[Not much to say about this one, except that everyone who interviews Brian Reynolds pretty much falls love with him. He’s an incredibly nice guy. Oh – embarrassing confession. Despite digging Rise of Legends, I’ve barely played Rise of Nations due to a really odd bug on the machine I had around the time. The game ran fine until the first blow was struck… at which point, it crashed. I suspect my PC converted to pacifism. Finally, this is a considerably expanded version from what was printed, as I had a load of transcript I’ve reworked in. Oh – and as the first paragraph makes clear, the interview was done circa the end of Rise of Legends.]
Sitting down with Brian Reynolds you can’t help but learn things. The cradle of Civilization? Not, as historians would argue, somewhere in Iraq but actually North Yorkshire. Well – not Civilisation, but Civilization 2 as Brian was crouched in a small rainy town in the North of England while making the venerable classic. But things change, and he’s now in a rainy, North American town at Big Huge Games putting the finishing touches to Rise of Legends. It’s the perfect time to talk about their previous triumph with Rise of Nations.
Industry veterans splintering into a new company often do so to make a specific game. Big Huge, however, had a more general mandate. “There was no question it was going to be an RTS, and would fit inside some parameters of that genre,” Brian desctribes, “We certainly talked about some more radical departures than Rise of Nations was, and some less radical ones which would have been dead in the mainstream… but mainly I wanted to get into RTS gaming.” So they had a bag of designs which they went to publishers with, selecting the three to show a variety of topics and approaches to see which they were hot and cold upon. Of course, getting the ideas was never the problems. “Being a game developer, there’s always a lot more good ideas than there are time to do good games,” Brian explains, “It’s easy to think up more games. People are always coming to me and saying “Hey – Brian. I’ve got this really great idea for a game, and if you really want it… you can buy it from me.” And they don’t understand. I’ve got 17 ideas for games to do, and I’ve got time to do maybe one.”
In the end, Microsoft went for the game that became Rise of Nations, which blended Civilization with the standard RTS, playing through the entirety of history in an hour. You do wonder what the other two ideas he selected were. “With Microsoft I can’t remember what the other two pitches were – one of them may have been the 19C one, a more period piece – but they wanted to do history of the world,” Brian recalls, “And that was a really comfortable topic for us, as we’d just done games about that – just turn based”. One of their biggest problems proved to be convincing it was even feasible. “Because the only big historical RTS at that time had been Age of Empires, everybody thought of history as going at the pace Age of Empires did,” Brian explains, “No-one could imagine very well that you could do a history game of all of history and not have it take six hours to play.” To this end, they even had software milestones to achieve along the way to prove that it could play within an hour. “To us it was: “Of course you can play history as fast as you want to play!”,” Brian recalls, “Part of the whole magic was because there were all these moments in civilization, like your man going from having a bow and arrow to having a gun, and then a rifle, then a machinegun and then a TANK. You get these really crisp transitions where it’s really visually obvious that he’ll be completely different in how he’ll behave, which you don’t really have if you do a period piece – just one or two centuries.”
The merging of two genres played to their strengths – and in terms of methods, rather than just having worked on Civilizations before. “We were trained in a kind of game design that’s good when you want to combine two genres into one,” Brian notes, “because we do a lot of prototyping and iteration when we throw a whole bunch of ideas at the wall and a bunch of them won’t work out, and others will, but we never know in advance. We brainstorm a lot, do a lot of coding and eventually something fun comes out at the end.” In other words, have the idea, implement the idea, play the idea, keep what works, lose what doesn’t and repeat. “What had about ten things we thought were cool in turn-based gaming which might work well in RTS games,” Brian adds, “Maybe three or four of them worked. One of them was national borders. Another was click! And you have a musketeer. Click! And he has a gun. The jumping through eras of time. Capturing cities, which worked out pretty well”.
Of course, not everything resulted in something so worthwhile. For example, the original technology trees. “I keep it in my desk,” Brian grins, “It’s something the artist laugh about, they call it the “Tech Bush”. As a guy who’d worked on Civilization and Alpha Centauri where things branch and go around, and we tried to put that into an RTS. And it was a disaster. It was a disaster when we first tried it. We re-arranged everything and it was still a disaster. And then another version, which was still a disaster.” It was simply too complicated to work in a real-time game, with five different categories of technology, all hosted in their own buildings. “So you’d need fishing at the market to do something at the library. And people were just lost and they couldn’t figure it out,” Brian explains, “They’d see it requires fishing at the market, and they wouldn’t even have it yet, and they’d build that and look for fishing, which wouldn’t be there as you can’t get fishing until you have – oh, I don’t know – Rope-tying, which comes from the temple as it’s for some religious thing. And people were completely lost. There was nothing fundamentally different from the Civilization Tree – it wasn’t the same, but the same idea – and it was totally unworkable in an RTS.”
Eventually, the radical scaling back of the concept to four unconnected trees which you could progress down each fork independently was thought of, and worked. The shift in thinking proved difficult for the Civ-veteran Brian to deal with. “You mean you can just plunge one line!?!” Brian says in mock horror, “And not do Anything Else!?! It took a while for me to even to accept it may be a good idea to try. To even try to convince me. A total paradigm shift.” Feedback from peers helped them decide they were on the right lines. “I can remember showing it to one of the guys from Ensemble – Greg Street, I think,” Brian says, “It was a really early prototype. He was telling me good things and bad things. He said that the library right there was the coolest part of the game. When we shipped it it wasn’t, but at the time it probably was. It was true it needed to be brought out more. We needed to make the differences between the tech lines to be more distinct, because the fun is choosing what you’re going to do. Either all evenly or one things exclusively.”
There’s some disappointments. “For an RTS we could have probably have done better graphics,” Brian recalls, “We did the best we could in the time. They were decent. They were par for the course. But we’d rather had done better than par for the course”. Similarly, taking some of the mechanics that worked well and making them work better. For example, capturing cities. “It was a cool but half-way polished system and a little artificial to how RTS work,” Brian notes, “Why is it taking damage but hasn’t fallen down yet? We have a much more immersive version of that in the current game, where you can see that you’re capturing it, it’s on fire and then you can repair it. So many things that we were only partially able to figure out how to do last time we knew exactly how to do this time. Even though it’s a fantasy, there’s a spirit of rise of Nations in terms of a lot of the gameplay ideas.”
Ultimately, however, Rise of Nations is something Brian is still clearly hugely proud of. Their first game, both receiving critically acclaim and sales. He’s pleased that the innovations to the format were generally noted. “I think they were spotted really well,” Brian notes, “People really liked the things they ought to like – that we thought they would. To the extent we were successful, we were successful because of the innovations, and we sold a pile of them… well, we can’t complain”.
That said, watching the aftermath provoked some interesting observations. “There’s a disconnect between the review scores you get and the sales you get, which implies that maybe there’s a disconnect between the reviewers and the massmarket buyers,” Brian muses, “To me, that’s not really surprising. Anymore than it’s surprising there’s a disconnect between what a professional game designer thinks is a good game and what a mass-market buyer think is a good game. I make my living doing it. I think about games all the time. I play games all the times. Making games, playing games… devoting my life and career to it is completely different to someone who wants to have a good time for an hour at lunch and then have – y’know – the rest of a life.” It gets even more strange when you bring the world of metacritic into it.
Oh – and if you had to give anyone some advice on becoming a designer? “People come up to me and say “I want to be a game designer – what courses should I take?””, Brian smiles, “How about probability and statistics? And that’s not what they’re thinking. To me, the key thing about being a game designer is being able to look at a curve and imagine the curve you want something to have and knowing what equation will create that curve. I want costs to go up like this or like THAT and being able to map these things onto other things, to do probability knowing if I do random numbers it’ll come out differently. You need to be able to internalise that. It’s a key thing”
So don’t spend your maths class like we did, and just use the infinite array of squared paper to map the original The Bard’s Tale, future would-be designers.