Game Design Deep Dive: Creating an adaptive tech tree in Dawn of Man


The Gamasutra Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game, in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren’t really that simple at all.

Check out earlier installments, including creating comfortable UI for VR strategy game Skyworld, achieving seamless branching in Watch Dogs 2’s Invasion of Privacy missions, imbuing cryptic worlds with color in Dead Cellsand developing a unique jump-only movement mechanic in Dandara.

I am one of the founders of Madruga Works. The studio started in 2015 and we’ve published 2 titles so far: Planetbase and Dawn of Man. We are a small studio, usually my business partner Tucho and I prototype the games by ourselves, then we get the help of remote contractors to finish our projects: about 10 people were involved in the development of Dawn of Man in total.

My professional background is in gameplay and AI programming: I used to be at Criterion Games, where I worked on Need for Speed Hot Pursuit (2010), Burnout Paradise, and Black. However at Madruga Works I am also the main person in charge for the overall design of our titles.

I’m a fan of real-time strategy and management games, any title where you get to design your base and then see it evolve in real time, games like Stronghold, Startopia, Settlers 2 or Banished are what inspired us to create our own.

Dawn of Man is a survival city-builder set in human prehistory. The player gets to take their settlement all the way from the Paleolithic (about 12,000 years ago) to the Iron Age (about 2,000 years ago). This is done by unlocking various techs using knowledge. A tech can unlock new structures, tools or mechanics that will make it possible for your settlement to grow, and acquire more knowledge, which you can use to unlock new techs and so on.

We wanted to get player to experience a glimpse of what life could have been for our ancestors. We did this by getting our game mechanics to be based in what supposedly life was like for them back in the day. We didn’t want to use the setting as an excuse to create nice visuals, we wanted it to shape our gameplay.

We started by doing extensive research about the time period, we gathered every reference we could possibly find regarding buildings, tools, technologies and sorted them by era. We then filtered them and though about which ones we could use, and how to integrate them in the game.

We played around with many ideas on how to let the player progress through the ages. Many other games unlock new technologies by getting the player to spend time, manpower or resources unlocking them. 

In Dawn of Man we wanted to try a new approach, that would encourage the player to experiment and use all the features it has to offer, you get knowledge for things like:

  • Hunting a type of animal for the first time.
  • Crafting X tools of a particular type.
  • Building a structure for the first time.
  • Reach a certain population in your settlement.

Then you can use these points to instantly unlock techs. So in order to advance to the next era quickly, you want to do a variety of actions, you probably want to hunt a variety of animals, experiment with all the various tools and try to build a larger settlement to increase your population count.

In Dawn of Man each technology belongs to an era, before being able to research anything you have to unlock the relevant era first.

The most typical classification of ancient human history is the three-age system, which divides it in three ages Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.

However this would not work very well for our purposes: The Stone Age lasts for millions of years while the Bronze and Iron ages would only last for a few thousand and have relatively few technological advances in comparison.

So we decided to split the Stone Age in three smaller eras: Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic. And also include a Copper Age, before the Bronze Age.

We wanted the player to experience a clear evolution in gameplay through the game, that would roughly match the changes in the human way of life at the time, we took some liberties but roughly speaking there are three gameplay stages in Dawn of Man:

  • Early Game: Hunter/Gatherer society: Before humans new how to farm the land they mostly relied on hunting and gathering as their source of food. This made it very hard to sustain large populations, as the amount of animals and fruits is limited, and these types of food don’t last for long.
  • This is reflected in the game: The initial technologies are things like Bone Tools, Food Drying, Tanning which focus on helping your people get better at acquiring food and resources, but without fundamentally changing the way they do it.

 

  • Mid Game: Farming society: When humans learned how to farm cereals and pulses, this fundamentally changed their way of life. Grain can be stored for prolonged periods of time, and is a much more predictable source of food.
  • In the game, when you reach the Neolithic era, you get techs like Cereal Domestication, Pulse Domestication that allow you to grow your own food, and make it possible to sustain much larger populations. Gameplay changes to a more macro oriented city builder.

 

  • Late game: Combat focused society: We took some liberties here as nobody knows this for sure, but probably as human populations expanded and resources and farmland were more limited, human conflict was a lot more common.
  • In the game late game is the time when you have to fortify your settlement by building walls and towers, as bands of raiders will be attacking you on a regular basis. At this stage is where some RTS elements start to appear, as you manage the defense of your town.

The idea behind the Dawn of Man tech tree is that it will allow you to evolve your settlement in a non-artificial way:

a) There are no artificial limitations on what you can do, like population caps or other restrictions: If you want to try to create a very large hunter/gatherer settlement you can, it’s just going to be very hard to feed all your people without farming techs. If you want to advance to the Iron Age without fortifications nothing is stopping you, but you are just going to have a tough time if you get attacked.

b) Every tech unlocks a tangible element: No techs give you “+1 attack damage” or “+2 running speed” or any other non-visible bonus. As an example the Composite Tools tech, allows you to create better tools, that deal more damage, but you have to first craft them and get your people to equip them, and probably discard or sell the old tools.

The idea behind Dawn of Man was to get the player to have fun while experiencing what life might have been like for our ancestors. We wanted gameplay to be based based in reality (within reason), organic and evolving. This unusual setting and mechanics were intended to set us apart from the rest of the city builders.

The system was in general was quite time intensive to create, and we went through multiple iterations before deciding on the final techs, which probably limited the amount of content we were able to create. Despite that we are happy with the end result, players seem to enjoy it, and we are now able to generate more content post release.



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