SG Interview: Neolithic: First City-States

By Charles Ellis 30 Aug 2017 0

As Neolithic: First City-States nears the end of its Kickstarter campaign, I sat down with solo developer Alexander Jack to dig a little deeper into his promised creation.

Strategy Gamer: Choosing to develop a game solo is an extremely ambitious endeavour. What made you decide to take that step?

Alexander Jack: Going solo has its drawbacks. But for me it was the only choice because it gives the crucial freedom I need to take risks and be creative. It also helps to reduce costs, which I hope will translate into the time I really need to do things properly. I don't know many publishers that would really understand the type of game I want to make or be comfortable with me taking the time to really flesh out ideas and hit the level of gameplay I want. So without funding from a publisher I couldn't really ask others to join the project.

SG: Your Kickstarter suggests that you are aiming for a radical hybrid of several genres. What is the single most important thing that these new additions will add to the experience?

AJ: At the moment there is nothing really out there where the focus of the game scales from individual people to an empire. Games are usually categorised into City Builder, RTS or Grand Strategy and deal with strategy on 1 scale. In almost all cases, the people of your empire aren't very interesting as individuals. They range from being a population variable in a menu to being an endless stream of clones appearing outside a barracks. There isn't much feeling of an empire being run by actual people, which makes the world feel less alive.

In Neolithic, the choices you make go directly through people at ground level - from simple orders in the beginning to decisions that effect your whole empire. This is obviously a big design challenge, but I think it will pay off and make for a really unique experience.

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SG: Most games set in the ancient world don’t go further back than Classical Greece. What made you choose to focus upon Sumer and Mycenae?

AJ: I was always fascinated with pre-history. To me there is something magical about the period of time when we went from Hunter-Gatherers as we had been for hundreds of thousands of years to civilisation. We still don't really know a lot about this time. Was the great flood based on an actual event? Was Gilgamesh a real king in ancient Sumer? What was the Persian Gulf like before it flooded and were people farming there?

The time is shrouded in mystery and yet there is probably no other place or time in history so pivotal to the genesis of nearly every culture today. Conversely I wonder why others haven't really explored this time period.

SG: You’ve written a lot about the games that inspire you. What elements of the history of this period inspire you and do you aim to reflect in your gameplay?

AJ: In the first agrarian cultures, people seemed to all live fairly similar lives with varied tasks. As towns grew, specialists and administrators naturally developed. Eventually society became very structured. I really hope to represent these changes in a natural way as your town develops. Initially your people will be a collection of individuals, but they will slowly develop into the leaders of your City-State as the game progresses. I also think warfare was very interesting in this period with diverse military units and tactics that make for great strategy.

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SG: What is your favourite part of being a solo developer?

AJ: Definitely the creative freedom. I have the freedom to create anything I imagine, anything I think would be a cool idea. I hope this will allow Neolithic to be a much more original and interesting game. I can try things other developers couldn't really risk. I think this creative freedom is at the heart of the indie revolution over the past decade. Lately I often find myself looking for new and unique experiences in indie games over the AAA titles.

SG: What is the most difficult part of being a solo developer?

AJ: Discipline. I guess you could say success in life for anyone might be derived from discipline, but it is especially important when everything rests on your shoulders alone. It's a constant balancing act and momentum comes and goes. I've always found the balance very difficult.

SG: Mycenae was where the great epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey were set. Will the great heroes of Homer’s poems be possible to recreate in Neolithic?

AJ: Most of the great heroes of recorded history lived after the current setting of the game (about 1200BC), but it is something I'm considering expanding to in the future. While I'm not planning on specific campaign modes as yet, there will be elite/rare items that you can equip to your best warriors. In this way your warriors can become powerful legends like Achilles in their own right.

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SG: Sea and river trade were vital parts of the Mycenaean and the cultures who lived along the Tigris and Euphrates (Sumeria amongst them). Will we see that reflected in game?

AJ: Eventually, yes. My first priority is to focus on the land based functionality, but I will be slowly expanding the river/sea functionality. Naval warfare didn't really exist in this time period (or isn't documented), but if the game eventually expands to Greek times this will change.

SG: How will the raising of soldiers be handled? Will we see levied troops or standing armies?

AJ: It's important to me to give several options when it comes to creating armies, each with different strengths, weaknesses and strategical uses. The functionality already in the game allows the player to customise equipment and training level, meaning a near infinite variety of troop types and balances. Players will be able to:

  • Hire mercenaries. Mercenaries can be a bit limited in how many you can hire and the variety of troops available, but will stay loyal as long as you can pay them (you will need silver or gold).
  • Train troops - Standing Army, Auxiliary/Irregular Troops. Most towns will have some kind of standing army. Standing armies will generally contain some of the most skillful troops. Irregulars or Auxiliaries are similar, only you have choices over their training and commitment periods. Here soldiers will be highly customisable.
  • Train militia. This is a bit of a 80 for 20 option for defensive armies. You can choose to equip and train some of your people at the cost of some of their time each day. They aren't particularly strong, but can be called on to help ward off an invader.
  • Demand conscripts from conquered cities. Alexander and Caesar would constantly inflate their ranks with the best troops of their former foes. Some towns also have different specialities which can make you more versatile on the battlefield. Compulsory military service will be settable and mean that there is a delay before new characters become controllable, but your people will have higher base combat skill.

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SG: To you, what is the most satisfying element or moment of the game so far?

AJ: It probably sounds silly, but there was a moment when I was following a villager and I was wondering what she was doing. Then she stopped behind a bush and I realised she was going to the toilet which made me giggle. It doesn't seem necessary to have that kind of detail, but somehow it really makes the world feel more alive to me, like characters are really going about their lives.

SG: Any plans or ambitions following the game's release and completion?

AJ: One of the things I love about say, Terraria, is that the game seems to be always moving forward with cool new content and ideas. I guess ideally I would like Neolithic to be a little like that. I want to expand content such as cultures, items, map zones, structures and continue to add in new ideas.

Multiplayer is also a big goal eventually, though this won't really be competitive PvP style multiplayer as much as simply enjoying the single player experience with friends.

SG: Amen to that, thank you for putting the time for this interview and best of luck with your Kickstarter!

Neolithic: First Cities is expected to release in mid-2018 if funding is successful. Its Kickstarter page can be found here. Please always consider the risks associated with backing a Kickstarter before you pledge.

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