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Interview with EvStream

The 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.

One of the developers behind Armada Online was able to take some time form his busy schedule to chat online with me about the game that's been nominated for Technical Excellence.

Who are you and how were you involved in Armada Online?

Mark: my name is Mark Jordan. A long time ago Roger Fang and I made a game called Armada for the Dreamcast. We recently acquired the rights to our old game, and started EvStream in early 2005 to make Armada Online. In terms of daily work, I make the effects, set up all the encounters, assign values/adjust balances, add aliens – designer/artist work. Roger is the programmer.

Congrats on making the IGF finals. What made you decide to enter Armada Online in to the IGF?

Mark: seemed like it would be fun, and a nice way to get the word out

What's different in Armada Online, besides the online aspect of course, from Armada?

Mark: Armada DC is a 4 player action game. Armada Online drives more like an RTS, though you are still controlling just one ship, and you can hold down the mouse button to continuously move, make tight turns, and dodge. Both were about exploring the universe and fighting biomechanical aliens, and both owe a lot to Starflight, but Armada DC skewed more toward Gauntlet, and Armada Online is closer to the core feel of Starflight. Before Armada DC, we made an RTS called Star Command. When we started making Armada, it was a 2D online game for PC. The publisher was concerned about the health of PC gaming at the time, so they gave us a few months to convert it into a 3D 4 player console game. Armada Online has a play style that is more like the original PC version.

What's the main goal that people are working towards when playing Armada Online?

Mark: the main goal is to evolve and survive. The "spiritual goal" for some people will be to communicate with these space-faring organisms known as the Armada, for others it will be to destroy them. I am currently working on the missions, which are not in yet

What were some of the design issues that arose when moving the game to an online platform?

Mark: Armada Online was always going to be an online game. The technical considerations are how to keep packet size small and interactivity high. In design, when you are making an online game, the core fun comes from making systems that people can play with. Sometimes you build part to be a chessboard so people can get together when they are in the mood to fight each other, some parts you build as a "sandbox" environment were people can play around with emerging situations. Overall, the biggest design issue is that as you add new components, balance is essential so that all things constitute an interesting choice – that there is no one ultimate thing. This is especially important because you want the players to express themselves and their creativity through the game, so you want to make all choices have some compelling potential.

How difficult is it to manage the online community? Are there ever any problems with players causing trouble for other players in the game?

Mark: It is not a question of difficulty or management. You want to make something that has as little restriction as possible, and just let people have their fun. You can try to promote harmony by setting the rules of the game so that people don't have cause to hate each other. In game design this means, always reward people for time spent playing, don't disrupt the experience too much if unexpected people join in, build into the game ways for people to really help each other at little cost to themselves, and provide personal tools so players can ignore those who harass them. For example, we used to put heavy restrictions on experience point gain based on how many players were involved in the kill. This lead to a lot of swearing in the early tests (at me, as an alt). When we changed the formula to let people share exp more evenly, with a small bonus to the person who scored the kill shot, people were much happier to welcome new people to their hunting parties. Now we have to adjust the dynamics to respond to the fleets that form and scour waves of enemies, but we are happy to see people working together in peace. We do see some "troublemakers" but the game is a server based game, so they can really just be "evil typists" for the most part. The ignore list takes care of the verbal abusers, and the community is pretty good about combating the scammers who try to bilk new players out of hard-earned ore in exchange for cheaply crafted items.

What technology drives the online aspect of Armada?

Mark: Roger wrote a game server that takes in everybody's inputs, processes the game state, then sends out all the positions to all clients. It is a clean hybrid of online RTS game processing and MMO servers, which lets us throw a lot of enemies at you at one time (200+) and still let you dodge shots. We spent the first few months just getting the feel of that right, because it felt more satisfying to play than games where the states are processed and damage applied even if you didn't see yourself get hit or the enemy looked far away. We wanted to build it so it was "actual" – that what you see is what is happening, and we didn't want to go full twitch because that would open the door to client side cheating. This meant embedding a bit of lag, but it felt right for controlling a starship. The core principle that guided the server design was, "keep it official". A cool thing that emerged as we were working on it was the ability to implement primitive physics. You can slam people around and knock them into each other – very satisfying.

And the game itself?

Mark: The game is written in C++, using DirectX libraries.

What tools were used to help aid in development?

Mark: Visual Studio, Photoshop, Excel, MAX

How long was the game in development and were there any major production issues that had to be overcome?

Mark: It has been almost 2 years. It is such a huge project the main issue is just getting everything done. Sometimes we feel like somebody else made what we are working on, because we forget what it was like to slog through it. That is important, too – to keep it organic, we constantly have to shape and balance the variables and not get too married to any one component. Because this sort of game needs to be carefully crafted over time, it tends to implode in a studio environment. People looking in on it as it forms get a dizzy sense of madness looking at what seems interminable. It is a long road. The people building "universe" games really have to have strong faith, which usually comes from having played Starflight as a child.

Is there any certain technique or equation to playtesting that you guys use to help you keep all the variables of the game in balance when adding/changing features?

Mark: We put the game up for people to play a few months into development. That is really the only way to grow a game like this. The solid balance of the game arose from hundreds of creative people attacking it from all sides. No one numeric analysis can achieve what one dedicated player hunting for exploits can do.

What about Armada Online do you think earned it a spot in the technical excellence category?

Mark: Probably the server, the renderer, and the effects. We put a lot of energy into building a server that could support some unique gameplay. My guess is that some of the judges probably know how painful making a multi-player game can be. The renderer uses normal mapping, specular, and self-illumination to give the aliens a nice organic look, and the glow bloom and blur make things nice and curvy and pulsing with energy, which fits well with the space combat. The special effects have a lot of aspects that you can't see, but are felt – layers of almost transparent bitmaps that just give a sense of motion and chaos. Perhaps it is more how a project comes together so that the things it does seem to make sense for what it is. I hope they enjoyed it, too!

What's next for Armada Online?

Mark: I am currently working on the story missions and planets. We just released player's home colony planets. We think of Armada Online as a "console" we develop for. We plan to release a lot of games for it over the years. I'd like to add a new type of Tower Defense zone pretty soon.

Is there anything else about Armada Online you would like to reveal to other developers?

Mark: It really helped us to put the game out there. I strongly recommend that developers open up their projects to users at an early stage. Especially if you are just 1 or 2 people, it can breathe life into your project and take it places you had not imagined.

Great. Thanks for taking the time to chat Mark. See you at the conference and good luck

Mark: cool – see you there

Interview conducted by Drew "Gaiiden" Sikora

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