Great Expectations: Hegemony Interview

By Kieron Gillen on May 28th, 2010 at 12:30 pm.

Hoplites are ferociously protective of their enormous, if impractical, model boats.

After giving some first impressions of Hegemony: Phillip Of Macedon I started interviewing Longbow Games’ Rob McConnell. Now, with the game just appearing on Impulse and being available for a tenner over this weekend’s bank-holiday sale, I suspect it’s time to present the results. In the form of an interview. Like so…

RPS: can we go back to the origins of Phillip? Why did you want to do a game about the growth of Macedon? What was the key ideas in the game back then?*

Rob McConnell: I believe Jim [McNally, Longbow President - Ed] became interested in Philip while researching Alexander the Great and discovering that it was actually his father who had developed the troop types, tactics and infrastructure that enabled Alexander’s invasion of the Persian Empire. Being an avid wargamer, Jim recognized the potential of translating Philip’s rags to riches story into a game and formulated the first drafts of the “Philip Project” along with Seumas [McNally, the sadly departed founder of Longbow, who the IGF Grand Prize was renamed in his honour - Ed] in the late nineties.

The clearest things I remember from when Jim first described the project to me was that it was going to be on a grid and he wanted to focus on logistics. It was a pet peeve of his that most wargames would allow you to move large armies without any consideration towards supplying them. He thought this was particularly inaccurate in Greece where the terrain is so restrictive. Amusingly, our arcade game Vortiball was originally inspired by Jim experimenting with octagonal grids for the “Philip Project”.

RPS: The idea goes back further, but the origins of working on it was Six years ago. Care to talk about the progress across those years? How did the ideas develop and shake down?

Rob McConnell: It has been quite the journey since we started working on Hegemony. As I mentioned earlier it started as a grid based game but we overlayed that on a 3D map since LDA had developed a reputation for terrain engines from Seumas’ work on Tread Marks. Pretty early we scrapped the grid and moved to the free movement you see now but it wasn’t until about half-way through the project that we added one of Hegemony’s most defining features, the transition to the 2D strategy map. It came about as we were looking for ways to let the player get a complete overview of their kingdom and the stylized board game look not only emphasized the important gameplay elemented but really appealed to us as table-top gamers.

Although logistics was a key component since the beginning it took quite a few revisions before we got to what’s in the game now. In the earliest version each army would have a tether back to a city which would be responsible for supplying the army. Player’s could drag this tether to different cities to change where supply was coming from as well as plot waypoints like you can with supply lines now. We also experimented with a version where a grid was overlaid over the map and each square was flagged as being in or out of supply depending on whether there was a continuous path from the grid square back to a city.

On the art side, we went through quite a few changes both for gameplay and to keep up with changing tech. At various points in time, Hegemony used pre-rendered sprites, morphed meshes and key-framed skeletons to display units. When discussing how much we’ve scrapped over the years we frequently joke that the current hoplite model is labelled as version 12. We’ve also upgraded all the buildings, vegetation and water at least a couple times since we started.

THIS IS SPARTA! THAT IS MESSENE!

RPS: What do you think the key core of the game? What initially interested me is how it works with its rolling objectives as you spread across the map, which turns it into a very unusual sort narrative campaign. As in, by exploring the map, you get a series of short-form objectives.

Rob McConnell: I think what sets Hegemony most apart from other strategy games is the seamless campaign, the focus on logistics and, as you mentioned, the historical objectives. A significant part of Jim’s desire to make Hegemony was to tell Philip’s story and so from the beginning there were plans to include historical markers of some sort to give the player information about Ancient Greece and Philip’s campaign. The objective system as you see it today came from concerns that non-wargaming players would feel lost in a completely open world and the fact that Jim got us all World of Warcraft accounts for Christmas one year. Later in the process we tried to emphasize the history with the cutscenes after fears we were throwing too many unfamiliar names and dates at the player. It was a struggle trying to maintain historical accuracy and a compelling narrative while not overly restricting the player but I think we found a unique approach that players seem to appreciate.

RPS: It’s also a game which strikes me that it’s quite easy to get overwhelmed. That the game doesn’t work exactly like a traditional RTS means that I’ve found myself in a position where I’ve thought it probably better to just re-start the game than press on. What sort of tactical elements do you think people are overlooking in the game?*

Rob McConnell: The single map and seamless campaign in Hegemony do present new challenges that you don’t encounter in other wargames. We’ve implemented a lot of features to help players manage their growing empire (2D strategy map, alerts and auto-pause, quick selects, etc) but there are definitely some tactics that help.

Combined arms is really important. Phalangites can decimate a battleline of hoplites but their light armour won’t hold up against a large volleys of javelins or to catapult fire during a siege. Cavalry is also critical in responding quickly to incursions and in catching prisoners to work your mines. Also, it’s important to make good use of your generals. The correct general can double the morale and double the siege power of the unit they’re attached to which can easily mean the difference between victory and defeat.

You’re never going to have enough troops to defend everything so it’s important to pick where you’re going to place your defences carefully and consider tearing down the walls of less critical cities to free up the garrisons. Enemy units also tend to attack more in the summer when food is plentiful so plan you’re advances carefully and consider keeping more troops on defence when the enemy is most active. Furthermore, winter storms prevent raids from sea so take advantage of this time and use your coastal defenders to expand your territory. And don’t forget watchtowers, they can be very useful in providing advanced warning of an enemy attack giving you time to move units into the area.

Finally, don’t forget to pause. You can pause at any time and issue all your orders. It’s a great way to handle multiple battles at once or to simply take a second to rethink your strategy if things get too hectic.

I see no ships. BECAUSE IT IS NIGHT

RPS: What are you most proud of? What’s your least favourite part?

Rob McConnell: I think I’m most proud of the fact that we finished the game. None of us had done anything near this scale before and it was quite the learning experience. As others will attest, prototyping parts of a game can be a challenge but getting everything working smoothly together with the polish and performance required for release is exponentially harder. We learned this lesson hard way on Hegemony as we regularly underestimated how much work we had left to do.

The part of the game I’m least satisfied with would have to be unit movement and AI. I think it holds up pretty well compared to the competition but I had more ambitious plans for how individual units would interact which I just didn’t have time to implement. AI is something that is never perfect and it’s easy to spend an indefinite amount of time on it if you don’t draw the line somewhere.

RPS: What’s your plans for the future of Phillip?

Our immediate plan is just to support and promote Hegemony. The first update has already gone out to registered customers and we’re putting a boxed copy together that should be available later this summer. We’re also trying to get a booth together for the Origins Game Fair so anybody near Ohio at the end of June should come by for a visit. Beyond that it is almost certain we’ll do a follow up with the Hegemony engine, but as to who might be the subject of the sequel, that’s currently a hotly debated topic in the office.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

For this weekend, Hegemony is available for a £9.99 from Impulse. It can also be followed at Longbow’s site.

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27 Comments »

  1. Jim Rossignol says:

    This is looking good.

  2. Okami says:

    I can wholeheartedly recommend this game to anyone who considers him or herself a strategy gamer. Hegemony contains more gameplay innovations and fresh features than most rts games of the last few years combined. Also, don’t be a cheapskate and forget about the Impulse sale. Go and buy it directly from Longbow’s website and pay full price (~30 american money things) for it. Those people deserve every cent of it.

    • Okami says:

      Sorry, I didn’t mean to patronize anyone.

    • The Innocent says:

      @Okami

      I don’t think you were; some people just want to be offended, you know. I bought the game full-price too, and I’m glad for it. You’re right that this game is hella innovative, and that the devs are deserving of our support. Might be good to mention that there is a demo, that while is a bit shorter than I’d like, still offers over an hour of gameplay and explains all of the game’s major innovations and the like.

    • Vinraith says:

      I think Okami is concerned, as I am, that this one got too cheap too fast. If developers like this can’t make good money off their games they won’t make more of them, and that’d be a real shame in this case.

    • Okami says:

      @Vinraith: Exactly. Thirty dollars are not too much to ask for this game.

      @The Innocent: I was of course beeing sarcastic in my reply, since I didn’t really believe that my initial comment was patronizing or offending. If someone’s offended, because I used the word ‘cheapskate’ in a plea to support the developers, that person should probably stay away from the internet. He’s going to get offended a lot otherwise.

    • Jimbo says:

      It’s a good call on their part I reckon. For a game as unknown as this, it’s probably worth making it avaialble for cheaps early on just to try and get a few more people talking about it. If a little bit of buzz leads to some decent coverage on more sites, then they’ll likely more than make up for it. Getting noticed is the key and that’s the hardest part.

      It is worth every cent of the $30 asking price though.

    • Earl_of_Josh says:

      I’ll qualify this response with the fact that while I do love strategy games, I haven’t really ever played an based on “real live” history. The wargame genre always seemed a little intimidating, and I think I’d rather see aliens or dwarves (or both) battling it out than any old stuffy Greeks. At the same time, the amount of my friends that enjoy games such as this makes me curious if it’d be worth my time. My point being I’d never pay full price for this (its not something I’d be sure I’d get full-price enjoyment from), but at this price point I’d definitely give it a shot. Audience broadening can’t be a bad thing, surely?

  3. Nikolaj says:

    I can recommend this, too. Anyone with an interest in strategy gaming and ancient Greece, should at least check out the demo.

  4. Jimbo says:

    A refreshingly honest interview!

    I’ve played a bunch of this and it gets a double thumbs-up from me. It does some major things really well:

    *The battles taking place on the battle map gives the game a really good pace.
    *The economy management is kept to the only what is necessary.
    *The multiple mini-campaign structure works really well.

    No exaggeration, Creative Assembly could learn a lot from this game.

    I have a few niggling issues with it. They don’t stop the game being fun, but they’re frustrating nonetheless, mostly because they seem like unforced and easily fixable errors on their part:

    *Destroyed units recover far too quickly. This means it’s possible to be fighting a battle outside a city, destroy one of the enemy units, and by the time you finish the battle the first enemy unit can be fully recovered and back in the battle. This works both ways – losing a unit doesn’t really seem to have enough of a downside for either you or the AI.
    *Having to find and re-assign a general to a defeated unit isn’t the kind of downside I’m talking about – that’s just a hassle.
    *Basically everything that happens after a battle -having to manually chase down the routing unit, then capture or execute them, then do something with them if you do capture them- seems pointless and unnecessary.
    *As pointed out in the interview, it’s too easy to get yourself into a position where you are being overwhelmed. If it’s because you’ve bitten off more than you can chew than that’s fair enough, you can just fall back, but more often it’s because too much hand-holding is required of you. It would help immensely if melee units wouldn’t just stand there and let themselves be wiped out by a single weak ranged unit – this just needs a behaviour toggle. Similarly, there needs to be a mechanic whereby a sufficiently garrisoned city can protect it’s own farmland without your intervention (because once the enemy has decided it wants to capture your farm with a single peltast unit, it will send that unit over and over and over again until it does).

    • Jimbo says:

      That should read ‘battles taking place on the campaign map’.

    • The Innocent says:

      @Jimbo

      I agree with your last point especially. The frustrating thing for me becomes that since the game is just one really long historical campaign, if I’ve built the wrong troops or expanded into a popular location, I’m suddenly so preoccupied with defense from every direction that I barely have any time to expand. And those peltasts, while easy to kill, will just sit there and kill my unresponsive infantry unless I go and tell my men to, yes, kill the bastards that are throwing javelins at them.

      Reaching a point where all my troops are defending all the time makes me consider starting over, but by that point I’m six hours in. If there were unlockable start points that followed history, so that if I messed up I could just load where Philip was historically (rather than in my failed game) in a certain year, then I wouldn’t be so miffed about having to restart. Or something simpler like a “casual gamer who enjoys a casual experience with a dash of challenge but not too much” mode. But as is, after a few hours it can get very frustrating, and then if I start over I have to go through the whole early hand-holding section again.

    • Jimbo says:

      I had to start over after a few hours in the first time around. I was simply deadlocked. It’s going much better second time around though.

      If you (or anybody about to start) is interested, my advice is to make the area to the north of your starting position your first objective. Taking Stobi and the surrounding area allows you to field decent merc cavalry. This allows you to lightly defend your walled cities with a cheap peltast or spear unit, and hold a couple of cav units dotted about as Quick Reaction Forces – even a cheap garrison will hold out long enough for your QRF to relieve them. This should leave you with enough Unit Capacity to still be able to field a couple of decent standing armies, which should be enough to prevent a stalemate happening. Combined arms is the key here – one heavy infantry (I forget what they’re called) backed by a couple of peltast or archer units, offers a lot more flexibility and bang-per-buck than just spamming heavy infantry (which is where I went wrong first time).

      If the AI does seem intent on taking a particular farm or something, it’s often easier in the long run just to let them have it – they’ll usually just throw themselves against your city then, but rarely in enough force to actually take it, so you can concentrate on whatever you’re doing.

    • The Innocent says:

      Thanks for the advice. I just kept following the hand-holding segment by expanding west, and then I read on their forum some of the better ways to go about the early expansion (for instance getting cavalry earlier rather than later, and using them in the way you describe). The problem that I ran into was that my army was composed mostly of the heavy infantry and a few peltasts, so I didn’t have enough troops to cover my expanding territory. And I only had scout cavalry available to build, which was fine for taking prisoners and flanking, but couldn’t staple down an area on their own.

      I think my error was the heavy infantry spam, same as you. I guess I’ll start over and pay more attention to all the other troop types.

    • Kelron says:

      This is why I didn’t like it. It has some really nice ideas, but I could see from the demo how annoying the micromanagement was going to be. It really needs options to automate some basic tasks – rounding up slaves, putting out fires and the like.

    • Sobric says:

      Going to try your advice also. Started from where the demo finished and just got bored of trying to micro attack after attack after attack after attack. The game seems to suffer from the “total war” syndrome of enemies not knowing when they’re beat and constantly coming back.

      The game is also crying out for some diplomacy function. At the very least for historical accuracy, as Philip II was famous as much for his diplomatic manipulations as for his military skill.

  5. greg wild says:

    Might just have to get this. Loved the demo, and it’s probably my favourite part of history. As someone who spent the best part of two years studying Macedonia and it’s pre-alexandrian kings, I can say with authority that this one gets a lot right about Philip ii. Heartily recommended for its educational and rts fun value!

  6. Mario Figueiredo says:

    I’m not a fan of strategy in real time. Not at least at the pace these games tend to give. After a while I think I’m playing an action game with my mouse.

    There’s however, in the trailer, a moment where it mentions “Contemplative Strategy” while fading to the strategic map mode. My question is, can battles be entirely fought in this mode (only occasionally moving to the Tactical mode if I want to just watch my troops fight)? Or indeed tactical position is a relevant part of how battles will be fought?

    • Jimbo says:

      It isn’t exactly tactics-heavy, but yeah you really ought to be keeping an eye on any major engagements yourself. I don’t think you would have much success just relying on the ‘board-game’ view. You can pause and issue orders whenever you feel like though, so it’s only as fast-paced as you want it to be.

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      Thanks Jimbo.

      I always found the pause feature to not be a real answer. I end up using it too much (get addicted to it, I guess) and the game ends up looking like a series of hiccups.

      In anycase, yeah. Why not? I’ll take a look at the demo.

  7. greg wild says:

    Generally, at least from what the demo presented, battles are won primarily through force composition and grander maneuvers rather than total war style tactical nuance. Probably worth giving the demo a try to see if the pace is for you :)

  8. Sobric says:

    Great game, will almost certainly pick this up cheap this weekend.

  9. SirDorius says:

    Looking forward to this. The trailer was great but the ‘intense’ tactical combat part made me chuckle a bit

  10. Ysellian says:

    This actually looks quite good!

  11. LB says:

    Everything I hear about this game makes me want it more. I shan’t be getting it this weekend, since I’ve really no money to spare, but don’t mind paying full price in a week or two when the cash flows once more.

  12. Nimloth says:

    Cannot really justify buying this if it doesn’t have multiplayer.

    -Nim

  13. Acb says:

    I tried to play the demo but it kept saying it couldn’t create a file or something. I’m playing this on my laptop using Intel GMA graphics – would that work?