We recently had an opportunity to speak with legendary designer Brian Reynolds of Big Huge Games. He is currently heading up the sequel to their popular real-time strategy title Rise of Nations, and has previously been involved with other industry defining strategy titles such as Civilization II, Colonization, and Alpha Centauri.
GamingExcellence: Let’s start off with a little background, how did you get into the gaming industry? What are a few of the games you've worked on that you're most proud of?
Brian Reynolds: Let's see, I've been the industry for 15 years now. I started in 1991 at Microprose, having decided to leave graduate school at Berkeley to make games. I started initially as a programmer (I was lead programmer for "Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender" (!), the first game I worked on). My first strategy game was Colonization, which was also my first game working on the design side.
Some of my best stuff since then has been Civilization 2, Alpha Centauri, and Rise of Nations (hey wait, that's pretty much ALL of my stuff since then).
GamingExcellence: When you're not working on Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, what other games do you enjoy (video games, board games, or otherwise)?
Brian Reynolds: Oh all kinds of games, I live to play games. My favorite thing to do with family & friends is play what we call "German Board Games" (e.g. Settlers of Catan, Ra, Amun-Re, Transamerica, that kind of stuff). As far as video games I love strategy games and role-playing games. Most recently in the strategy department I'm up to "Captain" level in Age 3; although BFME2 is waiting for me if I ever get a chance to install it. I also love RPG games... did my year of World of Warcraft (60th level priest), and Oblivion is sitting on my desk opened but not installed because I've just been too busy finishing my own game.
GamingExcellence: For the record, Cosmic Gender Bender is just about the best title for a game ever devised. On the topic of Rise of Legends, how would you consider its development to be progressing? What elements do you feel really help to define Rise of Legends as a top tier real-time strategy game? What aspects are you most proud of at this point?
Brian Reynolds: At this point we're in the final final part -- the game will be available in stores May 9th! So yeah I think the progress is going well at this point . I think the key things about Rise of Legends are the innovations in gameplay that we're known for from the Rise of Nations days (now taken in new directions), a brand new 3D engine to compete for the title of "best looking RTS of 2006", plus a fresh new fantasy world that gives players something different from all the "Tolkien clones".
GamingExcellence: Why did the team at Big Huge Games decide to take a different direction with Rise of Legends, shifting the focus to a fantasy world instead of a historical one? How did the concept for Rise of Legends come about, and how has it developed over time?
Brian Reynolds: Okay so we got to the end of Rise of Nations which of course goes from the dawn of time right through the modern era but is an historical game. And the thing is, once you've done a game about "all of human history", I've always felt like you need to do something else next, it wouldn't make sense to just go right back to the same topic again. So anyway we started looking for some other ways we could let our imaginations run wild and at the same time take our game concepts in new directions. And at the same time we felt like RoN was very well received for gameplay but people just thought the graphics were "fine" and we wanted to be a heck of a lot better than "fine". As we started working on our new 3D engine we also started realizing that some of our "fantasy" ideas were also going to lend themselves to some really great looking graphics. Obviously we didn't want to do more "orcs, elves, goblins" that everyone has already seen, so we looked for some fresh new ideas that would take fantasy into new directions. That meant a LOT of concept art, and a lot of concept art review meetings, and a lot of "no...no...no...no...no...maybe" pointing at different pictures.
GamingExcellence: As a designer, do you consider yourself more of an artist or a storyteller? Why?
Brian Reynolds: Gosh I'm not sure I've ever seriously thought of myself as either. Clearly there's an artistic element and a storytelling element, but really what I've actually thought of myself as is a creator of "gameplay" -- using math & logic in clever ways alongside story & graphics to challenge the player with lots of interesting choices. I've always thought one of the most useful courses a prospective game designer can take is "Probability".
GamingExcellence: From Colonization, to Civilization II, to Alpha Centauri, to Rise of Nations, and now Rise of Legends, the games you're involved with always seem to have a large epic feel, with an emphasis on exploration. Has this been a goal since the beginning, or is it more of an industry and technology trend? What do you see as the future of RTS games?
Brian Reynolds: I don't think you necessarily have to have those elements to do an RTS game, I can certainly think of plenty that have smaller more intimate topics, but I've always liked the "big" topics as they give you a lot of material to draw from. And yeah, I like to play "epic" games so I guess that's what I make.
GamingExcellence: You've been involved with so many games over the years. Are there any examples that stick out in your mind of a time when you had to compromise between an idea and the feasibility of selling that idea as a game?
Brian Reynolds: Oh plenty of times. We come up with all sorts of game ideas that don't end up being enough to do as a project. Although sometimes we can file them away and use them in other ways later. For example at the time we were pitching Rise of Nations we also had an idea to do a game based on the Arabian Nights... but we couldn't find enough material to make a whole RTS about it. But it lingered in the back of our minds and then when we started to do a fantasy game one of our early thoughts was "hey, we could get some of that Arabian Nights stuff and do it in a fantasy way". Similarly the Vinci partially evolved out of the fact I'd always wanted to do an Italian Renaissance game (but again not enough material to be a whole game), partially out of an idea one of our friends had about the great inventor's sketches coming to life, and partially out of my fascination with those drawings (you probably saw them on the cover of the Civ2 box!)
GamingExcellence: What is the limit of scope of games today? Is the limit technological? Or are we at a point where the only limit is the imagination of the designer?
Brian Reynolds: I think we're getting much more to the point where the important thing is the creativity of the developers, particularly in mature genres like RTS. Obviously we're still seeing technology make whole new things possible (such as the contribution of broadband to both MMO's and console gaming).
GamingExcellence: As a game maker, do you feel you've done better if a game has a small passionate following, or is generally accepted as being pretty good?
Brian Reynolds: Oooh... I'm not sure I've ever thought of either as good "goals" -- almost by necessity I'm trying to have a large passionate following!
GamingExcellence: What is your biggest criticism of games made today? Can something be learned from games made over 15 years ago?
Brian Reynolds: Plenty can be learned from older games -- there were some great games made in the old days. But at the same time when you look back and actually PLAY some of the "old greats" you also realize how far we've come, and I don't just mean technologically. Interfaces actually tend to be much more elegant and usable now (and heaven forbid, do you remember the days when it used to be considered "fun" for the computer to be bossy and arrogant?) We've put a lot more time into the study of "usability" and interface -- the industry as a whole I mean, so I think as a result players get a much more polished experience.
GamingExcellence: You're considered to be a quiet legend in the world of strategy gaming (sometimes compared to the likes of Sid Meier and Rick Goodman). What advice would you offer those looking to break into this competitive industry?
Brian Reynolds: Thank you -- I would say the SINGLE most important thing for getting into the industry is a strong passion about games. This industry is a lot of very hard work and long hours, and there are lots of people who are very passionate about wanting to be in it, so if you're -not- passionate definitely do yourself a favor and look for another field. But if you're really determined then make sure you take a lot of writing and math courses (this is for someone who wants to be a designer... obviously artists and programmers have other paths). Being able to communicate and think clearly are key things. Finally, look for a way to "get your foot in the door", because one of the most important things is to have industry experience. So often studios are looking for testers or interns.
GamingExcellence: Thank you so much for your time, and we wish you the best with RoN: Rise of Legends (shipping May 9th!).
Brian Reynolds: Thanks for the interview, I enjoyed doing the questions!
We'd also like to toss out a thank you to Monica Roddey at High Road Communications for arranging and coordinating this interview, and our own Alan Palmer and Eduardo Araujo for coming up with those tough questions.