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Chris Taylor On GPG's Prehistoric RTS-RPG, Wildman

Total Demigod Annihilation Siege Commander, Pt 1

Wildman! That's fun to say, isn't it? I like bellowing it at the top of my lungs while charging down sun-spattered hills, colossal bonking club aloft. Of course, I was doing that long before Chris Taylor and Gas Powered Games announced a fantastical prehistoric RTS/MOBA/RPG with the very same title, so now it's actually relevant. But how exactly do all those puzzle pieces fit together? Is this just Total Demigod Annihilation Siege Commander, or is there more to it than that? And, most importantly, what sorts of objects will we be bonking people with? Dinosaur femurs? Pterodactyl eggs? Primitive religious ideologies? Also, something something DRM (or lack thereof) and mods and Kickstarter or whatever, I guess. See it all after the break.

RPS: So, Kickstarter and videogames. It'll never work, right? Clearly, it's total madness. 

Chris Taylor: The business has gone through so many changes. For a lot of people, those changes aren’t good, but I actually see it differently. I think a lot of these changes have been quite positive. But they’re painful. The changes that I find just wonderful are the fact that with Kickstarter, and with going directly to the customers or the fans, this is cutting out all the red tape and noise and allowing us to communicate directly with the folks who are playing the games. It doesn’t get much better than that when you’re trying to run a business and you’re trying to make people happy with the things that you’re making.

When I started out, 25 years ago, there was one guy, and then we had some other support people. We worked on a game for a year or two. Then we shipped it to market. You don’t really even talk to your customers that way. You don’t even get feedback from them. Then you start working on another game, literally the Monday that you come in to the office after you take your two-week holiday or whatever because you’re so burnt out. We would go work on another game. A patch, even, wasn’t common in those early days, because you had no way to get the patch to them. This is like the genesis of gaming, right? Nowadays, when you look at the changes that have happened, it’s fantastic. We’ve got this new title. It’s forged in this new model, all the way.

RPS: OK then, what exactly is Wildman? Is Bear Grylls involved?

Chris Taylor: So what happens is, you have what I call an overland adventure. You start up with your hero, and your hero is a wild man. A homo sapiens. He comes out of his tent and he grabs a bone, like a femur from a dinosaur, because he’s emerging out of the dark 200,000 years ago. You’re actually on a kind of empire-building, civilization-building quest. The first thing you do is you pound a lot of the skulls of the inhabitants of the region, which are primitive. You establish these strongholds. This is a structure that’s kind of like your base. If you die, you respawn there. So imagine a town that kind of moves out.

What you then do is you have technology. When you pound these skulls, they might have something that makes you think, “Oh, that’s really cool.” One of them might have a club that they’ve fashioned, where they strapped a rock to the end of it. It’s a lot more brutal than your bone. Then what you do is you have the ability, now, to construct some little shacks. The first one might be a melee shack. That might be the only thing you know how to do. That might be the only technology you have. Then out spawns these… Think of them as a creep spawner, but what it is is it’s like a barracks in an RTS game. Your guys start to move forward under their own direction, so to speak. They’re automatic. You’ve got what I’m calling a war zone, where the enemy on the other side is doing the same thing. The units all meet in the middle.

But the thing is, you can min/max. You can decide that you want to build multiple barracks and be fighting a melee-based war. They might have archers, so you get into a rock-paper-scissors kind of RTS gameplay here. You may defeat that enemy and go, “You know what? I’ve discovered archery now.” So in the next war zone you fight in, you would maybe decide that you’re going to mix it up and have some of your guys go melee and some be archers. Or you could really turn the tables and go all archery. I used to play like this in Age of Empires, the second game, where I’d build the English and just go for the longbowmen. They’d be decimating, right?

RPS: So what makes this an RTS/RPG and not a MOBA/RPG? Is there some Demigod influence here?

Chris Taylor: You get into this whole RTS gameplay for what I call the war zone. You might be thinking of a MOBA-style game, and there’s a lot of stuff that we love about MOBA. But what we want to do is have more of an RTS experience there, bring more of the RTS in with the ability for your hero character – your Wildman, who is evolving tech-wise.  He takes these characters, and depending on his leadership skill, he can rally and lead a few of them and do things like end runs or go to different places on the battlefield. He can find weaknesses in the other side’s defenses.

Once you defeat them, you’re taking their technology. There might be some choices. They might have something crazy, like soap. If you get the soap technology, your health for all your units will increase 30 percent. It’s kind of a fun thing. We’re bringing a historical element to it, so it’s not just pure fantasy, the trappings of a typical fantasy game. I like having this basis in reality. However, we’ve got a really interesting fantasy element to it.

We say, “What if men, when they evolved into the homo sapiens form… What if other creatures also evolved, and other creatures had sentient minds?” You could fight, say, a giant fly creature, or a lizard creature, or wild animals. What if there were thinking cats and things like that? Insects that are just creepy, that grew and were vying to take over the planet. Men had a clear shot, because we were so clearly superior over all the other animals, or at least that’s what we’re led to believe [laughs]. Who knows what really happened 200,000 years ago, when we were smashing skulls?

It’s definitely a combat-oriented game, but discovery is important. When you’re going through the overland adventure part of the game, you might find a cave, or an old crypt or some entrance to something, and you don’t know what’s down there. The question, ultimately, is, “Should I go down there and find some stuff and bring it back? When I fight the next war, I’ll have better technology because I’ve gone exploring. I’ve done some due diligence. I’ve done my homework.” Then you find a chest and pop it open and there’s something cool in there. Now you’re thinking, “Yeah, when I go back, I’m gonna arm all of my soldiers with this new technology that I’ve discovered. That can make the next battle that much better for me.” I use this model of the expanding Roman empire. When they would take over or defeat a civilization, arguably a lesser civilization, they’d pick through the spoils and go, “This is really cool! I really like this. They have something going on here. We’ll take that.”

RPS: In the midst of all of this, what will the player actually be doing when it comes time for battle? Is it a pretty traditional hack 'n' slash action-RPG setup, ala Dungeon Siege?

Chris Taylor: What you’re doing is you’re commanding your central hero, with the ability to command some other units as your hero grows in power. Those other units will fight automatically. It’s hack-and-slash in the sense that, if you compared it against a classic RPG, turn-based game, it’s more like a Diablo, more like a Dungeon Siege in that regard. You have some powers. You have some big attacks that you save up, with cooldowns on them and things like that. There’s a lot of action.

RPS: In terms of the way that the single-player progresses, will there be a concrete story to it, or will we make our own story by expanding out and conquering and discovering other civilizations?

Chris Taylor: It’s really interesting. As vague as the relationship is, there’s a bit of a dotted line between Wildman and Civilization. The story is the story of man, the development of mankind, but there’s still an opportunity for some more local storytelling between characters - instead of the epic, overarching storyline.

But this is something that our backers can speak to. They can say, “We think that absolutely needs to have a bigger context,” or, “We think that sucks.” Generally, you know, if you look at a development budget, it’s a pie made of money and you have to cut the pie up into pieces. It’s guesswork when you decide how to cut the pie up. We now have the opportunity to say to folks, “Hey, if you think a lot of dialogue is important, you should know it’s going to eat up a lot of the pie. Then you’re going to have less of this character or less unique combat animations or there’s going to be fewer sound effects.”

These are a lot of the dilemmas that developers face, and it’s kind of fun to finally expose all of those internal decision-making processes to the backers and say, “Now you guys get to get involved.” They really get an education in game-making. The goal is not to hide this stuff. The goal is to expose it.

RPS: Yeah, absolutely. But I think that also puts you in a trickier spot with the Kickstarter itself. There have been a few fairly high-profile examples now of people who’ve taken some pretty interesting ideas to Kickstarter, but they just don’t have enough to show of it. How much are you bringing to the Kickstarter itself? Are you going to have videos? Will you have a gameplay demo eventually? What are you doing to show people that they should fund this new idea?

Chris Taylor: We actually have the game up and running as a prototype. We’ve got an art style. In the video we’ll show off elements of the character’s creation. We don’t know how deep we should go. There’s precedent, with, for example, Star Citizen, where Chris Roberts has shown a fairly substantial amount of the in-game footage. His game is still years from shipping. We saw that as a really important precedent, to say, “Look, you can show folks a lot of what’s going on.”

Now, we’re not that far along, so we can’t do that exactly. But we can show our engine technology. We can show the characters. We can show animation systems. All of those systems are quite far along compared to a team that was to begin from scratch.

RPS: How far along are you? How long have you been working on Wildman?

Chris Taylor: Conceptually, of course, I started last year, the middle of last year. By the late summer, we started to get more serious about it. For a team of folks that are fully engaged, it’s been a couple of months. That was a very serious decision on our part, because once we throw the switch and take it off the whiteboard and it take it out of the Word doc and the sketches and so forth and get the whole team working on it, it’s a big decision. The terminology I use here at GPG is that we’re “all in.” Like a poker game. When you think you have a hand that’s going to win, you push all your chips in. At this point, GPG as a company is all in on Wildman.

RPS: What kind of goal are you aiming for, as far as how much you need to get funded?

Chris Taylor: We think $1.1 million. The idea, though, is that we believe that we’re going to have to put a lot of sweat equity into this. For a lot of us, our salaries will not stay at full salaries. Some of us, like myself, could conceivably go to zero. We don’t know. What we have to do is we have to wait and see. There’s also a facility for folks to come in and make contributions after the campaign closes.

We don’t know what that looks like because we have no experience. But that will also change the way the game is developed. It has the potential to add more features and depth to the game. The team size is variable, depending on the amount of money raised. It’s like an algebra problem where some of the terms of the formula are missing. You don’t actually have all the data, so you can’t make all the final decisions. We can’t finalize the team size. We can’t finalize the exact completion date. You have to take a lot of flyers [laughs] to make this project work. There’s some stress that comes out of that, to be really honest with you, but we don’t feel, in our gut, like any of these things are insurmountable challenges. They tend to work themselves out if you’re just committed to the game.

RPS: You’re coming into this from Age of Empires Online, so is Wildman going to have any sort of free-to-play component? I suppose that would be another way you could keep it evolving while maintaining a dialogue with your audience.

Chris Taylor: That’s a really good question. We’re big believers in free-to-play. There's been this evolution in the way that games are designed to support the free-to-play model. It really gives the customer tremendous value, although going back through the last year in free-to-play, it kind of got a bad name. We were like, “Well, it’s your choice as a customer. If you think a game is a crappy free-to-play game then don’t play it. If it’s good free-to-play, then play it.”

What we think we’ll do is we’ll start the idea off grounded in the notion that folks on Kickstarter are buying a game. That’s how the Kickstarter model really works. It’d be hard to go up on Kickstarter and plop down money on a free-to-play game. Then you feel like, “Well, if I’m putting down some cash and the game comes out, the guy who pays nothing gets the game anyway, because it’s free-to-play, and then I’m gonna have to pay some more money to buy some cool stuff in the game.” That kind of breaks it. We feel like the traditional model, the non-free-to-play model, works for Kickstarter. There’s a lot of titles that work on that model.

It does not close the door, down the road, if we want to do something more in the franchise. Again, though, you’re working with all the people who have backed the game. When you crowdsource the answer to a question, they generally come back with the right answer. Like the studio audience on a game show. When the audience is yelling, the answer is there, if you can sort out all the noise. If all your folks who are backing the game – the fans, the customers – if they own the decision, you’re on safer ground than if you’re making a decision in a vacuum and saying, “We think this should be free-to-play,” or “This component should have this.” If you make those decisions and you spring them on your customers, you create a lot of liability for yourself.

That’s a thing about this whole process. There’s a lot of honesty and integrity and transparency. Every word that I’ve ever heard that describes the relationship between Kickstarter backers and the developers have all been words that have a positive connotation to them. In my 25 years in this business, I’ve never heard so many positive words used to describe a relationship between the people taking the money and the people spending the money [laughs]. That is a very, very deep and powerful thought. There’s generally a lot of contempt between the money holder and the folks that are spending it.

RPS: With Wildman, the single-player, will it be completely offline? Will people just be able to boot it up and go straight to it?

Chris Taylor: That is a great question. We believe so. There might be some element of authentication, but I’m not a fan of that. The only thing is that for any persistent elements to register, you need to be logged in to the server. We do aim to be persistent. We want a character that you can play and grow. So that’s server-based. I always hear that question in terms of DRM. I’m not a fan of DRM. The server component is all going to be a function of the persistence. Like if you find an item. We want you to be able to play with that same charater in a PvE game, and so we need to be able to authenticate that item on the server. It’s more of a function of maintaining the game’s integrity. It’s like a game spoiler if you can hack the game.

RPS: That’s one of the big things that Blizzard mentioned whenever they announced the always-online stuff. If they had them separate, then you couldn’t bring a single-player character online, because they could very well be completely hacked and it could ruin everything. With Wildman, is that going to be an optional thing? For instance, could someone have a purely single-player character and just not be able to take them online because of that concern?

Chris Taylor: Yeah, I think so. We haven’t finalized it. What this does is it ties back into the modding. We want this game to be very moddable. In fact, the Project Mercury [operating system that indirectly birthed Wildman], the idea is that we use that technology to allow folks to mod the game.

The problem is the tools. It’s about developing these tools. Then you have to test the tools. You gotta document the tools. It’s a whole product. It’s like trying to make Photoshop or something, making an editing suite that you’re going to ship. Well, you’ve already got this game that you spent all the money on. That’s your product. Then you have another product called your mod tools. What happens is, when you put these mod tools out there, if you sort of roll them over the wall and they don’t work properly, that doesn’t serve anybody’s purpose. You know what it’s like when you try to work with a tool. If you’re like me, you’ve done it on a bunch of things and given up because you’re like, “Oh my God, I have to go online and read this giant thing on how to hook it all up. I don’t have time for this.” So modding ties into this whole thing.

To make the point, Project Mercury, which gives folks a total… It’s a web-based tool, but I have to show it to you to show you how powerful it is. It gives you the ability to access all the content on the server and be able to edit and create your maps and lay out your content – where your enemies are, where all the stuff is on the map. Then you log in to the game, and of course you’re on an account that’s tied to that, so it sucks it right down off the server. The thing is, though, you could have placed like a zillion chests with the ultimate weapons in all those chests. So you’ve already broken the game’s economics, because you created these silly maps. In that case, it doesn’t matter if you play it offline, because you’ve more or less broken the economy of the game through a mod.

I think it really comes down to what the ultimate decisions are on whether we want people to differentiate between mods that are just for fun. Like when you play offline mode in Minecraft, for example, right? You can go into creator mode and give yourself anything. But you can also do that on a server as well, which is really cool. We also do that. We have a server here at GPG and I play with my kids and we have a blast. Sometimes I’ll yank away their admin rights [laughs] and make them suffer for a while.

The point is that that’s a question we can ask the folks that back the game. We don’t want to make decisions in a vacuum anymore. We’re at the point where we think, “Hey, let’s just open up all this stuff to our fans and to our players.”

RPS: As a final question [for part one] - and possibly the most important - if Wildman ever gets turned into a movie, will it star Jason Statham?

Chris Taylor: [laughs] Well, I think we can ask if Uwe Boll’s gonna direct it.

I think I like your question. I think that Wildman is a bigger guy. He’s got bigger biceps. If Arnold Schwarzenegger was 30 years younger, I think he could play him. I think you were joking, and I appreciate that, but I’m still going to answer you seriously [laughter]. Wildman is a big boy. He’s more like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. That would be a better choice.

RPS: He’d be good, yeah. I’d watch that.

Check back tomorrow for part two, in which we discuss the fate of mega-RTS Kings and Castles and whether or not it'll ever see the light of day, Taylor's bonkers "Project Mercury" operating system that sparked all this Wildman craziness, Planetary Annihilation, the "old" Chris Taylor vs the current one, and more.

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About the Author

Nathan Grayson

Former News Writer

Nathan wrote news for RPS between 2012-2014, and continues to be the only American that's been a full-time member of staff. He's also written for a wide variety of places, including IGN, PC Gamer, VG247 and Kotaku, and now runs his own independent journalism site Aftermath.