Stainless Steel, coming off the worldwide success of Empire Earth, has a new publishing deal with Activision and a new historical real-time strategy game in the works. Empires: Dawn of the Modern World will feature completely unique playable civilizations that have no overlapping units. The game's five ages run from the Middle Ages to the World War II era, a 1,000-year span that aims to capture the most recognizable and exciting elements of warfare. To get the full rundown on the company's plans for Empires, we spoke with Stainless Steel's cofounder and lead designer, Rick Goodman.
GS: Describe the historical scope of Empires: Dawn of the Modern World. What will make this period of history work particularly well for the game?
Rick Goodman: I love history. I love strategy. At heart, I am a pretty simple guy. Based upon my experience on past projects, I think there are many gamers around the world who share these interests. Stainless Steel and Activision have surveyed customers worldwide to find out what they want in a next-generation historical real-time strategy game. Before finally settling on the vision for Empires: Dawn of the Modern World, we incorporated all the input we received from strategy gamers.
What did we learn? Here are a couple of insights. When asked what their most popular era of history was, gamers picked WWII. The Middle Ages was also popular. When asked to name their favorite map size, "gigantic" was the most popular. This, combined with the fact that "large islands" is the most popular map type, gives you a better understanding of these gamers. The majority, it seems, enjoy combined air, land, and sea combat and are more averse to early rushes.
Consistent with this information is the fact that 75 percent of gamers who play single-player Empire Earth prefer the standard empire-building mode. However, multiplayer gamers were evenly split on their preference between the empire-building and tournament mode.
This underscores one of the most crucial things we learned from customers: Casual and hard-core gamers are very different folks. An obvious conclusion? Yes, but think about the implications. If a developer shoots for the bull's-eye for one audience, then it might be far off target for the other audience.
Can one game satisfy the entire audience? Is it possible to develop a rush-oriented game for the pro gamers and a more defensive game for the casual gamer?
We think so, but it's one colossal challenge. To help accomplish this, Empires provides two completely different play modes. The first is designed specifically for the most competitive enthusiast gamer, who enjoys a faster-paced game where the focus is on combat and the battle begins immediately. The other mode is designed for casual gamers who tend to enjoy building empires with an unlimited population count and exploring the technology tree before entering into combat.
GS: How would you describe the game's scale? Are the battles more epic than in Empire Earth, or more tactical?
RG: Empires: Dawn of the Modern World is an epic historical game of empire building and conquest. This is what gamers told us they wanted--the ability to conduct sieges and conquests on huge maps over land, air, and sea, with massive armies. This is important to us.
Equally important to us is to put the player in complete control of the outcome of every battle. We want player skill and strategy to determine the outcome of each and every conflict. The tide of battle will turn on your ability to strategically plan and tactically control your weapons, technologies, and combat forces in battle.
You might think of Empires as a game that combines the strategic scale of Empire Earth with a more tactical combat system.
Truly Unique Civilizations
GS: How have you approached the design of Empires differently as compared with Empire Earth? Has starting from scratch been more challenging or refreshing?
RG: To me, all historical RTS games share a common set of roots, since they use history as their creative inspiration. However, beyond that notion, the design approach for Empires: Dawn of the Modern World is completely unlike anything we have done in the past. This is because our design represents a complete departure from our previous projects.
Since Civilization in 1991, it has been common practice for historical games to include several playable civilizations. All such games shared one thing in common--their civilizations were derived from one standard "base" civilization. From this base, different civilizations were fashioned by adjusting military and economic factors and adding one or more unique units. This approach has been tremendously successful in our genre for many years.
But, when we talked to gamers, this wasn't what they said they wanted. Gamers told us they wanted to lead civilizations that are entirely different and unique. No shared art and no units with identical stats and different graphics. Gamers were completely united in their desire for a historical game that provided this level of strategy and replayability, and this makes complete sense. To my knowledge, though, no historical game has done this before.
In Empires, you command of one of several mighty civilizations, each with its own unique and extraordinary weapons, technologies, and tactics. Each civilization has its own innate strengths and limitations, technological and economic abilities, and strategies--all of which are based on each civilization's historical capabilities.
GS: What playable civilizations are in the game? What will make each civilization distinct?
RG: For now, the number and specific identities of the civilizations in Empires must remain a closely guarded secret. We can, however, reveal three of the civilizations in the game:
England: This is, perhaps, the finest all-around civilization from the Middle Ages to the Imperial Age. The English have a well-rounded military and economy, as well as excellent scouting, reconnaissance, and espionage abilities.
Germany: Has incredible military might. The quality and firepower of their troops and weapons are unsurpassed. If not challenged early, Germany may be able to gather its forces and devour enemies with relative ease.
Korea: Has excellent military abilities that allow them to field an army before their enemies. Their civilization is geared toward its unconventional weapons and hit-and-run attacks.
GS: Tell us about the five ages. What are some of the key units and technologies for each?
RG: Empires: Dawn of the Modern World covers 1,000 years of modern history, starting with the Middle Ages. This millennium is divided into five distinct time periods. Empires provides both a sweeping breadth of history and amazing depth of gameplay with its entirely unique historical civilizations.
Technological development plays an important role. If you look at history, technologies are a key cornerstone of cultural identity. In the game, each civilization has technologies based on its own culture. Here are a few examples:
Germany utilizes blitzkrieg tactics, commands the gestapo, and can attack with chlorine gas. The English are masters of imperialism and scientific investigation and can make use of black death. Korean strength is derived from the king's encouragement, Confucianism, and martial arts.
In Empires, the way in which players employ these technologies is unlike that of any other historical game.
Balance of Power
GS: How have you balanced different types of units? Are there direct rock-paper-scissors counters? How are unit upgrades handled?
RG: At Stainless Steel, we have a very systematic methodology for game balancing. However, Empires: Dawn of the Modern World has really challenged us. In fact, almost everything we have learned over the last four years about game balancing is now obsolete or invalid. Empires has forced us to start from scratch and develop an entirely new methodology. The reason is this: We used to be able to compare the combat strength of German cavalry to English cavalry, the German tech tree to the English tech tree, the German economy to the English economy. We knew that if all the individual components were balanced, then the entire civilization would be balanced.
"We want to achieve exquisite balance on the whole, instead of on a unit-by-unit level."
-Rick Goodman, Stainless Steel Studios
The reason this methodology works so well just happens to be its very undoing when applied to Empires. The civilizations are entirely unique, so, by their very nature, civilizations should have unbalanced economies, technologies, units, wonders, and abilities. Each civilization has marvelous strengths and magnificent weaknesses. One civilization's dominant economy is balanced by another civilization's powerful technologies. We want to achieve exquisite balance on the whole, instead of on a unit-by-unit level. We think this makes the game fun to play and is a hallmark of a challenging, deep, and competitive title.
GS: The real-time strategy genre has become very well defined over the years, and small gameplay details go a long way toward differentiating games. Do you think there's much more room for the genre to evolve and stay innovative?
RG: In my opinion, the development community should spend more time with consumers. We need to do a better job answering the question, "What do gamers want?" In my opinion, that's the real issue. This is a major focus for us at Stainless Steel Studios and Activision. Yes, Empires is innovative, but, innovation is one of many success factors that go into the mix.
Empire Earth was Stainless' first 3D effort. Based on this project, we learned a lot about what to do and what not to do in a 3D strategy game. When building a 3D engine from scratch, the developer splits its focus between engine creation and gameplay. Because Empires is based on the world's first second-generation RTS 3D engine, this time around, we are focused exclusively on gameplay.
In my opinion, Age of Kings is a superlative RTS. So it came as came as little surprise when gamers told us they were eagerly awaiting a great historical RTS that would carry them beyond the Middle Ages. At the same time, Empire Earth fans were telling us that the eras in history they liked the most were the Middle Ages through WWII. We also polled our internal development team, and, not surprisingly, we got precisely the same answer.
This was our launching point. One thousand years of history is a vast period of time, but for our development team, this was actually a narrower focus! This has enabled us to work to elevate the game to the next level and create a deep, rich, and strategic experience. We want to create highly tactical, heart-stopping battles skillfully fought by civilizations with different weaponry and technologies. We believe this is what the gamers want.
GS: What sort of single-player campaign do you have planned for Empires? Will there be story-based missions?
RG: Several campaigns are under development, each with numerous chapters. Each campaign focuses on the exploits and achievements of a single hero or great commander. The story will unfold like a movie, with a mix of in-game cinematics and gameplay within each chapter. Our goal is to thrust the hero's adventure to the forefront by crafting a story with intrigue, suspense, and character development.
GS: Describe the game's visuals. Is there anything you'd like to say about the underlying technology?
RG: Empires: Dawn of the Modern World is based on a second-generation graphics engine that incorporates several cutting-edge features. Some of these include real-time shadows, night and day cycles, vertex shaders, bump mapped terrain and water, water reflections, and environment reflection mapping. We have also incorporated an all-new advanced physics engine, so tanks recoil and soldiers caught in explosions are blasted into the air.
"What makes the economy in Empires compelling is that each civilization has inherent economic abilities that modify how it harvests and uses resources--or doesn't."
-Rick Goodman, Stainless Steel Studios
The use of texture compression gives us 400 percent more unit detail. In combat, tanks, ships, and soldiers sustain battle damage. The new particle effects engine displays explosion effects, vehicle tracks, footprints, and bloodstains. The camera is fully rotatable, allowing players to zoom down to eye level for an exciting view of the battlefield. We've improved the fog of war, buildings animate, and when ships sink, pieces of wreckage break off and float to the surface.
GS: How much of the multiplayer do you have planned out? Will it have a dedicated player-matching service with a ladder and rankings?
RG: Triple-A matchmaking service is an unquestionable requirement. Empires contains an in-game matchmaking service powered by a third-party application, the same technology that drives Medal of Honor and Battlefield 1942. The game's multiplayer matchmaking features are state of the art, including all the features players expect, plus many advanced features as well.
Empires supports ladders and rankings, but that's not all. We track vast amounts of player information on all games played. This way, players can review the complete gaming history of their friends and foes alike.
GS: How long do you expect a typical match to last?
RG: An empire building game typically lasts one to three hours. An action-oriented two-on-two multiplayer tournament game usually lasts 15 to 45 minutes. As I mentioned previously, the gaming audience is diverse, so we are crafting two different variants for the worldwide gaming audience.
GS: What sort of resource model do you have planned for the game?
RG: In Empires, civilizations harvest historically realistic resources such as farm products, animals, and lumber. On-map resources represent the foundation of the game's economic system, but that's just the beginning. What makes the economy in Empires compelling is that each civilization has inherent economic abilities that modify how it harvests and uses resources--or doesn't. And, each civilization has a unique build order. This is one of the elements we're most excited about, because economy management is such an essential part of an RTS.
GS: How long have you been working on the game? How far along is it?
RG: We began development in 2002. We've come a long way, and we have a long way to go.
GS: Thanks for your time, Rick.