Developer interview: Kainga: Seeds of Civilization

Steam continues to be a wonderful breeding ground for coding talent, and every now and then a project really catches our eye. One example of that is Kainga: Seeds of Civilization, which is being developed by solo dev Erik Rempen and offers a unique take on the village builder genre. We got in touch with Erik to find out more – here’s our interview with Erik, whose game is being published by Green Man Gaming.

How did you get started in game development?

I started Kainga as a hobbyist. A kind of “let’s see if I can” sort of thing. I personally love strategy games, particularly city builders, but I was always disappointed with the lack of diversity in culture in these games. I wanted to play a game where your culture would evolve based on your choices and the resources available to you. So I started looking into what it would take to create this game myself, and just went for it.

I’d modded games like Counterstrike, Jedi Knight, Morrowind and Half Life 2 when I was young, which was where my mind was opened up to the possibilities of game development. Taking the leap into creating my own game was made possible with Unreal Engine’s visual scripting system as I have no prior coding experience.

I love learning languages, I speak Spanish and Thai fluently, and am self taught, and I also studied a handful of other languages including Japanese, Korean, Hindi, Italian, French and German. I understood that knowledge of the inner workings of game development would be similar to learning a traditional language, so I went for it!

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How and when did you decide to pursue solo game development?

I work really well alone, and I’m happy in my own little corner working away. I have a hard time being let down by others and an even harder time letting others down, so I decided solo development was best for me. Of course I would love to split tasks with someone else, but I also enjoy changing roles and doing different things. I think that allows me to keep up the pace without getting burnt out. If I get tired of programming, I do some animation drawing for a few days until my hand hurts, then switch it up again.

What’s been your biggest eye-opener when it comes to game development?

I was really surprised with how difficult game development actually is. I assumed it was about making certain things behave in certain ways, but it’s almost the opposite. More often it’s about making sure everything doesn’t behave how it isn’t supposed to! And the most well made elements aren’t even noticed by the player, which is actually ideal. If no one comments on the camera movement system, for example, I’ve done a good job.

Kainga particularly has a lot of possible interactions between a huge variety of systems, so I keep trying to rein everything in and keep systems interacting with one another as the player expects them to.

I also assumed the there was always a right and wrong way to do game development, but the truth is, there are many ways to reach the same result. Much like speaking a language, there are many ways to get the same point across. Once I stopped worrying so much about if this was the right way to do things, and instead focused on setting up my code in a way I understand best.

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Kainga recently entered Early Access. When did you first come up with the concept for the game and what did your development journey look like prior to Early Access?

The concept of the game was born from 3 main pillars of design all of which I hadn’t seen done before but wanted to see realized. The first is to allow the player to create unique towns which evolved to meet your environment and surroundings. Second, to use your people as the main resource. Finally, to create a roguelite city-builder where choice has drastic impacts and loss is brushed off.

Kainga went through many iterations before finding its feet, and there were a few big steps that allowed the game to be where it is today. One big change was the addition of “Thinkers”, the leaders of your people who were created to add a persistence between games and unify the play experience to be more than just a sandbox. The gameplay itself went through a lot of changes and especially how you acquired technology. I played with a variety of ideas including having your Thinker think at different combinations of resources to come up with different technologies, a tech crafting box, a randomized technology tree and much more. Finally I landed on finding the technologies in “sources of inspiration” which really pulled the best aspects of the roguelite genre into the game and gave personal short and long term goals to the player.

Before Early Access, I created basic systems for all major planned mechanics to ensure that the development process wouldn’t hit any massive snags along the way. I’ve set up a strict roadmap to keep myself on track and contain feature creep as much as possible. At this point my job is to fill out the game’s content and add the variety that Kainga deserves.

As for Kainga’s world design, I wanted to create a feeling of familiarity and plausibility but still offer a land full of surprises. I left a lot of inner systems unexplained so that the player can discover these things for themselves.

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The art design of Kainga is heavily inspired by my favorite game as a child, Populous the Beginning which had these 2D characters running around in a 3D world. I really liked the simplicity of it and how readable the animations were at a glance. Also drawing 4 frames per animation was a great way to stylistically cut corners! Although in Populous I believe that style came out of a limitation, it’s the opposite for me now. I really had to force the 3D engine to make it work. But in the end, it’s really been great as I ended up with a visual style that’s quite stark and unique which also allowed me to quickly iterate on the visual look.

As a solo developer, which elements of Kainga’s development have been the most challenging for you?

There was a very steep learning curve when I started Kainga, as I had to figure out how games are created while working on the foundations. The hardest part is not knowing what questions to ask to get past gaps in your knowledge. Not knowing what you have to learn is really hard. On top of that, the foundations of a game are often the most complex parts of the actual development, so it’s very hard for a beginner to learn as they go.

I knew from the start that I wasn’t gonna do sound and music, and hired out help for those aspects of the game. I tried a lot of people but Somepoint Sound has created a fantastic soundtrack I couldn’t be happier with. A lot of other aspects I tried to hire out to save myself time, but ended up finding doing it myself was more efficient.

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The role of the Thinker, a relatively defenseless central character that needs protection but is also a catalyst of progress, is rather unique in the genre. What inspired you to create and define this role?

The Thinker started as an extension of the player. Kainga wasn’t designed to be a god-game so it felt better to have a character that the player could relate to between multiple runs. This worked well for Populous the Beginning’s shaman, but if she was the queen in chess, the Thinker would be the king. Slow, vulnerable and a crystal clear lose condition if he goes down.

Originally the WASD keys moved the Thinker and the camera was locked to his location. Later on, the camera could move freely but still tethered to a certain distance from the Thinker. Finally I gave the camera full freedom, but the connection between the player and the Thinker is still there.

What has the early feedback for Kainga: Seeds of Civilization been like?

I’ve been incredibly impressed with the positivity and responses to Kainga. For a really weird game, a lot of people have really connected with it and I couldn’t be happier! I think the combination of the art style, the retro lack of hand-holding and constant feeling of mystery and discovery had hit the hearts of a lot of people.

The suggestions and recommendations have been flowing constantly from the community and I love hearing them. A lot of technologies, QoL improvements and of course bug fixes have been from the community. I’m happy to see so many people who really “get” this game, and I’m looking forward to its continuing success and development!

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