Lead developer Tom Bird details their methodical process to revamp Exploration Sites based on community feedback.
My name is Tom Bird, and I am the Lead Developer on post-launch Age of Wonders: Planetfall. Planetfall was an amazing game to work on — it gave us the opportunity to explore lots of cool sci-fi ideas and give our own twists to them, and build a new universe for people to explore. However, as great as we felt the game was, there is always room for improvement, and several months ago we began the process of building a major update, incorporating the feedback that we had gotten from players.
One of the main requests was more content for the middle period of the game. Early on there were lots of interesting structures for the player to explore, but once the player began deploying more powerful armies, these sites stopped being a challenge. There were large landmarks which needed powerful armies to conquer, but these are very rare, and players were missing something to sit in the middle ground between these and the early game structures.
In order to figure out the first step I sat down with Thomas Schuiten, the designer who leads creation of structures and tactical combat maps (he also wrote a lot of the anomalous site stories from the Awakenings DLC). We decided that one particular class of world map structure was undervalued in the current build: Visit Sites.
DNA Vault visit site from the Pre-Tyrannosaurus version of the game
The DNA vault above grants a temporary bonus to armies visiting it (hence the name Visit Site), yet due to the mechanics of how armies move around, it’s often ignored since it’s not worth the time of an army to detour that structure. He proposed that we could use these structures as a starting point to develop a new class of structures that could provide the right level of challenge that players were missing. The following week he delivered a document proposing a design:
This screenshot is part of the original design doc; the old sites are on the left and the redesigns are on the right
The design massively boosted the economic value of some sites, and also gave them a stat boost that could be applied to units that were built in the Colony that contained the site. The “visit” effect would be removed, so that the site’s description would not be cluttered. The basic idea was that the sites would be highly desirable structures that we could distribute through the world, with powerful defenders that would require advanced armies to clear, plugging the gap in the game flow.
It was decided to keep two of the visit sites around, the Charge Station since more move points was always a useful thing for players, and the Repair Station since healing units was also useful. The most popular visit site (the Heavy Weapons Factory) gave a powerful damage bonus to visiting armies, so we decided to merge that into the Repair Station as well, upping its potential value.
Since the design had passed the first hurdle it was time to bring Sara Obert on board. Sara is the artist in charge of making the environment art for Planetfall’s DLC, and she and Thomas had already worked together to make the combat maps for the Awakening’s DLC. Sara’s job would be to dress the combat maps for each site, so that players who entered them would be really sold on the story of each site.
The first stage is to use existing in-game assets to make a block-out of each map. This can then be used to test the layout to make sure it works for gameplay purposes.
The DNA vault block-out. The Vault Walls were reused from previous interior maps, where they represented computer banks covered in blinking lights
The block-out was used to test:
- Is there enough space to move around — if gaps are too narrow then melee units will have difficulty reaching their targets
- Does the AI behave appropriately, not blocking itself and utilizing flanks intended in the layout
- Are there good sight lines and cover positions for ranged combat, particularly at the ‘meeting point’ (the area where the fight would occur in an Automatic Resolution)
- Can we make a layout that sells the story of the map
Once the block-out was completed, Sara and Thomas worked together to try and make the map more “visually logical.” For example, staircases were moved so they were in positions that stairs would be needed in a real structure, rather than simply where it was good for combat.
Finally, Sara could get to work “dressing the map.” This process is similar to building a house in The Sims. Sara has a huge library of assets that she and others have made which she can use to make the map beautiful and tell the story of an ancient vault, filled with the genetic secrets of the old Star Union.
The final step is deciding on the composition of the defenders — since this is a site about genetic research, the Xenoplague army set was chosen as being the best fit!
And a view of the new DNA vault on the world map
Of course, this is just one Exploration site. This process was repeated for another six sites, bringing a total of seven new exploration structures to the update! This includes an Imperial War Monument which grants units a permanent morale bonus, and a Terraforming Station that grants resistance to status effects.
As well as these new structures, the Tyrannosaurus update contains a large number of other improvements. The economy has been streamlined, reducing micromanagement so players can focus on the big choices that really matter. The interfaces have been cleared up, with a major pass on the overview maps to help players plan out their economic growth. We’ve also added new game modes, such as the much requested No Colonizer Mode, and a new Relaxed mode for players who want a more chilled out experience.
Along with a huge host of balance changes, bug fixes and small quality-of-life tweaks, the Tyrannosaurus Update is the biggest update to the game we’ve made by far. We hope you enjoy playing it as much as we enjoyed making it!