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Devlog #1 - The Hidden Complexity of Lords and Villeins

Since Lords and Villeins is launching in Early Access tomorrow, we are hoping you will enjoy the game and have a positive experience when it comes out. But today, we want to share with you a story. A story of how this game started with a small but very ambitious idea that could easily prove to us to be impossible.

To answer why, we need to look at three major pillars of our game design - the setting, the macro-oriented gameplay, and our AI simulation.

A Personalised Experience That Feels at Home

Being big fans of colony sims and builder games like Prison Architect, Rimworld, or Banished, we knew there was a lot to enjoy in the space of the city-builder genre, but a certain type of game was still missing - one that would feel like a management game at its core but introduced the personalized experience of living beings that players can empathize with. A perfect mix between the high-level perspective of Prison Architect and the local and personal stories of Rimworld.

There was one setting that fits this description very well - feudal landlords of the medieval age. With municipalities that span a single village and settlements in populations of few dozens of people, it is easy to see how even those who govern them would get to know and remember nearly every person plowing their fields or serving them in the yard. Yet given their title and position still being far removed from their lives and have a great responsibility on their hands. This setting was a perfect fit and so came the idea for Lords and Villeins to life.

We went on to do detailed research of medieval times, trying to find as much inspiration for the game as possible, and with the foundation of core gameplay - gathering materials and building structures - we started to think about how to set our game apart from others and how to best support our design goals.

The Ruling is not Handholding

The most significant design decision we made early on, was to focus on the act of ruling, as opposed to micromanagement of single NPCs and their personal schedules. In line with that decision, our core unit of control - the centerpiece of interaction between the player and the game - became a whole family of villagers. A choice contrasting with the more traditional focus on specific NPCs and their day-to-day decisions.

Having the focus on families allowed us to hit the nail on the act of ruling. We could give commands and set production targets without worrying about the specifics. But we were also trying to make the local and personal experience of living village, which meant that we must find a way to simulate not just the families, but the everyday lives of every single villager in the game. Everything from their morning routines to labor, basic needs, relationships, and so on.

This created a challenge - we needed to give our players interesting decisions to make, to shape the development of their settlement, but many of these decisions could only affect families as a whole. We wanted to avoid actions that would lead the player to handhold their people and teach them how to do basic tasks. We are making a management game - a game about being a ruler - and the ruler does not hold hands. Ruler creates plans and makes decisions to make them happen.

This is why in Lords and Villeins you can't say who works on the fields and who gets to cook the meals in the family. You will not see an option to tell them when to go to sleep. And you will not be able to dictate how many resources they should stock for winter. We want our players to feel like they are having a dialogue with their villagers. That they have a sense of autonomy and the player can compensate for places where it is lacking, but should never fully control their behavior. This leads us to our last challenge - the AI.

The Art of Simulating People

I've used the word art because we can't simply copy human behavior. Not only because of the technology limitations, but also because we are making a game that is simulating a different world - a world that feels familiar, but in many ways is not the same. We have to simplify where we can and use many tricks to make it all seem believable and intuitive.

Let's just look at some major areas our AI must juggle:

  • Account for the time of the day and adjust priorities accordingly
  • Monitoring needs for hunger, energy, socializing, and others and seeking to fulfill them at a correct moment
  • Manage inventory space and how much they can carry
  • Be aware of surroundings and the world and understand how to navigate through it
  • Be aware of ownership - they can't use just about any resource or structure they find
  • Manage resources and their locations - everything has its place and many things can only be made if there are enough resources at their disposal
  • Taxation and savings - set resources aside for winter or when the tax payment day arrives, relatively to their size and the needs of the whole settlement
  • Supply and demand - know what they should purchase from others and what they don't need for themselves and therefore can sell
  • Pricing - understand which resources are oversupplied and adjust prices to reflect the situation

This list would be far from complete - following our roadmap, we will also have to deal with relationships, fights, reputation, spirituality, criminality, fears, and many more. And the list does not address a crucial point - not only these systems must work in a general average scenario, they must be flexible enough to work even in extreme possibilities. How do the families adjust if someone is starving to death? Perhaps spending some of the saved resources and disobeying the ruler's orders are now a better choice. This would not be unheard of, though often you would find similar technology made in bigger teams.

To add to this, we have players watching over everything and our AI is not simply creating a background flavor to make the world feel more believable. The actions of our villagers directly translate into the economy of the game, the survivability of each member, and thus influencing the goals that players set for themselves. If we would create behaviors that feel unfair, unintuitive, frustrating, or outright broken, we did not just create a goofy or gimmicky moment for a funny TikTok video - we made a game that is often frustrating and far from fun to play.

Despite all of these challenges we truly loved the idea and are very passionate to make it work. As months went by and our technology and design progressed further, we were becoming more and more confident that our goals are achievable. In the end, we arrived at a game that we really love and sincerely believe many of you will enjoy. And Early Access is just the beginning of this journey. We are very curious to hear your feedback to see how we can make the game even better and we are excited to see where this will all lead in the end.

Please share your feedback with us anywhere you like - be it in the discussion on Steam, on our Discord, or during one of our live streams. You can talk about the game, but also about our devlogs - are there any topics you would like us to cover first? Let us know!

And of course, remember to wishlist us on Steam and subscribe to our newsletter to stay tuned for more news in the future!

Thank you for reading and in the meantime, we wish happy ruling to everyone!

Michal Roch
Honestly Games