Rise of Legends Interview: Paul Stephanouk
Recently Big Huge Games released their latest title in the Rise of Nations franchise, a sweeping and original fantasy RTS game called Rise of Legends. Largely praised, by us included, for its original art style and solid gameplay foundation, Rise of Legends took the Rise of Nations formula and completely reworked it into a new environment and graphics engine. We recently sat down with Design Lead, Paul Stephanouk from developer Big Huge Games to ask him about Rise of Legends' development and launch.
GWJ: Congratulations of the release of Rise of Legends, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. I'd like to start with some discussion on the topic of development. From a game-design point of view; how difficult was it to take Rise of Nations, a very well balanced, complex, and deep game, and retool it into this new environment? Was there fear that in reinventing a pretty solid wheel the ride might not be quite as smooth?
Paul: We set out to make a fantasy game that incorporated a number of new ideas try while keeping much of the "core" gameplay that we felt made up a "Rise of" experience. In many ways it was just an extension of the process that created Rise of Nations and Thrones - we just took where we were at the time and iterated on ideas until things came together. This game certainly came with difficult challenges but so did our previous titles. I can't imagine making worthwhile products if the focus is on the quality of the ride. You just go where the process takes you.
GWJ: How well do you think the job was accomplished, and how would you compare Rise of Legends to its predecessor?
Paul: Of course there is never enough time. With RoL, as well as RoN, there are a number of features and polish items I wish we had more time to work on. That would be the case no matter how long we worked on the game. At some point you just have to know were to stop. With RoL we wanted to try several new things such as including infusing the campaign with a narrative, expanding the scale and role of cities, more detailed units, and having hero-based play. I think RoL offers an experience that is more open and accessible than RoN, but at the same time some people are going to prefer a history game to a fantasy game. Some people are going to enjoy the new features while others will want more of same. Some of the changes won't work as well as you thought they will. Some will work better. Overall I think we succeeded in doing what we set out to do - make a RTS game that is true to the core "Rise of" gameplay that is set in a fresh fantasy setting, with streamlined play, and with outstanding visuals.
GWJ: How important was it for you guys to establish RoL's visual aesthetic as something unique, and how did you arrive at the variety of styles found in the game?
Paul: Cranking up the visuals was a key mandate for this game. We felt like the RoN visuals fell short of the mark and wanted to challenge ourselves to kick it up a notch or three. With a fantasy game we had the freedom to move outside the constraints of trying to depict "realistic" units and buildings. Realism in RTS game is always a tricky thing since they highly abstract by nature.
GWJ: Is establishing such an artistic style largely dependent upon the work of one (or a few) individual artists, or is it a lengthy, collaborative process of refining the artwork until it meets the vision of the project lead?
Paul: It's a lengthy collaborative process. It's also very organic. Sometimes the artists have a strong visual image that we marry to a gameplay need. Other times the art is rendered to a gameplay concept. We tend to go on consensus more than having a single figure tollgate everything.
GWJ: Has the focus on games' art assets changed in recent years? If so, what impact do those changes have on the development process, and if not, should it?
Paul: I don't think our process for art assets has radically changed, but it has been refined. What has changed is the amount of assets that go into the game and the quality of those assets. More assets means more cost and longer production times. The only way to judge if that's a positive or negative thing is on a game by game basis. So far I think it's been very positive for the Rise games and I think you'll continue to see us strive to hit high visual marks.
GWJ: Does uniqueness come at a price? Has the fact that Rise of Legends introduces units that are not instantly recognizable with predetermined roles made it more difficult to get players involved in the game?
Paul: Without question. We knew that would be the case before we even started on the game. It comes with the territory when you're doing a fantasy game. On the other hand, you've got to go there if you want to do something new.
GWJ: Rise of Legends has been largely well-received by critics, though not universally. I'm always interested in how developers read and interpret reviews, if they do at all. Do you find yourself reading a less positive review and saying to yourself, "These guys don't get it at all!"
Paul: Not really. I mean, sure there are times when a reviewer will make a statement declaring what we were attempting or what we intended to do as opposed to present his/her opinion. In those cases I usually wonder what the person is smoking because they are almost always wrong. Just because a reviewer doesn't love the game doesn't mean they don't "get it". Everybody is going to have an opinion. The more a game (or any creative effort) doesn't match expectations, either by challenging them or falling short, the greater the range of opinions and the more passionate they will be held. Do I enjoy reading negative reviews of a project I've spent years of my life on? Hell no. But they do help advance our understanding of how to make a good game.
GWJ: What do you think Rise of Legends brings to the RTS table that is unique and could forward the genre? From that same perspective what do you wish you'd had more time to improve?
Paul: It plays fast. It continues and improves upon many of the UI and control improvements that Rise of Nations was known for. It lets players experience a game world that's new to them - that's going to be really important for some people and not at all for others. I think how we are handling cities is a very successful contribution to RTS games. I think we underexecuted in the audio department, both from a content and technical perspective. We'll improve that in the same way we took the message about visuals from RoN. I wish we had been able to tell the story a little better. That was something new for us and it turned out to be rather difficult on several levels. I don't think we provided enough supporting material to really carry the narrative in all the right places. For some people that's an issue - for others not so much.
GWJ: On the topic of multiplayer, there were some serious issues at launch in people connecting and maintaining online games. What happened? Is there more yet to fix?
Paul: There were some technical issues - sure. Some of that was carry-over from an initial demo that probably wasn't up to par. There were also some legitimate bugs and we've worked to squash them. I don't mean to dismiss the bugs because we certainly take that very seriously and are committed to making sure our players have the best possible experience. That said, I don't feel like we had an unusually high amount of issues compared to other titles both in and out of genre. I realize that is going to ring hollow if you happen to be a person who is having a problem. I get pissed at games that don't want to play nice on my system just like everybody else. But on the overall scorecard I think we came out ok there. Room for improvement? Always.
GWJ: Can you discuss the decision to use Gamespy for online matchmaking? Considering the issues, was it the right call?
Paul: They have an SDK. We've used it before and we know it. I'm not aware of anything fundamentally wrong with their technology. I'm not aware of any issues, at launch or otherwise that were the direct result of using the Gamespy SDK. Any issues I would have for Gamespy would center on the feature set they provide to the developer - not the robustness of their matchmaking. I think they take an unfair rap on that count.
GWJ: How was the decision made to launch during the week of E3? Who makes the final call regarding game release dates? Do you think, as has been suggested by some, that Rise of Legends got a little lost against the glare of E3?
Paul: That's marketing and really in the publisher's camp. I don't mean to imply that they just capriciously decided to ship our game at that time. Much of the timing is driven by when the game will be ready and they do discuss such things with us. It probably wasn't super-ideal, but who can say if it really had an impact on anything?
GWJ: Considering that Rise of Nations was released May 2003, Thrones and Patriots two days before May 2004, Rise of Legends was announced May 2005 and released May 2006 "… will we have to wait until next May to find out what's coming next from you guys?
Paul: We might have a tradition of shipping in May but we announce all over the place - you might know when you'll be getting the next game but you never know when we might fill you in! But seriously, that's just a coincidence of scheduling. We have no special fondness for shipping in the Spring except for the fact that it allows us to hold our ship party outside.
GWJ: When you play around the office, which race do you play, and do you have any insider multiplayer tips?
Paul: My best game is probably as Alin but not by a great margin. My tip? Learn to be aggressive. Units in RoL trump buildings much more than they did in RoN.
GWJ: Finally, is there any possibility that we might one day see a game from Big Huge Games which is not an RTS?
Paul: There is always a possibility.
GWJ: Thanks, Paul, for taking the time to speak with us today.