Q&A With Shining Rock Software

Recently I posted an Indie Discovery article about Banished, a medieval City Building/Strategy game for PC.

The game looks beautiful and brimming with depth. You may have seen the simulation genre cropping up in my recent Indie posts, you can trust me when I say I am somewhat of a God Game fanatic. When I say that I’m looking forward to this game even more so than another game I recently gushed about, you can take notice.

To make things even better, the developer of Banished recently took some time to answer a few of my questions about the game:

Could you introduce yourself and Shining Rock Software?

My name is Luke. I’m the sole employee of Shining Rock Software. I used to make console games, but decided to try making games on my own. So far, it seems to be going fairly well!

Lets talk about Banished. The game looks beautiful. Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to make a Strategy/City Builder?

I’ve always liked city building games. I’ve played them since I was a kid. But Banished is actually my second attempt at a solo developed game. I worked about seven months on another project that wasn’t too fun to play, and the animation and art requirements were turning out to be very high.

I started thinking about projects I could make that wouldn’t require a whole lot of animation or artwork. A city building game is what I decided on and after a quick prototype I was hooked on the idea.

Funny though, that Banished still required a lot of artwork and animation in the end.

This is a one man project, and you’ve made it quite clear that you’re doing everything yourself. Can you talk a little bit about the design process in general for Banished, in terms of approaching programming, art and sound design?

Programming is pretty easy. Before going solo, I worked on console games for nearly ten years. Being somewhat familiar with what goes into a game from that experience, I was able to build a game engine to suit my needs fairly quickly. I’ve tried to design systems that are small, compartmentalized, and can be changed or modified without effecting the entire game. This definitely helps deal with the many things that go on in the game.

Artwork was a little harder for me, as prior to this game, the only artwork I made was quick and dirty programmer art to test graphics engine features. I spent a long time making the first few art assets for Banished, but after that I just followed suit and made the rest of them in the same manner with the same style. I’m fairly bad at hand drawn art, so if I do need reference I generally look at photographs of buildings.

Sound design I’m not very familiar with. I record sounds, edit them, and get the game engine to play them back at the appropriate time with some panning and volume control. I’ve spent far less time on audio design than any other system in the game. I was planning on doing the music myself, but before I got a chance to a friend sent me some tracks inspired by the game. Since then he has been doing a much better job at it than I would have done, so it’s nice to have one less thing to think about.

Strategy Games and Simulation/City Building games are, by their very nature, fairly complex in terms of depth and mechanics. How difficult has programming Banished been for you, and what sort of challenges have you faced when trying to keep it simple for your players?

The difficulty in programming Banished has definitely been in the details. The big systems are very mechanical. Play an animation, find a path from point A to B, add to inventory, remove from inventory, etc. While these things are fairly easy to write, I spend most time programing debugging and working on small details.

Keeping the game simple to play, but maintaining depth and complexity hasn’t been too hard, although there were a few growing pains. When I first started making the game, the relationship with the townsfolk was more intimate. They had more stats you could look at, and you could really micromanage them. As I continued expanding the game and played the game longer, the micro management wasn’t as fun with higher populations – the intimacy was lost and it was a headache to tweak each citizen. That required a few design changes.

Keeping the user interface simple and out of the way was also an interesting challenge, but having a simple UI actually helped iron out design issues. The simple UI for each structure and citizen actually led to better AI for the townsfolk – they do more on their own and require less micromanagement.

In the end I think I’ve come up with a game that you can play casually without thinking a whole lot about how the different buildings and people are interacting with each other. At the same time you can decide to get into some tweaking and optimizing of the city to really make it efficient if you want to put that sort of time into the game.

You’ve stated that you want Banished to be free from dependencies, in terms of restricting a building using technology or skills. You can build anything as long as you have the resources. Why was this important to you, and how does this impact the actual gameplay in reality?

I don’t really like restrictions on what can be built. I can understand in a game where technology advances how this is important, but most of the time it just seems like an artificial requirement before you can build the fancy buildings.

In Banished, being able to build anything anytime leads to more interesting gameplay. I’ve seen testers build a lot of trading posts early on to trade for everything they need instead of producing it. I’ve seen testers build schools in small towns so that the educated people work better, even though they have to wait longer for the younger generation to become workers. These are things I didn’t plan for when designing, but they turned out to be great things that can be discovered.

The ability to place anything any time also allows players who care about how the city looks to layout the town before they need to build buildings. You can place a building and pause the construction of it until it is needed.

You wanted to focus on the Citizens as well. You’ve created a graphically detailed and appealing world in which to settle, so focussing on your actual citizens seems like a really smart move. How do you intend to get the player more involved and invested in each individual citizen?

In the beginning of the game, you really care about your citizens. There aren’t many and you have to work hard to help them survive.

As the population grows you focus on having a health and happy population over dealing with individual citizens. Without a critical mass of people people you can’t expand the town, but with too many people you have to deal with the lack of resources. It’s a fun balance to maintain as the city grows.

Even when the town is large, it’s really fun and relaxing to pick a single citizen and follow them around as they go about their lives.

What are your plans for Scenarios or a main Campaign/Story Mode?

For now the game is going to ship with just sandbox mode and a lot of achievements that can give players goals to try to meet. If they game does well enough for me to add expansions I might add more scenarios and a story mode, but it’s not something I’m focusing on at the moment.

So, I’ve built a city and I’m enjoying watching my villagers go about their lives as the seasons pass by. I’m starting to feel fairly self-sufficient! How do you intend to keep gameplay interesting and addictive once the player reaches the later stages of running their city?

Reaching a really high population is a hard thing to do. The game will always throw you a curve ball. Part of the city might burn town, or a tornado might tear it up. You might invite nomads to join your town and expand the population, but they might bring a disease that kills a quarter of the population. Even if you turn disasters off, you always have the chance that the weather will destroy crops or that you won’t be able to keep the people warm in the winter.

You can always try to optimize the town as well – getting everyone educated increases production. If everyone is happy they work more. There’s a lot of little details to play with that can help make the town more efficient, but reaching these goals always has some cost.

Do you have any release details in mind? Any time frame or price?

The game should be out before the end of 2013. I’ll be making an announcement about pricing a where to buy the game fairly soon.

(Thanks again to Luke for taking the time to answer my questions! Be sure to follow his progress via his website, and we’ll be bringing you more from Banished down the line.)


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