Heaven Games Invades Big Huge Games

Interview with Brian Reynolds

This is the continuation of our interviews series of the folks at Big Huge Games, which was conducted during our visit to their office back in March 2004. A little late, but it will be interesting to see how things matched up before the expack's release and after. So without further adue, we put our focus this round on Brian Reynolds, the main man himself at Big Huge Games.

BR: What's the plan? Do you have some special agenda? Wow, you guys seem organized!

Soc: OK, I guess to start things off, could you give a bio of yourself, how you came about to get into PC game designing?

BR: Do you want the two sentence version or the full version? Well, my name is Brian Reynolds and I have been making computer games for a living for about 13 years now. I have worked at three different companies, of which I was a founder of two. So I spent five years at Microprose, and we started Firaxis in '96, and then started BHG in 2000. I can't remember exactly how many games I've done, but my early games were adventure games, Sierra Online, a few exotic adventure games that didn't sell well back at the time. Starting in 1993 I got into strategy games. I got a chance to work on the design of Colonization, and that led to becoming the lead designer of Civ2, which came out in '96. After that we left and started Firaxis. I did Alpha Centauri at Firaxis in '98-'99. And that was fun. And then the next full game I was involved with was Rise of Nations.

Soc: What kinds of things do you do as the head man at BHG?

BR: Hehe! Whatever you can do. The way I like to spend most of my time is prototyping new game concepts. I bill self as a designer, but designing for me includes writing some code. Typically, I implement the code that enforces the rules of the game. I make the game you can play and others do graphics and interface. I do play around a little with the interface. I used to write a lot of AI but not so much anymore. There are a lot of other things I do, too, like about ten percent on PR, ten percent management stuff, though Tim Train does most managing of the company. That does leave me fairly free to work on the game concepts. Tim Train does a lot.

Soc: So, you're like a jack of all trades?
BR: Kind of, kind of, yes...master of none. Hehe!
Soc: And would you say, with the wide range of skills you have, that gives you a better concept of how the big picture goes?
BR: Yes, it's a big advantage to both design and do programming. My experience as an entrepreneur also kind of helped me know what will sell. It's been good to kind of have my fingers in a lot of different pies.

Soc: Speaking of some of the new ideas you've dealt with in designing, I think it's safe to say RoN implemented several revolutionary new ideas into the RTS genre, like nation borders, changes to resource gathering like gold, and flanking. Who had most input into them?

BR: Are you talking about the Xpack or the original or the whole?
Soc: The whole; in general.
BR: That was Largely Doug [Kaufman] and me; we sat and brainstormed it. We've been working together actually for a long time. We worked together on Alpha Centauri some, Civ2 some. It's always hard to think back and sort out who came up with what or to say who actually had such-and-such an idea. Doug and I will say, “I think it was you," then Tim says, “It was me!", hehe!

Soc: What would you say would be your Favorite new idea that was implemented?

BR: Looking back, what was idea that got us the most mileage - clearly it was national borders in all their elaborations. That was absolutely the hands-down coolest and most revolutionary feature in our real-time concept. So, I guess that's my favorite. Back in the day, well, we do things by prototype. At the beginning of RoN we had, say, ten random ideas. We'd say, “Here are cool things to do in a real-time game." And we knew that most of them actually wouldn't work or only work a little bit. Those things that didn't work we took out, and some of them worked really, really well. National borders was the best idea. Cities you can capture worked out really well, too, and became a subcomponent of the borders concept. Attrition was an idea that was in, out, and in again. “Yeah, what if there was attrition," we asked, and originally we had the idea of it as something that would come in near the end of a game. But that didn't work, so we then cut it from the game altogether - “This is stupid." But later we reworked it and brought attrition back in the orbit of the national border system. “What if we brought it back?" And it got sucked into national border system. But a lot of ideas got scrapped along the way.

Soc: Of those ideas that were scrapped, what were the more notable ones?
BR: Uh, governments, attrition.... We actually whacked governments hard. By the time we whacked it....When we whacked attrition we said, “Thank god that's gone!" Then we went back and asked ourselves what we could do to make the game cooler at the end [of development]. At that time we had more ideas and ways to do things. Also by then we were then working on our next great real-time game and that got us thinking in other directions. We put two or three ideas together, which is the best way to do things. We came back to governments and found we could actually feed an expansion pack around governments. That became “Thrones and Patriots" - both pointing toward the government thing. That's cool. That [governments] became something we cut but then became the central core of the expansion.

ODA: Who named the expansion?
BR: I named our expansion pack! This was the first time in my life I got to name a product. My first suggestion for RoN was “Nations." I need to explain that. Usually the name for a product comes from the Marketing Department. They did focus groups, and “Rise of Nations" got the most votes in the focus groups. And I liked that because that was like my idea “Nations." Never before “Thrones & Patriots" has my idea gotten accepted for a title. Originally, though, it was “Throne and Patriots." For whatever reason, Marketing added the “s."

Soc: I understand that the Patriot units originally weren't actually in the expansion.
BR: Originally nothing was in, things got put in one at a time! haha!
Soc: But when the original idea was being developed, the Patriot idea wasn't in it at all.
BR: That's right. That came later.

Soc: Was there any reason particularly for having Patriots?
BR: Well, because they were cool. Anytime...I guess we kinda...when we prototype these things we put in random ideas and see which ones are cool and the ones that don't go away. And the ones that are cool we try to make cooler, that's a part of the process. The first one was, “Let's put in some governments." What would that be like? We started out with the governments as techs, and the original-original governments was they would have some good things and some bad things about them. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but it didn't work out in practice. People utterly hated them. Oh, and you could change back and forth, from one government type to the other, as from monarchy to democracy and back. But we found it didn't work in our real-time context. Then we asked, “What if they [the governments] all had good powers?" We moved toward thematic governments [economic and military] - pick one only, so we dropped the trading one for the other mechanism. We went to “pick one and that's your choice forever" idea. That worked a lot better for our format of game. But for a while there was some gimmickry with the Senate, where you could move it around and have your capital move with it. I will admit that I was really in favor of that idea and I fought to the death to keep that feature in the game. But moving a nation's capital around didn't prove fun though I thought was really cool. But people hated it; it did too many weird unbalancing things. People would just get annoyed; someone would be on the verge of taking an enemy capital and - Ding! - the capital moved all the way across the map. So people started playing “hide the capital." So we had to take that piece of government off and looked for other pieces.

I think Doug thought of the Patriots and we stuck those in and that seemed to kind of round out the features of governments. Now it's something physical you can get in the game. It's [Patriot units] not just some abstract thing you do in a building - we found from RoN feedback that what people really like was doing stuff in the world; they like national borders because they're visible in the world. Patriot units gave something visible to governments, a sort of visceral in-the-world feel to it; it's not just some abstract thing you do in a building. We found from RoN that what people like is doing things in the world. Nobody was all that excited about flying the interface as the thing you do in the game. So, obviously, when governments were just picking techs and buildings, that wasn't so fun. The challenge was how to make your government have a physical presence. Having Patriots - that's how your government can come out in the world and be visible. “OK, let's make this guy and call him a Patriot and have him do some cool stuff." We also wanted to get generals more involved in games, so we give you one [in the form of a Patriot] for free. Perhaps people will start using generals more.

Soc: Originally in the game name that you developed, Thrones refers to governments, but Patriot units hadn't been developed yet, yes?
BR: I'm not sure that the patriot units were thought of before we came up with the name. It is conceivable we thought of the name before we thought of the patriot units. Maybe there was a conversation with Doug where he asked, “What's this 'Patriots' thing? Can we have some Patriots?" Game design doesn't necessarily get more organized than that! Hehe! That's quite possibly a true story!

ODA: In terms of the fact RoN has turn-based elements, for the expansion was it your goal to incorporate even more turn-based things?
BR: That was THE plan when we originally started RoN. We, the core team, had been working on Civ3 at Firaxis before we left to start BHG. Our question was how do we make a game that stands out from all the others? This idea of incorporating turn-based elements will make it stand out. After all, this is our strength - we had been doing TBS, and it was an obvious thing to bring some of it over to RTS. From day one that was the plan; even before we decided it would be a history game, we decided we would be a real-time game with some turn-based elements put into it.

ODA: Any plans to Incorporate more turn-based ideas?
BR: No, not specifically. We're not just going to scavenge ideas. The brand of our company is not finding things in TBS and putting them in RTS. We've created something that stands on its own in RoN. We'll build on those things we've done in RoN and take them to the next level, such as national borders I think that, looking at the delta between RoN and what we're doing next, hopefully that game will be as shockingly innovative as RoN was.

ODA: What genre or genres will that game be?
BR: We're not ready to talk about it yet.

Soc: How compelled did you feel you needed to adhere to historical accuracy?
BR: There's a classic struggle in historical games between historical accuracy and game play. I'm a hardcore, left-wing game play guy. Hahaha! To me, it's all about the game play, and do the research at the end. “Joe I need another archer for this race; can you give another unique archer?" “Yeah, we could call them 'Kushite archers', how's that?" So it was definitely the game play drove the process of doing the thing.

Soc: What made the team choose the “all of human history" theme as the setting for RoN?
BR: The original core team had worked on Civ2, and before we left we were working on, we were part of the Civ3 team. We were known for working with history; history was the topic we had the most success with, and we wanted to do it in a real-time format. At that time no one had done such an all human history game. Now there's EE (Empire Earth) as well as our game.

Soc: With such a daunting task as that to create all human history in real-time, was there a particular challenge for an all-history game?
BR: Well, I think the thing no one believed we could do, and even we had it tongue-in-cheek that we could do, was doing all of history in an hour; nobody thought we could do that. People laughed at us, “You're never going to do all of history in an hour!" They never believed us at the beginning; they didn't believe after EE came out. Uh, in EE don't you play just a couple of age?

ODA: Yeah, depending...
BR: People thought our game would take at least three hours. But we started playing the game and it was never a problem. If the thing ran at 15 frames per second like it's supposed to, it actually not just in an hour but in like about 45 minutes. From the beginning we had just set the thing up to be paced...it's not that we're going to do all history in the following level of detail for an hour, but we're going to do history in an hour and let that determine the amount of detail in the game. And that ended up not being hard to do. Something that was actually hard was developing enough different types of artwork. Like having enough art so the world looked different in the early days, and through to airplanes. That's another thing - I wanted airplanes to have a central role in the game. Some people were wanting stronger anti-aircraft and I didn't because aircraft HAD to be cool for 20th century. The anti-aircraft units must not be more powerful because AIRCRAFT MUST BE COOL otherwise there's no point in doing the 20th century. Therefore we erred in making aircraft and the offensive units in general too powerful. We did have to adjust some things, though. We actually went back to the Xpack and had to nerf helicopters. They were too powerful; helicopters were deeply out of control.

ODA: Some people in the forums, some people want a slower game. What do you have to say to these people?
BR: Well, the theme of RoN was do all of history in an hour. I think it was a good place for us to end up with the game. Something really cool about the game is that you really get a feeling of change; like, “Wow! I started with bows and arrows and ended with planes and missiles." That's something more than a lot of games can offer in terms of delta. That's an advantage for doing the game that way -with every tech upgrade you get a dramatically new weapon, from arrows to guns to missiles. There will obviously be games that will now devote an entire hour to the nineteenth century, but you don't get the dramatic changes. Also, if you go beyond an hour you'll definitely lose much of your real-time audience. It's possible to imagine a game like Conquer the World with turn-based scenarios and have that last longer.

ODA: There are people wanting 10-12 hour skirmish games.
BR: Yes. We do give you a few options to try to let you take it that way, but most players want something that at the outside lasts around an hour in multiplayer skirmish mode. We give them what they mostly ask for.

Soc: As far as the all-of-human-history idea for RoN, were there other notable suggestions made for the game?
BR: Not really. We did about five whitepapers on five different games we thought we could do. In talking to any particular publisher, we'd show them the top three based on their portfolio. Our favorite was always that one [RoN]. Also, we could do individual periods of history; this or that period, but we weren't quite as excited about those. If that would work for a publisher we wanted to work with, however, we could do it. We had other ideas, too, but we' might save those for later. Hehe!

Soc: With those ideas...did everyone on the team pitch ideas?
BR: There were only five us at the time; it wasn't a big process to come to consensus. We arrived at it pretty rapidly.

Soc: So, as the company was growing to its current size, did everyone still pitch in with ideas?
BR: By that time, the topic of the game was set. There's a lot of stuff across the company such as what we call the “Daily Game Process," where everyone plays the game and gives feedback. That's a chance for them to see what they are working on in the context of everything else. Now obviously, for our next game we do have a different process. We give everyone a chance to talk about it while we're thinking about the next-next game.

Soc: What about the development of RoN's Xpack?
BR: Toward the end of RoN, everyone was asking about the Xpack. We already had experience reviving dead features like attrition. The biggest thing we had obviously cut from RoN was government, so we thought we'd try it for the Xpack. We tried it and liked what we got, so we never had to come up with a second idea.

ODA: What about the process of picking the Xpack Nations?
BR: That came about in a variety of ways. First of all, a couple were added because of an overwhelming groundswell of support on the fan sites - the Americans and Persians. Also, we chose nations to give us stuff that would let us do some cool architecture - some Native American stuff, Indians, south Asians. Those were the two primary directions. That gave us some cool variety and a nice mix of nations and campaigns.

Soc: When you first started RoN, how different is the final product from what you originally thought of?
BR: Pretty different. It went through a number of phases in going from there to here. In the original product you could zoom waaay out. That was pretty disconcerting and disorienting and gradually the zoom-out level came in. We had thought that you could have two games: the more strategic with the far zoom and the more tactical with the close zoom. But really that idea compressed away and we the Conquer the World idea became the strategic game. We thought that worked a lot better.

Soc: And the original idea of the Xpack - how different is Thrones & Patriots from its original idea?
BR: Not very different but it's a lot more fleshed out. By the time we were finished with RoN, we were working on the Xpack. And by then we knew what worked and had found out what people liked, so we would give people more of that. Therefore it was a lot less guess work.

Soc: How's your relationship with Microsoft? You have a three-game contract with them?
BR: We do, we do. That's not to say we wouldn't do more for them. Initially we've agreed, “We'll do three for you guys before we look at our options again." We have a good relationship; we're in middle of the second game now.

Soc: How are your relationships with other RTS developers? Do you have much interaction with them?
BR: It's a pretty small community in the industry. There are only so many of us. So when we get together at shows we talk. And occasionally I'll, say, go to visit with Rick Goodman in Boston and he'll come down here. Or, I'll occasionally end up in Dallas or wherever else and talk to these people. We keep in touch. We don't sit and design games together, hehe! But we do talk about industry issues and publishing issues, things like that.

Soc: How has been the fan feedback for RoN?
BR: It has been pretty good. Like with any game, you find out what people like. We've had a lot more things people liked than things they didn't like. There are a few things we think we can improve on for next time, and we'll do so.

ODA: How has the fan feedback influenced the development of the Xpack?
BR: Well, for example, we have Americans and Persians. We did some of the balancing for the Xpack based on what we saw in tournaments and in the enormous treatises of expert players. And we worked on multiplayer matchmaking.

ODA: So you took fan feedback to heart?
BR: That's something as a company we're committed to. Yes, easier to get fan feedback once you've got a specific product out. It's hard to get feedback when its, “We're going to do a game, we can't tell you anything about it, but if you want to give us suggestions...." It's easier once you're established as a company to get fan feedback.

Soc: What's your view on the RoN community and how it affects the success of the game?
BR: It's pretty important. Obviously the fan site community is the harder core side of the fan base. They're the evangelists for the product who help us reach the other people who aren't as hardcore, the casual gamers who ask the hardcore what game is fun. Thus the hardcore players are disproportionately important to us. It's good to have a community so we have a way to reach and talk to and reach those kinds of players.

Soc: The RTS genre has gone through a lot of twists and turns in its history. Where would you say it's headed?
BR: Well, I think one of the complaints I've heard most often about the RTS genre from marketplace and players and reviewers alike, is that there isn't enough innovation in RTS. That's cool - this something we do have, we've got plenty of innovation! If that's the comment about the genre, we have that and so we need even more innovation. We also see that from other real-time developers. I don't know what others up to. Game play innovation is one place where we're strong and expect to remain strong. That's what we have a stake in. Also, we're going to make sure our graphics are cutting edge. Graphics have always been important, and if we can hit a homerun on graphics that will make them just that much more important for our brand.

Soc: Although you're not sure BHG would mix genres, what about the industry in general?
BR: Well, I'm not sure. Remember the saga of WarCraft III? For years and years it was going to be more of an RPG, but they took that all out, started all over again and made what they did make - an RTS game. There have been some shooters that have attempted to be majorly cross-genre things. Real genre mixing hasn't been so successful, but there has been a little more success in taking a genre and enhancing it with elements of another better. I think “Team Fort" is an example of taking a few strategy ideas and working them into a shooter, but as a game it remains firmly in the shooter genre. What seems to work is a lot of one thing and little bit of something else. That's something we haven't seen a lot of yet. In some ways WarCraft III got a little role-playing into RTS, but just a little.

Soc: Not necessarily strategy, but in any other genres, have you seen any successful mixing, such as with first person shooters and RPGs? Anything like that?
BR: First person and RPG are a lot closer because they share similar camera, but first and third person are a different story. So there can be a back and forth flow between those two genres.

Soc: Do you plan on making exclusively historical games?
BR: Not necessarily. Whatever's fun we'll do. I've worked on Science Fiction games...

Soc: What about exclusively RTS?
BR: Our next game will be RTS. That's one thing I feel comfortable saying about our next game. It is conceivable we'll work in another genre in the future, but now we're one team working on one thing, and so we're staying with real-time strategy.

Soc: If you had a chance to design another game, other than the other titles you've been involved with, what would you design if you could?
BR: The game I'm working on now, but I can't tell you about it! If, I couldn't do RTS or TBS, I'd probably pick some kind of role-playing game. If I didn't go into strategy games, that's what I wanted to do. I've never had a go at it. The role-playing genre doesn't desperately need me to come over there and revolutionize it. BioWare has done a good job of that!

ODA: What about fantasy?
BR: I like all of those things. Just about anything is cool for a topic. We can do an RTS game for just about anything. Always look for the coolest topic. We aren't exclusively a historical game company.

Soc: Do you plan on having anything about the new secret project in the next E3 [May 11/12-14th, 2004]?
BR: I don't know. We're not ready to show all that stuff yet. We'll wait and eventually have big press release to blow everyone away.

ODA: In your estimation who is the best RoN player on staff and the worst?
BR: Oh, gosh - on staff? I guess Mark Sobota, he's best...Oh, wait, Jhon Restreppo is pretty darn good. Earlier it was Mark Subota, John Hawkins, and I. Now he can absolutely overthrow me. There was a time when Mark Subota and I were very competitive, but that was earlier and I could play better then. That would be a really good game - Mark Subota and Jhon Restreppo.

ODA: What are your favorite in-game audio taunts? Which ones do you like to razz opponents with?
BR: I like to use them all. It's like...you do “81" four times then “39" - “check, check, check, check...Hey, check out the timer!" Haha! I stole that from Paul Stephanouk. Paul was the reason we had to put in spam protection; he would do that “check, check, check..." for twenty minutes straight! Hahaha!

Soc: Who did the soundtrack for RoN?
BR: Duane Decker. He's an independent, a contractor. He composed the music and then had it performed by an orchestra out in Seattle. It was some kind of orchestra...The Seattle Whatever Orchestra did it. ODA: Any plans to have the Credits Song as an audio CD?
BR: Oh, gosh! You'll have to ask Ike and Ted. Have your heard the Xpack song yet? There's a new credits song for Xpack! Hahaha!

ODA: Planning to have it on American Idol?
BR: You know, that's funny! They were submitting the music from the soundtrack for some kind of Grammy, and we were joking that we'd include the credits song in a submission for a Grammy along with the game soundtrack, too. Just think - the Grammy-nominated “Keep on Risin!'" Hahaha!

Soc: Besides RoN, what do you play?
BR: I play Dungeon Siege a lot with my kids, because they really like Dungeon Siege. I play some chess online; that's mostly what I do with PC games right now. I play a lot of board games; German board games and Eurogames, things like that.

ODA: Do you plan on releasing tools for scripting or modding for RoN, because a lot of people are saying it's too hard as it is.
BR: We don't have any special new plans for the Xpack, but for the next game we're doing a whole new amazingly cool set of tools. Look for exciting tools in the next game.

Soc: You said you like the graphics in RoN. What would you say is your favorite graphic in RoN?
BR: That's an interesting question; I don't think I've ever, haven't thought about it. Of course the nuke animation. I guess I like the little animations the guys do when packing the trebuchets up, or loading the cannon, the things with the cannon. Oh, and the death animations, like two or three with the musketeers - they'll crawl along for a while before they'll die. Or the soldiers relaxing who'll smoke a cigarette. There are so many different animations; they're kind of funny.

Soc: So I guess the art department had a lot of fun.
BR: Yes they did, the unit animation guys had a lot of fun.

Soc: Did anyone else have feedback on the animations?
BR: Yes, all those guys suggested different ways or horrible ways for units to die. Hehe! There were a bunch of them.

ODA: Have there been any changes to nukes, nuke graphics in the Xpack?
BR: I don't think there are any changes to nukes in the Xpack.

Soc: Do you have advice for people wanting to get in to the game industry?
BR: Oh yeah, we've always got lots of advice. The brief version is to find a way to get involved with the industry to find out what's going on. I suggest as a tester because that's a way to get in with little experience. It's hard to come in from the outside. Starting as tester is good. It's hard to come in as a programmer or designer; you need to know about games. This is particularly important in the strategy genre where game play is so important.

Soc: How do you like RoN's success as opposed to that of other games you've been involved with?
BR: I like it a lot; I like to play it. I enjoy playing it now more than any other game I've been involved with. That's not unusual for me; I like the stuff that has my latest ideas in it, and as an RTS RoN's more the kind of game I like to play these days. I enjoy going back and playing it. I'm kind of immersed in this new project now, but I do enjoy going back and playing it in the daily games.

Soc: How do you like how RoN stacked up against expansions of Command & Conquer, WarCraft III, etc.?
BR: I guess if I had a goal for next time it would be to have the amount of innovation we had in RoN's game play combined with the cool graphics Generals had. That's what we're looking for.

ODA: Ok now for the tough questions! What do you prefer, coffee or tea? Do you prefer a special blend?
BR: Tea not coffee.

Soc: Specifically, how do you like your tea?
BR: Black, hot...Earl Grey.
Soc: Just Like Captain Picard? Hehe!
BR: Haha ya.
Soc: Final question, Pepsi or Coca Cola?
BR: Coca Cola! Yep. They warned me, “Watch out - at the end they'll have a Coke question for ya; be ready and think about the answer!" We Have six varieties of coke out there! Great to meet you guys.
ODA: Ok, let's get some pictures.

ODA: Thanks, good to meet you!
Soc: Great Thanks, nice to meet you!

BR = Brian Reynolds (Big Huge Games)
ODA = One_Dead_Angel (Rise of Nations Heaven)
Soc = Socvazius (HeavenGames)

One_Dead_Angel, Graham Somers