Q&A: Stormrise devs on building a console RTS

Creative Assembly's Ken Turner chats about the high expectations surrounding Stormrise, the challenges of building a console RTS, and what we can expect when the game is released at the end of this month.

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Console real-time strategy games have been enjoying somewhat of a resurgence of late, with Stormrise--a postapocalyptic game developed by Creative Assembly's Australian studio (whose past credits include Medieval II: Total War)--the next in line to come out. We spoke to Ken Turner, project director on Stormrise (and the man behind the initial concept) to see what challenges the Aussie team faced in building a console RTS, what gamers can look forward to with Stormrise's simple control scheme, hints of upcoming downloadable content, and what PC fans can expect from their version.

GameSpot AU: Firstly, why develop an RTS specifically for consoles?

Ken Turner: Mainly because we thought it would be fun. Back then, the current consoles were still yet to be launched (and they looked pretty powerful), and we thought to ourselves: "How can we bring our battlefield expertise from Total War to a larger audience?" So we picked up a PS2 controller, plugged it into a PC, and started prototyping.

The two factions in Stormrise are designed to accommodate different play styles.
The two factions in Stormrise are designed to accommodate different play styles.

GS AU: How long have you been working on developing Stormrise?

KT: Stormrise has been in full development for just over two years. Prior to that, a very small team spent 18 months prototyping the controls and gameplay in a backroom while we were under siege developing Medieval II: Total War.

GS AU: Are there any features that had to be left on the cutting-room floor due to your schedule for the game's release?

KT: Always (and this is a good thing). Something new and innovative always leads to an explosion of ideas. Limited schedules help to make the game stronger because it forces us to focus on what is really important. The test for each feature we asked ourselves: "Does it help me to feel in command?" A line was then drawn between the features that helped to answer the question and those that are extensions of the idea. This way, we kept Stormrise tight and in the best position deliver its core gameplay experience.

GS AU: There will be two factions in the game, the Echelon and the Sai. How are these two balanced?

KT: The factions are designed and balanced to favor different play styles. The Echelon use their superior range and firepower to suppress their enemy and hold them at distance. They have the best technology, with their vehicles being able to transform into different modes in order to take whatever the enemy throws at them.

The Sai, on the other hand, are fast and deadly up close. They are also the masters of stealth, and freely navigate through tight alleyways, on rooftops, and through underground tunnels. Their large beasts are almost unstoppable and freely smash through enemy defensive lines. Using their special powers, they can incapacitate and swarm an unsuspecting enemy.

GS AU: What did you find the most challenging aspect of developing a console RTS?

KT: Apart from the obvious challenges of getting the controller interface right and making it all fit into the tight memory of the consoles, the toughest thing has been to explain to console players that an RTS will work and is cool. Strategy is a very engaging and entertaining genre, but getting the message out there is difficult due to the bad vibe surrounding previous console RTS games.

That's why for Stormrise, we've focused on innovations that were designed to create a new strategy experience on console--for console gamers--and not just a cheap port from PC.

GS AU: What can gamers expect from the PC version of Stormrise? What kind of features will be available?

KT: Stormrise was built from the outset for both the consoles and the PC, and offers innovations to RTS players, regardless of the platform. You can command from the front lines using natural line of sight and explore the tactical advantages of real 3D gameplay in the levels, whether it is with a console controller or a keyboard and mouse.

In fact, whip select with the mouse is a major innovation for the PC all in its own right. In addition to all of this, PC players (with a rig that can handle it) can dial up the resolution and graphics effects to see Stormrise in all its DX10.1 glory.

GS AU: Will there be any DLC for Stormrise in the foreseeable future?

KT: First, we want to get the game in the hands of gamers and have them tell us what they'd like to see for DLC. If players want to know more about where the story goes, then we've got a plan for that. If they want more multiplayer maps and modes, then we can respond. If players want unit packs, UI skins, and the like, we can do that too. We've set up the official community site so that you can talk directly with us about what you'd like to see, to extend your play experience.

GS AU: When you first introduced Stormrise's control scheme, demoed using an Xbox 360, you said that more than 90 percent of the commands can be done using only the two analog sticks and the A button. How do you see this simplified control scheme as an improvement on the PC control scheme?

KT: If you want to play a traditional RTS, then nothing is better than a keyboard and mouse, because that's what we're all used to. PC gameplay hasn't translated well to console because the controllers are poor at providing the type and frequency of commands that the player needs to do. While they are functional, these attempts have either been diluted or really sluggish (or both).

Instead, Stormrise provides a control scheme that is fast and efficient for commanding units using a console controller. This is due to the "whip select" interface that allows you to use the right thumbstick to move quickly between all of your units on the battlefield, even if they are all the way over on the other side of the map. We then set about building a battle game behind it--one that played to the strengths of the console interface.

In some ways, Stormrise is more of a real-time tactics game than an RTS. So, technically we haven't improved on the PC control scheme at all, but instead changed the rules to create an interface and experience that can be enjoyed on all platforms.

GS AU: How big was the team in Brisbane who worked on this? Did you have to hire extra staff or utilise other help as the game's development progressed?

KT: Creative Assembly in Australia has just over 50 full-time staff, although with contractors and casual staff, we peaked at about 80 in the studio during crunch time. On top of this, we also hired external art and animation houses to help out with the movie sequences, along with most of the speech being recorded in Los Angeles.

The toughest thing for Stormrise's developers has been convincing console players that an RTS will work.
The toughest thing for Stormrise's developers has been convincing console players that an RTS will work.

GS AU: RTS games have traditionally had little success on consoles. How have you ensured that Stormrise doesn't just fall by the wayside?

KT: Starting anything new is hard and takes a high degree of commitment and resolve. So, not only have we worked hard to rethink and rebuild a strategy game from the ground up for consoles, we've also set about building a community for Stormrise. It's the gamers who actually adopt new gameplay ideas and help them to grow and blossom. The release of Stormrise is only the beginning of the journey for both the game and the gamers.

GS AU: What do you say to those critics who say console versions of RTS games are just watered-down PC versions?

KT: As for ports of PC RTS games across to console, the critics are right. The gameplay either gets greatly simplified, or the controls end up too convoluted as they try to cram everything in. But simplification is not such a bad thing.

RTS games on the PC have had more than a decade to mature and have developed such an expansive breadth and depth of features that some of them have come to intimidate new players. Maybe this movement back to the simple pleasures of fast, engaging strategy will remind us that there's fun to be had all along the spectrum of RTS gaming.

GS AU: How well do you think Stormrise will be received by gamers who are used to playing RTS games only on the PC?

KT: Probably with a healthy mix of scepticism and intrigue. Stormrise is different to what PC gamers are used to, although if they look at it as having the pace of World in Conflict but with a third-person view, then it might click into place for them. We're also hoping that the natural line of sight and true 3D gameplay will spark the interest of PC players. I've spent a lot of time playing the PC version of Stormrise and it feels really good (and some of the guys in the studio actually prefer it over the console interface).

GS AU: With a few big console RTS games shipping in the past year--such as Halo Wars and Tom Clancy's EndWar--do you think the market for the console RTS is growing? What do you think of those two games?

KT: EndWar should be applauded for breaking the RTS mould, and Halo Wars should be commended for broadening the awareness and demonstrating that RTS on console is a commercial enterprise. While each of them may have their weaknesses, the key is to focus on the things they've done well, because that is where the fun is. I have great respect for the games, the studios, and the publishers who had the foresight to back them.

GS AU: What will be your next project?

KT: At this stage we're still too flat-out putting the final touches on Stormrise to look that far ahead. That said, the studio is certain to have a number of exciting opportunities waiting when it's done.

GS AU: Ken Turner, thanks for your time.

Stormrise will be released in Australia on March 26.

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