After fifteen years of running a games retail outlet together, Lead Designer David Thompson and Lead Programmer George Geczy formed Battlegoat Studios in 2000 because of a lack of new games that they wanted to play. Since then they have released three Supreme Ruler titles with the help of third-party publishers but are hoping for Kickstarter support to self-publish the most recent and potentially final addition to the series - Supreme Ruler 1936. After a swift early-morning coffee, they joined us to talk about the project.
Strategy Informer: What is it about the Supreme Ruler series that you think makes it stand out from other grand strategy titles?
David Thompson: I think what really sets it aside is the combination of grand strategy but without losing the tactical aspect; the units are portrayed at a battalion level. You can zoom right in to the units and see their individual specs, their kills, the losses, efficiency, their moral... It’s not only controlled region by region but the game goes right down to the battlefield level.
I find that most grand strategy games go one way or the other. Take a title like Panzer General – which I love – but you’re not controlling a country, you’re just controlling the military. Or take another game like Hearts of Iron then you’re not really dealing with a battlefield, you’re dealing with regions and it’s more about getting your units into a region and letting the combat resolve based on numbers rather than tactics; you don’t have the opportunity to, for example, perform ambushes from the woods and so on.
Strategy Informer: So would you say that even if you’re not doing quite so well on the grand strategic scale you could still turn the tide with exceptional tactical play?
David Thompson: You certainly can do a lot if your country is suffering economically. Of course, you do have to be able to buy bullets! But as long as you can keep your supply going you can always go; ‘Oh well they’ve got oil! I think I’ll take that.’
George Geczy: Supreme ruler is one of those games that different players play in different ways. Some of them do the tactical element more, some prefer the strategic element. We try to make the engine as flexible as possible for those different play-styles without dumbing it down, simplifying things or cutting out features which players would like. We wanted to make both the interface in the game flexible and give players a lot of replayability so that’s one of the challenges we have and it’s one of the things players look forward to most in the series.
Strategy Informer: What are your primary goals with Supreme Ruler 1936?
David Thompson: It’s sort of the culmination, or pinnacle, of the series. We’ve been working on these intelligent strategy games for a while and we feel this one is the ultimate we want to get to with not only historical appeal for people but also with features of the game. We’ve kept working on the engine and all the underlying features of the game and this one is certainly the best of the batch.
One of the issues with our past games has always been that we allow thousands of units to be acting independently across the world. As the games progress and there’s tens of thousands of units all over the world and all thinking independently, we’ve gotten some lag. But the improvements with hardware and with the engine over the years have allowed the performance really to be notched up for this one. In this version once you’re 8 to 10 years into the game there’s obviously wars going on everywhere but we’re still able to get 3 seconds per day performance. So the engine has really come a long way with this one.
George Geczy: Technically it’s quite a challenging design. A lot of what is happening the player doesn’t even see because the AI will fight in their regions behind fog of war. We have a way of doing things which ensures the AI doesn’t cheat – there are no artificial bonuses for the AI. We wanted to make sure those shortcuts aren’t there.
In fact some of our long-term fans will actually start up a scenario, save it, and then play as another region just to see if the same result occurs and find out if the AI got an artificial benefit or not. We certainly can’t pull anything over the eyes of our long-term fans.
David Thompson: Just while we’re speaking technically: there are over two-million hexes on the map and literally thousands of battalions of units at any one time. Those units each have their own AI thread at battalion level and their own decisions to make as opposed to just the AI ruler’s decision making.
Strategy Informer: So given the epic scale of the game, game balancing must be a massive challenge. How exactly do you deal with that?
David Thompson: That’s always been a question I’ve had a very simple answer to. I mean, is the world war balanced? And it isn’t. We always do the best to portray accuracy in our games – unit specifications, resources... the game is very very heavily researched. We try to portray a realistic environment, and that means that in no way is the game balanced. So players can decide if they want an easy playing experience they can play as a nation who they know has resources and money, and if they want a more challenging experience they can play as a ‘have not’ nation.
Some departments are particularly useful. For example in resources the ministers often do a better job than players do! *laughs*
Strategy Informer: Because there’s so much to manage?
David Thompson: Well, you’re not always watching what the market for petroleum is today; what’s the day to buy? So allowing your minister to have that freedom can mean he will take advantage of passing opportunities in the game that a human might miss.
Strategy Informer: Often these kinds of grand strategy games can become heavy on the micro-management side of things. How do you deal with that for the player?
David Thompson: That has always been one of the challenges: what people want to control, what should be taken from their control and what should be optional. We’ve incorporated over the past a series of cabinet ministers, so you can select department by department what ministers are allowed to do and we have expanded that even further in this instalment. People can really customise what their cabinet ministers are doing and what they are doing themselves. You can, if you want, have the defence minister control your military units to varying extents – setting battle zones and theatre priorities to help influence what you’re going to do.
Strategy Informer: The game features both a campaign and sandbox style of play. Would you mind just breaking down the difference between those two modes?
David Thompson: To start with the campaign limits your selection of who you can play as. Obviously for WWII campaigns you can decide to play as Japan, Germany or Italy starting in 1936, Germany in 1940, or in 1941, Russia in 41... So there are different key nations you can play as in the campaigns. There are a lot more historical objectives given to the players. So you know what you have to do in a campaign style of game to achieve victory.
In sandbox you can play as any nation in the world and you can set your own victory conditions. I like to play Finland in sandboxes. Russia are going to come calling so I really ramp up to prepare for them. I play with the tactical element of the game by putting some elite infantry in the forests just north of Leningrad waiting for them so when they do declare war it’s a little old different outcome in 1939.
Strategy Informer: So you can define a victory condition for yourself in sandbox?
David Thompson: Oh yes, and the end-game statistics vary depending on what you have chosen.
Strategy Informer: Are there any things you weren’t happy with in the previous Supreme Ruler titles that you’re trying to rectify with this one?
David Thompson: The disadvantage that we didn’t realise going into Cold War, the previous title, is that our game had always been a good balance of military combat and running your country, but in Cold War the point being ‘not’ to go to war we think that it lost something. Of course you could still do a strategic launch of nuclear weapons; that was kind of cool. However, the point was more trying to influence people into your sphere and that on its own wasn’t as compelling as attacking them.
The era that we’re basing this game in is obvious a time of conflict, so that brings the enjoyment factor for the war gamers back into play. We still have the overall diplomatic elements and managing your nation so that you’re not just controlling a military but all aspects of your government. On top of that you’re in an era now which you know is going to give you opportunity for your army to do something.
Strategy Informer: To what extent is community feedback involved in your development process?
David Thompson: We have literally hundreds of people from the forums contributing and making suggestions and a lot of those things have been implemented. I can’t really piece one out because we get so much from the community feedback that it blurs what was their idea in the first place and what was our idea in the first place.
Strategy Informer: How far down the development path are you right now?
David Thompson: We’re in final stages of alpha. When the Kickstarter ends we’re hoping to be a couple of weeks off going into beta. Release is set for towards the end of March 2014.
Strategy Informer: Is this going to be the last title in the series?
David Thompson: Well, never say never. But it’s the last of our current plans. We have some other development we’re looking at outside of this series and we’re probably going to pursue that next just as a little bit of a change of pace for our studio as well.
Strategy Informer: Gentlemen, thank you very much for your time!
Supreme Ruler 1936 currently has a Kickstarter campaign running at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1512004462/supreme-ruler-1936 which ends on the 16th of November.