Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007
entrants, today’s interview is with Iain McNeil of Slitherine Software, developers of strategy role-playing game Arcane Legions: A Rising Shadow
The company has had the title in development for almost a year, with an estimated six months left, but the game’s excellence has already been recognized by IGF judges, which has seen it nominated as a finalist in the Technical Excellence category. Arcane Legions
is described as a “blend of traditional RPG and RTS gameplay” which allows players to “recruit, equip and train huge armies to fight in real time in epic 3D battles” in over 100 missions.
We spoke to McNeil about the game, its entry into the IGF, its use of motion capture, and its focus on story.
What is your background in the games industry?
I've been working in the industry since leaving university 12 years ago. I started at Intelligent Games where I became team leader. While there I worked on projects for Mindscape, Westwood and Maxis including Dune 2000, Sim Isle
and Dune Emperor
. I then joined Eidos where I was the producer on Urban Chaos, Timeline
and Deus Ex
, before leaving to start Slitherine.
When was Slitherine Software formed, and what previous titles have you released?
I started Slitherine Software in July 2000, and we were initially planning to work on GBC games. We were very near completion of T-Tex
- a first person shooter which was very cool, but the lack of a brand meant publishers were just not interested and we had to can it. After that we moved back to PC development, and focussed on the historical strategy game niche. Our first title Legion
, has solder 150,000 units & is still selling. Since then we've released Chariots of War, Spartan, Gates of Troy, Legion Arena
and The Cult of Mithras
What inspired Arcane Legions, and why did you decide to make it?
Initially the game was called Arena Warriors
, but we felt the title was a bit weak so we have renamed it to Arcane Legions: A Rising Shadow
. We've been making historical strategy games for 6 years now and we wanted a bit of a break! The fantasy setting lets us do things that it can be hard to justify in a historical game.
gives you a quest map to explore, locations to visit and quests to undertake. Rather than a traditional RPG though, you have an entire army, not just a handful of characters. When you get to a battle it's you and your army versus the enemy army! There are thousands of highly detailed guys running around on screen and it just looks great. The battle engine is really impressive and we're sure this is the reason we have been nominated for the technical excellence award at this year’s IGF.
What were your expectations from your game, and do you feel the end product lives up to those expectations?
As the game is still in development and a fair way from completion I can't say for sure where we will end up. All I can say is that the game already looks far better than we thought we hoped. Up to now we have been focusing on the engine, but now the core technology is in place it's time to switch to the gameplay. This is where much of the time over the next few months will be spent.
How difficult was it for you to use motion capture for all the animation?
The motion capture was actually not that hard to do. It was a big expense and required a fair bit of planning in advance, but it was all recorded in a single day shoot. The advantage is that the motion capture is better than anything we could have created by hand animation and it actually saved the art team the time of creating all the animations, so overall it was well worth the money. The raw motion capture data was put through post production by the studio who recorded it so that what we received was actually in a format we could drop straight in to the models and then in to the game.
How important is story for you?
In our previous games we've had little need for story as the history does it all for you. For these games, rather than script writing, it was a research job. The researcher writes a first attempt at a briefing/story and then this is passed on to the writer to tidy up. We're taking a very different approach for Arcane Legions
- the story is a key part of the gameplay. It needs to engage the player and make them want to advance and find out how it develops. We've got a script writer working on it pretty much full time.
What do you think the most interesting thing about your game is?
has a few really unique elements, but my favorite is the customization - you can really get in there and change the function and appearance of your units by the choices you make. Models are built of component pieces which can be substituted in and out, allowing us to switch a sword for a hammer, or a buckler for a large shield. As you go through the game you'll be discovering new items and purchasing others and these can all be allocated to your troops, much like in a standard RPG. The number of combinations is almost infinite.
On top of this your troops gain experience and level up, gaining new stats and skills, and how you develop their skills effects their role on the battlefield. You might choose to train your spearmen up as tough blocking troops who are hard to destroy, or instead arm them with halberds and make them expert cavalry killers. You can also change the shield designs, and basic color of the uniforms and name each squad. We like to think of each squad as would a character in a standard RPG.
How long did development take?
We're still working on it, but by completion we'd guess around 18 months.
What was the development process like?
We started with a rough idea of the type of game we wanted - a story driven RPG with a world to explore, and armies instead of characters. We started to create the unit designs and high level story, while the previous engine we had was overhauled to allow us the great new look and feel we wanted for Arcane Legions
Once we had a high level plot, we started to flesh this out one game zone at a time, breaking the story in to chapters and working out the art required for each. By this time the engine was starting to come together and production on the units had started. We've still got some work to do on the detailed quest design, scripting, unit production and a lot of work on the UI for the quest side, but things are coming together really well.
What do you think of the state of independent development, and how do you think independent games fit into the industry?
I think things are looking pretty healthy and as digital distribution becomes more widely accepted things can only get better.
Have you checked out any of the other IGF games?
I have played a lot of games recently, but I didn't check to see which were in the IGF and which were not.
Which ones are you particularly impressed with, and why?
The only one I know for sure was is Virtual Villagers
, a kind of real time village sim, which I really liked. It was strangely addictive, though my villagers kept dying of starvation over night! I liked the way it was so easy to get in to.
Which recent indie games do you admire, and which recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why?
My all time favorites are Civilization
and Railroad Tycoon
, though I've not been as impressed with the latest incarnations of either. There is a tendency to focus on glitz over gameplay these days and although a game needs to be attractive and polished I want the gameplay to be the focus, not the cool new angle I can view things from. I've become a little jaded and hope the indie community may come up with something for me!
Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF?
I'd just like to announce the birth of my daughter - Katie Elizaveta McNeil, on the 6th December, which unfortunately delayed this interview! PS - vote for Arcane Legions