In 2004, Massachusetts-based developer Tilted Mill Entertainment released Children of the Nile, a city building game set in ancient Egypt.
The title was published by Myelin Media in North America and Sega in Europe, but Tilted Mill has now announced its reacquisition of the publishing license, and its plan to re-release Children of the Nile as an enhanced version, with new content in development.
City building is Tilted Mill's stock in trade - founded by genre veteran Chris Beatrice, it has also developed the recent SimCity Societies as well as Caesar IV, the latest game in the long-running series - Beatrice played a major role in the development of earlier Caesar titles as well.
In advance of the studio's announcement, Gamasutra spoke with Beatrice to get some perspective on the deal, the studio's plans for Children of the Nile, as well as thoughts on the role of the PC in today's game market.
Why did you reacquire the rights to Children of the Nile?
Chris Beatrice: I think all independent developers would of course prefer to control and own the IP they created, but they don’t normally have the opportunity to do so. Our story is not that different from many other independent developers - we remain wholly committed to the games we make, but rarely have the time and resources to deliver on that in a meaningful or practical way.
Even if we do have the resources, it’s often impossible even to simply go on a forum and respond to the types of questions and concerns the fans have, because publishers completely control the information flow for the products they own.
I’m not bashing publishers, it’s just that sometimes the relationship is less of a partnership than I think would be beneficial to the end user of the game - you know, the guys and gals that are actually pumping the money into this industry, paying all our salaries.
Children of the Nile was Tilted Mill’s first game as an independent studio, and remains one of our proudest achievements. Other games we’ve developed have been the fourth or fifth iteration in a series, but CotN was entirely original, and as its many fans can attest, it provides a unique and special gameplay experience.
How did the original deal with Sega Europe work out?
CB: Sega was pleased with how the game did, and we had a really nice working relationship with them. We earned their confidence over the several months we worked together, because the development schedule was really tight, and the folks we were working with at Sega had their doubts that we could pull everything together on time (and I actually don’t blame them, because that was a tall order!).
But miracles are our stock and trade - I know that sounds corny, but our team always manages to pull the rabbit out of the hat when it comes down to it, and I think Sega was pretty blown away by our performance in those final months and weeks.
And how well did the game do originally?
CB: Okay, but not nearly as well as we feel it could have, which is a reason why we wanted to reacquire it.
Children of the Nile is a unique game which, like many other games, was not able to be experienced by as many players as we feel it could have been. This was due to both distribution problems and, admittedly, a somewhat difficult bar of entry for the game due to its atypical gameplay, and the usual grind of the schedule. We are not in this to sell millions of copies of CotN - we’re under no illusions about that. But then again, we don’t really need to.
The whole distribution scene for PC games has changed in the last few years, which I think is absolutely fantastic. Fighting for shelf space in tiny boutiques is absolutely not the way PC games are going to hit their sweet spot - imagine if that single shelf of best sellers at the airport magazine stand was the only book store in town! Thankfully, there are many different ways to distribute games independently now.
What are you planning to do with it now?
CB: One of the great things about the gaming industry, particularly in my opinion the PC branch of it, is that it is so dynamic, and also we now have a direct pipeline to all customers and especially to the most valuable fans.
Games are a unique medium, not just in that they are a union of technology and creativity, but that the end user interacts with the thing in a way that is profoundly different from any other medium - that is, they actually take control of it, and often produces results that the game’s creators would never have anticipated.
This is even more true when the game is explicitly a creative strategy game, which encourages creative problem solving versus following a pre-made path to victory. I think there is a metaphor there for how we respond to and interact with the people playing our games as well - you need to let them steer the ship at least in part - but again this is not really possible in the typical developer/publisher/customer type of arrangement.
Simply put, we believe strongly in the franchise, in the Children of the Nile experience, and plan to work in partnership with the gaming community as a whole, city building fans in particular, to advance the series in whatever direction makes the most sense.
I don’t think we’re going to sell a million and a half copies of it, like Pharaoh or Caesar III, but that’s perfectly fine. If things go really well, we’ll be in a position to invest more and more resources into the series.
To start with, we have an enhanced version coming out very soon that's free to existing users, which offers some new content, a bunch of new UI and feedback, as well as some concrete gameplay changes we feel improve the game’s balance, pacing and general feel. This is primarily to make the Children of the Nile deliver better on its core innovations - organic and intuitive behaviors versus arcane and abstract rules - and to make it more accessible to a broader set of potential players.
We also have a content pack in the works, which I hope is the first of many. This will include a few new scenarios, with additional buildings and units, and some features to support the focused play of the campaign these scenarios comprise.
So how are you planning on funding that continued development?
CB: Any way we can! But seriously, I don’t want to get into our sources of funding, but I will say simply that as an independent developer the goal is obviously to sell games so we can make games.
What do you think of the state of the real-time strategy market that Children of the Nile is somewhat part of?
CB: Well, I would never refer to Children of the Nile as an RTS. That term was coined back in the day to describe games like Dune II, WarCraft and [Command & Conquer], to contrast them with the turn based strategy war games that were the standard at that time.
So RTS really means, “real-time war game” to me. It’s funny because the Caesar series was always a “real-time strategy game” long before those others came into existence and eventually dominated both strategy and PC games overall, but it wasn’t called that because the distinction was unimportant for that type of game.
In any case, we all know that the dynamics that characterize an RTS are not what characterize most city building games, and certainly not Children of the Nile. It’s not an arms race, it’s not multiplayer, there’s very little combat in it. What combat there is in there is essentially defensive.
However, I do think triple-A 3D RTS PC games are exactly where not to be right now, so I understand your question. The irony is, since CotN been around for a while, it’s not really "triple-A" in terms of having cutting edge graphics, but then again, it can run on anyone’s system.
And CotN is an innovative, creative game - again, unlike the RTS category in general, which has become more and more focused on targeting a core group of players with the skills and experience - and machines - to play what has become a highly evolved, and in my opinion exclusionary, genre.
But this is actually gets to the heart of where Tilted Mill (and I believe the PC gaming industry) is going, which I think is a really good place. Some believe the PC games market is shrinking, but overall it’s growing. Why the discrepancy? Because the big budget triple-A titles and genres we all like to think of as the industry standards are definitely not as viable as they once were (or I should say as we believed they once were). Meanwhile, other genres, notably MMO and casual, are huge.
The PC has so many advantages as a gaming platform, but big budget polygon-crunching games that can only be played by a select few, with the skills and gaming system capable of doing so, do not capitalize on what makes the PC unique and wonderful for games. So I’ll come out and admit it -- we’re going to turn things down a notch in terms of budget and technology, and turn things up four or five notches in terms of originality, gameplay, fun, and connection to the people we all serve, namely, the gaming consumer.
Do you put these changes down to the console market's influence?
CB: My feeling is the PC gaming industry shot itself in the foot by trying to be something it’s not.
The PC as a gaming platform and its audience has some interesting and unique characteristics (just as consoles do) and the trick is to capitalize on those, and to seek out and work with other groups that also get that - since this platform and overall “crowd” is who we are, what we love, and what we’re good at.
People want to play all sorts of games. Far, far more people own PCs than any other gaming platform, and most people are not so impressed by killer graphics technology when there’s no underlying gameplay. That characterizes us and many others as developers as well - we want to make all different kinds of games, we want to innovate, we want to focus on the game in there, not what it looks like.
We’d rather make five games in a year than one game every five years. Of course we still want our games to look great, but let’s be honest, the last five to eight years or so have really shown the diminishing returns in chasing the screenshot, if you know what I mean.
In PC games there’s a ton of opportunity, potential for originality and innovation. And I think there’s also plenty of money in the "middle" - that is, in games that sell 30,000 to 300,000 copies, rather than millions.
Do you find there's a difference between the PC markets in Europe and the US?
CB: It’s quite hard to draw conclusions from the sales split between U.S. and Europe because in almost all cases games are marketed very differently in the two main territories.
Many publishers put local managers in charge of each European territory, and that allows them to really understand and own their target audience, and put together a very well-focused and well-executed marketing campaign.
Again, it’s this type of approach that better serves the PC gaming community, I feel. It's a little more “grass roots” than what you typically see in the U.S. Also, depending on the release schedule in the given year for the publisher as a whole, and especially the local brand manager, one year you may find your title is the biggest thing the German office has going, or conversely, it may not even be on their radar because blah blah blah 3 is also shipping that month.
And our titles do often do better in Europe than in the U.S., but in my opinion that is because the types of titles we make are far more likely to be buried in a sea of more prominent titles in the U.S.
What else has Tilted Mill been up to?
CB: We’re just wrapping up some SimCity: Societies work on the Destinations expansion, and moving on to some new projects. We’re livin’ the dream, as an old friend used to say.