Surviving The Aftermath… of the early access city builder craze

It’s been three and a half months since Paradox Interactive announced – and simultaneously released into early access – post-apocalyptic city builder Surviving The Aftermath. And while I still haven’t worked out whether I think the game’s experimental development plan was a good idea or not, I can certainly respect how developer Iceflake Studios, and their publisher, are sticking to their guns. And their schedules, for that matter: Iceflake have just announced that the game’s fourth update, ‘Great Minds’, is about to be released, as per the launch plan of a year of monthly updates, before full release (and yes, arrival on Steam) late on in 2020.

I spoke to Lasse Liljedahl, the game’s director at Iceflake, and Nikhat Ali, its lead producer at Paradox, last week. Ostensibly, the plan was to talk about what’s coming in update four. And hey – there was a lot to talk about; they’ve been busy. If you’d like to, you can read everything I would have detailed on the game’s site. But respectfully, I couldn’t help but feel more interested in the process of making the game, than the game itself – at this point, at least. Here’s why.

City and colony management/building games – let’s just call them city builders for ease – are popular subjects for early access games, as you can lay a playable foundation for one relatively easily, even as a lone dev or a small team. Since they’re geared towards free-form ‘sandbox’ play, there’s no prerequisite need for early versions to have a beginning, a middle or an end, as there would be in the case of, say, an RPG. You just need to code a bunch of systems that keep each other going in a pleasing little loop of harvesting, constructing and further harvesting, and there you go – you’ve technically got a game. After that, it’s just a case of adding more and more features, with the aim of extending playtime and replayability, and giving it some kind of thematic identity.

And if you’re lucky? Well, if you’re lucky, the game takes off like wildfire while it’s still barely a prototype, and by the time you finally hit release, you’re a millionaire. That’s the dream. But for the same reason that marketing plans that involve “going viral” aren’t a good idea, it’s not that solid a dream. Just because something can happen, doesn’t mean you can make it happen, and I’ve seen wonderful little proof-of-concept games that deserved runaway success, but never got anywhere due to brute luck. Indeed, it sometimes seems that for every five city builders that go into early access, only one makes it out.

Even when they do get popular, they frequently fall victim to a lack of direction, leading to massive feature creep (often driven by increasingly aggressive fan entitlement), and all the balance issues and remedial feature redesigns that can lead to. Without careful planning, all this convolution can lead to creator disillusionment, which snowballs gradually into slowed updates, burnout, and either perpetual deep-freeze or abandonment. For every Rimworld there’s a Towns.

Rip in peace, Towns.

But for Paradox, I can well imagine how this seemed like a development route with no downsides. When planning StA with Iceflake, I can imagine they thought that the game “doing a rimworld” would be a nice windfall to say the least, but certainly not something to count on. After all, we’re talking about a good-sized company working with a big one here, not a few hobbyists hoping for their big break. If StA didn’t go big, Paradox knew they could still support the game through to release. And since they were famous already for their iterative approach to releases, poor planning was never going to be an issue here, nor were the systemic issues and code tangles that often come from building a game ‘in flight’.

Finnish studio Iceflake was a surprising choice of partner, as they had never made a management game before – their back catalogue comprises an ice fishing game, a pool game and a top down racing game available on PC, plus a bunch of mobile games (including a strong candidate for the best name I’ve come across so far this year, in “Pirates Don’t Run (unless chased)”). Still, this isn’t to put them down. In fact, let me say now – Iceflake are doing great. They have taken to city builder development like ducks to water, and I honestly like StA, so far. On day one, I called it “the colony manager for everyone who got really into the settlement building in Fallout 4”, and I’d stick by that. It’s early days yet – and keep that phrase in mind, because we’ll be coming back to it – but the game is exactly as fun as you’d want an early access title to be, four months in.

Talking to Liljedahl and Ali, it’s clear how the project has been designed for early access from the start. To avoid the headache of having to backtrack and rewrite systems that prove not to work, Liljedahl says, “we start by putting ‘v0.1’ iterations of features in, and seeing what the reaction to them is before going much further. For instance, with trade, after getting some mixed reactions after it came in during update 2, we course corrected on that quite easily, as it wasn’t a fully implemented system.”

There are many examples of this sort of consideration. Indeed, what I really like about the two companies’ approach to StA, is how committed they are to community feedback as a whole. They’ve got a little ladybird icon on the game screen itself, which allows players to submit bug, complaints and suggestions directly to Iceflake. I mean, yes, this is a smart way of getting QA work for free, but in fairness, Iceflake do much more than just talk a good talk when it comes to listening to their players.

Both companies are well aware of the risk of feature creep, which could be particularly disastrous, given how much they’re trading on their organisational ability, and their commitment to monthly updates. Given the importance of meeting that schedule, you’d think they couldn’t do much more than play lip service to player feature requests. But while they started the year with a firm roadmap planned for updates, they’re reviewing it near-constantly with an eye on the requests they’re getting – seeing which elements of development could be pulled forward by a few months, or which planned features could be altered to bend in the direction of what players seem to want.