Planetary Annihilation, a game from Uber which promises “Total Annihilation-inspired gameplay on a planetary scale”, was funded on Kickstarter last August, seeking $900,000 but going on to reach $2.2 million in pledges. Uber’s CTO and Creative Lead Jon Mavor spoke candidly to us about the success so far, and future plans for the game.
In part one of the interview, we discuss Macs and Jon’s vision for the gameplay.
Why did you decide to commit to a Mac version of the game right from the start, rather than including it as a stretch goal, as seems to be the norm amongst most Kickstarter projects?
The main reason for not making it a stretch goal, is if you make it a stretch goal, people who have a Mac (or Linux) wouldn’t know if they were going to get that version until the stretch goal got hit. So how could they possibly put any money into the project, and they say, well maybe they’ll hit their stretch goal and I’ll be able to get a copy? If we don’t hit the stretch goal, then there’ll be no Mac version, and the people that put in their money will probably take it back at best, at worst they’ll be mad. So I don’t think it makes sense to take core features like that and make them part of the stretch goal.
As to why Mac (and why Linux), from my personal perspective, Uber as a company, over the last five years we’ve been around, hasn’t been known as a technology company, but we’ve always been a technology company. That’s kind of an untold story about our company. To me, being cross-platform is something that a good technology company should be able to do, and do effectively. To me, it’s a core tennet of our development, to be cross-platform.
We knew our engine was going to be cross-platform, that was a goal from the beginning. When we actually started to say “ok, we’re going to embrace cross-platform development”, the first thing I did was I went out and bought a MacBook Pro, with the Retina display. So I was [planning to] use this as my main Mac for development. I thought I’ll probably use this at home or whatever. I started to play with this machine, and I never went back. So now my primary home development machine is a MacBook Pro! It’s got an awesome display, it’s fast, it’s super-small, light. I rolled the thing down the stairs (by accident!), picked it up, it had a few scuff marks on it, but those things are tough! So I just fell in love with the hardware, and I just never went back. If you look at my [latest] blog post, I posted a few screenshots, they all have Mac window borders around them (it’s kind of like a secret message).
Linux is also part of our cross-platform strategy, and my great hope on [that] side is that Valve is going to show us the way on Linux. So my primary goal there is to piggy-back on whatever they do there, to try to make Linux a more viable platform.
Presumably there’s a fair amount of crossover between what you have to do for the Mac version and the Linux version?
You’d be surprised at how little overlap there is. It’s kind of sad. Just to give you an idea: on Mac OS we run the [LLVM] compiler through Xcode, and on Linux we run GCC. So we’re not even using the same compiler, and a lot of the windowing stuff is different, every situation is different. So there’s some similarities, likeyou get your more standard UNIX-style APIs in some cases, but surprisingly little in terms of actual overlap. Linux is actually a lot tougher to deal with in many ways.
That’s interesting, because in the past I’ve heard the opposite.
Let me give you an example: Mac OS is 64-bit, I don’t need to worry about 32-bit at all. On Linux, I do. People still run some 32-bit stuff there. The driver situation is different, the way that applications are distributed is trickier on Linux, there’s just more challenges there.
I will say though, that if we just had to stick with Windows, and didn’t have any portability issues at all, our life would be even easier, because then we could do a whole bunch of stuff that just wouldn’t work on other platforms. We could be a lot “sloppier” I guess, whereas [currently] we’re forced to be disciplined to make this work. It’s not all going to be 100% smooth, easy sailing but for the most part it’s not too bad. I’m not particularly happy with Xcode as a toolset. We have our own (python-based) build system that we use, it runs really well on the Mac. But you still have to interact with Xcode quite a bit, and I think Apple could do a better job there of opening that up and allowing more access to internal stuff. They should be supplying more command-line tools to do what Xcode does, so we don’t have to run Xcode if we don’t want to. I’m pretty happy with most of the stuff they’re doing though.
Probably one of the trickier bits is not only do our development tools make the game cross-platform, [they also] run on all of the platforms. So for example, we have some stuff that does data conversion between stuff that [3D Studio] Max outputs, and what the game loads. All of that stuff runs on Linux, Mac, etc. So the modding community, which was a huge push for this game, is going to be able to do their stuff on a Mac, which I think is quite cool.
Ironclad’s Blair Fraser recently said that he considered the RTS genre to be “a dying market”. Is that a fair assessment?
Yes and no. I do agree with him conceptually that, compared to the biggest of the mass-market games, that it is more niche, but I also think it depends on your definition. Is League of Legends an RTS? If the answer is no, then that removes a pretty huge portion of the “RTS market”. I would agree with him that it’s not something big companies are going to be pursuing, because the money just isn’t there. They can’t (I don’t think) sell 10 million units of an RTS game. League of Legends maybe did better than that, but as far as a straight-up RTS game, it seems difficult. But then, you have to ask the question: who’s making these games right now, and who’s actually trying to market them like that? And there isn’t very many people doing it, and the ones that are doing it, they’re not unsuccessful at it. For example Sega, [who] distribute the Total War series. That does “niche” [gameplay], but it still makes a lot of money, so much money in fact that they just bought Relic (which is another company that makes RTS games) for $26 million. Company of Heroes 2 is coming out in the not-too-distant future.
I agree that you can define anything as being niche that isn’t “Call of Duty”. If it’s not World of Warcraft, are MMOs niche? Well, no. Would yo make one? Probably not. RTS games I think are risky. They’re difficult to make, there’s a lot of weird knowledge that you need to have. Typical game engines choke if you try to make an RTS of any kind of size. So there’s all these unique challenges, and when you combine that with [the fact that] they aren’t Call of Duty, they aren’t going to sell 10 or 20 million [units] probably. From a publisher perspective? Sure. From our perspective, we don’t need to sell a million units to be very successful. So “niche”, yes. “Not worth doing”, I disagree.
Total Annihilation is often brought up as one of the greatest games of all time (and was even available on the Mac at the time of its release), and now Planetary Annihilation is to be a successor of sorts to that. What key concepts are you trying to retain, and what would you like to expand on and maybe take a fresh look at?
From a top-level perspective, you can look at [Total Annihilation] and say that one of the things that it brought to the genre was a sense of scale. a sense of “these big games”. I think that is one of the primary elements that I’m trying to preserve. I would almost categorise it as a “sub-genre” of RTS, because most RTS games, the way that they handle their economy, the unit cap, they’re just kind of at a different level. So to me, that sense of scale, and bringing that to the next level [is important]. Not just the game you’re playing with three friends and having this big experience, but trying to push it even further than that. Get bigger games going. Get more online persistent stuff happening. You can look at how some of these big, competitive games are building up their communities, and I think basically embracing that community and allowing people to discover new ways to play an RTS game, are all goals.
If you look at Total Annihilation, it almost became a “platform”, where people were riffing on other types of game, different styles. The same thing [happened] with Warcraft 3, where DOTA came out of effectively Warcraft 3 being a platform. So the goal, or the way I look at it is, Planetary Annihilation is a platform to explore the problem-space of this type of RTS. That’s the general idea. So we’re doing our version of a really big game, with lots of cool stuff, then there’s going to be a real focus on embracing what the community wants to do with the game and continuing to evolve it over time.
If you look at the Total War Series, for example, there are so many mods available that change the base game in a drastic way, and yet they’re still able to sell a new iteration each year.
My plan is more to keep improving the game as it is, instead of aiming to release sequels. Business reality may dictate something else, I guess we’ll see. But the platform aspect of it is super-exciting, and I think it’s an aspect that we’re uniquely positioned to take advantage of. We’ve got our UberNet back-end [multiplayer architecture] in place, we’ve got all of the community in place that are supporting us, there’s a lot of activity at our forums, so I think it’s going to be really interesting to see what emerges out of the community side of this game.
Chris Taylor (the designer of Total Annihilation), recently expressed concern that the complexity of the gameplay of Planetary Annihilation would require the player to be a “savant genius”. How do you plan to make the game more accessible to less genius players?
To me the way that the game is set up, it’s meant to be played in the way that the player wants to play it. There’s nothing saying that you can’t get together with one friend and play on a small map. In fact if you look at a game like Total Annihilation for example, [we could] play a quick, 20-minute game, where we start off close together, the map isn’t big, it’s simple. And I expect that there’s going to be plenty of people that are going to play that. I make no claim to being able to solve the problem of huge games and huge complexity, all I can do is explore that space, and that’s some of the space I want to explore.
I will say, I expect there to be a lot more team games. So you’ve got, maybe 2 or 3 bases, spread across 2 or 3 different planets. But you’ve got 2 or 3 people on your team, that’ll manage that. This whole server-based thing that we’re doing, where players can join in to a team, while the game is already in progress, and then leave, and then come back, is part of the technology. It’s designed to be able to make this stuff practical. So we’re going to have to do some experimentation to see how big a game makes sense. We’re going to have to do some experimentation to see how complicated is it for a player to manage more than one thing at once, and maybe it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
But if you take a look at the first visualisation that we released with the Kickstarter [embedded below], you’ll see that there was basically a main planet, a moon, and an asteroid belt. So the level of complexity there is [relatively low]. A lot of your base is probably going to be on the planet, maybe you have something on the moon, or maybe there’s some moon battles going on, and then you have to manage your asteroid belt stuff. So with the kind of automation technology, and the UI and design [that we're developing], I’m not sure that that stuff isn’t tractable. And then the final thing is that it’s going to be a kind of complicated game to begin with. There’s not a lot of real casual players that get really super-into a game like this. I don’t think we need to dumb the game down and try to say, “hey, we have to design this for the mass-market”. We don’t. I think we showed with the Kickstarter that there’s enough people out there that want a more sophisticated experience that it’s worth building that.
In the second and final part of our interview, we discuss the Kickstarter phenomenon, and pitching to publishers.
Planetary Annihilation is scheduled for release “this year”. If you missed out on the Kickstarter, you can pre-order the game from Uber’s website, which offers many of the bonus extras available to pledgers.