Interviews » Homelanfed (7/12/2004)
Note: This interview originally appeared on Homelanfed.

Founded a few years ago, game developer Tilted Mill recently announced what they have been working on; Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile, an ambitious historical city simulation and strategy game that will be published by Myelin Media. HomeLAN got a chance to chat with Tilted Mill co-founder Chris Beatrice to find out more about their plans for Children of the Nile.

HomeLAN - How did the idea behind Children of the Nile come about?

Chris Beatrice - That's a long story, because the answer is intertwined with the establishment of Tilted Mill, our goals as a company, and the history of city building games going back ten years! With this genre and this setting we felt we could have our cake and eat it too, on two different counts. First, we believed the city-building genre had been tremendously under-realized in terms of its gameplay potential. Its lofty ideals were never fully achieved – not even close. So this offered us a unique opportunity to do something new and different, while preserving the core game dynamics many gamers are familiar with and have come to enjoy. As far as the setting, ancient Egypt is both a real, believable, historical place, and also the stuff of make-believe. And what's more, it's well-known and loved around the world - Egypt is for everyone, I like to say. With Egypt we have a setting that is intriguing and mystical, while still founded in reality. There is a common understanding of this great civilization, and that is really important in terms of pulling players into the game, and ensuring that they understand what's going on.

With this game we believed we could invent or reinvent a genre – one that we know we can do better than anyone else, to boot. In the process I think we may end up reinvigorating PC strategy gaming as a whole as well!

HomeLAN - What kinds of historical research did Tilted Mill do for the game?

Chris Beatrice - Most of us have been making historical strategy games for a decade now, and we’re all history buffs. So it’s hard to tell where the hobby ends and the formal research begins. We do a lot of research – a whole lot – and it never stops. Although CotN is first and foremost a game, it remains very historically authentic, because its inspiration is historical. For example, food production and taxation are based on a simple feudal system, the economy is based on food (no money in ancient Egypt), so shopkeepers only get good food to eat by selling their wares. The annual inundation of the Nile introduces a seasonal rhythm, where the whole landscape is transformed each year; priests administer all the social services in the city (no separation of church and state!); Egypt is unchallenged as a world power (the first civilization); you, the Pharaoh are a god-king, whose subjects expected you to be interred in larger and larger monuments, and so on. Each of these (and many more) is a new and very interesting game dynamic based on a historical factor we found to be fascinating and inspirational.

HomeLAN - What sorts of elements will the player have to keep track of while playing Children of the Nile?

Chris Beatrice - One of the most unique aspects of CotN, which permeates the entire game, is the union of an organic, self-sustaining “life-sim” with a simple strategy game. That means you essentially don’t have to keep track of anything. People in the game will take care of themselves. They’ll forage or hunt wild foods if they need to, they’ll shop for what they need, etc.

Every aspect of the game model and user interface is set up to operate at multiple levels. For example, if you build a priest’s apartment, the priest will find temples, schools, and so on, in which to work. If you want to tell him where to work, you can do that too. Shopkeepers will harvest raw materials for themselves, and produce finished wares to sell. If you want them to have finer raw materials, you can set up trade relationships to import them, or have your government laborers mine them.

One of the things we are most proud of is that this is a game that can be enjoyed at many levels. You can simply place some buildings and watch the citizens go about their daily lives, or you can go door to door and see what’s in each household’s cupboard, what past occupations the family has been involved in, what they’re happy or unhappy about at the present time, and so on. You can count every resource in the city, and know exactly what different types of jewelry are being made in the city's shops, or you can just pump gold, gems and other exotic raw materials into the city and know that eventually some fine jewelry is going to end up around the necks and wrists of the city's noblewomen!

HomeLAN - What technologies will be available to the player in the game?

Chris Beatrice - If you’re talking about “tech tree” stuff, well, improving and enhancing your technological assets is not a part of this game, nor was it important in ancient Egypt. In fact, the ancient Egyptians shunned technological innovation, and their technology remained remarkably static over a few millennia. The chariot was really the only technological improvement introduced in Egypt during most of what we think of as “ancient” times.

A similar dynamic to "technology" that operates in CotN, though, is the introduction of better and better raw materials into the various sectors of private and government industry. For example, a perfumer can pick wild flowers to make a simple, local perfume, and that’s ok. But if you can set up trade relationships so myrrh is flowing into the city, that's even better. Sometimes getting these fine raw materials involves mass labor operations, or military expeditions. With more expensive items in the city to buy, noblemen grow their estates, thus yielding more to you in taxes. In this way you're expanding and deepening your economy, not military technology as in an RTS.

HomeLAN - What will the diplomatic system be like in Children of the Nile?

Chris Beatrice - For the period covered in CotN, Egypt was the dominant world power. Much so called “trade” between countries was in fact Pharaoh personally bartering with the leaders of other nations, sending out military expeditions to acquire exotic resources, or swapping Egypt’s natural resources (gold, papyrus and food), with items not available locally (like wood, certain gemstones, etc.). World level activity in CotN sees you, as Pharaoh, dispatching exploratory missions to uncover and establish new sites throughout the known world, providing new resources, earning prestige, and other benefits, as well as setting up partnerships with foreign governments, and helping them militarily. Certain special achievements are also carried out on the world level, such as circumnavigating Africa, etc.

HomeLAN - What kinds of units and structures will be available in the game?

Chris Beatrice - Well, that’s a very long list - this is a building game, after all!

Many of the buildings you build are homes. Building specific types of homes is how you tell your citizens what you want them to do. That's misleading, though, because in many cases you don't actually build the homes, but simply designate something best characterized as, for example, "Entertainers live here." After you do that, an entertainer family will construct a home, move in, and ply their trade (assuming there are clients available... of course). For many jobs, education is required, so you’ll build schools… but you need priests to teach at the schools, and so on.

All structures and people in the city are interconnected in some way, and there is a very large number of them. In addition to homes, there are various social service facilities (hospital, temples, shrines), training facilities for the military, shops that produce all sorts of goods, monuments (tombs, propaganda, statues), etc.

HomeLAN - What will the combat system be like in the game?

Chris Beatrice - Military and security considerations take up a very large portion of government expenses. As was historically the case, the military takes care of internal and external security. So some members of the military are city guards, others are soldiers in the army. Only the army can venture abroad, while city guards defend the city itself. But the two work in concert: often the army will be dispatched to squash the world level site where the invaders who are harassing the city are coming from.

Commanders are used to lead troops, and they are assigned to army, navy, or city guard commands. Ships, captained by navy commanders, are required to send the army abroad when water must be crossed.

For combat proper, there are essentially two systems. The first is conducted on the city map, where your city guards do battle with parties of raiders that may periodically invade the city. The second takes place on the world level, when you dispatch your army on missions of foreign conquest. The whole army always goes, and you have a pretty good idea whether they’ll be successful or not, how many casualties he can anticipate, etc. – this game and this period are not about picking just the right force needed for the job, and hoping you’re successful, but about building up the biggest, best, most well-trained, well-equipped loyal army you can until it’s big enough to achieve your goals. Each soldier maintains several stats, such as morale, armor, multiple weapons, training, etc., and you are told clearly why his army may be deficient for the given engagement.

HomeLAN - What kinds of gameplay modes will be put into Children of the Nile?

Chris Beatrice - The bulk of play centers on a comprehensive campaign consisting of approximately 15 scenarios, where you build your own unique version of ancient Egypt. You choose where to locate your capital city in each of the historic periods, and the goals and challenges differ based on the choice you make for each. Monuments you build carry over from one period to the next, and in the end you've put your own unique thumbprint on the ancient world.

There is also a sandbox mode, where you can just create to your heart’s content. In addition, we intend to include several scenarios that recreate historical events in the lives of certain Pharaohs, and some other standalone scenarios.

HomeLAN - What other unique gameplay elements will be put into the game?

Chris Beatrice - It’s very hard to reduce this game to a set of isolated, unique elements, because what is so wonderful and refreshing about CotN is its seamless fusion of a huge variety of aspects of life in the city, and the union of organic, life-like behavior with strategy game control. The immersion provided by the detailed visual and audio presentation combined with the gameplay makes you feel like you are truly in the setting.

But here are a couple of individual tidbits for you: As Pharaoh, you can issue “edicts” that essentially override some inherent functionality in the model (you’re Pharaoh, so you can change the rules if you want!) - but of course, for everything there is a cost… People in the city engage in conversations with one another, usually about what they think of you and your leadership.

You can magnify the effects of your otherwise humble achievements through propaganda (you are both the government and the mass media!).

HomeLAN - What can you tell us about the graphics engine and its features for Children of the Nile?

Chris Beatrice - As you know we licensed from Stainless Steel Studios the same 3d engine that they used to create Empire Earth. One of the aspects of the engine that appealed to us was the low specs required to play, which is very important for us, particularly in Europe. We have kept the minimum system specs very low, requiring only Hardware Transform & Lighting available on G-Force & Radeon cards from yr 2000 (DX7).

On the other side we have modified the engine quite a lot to suit our needs and to take advantage of features offered in DX9. We believe we have the first flowing water model in which current flow adapts to the terrain as the Nile floods and recedes. Particle effects, procedural sky, shadows, pixel shader effects on the water, are just a few of the graphic fx in our current build.

To us it is never about the technology itself, but the gameplay impact we can make. For example it was very important to us that you could zoom out far above the city and then zoom all the way down to first person and walk the streets. Any additional detail that a machine can support is just one more thing that helps make the environment more believable taking you deeper on your journey back in time.

HomeLAN - What is the current status of the game's development and when will it be released?

Chris Beatrice - We’re on track for a November 2004 release.

HomeLAN - Finally is there anything else you wish to say about Children of the Nile?

Chris Beatrice - I sincerely believe this is the game that will be to city-building games what Half-Life was to FPS games. Although it is certainly revolutionary, at the same time it really feels like, “well, duh, why hasn't anyone done this before? This is what city-building should have been like all along.” And, for those who have not played city-building games before, this is a simple, intuitive game, where you cannot easily feel the boundaries of the game model, and you don’t need to learn, memorize (and later work around) arcane and nonsensical rules in order to play. It is a game for all skill levels, and all types of players.