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Remember the Titans

Brian Sullivan discusses his mythological epic

No matter how often it happens in the game development industry, leaving the safe confines of a successful developer or publisher to strike out on your own once more is undoubtedly a terrifying prospect - but every major company has its offshoots, each striving to realise their own creative vision. For Brian Sullivan, however, leaving Ensemble Studios was a truly huge step; not only had he helped that firm to create the hugely successful Age of Empires, he had actually co-founded it in the first place.

That was in 2000, and almost six years later, his new studio Iron Lore is finally ready to show the world what it's been working on - a sprawling, epic, action RPG called Titan Quest. It's quite a departure for Sullivan, sharing more in common with Blizzard's Diablo than with his own RTS heritage, and ambitious in its scope, bringing the player through different parts of the ancient world to battle monsters both mythological and original.

We caught up with Sullivan to discuss Titan Quest, Iron Lore, the merits of striking out on your own - and the status of the PC market in the face of increased focus on next-generation console gaming.

GamesIndustry.biz: Why did you go pick THQ to publish Titan Quest, was it purely a financial decision?

Brian Sullivan: No, I'd say the big reason we went with THQ is they just started this big strategic initiative to develop original IP, big budget PC games, and we thought if we became one of their star products as part of that initiative, we'd get extra special care. I think we've been given excellent support from THQ.

The same thing happened when we had Age of Empires from Microsoft, and Microsoft at that point decided to get into gaming big time. They used to have their flight sim and their golf game, but they weren't really big into gaming, and when they signed us up with AoE, that was a new, big initiative, and I think we got a lot of extra marketing, and a lot of extra internal support to develop the game. So for the same reason, we went with THQ.

Why didn't you go with Microsoft this time?

I think they were too busy with Xbox games...

Do you think that's a problem - that Microsoft is turning away from the PC side of things now, and concentrating too much on consoles?

You know, as a PC gamer, I really wish they had stuck with PC gaming. Because PC gaming doesn't really have a champion; with all the consoles, the manufacturer's the big champion, but PC gaming has no champion with Microsoft and their own Xbox.

If you count MMOs and everything, the PC's doing fantastic, and actually I don't know if the big publishers factor in all the big fees and royalties they have to pay the manufacturers on the console side.

I think THQ decided there's a lot of profit to be made in PC games - and since THQ's made that decision, and put their portfolio together, Namco is doing it also, they're getting into PC games with Hellgate and some others, and Midway decided to get into PC games... Microsoft even talks about getting back into PC games, so who knows. I think you can still make a lot of money on PC games, and people are starting to realise that again.

So you went from doing Age of Empires and then started working with off your own back on Titan Quest. What was it like, working with a small team without a publisher behind you?

Well, small teams are the most fun. When it's small, it's nice because you're involved in every single decision that happens in the game, and that's kind of fun - I know everything that's going on, I get to influence every aspect of it. But when you get a bigger team, like now, stuff keeps popping up that I had nothing to do with. Luckily 90 per cent of it is in the right direction and good - but then I still have to hunt down that 10 per cent that doesn't go in the direction I'd like, and change it.

But not having financial backing - that's a scary thing. When my partner and I were paying out of our pocket - let me tell you, that's a pretty stressful thing to do.

It's been five years since you did that - looking at the market now, do you think there's still room for developers to do what you did and start something with your own money? Or has the industry changed?

I think it's gotten a lot tougher. The bar is so much higher, the budgets are so much bigger... It's going to be very hard to get a publisher to fund a startup company of unproven people.

Of course, if you're Bill Roper and you have a track record, it's easier, but if you're a bunch of unknowns, I don't think you can get a publisher to fund you as a startup. It's a lot tougher nowadays. To a degree, I feel that at Iron Lore, we just got in under the bar. It's a tough market out there, and as the budgets get bigger and bigger and bigger, the publishers get a lot more risk averse, and it's hard for them to think, 'Oh, let's sign up this bunch of people we don't know.' It's gotten a lot harder for new startup independent developers.

Luckily the game development community's so large that many people who start now have a big track record - there's Infinity Ward, they had such a big track record at EA, and so many of them left together that that was probably a safe bet.

Did you at any point consider going down the MMO route, seeing as they're so popular these days and making so much money?

Well, we started this in 2000, so EverQuest was the biggest game back then, and it wasn't clear how many MMOs the market would support, and how many people would play... Before World of Warcraft came out, I don't think anyone thought MMOs were going to be as big as they were.

So we didn't think very strongly of MMOs, and even if we had, I think we would have made the game right now, because that's my expertise - retail, boxed PC products. I don't think I know the MMO market quite as well. Although the success of World of Warcraft changes everything...

Guild Wars, for example, is doing the kind of thing you're doing...

Guild Wars, though, is what I call half an MMO; you have an MMO lobby, basically, and you have instant gameplay. I think that's something we would certainly consider for the future.

There's been a lot of talk about the influence Diablo had on the game - did you see any issues or problems with that game that you wanted to fix with Titan Quest?

Oh yeah, there's a lot. There's the graphics of course, it was just very dated for nowadays. In Diablo, when you stopped the game, you'd start again at the last teleport place, and sometimes they were over an hour apart, so if you wanted to play for a half hour in the evening, and you didn't make it to the next teleporter shrine, you'd start again back where you were before.

Nowadays, people are so busy, you can't play for a long period of time, so we wanted a game where you can play for a little while, and still make some progress. So we have respawn shrines - you go back to your last respawn shrine, but they're much closer together. That's just one example, but there's lots of ways we tried to expand the basic Diablo action RPG gameplay.

Are you planning to do any expansion packs in other areas of the ancient world?

We're talking to THQ about expansion packs, but we don't have anything official to announce.

But do you have any ideas as to what areas they might be based in?

Oh, yeah, there's lots of candidates there. Although, there's a lot of issues with doing historical games - like, we would love to do an Indian expansion pack, for instance, but a lot of the mythologies from back then are still practiced as religion today. So some areas are trickier than others. We have a lot of stories from the Age of Empires games where, when the game was near completion, we'd send it out to all the local offices, and they'd find something that was really wrong.

Like, in the original Age of Empires, there was a scenario where the Japanese attacked the Koreans in a certain time period, and the Korean Government told Microsoft that they couldn't release it - and that if they did, they would imprison the head of Microsoft in Korea, because they thought it wasn't historically accurate.

There's a lot of historical books saying it was accurate, but we did some more in-depth research and it turns out it was a little controversial in terms of who was attacking who and so on. So we ended up cutting that scenario from the Japanese and Korean versions of the game. There's a lot of sensitivities out there; it's a minefield.

Is that why you've given yourself a bit more licence to be fantastical? I know it's a historical RPG, but you can't deny that there are very strong fantasy elements. Is that something you've done consciously?

Well, the mythology kind of gives us the fantasy and magic in the game, but we're really looking for what I would call Hollywood history - it gives it a historical feel, and makes you feel like you're in that place, but gameplay comes before accuracy pretty much any time for us.

Hollywood always tries to get the feeling that you're actually there, even though the details are wrong a hundred per cent of the time. We want to give people the feeling that they're having an adventure in this time and place. We try to be accurate when we can, but again, the gameplay pretty much trumps the accuracy.

Brian Sullivan is co-founder of Titan Quest developer Iron Lore. Interviewed by Ellie Gibson.

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Ellie Gibson avatar

Ellie Gibson

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Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.