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Interview with Black Hammer Game

SupremacyThe CMP Game Group (producer of Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra.com, and the Game Developers Conference) established the Independent Games Festival in 1998 to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers. They saw how the Sundance Film Festival benefited the independent film community, and wanted to create a similar event for independent game developers as well as the student population of game developers.

Joining Large Animal Games as an east coast IGF finalist, some of Black Hammer Game's developers were kind enough to answer some questions for me. Supremacy: Four Paths to Power, is a turn-based 3D strategy game with a sci-fi setting, now available from Matrix Games for $24.99. Check out our past interview with Large Animal to learn more about these companies setting up shop in New York City, and read on to get Black Hammer’s take as well.

Who are you and what was your role on Supremacy?

Thor: My name is K. Thor Jensen and I worked in a Producer role on Supremacy: Four Paths to Power. At a small firm like Black Hammer, a producer has to wear many hats - my duties ranged from writing the in-game text, manuals, voice-overs and other materials to assembling press releases, building the website, editing sound, attending and moderating game and concept design meetings, handling payroll and equipment purchases, designing maps, massive amounts of testing - the list goes on. I worked as the glue to keep our team of talented artists and programmers together

Congrats on making the IGF finals. How's it feel?

Thor: Amazing. We are huge supporters of the IGF and everything it stands for. As an independent game company trying to build a thriving East Coast development culture, to have recognition that we are actually doing something right and producing a game that is recognized for innovation and quality amongst a sea of entrants feels fantastic. One of our previous games, The Egg Files, was nominated in 2002, and without the encouragement and exposure that provided us, we would not have been able to produce Supremacy today. This year's finalists are some of the strongest I can remember ever seeing - we're proud to be chosen with them

Is there anything particularly challenging you would highlight as a result of being a game development company in the Big Apple?

Thor: Well, finding talent is slightly more difficult - most people interested in the industry naturally gravitate to California, because that's where the jobs were. However, the flipside of that is we were able to discover some incredible untapped potential here - our art team, for example, which produced a huge amount of incredibly gorgeous art for us, or our audio (by Michael Sweet of Audiobrain) which turns its back on existing sci-fi clichés to deliver an awesome sound experience. New York celebrates innovation and a spirit of independence, which makes it a great place to try to make your mark in the world. We hope that, with our success and the success of some other companies making their homes here, that NYC will take a strong place in the development world. Oh, and it'd also be great if the rent would go down a little bit

How long has Black Hammer been together? What got you all into games?

Thor: Black Hammer Game has existed since 2001 - we started as a sister company to Black Hammer Productions (also founded by Black Hammer Game president Matthew Schlanger). Black Hammer Productions had done game work in the past, including developing all of Scholastic's multiple award-winning I Spy titles. Matthew partnered with Nikita Mikros, a game designer who he had taught with at New York's School of Visual Arts, to found a company that would focus exclusively on game design. We started with a portable version of the I Spy series (I Spy Challenger for the Game Boy Advance) and worked on several other projects for a variety of clients before deciding to make the jump into original IP titles in 2003. Supremacy is the first result of that decision, and hopefully there'll be many more to come

Where did the idea for Supremacy come from?

Thor: We came up with Supremacy's concepts through a gradual refining process. First, we decided the genre we wished to work in - we're all huge turn-based strategy fans and noticed that the PC platform was lacking games that were addictive and easy to learn but with a deep enough tactical framework to keep people playing. As a team, we had many meetings developing the concepts that we wanted to use. One of Nik Mikros (the lead designer)'s goals was to create a game that didn't follow a deterministic linear plotline - one that was free-form and controlled by the player's actions, yet still tense and exciting. From that, we created the four alien races that are Supremacy's protagonists. A challenge for me as the writer was to cast each alien race in a way that could be both positive and negative, as they are all playable. Once we decided on the characters, the units, environments and other aspects of the game flowed naturally from there. Many weeks of paper prototyping and early game balancing followed, but once we began writing code we had the essential aspects nailed down

How does Supremacy's gameplay differ from other strategy games currently on the market?

Thor: Our first goal with Supremacy was to make a turn-based strategy game that still played quickly and easily - one where the player would never get bogged down in the minutiae of resource management, tiny adjustments and boring waiting games. So Supremacy rewards smart, quick tactical thinking. However, we also wanted to make the gameplay deep enough that there would be no "uber-strategy" like what develops with many real-time strategy games - a lot of time was placed on balancing to ensure that games stayed fair, both against the AI and against other players. I think that this balance is really what makes Supremacy so fun. That's not to mention the level of customization available to players (with seven game types, over thirty-five maps and a map editor on the way). Supremacy in many ways harkens back to the genre's classics, but with a level of polish and style that is all its own

What was the biggest problem throughout development? How was it solved?

Thor: There weren't any major problems in the actual development of the game - we were a small team enthusiastically devoted to the game, so most hassles were overcome with effort and skill. However, from a business perspective, our deal with Strategy First (Supremacy's previous publisher) threw a sizable wrench in the game's progress. Strategy First had an excellent reputation as a publisher who truly cared about niche titles in the strategy market, and they had released a good number of games we enjoy around the office. Unfortunately, as new information began to surface about Strategy First not paying developers royalties they were owed in many cases, we were forced to sever our agreement with them. Thankfully, the game found a new home with Matrix Games, and we couldn't be happier. Matrix is so solidly dedicated to strategy gamers that it's almost funny - look at their forums for an example of the kind of awesome fans they attract. And they're all excited about Supremacy, so it all worked out in the end.

What made you guys decide to release retail rather than just online?

Thor: As much as we stand wholeheartedly behind online distribution, the technology is still in its infancy. As great as Valve is doing with Steam, many gamers still want the physical object of the disk and the manual and the shrink wrap in their hands, and who can blame them? There's nothing that beats getting a game you're excited for and cracking the manual on the bus before you get it home and install it. And yes, the PC retail market is a little weak right now (especially compared to consoles) but the way to fix a weak market isn't by abandoning it, it's by releasing good product into it at a good price and helping the audience find it. Matrix has been incredibly supportive with these decisions and we couldn't have done it without them

What tools were used to create the game?

Thor: We used OGRE, an awesome freeware graphics engine, for Supremacy's development. Having used RenderWare for a previous project, we were well aware of the expenses involved in using a commercial engine. OGRE did (with a little massaging) everything we needed it to do and more, from awesome particle effects to managing dozens of on-screen units at a time. The game was programmed in C++ by a team of three principal programmers.

What was the most helpful production technique utilized during development to make things easier?

Thor: This is an interesting question. One thing that aided Supremacy's development was constant testing by members of the development team. Builds were made constantly so that new features could be understood, polished and debugged as fast as possible. In addition to outside testers brought in for first-look testing, the game was played by every member of the team on a regular basis, from the art staff to the company president. With that many perspectives on the gameplay, organized in a comprehensive PHP bug database we built for that purpose, we never reached any work-stopping bottlenecks in the program flow and development proceeded at an even, regular pace

Quality of life is the new hot topic in the industry. What do you guys at Black Hammer do to stave off the pressure and keep it fun?

Thor: Well, the advantage of being a small company not under the thumb of any big corporate overlord means that as long as the work gets done, nothing else matters. We are a very tight shop of friends as much as co-workers and the interpersonal bonding that happened during Supremacy was really positive for the game. One night a week we would blow off steam with card games and pizza after work, and upon hitting milestone deliveries all-day movie marathons were common. And most importantly, everybody had a voice in the game's development, promotion and sale. Everybody's opinions were heard and decisions were made by the team, keeping everybody as in the loop as possible. Great games are made by great teams, and we were lucky to have one for Supremacy

What advice would you give to others looking to develop on the east coast?

Thor: Go for it, but stay realistic and stay small - just because somebody is promising you the moon doesn't mean they'll deliver. When we started Supremacy we knew that our resources weren't infinite, and we would need to use them intelligently if we were going to get this game to market. So we decided what was the most important to us, and focused and polished and worked until those elements were as good as they could get. We could have tried to do a larger project, a FPS or a role-playing game, but we knew our limits. If you want to make a studio work, you have to build gradually on success after success, accreting talented people to help you along the way. It's tempting to try to grab the brass ring right away, but you'll be better off making the best game that you can within your limits and working from there. That's what we're trying, anyways, and so far it's working

What's next for Black Hammer?

Thor: Nothing official yet - we're working on a few projects for clients that are still under NDA, and developing ideas for other games, a few of which are pretty advanced. Obviously, we want to leverage the equity we put into Supremacy into other titles, so it's possible that we'll stay in the turn-based strategy realm, but aside from that I can't tell you, other than we're excited to see what the future brings

Well, best of luck at the GDC, see you on the Expo floor in March

Thor: Thanks! And thanks for the interview

Interview conducted by Drew "Gaiiden" Sikora

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