Jon Shafer's At The Gates


Yeah. It is hard. Commercial Solo devs really do have the hardest job in computer gaming. No question about it. I had been making games for over 25 years when I did it and it nearly killed me.

That said it is also the best job in gaming. The feeling of empowerment after you have done it… is , well, incredible. Being able to say “Oh yeah, maybe I will go make a game about that” is pretty freeing career-wise and creatively.


Jon’s confession and update:


  • Jon is not sick, does not have cancer (thankfully)
  • he simply got burned out on AtG
  • he’s a perfectionist, couldn’t quite wrap things up
  • he’s hired new people to help get it done and shipped ASAP
  • AtG is in good shape with the early game mostly complete, mid-game needs some work, end-game is mostly unfinished
  • one big change will include settling a kingdom and securing it before taking on the Romans
  • he will post monthly status updates
  • he apologizes for past transgressions and thanks those that stuck around and kept the faith

Welp, I’m glad to know it’s not a health issue and happy that he’s back in the saddle to wrap this game up.


Me, too.


I have the pleasure of teaching at a school with a large (25% or so of our students) Game Studio program in game development. I teach other things, mostly, but every fall I teach in our senior capstone course for gamers. In the fall semester, they work in teams to ideate, iterate, and prototype through a pre-production process that is designed to produce a vertical slice that the teams show off in a public presentation (the show was last night this year). We then (today, as a matter of fact) play the games and decide which ones go forward next semester for full production. Teams that don’t make it through with their games provide the labor pool for those that do.

Anyhow, one of the majorly cool things about doing this is watching these budding young professionals take ideas and turn them into games. Even at this stage, now, many of the games are fully playable, lacking only a full build-out and polished assets which will come in the next semester. I like to remind the students that what they are doing is pretty heady stuff, rare even. Everyone has ideas, but few can take them and make them real like they are doing. Each year, increasingly, our teams are already putting out commercial products, or negotiating to do so, well before they graduate.

It’s incredibly work-intensive for these teams of three to five to do this, especially as there are never enough specialists like producers or animators to go around. So, yeah, I can definitely sympathize with Mr. Shafer’s situation.


What’s your failure rate? And I don’t mean grade-wise, I mean those that give up?


I’m not the wombat, but since I also teach game production/design and I’ve done so in 4 different programs around here, I’ll give my take:

In some of the tougher programs I’ve taught at the attrition can go as high as 50% (that program does have a 100% placement rate, though). In other softer programs the attrition is lower, but a lot of students do emotionally give up on working on games.

The success rate for individual projects (measuring success as a commendable game for the level of the students) is about 50% on the harsh programs (where students are already self selected) and way under that on the softer ones. It is grueling work for them, and many do not fully really realize what they are getting into when they enroll. It was the same when I was a student in film school. Vocational professions are really intense and interest does not always correlate with true passion and work ethic.


We lose a portion of students who enter with unrealistic ideas about game development. We used to lose more, when the industry was less mature and people had no real clue about what it took to make games. Many of the students entering now though already have experience making mods or even full games on their own, and many have thoroughly explored the different academic options available to someone wanting to go into the business, so they are pretty savvy. But yes, there’s always a portion who suddenly realize that actually making games is a lot harder than it looks.




Being a perfectionist and designing videogames (well, designing anything probably) sounds like a very dangerous combination for one’s own mental health.
I am glad Jon has not been burnt-out to the point he may have just changed life and said farewell to videogames.


And, lo and behold, it is the first of the month, and Jon sends a very lengthy development update:

December 2017 Update
Posted by Jon Shafer (Creator)
Hey all,

This monthly project update will be dedicated to talking about the mid-game, as that’s currently the largest challenge remaining.

One of the biggest challenges with AtG is figuring out exactly what the arc of the game is. All along we’ve known it’s about “barbarians”, moving around the map, depleting resources, the seasons, and so on. But as I alluded to in my last update the vision of having the entire experience be based on migration wasn’t something that held up over the course of a multi-hundred-turn game. So it’s been time to evaluate what that extra step is, as is often the case in developing a big, complex game. You start with an idea and need to iterate on it in order to reach full potential. Having good, solid, fun mechanics are a nice start, but that only holds up for so long. You need a cohesive “fantasy” to tie it all together, to provide a reason why you’re playing in the first place.

So what’s that cohesive fantasy in AtG?

First of all, this is a survival strategy game. It’s not so much a game about a continuous upward arc throughout history, ala Civ, but about fighting against the world and the odds in order to make it. The fantasy is also tied into the subject matter: in this case, the fall of the Roman Empire, and the place of the Germanic Tribes within this new world order.

So how does that translate into a strategy game?

AtG will now comprise of three “acts”. The first will be based on survival and migration, and embody the philosophy which has defined the game thus far. The second act will be settling down and establishing a kingdom, putting your stamp on the world. The third will be defending and reinforcing this new polity, protecting it from those who seek its destruction - the Romans in particular.

In detail, this means two big changes: declaring your kingdom and “Control”.

Declaring your kingdom is an important dividing line between the early-game and the mid-game. It will now be an action you declare which causes your Settlement to be permanently fixed in place for the rest of the game. It will also cost a small amount of Resources, but also provide a large bonus to compensate. In a sense, it’s an important punctuation mark on transitioning into an important new phase of the game.

Control is, in essence, borders. To prevent players from simply building and capturing Structures anywhere on the map there needs to be some kind of rule dictating what you can own, where. Previously you could only construct things adjacent to your Settlement, but they would remain online after you moved away. This was strategically interesting, but somewhat confusing, and doesn’t really work super-well with the new concept of having a glued-in-place Settlement. Control now extends from every Structure you own, giving your kingdom the ability to grow over time, and building certain special Structures will now allow you to plant your flag anywhere on the map, as long as you have the proper Clans and Resources to allow for it.

Together these two changes will reshape what the mid-game looks and plays like. Can’t show them off in-game just yet, as they’re currently in-progress. On the 15th though I’ll be back with another post which articulates what all of this means in detail. 'Til then!

  • Jon


I wonder if there’ll be an option to become a foedarati for the Romans?


Hope so. I’ll do it. Hell, I’ll become a foedarati for the Romans right now. I don’t have a lot going on.


Maybe you can be Evocati?


After you march through 30 miles of mud, nobody likes the old guys who fall asleep under a tree while everybody else digs fortifications.


Kickstarter Update #47 is out.

February 2018 Update

Hey all,

In this update we’ll be focusing on two things: the basic design thinking behind the diplomacy system, along with showing off some new elements of the game from a recent playtest of mine in screenshot-form.


I enjoyed reading that. Cool idea that I’ve been wanting for ages, the ability to “mark” your map, here with notes, before going to bed.

I’m in the middle of a long mission in pharaoh and I had to stop for realife stuff and goodness knows when I resume I’ll spend 5-10 minutes analysing the game state before unpausing!


Good to see the updates are coming in. A sign momentum could be growing.


Yes, I think that would be really useful. Another thing I have thought would be a nice addition to computer wargames (thinking Matrix hex-style games) would be an ability to add overlays so you can plan.


Kickstarter Update #49 out today.

It includes an extensively written Let’s Play on the first 40 turns or so of the current build:

As I’m working on the diplomacy system the next few updates will follow along with my broader playtesting efforts, which I try to spend at least an hour on every day. Along the way I’ll be detailing what’s in the game, what needs work, and most important of all: what it’s actually like to play AtG. The format will more or less follow my own internal notes that I use to log what happened while playing, what decisions I made and why, and then in a couple weeks I’ll post another update with some analysis of how different aspects of the game are working and what might need attention based on my recent playtesting.

(Note: this playtest is for the March 5th Group Game that’s now available in the latest Steam build, and it’s quite a fun one so if you already have access to the game I might recommend holding off on reading this post until you’ve had a chance to play.)

This first “chapter” of the playtest report is a turn-by-turn account of the game. I end this post on turn 43, which might sound like a weird number but ended up being a natural stopping point given in-game events that I won’t spoil just yet. We’ll pick up the story of this game in May’s update, so stay tuned!


Habel looks like Arnold the Barbarian. errr Conan Schwarzenegger.