Interview With Jesse Attard of Tactic Studios

Tactic Studios has been hard at work in 2010, publicly releasing Immortal Empire, a multiplayer strategy RPG that can be played on the PC straight out of your Web browser with no downloads. Although the title is multiplayer, Immortal Empire still features a fully fleshed-out story that puts players in the role of an immortal that can eventually summon up to five combatants that have a variety of strengths and skills that can be used strategically to take out the opposition. As players connect with others online, they can tackle the quests in co-op mode or, once the player reaches a certain overall level, they can engage in head-to-head battle in versus or teamplay modes.

Immortal Empire, at its core, features a very standard setup: each character has its own action meter, which depletes every time that character carries out an action. Once a player is finished with their characters, the enemies or other players are then given a turn. However, the title strays from the traditional RPG path a little in the fact the player does not have to place five party members into their lineup, and experience levels up the player’s personal immortal. Each level of progression adds a skill point into a pool of skill points each party member has to share. This allows the game to be as easy or difficult as the player would like, but given the number of options available, this also plays heavily into the strategy of the title. As players run through stages, of course, enemies will drop a good number of items, weapons, and equipment for the player to use and elemental crystals allow players to construct and customize weapons.

Immortal Empire is free to play in its basic format. However, a one-time fee of $9.99 can be paid to unlock the entire feature set of the game. As the game receives regular updates and expansions, more content and other alternatives to the one-time fee are gradually being implemented and fans of the game can be happy knowing more content is on the way, as promised by Tactic Studios’ founder, Jesse Attard.

If the name of Tactic Studios’ head developer and producer Jesse Attard looks familiar to you, it’s because we had him featured in our rather large BioShock 2 preview, just prior to its launch. What many gamers might not know, however, is Attard has been hard at work with his personal studio, and after a marathon of work that has encompassed a few years’ time, he is beginning the promotions of his newest self-released work, Immortal Empire. We were recently lucky enough to get a few moments of Attard’s time as he talked about his education, the former titles he has had a hand in, working on BioShock 2, how Immortal Empire was created and, of course, what it is like to form and run your own independent gaming studio.

Attard’s foray into games development originated after graduating from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, with a degree in computer science. From there, he has had a hand in developing titles such as Open Season on the Playstation 2 and Xbox, Dark Sector, some of Capcom’s mobile titles including Street Fighter II, Resident Evil, Dead Rising, and Lost Planet. With his involvement with the BioShock series, not only was he involved with the multiplayer of BioShock 2 (with Digital Extremes, where he is still on the team), he also worked on the Playstation 3 port of the original BioShock. Attard was coming fresh off the release of BioShock 2 when I was able to speak to him, and he had nothing but positive statements about the development and its performance.

“It was awesome,” he said. “BioShock 2 was a great project for Digital Extremes and me. Having played the first one, it had great critical reception and it was a great franchise so there were big shoes to fill and everyone felt it. It was such a unique and interesting IP and adding in the multiplayer, which was my main responsibility, was a really risky thing to add on to BioShock.”

Even so, Attard said he felt the risk paid off, telling me, “My friends say they like it and the critics seem to be positive, so, on the whole, people seem to like it. We went for a faster-paced game, like a Quake or Unreal-style gameplay. It wasn’t just a one-shot kill thing and I was always a fan of that style. It ended up being cool and fills out a category that isn’t predominant nowadays.”

Wrapping up on our discussion of BioShock 2 and his experience, Attard noted the final release was as complete as his team was able to make it, citing no specific desire to change anything implemented in the final release. While some gamers will no doubt disagree that nothing could be changed or added, from a developer standpoint, he backed his stance with the concept of time. Under the pressures of time, a developer has to realistically cut its line of features and implementation off somewhere, and Attard felt Digital Extremes did the best job possible within the timeframe it was given.

“It would always be nice to have more time, but a game has to come out eventually,” he noted. “We added more community support than what was in the original and we did make a full game. Then, we got an extension [when the game was pushed back from 2009 to 2010] and this allowed us to add more modes and content. So, that was a huge bonus. It allowed us to polish the game and all developers can do more with more time. With the time we had, the result was a finished project.”

While BioShock 2 will no doubt be the work on Attard’s list of works that grabs most gamers’ attentions, he had actually formed his very own studio a few years back called Tactic Studios, at which he developed Immortal Empire. With a full-time development load from some of the projects detailed in Attard’s background, the launch was a spare time endeavor and the current build of Immortal Empire is actually a culmination of years of work.

“I always like making games and I had the experience with developing mobile games,” he recalled. “I was used to 2-D casual games, so it was totally natural and I wanted to do something that was my own. I wanted to see my own ideas come into fruition, so I guess the motivation to open the studio was for selfish reasons. I kept the development up for years and, eventually, it looked like it would materialize into a real game. There were graphics and a game was present, so I let people play it and it just happened, coincidentally, during the BioShock [2] launch.”

Gamers tend to hear a lot of stories about developers moving on from successful titles to their own studios. While, as stated earlier, Attard is still employed at Digital Extremes, these occurrences no doubt lead gamers to believe having their own studio is a pretty sweet deal. While Tactic Studios is a part-time commitment for him, Attard says there are pros and cons to the setup, however, for his personal situation, his pros are outweighing the cons at this point.

“It’s completely different,” he explained. “I’m not collaborating between multiple studios now and there aren’t tons of people at my office. Sure, that can make it a little lonely, but, at times it is very rewarding. At first you are just adding stuff and you’re the only one playing, but once others play it and you find other people that enjoy it, it’s a cool feeling. It’s already been worth the risk for me. It’s been awesome, but it’s been a lot of effort. It’s really easy to say it was worth it when the effort is behind you. Still, I’m constantly working and improving on the game. For me, it’s more of a personally satisfying thing as opposed to a revenue-generating machine, but you never know what will happen. It’s more of a personal accomplishment that I feel happy about.”

It isn’t always easy being your own boss, though, and, of course, a startup studio will need its own equipment and resources. Attard was able to break down the process a little bit and describe some of the hardships of developing a title.

“I’m sure everyone envisions it,” he said. “You envision an idea, flesh it out and develop it into a game. I dreamed of it as a kid playing Atari, but the hardest part is stepping outside of yourself and finding out if the game is logical. Obviously you need a computer and a server, but experience is important. I don’t think I could do it without having made games – it’s hard. I kept looking at Immortal Empire and the game looked the same as it did a year ago and I kept asking myself “Ëœwhat did I do with that time and work?’ People get discouraged when they realize things are taking forever to develop. Also, a lot of your early feedback will most likely be from friends and colleagues and sometimes it is hard to get an honest, unbiased opinion from them.”

On top of experience and drive, Attard also noted people are a resource any aspiring developer needs to have available. He stated it was most important to have as many people as possible with diverse talents that can cover areas such as sound effects, music, art, and programming. In the case of Immortal Empire, Attard was able to discover artists for the fantasy-inspired artwork as well as pixel artists for the in-game characters and environments. Without this additional help, he admitted “there would be nothing in the game.” The game’s official Web site was also host to an open music submission contest in order to have background music featured in the game, with the call of music resulting in more than 50 submissions. In regard to working with others, Attard noted aspiring developers need to discover which disciplines they lack in and fill those positions in accordingly, adding, “While startup studios will probably find it hard to pay people to provide content, if you search hard enough, you’ll find someone eventually.”

If someone is aspiring to start up their own studio, Attard provided the following situational advice: “Once you’ve made a full game, consider it bug-free, show it to others, fix all of the additional bugs found by others and handle customer support and complaints … once you have the game under your belt, it may be time to invest in it. There are so many different ways to screw up and once you go through that, you can consider your dreams.”

Looking at Attard’s first project, Immortal Empire combines elements from a group of games that he loved playing growing up and his desire to implement these designs spurred the development of the title. Some of his ideas were inspired by games such as Baldur’s Gate, Warcraft III, Star Control II, Diablo, and X-Com and building on his desire to do an isometric game with elements of retro influences and character strategies, Immortal Empire was born. As described earlier, the leveling in the title is unique, with each passing level providing a universal skill point pool that must be used sparingly amongst the players’ group of immortals.

“It’s kind of wacky,” Attard explained. “I wanted to add a strategic element. Most games don’t let you choose how to develop your characters; they completely remove the element of choice. In Immortal Empire, though, you can have one guy at max level or five guys that are equal. You can even play the game with just one character. It’s entirely doable, but, of course, it is a challenge. I just wanted to make sure choice was available to the player.”

Although it only took Attard a couple of months to get the title into playable form, he recalled the process of adding monsters, characters, storylines, squashing bugs, optimizing the game and adding features stack on to the base of the development. Essentially, he said the title “turned out to be a year of work and another year of small touches to make it playable [in its current state].” The key to making the development easier on Attard was his development of the Immortal Engine on which the title runs.

“I knew when I was building the game, I wanted a robust engine,” he said. “That comes from my mobile game experience. When you are churning out so many games, it is necessary to have a single, dynamic engine, and I knew I needed to do the same here. The engine is a generic layer of code not tied to the game. It is a layer a programmer can use for user interface elements, widgets for panels and layout, playing audio through .WAV and .OGG formats, rendering and utilities for griding and displaying images on the screen. With it, I have a collection of utilities to use in any game, so if I were to make another RPG, huge amounts of the code are already written. There is even a map editor built in and developing the maps is really easy. Adding features on top of this dynamic engine is a heck of a lot easier than building from the ground up.”

While Attard had a huge hand in nearly everything involving the development of Immortal Empire, in the end, around 15 different people had a part in the game, including concept artist Eric Vedder and pixel artist Matt Chambers. With the results in playable form at the game’s official Web page, Attard isn’t resting entirely on the current product, with expansions already in development to double the length of the game, add additional environments such as polar and volcanic areas, a new immortal, and more. The plan is to release new content every couple of months as Attard fixes a few bugs in the current game as well as implementing a microtransaction system for those that would like to pay money in order to pick up extra in-game gold, experience point boosts and more. Since Attard can update the game dynamically, once player-versus-player gaming starts to pick up a lot more on the game, he is hoping to hear more balancing feedback, at which point he can update the game in a quick and efficient manner, so players can expect the game to be updated regularly.

Of course, Attard depends on player feedback in order to make Immortal Empire a better game.
“Player feedback is extremely important,” he said. “The more we get, the better the game gets. I love getting it. A lot of it actually gets implemented and it is incredibly useful. I’m not egomaniac – even if I disagree, I’ll still drop it in and see what happens with a test. We’ve already implemented features such as clicking controls similar to Warcraft, more dialog boxes and more tweaks. All of the feedback comes from our users and it is incredibly useful.”

With dedication going into Immortal Empire, Attard hasn’t committed to the development of future titles just yet, but he does have future plans and may even consider different formats in the future. “I’m not working on any future titles yet,” he confirmed. “I have some ideas in my head I want to do, but I can only do one game at a time. I want to give it the appropriate attention first and maintain it throughout that time. I would always consider other formats and I do know how to do it, but it is a completely different undertaking. You need massive teams and a big budget to release on a console. I might be able to do an Xbox LIVE or Playstation Network title, but that is definitely down the road. You need a bigger team in order to do that right.”



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