Gas Powered Games’; Chris ‘;Total Annihilation’; Taylor tackles our question salvo on his new RTS title
20 Jan 06 Chris Taylor and his Gas Powered Games studio have been responsible for the two respected Dungeon Siege RPGs, but the man himself is probably most fondly remembered for the ground-breaking (for its time) real-time strategy title Total Annihilation. It’;s been some time since Chris last flexed his RTS talent muscle but he’;s back on the battlefield with Supreme Commander, and we have high hopes that Taylor and his game currently in development at GPG will deliver something great.
Could you ‘;set the scene’; so to speak, give us an overview of the title?
Chris Taylor: Supreme Commander is a next-generation RTS game which takes command and control over a theatre of war to the next level. It gives players unprecedented control over land, sea and air in ways that they’;ve never experienced both in scale, the number of units, the size of the units and the size of the maps that they can play on.

It’;s a very different experience and yet at the same time they can sit down and comfortably pick the game up and be pleasantly surprised as the layers of the game experience peel away and they learn something new in the UI or subtlety. I was using the example of Civilisation 4 - it’;s an amazing game because of the layers of depth you can peel away, and that’;s what makes a great game. It’;s the goal of every designer to make a game with depth so that it doesn’;t feel like Checkers, a game that last for years that makes players go “Oh wow, you can do that?” and then they fire the game back up again - that’;s the goal.
Interesting. Could you elaborate on the type of experience you’;re aiming to offer with Supreme Commander? And where do you believe you are pushing the boundaries of the RTS genre with the game?
Chris Taylor: The game is a simulation, not a rock, paper, scissors style game. It has a gritty realism on the battlefield where common sense actually works, where you don’;t get surprised by any arbitrary game rules. We’;re pushing the boundaries in so many ways - the scope and scale, the size of the units, the size of the maps, the ways in which you can coordinate attacks and set waypoints and adjust them on the fly. You can build a structure, then before it’;s complete issue build orders to it, so when you come back to it you can see tanks rolling out of your factories without having to micro-manage them. This is stuff we wanted that just makes the game experience more intuitive and fun.
Can you tell us whether there will be anything like terrain advantage or flanking?
Chris Taylor: All of those things apply because it’;s a simulation which means artillery shoots further on hills, so any time you’;ve got tanks engaging, the ones on higher ground are going to shoot further and you’;re going to take a big piece of the enemy’;s arse before they get a chance to return fire. Hold down tactics work where the profile of the tanks is greatly reduced because of its position on the hill, you get both a targeting and a range advantage. All of the flanking tactics work exactly the way they would - they work naturally. If you read tactics in a book you could employ them in the game.
Supreme Commander is being labelled ‘;the spiritual successor to Total Annihilation’; and expectation is high. What part or parts of the game do you think will most surprise TA fans?
Chris Taylor: I think they’;re going to be pleasantly surprised about how ambitious we were - we did not cut the ambitious aspects of the design at all. I would really be horrified if they were disappointed with any of it. We’;ve added the modding so that the community can get in there and be creative, the AI system is fully scriptable, the unit control system not only is fully scriptable but we’;ve got a complete scripting debugging system. The map editor that we include in the game, the mod management - we’;ve gone overboard with what we’;re providing to the community. I would be broken-hearted if they were disappointed with the game.
What can you tell us about the engine you’;re using for the game and how is this technology helping you realise your goal?
Chris Taylor: We built this engine from the ground up specifically for this game design, so the zooming, the air, the land, the sea, all of our projectiles move in free space - we’;ve pretty much built it to give us this exact experience. The technology is exactly what we need, the engineers are doing a spectacular job at getting us what we need. I seldom get a “No, I cant do it,” - it’;s a designer’;s dream to be able to come up with a game and have a team full of wonderful people working on it.
What’;s the Supreme Commander’;s role on the battlefield, what can he do?
Chris Taylor: The player really needs to decide that early on and they can change that. The Supreme Commander has a bunch of upgrades, he can be upgraded to become a base defensive unit, you can build up his construction capabilities of the Commander so he can build units faster, or you can equip him with jump jets, shield systems and radar and you can deploy him in the field. So the players decide how they want to use the Supreme Commander themselves.

Players will be able to direct battles in traditional RTS view and also zoom out to a god-like meta-view vantage point and direct vast armies and their resources to fight across an entire planet. Can you tell us more about this feature and how it operates?
Chris Taylor: The goal with the full strategic view is to give players a true picture of the whole battlefield. Before you had the mini-map and it was painful because you really didn’;t have the resolution or detail. Not only do we have the ability to zoom out and see the full theatre of war but you can issue commands. It’;s remarkable at how useful and powerful it is. This game gives players, for the first time ever, a complete idea of the entire picture so that they can make really informed and effective decisions about how to deploy, where to set up a base, or build a radar tower, or spot defensive holes - things like that.

Supreme Commander’;s warring races, the Terrans, the Cybrans and the Aeons, will sport distinctive and diverse weapons and machinery and presumably each has its own goals and objectives. Could you fill us in on the races in the game and provide a few examples of the types of materiel each brings to the battlefield?
Chris Taylor: The three factions are all human - because humans are the most warmongering species the galaxy has ever seen. We’;re all waiting for aliens to come and grab one of us, take us back to the mothership and anal probe us, but we’;re the ones who are going to do the anal probing, we just don’;t know it yet. We have the United Earth Federation which is the traditional Earth that colonised the galaxy and now is trying to keep it under control. We’;ve got the Aeons which is a faction that was born from humans meeting aliens, learning their ways and technologies and then killing them off.
One of these humans poisons them with an agent in their atmosphere and the Aeon are born, and they’;re trying to unite the galaxy and bring peace through the sword. Then there’;s the Cybrans, which is built around a scientist called Dr. Brackman who realised he had a higher purpose which was to free a race which he created. They were humans who had an AI chip stuck in their heads and turned into workers to serve the humans. They realised that they were actually superior to humans and broke away to create the Cybran nation.
Dr. Brackman is over a 1000 years old, his body has deteriorated and all that remains is his brain floating in a tank of fluid which keeps him alive. He gives all of his orders through a holographic image, so whenever you interact with him he’;s a holographic image because his real form is basically a brain floating in a fish tank.
Can you tell us a bit about the technologies of the three sides?
Chris Taylor: Earth’;s weapon systems are more traditional with tanks and so-forth. Aeons use a lot more energy weapons, a lot more weapons which use light and gravity. Cybrans use more like nanite-darts, sci-fi type stuff. Each of these factions use weapons which tie into their culture and the way that they think.
How many units can we expect in one battle and what are you doing to make it easily controllable?
Chris Taylor: You can expect anywhere from 50 to 250 units in a given battle. To make it easy, all of the usual RTS mechanics will work, like selecting every unit of the same kind. We haven’;t implemented it yet but triple clicking will give you access to every unit of that kind in the entire world, so I can rally every bomber I’;ve got of that kind to that point with three clicks. The drag selection mechanism works whether you’;re zoomed in or out, so you can zoom to strategic level and drag select over an entire region of the world to select those units. You can shift click to order commands, you can change those commands on the fly - you get all your feedback system like ETA and time on top, which is basically a military term which means when that unit is going to be at that location. I can then pick another unit and give it a path coming around from the side and use that to make sure that they arrive at the same time.
People have always been talking about the death of the PC as gaming platform, what’;s your view on this?
Chris Taylor: I was really intrigued to see Call of Duty 2 as a top seller on Xbox 360 because you would have no Call of Duty 2 unless you had a PC, because it was developed on the PC and the 360 version was a direct port. So really the PC is a next-generation game platform. People just don’;t recognise it as that, they think of it as just a PC. Right now the Xbox 360 has a state of the art video chipset in it, which means that a year from now it will be dated and the PC will once again excel.
The fact is consoles utilise their resources three times more efficiently than the PC, so the PC has to be a lot more powerful than a console before it exceeds the capabilities, but all of that is just observations of different kinds that mean the same thing to me. The PC will continue to hold its ground. We’;re seeing consoles go up which is bemusing because as consoles go up in price the PC becomes more attractive. That was one of the most attractive thing about the original 8-bit Nintendo, it was $99 and the PC was $3000. Well now a console rigged out is $400 or $500 and a PC you can get for $899, so the gap has radically closed and if that trend continues and MMOs and great products continue, then the PC will do great.

What do you think the biggest challenge facing developers at the moment is?
Chris Taylor: The biggest challenge for a developer is maintaining its teams between projects, because you bring a talented people together and you synergise, and when you finish a project you have to have another project to go to with that same team, and if you don’;t you have a chance that you could lose your team. It takes a lot of capital to keep your team together if you don’;t have good planning. It means that our business requires much better management now than ever before, managing people, managing money - you can’;t screw up anything anymore, everything has to be within a very tight margin.

Do you think that strategy games will ever work on consoles as well as they do on PC?
Chris Taylor: Oh yeah. Two important things happened in the last five years; the control did not change, we’;ve got HDTV coming in the next few years which will help with the visual element we need for a good strategy. The second thing is the multiplayer. Consoles are hooked up now. Playing an RTS game is okay in single-player but really goes to the next level when you’;re playing another human opponent. Consoles all being connected to the internet now means we’;re looking at two important elements which make a good console RTS game possible.