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Chris Taylor's 180: Bigger Equals Better "Flawed Thinking"

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Yesterday, Chris Taylor announced his new evolution-thwacking prehistoric RTS-RPG Wildman, so naturally, we talked about that until we, ourselves, evolved extra mouths so we could more efficiently talk about evolution. But what about, well, everything else? In ye olde year of 2010, after all, Taylor and co debuted Kings and Castles, a “biggest ever” fantasy RTS with dragons, chickens, and hopefully – for the sake of competition – a few things in between. But then it went on hold and dropped off the face of the Earth. So, is it dead along with the “old Chris” who focused on size to the detriment of substance? In addition, we discuss Planetary Annihilation, a GPG-developed, Supreme-Commander-inspired mod platform/operating system called Project Mercury, and why he certainly doesn’t plan on being the first high-profile Kickstarter to fail on the follow-through.

RPS: So then, what’s the deal with Kings and Castles? Is it still on hold, or has a more unfortunate fate befallen it?

Chris Taylor: What happened there was, we were working on Kings and Castles. We were having a hard time finding a publisher. If you remember, I said in the first blog that we wanted to build the biggest RTS game ever. Well, that was part of my mentality. I was still sort of in the past, where bigger was better. We wanted to deliver more of everything to the customer. Bigger armies and bigger maps. That was my frame of mind throughout most of the ‘90s. It became clear to us that that was going to take us much longer to find a publishing partner for.

Now, Microsoft came along with Age of Empires Online, and we said, “Well, we have a business to take care of here, so we’re going to have to take a break from Kings and Castles.” Due in no small part to the fact that we didn’t have a publisher for it, and we didn’t have our own money to fund it. We were going to have to wait until those stars aligned. Plus, working on Age of Empires was fantastic. We were all big fans of the franchise. It seemed like, “Yeah, let’s definitely work on something cool while we sort that out in the background.” Age of Empires got bigger and bigger in terms of our commitment to it. It took up more and more of our time and focus.

Meanwhile, I started noodling around at home on a special secret project called Project Mercury. Mercury was an entirely web-based gaming platform. It was all written in Javascript on Canvas. I was just thrilled with how powerful the platform was. So I started working on a game design for Project Mercury called Wildman. I was going to actually do some RTS stuff inside of that. But then what I realized was is that the nature of web is that you have a big pipe, a streaming pipe, but you don’t have a big install footprint. You have to work with a small data set, because otherwise you have the customer waiting to fill up their memory every time they go to play.

I started looking at action-RPG. I said, “Oh, yeah, this makes way more sense. I want action-RPG and I’m going to bring some RTS elements in.” Then we said, “Well, heck. This is really exciting.” Kickstarter, last year, just kept growing in momentum, and we said, “You know what? I’ll bet you we can get out there and Kickstarter this and people would really dig what we’re doing.But we kind of intuitively knew that people would wonder about Kings and Castles. We want to be really honest and say, “Look. Kings and Castles… It’s sort of like, we don’t know how big the Kickstarter funds could go with the project. We don’t think we could raise $5 to $10 million on Kickstarter.” It was just an honest question we had to answer.

But we think we can do a game that starts smaller and grows over time as we get more and more people involved in the project. When you go Kickstarter, you have to make a commitment and deliver the game. You can’t just make stuff up. You have to commit to what you think you can. So that’s where the Kings and Castles versus Wildman debate started and ended. It comes down to what we thought we could fund. We still believe that. We still confidently believe in that decision.

But it’s very sad for me, because of course Kings and Castles… I was just so excited. We started the Kings and Castles video blog, and I was like… The greatest thing ever was to share the development, to go around and talk to the team members with a camera and all those things we couldn’t do with a regular publisher. If you talked to a regular publisher’s PR and marketing team, they would have a frickin’ heart attack if you were gonna show stuff off and you weren’t going to make it all exclusive and do all that regular stuff. You were just gonna take a camera round and show people what was going on in development.

The real truth of it is is that those video blogs were just fabulous. They were doing what I always wanted to do. So Kickstarter comes along, and one of the things with Kickstarter, especially when Tim Schafer did his Double Fine Adventure, is like, “We’re going to be showing you what’s going on!” And I’m thinking, “Yeah! That’s awesome. We’re with you.” Kings and Castles was a little early. The idea was early by a couple of years. But Wildman is going to hit that right on the head. We’re going to go out. We’re going to Kickstarter. We’ll expose the game’s development just like we did. Lots of updates. Lots of involvement with folks.

RPS: You were saying that, for the longest time, your approach to design and things like that was going bigger and bigger and making things as enormous as possible. Do you think that, ultimately, that sort of approach to game development leads to this end point, where it’s just too big to be feasible? Or it’s too big for people to stay creative. There’s too many risks involved.

Chris Taylor: Yeah. It’s flawed thinking. You grow as an individual. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I was very much into bigger, because things were small. It’s like transistor counts on a chip. If you design a chip and you’ve got 2,000 transistors, it’s easy to go to 4,000 or 8,000 or 16,000. But when you’re at 1.2 billion, you don’t just go to 2 billion. You cap out. I call it the S curve. The S is kind of skewed.

You go up this steep part, and then you flatten out at the top, and you realize that bigger isn’t better. More isn’t better. So you have to retreat to your roots and say, “What’s great gameplay mechanics?” Minecraft taught everyone in the industry a very valuable lesson, that a singular vision, a passion for something, doesn’t have to have state-of-the-art graphics. It just has to have fabulous gameplay. It also reminded us of where we began. People don’t just want high polygon counts [laughs]. Which we were really wrapped around for a while. We were all about the poly counts. It seems like there was a 10-year stretch where all anyone wanted to see was more. They wanted to see water and refraction, lighting models and shit, and you were just like, “We gotta have more.” And eventually somebody hit the reset switch. We came back to reality and said, “Uh, no, gameplay is what we really want. Gameplay mechanics, rules systems, the way that all these systems interrelate, these are what’s important.” Frankly, they’re way more fun to design, too.

RPS: It does bring us to an interesting point, though. You’re going off and creating a new world and a new set of mechanics and things like that. Meanwhile, someone Kickstartered a project that’s in a very similar vein to what you used to work on, Planetary Annihilation. Which is sort of taking what you did with Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander up to an even bigger place.

Chris Taylor: Yeah. When I saw that, I kind of saw the old Chris, you know? I’ve been a firm believer that multiple battlefields is not a good idea. You look at chess and you try to go to 3D chess, it just blows your mind. The brain is powerful, but the brain has limits. Only savant genius type of people can play on multiple boards at once.

Of course, I have no details as far as what they’re doing. I just saw the video like you did, and I can only infer. But that was the old Chris thinking. One of the things we’re doing in Wildman is single-player. It’s the central focus of the game. We believe that the majority of the people out there that are on the PC right now are solo players. Then you leave the door open and you go into a multiplayer game. That multiplayer game is PvE. It’s a cooperative multiplayer game. Folks are getting together and playing against the computer. Then there’s a third phase, down the road, where you can play against other humans.

But that’s a small percentage. It’s in the 10 to 20 percent range. If you look at the number of copies of a given game, like a Diablo III, that are sold, and how many people are online playing even multiplayer, let alone the PvP, the numbers drop off very rapidly. Our goal is to entertain the largest number of people. It’s a core belief that you have to follow your customers and give them what they want to play. You can’t just go and make something because you want to get together with your friends and play it.

The old adage goes, “I designed this game for me.” It sounds good. It sounds good politically. It sounds like you’re an artist with a vision and you’re building the game for yourself. But it’s actually not quite right. I’m not going to say it’s dead wrong, but I’m going to say that when you’re building a product… When you jump in your car and turn the key, you really hope that they were thinking of you when they designed the car [laughs]. So that’s my way of looking at it.

RPS: So then, Kings and Castles – is that also a relic of the old Chris? Or do you want to eventually release it?

Chris Taylor: There’s some great aspects of the game that don’t relate to its size. We can easily manage the size element, the scope of the battlefields and so on. But there’s a lot of love for Kings and Castles here. I don’t think it’s dead. I think it’s actually going to be… Put it this way. If we move forward with Wildman, one of the questions that will come up invariably in the many dialogues we have with the community is going to be, “Do you guys want to see Kings and Castles? Should we open that up for discussion and see if we can raise the money?” They’ll have the answer to that question. I think, ultimately, I’m just going to put the question to the folks who would be buying and playing the game. It’s a pretty closed system at that point. If they say they want it, we’re going to try to figure out how to build it.

RPS: You said that Mercury is a platform. But is it mainly just a map or scenario editing tool for Wildman, or is there more to it than that?

Chris Taylor: It’s actually an operating system. Would you believe that when I sat down to create it, I realized that I can launch apps realtime, just pull them off the server and launch them? So it’s a whole operating system. You can have a word processor running in it. You can run an emulator for a 6502-based game. You could play solitaire while chatting with your friends. It’s a full-on platform. You could log in anywhere and get access to your virtual desktop.

In fact, the very first name I gave it was “the Infinite Desktop.” It’s basically a scrollable, zoomable thing, just like Supreme Commander. You can zoom and zoom out. You can have 5,000 different apps running all over this desktop. The one that you’re zoomed in on is the one that’s actually sucking up the CPU. This was a secret project of mine, and I’m just like, “This is awesome, but I need content for it.” I’d show it to people who are my friends in the industry and they’d say, “Well, Chris, nobody wants a platform. They want a game. They want an application. They don’t just want to run around on an empty desktop.”

Well, that’s when I started getting more serious about what Wildman was going to be on the platform. That’s where Wildman really came from. When folks go to use the mod tool for Wildman, what they’re going to do is launch an app. They’re going to log in. They’re going to be on the desktop. They’ll be able to scroll around and they’ll see this big, wide-open infinite space. Geometrically, it’s infinite, or near infinite. I use the double-precision floating-point value, which means that if you scroll, you’d scroll for a thousand years to get to the end. The app you would launch is the mod tool app, and if you closed your web browser and logged in on another computer, it would appear exactly where you left it.

It’s a completely persistent work space. It’s probably one of the coolest damn things I’ve ever hacked together. To be honest with you. I was sitting there going, “Holy shit, this is really amazing.” I didn’t really come up with an application until I put all these pieces together and I said, “Oh, wait. If we go Kickstarter with Wildman as a compile C app, now we can use this whole system here as a development tool platform. And then what we can do is open it up to the community, and the community can start developing apps on here. That’s even better! Then we’ll have some real synergy as to how all these pieces fit together.” I hope that makes sense.

RPS: Sort of. So it’s a full-blown operating system? When and how do you plan to release it?

Chris Taylor: We’re hoping that, with this Kickstarter, I’m going to be able to turn this up and we’re going to be able to have a real reason to be supporting it now with the demand that’s placed on it from the Kickstarter community. From the backers, frankly, that want to start modding the game. It would happen six, seven, eight months into the development, when we release our first beta set of tools for folks. But the whole thing is that we’d release the stuff as soon as people wanted to play with it. Gone are the old rules of, “Wait until it’s really perfect and polished.” If you tell people, “Hey, listen, if you want to wade into this and fiddle around with it in an unfinished state, go for it,” they can become part of the development effort on it. It’s kind of a crowdsourced development effort.

We could spend all day going through the variables and how they interrelate and what this is going to do to the business. It’s so exciting. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen in the next couple of years in game development. I tend to think all good things, because by nature I’m a positive person, but there might be some disasters that are going to happen too. I just don’t know.

RPS: Yeah, certainly. I don’t think that we’ve had the first real major Kickstarter flop yet, or the one that comes away with a million dollars from its campaign and then never materializes.

Chris Taylor: Yeah. Well, it ain’t gonna be me [laughs]. We really have a sense of ethics, business ethics. Most everything that we’ve worked on, going back for years now, has shipped on time and on budget. We’ve got a great reputation. Plus, for us, it’s not about money. It’s about game-making. Gas Powered Games has been very focused on its art and its craft rather than on the dollar. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve chosen the art over the dollar. Yes, it hurt me as a businessman, but as a creative person and as an artistic person, that’s what allows me to sleep at night, when I know I make decisions that are creatively driven and not financially driven.

I hope people recognize that we’re not going for an old classic, because we feel that… For us, creatively, we enjoy creating things that are new. We also… There’s a bias… These are all influences, right? Nothing is an absolute black or white. But there’s an influences that pushes us a little bit away from doing an old classic game, or a sequel to something, because there’s a lot of that going around.

We think that the Kickstarter audience has evolved over this last year very quickly, and their appetite is increasing for new content and for stuff that’s a little more out-there and fresh and dangerous and innovative and risky. All of these things that feel like, “Hey, I want to plop some money down on something new.” We hope that folks do recognize that, because we’re very aware of it. It’s a critical part of the messaging of our campaign. We want to do something new and exciting.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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