It was the summer of 2010, and our studio was nearing the home stretch of a two year development cycle on Age of Empires Online.
Robot Entertainment formed in February 2009 out of the ashes of Ensemble Studios.
We had big dreams of creating new worlds in new genres. After 13 years working on real-time strategy games at Ensemble, the people coming to Robot arrived with a huge amount of pent up creative energy.
Yet, real-time strategy and Age of Empires would be our focus as we launched a new studio. That energy would have to stay bottled up a bit longer. Starting a new studio on the back of a venerable franchise like Age of Empires was a tremendous opportunity.
Robot began with 44 employees. Subtract out some management overheard, administrative, IT and a small community team, and you’re left with a fairly small development team to reimagine a franchise like Age of Empires. The game would go from a traditional retail product to an only online experience, a quasi-MMO.
The art style would change dramatically from a realistic look to something highly stylised. The business model would be upended. We knew a big challenge lay ahead.
But 16 months into Age Online, we felt confident in the project’s trajectory. We knew we’d have to start preparing for life after Age of Empires. The time had finally come to uncork that creative energy so eager to see the light.
However, getting a game to the finish line is never an easy task, and Age of Empires was still going to consume the bulk of the studio for the next seven or eight months. Our first original IP would have to be scoped in the shadows of Age Online.
A small team was tasked with brainstorming new game ideas. Our goals were set high. We were looking for an idea that, firstly, the team and the studio would be passionate about.
We also wanted something that had a chance to grow into a meaningful franchise. Finally, it had to be small in scope given the demands of Age Online. Those goals aren’t necessarily compatible. At least, a certain amount of friction exists amongst them.
After a couple of weeks of brainstorming, the team presented a few ideas but one seemed to stand out more than the others. Project Onslaught was born and would later gain its official title of Orcs Must Die, a third-person action strategy game.
The project would start with one designer, three programmers and a handful of artists. We hoped to ship it within one year on platforms like Steam and Xbox Live Arcade at a $15 price point.
Although Orcs Must Die is to be digitally distributed at a lower price point, we’re a group of people accustomed to developing games with huge budgets and huge teams over multiple years. And Orcs still maintained an ambitious scope. We knew we’d have to learn some painful lessons, but we also knew we could mitigate some pain by making smart technology decisions up front. The Age of Empires engine is very mature but not suitable for this style of game.
We evaluated a number of engines and ultimately selected Trinigy’s Vision Engine. Trinigy’s engine was multi-platform, flexible and appropriately priced for our budget.
The entire team at Trinigy were also very responsive during the evaluation phase, and that responsiveness has not changed in any way as we’ve worked our way deeper into the project.
Our experience developing triple-A has been both a blessing and a curse in the development of Orcs Must Die. Even though it’s a $15 downloadable title, Orcs looks like a $60 retail game. Our experience has brought the level of fun and polish that we’re accustomed to putting into a game.
Yet, that part of our DNA also made it harder for us to make smart trade-offs when required. That has led to the game taking longer and requiring a somewhat bigger team than we originally envisioned.
When our development on Age of Empires Online wrapped up in February of this year, it was clear we needed to move the army over to wrap up Orcs Must Die.
The Orcs team was suddenly as big as the Age team had been. At the time, performance on Xbox was unacceptable.
Play balance still wasn’t quite there. Other projects we intended to kick-off had to be put on hold. That’s always a painful decision for a game developer, but when launching a new IP we have no choice but to optimise for its success.
The past few months have certainly been challenging but also very rewarding. We know we’ve got a very fun game on our hands. We’ve given ourselves the best chance we could to launch a new IP. And, in the process, we’ve hopefully learned some invaluable development lessons.