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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 1

by Rainier on March 18, 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: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank, and occupation!

I'm Ken Turner, and I'm the creative director at Creative Assembly in Australia.

WP: How long has Stormrise been in development, and how big is the development team?

KT: We've had full production on Stormrise for just over two years, and the team on that, we've got about 50 full-timers on staff and we brought in a bunch of contractors and some casual staff as well, including internal QA. We've got over 80, plus we hired some art houses outside, art animation stuff. It's some local guys in Australia, some in Brisbane, some in Melbourne. So yeah, we've got just over 80 internally, which pretty much fills every nook and cranny in the office. We've got guys in hallways and dudes where the foyer should be. So far, we haven't had to use the bathroom yet, but —

WP: So nobody's used the bathroom in two years?

KT: (laughs) Yup, at least not for sitting at a desk and doing any work or anything like that.

WP: For people who aren't very familiar with Stormrise, tell us a little bit about the backstory of the game.

KT: The backstory starts from now. We had a look at everything that people were going to do in the next 50 years — gene therapy, cure cancer, all that kind of stuff. We add another 100 years, and we blow it all up. That's pretty much where the backstory starts, and it turns out that what happened was our fault, and you discover that through the game.

It was a splitting point. Some of us had to eke out a living on the surface; the few that were left over had to get stronger, they had to develop to adapt to the new environment. There are others who were privileged enough to stay in stasis underground; they hope to ride out the calamity that's happening on the surface.

What happens eventually is that the guys underground re-emerge and everyone gets together. There's a tense peace, but they rebuild civilization, but not as we know it. A lot of what you see in Stormrise looks very familiar, and it's because the Echelon — the guys in stasis — brought with them a lot of their blueprints and planning and a lot of our knowledge from present day, and their hope was to rebuild society.

The Sai, who had to live through everything, feel that this is a bit of an abomination, that it's just resetting, reprodding the bomb to go off again. Just before we enter the game, there's a significant threat from a storm, which is being held back by a thing called the Frontier, and that's all about to fail and it's split everyone into distrust and it's descended into civil war between the Sai and the Echelon. The tensions that have been there really ever since the Echelon emerged have finally hit the breaking point.

We actually enter the game a couple of years after the war has started. The whole place has gone to complete crap, and through the story, we follow one particular guy, a commander from present day — plus 150 years— called Aiden Geary. We wake up feeling disoriented, and we don't know what's going on in the world. As we play through the story mode, we piece together more about what happened before as well as what's happening now.

If you look at where the game starts, there's a civil war going on. They obviously got along in the past, and they know each other implicitly. A lot of the characters on either side are quite friendly with each other in a way because they've known each other before — some met before the war, some met up on the battlefield — so there's a lot of character banter and stuff going on. In some ways, even though it's all disorienting and different, it's eerily familiar. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

WP: What gave the idea to make this particular game in this particular setting? Is there a specific influence?

KT: We've had two years of full production, but before that, we spent 18 months on a prototype while we were working on Medieval II. We were cooking up ideas about what a strategy game would be like on a console. A lot of other things were happening at that time, they were announcing Battle for Middle-earth II on the 360, and then C&C 3 came afterwards, and it did OK, reviewed average. Everyone says that it's going in the right direction but it's clunky when compared to a PC game. Even though those guys used up all the good marketing lines about "user interface reinvented for console," it was just bolting something over the top of a PC game.

We've got all this expertise is making mass battles with Total War, and we thought, "How can we bring it to the console in a way that console gamers feel that it's natural?" That's where we picked up the controller and thought, "How will I command units? What sort of things do I want to do?" I want to tell units to go places, I want to select different units, and as a console player, you don't want to be detached from your units and floating hundreds of meters up in the air. I want to be inside and down close and see the ragdolls and feel every hit. We started with all that, did some prototyping, and once we got the Whip Select going, we had a prototype for Whip Select back in 2005.

Originally, we'd bolted over the top of a cut-down version of Rome: Total War — flat battlefield, 10 units to a side, it was almost like a gridiron match. We wanted to get that whole sports feel. It's all about the player's skill, not about your knowledge of the different units and abilities. That was our starting point: How minimal can we get with the resources? In Total War, there are no resources; you've got what you got.

We got it going, and we played without any fancy stuff, just the whip and the left stick — we plugged in a PS2 controller into a PC — and from there, we tried to figure out how we could best show off the new mechanics. We could do a World War II game, but it's a bunch of guys running around a couple of tanks, and it's going to be slow. We wanted something a little faster-paced and more flexible. We wanted hovering air units, special abilities and massive attacks. We started looking at the fictional area instead of the real world. If you go with the real world, every one of those games ends with a nuked subway. We wanted a richer diversity of things that you could do, so we thought of what would be cool to find in a strategy game. We did some initial exercises to think of cool things, flooding the room with ideas, and we wanted to create a world where everything fits together and is consistent.

Stormrise was really our interpretation of looking at advanced technology, like gene mutation and evolution theory, and how that would go forward. There's actually a significant amount of time between the new future, when "The Event" happens, and when we start the game. We can't necessarily say what that is to start with, but there's enough time for the Sai to really adapt and create these beasts and breed them up for what they need to do. If you look closely at the Sai, you'll also notice that most of their beasts are augmented with bits of technology as well, so they've got their natural ability, but they're amplified.

The Sai are a little bit tech, and the Echelon still rely heavily on ground troops because they can get in places. In urban fighting, it's great to have a Prowler, buggy or Arc Hammer type tank, but when the people you're trying to fight are going down to the sewers and around back alleys, it's actually the guys on foot who make the difference. It's human squishy bits there with massive technology, and organic stuff over here, augmented with the best of what they can take from the other guys. From that, we found that it was really rich and consistent, so we can piece it together and have our flying dragon and our giant, two-legged mech.

The story explores both sides of this and the different cultures and the mentalities that come along with that. Really, it was a case of narrowing it down to after we had the explosion, getting it down to a consistent set of things. We wanted it to feel a little bit like the real world as well, so if you look at the environments, they're familiar and very stark in some ways. If you saw footage of the fighting happening around the world, places are blown-up and dusty, and we wanted to bring that aesthetic into the game. In a sense, war is eternal.

WP: You mentioned the two different factions, the Echelon and the Sai. What are the main differences between the two?

KT: Gameplay-wise, Echelon are like your modern military, but with the coolest toys they can get. They've got superior range and superior firepower, and they're great at setting up defensive locations. Even their base unit, the Enforcer, which is the infantry, has a riot shield that you can turn on, so you can actually secure an area where there's no cover. The Prowler, which is the buggy thing, can turn into anti-air installations, so it picks itself up and it can scan the skies. The Echelon move reasonably fast over a flat, open area, and they use their superior range to hold their enemy at bay, and a few of their strike forces can come and teach people a lesson. The Arc Hammer and the artillery is awesome for that. The Hunter, which is their heavy air unit, is good for coming in and cutting out some enemy in the backfield quickly.

The Sai, on the other hand, have a few units that have good range, but generally, they're devastating up close. Playing as the Sai, you'll actually want to sneak around the outside and not take the Echelon head-on. You come out from around the alley so that you can use the short-range attacks. One of the heavy infantry, called the Warrior, is a jock wrestler guy with massive tentacles that come out. They're actually one of the strongest units in the game, if you can get them in close. Health-wise, they're OK. Armor-wise, they're pretty average, but if you can get them in close, you can absolutely devastate enemies. Setting up ambushes, using a lot of the route reversal, going down into the sewers and then popping up when it's not expected is really the staple tactics of the Sai.

On top of that, they've got a couple of big beasts. The Rift Worm in the sky is a great way of moving around a whole bunch of pain for the enemy. Because it attacks so slowly, it can only attack one thing at a time. When it's outnumbered, it can be getting into trouble, and they're quite expensive so you can't have too many of them around. On the ground, there's a gorilla-shaped thing called the Rage, and it's just got great melee attacks up close, but it's pretty much unstoppable. It's got a huge armor bonus, it's got great health, and some of its special abilities — there's the Unstoppable Charge, where you can set him going, and he'll just run and knock everything out of the way. Once he's close, he can't stop tearing them apart. Then there's the Matriarch, which is this giant crab thing. It's awesome up close. It's good all around as far as the Sai are concerned. It's got a medium-range acid spitting that it does and a long-range acid rain, which is like an artillery shot.

When playing each of the sides, and we find that particular players end up preferring one or the other. Straight out of the box, people choose aesthetically, and then, as they play through, they realize that that the other side has some cool stuff too, so they play both sides, but in the end, the dudes who like to set up long-range defenses wind up choosing the Echelon more, and those who like the "smash and grab" like the Sai.

Each of the maps are actually designed so that there are areas that benefit either. There are uncovered, open areas and Echelon is great in those areas, and there are also the tight alleyways and streets, which are great for the Sai. Approaching each map and approaching it from either end in multiplayer really comes down to looking at it and figuring out how the Echelon or Sai would approach it.

WP: For the single-player mode, do you play as both sides? Are there two campaigns? Or are both sides only playable in multiplayer?

KT: Without giving too much of it away, in the single-player campaign, you can play as both sides. Because Stormrise is something so new, not only in the mechanics but also it's new content and a new IP, the story mode is really an introduction to every environment, every gameplay mechanic, on both sides, on every unit. In fact, you get to play with and against every unit throughout the battle. By the end of it, you've done it all so yeah, you definitely get to play as both.

WP: Recently, it was revealed that Stormrise on the PC is going to be Vista- and DirectX 10-only. Why was that selected? Aren't you afraid that you're going to alienate XP gamers with DirectX 9?

KT: It was a decision that we made very early on. We've got a game that is multiplatform, and the Xbox 360 is DirectX 9 plus some DirectX 10 stuff. We didn't have a massive development time — two years isn't huge — but we wanted to make sure that we spent more time on getting the game and gameplay right rather than writing a whole separate render path for everything.

In the early days, we were also expecting Vista to be a bit better received than it has been, although I hear everyone's waiting for Windows 7, so …. (laughs) By the time we got to the point where we realized that DirectX 9 would be awesome too, it was a bit late in our development cycle to look at that. So straight out of the box, it's DirectX 10. Our friends at AMD have helped us with some DirectX 10.1 extensions as well, but we'll just have to watch and see what happens.

WP: Since it's a multiplatform title, are there any differences between the three SKUs?

KT: Between the two console ones, it's very, very similar. PS3 and Xbox have feature parity so it's the same on both. The experience is pretty much the same. Each of the consoles do some things better than others, but they are only minor technical things. For the gameplay experience, they're pretty much the same.

For Vista, we also invented a Whip Select to use the mouse as well. You've play air hockey at the arcades, and that's what it feels like. To do the whip, you press down with the right button, and you push in the direction of the unit you want. You don't have to highlight an icon with the cursor, you just push in that direction, and once you get a little bit better at doing it, it ends up being very small mouse gestures to whip to all the different things and bounce around. The target cursor is just the mouse cursor, but it is 3-D and holographic, just like on the console.

There are a few minor changes in the way that the deployment works because when you go to the deployment zone or go to your main portal, we give you back your mouse cursor, and you can click on all the units that you want to bring on. You can set up rally points and all that on the PC version, that's where you want to go. On the console, wherever you go, it's automatic. Wherever you've got the target, that's where they're going to go. That does actually change the way that I approach the game when I play on the PC. I can be very accurate with the mouse, where I want things to go. I'm not zooming out as much on the PC as I do on the consoles. I used to zoom in all the time on the consoles just as a habit. I want to be right there, I want to sit and face everything. The whip on the console is awesome, but with a bit of practice, the air hockey whip on PC is cool too.

Technologically, the difference on Vista is that you can dial up the game to higher res than what you can do with consoles. There's more memory, which means that we can do more stuff. One of the graphics guys got a super-duper ATI card and he dialed it up to 9800 by something or other and turned on anti-aliasing and everything. There are a few little things, like real-time ambient occlusion, which is on the Vista version only.

Otherwise, we really wanted to look at taking this fast strategy gameplay and the verticality and give that to all three platforms, and that's what we've done. Content-wise, everything is the same.

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