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Age of Kings Heaven » Forums » News Discussion » The Master Builders: An Interview with Gordon Farrell
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Topic Subject:The Master Builders: An Interview with Gordon Farrell
Mr Wednesday
Cavalier
(id: matty12345)
posted 03-12-18 07:47 AM CT (US)         


Welcome back for another feature of The Master Builders. In this series I am interviewing some of the scenario designing greats from Age of Kings past. These are the fellows who made AoKH's SD forum what it is today. They built worlds that we all grew up in, created maps we still can remember almost two decades later, told us grand stories, and all the while challenged us to follow them. Some of them are still with us, but most have moved on to new pursuits. And yet, having left so great a mark, each of us is likely to once in a while feel a tinge of nostalgia for our favourite designer. If you ever asked yourself, "I wonder what happened to Gordon Farrell?", well, you are in luck.

For those who don't know the name, Gordon Farrell was the brilliant early AoK designer of the Pendragon Saga and The Last Viking Prince, as well as a prolific designer for AoE. He went on to use his talents in a career in the industry. I chatted over email with Gordon late last fall (I know, shame on me for the long delay in getting this together), and we discussed everything from his time at HeavenGames to his current pursuits to his thoughts on the RTS genre and game design. It was a fascinating discussion!

[Note: As before, I have added some notes after the fact in italics. While I have copied Gordon's answers word for word, the order of the questions has been made more linear and logical than the back and forth email affords.]

Enjoy.

Most of our Age of Kings Heaven community here likely know you best for your excellent Pendragon Saga and Last Viking Prince campaigns. But that is only one short chapter of your experiences in game design. Can you take us chronologically through that journey so everyone is up to speed? From your time as a prolific scenario designer for the original Age of Empires, to your present projects and position, and well, everything in between?
I've always had a deep passion for Greek history, and after I'd played through the original Age of Empires campaign, I began to stare at the main menu, and a button marked "Scenario Editor." It was something new in retail games at that time, brand new, actually, and I began to think, damn, if this does what I think it does, I can make a much better Greek campaign than the game I just played, okay, lemme have a crack at it... That was in 1998.


For various reasons (divorce, ahem), I had a lot of time on my hands and I started building scenarios for my own entertainment. Eventually someone suggested I check out Age of Empires Heaven. I did, and I began uploading my work. Well, I got good ratings and a lot of praise at AOEH, and one day I opened my email to find a job offer from Rick Goodman. That's how I got hired to work on Empire Earth, my first AAA gig.


As a mod builder, I plunged right into AoK next but the thing is, now we could write triggers. Yes, the storytelling options were several orders of magnitude greater, but it took much, much longer to build a scenario. My mod work on AoK won some awards, and the trigger writing I did prepared me for Rick Goodman's next game, Empires: Dawn of the Modern World. That came out in 2003 to excellent reviews.


Still, soon after, Rick's company shuttered. I spent some time with BreakAway Games and Tilted Mill. Then, oh, around 2006 Konstantin Fomenko invited me to join the staff of his new company, Reverie World Studios, as lead writer. That was exactly the gig I was looking for! I love Kon and I've been with his company ever since. We did Dawn of Fantasy, Kingdom Wars, and Kingdom Wars II: Battles. Our new grand strategy RTS is called Medieval Kingdom Wars. Right now it's in Early Access on Steam, where the reviews and the sales are through the roof. It's the dream game Kon and I always wanted to build: a historically accurate, open-world recreation of the 100 Years War, with all the medieval city-building, Europe-conquering, real-time, blood-soaked warfare you've always craved.

If I can get sidetracked a bit, let's talk about RTS game design. Empire Earth and Dawn of the Modern World were both in many ways spiritual successors to the Age series, both somewhat expected to make Age of Empires and Age of Kings extinct, and both were at least in my opinion excellent games. Somehow though, neither game quite grew the fan base that Age of Empires or Age of Mythology did, despire being more technically impressive, having more options, and being all around shinier games. As someone who worked with or on all of them, and as someone with a great deal of experience working on more modern RTS game experiences, what are the core principles in your mind that make a great and memorable RTS?
The classic RTS format was invented by Westwood, for Dune II. Blizzard transferred it to high fantasy with WarCraft: Orcs and Humans, and only then did Tony and Rick Goodman turn it into a historical strategy game, Age of Empires. So the format had been fairly well refined along the way, much in the way Christopher Marlowe invented the core elements of Elizabethan drama, allowing Shakespeare to take it to the next level. Add in the fact that each early use of that RTS format appealed to a different gaming niche -- scifi, fantasy, and history buffs -- while still being a novel style of gaming overall, and that is the first part of the equation. Novelty, and finding your target audience.

The second part of the equation is that people generally respond in larger numbers to more visually beautiful games, which is why I suspect Dwarf Fortress, for all its narrative richness and immersive capabilities, has never caught on big. So when Rick left Ensemble Studios to create Empire Earth, he increased the Age of Empires multi-nation gaming experience tenfold, going from Stone Age to Future Tech, and not just confining himself to the ancient world. It was genius, really, and the audacity of it struck a major chord in people's imaginations. But here's the rub: gaming had only just entered the beginnings of 3D design, and major publishers were looking for 3D games. To accomplish this, Rick's fabulously talented team led by Jon Alenson, built units using polygons, not pixels. And there were only 20 or 30 polygons per unit! 3D games now use 10 or 20 times that number. So the game wasn't nearly as attractive as AoE, with its gem-like 2D pixel models. And over time, the more beautifully crafted visuals won out.

But this leads us to Empires: Dawn of the Modern World. That game really should have taken off. The versatility of the editor, its much more attractive poly units, the use of reflection mapping, environmental bump mapping and a new physics engine -- frankly, it's medieval design elements alone should have eclipsed Age of Kings among mod builders and scenario designers. The game got great reviews, too -- so what stopped it from being the success it might have been? And here's the third part of the equation: marketing. Specifically, the name "Empires: Dawn of the Modern World" did not inspire gaming fantasies. In fact, the name alone probably doomed the game to obscurity.

Think about it: "Empire Earth." Wow. It thrills the imagination. And "Epic Is Too Small a Word" was the perfect tag line.

Now say: "Empires: Dawn of the Modern World." Hmmm.. here's the thing: there is no poetry whatsoever in the phrase "modern world." It sounds like a world furnished with Danish tables and chairs. Marketing is damned tricky, and sadly I think Rick's team dropped the ball on that.

Fast forwarding to the present day and Medieval Kingdom Wars. Most of the games mentioned above were in the so called 'Golden Age' of RTS gaming. What approaches have you and the development team taken to create a unique experience in a genre of gaming often criticized as having gone stale?
Stale? It never went stale. Creative Assembly proved that. They expanded RTS beyond real-time base building and married it to grand strategy gaming, with vast world maps and the option to play any of a dozen or so nations. We've got all that in Medieval Kingdom Wars, including deeper tech trees, historical quests with multiple outcomes, and genuine MMO gameplay. Plus, our world map strategic action isn't restricted to TBS. It's all 100% real-time, where you can join your army on the tactical map at any time in its journey from point A to point B, not just at the end of the turn. It's Total War: Medieval with the training wheels removed.

So what does a successful RTS game require? 1) Visually attractive maps and models, 2) a rich variety of game positions to choose from, 3) a switch-up in the formula so there's more than just Build and Destroy, and 4) a layer of poetry woven into the presentation.

I couldn't agree more about Empire Earth. I remember being fascinated by it and eager to get it...and then so disappointed that the graphics were actually weaker. Looking back I think the graphics were the real reason I never got into it.

Empires: Dawn of the Modern World was very fun. I definitely spent many hours playing it, and it is a very underrated game. I do think the one flaw it had was atmosphere. When increasing the scope to include both medieval and modern warfare, you end up sometimes with an experience that immerses you in neither setting completely, making the experiences a little less memorable.

So as lead writer for Reverie, what can you tell us about Mediaeval Kingdom Wars' single player campaign experience?

The entire game, including Single Player, is framed and shaped by the historical events of the 100 Years War. You have a lot of latitude to deviate from history, to play any of twenty kingdoms, and to forge your own empire, but there will be events that pop up from the actual timeline that you'll have to cope with. In addition, Single Player has lots of quest-driven missions that determine when you get new technologies, the price you have to pay for the them, cultivating political stability at home, and maneuvering around international alliances. Alliances will be critical to your game, because having peace on one border will be necessary to wage war along another. Allies also come to your aid as AI Players. In addition, there will be lots of classic base building and soldier training, although you won't be founding your own cities, you have to tear down and rebuild the existing infrastructure in historical cities of the time. So... lots of history to provide a dense texture of reality, and lots of freedom to become the master of Europe through your own devious schemes, with lots of opportunities to screw everything up in your own particular way.

Random question. You mentioned being a big fan of Greek history. Have you ever visited Greece?
Sadly, no. Lots of England and Ireland, but Greece is next on my bucket list.

What campaigns or scenarios of yours do you think were your finest, for AoE, AoK, EmpiresotMW, etc.?
AoE's levels were so easy to build, it allowed me to create stories with epic sweep. I miss that. AoK allowed for lots of special effects. But in RTS, the scenario I'm most proud of is EotMW's Pilgrims With Knives. Still, on balance, my campaign for Caesar IV, Ceasar in Exile, is I think my best -- though Scenario 1 gets a bit cramped and ugly. Shoulda rebuilt it. Sigh. Most ambitious of them all? Legends of Ancient Arabia for Civilization 4. My only total conversion mod. Proud of that one, too.

But, yeah, finest work? Caesar in Exile. (Come on, Tilted Mill! Surely SOMEONE will bankroll another Caesar citybuilder!)

When I interviewed Ingo van Thiel, I asked him if he had any suggestions for who I should catch up with next from HG's past. Among a few names he threw out was yours. So...anyone you'd suggest we catch up with from back in the day?
Check in with Konstantin Fomenko, at Reverie World Studios. He was one of the most envelop-pushing designers back in the day, under the name DeKont. Also Chris Theriault, know as Eggman. Last I heard Chris was on the faculty of the renown DigiPen game design college.

Lastly, is there anything you would like to mention that we didn't cover?
you might add that one of my most ambitious mods, long unavailable online and I believe never submitted to HGS, has been recovered, and I'll be uploading it around the time this interview comes out. It's for Children of the Nile, and it's called "The Tyranny of the Gods."

I must apologize at this point that this has taken me months to post instead of a couple weeks as originally intended.

Thanks Gordon for an amazing interview. Hopefully you will stop by and say hi below!
AuthorReplies:
HockeySam18
Dúnadan
posted 03-12-18 10:00 AM CT (US)     1 / 9       
Fascinating write-up. Quite an impressive repertoire, to say the least!

Storm on the Steppe | Galderton Hill RP | Proud member of Stormwind Studios

"Cattle die, kindred die, every man is mortal:
But the good name never dies of one who has done well." - Hávamál

"Hockey is the only sport left for true men." - ax_man1
Bassi
Squire
posted 03-12-18 10:50 AM CT (US)     2 / 9       
Wow! I had no idea, Gordon worked for so many games! Great interview!

My AoC Workshop
Make Build & Destroy great again!
kud13
Squire
posted 03-13-18 11:34 AM CT (US)     3 / 9       
I best recognize that name from the Empire Earth custom scens "Athens Triumphant" and "The Successors" .

I'll definitely need to check out some of his other games now.
Lord Basse
MI6 Scenario-Making Machine
posted 03-14-18 12:50 PM CT (US)     4 / 9       
Great write-up! Really interesting to hear from someone who went into the games industry after being a scenario designer!

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The ||||||||||||||||| Hus
OF | [/ \] |¯| [/ \] | ME
______________________________________________________________________________ |__ _ |¯|____|_______________________________________________________________________________
The Relics of Athalën (5.0) | AoK Opus - 90,000+ downloads | StormWind Studios | "I consider the conversion of Basse to be one of the great triumphs of my modding crusade" - Matt LiVecchi
Al_Kharn the Great
Squire
posted 03-23-18 10:10 AM CT (US)     5 / 9       
Gordon also is an adjunct professor at NYU.

Filthydelphia Creations
Tristan & Iseult ~ 1st Place (tied), 2014 Historical Scenario Design Contest
City of Peace ~ 2nd Place, 2014 Minigame Competition
Dragon's Head, Serpent's Tail ~ 2nd Place, 2016 Defend the Spot Competition
Ragnar's Raids ~ 2nd Place, 2016 Historical Scenario Design Contest
Complete Campaign Collection
ArnulfFloyd
Squire
posted 03-23-18 11:26 AM CT (US)     6 / 9       
This article is good, I've playing Gordon's AOE and AOK campaigns and scenarios
Mash
Huskarl
(id: Mashek)
posted 03-24-18 06:35 AM CT (US)     7 / 9       
Gordon Farrell
VIP
posted 05-12-18 04:41 PM CT (US)     8 / 9       
Thank you to everyone who read and commented on the interview. It's always fun to revisit the community here. Special thanks to Mr. Wednesday!

I wanted to let everyone know that I just uploaded the long-lost Children of the Nile scenario I mentioned in the interview. You should be able to grab it at CotN Heaven. Here's a description. Enjoy!

"It has been many centuries since the Kings of Waset have driven out the Hyksos. And in that time, the 18th Dynasty has led Egypt to a new age of glory. Your mighty ancestors extended the god-given authority of Pharaoh into Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia. The Nubian Kingdom of the south, once a treacherous ally of the Hyksos, has been brought forcibly back into the realm of the Double Crown. And the great names of the Pharaohs who achieved all this echo like a trumpet down the ages -- Ahmose I, Ahmenhotep II, and the indomitable Tuthmosis III.

But now you, Amenhotep III, must hold together the legacy created by your mighty ancestors, to preserve the glory of Egypt, and most of all --- to defend the unquestioned authority of Pharaoh, Son of Ra, against all who would tear it down."


Cheers!

- Gordon Farrell

President and Creative Director, Alternate Worlds (2011 - present) http://alternate-worlds.com/
Lead Writer, Reverie World Studios, (2008 - present)
Director of Voice Acting, Reverie World Studios, (2014 - present)
shieldwolf23
Squire
posted 06-24-18 01:51 AM CT (US)     9 / 9       
Sorry for the (slight necro) but I'm surprised and thankful for having read your interview Mr. Wednesday! Thank you Mr. Gordon Farrell! I have always looked up to your scenarios growing up and loving Empire Earth. I am planning to buy Medieval Wars too!

Empire Earth || Latest Submissions Battleground: Zerrissener Krieg ||Oct 2013||Gibraltar ||Nov 2013
Age of Kings || Latest Submission Shadows of Betrayal || August 2012
AOK Designer of the Year 2012
Core Team Member & Site Co-Administrator,Empire Creations || Team Member, Black Forest Studios
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