||Universe at War: Earth Assault Interview
August 03, 2007 John JCal Callaham
Summary: The makers of Empire at War have decided to create their own new setting. JCal gets the details and the screens!
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 5 )|
FiringSquad: First, how did the idea come about for Universe at War: Earth Assault?
Adam Isgreen: The idea started with a desire to make a game about an alien invasion of Earth, and more to the point, one about Aliens with massive war machines that were doing it. It was very Ogre-like, if you remember that Steve Jackson tabletop game. Originally, we had humanity fighting back against the aliens, but as we developed the game’s ideas further, we realized that not only does every game on earth have humans as a faction (and typically winning), but in wanting to push a lot of faction diversity, modern-day military is just… too conventional. They’ve been done before in many games and we didn’t want to be conventional with our factions and game play ideas.
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FiringSquad: What can you tell us about the main storyline for the game?
Adam Isgreen: The game starts on the 3rd day of the Hierarchy’s invasion of Earth in September of 2012. The first few missions are from the point of view of the U.S. marines, which gives you a good idea not only of what’s happened in the U.S., but to many nations all over the globe. Once you get to see how screwed humanity is, you launch into the Novus campaign, then the Hierarchy one, and finally you play the Masari’s story. It’s 22-25 missions in total, which is mostly linear until you get towards the end of the entire campaign.
There’s a lot of drama in our game. We had a strong desire to create interesting and compelling lead characters, not beat the player over the head with back-story, and tell a story that went beyond just blowing up each other’s bases. Every faction in our game has issues that are hampering them, and part of the fun is watching how they work around or against those issues to their benefit, or peril. During our recording sessions, one person in the studio even cried when we got to recording a certain sequence. That I didn’t expect, but we certainly do have our share of tragedy in this game. If we can get players that emotional over our story, we accomplished our mission drama-wise.
Of course even with the entire story, there are lots of things to destroy, escort, defend, sabotage, and escape from, so the player will have their hands full. This is an RTS after all, and you need to make a great game with fun missions. To that end, we’ve tried to give the player very diverse things to do in the campaign, since they can just go blow each other up in multiplayer and skirmish any day. There’s a nice assortment of missions and objectives they’ll tackle through the campaign, with locales ranging from farmlands, to pyramids, and even to some very exotic locations that you may not expect from the setting for the game.
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| Playable races||Page:: ( 2 / 5 )|
Adam Isgreen: The three core factions for UaW:EA are very diverse. We’ve tried to create some factions that not only play differently from each other, but from factions that have been done in other RTS games. That’s pretty challenging, as there’s a LOT that’s been done already. “That’s too much like Nod”, “No, that feels like the Zerg”, and a lot of other similar comments were thrown around as we fleshed out our factions.
So first up, we have the Hierarchy. This is the “walking base” faction, which features these massive walking factories that you can customize for offense, defense, support, or a mix of any of those functions. They’re massive in scale and cover any terrain easily (cliffs and deep water doesn’t stop them), making their arrival in an enemy base inevitable. Every walker has hardpoints on both the legs and body for customization. There’s a number of options you have to work with, but you’ve only got a certain number of hardpoints on any one walker, so you need to plan how you want to use them, as one outfitted for production isn’t going to do well on the front lines.
Next, we have Novus, or nanite-based sentient machine race. This is the “multi-tasking” faction, which relies on doing multiple things at once. Key to their use is the flow network, an ever-expanding network for power, unit movement, information, and all kinds of tricky hit-and-run tactics. Being our lightest armored faction, they have a lot of creative ways to manipulate themselves and the enemy through technologies like mirage, cloaking, attack redirection, computer viruses, and other finesse skills. They also expand like crazy, so unless you keep them in check, they’ll cover the board quickly and be very difficult to get rid of.
Finally, we have The Masari, the race that perhaps influenced a lot of human development back when we were still primitive. Ancient space-farers that hid below our oceans centuries ago, the Masari are a very powerful race that relies on research upgrades in order to fight against the other two factions. They’re the “range vs. defense” faction, in that they can have artillery-like range in one mode (light), or excellent defense in the other (dark), but can never have both at the same time. They can be played the most defensively of any faction we have in the game at present. We’ve found that many people that like to build big bases usually use the Masari. They have fewer units than the other factions, but their units have a lot of power and some amazing combination attacks between them.
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FiringSquad: In terms of resource management what can you tell us about the game's plans for this area?
Adam Isgreen: We’ve moved away from a pile-based resource system, since it didn’t make a lot of sense for Earth and our game’s alien factions. Instead, you could say everything on the map is a resource for one faction or another.
The Hierarchy can pick up just about everything not nailed down for resource. This includes scrap, houses, cars, cows, enemy units and structures, and even humans. There’s instant-grab items like humans and cows, and then there’s items that they’ll harvest credits from as they destroy them, such as enemy units or any structures. They utilize these walking vacuum cleaners called Reapers that you can either direct to resources or turn them into auto-gather and let them methodically move around the map picking everything up. Of course, the reapers are stupid and don’t know value, so you may lose out on quick high-value pickups like cows if you don’t manage them.
Novus uses a collector structure that has automatically built and replaced drones that will fly out and collect nearby resources, which for them are scrap, metals, and other non-organic objects. The collectors can’t harvest any organics or be used in an attack manner like the Hierarchy Reapers can. Collectors can use the flow network, so you can easily min/max your resource collection by networking all over the map, and don’t have to risk your collection structures in the field. As long as you have network connection, your collectors will be able to get anywhere very quickly.
The Masari construct matter engines, which generate resource over time without collecting anything on the map. This sounds great, but the structures are very volatile, going nuclear if damaged. The explosion can easily take out other matter engines as well as units and structures in a large radius, so keeping them in your base is a bad idea. Although you don’t have to expand with the Masari, you’re compelled to if you want to keep your base from exploding. You can boost the relatively slow collection rate through the use of Architects, which when tasked onto any Masari structure, amplify its abilities. The matter engines also make great forward defense walls… ones that explode violently.
The nice thing about resources in our game is that they’re in tangible objects, so while you may want to harvest a small town, I may just blow the town up and deny you the resources. This way, you can rush to resource-deny an enemy player rather than taking them on immediately. This cripples them from collecting near their base or units, creating more risk and allowing you to control where they can expand and harvest. There’s a lot of tactics that evolve out of this resource collection & denial game, which is new for RTS as an over-arcing game component.
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| Universe at War: Earth Assault Interview (con't)||Page:: ( 3 / 5 )|
Adam Isgreen: We go everywhere. You’ll play in and around rural areas, major cities, ancient wonders like the pyramids, and not-so-ancient marvels of human engineering in various places around the globe.
We have 25 different territories all over the globe, each with their own battlefield. In addition, there’s a host of unique maps for solo play and multiplayer that aren’t directly represented on the globe. We’ve tried to provide a nice diversity of landscapes and resource situations for the players to work with. Since our resources are in everyday objects around the globe, you can imagine how some maps will be more challenging resource-wise than others, creating different areas of conflict for the factions.
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FiringSquad: What are some of the development team's favorite units at this stage?
Adam Isgreen: For fun, I just went around and asked all our designers what their two favorite units in the game are. Everyone had different answers, with only a few overlaps. I’m actually really pleased with that answer, since that’s the point of our game – diversity and customizability. Everyone has favorite tactics and combinations they like to try, with different units to compliment those tactics. Here’s a few that overlapped with several people.
Kamal Re’x -- One of the Hierarchy heroes, Kamal is a favorite because he’s so diverse. He can knock aircraft away from his location with a psychic swat, which sends them back over a screen away and stuns them. He can abduct enemy ground units, throwing them up into orbit for instant resource, and can create impervious force walls to block enemy shots and movement for a limited duration. He can also cause massive ground-based blasts that send infantry flying and damage entire columns of enemies. He works great with all kinds of tactics, making him a very common unit to use.
Dervish Jet – Novus’ air dogfighter, the Dervish is fun because it works well in large groups with its antimatter shots, which stack damage on each consecutive shot after the first. However, the real fun comes from its special ability, death blossom. If you’ve seen the film “The Last Starfighter”, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It rotates its engines to opposite angles and goes into a crazy spin in the air, firing at everything near it for a limited time, doing great damage to multiple targets. Used in groups, this can be very deadly. However, the spin takes time to come out of, making them very vulnerable as they wind down.
Saucers – The Hierarchy’s main aircraft (and only repair unit) looks like a 1950s era flying saucer, complete with these guided balls of energy called “foos”, which they can release for both attack and repair. They have limited range for their attack mode, but once the orbs attach to a target and start burning its health away, as one of our staff said “you really feel that you’re totally tea-bagging the enemy at that point.” I can’t top that description.
Honorable mentions go to the Blade Troopers (Novus), Defilers (Hierarchy), Sky Lord (Masari), Peacebringer (Masari), Ohm Robots (Novus), Mirabel (Novus), and Zessus (Masari). It’s nice to see that there’s a wide range of units from all factions being represented.
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FiringSquad: What multiplayer features will Universe at War: Earth Assault have?
Adam Isgreen: Of course, we’ve got the standard gameplay modes you’d expect from an RTS these days, including FFA and team matches, with a host of options like hero death, different victory conditions, variable starting resources, pop cap limit settings, and other variables that you can use to tweak the gameplay to your liking. We also have replay recording and observer modes as well, so you’re covered in all the basics.
For new modes, the first one up is DEFCON. This was designed as our quick-game mode, so it’s great for tournaments and internet café play, where you want to play the most games you can in a set amount of time. Our research system normally allows you to choose six of the 12 possible suites of tech in any one game. DEFCON throws that out the window. As the game starts, everyone’s at DEFCON 5 with no research. After a few minutes, every player advances a stage, dropping first to 4, then 3, then 2, and finally DEFCON 1. With every stage drop, all tech in each tier comes on-line for every player. After you hit DEFCON 1, everyone has every tech in the game at their disposal. The counter is visible to all players at all times, so you know when everyone’s tech will advance. It leads to some really tense games of when to attack and when to wait for new tech.
We also have a Conquer the World mode, which uses our globe as a virtual tracking device for your progress in conquering the world. Every territory you try to take matches you against other people trying to take that same territory. Win and you can conquer it, moving to the next adjacent territory. Lose, and you can get knocked back, even losing territories if you do so. As you conquer more and more, you’re matched against better players, raising the stakes as you go. This mode is nice because you can play one game and make progress, or marathon it and try for an entire continent in a sitting (or more).
One new thing we’re doing as well is with Live achievements. Since we’re using Live Anywhere for the PC version, both the 360 and PC version have achievements you can earn. Sure, no big deal – everyone does that. However, with every achievement you unlock in UaW, you’ll get a medal, which you can use in unranked multiplayer games. Each medal is themed to the achievement that earned it, so for example, the “bovine defender” medal for the hierarchy that you get for collecting 200+ cows will give you the medal that increases cow value by 50% (which is a lot – cows are the most valuable Hierarchy resource on the map!) for the match. You can play up to 3 medals in a match at once, each faction having 15 or so that you can unlock. They can be unbalancing in some ways, but they can’t be used in ranked / tournament and DEFCON matches, so when you’re just fooling around with friends, they can really turn games on their heads.
| Universe at War: Earth Assault Interview (con't)||Page:: ( 4 / 5 )|
Adam Isgreen: We’ve got two features that I think are important to mention here – tactical dynamics, and research. Both are ways you can further tweak the play style of each faction, which keeps in line with our goal of making a very customizable RTS game.
I touched briefly on tactical dynamics in a few of the faction descriptions, which is really a fancy way of saying that you can change your strategies up “on the fly” rather than hoping you made right choices from the start of the game. We see a lot of RTS games that someone has really lost in the first 5 minutes of gameplay because of build order or unit choices, only to take 20+ minutes to play out that loss. We wanted to minimize and even eliminate that issue through tactical dynamics.
As I mentioned before, the Hierarchy has hardpoints on their walkers that they can customize. They can also change these up on the fly as needed, so if you’ve seen that an enemy Novus player is going heavy air, you can swap out ground weaponry for anti-air weapons, hopefully giving you the edge to counter that attack. This isn’t instantaneous, so if you’re not scouting and seeing what the enemy is doing, it’s not going to help you as much as you’d think. If you have time however, you can turn a potential loss into a counter or even a victory if you have enough time to respond.
Novus utilizes patching. They can run one or two patches at the same time, from a total of 12 different ones, which you gain access to through research choices. The patches are very computer-oriented -- overclocking your processors, updating optic drivers, etc. Each of these patches grants Novus different abilities that affect production, combat, resource gathering – really there are patches for all aspects of their game. There’s a time involved with activating a patch, and further time before you can push another one into the system, so you have to always choose what you are running at any one time.
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The Masari have the ability to embrace light or dark matter. This is an overall faction change, so you’re either in light or dark, and there’s a time involved with switching between the two. Light is a ranged stance, where you have far-reaching attacks, good sight range, but slower and avoidable projectiles. You also have flying units in light mode. In dark, your flying units are grounded, becoming ground-based units with different attacks. You also lose your sight range and attack distance bonuses, but you gain dark matter armor (shielding) on all units, have incredibly fast-firing attacks that slow enemies, and have accelerated movement speed on all units. Your units’ special abilities and weapon behaviors also change from light to dark, so you really need to learn every unit 1.5 times to understand how they work in each mode.
The other addition we have in our game is the research trees. This is a very MMO like system. You have three branches of research with four tiered suites in each, for a total of 12 different research suites. Every suite of technology that you research can give you from one to four abilities for your faction. As you go deeper into any one branch, the choices get more powerful. Since you can only choose up to six suites in total, you have to make some choices – do you spread your choices out and have a mix of everything (2/2/2) or go for a specific tree (4/2/0 or 4/1/1)? Perhaps you just want to concentrate on two trees (3/3/0) and forget the other one. Of course, those aren’t your only choices, but you get the idea. You can also back out of research if you feel you’ve made a bad choice, but you’ll lose the time investment and any raw material costs that suite required.
Each branch of research for each faction is different and emphasizes an aspect of the faction that players would form tactics around. Novus has Signal (information), Nanotech (production), and Computing (viruses). Hierarchy have Assault (walkers & weapons), Mutagenics (radiation & territory denial), and Quantum (mind control & other manipulative powers). The Masari have Light, Dark, and Balance, which emphasize one mode specifically over the other, or enhance abilities based on changing modes.
FiringSquad: What can you tell us about the game’s graphical features?
Adam Isgreen: The game supports DX9 and DX10, so it’ll run on XP or Vista. We’ve tried to provide as many dials as we can to create a game that can run on just about any system. The minimum you’ll need in the graphics department is a Pixel shader 2.0 (DX9) compliant card, which most cards are these days.
Of course, the better the card and system you’ve got, the better the game looks. We were running the game at E3 recently in 1920x1200 with 8800s on some 30” widescreen monitors, and wow – it looked and ran great. We use just about every feature in DX9 that you can, and in DX10 we have a few additions to take advantage of some of the power DX10 has.
FiringSquad: Will the game have a beta and/or demo released for the PC before its planned release this fall?
| Universe at War: Earth Assault Interview (con't)||Page:: ( 5 / 5 )|
Adam Isgreen: The beta has been announced, and is starting soon. It’s a multiplayer only beta, since that’s the major component of this game that’s been a challenge since we embraced the idea of uniquely playing factions. It’s going to be all about balance and tuning the gameplay at that point. We’re expecting to see some very creative (and abusive) strategies when we have 5000+ people playing as opposed to 50 here at Petroglyph. I have a feeling it’ll be rough at first, but it’ll make the game better in the long run, so we’re certainly looking forward to the feedback.
I’m not sure on a demo before the game releases. Originally, we had one planned that you’d play the military prologue part of the game, but that’s not truly indicative of the gameplay, since they’re not a real faction in the game. We’ll see what develops, but as of now, I think the demo will happen after the game hits shelves.
FiringSquad: Universe at War: Earth Assault will also be released for the Xbox 360 How hard will it be to adapt a PC RTS game for a console audience and controller?
Adam Isgreen: It’s been a challenge. We’ve been fortunate in that our UI made the task a bit easier, since it’s pretty console-friendly to begin with. There’s issues that you have to solve when you’re making an RTS, typically a “ub3r m4cr0z” type game into one that only has 10 buttons and a few directional controls to work with. I think that C&C3 and LoTR2 on the 360 did a good job opening the door for RTS control on a console. Our game is a bit different in what it emphasizes, so we’ve developed our own scheme accordingly.
For UaW, we’ve really concentrated on two areas for the 360 controls. First is not making you emulate a mouse – which just blows on a console – and second letting the game be group driven instead of single-unit driven. I think one thing that console designers need to let go of is the idea of working with one unit at a time. RTS games are generally micro to macro on the PC, and for console, the opposite needs to be true. Groups need to be easy to work with and easy to use. Let the micro come second and the large commands come first, since that gets 90% of the game’s tasks done.
We’re on our way with the controls, and when the 360 version hits shelves and we release the PC interoperable patch, you’ll be able to plug a USB 360 controller into your PC and it’ll ask you if you want to play with 360 controls instead, so you can try them out even on the PC. We have a few testers in-house here that can play competitively against PC testers already, so it’s a good sign that we’re on the right track.
FiringSquad: Finally is there anything else you wish to say about Universe at War: Earth Assault at this time?
Adam Isgreen: If you like what you’ve read and seen of UaW, help spread the word about the game! There are some rather large gorillas in the RTS marketplace, so even if we deliver a great game, it can easily be overshadowed by the current heavy-hitters and hype. We’ve got some very uniquely playing factions and some cool new concepts for the RTS genre in UaW that we think everyone will really enjoy – from causal to competitive players. Spreading the word helps us all out. I’ve certainly enjoyed creating and developing the game with the rest of the Petroglyph staff, and we’ve got a lot planned for the game in the future.
We’re looking forward to still supporting this game 10 years from now… although I’d hope a sequel won’t take us that long!