When Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends was announced shortly before E3 of 2005, it climbed immediately to the top of my must see list for the convention. Having exhausted countless hours to Rise of Nations and its successful expansion Thrones and Patriots, my thirst for more Rise gameplay was insatiable, but even as I waxed enthusiastic, I was concerned about how the Big Huge Games team might take the familiar into a new fantasy direction. After seeing the game on the show floor, and talking with Design Lead Paul Stephanouk, my concerns were largely put aside, and my enthusiasm was again unbridled.
In the aftermath of E3 the Big Huge Games crew got back quietly back to work, and now we get the chance to sit down and chat with Paul about their progress since E3, how the Rise of Nations community has responded to this new direction, how a more focused single-player campaign affects the open ended gameplay of a 'Rise' game, the direction of PC gaming in general, copy protection, and much more.
GWJ: I'm here today with Paul Stephanouk of Big Huge Games, and we're talking about how work is progressing on their follow up to the successful Rise of Nations, Rise of Legends.
First, thanks very much for talking with us today. We're very excited about Rise of Legends. But, first I wanted to talk a bit about where you guys have come from with Rise of Nations. How did you come to be involved with Big Huge Games and the Rise franchise?
Paul : I joined BHG in July of 2000. After the four founders, i'm employee #3. I was a software developer doing web-side applications but I had always been into games at a very serious level. I knew that BHG was getting put together for some really exciting stuff - so I dropped everything, pulled up stakes, and moved to Baltimore!
I helped set up all the systems infrastructure while the company was getting spun up. I eventually became Producer for Rise of Nations. My broad background in software development, on both the technical and production side, gave me the ability to contribute to the Rise of Nations product in a number of areas. It was a LOT of fun and very challenging work.
GWJ: So, did BHG come to you with the game idea of what would become Rise of Nations, or was it the people involved in the company that drew you to Baltimore?
Paul: The people. At that point the game was just a concept. I didn't need to worry about the details - I just wanted to get with this team.
GWJ: Rise of Nations was an ambitious game to say the least, particularly for a fledgling company like BHG. I've always been impressed that you guys managed to get everything balanced out as well as you did while bringing that many new features and that much fun to the table. It seems like a game that could have gone spiraling out of control. Did it ever feel like you guys had bitten off more than you could chew? What was the most difficult part of making RoN?
Paul: Not really. The concept was obviously a strong one from the very start. The studio was new but the senior staff had mostly already worked together and all of them were veterans of some outstanding games.
The most challenging part was building a game engine WHILE building the game WHILE growing a team from scratch. It was just a lot of hard work by a bunch of folks who really cared about the game and gaming in general. And I should say that it wasn't just the folks at BHG that made it happen. The team at Microsoft Game Studios and the other people we worked with (PR, audio, tools, etc.) also contributed a great deal.
GWJ: So, do you feel like already having the team in place has made development of Rise of Legends an easier process in the sense of tightening focus on the game instead of trying to start a company at the same time? How much has BHG grown from the success of Rise of Nations?
Paul: The team on RoL is roughly twice the size of RoN. I don't know that RoL is any easier, but the challenges are different. Even the growth itself is a very difficult thing to manage properly. We're always trying to do new things. We want to push our gameplay and technology whenever we can.
GWJ: Moving on to the present, and the reason we're here. Are you confident that Rise of Nations fans drawn by the historical, real-world nature of the previous game will accept the fantasy setting of Rise of Legends? What has the response been from the Rise community?
We sure hope so.
But seriously ... this is why we've tried to roll with a style of fantasy that isn't just the typical "orcs and elves". Not that there is anything wrong with that by a long shot. It's just that we understand that our existing fans are looking for something different from that. If you look back on some of the prior games by Brian and the rest of the team, you'll see it's not always been history games.
You may remember Alpha Centauri scored some reasonably decent reviews. What we collectivly hadn't yet done was a fantasy game.
Once people saw the visuals and saw that the gameplay was indeed of the "Rise of" school of design, we got a LOT of great response. We were very pleased by the response we got at E3 and on subsequent press tours. Hopefully the new genre will also bring new players to the "Rise of" style of gameplay. Folks that didn't think they would enjoy a history game.
Additionally - fantasy lets us do things that we can't do in a history game. Create new places, new peoples, and try our hand at telling a character-driven storyline. It's great fun to make and great fun to play. We're still a bunch of history geeks - but like good geeks we loves us some fantasy and science-fiction as well.
GWJ: I'll avoid tipping my hand too much on the topic of Brian Reynolds, and leave it suffice to say that I still play Alpha Centauri. Rise of Nations had a very open-ended structure to its single player experience. Do you find that the story driven elements of Rise of Legends change the Rise gameplay much? Are there trade-offs for telling that story that takes away from the player's freedom to do pretty much whatever they want?
Paul: That's basically the challenge – choice vs. drama. In a strategy game it's particularly key that the player have access to meaningful information and be able to make important choices. If you've played the Conquer the World mode of Rise of Nation's expansion (Thrones & Patriots) you'll see the beginnings of some successful mixing of story and strategy.
It's very basic in T&P but it works really well. We were very happy with the reviews for T&P and are using it as a model in many ways for how we go about combining story and strategy. It's still a large-scale strategy game, however your goals are not simply driven by what territory is going to give you the most income. That can still influence your decision of course. It's just that you also need to care about things like getting revenge and discovering the source of a tyrant's power.
I think the fans of single-player campaigns will enjoy it a great deal. And the story adds a lot of flavor for the multiplayer beat-downs. Good multiplayer play is still very much a focus. This time around we're coming to the table with better matchmaking and community tools to go with the gameplay.
GWJ: I want to talk about the multiplayer, but before that, I want to ask about moving away from a story - or framework - that spans millenia to one that presumably spans less than a lifetime. How has this affected the way you guys approach things like technology, advancement, and maintained the feel of an epic game?
Paul: We took out the temporal element, yes, but that also took out a lot of problems with it. It's hard to have a single leader or persona that you can identify with if every 10 minutes of gameplay is several hundred years.
And again - it's not like we haven't done that already. In T&P we had several scenarios that were held in high regard that don't worry so much about time as an element. The Cold War scenario comes to mind. Or really any of those prepared campaigns. They are all time-limited and are just as cool, if not more-so, then the base gameplay.
On the other hand time CAN be used to give an epic feel. So we wanted to make sure we put something in to more than make up for it. And if anything feels epic - it's visual scale. We've created cities, units, and places in RoL that have a *much* more dramatic scale. In RoN you don't get to control giant constructs half the size of a city. A city, I might add, that is probably 5x the size of a RoN city.
GWJ: Yes, let's talk about those cities a bit, as they seem to work quite differently than the cities of Rise of Nations. Care to set-up basically the differences in the cities between the two games? Are you able to construct anything away from the city core, or is everything part of the district structure?
Paul: Cities themselves are more complex now. There is a city center that is similar in concept to a RoN city. It is the basis for trade routes, territory control, and so on. It's about 46.2 times cooler looking, but the role is similar. Players then build districts that are attached to the city. These further expand the city - both visually and in game terms.
The districts are attached to the city. However the player still builds buildings of the familiar sorts that are not attached, such as a barracks or a tower. There are also building types that are unique to our fantasy world such as the Inventor's Workshop.
GWJ: So you can still construct needed assets at the war front, so to speak?
Paul: Sure - within the other rule sets of course. "Rise of" gameplay holds territory as a key concept so that'll still be a key factor in building placement.
GWJ: You guys have been widely praised for the new graphics engine, but it seems there's a general perception among at least jaded gamers that the amount of attention paid to a graphical upgrade to an existing franchise comes at the price of quality and gameplay innovation. I would say that Civilization IV is bucking that trend, but it exists in a small minority. How conscious are you guys of that perception or pitfall in developing Rise of Legends, and how are you avoiding it?
Paul: I hear that argument from time to time, but I don't think it's always applied in an accurate way. When changes to graphics are done with that as the focus, and that change causes lack of concern or focus about the gameplay it is understandable that the gameplay can suffer.
On the other hand, if you are enhancing your graphics and adjusting the gameplay intentionally to not only use those enhancements but to resonate with them - that is the very fuel of innovation. If we just upgraded our graphics and didn't pay any attention to what it was doing to our game - that would be the road to ruin.
Our graphics changes are the result of our desire to drive new types of gameplay. The gameplay is always in charge. That's true regardless of how much somebody does or does not like one of our games. Being innovative alone doesn't guarantee that a game will be fun by any measure.
I'm a crusty old gamer (I'm in my mid-30's) and I know where those folks are coming from. We've all been burned by games where the game was just about the fact that the graphics had been upgraded. That's lame and people know it.
On the other hand I reject out of hand that strategy games can't also look awesome. I'm really tired of other game genres enjoying a higher visual standard than strategy games. My god, have you seen the gameplay videos for PGR3 on the Xbox360? BHG's first game was a rejection of the idea that "turn-based" strategy concepts had to be turn-based or boring. This one rejects the idea that strategy games have to look second-rate. And what's more, that the visuals can inform and enhance the actual gameplay. It's not just window dressing.
GWJ: The longevity of many RTS games rests on the quality of their multiplayer. No matter how interesting the single-player story, eventually you're going to play it out. You mentioned matchmaking and community building tools already, so clearly enhancing the multiplay is on your minds. How much of the design process is aimed at multiplayer, and are there tradeoffs made for making multiplayer more fun at the expense of creating a larger single-player experience?
Paul: We consider the multiplayer experience the "core" and build outward from it. In both RoN and RoL, the single-player is built on top of the multiplayer game. It's hard to imagine building a successful multiplayer experience after the fact. That adds a number of extra challenges to the creation of a single-player experience, but it's a price worth paying.
GWJ: So then, can I assume you've had multiplayer of a kind up and running in the office? How well do you rank among the staff? Any gauntlets you care to publicly throw down?
Paul: I can claim that at times I've been the #1 RoN player in the world. Those times are long gone and were well before we got professional testers involved. I do *not* have uber-micro, nor do I even care about getting it. I've always loved that in "Rise of" games both types of play are welcome - even within the same game.
With RoL, being the lead designer for Single Player, I don't get as much time on MP so I'm not as good. I'd say I'm "better than most but far from the best", or "decent for a designer"
GWJ: I can claim being the best RoN player in our weekly game at Gamerswithjobs, but that lasted for about ten minutes. It was a lot of work!
Paul: Yeah. Lots of stuff to master.
GWJ: I'm not sure how much you can say on this one, but I'd remiss not to address it. I know you guys are still keeping the lid on the third race, so within the constraints of not giving too much away, can you tell us why the decision was made to reduce the number of races from the four mentioned at E3 to three?
Paul: It wasn't just a single thing. We wanted the races to all be very different from each other, and we didn't feel like the fourth race was really as strong as the others. Additionally we felt the story line needed tightening. The single player campaign is already HUGE. T&P was praised for how many hours of campaign gameplay it contained. It's got nothing on RoL. The race count is an arbitrary number anyway. What players want isn't 3, 4, or 42. What they want is "the correct number that makes the game good." We opted for that.
GWJ: With one magic race and one technology race, it'll be interesting to see what you guys have in store as the framework for the last race. I think I speak for a lot of fans when I say we're very interested to see what you guys are working on. But we'll leave that behind. I'd actually like to take a moment and get your feel on a couple of general questions about the direction of PC Gaming.
For example, what are your thoughts on the direction of digital distribution like the methods employed by Valve for Half-Life 2 or Sony Online for their Everquest expansions? Is it something the industry PC Gaming industry is heading toward?
Paul: I think digital distribution has a bright future. The size of modern PC games is somewhat in tension with how much bandwidth most people have. It seems like the current generation of schemes work really well if you know in advance you want the product. The experience isn't quite so good if you want to play a 10GB game NOW. I can run to the store, install, and finish several levels before most folks could download a file that large. New streaming schemes that allow for quick access to gameplay while content continues to download are certainly very promising.
GWJ: A frequent frustration we hear about for PC games revolves around copy protection. Obviously developers want to thwart piracy of their game without interfering with the experience of legitimate customers. How do you find that balance? Who makes the decision about what kind of piracy protections will be employed, and how serious do you think the problem of copy protection interfering with legitimate users actually is.
Paul: Copy protection isn't something I deal with much. The publisher, not the developer, is usually the one concerned with the distribution and packaging of the game. Personally, I understand the need to have copy protection but certainly don't enjoy it when a game's copy protection interferes with my enjoyment of the game. I think current systems (key + cd check) are workable but can be improved. Certainly they are no worse than what I endure with other media types. As a developer I obviously want to provide the players with the best experience . I'm always interested to hear about better ways to handle this issue.
GWJ: Finally, I find when I put together my personal list of favorite PC Games, I have to include numerous titles with Brian Reynolds involved. What does Brian bring to the table? What is his role in the development and conception process, and how is it working with him?
Paul: He's a great person to work for and game with. He's passionate about games and gaming and has a great critical eye for seeing the implications of changes to very complicated game systems. He's also an accomplished programmer so he's able to look at game designs with an eye that understands the technical trade-offs. He's a great person to work for and amazing to work with. What can you say really? He knows how to make engaging games.
GWJ: Thank you very much for speaking with us today, Paul. Best of luck on your 60 and 70 hour weeks, and we look forward to losing as many hours of sleep to the final product. I hope you can join us again as you approach launch.
Paul: I'd love to. Thanks!
Paul Stephanouk is Design Lead at Big Huge Games working on the upcoming PC title, Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends. Look for Rise of Legends in 2006.