Q&A: Steel Soldiers

We catch up with Bitmap Brothers director Mike Montgomery to talk with him about the studios' recently completed 3D real-time strategy game.

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Bitmap Brothers and Eon Digital Entertainment recently announced the completion of their latest 3D real-time strategy game, Steel Soldiers, which is a sequel to the developer's previous real-time strategy game, Z. We caught up with Mike Montgomery, the managing director of Bitmap Brothers, to talk about the game's development process, how the game differs from Z, the parts of the game they wanted to include but couldn't, and Bitmap Brothers' plans for the future.

GameSpot: Now that Steel Soldiers is complete, what single part of the game would you say you are most proud of?

Mike Montgomery: It's hard to put a finger on any one single aspect of the game--the whole experience of developing and watching an idea on paper manifest itself into a living, breathing game with a personality built from the great, talented people still does it for me. Getting to the end of a development and still hearing the cries of "One more game!" from the test and design departments as they battle each other in multiplayer and knowing they'll still be playing it in months to come makes all the blood, sweat, and tears worthwhile. Walking into a store and seeing the game on the shelves is probably the proudest moment of any development!

GS: What do you think Steel Soldiers' single biggest improvement on Z is?

MM: I couldn't single out any one specific point, as we've improved all areas of Z! Simply updating a classic game with sparkly bits wasn't in our mind--we wanted to create a new gaming experience and breathe fresh air into a tired genre. Moving from 2D to a full 3D was challenging, but it's probably the single most noticeable improvement on the original. Trying to keep the territory-based resource system that was used in Z but placing it in a 3D environment was very challenging for us. The fast nature of the game opens up so many more possibilities for the player, but it can be a nightmare for AI players and designers!

AI has been improved tenfold, with air and sea craft now coming into play. Having the AI use them in set patterns simply isn't good enough and not what Z's all about. We wanted the game to feel like you're playing another human opponent. The AI reacts like a player does and won't simply rest on its laurels. It doesn't cheat, and anything the player can do, so can the AI. Coupled with the fantastically detailed and gritty landscape and unit graphics that, unlike most 3D games, actually look part of the environment they are in, the 3D engine really does bring Z screaming and kicking into the next-generation of games.

GS: Looking back, what was the most difficult part of development?

MM: Undoubtedly, the most difficult part was finishing the game. The last four months have been a living hell! We've all been putting in 100-hour weeks for months now trying to get the game finished. We listened to people's feedback on the demo and our testing groups and have been constantly tweaking and improving the game, but its very difficult knowing when to stop and say, "It's finished!" when so many people want to continue to make small improvements. You get to the point in development where you know that one more improvement could completely unbalance a level. You just have to stand up and stay stop! Or we'd still be here at Christmas with the amount of gaming perfectionists in the company!

GS: Is there anything in the game you wanted to include, but didn't have the time or resources to do so?

MM: Absolutely. Z: Steel Soldiers has turned out exactly as we hoped, though there are always some casualties along the way. One of the biggest things we wanted to do but just didn't have the time was adding real-time day and night. It wasn't something decided from the start, but like most games, it was an evolutionary development that we thought it would be a good feature to have if we could make it an integral part of Z. Unfortunately, although technically our 3D engine supports real-time environmental effects and lighting, simply adding day and night aesthetics doesn't add anything more to the experience, and we felt we didn't have the time to implement a system that we would be proud of--a system where the day and night actually made a difference to players' tactics and gameplay.

There are many things that need to be thought about when looking to add what seems to be simple feature. If it's dark, does a unit's line of sight reduce? Can they see lights beyond their normal line of sight? Do weapons need to be tweaked? Can they see lights cast from explosions and react accordingly? Can players turn lights on and off on their vehicles, and if so, does this reduce the unit's ability to navigate properly? It would have a been a nice feature to include, but it just wasn't feasible in the time, and like most of the development on Z, we don't simply want to add effects if it makes little difference to the actual gameplay, which is most important in our books!

GS: What's next for Bitmap Brothers? Are there any plans for an expansion or sequel to Steel Soldiers?

MM: Oh, absolutely. We have so many ideas and designs in development, but naturally they are top secret! Rest assured, they are fantastic concepts, though--although I've directed the design and art departments for our next-generation of titles, I have largely left them to be as creative as they can but keeping in mind the old Bitmap ethos of playable games. I've personally never felt so excited about the future. As for expansion pack or sequel, well, you can never rule them out--there are a million and one ideas we have for an expansion pack! As for a sequel, you never know...

GS: Thanks for your time, Mike.

Steel Soldiers is scheduled for release on June 16 for an approximate retail price of $39.99. For more information, take a look at our previous coverage of the game.

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