Chris Taylor Gets Some
Last year when Total Annihilation became an undeniable smash hit, Chris Taylor was suddenly thrown into the spotlight as the creator of the most popular strategy game since Warcraft, and hailed for bringing 3D graphics to a traditionally 2D genre. What happened next, suprised just about everyone. Rather than stay with Cavedog, the company he developed Total Annihilation with, Chris decided to leave at the height of TA's popularity to start a new company. Since he's left the company, Cavedog has shipped several add-on packs for Total Annihilation, and is readying a sequel, as well as a separate TA game using a fantasy theme.
Chris, has nothing to do with these. In fact, Chris has left behind the strategy genre altogether. His new company, Gas Powered Games, is developing, of all things, a Role Playing Game. Sound strange? Think again. Before working on Total Annihilation, Chris Taylor developed sports titles for Electronic Arts' sucessful EASports line. His new project may very well establish him as one of the rare renaissance men of the gaming industry...able to move from genre to genre, using the simple rules of decent gameplay to create great games, regardless of their focus.
Chris took some time out of his hectic schedule to answer questions from George Broussard, the man behind Duke Nukem, bigwig at 3D-Realms, and Total Annihilation fan.
- Jason Bergman, editor.
Cavedog and Total Annihilation
How did you get involved with Cavedog, and what did you do before that?
I was looking for something new after making a bunch of sports games up at Electronic Arts Canada and decided I needed a change of pace. I was a huge Command & Conquer fan and wanted to do a real time strategy (RTS) game. I gave Ron and Shelley a call at Humongous and they asked me to come down and join the company.
Was it difficult to change gears from sports games to doing a real time strategy game? What are some major differences in the design process? Did you have to play a lot of RTS's to get up speed on them?
I think it was difficult having to figure out all the technical stuff that has to go into making an RTS engine but the design was also a big step up in terms of complexity. When you're doing a sports game, the design is largely defined by the sport, whereas with RTS games it's wide open to your creative desires. Sure, I played a lot of my two favorites, Dune II and Command & Conquer a lot. I think my wife left me in the end because of that. Whoops!
What features do you think helped Total Annihilation reach a new level of strategy games and set new benchmarks for other games?
There were a lot of little features that I think added a lot to the game. For me it was the 3D terrain and units because that made it easy to start making everything else work properly like weapons and line-of-sight. Being able to queue up the commands using the shift key was huge also. The ability to add new units, weapons, maps and missions was another area where we broke a lot of ground. No longer did people have to wait for an expansion pack to change the dynamic of the game experience.
All in all, TA has a much more serious feel to it than other games. For example, when you click on a unit in TA, it doesn't make any sort of humorous comment. Why did you decide to leave out something so popular in past games?
Well, the truth is, those sorts of comments take time to script out and cost more to do in the studio. We were under a lot of time and budget contraints so we started looking for alternatives. It occured to us that making a noise was easier to do but it was also something different and players may enjoy a break from the conventional "yes sir". In the end I actually preferred the way we did it. If I were to do it over I would probably provide an option to allow the player to turn these on or off.
The resource management was great in TA. Instead of resources being depleted, you actually fought over acquiring and defending them. How did this come about?
Well, experimentation. We were actually convinced that it could work both ways and wanted to put an option into the game. We implemented the 'unlimited' resource model first and then liked it so much we left it that way all the time. It's a great example of how difficult it would be to make a design decision like that while looking at a document in a word processor.
What gameplay/features do you wish you could have put into TA, but maybe ran out of time for?
There were a lot of those features... Clearing trees from a large area with one command, the ability to build and destroy bridges, a teleportation unit (which we had working but it needed a ton of extra AI requirements). I wanted to create more exotic weapons but I just kept sliding those over onto the TA-2 wish list.
What do you think of the strategy genre's ability to tell a story? Do you see it moving towards the more traditional gameplay, or do you envision a strategy game in the near future with a truly involving storyline?
Well, I could see better stories, that's for sure. But war is war, and the reason for fighting can only be so good. (Meaning war is pretty damn stupid in the first place - but it makes a fun game!).
At what point in the development of TA did the idea to provide additional units for download via the web site come in? Was this in early on, or was it in response to a surplus of great ideas?
Ron and I were talking about how everything that the engine uses should be in a data file and not hard coded into the engine. We were thinking that the competition was missing out on an opportunity of keeping their game alive on the internet by waiting so long to release new units. Downloadable units was the next logical step, it was a huge success.
It's clear that games like Quake, Duke Nukem 3D and TA all owe part of their success to extensibility and the growth of user communities. Do you see any next steps in making games "community" friendly?
I totally agree with you. The title we are working on totally embraces the concept of allowing the internet community to create stuff for the game, rather than have to make everyone reverse engineer the code.
Any funny little anecdotes to pass on that happened during the making of TA?
I think I told this story already but one time we were throwing those funny koosh balls around the office and Jake McMahon hits me right between the eyes. My eyes were open and those little tentacles went straight into each eyeball blinding me for about ten minutes. Anytime I throw something at Jake now I aim straight at his head.
What was the best thing and the worst thing about working at Cavedog?
Cavedog was a very creative environment and I had an enormous ammount of creative control on the project. The worst of it was the bad gas we got from all the pizza.
Your departure from Cavedog was at the height of its popularity. Why leave?
I have always wanted to start my own company. Like my friend Alex Garden who started Relic in Canada says, you can't bitch and complain when it's your own company. If the water cooler is out of water then change the bottle... When you belong to a large company you start to complain, even when things are really good. I knew the time was right and I made my move. So far so good. But I won't forget all the good times that I had making TA.
Did the plans for Total Annihilation 2 change after you left?
I have no idea. They don't tell me much about what they are doing. I am the competition now. :)
What do you think of the recent add-on packs like Core Contingency?
I think the Core Contingency was pretty good but could have spent another couple of weeks in testing. It was really ambitious and set a new high water mark for jamming tons of stuff into an expansion pack. I think if we had more time we could have done much more with the new units but sometimes the games business doesn't tolerate long development cycles for things like expansion packs.
What do you think of the most recent strategy games like StarCraft and Dominion?
Well, I played Starcraft and thought it was a very polished game. I have not yet played Dominion but would be happy to check it out if Todd sends me a copy, hint hint.
|Credits: Illustration © 1998 Dan Zalkus. This interview is © 1998 Chris Taylor & George Broussard. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited and totally not cool.|