Truly Olympic - A Spartan Q&A
The UK indie developer Slitherine was founded about 4 years ago. The company has been focused on the development of turn-based strategy titles so far. Their latest product, Spartan, was among the IGF 2004 Competition nominees and even made it to score in the Visual Arts category. I've sent some questions to Iain McNeil, lead designer on the game. Read on if you want to know more about the title, its development, the company behind it and ... toilets.
Spartan mixes elements of Civilization, Masters of Magic and EA's oldie Centurion: Defender of Rome. The game is set over 2000 years ago in Greece and offers a number of campaigns in which you will encounter no less than 100 different nations. The player has to take care of trade, diplomacy and researching new technologies in the main part as well as manage the growth of his cities Civ-style.
Sooner or later you'll stumble over the battle element of the game. First of all, Spartan also features naval battles, which are similar to those in Civilization. The outcome depends on the ship type and the number of troops. Ground battles, however, are different (unless you prefer to automate them) and consist of two parts. The preparation screen lets the player position his troops, set formations and issue orders. You have to consider the units you have, the type of the terrain, the situation (open field battle, siege ...) and the information you have about the enemy among other things. In the actual battle you don't have direct control over your armies, but you can order a particular group of your choice to charge, rally or retreat. Those who survived a battle will gain experience.
Of course, you also can send out diplomats to other nations. They become more experienced over time and the more skilled one of them is, the more order options you'll get access to. Well, so much for the introduction, let's take a deeper look at the background.
Q: First of all, congratulations on the award in the IGF Visual Arts category. How many people were involved in the development of Spartan and how much time did it take from the first design doc to the Gold Master?
Iain McNeil: Thanks - we were really pleased and it was a great show. Anyone who hasn't been should check it out if they get the chance. Spartan was started in January 03, but for the first few months the team was not up to full strength. Its taken about 15 months with the team full time for about a year.
Q: The game is finished now. Were there any ideas you originally had but that couldn't be realized? And were there features you came up with while the game was already in the development?
IM: Oh yeah ... lots! If you looked at the design we had at the beginning of Spartan you wouldn't recognise the game that we ended up with. We realised after about 3 months that we had not been ambitious enough in our design. We were initially too conservative and realised that we needed to aim higher. At that stage we did not have 3D battles or a rendered campaign map, diplomacy was still pretty basic, there was no research. Thinking back I
can't actually remember what the initial design was, all I know is that we ended up with way more than we thought was possible and the reaction from the fans has been great. We can tell they really appreciate all the effort
we've put in.
Q: Could you describe the early conception phase? Did you empty the local book store in order to do some research on the period of time covered in Spartan?
IM: Initially we decided on the genre - whether to branch out & try something new or build on our experience and fan base and create an improved version of Legion. We decided we wanted to build on our fan base, so the
next question was a setting. One of the deciding factors in this was the up rise in interest in the ancient world with Gladiator. This and the fact that there are numerous ancient Greek films coming out over the next year made us
decide to choose Greece as the setting. We already had numerous books on the period, but most of our research was done by a helpful amateur historian - Nik Fincher.
Q: Which historical events will we encounter while playing Spartan?
IM: There are over 100 events, ranging from the birth of Alexander the Great to Socrates suicide and the uprising of the Helots after an earthquake in Lakedaimon (Sparta to the rest of us). Some of these are purely
informational, but other effect the game, such as making the people happy or unhappy. The most pronounced effects are from events like the Helot uprising, where you must fight off a peasant revolt.
Q: And what's the multiplayer mode like? How does the 'Always Active' concept work?
IM: We've always found that with games that take a long time to play that you can't finish them in a session that its very hard to get those players all together again to carry on the game. With this in mind we went looking for ways to make a 2 player game more exciting. We found that in games of this type the sitting around and waiting for you opponent to move was the most annoying aspect of the game. We wanted to minimise this wait and to do that we added the AAM Always Active Multiplayer.
With AAM, when you are involved in a battle your opponent always controls the opposition. This may sound obvious, but what we mean is that if you attack an AI side, the human player temporarily takes control of the AI's troops for the duration of a battle so that they do not have to sit by and wait for you to fight it out. It keeps them involved in the game and its also a lot of fun to control the AI's troops. It lets you thwart your opponents plans, or just try out tactics you wouldn't want to risk with your own men :)
Q: What '(gameplay) lessons' did Slitherine learn during the development of the predecessors Legion and Chariots of War and what effect did that have on Spartan?
IM: There are so many I don't know where to begin :) We've tried hard to listen to all the feedback we've received from players of games and incorporate as much of it into our next game. Pretty much every aspect of
the game has been improved from the look, the gameplay all the way to the AI. This is all based on lessons learned from our pervious games.
Q: The game has been available in the UK since late March. Satisfied with the sales performance so far?
IM: I can't tell you numbers, but I can tell you our UK publisher are very pleased and tell us it their best selling product to date. We're obviously very happy about that :)
Q: You had worked at Eidos before among other companies. If you look back now at the time that has past since Slitherine was founded, did everything work out as planned or were there difficulties you originally had not expected.
IM: Not even close! There were many difficulties (profit margins, nervous breakdowns, Australian runaways and Interpol) but that would be an entire article in itself! We initially were working on a first person GBC game, but after a number of key events we ended up with Turn based PC strategy games!
Q: Of course, we'd like to know what Slitherine is going to work next. What's the setting and the gameplay premise?
IM: I cant say too much about that. What I can tell you is that our next game will be an online only game, building on our current brands.
Q: And other than concrete plans, is there an idea you'd love to realize some time in the future? And what other settings/historical periods would you like to cover? And do you plan to go for other genres?
IM: My all time favourite games are Civilization, Railroad Tycoon & Command & Conquer. Maybe a game combining all 3 would be good :) I also love RPG's and love the idea of creating a living world RPG. If you've ever played Balders Gate you'll notice that there are no toilets! I want people to have a living worlds - a bit like the Sims I guess. I want the Orcs to have toilets and be able to barge in on them while they are on the loo - that's
got to be worth sort of combat advantage :)
Sounds like a killer feature! Thanks for taking the time to answer the questions and good luck with your future projects! We're certainly going to keep an eye on them.
Spartan is going to be published in North&South America in May through GraphSim. If you want to know more about the game, its background, units and the like, check out Slitherine's homepage. I also highly recommend grabbing the demo to get a grasp of the game and in order to find out if Iain let the old Greeks have toilets or not.