<< Portico: Developer Interview: Xavi Rubio

6/16/2006

Developer Interview: Xavi Rubio

I recently noted that Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War has some of the best RTS naval mechanics around. And, considering the dearth of good naval simulations out there, it's nice when anyone pays attention to that military arm that Mahan considered the sine qua non of real power.

To that end, my latest developer interview is with Spanish wargame developer Xavi Rubio, the brain behind Hyperborea's upcoming ancient naval wargame Galley Battles.

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Naval warfare is an underserved topic, and ancient naval warfare doubly so. What brings you to this period?

In fact I think that this is probably one of the reasons to make a game about this topic. There are no games about these battles, that I think have plenty of room to make an interesting game. Moreover, I'm interested on ancient warfare, in fact part of my research is related to it, so I tried to create a game focusing on an interesting yet not touched before topic.

Ancient naval warfare is pretty simple stuff. Ram another guy and either board or sink him. Is it a challenge to make this material compelling?

Is not that simple, and this is the main reason why I think the topic can be enjoyable. Galley warfare was, on a microscale, similar to the aerial duels of the 1st World War. Individual galleys try to maneuver in order to make a good position to ram the enemy without being rammed. Boarding techniques are more rough, but the fact is that you need to create superiority points where you have more ships than the enemy on local zones, in order to break the opponent's formation and make his morale sink.

Moreover, reading ancient primary sources you notice that there were complex "multi-ship" maneuvers, like kyklos (hedgehog formation), periplus and diekplus (flanking attacks, deep formation attacks), etc. so in fact the type of battle was quite more technical that the ones of other naval eras like Napoleonics or First World War.

What experience do you have in developing wargames?

This is my first title, so I don't have any previous experience as developer of wargames.

Except for the high points like Salamis and Actium, the ancient sources are mostly vague in how these battles transpired. Do you find the lack of solid material an obstacle to design?

Sometimes it is, as we don't know exactly how the galleys of Carthage were, or the composition of the persian fleet in Salamis. But, on the other way, it gives the developer more interesting options, as we need to read every article and book about the topic in order to make things historical (at least as it can be on a computer game).

The screenshots of your game look, frankly, old - something from the early 90s at best. Is this a choice, or just a stepping stone to something better?

It was a choice, and we don't think that the game interface looks old. I mean, of course it doesn't have 3D graphics but it was our choice, because a battle with more than 200 ships each side could be difficult to manage with other views. We thought that the 3D topic wouldn't improve the game enough to waste our time on it, so we decided to go on 2D. Anyway the artwork is, in my opinion, quite good, and the animations of the galleys, sea, weather, etc. will make a dynamic battlefield, trying to avoid the "board" effect of most of computer wargames.

How did you come to work with Shrapnel?

We sent some pics of the original engine, and the concept behind them to some publishers, and the first of them that contacted us was Shrapnel Games. They are the best help a "rookie" game developer can get, I can assure you :-)

Time and money are always issues for the indie developer. How would you describe your process so far?

Time is the decisive factor. I'm working on a research group, so I'm trying to divide my time between both activities. Is is not easy, and I think that every developer that wants to start an indie project should be quite sure
about it, because it's a tough task!

Wargames are tough sell, and hard to make profitable even when costs are low. But you wouldn't be doing this if you didn't have some hope. Who is your audience?

In fact I didn't started the game as a profitable project. Programming is a hobby for me, and I started this game as some people construct models or see films. It was a creative way to improve my programmer skills and enjoy with it.

After realizing that some people could be interested on the result, I contacted with Ruben Zubillaga, the artwork designer, and started to make it a professional product. As the game has been focused on a "niche" sector of the market, we know that we won't get millionaire sells, but we are sure that there exists an audience insterested on this kind of game. In fact, the existence of several publishers of this kind of indie games is the proof.

What has been the most difficult decision so far?

The change of the movement system. As you can see in the first screenshots, we started with a classical hex-grid system. When I tried to develop formation-complex movements I realised that the system wouldn't work well with only 6 headings for a ship, so I started to search for a more flexible system. The result is a movement and combat engine that combines real physics
(acceleration, weight, inertia, ...) with the common factors of wargames (maneuverability, toughness, etc.).

If a mysterious investor showed up and gave you 15,000 dollars to spend on the game, how would you spend that money?

Tough question. Maybe I would like to sell the game with some additional values like printed maps of the battles represented in the game, and diagrams of the ships. This kind of objects have disappeared from modern games, as I recall that some years ago every game was sold with the manual printed and some valuable items like maps and so on. In fact, Shrapnel Games sell its games with printed manual, one of the topics that decided me to sign up with them.

As a developer, which other games or game designers do you look to for inspiration or ideas?

I have played quite a lot of games (specially wargames) in my life. Some of them are classics, like Operational Art of War and Panzer General. I suppose that they are part of my inspiration, but talking about modern titles I would choose Combat Mission and Highway To The Reich. Galley Battles is similar to CM in the fact that the player gives orders to units that try to accomplish them (instead of move like automatons). The turn system is WE-GO, too (orders are executed at the same time). HTTR is an impressive game with the best AI that I've seen ever on a computer game. We are trying to make a competitive AI capable of making tactical plans
and surprise the player.

When will we finally get a chance to see Galley Battles in action?

It depends on the time I will be capable of invest of the game. We expect to publish it this year.

2 Comments:

Anonymous baby arm said...

It's always groovy to see projects like this. Unfortunately, it will probably wind up on my "interesting-looking games that I will never get around to" list.

Nice interview, regardless.

6/16/2006 06:53:00 PM  
Blogger Troy Goodfellow said...

It's an interesting idea, that's for sure. I'm generally suspicious of naval games because one battle in a setting generally plays out like other battles in a setting. Terrain is usually pointless (Salamis being a huge exception) and though battles of maneuver are inherently interesting, they are less so when the maneuver is generally identical from scenario to scenario.

I hate to keep picking on Salvo, but that was one of my biggest problems with it. You give me sixty ships and I just try to do the same with each one.

6/17/2006 12:44:00 PM  

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