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Interview: Red Redemption Divines The  Fate Of The World

Interview: Red Redemption Divines The Fate Of The World

October 29, 2010 | By Tom Curtis

October 29, 2010 | By Tom Curtis
More: Console/PC

Using real world data, indie developer Red Redemption hopes to combine science and fantasy in its climate change-based strategy game Fate of the World.

The game puts players in charge of the world's political and scientific policies affecting global warming, and players must accomplish specific goals while keeping the scientific consequences of their actions in check.

The game asks players to accomplish a variety of goals, from beneficial tasks such as saving the Amazon or building Africa into the world's most advanced region, to malicious tasks such as strategically exterminating all human life from the planet.

Red Redemption worked with a team of scientific advisors on the project, who supplied scientific data to help craft a game environment that would accurately represent the effects of various policies in the real world.

The company previously took on the concept of using scientific data to examine global warming in Climate Challenge, a BBC published Flash game that has seen over a million players since its launch in 2006.

Gamasutra spoke with Red Redemption chairman Gobion Rowlands to discuss Fate of the World's unusual concept, how the game balances realism with gameplay, and the studio's atypical approach to independent development.

Can you provide a bit of background for Fate of the World?

Gobion Rowlands: The BBC sponsored us to make a game called Climate Challenge, and we had a million people play that, and we asked, "Well, what else can we do with this? Where can we take it?" Richard Jacques is doing the soundtrack; he did music for Mass Effect and the new James Bond game, and David Bishop, who is one of the writers for Doctor Who, is doing all the writing in the game. We've been really fortunate getting all this talent involved.

How did you get that sort of talent attached to the game? Was it related to the surprising popularity of Climate Challenge?

GR: It was mostly because of what the game is, and what we were trying to do. We were very fortunate; we got worldwide coverage with the first game, and since then it's been my job to get the game out there and build partnerships.

We are partnered with Oxford University, the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, Amnesty International, a whole bunch of them. We've had a lot of support. We raised our own money to make the game through sale of shares, so we are self financed with no publisher money.

I'm sure that gives you a lot more independence.

GR: Yeah, we've always had a good relationship with publishers, but we wanted to have the independence to try a lot of different things, because a lot of what we do is pretty risky.

How do you think the game would be different if you were working with a publisher? Would the game exist at all?

GR: I think it would be difficult. There are a lot of people in the big publishing companies that would get behind something like this, but with the way they are set up and the way they work, it would be very hard for them to justify it internally. Someone described the business to me as "publishers make skyscrapers," and we are making an interesting designer house. They are looking at a big budget, big down-the-line products.

Yeah, Fate of the World, and even Climate Challenge, are very atypical when compared to most games in the mainstream market.

GR: Yeah. I've been making board games, computer games, and role playing games since I was 10. I made 65, I think. I'm a gamer through and through; my Steam account has more than 200 games. I've always wanted to make new kinds of games that haven't been made, and trying to find new and interesting gameplay dynamics and interesting new challenges.

I love games like Civilization, but one thing I always found restrictive [about Civ] was that you get to the end of the game, then you get future tech one, future tech two, and future tech three. It was brilliant for everything going backwards, and that's where its focus was, but not so much going forward.

We started down this road because I was making games and my wife was a climate scientist. Her boss got started talking to me, and I said, "Oh, you can make a game about anything." And he asked me if I could make a game about climate change, and I said, "Yeah, sure!" The next morning, he phones me up, and says, "So, you're making a game about climate change!" And then it just kind of came together.

We didn't want it to be just about climate change. It's an interesting subject, but there's much more going on. We don't make preachy games-- our tagline for the game is: "Save the world, or burn it down." It's really important, because we found that in the first game, nine out of 10 players would go in and cause as much destruction and havoc as they could within the system, and that's fun; that's what games are about.

So the genesis of Climate Challenge was just a random meeting?

GR: Out of a random meeting, and then it just built and built, and we had this success and we got the coverage, and suddenly people were taking interest around the world. Climate Challenge is now used as a part of like 15 different postgraduate courses around the world.

The game got picked up by the World Economic Forum and Davos, this big event that happens every year where world leaders get together and they play our game. But regular people also play our game.

Between 50 and 60 percent of our players are female, and most of our audience is in their early 20s to 40s, with about a 50-50 split between PC and Mac. They are smart people, and people like games that treat them like smart people. I guess the game did start as a bit of a fluke, but once we got the initial response, we realized we wanted to make more games like that, more games that tackled unusual subjects.

Fate of the World, rather than looking at 100 years in Europe, as Climate Challenge does, looks at 200 years for the entire world, in terms of climate change population growth, pandemics, the economy-- it's a much bigger model. We decided that this time, we would build in a fully featured climate model.

Our creative director says it's a bit like if you were to make a Formula 1 game; you expect the car to perform in a very specific way so you can have a good experience. With a game about global management, we want the data in there so it feels right; you feel like you get an idea of what the future holds, but at the same time you can do what you like with it.

How is that system influenced by your outside advisors on the project?

GR: We've been very lucky with the advisors we have, but we also have a full time climate scientist on the team. Her job is to get the data as close to accurate as we can, but with the provision that it is a game first and foremost. When we have to make the choice between good gameplay and good data, we pick the gameplay, and we tell people about it.

Some of the data in the game just doesn't exist, what is important is that it makes a satisfying gameplay mechanic. What we learned with the first game was that people got the idea of it being card-based, and you have policies that you are comparing and contrasting in ways you wouldn't in real life, and we kept that system in Fate of the World.

What would be an example of the fictional data you mentioned?

GR: Take, for instance, a geo-engineering project, and you're talking about putting a massive shield up between us and the sun to cut out some of the light. People have some ideas about what might happen, but we've never done it, so we can't say for sure that it's going to happen. Also, we are modeling 200 years, and most models that look at economic forecast and the like look forward only one to five years.

The UN might make one that goes out to 2100, but we have to take it to 2200, so beyond 2100, the game becomes more based on what we want to do. What's interesting is that most of the scientific models out there don't have a lot of the feedback loops that we expect in things like games. The economic model, looking at GDP growth, doesn't account for running out of oil or coal, for instance; they kind of stop it before that.

My approach with games is that chaos is good. We want to bring all that data into the game so you can play with it, and see how it interacts. An economist might want to make a model look as simple, clean and elegant as possible, but we don't want that; we want it interesting.

When you combine all that data, how do you make it comprehensible for a player?

GR: Essentially, we hone it down to what the player needs to know, and they can drill into it with as much depth as they want. If a player is trying to keep the global temperature below a certain level, which is one of the game's missions, they need to know what sector emissions are coming from and how they can manage that sector.

Just like in any good Civ or Sim-like game, you need to know what areas you need to focus on; it's all about getting the right data to the player at the right time. It's a balance; a lot of the stuff we've done has been very experimental, and this is why we will have a beta. We want people to get involved, because we've gotten as many things right as we can, but I'm sure people will come back with all sorts of things that they've noticed.

The idea is that we'll continue to evolve the game. For instance, with our card-based system, if an oil rig explodes and releases huge amounts of oil into a certain part of the ocean; we can release a narrative deck of card about that event as a bit of free or paid DLC so players can explore topical issues.

There are also options in the game to kill everyone over the age of 30, like in Logan's Run. In real life, hopefully that's not a good idea, but in a game, you should be able to try it; it's fun. Your objectives can vary from colonizing Mars to geo-engineering projects to reshape the earth, and the things that stop you are climate change, pandemics, population problems, and those sorts of things.

Climate change is interesting, but it's not the reason you do something. It's the thing that stops you from doing what you want to do.

Since the game is so heavily based on real-world data, did your scientific advisors ever oppose the desire to include science fiction scenarios in the game?

GR: We intentionally set up the team with that creative tension. The advisors and the climate scientists provide the scientific data with the best accuracy possible, and the game designers try to make the best game they can possibly make. The designers are all hardcore Magic: The Gathering players, big strategy game players, and we put them head to head with our scientists and advisors and see what happens.

We've found that's the best way to go because you get a nice creative tension that stops the project from swinging one way or the other. If the game didn't connect with the data, it wouldn't achieve what we want it to do. On the other hand, if it was a pure simulation, it wouldn't be a game that is fun to play.

We are very lucky, all of our advisors understand it's all about the game, and one of our advisors said she wanted players to be able to burn down the world in the game. That's what it's about; you want to have these things happen in a game so that they don't happen in real life.

And we make sure not to tell people what to do or not do; we are letting them play with the best information we can provide, have a good game experience, and make up their own minds. I've always thought that people who play games a lot are generally mentally agile, and we want to give them an interesting challenge.

One mode of the game encourages players to destroy the world in the most efficient manner possible; how did you justify that scenario when the game is so heavily based on real-world data and issues?

GR: Yeah, there are lots of things you can do in that regard, like force a one-child policy on North America if you choose. You get scored in reverse, based on how well you destroyed humanity and the planet. It's interesting because it can be challenging; it's tough to keep climate change down but it's also tough to kill off humanity without being thrown out of power.

It's fun because it's like a car crash where no one actually gets hurt. Sure, you can drive the two cars right past each other and everything will be fine, or you can smash them together and see how gratuitous the crash is.

The trick to it, and the tightrope we have to walk, is that since we deal with real world issues, we have to deal with them in a way that is dramatic and interesting for the player, but we don't want to dismiss them. We have a million people homeless in Bangladesh by flooding, and for me and most people that aren't in Bangladesh, it's just a statistic, but those are real people.

When we are playing with those, we have to walk a tightrope on how we handle them. That's why we have Dave Bishop to do our writing; he has a nice wit about him and we want that black humor, but we also have to point out the humanity in what's going on.

Who do you think the audience is for this game? Climate Challenge attracted a wide range of players, but how do you plan on retaining a casual audience when the game is not only more complex, but also a retail product rather than a free web game?

GR: Well, we have an idea of who are players are, based on Climate Challenge. With Fate of the World, we've already noticed that audiences we didn't think would be interested are interested, and we've got a lot of players who want to play that are 17 to 19. More than anything, I guess we're aiming the game at players like me. I'm 35, I play a range of games, and I love having a variety of games.

We also want to attract players that used to play games like Civilization or Sim City, who went away from gaming, but maybe got back into it with the Wii or DS. I don't think what we've done would work in the Wii market, though we'd like to get it onto platforms like the iPhone or iPad at some point.

How big is your team for the project?

GR: Fourteen, which is big for an indie, but tiny for a big studio. In terms of our budget, including the prototypes and pre-production work, we will have spent about one and a half to two million dollars on the project, so it's a lot of money for an indie as well, but we wanted to do it big; we wanted to get people to have some fun or go down in flames. We just want to make an impact.

That's a very adventurous approach to development.

GR: Yeah, but life's too short to be adventurous. We've tried to be as sensible as we can about planning and how we manage things, and we've had tremendous support from our investors, but you have to take some risks once in a while. I love a lot of the mainstream games out there, but they are not necessarily the kind of game I want to make myself. I want to tackle subjects, challenges and puzzles that haven't been tackled before, even if that means there's a chance of failure. We're a bit crazy I guess.

The game has a lot of data and statistics available to the player at any given moment; how do you organize this information for players who might not be familiar with the real world statistics?

GR: That's a good point. One purpose of the missions in the game is that we don't want to talk about what you should do, we want to show you. The mission to save the Amazon takes place over five turns, and is limited to just South America.

You have just a few options regarding what you can do, and the game goes into a lot more detail explaining numbers like GDP or HDI; we don't assume people will come into the game knowing what those are. These numbers get banded around a lot in news, but are never really explained, so we want to explain them.

We always try to bring out the right information for players and not spam them; no one wants to go through two hundred bits of information. There are news channels in the game that tell players what is going on and what options are being unlocked. We want to give them what is useful, but the tricky thing is also not stopping them from finding information that might not be relevant, but is just kind of interesting.

Your studio is a very unusual case, growing from making flash based web games to retail PC titles. Where do you see the future of the indie development going? Do you expect other developers to pursue the same path as your studio?

It's interesting; we were able to raise our own funding. I think that was because games are attractive to people, but also because our investors were attracted to what we were making, and they saw that there was an extra aspect to it.

But the game industry has been changing so radically. You have the big mega-bucks titles like Halo: Reach and Red Dead Redemption, and they are big projects, as big as a Hollywood movie. And of course you have the rise of indie games through digital distribution. But I think it's probably difficult to be somewhere in the middle, though we'll see how it evolves.

I think there's never been a time more full of opportunity in the industry, but it's also full of risks. It can be pretty terrifying. We had to take on a lot of skills that a lot of developers don't normally do, such as doing our own business development and publicity. I had to learn all about accounting and taxes, stuff that bores us to tears but allows us to make this game.

But we've had so much support from other indie developers, that's one thing I have to say straight out. Developers like Introversion, who did Darwinia and DEFCON, and Positech Games, who did Gratuitous Space Battles, are two examples. They've been the first to jump in and help out. There's such a good dynamic in that space, and it gives me a lot of hope for how the industry is going to shape up over time.

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