Q&A: EA Phenomic

German developer Phenomic has been a little quiet since it was bought by EA. With its RTS Battleforge nearing release, Develop decided it was time to catch up with the studio.
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Speaking to EA Phenomic’s studio marketing manager Keith Anderson, we learned about the health of the German development community, and the trials of developing an MMO-inspired RTS with an in-game economy.

Develop: How have things been for Phenomic since you joined EA?

Keith Anderson: Joining EA has raised the game. Phenomic was an independent studio before. Joining EA has exposed us to a heap of creative guys who are very experienced with what they do. It has also allowed us to access some infrastructure, which we wouldn’t have been able to do as an independent studio.

Launching an online game like Battleforge, we need that weight of muscle to get the infrastructure going to be able to develop a game like this.

It’s been great taking the ideas and creativity of a small studio and leaning on the might of EA to launch a game – it’s the best of both.

Develop: You say ‘the best of both’. Have you really managed to hold on to the benefits of being an independent?

Phenomic is still based out in rural Germany. It’s still a small studio with a small studio feel about it. We’re a very creative team, but we’re now part of EA.

Develop: And staying with EA for a moment, has then been any opportunity to collaborate with other studios owned by the publisher? Perhaps you’ve taken on new staff from EA’s employee pool?

We haven’t actually taken people in, but what we have done is learned a lot from other developers. We get to talk to a lot of the other development teams, and we get people who come to visit us, just to share knowledge. So we have creative vice presidents and guys who have been in the industry 20 years – top guys – and they tell us what they’ve been working on and what they’ve learned doing similar kind of stuff before.

That’s quite amazing really. You get exposure to a whole bunch of minds you just wouldn’t have had before.

Develop: Moving on to Batteforge, has the game given you the chance to implement much new technology?

Yes, there’s lots of new technology. We’ve built the Battleforge RTS engine from scratch. This is so we can integrate the preconstruction of armies through cards into the gameplay mechanic. We wanted to also evolve and modify the normal RTS engine so it could handle exactly the graphics we wanted and the gameplay pace.

We’ve also overhauled the whole server and online infrastructure, and again we built that from scratch. All of the online functionality you see in our game is similar to what you’ll see in an MMO.

Develop: And did you rely on much in the way of outsourcing?

Yes. We’ve been outsourcing quite a lot of our creature design, creature modelling, and some of our art. We’ve relied on a lot of really experienced artists and concept designers for character art – artists that have worked on our games before. So yes, we’ve done quite a bit of outsourcing.

Develop: So who do you see as the target demographic for the game?

We’ve not just combined card games and various forms of the RTS – we’ve also brought in some key elements from MMOs out there, and typically MMORPG games with big communities. We’ve combined those because what we wanted to do was establish a genre of RTS games that exist in an online world. We’re looking at people who like strategy games, we’re looking at people who like online world-based games, we’re looking at people who are interested in collecting. We span a lot of genres with this game. In doing that we don’t want to create a new genre of its own, but we will certainly capture the imagination of a lot of different people across a lot of different audiences, and bring them together online to play Battleforge.

Develop: The in-game economy is a sizeable element of Battleforge? Was creating the trading system a challenge?

It has been difficult to design, because again we had to create the technology from scratch. We really wanted an auction hall where players could trade, but obviously we’ve got a cross over between players purchasing cards and then auctioning those cards amongst each other in the gaming environment. We had to make sure it was secure, we had to make sure it was robust and that there were no bugs in that system. A lot of thought went into how the system should work.

Develop: Moving away from the game specifically, how are things going for the German development community?

It’s very robust and it’s very healthy, particularly in the online space. Just up the road from us there’s studios like Crytek, and a lot of other studios like Ubisoft consuming surface franchise. There’s a lot of games development going on in Germany. EA’s proud to be bringing another franchise from the German market like Battleforge.

There’s a lot of online development going on in Germany too, particularly in the free-to-play space, so that’s been challenging as well, getting into that market. As a non-German getting involved in it, it’s been exciting. I have to say that the creativiy of these guys amazes me.

Develop: In the UK there seems to be a closeness in the development community. Is that the case in Germany?

“There is a community. People know each other, but I wouldn’t say there’s the same close-knit community that I would see in the UK business.

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