A First-Look at 0 A.D.

Published Jun 14 2006 05:36 PM in Spotlight Interviews -----
By Jason Adams

Jason Adams interviews Wildfire Games, developers of the historical RTS 0 A.D.

0 A.D. is a freeware historical RTS game currently under development by Wildfire Games, makers of the popular Rome At War total conversion for Age of Empires II. The team at Wildfire Games have been more than happy to answer a number of questions about their upcoming title, and in the course of this interview you'll get to hear from a number of people, including Jason Bishop (project lead), Stuart Walpole (programming manager), Paul Basar (history) Bobby Ognyanov (art and scenario design), and Jan Wassenberg (programmer).

Developing 0 A.D.

Q. Jason Bishop, could you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what you do at Wildfire Games?

"My name is Jason Bishop; I'm a recent graduate from Eastern Washington University and currently working an internship position as a manufacturing engineer in Seattle, Washington. Strange you say? Yeah, but that is the beauty of virtual hobbyist game development. Most of our members come from all walks of life, but we all share a common passion for game development.

My titles are quite varied at any given time. Some call me chief, project lead, producer, or head of the art department. I find my self doing a variety of things but I mostly spend my time tasking and motivating the team members, creating art assets (models, textures, animations), attempting to keep the team focused on the vision and design documents, and miscellaneous website work."

Q. It's stated on your website that the concept for 0 A.D. originally began as a total conversion mod for Age of Empires II (AoK). When and why was the decision made to create a standalone game rather than a mod?

"If I remember correctly the decision was made sometime in the winter of 2001/2002. One of the reasons we made the transition was that the team didn't see much of a future in making modifications for the Age of Kings game. At that time, the community and players were leaving Age of Kings behind in favor of Age of Mythology. So, there was little interest in our total conversion project.

At that same time we were inspired by the work of another indie RTS project (Reverie Entertainment's Dawn of Fantasy), we thought we would easily be able to use our art that we created for the 0ad (the code name used prior to the official title of "0 A.D.") modification and plug it into a built-from-scratch game engine.

Sounds easy huh?

Well, to a group of inexperienced high school and college students, yes. That was our first big mistake. We tremendously underestimated the work involved in creating a game of the scope we were envisioning."

Q. How has Wildfire set about developing the game, developing your original concept towards what's becoming a near-completed game?

"The development of the game this far has been something like this:

  1. Design (I should say dreaming) / Prototyping
  2. Streamlining for the Design (Parsing out the reality from the dreams) / More Prototyping / Recruiting
  3. Programming Development Begins (Starting with the low level basics)
  4. Tools / Placeholders for Artwork / Prototyping Features
  5. "Nuts and Bolts" RTS Feature Complete / Complete the first draft of Art Assets / Placeholders for Sound

That is the stage we are currently at in development. The steps to come include improving multiplayer networking support, pathfinding updates, computer controlled AI players, adding the unique features to the game that makes 0 A.D. its own, and lots of polishing and optimization.

The way we have been going about this is a group of milestones, and a long list of tasks we are working our way though. I get together with the department heads and we work together to establish a priority for the tasks, and they pass that on to the workers in their department."

Stuart Walpole – Programming Manager:

"The project and development team has massively grown since its inception, from the ambitious dreams of a ragtag band of artist modders and contributing designers, through to a forty-strong team including conceptual artists, texturers, modelers, programmers, scripters, historians, sound FX specialists, musicians, testers, PR, and web developers.

Internet technology has helped us greatly in communicating and working together towards a common goal, from real-time chat messaging to forums and Wikis for documentation and discussion, through to central repository version control software to track and keep progress of every update that brings us one step closer to our destination."

Q. I understand that your game makes use of the OpenGL API, and that Linux support is planned. Will any other platforms be supported?

Jan Wassenberg – Programmer:

"Yes, support for Mac OS X is also planned. We want to reach out to gamers on other platforms and not require Windows to play our game. As such, efforts have been made to work on all systems (by hiding differences in file system, graphics/input interaction and CPU behind portable libraries). This means releasing a build for any platform is only a matter of having QA and maintainer for it on the team (they would ensure the build works and check for little incompatibilities, e.g. compiler warnings).

Unfortunately we currently lack this for OS X, so support as yet remains theoretical."

Q. Will there be differences between the versions on different platforms, and will the release dates vary?

"The Windows and Linux versions should be made available at the same time, QA permitting. Most of our developers and testers are running Windows, so any delay in the Linux version will be due to ironing out any remaining kinks.

Releases on all platforms will be functionally equivalent. There are a few minor differences in implementation (e.g. XP Windows doesn't support a color hardware cursor, so we fall back to OpenGL there), but otherwise everything should be the same."

Q. 0 A.D. uses a custom-built engine. Does the team make use of any third party or open-source libraries or tools?

"Yes indeed, here's a list:

Build Tools: Subversion, premake
Textures: DevIL, libjpg, libpng
Sound: OpenAL, Vorbis
Scripting/XML: SpiderMonkey, Xerces
Misc: boost, wxWidgets, Zlib"

Q. Development of 0 A.D. started in June 2001; What features are still missing from the game, and do you have any indication of when it's likely to reach a completed state?

Jason Bishop – Project Lead:

"Well, quite a few actually. Here are some of the biggies:

  • Intelligent, and optimized pathfinding
  • Computer controlled AI logic and scripting
  • Lots of user interface scripting work (currently in the works)
  • Diplomacy/Trade
  • Formations (currently in the works)
  • Technologies
  • Completing our tools
  • Seasons
  • Provinces and Territories

I'd also like to note that we are always on the look out for individuals that have the time, passion, and dedication to assist us in making the game a reality. Specifically we are on the look out for AI programmers, gameplay programmers, 3ds Max SDK programmers, a programmer to maintain a Mac OS version, capable texture artists, and experienced animators.

Short answer: I don't believe we can offer any indication at this time when the game will reach completion.

Long answer: There are just too many variables in virtual hobbyist development that we have little to no control over. After all this isn't a full time job for any of us. We are working as we are able to with the trappings of real life (school, homework, jobs, family, friends, etc.). People make this game in their spare time with little to no industry experience in game development; and unfortunately, we just can't create games as fast as the pros."

The Game

Q. I understand that 0 A.D. is a historical RTS covering the years between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D. Could you give a little more detail of what exactly the game will be about?

Paul Basar – History Department:

"0 A.D. is based in the period of history that saw the rise of western civilization as we know it, shaped by the domination of the ancient world by Rome. During this time the world's boundaries increased as men began to venture beyond known borders, while technical skill in engineering, science, medicine, art, and warfare took huge leaps forward. Additionally this period saw some of the greatest wars, battles, and campaigns of all time, such as the Punic Wars, Alexander the Great's Asian Campaign, and the Persian Wars. The names of heroes in these battles such as Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Leonidas, Boudicca, Scipio Africanus, and Vercingetorix still fire the imagination and inspire us to this day.

0 A.D. brings this great time of history and heroes to life. Part I documents the era between 500 BC and 1 BC, recreating the might of the Persian Empire, the glory of Athens, and the titanic struggle between Rome and Carthage during the Punic Wars. Part II covers the next five centuries, from 1 AD to 500 AD. In it Rome's growth to the supreme ruler of the world is complete, yet there are those such as the Dacians, Parthians, and the ferocious Germanic tribes who continue to challenge the might of the world's greatest civilization. Also shown is Rome's decline and eventual fall, albeit with considerable bloodshed. The rise of the Goths will be a focal point, while all will learn more about a people whose leader was known as ‘The Scourge of God'."

Q. The game obviously has a strong focus on historical accuracy. What civilizations will be included in the game, and how much work is going into portraying them accurately? Will all included civilizations be available to players?

"There are six featured civilizations in Part I: the Hellenic peoples of Greece and Macedonia, the Celtic peoples of Europe, the Carthaginians from North Africa, the Iberians of modern day Spain, the Persians of modern day Iran, and the Romans.

Historically accuracy is of the highest priority, with all weapons, helmets, armor, and shields to be of historical provenance. Literally dozens if not hundreds of historically accurate armor and weapon props have been modeled and textured, with more to come. Buildings are designed according to the style and appearance of their historical counterparts. Even the sound effects of construction have been made unique for each civilization to show the varied materials used by each people. Unit types are given in their original language, as close as can be determined. As such a Carthaginian phalangite is an Arukáh Meguyás, while a Celtic swordsman is a Cleddyfwr. Each soldier, woman, priest, and trader is given an original personal name from his or her culture. Naval warfare has also been rigorously researched and planned by Ken Wood, our chief designer, promising one of the best historical naval combat experiences yet seen in an RTS. This is only a small sampling of the effort going into historical accuracy in 0 AD

All six of these civilizations will be playable in game. And of course, in Part II there will be even more civilizations to play."

Q. In your own words, what will 0 A.D. offer gamers that current games don't?

Stuart Walpole – Programming Manager:

"Our goal isn't to compete with the multi-million-dollar triple-A titles of the industry behemoths. Our goal is to see an amateur Internet-based game development project through from pre-production to (virtual) gold master and emerge as a success story for the hobbyist community.

We want to create a game that is fun, attractive, extensible, and meets the accepted feature expectations for a traditional real-time strategy game. We want to first attain the standard before pushing the envelope.

Having said that, there are a few surprises we have in store. But on the other hand, there are at least a dozen examples in our design documents where we once described fresh "revolutionary" concepts, which have since been seen in commercial products and in a number of cases, have become expected features of a real-time strategy game."

Jason Bishop – Project Lead:

"A lower price tag? No seriously, we are offering a game to the public that features great gameplay and backed up with historical accuracy, great graphics, sound, and music."

Q. There are some features planned that are somewhat unusual, allowing 0 A.D. to stand out from existing RTS games. Could you tell us what a few of your favorites are, and how you think they will be received by gamers?

"Here are a few of my favorite distinctions:

  • Citizen Soldiers - There will be no standard villager unit. Instead, regular infantry and cavalry have not only military capabilities, but also economic (rank dependant), making them substantially more versatile than in typical RTS games.
  • Unit Auto Upgrading - Citizen Soldiers will gain experience and automatically gain promotions. With each rank, they become stronger in unique ways, and don a unique appearance.
  • Excellent Moddability - Our aim is to make the game as data-driven as possible, and allow end-users to override that data, using custom independent mod packs, to have as much control over adding assets and editing existing content as our own scripters. Savvy modders could potentially have all the necessary tools to program an entirely different game using our engine.
  • More Multiplayer modes - The host will have a wide variety of game types and features to tweak when creating a game session, permitting the kind of gameplay that he most enjoys.
  • Either/Or Technology Tree - Offers the players truly dynamic and unique choices for deciding the path to victory (they hope) they want to take during the game.

Our default target is the casual player of historical RTS games. They would play our game for entertainment and a fun way to pass the time. As far as catering to the hardcore gamer, that is really going to be dependent on how much that elite (but small) portion of the gamming community helps us help them. We have discussed this within the team at length and have decided that we don't have the balancing experience and time to shape a game that a hardcore player would drool over. So, we are going to need their assistance if they want to have a competition mode that the elites crave."

Q. You've mentioned that the ability to mod 0 A.D. will be a key feature of the game. How much work has gone into this side of things, and what sort of modding capabilities will be provided?

"We came from a modding background, so making our game like putty in the hands of a skilled modder is something we really wanted to be able to do from the beginning. Players will be able nearly everything except the basic backbone that holds the engine together. We are talking: AI scripts, random map scripts, user interface scripts, entities, entity actions, actors, sounds, textures, models, animations. Not to mention all the tools we are going to distribute with the games: Atlas (our scenario/map maker portion of the game), xml editors, 3ds Max plugins, texture converters, player colour tester, and a font builder. Don't forget tutorials. We have seriously gone out of our way to maximize the moddability of the game without compromising the security or performance of the engine. Our goal is that modders will basically be able to create their own game using 0 A.D. as a base (aliens, ninjas, pirates, whatever you want).

We have looked into hosting mods that the community creates and the ones that are exceptional, put our stamp of approval on them. This is very important to us. We really hope to lay the groundwork for teams that have the passion to create a great RTS game, but not necessarily the manpower and programming staff to do it."

Q. You've also mentioned on your website that various multiplayer modes will be available. Could you give us an idea of what sort of modes will be provided and what sort of options will be available to players when setting up a game?

"Giving players options at the start of a game to suite their style of play is something we really want to promote. We are looking to have the classic death matches, starting resource quantities, team, alliances, starting position, etc. Some of the features we are going to looking into for testing are: territories, sprawl, capture the flag, capture the princess, the coliseum, tactical mode, and hero mode. I'll leave it up to the public's imagination what those might entail. This will go very nicely with our random maps to offer a great and varied multiplayer experience.

We are currently looking to support 2-6 players in multiplayer mode."

Q. I understand that the game will be freeware. Could you explain why the decision was made to distribute the game as freeware, and any implications you believe this may have both for 0 A.D. and for any future projects?

"This is a pretty common question that I think we answer best on our website:

  • There is a greater opportunity for exposure if it's free.
  • We want the freedom to upgrade, patch or mod at any time without first clearing it with our publisher.
  • We are not restricted to a publisher's deadlines, or their instructions about what we can or cannot do.
  • Avoiding legal problems. We can (for example) utilize certain third-party libraries without having to pay licensing fees.
  • We have a very honest and up-front approach. Our staff contributes for the sheer pleasure and experience of it, not for the sake of a salary. We put our hearts and souls into the game and that will ultimately lead to a better quality product.

This has been a key point of the game's development since day one and it isn't going to change. Freeware development for the entertainment of the masses really exemplifies the entire Wildfire Games team's motive, spirit, and goals.

Implications? As a free game, one immediately draws conclusions: 1) Cool its free! 2) If it's free it must suck. So we will probably spend some time promoting the former and shunning the later. We really will be dependant on word of mouth for spreading the word about the project. For future releases, I believe WFG will follow the same precedent we have laid with 0 A.D."

Stuart Walpole – Programming Manager:

"From its inception, Wildfire Games has always been a team of hobbyists developing mods and games for fun and experience. Along the way commercial opportunities have been proposed.

As for the implications of this approach, naturally it puts strict limitations on our budget. We need to find inventive alternatives to industry-standard, expensive tools, and stick to reasonable goals we know we can accomplish.

Also because all of our staff contributes on a voluntary basis, we aren't working regular hours, which contributes to a more relaxed though less efficient working environment.

Finally, because we are always learning and improving (while being raging perfectionists), and the deadlines aren't strict, it's not uncommon to go back and rework elements of the game when we know we can make them so much better.

Ultimately this will lead to a better product, but it does mean that it'll take us a lot longer to get there than a commercial software house."

Q. You have some very impressive screenshots. How important do you think graphics are to the overall gameplay experience?

Bobby Ognyanov - Art and Scenario Design Department:

"0 A.D. strives to present a detailed and historically rich depiction of ancient civilizations, particularly in the way they wage warfare. From the very beginning it has been a goal for the art department to make the game as detailed visually as it is historically. With the graphics power that exists these days there is a lot of grounds that can be covered in an RTS, details that we have not seen before. The detail we aim for is such that if you were to zoom in you would see more detail in the game. The world should be detailed and immersive to some extent, down to the varied facial features and equipment of the soldiers to the art and pottery found on their buildings. The world in which these civilizations lived in is also studied and replicated with great detail so that we can make an accurate portrayal in the game.

The civilizations found in 0 A.D. are spread all over the world. In order to make the game world look realistic and rich in detail, the artists at Wildfire Games are designing art assets into Biomes. The Biomes that the civilizations exist in are just as important to define the visual aspect of a civilization as its unit and building art. The environment in which they were in is too replicated in detail. These Biomes are a collection of natural flora such as trees, rocks, terrains, grasses, foliage, etc, that make up the environment in a general location of the world. For example, the Mediterranean biome has trees such as carrobs, lombardy poplars and oaks as well as a full set of terrain and plants that you would see in the Mediterranean. This is different from say the Celts who are in a highland biome. You will see flora and terrain that surrounded the Celtic civilization. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the art department is to create the uniformity in these different assets such that you can swap and mix biomes as a palette of sorts to create maps that look like they are a mix of a Mediterranean and temperate biome, like which you would expect in northern Greece or eastern Europe, or a arid and desert biome to create the dry regions the Carthaginians were in northern Africa.

Ultimately, the goal of the Art Department is to make every visual aspect of a civilization be as rich and detailed as its historical aspect in the game. The art style of the game is not aiming to be the most FX-packed experience, but rather to provide sharp clarity and detail that should look realistic and convincing rather than provide ultra shiny water and over saturation that burns your eyes out after 30 minutes of playing."

Links:
http://wildfiregames.com/
http://wildfiregames.com/0ad/

GDNet Profiles:
Jason Bishop (wijitmaker)
Stuart Walpole (WFG_Acumen)
Bobby Ognyanov (WFG_CheeZy)




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