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Age of Titans: Brian Sullivan's Latest Adventures

In this exclusive Gamasutra interview, Age of Empires co-creator and Iron Lore co-founder Brian Sullivan discusses the studio's first game, Titan Quest, its alleged Diablo inspiration, and the effect of World of Warcraft on PC game sales.

“Hack and slash.” “Action RPG.” Perhaps “Diablo-esque.” Call it what you will, Titan Quest is the newest title from Age of Empires co-creator Brian Sullivan, president of Iron Lore Entertainment. Brian took some time to speak with Gamasutra about his latest project, his history in the industry, and his comments and criticism on gaming at large.

Shaking Up the Biz

No stranger to the games industry, Sullivan was one of the driving factors behind the critically acclaimed Age of Empires, a game that is considered by many to be quite a paradigm shift for the PC gaming industry.

“The thing that made Age of Empires unique is that we designed the game for casual players and not just hard-core players (although we had many features for the hard-core),” Sullivan said. “That really opened up this kind of game play to many people who would never have tried an RTS game otherwise. We also used this strategy on Titan Quest.” We set out to develop a game that was not only a great game for hard-core players, but was also accessible enough for casual players. We wanted a game that mass market gamers (of sims and tycoon games) could easily play and enjoy if they wanted to play a ‘more real game’. It is quite a jump from RollerCoaster Tycoon to Warcraft 3.”

On the subject of Titan Quest, Sullivan said the game was a labor of love.

“The whole time I was working on Age of Empires games I always thought about doing an action RPG in the same setting, but with all the mythology thrown in,” he said. “It was very nice to actually be able to develop this game after thinking about it for so many years."


Drawing Comparisons

Despite being a long time coming, Titan Quest is already making waves as a solid action RPG. The inevitable comparison then must be drawn to Diablo, a game universally considered to have brought the genre to the mass market. The comparisons (and sometimes disparaging “clone” comments) have not gone unnoticed.

“Core Titan Quest game play is very similar to Diablo, because Diablo basically defined the genre,” Sullivan said. “Most RTS games and most shooters have core game play that is also very similar to other games in the genre. I think if there were more games in the action RPG genre, we would not be perceived as a clone, because all the other games would also have similar game play. Titan Quest is innovative in many areas including topic, class system, and editor, to name a few.”

Survival of the Fittest

The question then becomes: does Sullivan feel that a big budget, Non-Multiplayer game can flourish in today’s PC environment?

“The game marketplace is currently undergoing a lot of change, with the success of World of Warcraft and other MMOs, the rise of console gaming and what looks like a very long transition to next-generation, the rise of handheld gaming (especially with the DS), and the huge increase in development costs,” Sullivan said. “It is harder than ever to figure out how to be successful in this market.”

That certainly doesn’t mean he feels the market is closed, however. Sullivan went on to say that he thinks big budget retail PC games will survive and thrive because they provide some of the best game play experiences of a kind that cannot be matched on console or in an MMOG. He also cited the fact that shooters, strategy games and western-style role playing games can really take advantage of the keyboard, mouse and extremely high resolution monitor that a PC provides, and will continue to provide a superior play experience for these types of games in comparison to a console.
He did go on to say, however, that while Iron Lore has no current plans to port Titan Quest to the console, it is certainly not outside the realm of possibility.

“It would require changes to the UI, character control, targeting etc., but I think we could get the fantastic looking world, great story, and visceral gameplay on the console,” he said. “Since it is a single character RPG, I think we could make a version on the console that would be a lot of fun.”


Shifting Gears

As for the decision to switch from an RTS to an action RPG, Sullivan said he “felt the time was right,” since so few quality action RPGs exist on the market today. Another decision to produce Titan Quest in its particular style was Sullivan’s analysis of the world market, not just the US.

"We designed Titan Quest for a global audience, because that is where we are selling the game,” he said. “Europeans tend to like PC games, RPGs, and historical games, and Titan Quest delivers in all three of these areas. Part of why we did a historical and mythological game in the first place was for the European market, because they tend to like this topic. It is also one of the reasons we put Age of Empires in the same setting. When we make any design decision, we think about all markets, but especially America and Europe because they are two biggest markets for this kind of game.”

As for making a name for themselves in the market, Sullivan feels that some of the biggest competition comes from MMOs, not because they are competitors in the genre, but because people simply enjoy playing them so much.

“For retail PC games, I think the biggest problem is World of Warcraft,” Sullivan said. “It is such a compelling MMO game that it sucks up a lot of money and time that would normally be spent on other retail PC games.”

Self-Reflection

On the subject of the PC game industry as a whole, Sullivan feels the biggest problem, as on the console, is rapidly rising development costs. Games, he said, have to sell a lot more copies now to cover their development costs, and he knows getting all those extra sales can be difficult.

One of the other problems facing any PC developer is how to get the game into the players’ hands. While digital marketplaces are becoming increasingly popular as a means of distribution, Sullivan said those decisions are usually left in the hands of the publisher. What does have him excited, he said, is the concept of additional, downloadable content, whether that is an Xpack, an episode, or some additional quests or weapons.

The Man Behind the Quest

With all this talk of gaming development and distribution, it’s a wonder Sullivan has any time to actually play games. Somehow, he finds a way. He even has time to name names.

“I hugely admire the work Blizzard has been doing,” he said. “Since Warcraft 2, they have had a fantastic string of games including Diablo, Starcraft, and World of Warcraft. I have lost many hours to these fantastic games and always look forward to their next release.”

“I have been playing Titan Quest non-stop for the last 6 months, and not all of that has been for work,” Sullivan went on to say.” Before that, I was playing a lot of World of Warcraft and Guitar Hero. Both are extra fun because I can play them with my wife.”

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