After more than $27 million and four years of work, Left Behind Games shipped its first game to retailers last month. A real-time strategy game based on a line of Christian novels, Left Behind: Eternal Forces was shunned first by reviewers and then by Christian organizations that claimed the game promoted violence and religious intolerance. The groups called for a boycott and asked Left Behind Games to recall the title.
To assist in creating the sequel, Left Behind Games signed a technology agreement with Big Huge Games, itself a specialist in the real-time strategy genre. In addition to creating the highly regarded Rise of Nations and its spin-off, Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, Big Huge Games was founded by a quartet of developers who worked together on genre staples like Alpha Centauri and Civilization II.
Left Behind Games CEO and cofounder Troy Lyndon spoke with GameSpot about the details of the Big Huge Games deal, Eternal Forces' chilly reception from reviewers, and how he feels now that his game has joined the ranks of Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat, and other titles to draw the ire of concerned watchdog groups.
GameSpot: What prompted you to go to Big Huge Games for the Left Behind sequel?
Troy Lyndon: Actually, we've been in discussions with them for more than 18 months. We are big fans of the Rise of Nations products, and we especially appreciate that they are making family-friendly games.
GS: What exactly are you licensing from them?
TL: It's the most sophisticated, advanced RTS engine available. And, in fact, we're licensing it before any other licensor. They do expect to offer it to other game studios sometime next year, but we are the first.
GS: Is it the same engine that powered Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends?
TL: I can't say that it's identical, but I will say that it's built upon the framework of Rise of Nations and Rise of Legends.
GS: Is it just technology you're licensing from Big Huge Games, or is there any kind of design work involved in the agreement?
TL: There is a small team of technical personnel that is a requirement of our agreement that will be working with us specifically on our project until it is completed. And that is one of the things that makes it far more comprehensive and expansive than a typical technology deal: The fact that we actually have Big Huge Games staff developing our game to ensure that the technology uses the very latest of what they have to offer. And personally, I think that's the only model for real success in technology licensing, when you get the licensor to buy in enough on your project to say "OK, I'll give you staff."
GS: After investing so heavily in creating the Left Behind engine from scratch, why switch gears and start using someone else's technology now?
TL: We have specially built our game in such a manner that the technology behind it is separate from what makes it work as an RTS. Accordingly, we can change from one engine to another without a complete rewrite of the code. And we don't suffer from a [fear of outside technology] that a lot of other studios do.
GS: What do you think of the reviews that Left Behind game has received so far?
TL: We understand that being a first-time company in a segment as competitive as real-time strategy, that we have something to prove. We didn't expect coming right out of the chute that we would have a megahit on our hands, but instead [wanted] to provide the framework by which we could come out with a better product.
Before March even rolls around, before Easter, everybody that gets the current game and does an update is actually going to see [substantially improved visuals in the] game world [without changing graphics files]. And it'll be a pretty significant download, but a lot of game companies would release that by itself as an expansion pack or some kind of enhancement that you'd have to pay for.
I'm so excited about it because it's visually stunning. I'm looking at the prototypes and we're developing those new light maps so that visually it really brings the game up to date. And that's only two or three months from now. And that brings the game pretty much up to date with other games in the same genre, visually speaking.
As well, we're releasing a 1.04 patch before Christmas that really fixes all of the objections that are not visually specific, including pathfinding and other issues. I would have to say that your criticism has really been well received, because it's a cause our developers who really have a passion to make a product to dive in and fix those issues before Christmas, when gamers get their games under the tree.
GS: What about the critical reactions from Christian groups?
I'm glad you mentioned that. Focus on the Family just came out with a review a week ago or so, and they basically gave us all thumbs up. They investigated all the claims made by the so-called "concerned-for-Jihad" people [laughs] and they were basically able to debunk it. The reality is that everybody who is throwing stones, they literally have never played the game because literally 100 percent of their claims are bogus.
We have distributed tens of thousands of demo discs that are being handed out by youth pastors at churches throughout the nation, and this is getting widespread approval across all Christian boundaries. And there's always a small percentage in any faith that like to speak out about things because they passionately believe in something that may or may not be true. I'd speak out too if somebody said "this game allows you to kill Jews and Buddhists" and all that. I'd be freaking out. I appreciate their concerns, but they clearly just haven't played the game.
GS: Being criticized by groups with these concerns who haven't played the game puts you in the company of games like Grand Theft Auto or Mortal Kombat.
TL: Well the reality is that Grand Theft Auto is successful because it's a great game to play. The fact that it has a storyline that's less than parents would want their kids to play with is secondary to the gaming experience. It's my belief that five years from now, when the graphics are no longer cartoonish, then it will really be potentially [worrying]--including images that are so real that it could really mess up a kid. But until we're there, I think kids are smart enough to know the difference between reality and fiction.
We may not always agree on the idea that our games are impacting the culture, but once you create something that looks as real as a special effect in a movie, we do have some responsibility to realize that kids below a certain age shouldn't see certain stuff.
I don't believe that government should be involved in articulating what we do, but I think we need to crack down harder on people that allow kids to play games that are Mature without parental consent, if there is a way to do that. But politicians just take the whole thing and blow it out of proportion. There's something a lot worse in the world--pornography on the Internet--that kids have access to. It's a lot more damaging I think to the sexual development of a kid than seeing some cartoon violence in a game. But because it's politically correct to speak out about a video game, they'll do that and ignore this issue of kids having access to pornography literally in 30 seconds or less if they want it on the Internet.
GS: How's the commercial reaction been to the game so far?
TL: Sales have been--for a PC title--very good. I would say there's only one other reason they haven't been better than very good, and that is simply education. We're having to educate the Christian retailers that have never seen a quality game that will actually sell that they should take this into their store. And we're doing it one store at a time.
Down the street, a guy who owns a Christian book store sold more copies of our game than literally all the major retailers combined in the same region. If that's indicative of our future, I think we're going to sell more copies than you can imagine next year. We've already started a campaign to other Christian book stores, and we're getting a similar reaction. People are ordering 18 at a time.
GS: What kind of luck are you having with the more mainstream retailers?
TL: According to Target's buyer, they are very satisfied with the results of the sale of our product. I can honestly tell you every week we're getting reorders, and that's a tremendous sign of confidence that we've created something that the mainstream is accepting and buying.
GS: When can we expect the second Left Behind game to come out?
TL: Right now that's scheduled for July of '08.