Set 25 years after the end of the Infinite War, Supreme Commander 2 starts with the galaxy reeling from the recent assassination of the newly elected president of the fragile Colonial Defense Coalition. The members of the Coalition — the United Earth Federation, The Illuminate and the Cybran Nation — blame each other, and the early rumbles of war can be heard throughout the galaxy.
WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank and occupation!
I'm Chris Taylor, and I'm the founder and creative director of Gas Powered Games.
WP: When did you originally conceive of Supreme Commander 2? Was this something that you always saw as a natural sequel to the first game, or was it something that didn't start until you began working with Square Enix?
CT: We had done a treatment for it after Forged Alliance [expansion pack to the original Supreme Commander] shipped. When we talked to Square Enix, we had a brainstorm about where we thought the game could go, reimagined it again and did a new treatment. It was born in that space between Forged Alliance and kicking off the new project.
WP: As a North American developer, what was it like for you and Gas Powered Games to be working with a Japanese publisher versus an American publisher?
CT: Of course, Square Enix's American office is in Los Angeles, and there are quite a few people in the office who are American, and some of those folks had even worked at other American publishers. The key thing, though, is the cultural undertone of the whole thing, where Square Enix has tremendous respect for the vision holder of the game. You can shoot a movie, you can direct a movie, and someone could change the movie in editing. That still can happen in games in the way that you can have a creative person design a game and then you can editorialize it apart in the final hours.
Square Enix made it really clear to me that that's not how they work. They really support the vision holder, and they believe that the creative leads are people who have full control and autonomy. Of course, when you hear that at the very beginning, you don't know that you should believe it yet because you have no proof, but I can promise you, at the end of 18 months, that that was absolutely true and it was a delight. If I had my way, I would always work with a publisher that felt that way about creative types.
WP: You're saying that you got to make the game that you wanted to make.
CT: Yeah, absolutely.
WP: One of the things for which Square Enix is well-known is being flexible and sharing its IP across platforms. While you were creating Supreme Commander 2, were there any considerations for nods or Easter eggs that point to some Square Enix IP?
CT: No, I think this is because we had our plate full. We had a pretty tight timeline, and we were going to the 360, and we had a lot of work to do to get it running really well on the 360. We didn't overcomplicate it.
WP: The original Supreme Commander was later ported to the 360, and you guys didn't work on that directly, but the console port didn't turn out quite as well as the original PC version. Was that one of the reasons for bringing the port of Supreme Commander 2 in-house? What prompted the change there?
CT: Well, that was part of it. The guys who did the first port worked very hard on it, but they weren't well supported, and they were also porting a game that wasn't well-suited. I started working on the designs for Supreme Commander 2, and I wanted to do something different. It makes all the difference in the world when you conceive of a game and you know where the game is going than when you try to do something after the fact. But I will say this: We learned a lot of lessons by watching the work that was done on the first one, and we brought over a lot of those lessons so we could avoid the same mistakes. The first wave up the beach takes a hell of a beating, if you know what I'm saying.
WP: That's a question that has plagued a lot of developers. How do you bring a real-time strategy game to a console? While many have tried in the past, there haven't been too many successful console RTS ports due to the general nature of the way the games are designed. What have you guys done with Supreme Commander 2 on the Xbox 360 that you think is going to change that?
CT: We certainly paid a lot of attention to all the other RTS games that have been developed, and we didn't want to make any of those mistakes. We wanted to learn only the good lessons, so we looked at successful games like Halo Wars, and we loved what they did with paint-select and a bunch of their other selection schemes and control schemes. We actually worked hard to keep our control schemes consistent so that the million-plus people who had played Halo Wars would actually be able to pick up Supreme Commander 2.
We actually took it even further and created a mode called paint-attack. Philosophically, when you hear it, you think, "Oh, interesting, paint-attack," but let me really emphasize how it changes the way the game plays. Can you imagine trying to take a little crosshair cursor on a 360 and try to put it on every little moving tank of your opponent and try to select it for attack? Well, get this. You now have a giant cursor that pops up, and you simply sweep across your opponent's base or invading army, and in the matter of a second, maybe two seconds, you've selected 30-50 enemy units. It's a game-changer. It's amazing.
WP: Since the game is also available on the 360, is there a reason why you chose to distribute the PC version through Steam instead of Games for Windows Live?
CT: There are always reasons. An evaluation was done, pros and cons were listed, and ultimately, the decision was made on the publishing side. From our standpoint, both are terrific systems.
WP: Is there any reason why you couldn't have cross-platform support? Is it the issue of Steam versus Xbox Live, or are the games somewhat fundamentally different when you play?
CT: No, that never even came up. I think that in this business right now, cost control being what it is, we just don't want to do all that work. (laughs) Why create work? Pick one and go with it. Get the job done and move on. If money was no object, I think it's a great idea. Let's support every single digital distribution and proprietary platform out there, but time is money, and one was chosen.
WP: So it's not just a simple matter of saying, "Hey, let's put it up on this digital storefront." You actually have to do programming on the back end to make it work?
CT: Yeah, that's a very important component. Each system has an API, and an API is very proprietary and very different with very different architectural rules. You go to the trouble of learning the API and talking to that API, it's a time investment so you kind of want to go with it.
WP: With Steam going multi-platform with an OS X release, will this have any impact on your choice of graphics systems going forward for future games? Do you think that Direct-X and Windows gaming will remain dominant, or does an OS X version of Steam make it viable for game developers to focus on Open GL, with the eye to having an instant OS X distribution platform?
CT: I think it will remain dominant for a few more years, no doubt, but this will open up the question for discussion. The real game-changer is when OS X controls a much larger percentage of the market.
WP: Let's shift gears a little bit. As a game developer, you're obviously focused on working on the game itself, but occasionally, you have to get out there, talk to the media, talk to people like me to promote your game, and you also do things like developer diaries. With the upcoming Kings and Castles, you had a diary entry with a chicken and another one with a horse. What type of impact does that media work have on the game design and development? Do you find it helpful? Do you find that it pulls you away? Is it something that you would rather do throughout a game's development, or would you rather do it at the end, when a game is about to launch?
CT: Well, we're experimenting, and I'll probably be able to answer that question better in 1.5-2 years from now. Our industry was always evolving and changing, but right now, it's going through a multidimensional transformation. Our customer's needs are changing, the economic underpinnings of the way people are willing to pay for games is changing, and the distribution channels are changing. Of course, as a game developer, we have to change and come up with radical new ideas to adapt and, in some ways, lead part of that change. It's an interesting time right now, but it's exciting, and if you check back with me in a year or two, I'll tell you if I was rowing my canoe in the right direction. (laughs)
WP: Along the same lines, with the instant interaction of things like Twitter, Facebook, mobile and the fact that people can stream live from their mobile phones, has that had any impact on the way that you develop at work or what you show to people? A few years ago, if a co-worker mentioned to a friend that he was doing something cool, it never got past the bar. Now, a single Twitter message can spread to millions and be published on cnn.com in an hour or two. Has that had any impact on how you do things?
CT: Yeah, that's a big impact. It's the ability for me to take an idea and throw it out there and have maybe 300, 400, 500 or maybe even 1,000 people give me some feedback on it. I could say, "What do you think of elves?" and they say, "Elves suck," and I say, "OK, no elves." That's the easiest example, but if you think you're going to take something in a bold, new direction, you don't ask 1,000 people what they think of it. They'll tell you that the idea sucks. You've got to really pick and choose.
WP: If you had to sum it up in two to three sentences, what really makes Supreme Commander 2 a game that's worth playing?
CT: It's got a fresh approach to the design. It goes after a much larger market, which means it's more accessible, it's more playable, it's faster, and it's lighter in the sense that you can get into the heat of battle quicker. For me, I've been working on the game for the last 1.5 years, and I want to play it, and that says something.
WP: Is there anything about the game that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?
CT: Supreme Commander 2 got a brand-new rendering engine, got a brand-new pathfinding engine, and it has over 25 experimental units, which are absolutely insane. The other day, I was watching a pull and smash suck a battleship out of the water and spin it around inside of itself and then shoot it out. The visuals are beyond anything you could have imagined in an RTS game. I'm very excited, I'm very proud of the game, I'm very happy with the way it turned out, and I can't wait for it to ship on the 360 on March 16 because that is new territory as far as I'm concerned. We've seen a bunch of RTS games ship on the 360, but none that have packed the game that Supreme Commander 2 has packed onto that disc. I hope people check it out and enjoy it and let me know. They can always let me know what they think. They can send e-mail to email@example.com.
WP: A personal question, based on something you mentioned in one of your dev diaries. You said that after all the work, it's time for a drink. What's the drink of choice for a legendary RTS developer these days?
CT: That's a good question. I love a good glass of tawny port at the end of a long day. It's very sweet for a lot of folks, but it's just right for me.
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