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Stormrise

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: SEGA
Developer: Creative Assembly
Release Date: March 24, 2009 (US), March 27, 2009 (EU)

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'Stormrise' (PS3/X360/PC) Developer Interview Part 2

by Rainier on March 19, 2009 @ 9:00 a.m. PDT

Stormrise offers fans of the classic RTS genre an immersive and dramatic twist whilst challenging the conscience of the gamer. Experience the heat of the battlefield by leading your troops from the front line, instead of the traditional way of controlling the units from a detached view point. Stormrise also allows units to be commanded in the air, across rooftops, on the earth’s surface and even underground, this unique idea of “verticality” introduces multiple layers of gameplay that must be mastered for strategic advantage.

Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: SEGA
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Release Date: March 24, 2009

WP: Does the Vista version of Stormrise support any of the Games for Windows Live Achievements? Sega's previous RTS offering, Universe at War, was PC-X360 multiplayer compatible. Is there any compatibility between the PC and X360 versions of Stormrise?

KT: Stormrise on Vista does use Games for Windows Live, which means that all of the Achievements came over from the 360. The same true skill ranking and that stuff comes with it as well. We decided to run with Games for Windows Live quite late in the development cycle, so we never got a chance to look at Panorama, where you can play between Vista and the 360. That'd be awesome to try, though the retail game doesn't actually support that.

WP: Any chance you're thinking about it for later?

KT: In development, we can plug the controller into the Vista box and we can play PC controls against the controller controls. It comes down to personal preference, not that one control scheme is better than the other. In terms of the way the game works, if we just sort out the tech, we'd be able to do that and play between the Vista and 360 platforms.

WP: Tell us a bit about the multiplayer. What are the different modes that people can choose from?

KT: In multiplayer, there's Competitive and Co-op. In Competitive mode, there are always two teams, so players will either join the red team or the blue team. There are up to four players per team, so eight players in total. Players end up sharing all the resources, so in an eight-player battle — we've dialed up the resources a little bit so that people have more stuff to play with — you end up playing with a smaller force but doing more with it, coordinating amongst each other. We support the Voice over IP (VoIP) stuff so you can chat away and coordinate plans with your friends.

We also support the Join Anytime, which is drop in, drop out, so once someone sets up a session, it will only end if the guy hosting the session leaves. Otherwise, someone can drop in the middle if there's a free slot, and if they show up, they get their commander unit and immediately start accumulating resources, which are shared among all the team members. As you go through, they can start to bring on a few units. If they join really late in the battle, they'll play a small part in the end.

We also support map rotation, so you can set up a session, put all these maps in there, set a time limit of 10 or 15 or 20 minutes, or never, if you want to just play until someone wins. That one battle ends, and then everyone starts the next battle afresh. If somebody leaves in the middle, all of their resources are given to the other players on the team, so their units will be divided out to the other players, and any of their energy resources are divided and assigned to them. We don't get a massive imbalance as soon as anyone leaves, and it's the same when someone joins. They don't start with any resources, and the only thing they have is their commander unit to run around until they earn their first units.

In Co-op mode, four players go against the AI, so it's great for clan training or if you and your mate just want to smash against the AI. That's kind of it for now. We've got a few other modes that are in the pipe, but we had to put them on ice because we're coming into the final release.

WP: Are the multiplayer maps exclusive to the multiplayer portion of the game, or are they single-player locations that have been adapted for multiplayer? Do you have specific maps for specific numbers of players? For instance, do 2v2 matches only get to use the smaller maps, or is it the 2v2 map just scaled up for a 4v4 match?

KT: It's kind of half and half. About half of the maps in multiplayer are purposefully built for multiplayer because we wanted to make sure that in Competitive mode in multiplayer, we have a symmetry to the maps so that it's the same on both ends, just rotated around, with the red end and the blue end. We tuned and balanced those just for multiplayer, where all of resource nodes are, the lines of supply, the distances and everything are set up for that.

We took a couple of the story mode maps as well because we found that they were fun to skirmish on. We made some minor adjustments about where the resource nodes and everything are, and then made those available for multiplayer as well. Playing through the story mode, you'll play through for the first time on the map, then you can skirmish against the AI offline if you want, just as a normal battle, or you can play it online with that same map that you found.

What we found was that people who play through the story mode level, because you're following the objective that we set and we're teaching you about where you can go, they only really know the main path through the map, and then in multiplayer, the whole thing opens up, and you find the roof traversal things and a lot of the back alleys and those sorts of things, like Counter-Strike. You start to know every square inch of the map, where to crouch, where to do that sort of stuff. The guys who are ninjas at the game know even the story-level maps like the backs of their hands. It's funny because they take that and go back into story mode and find different ways of achieving the same objectives we'd asked you to do on the way through.

With the maps, each of them recommend how many players we think should be on there. There are a couple of smaller maps that are great for one or two players. One of the dedicated multiplayer maps is massive. It's called Scorched Arches and is this great, sprawling desert. It's awesome for eight players, so that's four on four. You can still play one on one if you want, but it just becomes a different type of game. Players who like to turtle a lot in RTSes by building up their resources and bases before they really start fighting, that map with the distance between them means that they can each build up a lot and then when they first fight, it can be a full-on massive clash. That map with two players, I've seen battles up to 55 minutes long, but with eight players, that map can be over in as little as eight minutes because everyone takes every path, and they bring on these units, and it's just awesome. If you had eight players on some of the smaller maps, that would just go ridiculously fast. The number of players for each map is only a recommendation, but we don't limit you.

In multiplayer, when you set it up, you can choose what the starting energy is, so if you want to start with Normal, that'll give you a relatively smooth initial pacing into the battle. If you want to start on Low, that means the people will work harder to build up, so it's a bit slower in the beginning, which is a lot more strategic. If you put it on High, it's basically all guns a-blazing, pretty much straight up. We recommend what we find is cool in terms of the loadouts for the maps, in terms of how you set them up, number of players and starting energy, but the guys are always finding new ways that they like to play it. The better they get with the controls, the faster they want to play, so it's the whole attacks-per-minute thing.

WP: Through the game's development cycle, it's been mentioned that Stormrise is a "true 3-D RTS." What do you mean by that? Are other games not "true 3-D," or … ?

KT: It's an oversimplification. All marketing and PR messages have to be, in some ways. When you distill it down, what it means is that instead of just 3-D graphics — because there have been plenty of 3-D graphics RTSes — but when you look at the gameplay, being top-down, it might go up and down with a little bit of height variation, but it's really like a tabletop game. It's a 2-D game that's bent a little bit.

What we realized early on is that we could actually sent units inside buildings, underground, up over rooftops, and having the camera with the unit means that if you are down in an alley, you can't see if the enemies are on the rooftop at all. It's really quite tense, and you realize, "I'm going to need to bring some air units over and scout this out to find out what's going on." If there is a ramp or a hole down to the sewers or caves underneath, you don't know who's down there until you go and have a look.

These are the sorts of things that you couldn't really do in an RTS. There are usually a few token things, like a bridge over something, and they render the units red as they go underneath, but in general, you're left with this top-down view over a very 2-D gameplay surface.

We've got some maps in Stormrise that you come across in story mode. Mission 10 is actually taller than it is wide, so you climb down through this ancient citadel, and each level that you get down to and clear is almost like the first down and 10 in gridiron, as opposed to working your way across the map. It's actually a really cool thing. From this balcony, you can set up a crossfire with some dudes coming through the doorway down below, so you can hold that, then move some guys down the stairwell and take them out. It's adding this third dimension to crossfire, cover, and that sort of stuff. That's really where the "verticality" and "true 3-D RTS" claims come from because the places you can go and the things that you can use are actually in the third dimension.

WP: How difficult was it to make Stormrise? Especially since it's your first console title and it's multiplatform, what was the most challenging task that cropped up during the development cycle? Which achievement are you most proud of?

KT: We've had a lot of challenges throughout. You've listed a couple right there. We had the console thing, and we hadn't really done that before. In Medieval II, we rewrote the graphics to be DirectX 9, but even Vista, with DirectX 10, everything was like a new platform to us, so that was quite humbling and a challenge for the tech guys. They did a great job all the way through, making sure that we had feature parity across every platform and that we didn't get too ambitious. We made sure we always had stability in performance, the sorts of things that get a lot of other dudes stuck.

Even console developers who had moved to next-gen had a lot of trouble with, say, the PlayStation, for instance. We were absolutely scared of the PlayStation 3, and I think that was good because it meant that we were serious and humbled by the challenge that we had ahead.

The interface itself was one of the very early challenges that we had. Looking back, it seems so easy, but it was a huge challenge to figure out what we're going to do and how we're going to tell someone that this is going to be good? In terms of the controls, it was difficult to sell. Try explaining the controls to someone without sitting them down and saying, "All you have to do is this."

Otherwise, the rest of it comes down to pretty general stuff, so the toughest things for us were moving to consoles and the control scheme. The rest of it is budget and time. There's never enough!

Even though it's the first thing we did, the thing that I'm most proud of in terms of achievements is the controls. Distilling it down to the right stick and the Whip Select, it seems so obvious in hindsight. We were worried for a long time there, and the reason why we didn't announce Stormrise or show anything through last year was that we didn't want to show Tom Clancy's EndWar and Halo Wars what we'd done. We figured it was so easy that if they saw it, they would say, "We could put that in our game as well," and we'd lose something that was unique and cool in what we did because it's not a big thing to implement. It seems so obvious to us that we thought, "We're just some hicks in Australia. These guys must have come up with this same thing as well and given it a go."

I'm lying awake at night, just waiting for the next preview to come out of the competitors and have them describe our control system. The fact that we managed to get up to this point, that we're now releasing and it's still unique, is awesome. We can't wait to find other uses for it and other interpretations. We've done here a fast-paced tactical game, but that's not the only thing that you could use the Whip Select for. My brain's exploding at the moment with the things that we could do with that.

WP: You've mentioned "Whip Select" several times already, so for people who still don't know what it is, can you give us a brief description and tell us why it's so important to the game?

KT: One of the biggest challenges that we found in RTSes on the console was that while it was accessible with the movement and the camera — you press the A button to select a unit and tell it to move somewhere — it was very unresponsive. If you wanted to take a unit from one side of the map and take it all the way to the other side of the map, you had to scroll all the way and then scroll all the way back. I quite like playing C&C3 in single-player on Easy. It's like watching TV, I'm not stressed about losing units and I'm not really under any time constraints.

What Whip Select does is it adds some responsiveness. Using the right stick, you can just push it in the direction of the unit that you want it to go to, and you can pick a unit that's way on the other side of the map and just release, and it smoothly transitions you over there, almost instantly. That's really it. You point in a direction, highlight an icon, and you're over there. It's a way of very quickly navigating your way around the battlefield to where you've got the units.

It's so important because with that speed, it allowed us to explore a whole lot of other mechanics, get the game paced a lot quicker, and make it a lot more engaging that way. It blows your mind a bit the first time you see it. RTS gamers are wondering, "What is this camera thing? Why am I in so close?" and shooter players are wondering, "Why can't I shoot something?"

WP: Post-launch, what are we going to see? Downloadable content is popular with players, but it's also a good continued revenue stream after the game is out. Do you expect to offer different skins for multiplayer, or something more comprehensive, like, say, extra single-player content, extra maps and extra units?

KT: We're still rounding out Stormrise 1.0 at the moment, but we are planning to look at our opportunities in all of those areas. What would an extended single-player experience be as DLC? What would make cool multiplayer maps? I asked all the guys in QA, and I got 50 map designs from those guys, all different stuff. There's the obvious stuff, like different unit skins for your side, UI reskinning and that sort of thing.

They're all opportunities, but what we've done is, we've already set up a community web site, http://www.stormrisers.com, and we want to get the game out there for players and get people playing it, and then through that site — we talk directly to the guys in the forums and we give exclusive content — we want to survey players and ask what they want next. Will it be more multiplayer maps? What type of multiplayer maps do you want? If you want more one-on-one maps, great, we'll make a pack of those. If you're more into eight-player maps, we can make those instead.

We want to not just look at it as a revenue cash cow thing, but we want to look at the community and players and ask what they want next. The standard thing is to already have a DLC in the pipe, and it hits a few weeks after launch or is available on day one. I don't know about you, but as a player, I wonder, "Why didn't you just put that in the product?"

We've been busting our guts just to get the product done. We put everything we can in it, and then look at all of these opportunities. The community is rising, and there are already some guys on there who are asking lots of questions, but it's after people have played it and after we get some dudes with high ranking that we can start talking about what they want in DLC. Do they want Capture the Flag? Do they want King of the Hill?

What's awesome about development is that once you finish a game, that's the best time to keep going. It's all there and it's all working, and we've spent months with the thing, pulled it apart on the shop room floor, and now that it's all together and we're playing it, and it's live, you want this? Here you go!

That's what the guys are working on now. We're preparing some minor updates at release and soon after release as well, a few cool things that we've done.

WP: Are we going to see a demo, either on PS3, X360 or PC? If so, is it going to be a single-player or multiplayer demo?

KT: It's a big question mark. Right now, the official line is that Sega would prefer not to release a demo. I'm unable to tell you my personal opinion to do with that, except that maybe I might not agree, perhaps. At the studio, we are preparing demos, and we're leaving it up to the Sega guys to decide whether or not they want to send it out.

I'm going to put my cards on the table. I'd actually like people to play it because I read forums all over the place. Dudes are saying, "This is great, but I really want to try it beforehand." It's a serious investment, $50 or $60.

We're doing the best that we can in terms of streaming a whole lot more gameplay videos. We did a Stormrise Academy, which was a series of "how to" videos to break things down. The first one was Whip Select 101. We'll do all of that, but the best thing to do after that, when people are primed, is to just get them the game. It is so out there, that I think the fear is that if you only pick it up for two minutes and think it feels terrible, you don't get over that learning curve, and you don't get to the point of knowing where we're going with the game.

We're going to keep negotiating with these guys, but the thing that kind of spooked them was that EndWar had massive download for its demos, and it didn't convert into sales, but EndWar is cool and still ticking along. Halo Wars, everyone thought the demo was a bit thin, but it's selling its ring off. They should sell more RTS games on console! What we need in terms of market generation is the early days of RTS — Westwood versus Blizzard — a few main players who consistently try to one-up each other. The people who benefited were the gamers.

Everyone was professing that RTS would be big on this generation of consoles, and it's had a slow start. Some people think that it's had a bit of a false start, but I think it's kicking in now, and as we work through and refine all this stuff, anyone who's in on the ground floor when it's picking up — Halo Wars, EndWar and Stormrise — will have the skills to go through and kick ass.

WP: Is there anything about the game that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?

KT: As a final message, Stormrise is going to be unfamiliar when you first pick it up, but its beauty is in after you get over that little learning curve and it clicks into place for you. Take the time to give it a chance because once you get your head around it, you'll be away and lightning fast. Give it enough of a go to get into it.


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