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Nobody Likes You When You’re Strange

May 2nd, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 8 Comments · Big Huge Games, Crispy Gamer, Design, RTS

RTS evangelist Tom Chick devoted his most recent column to a celebration of Rise of Legend‘s second anniversary. He talked to Big Huge Games head honcho Brian Reynolds about the game – why it worked and why it wasn’t the huge success it deserved to be.

This exchange capsulizes the prevailing thinking on why the game never really took off:

Chick: One of the criticisms of Rise of Legends — one with which I actually don’t agree — is that even though you guys were doing the fantasy genre, you disregarded a lot of the standard tropes, the elves and dwarves and whatnot, so there was no hook for the average player.

Reynolds: I guess I agree with both you and the people making those criticisms. We intentionally avoided the standard tropes, thinking that would make our material fresher. There were a lot of games out there — some of them highly successful — that deliver that fantasy universe, so we thought, “What’s going to differentiate us? We’ll go for something people have heard of, but that won’t be exactly the same things.”

That’s why we went with the Leonardo da Vinci devices with steampunk. That’ll give people a little bit of a hook, but it won’t be just orcs and elves. Clearly, we would have been more accessible to more people if we had just given them the basics. If our goal was just to get fantasy, we could have done that with lots of magic spells and huge dragons and things like that without having gone to the more esoteric steampunk, etc. thing. In that sense, the people who [criticized us] both before and after were somewhat right. So maybe that was a mistake.

Unlike Chick, I think that the setting was central to why the game wasn’t a sales success, but not because it abandoned standard fantasy tropes. I doubt that an elves and sorcerers RTS would have done much better; it didn’t seem to help Kohan. It’s not that RoL had an original bunch of races; it’s that it had 3 original races that had never been seen in the same place before.

As Reynolds says, they led with the most familiar race, the Vinci. A Renaissance steampunk world with muskets and airplanes and robots is a nice bridge between science fiction and history. Players like having entry points to games, and of the three the Vinci were the widest door. Not that the other two weren’t interesting or accessible on their own. Elemental magic armies like the Alin or the Chariot of the Gods inspired Cuotl can find inspiration and analogs in a lot of other games and pop culture artifacts, I suspect.

But then you plop all three races down in the same world and things that already make little sense start to look downright bizarre. The games media spent a lot of time repeating BHG talking points about battles between science and magic, but the game really wasn’t about that. The campaign certainly didn’t embody any large philosophical struggle over the nature of power, and I suspect a lot of players who tried the demo came away from the experience with the feeling that BHG was being strange for the sake of being strange.

As Bruce Shelley noted in my interview with him regarding Age of Empires, people know what an archer is for and that swords are better than clubs. You might not know anything about the Shang Dynasty, but even people who hate history have an idea how things are supposed to work.

And, individually, people would probably get into the Alin or Vinci. Together? That’s a huge risk.

The risk carries over into the multiplayer world. Rise of Legends is great because even though the faction play styles are remarkably distinct, the strategies available to you can be very subtle. You almost always have an option. But since you need to play a while to figure all this stuff out, the people who are really big on climbing online ladders can’t just walk in and know everything that they can do. The unfamiliarity of the setting is compounded by the variety of strategies open to you. Note that Supreme Commander, a game with largely interchangeable sides, is a multiplayer success story; everybody who plays knows what to expect so the battles come down to epic thrashes between giant robots. There is some subtlety at the highest levels of play in SupCom, but most people don’t get there.

None of this should be read as a complaint that RoL should have had conventional units. Rise of Legends is brilliant precisely because it is so original in so many ways. Because it looks so different, you know it’s going to play different. Few RTSes in recent years have so well epitomized the idea that visual cues can be part of the interface as much as tooltips and menus. It’s a visual wonder that requires more than a build order in order for you to succeed.

Message board dwellers, bloggers and editors like to bemoan the lack of originality in games today, hearkening back to some golden age when everything was original (which is mostly because everything was new, but that’s beside the point.) Rise of Legends, I think, demonstrates the perils of originality. Though I wouldn’t have had them make it any other way (I like the Cuotl even if they were rushed as Reynolds says) I’m sure that Microsoft would have rather had Rise of Nations II – it would have been a sure thing – the first sequel to a hit game is usually bigger than the original. The strategy environment is littered with the detritus of original titles that never moved beyond cult hits (Majesty and Kohan are my two favorites on this list.) True originality has always been a tough sell, and with AAA budgets exploding you can forgive publishers for being unwilling to support creativity at the expense of the bottom line.

Sometimes I wonder if gamers really want strange, though. They will accept original game play elements more quickly than they will accept original settings. Every now and then you get something like Katmari Damacy but the best selling games of all time borrow familiar worlds or accepted tropes and make them better. The Sims, World of Warcraft, Halo, Grand Theft Auto…none break the bank on “You’ll never believe this!”.

I’m more than a little guilty of this, of course. I like my historical strategy games. Replaying Gettysburg or the rise of Russia or the conquest of India gets me more excited than leading space grunts against alien invaders. But the gaming world would be a much poorer place if people like Brian Reynolds didn’t dare to show me things I’d never even imagined.


8 Comments so far ↓

  • Andrew

    For a game, the Sims had a fairly original setting. How many games before that were set in your living room, and turned your bladder into a game mechanic?

  • Troy

    Original for a game design, maybe, but the subject was instantly familiar to everyone who played it. There’s no confusion about what does what. Everyone knows what a refrigerator is for or how sleep will help your character.

  • Paul Montesanti

    I have to wonder how much the average single-player campaign factors into the game’s lack of sales. I really like ROL, but most people who play RTSes never take them online, which is where the game really shined.

  • Troy

    I guess your opinion on whether the campaign had much to do with it depends on how word of mouth works. I think that a game like RoL depends on drive by purchases; people who see screenshots or the box art and decide to give it a shot.

    Most reviews didn’t discuss the campaign in any depth (for good reason, I think) but if you are a casual RTS player and heard that the campaign wasn’t very interesting then you might not pick it up.

    I’ve been hard on RoL’s campaign in the past, though I wonder how much of that is due to its ham-handed story that takes you through all three factions. The campaign design mechanics are an improvement over the “conquer the world” stuff in Rise of Nations. From a pure design perspective, I think it works well. It’s just when added to a pretty silly story of revenge with your typical RTS skirmish missions that it falls apart. The leveling up of territories, guns and butter stuff is pretty cool.

  • SwiftRanger

    Tried the demo when RoL came out but it suffered from poor performance and some bugs as well (it was a beta demo I think). Anyway, it felt a bit odd to me (not because of the races actually) but I didn’t get into RoN the first time either and from reading the reviews on RoL I got the impression things were a bit rushed. Might pick it up, I’ve seen the original package at budget price in some shops here and there.

  • Natus

    I don’t know. I thought RoL was stuffed full of some great ideas, a great interface, and some very original gameplay. But the reason it tanked, I continually aver, was because of the game’s lack of personality and the difficulty in figuring out what the units did. How many flying units did the Alin have? What were the differences between them? I still don’t know. Add to that an unengaging campaign and not so great netcode, is it any wonder it failed?

    I don’t think originality has that very much to do with it. It’s all about how that originality is deployed.

  • shanicus

    That is a good interview, thanks for the link!

    I managed to get through the whole thing at work!

  • JonathanStrange

    Nobody likes you when you’re strange. A pain I know all too well.