The Tuesday Interview – Bob Smith of Oriental Empires
Bob Smith pays GrogHeads a visit~
Lloyd Sabin (and Boggit!), 3 January 2017
You clearly have a long, proud history in historical PC gaming, which younger readers may not know about. Games like ‘Arnhem,’ ‘Desert Rats,’ and ‘Operation Vulcan’ are remembered very fondly. What is your favorite game of yours from that era and why?
Of the wargames, probably Desert Rats, because I like big sweeping games. Of all the games I did in my first stint as an independent developer, my favorite is probably Armada 2525, because I had so much fun playing it with my friends (who usually used to beat me).
What were some of the difficulties you faced in the 1980s when producing those early games?
The machines were very limited, you had to think about every byte of RAM. I remember being up at 3am trying to find 3 bytes of memory to finish Desert Rats, with a bike coming at 7 to take the master tape to the duplicators. The development environments were very limited too. I used to write everything out on paper, because the editors were so bad, and once your program got too big to fit into RAM with the assembler, it could take as much as an hour to make a new version.
Is there a theater of World War II that you never got to explore in a game and always wanted to?
Nothing comes to mind. Maybe a whole war strategic level game, not sure that’s ever been done well on a computer.
Many younger historical gamers may have had their first contact with your work in Medieval II: Total War, a game that many still consider the best in the Total War series. Can you fill in the blanks a little bit of how your career progressed from the Arnhem and Vulcan games to the Total War series? How did you get involved with Creative Assembly?
My last independent game of that era was Armada 2525. I thought I’d got a big break there having arranged an American publisher, but they went broke shortly after launching the game, so I didn’t get any money for it, and didn’t have the funds to keep up developing independently. After that I did a bit of contract work for other people, and then got lucky and got a job with Crystal Dynamics in California. Crystal was great fun, and I time I remember that time fondly, but they burnt through money like it was going out of fashion, and eventually had to lay off half the company. After that I got another job with Alliance Semiconductor who were one of a dozen or so companies scrambling to be the top dog in the new 3D graphics chip business. I was originally supposed to be the developer liaison person, but their first chip was so bad, no-one was interested in developing for it, so I ended up working closely with the new architect they’d hired to design a successor. I found working on the hardware to be really fascinating, and the chip we were designing would have been a beast, but management decided the 3D chip market was too crowded, and closed the graphics division.
Having been in the US for four years at that time, visa issues made it hard to find another job there, so I returned to the UK. I didn’t know anything about Creative Assembly at the time, but I needed a job, so took the interview, and with my interest in ancient history and miniature gaming, it was a perfect fit.
What are you most proud of in Medieval II? Is there anything that you would go back and change?
I’m glad that players love the game, but for me it was nothing but stress.
I think I’m most proud that it got done at all, and was a decent game. It was done mostly by CA’s new Australian studio, which was only had about a third of the people needed, and we also only had eighteen months from conception to launch, so we had to get a lot done in a hurry, while bringing onboard new people. I won’t say that hired anyone we could get, but we did have to take some chances on inexperienced people. The whole situation was compounded by office politics, as the lead programmer didn’t like me being brought in to lead the project, and whole programming team had this desperate desire to prove that they were better than the UK team, and kept proposing to rewrite systems for the sake of it, or proposing grandiose new features that would never have been finished in time. I’m glad that players love the game, but for me it was nothing but stress.
In a similar vein, many strategy gamers may have had their first contact with your work in Armada 2526. How did the leap from history to scifi work? Would you ever work on a scifi project again?
Armada 2526 was a loose sequel to Armada 2525 which I mentioned earlier. After MTW 2 I’d decided to go back to doing my own thing again. I didn’t have the funds for a big team, so needed something a bit smaller scale to work on, and maybe something not too ambitious while I build up a team. A sequel to Armada 2525 fitted the bill, and was something I was personally keen on too. There was also a bit of a lull in the space 4X market after the failure of MOO3.
That of course was then, nowadays the space 4X market is crazy, with 4 large well resourced franchises, and a whole host of lesser known titles. It’d be fun to do a sci-fi game again, but with such a crowded market, I think it’d be commercially suicidal.
Was their anything in the development of historical games that drove you absolutely crazy? How about scifi?
The stuff that drives me crazy is all the little annoyances of programming, which is much the same for any genre. It’s fun planning out the big systems, but the day to day work can sometimes be very frustrating.
Your newest title, Oriental Empires, was just released last month. What inspired you to create a historical strategy game set in ancient China?
Civilization V came out just when I thinking about what to do after Armada, and it occurred to me that it was very popular, but not really any more complicated than Armada, and that I could maybe do something similar, with a small team if I could keep the scope down a bit. One way to do that would be limit it to a smaller scope, but cover that scope in a bit more detail. Since I now live in Asia, I thought an Asian setting would be fun to do, and started researching. It didn’t take long to realize that Chinese history was this untouched treasure trove, and I quickly became absolutely fascinated by it.
The scope of Oriental Empires is 3000 years (1500BC – 1500AD). Was this kind of huge block of time a challenge to work into a brand new game?
Not too much really. Keeping things focused on China kept the size of the game manageable. Probably the hardest thing was having to learn so much history at once, and try to pick out the patterns that would be the core themes of the game. I have all the major dynasties straight in my head now, but it took a while.
Can you give a basic idea of how you set about building the AI for Oriental Empires?
The first AI was basically build and move randomly. This let me build up the structure for it, and how it fit into the game. After that it started with the strategic layer and diplomacy, and then economics, unrest management, colonization and military tactics were added. Basically there’s a system that sets various priorities depending on the stage of the game, chosen strategy, who you’re at war with etc, and then various subsystems that do specific things.
When I first read about the development of Oriental Empires the first thing popped into my head was the classic Japanese developer Koei Games (Nobunaga’s Ambition, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, etc.) – now known as Koei-Tecmo Games. Have you played any Koei titles? How much influence, if any, have they had on the inspiration for Oriental Empires?
None whatsoever. I’d never played any of them prior to starting OE.
Many historical gamers (myself included) enjoy reading on the subject they are currently gaming. What books can you recommend for some enjoyable background reading while playing Oriental Empires?
The Cambridge Illustrated History of China is a good introduction.
How long was Oriental Empires in development? What was the most difficult phase?
Five years. The most difficult part, was all of it.
What kind of plans do you have for the expansion of Oriental Empires? Any chance of other cultures/nations being included at some point, like Tibet, Mongolia, Korea, Japan or even Russia?
Of course it depends very much on how well the game sells, but definitely hoping to extend the game to cover Tibet, Korea, Central Asia, and maybe South East Asia too. Japan I’m not so sure about, as it’s already well covered by other games.
Beyond Oriental Empires, what kind of projects would you really enjoy working on in the future? Is there that one era or nation that you you absolutely love but have not covered yet in any of your work?
I guess my first love in ancient history was classical Greece, and after that Alexander and his Successors. It was sort of touched on in RTW, but was kind of basterdized. I also sometimes think it’d be fun to be a boardgame designer, and skip all the tedious programming.
Bonus question from Boggit
I’d also be interested to know if there is any chance of seeing a similar Oriental Empires treatment of the Western hemisphere? “Occidental Empires” – i.e. ancient Middle East (Sumer, Ur, Assyrians), through the classical period (Persia, Greece, Rome) through to renaissance Europe, the Ottomans/Mamluks, Golden Horde etc would be a nice sequel using the same basic engine.
Obviosuly we could do a lot of different things now that the engine is build, but it’s a bit early to be making specific plans for a sequel. I did register occidentalempires.com quite a while ago though :).
Thanks to Bob for joining us!