Interview: Atomic Society’s Scott MacDowall

For post-apocalyptic enthusiasts, Atomic Society should come as an interesting wrinkle, doubling as a town-building game in which players control the direction of the community that emerges following a cataclysm. Created by a three-person studio based in Greater Manchester, UK, the mandate includes dark humor and tricky moral choices; this week, NerdQ’s Erik Meyer corresponded with designer Scott MacDowall on the ongoing project and its range of goals.

Erik Meyer: The game unites two things gamers may already be familiar with, post-apocalyptic landscapes and city building. As you’ve worked to create mechanics and systems that make sense in the universe you’re creating, what do you find yourselves adding that hasn’t been done before? What elements have surfaced in Atomic Society that set it apart?

Scott MacDowall: As far as I’m aware, there’s never been a game where you’re creating a society as well as a city. There’s never been a game where the citizens can behave in ways like ours will, or where you can set laws that punish or reward people in various degrees, letting you create your own vision of how society should be. From a raw gameplay angle, the fact that you have a controllable character in the game who can do useful things means Atomic Society is a lot more hands-on and active than other city-building games. And we try to avoid the tropes of the survival genre. No tree cutting here!

EM: Players control a spectrum of moral choices from the imprisonment or execution of criminals to methods for addressing slavery and murder. As these things come up, they have to be addressed, one way or the other. To state the obvious, these are not light topics, so how do you keep ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ choices balanced without alienating your audience or conversely whitewashing everything?

SM: It’s definitely a worry. It’s vital for us to use our freedom as indie developers to include social issues few other games even hint at. But we’re going to be “gamifying” horrific things. Hopefully, 3 things will let us get away with it: 1) You, the player, have control over the laws. You can do the right thing and support what you believe in. You can protect the values you care about. 2) We’re not going to be gratuitous (we don’t have the art budget for it). We’ll suggest certain things, but we won’t leer over the details. 3) Black humour. Sometimes the behaviour in our game is so out there and unexpected you can only laugh, and we roll into that. And if you’re disturbed because you’re laughing, all the better.

EM: Atomic Society has been playable since April of 2016, so describe the kinds of feedback you’ve gotten by releasing a game that you’re continuing to update. What do you see as significant achievements, and how do you prioritize benchmarks/features? How has your process changed in the last year?

SM: I think we’ve done well growing our audience in sync with the game’s progress. It took us 6 months to sell 200 copies, and that was great, it was all the content could handle at that point. We still got to see strangers playing our creation, we got the buzz of making things for the public, and we avoided the stress of popularity before you’re ready for it. The more we add, the more it sells. It’s nice.

We don’t really market the game, but sometimes it pops up on YouTube channels without us doing anything. Seeing 250k+ people watch our pre-alpha was terrifying, but the streamers and comments seem mostly positive. If you can survive YouTube comments, you must be doing something right.

Our players give us several suggestions, most of which aren’t suitable or we know about already, but it’s worth hearing them all for the the occasional pearl, and I watch every video on the game. Our next version has features I’d never have thought of on my own.

The greatest achievement is seeing people not hate the game. This is our first game. We had no idea if we could pull it off or if we were full of shit. The greatest technical achievement is saving and loading. We waited too long to put it in, and underestimated the difficulty and how hard it would be to learn for a game with this many variables. Nowadays, if an upcoming task isn’t as hard as saving and loading, it’s considered easy.

I knew most of what I wanted to put in Atomic Society before we’d started it. I like design documents. We keep flexible, but elements I sketched 2 years ago are still features we’re working towards now. It’s just a case of working down the list until we get to the end of the doc. I have a pretty good sense of what to add next that will give us most bang for the buck.

Our processes haven’t largely changed. We just know more now. We’re halfway through our 7th big update. We have experience and some reassurance now.

EM: Characters age in the game and have randomized backgrounds; describe your development philosophy regarding nature versus nurture. As players steer the society they’re in charge of, how much of what happens will involve citizens simply succeeding or failing based on their created attributes, and how much do you want to demonstrate hearts and minds evolving?

SM: I can’t stand games where big ethical choices get boiled down to picking stats. For example, government in Civ games. Monarchy or Democracy? Who cares, just pick the one with the numbers you like. I really hope Atomic Society will be much more about doing what you believe in and coping with it. It’s not about numbers, go with your heart.

As for nature/nurture, our game is a dictator simulator. All major decisions rest with the player, so it has to be that way. Being a dictatorship, if you want people to do less of something, punish them. Build prisons or gallows to force them. If you want them to do more of something, “educate” them. Use propaganda and encouragement.

But that doesn’t mean everybody will listen, which is where your values meet harsh reality. I don’t believe in utopias, and there won’t be any in this game.

EM: Different kinds of terrain (deserts, mountains, forests) and disasters like viruses or plagues add variety and challenge to different playthrough experiences. And each hurdle correspondingly begs for a range of responses. What do you see as critical questions to ask/answer when creating environs and events, and what is the key to building an experience where it’s fun to contain the madness when all hell breaks loose?

SM: I’m not a fan of natural disasters in city-builders. I usually turn them off. Where’s the interesting decision making? “Oh well, better build those demolished structures again.” If we do add weather, I’ll be much more interested in how it can affect human behaviour. How do people act when it gets really cold or hot?

With environments, the only considerations are, does it have that mood of desolate beauty, is the terrain geographically interesting to build upon, and does it look awesome when you zoom out and see all your people/buildings against a moody vista? I’m not interested in simulating the minerals or water density. Other games can do that.

EM: You’ve mentioned the influence of Caesar/Pharaoh games on the style of what you’re building, but I also see Wasteland II (in terms of look) creeping in there, maybe even a callback to The Sims (but obviously much darker). What do you see as successes in the real-time strategy genre, and where do you feel gamers have unanswered prayers? Similarly, what do you see as ‘working’ within post-apocalyptic games, and what do you see as derivative?

SM: The Caesar/Pharaoh games haven’t really influenced us, and I don’t think they’ve aged that well, but they have a few good ideas for sure that can inspire. I’m much more influenced by base building in RTS games, such as C&C or Starcraft, that chunky satisfaction of building structures tactically to suit ever-changing circumstances. Except the tactics in our game are about keeping people alive and behaving.

Fallout 1 and 2 are among my favourite games, so they inspire us visually. One of the original ideas was “What if you could make your own freaky Fallout 2 village?”

I think the post-apocalyptic genre is generally too focused on combat and teenage edginess. Mankind has been through plenty of mini-apocalypses from ice ages to Spanish flu in our time. I’m much more interested in how communities reform and how humans act under pressure.

Regarding unanswered prayers, I think The Sims is one of the greatest missed opportunities in gaming. The Sims should’ve opened the door to a whole new genre of gaming, the human drama. Will Wright was able to turn unscripted, recognisable human interactions into gameplay. Just like the first game designers figured out how to make shooting or driving into gameplay, he made human relationships into gameplay without the need for a writer’s preset script. It should opened the NPC drama as a whole category. But The Sims became about shopping and pets and staying child-friendly and never progressed from there.

EM: On a darker note, where do you see the hands of the doomsday clock positioned these days? Are we at five minutes to midnight? As a corollary, do you see Atomic Society as a flight of fancy or as a test run for the inevitable?

SM: I look at the news and wonder if we’re going to have time to even finish this game before everybody gets to demo it in real life. I wouldn’t be surprised if nuclear war does occur in the next 100 years. If we were foolish enough as a species to invent a bomb that could destroy us, we’re foolish enough to use it. Or use it again. My grandparents were alive when America dropped nukes on crowded cities, so it could well happen in my lifetime. However, I believe there is hope. Even if the bombs do fall, what survives of mankind will crawl out of the ash and slowly reconstruct itself. We’re foolish and resilient. A fun combo.

As for Atomic Society, it probably has more to say about today, where morality is always in flux and everybody has different opinions. This game lets you explore that.

EM: Far Road Games isn’t a huge studio; what do you gain by being small, and how do your processes and roles keep you spry as you continue? As a follow up, what do you see as real strengths within the indie dev world, and what kinds of changes do you see on the horizon?

SM: I’d love to hire a couple more people if I could afford it, as the only thing keeping this game back is the hours we can work on it. However, being small does mean you get to work in an environment where you trust and like your colleagues. You get a real sense of teamwork and shared responsibility.

It’s my responsibility, if I’m wearing my producer hat, to keep us motivated. Which is really just a matter of explaining what we should focus on and why that’s important and reminding people that this might actually work out for us one day.

The strengths of being indie are that you’re free to innovate and express how you, personally, think gaming should move forward. If you can imagine it and pull it off, you can create it. I grew up in a time when it was expected that every new game would have something you’d never experienced in any game before. Nowadays, I feel like a lot of games merely recombine existing ideas and apply a different style/story. I have no interest in making a game somebody has already made.

Changes in the indie world really don’t matter as long as you love the game you’re making. I don’t pay too much notice to the business of it as it stresses me out. We just treasure our reputation as a developer, treat customers nicely, and make a game that we believe has something to add to gaming as a whole, no matter what it sells.

Here’s the trailer, in case you missed it:

Author: Erik Meyer

Erik edits content, writes articles, conducts interviews, and draws silly things for The NerdQ. He also produces Planning Session, a comic showcasing dev discussions.

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