By Kieron Gillen on October 12th, 2007 at 4:58 pm.
[This interview was done with Thomas Hauser circa the 10 year anniversary edition of Settlers II. The interview was fairly tricky one to do, partially due to Thomas having to do it in a second language, partially by the phone line and partially, as evidenced by the following text, it was a long time ago and Thomas had forgot a load of stuff. I think that added a human quality to it. I dunno. You tell me.]
We’ve all played armchair designer. Sitting and playing the latest game and thinking “You know, this is pretty neat, but if I was in charge I’d have done this and this and of course THAT” before going off and getting on with our lives. Except, there was a time when if you were in the right place at the right time you could put your ideas where your idle whimsy was. Take Thomas Hauser, who has always been primarily a programmer. He certainly resists being labeled a programmer/designer. “I started as a programmer,” he argues, “I would much more say I’m a programmer than a designer. I very much like games, and game play and design problems… but I wouldn’t describe myself as a game designer.”
Thomas was working at Blue Byte around the time the first Settlers was released. That was an innovative economic real-time strategy game, which ignored the cut and thrust of the Westwood model for carefully considered construction. “I’d finished a project – I’m not sure which one – and Settlers 1 was about to be finished,” Thomas explains, “So I did some QA [Quality Assurance aka Playtesting – Ed]. I’d played Settlers 1 and had a list of improvements which I’d have liked for Settlers”. However, it wasn’t to be. “There wasn’t time for this, so I went to the Blue Byte boss at this time and asked about the improvements and he told me… just go for it.,” relates Thomas, “So we started Settlers 2 development. I did all the concept work. I did most of the programming. It was a very small team – about four people. That’s basically how Settlers 2 happened.”
So what was actually on this list which birthed a game. “I have no idea anymore,” laughs Thomas, “When you do these things, you don’t think in 10 years someone’s going to be asking you about it, so I just threw it away. I think it was a lot about the interface. The interface of Settlers 1 was a little complicated. Something about feedback. I’m not sure about the details”.
The environment of the game’s gestation lingers more in Thomas’s mind. “Ten years ago teams were smaller, and times are now different,” he recalls, “My co-coder at this time is still a very good friend of mine, even though I haven’t worked with him for years now. I still feel very much related to him. It was a much more dense working atmosphere – and I was 10 years younger, of course. We were working 20 hours a day when it was necessary, and these things I don’t do anymore today”. He especially remembers the last few days of the project, with its curious mixture of elation and depression. “I was very pleased,” Thomas says, trying to find the English to explain the complicated feelings, “But we’d worked so much on Settlers 2 that it was a very tough time. I remember the last 5 days before mastering, I think I’d slept for about four hours or so. When the master was shipped out, I still remember it. I go to the garage, took my motorbike and went out motorbiking after five days of not sleeping because I was so – how do you say – upset? Overwhelmed that it was done?”. That it was to be loved by others as much as they loved it was a pleasant surprise. “When you develop a game you have a good feeling about it, but it doesn’t say anything about the ratings or what gamers will think about it,” Thomas notes, “but when it turned out to be very successful, we were very pleased”.
Still, even then, there were elements which didn’t work as well as they wished. “Things like the help system,” he laughs, embarrassed, “There was none, to be honest. The player had to work really hard to get into the game, and there’s lots of details in the games you’d have to learn the hard-way. It would have been a great help to a new gamer, if we had some put in”. Then there was the oft-maligned ship-transport system. “Even after patching, it doesn’t work as we wanted it to work,” he laments, “I remember the ships did not transport the things you wanted to other islands… we couldn’t solve this problem at this time. Because at this time, the development systems were much more difficult to use and we don’t have the ability to debug code as we do today. It was just not working as we wanted it to work.”
Impossible to make work then, but not now. Thomas is involved in the fascinating project at Blue Byte of completely renovating Settlers 2 for a modern audience. “It has been on my mind for quite a long time,” when asked about it, “Even after all this time there were calls on the Internet “Well… Settlers V is still a very good game, but Settlers 2 is still number 1”. We started looking at Settlers 2 and found ourselves playing hours and hours of Settlers 2. We took it out the box eight or nine years later, and you play and you’re instantly transfixed… and that was the start of it. We thought about what we could do? How could we transport this game into 2006?”
It was decided it would be a renovation rather than a reinvention. “The very big issue is that if you talk to people about Settlers 2, a lot of people have a lot of ideas how to improve it. This leads to a very big problem,” Thomas notes, “You can add a lot of features to the game, but it instantly defocuses what the game is all about. For example, if you allow direct control of the military or give more detailed control about what is transported from where or asking an individual woodcutter to chop down a tree because it’s in the way for something you want to build a farm… it completely changes the game. We decided not to change any of these Game Mechanics at all. It wasn’t easy to tell people that.”
As well as fixing faults, they’ve added much to accelerate the pace of the game. As, looking back at Settlers 2 after almost a decade, revealed some aspects of the game virtually forgotten. “I was amazed by how much time people spent with the game. To play a Settlers 2 map… it must have taken hours,” Thomas laughs, “That’s really amazing. And there are maps in the new Settlers 2 which will take 6-7-8-10 hours, but it’s okay. It’s really good playing the game for that long still, but we have accelerated a little bit. We have to have this game pace which doesn’t push you too much”. And considering the Settlers 2, the constant irony is that a game which is so relaxed to play clearly provoked so much actual stress to make.