“Bringing Strategy Games to a Wider Audience”
When the team behind “Rise of Civilizations” discusses their creation, the word they use most often is “simple”. Simple, easy-to-understand rules and a straightforward, aesthetic user experience are the team’s two fundamental goals.
“We want our game to be simple and easy to pick up. That way, everyone can experience that same joy I get from playing strategy games.”
After each version release, RoC’s producer heads home and has his 60-year-old mother—who generally only plays match-three games—try out the new version. She always comes up with a few surprising questions, such as:
“In this game of yours, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?”
“Why don’t these barbarians act barbaric?”
"Why isn’t my hero moving?”
“Everyone knows Cao Cao is Chinese, so why’s he speaking English?" And so on...
After hearing these suggestions, the team redesigned the barbarian NPCs to appear more malicious.
They also spent considerable time creating 3D movement effects for the game’s 2D heroes, and searched through their history books to find fitting lines for each character in his or her native language.
The team is confident that if they can make the game understandable for even the producer’s mother, new players won’t have any trouble working through the tutorial.
“Continuity might be the key to making mobile strategy games more immersive.”
“Rise of Civilizations” isn’t this team’s first mobile strategy game. From previous attempts they’ve learned that many players reject mobile strategy games either because they lack immersion or because they are encumbered by complicated rulesets.
The RoC team believes that improving continuity to simplify gameplay is the next step for mobile strategy games. Players will gain more satisfaction from strategizing and developing when they feel like they are part of a historically-accurate virtual world.
Unrestricted troop movement and simultaneous actions are two innovations the team has made.
In most mobile strategy games, troop movements are restricted to a set course. Players dispatch their armies, sit and wait for the army to return with a report, and repeat ad infinitum. There aren’t any actual battles taking place, so naturally it’s impossible for armies to interact. But this is inconsistent with real life experience.
In the real world, after armies are sent out they can receive new orders to camp or change targets at any time. Multiple armies can be dispatched simultaneously to surround enemy troops.
Adding these elements can increase a game’s strategic depth exponentially. Players in “Rise of Civilizations” engage in complex operations, launching feints, setting ambushes, and sowing discord within enemy alliances.
Players can also use AOE abilities while their armies are on the map to influence the course of a battle.
Realistic battles that players can watch—and even participate in—as they take place on the map might just be what MMORTS’s need to bring the joy of strategy games to a larger audience.
Most strategy games are highly complex, with many different, interacting functions. How can developers make these games easier for players to understand? The RoC team’s answer is: realistic user experiences.
“We spent 90 days developing our ‘infinite zoom’, and players love it.”
Strategy game players are constantly switching between city and map views as they play. Previous mobile implementations have displayed a short loading or transition screen between views, but the “infinite zoom” feature in “Rise of Civilizations” makes seamless transitioning possible.
This feature was inspired by diving drone shots and incorporates Apple’s famous pinch-to-zoom function. Its purpose is to make the game interface more intuitive: with just two fingers players can switch freely between the close-up city view, the mid-level region view, and the panoramic world view.
This simple experience took RoC’s developers, artists, and programmers a total of 90 days to achieve.
To make the transition more realistic, every frame in the zoom effect was looked over to ensure that architecture and other elements were displayed correctly.
While it may appear that the zoom only switches between two view “layers”—City and Map—the team’s sole UI designer created 200 sketches for five separate layers so that users only see the functions they need at each level.
Fully implementing this silky-smooth infinite zoom feature also required the help of the team’s programmers and artists. Equally seamless designs can be spotted in many of the game’s UI transitions (i.e. when switching heroes).
“I want to add Chinese culture, Chengdu culture, into the game. Who knows? People might be curious about these artifacts!”
In “Rise of Civilizations”, there is a night and day cycle, there are different types of weather, and the development of each player’s city is marked by a gradual advancement through several historical ages.
The names of these ages are drawn from the course of human history, and the development team added a few special details to the celebration screen for each new age. They hope these finishing touches will draw players into the game and help them better understand the differences between each age.
Upon reaching a new age, city architecture is updated to match the characteristics of the player’s chosen civilization during that age. In addition, each celebration screen includes some of that age’s famous historical artifacts.
For example, when progressing from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age, the celebration screen displays artifacts from Sanxingdui, a major Bronze Age archaeological site located near Chengdu. The in-game designs are based on sketches artists made when they took a break from work to visit Chengdu Museum.
Immersive elements are also present in the hero and city designs.
Before designing each hero, the RoC artists looked over historical texts and representations of the historical figure in film and other media. Their emphasis on historical accuracy can be clearly seen in the details present on each hero’s introduction screen.
However, reference material on Hannibal, the famous Carthaginian general, was relatively scarce. Hannibal spent his entire life battling the Romans, and cemented his legend by leading an army across the Alps into Italy, where he scored several victories against overwhelming odds. The RoC artists equipped the general with historically-accurate, Roman-style armor, then added a leopard pelt to emphasize his mountain campaigns.
Notable elements from each civilization’s unique history are also included in the layout and architecture of cities.
“Great Art Brings Historical Games To Life”
“Many online SLG developers believe that players are more interested in a game’s thematic and social aspects than its artistic quality and style. But everyone loves beautiful things. Mechanics give a game its heart and soul, but without an attractive body to put them in, the game is still incomplete.”
In the opinion of “Rise of Civilizations” Art Director Chang Cheng, aesthetic feel and artistic details are the most intuitive and appealing element of the gaming experience. He and his team have used their exceptional artistic abilities to recreate a detailed, historically-accurate world. Their goal is to allow every player to experience life as the leader of an ancient civilization.
Early on in the development process, a major question the RoC producers had to answer was, “What kind of artistic style should we go with?” Low poly, magic realist, classical realist... Every member of the production team, all of whom possess a broad familiarity with and love of the entire strategy genre, had their own favorite style.
Ultimately, Chang Cheng decided on the popular 3D-cartoon style. To him, these brightly colored, slightly exaggerated graphics let the game retain its historical feel, while at the same time making it more accessible to players unfamiliar with the strategy genre. “Artistic style shouldn’t discourage players interested in trying out strategy games.”
One member of the production team had his 50-year-old mother—who generally only plays match-three games—try out the game…and had a hard time getting his phone back. “The game looks so nice”, she said over and over, summarizing her impression in simple terms.
Of course, not all of her feedback was positive: “These barbarians don’t seem very barbaric!” This piece of criticism was passed along to Chang Cheng, and a new barbarian design was put online before the week was up. Almost every character design in the game was vetted in this way by “amateur strategists” before final confirmation to ensure that the historical figures present in the game would be both recognizable and acceptable to a wide range of gamers.
The barbarian design wasn’t the only one worked over repeatedly before finalization. Chang Cheng instructed his team to ensure that all character designs stayed faithful to historical portrayals. When creating a historically-accurate portrait of Japan’s Dai-Nankō (Kusunoki Masashige), the art team found pictures showing the suit of black samurai armor at Kasuga Grand Shrine—which, according to legend, was once worn by Kusunoki himself—from various angles to use as reference material. Kusunoki’s samurai sword was also modelled after those seen in ancient paintings from the time period in which he lived. Even the pattern on the flag Kusunoki wears on his back is an exact replica of his family crest.
The team used this process to meticulously craft historically-accurate portrayals for all of the game’s heroes.
And not only the heroes—the team also did their best to ensure that all the basic soldier models give players the same realistic, immersive impression.
In addition, the art team carefully designed unique scenes in which each hero is displayed. Each scene incorporates characteristics of the hero’s civilization. When a Spanish general is selected, a massive Iberian fortress sitting above a harbor can be seen off in the distance. After a moment, a Spanish galleon sails slowly by behind the hero. It’s almost as if the player has been transported back to that golden age of knights and adventures.
Did constructing scenes like this expend a lot of time? According to Chang Cheng, the architecture, foliage, and even the decorations displayed behind the hero were actually taken from the game’s existing artistic resources. All designers had to do was arrange these elements to create the desired scene.
The architecture in each city is enriched with countless details drawn from the civilization’s history. In Chinese cities, the city hall is designed as a pagoda, and other architecture is done in a classical Chinese style, with upturned eaves and interlocking wooden brackets. There is even a sign displaying the traditional Chinese character for “medicine” on the roof of the city’s hospitals. As the player progresses through the game’s various historical ages, buildings in the city develop from simple grass huts into representative, highly identifiable architecture from the civilization’s history. There are a total of five historical ages in “Rise of Civilizations”, which means that Chang Cheng and his team had to create five different models for every single building. All this extra work was done to let players fully experience each step in their civilization’s growth and development.
The goal of so many long hours and countless all-nighters was to create a realistic, intriguing world—a world of ancient civilizations—for players everywhere who dream of one day becoming a hero.