Longbow Games’ Rob McConnell took a break from the California sun as early as an 8am start at GDC to talk with me about Hegemony Rome: Rise of Caesar. 

We talked about the difficulties marketing strategy games, and the two year development cycle Hegemony Rome has undergone with a team as small as six people, with outsourcing only for the music and some of the video elements, covered by the publisher, Kalypso. Fascinatingly, the 3D play-fields in Hegemony Rome are taken from 2001 NASA satellite data, manually edited to meet the landscape just before the dawn of AD. This, from a six member team.

Hegemony Rome: Rise of Caesar is an up and coming strategy game in the vain of their previous Hegemony titles, such as the fantastic Gold: The Wars of Ancient Greece. For an early look at Hegemony Rome, check out the play-through we published a while back below, or head to the written preview.

There aren’t as many RTS style open engines.

Rob is Lead Designer and Programmer on Hegemony Rome, but he tells me “we’re a 6 person team, so we all tend to do a lot of stuff,” which is usual for smaller teams. The game uses the Hegemony engine, which is a constant work in progress, and impressively allows the player to zoom out to a 2D planning map into the full 3D landscape on the fly. According to Rob, the engine has been “overhauled significantly, but the previous game was definitely a stepping stone.”

The ability to zoom in and out dynamically was a feature the team really wanted to do, but no other engine available was suited to doing it. “That’s one of the reasons we had to build our own engine,” laughs Rob. “When we were working on that years ago – at least 5 or 6 years ago – it really didn’t fit the mold of any engines that were accessible to us. Most are so focused on the shooter, more first or third person style. There aren’t as many RTS style open engines.”

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“Many years ago, the company had done a game called Treadmarks, which was an open terrain tank fighting game, so we had some experience in terrain engines that provided a bit of a stepping stone.”

Talking about the games world, Rob explained how “the base map is all taken from satellite data that we use as the base source, but we’ve increased the detail on the resolution of that, and [the new engine] supports up to 10 times the resolution of the previous version, and we’ve improved the texturing and effects on the maps as well.”

That attachment and drive really helps move us forward on it.

I asked if the satellite data was manipulated to match the terrain of the Antiquity period, expecting Rob to play it down because of the size of the team, but much to my surprise he gave a fairly detailed explanation:

“We certainly had to make some changes, particularly the Dutch and Netherlands coastline has changed quite a bit due to natural and man-made changes, so we did tweak things. We have a great atlas… the Barrington Atlas of Roman and Greek History [Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World], and that’s one of our best resources in the office. It specifically marks old coastlines and stuff, so we’ve been able to adapt a few things there.”

Smaller teams have their perks, however, as Rob explains that “working so closely on all aspects of the project gives you a greater attachment to the project than perhaps bigger teams where you’re only working on a very small part of it, so that attachment and drive really helps move us forward on it.”

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“It’s also a lot of fun talking to the fan-base about it,” exclaimed Rob, to which I asked if fan-pressure ever got to them. He said “yeah there’s always pressure from the fan-base, there are some really enthusiastic people there. Frankly, they’ve been great so far. The reason we went into the Early Access (it was a relatively late decision) was because we were doing a closed beta with the fan-base and everyone was really enthusiastic about the state of the game. Most of the direction of this project, we had vision ourselves, but a lot of it came from communication with fans on the previous game.”

“We took it in the direction the community wanted it to go.”

I don’t think anyone’s been disappointed by us dropping that detail, because it still keeps the importance of supply

Moving onto the games mechanics, one of the things I was really impressed by was how the idea of long-distance travel vs attrition was addressed by having easy-but-essential to manage trade routes; a very authentic mechanic, I posed the idea to Rob that it might be one a lot of people would be annoyed by – a complicated little nuance. Talking about other games of a similar nature, we looked at how each iteration often loses little nuances like this, and I wondered if Longbow Games were trying to scoop up a demographic of gamers who miss the little details, those little strategic complications.

“The supply mechanic in general was core to the original game. It was one of the main reasons that we decided to do Hegemony, the original concept from the leader designer on the first game… that was one of the aspects of historical warfare that we wanted to capture. One of his common gripes was that in a Total War game, or whatever, you can park your army here and forget about it until you wanted to use it, which was completely… did not at all represent what warefare was like.”

“So keeping that supply mechanic was never a question when coming to the second game. However, there were a lot of ways we thought we could refine that whilst keeping what was essential to the strategy and what affected the strategic decisions, while minimizing the micromanagement and things that frankly got in the way.”

“One of the examples was like in the first game, because of some rough areas with the supply mechanics, players tended to sometimes use their workers to manually move food around a lot, and talking to people, they didn’t really use that becuase they wanted to, it was just a necessity, so while we were able to drop that part, and build up some of the camp and dynamic supply mechanics so that you can set up a camp and move your supplies on, which will automatically move there, rather than manually doing it, and I don’t think anyone’s been disappointed by us dropping that detail, because it still keeps the importance of supply.”

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The idea that we’d lose their attention while the game is pretty rough

With attention to detail comes a difficulty to market, and I was curious if Rob and his team had trouble selling the unique features of Hegemony Rome to today’s gaming demographic. When asked if he had any difficulty, Rob laughed and said “very much so”.

“As a six person team we still do the marketing. We’ve done Google ad’s and trade shows, and talked to the fans and pitched it. It has been a struggle, certainly when you say the game’s got supply and logistics, that doesn’t immediately grab people’s attention. I usually spin it more towards ‘hey you can set up supply lines and blockades and burn resources and farms’, which sounds more exciting to people. And once they get into it they find how relatively easy it is to implement these strategies.”

Many people treat Early Access just as that: early access to the finished game, so I wondered if Longbow Games were worried about their fans burning out on the title long before the official release. “That was the biggest worry about going into it I suppose,” admits Rob. “The idea that we’d lose their attention while the game is pretty rough, and that they might not stick around to wait until the end product.”

“We went into it pre-feature complete, buggy, but everything was in there. The content was ready but we were just rolling it out in a fashion that we could handle their feedback. I’m pretty satisfied that we’ll be able to win people over during the time-span that we’re looking at.”

Rob added that “we decided that any downsides to potentially losing some attention to early adopters in Early Access was worth the value of that feedback through the community involvement.”

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The best way to win people over, according to Rob, is to show them the game. Amusingly, “most people don’t believe” the ability to zoom out from the strategy map into the game world. “They assume it’s in editing or something,” he said. “We’d suddenly zoom in or out quickly as people were walking by at shows, and track the heads where people go ‘oh, hey wait a sec!'”

Hegemony Rome: Rise of Caesar will be released this year, and Rob hesitantly indicates it should arrive before Gamescom 2014, so before August. However, the final release date is up to Kalypso, the publisher, and anything else is speculation.