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Playing Catch Up: Gas Powered Games' Chris Taylor

Playing Catch Up: Gas Powered Games' Chris Taylor

February 22, 2007 | By Alistair Wallis

February 22, 2007 | By Alistair Wallis
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Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to Total Annihilation designer and Gas Powered Games founder Chris Taylor.

Taylor comments that his “first time” was with a Commodore PET at the age of 13, though his initial experiences with programming didn’t begin until a year later, when his father bought him a TRS-80. “I worked through some of the games in the back of the manual that were all done in BASIC language,” he says. “I grew bored of them in a matter of weeks, and started to investigate Z80 assembly language, as that's what all the fast games were written in.”

From that point on, Taylor knew that he wanted to work in the games industry, even though he wasn’t sure at the time of how to go about achieving that goal. It wasn’t until he was 21 that he found his entry point: a classified ad British Columbian developer Distinctive Software. Taylor was successful in his application, and admits to being “blown away” by his first impressions of the company.

“It was an amazing little company of less than 20 people, and everyone was working on a different game,” he explains. “It was a dream come true for me.”

4D Sports Boxing For The Win?

Taylor’s first job with the company was as co-designer on PC and Amiga baseball sim HardBall II, which was released in 1989. Two years later, Distinctive released 4D Sports Boxing, a polygon based 3 dimensional fighting game that was co-programmed and co-designed by Taylor. While he notes that he “enjoyed parts” of his time working on the games, Taylor admits that he “was never really much of a sports guy”.

“I learned a lot about making games,” he muses, “so I can't complain too much.”

Shortly after the release of 4D Sports Boxing, Distinctive was sold to Electronic Arts, and later became EA Canada. Taylor worked with the company on another baseball title - Triple Play ‘96 - before moving on in early 1996. “My time had come to ‘make a move’, if you will,” he explains. “I was at a crossroads, and because I would never leave a project mid-way through, I knew if I didn't jump at that point, an opportunity wouldn't come for several more years. I was looking for something more inline with my core interests as a game designer and engineer. When I first played Dune 2 and Command and Conquer, I knew I needed to make a change and find a company that was more in line with my way of thinking.”

The Formation Of The Cavedog

Taylor contacted HardBall II producer Shelley Day, who had founded a Washington-based company with fellow former LucasArts employee Ron Gilbert, named Humongous Entertainment " a venture that had been developing children’s point and click adventures since 1992. Having been “totally blown away” by recent advancements in the real-time strategy genre, Taylor decided to pitch his own take to Gilbert, who “basically approved the idea on the spot”. A new subsidiary label, Cavedog Entertainment, was set up to develop the game, and work began on Total Annihilation in earnest.

Taylor describes the development time for the game as a “blast”, noting that the team “worked insane hours, and pretty much did nothing else for 20 months”, until the title was finished. “We had a lot of laughs, and had one of the best times making the game,” he enthuses. “It really was teamwork and game creation at its best.”

Upon its release in September 1997, the game was greeted by almost uniformly positive reviews, and later went on to win numerous Game of the Year awards. Critics praised the title for its use of automation to cut down the routine micromanagement that was quickly becoming an unwanted staple of the genre, as well as its use of 3D rendered units and terrain. “By all indications, the game could easily have faded away into obscurity,” muses Taylor, “but it didn't, and kept selling and selling. Even to this day I can't believe how popular it was.”

Just six months later, Cavedog released The Core Contingency, an expansion pack that added 25 missions to the game, as well as several new units and maps, plus a map editor. Taylor notes that the decision to make the game easily " and quickly " expandable was made “right from the start” of its development. “I had a lot of experience on sports games where all the data for each of the players (on the team) was data driven from a file,” he says. “So it made perfect sense to me that we should architect the engine the same way for each unit in the game. Of course maps are already designed like that, so the whole thing to make the game expandable was a pretty easy conclusion to come to.”

However, following the release of the expansion, Taylor once again found himself at a career crossroad. “Emotions certainly run high, and it's not a simple matter to leave a company that propelled my career as much as Cavedog did,” he notes, “but there is no time like the present to make a change.”

Gas Powered Games Sets Up Shop

This time, the change involved starting a company of his own, Gas Powered Games, in May 1998. “I knew if I didn't do it soon, I wasn't ever going to do it,” Taylor comments. “I faced all kinds of challenges, not the least of which was money, as it takes a lot of capital to start a company...but we did it!”

Soon after, Taylor announced the company’s first project " a role-playing game called Dungeon Siege - along with a publishing contract for the title with Microsoft. He notes that the decision to work with the genre was influenced by a need to “try something different”, adding that he would have found it “a little weird” to simply produce another RTS. The team also decided to work with an in-house 3D engine for the game, which Taylor admits was a “huge challenge”.

“I believed that 3D was the future, and more or less inevitable, so we needed to go there,” he recalls. “It was also a way to create differentiation in the market - which is very important when building a new franchise. And yes, absolutely, RPGs take a long time, but making one, the first one, in 3D made it a very complex challenge.”

“I felt an enormous amount of pressure,” Taylor says of the development period. “Everything depended on its success and we all knew it.”

Dungeon Siege was first shown to the public at E3 2000, though didn’t see release until two years later. Though he notes that he felt “relieved” that game did receive positive reviews, Taylor candidly admits that he felt “disappointed that it wasn't as well received as Total Annihilation”.

“I think criticism is an important part of the creative process, and you have to accept it to grow and develop professionally,” he comments. “It's painful at times, but very necessary, and ultimately makes you work harder next time. I learned that bigger isn't necessarily better, and that a smaller more focused game is better than a long playing game. We were very worried about our competition, and the huge games they were making, and sort of chomped on that red herring. In hindsight we should have just carved out our own experience, and not spent so much time looking over our shoulders at big companies with larger budgets. That's definitely not the way to make great games.”

Devising Supreme Commander

Having taken on board criticism from the first title, the company began work almost immediately on a sequel, which was due for release in August 2004, though ran into delays and didn’t actually hit shelves until the year after. The month of its release, Taylor revealed to a number of news sources that he intended to make a return to the RTS genre. Though by that time Atari held the rights to the Total Annihilation name, Taylor noted that he intended the new project, Supreme Commander to be a “spiritual sequel” to the game.

“I had always wanted to make another RTS game, and actually wanted to do one much sooner than this,” he muses. However, you can't always control the timing of all the events, so it took a little longer than I had wanted to kick the project off. Compared to ten years ago, the business is way more difficult than ever. You really need to have patience, and find the right publishing partnership to make great PC games...which is what we found in THQ, incidentally.”

In March 2006, mid way through the development of Supreme Commander, Take Two announced that they had purchased the full publishing rights to the Dungeon Siege games from Microsoft. At the same time, they also revealed that Californian developer SuperVillain Studios were working on Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony, a PSP title which saw release in late 2006. Taylor worked with the company as a senior design consultant, and comments that he feels “quite happy” with the result. “Quite honestly,” he says, “the gang at SuperVillain Studios is very good at what they do, and made my job very easy.”

Supreme Commander was released earlier this week, and has so far received generally positive reviews, though Taylor laughs that “it's only the beginning”.

“Ultimately,” he adds, “we are waiting to hear from our customer, because their votes are the most important. I think that players will feel comfortable in Supreme Commander and see all of the ways which I continue to evolve the experience,” he continues. “Many of the design innovations and ideas in Supreme Commander will hopefully excite players much like they did when they first played Total Annihilation. I love to come up with ways to advance a genre, and hopefully we'll continue to do so in future games.”

Looking To The Future

In terms of future projects, Taylor reveals that the company already has a number of titles in development which will be announced “in the months ahead”.

“We have a lot of very exciting things in the works here at GPG,” he enthuses. “First, we'll continue to advance our online matchmaking service, GPGNET with many new features, including the expansion of our community support systems for modding and other content vaulting. This will take time, but it is something we are very dedicated to.”

With the company now coming up to its ninth year as a developer, Taylor reflects that there has been one important lesson that has stood out for him more than any other in that time. “I think I have learned that I would much rather focus on game design!” he laughs.

“Business is something you really have to love,” he continues, “and if I have learned anything this past nine years, it’s that I love the art of game design, and that I would much rather leave the business to those who enjoy spreadsheets, contracts and long walks on moonlit nights with lawyers and accountants.”


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