GameStar interview on Children of the Nile (3/29/04)
German magazine GameStar interviewed designer Chris Beatrice recently on his inspiration for Children of the Nile, and what makes this game stand apart from the crowd.
Children of the Nile is obviously close to Pharaoh. Where are the biggest differences?
This game was born when I and a small group of industry veterans split with their long-time publishing partner, joined with other skilled and experienced developers who felt a similar calling, and set out to make a game that we felt truly realized the unique form of entertainment made possible by the PC. In the past, the typical constraints (including technological) prevented us from evolving the genre much further, but also the evolutionary process just takes a lot of time. It’s been almost five years since any major innovations in this genre, and we felt it was high time for the next generation of city building.
Children of the Nile was not conceived as an incremental improvement on other city building games, but as a new, unique game that we feel fully realizes the ultimate potential of the city building genre. We chose the ancient Egyptian setting because it’s extremely compelling to us, it is familiar and compelling to the entire world, and provides the opportunity for players to build on a grand scale.
How far will you go from the typical "Impressions"-style gameplay?
With CotN we started from scratch, and came up with a “society simulation” wrapped inside a strategy game… or maybe it’s a strategy game wrapped inside a society sim… where you win by building and creating an entire society, not by destroying things. We asked ourselves, “what should a city-building game really be like?” Many of the answers were obvious. Many of the answers were things that prior games (and I’m not just talking about our own) had promised but never really delivered on.
What you do when playing the game is familiar, but what the game does is utterly different from anything that’s been achieved in any game before, certainly on this scale. Once people understand what we are doing with this unique synergy of strategy game and simulation, those who are familiar with my previous games can draw their own comparisons.
Many strategy game players still seem to prefer 2D over 3D. How will you make sure, that they won't get confused in a 3D world? Will there be a fixed camera angle?
Well that’s just because no one has done it right yet! With Caesar I, Impressions introduced life into strategy gaming. Simple though this was, that made the game very different from other strategy games. We have now taken that concept all the way to the end, where you feel like you are building and looking at a real place. For that to work you need to be able to interact with it in a more natural way, i.e. walking the streets, listening in on conversations, etc. But all that is separate and apart from the strategy gameplay, which remains eminently playable.
The 3d engine does not get in the way of playability, but is what makes it feel like it matters. The credibility of the world dramatically raises the bar in terms of what’s at stake for you as a leader. The union of a challenging strategy game and a comprehensive, immersive game world, where your “suspension of disbelief” is not broken, is what makes this game unique, and as I’ve said before this was where our biggest design challenges have lain. So the issue of camera movement, along with other components of the game environment and how the player relates to it, is fundamental to the game, and something we have taken ownership of from the beginning.
The only specifics I can give now are to say that the camera angle is not fixed, and how you navigate the city relates directly to the people whose lives you’re looking in on. We also have several other tools to help control the camera, and obviously as we progress we will keep working on these to ensure their usability meets our goals, and the needs of players.
Combat in Pharaoh was quite limited. Will it be more important in Children of the Nile? If so, which units, formations etc. do you plan to incorporate? Ships?
It’s difficult for me to wrestle certain topics back to where they make sense when talking about CotN, or to use the standard terminology such as “units” to describe the military component of play. The military was a huge part of leadership in ancient Egypt, and it is therefore a big part of the game here. But CotN is not an RTS game, and it is not a combat game.
The theme of this game (with respect to your role in it) is that you are a leader - the most powerful ruler in Egypt, often in the whole world. You are Pharaoh, except of course when Egypt is just emerging and there is no Pharaoh, then it’s your job to forge the nation and become the first Pharaoh. Your personal leadership, your exploits and fame, are crucial to achieving immortality in the eyes of your people. If I put it cynically, you’re always conducting a massive PR campaign for yourself! Now, how willing your people are to support your efforts (military and otherwise), and ultimately to fight and die defending their country (and I’m talking about all your people) depends very much on how they view you and the civilization you have created for them. What is a civilization? What is a nation? Is it a piece of land, or a bunch of buildings? Is it a group of people? It is more than even the sum of these things, because it transcends them, and that is what you are building in this game. You are building a cause for your people to believe in, an of course, as god-king, you are the figurehead, the personification of this nation. So, suffice it to say that the military, like everything else in this game is treated with a great deal of detail and depth, but not in ways that have been done before.
One of the most fun parts in Pharaoh was, in my opinion, establishing trade routes to open up new resources. Will there be a "world map" in Children of the Nile, too?
Again, I’m not going to get into specific features, but I will say this about your relationship to the rest of the world: First, we felt it was very important for this genre that the main game environment feel 100% real to the player, that is, that he feel like he’s really there. So we are very careful not to take your focus away from the city too much, or for too long. However, in CotN you are building more than just a capital city - you are building an entire civilization that spans many centuries. When you are done, Egypt will bear your own unique thumbprint.
Could you tell us a little about the economic system? Will there be production cycles etc.?
The details of city mechanics will have to wait for the next interview : ) I will say that CotN uses a very innovative barter-based economy, where people and entire cities in the game swap those things they have in abundance for those things they need more of. As far as management, the player is much more intimately concerned with the government side than homes and businesses in the private sector. Much like being a real leader, you don’t need to know exactly what’s going on in every household to make decisions, but if you want to, that is all there. The model is very deep and organic – if you want to go door to door and find out what’s in each family’s cupboard, you can do that!
One of the most interesting aspects in Pharaoh were the tides of the Nile. Will they still be there?
The entire basis for civilization in ancient Egypt was the annual inundation of the Nile. So yes, the Nile flood is central rhythm driving all cycles in the game. We’re doing a lot of very cool stuff with the annual flood, irrigation, etc., things that I think players will really, really enjoy, but I’m not going to get into that just yet…
As I understand, there will be monuments the player can build. How long will this take ;-) ?
Well that depends on the size of the monument you want to build! The great pyramid at Giza took around 18 years, which is remarkably short, though probably still too long for the attention span of most players today. I don’t know, maybe German players…
But seriously, the bigger the monument, the better it is, and the more time and resources it will take to construct. In fact, each and every building in the game is built right before your eyes via a detailed construction animation system customized individually for every building. This is something that, to my knowledge, no one has done before, and it’s pretty amazing to see.
For monuments specifically, well, any building large and grand enough to inspire awe is considered a monument. The construction of monuments is at the heart of all the player’s efforts, that is, they are the ultimate expression of his prosperous and well-organized society, and his personal tomb is of course the most spectacular monument he will try to build.
In addition to inspiring awe, each monument has a very real and distinct function in the game, whether it be a tomb for the player or the nobility, a cult temple, a propaganda item such as an obelisk or stele, (which magnify and prolong the effects of the player’s real achievements), and so on.
Will I play through different dynasties, epochs or ages?
Yes, CotN is also a civilization builder, where play spans many centuries. You take on the role of an entire dynasty, and play through several incarnations of that dynasty. As such, your current incarnation dies periodically from natural causes, and an extraordinary amount of your resources and effort are spent trying to build the most magnificent tomb possible before you die (a god-king deserves no less!!).
But with each passing incarnation, your dynasty, too, is developing something like “fame” which, passes from one generation to the next. This is what allows you to ultimately achieve things that would not be possible for a single ruler in a single lifetime. When Ghengis Khan and Alexander the Great died, their respective empires quickly fell apart. But the glory of Egypt endured for an incredibly long period of time. This is in part due to its incredible organization, but also to the profound faith on the part of the people in the divine nature of their leadership. It’s noteworthy that this mystique around the Pharaohs of Egypt persists to this day.
Do you plan to incorporate a multiplayer mode?
We are instead exploring ways to support and nurture an on-line community for CotN, to find a permanent home for them, so to speak, and give them new ways to interact, because we feel this is far more appropriate for what this game is all about.
When will the game be finished? Who will be publishing?
We’re on track for a holiday 2004 release, and have added lots of team members recently to ensure that we can deliver on this (we always have).
We’re privately funded, so (like everything about this game), its publishing and distribution and models are also not standard. We’re working with Myelin Media, a New York based independent game production company, one of whose core tenets is to empower developer creativity. As a very experienced team, it was our goal to remain as creatively independent as possible, and our relationship with Myelin allows us to do that. It also allows us to be much more deeply involved in the marketing effort, and to have more intimate and direct relationships with our fans and members of the journalistic community. Really it’s a dream come true for us.