Garden and Rovio's Amazing Alex) more than acknowledge the debt -- they're big fans of the game. But unlike the web-based Neptune's Pride, Subterfuge will be a native app for mobile devices and features a number of gameplay twists that Carmel and Llopis have come up with.

After the jump, the very first public screenshot of Subterfuge and an interview with the creators on why you'll want to play their slow-percollating 4X RTS.

Subterfuge takes place in an undersea world where a sudden shift in power dynamics has made once-peacefully co-existing colonies into rivals -- the Peloponnesian War meets SeaQuest DSV. Each player controls a city-state and (over the course of the 7 to 10 days it takes to play a game) can launch submarines to reinforce their outposts and conquer other settlements. Because it can around 12 hours for subs to reach a neighbouring outpost, players have lot of time to talk to one another and collaborate, exchange information, or misdirect.

"The game is set in an underwater world, with several city-states, not exactly enemies, but fairly isolated from each other," Llopis tells me. "On the eve of the game, the element of Neptunium is discovered, and the faction that first accumulates a certain amount, can bring peace and prosperity to their people."

The theme isn't a major focus of the Subterfuge, however. Llopis and Carmel are more interested in the relationships that players will naturally form with one another, rather than dictating any sort of role-play.

"Over the course of development we've gone back and forth on how much we want to develop the world and setting.  We have a few 'big ideas' that we think would have a meaningful impact on the kind of experience the player has, but we're not sure yet to what degree they'll end up in the game," Llopis says. "They represent a lot of work and this game is already extremely challenging to design because of the long iteration cycle inherent with playtesting a game that takes 1-2 weeks to play."

A development screenshot of Subterfuge with non-final art assets. A development screenshot of Subterfuge with non-final art assets.

Frequent players of Neptune's Pride, Llopis and Carmel had noted that the game made some heavy demands of the player, expecting her to keep mental track of fleets en route to distant targets and research projects that could take multiple days to complete. Subterfuge incorporates some fairly sophisticated forecasting and automation that the devs hope will make the game easier to dip in and out of.

"We have this really cool feature that whenever you launch a sub, as you drag your finger away from the outpost, guiding the sub, you see what the world will look like whenever the sub reaches that point," Llopis tells me. "So as you drag the sub towards an outpost, you'll be able to see exactly what the outcome will be when it reaches it."

"An interesting aspect of this future scrubbing is that due to fog of war, players do not have complete information about the world, so the simulated future is based only on what they see and know now. This means that the further you scrub into the future, the more inaccurate that future is." That's just what Yoda taught me.

The idea driving all of Subterfuge's automation is to make the game as convenient as possible to play, letting it fit into your schedule rather than having to schedule yourself around it.

"We are currently working on allowing players to actually issue orders in the future," Llopis says. "This means the player uses the same UI to schedule future actions as they do for present actions, and they never have to check in at a specific time to make sure something happens, or set an alarm for the middle of the night.

"This automation feature is meant to be a kind of backup system to make sure no player ever has to get up in the middle of the night to do something.  We take great effort to give players flexible ways of issuing orders in the present, minimize the need for precise timing (anything that takes place in under 8 hours we consider a 'twitch action' and try to avoid it), and immediately communicate outcomes of player actions to take out all the guesswork that leads to obsessive checking of the game."

Having played a fair bit of Neptune's Pride myself, I mentioned to the devs that the biggest problem with the game seemed to be the diminishing incentive to log back into the game once you'd started losing. Nobody likes being a speed bump on the way to somebody else's triumph.

"That's a tough problem we've been working on since almost day one" Llopis says. "We're approaching it from a variety of directions. First, the game is won by collecting Neptunium, not taking over outposts, so it's both a race and a brawl.  This means that a militarily weak player can still win if they play the diplomatic game right. Secondly, we cut back a lot on the positive feedback for players that expand to take a lot of territory, so there isn't much of a snowball effect where the richer gets even richer."

There's other mechanics built in with that in mind. "It's possible for a player to lose instantly by losing control of their city, or to lose a lot of Neptunium by losing control of their mines, so it's possible for the rankings to change quite a bit during the game. We also have a system in the game that allows stronger players to support weaker players. This helps tighten the race, allows weaker players to have more influence over the game, and gives everyone another reason to talk and negotiate.  It also allows players to engage in a indirect secret war with a player they are supposedly at peace with.

"There will always be cases when players feel hopeless and want to quit, even if their situation is objectively not hopeless.  For those cases we allow players to resign in a way that minimizes the negative effects a departure will have on the players that stay in the game."

Ron Carmel's breakthrough hit World of Goo. Ron Carmel's breakthrough hit World of Goo.

Carmel and Llopis haven't yet figured out how we'll be paying to play Subterfuge ("I should get in touch with [Neptune's Pride creator] Jay [Kyburz] and see if he’ll share some of his wisdom," Llopis says) but these are two highly successful devs that seem to be making the game for the sheer fun of it.

"From all the ideas we [considered making together], Subterfuge is probably the least likely to be a financial hit because it’s a pretty hardcore diplomacy/strategy game," says Llopis. "But if there’s ever a time to pursue such a project just because you’re excited about the possibilities of that design space, it’s when you have a little padding and are eager for something meaty to sink your design teeth into!"

The devs are too early in production to start thinking about release dates, but they do know what platforms they want to be on.

"The plan is to do a simultaneous iOS/Android launch," Carmel told me. "It's being developed for phones because the nature of the game is such that players check in multiple times a day and phones are what people carry with them. But sometimes people want to sit down and scheme in front of a bigger and higher resolution screen, so the game will support tablets for sure, and post-launch we might port to PC."

You can follow Subterfuge's development by signing up for the mailing list on the game's website -- Carmel says they'll be inviting alpha testers from that list in the near future.
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