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Interview with Slitherine Strategies

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.

The team behind the IGF finalist Legion Arena took a slice from their busy day to sit down and answer a few questions. Slitherine Strategies won last year's IGF in the Innovation in Visual Art category, and based on the blend of RPG and RTS presented in Arena, perhaps they'll walk away this year with an Innovation in Game Design award. But enough prophesizing – on with the questions!

Who are you and what was your role in Legion Arena?

Iain: Iain McNeil, Development Director (I just made that title up). Responsible for design, as well as coordinating art, code & design

Alex: Alex Scarrow, creative director. Basically all the art

Philip: Philip Veale, Technical Director. Responsible for all the game and server code, as well as tools and utilities

JDM: I get to lick all the postage stamps fill in tax returns and all the good stuff no one else wants to do

Congratulations on your second consecutive year in the IGF. How do you feel about coming back?

JDM: It's a great opportunity for us to increase exposure and to renew friendships and meet with publishing partners. We also are arranging talks with potential new partners, so it works on a number of levels for us

Iain: You can tell he's the business manager can't you ;)

JDM: Plus we also won a prize last year and that's not un-welcome

Alex: Thrilled to be a finalist again... this time, I think we're in for a shot at the big prize

What's the basic idea behind Legion Arena?

Alex: It's a unique blend of RTS and RPG. Another way of thinking about it is... it's a very polished, very accessible, battlefield take on Championship Manager

Iain: I know Phil wasn't sure about the comparison with Championship Manager, but in the past we've been compared to Rome Total War, and we really don't think it's a valid comparison. I think Championship Manager has more in common with the gameplay in Legion Arena than any RTS does, so hopefully it steers people in the right direction!

What makes Legion Arena unique in its RTS/RPG blend?

Iain: It's the combination of the excitement of battles from the RTS, the addictive character progression from the RPG and the competition from the MMO that make it unique and very hard to describe to anyone who hasn't played it

JDM: It's the way the game blends a mix of RTS with the real meat of the game. The RPG aspects are where players get to immerse themselves in the game doing all the interesting stuff. One of my favorite parts is changing the textures and making a really spectacular-looking army

Iain: There are games that have the game mechanics we have on a small scale for a character in an RPG, but none that do it for a whole army!

When was Legion Arena first proposed and conceived?

Philip: It came from a convergence of ideas. We were working on an online version of a Spartan-style campaign, but we were starting to feel the design wasn't working. So I began thinking about how we could leverage the (then future) battle code online. At the same time Iain had been playing some online games, which involved progression and non-interactive competition, so when we talked about the idea we were both on the same page and could see how Arena would work.

JDM: It's difficult to pin the decision down to a specific moment – it grew out of a strong desire to make our games attractive to a wider audience

Iain: It's actually grown into a much bigger project than we originally intended. We thought we were close to something that was really cool, so we decided to go that bit further to make it a must have game.

What major design hurdles were there?

Iain: The biggest problem was how to actually make money out of the idea. After all we need to pay the bills :)

JDM: Hey that's my line…

Iain: We toyed with various options such as monthly subscription, but they are very unpopular with players. We then planned to switch to a one off fee to unlock the game. Eventually we settled on the current design, which is that players can play the basic game for free. If they want access to the good units & other armies then they need gold. Gold is bought with real cash. This means players can go on a holiday and not worry that they've missed two weeks of their subscription, and they don't feel cheated if we don't release new content every month. They can pick and choose what to buy so this really puts the player in control and we have to earn our pay as any add-ons that are not worth having, wont sell.

What major production/management hurdles were there?

Iain: You might not know - but we don't work in an office - we all have home offices. Phil is in Canada, me and JD in Epsom UK, Alex in Hastings UK

Philip: And just so you know, it's -32 outside...  Without any wind chill I might add

Iain: As a result, communication is one of the biggest issues for us. We use MSN for text chat and transferring some files or Skype for voice chat. We also make extensive use of FTP to transfer versions around. These technologies make it possible to work apart, but we still try to get together as often as possible - once every month or two

JDM:Because of the extra features and because we have made it a much bigger game than originally intended we need to keep focused on the end date. We are privately funded and our revenue stream comes entirely from our releases so not allowing too much drift on completion dates is vital

Iain: Working from home helps us to live more cheaply, which means our meager salaries stretch further too, as there are no travel costs & no office to rent, until we make our fortune!

Alex: Plus, we can work in the buff... if we so chose

Iain: Oh please - I don't want to think about that!

JDM: We meet face-to-face in Epsom each quarter, sometimes bi-monthly, as we feel that even with the excellent communication tools that we have it's still important to meet up

What major technical issues were there?

Philip: The project is quite a challenge in that it involves a number of major areas. There is the 3D battle code, with performance and quality being the main issues. Then there is the unit logic, which involves making behavior just 'look right', which is critical to an immersive game experience, but is very hard to actually define. I have had to rework things many times to get to where we are today, and I think there is more tweaking to come

Iain: We've also decided to get our website updated to allow better communication between the game & the payments systems. It's important these things are as painless as possible as people don't like parting with their money at the best of times, so if you put any hurdles in the way you've lost them

Philip: And finally there is the considerable challenge of writing a server for the game, which is scalable as well as providing all the database functionality and cheat prevention that we need. Even then I am sure we will have the same kind of server performance issues as every other online game when we go live, as you can never really find all the bottlenecks in testing

The motion capturing - how hard/easy was it? What problems did you have to face from using it?

Alex: Very easy. The company we used (Centroid) were very professional and made the day we captured the animation a hell of a lot of fun. There were very few problems integrating it as we had done our homework, setting up the skeletons and providing these along with sample meshes to ensure there would be no nasty surprises in the data cleanup. It was a great day that...the motion capture day. Loved it

JDM: We had to stop Alex from getting too involved with the acting and beating the living daylights out of our actor... he was supposed to be the extra in the fight scenes, but he just had to fight back

Iain: Ah yea - we have a good photo of that

Alex: What is good is that we now have a bank of animation data that is as good as many big players, and we can use that resource over and over. I'll never have to keyframe another animation again!

Iain: There are pictures of the mocap day and you can see Alex smashing the shield of the poor actor :)

JDM: And we have only had 1 claim for industrial injury from the actor :'(

Alex: I should stress, I was beating him up with a wobbly foam sword

What is the normal work week like? How many hours are normally expended?

Alex: It varies from week to week... some weeks, for example before a deliverable, are crunch weeks and typically I think we all would throw in excess of 60 hours per week each at the project. Normally, when things aren't so time-critical I'd say we all put in more than 40. That's from my own experience mind you... I'm sure Phil and Iain can top me on the hours :)

Iain: It does vary; right now we're getting close to completion so things are heating up. Phil has a few holiday days stored up for the last 2 years :)

JDM: Because of the various time zones it can sometimes go on a bit. Not only the team but our business partners are all over the world, from Australia and New Zealand to China

Was there any serious crunch time? Could it have been avoided?

Philip: So far we have avoided any major periods of crunch. This is generally because we make great efforts to be both realistic in our scheduling, and efficient in our development practices. We do expect that there will be an upsurge of effort in the last few weeks of development, but that is neither unreasonable nor unexpected as we try and push the game quality as high as we can

Iain: There is not much external pressure, but we have to get the games out or we don't make money. We draw a line in the sand and try not to cross it, but invariably do and end up working harder as we approach the line as there are always things you want to get finished off and into the game :)

JDM: Drift in scheduling is always a battle – there is always another feature that could be added but our self discipline is good

Quality of Life is fast becoming a big issue in the industry. As indie developers, we're mostly in charge of our own QoL - what do you guys do to try and keep the pressure off and keep it fun?

Iain: As mentioned above, we don't have some of the pressures normal developers do such as publishers input and milestone approvals and submitting design documents for green light approval. Instead we have to make sure our games sell as if they don't there is no publisher paying a big advance to keep us ticking over. We all work from home so there are no commutes. I used to work in central London and spent 3 hours a day on trains, so I work longer hours now but leave later & get home earlier. We try to make sure we have enough time and are realistic with our designs so the crunch time is minimized. In the end though, there is a lot of pressure but also a lot of freedom. It really depends on the person as to whether the pressure is worth the freedom. Some people enjoy the security of a large company and others thrive on risk & running their own business!

What tools did you use to produce Legion Arena?

Alex: Photoshop v5, Max v5.1, Character Studio v4... and a bit of good ol' pen and paper

Iain: The map designer is part of the game and players can build their own scenarios. Phil's written a few tools I use for parsing of graphics & maps files. Other than that my main tool is the Internet to research the scenarios.

Philip: Visual Studio 6 is my main tool. I'll probably have to move to VS .NET after Arena as Microsoft is moving away from supporting it with newer DirectX versions

JDM: Does Sage Accounting count?

What will you guys be doing after Legion Arena?

JDM: Our next project is already on the chocks. It's going to be a huge game using the Arena battle engine. We've given it the working title of Legion 2: Civilization and Empire. It's scheduled for late 2005/2006 and as soon as we get Arena finished we will get down to the serious stuff, but already we have completed some of the preliminary stuff and we're pretty pleased with how it's shaping up

Iain: Phil will be getting married :) Oh you meant development wise? ;)

JDM: Oh I forgot about his wedding… society happening of the year how could I?

Iain: Hopefully we'll be going to the IGF with a completed version of Arena in March

Philip: All these married men are over the moon. Misery loves company...

JDM: Well you will know soon, mate

Alex: Is it okay if I pimp my book?

JDM: What?!?

Alex: Well... I've got a novel coming out in early 2006, a thriller published by Orion

JDM: And his brother Simon Scarrow is an author as well... what a talented bunch…

Thanks a lot for taking the time to do this interview guys; I'll see you in March

Alex: Thx... pleasure talking to you

JDM: Look forward to it

Philip: No problem. Good to talk to you

Iain: No problem - let us know when the interview goes live so we can laugh at ourselves

Interview conducted by Drew "Gaiiden" Sikora.

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