Working in a genre that’s been as well mapped and mined as real-time strategy is a challenge. It’s a genre that’s seen an entire life cycle: a steady rise to spectacular popularity and then an equally spectacular collapse, but also a subsequent renaissance. RTS conventions have been established, stretched to their reasonable limit, exploded, and then re-explored.
For a game like Northgard, then, it’s difficult to stand out. The challenge of finding new, viable ideas in such a venerable genre is only matched by the challenge of executing on them in interesting and satisfying ways. But Sebastien Vidal, Northgard’s lead designer and the co-founder of Shiro Games, says it was exactly a lack of those kind of ideas that inspired Northgard.
“It started with some of us at the studio who have played a lot of strategy games of all kinds having a hard time finding anything new and interesting to play in this genre,” Vidal says. “We wanted a game that would stay true to what we liked about older titles like Age of Empires, The Settlers or even Populous, and at the same time bring something that hadn't been seen before."
He says that they went in with a goal of exploring two things that are rarely seen in strategy games: "That was easy controls and a simple UI on one hand, and a survival aspect with a good atmosphere on the other.”
The team started prototyping a 2D version of the game, locking down some core ideas that the rest of their design would revolve around, like settlers’ jobs changing depending on which build they were assigned to and some of the central survival ideas.
“We really focused on what the player would be experiencing rather than on gameplay loops or even what the economy structure would look like. We wanted to keep micro management to a minimum. We thought it would distract too much from both the strong atmosphere we wanted for the game and long term strategy. That is why a lot of actions are automated or semi-automated in the game.”
One of the main ways Northgard stands out from other recent RTS titles is an element more often associated with 4x, turn-based strategy games: multiple victory conditions. Vidal says inspiration came in the form of the (often understated) versatility of the Viking civilizations they were modeling.
“Even though they are always portrayed as strong warriors, they were also great explorers and merchants, and had a strong oral culture around folklore and mythology," he says. "These aspects of their culture are translated in the game through the Lore, Trade and Fame victories.”
They were also motivated by their desire for a focus on macro gameplay. “With only war as a goal and almost no micro, the game would have been very bland," he says. "Or even worse given our goals regarding survival and atmosphere, very abstract.”
Finding a balance for the various ways players could approach victory required an intense period of testing. The team played the game over and over until they could immediately detect the impact of even the smallest changes.
Vidal says that they also created a tool to log all the data from a game (production and reserve of each resource, number of units assigned to each job, territory size) that showed up in real time as we played. "It was extremely useful, but the actual play time was irreplaceable,” he says.
The first challenge they faced trying to create diverse, balanced victory states was ensuring players couldn’t just immediately rush their opponents, that a quick martial push wasn’t a guarantee of an easy, early victory (a tried and tested RTS strategy).
“This is when we came up with the idea of using tiles to structure the world,” Vidal says, “along with an increasing cost of progression through colonization. This allowed us to control the pace of expansion and make direct rushes impossible. That single feature made all the other victory conditions possible. It also created other gameplay opportunities with a maximum number of building slots per tile, turning the expansion rate into a gameplay variable players had to manage.”
Each victory condition in Northgard involves a specific approach to gameplay, and drives players to engage in some of the game’s systems in unique ways. While the Fame victory is perhaps the broadest, tallying a number of activities to derive an overall score for your playthrough, other types, like Trade or Lore victories, call on players to focus and comparmentalize. “The domination (military) victory is actually one of the hardest, especially on higher difficulty levels, because you have very few spare resources to do anything but what’s essential for survival.”
One of the most novel wrinkles in Northgard is the way additional victory conditions can appear mid-game.
“These are very specific to our game and are more story driven in their background and gameplay: taking control of Yggdrasil, reforging Odin's sword, protecting Northgard from an open gate to Helheim," he says. "Unlike Civilization, when you can pick your victory conditions before you start, Northgard forces you to adapt.”