Heaven Games Invades Big Huge Games
Interview with Ike Ellis
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. We put our focus this round on Ike
Ellis, programmer/designer at Big Huge Games.
Soc: To start things off, could
you give a bio of yourself, just how you came to be here [at Big
|IE: Hi, My name is Ike Ellis, and I got to Big Huge after I went to school at the University of Kansas. There I got a computer engineering degree, and in the process did an internship at Intel and met a couple people who work here, computer graphics guys. After I got out of school they said, "Hey, we've got a new company; come work, let's make some games!" And I started in the scenario editor and map generation, things like that. After a while they made it pretty clear they needed some single-player help, so I shifted over - working on the scenario editor kind of led right into working on the Conquer the World game. That's what I've been doing for a couple years now - working on the single player game.|
Soc: So as...well as far as CtW
goes, what was your or the main inspiration for creating CtW
besides something more than having single player scenarios?
IE: I definitely want to make it
clear I'm not a lead designer! At the very beginning the plan was
to make some single player scenarios and knit them together, like
WarCraft had done. But when started to make scenarios we got
really stuck; we didn't have a graphic scale small enough to make
it work around individual characters. All of the good examples of
campaigns revolved around characters, and when you're playing RTS
you want grand strategy. We finally gave up on the idea of linked
scenarios as being too boring and I started jumping up and down
and saying let me do CtW.
Soc: CtW looks a lot like
IE: Yes, it looks like Risk, but
the actual gameplay is more from Diplomacy. We sat down with a
Diplomacy board game - CtW's supply centers are unabashedly a
Diplomacy kind of thing; one army per supply center. We went from
there. Does that answer your question?
ODA: OK, some more specific
questions. I noticed in the CtW New World campaign there's the
Portuguese, but they use Nubian units.
|IE: Yeah, that's a bug [in the Marketing Beta] that they get the Nubian units. The reason that happens is that we don't actually have that nation; we have the Portuguese just for the [New World] scenario. You can't do a New World Campaign without the Portuguese. This is an engine limitation. CtW allows only one of each nation on the map, and we didn't want to overhaul the whole CtW engine. The choice was, "Do we overhaul the whole engine or minimize code changes?" For an expansion you usually try to minimize your code changes, so we put the Portuguese on top of the Nubians and replaced the Nubians. In the finished Xpack the Portuguese don't show up as Nubians. They get the Bandeirantes unique units and Mediterranean art.|
ODA: Also, I noticed in the New
World Campaign - why don't the French get Quebec? The French
start out in Louisiana, and, being from Ontario, I thought it
would be cool to go conquer the French in Quebec or vice
IE: Haha! It's just a game; it
doesn't have anything to do with slighting the French. We wanted
to work in the American Revolution from England, we thought that
would be a fun thing to have in, and that led to the problem of
how to work in the French up there in Quebec. So we stuck them in
Louisiana; kind of having Napoleon out west. That gives the
French a better starting point.
ODA: Looking at the tribe
masks in the xml files, there are units that don't seem to
appear anywhere. Are these all from the CtW scenarios?
IE: Most of them are
straight art replacements. I think the Humvee is actually a
unique unit that gets turned on for the Americans only in
the campaign...is that correct? I don't know. People expect
designers to know everything..
ODA: There's a lot of script in the CtW campaigns. Will fans be able to build equally sophisticated scripted campaigns?
IE: They will be able to do
something equally sophisticated using scripts. We came to a point
where we had to decide whether to go for moddability or for a
rock solid game engine. We decided to make the best game possible
and leave the architecture open, allowing ambitious people to
mod. We wanted to let the designers do the best with their time.
We didn't want to slow them down by making them wait on the
development of some software tool useful for fan modifications,
and then later shove that tool we never used out to game buyers,
particularly when you never know if that modding tool is good or
Soc: How much time did it take
you to create the CtW campaigns?
IE: You mean scripting the full
campaigns? It was a major undertaking. It took us, me and two
scenario designers from when we started working the 1st of June
and finished up active development in January of the four
campaigns plus tweaks for the main one. That's six weeks to two
months per campaign. And there're 40-50 scenarios per campaign.
Some campaigns were easier than others. A couple demanded little
map making or scripting, whereas the Napoleon campaign has all
kinds of things potentially going on. If these guys over here do
this, or those over there do that, or everyone gangs up on you in
a major alliance to cut you off - it takes a lot of time to get
ODA: Is the AI in CtW scripted
IE: It's both. There's the
hard-coded AI that we used for the original campaign in RoN, and
we let the scripters override that in various situations. The
scripts have gotten as complex as the regular AI now. Any time
you give a designer a tool they want to do crazy things with it
just like an artist..
ODA: What campaigns did you
consider that didn't make it? Are you planning more
|IE: The major cut we had was the China campaign, and that was on the list. We wanted to do China because it was one of the only nations in the game that was truly around from ancient to modern age. We wanted to do an ancient to industrial China campaign, but both for reasons of time and art, that is, in a China vs. China vs. China campaign nobody's going to give us the western art set; every faction would use the eastern art set, and we figured it would be visually boring. We could spice it up a lot; there's a lot of historical material to play with, but as far as making it look cool in the given time - it got the axe. People are still kicking around ideas for campaigns and putting out more stuff for people to use. We don't know if it will happen; that's partially marketing decision and partially a workflow decision.|
Soc: At least one fan based
design team might be able to do something.
IE: I could certainly see a
group of modders put out something.
Soc: Returning to general
questions: who would you say is best RoN player on the
IE: It's not Graham,
unfortunately. Graham is certainly one of the top players. Six
months ago I would have told you it was John Hawkins. Now it's
either John Hawkins or Jhon Restrepo. Jhon didn't have a lot to
do earlier in the summer after we hired him, so he cranked out
about 600 rated games during that time. Hawkins learned to play
when we hired him as a balance tester, but he was too good so we
made him a scenario designer. There's a solid group of
intermediate players like me, people who like to play but can't
as much as we would like to. And there's another solid group of
people like to play RTS but single-player; they don't like the
intense competition that goes up around here and prefer to play
at their own pace in their own way.
Soc: What would you say was the
biggest challenge working on CtW and the Xpack?
IE: The biggest challenge both
in the regular RoN CtW and the Xpack was transitioning in a
variety of scenario experiences. Originally in working on CtW,
even before working on map generation stuff, we were just going
choose a random map with cities and buildings based on the
strength of your territories and shove that in there with a
regular RoN conquest quick battle. That was intensely boring;
there was nothing of strategic importance happening like allies
or reinforcements. So the next step was, we'll toss in barbarian
rally kind of thing and different sorts of scenarios. That worked
well and people were instantly like "thank goodness there's
something else to do!" One of the obvious criticisms is there
isn't enough variety in RoN. It's a fun single player game but
for the Xpack we had to do more different sorts of things. Making
that variety work and making custom scenarios work within the
strategic game was by far the hardest thing to do.
Soc: For your job, what kind of
advice would give someone looking into something like it?
|IE: If you want to be a programmer, unless you're really good, you probably want to go get a four-year degree - a computer science degree, computer engineering, even electrical engineering. Of course our two top programmers, Brian Reynolds and Jason Coleman, they've got philosophy and physics and stuff, but what they two both have is great critical thinking. You need math, and knowing how to solve the problem at hand - that's what you really need. Once you get to a certain level of programming, languages become less important; math and the ability to solve problems are critical. Once you've got that, in order to get a job here, you need a demo, good work experience....|
ODA: What kinds of programmers
IE: Programmers? We need
everything. There's a nationwide glut of tech workers, but we
still have a terrible time finding programmers. It's hard,
because, well, there are people with work experience but don't
know games, or they don't have work experience but know games. We
need people who will put in the hours and solve the problems.
We're always looking for AI and graphics programmers; graphics
programmers are our big need right now. As far as I can tell from
watching websites, there are teams opening, closing, and moving
around all the time. They are needed to design software tools and
Soc: Besides RoN what do you
IE: I played a lot of 1942 but I
haven't played Vietnam yet. Right now I'm console junkie. I have
two. My fiancé steals mine at home so I play the one in my
office. Prince of Persia, GTA, a lot of Project Gotham II online
- Xbox live is the coolest thing ever! Final Fantasy Crystal
Chronicles, playing multiplayer with GameBoys. I like PC games
but it's hard to find as much time to do them right now.
Soc: What's your favourite
graphic, unit or texture?
IE: I really like the Cold War
map in the Xpack...I really like the Kremlin building. The
trebuchet unit is probably my favorite. It was one of the first
one to have a crew on it. When it's destroyed, a guy falls off
and then the log hits him! The death animations in RoN are my
favorite thing; there are so many!
GS: You're so morbid!
IE: No, it's not morbid -
they're all so detailed and well done...it's really sorta
Soc: Yeah, it's so
dramatic when they die.
IE: There's a musketeer
animation where he gets shot in the gut and falls over -
that one's great!
ODA: What's your favourite game taunt? Do you like to use taunts?
IE: Actually, the one I probably
use the most is just saying "Purple" - the colors we always use
around the office. That or "They keep on rising!"
Soc: What would you say your
future plans are with the gaming industry and of course BHG in
IE: As far as I can see in the
future, working on single-player games, making BHG's single
player strategy as cool as possible.
Soc: If you had another chance
to work on another game besides what you've already worked on at
Big Huge, what would it be? Or another genre?
IE: I'm a big fan of third
person, action adventure kind of stuff: Zelda, Prince of Persia,
Jagged Alliance kind of squad strategy. I'd like to do some kind
of 3rd person squad game...or something 3d like Zelda. Possibly
combine all that, pulling in the strategy from RTS but make it
more squad-based action. That would be a fun thing to do.
Soc: How do you like your
Soc: Which do you prefer, Coke or Pepsi?
Soc: How do you like your Coke?
IE: Diet lime and diet
cherry are my favorite things right now - I'm trying to not
be a fat game developer, fatter than I am....
Soc: I guess that's it for the
prepared questions. Now for photos....
IE: Had I known you were going
to take photos, I would have worn something nicer than this
Soc:Your pictures will all be
posted all over the site!
IE = Ike Ellis (Big Huge Games)
GS = Graham Somers (Big Huge Games)
ODA = One_Dead_Angel (Rise of Nations Heaven)
Soc = Socvazius (HeavenGames)
Zen = Zen (HeavenGames)
WARNING: Do not copy any content or graphics from this website.
Copyright © 2002-2004 HeavenGames LLC. The graphical images and content enclosed with this document are for private use only. All other rights-including, but not limited to, use on other websites, distribution, duplication, and publish by any means - are retained by HeavenGames LLC. Federal law provides criminal and civil penalties for those found to be in violation.
Rise of Nations Heaven is best viewed with a XHTML 1.0/CSS 2.0 compliant browser.