Banished Interview with developer Luke Hodorowicz10 May 2013
Banished is a forthcoming city-building strategy title in which people are your main resource. The inhabitants of your settlement-in-waiting have been chucked out of their home city and must now make their living in the woods. That means self-sufficient farming, resource gathering and a keen knowledge of how to survive in the hostile wilderness. It’s looking a little bit Settlers and a little bit SimCity; but with more forests and the chance of horrible plague.
IncGamers: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us! I want to know a little bit more about you and the project you’ve been working on, which is called Banished, and which is effectively a city builder. But could you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
Luke Hodorowicz: Sure. I worked in the games industry for about 10 years at a company called Vicious Cycle Software and I shipped 15 or 17 games, over the course of the 10 years with them. The last one, which you may or may not have heard of, was Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon, and I was a graphic programmer on that.
After 10 years of doing that, I decided I wanted to do more than graphics and tools, and struck out on my own. I had some money saved up to do this, so I left and started making… actually not Banished, but a different game. About eight or nine months into development, I was building kind of a zombie action-RPG type game, but there were too many zombie games out there and what I was making wasn’t fun. So I switched gears, thought about games I liked and what I really wanted to play, and started making Banished. So that’s how it started, and I’ve been at it for far longer than I expected – as games development tends to be!
IG: A lot of the community has chipped in and said “Hey, man, do you need some help with this?” and you’ve said that it’s really a personal goal for you to see this through. Do you envisage always doing this on your own, right up to release? Is that something you really want to achieve?
Luke: At this point it is. I’ve done most of the game by myself, so I see no reason not to continue that way ’til I get it out. I was going to do music by myself, but I let a friend alpha test the game and he’s a musician as well, so before I could get to it he started writing music! So the music is by someone else, but other than that it’s all me. I certainly want to keep it that way.
After two years I’m almost there. I’m at the end part of game development where you’re fixing bugs and balancing and adding the front-end menus, and all the little stuff that makes the game better, so I think I’m almost there. Certainly if I do expansions or another game, and Banished does well for me, I might get some more people to work with me – just because all the artwork, sound, and programming is a lot of work.
IG: That’s a little bit about you, but for the people who don’t know about Banished, can you briefly explain what the game is at its core?
Luke: Banished is a city-building strategy game with a focus on using limited resources in a good way, and where the population of the town really matters. When you play the population grows slowly because you have families or immigrants joining the town, not because you plopped down a bunch of buildings. I really like that about the game, and that’s something I dislike about other city-builders; put down a building, and all of a sudden you have 50 people living there! Where did they come from?
So I want it to be a smaller, intimate city-building – well, I guess more town-building! – game than SimCity or something bigger. But it’s really all about resource management and using the land that you’re building the city on well, and all the things that go with that.
IG: I don’t know whether you’ve played the new SimCity – I’m sure you have, but…
IG: “No comment.”
IG: …where, as you say, you put a building up, it populates, and the inhabitants go about their business. Would you say Banished appeals more to someone who’s more into the micromanagement of every aspect of what would keep a town running? Because when we look at it, it kind of feels a little bit that way.
Luke: It is a little bit. I wanted the player to care more about their small group of people rather than just a number, but I’ve tried to make it where you’re not micromanaging everything. I used to play SimCity 4 a lot – over the last 10 years I’ve played it on-and-off – and I was always frustrated that once your city gets really big there are so many things to micromanage that it’s slow and tedious, and your city has problems. So I’ve tried to make the game where, if you set things up correctly, what you’ve set up is not going to fail on you later, to kind of take some of that micromanagement out of it. But… I don’t know. And to answer your question, I actually haven’t played the new SimCity! I don’t know how different it is from SimCity 4 in terms of how much micromanagement there is, but from angry internet posts I feel like the game is a bit different than its predecessors.
IG: Yep. You talk about how you want people to care about their population, and care about the people that are living in their town. Are you going to try and characterise some of the population? One of the things in the recent SimCity that they’re very proud of was that you could zoom right in and find out what that particular Sim was doing, and so on. Is that an important aspect of what you’re trying to achieve with Banished, where you actually care about the population?
Luke: To a certain point it is. When the game starts you can click on people and see their statistics and what they’re doing. While that was the goal I had when I first started, certainly when your towns get larger, all the people become less of an individual and you just have this workforce that’s getting things done for you. So I don’t know if, in that way, once your town gets bigger you lose some of that intimacy with the people in your town. I just didn’t really want to have the people in the game just be something that are just walking around. They have to pick something up and build something and you really have to think about designing your city for them. I don’t know if that answers your question!
IG: Sort of! One of the things I noticed in the Q&A that you put up when the community were asking questions, and this always comes up in city-builders: can I have disasters? For me, personally, I don’t see why you’d want to nuke something that you’ve effectively spent all that time building up, but you talk about things like plagues and famine and so on – disasters that are maybe more fitting with the timeline in which Banished is set.
One of the things I was thinking about was that, if a disaster happens and you have a specific amount of your population assigned to a particular job but something happens in the world, is it easy enough to take some of that population away from the jobs that they’re doing and assign them to maybe avert the disaster, or help resolve the disaster? How easy is it to move your population between being, say, a woodcutter, but there’s a famine so we need more of them to go fishing, and so on? How easy is it to do things like that? Or is it an automated process?
Luke: You can control it in terms of how many people you want to work at this job, but changing it is easy. If all of a sudden all your farms die off, you can just get some other people that are idle, or in some job that doesn’t matter so much, and say “I want 20 farmers, and I want less of this job.” And that’s actually what you have to do during disasters. When you start losing population, you have to rebalance what everyone’s doing or build a few more structures. If you’re low on food, you can quickly build some more fishing huts or other buildings that might help you.
But I’ve also built it in such a way that you can play the game to avert disasters. You can overstock food to get through years where you have a famine. There are professions and buildings you can build to reduce the effect of disease, so you can save most of your population. So I’m trying to build that sort of balance to all the disasters where, if you’re prepared for it, your town’s not done. You’re not losing a huge chunk of your city just because a disaster happened.
IG: Definitely one of the motivations of any city-builder is “I want to get to that big skyscraper,” or “I want to get to that super highway,” or whatever it is, but obviously Banished is slightly different in that respect. I think you’ve stated yourself that right now the town hall is the biggest building you can put down at this stage. How far do you think you’re going to take that? Do you want to keep it small, with a small population, or do you really want to let players expand?
Luke: At the moment I’m probably going to keep it small just because… does a small town of 300 people really need a huge cathedral? I know that’s probably what people want to build, and see these big buildings, but I have ideas for expansions for combat, for other buildings and other professions and things I’d like to add – and certainly, in that case, bigger buildings.
I’ve thought about it in terms of an endgame scenario – once your city’s filled up the map and you don’t have any more room to expand, where do you take the town? I have some ideas about that but I really don’t want to say anything yet because I’m not sure about what I’m going to do with it yet, so I might do some more buildings, but for the moment I’m certainly focused on the small town building aspect.
IG: Going back a little bit to the AI, I noticed on your site you’d put a very basic scripting for what you said you originally thought was AI but maybe wasn’t AI; basically, “If I’m doing this, go and do this; if not, go and do that.” How are you approaching that now? I know that right now, in the current SimCity, it currently works along the lines of someone will go to the nearest house that’s available or free, or the nearest shop – it’s not necessarily what your city needs or is required based on the particular zone. So how you approaching that, as far as how your population movement around your town is concerned?
Luke: Each person has their own house, and their own workplace, and they go back and forth. You definitely have to design your city for your citizens – you can’t have your workplace where someone works three miles away or they’ll get there, do a little work, and then they’ll be hungry or cold and have to go back home. So it’s not just some guy randomly deciding he’s going to go and cut wood today, and tomorrow he’s going to farm fields. All people are definitely assigned to a place they work, and you have to think about that.
I’d like to add a few more things to the AI – just idle behaviour where people will stop and talk to each other, or decide they’re tired of working for awhile and they’ll go visit a tavern, or take some time off and go home. Not to the point where it affects gameplay – just to add a little variety to what you see people do.
IG: Talking about population growth, how do you handle that? Are people attracted to your town because it’s better than another town, or is it purely breeding? How are you approaching this angle?
Luke: When you start the game, depending on the difficulty you start with a different number of people, but after that it’s breeding. Once your town gets to a certain size you get nomads, or people come downriver to join the town, so eventually you’ll get large population increases if you want them from people outside the city, but otherwise it’s just breeding in the current town.
IG: With regards to population figure representation, does each individual unit in your town represent one member of your population? I know that there are multipliers in SimCity which kind of fakes up your population, but in Banished, is each individual represented by a character in the game?
Luke: Yep. Each person is a character you can see in the game.
IG: So thinking about that, you get your population up to 1,000 or 2,000 people… I don’t know what you’re trying to max out on.
We’ll talk a little bit now about map sizes. This is obviously a big issue in the more recent SimCity (though not so much in SimCity 4, which you’re more familiar with.) How are you approaching this with regards to the playable area that people will be able to populate and build on? How big an area are we talking here?
Luke: That’s a good question. The area that I generally play on is pretty big. My friend who tested the game – his highest population I think has been 400 people, and he hasn’t filled the map yet. He’s played for three or four days on that one map.
I’ve done some tests where I make really huge map sizes and it certainly runs, but I haven’t played a game to the point where I have 1,000 people. At least not naturally! I can press a button and pop a whole bunch of people into the game, but it’s not quite the same as having a working town that has that many people. So it’ll really just depend on the performance of the final game and what I decide is the maximum population. I’m sure like in most games, I’ll play it forever, so if I know I can only get up to 3,000 people, gamers will get a hold of it and go twice that because they’ve figured the game out better than I have!
IG: So if I said to you “Is it two kilometres, four kilometres, five kilometres, six kilometres squared” what are you going to tell me?
Luke: [Laughs] Um. Let’s see. I would say it’s about a square kilometre, but I don’t know if that really relates to real-world size. A house is four units across, but the whole world is 512 units across, so… I don’t know what that is in kilometres!
IG: Time to get the measuring tape out, then, and get in the back yard.
Luke: [Laughs] On the one hand, I want to make it as big as people want to play on, but there certainly are performance concerns. At some point the game is just going to slow down. Right now you can speed the game up – I don’t know if you saw on the videos – anywhere from 1x to 10x speed, and when the simulation really gets going and you have thousands of people, I’m not sure how well that’ll perform. If people can deal with not being able to use the biggest speed up without a little framerate loss, then I have no problem with leaving those big maps in. It’s something I think about quite a bit.
IG: Obviously you’ve been doing this yourself. You’ve been self-funding this project, which is no easy task, as you’ve seen over the last couple of years with the growth of Kickstarter. I’ve seen a lot of people saying “I’m sold! When’s it coming out? I’ll give you my money!” That’s pretty exciting and heartening for you, but what are your plans for this? It may be too early to say, but as a one-man team – or a two-man team if we count the music guy; let’s not forget the music guy – what are you thinking about this, moving forwards? It’s getting a little bit more attention…
Luke: Like I talked about earlier, I’d like to finish it myself, and at the moment I think I’m set to finish it without using something like Kickstarter. But for doing expansions and additions to the game later on, I’m not opposed to using it. Sometimes I feel like Kickstarter is… I see projects on there that I really wonder, how long’s it going to be before they come out? And I’d rather provide the game when it comes out, and not get a whole bunch of money first and then disappoint users later. If the game does well and it funds more projects, then great. If not, then as long as it’s received well, I’ll feel a little more comfortable using something like Kickstarter, when I have a product that people already enjoy and they know I’ll deliver. I don’t know how many Kickstarter projects have actually made it through funding and development and release. I just know there’ve been a few that seem to be in a perpetual beta, and I don’t want to get into that situation, like stretch goals, and say “If I make this much money on Kickstarter I’ll add this and this and this and this.” I’d rather just build a game as I originally envisioned it, release it, and have people enjoy it.
IG: So, you’re basically looking at a self-publishing model. But to get it out there, would something like Steam be attractive to you as a delivery platform?
Luke: It would. Any press that brings people to the site to see the videos is good. I’m looking into several digital distribution methods. I haven’t worked everything out yet so I’m not giving details yet, but certainly things like Steam and Good Old Games and other online distribution portals are certainly things I’m looking into.
IG: So if I said “Is it DRM free,” you’re going to say “Yes, it’s DRM free.” [Laughs]
Luke: [Laughs] Yes. DRM is a tricky issue. Certainly, when you’re making a game, you don’t want anyone to ever steal your game – but on the other hand I’m a gamer too, and those days where you end up having to call someone up and say “Hey, I’ve gone through my three installs. Can you reset it so I can install this game that I have the disk for but I can’t play?” I’m not a fan of that either, so! I’ll probably also be selling it on the website independently, but I don’t have the details of that worked out either yet.
IG: Okay, so I’m not going to say “It’s 10 bucks, or 15 bucks, or 20 bucks,” or whatever…
Luke: [Shakes head, laughs]
IG: You mentioned some of your influences earlier on. Right now, what’s been tickling your fancy as far as games are concerned for the last six months or so?
Luke: Er. My game! [Laughs]
IG: Apart from your game, because we know you’re working flat out on that!
Luke: Let’s see, what have I played in the last six months… Not a whole lot. I downloaded Rage and finally played it a couple of weeks ago. I know it came out a long time ago, but I played that. I played the Skyrim expansions once those finally came out for PS3. Like I said, I still play SimCity 4. I play Dawn of Discovery – I guess just Anno 1707, or whatever it is; I haven’t played the 2017 or whatever the new one is.
IG: It’s interesting you say that you haven’t played the new SimCity. Is there a reason why?
Luke: I rarely buy games at initial release, and obviously the bad press… it launched and people couldn’t play, and that kinda turned me off. But I also have… I know this about myself. If I get a game I really like, I’ll play the crap out of it, and that certainly cuts into my development time!
IG: Well if it’s a really bad game, then you should be playing it, because it’s not going to cut into your development time.
IG: It could be a good game, but it’s not quite there yet. I’m a massive city-builder fan; it’s one of the things that I’m super-passionate about, so I was most disappointed. For me it could’ve been game of the year, but… no. Just wrong on so many levels, right now, but I’m sure they’ll get there eventually.
You say that you try and not play things that cut into your development time, and you’ve given us a few influences with regards to SimCity 4. With SimCity 4, the modding was a big part of it. Is modding something that you encourage with Banished? Do you think it’s something you’d want to throw open later to the community?
Luke: It’s certainly something interesting. It’s not something I expected to hear from the community, because I’ve been a game developer for a long time so I make games – I don’t really work out how to change other people’s games. I think it’s a great idea and I’d love to see what people come up with and new things they would add to the game.
The unfortunate thing is I didn’t start building the game with that in mind. The code is all C++ and self-integrated. If I did nothing else, modders could do things like add new buildings and new resources people could create, and pick up, and move around, and eat, or they could make better tools and things like that… but there are certainly some things that are hard-coded into the game engine, that I either have to redo some source code, or make some sort of SDK to make that happen. So I’m keeping it in mind, and maybe after the release I’ll work on that. I have a whole bunch of plans for after release and that’s just one thing.
IG: Putting your business hat on for a second, because you have to eat… Opening things up to modding, for example: if you want to release DLC, there’s kind of a crossover there. If you’ve got a community creating new buildings and new resources and so on, and you’re thinking “God dammit, that’s what I wanted to put in the DLC!” How would you balance that, and how would you approach that?
Luke: Well the things that would be moddable… there are things that I can probably do that they couldn’t. Like if I were to add town battles and add AI for enemies and new buildings and new building types that just aren’t part of the core game, I would still be able to do that. But if modders get a hold of the game and add cool stuff? They bought a copy, and I think that kind of thing’s great for the game.
IG: You mentioned combat there, and I’m thinking back to the good old days of playing Pharaoh, which is probably one of the best city-builders ever created. I absolutely love that game. You used to have random armies come stomping in, and you could see them on the hillside, just waiting, and you’d be going “Oh God, am I ready for this?” Is that something you’ve been thinking about, to add an extra element into it?
Luke: It is. A lot of people have asked for it. I don’t think I’ll do it with the initial release. It’s certainly something it’d be nice to have. I know a lot of people want it, but I’ve also had just as many people say “I want a city-builder that’s just a city-builder; I don’t really care about the combat.” But my ideas for it kinda work within the game. It’s more units that would work the same way – you put buildings down, they work there. They’d be kind of autonomous – they’d go off and fight. It’s just more artwork and AI and code and stuff to work. It’s really just another disaster type, but I probably won’t add it for initial release.
IG: Going back to the artwork, one of the things I actually really like about the videos you’ve put up for Banished is the UI. Now, UIs are very tricky, as I’m sure you know. They can be an absolute nightmare, and because of all the… I won’t say micromanagement, but options that you have in Banished, how hard has that been for you? What I like about it is (and this may change, you may just not have put the art in – I don’t know how far you’ve got with this) the fact that it’s very simple. It’s just gradient borders, and it looks simple and it looks easy and nice to use. Are you planning on fancying it up? I like it the way it is.
Luke: What you see is what it’s going to be. It’s actually my second UI. The first one I hated. After awhile, it just wasn’t… it was too complicated, and there were some things in the code that didn’t work well. So I rewrote it, reskinned it, and I really like the way it looks now. I’ve tried to keep all the elements very to-the-point and very easy to use.
The funny thing about gradients and simple colours and simple looks is that I’m a pretty bad 2D artist! I can make 3D graphics all day long, but if I try to do some pixel art or make a fancy border or something like that, it comes out awful and I hate it.
IG: It’s hard for you, because you’re obviously doing the coding but you’re also doing the art. It must be hard for someone who’s a 3D artist to think “Now I’ve got to go and code the AI when I really want to be sitting here making cool models, and making my buildings look great, and adding nice visual effects.” How hard is it to get that balance, and tear yourself away from doing something you maybe prefer to do more?
Luke: If anything, it’s been a learning experience to make all this 3D art and try to make it all look good and have the same style. But on the other hand it’s really nice to be able to do something different every day. I can code for two days, and then I’ll need some artwork, so I’ll work on that for a few days. And the back-and-forth, I think, keeps me a little sane. Instead of always working on code or always working on art, it’s nice to mix it up. So it really hasn’t been too much of an issue. I think when I get frustrated is when I know I have a tonne of art to make. For variety, I want to have 30 different versions of houses or whatever, and then building those 30 different versions is… well, it gets tedious, but like I said I can break it up by doing other things. I can even go out in the woods and record some audio for the game, so that’s a nice break day!
IG: In your video, you showed some of the seasonal changes from summer or spring into winter, and it looks fantastic with the smoke coming out of the building rooftops and so on. Things like day and night cycles – how are you approaching those, and how are you timing seasons in a game? Obviously it can’t be real-time, so how are you approaching that?
Luke: As far as day and night, I’m not sure if I’m going to add it, only for the reason that if I did day and night I’d want a lot of lights at night time, and my graphics engine really isn’t set up for that so that would take some interesting changes. But I am going to add some other effects for weather and rain and lighting changes in different seasons and things like that, just to make it look a little better. In terms of how long a season is, if you let the game play slowly, it takes an hour to go through summer, spring, autumn, and winter —
IG: For each season?
Luke: It’s about 15 minutes for each season; an entire year in an hour. But you can speed the game up to 10x and you can get through a year in about six minutes. So there’s a big difference there in terms of whether you really want to take your time and build slower, or just turn up the speed to get the resources you need to do that. So that’s about how long a season is. And people have shorter lifespans, as well; they don’t live to 60 or 70 years old! Otherwise you’d be waiting 20 hours or however long before someone –
IG: Let’s face it, nobody lived beyond 25 anyway. They were all dying of the plague, and everything else. [Laughs] Actually, that’s one of my other questions. It’s got a sort of merry medieval setting, but is there a particular time when this is set, or is it just part of your imagination?
Luke: Yeah, it’s just my imagination. When I envisioned the game I thought “Okay, there’s some people out in the woods, and they’re gonna build their houses out of logs and stone,” so that’s about it, and that could be a pretty big range of time. I’ve gotten comments like “Oh, those people wouldn’t have had potatoes in that day and age” or “They would’ve been growing some other crop,” but I just want to make a fun game, and I’m using things that people know about now rather than being traditional or historical. So it looks medieval, but it’s really just fantasy land.
IG: So can we expect Banished 3020 then, with spaceships?
Luke: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves! I need to get this done before I start making sequels.
IG: I was going to ask you about the name Banished. Where did you come up with it?
Luke: It’s really just situational. I was thinking, why is this small group of people would be standing out in the woods with nothing when you start this game? So the small story is, okay, they must’ve been banished from their homeland and this is where they ended up. So that’s it. That’s Banished.
IG: So there is a backstory! I don’t want to take any more of your precious development time up, but I wanted to throw the door open to you and ask you why you think people should be really watching out for this game. What makes it different?
Luke: It’s a little bit of a different game. It’s fun and relaxing to play. You don’t need twitch reflexes to play – it’s just about figuring out how to build, what to enjoy. The few people I’ve had play it all play it different; they like to build different things and set up different towns in different ways. I just like that type of game – a sandbox where people can do what they want, and I hope that’s what people get from it when they get to play it.
IG: It’s been brilliant talking to you, and I hope more people go and check out the site and check out the game. So thanks a lot, Luke, for your time.
Luke: No problem. Thanks!
If development continues according to plan, Banished should be released in mid-to-late 2013.