Empire Earth 2 Interview (PC)

Si: Hello from SI, before we begin can you please introduce yourself to our readers?
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Ian Davis: I’m Ian Davis, the founder, CEO, & Mad Scientist at Mad Doc Software. I started Mad Doc five years ago, after being Activision’s Technical Director for their internal studios for four years. I’m excited to be working on a game that’s going to make your readers very happy gamers!
Si: For those who haven’t played the original Empire Earth or heard of the sequel, can you give a brief overview of the game?
Ian Davis: Empire Earth 2 follows in the tradition of the original game by being the historical RTS with the greatest span of time, with the greatest amount of civilizations, units, and environments. As Mad Doc is basically a whole company of RTS fanatics, we set out from the start to make the RTS that we’d always wanted to play, something that had deeper gameplay, more strategies, and more useful interface features than any game had yet offered.

We started out in doing that by creating a huge palette of units, settings, and times for players to choose from: There are 14 civilizations to choose from, each of which plays differently, with unique units, powers, and bonuses. The game stretches from 10,000 BC up to the 23rd century, so we’ve managed to cover every known and imagined form of warfare (which, of course, meant that we needed to offer over 370 tactical units to do it with!). We have deserts, jungles, oceans, rivers, mountains, hills, valleys. Those all come with seasons and weather, too.
Si: Can you tell us what some of the new features are and the main differences between Empire Earth 2 and the original?
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Ian Davis: As I mentioned, we wanted to move the RTS field forward – and, the truth is, we felt that the genre has been in something of a holding pattern for the past few years. You see a lot of the same games being copied time and again. For Empire Earth 2, we aimed to focus on creating new sorts of gameplay, to take what’s fun about traditional RTS play and formalize it, and to find clever ways to eliminate the things that we’ve always found frustrating about big RTS games. Let me give you some examples.

Empire Earth 2 – at its gigantic heart – is all about building huge, sprawling empires; bringing civilizations up from a small start to world dominance. We thought about how empires throughout history have grown, and kept returning to the idea of territories. Think about it – wars, treaties, diplomacy, power, they all revolve around territories, parcels of land. The building blocks of empires. To turn that concept into gameplay, we’ve created Territories. In Empire Earth 2, the world is pre-divided into territories (you can choose how many, if you like) and expanding your empire is all about conquering territories. Territories give you resource bonuses, allow you to build cities, allow you to generate technology, give you defensive bonuses on your buildings. You can make deals with other players with them, too: sell them, trade for them. Of course, you can always sweep in and steal them. It’s something that doesn’t get in the way of what’s fun about RTS games, since it’s always been at the heart of them. It also adds that Risk element to games, which allows for a lot of strategy (and a lot of double-crossing!).

Another feature we added are what we call the Crowns. The basic idea is that players who excel at a particular facet of RTS play should be rewarded for it. It actually evolved from our thinking about the post-game stat screens and how much everyone loves to look at them at see when they had the strongest military, or the biggest economy, or the largest empire. We figured, why not put that right into the game – why save it for the end. Now, if I’m playing and have the largest military, kill the most enemy units, etc. (there’s actually a pretty specific formula for it), I’m awarded the Military Crown. That gives me two things: while I own the Crown (you only get it for a specific amount of time that counts down), I can choose a powerful bonus, like Strategic Bombing Doctrine, which gives my bombers 20% more hitpoints and they do 20% more damage. For winning the Crown, I’m also awarded a Military Leader, who gives area-effect bonuses to nearby units. I get to keep him, even once the Crown is no longer mine.

One new feature that was designed to improve upon something that’s always frustrated us about RTS playing is our War Plans Screen. This is awesome for multiplayer games! Remember what it was like to try to coordinate an attack with one of your allies? Chat messages and mini-map flares. Miss the chat message – whoops. You’re hosed. Our War Plans Screen gives a view of the entire map, and then allows players to ‘chalk talk’ their plans to one another. You can place down arrows, X’s, circles, and text, and then send it off to your ally for him to look at. Think of those WWII maps, that show all the troop movements for each division in a huge offensive – that’s what players get to do, and it adds a whole new element of easy coordination of attacks.
Si: How has combat improved, do units keep to formations much more instead of degenerating into mob combat?
Ian Davis: Ah, yes – the dreaded ‘furball’. Again, that’s been one of the traditional problems with large scale RTS games. You spend your time gathering resources, building up huge armies, get ready your crushing steel wall of death – and then you can’t control what the hell’s happening once a big battle turns into a big mishmash of units. Improving on this has been the top priority of all of our combat design, coding, and balancing.

We’ve handled it through formations and unit AI. For formations, we didn’t necessarily want to offer 10 different formations to the player – just three or four really good ones, ones that are always useful. By focusing on those, we’ve been able to dial in the unit behavior (which is tied to both the formation and the stance that you set your units in, such as aggressive, defensive, etc.) so that it makes your units both more effective and easier to control. Units in formation know where they want to be, what to target most effectively, and when to spread out or tighten up. Managing a battle well shouldn’t be all micro-managment – we felt that there was a higher level of group control that people want to take advantage of. This way, you can micro-manage (if that’s your style) or you can use formations to go into battle with a more strategic mindset.
Si: In what ways will the AI be improved, can the AI adapt to players strategies?
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Ian Davis: The first step was to make an AI that doesn’t cheat! We know – there’s nothing more frustrating than realizing that your AI opponent doesn’t have to gather resources like you, epochs up every time you do, and automatically knows where you are.

For Empire Earth 2, we’ve designed an AI that plays that game like a human player. The first part of doing that was designing it to NOT do any of the things I just mentioned. No cheating. EE2’s AI has a multifaceted goal-handling system: resource gathering, map exploration, city-building, territory acquisition, technology progress, diplomacy, unit production, and more. We’ve designed it to approach all of these tasks like a human player would. For example, instead of just pumping out military units and sending them off to your base, the AI builds up battalions and armies, then waits to use them until it’s most advantageous. Our programmers added an algorithm that forces the AI to mimic how a human player would try to extrapolate the location of your base, based on where and how often it begins to spot your units.

Our AI system also uses a collection of different ‘personalities’ that will vary, depending on what civilization it is, what the player’s strategies are, the RPS (rock-paper-scissors unit relationships), the Crowns system, the map type, the weather, the sorts of attacks are brought against it, etc. The result is exactly what you hope for in an AI: each game is different and it’s always responding to your changing strategies with changing strategies of its own.

The AI also makes use of our diplomacy features – AIs will respond to treaty offers, will make their own offers, and will even respond (if they’re allies) to War Plans that you send. It even taunts you.
Si: How is micro management handled within Empire Earth 2, can it be potentially automated?
Ian Davis: ‘Automation’ is an interesting concept, but a potentially bad one for an RTS game. One of our design rules is that you never want to take control away from a player. What we’ve done, however, is to create systems and interface elements that allow for both the traditional micro-management AND for easier ways to deal with some of the things that can be troublesome or frustrating.

Here’s a good example of that – our Citizen Manager Screen. In big multiplayer games (and even in single player games), there often comes a point that you’ve got dozens or even hundreds of citizens, all out gathering, building, etc. When you need a big push to pump out some tanks, for example, it’s a drag to have to go around to all of your gold piles and individually (or even group select) citizens from those various locations to your iron piles. Our Citizen Manager Screen shows all the resources, how many citizens are currently gathering each type, how much free space there is at each type, and all your idle citizens. Switching them around is as easy as left clicking citizens up from “Gold” and right clicking them down on “Iron”. The unit AI then gets the citizens to the nearest specified resource via the smartest route.

Now, you can micromanage citizens to your heart’s content in the traditional manner – or you can use the Citizen Manager Screen. The goal was to keep 100% of the strategic decisions (what should I harvest?) while removing all of the tedium.
Si: Tell us more about how the weather can affect game play? Normally in strategy games weather is just thrown in as a nice graphical touch that affects little.
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Ian Davis: There’s nothing wrong with eye candy, but the gameplay is the heart of the matter. Right from the start, we wanted EE2 to be rooted in ‘hyper-realism’, both visually and in design. Weather seemed like a no-brainer. So we put seasons into the game, and with seasons came weather. The basic impact of weather is straight-forward: when it’s raining or snowing, units have reduced LOS (line of sight) and movement speed. This immediately added strategy: take advantage of your opponents’ reduced LOS and attack him in winter. Make big troop movements when it’s not winter.

We took it even further with what we call ‘severe’ weather. Each climate (we feature arid, tropical, and temperate) has its own type of storm: dust storm, monsoon, and blizzard. These come slamming across the map, reducing LOS even further, forcing aircraft to be grounded, reducing the accuracy of artillery, and damaging units that are left exposed. Powerful stuff, and perfect opportunities to try to pull off some daring strategy. Blizzard? Move a whole platoon of tanks right in front of your enemy’s base without him even seeing it.

There’s some historical precedent, after all. Invading the Soviet Union? Maybe. Invading the Soviet Union in winter? Bad idea...
Si: The screenshots look very impressive, any idea on what the minimum specs will be?
Ian Davis: 1Ghz Pentium III; 128 MB RAM; 32 MB graphics card.
Si: How complete is Empire Earth 2 so far? Any idea on a release date?
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Ian Davis: We’re getting there! We expect to see our release in the first half of 2005.
Si: What is your favorite part about Empire Earth 2 so far?
Ian Davis: My favorite part is having members of our team and the team over at Sierra start to see all our ideas come to life and tell me that they’d never want to go back to playing an RTS that didn’t have all our cool new gameplay and interface features. Citizen Manager. War Plans. The PIP (picture in picture window – it bookmarks up to 6 locations in the world and can cycle through them or take you right there with just a click). Territories. Crowns. Diplomacy. It gives me confidence that we’ve accomplished what we set out to, which is to make the RTS we’ve always wanted to play.
Si: Thank you for your time in answering these questions, is there anything else you would like to add?
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Ian Davis: Thanks for getting the word out to your readers. I hope they’ll be as excited to play EE2 as we’ve been about making it.