As we've learned over many years of strategy games, the real-time strategy genre is replete with creative possibilities. Last month during the Game Developer's Conference, I chatted with representatives from both Oxide Games and BonusXP Games about their current strategy projects, and the visits were pleasant reminders of how a single genre can provide a framework for many different ideas and tempos. The Oxide game in question was Ashes of the Singularity; The BonusXP game was Servo. Both games intrigue me--but for very different reasons.
Servo: Quick Matches, Big Robots, and Loud Explosions
If you know the name Bruce Shelley, then it's probably because you know Ensemble Studios, the celebrated (and now defunct) developer of Age of Empires and Halo Wars. BonusXP is one of several studios that rose from Ensemble's ashes--a 20-member studio half-comprised of Ensemble veterans, including Shelley, a veritable game development hall-of-famer. It's not so surprising that BonusXP would be making a strategy game; what's more unusual is that its game, Servo, represents a thematic departure from Ensemble's work. Halo Wars aside, that studio was known for grand historical strategy with a serious tone. Servo, on the other hand, is a lighthearted game about big customizable mechs blowing each other up in matches that end in a matter of minutes.
BonusXP CEO Dave Pottinger, another Ensemble veteran, joined Shelley to show me Servo in action, and the first game I was reminded of was Relic's excellent Dawn of War II, in part because you customize servos--that is, the giant armored suits that give the game its name--by equipping and customizing them just as you do with Dawn of War II's space marines. Pottinger, on the other hand, more likens these piloted servos to Warcraft III's hero units. "The actions that your servo has in the game are partly defined by what you equip," says Pottinger, adding that it's a process that occurs between matches. There are slots for shields, fist weapons, and so forth, each servo made up of many modules that allow you to attach the bits and baubles that best suit your style.
Given this level of customization, however, it was difficult for me to completely let go of the Dawn of War II comparisons, and according to Pottinger, many others have also noticed the similarities. Given those similarities, and the uniquely customizable servos, it was hard not to imagine even more ways to personalize those bots, in the way that I can paint Warhammer miniatures and make them truly mine. Pottinger laughs; apparently, just the week before, a BonusXP staff staffer had blogged on that very subject. "That's exactly the feeling we want you to have, is that this servo team is your boys," says Pottinger. Adds Shelley, "I think that's a real strong thing. Personalizing your gaming experience is a big deal."
When Servo launches, however, cosmetic customization will be limited. There will be somewhere between 500 and 1,000 servo parts in the game when it releases to Steam Early Access later this year, but not nearly as many vanity objects, though Pottinger says that they will inevitably follow. Says Pottinger, "It's a game, from the gameplay standpoint, about self-expression."
Of course, Servo is about more than just preparing for battle; it's also about seeing how many fireworks you can create by blowing enemies up with your metal behemoths. On the battlefield, the Dawn of War II comparisons begin to break down. You do command your servo(s), of course, but base-building is still an important component. You and your enemies are fighting over a resource called bloom, which you collect from the bloomwells that dot the combat arena. To utilize that resource and build a small army of drones, healing beacons, and defensive turrets, you order structures to be dropped onto the map from the heavens above. Says Pottinger, "An RTS for us, it's about buildup. It's a shorter buildup, and it's compressed, and it's more automated, but it's still there. If I want to go heavy on drones, for instance, I'm going to need thousands of resources to pump into that. Otherwise, I can spend that on fences. It's about strategy, it's that choice, and the idea of being at the head."
Just how short is that buildup? Says Pottinger, "An Age game used to be 45, 60 minutes. Our Servo game is about 10, give or take. So in that same time period, you're playing three or four games. Every game you play, you earn some parts for your servos." He adds that players respond well to exciting onscreen physics and bright explosions, a lesson Ensemble learned when creating Age of Empires III. "Big giant robots blowing stuff up is great," says Pottinger, and it's hard to argue with a solid hypothesis like that. I certainly witnessed a lot of explosions while watching Shelley maneuver his servos and drones around the map.
Personalizing your gaming experience is a big deal.Bruce Shelley
You'll witness explosions across all of Servo's game modes: a single-player campaign, skirmishes, cooperative battles, and of course, competitive battles as well. But across every mode, Pottinger wants to keep the pace lively, using the game's role-playing elements to keep players coming back for more. "We like that interplay [between the RTS and RPG elements], and that's what the whole cycle is. It's not 'just go play for ten minutes, and then I'm done.' It's 'play a game for ten minutes, I'll go tweak my guys, play another game.' That whole half an hour where you play three or four games and you're thinking about tweaking all your guys. That's what a game session is in Servo."
Genre-based similarities aside, it's hard to imagine an RTS more different from Shelley and Pottinger's previous games. Even the exaggerated, cartoonish art style represents a noticeable departure, and I asked the men how important it was to make a bold statement that distinguishes their new work from their old. "Bonus is around because we wanted to go make something new," responds Pottinger. "New and highly polished. The Age games had a lot of ways to play. We wanted something that. We love Age, and there's a lot of Age in this. It's definitely boiled down, and it's going to be cast around this idea of a shorter experience. Age 3 with the home city was our first attempt at progression with an RTS. Maybe it didn't go so well, but we've been working at it for a long time, and it's definitely a better rendition of that."
"But I think you're right," Pottinger continues. "It's hard to have 100-foot mechs and not have it be a little bit more lighthearted than a long back look at the Dark Ages through the Middle- and Coal Ages." Adds Shelley, "It reminds me of Alien, when they're joking in their pod. It's a serious, scary movie, but they're telling jokes, right? There's the humor of the battlefield for someone. I get this sort of feeling here."
Ashes of the Singularity: How Many Units Can One Screen Depict?
What I saw of Ashes of Singularity wasn't so much a game so much as an engine, a real-time display of the technology powering the upcoming strategy game. But what an impressive display it was, featuring thousands of hovering vessels of various sizes firing lasers at each other across a vast land map. Brad Wardell, CEO of Ashes publisher Stardock, and Oxide Games' Brian Wade were on hand to walk me through what to expect from the game's insanely massive battles, and the ensuing discussion was more technical than systemic. I am still not sure I know what Ashes is all about, huge laser-light shows notwithstanding, but given the number of units the game lets you control at once, the possibilities are vast.
Rather than summarize, however, allow me to quote Wardell directly regarding the Direct X 12-powered delights.
Says Wardell, "Every single shot is a light source. Let's say your typical game for a console or PC may have four light sources. [Ashes of the Singularity] has around seventeen hundred light sources on it simultaneously. These explosions you see here are not drawn. They are actual effects of smoke being lit by light. It is simulating an actual explosion, rather than a bunch of images of an explosion that an artist drew. Every turn on the ships does it's own target tracking. The player can control either individual ships, which would be insane, or what they do is combine them together into what we call meta units. You take your individual ships, based on what each one will do. Some will have better range, some do protection, some have anti-air, some have special abilities you might want to use. You put them together and they become a meta unit that work together. It's not like a control group where it's just a blob of units, it's every unit in the meta unit knows about each other, so when you give it an objective, the unit AI each goes off and does its thing."
Phew. It's easy to refer to Supreme Commander and Total Annihilation when talking about a game that puts so many units into the fray, but Ashes of the Singularity makes Supreme Commander look positively dinky. "StarCraft has a lot of units, might have a hundred. Supreme Commander might have had three, four hundred on the screen. This may have tens of thousands of units in game." As for the meta units, "They can be as few or as many [units] as you want," says Wardell. "On a basic level, a meta unit would be a single, what we call a T2, a cruiser, and a couple frigates, and what makes a meta unit different from, say, a control group, is that a meta unit knows about the other units, and it's hierarchical. There is a queen bee, and she has lieutenants, and they work together as a single unit with a single objective."
Wardell adds, "Literally, the last game that had a lot of units on the screen was maybe Supreme Commander, and that's an order of magnitude difference."
Those are big shoes to fill, of course, and the idea of commanding an army of this size sounds absolutely intimidating at first. But Ashes of the Singularity has more tools beyond meta units to keep the masses of ships and drones in check. "That's where the empire tree from Sins of a Solar Empire comes in," says Wardell, "because in Sins you dealt with a lot of units. Not with this many, but you dealt with a lot, and what we wanted to do is, we wanted the user interface should lend itself so that you can use these units intelligently without it becoming frustrating, because this is a game of strategy. From a game mechanics point of view, you could almost describe it as a cross between, say, Sins or Total Annihilation and Company of Heroes, in that regions have specific resources that I need to capture. You must control a contiguous set of regions back to your seed, your home base, to gather those resources, and we introduced a concept that we call victory points so that players can control the length of their game that they want. In a world where people want to play a game that lasts thirty minutes or twenty minutes for streaming purposes, and a game that could last a week. If they're playing single player, we want them to be able to do both, and so those give us the tools to do that."
Literally, the last game that had a lot of units on the screen was maybe Supreme Commander, and that's an order of magnitude difference.Brad Wardell
As Wardell and I chat, I stare at the screen loaded with futuristic ships firing at each other, and something strikes me: these are all land units, yet they all hover. None of them seems to touch the ground, and I wonder how important this detail might be in Ashes' pathfinding systems. Getting thousands of units to navigate around each other must be an absolute nightmare, and as it happens, hovering is a key component in solving potential bottlenecks. Says Wardell, "Dan Baker and Brian Wade pioneered the terrain system that we got together, so there's a couple interesting things about the terrain and pathfinding. One is, the way we build maps, we've already got pathfinding information, so we know how to get from one area to the other smartly, if you will, so we've already pre-calculated pathfinding for the majority of the map. We know where everyone's going, it's actually a pretty efficient cost for us. We basically do that up front and then you have to pay for that during the real time."
Both Wardell and Wade describe to me in some detail how the pathfinding operates, taking time to tout the game's true line of sight and procedurally generated maps. Wardell also mentions that while the game looks and performs its best on Direct X 12, it will run on Direct X 11, albeit with fewer bells and whistles. Meanwhile, I look back to the screen, getting lost in the sheer amount of space-age activity, which proves eerily hypnotic, and I wonder if my PC will be ready for this when Ashes of the Singularity makes its way to Steam Early Access this summer. There's no way I will settle for the lesser version of this impressive technological showcase--not after seeing what's possible. I am still not sure I have a handle on how Ashes will play, but for now, Stardock and Oxide have allowed the tech to speak for itself. And as it happens, it made for an impressive argument.