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Ubisoft's Emeric Thoa

The lead designer talks about EndWar, the RTS genre and design innovation

There have been many attempts to bring real-time strategy games to consoles from their native home on PCs, with varying degrees of success. At best, critics have said the console-ported titles are flawed iterations of their PC-based originals.

Now Ubisoft is throwing its hat into the ring, and attempting to mix the Tom Clancy brand appeal with technological innovation to bring consoles the voice-command RTS Tom Clancy's EndWar.

GamesIndustry.biz talked to Emeric Thoa, Ubisoft's lead game designer, about the development of the title, the PC as a gaming platform, innovation in games and the RTS genre.

GamesIndustry.biz How is EndWar coming along?
Emeric Thoa

EndWar is coming along well. We started polishing the game a while ago and currently are focusing entirely on polish and balance until the release. We've known for some time that the core of the game was good, but for an RTS to work, balancing is key, which is more apparent at the finish. But with the beta test and all the playtests we've been conducting, I'm very confident in the final product.

GamesIndustry.biz How do you feel the RTS genre is changing?
Emeric Thoa

I don't think the RTS genre is changing so much on PC, and I'm not sure it should change that much. RTS games have been defined on PC, for PC, and they have been unmatched, in terms of quality, on this platform because they use PC specifics: the mouse is a very accurate controller, it allows 'drag and drops', and clicking on tiny buttons; the user is close to the screen, so it's possible to display a large amount of information, etc.

However, I think that RTS have yet to be defined on console. That's what we tried on EndWar. We tried to use console specifics in order to give this feeling of being a tactician, a commander. I think the genre on console will evolve into something with less micro-management, but closer to the battlefield at the same time, while PC RTS is more like a frenetic god game.

GamesIndustry.biz What future innovations do you believe could help improve the RTS genre? If any?
Emeric Thoa

Voice command is obviously a strong innovation that will help greatly improve the genre on console, on multiple aspects. It makes the game more accessible, as it's as easy and intuitive to speak as using a walkie talkie. It can attract a lot of people who never played a RTS because they felt it was too complex to try it. It's also a very immersive way to play and command your troops.

I don't think that consoles should try to 'reinvent' the mouse more than that. But there's probably a lot of innovations to find, design-wise. The 'cover' feature in shooters has recently became a must-have. It's the proof that a design feature can still improve even a whole 'old' genre.

GamesIndustry.biz How significant is a shift away from the PC and towards consoles?
Emeric Thoa

Some people might find it's pretty big if they try to compare a good PC RTS to EndWar. The gameplay is more about position and combat chain than micro management, the controls are different, the management gameplay is spread along battles instead of being a techtree routine at each game. But I think that the experience has a lot in common.

EndWar still provides the feeling of being a tactician, in a real-time battle. In a way, console ports of PC RTS games are more different in their game experience, because the gameplay really doesn't fit the platform specifics.

GamesIndustry.biz Do you think this is a good thing?
Emeric Thoa

I'm convinced it's the only way to start enjoying a war game on console. It's also a good thing to open the genre to a broader audience. And I'm sure players won't blame us for trying to be different, to bring something new.

GamesIndustry.biz What do you see as the future of the PC as a gaming platform?
Emeric Thoa

I don't think it is going to disappear at all, but it will probably have to evolve even faster than consoles. For me, PC is the best platform for casual games, better than the DS or the Wii. The web is an unmatched tool for gaming, and browsing with a mouse has not yet been matched by any other device in terms of comfort. I think PC and console can co-exist.

GamesIndustry.biz What particular benefits does the console bring that are important?
Emeric Thoa

There is no particular benefit, it's just a matter of point of view, of personal preferences. I think designing for console helped us to provide an overall feeling of simplicity lacking on PC, as well as forced us to reinvent the controls.

So, console in a way brings a slightly new experience. I generally prefer console gaming because I can be slumped on my sofa instead of feeling like I'm at work behind my computer.

GamesIndustry.biz How difficult is it to come up with real innovation in the games space nowadays?
Emeric Thoa

As it always has been - very difficult, but completely possible. As a designer, I'm confronted every day with the problem, but each year, there are at least five games that shout out to me "You should have had this idea!"

I think there are two ways to innovate: technology improvements giving new design tools, or setting yourself a very difficult challenge to overcome. EndWar does both, with voice command and an RTS for console, but this year has been very interesting in terms of innovation...with Portal as an just one example - and I'm sure there's a lot to come as well.

GamesIndustry.biz What have been the main challenges with implementing voice commands?
Emeric Thoa

Once the structure of your game matches the voice command philosophy, the main challenge is to refine the vocabulary, and keep only the features that are really core to the experience. As soon as you have too many words, the recognition rate drops.

So, in a way, the voice recognition forced us to remain simple and accessible, and to find gameplay depth through ways other than adding player abilities, but to rely more on a rich combination system. Chess has only six units, the game of Go has only five rules, but nobody would dare to say that they are not deep games. The voice command forced us to target this philosophy.

GamesIndustry.biz What do you think are the future applications of voice commands in games?
Emeric Thoa

Potentially, recording the player's own orders. But in any case, it has to stay simple. Adding too many commands, trying to talk completely freely to the computer...it's like the automatic translator: not going to work any time soon.

GamesIndustry.biz Are there any genres you think voice commands wouldn't work in?
Emeric Thoa

This question only raises a great design challenge in my mind: how to make all genres work with voice command. It would be a great challenge to make a very fast-paced game like Soul Calibur work with voice command.

GamesIndustry.biz Are you planning any future use of 3D (or Stereoscopic) technology?
Emeric Thoa

It's not planned on EndWar. Yet.

Emeric Thoa is Ubisoft's lead game designer. Interview by James Lee.

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James Lee