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Bob Smith's Plan to Conquer the Universe

Who doesn’t want to take over the galaxy?  I mean, it’s a dream we’ve all had at one time or another (okay, maybe that’s just me).  Fortunately, as long as there have been aspiring galactic emperors, there have been game designers creating new ways to indulge those imperialistic dreams of conquest on an interstellar scale.

GameSquad recently down with one such game designer and his name is R. T. ‘Bob’ Smith…what, never heard of him?  Well, you might not recognize the name, but if you have ever played Shogun and Medieval II: Total War, you have sampled some of his work.  Yeah, I’d thought that would get your attention.  Mr. Smith has recently launched a new company, Ntronium Games, and has announced his first project to be a 4X strategy game, entitled Armada 2526.   Check out the following interview for what could be the next, great game of warfare on a galactic scale!


Could you tell us a little about yourself and Ntronium Games?
 
I’m a veteran designer and programmer of strategy and wargames. I developed a number of original games back in the eighties, but they weren’t well known outside of Britain. I’ve worked on console games for Crystal Dynamics, and even worked for a video chip manufacturer for a while. The work I’m best known for is my contribution to the Total War series of games. I wrote most of the battle simulation and AI code for Shogun and Medieval II, worked on Rome as a designer, and directed Medieval II.

Ntronium Games is my vehicle for getting back to designing the sort of games I like, and not having to worry about how to sell enough copies to cover multimillion dollar budgets. My game design philosophy is to have game detailed underlying simulation, good historical accuracy, but to present it attractively with an easy to use interface, and not too much micro-management.

How did the idea for Armada 2526 come about?
 
Armada 2526 is the spiritual successor to Armada 2525 which was a game I wrote back in the early 90s. It’s a game that I was very fond of, and spent a huge amount of time playing with my friends. It was also received quite well by the press, but unfortunately released just as the publisher was going bankrupt, so it didn’t become as famous as some of the similar games that came later. When I decided to go back to doing independent games, an updated version seemed an obvious first project.

The space conquest genre has seen some very popular titles over the years, from the classic Masters of Orion, to the more recent Sins of a Solar Empire, with each title bringing a unique twist to the genre (for example, Sins’ real time environment).  What will Armada 2526 bring to the table that will help distinguish it from other space conquest titles?

I think there’s been a trend in space empire games towards more and more detail, and micromanagement. Armada aims to be a bit more of a streamlined experience, with an emphasis on strategy and tactics rather than economics, and the simultaneous movement system gives a different feel to play. Then there are the gorgeous 3D battles, and the integrated ground assaults.

On the game’s website, you mention that in Armada 2526 “fleets maneuver against each other, seeking to force or avoid a decisive confrontation…Intelligence gathering is vital. You must know when to fight, and when to retreat, which fleet is the main thrust, and which the distraction.”  I found this very refreshing because I believe a lot of sci-fi 4X titles treat fleet warfare as if it was more of a ground battle – there seems to be less Battle of Midway and more Battle of the Bulge in most of these games, if you will.  Could you shed a little more light on how Armada 2526 will bring the ‘fleet’ back to fleet warfare?
 
It’s a combination of the simultaneous movement system, and the way that battles work with fleets supported by planetary defense systems. So even if you have a bigger fleet, you can’t just force a decisive confrontation by clicking on the other guy’s fleet. You’ve got to make him want to come out and fight you, and since nobody is going to fight unless they think they can win, you need to lure them into a battle where you’ll have the advantage. Maybe you’ll be able to concentrate more forces in the decisive spot than they expected, maybe you have better intelligence and can predict the outcome better, or maybe you have some tech that’ll give you an edge.

You can retreat from a battle that’s going badly, but big fleets take a long time to withdraw, so when two main fleets go up against each other, the loser will take some time to recover.

The game has a “streamlined economic system”.  What does that mean in terms of colony development?  Are planets treated as simple resource generators or will the player be able to get their hands dirty at a deeper level, if they wish?

Basically, there is only one resource, money, which largely comes from taxing your population, so really population is the asset you’re trying to maximize. You develop planets by building buildings on them, and the number you can put on each planet is determined by its population. You don’t decide what square each building is going to be put on, and there is only one colony per system, so it’s all quite simple to manage. You can set the tax rate for each colony which lets you balance income versus growth rate.

Continuing with planets, another area that caught my eye was Armada 2526’s planetary assault component where “ship to ships battles, grounds battles and ground to air battles” all take place simultaneously.  I am glad to read that planetary assaults are finally being fleshed out in a game to the level they deserve.  Again, could you provide a little more detail about how this will work?  How will the player manage such a complex battlespace?

As you can see from the video, the ground combat in quite stylized to make it fit in with the space combat.  Although everything is in 3D, most of the space combat happens on a 2D plane to keep it manageable, and the ground battles happen on the planet which lies underneath this plane. This makes it easy to control both forces at the same time.
 
Ground units are much more effective against other ground units, and ground based defenses than space ships are, so a few boat loads of space marines are a great way to unlock an otherwise heavily defended planet. You also need ground forces present if you want to occupy a planet that has more than a small population.

Deep tech trees are all important in this genre.  How does Armada 2526 handle technological research?  Is it of the “Lasers 1, 2, 3, etc.” variety, or something more complex?  Will there be unique tech trees for each race?  Will tech trees be randomized at all?  How will technology impact ship design?

The emphasis in the tech tree is quantity over quality. Almost every item gives you something new you can build, or some new ability. There are no inventions that are just stepping stones to other things, and very few that are just an extra level of the same thing. There will always be at least 100 things to discover in a game, but many are race specific items, so the total in the game is much greater than this.

The techs are divided into 7 areas, and the system encourages you to specialize in one or two areas. This means that in the game, you can encounter other players who’ve taken very different routes. So you might have concentrated on hyperspace and lots of fast ships, but run up against a player who has concentrated on psi powers, or you might have concentrated on stealth, and encounter a player who has specialized in biological warfare.

Speaking about ship design, how does it work in Armada 2526?  Will we be able to make custom designed ships as in Galactic Civilizations II?  Or are the ships premade and we can just enhance them with better weaponry and such as in Sword of the Stars?

Armada is a fleet combat game, not a ship combat game, so there is no facility to design your own ships. Instead we have a good variety of predefined ships with interesting capabilities, and attractive models that clearly illustrate a ship’s role.

Equally important is AI.  Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of strategy games neglect AI, leaving the player with silicon opponents that can act irrationally or just plain stupidly, ruining the sense of challenge. Armada 2526 promises to sport a powerful AI.  How was the AI developed and what type of challenge can experienced galactic conqueror expect?

I’ve had a lot of experience over the years designing AI’s and so I’m confident that the AI will present a stern challenge. I’ve tried to develop it in parallel with the game, so as a new game feature is added, the AI to use it is added as well. This helps a lot in testing the feature, and gives me the maximum time to observe how the AI uses it, and to correct its mistakes.

The player can expect to encounter “pirates, pan galactic corporations, reclusive aliens, rebels” – that’s quite a variety of opponents!   How fleshed out are these opponents?  By that, I mean are these just superficial categories for other empires or will there be a noticeable distinction to how each plays, fights and reacts to the player?

The key feature here is that the game supports non imperial organizations that you can do diplomacy with in the same way as normal players. They might have ships or colonies, or they might have no presence at all on the map. So the pirates have some ships, but only a tiny population. They can make money by raiding, but the best way seems to be to get players to pay you to leave them alone.

We’ll probably exploit this feature more in the expansion packs, for instance adding religious organizations, or banks, or mercenary forces, to build up a richer universe.

Armada 2526 seems to have a lot of graphical glitz and promises to allow battles that feature hundreds of ships.  What type of system specs can we expect to need?
 
We’ve tried to make the game visually appealing, but the emphasis is more on gameplay than state of the art graphics, so the hardware requirements are quite modest. It can even run without shaders if you’ve got an old graphics card, or a built-in one.

Does Armada 2526 have a release date?
 
No date yet, but probably before the end of the year.

Is there anything you would like to add? 

I should give credit to the author E.E Doc Smith. I discovered his Lensman series of books when I was 10 or 11, and his descriptions of space battles stuck in my head and were a big influence in the look of the battles in this game. In particular his descriptions of loaded shields radiating in the ultra violet explains the purple shields.
 

Closing Comments: 
To learn more about Armada 2526, please visit the official website (http://www.ntronium.com/Armada2526%20Home.html) or its product page at Matrix Games (http://www.matrixgames.com/products/376/details/Armada.2526).