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Interview

Achron Interview

If you’ve recently listened to our weekly podcast, you’ll know that Tim McDonald has been spending some time with Achron, a real-time strategy game with a magnificent time-travel mechanic that allows players to hop backwards and forwards in time, potentially taking units with them. As Tim has difficulty understanding the concept of time barring “lunch,” “later,” and occasionally “deadlines,” it seemed a good idea to have him chat with Chris Hazard, co-founder of Achron developer Hazardous Software.If the interview tickles your fancy, pre-purchasing the game grants immediate access to the current alpha release of the game, as well as early access to further builds, mod tools, and more.Tim McDonald: Being that time-travel in an RTS is a pretty wild concept, how did you initially come up with it?Chris Hazard (right): I was up late talking to a friend about the RTS Homeworld a month or two after it was first released. We were talking about how it was one of the first RTS games to fully make use of the 3rd dimension for gameplay, and my friend asked, “what if someone made a 4D RTS?” My initial thoughts about a 4D RTS seemed interesting, but not novel enough that I’d want to pursue it. Then I thought about the possibility of adding time travel to an RTS; it seemed like the perfect genre for time travel, as you could do all the things you read about in science fiction about time travel warfare. I started working out the details, the core algorithms of how it might work, and talked to several other people about it. A few said it couldn’t be done, which gave me the extra drive to pull it off. Based on my initial estimations, I reasoned that CPUs that people have at home wouldn’t be fast enough for another seven or more years. I decided to start working on it and keep it secret just until the technology was ready and people had fast enough computers. Things came together last year and we unveiled at GDC’s Experimental Gameplay Sessions.What sort of problems did you initially have when trying to work time-travel in? I imagine the interface would’ve taken some work to stop players getting too confused.Developing a game with free-form time travel was extremely difficult, and no one has ever done this before, so we didn’t have much to go on. Time travel at this scale influences game design in subtle but significant ways. I could easily spend hours talking about all the unique problems we’ve solved with respect to gameplay and technology, but here are a few interesting examples.Most RTS games have easy ways to group your units and issue commands to the group directly. However, if you can alter the past, you can assign unaffiliated units across the map to the same group, issue a command to that group, and drastically change the past relatively cheaply. Even seemingly small changes in the past can have large implications on the present and future like the infamous butterfly effect, where a butterfly flaps its wings, causes a rhino to sneeze, which causes a stampede, which alters the wind ever so slightly to direct a hurricane at North Carolina in the US. To prevent players from making the timeline too chaotic for opponents and to maintain balance, we implemented command hierarchies to keep players’ changes to the past more locally contained. The player sets up a command structure, and then just needs to give the commander an order to control the hierarchy, which automatically sticks together spatially.Another example is figuring out the timeline, which is an essential part of gameplay. It needs to convey to the player a map of the time and indicate what has happened, when the player should do things differently, and what opponents are changing. The tricky part was making sure that enough useful information is conveyed without being information overload. For example, although it is useful to see statistics of each of your resources throughout time, having a line for each would be visually overwhelming. Instead, we collapse resources into a single graph and use a variation on what is known as a geometric mean to combine them. This gives a result that is quite intuitive and informative.The relationships between balance, freedom, and constraints are key components to achieving a fun game, and we had many unique design considerations. If a player were able to easily send resources through time, then doing so becomes a dominant strategy which isn’t very fun to play. We’ve worked very hard to carefully tune the core gameplay mechanisms to give players freedom while keeping things interesting and competitive. As with any new strategy game, there are undoubtedly some balancing issues that will arise when we move into beta. However, I believe we have a solid foundation of gameplay that will allow us resolve any issues that arise to keep the game fun and balanced.In terms of development, many techniques common to most game engines just do not work with time travel for performance reasons, so we’ve had to improvise across the board with respect to the design and algorithms in the game engine.{PAGE TITLE=Achron Interview Page 2}Much as time-travel is, right now, the focus, what is there that’s clever and new in the standard RTS rock-paper-scissors gameplay, and how does the time travel mechanic impact these battles with abilities? There are a few little hints in the alpha as to unit utility, like stealth units, and I’ve heard talk of things like chronobombs…One of the most interesting things that time travel does to an RTS is that it brings out a vast array of strategies beyond the typical rock-paper-scissors gameplay. Bluffing, spying, and other forms of subterfuge become easy and natural, and Achron really is a war of the mind. You can jump to the future, scout out where your opponent is and then undo the scouting. Then your opponent can go back in time and move his base so that your scouting is now misinformation. Here’s another fun example of gameplay, assuming 8 minutes of playable history. Your opponent patiently crafts a hierarchy and launches an all-out attack on you 3 minutes in the past. You jump back  to 4 minutes ago and spend all of your chronoenergy managing your forces to defeat his all-out attack. However, he now undoes that attack and then launches a small fleet 7 minutes in the past to take out one of your core factories, leaving you stuck with the result because you’ve spent your all your chronoenergy on his bluff.The best part about the time manipulation gameplay elements is that they are (by default at least) symmetric to all players, so they are already well-balanced. We have actually had significant interest from the US Army in using our timeline interface and technology to teach military strategy. Even though you can’t go back in time in real life, using this in a multiplayer setting against a good opponent forces you to figure out what strategies will minimize your maximum possible loss.Going back to your question about the more traditional RTS aspects of gameplay, our units and buildings are largely feature complete, though we have quite a bit of tuning left. We’re only showing a subset of units in the current alpha releases yet as we don’t have artwork beyond billboard sketches (which is currently true “programmer art”).You mention the chronobomb, which works by sending everything in a region forward in time a couple minutes. This is useful to bottleneck your enemy and to hopefully score some chronofrags, where the units sent by the chronobomb land on and destroy other units of your opponent that happen to have moved onto the battlefield. One feature that we have not announced until now is that chronoporters have the ability to put units in what we call Temporal Soliton Shields (TSS). A unit with TSS is impervious to most attacks, but cannot be teleported or chronoported (and thus is also immune to chronobombs). A single TSS is not cheap to create, some defences and fast-moving units can break them almost instantly, and units that can break TSS will immediately respond if another unit sees it when “smart idle” is enabled on a Comm Center building. TSS is thus primarily useful for cleaning up small armies of opponents that have had all their defensive supports taken away. Because our focus is on time travel, we weren’t aiming for a large number of unit types for the player to keep track of. Each unit generally has its own role, and we have enough diversity of units to keep things fun and interesting.For that matter, how different are the three playable races? What sort of units, unique abilities, and focuses can we expect from them?The three races are very different. You can look forward to trying the two alien races sometime later this spring when we have more of the art ready.The Humans are, well, us in many years. They’ve discovered teleportation from studying some ruins in the Remnant System, and have gotten pretty handy with using teleporters. However, they haven’t yet discovered time travel at the start of what will become our first single-player campaign, and so you learn that along with them. They have a fairly strong offence, and have the largest number of types of units and buildings. Although a few of their buildings can move, their bases are largely stationary. The humans have builder-type units that throw down “seeds,” which quickly self-construct into buildings via a combination of teleportation and nanotechnology.The Vecgir are an alien race that are somewhat humanoid but bigger. They are the masters of teleportation. Although many of their units generally move slowly, they can travel long distances quickly via self-teleportation. The Vecgir are powerful for surprise attacks and quick retreats, but can also be trapped easily. Most of their buildings are constructed via proximity in a hexagonal pattern; a building can lay out the foundation for a neighbouring building, and then the building is constructed on top. Their foundations have built-in defences, and their teleporters have automatic repel that can effectively slow down a small attack (but can be easily overwhelmed by a many opponents).The Grekim are a squid-like race. They are masters of time travel and closely integrated with their technology. They do not have chronoporters; rather, their top-level units can chronoport on their own. They also have the chronobomb. The Grekim do not have the ability of teleportation, but all of their buildings are mobile. Buildings are created by a Grekim unit morphing into one, and in some cases this process is reversible. They also have a different kind of hierarchy and a rather unique unit production method, both of which we will be unveiling at a later date.{PAGE TITLE=Achron Interview Page 3}Any favourite tricks that players might not have picked up on yet?[Laughs] It may be better to ask some Achron fans what tricks they have developed that we haven’t thought of yet!  We’ve been pretty open about communicating the strategies we know about through blog posts and discussion on our forums, and some of our fans have put together some interesting strategies. On chronofrag.com, an unofficial fan forum, they have enumerated somewhere around 40 different strategies that arise out of having time travel in an RTS.  Some are basic, like undoing a battle that you shouldn’t have started. Some are powerful but easy to do, like distracting your opponent in the present with units that have been defeated in the past, where the timewave carrying their defeat hasn’t caught up to them yet.  Some are extremely complex.  My personal favorite strategy so far that we revealed to our fans prior to releasing the first alpha build is something I call “economic undermining”. After you’ve expanded to other bases and built up some sizeable armies, you go to the past and focus all of your efforts on destroying your opponent’s resource processors, taking their economy out from under them. Unless your opponent had a large stockpile of resources, many buildings and even large parts of the opposing army will become undone, never have even existed in the first place, all because your opponent wouldn’t have had enough resources to build them. This changes the common RTS strategy of always spending your resources quickly, as you will want some sort of a buffer to prevent this type of attack.The RTS genre has, of late, been trying to get out of a rut by trying all sorts of different things. Most of the big ones from last year tended to focus on small squads rather than gigantic battles. Where do you think the future of the genre lies?Obviously, I think one component of the future of RTS lies with meta-time controls like in Achron. These controls allow you to explore strategies and blur the line between commitment and hypothetical. In fact, some of the people working on Achron have found it hard playing other RTS games now, as they dearly miss being able to undo and change their strategy.The RTS genre has long had many niches, but I feel like the genre as a whole is really starting to mature lately. You have the push for the feeling of scale with games like Supreme Commander and Sins of a Solar Empire, and as you mentioned, the push for the smaller scale in games like Dawn of War 2. Although there will be trends from one year to the next, I believe that over the longer-term, we’ll see more RTS games across the range of scales, blurring the lines between FPS and RTS, as well as between RTS and Civilization-esque games. I also think we might see more innovations in base and infrastructure building.I’d say that RTS is being squeezed between ease of use on one side and realism and depth of strategy on the other side. If you were to ask a real military officer to assess how realistic most RTS games were several years ago (aside from a minority of the games that do strive for accuracy), you might have gotten a laugh at best. Now, things like suppressive fire have started making their way further in to the genre in games such as Company of Heroes. It’s probably only time before the line is blurred between high-level RTS games that deal with political influence and lower-level tactical games. I also think that there’s a future on an even larger scale yet: MMORTS games. I believe this hasn’t taken off largely due to the cost of computing, but that’s always getting cheaper. There is something cool about the strategies and struggles between thousands of of city-states or thousands of colonies in a galaxy.What level of popularity are you predicting Achron will hit? Do you think the unique mechanics will be enough to attract the mass market?We believe that the time travel mechanics and Achron have the potential to be well received by a broad audience. Time travel is one of those things that people just aren’t used to thinking about yet; they have no prior experience. Consider when personal computers first started to become mainstream in homes. Some people said things like, “Well, what do I do with it? I have no idea how it works. It’s too complicated.” I’m not equating the importance of time travel in video games to the importance of the personal computer, but I think that the analogy of familiarity fits. It just takes time for it to sink in.Our marketing budget is orders of magnitude smaller than those of big studios, so that is a barrier, but we’ve done pretty well via word-of-mouth and blogs already. Realistically, we’re anticipating a strong following of core gamers. We think we have what it takes for Achron to at least have a very large following for an indie game that will hopefully propel Hazardous Software to even bigger things down the road.{PAGE TITLE=Achron Interview Page 4}You’re going with a very iterative model – users can buy the game now in return for alpha access, which they can test and give feedback on, and there’s a note that users can contribute art. Have you seen much of a response to this yet? Are you relying on these things at all?As of today (January 13th), we haven’t begun the art contribution process, which starts next Sunday, so I don’t have an answer for you yet. However, we have already received comments from people wanting to help. The community art contribution program isn’t essential, but it expresses our core values of community building and has been an effective model for other independents. Community art contributions may give us a boost. We also may be using our profit sharing model to bring on art staff in the future.On the play testing front, it’s been a great success so far. We’ve gotten excellent feedback so far and have improved many things slated for our next release on the 17th and also have a list of planned further improvements.Finally: why did you feel the need to make a game that is impossible to easily explain, if not to make my job really hard? Is there a trick to explaining the game, how it works, and how paradoxes are resolved that I’m unaware of?Achron can be easily explained in a single sentence: it’s a multiplayer RTS where players and units can simultaneously and independently travel through time. It’s the follow-up questions that can get tricky, but really, it’s just that the past propagates toward the future, like Marty McFly’s picture of his parents fading in the movie Back to the Future. He’s still there, but he won’t be unless he fixes the past. Paradoxes oscillate between all possible states automatically via that simple time wave mechanism.Here are three explanations that might help:First, imagine if the character Doc Brown in the movie Back to the Future had sold his technology to three opposing military forces of the distant future, but that it was prohibitively expensive to travel back in time more than 10 minutes for regular battlefield operations. If you can imagine being a commander in one of those armies, that’s what our gameplay is like.Second, you can tell people that Achron is a multiplayer time travel game where different players can be in different points in time at the same time. The timeline is like a conveyor belt on an assembly line that moves things into the future, with one point on the assembly line representing the present time (how long it has been since the game started). Each player can go to a different points on the assembly line and make changes to it, which are carried forward and influence things. You can represent time travel by grabbing something off one spot on the assembly line, walking somewhere else, and placing it there.Third, and this is closer to reality in the Achron universe, imagine yourself at your desk using your computer to give instructions to an army. Now imagine you had a slot that you could drop notes to yourself at any point in time; you just put the destination time and message on the card, drop it in, and the you at that time gets it. Because you… are you, you decide that you’re going to follow your instructions because you know best. So if you receive a note from yourself at a point in time, you follow the instructions and send a note back to yourself at the time you sent it saying how it went. So you could say to yourself the night before, “don’t get the salad at that restaurant tonight, or you’ll get food poisoning.” So the other you says, “okay, I didn’t.” Then you from this morning might send a note saying, “I’m not sick.” And then you never were sick to begin with.Thanks, Chris!Achron, due out at the beginning of 2011, can be pre-ordered now. Players who pre-order will gain immediate access to the Achron alpha, allowing them to get to grips with the time-travel mechanics. If the idea of an RTS based around hopping through time appeals, stay tuned for our hands-on preview of the title, coming soon.

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