Interview with Rick Goodman

During my visit to Stainless Steel Studios, I got the chance to have quite the interview with Rick Goodman, the legendary cofounder of ES and current head of SSSI who quite simply needs no introduction; if you don’t know who he is, you’re surely square! During the interview, I asked him a number of questions on varied subjects, from the founding of SSSI to the future for the company. Read on as I tried to probe the mind of one of the biggest names in the RTS genre.

SSSI and other developers

Socvazius: This year, as I’m sure you know, the three leading RTS developers have released expansion packs for their latest games. How do you think Empires will stack up against them?

Rick: Well, that’s a good question. I have played two of the three, and I think that the Blizzard x-pack is really good. The ES [Ensemble Studios] x-pack is pretty good, perhaps not quite as good as the original. I haven’t played Zero Hour but I’ve heard a number of great things about it. They’re all really excellent x-packs; everyone has their own preferences. In terms of gameplay, though, I feel that our team has created a really fun game. And it [Empires: Dawn of the Modern World] has elements from all of those [other games]. And the one element I particularly find rewarding is that when you’re in combat you have huge variety of different units with special abilities. Watching good players play – not myself – you can tell that that gives them a tremendous amount of strategy and tactics to be able to use.

If you look at the other RTS games, they take a different approach which is much more simple approach; maybe a rock-paper-scissors approach, or an approach where you don’t have the ability to micro your battles. Every game is different and they have a different audience, so they’re trying to do different things.

What we’re trying to do is put the strategy back into the hands of the gamer, so that the gamer with the most skill will have the most tools to work with. In that sense, I think that Empires: Dawn of the Modern World succeeds in the way that we wanted to from the outset of the project. The funny thing about this is that I’m a very remedial player, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to enjoy a game where we actually gave players a lot of unique units because I personally can’t manage them very well! But I’ve found that’s not true for me, so I’ve become a believer that, although I don’t win a lot of games, I still really enjoy playing the game and having an opportunity to decide when to use the special abilities and how to use them. I don’t do it very well, but it gives me a lot of excitement and reward when I do it just like the good players.

“What we’re trying to do is put the strategy back into the hands of the gamer so that the game with the most skill will have the most tools to work with.”

Socvazius: So Empires was designed for both the really experienced players and the more novice ones?

Rick: Yes, that was one of the most important things about the game. We’re really trying to design games for the mass market, and we didn’t want to alienate anybody, so we wanted to create a game that was familiar, historical, epic and spanned a lot of time, and had lots of unique civilizations [with] unique units and technology trees. But yes, we didn’t want to do anything that might prevent the casual gamer or the pro gamer from enjoying it. And that’s a really tough proposition. You can obviously build a game that will target one of the audiences or the other, but it’s very hard to appeal to everybody. Part of the way we did this was we divided the game into an Empire Builder and an Action mode to try to target those audiences more carefully than perhaps other games have done in the past. And I think that was a wise thing to do.

Socvazius: Stainless Steel seems to have links with some of the other RTS developers. Do you guys have much interaction with them?

Rick: No, not as much as we’d like. Partly [this is] because we’re on the East Coast. But when I make friends with someone, personally, from another RTS company, I try to keep in touch with them because we’re so similar. We fight the same battles each day, we’re up against the same challenges. And I find that to be one of the most enjoyable experiences that I’ve had in this industry, which is sharing those triumphs and tragedies with other people who have [had] the same [experiences]. We don’t get to see each other on a daily basis, but we’re experiencing the same joys and the same setbacks. And that’s pretty fun to hear [about], to meet someone with the same experiences as you; it’s a common bond. I don’t get enough of that, but that’s one of the things I like to do.

Next: The community