After debuting with last year's excellent Star Wars: Empire at War, Las Vegas-based Petroglyph is hard at work on its next real-time strategy game, an alien invasion tale called Universe at War: Earth Assault. Set in 2012, Universe at War will tell the tale of an extraterrestrial invasion. In fact, there will be multiple alien factions, but the only one revealed thus far is the "Hierarchy," an imposing faction that's easy to recognize in the early screenshots thanks to its enormous war machines, known as walkers. To give us our first details about the Hierarchy, we have Adam Isgreen, the game's design director. Universe at War will ship sometime this fall.
Introducing the HierarchyBy Adam Isgreen
Design Director, Petroglyph
From the very first concept meetings for Universe at War, we always wanted there to be a "big" faction. Big weapons, big units, big damage, and big craters left behind. Of course, there were issues with this approach. Could we make a faction that was mostly big, lumbering fortresses? Would they be fun to play if they were as slow as they should be? How would we divide the player's attention between combat and production? These were questions that would take us the next few months to iron out as we refined the first faction for Universe at War, the Hierarchy. In this article, I'll describe some of the processes we employed in creating this faction, from its name and look to the walkers and their methods of use.
We typically work backward when naming our factions. We figure out their personalities and how they will play, then find an appropriate name for that personality. We always wanted the Hierarchy to be a very ruthless, castelike system of slaves and thralls that were constantly kept in line by the fear of the extermination of their race. Ever teasing with rewards, the Hierarchy pits its own thralls and commanders against each other, all vying for recognition and reward from those above. The name Hierarchy was chosen because it describes this kind of operation well--an elite group who holds power over many. For the Hierarchy, it's through sheer power and fear.
Visually, creating an alien race isn't easy. While we were working on its behavior and core aspects, we started creating concept art. We like to pull reference from the real world and what people see, so we started with the classic gray alien. Every unit was a mutation of the gray in some way. This didn't work out. They're just not physically threatening, and when you make them threatening, they lose their gray-ish appeal. This frustrated us for a while until we settled on using thralls for most of the ground combat forces. Suddenly, our unit design was liberated, and we could pull from some very different concepts in order to bolster the Hierarchy's ranks through different alien races with their own looks and behaviors. Although there's still a variant of that original gray in the game, the forces are now much more diverse, each with their own reasons for fighting in the Hierarchy's ranks.
With the look of the massive walker units, we went through several phases. Every early design phase ended up feeling either too dated, too much like a food item, or too similar to some other alien/robot/machine. As our art lead is fond of saying, it's the "year of the walker" in games, it seems. None of the early designs we created sold the look that we needed for a heavy-handed faction such as the Hierarchy. These machines were to be 100-feet tall or higher and capable of traversing almost any terrain, crushing anything in their way; and they had to look cool while doing it. The break finally came when the artists decided to go upward with the walkers instead of outward. That one change led to an almost regal feel to the walkers, which were crowned with tech rather than filled with it. The evolution of that idea is how we arrived at our current walkers, which feel in some ways like feudal armor headpieces, making them all the more ominous as they stomp across the battlefield.
When creating a faction that's all about giant walkers, you have to make sure they live up to the description. It would have been easy to just make a bigger piece of art than a normal unit with a big gun on it, but that's really a disservice to what units of that scale should play like.
First up was to tackle how they move. These things couldn't move like any other unit--they had to laugh at most types of obstacles and cover a lot more terrain with each movement. Inverse kinematics were added to the walker's legs, so they actually land correctly on the terrain as they move over it and can walk up and down cliffs and other obstacles that most units have to go around. This means that relying on rivers and other obstacles to slow their advance won't work when you're fighting them. You'll have to find other ways to slow their advance!
The Goo of WarNext up was to figure out how a player uses walkers. These are not only moving weapon platforms, but they're also key unit production structures. How to balance these completely separate RTS features led us to the customizable hard-point system. Each walker has a number of sockets on its legs and body, and each has a host of leg and body hard points that can attach to them. Some of these hard points boost the walker's weapon and movement behavior, some augment production capabilities, and still others add weapons and other devious methods of attack. The choice of how to customize each type of walker is completely up to the player's personal combat style. Considering the number of upgrades and the possible combinations, players are sure to find a loadout that suits their combat style as they stomp over the battlefield fully armed or sit back with production augments and teleport their thralls to assault the enemy in waves.
Creating the weapons for the Hierarchy was much easier once the walkers and the faction's combat philosophy were established. Since the Hierarchy is a slow-moving side, it really needed to have ways to deny the enemy territory without worrying about parking a lot of units around it. Since we also wanted to portray the Hierarchy as a sloppy side (Hierarchy members would laugh at the idea of sniping), we wanted to give it abilities that played into that attitude.
The natural choice was to have the Hierarchy use heavily radiated weaponry, something caustic to almost every type of life. The reactors of Hierarchy units and walkers use a mutagenic reaction to create energy, and this reaction causes a lot of chemical waste, which is toxic by itself but is also radiated by the reactor process. The result is some very nasty "goo" that the Hierarchy can dump onto the battlefield or fire at units and structures, resulting in damage and lingering radiation effects, some of which can have very unfortunate side effects on organic units. There are also many upgrades in the faction's research trees to radiate its other types of attacks, such as plasma weapons, allowing the Hierarchy to bathe everything it fights in lingering mutagens. This allows the Hierarchy to shut down the map and push its enemies into corners for easy collection.
On the devious side of the Hierarchy are technologies that allow it to embrace its slow pace across the battlefield and still control fights. Where the idea of stealthy or invisible units would be laughed at by Hierarchy scientists, the idea of phasing units is certainly embraced. Although completely obvious by the phased distortion, units in phase can pass through any other solid matter--including other units and even structures--without fear of being attacked. This allows slower units to literally walk right through enemy defenses and hit weaker targets that aren't as protected. Other ruthless technologies, such as mind control, allow the Hierarchy to bend the weaker-willed units on other factions and any civilian units to its will, turning brother against brother and leveraging the civilian population as a weapon against its enemies. Combined with some of the mutagenic effects that radiation can have on civilians, the Hierarchy gains a huge advantage if it gets control of populated areas.
Lastly, I'm going to mention the Hierarchy's resource gathering. It's here on Earth to consume the organic and mineral wealth that Earth offers. To the Hierarchy, the planet appears like one giant buffet, and it couldn't be happier. With few exceptions, everything on the map is a resource for the Hierarchy. Utilizing its smaller reaper walkers, cars, trees, houses, civilians, vehicles, debris, and even cows are all viable resources for the Hierarchy. Of course, not everything is worth the same amount, so players will have to balance what they consume for resources against the time it takes to consume them.
Although the Hierarchy is power hungry and ruthless, scorching the planet with devastating weapons and crushing all its enemies underfoot with massive war machines, you can't help but enjoy the destruction that the faction unleashes. When civilians panic and flee at the sight of your armies, the map is thick with radiation, and you're stomping through an enemy base with your walkers, you can't help but smile at the chaos of it all. Sometimes destruction is just that much more fun.
I hope you've enjoyed this brief glimpse into the creation of the Hierarchy faction for Universe at War: Earth Assault. We look forward to filling you in on our other unique factions and their diverse abilities in the near future.