Jajamän, it’s that time of the year again, when cold and darkness tends to make you more susceptible to all kinds of things such as this strange language. Don’t worry though, it has its advantages. Without English it would’ve been harder to interview Krenzo, leader of the FPS/RTS mod Empires, and we probably wouldn’t have been able to get these informative answers out of him with the use of only hand signals and grunting noises:
Halflife.nu: Hello, Krenzo! I know you’re busy fine-tuning upcoming Empires Beta 2.0, but do you have the time to answer a few quick questions?
Krenzo: Hello! Yes, I’d be glad to fill you on what’s going on with Empires 2.0 which is our most ambitious work to date and will be released this November 30th [Friday next week]! Visit EmpiresLeague.com/Press for all the info on version 2.0.
HLnu: Valve loves to brag about how supportive of mod developers they are. What’s your experience, and how up-to-date and useful do you think that the Source engine is today? Are there any crucial updates you’re hoping for?
Krenzo: From my experience, Valve is very supportive of mod developers. Anytime I’ve had a problem or needed help in identifying a bug, I’ve been able to e-mail Valve and get a very quick response, and they’ve helped me fix two major bugs in Empires 2.0 and much more.
The Source engine is an excellent modding platform. With most games, they last for a couple of years and then release a new version that is incompatible with the previous version’s mods. You either have to spend a lot of time converting everything over if you’re lucky, or you have to start from scratch. With Empires on the Source engine, we started programming back in January 2005 when the SDK was first released, and our code is still good and running on the Orange box which is considered a new release. You can’t get that kind of longevity as a mod anywhere else.
As far as updates, I’m eagerly waiting for the new SDK to be released which will allow us to take advantage of the new Orange box version of the Source engine. The new engine has support for multi-threading which will allow us to finally attain 64 players on a dual core server without having to make any sacrifices, and that’s been a goal of mine for a while.
HLnu: Something that Valve advocates (mostly with words as we’ve all noticed) is the policy of ”release early, release often”. What’s your opinion about this approach?
Krenzo: The 1.x version of Empires followed this approach, and it has its ups and downs. One of the biggest negatives is that your average player doesn’t seem to care for the ”Alpha” or ”Beta” tags anymore. We released the 1.0 Beta knowing full well that it was buggy and incomplete, that’s why we called it a Beta. Yet, we received a lot of negative feedback from people expecting it to be perfect, and that really perplexed me. However, we also received a lot of positive feedback stating that even with the bugs and lag, the game was fun and unique. After 1.0, we released a new update every two weeks, but we just kept losing players until there were none left.
With 2.0, we decided to do the opposite. After 1.x died out, we still had a lot of active fans on our forums demanding a new version, and that was the biggest pressure to put out another release. We began releasing updates only to members of our forums and not to the general public which seemed to work well. The players who were very eager for a new version got what they wanted, and we got better feedback and bug reports. This allowed us to really focus on making Empires better without having to worry about the negative reactions from the general public who seemed very hard to please.
Based on this experience from 1.x and the lead up to 2.0, I would have to say ”release early, release often” is not the same as what it used to be. People expect too much from mods. It’s important to develop a supportive community like we did with 1.x, and that is the most important thing to take away from the ”release early, release often” approach.
HLnu: Continuing on that topic: Some potential 2.0 players are still suffering from lag shock, browsing this interview with a thousand-millisecond stare. What can you say to assure them that this beta won’t set off flashbacks?
Krenzo: A lot of the reasoning behind holding off with 2.0 for as long as we did is that first impressions of mods mean a lot more than they used to. 1.0 did have a lot of problems with lag being one of them. We worked hard to release every two weeks to fix the lag, and by 1.07, lag was no where near as bad as it was with 1.0. Yet, that didn’t bring anyone
back. We bled a lot of players with 1.0 and on, and I actually expected people to start coming back once we fixed most of the problems. However, we just couldn’t get people to overcome their first impressions and come back.
With 2.0, we held off for long after we could have released to make sure that this time around, everything is as perfect as we could make it. Hundreds of bugs have been fixed, all weapon models have been redone, and all weapons and vehicles have been meticulously balanced. It’s guaranteed that 2.0 will not cause any flashbacks of 1.0 except when players remember how much fun they had.
HLnu: The jerkiness associated with vehicles (steering and aiming) annoyed a lot of players, especially during the first series of releases. What’ve been done to further alleviate this in 2.0?
Krenzo: It was all about optimization. Both networking bandwidth and CPU usage were contributing factors to the apparent jerkiness of vehicles and lag in general, and we invested a lot of time into optimizing everything we could. During development, I wrote an extensive performance logger to record all performance data, giving me an excellent insight into exactly what was taking up the most CPU time, and this went a long way to optimizing the code which results in less lag for all. You have to keep in mind though that Empires is a lot more intensive than your average mod. We have players, vehicles, and buildings. We’ve done our best to optimize things. Now, it’s up to server operators to modify their settings to something reasonable for the hardware they’re using.
HLnu: Empires have plenty of impressive features (such as huge maps, class-based infantry combat, RTS/commander gameplay and tech tree, vehicle workshop letting the players install different engines, weapons and armour on their tanks and other death machines, plus much more). Given that you’re not solely responsible for all of this, what particular feature are you anyway most proud of?
Krenzo: I am proudest of the vehicle customization system. This creates a lot of replay value as players try different weapons, armor, and engine combinations trying to find the one that works best for them. It also adds to a lot of challenge in trying to defeat the enemy team. Players try to figure out what weapons the other team is using and then research and equip the armor that works best against that weapon.
HLnu: On a sidenote, what’ve been hardest to implement
Krenzo: I don’t know as far as features. Every time I think something is hard to code, I finish coding it and think ”that was no where near as hard as I thought.” I end up building up this incredible momentum after a few hours where I think I can code anything.
Fixing bugs would have to be the hardest part of coding Empires. It’s easier to add features, but it’s when something doesn’t go right with it that you have to really work hard to track down the cause and fix it without breaking anything else. I owe a lot to our testers who tracked down a lot of bugs which I would have never found on my own.
HLnu: Aircrafts are not going to be included in the initial Beta 2.0 release. A year ago the aircraft code was about 50 % complete. What’s the status right now?
Krenzo: Around September of last year, I was all motivated to implement aircraft. I coded the flight system, aircraft HUD, and dynamic map scaling system, and we even had some limited multiplayer testing which was actually pretty cool. However, no art was done for aircraft. At best, we had basic designs, and the rest of Empires’ gameplay wasn’t perfect. It didn’t make sense to fully code aircraft without complete models and while the gameplay that we did have still needed work.
As of now, the code is pretty much where I left it. You can set maps to be scaled to 8x or 16x their normal size and fly a basic plane using pre-existing art. Once the art is finished, it won’t take much time to finish the rest of the code, but it will take a lot of time to perfect.
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HLnu: How hard would you say it’ll be for the typical player to pilot the airplanes and successfully pull off a bombing run or a dog fight, and in what way are the aircrafts supposed to affect general gameplay? A buzzing nuisance or absolutely critical for winning a stretched out and even game?
Krenzo: I’m trying to make aircraft realistic while still being fun to fly. My initial inspiration for aircraft was Falcon 4, and my early motivation was seeing if I could copy a F-16 into Empires. I feel that I succeeded in that it flew very much like it did in Falcon 4, and that is going to be the basis for all aircraft in Empires. I even copied over the ability to black out where if you pull too many high G maneuvers the edges of your screen turn black and close in on the center of your view until your screen is completely black.
We want aircraft to be fun to fly, but we don’t want aircraft like in Battlefield 2 where they absolutely dominated everything on the ground. We’re planning on having a fuel system so that you can’t loiter over the enemy base forever, and there will be anti-air vehicles solely for taking aircraft down. It’s too early to tell how exactly aircraft are going to affect gameplay as there will be a lot of testing and balancing to be done, but with the increased map sizes, they’re going to be very important for moving your forces around the level and controlling the map.
This is a screen shot of flying the F-16 I implemented as a test run for aircraft in a map specifically made for aircraft. The cockpit in the bottom half was non-functional, but the green HUD in the center was fully functional showing airspeed, nose angle, elevation, roll angle, angle off attack, and G’s currently being pulled just like in any F-16 simulator.
HLnu: Since you’re working for the United States Navy, is it safe to say that boats and submarines are way up on the to-do list? Have anything been done on that frontier yet?
Krenzo: It’s something that we want to do, but it’s behind aircraft in priority. Coding wise, it’s rather easy and will just be a case of making the current vehicle code support buoyancy and propulsion in the water.
I actually finished my enlistment in the US Navy and was honorably discharged at the end of August. Since then, I’ve dedicated all of my time to making 2.0 the best it can be.
HLnu: The one question above all else (if you flip your monitor over) for the die-hard fans out there is if Empires will ever have the very same thing that made Codename Eagle perhaps the greatest game in computer gaming history? Yes, blimps, I’m talking about blimps. Enormous stroll-paced, barrel-rolling, randomly exploding, no-bullshit blimps!
Krenzo: LOL! That’s been a running joke in our community for a while, and our artist, Megel, working on aircraft has actually created some designs just in-case I give in to the whole idea. To put even more motivation into the whole idea, one of our mappers, Grizzly, has created a map with a floating blimp carrier with the only thing missing is spawning aircraft. I might just have to give in to the whole idea with so much support behind it.
HLnu: Yeees, Krenzo. Yield, yieeeld… Oh, hrrrm! Much thanks to Krenzo (and Grizzly a little tiny bit)! Some fine answers indeed. Now we can go back to normal here at Halflife.nu again, and that means meatballs, polar bear wrestling and occasionally Half-Life news in the language of svenska.