For this week’s Desert Island Games, a column that looks at the top five games of some of our favorite industry personalities, we speak to Dan Toose, designer of Medieval II: Total War with Brisbane, Australia based studio Creative Assembly.
The strategy title was released in November of 2006 to positive reviews, with an expansion, Kingdoms, due for release later in the year. Toose joined the company on the back of a career as a Australian games journalist, editing long running magazine Hyper, as well as the more short lived local imprint of UK based publication Edge. He is currently working on an “unannounced project”, having “stopped working on the Medieval II expansion a couple of months ago”.
We spoke to Toose recently, and asked him about his desert island, all-time, top five most memorable games – in no particular order, of course.
World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004): I got into MMOs back when the Internet was still all text based, in the form of MUDs. Then I got into EverQuest for a brief time, but when I saw World of Warcraft coming, I was actually a games journalist at the time, and I made the call that it was going to turn MMOs into a mainstream gaming genre. Took a bit of a punt, and I was proved to be right.
I think it’s an absolute textbook case of Blizzard’s unrivaled levels of game design in PC gaming. They’ve got the sense of progression down like no other dev studio has – they showed that with Diablo II and so forth with improving your characters in a few different senses, and WoW does that in eight different areas at once. It’s a game that let’s you play the way you want; you can be competitive; you can be cooperative; you can change your mind half-way through the day. Very few games offer that robust way of appealing to such a wide audience and I’m flabbergasted – that would be the place I put the benchmark for modern game design as a game designer now.
The world is so rich and vivid. I think Blizzard have done the smartest thing, and that’s to establish their own art style over the years of the Warcraft series. I remember when the game came out and people looked at EverQuest 2 at the same time and said, ‘Oh, EverQuest 2 has better graphics’. Yeah, but they’re lifeless. There’s no richness in the style. It’s real proof that simple, low poly graphics with vivid color used in an art style that... well, most artists that make a killing, they don’t do intensely detailed paintings, it’s more expressive work, and I think a strong art style just packs in so much more character rather than a game that’s got faux-realism. As soon as you’ve got a tiny flaw in the visuals in something that’s trying to look realistic, it loses it all but when it tries to look like a rich cartoon world, then all of a sudden it’s full of life and you can suspend disbelief with the little glitches and imperfections.
I think across the board it’s a real benchmark. I’m still playing it; Burning Crusade really got me back in. I think I hit a wall when I hit level 60 and I felt that to progress my character any more, I needed to invest too many hours in any given day to get anywhere – going on Molten Core runs for five hours. I didn’t have five hours, because I was too busy making games myself. The PvP, back when I was playing avidly, they made it so that you needed to play all week to have a chance of ranking up against everyone else. But they addressed all of that: PvP, you don’t queue anymore, you just go straight in and you don’t ever go backwards.
That’s the real key – it’s a game where nothing is a one way street. If you don’t like the way you specced your character, don’t worry. You can respec it. It costs a bit, but you’re not given a sense of ‘Oh god, I’ve ruined my game,’ which is something I think a lot of developers should take on. It’s an absolute benchmark, and it’s the evidence of a company that really doesn’t release a lemon. That’s another lesson that other developers should take heed of: Blizzard have canned titles that just weren’t quite there. They’ve said, ‘Well, we don’t want to release a game unless it’s up to our standards’, and they took a long time to make World of Warcraft. But look at the rewards – now they’ve got a license to print money, pretty much!
Quake II (id Software, 1997): For me this a bit of a personal thing; this is the only game I got extremely competitive with. I was making national finals and so forth, I have a Quake II clan that I formed with co-worker Eliot Fish and a couple of nice guys I met on a server one day.
I just remember the LAN scene back then – I was an avid Quake player, but I think I just thought that Quake II was more conducive to team based play, letting you do things like drop weapons, and all of a sudden there was a reason to go help your teammate in a way other than just shooting the guy who was shooting at him. You could really work at owning the map in an intelligent way; scrambling back and giving your buddy a rail-gun just after he spawned because he’d been splattered or double teamed or something.
It was just a wonderful experience for me seeing how fresh and positive the LAN community was at that time. I’ll sound a bit old and jaded but I remember when Counter Strike started up and the LAN scene went from being really all-ages and people were happy to come and get thrashed to Counter Strike meaning that the competitiveness in the scene really went nuts. Kids were clan hopping so they could be on the winning team.
Quake II just seemed to be in this golden age when things were still young and innocent enough and everything was mind-blowingly positive. That’s not to say that multiplayer gaming hasn’t come along in leaps and bounds since then, but for me that was a golden age in the way that our parents look back on rock being born and look back on that music. We look back and say, ‘Oh god, what did they see in that?’ but for them they got to see a revolution in terms of atmosphere, and for me Quake II was like that.
It also had a lot of nice technical touches – I think it was the first FPS that had colored lighting. It was back in a day when you could add one small feature to the visuals and everyone would go, ‘Oh my god! This just looks so much better than everything else’. When we had ludicrously blurry textures and then 3DFX came out that amazed all of us but the colored lighting just made everyone say, ‘This just looks so rich’. We’d always been looking at games in just a very white light.
Quake II, for me, was the beginning of and paved the way for serious team based first person shooter games.
The single player I played through once. Actually, that’s a funny story – I was the first person in the country to play and the guy from Activision had to come to my house while I reviewed it. He sat there and basically watched me play through the whole thing! I told him I had a bunch of consoles and stuff if he wanted to play a game and he was like, ‘Nah man – I’m happy to sit here and watch you. We haven’t seen this yet either’. It was very cool.
But really, the single player game was secondary to the multiplayer experience. It was the real dawn of cool team based FPS. As a classic FPS in a complete sense or in terms of the audience that flock to it I think it was a really important cog in FPS gaming.
SoulCaliber (Namco Limited, 1997): I was always a really avid fighting game fan – both 2D and 3D – but I’d always been bitterly disappointed by the home console versions of fighting games in the sense that it was just the arcade game. Some people may say, ‘Well, that’s just it. You get a faithful reproduction of the arcade game’ but with the exception of the Neo Geo owners, for those of us that owned one they weren’t. Even then, I owned one for a brief time, but I couldn’t afford to pay AU$400 a cartridge. I had one game, and that was Samurai Showdown 2. That was great, but so few people could afford it. The Sega Saturn, with the RAM expansion, had a few arcade perfect Street Fighter games, but SoulCaliber on Dreamcast ushered in the age of home console games being as good if not slightly better looking than what you’re playing in the arcade. That was amazing.
But it’s also the depth in the quest mode, and so many different ways to go through different battles with interesting challenges: only being able to win by ringing out your opponent or hitting them when they’re not touching the ground. I can’t remember the countless ways, but I do remember the crazy amounts of satisfaction of persevering and getting through that.
I also used to DJ, and I had a lot of games which a lot of people would turn their noses up to or would look at for two seconds. I didn’t really try to get all my entertainment industry friends into gaming because they had such a diverse set of interests themselves and found most games that I was into a bit hardcore. But I’ve seen packs of girls coming back from nightclubs fighting for a controller to play Soul Caliber and I really didn’t see that sort of stuff with that genre before. I think it just had an accessibility and polish and presentation that became a benchmark for fighting games from that point. Most fighting game fans seem to rate that as the game that made buying a Dreamcast worthwhile.
I actually lent my Dreamcast to someone I’m not able to get in contact with anymore, but I played SoulCaliber 2 pretty heavily. I didn’t really get time to play SoulCaliber 3 but I played Soul Edge on the PlayStation. I just thought SoulCaliber was the one that raised that bar and made everyone go, ‘Oh my god, this is the game to buy a system for’. I don’t think a lot of fighting games have really done that. Tekken was big for PlayStation – and still is – but I don’t know if you’d call it a system seller. SoulCaliber on Dreamcast was a system seller. Not enough for Sega unfortunately, but you know…
Sid Meier’s Civilization 3 (Firaxis Games, 2001): You could probably pick any of the Civ games. I think Sid Meier is an absolute genius; I’ve been lucky enough to meet him and he’s a fantastic guy. What he came up with in Civilization is pretty much the dream turn based strategy game, I think. It’s set on planet Earth, all the important events of the human race have been covered and so it means something to everyone. It’s a strategy game where you can win via violence or non-violence – very few game boast so many types of victory conditions. I can say as a game designer now, getting AI to understand multiple victory conditions is hard work. To let a player play the game in the way they want is quite outstanding.
I view Civilization as a benchmark in your turn based strategy map game. i think that’s pretty obvious in the way Civ comes out – it doesn’t need to make leaps and bounds in each game, but it’s the kind of series that people who have got into will just go out and buy the next one as a matter of course. I don’t think there are too many people who could be willing to critique Civilization. I think it’s the most common answer read out in the studio here when people talk about classic strategy games – and, of course, working at Creative Assembly, we like our strategy games. Civ is the strategy game that does that lot. Except real time strategy – that’s our trick!
The third one is probably just the one I’ve spent the most time with. When the first one came out it reminded me very much of an old game on the Amiga called Empire where you literally explored the world one square at a time and cities would let you produce either tanks, planes or ships and you would explore and conquer. It was like that, but a million times richer.
You got to decide how the cities developed, and it’s one of those games where the micromanagement doesn’t actually feel like a drain or a chore. Getting the most out of your empire is satisfying. There’s a lot of games that go to a similar level of depth in terms of micromanagement, but it becomes a chore. I’d have to ask Sid Meier himself how he managed that one, but it really is the epitome of the ‘just another turn’ game. No multiplayer appeal really, though Civ 3’s Play the World attempted to do it but I can’t think of another strategy game that I’ve sunk as much time into as Civ 3. I would have literally played over a hundred campaigns in Civ 3 alone, so that’s enough time in my mind.
Wipeout 2097 (Wipeout XL) (Psygnosis, 1997): I think - in an era when driving games were just coming out left, right and center – I just got to the point where, maybe it was the jaded journalist in me, but I wasn’t that enthralled about a game that involved driving a car because I could do that in real life. And while you can’t drive at ludicrously breakneck speeds and do intensely dangerous things all the time, Wipeout 2097 was exactly the racing game I wanted. I couldn’t hop in a hover vehicle that traveled at nearly 1,000 kilometers an hour. I think that level of speed and intensity made it the ultimate twitch game of the racing games. I’ve never been quite as satisfied playing another racing game and pipping someone at the line as I was with Wipeout 2097.
The learning curve was just beautiful, and by the time you were getting to the last few tracks you’d really pushed your skills to unlock them, so to then win at those tracks was ludicrously satisfying. It also did a whole bunch of things – I think it really brought game soundtracks…as someone who was into electronic music and DJing at the time, my first name was actually Qirex. That was one of the racing teams. Now, I ended up changing it because no one could pronounce it properly, but the music on that soundtrack was summing up the music I was into. That’s why I went that way. I wanted an obscure name no one would recognize, though I did get the odd gamer coming up and asking, ‘Did you get that from Wipeout?’
I think they married the art style of The Designers Republic with that cutting edge of electronic music at the time, and it was really fresh in an era of ‘me too’ racing games, and I think that’s why the series has remained popular.
I did play the first one, and while that’s what got me into the series, I think 2097 was kind of its peak in a way. The tracks were beautifully designed. And hats off – I know the music in the first game was impressive as well and most of it was in house. And I’ve actually spun tracks from the first game straight off the PlayStation disc in clubs. But I think 2097 really hit the nail on the head.
It was the era of Gran Turismo and racing titles like that, and I know Gran Turismo’s got a huge amount of fans, but I frankly find it dull. I’m more into driving games like Metropolis Street Racer, which has gone on to become Project Gotham - a driving game that actually rewards you for driving well and stylishly. Crazy idea, moving away from ‘if you drive into this barrier at 150kph and hit it at an angle, you’ll actually get around it quicker than if you had taken it properly’ which happened in Gran Turismo.
I just remember, as a game journalist, there were so many stock-standard driving games. Don’t get me wrong, the dev teams were doing good work on them and they were good games – they wouldn’t have sold if they weren’t – but as someone who was being forced to see them all, seeing something fresh and different and was a little more edgy and techy was more my thing than an out and out petrol-head experience. I haven’t bought a PSP, but the thing that’s made me want to is the fact that there’s a Wipeout game I haven’t spent time playing properly.
I played Wipeout 3 quite heavily as well, but I don’t feel that it did anything that Wipeout 2097 hadn’t done. I enjoyed it because it was more of the same and I loved it, but I think the series ran out of its innovation. Doing loop the loops isn’t a big deal really.
The thing that’s a big deal about that series is the sense of physics and the sense of turning into a corner at 800kph and then airbraking heavily and shifting it to one side so that back end of your craft comes flying off the track or making sure you don’t get ground into the wall by the guy you’re trying to pip over the line. I’ve had close races in other games, but nothing that’s left me as sweaty palmed and shaky as after a win in 2097.