Welcome to the first official dev update for Mountaincore! If this is your first time reading one of our dev updates, I should give a little history lesson. Perhaps the *full* history this time! Skip to “The actual April update” if you don’t want a rambling history and background of the game.
History of the game and its development
Games have always been my #1 passion. Fresh out of university I applied for a few graduate game dev roles, and even had a few interviews at well known studios here in the UK. The response from each of them was that they wanted someone with more experience, which was frustrating for entry-level/graduate roles but that’s the way of things. I wasn’t really convinced that I actually wanted to be a tiny cog in a huge game dev team – this was in the early to mid 2000s and stories were rife of the gruelling conditions of the games industry with crunch and unpaid overtime of up to 100 hour weeks being the norm, leading straight to burnout and a disastrous work/life balance. As much as I love games, I decided that wasn’t for me and went into the field of business software instead, essentially getting much better pay for much “easier” work, and no overtime to speak of. At least eventually – the company I worked for first ended up making the entire office redundant following the crash of 2008. A few years later though I had an excellent job where I learnt a hell of a lot about making good software, and after 5 or so years of that, I became an independent contractor/consultant. Not only did this make my work more flexible, but it meant I had a business, and a small amount of extra funds in it to do something…
So of course I started making a game. It wouldn’t have been possible for me 20 years ago with my lack of skills and experience, but now I do have those skills and experience. Importantly I also had some money to pay other people to do bits of work here and there. I’ve always been a coder, so of course anything visual I produce has “programmer art” i.e. it looks terrible. I’ve always wanted to make a game, but not having much in the way of artwork really limits you. Finally I could plug this gap, but only in a small way, it’s not like I could afford to commission an artist or designer to work on something full time, but I could get small tasks done here and there.
This is what led to borrowing the visual style of Prison Architect. It was simple and expressive – an excellent fit for the genre of strategy/management games as it clearly and concisely can show you what is where and what’s going on. Most importantly though, it’s relatively cheap to do – there’s little to no animation so simple sprites can stretch a long way in terms of in-game content to the cost of creating that content. I remember reading an interview with the Introversion devs (the makers of Prison Architect) that they found “content” was the big stumbling block for them as a small indie dev team (in a time when small indie dev teams were still pretty rare), that specifically the map for Defcon took the most time to create in the development of that game, so they learned they had to really keep the time/costs of this kind of content in a game small if they’re to have any chance of completing development.
Everyone with an interest in games has a bunch of ideas they’d like to make into games. When one piques my imagination, I write it down into a little notebook of them, partly so that I can put it to one side and not keep being distracted by it, but also to see if it stands the test of time when I look at it again a lot later. I’ve always loved strategy and business-management type games the most. Theme Park, Theme Hospital and Dungeon Keeper all stand out to me from Bullfrog. I loved the theme of being the bad guy in Dungeon Keeper, but more than that I really loved the relatively simple mechanic of digging out areas from rock to put your own rooms and traps and designs into. It was actually my love of Dungeon Keeper that led me to discovering Dwarf Fortress in its fairly early days, which scratched the same itch of digging out a fortress into rock and building your own place inside it, but with all the extra simulation and magic of Dwarf Fortress on top.
Put the above two paragraphs together and Mountaincore (then known as King under the Mountain) was born. I wanted to make a game that used the visual style of Prison Architect because it was A) a great fit for the genre that looks good and more importantly B) actually achievable as something I could do with a little help from artists. I wanted to make a game about what I found fun about Dungeon Keeper and Dwarf Fortress, which is many things, but I also want to point out that nobody could actually replicate what’s been done in Dwarf Fortress, it’s been worked on for too long and with too much love and attention to detail that anyone could reproduce it in a shorter amount of time, I just don’t think it’s possible. So I didn’t set out to clone Dwarf Fortress, that would be doomed to failure, but to look to elements of it for inspiration, and importantly other games too. I’ve always listed The Settlers (as in the old 1st and 2nd game in the series) as a big influence on this project – particularly the sense of satisfaction you can get from sitting back and watching all these computer-controlled characters scurrying around, just making things happen according to plans that you’ve laid out, but in a pretty chill, relaxed way.
It turns out Rimworld has much of the same inspirations (mainly Dwarf Fortress) and reason for borrowing the Prison Architect visual style. A lot of people decry this game as a Rimworld clone and that’s going to happen when they share the same DNA, but Rimworld focuses on a small, intimate group of survivors struggling to exist, whereas Mountaincore has more of a focus on the grander economics and industry with a larger population. There’s positives and negatives to both sides, Rimworld lets you really focus on specific characters which might get lost in the bigger scale of Mountaincore, but I hope to add enough systems that work together to bring out those emergent stories. In reality the game is much closer in terms of design to Dwarf Fortress, particularly the early 2D-only version which I believe had its own positives before the switch to Z-levels and 3D which will need another post all of its own. Early in development I said this visual style would end up getting used more and more in this genre (rather than when it was only Prison Architect and then Rimworld), and that has now come to pass. There’s Academia: School Simulator, Machiavillain, Another Brick In The Mall, SimAirport, Rec Center Tycoon, Clanfolk and probably way more games that I’m not aware of.
So I started work on the game all the way back in 2015. With the focus being on digging out rooms underground, I wanted to do something special with lighting and have a proper dynamic lighting system, which is one of the first things implemented and one of the features I’m most proud of. Here’s a 7 year old(!) video showing how that was done.
Of course this was just a hobby project around still working as a business software contractor/consultant. The dream has always been to be able to work on this game full time so it’s been quite a challenge trying to get to that point. In 2017 I launched a Kickstarter campaign looking for £50k of funding which would have let me do that, but it turned out the golden age of video game Kickstarters had already been and gone, and trying to get any exposure as an unknown gamedev back then (and still now) is next to impossible – you either have to be famous already, have a famous IP or have become really popular through some other means first. The campaign didn’t reach anywhere near that goal and after that I ended up taking a break from development for a while as I had a newborn child which doesn’t really mix with an ambitious project done in your free time!
Once things at home had settled down a bit, there was another Kickstarter campaign with a much more modest goal of £10k to see where that would take me, and I had the flexibility to split my time between the day job and game development depending on the funding it brought in. It was a modest success which allowed me to focus fully on development for a few months, as well as have more art and music produced, to end up releasing the first alpha versions to Itch.io in 2019.
2020 was a bit of a rocky year as it was for everyone the world over. In 2021 I was in talks with a smaller publisher to bring the game to Steam with some funded development, which started off okay but didn’t work out, but had led to me quitting the day job and so I decided to take the plunge of getting a small loan to fund development up to releasing the game (as King under the Mountain) on Steam in Early Access in November 2021. It was still missing a lot of the features that I’d wanted in the first Steam EA release, but the absolute glacial pace of progress throughout 2020 made me decide I had to do something to get it onto Steam in a reasonable timeframe or else I was never going to make enough progress on it. As an aside, I’d been contacted by other publishers too at different times but I never felt any of them were the right fit, or importantly matched my vision for what the development plan would look like – Prison Architect and Rimworld had both proven that this genre of game is a good fit for a long Early Access period while features and improvements are layered on top of the game, with a long development timeframe. Most publishers wanted a product that would be finished within 12 to 18 months, released and no further work after that point – basically what I think happened to Machiavillain when they decided to work with a publisher.
King under the Mountain had been on Steam since the Greenlight days of getting a game on Steam (rather than the current absolute free-for-all, for better or worse) and had built up a pretty respectable number of wishlists. Around 45,000 outstanding wishlists by the time we got to the Early Access launch. General rule of thumb thinking is that you can expect to sell around 10% of this amount in the game’s launch period (made up of wishlist purchases but also people finding the game elsewhere) and around 50% of this figure in the first year. Unfortunately King under the Mountain came nowhere close to those figures, selling 1 to 2 thousand copies in the first month and around 3 to 4 thousand in the full following year. It’s a reasonable number if I don’t count the thousands of hours of work done personally in all the years working on the game. In reality it was only enough to pay off the business loan that was taken to get the game ready for release, so it necessitated going back to a hobby project rather than being something worked on full time, which was disappointing for me as much as it was for the players.
Post 2021 EA release, I had the choice of either early full repayment of the loan that was taken and immediately going back to the day job, or spending a few more months on the game and then paying the loan off over the next few years. I chose the latter to see if I could build on the game’s launch and eke out any further success, but it wasn’t to be. Early into 2022 I had no choice but to go back to contract work as the 9 to 5, and relegate King under the Mountain to only being worked on in my free time, which was very demoralising. It’s an extremely ambitious game for a solo dev project, too ambitious really, but I’m determined it’s not going to be another Gnomoria and “released” when still unfinished and never touched again, instead I’ll keep working on it whenever I can for as long as I have to for me to feel happy that it fulfils the vision I originally had for the game.
It was in this dark period that I ended up talking to a publisher, a very well known one that I was extremely excited to work with, who were interested in taking on King under the Mountain. They actually ended up saying that they didn’t want to work with me on King under the Mountain, but wanted to take the game, redevelop it a bit, and relaunch it as a new title. I feel like this was equal parts of finding a way to not have to pay for the IP rights and ownership of King under the Mountain, and also a way of having a fresh Early Access launch on Steam – which is the most important point in a game’s life on Steam (the 1.0 “final” release does not matter anywhere near as much) and had basically been a failure for King under the Mountain due to a lack of marketing and coverage. There are literally dozens of games released every single day on Steam, and getting coverage in the gaming press feels like the same kind of problem as getting coverage for a gaming Kickstarter – you basically need to already be popular or a famous name to get some coverage. A good, well-known publisher would bring this big marketing push, as well as funding development of the game, and solve both the problems that the launch of King under the Mountain had (in exchange for then owning the game and taking the majority of the revenue).
We ended up with an agreement to redevelop the game over a 9 month period, and enough of a budget so that it was no longer just myself on the game, but we could bring in another developer and artist full-time, absolutely a dream come true. We had an internal roadmap of what was going to be done over those 9 months, and we delivered all of those goals too. The publisher only allowed us to make the initial announcement that we were working with a publisher and had to go dark on communication with the community otherwise. It was extremely frustrating and something I’m never going to agree to again. The length of this first dev “update” is probably a bit of a reaction to the comms blackout!
Unfortunately, in the final week of this 9 month period, the publisher informed us that they’d decided not to publish the game, citing concerns of too many other games releasing in the genre in the time inbetween, and I can only assume there were other factors at play that I’m not aware of. Either way, they gave us the option of signing a new agreement so we could make use of the code and assets that had been produced in the last 9 months in return for allowing them to still share in some of the revenue from sales as a way for them to recoup the very large investment they’d made in the game, but at a much reduced rate than it would have been if they’d published the game themselves.
That was just over a month ago and quite the shock, but in the end it’s an outcome I’m surprisingly happy with. Having a small team working on the game for the last 9 months has brought it up to the place I wanted it to be when we first launched into Early Access, and we’ve proceeded with the plan of releasing under a new name, and so Mountaincore was born from the ashes.
The actual April update
At basically no notice we’ve switched over to releasing the game ourselves, we weren’t even using the name Mountaincore and there was no logo this time a month ago.
April has been a quick dash to get ready for and run up to the Early Access release coming on May 18th so its all on a very short timescale! The main focus has been on fixing crashes and bugs, and of course taking on board feedback from the community. After a very long time with no public updates, and a lot of new features added or changed in the past 9 months, there’s a lot of the game that hasn’t been playtested outside of our team and of course a bunch of things which didn’t initially make sense to people that we’ve improved.
There’s still a whole bunch of small improvements to come in the short term, but it feels like we’re generally in a much better place regarding crashes and other bugs, so in the run-up to release we can look to tackle some of the trickier areas that need improving, such as job priority system which doesn’t always behave as it probably should do. The best place to report any problems or feedback is in the Mountaincore Discord server which is also the first place to find out about what’s been changed in each update (we’ll be able to have Steam-hosted patch notes after launch, but these have to be manually approved by Valve which can take a few hours).
And what’s next?
Of course the main focus is on the Early Access release on May 18th. I expect we’ll be tackling bug fixing and feedback requested improvements both before and after that date. For next month’s update, I’m planning to unveil the high level roadmap which will take us from this EA launch up to 1.0 release, and maybe beyond! Things can and will change but it should give a good indication of the kind of stuff we’re planning to add to the game. Tune in next month to find out!