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Postmortem: Frog City's Trade Empires
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Postmortem: Frog City's Trade Empires

January 25, 2002 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Frog City was founded in 1995 by Ted and Bill Spieth and myself. My background is in computer science and engineering management. The Spieth brothers are basically game geeks, whose day jobs included being a teacher and a lawyer. The game designers here are focused purely on game design, they don't program or make art. As the company grew, I gave up the lead engineer position to someone who could focus on that 100 percent, so I could focus on keeping us on schedule and in business. So Frog City is a bit different than most developers I hear about, in that we have a shared power structure where responsibilities are divided among several specialists.

Our first two games were Imperialism and its sequel. In the middle of Imperialism II, our lead engineer went off and wrote a whole new code framework and suite of tools. We started using the new engine for a game which was cancelled when its publisher withdrew from the games business, but it has proven to be of great value for Trade Empires and for the new game we are working on now. Having good tools has turned out to be the key to developing a game efficiently.

What is Trade Empires?

Trade Empires is an economic simulation and trading game about building civilizations through trade. It is history as seen through the eyes of the merchants. The player is in charge of family trading business. He invests in building markets and setting merchants to work delivering a variety of food products. As the population grows, it develops new and more expensive demands. The player sends merchants to buy resources where they are plentiful and sell them at the populous markets, where they bring in a profit. As time goes by and the people become more technologically sophisticated, they are continually discovering new products and faster, more efficient ways of transporting goods. This presents new challenges and opportunities for the player, but his mission remains the same: balance the competing goals of supplying enough inexpensive goods to keep the population growing, and keeping prices high enough to keep making more and more profit.

The design of Trade Empires came in response to my request to the game designers: make a game that would be a good fit for the company's technology and relatively small available team (we also had another game in development), and fit within the budget we were likely to raise at a trying time in the games industry. I'm the person in charge of the schedule and the programming team, while my two co-founders are in charge of game design and the art team. I can always count on them to design games that are fun, deep and engaging, but I added some constraints to the mix: the game should be suited to the engine we had in development (2D sprites on a 3D terrain on the PC), and it should focus on one or two core elements of game play (as opposed to our Imperialism games, which combined turn-based exploration, transportation, production and diplomacy with real-time trade and initiative-based tactical combat). Given that I expected a relatively small budget and short development cycle, I wanted a game where we could focus our energies on making one deep and polished game, rather than getting bogged down with several smaller interlocking games.

Their answer was to make a game about the effects of technological change over thousands of years on the relatively simple model of producing and delivering commodities to make money. The game is broken into scenarios, each of which can be played in a few hours. Their settings range from 3000 BC in ancient Sumeria to 19th century Europe. The types of transportation range from donkeys to wagons to trains, from tiny paddled river boats to steam ships on canals and trans-Atlantic clipper ships. The changes in resources, products, regions and time periods required lots of variety in the art, but the basic code challenges and gameplay challenges remained the same throughout the game. And once the player learns the rules in a simple scenario, he already knows how to play the more complex ones.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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