Interview – Demise of Nations: Rome

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I recently had the opportunity to talk with Noble Master Games’ very own driving force, Chris Aschwanden, on his upcoming grand strategy Demise of Nations: Rome – currently in alpha. The game is a fascinating and desperately beautiful turn-based affair and I simply had to get to know the fellow behind the fun. My impressions of the early alpha build of Demise of Nations: Rome can be found here.

Thanks for taking the time to chat, Chris. Putting aside Demise of Nations: Rome for a moment, what’s your background in development?

I started developing games about 25 years ago. Back then I had an Atari ST computer. There was no internet per se to publish games, so I ended up sending all my games to a distributor that specialized in selling games via Public Domain floppy disks. Although I put my heart and soul into them, obviously most of the games I developed where quite bad. My sister was my game-play tester back then.

Despite most of the games not being any good, I also developed a RISK-clone featuring a map of Europe and it got a little bit of media attention much to my surprise. I think that’s when I found my genre.

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Any particular influences, both within and outside of the games medium, that have remained a constant in your design processes or aesthetic preferences?

Rather than outside mediums, I was mostly influenced by other games I played. Most people I knew owned a PC so the games I used to play where to a large part Public Domain games released for Atari ST. I played commercial games as well but the Public Domain games were the most fun ones. The graphics were crude by nowadays standards but there were a few that got my interest. There were a couple of games that I think would be fun to implement but I am not so sure how well it would fare in today’s market. Also, Age of Conquest is not actually influenced by RISK but a game called Caesar for Atari St. It’s not the famous Caesar game but a rather unknown version by a German developer named Heiko Hartmann.

I think aesthetics are important in today’s age, however, what makes or breaks a game are the underlying game-play mechanics. I generally try to keep the game interface and mechanics simple, and at the same time game-play deep. It doesn’t always work though.

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You’ve created RTS games in the past in the Desert and Tropical Stormfront games, as well as the aforementioned Age of Conquest. Was a grand strategy the logical next step?

I created Age of Conquest, a turn-based game, over ten years ago and have been improving on it ever since. The current release is the third installment of the game. Age of Conquest has come a long way and I just felt I should do something new. With Tropical and Desert Stormfront I tried to design a game that was different and real-time strategy seemed the perfect fit. Units and maps are based on the turn-based Classic Empire game by Walter Bright but translated into RTS. I believe both Tropical and Desert Stormfront are fun to play, but they didn’t get the attention I was expecting. The launch of the games has been abysmal at best. In the end I think there are several things I should have spent more time on, especially testing and fine-tuning of gameplay.

In any case, I decided to go back to my roots and develop a game that is addressed at the more hardcore strategy game players and Demise of Nations was born.

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Before we get into the nuts of bolts of mechanics, Demise of Nations is quite unique in the visual department. Despite having the depth of any other turn-based empire builder, there’s little else with which to compare the aesthetics. In a genre where the complexity of a game often seems to dictate either dry abstraction or austere realism, Demise of Nations feels like a cute, colourful rebellion. What were the governing factors in deciding to run with such a visual style?

I believe in order to bring a game to the greater masses, graphics play an important role. Hex-based strategy games have rather lived a wallflower existence for the most part. However, especially Unity of Command and Civilization V have shown hex-based games can be exciting. Both are fun to play and have garnered quite some success. They feature deep gameplay combined with pleasant visuals.

Regarding Demise of Nations, credit it is mostly due to Anthony Hager, who is doing all the artwork. He has done an excellent job bringing the game to live. Although I hoped for something like that, he more than nailed it!

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It’s truly fantastic art direction, certainly one of the highlights. Any reason why your games are made with 2D assets, rather than go the polygonal route?

Personally, although I have done 3D programming, I was never really that big of a fan. For strategy games like Demise of Nations, 2.5D art with all its details simply looks great. Also, it’s a lot easier to render a single rectangle on the screen rather than a complex 3D-model. I could have implemented Demise of Nations in 3D but I don’t think it would really add to the game. An isometric 2.5D projection makes it very clear how to interact with the map and especially your units on the screen.

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In a nutshell, how would you describe your new game?

Demise of Nations is a turn-based grand strategy wargame during the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. The game is played over a large hex-based map of Europe spanning the British islands, Scandinavia, northern Africa and a small part of western Asia. Demise of Nations is played in turn-based WEGO allowing all the players to enter their turn at the same time rather than to wait for the opponents to finish their turn first. Gameplay focuses on military strategy, diplomatic relations and economy. The game features over 20 factions including the Roman Empire, Carthage, Gaul, Celts, Greeks, Sparta, Egyptians and Persia amongst others.

The game covers many of the bases and expectations of a grand strategy. Are you setting out to reinvent or refine the genre with this new project?

I believe Demise of Nations is a middle ground between highly sophisticated strategy games such as Crusader Kings and more basic games such as RISK. Demise of Nations employs traditional elements of strategy gaming. It probably comes close to Unity of Command but rather than focusing on military conquest alone it adds a slight role-playing character by introducing diplomacy and economy. I wouldn’t say the game sets out to reinvent or refine the genre but probably the combination of all those elements in addition to making it WEGO is somewhat new.

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What are the crucial strategic and mechanical requirements to an empire builder?

I believe the key is to find a good balance between military strategy and economy. The player is forced to choose between expanding his or her territory on one hand and investing in research and development on the other hand. Demise of Nations will introduce trading too but it didn’t quite make it into the current alpha build. So, in order to achieve ultimate victory one has to make sure to both have a stable income and at the same time trying expand his or her territory.

I am not sure if a game that is either too much focused on warfare like Hearts of Iron or too much focused on trading and economics like Victoria would work well for Demise of Nations. However, the game will come with modding support, so interested parties will be able to tweak gameplay in that regard.

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Will there be factional differences between empires, such as faction-specific units?

All nations are theoretically able to build the same set of units. However, different factions start off with a different set of advancements. You will not be able to build certain units unless you have done the research for them first and have the corresponding town structures available. Also, Carthage has elephants on its territory and is the only nation capable of building war elephants. So unless you have elephants on your territory you won’t be able to produce war elephants.

A big issue with grand strategy titles is the mid-to-late game being a bit of a steamroller affair, where the player is often so powerful there’s little to no challenge in mopping up for a victory. Have you considered or implemented any mechanics to sidestep or divert such events, or is there something cathartic to the grand, unstoppable conquest?

That’s going to be the big task to tackle. Demise of Nations is still in alpha, so right now gameplay balance is far from finished. In addition, the AI is barely implemented. In order to prevent “easy” victories there is a administrative expense associated with the size of your empire. Although your income will increase the more you expand, at the same time the cost of managing such a large nation will increasingly go up as well. In order to achieve ultimate victory, money alone will not do it. You will need to have the right diplomatic relations and a good economy to eventually be able to reach the goal of ultimate domination. All the players, including the AI, will have to work with the same set of rules. The rules will help smaller nations to stay alive while at the same time making it harder for larger nations to expand.

Another interesting mechanic to add is the Hun invasion. It won’t probably be in for the first release of the game though.

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I think strategy fans, particularly those with a predilection towards the Roman era, will have a lot of fun with Demise of Nations: Rome. Perhaps too early to tell, but is there a hint in the name that this is the new, multi-title franchise from Noble Master Games?

I guess it all depends how the game will be received once it is released. Demise of Nations is currently focused on military conquest, so it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. There are several options to step it up a notch; for example by adding a more role-playing character by introducing Greek mythology or by creating a completely fantasy-based world. Another way to expand Demise of Nations is to change to the medieval time period including the Crusades. Mechanics would have to be enhanced by adding religion as well as the various religious leaders during that time. Asian history or the conquest of North America will be other interesting scenarios to consider.

Other additions to the game could include plagues, locusts, the ice age, magical artifacts, government types, family trees and politics.

What the future holds! Thanks so much for your time, Chris . We’re looking forward to seeing more of your game along the development path and upon the eventual release.

Thanks for having a look at the alpha version of Demise of Nations. I really enjoyed answering your interview questions.

You can find more information at the Noble Master Games website, as well as follow Chris on Twitter.