Monday Night Combat dev goes back to RTS basics with Planetary Annihilation

By John Keefer, Aug 27, 2012 12:30pm PDT

To many fans, Total Annihilation is one of the best RTS games of all time. While Gas Powered Games had already created a spiritual successor with Supreme Commander, many still crave a sequel that plays closer to the original. Uber Entertainment, developer of the Monday Night Combat franchise, is seeking to do just that with Planetary Annihilation.

The team is currently seeking crowdfunding through Kickstarter. We spoke with Uber's Jon Mavor about what is happening with Planetary Annihilation and how he envisions the game to go beyond what Cavedog did almost 15 years ago.

Shacknews: Since Planetary Annihilation pulls heavily on the heart strings of Total Annihilation fans everywhere, let's start with some background since you have some Cavedog vets at Uber. When TA launched in 1997, something resonated with RTS fans at a time when Warcraft II was at its height and StarCraft was just around the corner. To this day, many fans say Total Annihilation is still the best RTS ever made. You worked on the game. What was it that made that game such a rallying point in the in the great RTS debates?

Jon Mavor: My opinion on what made that game so great is that it was oriented to trying to get the interface out of your way and letting you do what you wanted to do with your units strategically. I think that is what has been the high-level difference between Total Annihilation and a lot of other RTS games. Are you trying to get someone an interface to control the thick of battle as much as possible or are you more focused on individual units and what they do? It comes back down to the micro vs. macro thing and I think that's why you have some people who think it is the greatest thing ever and others that don't care for it.

Shacknews: It's been 15 years since the original TA. Why now for a sequel and how is Uber prepared to deal with the fanatical gamers who place TA and its expansions on such a high pedestal?

Mavor: Everyone who plays the game that is near and dear to their heart is going to have their thoughts and opinions on the best way to approach it. The reason "why now," for me personally, is I found that I have enjoyed working on those kinds of games and I wanted to do it again, and I felt we had something to offer. No one was picking up the ball and running with it so it was an ideal thing to do, and Kickstarter really lets us find out if there really are enough people around who care about this kind of stuff to see it to see it through, because that was the big question. It is pretty hard core in a lot of ways when you think about what the game is and it wasn't apparent immediately if it resonated. I think it is now, and that goes back to "why now." We're in a position to start another project, it's interesting and we wanted to do something with Kickstarter.

As for dealing with a fan community that feels that it's their game and they are close to it, I think you're right. I think the best way to deal with that is to listen to them, and you'll find that fans will tend to self-organize. We have a forum right now where people can talk about the game and people are doing things like putting up polls and talking about all these different issues and the ways that different things can be approached. Some of them are coming to consensus about things and we're going to listen to that. I'll give you some examples: Immediately when we launched the Kickstarter, everyone was like "Are you going to support Linux?" Linux, Linux, Linux. We said "Why not?" The engine should run fine on Linux and if that's what people want, we're going to do it. The next thing that people asked for was naval. We weren't going to have a heavy emphasis on naval in the game, simply because naval is almost a side game and its complexities of implementation, it wasn't something we were immediately going to latch onto. The fan community said they really wanted naval, so we made that our first stretch goal.

I think the way you deal with the community is the way we have always dealt with the community at Uber and that's to just embrace the community and let them help form the game. I think this game is fan service in a big way, to be honest. I'm a TA fan and I want to work on it and other people want to see it, so embracing the fans is the answer.

Shacknews: The naval units were a stretch goal. Are the goals flexible enough that if the fans want a particular thing, you will modify them to embrace they want?

Mavor: Exactly. We have a list of stretch goals and we're reviewing them. There's a lot of factors that goes into that, but fan preference is definitely one of them, no question about it. We have two more stretch goals planned out and which ones show up is going to be very heavily dependent on what the community says. So part of the reason why we didn't reveal them initially is that we wanted to see what people wanted. That was on purpose. We left those stretch goals locked so we could give fans the things that they wanted. I think people are going to be happy with the next ones we are going to unveil.

Shacknews: Is one of those stretch goals going to be a single-player campaign? Not everyone is into multiplayer. Does a single-player campaign offer extra challenges?

Mavor: A single-player campaign will probably not be a stretch goal. There are a couple reasons for that. One of them is that people are not asking for that in any great numbers, believe it or not. A lot of the feedback we get is to stick with skirmish and AIs. They're like "Single-player? I'd play through it but if it's going to impose a heavy cost, we'd rather have other things." And the fact of the matter is that single-player campaign is THE single most expensive thing that we can do.

That being said, we're trying to do this game on a budget. I wrote some things on the forum that I'm doing to keep the cost of the game down because we really do have to keep the cost of the game down. Even if we blow through our goals, it still costs a lot of money to make a game like this. We're doing this game very cost-effectively compared to other games. People say "Hey you're trying to raise a million dollars. That's a lot of money." Well, it is a lot of money, but it costs a lot of money to make a game like this, unfortunately. So a single-player campaign is out because of that. We could literally spend millions on a campaign without breathing hard. It wouldn't be difficult when you start looking at doing it well with all the awesome story stuff and putting all the missions together. The other thing is it would be pretty difficult to do it and keep to any type of schedule as well.

There is going to be awesome skirmish and I think one of the stretch goals we are going to announce is going to make people that want single-player very happy. A scripted story campaign is not the only option.

Shacknews: Nice tease. You mentioned skirmish mode. That was one of the things that made TA so much fun. The AI for the time was pretty good. What are you doing to ensure that the AI gives a challenging game without being overbearing?

Mavor: We've learned a lot in the last 15 years about how to do these AIs. The challenge isn't making the AI good, it's making it fun. You can make the AI stomp you if you let it cheat. It's about making a fun AI. At the end of the day, I'm confident the AI is going to be really good.

Shacknews: You worked on the engine for TA. Talk about the new engine for Planetary Annihilation and the advances you've made and what is involved in bringing the game up to today's standards?

Mavor: That's a pretty interesting and deep question that I could spend a lot of time on. I've actually considered submitting a talk to the Game Developers Conference on the differences between TA, Supreme Commander and the way Planetary Annihilation is going to work. One of the big questions that people have is "The planets you are showing seem kind of small. Are you going to be able to have big planets?" One of the things we are really concentrating on is scalability in the engine. If you look at a game like TA, you can still run it at really high resolutions. It scales really well to a modern computer, believe it or not. The goal of Planetary Annihilation is to have great scalability, including not having limitations on planet size at all. I want the only limitations to be how much memory and CPU you can bring to bear on the problem so that 10 years down the road you have even more insane battles than you can have today just based on the general increase in hardware.

I think the big difference in the way we're approaching the game is that we're going with the client-server approach to the actual architecture. It's a little more work for us to do it client-server than it is to do it synchronous, but you get some really nice stuff out of it. You get the ability to join a game in progress, the ability for the client and the server to not be able to cheat because the client is only getting the information that is relevant to it so there is no way to reveal unrevealed details, so it will be good for competitive matches. You can put the server on a box that's really powerful or you can spread it across more than one box to have really insanely huge battles, which is how we get 40-player games.

By moving to that type of technology, we are trying to move to a more stylized look on the rendering front and there's a couple reasons for that. One is we keep the cost down in general, and two, we're making a game that looks unique, and there's some special challenges in a game like this with unit readability that we can do a better job on than we've done in the past with this kind of art style. Modability is going to be there, so there's a bunch of stuff this engine will allow us to do.

Shacknews: You mentioned modability. That was one of the main things that kept TA going for so long with map editors, unit editors and the general ability for player to be able to create what they wanted to play. How do you plan on supporting the mod community?

Mavor: The idea is to allow players create their own units and their own maps. The map editor is going to be included with the game and the goal is randomly generated maps that can then be further customized from there. So if you want to play on a different map every time you can. We're embracing that side of it even more in some ways than TA did it because I want to make it more accessible. That was one of the things with modding in TA, it could be a little tricky to do some of this stuff, and I want any normal person to be able to make a map at a minimum. Anybody should be able to say "I want a solar system with a couple planets like this" and get them generated and have a game on them with their friends. So I really hope that the map-making stuff takes off.

I want people to be able to create units and add new ones. But they won't be part of the main game. In TA, people did total conversions of units for their own games and I want to make sure that people can do that. But that will be a mod. It's like making a separate game in a way.

Shacknews: The description page mentions multiple windows and split interfaces to keep track of the action. Can you explain how that will work?

Mavor: The basic idea is to generalize the concept of an interface window. Keep in mind that this is something that people really want, but you're going to need a pretty beefy machine if you are going to open up a bunch of windows. It's not like someone on a really slow computer is going to be able to do it. If you've got a nice rig and you want to run two full-screen windows, you'll be able to open up another window and make it full screen. You could open up multiple windows and tile them down. The extra piece of that is to be able to divide the window you have into a couple more pieces. I think we'll be able to make it multiple windows instead of the splitting because multiple windows is more easily accessible to running them on multiple monitors, but the general idea is to be able to open multiple windows to look at different parts of the world at the same time.

Shacknews: The game is expected to be able to support up to 40 players. Those are going to be some big maps in terms of large planets or solar systems. Do you envision some long-range heavy gunnery such as a Planetary Big Bertha, or will those maps be like an interstellar WWII in the Pacific, leaping from planet to planet to get within range of your enemies?

Mavor: There definitely going to be units that can shoot pretty far. We are going to have a big gun, no question about it. When you talk about bigger games like that and you add more players, you are still going to have players near you. It is only once other players start getting wiped out that the size of the map really becomes an issue.

There's a lot of interesting ideas around creating games that last or are persistent. Imagine that you had a game where you were on your own server and you had a game on there. You could have two or three different clans in there and at any time anyone from those clans could log in and start controlling their army. There's a whole bunch of possibilities that have opened up on the technical side of it, but how that will work from a gameplay perspective, we're not sure and we're not going to find out until the game is further along. If none of that stuff works out, it will still be a fun game, but there's no reason not to try it.

Shacknews: How do you envision determining starting locations with multiple planets and varied resources on each world?

Mavor: There's several possible scenarios. I'm picturing fixed start spots … four planets, four players on each planet spread out fairly evenly and that would work out pretty well. I'm also picturing that there's different types of game modes and which one ends up working the best isn't totally clear yet, but one of the other ideas is to basically have the players be able to spend a minute or two looking at the system and decide where they want to spawn in. So you could strategically say "I'm going to spawn in out here at the outer system and try to work my way in to the inner system" or "I'm going to take the whole planet and control these resources right away." How well that's going to work, again, I don't know, but I think it's a cool idea. There should be enough room on some of these maps to make that an interesting decision. There will be different game modes and depends on which one you want to use and which ones become popular.

Shacknews: What are some of the game modes you are thinking about?

Mavor: There is the standard stuff, like Commander Death, or just having to wipe out the enemy's army, you know the standard old-school RTS modes. I don't want to fully commit because people will write it down and say this will be in the game. But there have been other games that could influence ideas for the different modes, such as taking control points or how much destruction can you wreck. There's a bunch of ways that you can compete better. But the ultimate is Commander Death. You are your commander and you should protect him. If he dies, you're out of the game.

Shacknews: You mentioned resources. What are they going to be? TA was pretty simple with metal and various ways to get energy.

Mavor: We are going to keep it simple. It will just be metal and energy. They may be some other types of variants on resources that come into play, but that hasn't been figured out. An example would be how many gigawatts of energy do you have … and I do want to use gigawatts because I think that Back to the Future is cool … but imagine we reach our stretch goal for doing gas giants. In that case, something that makes sense is the idea of a floating gas mine that sucks Helium 3 out of the atmosphere for fusion. Does that mean Helium 3 is a resource that you can use to create more gigawatts or is it not a resource. There's been various things we've been talking about like that where there are different variants on the basic resources. I'm not picturing that you need this much copper or iron – I don't want to complicate the resource system like that. I want everything to pretty much run on metal and energy.

Shacknews: Will you still be able to reclaim dead units?

Mavor: Yes.

Shacknews: Will there be distinctive sides like TA's Arm and Core with different units or will all the units be variations on the same theme?

Mavor: There will be one set of units and you are your own faction. You just build the units that you want to use. If you listened to the video and the part where John Lowery is taking about technology being assimilated and replicated, it's really the concept of these non-human machines fighting throughout the universe and they have figured out what the optimal war machines are. They are all using the same stuff because they are all using the best stuff. There is no faction. It's every commander for himself.

Now this has been something that has been a bit contentious internally, at least it was in my mind before we said we were going in this direction, but the community support for this has been pretty high. I've been surprised. When we talk about adding another faction, people just say that they really want more units in the game. A lot of people think it is a refreshing idea. So we're more and more leaning toward that. Now I'll grant you it presents some problems from a traditional standpoint because you really want to have ways to assign blame to another party, or ways to create tension in a story, and if you say that there's just these individual commanders out there, maybe that's not quite good enough. But if you start thinking about it from the perspective that there's commanders that can be basically given factional leadership, you could say that we all use the same units, but there's different dudes and they all lead different armies, I think you can make it work. It's an active topic in development and that's some of the thinking there.

Shacknews: The stretch goal for naval units strikes me as pretty world confining if you are talking about water units, unless you are talking about space navies.

Mavor: No, we're talking about water navy and that would be pretty much one planet. That's one of the reasons that naval wasn't emphasized at first. It's kind of tough to do properly. Now there may be ways of moving units that doesn't involve flying, right? There are other methods that could be used for interplanetary travel.

The space combat thing is another area where people have been asking a lot of questions. The simple response to that is we have a really good feel for the game we are building right now and that just opens up a big can of worms. It's not that we're saying it something we would never do, it's just not in the scope of what we're trying to accomplish.

Shacknews: Thanks for your time, Jon, and good luck.

Mavor: Shacknews has actually been a pretty good referrer for us. Glad to see so much interest there. Thanks.


As of now, the project's Kickstarter is a little more than $100,000 from its goal, with still more than two weeks left to go.

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