Fragapalooza East 2002

Gamer's Heaven

Fragapalooza is perhaps the biggest gaming event in Toronto this year. It started on a cold windy Canadian Friday. I had the day off, I decided to go check it on the first day before the official tournaments got under way, hoping to get my time in to ask Paul Stephanouk some questions about Rise of Nations, my main purpose for attending the event! When I arrived there were gamers busily setting up their systems for the gaming-fest, the place was about half filled at that time. Most people were playing, Counterstrike, Wolfenstein 3D, or Warcraft 3. There were also a lot of people checking out the X-box displays, and playing Splinter Cell or Halo. The first day was pretty quiet, although there were some press coverage of the event. But overall the place was humming and ramping up for the Tournament!

Targeting Targa

After making my rounds observing the goings on at Fragapalooza, I eagerly made my way towards the Rise of Nations' section. They had a bank of computers showing off, Rise of Nations (the press beta version), and also Impossible Creatures. Naturally I had seen screenshots of Rise of Nations so there wasn't too many surprises from just observing these computers, so I found my way to Paul "Targa" Stephanouk to ask him some questions about the game directly. I introduced myself to Paul, as One_Dead_Angel from Heavens Games. So he immediately recognized my game site affiliations, and commented on how impressed he is with the work we are doing to promote fandom for Rise of Nations. He asked how I became involved, and I told him it was from my excessive postings in the forums. Also because of my civ summaries, Obsidian from Heavens Games asked me to help out with their Rise of Nations' site. Okay, enough about me already. We're interested in Rise of Nations and the folks at Big Huge Games! So in case you don't know, Paul is a producer at Big Huge Games, which as he described is responsible for everything else the programmers and artists don't want to do, and making sure everything they are supposed to do get done. Which in his words, includes "getting coffee" for everyone!

So I asked Paul aka Targa to demo the game for me. He went through the basics like what civs are in the game, the city based approach to development, and the mix of Turn-Based Strategy with Real Time Strategy Games. He showed me the various map styles that was available in the beta, and the various options available for gameplay. One thing that has impressed me from the start is the enormous amount of options that Rise of Nations provides to suit just about any gamer's preferences. Many of you have already seen the many map styles, game variants that has been published on the various fansites, but that's only the beta! More about this later! There are also a wide variety of game initialization options for handicapping and starting resources variants. Some of the interesting ones include options to randomize the starting resources (of course everyone gets the same resources), but having different resource starts also allows people to play games without preconceived ideas of build orders based on what resources one has at start. Another way Big Huge Games is addressing the issue of monotonous build order gaming, is to have civs which start off with different buildings so as to provide players a different gaming experience from each civ right from the "get-go".

As part of the demo, Paul attempted to play a game against the computer at moderate level, a relatively low level for him, so he could play the game while I peppered him with questions. Things started pretty smoothly for Paul, but after awhile, the computer was definitely getting the best of him, attacking in multiple fronts! In his defense, he was distracted by my questions. However I was still duly impressed with the level of the AI. It was smart enough to conduct such an attack and using strategy to beat an opponent rather then out-and-out resource cheats to overwhelm an opponent, or on the other extreme being brain dead, and only attacking with a trickle of troops which you can easily slaughter. Paul said that one way they are designing the AI, in terms of scaling it difficulty level is how far ahead in age they allow it to surpass the human player. So on "Easiest" level the computer will never exceed the age that the human player has reached.

The user interface of Rise of Nations makes it very easy to see at a glance whether or not you are utilizing your units at full potential. However, the important "big picture" strategy is still up to the individual, and one of the reasons Rise of Nations is so good. It lets you think big! The irritating parts of micro-management are done for you. For example you can pull off your villagers from collecting resources to build a needed building, and then just let them be, and they will automatically go back to do the gathering tasks they were assigned to. Also as long as there is extra capacity and work/trade spots available, your villagers or trade units will automatically go do its job. It is rare to see an idle villager. Although it does happen, if you are used to the old booming strategies of continuous villager production, and just build villagers without keeping an eye on your economic caps. Having multiple cities is the only way you can really accumulate wealth, so being able to build more cities is crucial.

After looking at the beta, I did get a special peek of the latest build of the game that Paul had on his laptop! The graphics are even better, as one might expect. But also some really nice additions that hadn't been put into the beta. Such as civ specific skins for the user interface, and a splash screen for each civ at each game start with graphics of the unique units, and list of civ powers. I also got to see some of the other unique units from the other civs not featured in the beta, like the British Black Guard Infantry, wearing kilts! Paul also highlighted some of the civ's unique powers and wonders. As some of you may have seen, each civ will have a set of unique powers that is represented as a "power of", so as to form a theme and set each civ apart from others. Paul joked that the current build may be fun cause the civ powers are so potent but will likely be subject to play balancing. Wonder powers will also be enhanced so that they will be very much worth building, in some cases as powerful as a civ power, thusly it become important for your opponents to prevent you from using them to your advantage. For example: the Kremlin wonder power, at least currently has the ability to generates a free spy unit (and what a "sexy" looking spy unit it will be) that automatically respawns when it is killed, or the Terra Cotta Warrior Wonder that auto-generates troops for free at a set interval. They also added some new map styles in the latest build, and improved the graphics of some of the ones that has been released in the beta. I can say that the number of map variants and quality of each will be quite impressive once everyone else gets to see them.

They are in fact already at the stage where they are in the so-called "tweaking of the numbers" stage of development to make the game balanced, and finish off the components they have already decided on in the game. But they are confident in their ability to release the game on schedule, and Paul said that they should have a more firm release date within the month. It was a fascinating look at Rise of Nations, and even better to have seen the current build, which by now is probably outdated already, as they are working hard to make it even better, and polishing up the game. I thanked Paul for his time, then went off on my own to see how others play the game and try my own hand with the game against a Computer opponent. I observed some of the other spectators at the game, and also saw a few of the Microsoft staffers give the game a go. This would help me later on as I will describe. After observing awhile, I hunkered down at my own station and played a game. I chose Russia since I had a feeling from what I have learned so far, that it would fit my playing style, and seemed like the most powerful civ in the game. I tried a game as moderate also. I expanded my economic capacity, and attrition ability first and foremost. Expanding my cities so as to cut across the map to prevent being encircled, while trying to do just that to my computer opponent. I basically played defensively, building up my cities, and army. The computer opponent sent some forces at me but my massive defensive forces pretty much destroyed any invasion attempts. So when I made it to the Information age, I had a huge army and was researching all the "game-ender" technologies that are available to "finish off" your opponent once you have researched everything else in the game. There is one that is pretty interesting, called anti-missile shield, which prevents nuclear missiles from hitting your territory. This maybe useful I think to prevent spoil sports from using nukes just to cause Armageddon (whereby everyone looses), and of course prevent a nasty nuke from flattening your cities. Seeing that there wasn't anything else I could research, I just sent my massive army at the computer, nuked it a couple of times for good measure and only a couple so as not to cause Armageddon of course. But I just had to see the spectacular nuclear explosion more then once!

Near the end of Friday, the Rise of Nations and Microsoft people were recruiting competitors for a mini-tournament just for the Rise of Nations fans, that was to be held on the last day of the event. I figured why not, so I decided to enter the tournament. Besides Fragapalooza would not be complete without engaging in some competitive gaming. So I signed up and then waited for Sunday and the tournament.

part 2....The Angel of Death Cometh!