Gas Powered Games boss talks strategy games in this exclusive interview with Develop's resident design expert.

Q&A: Chris Taylor talks strategy

Chris Taylor is the founder of Gas Powered Games and the designer of hits such as the Total Annihilation and Dungeon Siege series. His latest game is Supreme Commander, a new real-time strategy title published by THQ which has placed highly in the PC charts in Europe and North America.

A lot of people were under the impression that the possibilities of the real-time strategy genre were pretty much played out by now. Obviously, you didn’t agree and the sales figures of Supreme Commander tend to back you up.
I knew that there were so many more things we could do with the genre. In Supreme Commander, the key design element was the Strategic Zoom, as the ability to zoom in and out combined with the bigger maps allowed for more actual strategy. Supreme Commander is unique because it’s actually the only strategic game in the genre. It’s not focused on the tactical side like most. The difference is important – strategy is what happens before the battle, tactics is what happens during them. Strategy is Eisenhower planning for the ten months before D-Day. Then the troops hit the beach and everything is decided in a matter of minutes. That’s what it’s like in most RTS games, where you’re thrust right into the tactics.

You have been one of the most consistently successful designers of the post-id era. And yet whenever you are interviewed, you seem to be disappointed about your inability to fully execute on your designs.
I aspire to give each gamer the greatest game ever, the best thing that they can possibly take home from the store in a box. I really want them to take it home and have a crazy, over-the-top experience. That’s not realistic, though, there’s just too many constraints built into the industry to ever give that pure unedited, flawless vision. And yet, I will never stop aspiring to deliver it.

How do you go about shooting for that experience despite the constraints?
I think the key is to surround yourself with the best and most-talented people you can get your hands on. I’ve learned that I’ve got to go out and pull in the best people and sell them on my vision. Without that, you’re done. You cannot do it on your own.

How do you know where to draw the line between your design vision and the reality of production?
Today, with all the processes we have in place, it’s become pretty clear. In the old days, the reason we had so many time and cost overruns is that we didn’t know how to go about managing the process. Now, when someone suggests a change, we know what the calendar and dollar implications for hitting the milestones will be. I think it’s good, though, it’s healthy.

What is your biggest regret from Dungeon Siege II? How about from Supreme Commander?
The intro, the tutorial area should have been smaller and tighter, if not taken out entirely. We should have thrust the player right into the action. Instead, we chased the whole tutorial thing and it was wrong. It was bad. I don’t have many regrets about Commander, although I wish we’d had more time to fine-tune things and reduce the system requirements.

That’s not a problem over time, obviously, but right now I really wish we could have hit a lower spec coming out of the gate.

You’ve spoken previously about wanting to add more modding capacity to Supreme Commander. Was that an important part of your design concept?

I wanted it from day one. I love the mod community, and the mod manager is baked right into the game. We’ll continue to support the efforts of that community and we’re going to keep providing the hooks they need to make those mods.

Do you have any intention of getting involved in the MMO space in the future?

I have some ideas, but if I’m going to get into that space, it’s got to be a radical, inspired change. I don’t want to do just another one. I’m kind of done with copying existing genres and adding a twist to it. That being said, you can copy ideas, and with one small change in the genetic code you can change the outcome entirely.

How do you feel about the transition from the very small production team you had when working on Hardball II compared to the size of the teams you are currently overseeing?
You can build these really huge, comprehensive games now. The challenge is holding the vision throughout the team, evangelizing and reinforcing the vision. But if you take your eye off the ball, you will create enormous production problems for everyone. You have to stay on top of them. People are complex, and they need leadership and vision.

You’ve said that the era of the giant single-player RPG is over. Obviously, MMOs play a role in that, but is there anything more to it?

It’s not just MMOs, it’s the idea of communications and community. I think that the feeling of community and the pleasure of playing together with people, even with just one other person, is so compelling that going back to the big solo RPG is hard to envision. There will be exceptions, of course, someone will probably come up with a new and really compelling gameplay mechanic. But then, someone else will add a multiplayer twist to it and trump it again.

This formed part of an original article in the April issue of Develop. To download a free PDF of the issue, click here.

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