Summary: Andrew turns his formidable Gestapo training on Brian Reynolds, grilling him all about the upcoming real-time Civilization RTS, Rise of Nations. Now unless the PR flaks hacked Brian's brain or changed his answers by intercepting the conversation in real-time over phone lines, we guarantee that this is 100% interview, 0% marketing spiel. Clicketty-click.
Brian Reynolds’s Big Huge Game
Brian Reynolds is the man behind the curtain. The game God nobody knew about. He had the luck and misfortune to work with one of the biggest names in the business, one of the few true legends in game design, Sid Meier, and that name swallowed up a lot of the praise aimed at Brian. What do I mean by that? It’s simple, Brian Reynolds made Sid Meier’s Colonization, he was lead developer on Sid Meier’s Civilization 2, and he partnered with Sid and Jeff Briggs to found Firaxis, was lead playtester on Sid Meier’s Gettysburg and finally, was lead developer of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, a Brian Reynolds Design. Yeah, finally at the end there he got a title credit, even if it made the title an awkward mouthful. Despite this Brian has acknowledged the power of the Sid Meier name, and how much he’s learned from his former mentor, friend, and partner. Now he’s struck off on his own, joined by several of Firaxis’s best and brightest, to found Big Huge Games. He quickly struck a deal with Microsoft and we’re about a month and a half from his debut game, Rise of Nations. No ‘Sid Meier’ in the title this time!
Questions part deux
FiringSquad: Was Rise of Nations pretty much the game you had in mind when you left?
Brian Reynolds: I think it’s a lot more than I was hoping it would be. (laughs) You can never sit down and just write down an idea on paper and then tell a programmer “go implement this,” you have to get your hands dirty and play with it. I was surprised at how many of our wild ideas worked. I mean you can pick up Rise of Nations as a RTS player and see a lot of familiar stuff, but there’s another level where there’s a lot of other things going on. Like the national borders, and the multiple cities, and the attrition, supply wagons, flanking attacks and all these things are different from other RTS games. But they work together really well. They form something that’s more than the sum of the additional ideas. I guess that was something I never expected. I though, “well, national borders will be cool…” “Multiple cities? Well we might manage to make that work without wrecking RTS.”
FiringSquad: You could have just said “Oh I knew it would work all along.”
Brian Reynolds: Nooo! (laughs) I think the truth is always more interesting.
FiringSquad: I know, your answer isn’t uncommon with creators. They find it all works out in the end so long as the process works. Which leads to my next question. You’ve got a game that I would call the most complicated RTS we’ve ever seen. It’s on par with Alpha Centuari as one of the most complicated well-designed games I’ve ever seen. You’ve made something really, really, complex, yet you’ve kept it streamlined, easy to learn, and under control. How do you do that?
Brian Reynolds: You’ve got to keep it under control, that’s for sure.
FiringSquad: I mean, if you’re not doing everything all by yourself, how do you do that?
Brian Reynolds: When it comes down to the rules of the game, that code is mostly implemented by me. To a certain extent I can keep my eye on everything. Somebody else can be doing the artificial intelligence, someone else can do the historical research for what kind of unit it is, somebody can be playing the game and giving me reports on balance or what have you. But, in the end, it’s me doing the code and me and Doug (Brian’s longtime colleague Doug Kaufman) keeping an eye on the rules. Ultimately all rules changes go through me, so there is a single hand keeping track of what’s going on everywhere.
SIDEBAR: I wish Andrew wrote his own Random Facts… :o This feels like Tycho doing the artwork at PA.
Brian Reynolds: We come up with ideas. Doug and I come up with brainstorms about ideas that’d be cool to try. We pull out the one’s that didn’t work or I’ll think of some way to make them better.
FiringSquad: Do the brainstorms come before you code?
Brian Reynolds: No. I started coding Rise of Nations before we even had a contract to make the game. I got going on some of formation rules. (laughs) Some of that code is still in there for the troop formations and stuff. Within a couple months of when we started we had prototypes where you could move little troops around that looked like circles and squares. We get something running really early and then throw stuff in, and see what works. You throw a bunch of stuff in and then you separate the stuff that doesn’t work. The rest of it starts to gel.
FiringSquad: Can you give us an idea of something you cut out?
Brian Reynolds: Yeah, the idea of having different kinds of terrain that affected farming. We wanted like ideal terrain for food, other terrain might give you wool (which was an early and now removed resource). It didn’t add extra personality to the game… it just added complexity.
FiringSquad: And that would dramatically affect where you placed your cities. It might become an extra chore, having to scout around for the food and farm squares you needed.
Brian Reynolds: Yeah. Here’s a better example. It’s something we put in, then we cut, and then we put in again. And that was attrition!
(Attrition is a concept where, if you don’t take along a supply wagon your units take damage when they’re within enemy borders. It has a dramatic effect on how war is waged in the game, and it’s one of RoN’s most compelling new ideas.)
Brian Reynolds: Part of the problem was we hadn’t come up with supply wagons yet. We didn’t have it turn on gradually and we had no feedback for it. Nobody liked it so we though, “the heck with that, let’s take it out!” Later on some artist hadn’t heard we cut it and he made some little red glow things to go on units feet (to show attrition damage) and at that time we were working on the Nation Powers and we wanted to use attrition to simulate the Russian winter. That visual cue, and some other ideas made it work. In fact, a lot of what became Nation Powers were ideas we had cut (laughs). So attrition just came back as the Russian power. Everyone loved that and so they all wanted to play as the Russians all the time. So we gradually worked it back into the game. We realized that once we added the visual cue and an unmistakable audio cue to it, it glued together a number of concepts in the game that weren’t really happening at that point. For example, supply wagons. Originally they just healed people. That was too powerful. When we hit on the idea that it protected you from attrition damage it really worked. It really emphasized the national borders. It made it feel it (national borders) had teeth to it. It also affected the game styles. Having attrition damage meant we could have what we call the “Severe Tire Damage Attrition” which we use in the Assassin game or in a peace game, where you get severely punished for crossing that border. It made the diplomatic portion fit together. So that’s one rule that really had a rocky road to it but now it’s one of my favorites.
SIDEBAR: So Syracuse almost blew it against KU. I should have bet on a tie.
Brian Reynolds: Yeah! It’s hard to imagine Rise of Nations now without attrition. And it led to where you can increase the attrition rate, and the pro-attrition Wonders and anti-attrition-Wonders.
FiringSquad: As good as the game is, are you worried about the audience at all? You’ve got the hardcore RTS gamers, the mainstream RTS gamers, and then the hoary 4X crowd that wants to take 30 minutes between turns. Are you worried about alienating them at all?
Brian Reynolds: Since we’re a new license, we’re a new line of games, we’re not a sequel… we feel we’re not in the business of repelling any segment of the audience. We think we’ll attract some 4X players and we’ll attract a lot of RTS players, and of course there will be people from both genres who just won’t be interested in what we’re doing. But we think we have a lot that will appeal to strategy gamers. We put in our ideas not because we thought it would sell. We put them in because we thought they’d make a good game. We just hope there’s a large group of players who agree with us! (laughs)
FiringSquad: Let’s talk about Conquer the World. It isn’t entirely a new idea. Warlords Battlecry has something similar, so does the Total War series. Was it a part of Rise of Nations from the beginning? Did you think: “The campaign for Rise of Nations will be like Risk!”
Brian Reynolds: No we didn’t even think of that until about April of 2002. (laughs)
FiringSquad: It seems like a lot of work to add it so late in development.
Brian Reynolds: Originally we thought we’d do the kind of campaign you usually find in RTS games. Connected scenarios, historical scenarios plus stories, very traditional stuff. We even did some work on that and it might appear later as a free download or something like that. But we found it didn’t really appeal to our strengths as game developers. It didn’t fit the game. So we started looking for other ideas. We started thinking about our strengths as developers and then we started thinking what about our… Turn-Based experience!” We tried to create something that generates a more open-ended campaign and give the player more control over what happens next, what’s at stake, etc., At first we were going to make a campaign generator. Then we hit on the idea of a map and… borrowed liberally from many boardgames.
SIDEBAR: Nothing hurts me more than my cable modem slowing to a sucktastic 5k/s.
Brian Reynolds: Yes, that’s already happening in the Beta process. And if that’s any indication, and it usually is, that it’s going to be very popular. (laughs) Like attrition it’s become one of our bullet points. It started as a wild idea that a couple programmers felt passionate about and we said “Ok, that sounds really hard but if you can make it work, go for it…” (laughs) and they did and it’s kind of run away with the show now!
FiringSquad: Well it seems to me that it’s the perfect idea. Storytelling doesn’t exactly play to RTS game’s strengths. You end up with sneaking missions and other contrivances that some players seem to hate… while Conquer the World gives you a story you can tell yourself. Just like Civ or Alpha Centauri.
Brian Reynolds: Certainly as we go forward with sequels and expansion products then we’re definitely going to be going full bore on, um, “how can we take Conquer the World to the next level.” There were some things we thought were cool that we couldn’t do because of the relatively short schedule Conquer the World was developed on. But we’ll be revisiting CTW for sure.
FiringSquad: Ok, you’re passed your second Beta, the game has been pushed back to May 20th, what’s left to do?
Brian Reynolds: We are in the home stretch. If I hit the key here it will say “119 entries in the ‘to do’ list.” We have various bug milestones coming up and we’re just about a month before going gold.
FiringSquad: We’ll let you get to it then!
SIDEBAR: The interview is over. Got questions? Comments? Flames? Sound Off!
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