Crispy Gamer

Rush, Boom, Turtle: Brian Reynolds and Big Huge Legends


Next week is the two-year anniversary of Rise of Legends. You probably haven't played it, because you didn't buy it. You suck. Because of you, Brian Reynolds and Big Huge Games aren't making another Rise of Legends, or even another RTS. Instead, they're working on an undisclosed RPG, presumably for consoles. Nice work, you. But even though you weren't pulling your weight on the Playing Good RTSes front back in 2006, I've been playing Rise of Legends to re-appreciate for you how good it is. Which led me to call Brian Reynolds, who -- no joke -- took time out from an "RPG weapons meeting" to talk to me.

Tom Chick: Did you realize the two-year anniversary for Rise of Legends is coming up?

Brian Reynolds: Oh, yeah, it is. Believe it or not, it's been that long.

Chick: Does it feel like more or less than two years?

Reynolds: It feels like so much longer than two years. That was a whole other world to me as a game developer. That was back when we were just a real-time strategy company.

Chick: Are you officially no longer a real-time strategy company?

Reynolds: Well, we're no longer an exclusively real-time strategy-focused company. The announced project, the biggest thing we're currently working on, is a role-playing game. And we have another product that's kind of unannounced, but every now and then I see something on the Web about it. Clearly somebody knows a lot more than we've officially announced.

Chick: So people who loved Rise of Legends don't necessarily have to think that Big Huge Games will never do another RTS?

Reynolds: They certainly don't have to think that.

Chick: Where is the license for Rise of Legends right now? Is it yours, THQ's?

Reynolds: Umm, that it somewhat of a research question. I think it is Big Huge Games', and therefore THQ's. I'm certain that Rise of Nations is. We -- THQ -- own Rise of Nations, but Rise of Legends would be a research question.

Chick: What would you say to a fan of Rise of Legends who comes up and asks, "Will there ever be another game set in the Rise of Nations universe?"

Reynolds: I would say I don't know.

Chick: At least you would shut the door on him.

Reynolds: I wouldn't shut the door on him.

Chick: Can you talk at all about how successful Rise of Legends was? Can you say how many copies sold?

Reynolds: I can't say. In addition to the usual reasons, I don't really know.

Chick: Let me put it this way: Was Rise of Legends more or less successful than you anticipated?

Reynolds: It was less successful than we anticipated, and it was certainly less successful than Rise of Nations. If I was to go back and repeat one of the experiences as a business person, it would be Rise of Nations. It cost less to make and it did better.

Chick: So let me throw the broad question at you. Why wasn't Rise of Legends more successful?

Reynolds: One huge reason that wasn't immediately apparent at the time, but has become more apparent as we watched other real-time strategy games come out after us and also underperform, is that the PC-only non-massively multiplayer market has not been doing real well in the last couple of years. If I was going to think of something spectacularly different when Rise of Nations shipped and when Rise of Legends shipped, it was that back in the days of Rise of Nations, there were all kinds of PC games being successful. That was 2003.

And in 2006 we shipped Rise of Legends and games other than giant, world-crushing MMOs just weren't doing very well. In one way, it was heartening to see that at least we weren't the only ones having a problem. On the other hand, obviously, it's kind of scary when a whole genre is withering up. But I'm certainly excited to see what Starcraft II can do to put some numbers on the charts for a straight PC RTS.

Chick: Do you think there's anything in the design of Rise of Legends that made it a tougher sell?

Reynolds: Oh, I'm sure there were things. Obviously, we were trying to do a story and we thought doing a cool fantasy world might be a cool new amazing thing. We were certainly looking for something different to do rather than repeating history [i.e. Rise of Nations' historical theme] immediately after we'd just done it. Maybe, in retrospect, we would have been better off just sticking with history for a straight sequel, but we'll never know now.

Chick: One of the criticisms of Rise of Legends -- one with which I actually don't agree -- is that even though you guys were doing the fantasy genre, you disregarded a lot of the standard tropes, the elves and dwarves and whatnot, so there was no hook for the average player.

Reynolds: I guess I agree with both you and the people making those criticisms. We intentionally avoided the standard tropes, thinking that would make our material fresher. There were a lot of games out there -- some of them highly successful -- that deliver that fantasy universe, so we thought, "What's going to differentiate us? We'll go for something people have heard of, but that won't be exactly the same things."

That's why we went with the Leonardo da Vinci devices with steampunk. That'll give people a little bit of a hook, but it won't be just orcs and elves. Clearly, we would have been more accessible to more people if we had just given them the basics. If our goal was just to get fantasy, we could have done that with lots of magic spells and huge dragons and things like that without having gone to the more esoteric steampunk, etc. thing. In that sense, the people who [criticized us] both before and after were somewhat right. So maybe that was a mistake.

Chick: I sort of a see a parallel with what you did in Alpha Centauri.

Reynolds: Thank you for reminding me of that. Yes, in some sense, we went against the lesson of [our own] history: that you can sell a lot more Civ IIs than you can Alpha Centauris. One reason we did it again anyway is because we did make a good amount of money on Alpha Centauri. We just didn't make truckloads of money like we did with Civ II. So we did it.

But it was a lot harder to explain even the most basic science fiction concepts to people than it was history. Everybody knows what a bow and arrow do. Everybody somewhere back in their genetic programming understands the possible benefits of discovering the wheel. The concept of mathematics doesn't sound very frightening, but then when you get into nonlinear mathematics and special quantum laser gun theory, then -- no matter how socially relevant the biting commentary provided by your game is -- there's still this accessibility issue. You have a lot more work to do to get people into the story.

So you could say that we should have known.

Chick: Don't you feel, though, that ideally should be an important part of game development. Expanding the vocabulary of gamers?

Reynolds: Oh, it should. And, by the way, Alpha Centauri got higher reviews for the most part than Civ II did. Civ II came in in the sort of 93 department, but Alpha Centauri? We got, like, a 98 in PC Gamer. At the time, nobody had done that. It just shows that to some people, that game really resonates. But the fact that we didn't sell quite as many -- we probably sold half or two-thirds as many as Civ II -- it resonated more strongly with a smaller number of people.

But [during Rise of Legends] my attention was often brought back to that example.

Chick: So I want to know about the inspiration for the factions. First of all, do you have a favorite faction?

Reynolds: Well, you know, I don't. I always tend to -- in my games that have factions in them -- I try really hard to avoid having a favorite faction, because usually that's a sign that the balance is off. Even if it's not the game balance, it's the narrative balance, or the interesting feature balance. If one is just plain cooler than the other, then we haven't done our jobs well enough.

Chick: It's like having a favorite child.

Reynolds: In some ways, it's just as much of a mistake. So anytime I notice myself starting to prefer one to the other, I think, "Okay, are these guys just too powerful, or do I need to add something cool to someone else?"

Chick: Was any of the three factions more of a headache to get right than the others?

Reynolds: I think the Cuotl, the cat people from space, were definitely the hardest. Partially because we got stuck on a completely different race idea that had absolutely nothing to do with that one. We just kept pounding our way down that dead end. Finally we realized we just needed to do something else and we killed it. So we stuck the Cuotl in and they eventually came together. But getting space people with ray guns in there alongside everyone else?

Chick: So they were a late-stage replacement? Can you tell me about the race they replaced?

Reynolds: Well, it was such an utter mess, it never really necessarily took on one shape. I guess if there was a theme, it was going to be a tribal shaman?something?thing. It morphed around in several different ways and we thought it could be associated with ice and ice people. Yes? No? Shamanic magic? Maybe. Yes? No? Summoning our ancestors? Spirit world? Lots of different things came out of that idea and we never got it looking or feeling very compelling. Eventually, we realized we could do something totally different. Ironically, it was only after we killed it that we thought of the magic vs. technology thing as a way to ground the three races. We had the Vinci in there and we had the Alim, but it wasn't really focused until we had a third super-technological race and we realized, "Oh, now we have a set of poles to stretch things out on."

It also took the Cuotl longer to play well and to be interesting to play. I think most of that was because they arrived late and needed time to bake.

Chick: Didn't the Alin have a different name at one point?

Reynolds: Well, for a while they were the Alim, with an "M" and then they became the Alin, with an "N."

Chick: Maybe that's what I'm thinking of. Why did that happen?

Reynolds: I think maybe they discovered that Alim was an Arabic word and we didn't want to use Arabic words. [The Alin] originally had been much more "Arabian Nights," with a lot more djinnis and flying carpets, but it moved away from that. We weren't using actual elements from Arabian legends in a way that was properly respectful of the culture, so we just thought, "Well, let's just take out any direct references."

Chick: I always through the sand/fire/glass progression was a great twist. You could have easily gone earth/air/fire or whatever.

Reynolds: We probably did go earth/air/fire originally, but it just wasn't cool enough. We just jammed stuff in and worked on it until it was cool. That's how we do anything.

Chick: Well, since they're not my babies, I have no problem saying my favorite race is the Alin. They're the ones I play the most. I love how many flying units they have. I love the twist of the sand/fire/glass progression, because you guys used it visually and in terms of gameplay. It's not just a morphed cosmetic earth/fire/air thing.

Reynolds: Right, that was the idea. We tried to make the things work together, hand-in-hand. It was a long iterative process. We just started with "Let's make a race that has a lot of magic in it ? I don't know, maybe some 'Arabian Nights' ideas." So then we threw some stuff together and put it in and played it. A couple of things worked. A lot of things were total disasters, so we took them out and tried new things. We were iterating that on the visual and conceptual and gameplay level, which is pretty much how we design any game we're doing. It's what we're doing now with our RPG.

Chick: Rise of Legends was your own engine, right?

Reynolds: Yep.

Chick: Did that make life really hard? It was your first 3-D game, too, wasn't it?

Reynolds: Well, the funny little-known thing was the Rise of Nations was 3-D, too, but we just fixed the camera and the buildings. I always thought it was funny that people thought it was a 2-D game. We did almost all the work of a 3-D engine. So, in some ways it was the frustration of being constantly told we were a 2-D game that made us go, "Okay, maybe we need to do a game that shows what this engine can actually do." Of course, the funny thing is that the very next thing for which the Rise of Legends engine was used was Catan for Xbox Live Arcade. That's the Rise of Legends engine. And actually, porting that to the 360 helped us a lot in landing the RPG contract.

Chick: You must have spit-balled various ideas at some point for an expansion pack. If Rise of Legends had been more successful, what would you have ended up doing?

Reynolds: I think the number one thing on the Rise of Legends ex pack list is "Wouldn't it be cool to bring in a new race?" It would have come with a full set of environments, they would have had their own places on the map you could capture. It'd be like a whole new continent added on, a new set of heroes. We'd be more likely to do that than a new hero to every race, a new unit to every building kind of expansion pack. We'd just bolt on a whole new continent, as it were.

Chick: If the development process had another six months, would there have been many differences?

Reynolds: It's been long enough that I can't really remember what we would have done if we'd had six months. What would that have turned into? If there was a message we got after shipping the game, it was "Oh, you guys should have done history instead of a fancy story" or "Oh, you guys should have been doing a console game." If there were messages like that from the market after the game shipped, we weren't perceiving those messages at the time we were making the game. In that sense, I'm sure a few months of polishing wouldn't have hurt, but I'm not sure it would have made it catch on fire. I?m not sure it would make more people than you give it a 90 percent review.

Chick: Well, yeah. But I have to say, part of the reason I wanted to talk to you is because I sometimes wonder, "What's the perfect RTS?" even though I don't think there's any such thing. But when I do find myself thinking, "What are the things the perfect RTS would have?" I imagine a feature list very similar to Rise of Legends.

Reynolds: But not to Rise of Nations?

Chick: Well, in a way, Rise of Legends is the next iteration of Rise of Nations. One of my problems with Rise of Nations is the symmetry between the sides, and that's a design choice, so that's cool. But for my own personal take on the perfect RTS, I really like dramatically different sides.

Reynolds: Right. And we were certainly reaching for that. That's one of the things history doesn't let us do. It just doesn't let us do radically different nations. I think if I do another Rise of Nations RTS, I'd probably try to do it anyway. It deserves to be tried.

Chick: And another thing, too -- part of the continuity between Rise of Nations and Rise of Legends is that they're both these perfect integrations of really cool sub-games, or systems. You've got borders, tech trees, wonders, naval units, flying units, nukes, dominances -- and they're so well integrated, even though they're separate. It helps so much that you guys did amazing work documenting the game, with tooltips. When you're teaching someone to play Rise of Legends, and they want to know, "How do I get more money?" you just tell them to hold the cursor over the coin, and all of that is explained right there.

Reynolds: Right. We've always been very serious about user accessibility. We spend lots of time in the labs with the one-way mirrors, watching people play the game and figuring out where they get stuck. Certainly, I would give that process credit for taking Rise of Nations and turning it from something that was hardly playable to being something that was pretty great. We kept on with that with Rise of Legends, and I think we honed the interface polish to an ever higher level. It's where I like to spend a lot of my time, on the interface side. I'm kind of OCD and bad interfaces drive me crazy, so I have to fix them.

Chick: There are things you guys have done that I don't understand why everybody hasn't done. Like the alt right click [to make an army hang back and only attack with artillery]. Why doesn't everyone have that with artillery? That is such a no-brainer.

Reynolds: Firstly, it's a no-brainer if you're really hardcore, but not everyone making these games is as hardcore about playing them. And secondly, having a good interface is a lot harder work than it looks like from the outside -- and even from the inside, when I'm playing someone else's game and I'm like, "Oh, for the love of God, why are they making me do this? I can't stand this. Please make it stop before I stab myself in the face."

And then I'm all, "First thing I'll do in my game in that genre is throw this right out the window and replace it with the cool new Brian Reynolds version of the interface!" Then I try it and I find out, "Oh, I see, well that's a little harder than I thought it was going to be." It takes so many weeks of iterations, and maybe they even tried these things and they just create other problems. You aren't aware as a player when you think, "Why did you have to make my life just that one extra click more difficult?" But then when you take that click out, you might find that you've made it so easy to do that thing that now everybody accidentally does it and had no idea what happened.

That's a textbook example of a set of problems that's deep and rich and wide. You have to yank your hair out on these things for months and months and months and try a lot of stuff and then watch them flame-down-from-the-skies fail when you put them in front of actual people who need to learn your game.

Chick: Okay, before you go to your "RPG weapons meeting", I have to do this week's Unit of the Week. It's pretty obvious that this week's Unit of the Week is Zeke. Duh. So let me ask you, at what point did you realize how cool Zeke was?

Reynolds: He started as one of those little artist Easter egg things. Somebody just made it because he thought it would be cool. He wasn't spec-ed as a unit. It wasn't because we wanted a special robot mascot. So we stuck him in for a demo, or maybe it was for some mission in the campaign. And then people thought, "Wow, that is just the coolest little robot." So we decided we had to have him in the main game. At the same time we'd designed the prototype lab that gives the Vinci various one-offs. For that, we needed a bunch of randomly invented things. And so, Zeke had to go in.

Chick: How did it happen that Zeke got his own message when he gets killed?

Reynolds: When we had balance testers here, and we were up all hours of the night, I remember one night going in and sticking in the message so they would laugh. It ended up kind of sticking as one of those inside jokes that shipped: "Hey, you killed Zeke!"

At this point, Brian Reynolds goes to his "RPG weapons meeting." I boot up Rise of Legends and log into the multiplayer lobby, where I'm one of the four people online on a Friday night.