Planescape Torment: Retrospective – What can change the nature of a fan?

Amidst the dusty annals of video gaming, there are games only mentioned in hushed tones. There are games that are traded in back-alleys, games where the few extant copies are guarded in by hooded, pale-faced men who worship the old gods Mintah, Ammygah and Com O’door. Games where only one person has ever played it, and he whispers its plot endlessly from his isolated, padded rooms in Bedlam…

To The Tune Of: Bolt Thrower – Drowned In Torment

This originally appeared on Eurogamer aaaages ago, but I’m reposting here cos I can.

Amidst the dusty annals of video gaming, there are games only mentioned in hushed tones. There are games that are traded in back-alleys, games where the few extant copies are guarded in by hooded, pale-faced men who worship the old gods Mintah, Ammygah and Com O’door. Games where only one person has ever played it, and he whispers its plot endlessly from his isolated, padded rooms in Bedlam…

Planescape Torment isn’t one of those games.

Cuddly Nameless One

Planescape is the game most likely to be name-dropped by PC journalists, after Deus Ex. Planescape is the game that took the fag-end of the superb Baldur’s Gate engine-based games and immolated their legacy in a ball of conspicuous failure, followed shortly by the apparent collapse of its publisher, Interplay. Planescape is a game that, shamefacedly, one of Eurogamer’s writers gave 7/10 to, though his reasons were just. Planescape is the only game I’ve ever borrowed and not given back (I do hope they’re not reading…)

More interesting facts about Planescape; it has the longest script of any videogame ever written at around 800,000 words, itself adapted into a strangely-addictive novel and another book. It’s an adaptation of the Baldur’s Gate engine to the one of the most abstruse elements of the Dungeons & Dragons universe – the planes, the mythical realms that were Venn diagrams of moral alternatives made physical; sod Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, if this were a book then you’d call it unfilmable. For a retrospective it presents a unique problem; when a game features nearly a million brilliant words, it’s easy to write ten times that in analysis. (Sadly, Eurogamer didn’t pay by the word, otherwise I would have.) Most of the words I’m going to write are spoilers, so if you want to play it STOP READING NOW.

You take the part of the Nameless One, a heavily-scarred, tattooed and frankly ugly amnesiac who wakes up in the morgue. So far, so Grisham. Yet this morgue is staffed by Zombies, and is built in Sigil, the city of doors. You soon learn your task, from a chatty skull who reads the tattoos on your back (this was the year before Memento, so if anything that plagiarised this); to find out why you cannot die, why you forget more every time you do, and what you’ve done with the hundreds of lives you’ve lived before. You’ve lived these lives across the planes but mainly in Sigil; this in planar lore, sits in a neutral zone and is scattered with portals that might send you round the corner, or all the way across the planes, if you know what their hidden keys are. It sits atop on the inside of a torus that circles the tip of an endless spire and is overseen by the sadistic, arbitrary Lady of Pain, who even gods fear, and whose multi-pronged shadow features heavily in the spiky, nasty architecture.

The spectacular in-game appearance of the city is an argument in itself for forsaking the rotational delights of true 3D gaming; hand-painted scenery mixes Victorian urban grittiness and tremendous variety of scale with avant-garde fantasy. Magnificent architraves and naves loom from nowhere over sewage and decay; brain-bending buildings loom over the map with obscure functions and names, while an interplanar bazaar fills the streets with any possible race or device. Hieronymous Bosch landscapes meet colossal statuary and no other game has met its implied scale. When the game breaks out of Sigil it does so suddenly and the new areas – the hell of Baator and the border prison-town of Curst – are equally bizarre, though more cursorily designed. And, curiously, despite the lushness of the built environment, much of the description comes in those massive chunks of text.

That Off-putting Box Art

Take the introduction of Ignus, a pyromaniac wizard, channel to the realm of fire and former student of the cruelest incarnation of the Nameless One, who can be persuaded, gingerly, to join your party. You first encounter him in a bar named, eponymously, The Smouldering Corpse. His sprite hangs in the middle of the foyer, impressively flaming, but not really enlightening. It’s in the text that you interact with him, seeing him hissing with idiot malice and insanity from his decades of agonising imprisonment; the game even gives you the option to sacrifice parts of yourself to his flames in return for permanent weakness, increasing disability, and access to his unique spellbook.

Whilst talking about Ignus, it’s worth noting the number of purely optional, totally bizarre and entirely bypassable party members; the entire game can be completed without comrades (indeed, for a speed run, it’s pretty much necessary) and half the party members are extremely difficult to access. Save for Ignus and the puzzle of extinguishing his eternal flames, there’s the Nordom the Modron, a corrupted minion of the computer-like realm of logic Mechanus. You can only encounter him by buying a puzzle box from a particularly strange store, which opens up into a whole procedurally-generated dungeon floating in limbo; it’s both one of the most challenging parts of the game and a bluntly comic parody of D&D and role-playing computer games altogether. (The puzzle box itself can, incidentally be swapped later for the most powerful evil weapon in the game, as long as you don’t mind dooming the universe to eternal war). Then there’s Vhailor (an empty suit of armour motivated only by justice) who’s walled up underground somewhere, the intellectual succubus Fall-From-Grace, and the half-demon thief Annah.

The party members you do take on board are developed almost entirely through dialogue, which allows you to unlock more of their story the longer you play with them. Your first potential party member, the endlessly gabbling Morte is a cheeky flying skull whose bite is as bad as his bark. His levelling up is done partly by learning horrible new insults. Meanwhile, the ancient Githzerai Dak’kon, is a particularly strange example; interacting with a puzzle item he gives you results in more of his story being revealed, new combat buffs for your character and more dialogue choices with him – that unlock more abilities and a greater story about the planes themselves and his race in particular, a story that’s ambiguous and leaves him both a hero and a villain (and one of your former incarnations either a villain or misanthropically pragmatic). There’s even characters mentioned in passing who demand stories of their own – a former companion of yours, the blind archer, whose zombie you find; or the Lady of Pain herself (the godlike overlord of Sigil) whose name cannot be mentioned (but about who theories abound that she’s in fact six squirrels with a headress, robe and ring of levitation). It’s emphasised throughout the game that you are, and always have been, doom for those lost souls who tread your path, and that all these who walk with you are fated to die, soon.

Planescape’s deliberate weirdness doesn’t finish with the characters, or the world. The deliberately contrary design decisions continue throughout the game. The language of the game is close to Chaucer or Iain Banks Feersum Enjinn, relying heavily on old east London “cant”, a mixture of the lingo used by cony-catchers, pick-pockets and bawdy-baskets. A typical sentence might be, “It’s a right berk who thinks a blood or cutter will spill the chant without some jink.” There are almost no swords, despite you starting as a fighter character (the nameless one can shift classes between thief, fighter and mage repeatedly, as he remembers his previous lives). Rats can and do beat you up, especially in large numbers, though your main character can never die.

You can finish nearly the whole game without fighting or killing anyone and the experience system reflects that; it rewards combat third, quest-based experience second, and character roleplaying, party development and introspection first – towards the end of the game just talking to yourself once can give you more experience than you’ve got in the whole rest of the game. You only get a chance to use nearly all the powerful spells once during the game. The largest, most interesting portions of the game, are completely optional – the undead city and the rat hive mind can be mostly avoided, Coaxmetal (the towering, monstrously-evil smithy-golem that manufactures weapons for the eternal Blood War) is hidden in a doorless tower, your old journals, body-arts and tombs are scattered in the most remote parts of the world – even being mazed by the Lady of Pain is dependent on you being an idiot.

The shadows swarm...

Why, if Planescape is so good, did Eurogamer give it 7/10 back in the day? Why didn’t it sell? Like most of the games produced by Black Isle and its successor studios Troika and Obsidian (KOTOR 2, Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines), PST was far too ambitious. Massed community-patches are needed to add in the missing content. There’s a wide range of them, with several collated by the ever excellent Spellhold Studios who also have fixes and extensions to a range of other Infinity Engine games, including Baldur’s Gate. The most useful patch allows you to run the game at modern resolutions (unfortunately, we’ve had trouble running that alongside other fixes from Qwinn that reinstate lots of missing content and voices that were hidden in the shipped game.)

Also, let’s face it; that box art was bloody awful (the Nameless One’s scabby, impassive face looming at you like Judge Dredd in his Dead Man days – Tony Benn is sexier) and Interplay would have been better sticking with the original name, “Last Rites”. Even the design document, though a joy to read, admits that ““We were initially worried that a game with a severed head in it wouldn’t sell. So we said, ‘well, Interplay might go for it,’.” That design brief also has a million other brilliant ideas that would have delayed the game by a year if they’d all been implemented, like talking weapons, and a planned alternative super-good ending.

What has the gaming world taken from PST? No-one seriously considers going back to the imaginative indistinctiveness of painted 2D although it is demonstrably beautiful – only the CG-art backgrounds of Guild Wars approach it. Even Chris Avellone has said he wouldn’t make a sequel – though he’d like to follow up on the Planescape setting itself. The only recent heir, beyond Avellone’s own Neverwinter Nights 2, is Lost Odyssey, and that, though a similarly wonderfully-crafted story about immortals heavy with regrets and memories, also sadly bought into the cloying immaturity, repetitive battles and heavily stereotyped characters of modern JRPGs. Even in D&D proper, the Planescape universe isn’t supported anymore and it’s implied that it’s been written out of existence. The one thing we gamers did learn; if you play one of the descendant studios games within a year of release, it’ll be almost certainly be broken. Hold off until the community patches are done, if you want a perfect experience. (That is, if you can stand not playing what will be one of the best games ever, on the day it’s released.)

PST is 800,000 words long – but when numbers get that big they become meaningless. The key point is that every single one of those words has been stitched into place like . Torment, as a book, is one of the best fantasy books ever written – and having the opportunity to work that twisty, painful bloody story out for yourself is almost a moral lesson. Hmm. Perhaps I should give my copy back…?

Creative Assembly Interview: Huge Retrospective

This was an 10,000 word interview on 10/8/2011 conducted for a feature written for PC Gamer; it covers the entire history of Creative Assembly. We used so little of it, I’m putting the rest up here for kicks.

To The Tune Of: Jerry Goldsmith – Total War

This was an 10,000 word interview on 10/8/2011 conducted for a feature written for PC Gamer; it covers the entire history of Creative Assembly. We used so little of it, I’m putting the rest up here for kicks.


  • James Russell – Lead Designer Total War series – tenor nerdy. Joined 2004.
  • Mike Brunton: Head Writer – confusingly normal. Joined 2003.
  • Jamie Ferguson – Battle Lead Designer on Shogun II: Total War – baritone loud. Joined 2000.
  • Kevin McDowell – Lead Art Designer on Total War – Canadian, quiet voice. Joined 2000.
  • Mike Simpson – Creative Director – softly spoken. Joined 1996.
Total War: Shogun II

What was Total War’s prehistory?
Mike Simpson -Started off as typical 80s bedroom programmer, doing conversions for various publishers, specialising in PC conversions; Geoff Crammond: Stunt Car Racer and Shadow of the Beast and Microcosm. Other Psygnosis then ended up doing sports games for EA as the bread and butter work. I was his producer back then, working for Psygnosis. We’d worked together for a long, long time – since 1990 maybe. And I still like working with him.

And after that he went on to do EA stuff – was that when the studio became more than one person?
Mike Simpson: He expanded up to the giddy heights of five, doing things like the first version of FIFA on PC. First game ever to have play-by-play commentary. He went on to a whole bunch of other minority sports; rugby, cricket and Australian Rules football. When I joined, the idea was that I’d start another team doing something different.

And was that other team the one that was eventually going to do Shogun?
Mike Simpson: Originally, we were going to do a role-playing game based on Monkey, the TV series, in Singapore, as there were huge government tax breaks. But they turned out to not be quite as attractive as they looked on paper, so we stayed where we were and ended up not doing Monkey at all but ended up doing Shogun. The main reason for that was that Command & Conquer had spawned a whole bunch of clones while we were working on our RPG, like Kill, Crush and Destroy, which sold really well. We looked at that and thought that’s so easy to write, we can really do that. So we set off with the intention of making a B-grade C&C clone.

As time went on, firstly the 3DFX card came out, which made 3D graphics possible on a PC in anything other than straight lines. Maybe instead of a traditional RTS top-down view, we can have a spline-based landscape, put the camera lower down and surprisingly that would work. It wasn’t designed to be Shogun right from the start; it kind of evolved into it.

I found it amazing as I’ve never heard anyone describe their games as B grade… you were setting out to make a clone?
Mike Simpson: No, that wasn’t the game, that was our ambition!

What was original about Shogun, besides making it 3D? What else was original?
Mike Simpson: Right from the start we wanted to be different so rather than having a small number of third unit’s tanks, or whatever, we were going to have lots and lots of little ant-like men, that was the original idea. So it would still be top down, but the men would be like little ants, flocking away. We did some mock ups of that that looked pretty good, but once we got a 3D battlefield with that, suddenly you were making a battlefield look like a proper battlefield. Nobody had done that before.

Why did you think you wanted to do it with the Sengoku era of Japan? Why that particular era, was there someone who was a big Japanese geek in the office?
Mike Simpson: It gave us all the things we needed to make a decent game out it, things like American contact, we thought Samurai against guns, so we liked that. They also had a really good tech race in that period, going from medieval weaponry to guns by the end of the period and it also had a scenario where there were lots and lots of different factions many of whom could have won. The one that actually did win was pretty unlikely after where it started from. From that point of view it was perfect, but I guess if you really asked us, we just wanted to do that.

Mike Brunton: There were some practicalities as well. When you think about it, the Samurai guy has a nice banner on his back so you can see who he is. They all look the same apart from having different cloaks on their back to make them look good…. It sounds silly but it counted for something in those days. You know, when you’ve got 64MB on a graphics card, you need to think about these things. There were other technologies as well, it was a good period. It had good subjects; it just happens to be the technology that was available at the time.

So were there any other games you were looking at the time going, I wish we’d made that?
Mike Simpson: Not really, I don’t think we do that. We do the opposite sometimes.

Jamie Ferguson: It sometimes acts as a good indicator of where NOT to go. Not to say there aren’t loads of really great games out there. We’re all gamers; we’ve played loads of games.

James Russell: We just want to do our own thing.

Did you just use it as an excuse to watch loads of Akira Kurosawa movies?
Mike Simpson: Yeah, we did do that!
So originally it was a low risk, B grade game. How did EA react to you asking for extra time and money to make it very high spec for 3D cards that almost nobody has?
Mike Simpson: Well, they let us do it… we went back with a pitch for what we wanted to produce and how much better it was than the original idea. It did make sense. They went ahead with it.

So, you got your first big hit. Where do you go from there? How come you stayed with Total War instead of sports or porting?
Mike Simpson: Well, there were still [ports] going on. There was still the other team there, still working on sports games, at that point. The studio’s always had the two teams, Total War and the other team doing more action oriented games. Why did we continue? Partly it never occurred to us to stop. We’ve not stopped having fun making them, to date.

Jamie Ferguson: Making total war, because of the whole team dynamic, is actually a really exciting and fun experience. If you’re having fun doing something, and it makes money, why stop?

How big was the studio by the time you started making Total War?
Mike Simpson: The Shogun team gradually grew, the core of the team ended up being about 15 people. It might’ve gone up to about 20 by the time we finished. When we finished, certainly we decided that we wanted to …not to desert the team, or take apart all the stuff we’d done, but we also wanted to do a more revolutionary game which was going to take a lot longer so we actually started them both at the same time. Rome and Medieval 1 started at the same time and then we had two separate teams working on it.

Kevin McDowell: I think Rome actually started literally one month later than Medieval started, in 2001… August 2001. When I started working here I was working on importing Australian Rules Football pitches from PC to Playstation. Lots to do. The day that we finished, EA called up and said “Actually, we’re not going to publish this game” so the next day I started working on Rome. A new team was built up for Rome, and the Shogun team mostly went on to working on Medieval.
Mike Simpson: At the end of Medieval, the teams merged together. That was about a year […]

I assume at this point you’re not working out of Ansell’s bedroom anymore?
Mike Brunton: We’d taken over his kitchen as well by that point.

Mike Simpson: We were in a little village just outside of Horsham. A self-contained building there.

Jamie Ferguson: It was quite a good office to work in because there was a country pub across the road, and a pub on the other side of the other road, and wasps, loads of wasps in the air conditioning!

Kevin McDowell: Not so good if you didn’t drive.  I drove, but a lot of people had to take the bus from Horsham to get to work. The bus was not a very [fluid?] journey in Sussex.

Mike Simpson: We’re better off here.

When did you move there, when you were starting on Shogun or before?

Mike Simpson: A little bit after that. We worked a little bit on Shogun in a small industrial unit out of Horsham somewhere.

Then you made the first of your expansions. The expansions all had the same formula: here’s the world, then all the barbarians come in and kill everyone. Was that conscious, or was it just easier to stick an overwhelming force into a world and challenge the players to face off against it?
Mike Brunton: I think it was your Britannia message that caused that.

Jamie Ferguson: There’s also probably another psychological reason. Once you’ve been working on a project for a few years, what you want to do to it…

You made something beautiful and you wanted to destroy it?
Jamie Ferguson: Basically, yes! It seemed like a good idea at the time.

You did your first game, the expansion, then you split with EA. Was that because you wanted to go your own way and you felt you could move on?
Mike Simpson: Between Tim & EA and Activision, I think Activision made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Then you started on Medieval. It was originally called Crusader. Why did you change the name?
Mike Brunton: I think it was political sensitivity. It also expanded out. At one point it was The Crusades, and that was it, and then it was ah! But all these calls could happen in Europe, all these calls could happen in Germany, and oh, it’s not really about Crusades any more. It was a completely rubbish name. That was something else.

Kevin McDowell: I’m going to interject here and tell you that Rome was originally titled Imperator. Do you remember that?

Mike Brunton: Yeah, for about 2 days

Mike Simpson: Oh… that was a terrible title.

Kevin McDowell: Well, I had the task of making the logo for it. I was saying, “That doesn’t work, Emper-rar-tor”. It had about 9 letters or something, and it sounded STUPID.

Mike Simpson: Medieval just summed it up, because that’s what the period was. It started it what, 1087 give or take, and went up to 1453. Now that is pretty much the high Middle Ages. It covered everything from the Anglo-French assorted wars of the period, then all that comes to an end, all the way through to the […] and the final collapse of what was the Roman Empire. So the best way of describing it was Medieval.

You could play it as any of the Arab powers, or any of [the …. powers]; you could do whatever you wanted. The game played differently, that’s what it did do from Shogun. Shogun, your starting position made a difference, your one or two specialist units but that was it. Because that was just one of the tasters of being in Japan. That everybody did the same in Japan and exactly the same way as each other. If you did a game called “England” you’d expect the same traps everywhere.

I guess that was a big difference in the reception between Medieval and Shogun. There were only mild differences between the factions in Shogun, and you could complete it. I don’t think I ever completed a campaign in Medieval, because it was so huge and had a wealth of complexity.
Jamie Ferguson: It was quite a long game to play to complete. If you got stranded on an island somewhere and couldn’t get a port, you lost all communication with the rest of your empire. The classic mistake everybody made was to invade the island, and then wonder why they couldn’t get off again. There were little bits like that in there… but I think it was easier to explain as far as history went because everyone understands Knights and Damsels and all that stuff.

Jamie Ferguson: It didn’t matter what your cultural background was, you could be Russian or German. You could be Saladin, you could be anybody there, you had that archetype already there in your mind, that made the game a lot easier to pick up and understand

Also I think it appeals to something particularly British, we love re-enacting things. There’s something wonderfully nerdy about how we approach history in this country, and Medieval really appeals to that for the UK market.
Jamie Ferguson: I think also the Germans also have a similar approach to war gaming, from the strategic side. The whole thing of filling in the map in your colour is a very strong motivator.

Are you saying Germans like invading places?
All: Uh… aahhh….

Mike Brunton: Germans actually tend to like playing the strategy side of the of the campaign map over all the other platforms. They love all that intricate building your camp up, making sure you’ve got all the right buildings in all every area to maximise the bonuses.

Jamie Ferguson: …and then maximising your economy to get the most amount of money coming in.

Mike Brunton: Whereas the Greeks will just go AWWW I want some more monuments all over the place.

Do you find that there’s a breakdown of behavioural patterns of different nations within your games? Obviously this is generalising. Let’s not draw moral lessons from this.
Mike Simpson: There’s definitely a tendency but not something we’d use one way, a set of rules.

Mike Brunton: We must be doing something right about the countries, because every nation complains that we KNOW their country. Everybody complains about that. Except Americans who complain that they’re not IN the game.

James Russell: The biggest complaints are when the country’s not in the game, especially in the more modern settings like Empire, people get very upset.

Jamie Ferguson: We’ve had a lot of complaints about our descriptions of the British. The whole thing of the “nation of shopkeepers” observations from foreign powers at the time, we were trying to create the atmosphere of the period. How a faction looks at the other factions.

Mike Brunton: The fact that people didn’t actually like the British, they thought they were boorish oiks quite frankly, worried about whether they’d amount to something and whether or not they looked good. …that and the poxy board game thing.

Did you draw a lot from the board games, there was one about Feudal Japan wasn’t there?
Mike Brunton: Funnily enough, it was called Shogun.

Jamie Ferguson: They did a few; there was one called Samurai Swords, one called Shogun…

Mike Simpson: There’s a reissue now of Shogun that’s called something different.

James Russell: We are to some extent inspired by board games. Board games are almost perfect examples of the type; they end up taking complicated concepts and forming them into some really simple method, which is kind of what we aim to do.

??? (Mike Simpson?): On a computer, particularly a modern machine, you can make something quite satisfying to look at, interesting to watch, but with not a huge amount of game play, where a board game doesn’t have that ability, it has to be distilled pure game play. So yeah, we’ve played board games quite a lot. There are a lot of lunch times we’ve had groups playing all sorts of board games. I think it’s a really good way to think about game rules generally.

Jamie Ferguson: We also war game as well, the members of staff who mainly go and carry out war game sessions with friends will join events and clubs, so our history in terms of war games that have ever been played, we try and look everywhere and see what we can take from all of those elements and what we can create that’s new out of that.

Mike Simpson: Pen and paper role play as well…

I’m still extremely upset you’ve never made a Warhammer game…
All : HAHAHAHA (muttered: Never gonna happen)

James Russell : We’ve got loads of things that we think about doing, there are just so many different eras and different kinds of things, different settings we could do a total war game in.

Mike Simpson:  We do kind of have a long list, and nearly everything you can possibly think of is on that list. We just argue about the order we’re going to do them.
You need to hire more people!
Mike Simpson: We’re trying!

Al Bickham: … It truly is the number of people we can find to make the games

Jamie Ferguson: There are so many big issues, you’ve got to find people who can have a really good understanding of the raw concepts behind total war, who are at the same time also extremely talented designers and artists and programmers and the kind of people who can take that forward and make something on top of what we’ve already done.

So you’ve finished Medieval. You’ve improved the AI, made battles larger and there are more factions. A lot of your team move over to Rome, but… Time Commanders. Decisive Battles. Suddenly you get this enormous exposure. How did that come about?
Mike Simpson: I think we were approached by a production company that was interested in doing it; we’ve only had that happen once. Tim in particular went out looking for people who’d be interested in it.

Mike Brunton: The thing with Decisive Battles was… it was a way of doing big scale, full on thousands of troops on screen at once reconstructions of things, rather than the usual dress up 4 guys in costumes.

Kevin McDowell: The annoying thing about it though, was that we weren’t allowed to advertise. So our competitors were advertising their product during Time Commanders shows (James: That was during Decisive Battles) but we weren’t allowed to advertise.

Jamie Ferguson: At the same time though, it kind of helped in some ways because we saw some opportunities with game play. We hadn’t finished the game at that point so… there were some interesting things that came out of that.

Mike Brunton: Decisive battles only used the engine for presentation. It was done with somebody sitting down playing the game and then using the cameras to capture the footage to make it look as good as possible. So if they wanted to show Hannibal’s greatest tribes, that was what they’d use in the game rather than have 5 guys dressed as Carthaginians and 5 guys dressed as Romans.

Mike Simpson: It’s kind of interesting, if you look at history documentaries now, it’s now the common way of displaying ancient battles, to use CGI. All sorts of history [elements?] there’s one I watched recently to do with the English civil war, almost directly copied from Decisive Battles in terms of that way things looked.
You have kind of shaped the CGI standard for historical TV programs, or at least military ones. You’re not involved anymore and they’re hiring production companies instead of just asking, “Can we use your game?”
Mike S: We got a bit busy with other things.

Mike Brunton: Lion TV did two series of Time Commanders in the end. It was one of those quirky BBC2 programs that were getting reasonable audiences for its timeslot, but I don’t know if it was enough of an audience for the BBC to commission a third series. I suppose you can never tell. Some things are good, but just don’t attract the audience.

(Hubbub of argument).

???: It did get a lot!

???: They were perfectly happy with it.

???: They didn’t connect with us at all.

James Russell: no, and it literally was an entire TV series game show, people playing live …

Kevin McDowell: The crazy thing was that the first series of Rome was still in European release …so it was really pre-alpha code that they were working on… I think it only crashed one time.
Obviously then, off the engine you were using there, you finally released Rome after working on it for 4 years.
Mike Brunton: That was one group of people at one time, but people were fed in and out as needed. So some of us had been working on Viking Invasion then they shifted over to Rome.

Kevin McDowell: I worked on it for the duration from day 1.

Obviously it was compared to Medieval which was still based on the Shogun engine, Rome was a completely new engine. What had you changed, did you bring in improper models for the troops?
Mike Simpson: We were moving from 2D sprites to 3D men.

Jamie Ferguson: Basically, all the troops became three dimensional rather than billboard.

Mike Brunton: The big change was the campaign map. We went from being a Risk style board, with area movement, where you dropped it in an area to attack, and you actually did say “I want these guys standing here, just outside Ravenna”.

Mike Simpson: Similar to a more Civ-style grid.

That was a huge advance…
Mike Simpson: It made a big difference to the way you could run a campaign game. It made for good campaigns and bad ones.

Jamie Ferguson: The dead bodies at the end of a battle in 3D, it almost made me feel guilty for all the thousands of people I’d just killed!

Was in 10,000 people you could have in a battle?

Jamie Ferguson: a huge number, I’m trying to remember… 200 x 10 x 10….

Mike Simpson: it was a handful of thousands, that was the typical size.

What challenges did the new 3D map introduce and how did it change the game play from the Risk style map?
James Russell: Technically, path finding was the big thing that got added. Once you go from regions there is no path finding to do to find your way from one region to the next.  On a grid suddenly path finding becomes an issue.

?Mike Simpson?: The AI has a whole lot more to think about, it doesn’t just distribute across regions it needs to find exactly where each army is.

James Russell: Not only does it have to find paths from A to B, it has to find paths [from B to A and] all possible other places and regions to go there so the AI problem becomes enormous by comparison.

Jamie Ferguson: And then on top of that you have the AI intensification of check points, and also predictive… looking at what the player might be doing.

Mike Simpson: Should I move there to stop him doing THAT?

James Russell: AI becomes more of an issue at that point.

[DG’s AI anecdote]
You were still being published by Activision up to that point. Then your current bosses Sega took over and bought you outright.

Mike Simpson: That’s right.

Kevin McDowell: That’s when we shipped the programming vision

Mike Brunton: Rome went out the door, everyone was happy and then Tim came in one morning and went, “I’ve sold you all to Sega”

Kevin McDowell: “Great news….” he started, with this giant smile on his face, “I’ve sold you all to Sega!”
Did you think he was going to start you making Sonic the Hedgehog games from that point on?

Mike Brunton: I was looking forward to Sonic the Hedgehog games from that point on!

Kevin McDowell: You never know what’s going to happen when a publisher buys you. Like, what are they gonna do? Are they going to asset strip us or develop us? We had no idea.

Mike Simpson: I thought that we would make a good Sonic vs. Nintendo game. All Sonic’s characters versus all of Nintendo’s in a Total War sort of arrangement. Oh, it’d be brilliant. We’re not going to do that, by the way. Just to be clear.

James Russell: It’s at the other end of our list of things we’re going to do.

Mike Brunton: It was a bit of a surprise when Sega turned up. But by and large it was them turning up to go, “Oh, look, well, we’ve bought a very good group of people” and they went away. We never saw them for weeks after that, we just carried on. They just left us to it.

Kevin McDowell: They’ve been very good with that.

Mike Brunton: They’ve been quite good on that score.

They do seem to have let you keep doing the Total War stuff and keep making it even more polished and huge, and going back and doing the ones you’ve done before but as well go and do all the things like Spartan, and Viking: Battle for Asgard.

Mike Brunton: Spartan was in progress when Sega took over. The other team, the people who had been doing sports games moved on to doing the sport of killing games.

Mike Simpson: That’s how Sega got involved, because Sega was publishing Spartan whereas Rome was published by Activision……. It was being published by Sega when we were still being published by Activision online.

Didn’t they also buy the rights to Rome back from Activision?
Mike Brunton: Yes they did. They also bought the rights for Shogun back from EA as well. So they got all the Top War properties back under the same roof again.
Does that mean that if you wanted to, you could make a Rome sequel? I thought Activision still owned the rights.
Mike Simpson: I hope they don’t.

Kevin McDowell: I don’t think they ever owned the rights…

Mike Brunton: No, they owned the right to publish but not the name. Rome’s still selling through. It’s not a quick sell, but still…

James Russell: One of the major things about total war as a series is that the games sell for a very, very long time. I think Shogun in particular is odd, because we were looking at some stats that showed it sold more in the second three years of its life than it did in the first three years. In terms of numbers. Right, now obviously many of those copies would’ve been £5 budget copies but just in terms of volumes, they do sell for a very long time.
I guess with the changed model we’re getting these days where a lot of sales especially for PC are done online, and where the discounting happens there, if it happens, it happens temporarily, but a title like Rome or Shogun would hold its price or a very long time. You look at your titles on Steam, and the AAA stuff stays expensive for a very long time. So it’s having that long sale thing, you’re going to be hugely profitable for Sega in the future.

Mike Simpson: Maybe games are getting a bit more like books, where, if you make a good game it’s going to be there for a long time.

Jamie Ferguson: I think the thing is, you can make something that is fun to play, and has deep involvement, it becomes value for money. Ok, you might be spending $30 or 30 quid on a game, but you’re getting… like our average player, 94, 95 hours of game play out of that game. In some cases, hundreds of hours of game play out of it. Then it’s a drop in the ocean in terms of your average spend for somebody. Especially if they’re only buying one or two games a year.

Mike Simpson: I think strategy games… Although we strive to make our game obviously look spectacular, in general, good strategy games are less dependent on their visual look for their longevity compared with other genres which are a little bit more purely about the look. I think as James said that just so much for game play in a Total War game that people are still interested to play the older ones.

Mike Brunton: We’re quite good value for our entertainment spend.

Probably cheaper than Angry Birds

Mike Brunton: It sounds silly but if you compare – if somebody goes into HMV and they’ve got a choice of buying DVDs, Blu-Rays, games, whatever – I do think price and how much entertainment they’re going to get out of it is quite generous. You spend $30 you get 10 hours out of a console game, you spend $30 and you get 100 hours out of one of ours.

Jamie Ferguson: 200 hours. I think especially as things are now economically around the world, I think publishers that publishers are discovering that game players are a lot more price attuned than they thought they were and value for money is something that really is actually very high up their list of requirements.
I think you’re right. I think if you were still at Activision, probably they’d be experimenting with you to find out if they could charge a monthly rate for you, like WoW or Call of Duty Elite, whatever it’s called. So it’s interesting to see that Sega are still happy for you to keep that model just because you do make them money in the long term, it’s a long term investment to produce that content on a regular basis.

Mike Brunton: Well, we don’t like to retire, eventually pay the mortgages off, things like that.

Let’s talk quickly about the action titles. I know a lot of them haven’t been on PC – Spartan and Viking, they’ve been more console orientated. I think Spartan was a critical success, I think Viking was also a critical success, but neither of them really seemed to… did they sell large numbers?

Mike Simpson: They did well rather than exceptionally. They were both interesting. I think in both cases they were investigating what happens when you put lots of guys in a console game one way or another. They were taking one of the things that we do with Total War which was lots of guys, playing around with that on console. The most important feature of Viking was its release date. It was released on the last day of the financial year. Our team was really very squeezed to make that happen. In a way, we all felt we’d kind of missed an opportunity with Viking. It could’ve been a lot better than it was. We just didn’t quite have enough time to make it…

Kevin McDowell: One more month…

Mike Simpson?: Well, no, it would’ve taken us 6 more…

Was it just that features had to be squeezed out so that you could finish polishing it up for release?

Mike Simpson? : No, it’s content. It’s having time to play and refine and play and refine and play …and then there wasn’t really any of that with Viking so in a feature sense it was complete but the world was an open world where you could wander around from place to place and do stuff, it just couldn’t…

Jamie Ferguson : You need a lot of fine tuning to make a game like Viking REALLY good, to make it so you can’t put it down again and I think the ambition outdid the amount of time we had available to make it perfect.

The iteration problem…

Mike Simpson: Well that’s a common thing. Nearly every game dev will tell you that about their game when they finish it.

James Russell: They’re usually right, as well.

Something I’ve not really asked you questions about is historical research.  I’m not sure how accurate Spartan or Viking was, but the PC games at least have all been extremely deep in terms of the history. Somebody in your team is going out there and finding things like flaming pigs and nonsense like that. Someone’s going out there and researching all these bits. Do you have people specially dedicated to that or is that something you all do?

Mike Brunton: We all do it

Kevin McDowell: Everybody does it.

James Russell: It’s kind of in the DNA of the team, really. Everyone’s into history and into the core pillar of total war which is vividly and accurately recreating and immersing the player in the setting, whatever it is.

Mike Brunton: There’s also a big bag of silliness in a lot of this as well. Flaming pigs are extremely silly.

James Russell: Anything that you can find one example of, they could’ve done more of, therefore it’s valid.

Mike Simpson: We didn’t put the other flaming pigs in that we came across, which was: you get a pig, you hollow it out, you stuff it with straw, wool and anything else that’ll burn and you set it alight and then you throw it over the walls. And it bursts on impact. So you burn to death but you smell nicely of roast pork.

Jamie Ferguson: We also didn’t include… there was one Roman siege where the Romans were hurling pots full of wasps.

James Russell: We did think about the wasps.

Kevin McDowell: Where do you FIND pots full of wasps?

Mike Brunton: You send a slave out. “Go and collect a pot of wasps or I’ll kill you.” Strangely enough he comes back with a pot of wasps.

James Russell: Everyone really gets involved with that stuff as well. It’s not an individual. Well, not the coders so much.

Mike Simpson: There’s this kind of glee when you find something strange or wonderful. You’re almost compelled to share with everybody.

Kevin McDowell: It’s a bit different in the art department, because the art department more or less strives to find the most iconic example of things.

Mike Simpson: The designers DO look for the strange, the weird and the wonderful and the offbeat, because often it throws a strange light on things. There’s some stuff that we couldn’t put in though. It’s just too weird. There’s all the Egyptian stuff you REALLY don’t want to get into. Egyptians of the period had two main obsessions which were sex and death. You either bury it or check it’s got a pulse! They looked like Greeks not like ancient Egyptians but the decision was made to make them looks like ‘Ancient Egyptian’ Egyptians. It was probably wrong.

Jamie Ferguson: They look like Iconic Egyptians rather than actual, real, historic Egyptians
Mike Brunton: I came across this strange thing for the Romans. If they’d had a watch dog in Rome and it didn’t bark when you were broken into, you would go round and crucify your dog as a warning to the other dogs. Now that is a nice piece of history on one level that shows how weird the Romans are. But we couldn’t think of a way of sneaking it in.

Mike Simpson: The Japanese stuff’s even madder than the Roman stuff.

Mike Simpson: And another thing that we like, the different historical periods do compete against each other for coming up with the most insane & unusual thing.

Mike Brunton: There’s a certain degree of “Horrible Histories” about it as well. Medieval Europe is just bonkers.

Kevin McDowell: Or the Spanish Inquisition.

Jamie Ferguson: On the other hand, you could talk about some of the later Roman Emperors like Justinian who threw people into a giant frying pan so they were fried alive, for giggles. Just for the fun of it. Not for any other reason.

James Russell: Yes, a lot of research happens here.

Mike Brunton: Any rule is, if it’s on Wikipedia, we don’t trust it. Too many people go into Wikipedia and change things just for laughs.

Mike Simpson: We may have done that ourselves, actually…

Mike Brunton: What was really weird at one point, after Rome had come out, if you went on and looked at the information on [what we were doing,]  you started looking for information about Rome, you were almost never to be taken to a quote that was lifted from Rome.

James Russell: That happened a lot when we had to research Shogun 2, we would be researching all the foibles of all the different clans, and a lot of the source material was basically straight out of Shogun 1. We were like… “No! We don’t want that!”

Jamie Ferguson: I’d almost be flattered, but…

Mike Simpson: One of our fans put up something that really amused him, was that they often do after action reports, they tend to write them in the style of the history of the period, and a guy had written up his own version of the invasion of Gaul and then somebody else had tried to use it as a resource for their Roman history lesson at school.

When you’re writing a book, you don’t put all your research materials for the book out there, almost nothing from a movie apart from the movie itself ends up in the public domain, but with a game, a lot of the stuff you’ve made is either in the code of the game, or you use it as preview materials, news materials, or promotion materials…. or it’s in a Wiki. You’re serving the future history of the world.

James Russell: We are in fact the ministry of truth.

Mike Brunton: The one thing I’m kind of depressed about is the punished dog that we invented never actually made it onto Wikipedia as a genuine thing.

Mike Simpson: We actually spent 3 or 4 months searching, trying to find punished dogs, we managed to come up with one that was real, so we had to make up some. So we took the […..] turned it round and put it backwards, and put it into the game.
So I wanted to talk to you about Alexander and Napoleon and such great names as these. The Viking Invasion model had a large number of barbarians coming in and destroying the project you’re sick of working on…. You seem to have gone more for the storytelling in your expansions now.

Mike Simpson: Alexander was a small scale experiment. Quite a small team of people did it and it was just to see if it was interesting, almost. It was an experiment to see, was it possible to do a second expansion pack or not?

James Russell: Is it possible to do downloadable content? They were so successful that we had to put it in retail.

Mike Simpson: It was one of the first bits of PC downloadable content

Mike Brunton: But it was also an experiment in whether or not you could do a storytelling thing and make it interesting…

Jamie Ferguson: yeah, with Napoleon… One of those things with some iconic characters, if you’re creating a game about a character then you can’t really do it without the story. You have to explain why that person was so great and what was so magnificent about him and some of that stuff doesn’t necessarily come through in fighting on a 3D battlefield or just building the various buildings. You need to give a context.

James Russell: You’re probably also attributing a little bit more method to it. Really, we come to the end of a project, or we think about it before the end of the project and think, “What would be the best expansion to do now, for this project?” it’s not necessarily that there’s a philosophy of build and then destroy…

Kevin McDowell: Look at Empire, we ended up in 1800. What are we going to do now?

James Russell: Exactly. So Napoleon was a natural choice. At the end of Rome, the fall of Rome was a natural choice. It’s not because “there must be destruction!” it’s really about thinking what is the coolest and most appropriate follow up.

Kevin McDowell: So for Rome, we could’ve done Byzantium but… it could’ve been kind of interesting but…

Mike Brunton: it would’ve been a different game. It would’ve been more politicking and fighting among the individual families. It would’ve been Byzantine.

Mike Simpson: Even at that point, we did talk about doing something with Roman Britain.

Mike Brunton:  there was a brief discussion about doing a King Arthur game and whether that was possible. We snuck him into the barbarian expansion anyway, along with Merlin. If you can find him you can hire him.

Jamie Ferguson: I think we also had about 26 pieces of the true cross…

Mike Brunton: there’s 4 pieces of the true cross and 5 nails from the true cross. Except they might not be the true nails. …and the skull of John the Baptist at age 12! Work that one out. That was a genuine thing that was so weird I had them put that in. That’s a genuine relic.

Mike Simpson: That was Medieval.

Jamie Ferguson: If it was there in medieval times it really was his skull

Never proved it wasn’t!

Mike Brunton: This is the thing, if somebody at the time believes that they have got a piece of the true cross and it makes them fight harder, then it’s a significant thing for them. Even though we might look at it and go “No, it can’t possibly be” for them it was real.

Mike Simpson: Sometimes we get asked if things are too restrictive because of history, but you can look for the magic in history as well. People believed in magic up until very late in our development as human beings.

James Russell: Some people still do.

Mike Simpson: So the power of belief is a strong thing.

Mike Brunton: But to go back to Napoleon for a second, he’s different from the other history that we do. The history of … Empire of Rome and Medieval, history would’ve evolved in the same kind of way because of the dynamics between the nations. But with Napoleon he comes almost out of nowhere, he’s not the most likely person to become dictator of France. There are a couple of other people who could’ve done it but they DON’T. Napoleon kind of throws French history off course a little bit, literally into the Napoleonic period. So his story is the story of that period of history. His life IS the thing that drives that period. He could almost not see somebody without wanting to have a good punch up with them.


He is an amazing character. He takes that moment from the French Revolution and reshapes Europe.

Mike Brunton: It’s not that a French army would’ve ended up outside Moscow in 1812 or 1808 or whenever, regardless of who was in charge, because the French [were/weren’t] naturally expansionistic at that point which they [were/weren’t] particularly. It’s that Napoleon guides that bit of history. So his life becomes the story of the game.

Empire was your next big expansion and that was more in towards the modern era. That was also your first attempt to do sea battles properly. Can we talk about the decision to move towards the Napoleonic Era, when you didn’t make that a Napoleonic era game?

Kevin McDowell: we wanted to give Napoleon his own thing, really. Conversely, we wanted to have a game that had multiple nations and was a huge major game along the lines of Rome.

Mike Simpson: Some of the things we’ve learned from Medieval, how people bought into the different countries and wanted to play their nation, play their history and try and make their nation the greatest, that’s all there in 1700. There’s no one faction, any one of them could’ve come to domination. It wasn’t necessarily a fact that Britain was going to dominate the seas in 1700. In fact in 1700 the British navy was a disaster area.

James Russell: In a way it’s the beginning of when you can have a truly global grand strategy game in that that period saw the first truly global wars. You’d have the same two European nations fighting in India and in the Americas and in Europe. It is the First World War, in the 1750s. So it’s really taking Total War to its greatest geographical extent where we portray almost the entire world. I think also on that front, it saw a huge series of technological changes, both in terms of social change and the industrial revolution and on the battle field. I think it was quite an exciting new challenge to take Total War battles from the era of antiquity in Rome to an early modern battlefield where you’re mainly talking about projectiles, small arms and artillery. There are a lot of challenges there but it was something that was an exciting new period to take the game into and to expand the scope of it.

Mike Brunton: Again, in Napoleon’s lifetime, things don’t really change. What Napoleon’s using at the start of his career is pretty much what he’s using at the end of it in terms of technologies. There are maybe tactical tweaks going on, but it’s not that different. But it you look at 1700 and then at 1800 the whole world has changed, almost unrecognisably for a lot of people. There was a move from villages into towns; there are two industrial revolutions in Britain that are completely unconnected.

James Russell: It’s a real series of empire building…

Mike Brunton: …and there’s the empire thing. Europeans suddenly realise that the rest of the world is there to steal. Then they go out and do it.

James Russell: That kind of building up is almost an increasingly important part of the game in a way, in that the battles are hugely significant and are the core of the game in many ways but I think we wanted to take the building and trading stuff a bit further and Empire was the ideal period in which to do that.

Mike Simpson: Again, with what James was saying, that creates a dynamic that makes naval warfare really important and the two things there fit together really well. Big ships with big guns… the wooden ships and iron men approach.

James Russell: It’s obviously the ideal choice in which to set your first foray into naval battles. The great age of fighting sails.

Mike Brunton:  We actually had a day out from here, and a lot of us trooped off down to Portsmouth and we all went round Victory for the day. A lot of people hadn’t realised quite how tiny it was inside. It really was cramped. Then you realise that this three and a half ton cannon is going to come thundering back across the deck at you and if you’re not in exactly the right place you’re going to get crushed. That sort of thing suddenly made people realise how different the period was.

James Russell: …and how viscerally it can be portrayed as well.

Mike Simpson?: Especially when you go into the surgeons’ quarters below decks and see the roll call of injuries and see how they were treated.

Mike Brunton:  But it’s also a period with lots of good little bits of history in. [e.g.] Colonel [Chartreuse?] who was so unpopular that people turn up at his funeral and throw dead cats at it. We sat there and we went, “Why a dead cat? If you FIND a dead cat do you think, ‘Oh, I’m off to a funeral – I must take that with me!’”. Or if you’re a dead cat salesman going, “Dead cats anyone?”

Jamie Ferguson: You find out things like, the punks weren’t the first people to have Mohicans…

Mike Brunton:  No, the Mohawks… wandering round the streets of London mugging people with big Mohican hairdos. You get echoes. The traditional way of expressing any kind of visceral discontent in 18th century London was to pick up half a brick, and hurl it at somebody. Usually a Frenchman. The gin riots, because the gin’s too expensive. Then there’re gin riots because gin is legalised…

Was that 1753 or something like that?
All: Yeah….

Mike Brunton:  you have to riot because Catholics are not being sufficiently oppressed…

Jamie Ferguson: …riots because whore houses are too expensive.

Mike Brunton: yeah, the brothel riots. So, you could say things don’t really change.

I remember I was looking this up yesterday, how many riots have there been in London? Oh, they’re every 20 years anyway… literally you can go back every 20 or 30 years and there’s another set of riots.

Mike Brunton:  There are all these little bits and bobs that you can put in.

Jamie Ferguson: Also they get fun game play. Things like the Puckle gun. Which you kind of feel sorry for the guy because he actually had a pretty decent concept and unfortunately fell afoul of traditional gun manufacturers who were quite upset at the concept of going out of business because of this amazingly designed gun.

Mike Brunton:  It’s basically like a very young machine gun. It’s got a big barrel about 1 inch across and it has a whole bunch of ammo canisters that just slot in and they fire and then drag the next one and fire it again. It’s mainly cos it comes with two barrels. It comes with a round barrel for shooting Christians, and a square barrel for shooting infidels because it should HURT more. It did kind of work, so we snuck that into the game and actually did have it as a working technology. Even though Puckle himself ended up destitute.

Jamie Ferguson: Basically, some of his enemies put out a story that the gun would never work and anyone who invested their money was a fool. So everyone immediately pulled their money out overnight and he died a pauper a couple of years later. Similar things with guys who invented the [?] balloons way before, Arkwright, you can put some people out of business deliberately. Lots of different things that create a very rich tapestry.

(Dan checks wiki, discusses where Puckle guns still exist, Nelson & the Agamemnon…)
You’ve gone to doing sequels now. Medieval first, then Shogun. Was there any reason you did them in that order?

Mike Simpson: There wasn’t any cunning master plan behind it, no. It was just a case of us picking out what are we going to do next when we’re coming towards the end of each project.

James Russell: I think with Shogun 2, it’d been ten years since the first one, and we wanted to do something smaller than Empire, something very contained, and also we felt that the Shogun setting hadn’t seen its due in the full, rich, 3D new environment, all the new ways in which we could portray it with the modern engine. We were all really excited to do it. Kevin, I think you polled the team and the vast majority of people were just really, really eager to get stuck into doing it.

Mike Simpson: I seem to remember that Medieval 2 was picked up because that was done in Australia and they wanted a project to do that didn’t involve a wholesale rewrite of the code base. Romans hitting each other with swords and carrying shields is very similar to a medieval knight hitting at people with a sword and carrying shields. So it made sense at the time for them to take the Rome code base and look at doing a functionally similar way of combat, even if it’s not identical. And that’s what the Australians did with that.

Mike Brunton:  I think the Aus office did quite a good job with it, overall, in the end. It had some good features.

Jamie Ferguson : It was a chance to also take all the features that we’d worked on in the last ten years, refine them and make sure that they all fit together in a way that really is a very involving a deep experience. The wider the scope you go with, the harder that becomes to make right first time. I think with Shogun it gave us the opportunity to look at the mechanics of the game, the way people play the game and try to make each element of that something that was really fulfilling and enjoyable and very immersive. To make you feel like you are actually there. Also as James said, just to make sure that it’s something that can work on most people’s machines. The original version was already at the point where very few operating systems could run it, or the graphics cards.

Mike Simpson: With Shogun 2, there’re very few machines that won’t run it.

Jamie Ferguson: Exactly.

James Russell: There is a bit of a common misconception about Total War games because now, they do work on quite a variety of machines.

Mike Simpson: You won’t be able to go out and buy a PC that won’t run Shogun 2 straight off

Mike Brunton:  You may not be able to play it on ultra-graphics settings on every machine, but you can certainly play it.

Mike Simpson: It’ll still run fine.

?Jamie Ferguson /Mike Simpson?: That’s quite important to us, that you don’t have to go out and buy the latest rig, it’s just that if you do, you get to see it in glorious Technicolor. But you still get to enjoy the game experience, and the fundamental characters of the game regardless of the machine you have.
You also introduced multiplayer with it that was very different to the multiplayer you had before, and was also highly enjoyable and innovative, and for me established what RTS multiplayer should be if you’re going to take in a bit of this social networking nonsense. Was that part of the project from the off?

James Russell: We wanted to revolutionise a particular part of the game. With Rome we had two games, we had battles and campaigns; with Empire we thought, let’s have another game which is the naval; and then with Shogun we thought, we need to add a fourth game which is the multiplayer. So we definitely wanted to improve the multiplayer experience and to make it a compelling part of the game. I think it needed a wrapper as it were, to give the players that motivation to really play more multiplayer battles, and a sense of progression through that, and it’s part of the reasons why the Total War series itself is so special. The fact that you’ve got a campaign and the battles means that they add up to more than the sum of their parts. You’re more immersed and invested in the battle results because you know it has meaning on the campaign, and on the campaign you have more drama and tension because you know that you’re actually going to have to go down and fight a battle with the army that you’re making. We wanted to create an environment where the player could think through, progress their multiplayer army, and become more invested in the multiplayer battles rather than just fighting isolated battles. That was the key goal. We definitely wanted to make multiplayer a more complete offering. Yes, that was from the outset.

We’ve been thought the entire history now of all your games. You’ve probably got expansions and things coming out, have you got anything announced at the moment?

James Russell: Not at the moment. The plan is looking at supporting Shogun 2, and we’ll have some news for you about that quite shortly. Forwards!

Obviously you can’t talk about projects you would be working on at the moment, but are there any dream projects left for you to do? Would you like to do something like Civ does, spanning everything from the stone age up to the modern era or would that be too ambitious?

(All laugh.) Aaaaaaahhhh!!

James Russell: There are many dream periods for us. There are lots of periods in history that we would love to cover so we’re not remotely thinking, “What are we going to do next?”

Kevin McDowell: Come on guys, name some. I would like to do China.

Kevin Brunton: Greek City States

James Russell: Caveman. Yeah. There’s all sorts.

Mike Simpson: Dinosaurs have been suggested. Like I said, there’s this enormous great big long list which has probably got everything you could possibly imagine on it.

Kevin McDowell: World War One, World War Two… The Renaissance… everything.

Jamie Ferguson: every period, every era.

Kevin McDowell: ancient ancients, proper ancients.

James Russell:  Ancient Mesopotamia….

???: I still quite fancy going a space-based one.

Jamie Ferguson: Hindu-Islamic culture, the whole thing. There are loads of them.

Blimey. Are there any facts you’ve found in your research that you’ve never been able to cram into anything? You’ve never actually made a game about the era?

Mike Brunton:  You’d be surprised by how much we do cram in, sometimes.

Kevin McDowell: there are a lot of eras.

James Russell: There are a lot of eras we haven’t done.

Jamie Ferguson: I guess there are all sorts of fun stuff like the South American / Mesoamerican cultures

Jamie Ferguson: Making sure your children’s heads turn out pointy by tying boards to the front and back of them…

James Russell: I want to see a T-Rex.

Mike Brunton:  I’ve seriously suggested that if we ever do Mesoamerica, you don’t get another turn unless you sacrifice some people. There’s no sunrise unless you keep killing.

Jamie Ferguson: You have to give us chocolate and cocaine recipes.

Mike Brunton:  I can see the certification is creeping up… above a 16 here… because of the cocaine issue.

Kevin McDowell: You know, they had obsidian weapons. Obsidian is ten times sharper than steel.

James Russell: How do you cut it?

Kevin McDowell: You have to chip it along the grain. It’s super-sharp. Like shards of glass. Like the edge of a broken bottle.

Jamie Ferguson: They used to wear the cured skins of their fallen enemies as armour.

Mike Brunton:  So it’s basically a whole bunch of people dressed like Leatherface out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, coming after you with broken bottles, coked out of their heads on chocolate, hyped up with the sugar rush…

James Russell: …and when they’re not fighting you, they’re sacrificing each other.

Mike Brunton: and driving pins through their own flesh, too, to get themselves even more hyper. So it’s a nice healthy culture to investigate. I think we could do something with that.

Jamie Ferguson: They were the first people to invent the 365 day calendar.

Kevin McDowell: They had their astronomy thing sorted out, always a culture’s top priority.

James Russell: They’re quite mad. We could do that.

Mike Simpson: They had the wheel very early on as well; they used it to work out time of the year it was by rolling it around on roads. They were only allowed to be used by priests, rolling this big rock that told them what time of year it was.

James Russell: Puts bus lanes in perspective, doesn’t it?

Mike Brunton:  If you look at the latter part of WWII, there is a whole lot of bonkers German science going on. They tried all kinds of mad things, and you just think, “You guys have way too much time on your hands”. The Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe barely scratches the surface of some of the weirdness that was going on.

James Russell: They had round the corner shooting machine guns, and …

Didn’t they have some kind of anti-air artillery that detonated at a certain height that they didn’t actually use but the British found it in a lab and went… “Hrrmm!?” and then THEY used it in the Second World War.

Mike Brunton:  By the end of WWII, if it’d gone another 6 months they would’ve had surface-to-air missiles to knock down flying fortresses.

James Russell: Flying saucers.

Mike Simpson: There were already air-to-surface missiles for sinking battleships, with [TV] guidance.

Mike Brunton:  So there are all kinds of stuff that was just about to happen.

Jamie Ferguson: Reactive armour… they were experimenting.

The Russians had stuff as well; they had that jeep with the nuclear weapon on the back. The idea was to fire the nuclear artillery piece and then drive very quickly in the opposite direction because the range of the weapon was shorter than the range of the blast area.

Mike Brunton:  The Americans had one as well called the Davy Crockett, I think it was. It had a half-kiloton warhead on it; you could say it was like a great big Christmas rocket.

Mike Simpson: That runs all the way through history. There’s always bonkers stuff. Any time you look at stuff, you just think…. you people….

Kevin McDowell: People are bonkers.

James Russell: No end of source material.

David Simpson: They’re just mad in different ways at different points in history.

Thank you very much.


How Starcraft beat Chess: Blizzard looks back on the world’s best strategy game.

With, Diablo and WOW behind them, it’s probably fair to suggest that PC Gamers have probably spent more millions of hours on Blizzard’s games than any other company’s. With the upcoming release of StarCraft II we spent an hour chatting to three team leads of the original game, now all working inside Blizzard on StarCraft II. They are Frank Pierce, the executive vice-president in charge of product development (he oversees all the new games), Bob Finch, the lead software engineer on (he makes the engines and decides on game features), and Sam Didier, Senior Art Director (he makes the world look o-so-pretty). In line with their history of fantasy roleplay, if anyone fancies LARPing this, Frank Pierce’s voice suggests a paternally-growling Tauren, Bob Finch is an tinkering Gnome alchemist, and Sam Didier is some sort of excitable Goblin with ten tonnes of hi-ex strapped to his endlessly-whirring noggin.

To The Tune Of: The Tallest Man On Earth – The Blizzard’s Never Seen the Desert Sands

This was a feature originally written on Eurogamer. I’m rerunning it because I can.

With, Diablo and WOW behind them, it’s probably fair to suggest that PC Gamers have probably spent more millions of hours on Blizzard’s games than any other company’s. With the upcoming release of StarCraft II we spent an hour chatting to three team leads of the original game, now all working inside Blizzard on StarCraft II. They are Frank Pierce, the executive vice-president in charge of product development (he oversees all the new games), Bob Finch, the lead software engineer on (he makes the engines and decides on game features), and Sam Didier, Senior Art Director (he makes the world look o-so-pretty). In line with their history of fantasy roleplay, if anyone fancies LARPing this, Frank Pierce’s voice suggests a paternally-growling Tauren, Bob Finch is an tinkering Gnome alchemist, and Sam Didier is some sort of excitable Goblin with ten tonnes of hi-ex strapped to his endlessly-whirring noggin.

Let me take you back to the original product, back to your childhood; It’s 1998, Warcraft and WarCraft 2 have been successes, there’s a lot riding on Starcraft and there’s problems in development. People are calling it Warcraft in Space, it had a slightly negative aspect at preview, and it took a lot longer than you thought it would do; how does it feel to look back on the pain you went through to birth this amazing product?
(Sam immediately starts corpsing in the background, presumably at the image of himself giving birth.)
FP: Back when the impression was orcs in space, it was mainly the visuals that saved it, so Sam should handle this.
SD: (stifling giggles) When we first worked on SC, when we first showed it at CES, we didn’t have the look set.
BF: And we were also trying to use the first engine for it.
SD: And we basically took how some of the old Warcraft stuff and, okay this is how the backgrounds were made, let’s draw over them and give them a space feel. We did that and it wsas very rushed and obviously not the coolest thing in the world. So we went back and redid it, and that was the first game that we used 3D studio in; for WarCraft 2, we made some 3D models and drew over them; this was the first time we actually made them in 3D and went with that; we didn’t do a whole lot of touch-up in the art. We took all the basic ideas we wanted to do and started implementing them in 3D and that’s what gave SC it’s look. The earlier one was rushed just so we could have something to show at CES.
BF: We were also using the WarCraft 2 engine at CES, which made it look like just WC 2 1/2. After we got back, we rewrote the entire engine.
FP: When the game came out, a lot of the fans lamented the fact that the game was not true 3D because at the time, y’know, 3D games were starting out. Ten years later, it’s nice to know that our philosophy of focussing on gameplay was validated; no-one cares that it’s not 3D anymore, all everyone says is that it’s a really fun game.

Starcraft 1

A lot of the most beautiful games of history are 2D, like Planescape Torment; is it always a necessity for 3D in the modern day?
FP: I would say it depends on the game; there’s lots of really compelling experiences that are just small web applications; it’s about the experience and the quality of the game.

The original design of StarCraft was, you’ve admitted, a bodge-job. Yet when you redesigned you came up with three impressive new races; where did the inspirations come from? Did you just pull them out of a hat, did you pull them out of (ahem) somewhere else?
SD: In Warcraft we took the classic mythological races and we put our own spin to it. We did the same with Starcraft. The Protoss are just a Blizzard spin on your typical grey alien. Super-intelligent, robots, lots of technology, big giant ships. We put our spin on it and turned them from little skinny grey guys into big, imposing grey guys. The basic units of these guys is the Zealot, he’s a powerful fighter, great a combat, but they also have the intelligent, spiritual vibe to them where they harken back to the old typical SF alien. The Terrans are your classic marine guys but with our vibe on them; they were all convicts, hill-billies and biker types, not galactic noble warriors; their armour is dirty and worn down, they have tattoos, smoke cigars and drink. And the Zerg stemmed off the all-devouring alien menace and we put our spin on them too. Each of them has their classic SF mytholog and with a dose of your Blizzard spin.

Do you think it’s possible when developing races, with the tremendous amount of content that’s out there, to avoid this kind of “inspiration”? It’s very hard to come up with something completely original these days.
SD: Yeah, the goal is; we don’t want to come up with something totally original, we want something people can relate to, that we can, as artists, designers and programmers, infuse with our ideas. We could, as designers, have a race of space aliens that are a big mass of amorphous goo that have the flying shit but nobody could relate to that, they’d be like they “how come they’re flying a spaceship but they don’t have any arms or legs and how come they’re shooting lasers from their tentacles..?” That’s original, but it’s also kinda stupid.
(laughter). Even that’s unoriginal! Have you seen the Simpsons?
FP: I think there’s a reason why developers do better when they include aliens and that’s because that’s what people are drawn to.

Did the three factions already exist from the previous games or did the redesign reshape your ideas for the factions?
BF: Starcraft was our first game where our sides weren’t basically symetrical…
SD: …chess pieces…
BF: …this was the first time where we tried to make each side its own unique army and not copy whereever possible any of the things the other sides did. It probably would have been easier to do two, three seemed like the good thing to do. While we could have done more, it would have been diluting one of the others taking cool ideas and forcing them into a fourth one.
FP: One of our design philosophies is “concentrated coolness”. There’s only so many great ideas you can come up with at any one time. When we started making Warcraft III, a little off-topic, we were talking about 9 different races.
SD: Yes! (Everyone else groans)
FP: Probably a little too ambitious, there’s only so many good ideas you can deal with; with SC it was really important for us to make all three races compelling.

Looking back, Starcraft was such a tremendous success. Firstly, What do you think made it such a success compared to any other strategy game; secondly, what was the biggest flaw, looking back?
SD: The gameplay. It was really balanced and fun to play. It wasn’t as balanced as it is now, but everything was really balanced from the off, it definitely has a faster pace than the other competitive RTSes out there. The art isn’t what’s still bringing people back to the game, it’s the gameplay. I’ve said this many times, but chess and checkers are still being played and the art for those isn’t great. Gameplay!
FP: You can’t really point at any one particular thing that we can hang our hat on, but certainly one thing was, the online matchmaking and the community that grew online. Before that people were only playing RTSes on LANs, so the experience of bringing multiplayer to the internet and creating this mass community of millions of players is certainly a factor as well.
BF: The user interface was one of the best of its time and still hasn’t been improved on, actually. It gave you fine control over the units and it makes a big difference for gameplay. Aside from any little pathing issues there might be, in SC when you click and tell a guy to go there he goes there. He goes as fast as he can, and does exactly what you tell him what to do.

He also mouths off when you ask him to go.
FP: That’s another good point, something we try to do with our games to draw people is to inject personality. EVen though the unit you see on screen is only a handful of pixels tall, we draw portraits and voices so we can build a stronger emotional connection. That applies to the story; we tried to make not just a compelling story, but a compelling universe, so you’d have that emotional connection.

So you’re basically saying it looked great, had great gameplay,played great in multiplayer, a great story… were there /any/ weaknesses?
FP: There definitely were. The game really took off when we launched the expansion.
BF: Brood War filled some holes.
FP: Balancing the three races was not easy and when the game launched I wouldn’t say it was ideally balanced. I don’t know even how many patches we’ve released; one within the last six months. We have to make sure the game is viable for the e-sport community and we have to keep correcting bugs. We certainly were doing a lot of that in the first year, and the expansion addressed that too.

With Brood Wars why did you stop there? Why no more expansions after that?
FP: Warcraft III! We also splintered off another group of people who started work on another product that got shelved. These guys were then moved onto their next big project, something you may have heard of called, erm… World of Warcraft? So the development team that started working on Starcraft seeded the team that ended up working on World of Warcraft and also the team that made Warcraft III. was one of the only multiplayer / match-making arenas that was fair, moderated and easy to use; has anything superceded it?
FP: Xbox Live? Gamespy, Steam.

Are your older products ever going to be on Steam?
FP: That’s a good question. We’ve talked about it, but we’ve not made any decisions beyond our own. We already offer WoW for digi-download on our own site.

Yeah, and you don’t need more people on that particular game, really. Going back to SC, the spawn installation thing that allowed 8-player multiplayer from one copy of the game; it was an early version of viral marketing – one person selling to 7 friends. Why did that die after Total Annihilation? Why haven’t more games made use of it?
BF: I have a theory about that; People were afraid that they wouldn’t make enough money. They would think they’re selling one copy to eight people when they want to sell eight copies. That’s just not the way we think about it. Anyway, now you can download demos right from the internet, so there’s not much point to doing it right now.

What was the riskiest thing you did with SC?
BF: Delay! (laughs)
FP: Is that a risk? We felt like the game wasn’t ready so we had to hold it until we felt it was. That certainly paid off in spades.
BF: Sure, but generally delaying can be risky for the company. It’s just a risk we’re willing to take every time. We can delay and the game’s going to be great.

Ten years ago you were a mid-rank developer. Back then, you obviously didn’t expect to be where you are now; but where did you see yourselves going in the next ten years?
BF: (laughs) Did we look that far ahead?
FP: A lot of the stuff we did then was seat of the pants, impulsive, short-sighted stuff. Ten years ago we were a lot younger than we are today.
BF: Ten years ago it was “let’s make a great game and see what happens” rather than really trying to plan it out.
FP: We’re gamers ourselves so our focus is always on making games we wanted to play. While we were wrapping SC there were a handful of guys on the team playing Ultima Online. EverQuest came along afterwards, but I don’t have to spell out where that took us.

N64 Starcraft didn’t do badly, but not well either. People have tried strategy games on the consoles; why did you try it? Why you’ve never gone back to consoles?
BF: It was on a console. It’s hard to do RTSes on a console.
FP: SC was designed with the PC and its peripherals in mind, so it was a different experience. Because it was on the N64 we didnt have the benefits of PC communitieis, who are critical to our experience today.

In-game editing package in SC. Did that push the game’s developmenent and community?
FP: I don’t know if that’s a huge factor but it helped. We do it because it’s cool, not because it’s going to market the game. There was a website that hosted millions and millions of map downloads for Warcraft III and that’s great that the community’s creating content that’s so popular amongst them.
BF: When I play other people’s games, one of the things I’m constantly saying to myself is “Boy, I had wish this game had x” and everytime I say to myself I come back here and say “we’re having that.” So every time I played a game and I said “I wish this game had a map-editor” I come back here and our game has a map editor. That’s how these things get into the games.
FP: One of the most popular experiences in WIII right now is Defence of the Ancients. It’s not our braintrust, y’know; we provided a really powerful map-editor and someone conceived of something in the community that was extremely popular in the community and that’s cool.
SD: It started tower defence maps too, which had become their own genre.
FP: To some extent we want to provide a defined experience for the community but we also want to provide a little bit of a sandbox, for the creative people who want more.

You sold 1.5 million of SC in the first year, x million of WoW; what keeps you going?
FP: One of the best ways to ensure that we get to play the games we want to, is to make them.
SD: You have to like home-cooking, y’know! (laughs)
BF: It kinda goes back to the point I just made, they don’t have all the features that I want; there are games out there that get 90% of the way, but I want to work for the company that pushes it to the 100% mark.
FP: Not to say that there aren’t other companies making great games out there, but we want to contribute to that.

Isn’t there a balance to be struck though, with game features. I interviewed Jeffrey Steefel from Turbine last month and he described one of his new features as “another mouth to feed”, implying it could just be more work. As you make more features, there’s more work to do; do you find that?
BF: No!
FP: We’re here to work on the games to make great games; that’s why we’re here! Once you’ve shipped the PC boxed product, it’s behind you, but WOW we’re always refining. An artist can work on a piece in perpetuity, it’s never 100%, always can improve.
BF: As an example, the entire time we’ve been talking Sam has been sketching. He’s drawn, what is that one over there, a Night Elf? And what’s that one? You can’t make an artist not want to do it. An artist wants to keep creating. He’s over here sketching, we’re constantly making games, it’s what we like, what we do, there’s no reason we ever want to stop.


Modding Skyrim: understanding what modders want

This is an interview with the anonymous modder Vorians, who’s worked on the Unique Landscapes and Better Cities mods for The Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion. I was interviewing him to talk about Skyrim for this piece on What Modder’s Want for Gamespy, but he didn’t reply in time, so I’ve posted it here.

This is an interview with the anonymous modder Vorians, who’s worked on the Unique Landscapes and Better Cities mods for The Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion. I was interviewing him to talk about Skyrim for this piece on What Modder’s Want for Gamespy, but he didn’t reply in time, so I’ve posted it here.

One of the Oblivion Unique Landscapes

A lot of modders asked for a new region generator tool – what is this?  
Not something I know too much about, but I’ll try to describe what this is. Modders can create content outside the intended playable borders of Oblivion, and also create entirely new worldspaces (a worldspace is an exterior location, such as Cyrodiil or one of the cities in Oblivion). Worldspaces are made up of land height, which can be auto-generated using existing tools, and regions which contain certain types of plants, rocks, creatures etc. A region generator tool would automatically add plants, rocks, creatures across a designated region of the land, saving modders a great deal of time as otherwise everything would need to be hand-placed. Once the region has been generated with generic content, the modders can then add the more unique details such as settlements, cave entries, ruins.

What are OBSE and Wryre Bash? Why are they useful?
OBSE is the Oblivion Script Extender. It was created and is still being improved upon by modders, and adds hundreds of new scripting abilities for mods to use, allowing things to be done in mods which would never have been possible with just the scripting from the original game. Really this isn’t something one can hope to be provided by the game developers, as they could never anticipate every possible scripting command modders may want – but the more there is available from the beginning, the less need there would be for a Skyrim Script Extender (SKSE I guess would be its name).

Wrye Bash is mainly for gamers rather than modders, it allows control of the order mods are read by the game (since mod content can overlap, the last-loaded mod wins and overwrites any previously loaded mod trying to edit the same things). Wrye Bash allows the player to choose which mod will overwrite others. Wrye Bash also includes the ability to control how mods get installed, by creating BAIN packages from the downloaded mods. I’ve never really used BAIN installations myself, so can’t describe its benefits, but the Wrye Bash thread here on the Beth forums ought to provide some details. The biggest benefit from Wrye Bash is the “bash patch”, which each player generates for their own game. It takes conflicting edits (where more than one mod edits the same thing, only the last-loaded mod’s edits appear in-game normally), and combines them so that you can benefit from the changes made by both mods (see my comment on the “rule of one” lower down).

What does it mean to say that content in Oblivion was hard-coded?
There’s a lot in Oblivion which a modder simply cannot edit; the developers did not design it to be editable. Magic effects are hard-coded if I remember correctly, new ones cannot be created so modders are limited to using only those which came with the game. There’s other content which is also hard-coded. OBSE scripting provides some means to work around hard-coding, but it would be much better if there simply wasn’t any hard-coded content (or at least as little as possible) to increase what modders can do.

Skyrim - Solitude Marsh

A lot of complaints were about bugs – are they really still not fixed?
Oblivion’s Construction Set is full of bugs which were never fixed. ShadeMe is working on and has released the CSE, Construction Set Extender, which fixes various bugs and adds enhancements to the CS. Sure would be nice if modders like ShadeMe didn’t have to fix the bugs, they ought to be fixed by the developers!

Arthmoor wanted “the creation kit to be on par with the CS extender.” What does he mean?
The Creation Kit will be Skyrim’s official modding tool created and released by the developers. CS stands for Construction Set, which is the official modding tool created and released by the developers for Oblivion (and Morrowind before it). Construction Set Extender is ShadeMe’s update to the CS, fixing bugs and adding new functionality. Arthmoor would like Skyrim’s Creation Kit to have more features and abilities than the Construction Set had.

Why are the current land-editing tools so bad?
Land editing could certainly be improved. It’s difficult to adjust the land height accurately, what tends to happen is a much larger area of land gets affected than you want, even with the radius (area to be affected) at its smallest setting. Also, after making adjustments to make the land height in one place exactly as you want tends to leave the area around that place a little messy, needing smoothing over. But trying to smooth that area over tends to undo your changes in the place you had just finished adjusting. And then changing the textures on the land (so that it looks like grass, or sand, or rocky, or snow, or mud, or road etc.) there’s a limit on how many textures can be in each quarter of a cell (and a bug in the CS means that it displays one less than the actual limit, so it doesn’t look right even though it is right).

Wrinklyninja wanted a change to the rule of one. What is that?
The “rule of one” is what someone once made up to summarise how when more than one ESP edits the same record from the game, only the last-loaded ESP’s edits will appear in-game: just that one. For example, an NPC is one record – this record stores the information about the NPC’s face, hair, eyes, race, gender, class, all stats, their name, everything they carry/wear, what factions they’re in, what spells they can cast, what AI packages they can use… and more. All in one single record, so if one mod edits an NPC’s inventory, while another mod edits that same NPC’s list of AI packages, only the last-loaded mod’s edits will appear in-game.

Wrye Bash actually is a great help here, as it can take the changes made by both those two mods and combine them so that both the inventory edits and the list of AI packages can appear in-game, but it would be so much better if the game were capable of combining these edits from multiple mods together itself. It would also be good if Skyrim split some of the records which contain a large amount of related information into separate records (which would help reduce the chance of two mods overlapping in this way).

Skryim - Standing Stone

Bg2408 complained about the dialogue system. What problems are there?
In the Construction Set for Oblivion, it is not easy to trace the lines of dialogue for a single conversation, due to the layout. Having the dialogue display in branching trees so you can see how each line links to the next line(s) would make it easier to ensure that when you create dialogue, it makes sense and all the connections are correctly placed (otherwise lines get missed in-game and the conversations don’t make sense!).

Silent dialogue… in Oblivion, all dialogue from the original game is voice-acted, so every line of dialogue has a matching MP3 file for the voice. Mods which add dialogue typically are not voice-acted, so the dialogue is silent in-game. However the game still expects an MP3 file for every line of dialogue, the time required to play the MP3 file determines the time the text remains visible on-screen before moving onto the next line of dialogue. With no MP3 file, the dialogue then zips along too fast to read, so modders are forced to provide silent MP3 files just to slow the text down. So the desire here is for Skyrim to keep unvoiced dialogue text on-screen for a reasonable length of time, either by not timing based on the length of an MP3 file, or else by being able to generate silent MP3 files itself (presently modders have to use TES4Gecko to generate silent MP3 files for their dialogue, though a modder named Elys did release the Universal Silent Voice mod for gamers to install, which requires OBSE, and enables any dialogue lacking a silent MP3 file to keep the text on-screen for a reasonable length of time).

Ethatron asked for a script debugger.
Speaks for itself really. When writing scripts for Skyrim, sure would be nice if the Creation Kit could test a new script and show the results without having to save & compile the script, save the mod, launch the game, get to the point in the game where your script would run, see its results, then quit the game and return to the Creation Kit again to continue modding.

Marshmallow asked for a much better collision system – is it particularly crap now?
Yes, it is. The collision system is highly inaccurate, especially when it comes to furniture (shelves, tables, desks), and havoked objects touching that furniture (havok is the physics in the game, controls what happens when a moveable object is pushed/pulled/thrown/shot/hit/knocked over). Objects placed on tables/shelves such as books, plates, fruit, tend not to actually be touching the table/shelves, they tend to float just above it. When such objects actually are touching the table/shelves, simply nudging any one object tends to cause that object and several others close-by to rise up slightly above the table/shelf surface. And when there is a bookshelf with several books on it, the collision for the books is larger than it should be, so nudging a book can often cause the entire shelf of books to suddenly push against each other so that they move up and away from the books beside them – often resulting in some books shooting off the shelf and flying across the room.
To continue, collision is not always quite right for static objects when the player tries to walk over/around them, sometimes the collision sticks out too far or it dips in, so the player can partially walk into an object. Shooting arrows through supposed gaps in a mesh doesn’t work as the mesh collision doesn’t account for the gap (e.g. bars for a prison gate), and when shooting past something such as a tree, it’s not unusual for your arrow to hit the tree even though the arrow didn’t actually touch it. And similar issues like that.

Someone asked for multicore support as well.
Multi-core support is very simple: Oblivion was released at a time when multi-core CPUs were fairly new on the market, and the developers did not take the time to ensure the game made proper use of them – typically Oblivion will only use a single core from a multi-core processor, thus wasting a lot of potential processing power. I think it extremely unlikely that Skyrim will also fail to benefit from multi-core processors.

Unfinished Symphony: The Hunt for Red Orchestra

It’s 1941 and Nazi Germany has just invaded the USSR, its erstwhile ally. SS counter-intelligence soon detects a range of radio signals from communist and socialist sympathisers, embedded at all levels of European society. Since the SS call transmitters ‘piano’ and supervisors ‘conductors’, they name this nascent resistance network the Rote Kapelle – the Red Orchestra. Despite early successes, it’s soon crushed.

To The Tune of: The City Of Praque Philharmonic Orchestra – The Hunt For Red October

Written for PC Gamer. This is a slightly longer version that I wrote but wasn’t used. Red Orchestra II is Tripwire’s vision of the perfect World War II sim; I explored with them why it’s taken ten years to make.

It’s 1941 and Nazi Germany has just invaded the USSR, its erstwhile ally. SS counter-intelligence soon detects a range of radio signals from communist and socialist sympathisers, embedded at all levels of European society. Since the SS call transmitters ‘piano’ and supervisors ‘conductors’, they name this nascent resistance network the Rote Kapelle – the Red Orchestra. Despite early successes, it’s soon crushed.

Jump-cut to 60 years later. It’s now 2001 and Indie development is dying. The predatory tactics of the big publishers are forcing more and more independent studios to sell up, small developers struggle to get their games to market, and the new chain stores are squeezing PC in favour of the higher-margin console games. The modding community, on the other hand, has reached its high point with Quake and Half-Life, with hundreds of mods released in the late 90s; however even this growth is decelerating, with indie teams finding it difficult to convert online popularity into full time contracts; most successful mod teams split, as the participants go to work for the bigger studios or onto other mods. It’s a bad time for PC gaming all over.

It’s in this harsh environment that Red Orchestra starts.

The original mod.

Getting The Team Together

In 2001, the people who one day would found Tripwire interactive were a just handful of keen modders, scattered around the world; Alan Wilson was in London, Dave Hensley in New York, Ingmar Spit in Holland, the rest mainly in America. Who actually started the mod isn’t clear, as no-one from the mod’s inception in 2001 seems to remember; the oldest team member, William “Bill” T Munk II, who joined in 2002, is as lost as the rest of them. “Oh, it’s prehistory, man.”

Initially, the plan was for the mod to be a stealth game, hence the Red Orchestra title. Mods in these days tended to coalesce on forums, amorphous blueprints barely agreed on before work started, so RO hopped between engines and designs like a gadfly with an itch. Gradually though, after trying the Medal of Honor and Soldier of Fortune II engines, the team settled on Unreal Tournament and a focus on realism. John Gibson, lead programmer, recalls why they made the mod. “No-on was making the game we wanted; We really loved Operation Flashpoint, but it wasn’t actually realistic, just overly difficult for no particular reason. On the other hand, a lot of the “realistic” shooters played like Quake with WWII weapons. We introduced a whole bunch of revolutionary things, that are common now; 3d ironsights, proper ballistics, realistic player movement, player damage… No-one was doing any of these.”

Of course, this choice allowed them to enter the Make Something Unreal competition, with its much-trumpeted $1,000,000 prize, and just happened to change their lives forever.

At the time there were perhaps 60 people working on the project, a huge talent base for a mod. “We had great animators, researchers, programmers, designers… but then every team has guys who only show up in the IRC channel… there were probably 20 full time producers, 20 who would do something cool occasionally, and 10 or 15 who were worthless” says John, “and 1 or 2 who were worse than worthless.” pipes up Alan, the lead historical researcher and now Vice-President at Tripwire.

Unusually, they didn’t get rid of the dross; the mod manager at the time a ridiculously young teen called Jeremy, was a brilliant recruiter; the large team he put together looked impressive, attracted more participants and kept the development going.“He had a rabid enthusiasm and collected heaps of people around him,” Alan recalls “but he bounced from thing to thing, and didn’t want to commit to this as a career.”

This proportion of dross is perfectly normal on a modding team; even the various leads aren’t reliable. John recalls that “Right before the 1.0 version of the mod we had a lead level designer who completely flaked out, left the mod, and took all of his maps with him.” He was replaced with the then 14-year old Adam Hatch, now the lead level designer at Tripwire, who designed the early memorable maps of the mod.

Jeremy wasn’t the only key player to leave. Jay Mackay took over as lead programmer temporarily, when the team was down to just 1 or 2 programmers, the mapper Rich Black went off to work for Goldman Sachs, and as Bill recalls, “as it got more serious it got more pressured, and a lot of guys were doing it as a hobby. A whole bunch of really good guys, including some whose real names we never found out, like Juno and Bittersite went to do something more light-hearted.”

John is less charitable; “There are at least two or three I would physically harm if I saw them; when we started winning, we were winning computers. One unproductive level designer, claimed it was because his computer was slow; so we sent him a precious new computer of course, he then ran off into the sunset with his shiny new PC.” That said, 85% of the core people still work or contract for Tripwire.

The new office.

Stealing The Blueprints
Oddly, the team sat out the first round of Make Something Unreal, because they didn’t feel like their game was good enough yet. However, having seen the competition in the first round, they realised that they were way ahead of it. “The road to modding superstardom is littered with corpses of CounterStrike clones… All the other mods at the time, working on newer engines, were six months behind us… “ says John “our game, graphically, was the Crysis of its day; it really looked brilliant at the time.”

The 1.0 version of the mod was released in 2003-4 and was well received by the community. Meanwhile, they were winning every phase of the Make Something Unreal contest, and the success quickly went to the team’s heads. “We got cocky”, says John “we saw ourselves as the juggernaut that was going to destroy all comers.” As they got complacent, the other mods started to catch up. “There was this moment where I thought we were going to lose; so I got everyone to make a list of the top ten things that another mod will have that causes us to lose. I then took this top ten things of the hundred I got and said ‘We’re going to be this mod; we’re going to make these ten things and put them in our game. And we did.”

To finish these elements, several of the core team quit their jobs, working 16 hour days for the final six months, while family and friends were telling them they were insane. And of course they won. “It was the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket,” says Bill “indescribable exhiliration, vindication.” Alan was equally excited but he “got hate mail after we won the infamous “million dollars”. It turns out the prize wasn’t anything near a million dollars; most of that had been spent on the competition and prizes, or was tied up in the licenses they’d won. So the team founded their new studio, Tripwire, on just $30,000.

The New Cell
They started it in Atlanta, despite none of the team living there. Three of the team moved on site, with others working remotely; still, they expected the money would last for three months, which would be long enough as there would be “Publishers beating down our doors to throw millions of dollars of cash in.” says Alan “We spent the first two weeks playing video games and going “what do we now?” So naïve. Now we know that even a consensual deal might take 3-6 months to get the contracts through.”

Needless to say, the money ran out, and they’d made no deal with any publisher; “they’d offer crap deals, terrible percentages, and remove anything unique whilst taking the IP.” Then they saw Valve’s new Steam platform, where they were selling their own games. John acquired Doug Lombardi’s (Valve’s marketing and PR director) email address and he responded; he knew about Red Orchestra and wanted to talk, giving them a _very_ good deal. That was the turning point.

First, though, they had to finish the game, turning it from a mod into Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45. With a route to the gamer at last, the team scraped together as much money as they could; Alan mortgaged his house, others maxed out credit cards or borrowed money; “We put together a small but terrifying amount of money together” says Alan. It took another 6 months to finish the game, offering the external contractors a deal where they would pay them a 50% bonus if they took the money after the game shipped; another big gamble. Meanwhile, the art team all lived in one apartment, sleeping on mattresses in the living room. “It was a crazy time, huge amount of fun, even if I had to live off my savings.” says artist David Hensley “I’d been working at Gameloft going mad making 200 pixel characters, and this was such a change.”

Red Orchestra 2

Exfiltration; successful.
In March 2006, five years after work on the mod started, Ostfront was finally released, in the shops and as the third game on Steam, selling over 400,000 copies. “We’ll always be Steam fanboys” says John. What really helped the game succeed though, was the amount of free content the team developed, setting up the model that Valve now use for all their games. “We doubled the content after shipping” says David. Alan explains; “A lot of people think of digital distribution like a walmart shelf, but you’ve got the opportunity to keep upgrading things. The repeated sales the updates generated, gave us the cash to keep going.” This also allowed them to start work on Red Orchestra 2.

They also made a decision to support their modding community, as best they could. Firstly, they released two of their community mods through Steam; Darkest Hour and Mare Nostrum. Then in 2008 they helped Alex Quick port his Killing Floor mod to Red Orchestra, with the team taking three months to polish it for release “convincing artists to draw zombies is like convincing charlie sheen to take coke” as John puts it “Nobody knew that zombies was going to be the new WWII. Right place at the right time with the right game. So successful, that we no longer needed to find publishers to fund our games.” They’ve since helped Toltec release The Ball and are planning a relase of Dwarfs in the near future.

The team are proud of their behaviour as publishers, and rightly so; they make fair deals and work hard with their partners to share both their knowledge and skill. “Kotick, etc. are answerable to shareholders.” says Alan “They have to give them short-term returns; if not, they’re out of a job again. It’s gotta work now and now and now for them. Our stuff has to work over a long period of time. “ Alex Quick seemed willing to offer them Killing Floor for free; instead, they gave him a percentage of the profits, so now he can do it full-time. “Our task now we’re a publisher is to convince people we’re not evil; royalty cheques tend to work. A lot of indies are gun-shy, because of the big publishers’ behaviour. We were the same with Valve, I was super-skeptical.” It seems Valve, through good behaviour, have established a virtuous circle; people who’ve benefitted from their largesse become generous themselves.

Finally, Tripwire can do the project they always wanted to; a full, properly-funded version of Red Orchestra. RO 2: Heroes of Stalingrad is going into beta very soon, and Tripwire, always conscious of their community, have already seeded the dev tools with various modding teams, so they have time to generate the high polygon models necessary for modern games. “We’d like to see the first big mods out a few months after the game, not 2 years later.” says Alan. “ At the current rate, we’ll have Rising Storm (Japanese vs Americans in the Pacific), a Vietnam conflict game, plus there are a bunch of others as diverse as World War I and the Warhammer universe.”

It still might not have anything to do with spies, subterfuge or radios, but Tripwire’s Red Orchestra series has been trailer blazers for both modders and the modern indie Steam developers. Along with Valve, they ferretted out the secrets of self-publishing from under the noses of the big publishers and made the world a better place for everyone who loves PC games. Having already shown that quality and enthusiasm count, we’re intrigued to see where they go next.