Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Paraworld: The Interview

I went to E3 last year and saw a whole lot of not very much.

That's what happens at E3. The entire E3 experience is generally mind-numbing, because you see (literally) hundreds of games and none of them will stand out.

Paraworld did, though.

It was an RTS game set in a world with both dinosuars and humans. It was unbelievably striking, and I remember thinking "that's the game I want to play."

After E3, I poked around a bit to find out more about the game. Here are a few excerpts from an IGN preview which, except for gratuitious use of the word "cool," had some good information:
Paraworld is an RTS based in an alternate reality where dinosaurs and humans live and fight side by side. Discovered by Charles Babbage in 1815, this new dimension was accessible during a planetary alignment in 1846. There are twenty single-player levels that tell the story of three scientists following up on Babbage's discovery. Once in the primitive world, the scientists begin to unlock a mysterious conspiracy that leads them to reunite the three tribes of the world.

Here's the link to that full article:
Paraworld IGN preview

IGN also had a series of designer diaries with Thomas Langhanki, the lead designer. They're very good reads, and here are links:
The history of Paraworld
Story and protagonists
Single-player, multi-player, and gameplay part one
Gameplay part 2

That last article is particularly interesting in terms of gameplay because it discusses the "Army Controller," which is a unique interface allowing you to access any of your units on the map. Here's a screenshot in case you're too lazy to read the entire article:

All in all, it looks like a fresh, great-looking game, and I've had it on my radar screen all year. It's not very complicated, really:

Here's the twist. Julian Dasgupta, who is the PR manager for SEK (SpieleEntwicklungsKombinat GmbH, and just try to remember that spelling), contacted me a few weeks ago and said that he remembered the E3 column and did I have any questions?

Clearly, he had made some kind of mistake with his mailing list. Not to pass up an unwarranted opportunity, though, I submitted some questions, and Thomas Langhanki answered them. And he answered them thoughtfully, instead of just slamming off some answers.

I tried very hard to ask some questions that they hadn't already been asked fifty times, which is why I linked to the IGN articles previously--they cover ground that I'm not covering in the interview.

Thomas's answers were so thoughtful that I'm posting the interview verbatim, and I hope you enjoy it. Oh, and he references a screenshot that compares the before/after look of the world (which they've greatly improved), and I'm posting it directly above the interview.

1. The game features a distinctive and visually striking world. Did you agree on this look early in the project, of was it something that evolved over time? And who was most responsible for this vision, or was it more of a collaboration among the development team?
The basic idea I had when I started working on the concept was a world featuring dense vegetation, inhabited by many prehistoric animals. Well, and that’s what the game was designed with in mind. It’s also one of the reasons for us building our own engine for the game since the other ones that were available didn’t really meet our demands.

Still, there are parts of the design that changed over time. I see myself a keeper of the vision who ensures that the design follows a certain direction. But I can rely on the members of our graphics team (as well as the programmers, who made everything possible to begin with) and every artist had and has an impact on the look of the game. So, yes, the final look of the game also is a result of the work contributed by the whole team.

As for the elements that evolved? Let’s compare this screenshot of the original Northland setting to the Northland the way it looks now. As you see the game certainly is more colourful now, also featuring higher contrasts. We weren’t really satisfied with the muddy, green/grey look, which also doesn’t work that well in the international market.

2. Does the development team share common influences in literature, film, and games? In particular, what games would you cite as having the largest influence on Paraworld?
If we’re talking about games, I’d have to name games/series like StarCraft/WarCraft or Age of Empires. However, it’s also been books like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Lost World” or movies like “Jurassic Park” to be source material.

3. Sid Meier has mentioned that he uses a rapid prototype environment, where they focus on creating something playable as early as possible, make sure it’s fun, then refine it through successive iterations. How would you describe the development process of Paraworld in comparison—for example, could you tell us how long it took from the beginning of development to reach a playable version?
The very first step we made after the basic concept was done, was creating a 2D prototype. Took us about 2 months. It was a single screen/map. All units were represented by small sprites. No animations, of course, that would have been luxury! However, all the basic rules were implemented – you could move around units, gather resources with workers, attack animals and the like. We even incorporated the first version of what later was going to be dubbed Army Controller. It was a proof of concept for us to see whether the basic gameplay we envisioned worked or not. Fortunately, it did work.

Another decision we intentionally made: implementing the multiplayer part before any singleplayer content was done. Why? If the tribes and the units aren’t fun in multiplayer, they’re not going to be fun in singleplayer either – no matter how well the missions are designed. And playing multiplayer matches provided tons of immediate feedback regarding features and skills.

As for successive iterations, the Army Controller and the general interface probably are a good example of this. We’ve had like 7 revisions of it, all done in order to optimize the usability and accessibility. If one compares the first version to the current one, one will immediately spot the similarities. And yet it has changed quite a lot.

4. How has this project been different from the Diggles: The Myth of Fenris in terms of development schedule and complexity? Did the Diggles offer any lessons that proved helpful in developing Paraworld? What has surprised you in the course of developing this game?
Diggles was a rather small project, something we designed with the German market in mind. On average we had like 8-10 people working on the game, peaking at about 15 in the months prior the release.

ParaWorld definitely has a different scope and is aimed and the international market. We currently have about 45 people working on the game. Which doesn’t include the Sunflowers QA team or other third-parties involved in the project. And as you may guess, thrice the team size doesn’t translate to thrice the complexity. It’s more like factor 10. Well, I made up this particular number, but you get the idea. ;)

Diggles wasn’t my first project since I’ve been working in the gaming industry since 1991, but we learned a lot nevertheless.

For instance, it was a real pain to script cutscenes for Diggles. There was quite a number of elements one had not complete control over and that may or may not have worked under certain circumstances. Creating scenes with 3+ actors was incredibly tricky. This definitely had implications for ParaWorld. We built an extensive sequence editor, which offers an abundance of options and gives you full control over everything that has to happen in a scene. Down to every single animation. It’s a very extensive tool and I don’t think any other RTS title features something comparable in terms of options. We intend to release it along with the game.

As I also mentioned before, multiplayer was one of the first aspects we got working in ParaWorld.. Using multiplayer to tune the game was one reason – however, we also wanted to get it done as early as possible in order to address any potential issues in time. We wanted to incorporate some form of multiplayer mode in Diggles, but when we started working on that (late in the development process), it turned out to be rather problematic. Ultimately, we had to drop that idea. That was an experience we didn’t want to go through again.

Surprises? Well, yes. ParaWorld is our first venture into the realm of ‘fast paced RTS games’ and it truly turned out to be a different beast compared to what we had been working on before. Seriously, the difference in terms of speed, UI and the like was bigger than we originally expected when it comes to requirements.

5. What did you think you would be before you decided to get into the gaming business, and where did you first start?
I’ve always been interested in the film business and it’s what I probably would be doing if it wasn’t for games. I grew up in Babelsberg, which has quite some history when it comes to the production of films. Classics like Metropolis were made in the studios nearby. (It should be noted that it’s also becoming more and more popular among Hollywood studios, “V for Vendetta” being a recent examples of motion pictures shot over here.) And despite already having been in the gaming business since the early 90s, I decided to study animation at the Film & Television Academy in Babelsberg, which happens to be the oldest institution of its kind in Germany.

6. During the time you’ve spent playing the game, what would you describe as your favorite feature of the game or favorite moment?
Favourite feature? That would be, without any doubt, the Army Controller. As I already said, we worked a lot on that part and it’s something other games simply don’t have.

Favourite moment? I wouldn’t want to single out a specific one, but when we wrapped up the Alpha a few months ago one could finally see everything coming together – the features, the levels, the cutscenes - that simply was terrific. We had been working on Paraworld for quite a while and we saw that all the efforts put into the game paid off now.

I’d also mention the Games Convention in Leipzig last summer. It was the first time the game was shown to the public. The response was really great. When you’re developing a game for a while you tend to get what one might call a tunnel vision. You become a lot more critical towards your own product than anyone not involved in the development. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we didn’t believe in ParaWorld. But at some point one tends to only perceive the problems instead of also appreciating the features that work. And the overwhelming feedback we received from the audience at the Games Convention certainly did help put things into perspective again.

7. Is the game still scheduled for a summer release, or is it more likely that we’ll see it this fall? And do you have an American distributor yet?
Summer’s what it’s going to be in Europe for sure. There’s no final release date yet for the US market due to the current situation, but I hope that this will change in the near future. We certainly would like to the see ParaWorld in North-American stores this summer as well.

Site Meter