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The folks at Stainless Steel sure know how to make a strategy game.  They had a great effort with Empire Earth, now they have a new entry into the world of strategy gaming with Empires: Dawn of the Modern World for the PC.  We had a chance to ask the team about what to expect from the experience and boy did they have a lot to say.  We'd like to thank Rick Goodman, Jon Alenson, Mike Echino, Richard Bishop, Shawn Frison, Jonny Ebbert, and Nate Jacques for their time in answering our Q&A.  Now without further ado, here's the interview.

 

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Empires: Dawn of the Modern World Q&A

Question #1:

The gaming press has already begun to praise Empires: Dawn of the Modern World for the balance it has achieved between societies with very diverse abilities and tech trees. How did Stainless Steel Studios achieve that balance?

Rick Goodman – Game Designer

At Stainless Steel, we have a five-phase methodology for game balancing.  Our process commences first with the establishment of base unit families.  This is followed by the preparation of unit relationship diagrams.  Then, we enter and analyze spreadsheet data.  Lastly, we perform in-game tactical testing, followed by in-game strategic testing.  Each step in the process is exacting and detailed.  This process was designed to ensure that the role and lethality of every unit in the game is carefully assessed against every other unit in the game.  Each phase introduces progressively more variables into the play balance equation.  On previous titles, this entire process took over a year to accomplish.

However, this game has challenged the heart and soul of our design methodology.  In fact, almost everything we have learned over the last five years about game balancing is now obsolete or invalid.  Empires: Dawn of the Modern World has forced us to start from scratch and develop an entirely new methodology.  The reason is this: we used to be able to compare the combat strength of e.g., German cavalry to English cavalry; the German tech tree to the English tech tree; the German economy to the English economy.  We knew that if each of the individual components was balanced, then the entire civilization was balanced. 

The reason this methodology works so well just happens to be its very undoing when applied to Empires: Dawn of the Modern World.  The civilizations are entirely unique, so, by their very nature, civilizations should have un-balanced economies, technologies, units, wonders, and abilities.  Each civilization has marvelous strengths but also weaknesses.  One civilization’s dominant economy is balanced by another civilization’s powerful technologies.  We want to achieve exquisite balance “on the whole”, instead of on a unit-by-unit level.  We think this makes the game fun to play and is a hallmark of a challenging, deep and competitive title.  

Question #2:

How were the different societies chosen, and how will all of these societies -- particularly the United States -- fit within a game that spans 1,000 years of
history?

Jon Alenson – Lead Designer

 

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One of the posters we have up around here for inspiration is a 6 foot tall historical timeline that lists all of history’s great civilizations.  It shows the cultural roots that they arose from, their periods of dominance and the branch civilizations that sprouted up from their eventual decline.

It’s called a Civilization tree but it really looks more like a bed of snakes, where the biggest fattest snake represents the biggest strongest civilization.  We’ve always enjoyed it, mostly because it’s a really fun reference.

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When we started brainstorming ideas for a project after Empire Earth, Rick pointed to the poster and said, “I want the new game to be like this.”  Instantly, we all agreed that that made for a really great goal and all the team’s work was directed at bringing that poster to life for players.

Picking the Civs was easy.  After selecting our timeline, we checked the poster for the biggest strongest Civilizations of their day.  Then we researched them and did a design review on which ones would be the most unique and fun for players to experience.  The discussions on this took a long time.  I know from the forums that everyone has a favorite Civ that they insisted absolutely has to be in this game.  It all boiled down to fun.  What’s the point, we asked ourselves, in giving players Civilization options if they all end up playing the same way in the game?  I don’t think you’ll find two more different Civilizations than the English and the Koreans, and what’s more important, they are both lots of fun to play.  Once gamers experience the Civ’s we decided on, I’m sure they’ll agree that we chose correctly.

Now, the last partial question asks: how can we get the US into a game about 1000 years of history.  For us it was easy but it turns out that gamers perceive this as some sort of revolutionary idea.  We went back to our friend, Mr. Poster, and traced the cultural and historical roots of the US.  (Hint: the US was colonized by England.)  When the appropriate Age comes in the game, the English player’s civilization is offered the opportunity to continue on as the United States and take on the attributes of that nation.  By the way, the English player also has the option of continuing on and becoming the United Kingdom, if desired.  This is the way history works.  Civilizations rise and fall and evolve.  And from the great Civilizations of the past new one constantly arise.  All we did was put this into the game for players to experience for themselves.  And this touch of realism makes the game a lot more interesting then seeing Frankish aircraft patrolling a WW2 sky.

Question #3:

Does Empires: Dawn of the Modern World carry forward any innovations from Empire Earth?

Mike Echino – Multiplayer Designer

The 1st thing we did in the early design stages of Empires: Dawn of the Modern World was create a master document of all the innovations from EE and decide upon which ones we liked best and which we believed could be improved. We felt we had a good grasp on what worked well and what didn’t and in the end we decided we definitely wanted to continue developing games that span a large amount of history. Empires: Dawn of the Modern World accomplishes this and then some by spanning the most exciting time periods in human history (Medieval Age - World War Two).

Without a doubt, the biggest innovation we carried forward was the choice  of playing a Tournament or Standard game variant.  After all, why limit your potential audience to players who like to build large empires and play defensively when you can also create a game that appeals to hardcore gamers who love rushing and playing shorter games? We knew our fans who enjoyed the standard “Empire Builder” variant liked the mining limit on gathering mineral resources and the realistic turn rates of units, so we carried those and other innovations forward for that variant to allow players to play more-epic games.  For the Tournament or “Action” variant, we increased the number of miners allowed per mine and speed at which units turn, and decreased the cost of going from one age to the next.  These and other design decisions give the Action variant a faster pace.  Together, the two variants make Empires: Dawn of the Modern World a game for everyone!

Question #4:

Stainless Steel Studios, led by Rick Goodman, has a reputation for helping establish the Historical RTS genre.  What are some of the best qualities of the genre, and how do you think it will evolve in the future?

Richard Bishop – Lead Multiplayer Designer

The main advantage historical RTS games have over other strategy games is simply realism. People relate to an archer or a knight more than some random alien.  This realism factor also makes the game easier to learn. People intuitively know the strengths and weaknesses of English Redcoats or Sherman Tanks. They can jump right into a game without even reading the manual. A smaller learning curve is always a welcome sight in a strategy game. It provides for a much larger user base to enjoy the game. The recreation of famous battles is another realism-related advantage historical RTS games offer. Players can recreate Waterloo or D-day and play them out, or even change small factors and see what happens.

All Game Designers have a long list of desired features, which has always been tempered by what is technically feasible. We’re going to see more and more of these amazing concepts implemented as hardware progresses and these innovative features become both viable and practical. The sky is the limit for future RTS games as the genre is relatively young.

Question #5:

Is it getting harder to keep RTS titles interesting as the market continues to see more and more of them released?  Is a saturation point inevitable?

Rick Goodman – Game Designer

The team at SSSI is comprised of life long gamers.  So, like most of you, we play almost every game we can fit into our busy schedules.  We feel it is important to play and understand what makes each game fun and interesting.  These games often inspire us to consider entirely new ideas and approaches, which can lead down interesting paths.  But in the end it is always our design vision that ultimately guides us in our creation of the end product.   

Question #6:

How do RTS developers draw new fans to the genre, particularly since the games are inherently difficult to develop for the console market?

Shawn Frison – Multiplayer Designer

I think the real difficulty here is one of interface - that is, how players control the game – and I believe that problem will be solved in the next generation of consoles.  We’ve already seen mouse and keyboard peripherals for some current machines, but they’re not nearly ubiquitous enough to have made a real impact on the market.  Hopefully, the next round of consoles will come out of the gate with full keyboard/mouse support, making RTS on console as fun and playable as it is on computers.  Once the necessary tools are available, I don’t see how there’d be any difficulty in attracting players.

In the meantime, I think it’s important to market to as diverse an audience as possible, including some non-traditional outlets.  For instance, you may see advertisements for Empires: Dawn of the Modern World running on the History Channel, reaching an audience that – while not normally all that interested in video games – is nonetheless fascinated by history, and is therefore a prime demographic for our game.  Part of the key here is reaching people who may not have otherwise considered themselves as gamers, but who, when given the chance, would find themselves really enjoying certain games (or even whole genres). 

Of course, it is then important to make the game itself accessible to these new players if the developer intends to keep the new buyers around as future fans.  Variable difficulty levels, including some which are very easy, are important here, but equally vital is a user interface that makes learning the game quick and painless.  Help text should be abundant, and menus should be designed to be navigated as easily as possible.  The hardcopy manual should be clear and concise, with a table of contents.  Developers should never assume that a player knows the conventions of the genre and should plan accordingly.  If they do, they might just acquire a new fan.

Question #7:

What kinds of units will there be in Empires: Dawn of the Modern World?  Are there any that may come as an unexpected surprise that history buffs may get a kick out of seeing?

Rick Goodman – Game Designer

Each civilization commands forces comprised of units and weapons that were available only to it during history. 

During the Medieval period, for example, England commands the Oil Smithy who can set an entire battlefield ablaze; and the Longbowman, who is the only archer who can down a charging knight. 

The French civilization trains the heavily armored Crusader, a knight who can fight as well as convert its enemies on the battlefield.  The French Berserk, who can attack multiple foes at once with a well-thrown axe, can hide in forests and also attack from within them.

The USA’s 50 caliber machine gun crew can entrench itself to lay down a massive wall of fire.  Paratroopers and war materiel drop from C-47s deep behind enemy lines. 

Germany can produce some of the 20th century’s most powerful weapons of war, including the King Tiger tank, the V1 and V2 rockets, and the famous 88mm high velocity AT gun, which, just as in WW2, can be configured as an AT or AA weapon on the battlefield.

Question #8:

Empires: Dawn of the Modern World will span from the Middle Ages to World War II; there are a lot of eras in that time.  Which specific eras will gamers be playing in?

Rick Goodman – Game Designer

The team is incredibly passionate about creating an exceptional game in every respect: from realism to replayability; from graphics to game play.  We want to develop a fun and exciting historical game with unprecedented depth.  To accomplish this, we narrowed our focus down to 1,000 years of modern history.  And, at the outset of the process, we allowed gamers to help us shape our game vision by asking them what eras of history were most fun to them.  WW2 and the Middle Ages, were their first and second choices, respectively. 

As a result, we decided to focus on a time span covering the Middle Ages all the way up to and including WW2.  By narrowing the time span and focusing on multiple distinct civilizations, we feel we can increase the depth of the game many-fold. 

The time frame is divided into five periods: Medieval, Gunpowder and Imperial Ages, followed by WW1 and WW2.  Each period is rich with depth, strategy and technologies. 

Obviously, technological development plays an important role.  If you look at history, technologies represent a key cornerstone of cultural identity.  In the game, each civilization has technologies based on its own culture.  Here are some examples:

The English are masters of Imperialism, Scientific Investigation, and can launch diseased cow carcasses to spread the Black Death.  Korean strength is derived from the Kings Encouragement, Confucianism, and the Martial Arts.

For the French, the Montgolfier Balloon becomes available in the Imperial Age.  It can rain propaganda leaflets on a foe’s army to dishearten them.  But, I’d like to mention that this was not the first air-born weapon invented and used historically.  According to our research, the first “flying unit” was actually invented by the Chinese, several hundred years earlier.  In the game, the Chinese can build this device and I think you’ll be amazed when you see it.  

In Empires: Dawn of the Modern World, the way in which players employ these technologies is unlike that of any other historical game.

Question #9:

Can we expect a lot of historically correct formations from the various units and their respective countries?

Jonny Ebbert – Multiplayer Designer

All formations in Empires: Dawn of the Modern World are universal to all civilizations and units.  All of our formations have their basis in military history.  We have five basic formations:

1.       Standard square formation

2.       Extended line formation

3.       Spaced Formation

4.       Wedge formation

5.       Circle Formation

The Square formation is our default military formation and is probably the oldest and most universal military formation in history.  Basically, the square is the most natural shape for keeping troops ordered and disciplined.  The Square formation in Empires: DMW is particularly good for ranged units since it prevents melee units from penetrating and bringing all of their power to bear on a group of ranged units.

The Extended Line Formation is also another old and universal military formation.  The crux of every battle is trying to outflank your opponent or prevent yourself from being flanked.  This is accomplished by extending your line around your enemy.  This is countered by matching the length of your line to your enemy or using natural barriers to protect your flanks.  The Extended Line formation in Empires: Dawn of the Modern World is best used with melee units in open areas of the map.  This allows more of your melee units to bring their force to bear on a battle rather than being trapped helplessly behind friendly troops.

The Spaced Formation is a formation that has generally been used to better deal with heavy artillery or concentrated missile fire.  This is also true in Empires: Dawn of the Modern World.  The Spaced formation is best used when you’re trying to close a gap with an enemy army that has a significant amount of siege weapons or using area of effect technologies are abilities, reducing their efficacy.

The Wedge Formation was a formation pioneered by the Macedonians and perfected by the Romans.  In ancient times, the wedge was used to allow a formation to rapidly change directions and outflank an opponent.   It was also used by cavalry to break up infantry formations. In Empires: DMW, the wedge formation can be used with great effect by tanks to break up enemy formations and throw them into disarray.

The Circle Formation, while rarely used in military history (except in the most desperate circumstances) can be used to some effect in Empires: Dawn of the Modern World.  Putting ranged units in the Circle Formation can make ranged units much more effective against melee units that deal area damage (such as the Chinese War Elephant or French tanks).  Using the Circle Formation allows your units to deal maximum damage while minimizing the power of the enemy’s area effect.

Question #10:

What do you think is the most important thing RTS fans need to know about Empires: Dawn of the Modern World?

Nate Jacques – Multiplayer Designer

The most important thing RTS fans need to know about Empires: Dawn of the Modern World is that, first and foremost, it is incredibly fun to play!  It is more of an experience than it is a game… the units and civilizations were taken right from history and have a way of fueling the imagination, the gameplay is rich and deep and will offer players countless hours of enjoyment and replayability, and (on top of all that!) it is visually breathtaking.  When you’ve finished one game, you want to jump back in and play again.

 

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