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Children of the Nile Wrap Report
Note: This originally appeared in two parts on RPG Vault (Part 1 / Part 2).
December 07, 2004 - The phrase "tilting at windmills" refers to attempting something that offers absolutely no chance of success. It is derived from the classic tale of Don Quixote, a noble but crazy knight who sees the buildings not as they actually are, but as towering, threatening giants. With complete disregard for his own safety, he charges them with his lance, an action known as tilting. Of course, his misguided but valiant efforts are in vain. When accomplished developers Chris Beatrice and Jeff Fiske founded Tilted Mill Entertainment, they chose its name for various reasons. One was their belief that some things only appear impossible to those without sufficient vision to think otherwise. Another was their sense of appreciation for the literary character's fortitude of spirit, which caused him to attack the daunting enemies he saw, albeit mistakenly, rather than retreating from them.
The studio's first endeavor, Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile shipped in mid-November. It's a game that builds on the two principals' extensive experience in the city-building genre by operating on four levels. The most familiar is designing and constructing communities in which virtual people live and work. The citizens have individual AI, allowing them to think for themselves. With successful nurturing over time, a society arises, one that reflects the web of inter-connections among the inhabitants and their environment. Finally, your primary task becomes guiding the civilization's progress so that it becomes an enduring empire. Having followed both the company and its inaugural project for some time, we were especially interested to see the team's thoughts now that it has shipped. President and Director of Development Chris Beatrice responded at considerable length, providing a number of exceptionally insightful comments.
Back in the day (I'm talking eight or 10 years ago) when we would sit around the table coming up with ideas for new games, we rarely if ever thought of them in terms of their category or genre. Similarly, we never made close sequels to successful games immediately after the release of the prior iteration. We would just try to come up with game mechanics and themes we thought were fun. Of course, all games borrow from prior ones, so I'm not trying to claim that they were always much more original back then; however, they did not fit as neatly into categories.
I have to admit when I came up with the idea for the project, my goals were much less lofty, or at least I thought they were.
With Children of the Nile, we set out to make a great game where the main mechanism (that is, what the player does) was about building, and the main game dynamic (what the game does) was about simulating a real place occupied by real people. You build a town for real people to live, work and play in. The final leg of the stool is the strategy game, which (if you could somehow separate it from the two other factors) is actually very, very simple. The strategy game is about resource management and achieving goals - just enough to give context and a sense of purpose to the sim. So, whether we call it a sim with a purpose or a strategy game with real people as your primary resource, either way, it's something new and different.
However, we also felt that everything we were doing would at least seem familiar to players, whether or not any game had actually done it before. That is, all the systems are modeled on real world behaviors and events. For the premise to work, it was crucial that all the people in the game behaved like real people, not game units. They care about themselves, not you.
Tilted Mill is located in Wayland, Massachusetts. The Children of the Nile team is comprised almost entirely of industry veterans, many of whom have worked together for almost 10 years. Most members hail from the former Impressions Games studio at Sierra, where we worked on titles such as the Lords of the Realm series, the Caesar and Pharaoh series, Lords of Magic, Civil War Generals, and others too numerous to mention.
The Children of the Nile team consisted of about 35 people at its peak. We did all of our testing internally, as we had always done in the past at Impressions. Our years of working together as an essentially independent studio gave us the tools to maintain a high degree of independence as a third-party developer with Tilted Mill. We have never used outside contractors for anything of significance (we do hire professional voice actors) because building a team that is invested in the company and its projects is, I feel, crucial to success in this industry.
The story of how Children of the Nile evolved into the game it is today is interesting (well, maybe to game designers anyway). I have to admit when I came up with the idea for the project, my goals were much less lofty, or at least I thought they were. By that, I mean all I originally set out to do was do city-building the right way, and of course, bring the technology and visual presentation up to date. That was a fairly conservative approach, which made sense given that, of course, the primary goal was to establish the studio on a solid footing.
But when I started cracking that nut of doing city-building right, it opened up an entirely different world. Just to maybe give one specific example that might make sense, in the old city-building games, buildings would spout "walkers" who would randomly meander throughout the road network, very much like a pinball rolling down the table. They were entirely unpredictable, had no goals and were not directly correlated to the city's population. A walker you saw on the street was not a person. You might have 5,000 people and 100 walkers, for example. The obvious way this mechanism should work is that the people in the game should have a purpose they're trying to achieve. The priest should come out of his house in the morning and try to walk to the temple, right? Householders should walk to the market to buy goods, right?
Most strategy games are very inflexible from the player's standpoint. That is, the rules are rigid - and, I might add, often don't make sense.
Well, that quickly transformed the entire nature of the game. The more we made the people's behavior intuitive and sensible, the more they started to seem like real people - sometimes frustratingly so! For example, if the priest wakes up in the morning and has no food, is he going to go to the temple? No, he goes to the palace and complains to you! Now other people are getting upset because the temple isn't operational. Tracking down problems in the city becomes a multi-layered task, but on the flip side, many problems don't matter all that much. Just like in a real city, you'll always have some disgruntled citizens.
Trying to manage that enormous organic mass to achieve your strategic goals is where Children of the Nile shines as a truly unique gameplay experience. It's deceiving because when you first look at the game, you think "Egyptian city-builder", but that's not really what the game is about. In the end, we were able to achieve so many things we never thought possible, and we're all really proud of the game we created.
Our games have never been about technology for technology's sake. In fact, it's probably safe to say that many if not most of our games were a little bit behind the tech curve, or at least not on the cutting edge. When designing a game, we think of gameplay first, and as far as technology, our main goal is to keep the minimum system requirement as low as possible because the types of games we make are played a lot in Europe, where systems typically lag behind the US a little bit, and by families and casual gamers who typically don't have the latest and greatest systems. For Children of the Nile specifically, in addition to these two important considerations, we also needed to get the company and game up and running relatively quickly. We did not have the time or resources to start a 3D engine from scratch, and to pitch something to a publisher nowadays, you really need something good to show, basically a prototype.
So, we licensed the engine used to create Empire Earth from our friends at Stainless Steel Studios. While it wasn't exactly a perfect match for the type of game we were doing (I mean it was not a city-building engine), it had all the basic components we needed to get a prototype up and running very quickly and easily. Within a couple of months, we had a fully developed prototype showing all aspects of the game. That is what allowed us to land our first publishing deal. Of course, we subsequently enhanced the technology, and customized it to suit the needs of Children of the Nile and city-building games in general.
I started work on Children of the Nile by myself in October of 2001. I set the release date three years out, at October 31, 2004. Despite a lot of challenges and various ups and downs, I'm proud to say we hit the original date - actually we beat it by two weeks! It was a real struggle to stick to the development timeline for a couple of reasons. The first is that as an independent studio just starting out, there are a lot of operational considerations that suck up lots of time - finding an office, ordering furniture, hiring the team, etc. This rendered a lot of things unpredictable, which of course makes it harder to plan and then stick to the plan.
Secondly, once the game took on a life of its own, it became very challenging to design. Many seemingly small decisions took dozens of hours to resolve. There was no existing model for this game, though you might not know that just by looking at it. We didn't have the typical conventions to rely on with respect to the user interface, the decisions the player makes, etc. So, we would debate endlessly on, for example, the role of the granary or whether or not the priesthood was part of the government, the private sector or a sort of sub-government of its own. And of course, every decision we made affected the rest of the design.
In Children of the Nile, every component of the design, just like every person in the city, is strongly connected to everything else. It became very difficult to address individual design problems because the ramifications on the whole system were profound. It's paradoxical, really. Most strategy games are very inflexible from the player's standpoint. That is, the rules are rigid - and, I might add, often don't make sense. The connections in the game are often linear or otherwise strict; for instance, there is only one way to feed people, produce a combat unit, etc. In Children of the Nile, on the other hand, from the player's perspective the game is very flexible and organic. There are a number of ways to do things, and the city never "breaks". There are failsafes for most systems. For example, if a shopkeeper isn't selling enough wares to earn his bread, he'll take the day off and go forage or fish for his own food.
For the designers, this actually made the game very inflexible because we couldn't resolve design issues with the simple kludges typically used in strategy games. For example, every person in the city has a real family and home, and is always alive. We could never just generate a new figure out of a building because we needed someone to look cool playing in the streets or something. No, that had to be someone's kid, and he had to really have nothing else to do. Beggars could not just be symbolic figures generated out of thin air to show you your city was in trouble; no, they had to be real shopkeepers who really weren't doing business because maybe their raw materials weren't available, they didn't have customers or were too busy visiting the hospital because it was too far away, and hence went out of business and became vagrants living on the street.
There are so many concepts in Children of the Nile that, like in the real world, don't actually exist other than as concepts.
Changes and Enhancements
Originally, Children of the Nile was intended to fit more with the traditional historical city-building games like Pharaoh, Caesar, etc. But this was really just a rough framework I settled on because I felt the genre was a) very popular, b) under-realized, and c) I knew I could do it well. Of course, I was not interested in just making a clone of one of my own games, or simply doing a tech update. When we started out, our goal was to make the city-building game that players wanted all along - something that would seem right to them, that would truly realize the highest aspirations of the genre. While much of that core ambition remained, once the game took on its own life, we also had to respond to what it was telling us. And that, as is often the case, was that a seemingly small component of gameplay turned out to be the core of a whole new game dynamic, which is the idea of "managing" real people as a resource in a strategy game.
Again, that may not sound like much, which is why it didn't leap to the forefront initially, but rather as the game developed. In strategy games, we have become so accustomed to dealing with units and buildings that create people out of thin air. Often, individual personalities are layered onto these (they'll have a little animated portrait, a unique voice, a personal history), but that's not what we're talking about when we say "real people". We're talking about the fact the person has a home somewhere. He needs to eat. He needs to take the day off and go to the hospital when he's sick, or to the temple when he's upset about something. He has a child he wants to send to school, but he needs wealth to be able to do that. He wants a better job. He's not a farming unit; he's a peasant working on a farming estate who hopes one day to move his wife and child into a middle-class home, become a shopkeeper and so on.
When you think of an entire city filled with individual families like this one, all trying to make a better life for themselves, while your main concern is to build a massive pyramid to serve as your tomb before you die, you get some sense of the depth and uniqueness of Children of the Nile. This is a sort of synergy, a case where the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, that was not obvious when we first set out on this path. There are so many concepts in Children of the Nile that, like in the real world, don't actually exist other than as concepts. For example, a nation - what is that? Is it a piece of real estate? Not really, because without the people and traditions, it would be a different nation. Is it the people? Not really, because they change entirely from one generation to the next. A nation is really just an idea, and that's what you're building in Children of the Nile - a nation, with you at its head.
We faced a lot of significant challenges in making Children of the Nile. I think it's safe for me to say it was the most challenging game I've ever made. The first challenge, to be totally honest, was logistical. As a start-up studio, you need to secure funding, and it takes a lot of money to make games nowadays. And with a three year development cycle, the team and company are growing during the entire process, so you're always bringing new people into the mix who have to get up to speed with the design and the technology; we had to move our offices three times, and so on.
Keeping development on an even keel throughout this process was very difficult relative to how I've worked in the past, managing a studio that was very much independent, though still a wholly owned subsidiary of a major publisher. We were able to overcome or at least live with this challenge because most of us have been doing this, and doing this together, for a long time. At the very beginning, for example, Designer Jeff Fiske and I were working out of my house, while our sole programmer, artist and sound designer / composer were working out of their homes. But we all knew we could depend on each other to "show up for work" every day. We knew that every Tuesday, when we met to put our stuff together, each person would deliver what he was supposed to have done (and then some), even if that meant long hours or weekends, without anyone looking over your shoulder or cracking the whip.
When you literally have one programmer, one artist and one sound designer, if any them is sub-par, you're sunk. I then had the good fortune of being able to grow the team with other individuals I had worked with extensively in the past, in addition to a lot of new faces. But the stability and predictability came from our experience working together, which in large part mitigated the problems of ramping up and dealing with the various challenges of starting a new studio. For example, when I brought our QA / Development Support Manager on board, we didn't need to sit down and discuss the role of dev support in the company, etc., etc. We just continued to do what we'd always done.
All the buttons and graphics have very detailed mouse help, which does a lot more than merely explain what the given item is.
The design of the user interface posed another big challenge. I wanted one that was simple and elegant, that communicated information as quickly and clearly as possible, but also looked like a cohesive whole. As you go through the development process, you'll often find that by the end, the need for so many new buttons, icons and displays has arisen that the UI starts too look a bit Frankenstein-ish. At first, it's no big deal; you need a new button, so you squeeze it in here or there. Then, you need a text display somewhere and so on, and before you know it, the original organization of the UI has been destroyed. You have cases where, to access certain pieces of information, the player has to click on the left side of the screen, then jump to the right and click, then back to the left for example, versus a click pattern that moves in a single direction, like > > > or whatever. You have vital pieces of information buried three or four clicks deep, while less crucial information is hogging up huge areas of the main UI. And graphically you end up with a similar mess.
With Children of the Nile, we knew early on that we were making a unique game, and that the UI would therefore need to be somewhat unique. But because minimizing the learning curve is so important in gaming, I also knew we needed to stick to whatever established UI conventions applied, as much as possible. To approach this challenge, we set out three complete re-works in the original schedule. We said that however cool the original UI design might be, when it starts to seem like it's not fulfilling its purpose, rather than slapping more stuff onto it, we'll start from scratch.
The first UI was a vertical type of control panel running down the right side of the screen, with a scenic category selector on top (like to select the "monuments" category, you'd click on a pyramid in the landscape; to select "trade" you'd click on a docked ship, etc.). Each category had a set of associated graphic building buttons, and some info. But as the building set evolved, the categories (according to these original divisions) were very lopsided. Some categories had 20 buildings, others had two. We then moved to a floating scarab that followed a similar approach, but with different categories. This was problematic because it was not easily expandable, and the graphical building buttons, however well done, were not as instantly recognizable as I felt we needed. Also, as the game developed, the categories of information we found were needed differed from the categories of buildings.
Finally we ended up with the UI layout you see today - building buttons in the upper left corner completely divorced from the category buttons. At the bottom of the screen are just three succinct reports, for people, resources and administration information. To the right of this is a square area giving information on whatever is currently selected, and to the left of this is the mini-map. These four components are completely independent. Two of them can be hidden individually, and the entire UI can be hidden for full screen play. All the buttons and graphics have very detailed mouse help, which does a lot more than merely explain what the given item is. In many cases the mouse help verges on being a mini-report, giving a detailed breakdown of the main item. For example, if you hold the mouse over the "scribes" entry in the people information area, it gives an itemized list of what all your scribes are doing. We also opted for text displays in a few key areas, such as for the building buttons. Text is generally considered to look less friendly than graphical icons, and this is true if the text is permanently displayed on the screen. In Children of the Nile the text building buttons are one click below the graphical building category buttons and are separated with headings (removing the need for an additional click). There's nothing faster for recognition than text.
In the end, I feel we were able to beautifully realize my goals with the UI. 1) It works great, and is dense yet succinct; all the info you need is right there. 2) It is a cohesive graphical whole. There are no places where a button or icon was just slapped on at the last minute. It looks like it was designed freshly with all the needed components in mind up front, because it was. 3) It has a tremendous sense of "style", which is very important, particularly in a 3D game and a historical setting because there is very little room for artistic style to enter the game environment, relatively speaking. The artist referred to a lot of sources, from ancient Egyptian jewelry to 20th century Art Nouveau design, as well as 19th century illustration to come up with the design and color scheme used in the final work.
Another tremendous challenge we faced developing Children of the Nile stemmed from the unique nature of the gameplay and model. Since all components in the game are inextricably linked, and completely inter-dependent, essentially the game cannot work at all unless and until all of it works. Obviously, with all (good) games, this is partly true; that is, each component serves an important role and synergizes with the others, but with this one, it was essentially impossible to have any real gameplay until the vast majority of the systems were implemented. Almost every system in the game is meaningless without several others. The way we tackled this challenge was to do a rudimentary or partial implementation of most systems first, then redo them later. Again, this is somewhat typical for a lot of games and developers (and we've certainly approached development this way in the past), but this was a case of having to do more up front, and then often replace the system entirely with the final one later on.
the point... was to not let the ambition of including everything undermine the goal or the necessity of doing the core game right
Many of the design decisions made on Children of the Nile were very painful. This always stemmed from the fact that the game had no real pre-existing model to follow. It wasn't like we were doing an RTS, a shooter or something you could easily label like that. And this was on top of the fact that the traditional city-building genre itself defied definition in a lot of ways. For example, in so many ways, the category is like some of the Tycoon games such as. Roller Coaster Tycoon and Zoo Tycoon. Some people (and some publishers) view these as the same genre. These games are essentially business sims, with people that you don't produce or directly control, just like the Impressions city-building games. To include things like combat and multiplayer in these games would essentially be ludicrous.
But then, you can look at it another way... Unlike the Tycoon games, the city-building games are set in the ancient world, a strategy game staple. And you have strategic goals, and detailed resource management... and suddenly, you get a lot of people calling them RTS games. The Caesar games were in real time before just about anything resembling a strategy game (other than, notably, Sim City). You may remember back to a time when the assumption was that strategy games were turn-based... then Dune II and WarCraft came along... anyway, the point is combat and multiplayer play have always occupied a funny position with the traditional city-building games. They were never about combat, and it usually wasn't done with very much detail. And multiplayer was non-existent except for the last in the Impressions city-builders, Emperor, for which the addition of multiplayer did not turn out to be any kind of a benefit to the genre, really.
So, the decision of how to approach combat and multiplayer play in Children of the Nile was very important, and there was no road map. I mean, if you were making an RTS, these questions would be no-brainers. For us, if we made the wrong decision, say to include multiplayer, this definitely would have severely impacted the single-player experience, and increased the cost. But if it turned out that single-player gaming had become passe or something by the time we shipped, then we'd be in a different kind of trouble. The same with full-blown combat... with games like the Total War series out there, we would have had some serious competition for an ancient world combat game, and meeting this challenge would have, again, negatively impacted the building / economic / essentially non-violent core game. But, if the vast majority of players felt an ancient Egyptian sim without large-scale combat was really lacking something, we would be in trouble there.
In the end, the decisions came more easily because the game was really telling us what it needed to be. It's another paradox about project design these days - it used to be that games, particularly strategy games, were very comprehensive. They had four or five different modules, and you could do everything in the game, just not in a lot of detail. For example, one of the first games I worked on, Lords of the Realm I had a castle design and building section, a real-time combat level, a castle siege level, a county management level, and a world level. If you read a description of the game, it would tell you that you could manage individual farm fields, allocate the population of the county, conscript soldiers and lead them into battle in real-time combat, move armies across England to strategically take over other counties, design and build custom castles then defend them in siege combat, etc.
Sounds pretty good, huh? Well, to do all that nowadays, the production costs would be through the roof, and, more subtly, it would be a huge challenge to keep the fun of the gameplay on track while doing all that to such a high production value. For all that, my point is simply that today games, at least successful ones, tend to do just one or two things very well. They really focus in on a single game dynamic or two, and are generally played out entirely on one level. I think in many ways that's good, but unfortunately, the ugly cousin of this is that so many games are basically clones of existing ones. But for Children of the Nile, the point of that was to not let the ambition of including everything undermine the goal or the necessity of doing the core game right, and that was an essentially peaceful, engrossing single-player game about building, and about the lives of the people in it.
I can't say enough good things about the Tilted Mill team. Each of them is so professional, so individual and creative, yet willing and eager to work with the rest of the team to make the best product, without any of the ego-type problems that are so prevalent in creative industries. They excelled in so many different ways throughout the development process that it's hard to know where to begin, but one thing I'd point out is how the programming team was able to work with a huge code base with which they were entirely unfamiliar, which was not initially developed for the purpose of making a game like Children of the Nile, and which itself obviously went through a long evolution before we even got it.
The creative staff also showed excellence in all areas. Take the artists - what most developers get done with a staff of 10 or 12, we do with just four.
From a company management perspective, it was invaluable to have access to this engine when we did, so we could build a robust working prototype very quickly. But, from a development perspective it's a double-edged sword. The programmers would often be unable to give good time estimates about upcoming tasks because they had to figure out what the code was already doing first, and so on. And because of the unique nature of Children of the Nile, there were a lot of cases where one piece of functionality would break another. Now, that happens all the time in game development, but relative to my past experience, it happened a lot more in Children of the Nile because of the organic nature of the model. But the programming team was able to stay ahead of it, and really pulled off a lot of small miracles, especially in the final months of development.
I also have to give a lot of thanks to the QA and development support department. I know it's a cliche, but these folks really are the unsung heroes of game development. The designers and programmers tend to get all the attention, but without top-notch QA, the game will rarely hit that high level of quality or get done anywhere close to on time. As the project lead, the value of being able to review a single bug / suggestion database that I know represents all the issues with the game, and all the ideas anyone on the team has come up with is incalculable. And that's just the QA component of the job. For development support, we have people with writing ability who can proofread and edit the manual and in-game text, hardware people who can facilitate and perform compatibility testing and make associated recommendations, have junior programmers who can do the install work, create encrypted builds and so on, thus taking a burden off the programming team, and so on. They work extraordinarily long and often unpredictable hours. They're the guys who stay until the job is done, period.
The creative staff also showed excellence in all areas. Take the artists - what most developers get done with a staff of 10 or 12, we do with just four. Moreover, the look and feel of the game has a richness and depth that you just don't see in other games. Sure, we sometimes get criticized for the "graphics" but, as always, what is typically being referred to is the graphics technology. How cool is the water reflection? How sharp are the cast shadows? How high is the texture resolution? The thing with Children of the Nile is, again, there is no pre-existing model for a game where you can really zoom all the way in, but also zoom out very far and be looking at literally thousands of buildings and figures. A lot of the latest RTS games look really, really good, but you can barely zoom out at all.
If you look at the colors and the sense of atmosphere in Children of the Nile, which comes out brilliantly in loads upon loads of screenshots, you'll see something that (to me anyway) is refreshing. Making all the components of the environment fuse together into one whole is tremendously difficult, especially when they're being created by different individuals. I look at so many games that have great textures, shadows, water, etc., but as an artist, I immediately see the separations between these items. They don't all live in the same environment. Each looks cool by itself, but together... well there is no together. This sense of the Children of the Nile environment being both a real place, but also a magical, almost fantasy place was hard-earned, and our artists and our composer deserve a lot of credit for that.
I think we could have done a little more in the tutorials early on to shake users of pre-conceived notions.
The design staff, of course, deserves a lot of credit - for putting up with me, for one thing. In our many long design meetings, my approach would be to rarely take the first answer to a question, or the first solution to a problem. I would always push for a better resolution, a simpler, more elegant solution and so on. And then when other areas were more fully fleshed out, I would drag the designers back to prior hard-fought battles, and reassess the previous solutions. We really exhausted all possibilities before coming to the final resolutions, and again, I'll emphasize that this game did not really have any existing road map in terms of other existing games.
For their part, the design staff has always had this uncanny ability to very quickly identify any and all conflicts that might result from a certain decision. This can be very frustrating! You think you have the perfect idea, then one of the designers identifies a trickle down effect that will result in the economy crashing, and you have to start from scratch. For their part, they also remain very willing to hit me over the head when I'm being obstinate (I wish I could get a couple of "yes men" on board, but I just can't seem to...), and that has always made me feel very confident about the design being solid.
Areas for Improvement
I think we could have done a little more in the tutorials early on to shake users of pre-conceived notions. We vastly underestimated how deeply some of these notions were entrenched, and how even when staring something entirely contradicting this right in the face, players and reviewers would stick stubbornly to what they thought they knew, and insist the game was doing something wrong. Don't misunderstand me - I'm not talking about players saying they would have preferred such and such and we're arrogantly telling them we know better and are trying to force something new and undesired down their throats; I'm talking about players having been trained through many years of gaming to accept certain inherently flawed and frustrating gameplay mechanisms to the point where they assume these mechanisms are the way things just have to work. In hindsight, I think we should have stated "this game is unlike anything else" right up front in the tutorials, and perhaps gotten this message out more in the marketing and packaging as well.
I did incorporate several headline-like catch phrases in the tutorials, designed to jar players' minds into quickly dropping certain preconceptions. My premise was simple - Children of the Nile is very easy to understand, as long as you don't bring too many preconceptions to the table. These were things like, "Money does grow on trees", and "Human Resources: Managing Lives", "Knowledge is Power", "Is there life after death?", "Taxes: What you don't know can hurt you", "What have you done to impress me lately?" and "I'll give you cedar if you give me papyrus." Each of these was designed not so much to teach the player a specific aspect of gameplay, but to simply introduce doubt about any inherent (mis)understandings of the game, and then to arouse his curiosity about how it really worked.
I also wrote a section of our website designer diaries called, "bucking tradition" where I lay out three key areas in which Children of the Nile swims against the current of traditional strategy gaming systems.
As with every game I've ever done, there are a few places in Children of the Nile where the effort in terms of design and implementation wasn't matched in the end by a commensurate amount of impact on the gameplay experience. For example, there is a nice, elegant little "meal" model used when households eat. There are three farmed foods in the game, wheat, barley and vegetables. In addition, there are wild foods like fish, pomegranates, etc. Either of the two grains can be used to make bread, but only barley can be used to make beer, the favorite drink of the Egyptians. Food is the currency in the game, and wheat is more productive than barley, which is more productive than vegetables; that is, a field of wheat produces more units of food than one of barley, and so on.
Families ideally want to eat a complete meal of bread, beer and vegetables. So, the first thing they do is try to make bread from their grains. If they don't have enough wheat, they use barley. This in turn means they might not have enough barley to make beer, and they're eating a food that was more costly to produce, for the same resultant value. If they have no grains at all, then they have no bread or beer, and, if they're eating only vegetables; this is not very cost effective as vegetables have such a low yield. Without bread, the staple food, the household becomes dissatisfied. And, any kind of incomplete meal, whether it's insufficient overall volume, or lack of one or two of the specific items (bread, beer, vegetables) causes some malnutrition effect, which makes the household more vulnerable to certain medical conditions. On top of all that, since food is your currency, for things like world-level "spending" (e.g. trade), you're much better off growing wheat because it has the highest yield. But you have to be careful to also be growing enough barley and vegetables to satisfy the citizenry and keep them healthy.
It's been a real struggle to wipe the slate clean and get people to look at Children of the Nile just for what it is.
Whew! For all that, in the end, it's really not much of a challenge to balance your food production (relative to other challenges in the game), and only the most discerning players will perceive the connection between the specific ailments striking a given household and its dietary history. This system was too detailed to make the player micro-manage it, and making it more flexible and automatic largely removes the need for it. In the end, this turned out to be more of a nice deep detail, impressive but not crucial to gameplay. Widespread malnutrition will pose a problem, but whether or not one household didn't have beer at their last meal is not a huge concern. If you grow only vegetables or only wheat you'll have problems, but the default settings will work out just fine, although they're not be absolutely optimal for revenue purposes.
A larger issue that I question from time to time was the wisdom of choosing the ancient Egyptian setting. I chose this because ancient Egypt occupies that unique place where it is both a real place and a magical, fantasy world. It is both familiar and alien. On top of that, it was almost entirely isolated from the rest of the world during its early development and its heyday, which offered the perfect setting for a game where you build the ideal society from scratch. But the danger is that people, particularly journalists, compare the game too closely to the Impressions game, Pharaoh.
Some will write an entire story describe every aspect of the game in terms of what was "revamped" from Pharaoh. They'll say something doesn't work because they're doing what they did in Pharaoh and that's not working in Children of the Nile. They'll say the AI isn't working because they have a shop full of wares but the house next door is complaining because it doesn't have any wares. I mean, I might live next to a Jaguar dealer and still complain I don't have a Jaguar because I can't afford one, right?
It's been a real struggle to wipe the slate clean and get people to look at Children of the Nile just for what it is. Love the game or hate it, but love it or hate it for what it really is. I get the feeling that if we were an unknown start-up coming out of nowhere, that a lot of journalists would approach the game differently. Once they start down the path of this being Pharaoh with a facelift or something, then many things about the game will not make sense to them.
I'm still sorting out the many things I learned developing Children of the Nile, and starting up the company. By that, I mean I have a lot of new data to digest. For one thing, I learned that a lot of gamers, maybe many, and a lot of game reviewers seem to want something different out of a game than we typically want to give. I would summarize it by saying they get really good at a certain game, or type of game or genre, and then they want that expertise to apply to the next game they play (in that genre). That is the fun to a lot of gamers. And, for those gamers, it is incredibly frustrating and actually disempowering to play a game where their old bag of tricks fails them. They're at a disadvantage now.
The inexperienced gamer with the open mind gets it right away, excels, and has a blast. The experienced gamer says the food distribution is broken because the servant lives right next to a bakery but has no bread. He's confused because most of the buildings in the game don't cost you any resources to build. They're free? How can that be? So like I said, I'm still trying to sort that one out. I'm still trying to decide if bucking tradition is game design suicide or if the community is open to really new ideas. I remember when games didn't fit into neat genres or categories at all, so gamers expected to learn some new mechanisms when playing a new game. What constitutes new now is not really something that is fundamentally different, but superficially different.
I also feel it's important to have more publisher involvement in the early stages of the product concept. Because games take so long to make now, it's important to have everyone on board with the project from day one. Fortunately, we hooked up with a publisher that got what we were trying to do, but there was a risk that couldn't happen. You might start off making a medieval game or something, then two years down the road, you present it to a publisher and he says, "gee, if it were only set in ancient Rome we would have loved it" or something. The rule used to be that the more you could do on your own, in terms of a prototype and so forth, the more interest you would get from publishers, and the better the deal you'd get. This was basically reducing the publisher's risk as much as possible, letting him see what he was getting, and giving him some confidence that you were partway there already.
at one point, we developers would... openly share everything we were working on, without fear that another developer would rip it off
Also, it used to be that if you had a good game or idea, you'd get signed. But now, the options are becoming very narrow. A publisher will already have a shooter and an RTS, so they don't need another game that is anything like those, or it will just compete. Or they've reduced the product management staff so much that they can only take on one more game this year, and it needs to be an RTS. Or maybe they have a bunch of movie or TV licenses gathering dust, so all they're interested in is a game based on one of them. For all these reasons, I feel it is really risky not to be working with a publisher from day one, who is as eager to do the given game as the developer is.
I've also learned that the game development community is an important asset for keeping one's sanity in this industry. There remains an incredible camaraderie among game developers that would probably surprise a lot of folks on the publishing side, or in business in general. I say "remains" because at one point, we developers would go to E3 or CES and openly share everything we were working on, without fear that another developer would rip it off and rush something to market. That just wasn't done. It was in bad taste. We are more like "artists", interested in showing what we can do, not in stealing someone else's idea to make a buck. I think most developers still essentially feel this way, but publishers now talk about their various properties, and if you go to E3, all the good stuff is kept behind closed doors.
The world we developers live in is so different from what most people experience in their professional lives. There's a huge amount of trust between us - even if we've never worked together, we feel like we're all in the same boat. It's an incredible support system and source of information that has allowed Tilted Mill to achieve things that would never have been possible otherwise. Unfortunately I can't talk about any of it...
We are a little surprised, as it seems some people have preconceived notions about how the inner workings of Children of the Nile should operate. Because there are admittedly many superficial similarities to previous titles we have done, far more people than we expected are assessing it as if it were a sequel, and therefore comparing to an existing game. Mostly, we are seeing this with some of the reviewers, who may have been given the game because they reviewed Pharaoh or other city-building games in the past, and are therefore (apparently) viewed as being better positioned to review Children of the Nile. That is fine, unless they start the game with the preconceived notion that it is a sequel to an existing title, which it is absolutely not. If they don't separate this game from what they have learned (and been forced to swallow) in the past on other games, they will feel lost and ignore what we tell them in the tutorial about how it actually works - not how old games used to.
In fact, so far, we can clearly divide the reviewers into to camps, which are basically those who play and assess Children of the Nile for what it is, and those who base the entire review on a side by side comparison to Pharaoh. Often, the latter will simply run down a list of pointers like, "don't do such and such, because it works like this now" or "they've scrapped the blah blah blah feature and 'replaced' it with blah blah blah" - not even really reviewing the game at all. It's more like they're providing a quick reference card or something. We have even seen screenshots in reviews literally comparing individual buildings from the two games side by side. We are not even the same company, we started this game completely from scratch, and we said from the start this was going to be a brand new game and arguably a new genre. I don't think people believed us when we said it is a new gaming experience!
Players, by contrast, (even those who may start with some strong preconceptions) seem to quickly get past this apparent obstacle, and our user reviews have been fantastic. I am not sure if this comes from users willingly spending their own money and taking more time with the game, or the fact that many reviewers were between Halo 2 and Half-Life 2, and our title is much more of a sit back and relax, civilization or Sims immersion than an adrenaline rush. Perhaps gamers really are looking for a fresh new gaming experience (which is why we made Children of the Nile to begin with!) versus re-creating their beloved experience from the past.
There is a striking amount of consistency in this division. For example, the sequel crowd tends to reject the interface. They complain that it's not giving them the information they need, or that they specifically want big spreadsheets of information, but this is because they're looking for information that simply does not exist or is irrelevant in Children of the Nile. They think the AI isn't functioning because resources such as food are not distributed in the artificial way they were in older city-building games. When these folks identify a component of the game that has no direct corollary in prior city-building games, such as prestige, they assert that it does not fit. And they tend to find the graphics "dated" or sometimes complain that they're not detailed enough (as in a 2D game). Often, they'll say the game is too complicated because they are trying to understand in detail how all of its many intricate systems work (which is what you normally have to do with artificial rule-based strategy games), and this is impossible because the organic systems are very complex.
we could demo the game for six hours... and we didn't run out of things to talk about. Some games you can finish playing in six hours.
But in Children of the Nile, you have fun playing and watching, not thinking about the rules and trying to exploit them. The systems are intricate precisely so the game can deliver this flexible, unbreakable gameplay experience. I can't tell you how many times this particular type of reviewer has said something like, "I'm having a ton of fun, but I don't really know what's happening." Yes you do!! You just think you don't because you think there is more to understand, which there isn't.
By contrast, those who manage to view the game for what it is are very impressed with the user interface, and overjoyed that all the information they need is one or less than one click away. They love the organic and realistic nature of the resource distribution system. They love that this is the first game where they don't have to quit and reload a saved game when they make a "mistake", because there is no benefit to that. They love to settle in for a deep, engrossing experience where they can even become hypnotized by the ant farm-like behavior of the population, and the sensation of watching their societies grow. They find the graphics beautiful, warm and atmospheric. They love the fact that, just as viewing a real society, they don't know everything that is going on everywhere all the time. On the surface, that may sound like something that should cause concern, but really, the experience in the end is one of incredible depth because no matter how deeply you dig, you'll never hit bottom. You just need to try to achieve your goals, you don't need to know every piece of data the game is shuffling around.
I can't say precisely what lies ahead for Children of the Nile and the Immortal Cities series. Of course, we'd love to continue making games in the series, but there are a lot of other things we'd like to do as well. These decisions won't be made for a little while yet.
Creating Children of the Nile has been a deeply personal experience for me. In so many ways, the game has far exceeded my expectations. Simply put, I did not believe it was possible to do some of the things we've done in this game, or just to make a game like this work - just work, let alone be fun to play. One thing Jeff Fiske and I always found notable was how we could demo the game for six hours! Six hours and we didn't run out of things to talk about. Some games you can finish playing in six hours.
With many of our past games we experienced difficulty showing them, because they don't look as much fun on the surface as say an action game. It's sort of like watching someone read a book. It doesn't look fun, because the fun is all happening in the huge amount of stuff that is going on in the player's / reader's mind. But Children of the Nile pushed that so far that, in fact, we found we could often demo the game without playing at all, but simply building a big city and walking the viewer through it. Now, when you're doing that to something you've painstakingly built yourself, something you've raised like a child, the experience is very deeply satisfying. I think Children of the Nile comes closer to delivering the unique gameplay experience and realizing the unique potential of single player PC gaming than any game I know.
Even after years of making and looking at this game, I will still find myself stopping in mid-sentence while walking through the testing area or something because I see an amazing looking city on someone's monitor out of the corner of my eye and I just have to burst out, "wow, that's incredible!"
Jeff Fiske: Even after playing the game for hundreds of hours, it can still surprise me when I look at it and say, "Wow, that looks really cool with the sun setting on my pyramids, and people bustling to get home before nightfall- that looks like a real place." I think that is the single greatest achievement of the game. It really can look and feel like a real place and you get to call the shots.
I also enjoy opening the world map and making strategic decisions about how to build my city in relation to expanding Egypt's influence throughout the known world.
One last thing - the game as a whole is a relaxing escape to old school PC gaming, done with a modern visual overhaul, complete to walking your street in first person. That is what we think PC gaming offers that no other medium does- an opportunity to explore and experience a place, fantastic or real, that you otherwise will never experience in a lifetime.