Monday, April 13, 2009

RTS, RPG, Big Huge Games and Ensemble

RTS is "real time strategy". Ensemble Studios brought these to my attention with Age of Empires. Some are historical, some are science fiction, some are mythological. There are all kinds. You basically start as a leader with next to nothing and through real time strategy (as opposed to turn based), you conquer all.

My favorite RTS of all time? Rise of Nations by a company called Big Huge Games. In that game you start out with sticks and stones and about 20 minutes later you have aircraft carriers and nuclear missiles (if you know what you are doing). It's a fairly fast paced RTS, but it's a lot of fun. Their follow-up was something called Rise of Legends. It was different, but I never could get into it much. The graphics were pretty and the concept was cool, but the playability suffered.

My second favorite RTS of all time was Starcraft by Blizzard. I've spent countless hours playing video games and in the last 20 years I'd have to say that Blizzard has eaten up the most of those hours. Prior to that it was Sir-Tech, but that ages me. I don't like being aged. Starcraft is a science fiction based RTS with 3 unique but very well balanced civilizations. Blizzard is working on Startcraft II, but they aren't telling anyone when it's going to hit the shelves (December 3, 2009 is the latest rumor).

Age of Empires is probably my third favorite for the curious.

Why did I decide to rant about this today?

Well, I recently got bored with all my computer games and started shopping around for some new game to occupy my time. I burnt out on RPG's. I played World of Warcraft, then Age of Conan. The last RTS I got hooked on was Supreme Commander.

I decided it was time for a new RTS. Ensemble Studios recently shut its doors so there will be no new games coming from them. I went to the Big Huge Games website and hear that they are possibly shutting their doors too. Big Huge Games was almost 2 years into an RPG (aptly named Big Huge RPG) when their financing dropped. I must say that based on Rise of Nations alone, I would have pre-purchased a copy of any RPG developed by Big Huge Games.

Apparently it takes quite a lot of money to develop a game. I'm not quite sure where all the money is spent. I am fairly confident that with a team of ten really good people, I could lead a team to a successful game in short order (less than 2 years). The "idea" for the game is only about 20% of the battle. I've got lots of ideas.

What people expect from games is playability, ease of use, and stability. You leave out any of those and you are going to be fighting an uphill battle after launch. There is an intangible to the customer that I think a lot of software companies miss. Maintainability. People like for their games to be enhanced or upgraded or fixed if there is a bug. Software can be written such that it can be easily fixed or upgraded and thus maintained.

Even if you launch an RPG and 4 million people purchase the game. If the game was architected, designed and written in such a way that the maintenance costs are prohibitive, I believe that the cost of maintenance will eat up any profits almost immediately. It's almost impossible to ship a product that will work in every concievable configuration without problems. Therefore, maintainable code is key.

I suspect that Funcom, the makers of Age of Conan, are losing this fight. I don't know how many subscribers they have paying monthly fees to play online, but it takes them so long to fix problems that they must be losing a significant number of players. They forgot about maintenance when they were implementing.

If you want to see a company that does things right? Blizzard. If I had to start a software company today, I'd model it after Blizzard. Their turnaround on fixes are fast and they don't have to make many. I suspect they somehow have something in place such that their developers write very maintainable code and the shipped product has limited defects. I could theorize that maintainable code is also stable code.

Does anyone want to finance me? Or maybe finance Big Huge Games as long as I'm offered a position as lead designer/architect? I'm real good at it. I don't know about living in Maryland although their office parties look like fun.


  1. The biggest problem Funcom and Age of Conan has was that it was not ready. Subscribers expect bugs and errors to ship with the a MMO but it took them 10 months before they fixed most of the bugs. Most, not all.
    As for games idea...doesn't all gamers have a few in their minds?

  2. Yeah, anyone that has played computer games must have ideas. I'm wondering if it would be possible to create an open source venue similar to sourceforge where computer aficionados from all over the world could come together and bring their ideas to life with the help of other gamers.
    I also think you can ship games that aren't ready. Look at the number of people that are signing up for open Beta's. It's just a matter of having something in place that you can quickly fix. It took AoC too long to get it fixed.
    Imagine if you sold games before they were ready on purpose. If you purchase this game now, it will cost $10. Two months from now, it will be more polished. but it will cost you $15. Instead of doing a pre-order, you actually order the game at a reduced price, but it will be upgraded with time (for free).