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Adam Isgreen has been kicking around the games industry for a decade and a half, spending a good chunk of that time working on the Command & Conquer series.  More recently though he's had a hand in Star Wars Empire at War, and, even more recently, Universe at War: Earth Assault, the latest title from Petroglyph Games.  Adam spared us some of his time to tell us about the ins and outs of developing Universe at War in the Post Mortem Q&A.  We also get the skinny on the game's genesis, what source material was drawn upon, the changes that happened along the way, the idea that the real-time strategy genre has been dumbed down for consoles, play balancing, and multiplayer, and so much more in this massive interview.




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"Universe at War: Earth Assault" Post Mortem Q&A


First the introductions, who are you, what was role on Universe at War: Earth Assault, how long have you worked in the games industry and what other games have you worked on?

I’m Adam Isgreen, Creative Director at Petroglyph Games.  I’ve been in the games industry for 15 years, and have worked on a lot of the Command & Conquer series as well as RPGs, FPS, and a bunch of stuff in-between.  You can look me up on mobygames.com for an almost complete list of what I’ve done over the years.


From the initial drunken doodle on the back of a napkin, how far back does Universe at War’s development go?

Over three years.  As we were finishing up Empire at War, the guys wanted to pay homage to many of their RTS roots.  Originally, the game was pitched as almost a real-time version of OGRE, the Steve Jackson tabletop game.  A massive alien tank vs. human military forces.  The idea partially stemmed from the capital ships in Empire at War.  Everyone loved how they played and the hardpoint pinpointing when attacking them.  That plus the idea of giant war machine led to the Hierarchy, which was really the first faction we created for Universe at War.  The main question from the start was simply: can we make a faction of nothing but capital ships?


How has Universe at War changed from the initial stages to its final release?

The removal of the human military as a faction was a big change for the game.  We wanted to give more space to other RTS games like C&C3, which through a good portion of our pre-production hadn’t yet been announced, so we had initially proceeded under the assumption that there was not going to be a C&C3.  That shift was a large change to the faction balance and story of course, because one faction was removed in favor of our planned expansion faction, the Masari.  I had to rework all three factions quite a bit to make up for the different abilities and powers that the Masari were going to have rather than what the military was going to use.  In the end, it freed us up to have more fun with the factions, but it was a major change!


Another large change was the removal of a very X-Com like “collect and research” system that was intrinsic to every faction.  I’m going to attach two images to this doc from my initial design spec on the system.  I tend to do system design in a comic-like manner in Visio because I’ve found that most programmers don’t like to read multi-page design docs.  This should give you an idea of how complicated some of the systems in Universe at War were planned to be when the game first got under way.  Although I like the idea of the system, it’s crazy-complex for an RTS.  For a slower paced game that was built around this concept, sure.  I’m pretty amazed to read back on this doc and think “wow, I thought this would be easy?!”  It’s amazing how iteration works.


At the end of the day, the research system we ended up with is much more appropriate for a fast-paced RTS like Universe at War.  Many times, the cuts and revisions allow you to trim excessive stuff to the “core fun”, and this system alone is a good example of that!


universe at war post mortem          universe at war post mortem

A behind-the-scenes look at Universe at War's design spec.


Sega’s not known for publishing real-time strategy games, yet they backed Petroglyph on this project.  How did that relationship come about?

I wasn’t privy to all the dealings at that point of the negotiations, so I can’t really say how that came about.


This is that typical softball question where you get to laud praise on the publisher – did you guys on the development side get along with those



on the publisher side?

Yes, absolutely.  SEGA gave us a lot of autonomy to create our game and the factions.  They interjected on things they felt went too far in any direction, but for the most part we were free to create what we wanted.  This is of course good and bad.  When the creators themselves have to be their own editors and critics, there’s a lot of


burden put on making good early choices and being able to kill your own crazy ideas that would push the game development too far down a bad tangent.


The alien forces in Universe at War are very different from each other.  How many concept drawings were played around with before each unit for each faction was finalized?

The Hierarchy was the first faction created, and the first walker we created went through at least five major overhauls before we arrived at the current look we have.  We tried everything from 50’s sci-fi looks to spiky “modern” alien looks, and a lot in-between.  We had a walker at one point that looked like a legged hamburger.  I’ve included some images of several early walker sketches so you can see some of the crazy stuff we threw around at first.


universe at war post mortem          universe at war post mortem

A couple of concept drawings of Universe at War's Hierarchy Walkers.


How long did it take to get Universe at War up and running? And did the speed of that help or hinder the game’s development?

Coming off of Empire at War, we had a test-bed running quickly for things like the walkers (a major hurdle), but other parts of the game took longer to come online than we would have liked.  I think that we underestimated the amount of work it would take to get some of the core RTS mechanics back into the engine that Empire at War didn’t have in it.  Base building and resource collection was almost non-existent in that series, so we had to re-code all of that in.


We also had some challenges with networking that set us back a lot longer than we would have liked.  Midway through the project, we switched from Demonware to LIVE, and that caused delays in getting stable multiplayer, which of course impacted everything down from there.  It was a challenge to get everything back in place.  It’s really a testament to the team that we were able to get it back to a solid functional state and have time to balance multiplayer as well as we did.


With the radically different sides, you guys must have spent ages play balancing.  How much of a challenge was that?

It was THE challenge.  For better or worse, everything was secondary to getting a good balance between the factions.  We knew we were trying things a bit outside what had been done before in RTS games, and that in order to pull it off, the balance had to be there for all three factions from the moment it launched.  That’s not to say it was perfect, but that it was a lot closer than other games have launched with, and close enough that most players would have a great time regardless of which faction they chose to play.  Chris Rubyor, our lead multiplayer designer, put a lot of time and effort into the balance, and I think it certainly paid off.


universe at war          universe at war earth assault


One of the differences I noticed about Universe at War, even at E3 2007, was how close the player is to the action.  There’s a limited ability to zoom out, which makes the game feel overly crowded in some battles (basically anything involving a Hierarchy base) and I found the inability to see my entire base at a glance off-putting.  Obviously Petroglyph was satisfied with the level of camera functionality, but was reaching that point a long process and what concerns did you have along the way?

From the start, our goal was to create a more intimate experience rather than detach the player from their units by giving them an extreme battlefield view.  We weren’t making a thousand-unit game, and we knew we were going to have a lot of diverse unit abilities, and with them, visuals to show their function.  Our game is very unit and ability-centric, and we never wanted to have a situation where you didn’t know why you got stomped on by an opponent because you were zoomed out at the time.


We were very worried about the camera distance throughout the entire project, but we found that most players didn’t mind it – even with the walkers – after a few games.  I think in some ways RTS these days has become more about what the last game released did (and not in your series, either) rather than taking the new game on its own terms.  We wanted walkers to be big and obnoxious, and keeping the camera in on them gave them even more of that psychology.


That said, after fixes and tweaks, we’ve moved the camera out in the next Universe at War patch by 22%, which still maintains the intimacy that we were originally after, while also satisfying players that think we’re in too close.  A happy compromise.


Universe at War will soon see its release on the Xbox 360 and will support cross-platform play with PC players.  There are some in the industry that suggest the RTS has been dumbed-down as a genre to allow console gamers to use a controller to play.  Agree or disagree using Universe at War as an example.

/opens can of worms


Disagree.  Universe at War was designed first and foremost as a PC game.  The original design didn’t make any reference to a console version, nor did it even occur to us to make the initial game more console-friendly.  We certainly took some risks with what we did and did not include in the PC controls because we wanted to evolve the play experience from what came before.  In the end, some things worked well, some didn’t.  I find it amusing that some people in our forums look at our UI and think it was modeled for the console first and that the console version impacted the PC’s UI.  Bzzt!  Wrong.


If you take a look at our 360 UI, you’ll see it’s radically different than the PC version.  So ask yourself – if we had designed the game from the ground up to be a 360 game as well, why on earth would the UI be so radically different in each version?  Do you really think we wanted to make twice the work for ourselves? =)


As for some claiming that RTS is being dumbed-down… uh… huh?  In point, most PC RTS games have gotten nothing but MORE complicated over the years.


Individual unit special abilities, sub-groups, research, upgrading, waypoint plotting, build queuing, tactical zoom levels, unit upgrades, strategic view, galactic view, unit inventory, hero units, veterancy, fleet / squad management, formations, persistent troops… I can go on and on.  I don’t recall Dune II, C&C, or Warcraft having any of those things when the genre was “new”.


So the real question is – does all that stuff we’ve added really make the game more fun, or just more esoteric, catering to those that define complication as fun? Are we attracting more people to RTS games, or driving them further away?  Is RTS simply about complication these days?  Why?  Why isn’t it about fun?


One way to look at RTS on the console is that the field is still wide open, and everyone is trying different things to see what clicks with gamers.  Our focus for Universe at War 360 was to not emulate a mouse with a control stick.  Mouse control doesn’t equal fun on a console, it’s just that simple.  Additionally, we took a group-centric “macro to micro” approach to the control, whereas almost every PC RTS and current console RTS is “micro to macro”, since they all started with a base control device (a mouse) that is inherently a micro control device.


You can’t blame the evolution process, but RTS will have a rough transition into the future, as its core control mechanics from its very early days are inherently flawed for console purposes.


So in the end, you could look at the transition of RTS from PC to console as “dumbing down” of the genre, but really that’s completely inaccurate.  The evolution of RTS from PC to console is all about re-discovering the core fun of the genre while stripping away the redundancy, over-complication, and bloat that has been attaching itself to RTS games over the years.  If anything, I’m glad that console is becoming dominant for gaming because it’s going to force some evolution on a genre that has been fairly static for quite some time.  We need to grow the RTS market and bring in new players, not isolate it further into eventual niche obscurity.


hierarchy walker concept          hierarchy walker concept drawing

More concept drawings of the Hierarchy Walker.


There’s a decided sense of B-movie fun about Universe at War, yet there is strategy involve in many instances throughout.  Was it difficult walking the line between hardcore strategy and making the game fun and accessible for a wider audience?

Well, we pretty much knew any hope of a completely serious game went out the window when the Military faction was removed and the Masari added half-way through development.  There’s only so many “incredible coincidences” you can string together before plausibility goes out the window.  I could see someone buying the Hierarchy invasion on Earth, and even Novus’ arrival on their heels as the avengers of their race… but when the Masari then show up… from our own ocean… it becomes a bit too preposterous at that point.  We realized that the original vision of a more serious storyline just wouldn’t work at that time.  So, we abandoned it and went with something a bit lighter.  The original game was very dark, very Deus Ex with all its factions in shades of grey, and depressing, really.  It revolved around a really neat paradox, though!


Originally, we also had a lot more humorous responses for the units in place as well, but they were just way too over-the-top.  We’d smile the first time we heard them, then wince every time thereafter.  Striking that mix of fun and serious was challenge in almost every regard.


We wanted the strategy to come from the use and function of the units, not necessarily by steeping the game in gloom and apocalypse.  I think we hit a nice balance in the play and responses of the units, the over-the-top weapons and abilities, mixed with the diversity of units and their play.


Petroglyph’s title prior to Universe at War was Star Wars: Empire at War. How did that experience prepare you or the company for Universe at War?  And what did it teach you about what the team did and did not want in Universe at War?

We knew we wanted to get back to making a very core RTS experience, encompassing a lot of the stuff that Empire at War didn’t focus on – base building, unit production, resource acquisition, etc.  We also wanted to make very diverse RTS factions, as far as possible to just see what could be done in that space.


What it taught us we didn’t want was as much global game play as we had in Empire.  The global UI in Empire was complicated and difficult to pull information from.  Sure, we simplified it and iterated on it, but it was still hard to manage.  We wanted more focus on combat and less on management at that level.  All of the simplification we did in Universe at War in organizing the fleets under heroes and creating some unique territory upgrades was in effort of getting to the real fun of the global game and removing some of the complexity.


Considering that both have pitfalls, is it easier to work with an established IP or create your own?

In the end of the day, working with an established IP is harder up front since you have to fit the big ideas into the established lore.  This is especially true when there’s lore canon, ret-conning, and entire branches of a company devoted to just the lore of the IP.


Working with new stuff is easier at because you set the rules, but you have to become your own worst customer, otherwise you risk making something that is inaccessible to gamers.


Having worked on both franchises and original IP, I’ll have to split the difference and say both are fun.  The quality of the established franchise has a lot of power over the call, though.


universe at war walker concept art

One more piece of Hierarchy Walker concept art.

Does Sega or Petroglyph own the intellectual rights to Universe at War?

SEGA owns the Universe at War brand.


What were the biggest influences on Universe at War?  (I’m thinking books, movies, games, etc.)

X-com was a large original influence.  The C&C series, StarCraft, Terminator films, Apple Inc., conspiracy theories from around the net, myths and legends from multiple cultures… and a host of sci-fi films and television all played a part.


How would the development process be different for Universe at War if you knew then what you know now?

Wow.  Um, well for one I don’t think we’d be using the online service that we’re using at present for the PC version.  Although LIVE has a lot to offer, the PC version of it is lacking in several areas and doesn’t deliver what PC players are used to for an on-line PC game.  It’s a name synonymous with 360 games, not PC.


With so much going on in Universe at War the team must have cut out a lot due to time constraints and whatnot.  With the thought that there could be an expansion or two in the pipeline and that some of those ideas might show up later, tell us about something that was cut and will never appear.

Well, the research system I mentioned earlier will never happen at this point.  I like our final implementation much better in just about every regard.  The other thing that we tossed around and discarded completely is the idea of a space combat layer.  It’s just too much for the current game, and some factions don’t really lend themselves to a space game at all.  If that was ever to take place in Universe at War’s universe, it would be more of a stand-alone game rather than a new piece added to the current one.


What’s the game development equivalent to “Measure twice, cut once?”

If you’re still drawing blood, you can cut more.


How many gallons of coffee did the development team drink during the development cycle?

Oh god.  Way too much.  Starbucks has us to thank for any profit they saw these last two years.  I just wish they had decent Chai.  =P


What would you say was the most important gaming innovation of 2007?

The Wii controller.  You will never see truly new types of games until a new controller breaks existing paradigms of how players can interface with games.  The RTS genre really came into its own back in the day because of the mouse, and since then there’s really been no control innovations.  Even most modern consoles are in the 2-stick, 4 face button rut, and I applaud Nintendo for trying to break that paradigm.


Thanks for your time, Adam !


And be sure to check our review of Universe at War: Earth Assault.


(February 29, 2008)



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