The team over at Slitherine Software have been mighty busy since their last IGF appearance in 2005 and their latest offering, Arcane Legions, has brought them back to the event this year. I caught up with them to learn what's new since last time we talked.
[size="3"]Who are you and how were you involved in the Arcane Legions?
Iain: Iain McNeil - Designer/Producer on Arcane Legions
Richard: Richard Evans - Artist on Arcane Legions
JDM: I do all the dull stuff that no one else can be bothered to do
Philip: Philip Veale - Programmer on Arcane Legions
[size="3"]Congrats on being nominated once again. Did you guys submit anything since your last entry or have you been busy with Arcane Legions?
Iain: Arcane Legions is our first game since Legion Arena, so the simple answer is: no
[size="3"]What do you guys think of the competition now? Do you feel the IGF is heading in the right direction?
JDM: I think it will grow. [Due to] the demise of E3, it will bring greater interest to this event, and give smaller developers a chance to showcase [their games].
Iain: With the development of digital delivery I think we'll see a lot more indie developers able to compete and the IGF is a great place to showcase their games. The quality of games has gone up over the last few years as people take the event more seriously
[size="3"]What was the inspiration behind Arcane Legions?
Richard: We were fed up with Latin and Greek spellings
Philip: We all enjoy the fantasy genre, and so have wanted to do a game of this setting for a long time. It gives us more freedom on the visuals and gameplay than purely historical games. It also seemed a good place to build our new technology base.
Iain: We'd pretty much burned out on the historical research & uniforms and wanted freedom to try some cool stuff out.
Philip: And, as Richard says, it also gave us a little break from working in the same worlds all the time.
[size="3"]What else besides the fantasy aspect sets this game apart from Legion Arena?
JDM: I have some concern about the topic. History games carry their own brand...HISTORY. With this product we have to try to create a brand in its own right. Publishing partners these days are focused totally on branded product, so getting any new title into retail without a brand can be challenging.
Philip: We have taken a big step with the technology. We have added a lot of new features, normal mapping and other per-pixel effects. This unfortunately has meant an increase in the required machine spec, which is something we have tried to keep low historically.
Iain: Gameplay-wise we're making some fairly radical changes. We're changing the system to allow the player to enter orders in freeze time, then watch the battle fight out in real time. This is going to make the battles much easier to control. In real time games you tend to get to a crucial point where its all about who can click fastest - it becomes a click fest. With the new system we avoid this, yet we maintain the visual spectacle of a real time game, so we feel it has the best of both worlds.
Richard: The new technology lets us play around with some of the new graphics techniques that just weren't possible with Arena
Iain: There's also the campaign map which is free-form rather than the linear story of Legion Arena.
[size="3"]Is there anything in the past two years that has helped you guys to improve your motion capture techniques?
Richard: The cost has come down, so we can use really good professional setups that would previously have been way beyond our scope. Plus you get to hang around film sets which is always cool
[size="3"]What advice would you give developers looking to use mocap in their games?
JDM: Go for the best you can afford. Trying to do it on the cheap will backfire. We always go with a fully scripted plan so we know what will be done and if there is time at the end we can slot in more unusual stuff.
Richard: Make sure that you get the data cleaned and put together by the best people you can afford, and make sure that your stuntman is wearing the right kind of clothes. Skinny blokes in leotards don't motion capture big Orcs very well.
Iain: It may seem like it's a big cost, but it saved us a lot of animation time, so overall I don't think the real cost was low and the increase in quality was huge. If you get the right animations captured you can use them again and again. We learned a lot from the experience and would do it differently next time, but it was very worthwhile.
Philip: Plan ahead before you do the shoot. Make sure you know how you want the data formatted.
[size="3"]Is there anything that happened during development you'd like to reveal to other developers as a caution?
Richard: We've noticed that as you raise the quality in one area, you then notice other areas are weaker, so you end up going round and round touching every single aspect of the game and never finishing. So you need some discipline to move on.
JDM: One of the problems we always encounter is my desire to get the game to a point where we can take it to publishers to sell.... the others want to progress the actual game play and task list. From my perspective I need stuff that grabs the publishers eye, so there can be conflicts in which way to proceed....but if you don't attract a publisher you don't EAT !!
Philip: Moving to the freedom of a fantasy world brings with it a lot of new work in terms of having to create a world which is compelling and interesting, and that will be accessible to players - but is also fresh. Then building a storyline in that world which matches with the gameplay we want. It's a task which is probably larger than one imagines at the start!
Iain: Although we really wanted a break from history, we've begun to realise it may not have been the best plan. If we'd had the chance to go back I think we would have changed to another historical period instead of fantasy, so its really important that you get the setting right. At the time fantasy seemed like a good idea though, so it's not that we didn't think about it, it's just that we may have made a bad call.
[size="3"]What was the biggest thing you pulled from your experience working on Legion Arena to apply with Arcane Legions?
Iain: With Legion Arena we raised the quality bar significantly on our previous games. Presentation is everything these days and we've had to shift some of our focus away from the internals of the game model and put our resources in to the presentation side. If it doesn't grab people's attention in the first few minutes then they are likely to give up. This is more true of publishers than anyone, and so we have to create demos that really get the publishers excited. This has meant redesigning the UI to make it much more user friendly and approachable - which is all good for the gamer, but it did require us to change our approach. In Arcane Legions there are no list boxes, minimal text and everything is driven through graphical icons. It's much nicer to look at and easier to use
Philip: We've always tried to support people with lower spec machines, always tried to avoid forcing people to upgrade every couple of years. I think that a lot of our players appreciate this, but it does make it a lot harder to sell the game into retail.
JDM: Also in all of our games we now keep in the back of our mind that it needs to be as suitable as possible for easy porting to console
[size="3"]What was used to make the game, and what tools aided in development?
Philip: I use Visual Studio .NET 2003. We also use a number of 3rd party tools: Granny, Speedtree, Miles.
Iain: Most of the tools I use are created by Phil for specific jobs, such as the scenario editor
Richard: We use 3dsMax and Photoshop, and we have some smaller editors that Phil has come up with for effects, etc.
Iain: The copy of Dev Studio Phil uses is actually the one we were awarded as a prize for Spartan in the 2005 IGF
[size="3"]You guys have gotten used to having such huge armies at play in your game, but what's one thing about it you've found that makes it tough from a design/technical perspective?
Philip: It is very hard to match up the expectation from people on how a battle should look, verses the actual mechanics of a real battle. On top of that we need to make the gameplay and balance match up with Iain's vision for the battles.
Iain: There are numerous issues with having large battles - performance is obviously a problem. This comes down to balancing how good individual guys look versus the number being displayed. The screen shots have to look good when the guys are close up and compared to other games which may only have 10-20 characters on screen.
Richard: Having such a lot of units means that you have to go to some trouble to keep them varied looking, while still keeping each unit block looking coherent.
Philip: Also there is the technical challenge of routing and modeling thousands of individual units, which also need to act with some kind of squad cohesion.
[size="3"]Is there anything else about Arcane Legions you would like to reveal to other developers?
Iain: One thing we've worked hard on with Legion Arena and Arcane Legions is the design the UI in a way that is more approachable, and in a way that could be ported to console. We're currently working on a PS2 and PSP port based on our engine, which will soon be announced.
[size="3"]How do you guys see the indie scene these days versus back when we last talked in 05?
JDM: It's much tougher for indies to get to retail. Other opportunities may compensate, i.e. digital delivery, on-line sales. But this takes time to build critical mass and is not a quick fix. The problem is that AAA games come out at full price but after a few months they start to drop down to mid price. Any indie title coming in at a mid price point is competing the AAA titles only a few months old, and that is really tough!
Iain: We're also now working with a number of other small indie developers to help them bring their games to market. We guide them through the design and development and handle the marketing & sales side, so they can focus on the development. Its a good way for us to make use of our experience in these areas and all the contacts we've built up over the years.
Richard: The cost and complexity of the next gen stuff has made it tougher for the big companies, so its even harder for indies to stay in touch
[size="3"]What's next after Arcane Legions for you guys?
Iain: We've got Commanders - Europe at War coming out soon with Firepower entertainment. This is in beta test so will probably be out before Arcane Legions. We've also just announced our collaboration with the Lordz Games Studio on a Napoleonic wargame using the Arcane Legions engine. They just released some gorgeous concept art if you're interested. There is also a fun movie. As mentioned above we're also working on ports of our engine to PSP and PS2, and adding in a major license we just signed up, so things have really started to take off for us in the last 12 months.
JDM: Yep they are spending money faster than I can print it. It's tough for us as an indie as everything we spend we have to earn so often we find our aspirations curtailed a bit as we wait to be paid:-)
[size="3"]Well good luck once again this year guys, and I'll see you out there in March
JDM: Look forward to it
Iain: Ok thanks Drew - we'll see you there
Philip: Thanks a lot. Good to talk to you. Bye!