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'Schandenfreudian Slips': Age Of Ornithology Postmortem

The first in a new, regular 'Schadenfreudian Slips' column sees the talented developers at Teutonic powerhouse Schadenfreude Interactive conduct a postmortem of their classic avian PC strategy title Age Of Ornithology.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This special postmortem of the April 2003-revealed title, the first in a series of "Schadenfreudian Slips" columns created specially for Gamasutra by Schadenfreude Interactive, recently arrived via Aeroluftenpigeonpost from Germany. Unfortunately, the package did not have a return address, so we were unable to officially fact-check and verify this article, but we present it as-is, in the hope that it will inspire all developers to make better avian-related games.]

Introduction: Hatching The Idea

We were sitting around the conference table trying to come up with a unique concept for a real-time strategy game. Otto's (our lead programmer) new Porsche convertible was just outside the conference room window. Suddenly a small flock of birds flew over the parking area and, in unison, relieved themselves on his car. Otto was very angry... he had left the roof down. We laughed and laughed! Otto did not laugh – he kicked over the whiteboard and stormed out (he does this once or twice a week, it is no longer very shocking).

Age Of Ornithology (PC CD-ROM)
Developer: Schadenfreude Interactive GMBH
The Team:
one designer, two programmers, one artist, our sound engineer, one intern. Additional tool/engine assistance from aXessfehler (our partner company).
Tools: 3DS Max, Photoshop, C, C++, custom tools
Lines of Code: 336,523

Anyway, this got us thinking about birds, and their capacity for strategic attack and destruction.

The vital work of in-game egg prototyping.

But hardcore strategy gamers were used to dragoons and trebuchets -- would they accept a game about sparrows and seagulls? Was there still a market nowadays for a tern-based game?

What Went Right: Birds Of A Feather

1. The concept. Birds are an amazingly diverse species, and it was great fun to come up with all the different units.

2. The tools. aXessfehler's flocking engine (code-name Flockenspiele) was also used in our earlier titles Age of Pseudopods and Age of Monotremes to handle complex group movement. Flockenspiele supported flocks of up to 256 birds, and allowed us to set realistic migration patterns. This saved us a lot of development time.

Schadenfreude's official Age Of Ornithology website

What Went Wrong: The Yolk's On Us

1. AI is hard. Our most recent titles were two auto-racing games (Nazgul Thunder and Cthulhu Karts) and a Battlemech fishing simulator (Steelhead Battalion), none of which had much strategy beyond “veer to the left a bit before a right turn so you can maintain higher speed” and “use the spinnerbait.” So naturally, we made a few fledgling mistakes. We didn't foresee the need for a complex birdseed-scattering algorithm to distribute food evenly, so early versions were plagued with “chicken rushing.”

Chickens also caused another glitch with our multibranched tech tree – chickens were cross-dependent on the development of the egg, resulting in an infinite loop condition. We had many arguments about this bug, which were finally resolved by our lead programmer flipping a coin. The egg was victorious.

2. Game balance. We had to “revive” many extinct species in order to balance the gameplay, as too many flightless birds have become extinct. But what we lost in realism we made up for in playability.

3. Art process. Lothar, our artist, brought some cockatiels into the office to use for motion capture. Our CTO, Bruno, often brings his miniature schnauzers into the office to visit. Unfortunately Bruno failed to mention that schnauzers were bred for hunting... we were picking feathers and tiny white marker balls out of the carpet for weeks. Abandoning the motion-capture idea, we had to hand-animate all of the flapping, scratching, and pecking, which took much longer.

4. Feature flutter. This is always a problem in game development. What stays and what goes – context-sensitive dynamic birdsongs? Customizeable nests? Despite our attempts to cut back, the programmers were sneaking in Easter eggs until the last minute. Unfortunately, many of these were actually eggs, which led to much player confusion.

The Guano Barrage - one of the Age of Ornithology's epic powers.

Conclusion: Leaving The Nest

We were very, very tired of bird-related puns by the end of the project. On the day before gold master, our marketing director made a particularly awful Audobon/Autobahn joke, and Otto cracked – running out of the room and smashing an unrefrigerated ostrich egg that Lothar was using for reference. We had to evacuate the office due to the smell. It is true that Otto can be slightly temperamental, but good programmers are hard to find in the Black Forest region.

Age Of Ornithology was a top seller in Europe, and won several Golden Egg Awards from a noted German birdwatching organization. It turns out that RTS fans really took to the game – we were thrilled to see posts on German gaming forums discussing Geiernerfing and Penguintaktiken!

However, due to a misunderstanding about some of the in-game bird unit names, we were unable to get an “Everyone” ESRB rating, and thus abandoned plans to distribute the game in the U.S. We even offered to send the ESRB more images of the (blue-footed) “boobies” and (tufted) “tits” in question, but they did not respond. Perhaps the message may have gotten caught in their spam filter.

There are no plans for a sequel.


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