Strategy Informer: Firstly could you introduce yourself to our readers and let us know your role within the THE HISTORY CHANNEL: Great Battles of Rome production?
Iain McNeil: My name is Iain McNeil from Slitherine Software. I am the producer on the project. This means overseeing development on PC, PSP and PS2, ensuring quality is maintained through all areas of the project and attempting to keep everything on schedule!
Could you tell us what THE HISTORY CHANNEL: Great Battles of Rome is about and what the main storyline is?
Iain McNeil: The game is a combination of hack and slash role-playing and high octane battle action. The role-playing kicks in through the story and the progress as the player upgrades their army with new skills, equipment and recruits between battles. The battles are epic, fast paced and very exciting!
The game starts at the dawn of Roman history and follows the rise to power of this once small city. Through the game the player will fight along side the mighty Caesar, face Hannibal and his war elephants, go to war against the mighty Gauls and many many more. The story line was written for us by great leaders over 2 millennia ago, though our script writers have done a great job making that story feel modern and relevant. Once we had the scripts we gave them to the creative team to bring this great story to life through the use of totally immersive movies, superb voice over and atmospheric music. The combination is so powerfull that when I see the movies and hear the music it still makes the hairs on the back of neck stand up!
Could you tell us about some of the main features for THE HISTORY CHANNEL: Great Battles of Rome and which ones you’re proudest of?
Iain McNeil: It’s hard to pick one specific area as the production quality through the game is of the highest level. The selection of footage The History Channel gave us to work from was immense and engrossing. There were hundreds of hours of it, and just choosing the bits we wanted to use was a huge job in itself. This was used as the source for the movie clips and combined with the custom made voiceover. Technically we’ve had some major technical challenges to overcome especially on PSP and PS2. Nothing on this scale has been attempted on console before – we have truly epic battles with thousands of guys running around in full 3D, all of which can be directly controlled. Working closely with Atomic Planet we’ve solved these issues and the people who have seen the early prototypes were blown away by these massive battles! Linked to this we’ve also had to come up with some innovative control mechanisms in battle. RTS games don’t generally cross over well to console because people try to mirror RTS controls from the PC. This pointer is then controlled through the game pad, which is always very clunky. In a game where there is a lot of fast paced action you want to be fighting the enemy, not the UI system! We’ve come up with a great design that allows you to control your men easily and effectively without trying to replicate a mouse.
What can you tell us about the graphical and physics features?
Iain McNeil: The most striking part graphically is the sheer scale of the battlefields and number of men. This alone was a technical challenge, but then add in the underlying game model and you’ve got more problems! As in all our games the combat model is very realistic and gives a great feel for the kinds of decisions a general would have had to make back then – real tactics work. Breaking the enemies morale while maintaining your men’s confidence is the key to success. You don’t need to kill a man – you just need to take away his will to fight.
The game will be released on a few platforms, PS2, PC and PSP. Will there be many differences between the versions? If so, what will those be?
Iain McNeil: The key concept will be the same, but there will be some differences in the controls system and user interface because of screen sizes and shapes and we want to make the best of the controls the platform has to offer and any special features it might have. This in turn leads to some gameplay changes as if you change the controls the game plays slightly differently and to maintain the balance we had to make subtle changes to compensate.
The game hasn’t been announced for any next-generation systems, could you tell us why you didn’t take that route?
Iain McNeil: This is for purely commercial reasons. The History Channel is a mass-market brand and the PS2/PSP generation are mass market products. The uptake of next-generation consoles is fast, but the user base is still small compared to the existing consoles, meaning it is not mass market … yet! As next gen is not yet mass market it made no sense to push a mass market brand in that direction. It’s definitely something we’ll look at for the future though as the install base widens.
There hasn’t been many RTS games released for the PS2 and PSP, what control systems are you going to create and what steps are you taking to make sure that it’s easy to control and navigate?
Iain McNeil: We’ve got a great system, which as mentioned above does not mirror the mouse. This is where all pervious RTS games have fallen over in our opinion. The first problem you encounter is how to select your troops – without a mouse to draw a box around them how do you select your men? We’ve organized the player’s army in to squads of up to around 60 men, and you only select squads, you cannot select individual men within a squad. By using a squad system we avoid many of those nasty selection issues. To select a squad you use the left and right shoulder buttons and cycle through them. You can expand the selection to control multiple squads giving you a swift and easy way to select you men. The next problem is how to control them once selected – without a mouse how do you tell them which part of the map you want them to move to? We’ve solved this in 2 ways. The first is to let the player set orders for their army before the battle starts. This lets them set up any complicated maneuvers and make a general battle plan. Then when in the battle itself the player can jump in and take control of squads and override these pre battle orders. When directly controlling squads you steer them with the analog stick and can order them to halt or carry on heading in that direction. Added to this each squad has its own low level AI which means it will react to the enemy when they are close and engage them without you having to intervene. It all sounds really simple and it is – we’re just glad nobody else did it first!
Do you plan to include a multiplayer option and what modes of play will it feature?
Iain McNeil: Yes on PSP there will be a WIFI multiplayer option. This will let players go head to head in 2 modes. The first is a points battle where players can pick their army, allocate experience and skills and fully customize their army for battle, or if they don’t want to spend time designing one, just use a pre defined army. The second mode allows the player to jump in to any scenario they have completed and replay it in multiplayer.
Many companies have started taking notice of how important modding communities can be for RTS games, will the PC version have any tools which allows fans to create mods or maps?
Iain McNeil: We always try to make our games as moddable as possible. We usually issue a modders pack after release which has the data files set up in an easy edit xls format that lets players alter all sorts of aspects if the game,
As a gamer, what's your favorite part of THE HISTORY CHANNEL: Great Battles of Rome, what makes you proud to have helped create it and why is it a game people will want?
Iain McNeil: I just love the battles – they are great fun to play and I’ve never seen anything like it before so am really proud of what we’ve achieved.
It is early days for THE HISTORY CHANNEL: Great Battles of Rome right now but has the team decided anything on a beta test? Do you think it’s likely this will happen?
Iain McNeil: We will certainly be doing one but it’s going to be internal for this game, rather than a public beta.
How long has the team been working on THE HISTORY CHANNEL: Great Battles of Rome and what’s the relationship with Slitherine Software been like since production started?
Iain McNeil: It’s hard to give a specific date. We started work on the contracts & legal side around 2 years ago. Code wise we’ve been working on our engine for years, as have Atomic Planet. A lot of ground work was done in advance but full production started around 8 months ago. I can’t really comment on the relationship with Slitherine.
Do you plan on releasing a demo so fans can try out the game before it’s released or is this something you’ll leave until after it’s released?
Iain McNeil: No decision has been taken on this yet.
We've come to our last question, is there anything you'd like to say to the fans of THE HISTORY CHANNEL: Great Battles of Rome which are eagerly awaiting the release of this title?