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 Huge Games]?

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 Risk.

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 versa.

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 not.

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 right.

ODA: Is the AI in CtW scripted or hard-coded?

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 campaigns?

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 staff?

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....
Think of it this way: there are 50 people out there with computer engineering or software engineering degrees. How will BHG know who are the ones who didn't coast through their programs, who are those who can come in and solve the problem for us. In my case, I made a demo, a pathfinding demo, something in 3d with stupid little spheres, goofy terrain and stuff. Jhon Restrepo had full-blown game, something like a shooter. One other guy made six GameBoy games in the space of three years and did all the multiplayer code. I won't say he worked on a Mary Kate & Ashley Sweet Sixteen game but it's possible that he did that, too. As a program for designers, really the best thing to do is go through test, internships in playtesting. Very few people hire entry-level designers except as level designers; they might get hired just as good game players. When we did hire our entry-level people, it was as game players in the playtest department.

ODA: What kinds of programmers are needed?

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 everything.

Soc: Besides RoN what do you play?

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 cool!

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 general?

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 coffee?
IE: Black.
Soc: Which do you prefer, Coke or Pepsi?
IE: Coke.
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....

Everyone: haha!

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 t-shirt.

Everyone: haha!

Soc:Your pictures will all be posted all over the site!

Everyone: Thank-you!

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)

One_Dead_Angel, Graham Somers