Warhammer is a range of tabletop strategy games; Total War is a series of historical battle simulations. Combining the two should have produced a black hole of nerdiness so unapproachable it would crush all mortals. Strangely, however, this is probably the most accessible each game has been for years.
Trent Oster might have founded Bioware and Beamdog, but if you went looking for him the best place to look wouldn’t be at a swanky hotel or on an exclusive beach or in a high-powered boardroom. No, you’d be best off heading to Edmonton, Canada, and travel down to the University district, where you’d probably find him in the Next Act pub, munching on a Peanut Butter and Bacon sandwich or a Class Act burger. If he’s not there, perhaps he’ll be in his office nearby with the rest of the Beamdog team, playing through their latest 5th Edition D&D campaign.
The Beamdog team has chosen to be based in this rugged area because they’re sticking to its indie roots – what Oster calls Bioware 0.6 v2. And that doesn’t include splashing out on swanky digs. “Our office is just run-down enough to keep our scrappy start-up feel while not actually fighting rats off at lunch.” says Oster. After fifteen years at Bioware, taking Neverwinter Nights from a one line concept to a five million-selling franchise, Oster feels he “learned thousands of ways not to do things”.
One of those lessons happened in his last five years. Whilst leading the Dragon age Eclipse Engine development, Oster was also in charge of a prototype episodic RPG codenamed ‘Agent’. Its aim was to bring the smarts of James Bond and Bourne to a game, without the violence. “Rather than a gun, your character is a manipulator, a con artist, a surgical tool to head off the problem before it escalates. Our concept was that if you were to run into 20 guys wielding AK47s you would pull out a phone and call the spec ops guys to handle it while you moved around the enemy and went upstream toward the cause of the scenario.” Yet by this time, Bioware had been acquired by EA, and Oster found it impossible to sell the innovative aspects of the game to them – though that didn’t stop him trying. “It was spectacularly soul crushing.”
“My best memories are when we were a smaller company and we were all clearly aligned on what we needed to accomplish.”
That made Oster miss the early days of Bioware. “My best memories are when we were a smaller company and we were all clearly aligned on what we needed to accomplish. I like the impact a smaller team can have on a game. When you become too large, the contribution of every team member is lessened and the ownership people feel is diminished. For me that was when teams were under 40 people.” He was still impressed with the company as a whole – and he picks out senior design people like James Ohlen, David Gaider and Preston Watamaniuk for praise – but for him, personally, he needed to try something different.
So when Beamdog was set up in 2009, Oster put his key learnings to the test. His plan was to use a small team of “great people, listen to the experts, allow them the freedom to succeed and always ensure everyone is on the same page with the vision of what we are making. When you have a skilled team and a clear understanding of where you are going and what you are building, a game can come together better than you can imagine it.” In his view, disasters come when team members ‘go dark’ and communication stops.
Setting up Beamdog was the start of the company’s ‘First Age’, as Oster puts it. It appears that Oster is fond of talking of the company’s Three Ages. It’s not unexpected for a man who’s spent twenty years embedded in arcane lore to talk in mythic terms, but Beamdog really is the culmination of all he’s learned, both fantastical and real. “Our vision is to have a fun game studio to work at, which builds quality games, and listens to our customers with a minimum of bullshit. We work hard when we are at the office, but we don’t do crunch time… I think we also listen to our fans and we’ve hired half our team out of the community, which really helps keep us tight in the loop on what our fans want. I think we’re one of the only non-MMO companies on the planet patching a game three years after the initial release.”
The First Age, then was the creation of Beamdog itself and a self-publishing platform, so that Beamdog could have a means to directly sell its games to its consumers. At this stage, Oster began building the team, along with his longtime Bioware collaborator, Cameron Tofer. “Cam and I each bring close to 20 years worth of video game development experience to our team. We’ve managed to bring in a number of former Bioware team members and fill out some key positions with some amazing people. Luckily for us the local talent pool is quite strong. We are committed to staying small, which means we agonize over every hire to ensure we get a great fit.”
A small team means many people multiclassed, to start with at least. Oster himself describes his job as “Business Development-Producer-Artist-Programmer” but admits his actual hard development skills are degrading over time. “My big hope is my new levels gained are the right skills to take the company forward.” For newer team members, by contrast, Beamdog now focuses on glass cannons, by fast-levelling single class experts, like art director Nat Jones and writer Andrew Foley.
The Second Age of Beamdog was the creation of the Enhanced Editions of Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate II and Icewind Dale, which was a long period involving hard work on all fronts – gaining the licenses, reconstructing the mysteries of the tech, and then rebuilding the engine for modern machines. “Our effort during this point was focused on rebuilding the Infinity Engine from a Windows 95 oriented architecture to a multi-platform engine which allowed the improvement and extension of the existing games.” Given how ancient some of that code was, and out-of-date the tools were, that took quite some time
The Third Age is where we are now, starting with The Siege of Dragonspear, and it’s all about scratch-built content creation. After all the story of Baldur’s Gate has been told, and we all know how it goes – but there are plot holes aplenty. “The idea of a new story I’ve never played before is amazingly exciting. I think the older games are amazing and having new content caters to the existing fan-base, which is more hardcore and more interested in deep content…. (so) we’ve written a completely new story, made all new environments and created well over 25 hours of all new gameplay for fans of the Baldur’s Gate series. We answer the question posed in the Baldur’s Gate II opening cinematic, what were the “dark circumstances” which forced the hero of Baldur’s Gate to leave the city?”
And what of the Fourth Age of Beamdog? Where can the company go from here? “As to what the focus of the Fourth Age will be, I’ll leave that open to the imagination… I have more projects in my head than neurons.” says Oster. “I’m a huge D&D fan, with at least a few ideas for almost every setting. I was a big Dragonlance series fan, loved Dark Sun as a setting and played a ton of Forgotten Realms settings.” That’s enough hints at possible futures to leave us all salivating…
Source: 01_06_Beamdog: The Story So Far
Fun! I’m doing a wheelie down a ruined high street at high speed, totally unable to tell where I’m going, while heavily armed North Koreans spray machine gun fire at me. This is the best motorcycle game I’ve ever played and it’s not a motorcycle game. I drop my iron steed out of the wheelie just in time to see my surviving teammate back into the road in front of me. I can’t avoid running him down and I don’t. As his body bump-bumps under my tyres, I berate him for not obeying the Green Cross Code. It’s fine though, as I revive him under heavy fire, get back onto my bike and speed off, ignoring him, the enemies, my other downed pals, and the mission.
This short piece originally appeared on Edge Online, before that site disappeared into the maw of Gamesradar+. If they ever put it back up, I’m happy to take this down – but Sentris is out today, so I thought it would be nice to have this online *somewhere*.
We’re all aware the indie scene is bursting. And the onetime underloved genres – roguelikes, simulations, CCGs – are proliferating well. Filling up quietly and fast is the music genre, with Crypt of the Necrodancer, Audiosurf 2, and Soundodger all hitting recently. But Sentris makes large claims to creativity, on generating music, rather than just playing it. As the developer, Samatha Kalman, describes it, “it allows, and even requires, everybody to make their own song as they play.”
The game consists of a set of concentric circles which are constantly rotating, looping any notes attached to them. The player has to play a rhythm puzzle game with notes of varied lengths from varied instruments being fitted to a core theme. Though the theme is set for each puzzle, the player can provide variety by choosing the instruments, sustain and whether to fill in the gaps in the tune structure.
“It’s a puzzle game about matching colors, yes,” says Kalman “but the puzzle pieces themselves are visual representations of musical structure. The puzzle element is stacking blocks, but each block is a musical note — literally a single building block of a song. The way you build up notes to solve the puzzle means your song unfolds organically, in a way that is truly unique to your play session. I’ve watched dozens of players play the prototype, and I’ve never heard the same song twice.”
“Sentris is a game first, and therefore has to be fun and challenging, even if the sound is muted. The variable musical system is there for players who want to pay attention to it. Part of my plan is to offer a freestyle mode, where the puzzle elements are replaced by an even greater level of musical control on the part of the player. I’m walking on a tight rope between a puzzle game and a musical instrument.”
Kalman’s personal history is interesting – before becoming a self-employed developer, she was the Director of QA at Unity. You’d think there couldn’t be anyone better placed to be making indie games and Kalman loved the place. “I had a really good, long run with Unity. I shipped Unity for iPhone and Unity for Windows which were huge milestones for the company. I made a lot of great friends, and enjoyed the experience of living in Denmark. I worked with a world-class team. The industry needs tools like Unity.”
Despite this background with Unity, Kalman is a self-taught programmer, designer and musician – all within the last few years. “What’s the saying? “There’s no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing”. I’ve learned a lot about creativity in the past few years. The overwhelming lesson I’ve learned is to just keep going. Try to do things that are exciting to you. Try to do things that you don’t know how to do and you will continue to grow and expand. This applies to any creative work, and it’s helped me keep moving forward with Sentris.”
Her touchstones – Rez, FreQuency, Um Jammer Lammy, Gitaroo Man, Soundodger – seem to point to possible directions for future development. But she’s wary of adding additional complexity to the game. “I love the simplicity of the current prototype. Abstract UIs take time for new players to explore and understand, and I’m very pleased by the pick-up-and-playability achieved so far. Going forward I’m exploring additional puzzle and play mechanics that enable even more musical variability in solutions.”
“I want players to be able to make multiple, different songs with every play session. I’m also experimenting with different attributes of the blocks themselves, and how to reinforce the musical relationship between notes & instruments within puzzle mechanics. I want to make sure that it’s fun for new players and for expert players, and that means making it fun to develop the ability to read the puzzle, and making it fun after a player is able to understand how to solve the puzzle at first glance. In short, there’s a lot I want to do to make it even better!”
Now, given the erstwhile hype and the current doldrums of crowdfunding, Kalman’s attempt to turn her admittedly-limited prototype into something more subtle and complex by Kickstarting it deserves to be called brave. But with ten days to go, she seems to be set to achieve her $50,000 goal. It must be a sound pitch.
Sentris is on Kickstarter. We’d moot a late 2014 / early 2015 release on Mac, PC and Linux.
I did this interview with Julian Gollop at GDC 2012 and it got put up on the PC Gamer website in several parts. The copyright reverted to me after six months, so here it is, in full.
Dan Griliopoulos: In the original XCOM, an awful lot of the AI, the way they moved towards (you), they would make use of cover and they weren’t completely suicidal.
Julian: No, they weren’t. I can’t remember exactly how we did the AI in the original XCOM, but a lot of the time I tried to avoid moving into the direct line of fire of your guys. They tried to find cover if they could, most of the time.
Dan Griliopoulos: It’s interesting, they have that for the Sectoids and the Floaters and the Thin Men, which were the Men in Black which you couldn’t put in because they were making another Men in Black game. They had quite a complicated AI system for them, but anything which was melee orientated just ran straight towards the nearest target. They didn’t take (into account) being shot at, or using cover or anything like that, which was very different. You’re talking about AI here (GDC) as well.
Julian: I went out of interest because back in 1995 when I was coming to GDC, guys like Neil Kirby, I was involved in their round tables. Every year we used to go to it. There wasn’t that many AI programs around at that time. A lot of them were actually involved in RTS games because that was the big thing that killed off turn-based games.
Dan Griliopoulos: I remember it well. After Dune II…
Julian: After Dune II… I mean, XCOM was really just at the end of the period where you had this turn-based strategy game as being a mainstream game.
Dan Griliopoulos: They’re coming back now, but they’re not coming back as mainstream games.
Julian: Not as mainstream games, no, because in those days, you had almost XCOM… Master of Magic and Master of Orion were, for me, phenomenal games. Colonisation, of course, came a bit later.
Dan Griliopoulos: I guess there were The Heroes of Might and Magic kind of games.
Julian: Yeah, but those… so, Heroes of Might and Magic developed a trend and then… but they weren’t in quite the same tradition of this grand strategy game which had big random elements in the generation of world, lots of AI and stuff. Heroes of Might and Magic is a bit of an exception. In those days, I believed firmly that the future of computer games was all about AI. That in twenty years time we’d be interacting with MPC characters in computer games that actually had real intelligence and could respond to you in really intelligent ways. Boy, I was wrong. So wrong!
Dan Griliopoulos: Do you think it didn’t happen because we never built on anything we built? As in, every time people build AI they build it anew, there aren’t AI libraries as far as I know…
Julian: I think part of the problem is keeping human psychology and interaction in games set to… a lot of computer games development went… a lot of effort was put more into graphics rather than anything else.
Dan Griliopoulos: It raises the review score, sadly.
Julian: Because it’s the thing that immediately impresses people. As soon as you start interacting with a world of pretty graphics then you realise that actually it’s not so interesting. It may be pretty but it’s not really that interactive. It’s always bugged me about the way computer games developed over the years. Even if you take Assassin’s Creed, which has phenomenally complex game with all these NPCs wandering around, it is nothing but an elaborate paper thin illusion, to be honest.
Dan Griliopoulos: It’s a paper thin illusion which is very clear about saying, “This is an illusion”. Inside the game, the framing device that they use to make it a series rather than a random collection of games by the same name, the framing device is that there’s a person playing a game within a simulation.
Julian: It is, but then again… Yeah, that’s true. (laughs)
Dan Griliopoulos: It feels to me like a huge joke, that they’ve done that. “How can we get away with making a game with paper thin mechanics, which are quite obviously mechanical? Oh, we’ll make it because it’s a simulation inside a game”.
Julian: You could say that, yeah. I mean, computer games didn’t develop really in that direction, and I guess what people enjoy and what they like at the psychological level is more to do with having their own ego massaged in certain ways through these very simple reward cycles.
Dan Griliopoulos: It always struck me as interesting in the Turing test stuff, that it’s not that AI ever passes the Turing test but people fail the Turing test. When you have the awards in England, it’s always somebody pretending to be a robot which causes an AI to pass the Turing test. Not an AI actually being convincing in any way.
Julian: Yeah, OK. That could be right. Um…
Dan Griliopoulos: There’s something about… it’s easier to fake intelligence than it is to even get anywhere near trying to generate…
Julian: Yeah, obviously when I was programming XCOM stuff we were faking intelligent. We had some very simple tricks to fake it. I talked a bit about the randomness element in XCOM and how we put it in the AI. But in actual fact, being unpredictable is a way of intelligently countering someone who’s predictable. If you play poker, for example…
Dan Griliopoulos: I knew you were going to make that reference. My friends hate it when I play (poker) because I’m random. I don’t really understand what I’m doing…
Julian: The good poker players say, depending on your opponent of course, they’ll say sometimes you need to mix up your game. Not necessarily that you’re completely random but you’re doing something which they’re not predicting. You’re maybe just changing the way you’revalue something and it throws them because (they) can no longer predict what you’re doing. In the original XCOM, as I said in the talk, we always tried to make sure that the aliens did not do things on a purely binary yes/no thing based on… always make a little bit of randomness in there. 10% of the time they’ll do something really stupid perhaps but most of the time, within some kind of reasonable constraints, that what they do is reasonable even though it may have some random element to it.
Dan Griliopoulos: That randomness actually sometimes gave them a good chance of survivability as it meant you might have seen something disappear round a corner but you can never walk round the corner because you can never quite predict… there is a thing it should do rationally, but it might not be doing it.
It’s interesting, the other person who was talking about the unpredictability thing was Gary Kasparov, when he writes about playing chess against a computer. Obviously, that whole peak of computing intelligence with rule sets, of chess, where the chess computers memorise the rule sets that every single Grand Master had learnt, Kasparov writes about it and says that the way he found of getting around it was having to always try and work out a way outside what somebody had done before. Going outside that rule set.
There was a period during the time you were developing and possibly during the ten years before, where an awful lot of UK brothers produced games. The Oliver twins, Football Manager… I guess there’s also Myst as well but that’s not the UK. There was this big period of brothers who were obviously in a bedroom somewhere with coding kit and… Why was it in the UK? Why were these brothers? Do you have any theories on this?
Julian: (laughs) Well, no. I can only say that in my case, how it came about… I’d already set up my company by the time my brother finished his university. I needed help and he needed a job. That just meshed.
Dan Griliopoulos: Big brother looking after little brother…
Julian: Well, sort of. Kind of… he’d done computing at university which was kind of helpful, I guess. It just kind of happened like that. I don’t think there’s any real grand conspiracy theory behind this.
Dan Griliopoulos: I’m a journalist, I have to try and get something!
The other thing that struck me about the talk (was) the humility of how you describe how the game was designed. You describe it as you’d done the battle bit and then all of these other bits were suggested by Microprose. There were an awful lot of people who would come along and say, “We did this, we did that, we made this, we made that” and you’re looking at them going, “I didn’t think of any of that stuff. That wasn’t me. What I’d done was, I was just refining the game I’d been making several times in previous years”. It’s just unusual in this industry, especially with the superstar developers that are around at the moment…
Julian: Yes, it is unusual, but then again if you work with a lot of creative people over the years like I have, you realise actually that you depend a lot on them. I’ve worked as a producer where I’ve had to try and build teams of people, get them to work together and you really have to make sure people are leaving their egos in their pockets or parking them at the door because you can get into big problems. What I did for my post mortem, actually, was I tried to contact all these people over the last few weeks to try and figure out what their recollections were of particularly the origins of the game. It was very interesting. There were some conflicts in what people remembered, for sure, and there were some things that I learned because I had no idea about the Spectrum Holobyte cancellation story.
Dan Griliopoulos: You didn’t realise it had been cancelled?
I did have some inkling from the QA team many, many years ago, someone some years ago saying that there was a threat to cancel it but I never realised that Spectrum Holobyte actually did make that decision, to cancel it and that the Microprose UK guy said, “Hmmm, nonono”.
So I got this information when I spoke to people a couple of weeks ago, I guess. So I wanted to try and do an honest record of the development. Particularly guys who made a contribution which was never really recognised. Steve Hand, for example. because he wasn’t in the credits or anything. Also, for the guys that did work on the project all those years ago: John Broomhall, the composer; John Reitze, the graphic designer… these guys really contributed something fairly unique and memorable to the project, without a doubt. Really, without my input to a certain extent. They were just doing this based on their own creativity.
Dan Griliopoulos: It’s interesting that you had such a …lacksadaisical approach to the development. It was like, we knew we were going to get music. We have these people making music. We trust them, because Microprose UK have told us that they’re going to be good at it, and you didn’t select these people yourselves?
Julian: No, not at all.
Dan Griliopoulos: It was almost like it was, “We’re doing our bit and they’re going to do their bit and it’s all going to work together in the end, so… that’s OK!”
I guess nowadays you get people like David Cage or Ken Levine, the auteur theory, who have to go over every single detail in the game…
Julian: I think stuff today is so overdesigned, it’s unbelievable. There are people obsessing about tiny details about stuff. Especially when you have marketing people involved about how your main character in a game’s presented suddenly becomes a huge PR and marketing issue…
Dan Griliopoulos: The whole thing with Booker in Bioshock Infinite… they wanted to put a girl with a gun on the cover of it, or something like that? There was something coming up recently where they were talking about what they wanted on the cover was someone looking gritty holding a gun and I think they went for a girl first, then somebody put Booker holding a gun on there and No, Actually. On the actual cover he’s just looking over his shoulder, posed, but it’s a marketing decision that the developers tried to push back on but many developers don’t have the power to do that so you end up with the standard cover of whatever the game is, somebody looking vaguely attractive. It’s like crossword magazines in the UK, always having a very attractive blonde girl biting a pen. It sells more copies, amazingly.
Julian: What a shame.
Dan Griliopoulos: What are you doing at the moment? I know you’re working in Bulgaria.
Julian: Yeah, I’m working in Bulgaria. I am establishing my own independent games development studio. I’m working on a turn based strategy game. It’s actually a remake… well, not so much a remake. A sequel/remake of a game I made back in 1995 on the ZX Spectrum called Chaos which was originally published by Games Workshop. This was this just fantastic multiplayer turn based game where you’re a wizard, you summon creatures, You’re just looking at a black screen as an arena with your wizard but it gets filled up with creatures and magic fire and gooey blobs and stuff. It worked brilliantly as a multiplayer game so I want to update it with proper internet multiplayer connectivity.
Dan Griliopoulos: I recall looking at your blog with the concepts on there.
Julian: We’ve got concept art going on now. Although the concept art is obviously a lot more sophisticated than on a 48k Spectrum, we wanted to have some kind of feel or some kind of reminiscence of how the original game looked with it’s completely monochromatic but brightly coloured, primary colour sprites and this black background. We’re not going to have a black background but we’re certainly going to have a dark background, for sure, and a bit more of an abstract, stylish graphics which is more illustrative than purely real rendering stuff.
We’re just working on that aspect at the moment, but the actual core gameplay, I made a decision that I’m going to retain the actual core gameplay from the original game. We will elaborate a bit on the spells, for sure, there’ll be more spells. I think the core gameplay was actually very simple and going back to this whole poker mechanic thing, it had this great bluffing mechanic in there where you could summon a creature as an illusion.
There’s a lot of probability in the game, every spell has a certain probability to be cast, so the more powerful spells tend to be the most difficult ones to cast. You roll to make a creature like a gold dragon and it was something like 20% I think it was, for casting it. If you cast it as an illusion you would automatically get it. There was no possibility that you’d fail, which was cool because every player has a disbelief spell. If somebody summons a gold dragon, probably most players would think, “Well no. Now, that’s probably an illusion. I’ll try and disbelieve it”. But if you disbelieve it and you fail, you’ve wasted your opportunity to cast a spell and you could be in trouble.
So, this little simple mechanic creates little bluffing strategies between players. Because of the high element of randomness and probability in the game it kind of makes the gameplay less predictable and controllable for each player which in some ways is more fun because there’s always a possibility to win the game, however small. The gold dragon could come out to your wizard and attack you, you might survive. Not very likely. You might then attack the gold dragon and you might kill it. Not very likely… but you could, for example. The odds are in there. Trying to analyse why it works is quite interesting but I know for sure it does work well as a game and I want to bring it back.
Dan Griliopoulos: There’s the iOS and iPad version of the Settlers of Catan. Obviously Settlers is a dice based system so it’s random. They have a system in it where you can also choose a stacking system where the 36 possible results are treated as cards so you have to get through all the results before you move on. It kind of balances against pure randomness, with that.
Julian: So you know there is going to be at least one of each result there… It makes it a bit less… yeah, you could be screwed in Settlers of Catan, I’ve played it many times. I guess they’re trying to make it a little more controlled, but still retain some of the randomness. I’m just not worried about it. Basically, if you lose, you lose. If you win, you win. If you’re a good player, you will tend to win and if you’re a bad player you will tend to lose but it’s not automatic…
But I’m adding a whole meta-game to the game as well, this is another aspect. A single player meta-game. But you might have some multiplayer effects as well.
Dan Griliopoulos: Is this the second level type thing the same as you had in XCOM?
Julian: It’s going to be a little bit simpler than XCOM, actually. The idea is that you’re asked as a player to name the world that you wish to explore. This is used as a random number seed generator for the environment. So you have a world which is full of different regions, different types of terrain, and you’re exploring. Your objective is basically to kill the Chaos King in the region but your secondary objective is to find stuff because there’s lots of artefacts in the game which are going to be useful to you in multiplayer battles or single player battles, so there’s a slight RPG element to it as well. So you’ve created this world and you’re exploring it. You go from region to region, you’ll fight any enemies in each region who have their own sets of spells or own personality. There’s different terrain types in each region. There’s special places within realms, places where you can learn your spells, places where you can teleport, places where you can move things around the world…
Dan Griliopoulos: Sounds a bit Super Mario Brothers.
Julian: Well, um… maybe. It’s a place that people can explore, still bearing in mind they have this requirement, this strategy, to find and locate the boss and kill him. Very simple.
Dan Griliopoulos: But it’s all procedural?
Julian: Well, it’s procedurally generated in the sense that yeah, you’re still within an environment (that) consists of distinct regions, but they’re randomly put together. Procedurally generated adventure, if you want to call it that way.
Dan Griliopoulos: It’s nice to see you’re still genre busting, anyway.
Julian: Well, yeah. I really like games that generate stuff for you rather than have everything… I complained about stuff being over designed. My obsession was always with scenario generators, if you want to call them that, where things are generated for the player to explore and it may be something nobody else has ever played because it’s pseudo-randomly generated.
Dan Griliopoulos: Which saves you programming time to some degree.
Julian: It saves level design, that’s for sure. Yeah. It does allow you to create something vast and complex to explore with less effort, sure. Because you’re not designing every single possible experience the player could have in the game at all. Yeah, it’s one of my little obsessions I guess, and I’ve still to see it done well in games. Rogue-like games have randomly generated environments and that’s part of their attraction, because apart from that they’re very simple games.
Dan Griliopoulos: Well, that and permadeath.
Julian: It’s true. So I still think this style of game has an attraction for a lot of people. We’re going to keep it nice and accessible and simple like back in the Spectrum days, but obviously there’s much nicer updated presentation of course.
Dan Griliopoulos: And the ability to patch.
Julian: Yes, and add extra content as you’re going, of course, and proper multiplayer online …
Dan Griliopoulos: Going on the net and having that extra level of… separate little worlds and endless little worlds.
Julian: The thing about this generating from a name you type is that you can say to a mate of yours, “Look, try this particular word because in this particular region you will find a tower of mist where you can get the Cloak of Fortitude”. You’ll be able to exchange stuff with other players and discuss what you can get where in a particular realm. Of course, there’s millions of possibilities of things that can be generated this way.
Dan Griliopoulos: Have you worked out how many possibilities?
Julian: More than that. It depends entirely on the limits of the random number seed, I guess, but it would be a lot.
Dan Griliopoulos: Sounds wonderful. Have you got an idea yet when you want to release?
Julian: Next year. I can’t be more specific than that, really.
Dan Griliopoulos: You have to finish it first.
Julian: Well, yes. Plus, I’m trying to build the team and get resources for the game as well, so this is all part of the process. When you’re an indie developer you don’t necessarily have to start with a fixed budget and a fixed schedule and fixed resources.
Dan Griliopoulos: Why Bulgaria? Is that because there are established programmers out there?
Julian: No, it’s where I live. I’ve lived there since 2005.
Dan Griliopoulos: I didn’t realise that. Why do you live in Bulgaria?
Julian: Because my wife is Bulgarian and I’ve got two children as well, two years old. I worked for Ubisoft from November 2006 to March last year, just over 5 years.
Dan Griliopoulos: What were you working on?
Julian: Ok, so when I first started at Ubisoft Bulgaria – it’s a small studio, 13 people – I was employed as a game designer. The first project they wanted me to work on was Chess Master which I was a bit surprised at. So that’s… 2006, 2007 they were working on Chess Master 11, I think, for PC. I’m not sure why they wanted me to work on this because I thought the game of Chess had already been designed. Actually, what they wanted was a DS version of Chess Master. We added some mini games based on Chess which I designed.
Dan Griliopoulos: So you redesigned Chess?
Julian: I actually designed some original games using some Chess-like rules. There was one, my particular favourite, called Fork My Fruit where the Chess board had bits of fruit on it and you had to, using the forking principle in Chess, you could fork fruit. You got the fruit from the board.
Dan Griliopoulos: What is forking?
Julian: Forking is attacking two things simultaneously. So you can move with a rook up there on a row and you might attack one on this side and one on that side.
Dan Griliopoulos: So you’re pinning two…
Julian: Not pinning. Pinning is where you’re attacking a piece which if the other player moves it, there will be another piece behind it that you could also attack.
Dan Griliopoulos: Even the language is different! (I couldn’t find a Chess game on Steam…)
Julian: I did Chess Master, then I worked on some projects that were cancelled. Then I worked on Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, which was a launch title for 3DS. This was a project that I actually pitched, funnily?
Dan Griliopoulos: It fits in with the Ghost Recon thing, and it fits with what you like doing…
Julian: I just wanted to do a decent turn based strategy game again. I wanted to do something similar to XCOM still and I thought, well, you know, what’s Ubisoft got that could be used here? Looking at the franchise, OK – Ghost Recon, possibly. So I pitched it initially as XCOM meets Ghost Recon. That was the pitch, basically. One of the guys at Ubisoft central office in Paris said yeah, ok. He OKed the project and we did a working demo and design. I think we spent maybe 3 months on this. It did have aspects of XCOM. There was supposed to be a world view you know, generated battles and maps, different bosses in different parts of the world that you had to tackle. The tactical game system was, actually interestingly, the tactical game that we had for this design was very much like the new XCOM where you’d have two actions per turn for each character.
Dan Griliopoulos: What do you think of the new XCOM?
Julian: It’s great. It’s very very good. It’s different from …
Dan Griliopoulos: Was it Jake? Solomon. The lead designer on it. Seems to have been very respectful to elements of it and has obviously just gone “…but we need to make this work on consoles”.
Julian: He was worried what I would think of it. He’s changed so much. I think he was probably worried that I’d come up to him and say “Jake, you’ve been a naughty boy. What have you done to my XCOM?” but no. It wasn’t like that at all.
Dan Griliopoulos: You’ve played it then, I take it?
Julian: I have played it. I’ve actually restarted it twice. Maybe I should try it on an easier difficulty level because I haven’t managed to get to the end yet! If there’s anything that’s a problem with the game, it’s that you can be playing it for quite a while without knowing that you are actually completely screwed and you should have stopped and started again.
I think my second playthrough I did a lot better but it got to a point where I could see I was in a bit of a downward spiral, and I just couldn’t see a way out of it. I thought, well ok. I’ve got to restart again. I was losing too much funding. It’s quite unforgiving, actually, in that sense.
Dan Griliopoulos: I was lucky that I never had a satellite shot down but I forgot to put any more up. I was just running with that minimal level…
Julian: That’s the mistake I made on my first run through. I wasn’t paying enough attention to the satellites. I wasn’t getting the funding.
Dan Griliopoulos: Yeah, you need to sort of circle the world… it’s something that you learn as you play. Which is an interesting game design element.
Julian: It is, and pretty much every decision you make has to be fairly carefully considered, because there’s always a very distinctive trade-off in decisions. I think Firaxis did a really, really good job. If you ask me, would I have designed the game in the same way? I would have to say no.
Dan Griliopoulos: How would you have designed it?
Julian: (laughs) I certainly would have gone back to my idea of generators again. I would not have accepted anything less than pseudo-randomly generated maps. I probably would have had more… less contrived elements to it. I felt that the… was it the Terror missions? Where you had to pick one out of three spots where you had to… Aliens are terrorizing three places. You’ve got to pick one of them and you have to –
Dan Griliopoulos: Ugh, God, yes. You know that the other two continents are going to be on minimal support and if something goes wrong, they’re already on minimal support, you’re going to lose that funding on those two countries…
Julian: You’re going to definitely lose out somewhere. You have to choose which one you’re going to lose. I would have designed it differently, for sure. Would it have been as successful as the new XCOM? Probably not. No, I’m afraid.
Dan Griliopoulos: They probably wouldn’t have given it the marketing money, to be honest. An awful lot of it was (that) they actually backed it, which was amazing. They backed a turn based strategy game on console.
Julian: That is absolutely incredible. I mean, it’s unheard of really, unless it’s Civilisation. Civilisation was the only game that was really surviving as a turn based franchise.
Dan Griliopoulos: And thriving, with Civilisation Revolution as well which was wonderful.
Julian: Exactly. It’s actually made Take 2 Interactive the new Microprose because they’re the only company that’s got these really popular well known, established turn based franchises. Civilisation and now XCOM.
Dan Griliopoulos: Was there anything you would have added to the XCOM as it stands? Is there anything you felt, that little bit was missing from my…
Julian: Well, yeah, the Geoscape is kind of missing. In the original game, the position of your bases – what you put in those bases – was important because aliens were active in particular areas, but the position of stuff in the new geoscape from the new game is actually, irrelevant, really. It doesn’t really play any part in the game, so you don’t have that. The Interceptors are based in each region. I guess my original game was a bit more simulation-ny and the new game is a bit more board game-y.
Dan Griliopoulos: Which is a way the industry’s going. There’s a whole video games made by board game designers section in the West Hall at GDC, so everyone plays board games now. I went to Jagex and Jagex have a whole room dedicated to their employees playing board games.
Julian: Yeah. This is very good and the new XCOM shows a lot of board game-y influences, without a doubt.
Dan Griliopoulos: You are a board gamer yourself, aren’t you?
Julian: Yeah, I play board games. Absolutely. Far more than computer games.
Dan Griliopoulos: Would you design board games? Is that something you wanted to do or have done?
Julian: I do. Well, I have done, yes. Interestingly, Chaos, the game that I’m now remaking, was originally a board game.
Dan Griliopoulos: Was it board game or card based?
Julian: Card based. Basically you had grid of squares, your board or arena. You had a wizard character, you put it on your wizard card and you had a hand of cards which was your spells. So to cast a spell you put your card down, roll the dice to cast it. If it’s a creature it goes on the board, you can start moving it around and attacking enemies. If it’s a spell, you have to resolve the effect of the spell. So yeah, it was originally a board game. On my blog I’ve got some pictures of the cards. I put them up a couple of months ago. So, I still have the original cards from this board game that I made. I often had lots of ideas for board games. I made one – a couple, actually – while I was at Ubisoft which we played with the level designers there. I’ve never tried getting any of them published.
Dan Griliopoulos: You’re still a relatively well known name in games to some degree. Possibly amongst people who like XCOM…
Julian: Well, I’m well known in games for people of a certain age. Who have a certain disposition towards strategy games, that’s about it!
Dan Griliopoulos: It is odd how your generation, there weren’t many superstars. I’m not saying there weren’t people who deserved to be superstars but there wasn’t the eulogisation of the designer as one person. “He’s made this game and he’s brilliant, look at this!”
Julian: Apart from Peter Molyneux, yeah.
Dan Griliopoulos: He’s still going, isn’t he?
Julian: Yes, he is.
Dan Griliopoulos: (There’s no culture like Film Buffs). I knew about Citizen Kane, WC Fields and the Marx brothers and all of this kind of stuff, but that’s from way before I was born. I don’t think the same thing happens quite so much amongst young gamers, that they go, “oh, the Gollops” or…
Julian: No, they don’t. Shame really, isn’t it? (Laughs)
Dan Griliopoulos: Well, you’re one of my heroes so I’m quite happy to be interviewing you. What do you think of the Gollop Chamber?
Julian: I haven’t reached that, so I don’t actually know what it does yet.
Dan Griliopoulos: I won’t spoil it for you.
Julian: I’m on my third play through at the moment. I’m fairly confident that I will get to the end stage!
Dan Griliopoulos: The Gollop Chamber is the ultimate thing on your base.
Julian: Jake sent me an email last year some time, saying “We’ve got this thing in here we want to call the Gollop Chamber, is that OK?”. I said “…yyyeees…” but of course, he wouldn’t tell me what it did.
Dan Griliopoulos: You hope when you finally get to see what it does, it’s something nice. It’s nice, don’t worry. it’s fine.
I’ve got a question about Terror from the Deep, were you involved with that?
Julian: I had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Dan Griliopoulos: When I was a kid, I knew that it came out (and) I was extremely excited and then I played it and it and went, “This feels like an asset swap, except I can’t use some of my guns on land”.
Julian: I think pretty much the entire code base was identical to the first game. I don’t think they really changed very much.
Dan Griliopoulos: Last year at GDC I spoke to Frederick Raynal who made Alone in the Dark. He had this thing where he made Alone in the Dark, he worked on it like a bastard for a year and didn’t sleep more than about 3 hours a night for a year. It got to the end of the year and they said, “It’s doing really well! We’re going to put another one out. We’re just going to do exactly the same thing. We’re just going to make a clone and change a few bits” and he quit, obviously, immediately. Terror from the Deep had that air about it. It was just one of those games that… it’s been put out because they wanted some more money and the theme had done surprisingly well. Had you left the company?
Julian: No, no, yeah. What happened was, we started working on XCOM: Apocalypse pretty much the same time as they started work on Terror from the Deep. What really happened was that myself and Nick wanted to do a different game to XCOM, or at least do something a little bit different than just remake the original, so that’s how XCOM: Apocalypse came about. There were some significant differences in the way that the game worked.
Dan Griliopoulos: It had a bit of Sim City about it, I remember.
Julian: You were in this city and it had different organisations in this city with diplomatic relationships with each other and stuff. But they wanted a sequel within 6 months basically, this is what they wanted and we had to say “Well, it’s not possible to do anything except re-skin the game with some (new) graphics”.
Actually, they changed the story of course, I guess the clever bit, it was all about under the sea rather than Mars. Actually, it took a year to do the game. I had a huge team on it. Well, when I say huge I mean like, 15 people. Compared to just me and Nick and Helen, John and Martin on the graphics side of the original, was… much bigger.
Dan Griliopoulos: It must be strange to see studios with 400 staff, like Destiny, which is the Bungie game that’s been announced.
Julian: Well I know from working at Ubisoft they have hundreds upon hundreds working on Assassin’s Creed – more than 400. Assassin’s Creed 3 is absolute bare minimum 600 people, probably, were working on it for most of the time worldwide across many studios.
Dan Griliopoulos: Their studio in Montreal, is it 2100 people?
Julian: It’s huge. Ubisoft and probably other big publishers actually, they’re making games by pure brute force.
Dan Griliopoulos: Having the Shanghai studio which is cheap to do lots of asset generation…
Julian: Yes. Obviously, these games require a huge amount of asset generation. It’s like a factory. They’re an immensely difficult undertaking, to be sure.
Dan Griliopoulos: You had your huge team of 15 people on Terror from the Deep, is that right? Or XCOM: Apocalypse?
Julian: On XCOM: Apocalypse the team size for that actually was 5 of us at Mythos Games working on it and there was a team of artists at Microprose working on it as well. Again, it’s a similar arrangement to the first game where we were doing the programming and Microprose were doing the artwork. But it was a disastrous project, even from the beginning, because one thing that happened is that the Microprose art team were trying to change the design of the game. Then they were failing to actually deliver anything that they promised. They just couldn’t get the isometric graphic system sorted out in their heads. They did things which just didn’t work, like they hired a guy whose name I forget to design the aliens, and this is a well known Science Fiction artist and he built these big models of the aliens and the idea was that they were going to scan them and put them into a 3D modelling software. It just didn’t work. He had all this fine detail in these models and this scanning system just wasn’t good enough.
Dan Griliopoulos: I do remember the aliens in it looking a bit blobby.
Julian: Then they had to recreate them basically in a 3D software they were using at the time. They looked… yeah, they were awful, blobby things. They were nasty.
Dan Griliopoulos: You couldn’t tell what they were.
Julian: Terrible graphics. It was very difficult.
Dan Griliopoulos: I still enjoyed playing it in the end, mainly because of jet bikes, plasma cannons and missiles.
Julian: We had a real time system as well which was interesting, actually. It had some interesting aspects to it, but I don’t think you can beat turn based games for simple straightforward playability.
Dan Griliopoulos: And planning tactically, as well. Responding on the fly was just tough, especially when you could just pause. Let’s just quickly deal with Interceptor. What was the other first person shooter style one?
Julian: XCOM: Interceptor, yeah. That was the X Wing thing…
Dan Griliopoulos: That was a spaceship thing. Was there an FPS one that was planned, or…?
Julian: XCOM: Alliance was an FPS one, yes. It wasn’t a straightforward first person shooter, it was like a team based shooter, allegedly something similar to Rainbow 6.
Dan Griliopoulos: But with aliens.
Julian: But with aliens, yeah.
Dan Griliopoulos: At what point did you stop being involved with making these games?
Julian: After Apocalypse. So, I had absolutely nothing to do with XCOM: Alliance or XCOM: Interceptor or any XCOM anything else.
XCOM: Enforcer? Well, what happened there was that Microprose or Hasbro as it was by then, they had three Unreal licenses, I think, that that had to somehow use. XCOM: Alliance was using Unreal but because that project was going nowhere, they decided to “Well, let’s just put out a straightforward Unreal-style shooter using the assets from XCOM: Alliance. We’ll at least have something there to show for all the effort”.
XCOM: Alliance was in development for a long time. How the development got screwed up, I don’t know. As you’re probably well aware, quite often games companies start and you’re going for a long time and it just doesn’t happen.
Dan Griliopoulos: This Milo and Kate seems to have broken Peter Molyneux’s heart. They just gradually realised they couldn’t make something believable. Yeah, it happens a lot.
Julian: It does. It’s quite frequent.
Dan Griliopoulos: What about the clones? After Microprose and Hasbro stopped making them, suddenly in the late 90s / early 2000s people started making XCOM clones with names like UFO: Afterlight, Aftermath. Some of them were really good, some of them were dreadful.
Julian: UFO: Aftermath arose out of my Dreamland Chronicles project. We did one game for Virgin Interactive called Magic and Mayhem, then I proposed to Virgin, “Why don’t we try and do a remaining or remake of the original XCOM with, obviously, a different story? Make it PC and Playstation II”. It was still a turn based game, still had all the elements of XCOM there. The tactical part was a little bit different because you controlled characters using a traditional third person controls for a console game.
If you’ve played Valkyria Chronicles on the PS3 then you’ve got an idea of how Dreamland Chronicles worked, because it’s very similar. We had a little action point bar that would go down as you moved your character just like in Valkyria Chronicles, and when you wanted to shoot somebody you’d get the over the shoulder view, just like in Valkyria Chronicles. When you select characters it was on an overhead map, just like in Valkyria Chronicles.
So, it was looking promising, but Virgin Interactive had problems. They were sold to Interplay and then to Titus Interactive. Titus Interactive took one look at our game and said “This is rubbish. This is so bad. Sorry, we’re not interested in this”. Well, Titus were more interested in the IP that they got from buying Interplay. Whether they managed to do anything productive with it is another question.
So, we had to close the studio. We had a 4 game contract with Virgin and now Titus but they were not going to fund this or any other games and we couldn’t go to another publisher, so we had to shut the studio. What they did was they took all of the assets that we’d done and they ultimately ended up in the hands of ALTAR Interactive who made UFO: Aftermath. Unfortunately they stripped out our fantastic Valkyria Chronicles -style turn based stuff and they put what I thought was a rather weak real-time thing in there.
Dan Griliopoulos:The last game they made, Afterlight, was actually good; good characters, a fun plot, interesting Geoscape mechanics…
Julian: I played it very briefly, I seem to remember. Certainly not very much, no. Unfortunately I very rarely finish games these days. Well, from my point of view I don’t have the time. A lot of my game playing is more about research than entertainment because with limited time to play games, my interest is finding out what people are doing rather than…
So at the moment, my main obsession is trying to find turn based games for iPad, for example, to figure out what is there out there that’s interesting.
Dan Griliopoulos: I get an awful lot from BoardGameGeek.
Julian: There’s a lot of board games coming out which is really cool. Very nice. But I’m talking about original turn based, to be tactical turn based games. There’s one I like called Battlefield Academy which is also on PC, of course. That’s quite nice.
Dan Griliopoulos: What are you playing at the moment?
Julian: What am I playing? Uh… well… I know what I’m about to play because I just downloaded it before I came to GDC, which is FTL. I purposefully did not start doing it ’cause I had to finish my presentation so I guess as soon as I get back that’s … at the top of my list. Before that, I was playing XCOM, of course. I do play games on the iPad as well. The latest one is Battlefield Academy. Outwitters, I quite like. Outwitters is nice. Online turn based game, cutesy graphics, brutal gameplay. Chess-like.
Dan Griliopoulos: I haven’t heard Chess mentioned once, apart from you, during all the time at GDC. It’s not something people learn from any more. They don’t reference it any more. That’s really odd, considering it was, for 6000 years or however long it’s been around…
Julian: I don’t know. Maybe people think it’s boring and that’s all there is to it. If you like Chess, you’ll like Outwitters. Outwitters has got a brilliant mechanic in it which is very simple. Each piece has a certain move, a certain strength – attack strength and defence strength – but you can only see the board as far as your pieces can move. So, there’s a hidden area of the board, you have to be careful. You’re not entirely sure what your opponent’s doing. Very simply done. That gives the game a little bit of uncertainly and a bit of edge. It’s quite nice.
Dan Griliopoulos: Can you see what your opponent can see?
Julian: Not exactly. You’re not entirely sure what he can see. Most of the time, actually, you’re not sure. Some of the time you’re sure because the long range scout units, if you’ve got those up front on your front lines you know that you can see as much as he can see, because his scout units can’t see further than yours sees. It’s an intriguing game.
Dan Griliopoulos: Oh, that reminds me. The other XCOM game that was in development which has gone very quiet. Did you ever see that?
Julian: Oh yeah, the 2K Marin game. The only thing that I read is that they sort of rebooted it. Obviously, gone back to the drawing board a little bit trying to figure out what the identity of this game should really be. I think they got some bad reactions on several levels. One was the fact it was an FPS. Secondly, the presentation was a bit… this 1950s style alternate reality thing probably didn’t go down too well with a lot of people, either, so it may be they’re rethinking that. I’m not sure. Graphically, it was amazing.
Dan Griliopoulos: Thank you!