This article originally appeared in issue 249 of PC Gamer UK. It's been updated slightly to reflect the recent surprises about Gas Powered's fate.
There's nothing quite like Supreme Commander, even six years on. It's a real-time strategy game on a scale normally reserved for turn-based campaigns. A thousand robotic tanks and walkers of varying sizes stomp across country-sized maps, and every shot is physically modeled. It has three factions with 60 unit types each, monstrous top-tier units the size of city blocks, and unnaturally smart AI to fight against. And it's pretty much what designer Chris Taylor set out to make: the biggest ever RTS.
In a lot of ways, it was an extension of ideas that started with Total Annihilation. While working at Electronic Arts, Chris had been itching to make an RTS. The genre was still young at the time, and dominated by Warcraft and Command & Conquer – both flat, 2D games built to a very similar template. Chris wanted to make something different, and he found an unlikely person to help him: Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert.
Ron had been making educational kids' games at his company Humungous Entertainment, but was starting to miss the world of hardcore gaming. He formed a new division, Cavedog Entertainment, to make stuff for more battle-hardened gamers. And when Chris Taylor explained his ideas for an RTS, he thought they sounded cool. Cavedog hired Chris, and Ron acted as producer on Total Annihilation.
Ron's instincts were right, Chris's ideas were cool. Total Annihilation introduced radically new ways of using resources, producing an army, and controlling it. Instead of buying new units for a lump sum, your resources decreased steadily as you manufactured new death bots in your factories. That created a new kind of economy all about balancing steady rates of income and production, rather than waiting around for gold to accumulate.
TA's other innovations also helped you focus your attention where you wanted: you could queue up orders by shift-clicking, and your units would follow them in sequence without further babysitting from you. That not only let you set waypoints for your attacking forces, but it also applied to build orders: you could queue up a whole base worth of buildings and your commander would just get on with it. You could even set units to patrol on a repeating route. All of this let you build and control more units with less clicking, laying the groundwork for a game of a much grander scale. But it would be a while before it got made.
Total Annihilation was a success: it got glowing reviews and earned a cult of devoted fans, many of whom still rate it as the greatest RTS ever made. But during its development, Ron sold Cavedog's parent company Humungous to publisher GT Interactive, partly to enable them to grow into a bigger company. They released new units for TA each week, developed an expansion, and started work on a sequel.
Chris was involved in the early stages of that sequel, but he didn't get far with it: “I remember writing a page or two,” he says, “but that was about it. We were so busy supporting TA, releasing patches and those weekly units, we didn't have time to do much else.”
Not long after they finished work on the expansion, Core Contingency, Chris left. Cavedog had grown, but that wasn't necessarily a positive. “I might have stayed if working inside a large company was something I personally enjoyed doing,” he says, “but not back then.” He'd always wanted to start his own gaming company, and he decided it was time. “I had something to prove out in the world.”
He formed Gas Powered Games with the intention of ultimately making a successor to Total Annihilation, but decided to make a very different game first: hack-and-slash RPG Dungeon Siege. “I seem to remember not wanting any legal 'fog' hanging over GPG, so it made sense that we do something completely different. But as soon as Dungeon Siege shipped, I started shopping Supreme Commander around.”
It would be more than a TA remake or spiritual sequel. “For the most part,” Chris says, “I wanted to see how far I could push the RTS genre. I knew that I wanted to make big maps, but I wanted to see if I could make the strategic part of the game even deeper."
"I have a saying: strategy happens before the battle, and tactics happen during the battle. I wanted to see if I could give the player the right context for truly employing strategy, like when the Allies were planning Operation Overlord. That was the core of my inspiration for making the game bigger than ever.”
That meant using all the smart interface inventions of Total Annihilation, improving them further, and using that elegant control system to let the player build and command armies of ridiculous size. You can not only queue up orders, but specify the formation you want your army to move in as they follow them. You can tell air transports to run repeating ferry trips to pick up and drop off every land unit who needs to get to the front lines. And you can set up perfectly balanced build orders for your factories to follow on an endless loop.
The sheer scale of the thing defied a normal RTS perspective. Top-tier units are around a hundred times the size of the standard attack bot, so no single zoom level could accommodate the huge differences in the scale of the battles you fight throughout the course of a game. “The whole idea of 'strategic zoom' didn't come up until we were into development,” Chris says. It became the game's defining feature: you can zoom smoothly from the scale of a truck-sized robot to seeing an entire 6,000 square kilometre theatre of war all at once.
Internally, the game's three factions were referred to as Earth, Alien, and Recycler. “The Recyclers never really felt right, because when you create a new unit in a factory from raw resources, how can that be made of spare parts?” In the finished game, all three factions are human: Earth became the UEF; Aliens became a human faction using alien technology, the Aeon Illuminate; and the Recyclers became the Cybran, cyborgs ruled by a brain in a jar.
As the fiction was nailed down, the design became more adventurous. “Ships that sprouted legs, and other outrageous stuff, all came into play after we started,” Chris says. The UEF have a giant tank that's also a factory. The Cybran, as well as the walking ships, have an artillery piece that spits a stream of shells that can level a city. The Aeon have a flying saucer as big as a city. Every faction has tactical missiles, nuclear missiles and submarines. Commanders can upgrade themselves with new weapons and abilities, including invisibility, teleporters and shields.
Just clicking on that ship-with-legs gives you some idea of Supreme Commander's complexity. Seven rings appear around the unit to show you all its different capabilities: vision, radar, sonar, main gun range, anti-air gun range, torpedo range, and torpedo interception range.
Personally, the sheer number of systems is part of what keeps me coming back to Supreme Commander – I keep thinking of new tactics to try or units to combine. But Chris thinks it may have been a mistake to take on so much for the initial release. “I think we habitually try to do too much, feature-wise. And that hurts the quality, and the ability to make our dates, and drives the cost of making these games way up.”
But because they were making such a demanding game, the fact that it took so long actually ended up being a blessing. “Building the 'biggest ever' RTS engine was a huge challenge." Chris says. "We really pushed the capabilities of the current PC right to the limit. If it wasn't for the game taking three years to make, we would have been in big trouble... newer, faster machines saved our butts!”
Gas Powered talked to a lot of publishers about Supreme Commander, and initially they signed with Chris's former employer Electronic Arts. “After about a year, EA was moving more to console,” Chris says, so GPG switched to THQ. He has nothing but good things to say about that relationship, and calls it “another stroke of luck for the project, because we managed to get a larger budget and more time”.
THQ's faith was vindicated: Supreme Commander knocked World of Warcraft expansion The Burning Crusade off the top spot in the North American PC sales charts. It sold better than Total Annihilation, and got equally glowing reviews – including a 91% score from us. Newer, faster PCs were evidently popular enough for the game to be a success, but it did still feel technologically ahead of its time. The reactions we heard from our readers were split about evenly between “Wow this runs badly!” and “Wow this is cool!” Today, of course, a mid-range machine can eat it for breakfast.
I ask Chris if anything surprised him about the game's reception. “The only thing I can remember is that the tutorial was weak, and for many the game may have strayed too far from its roots in Total Annihilation.” But for those who appreciated its ridiculous scope, and had machines that could handle it, it was mindblowing. On its biggest maps, I've had games that lasted over six hours. I've built stationary guns so big they took 45 minutes to complete. I've set up bases just to give my aircraft a place to refuel.
Supreme Commander developed a competitive scene: a 4 vs 4 team game on an 81km x 81km map looks like the climactic battle of a big-budget sci-fi movie. But the way most of us in the office played – and still play – is alone or in co-op. Taking on the AI gives you a little more time to grapple with the game's complex economy and build a spectacular army without human players rushing you. And although the AI was good at launch, it was dramatically improved later on. Just not by Gas Powered.
When the game was released, Mike Robbins was on his third month of being unemployed. He and a friend, also called Mike, were excited. “We thought it would be fun to make changes to the AI, and face them off against each other... it wasn't the best time in my life, and I think working on the AI mod gave me something to keep me focused on while I worked my way back up out of the hole I was in.”
That was the Sorian/Jaws2002 AI mod, and it was a huge improvement.
“Mike and I spent the next few months tweaking and refining the AI, and integrating feedback to make the AI as fun to play against as we could.” Supreme Commander's economy system was so complicated that even its own AIs screwed it up: they'd frequently overproduce, wasting time boosting their resource gathering when they didn't have the production facilities to spend it. Sorian AI makes them much more efficient, and much better at reacting to how you attack.
“If the AI sees an opponent building long-range artillery within firing distance of its base,” Mike says, “it will start building shields to protect itself.”
Gas Powered ultimately hired Mike for his AI skills, but the timing was awkward. He joined towards the end of the development of Supreme Commander 2 – too late to do much to that game's weak AI, but he later helped to massively improve it in an official patch. He was there in time to work on the AI for their fantasy RTS Kings and Castles, but development on that was suspended indefinitely when Gas Powered couldn't find a publisher.
The next game in the loose lineage of Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander may come from outside Gas Powered. Supreme Commander programmer Jon Mavor left the company when the game was complete, to form Uber Entertainment. Like Chris, he started by making something completely different: competitive shooter Monday Night Combat. But he and his team are now developing their own take on the large-scale RTS: Planetary Annihilation. Its maps span several planets, it raised $2.2 million on Kickstarter and, after much nagging, they've persuaded Mike Robbins to join them.
“It wasn't an easy decision,” Mike says. “GPG was the only development studio that gave me a shot.” But Uber could offer him the kind of work he really wanted to be doing. “Jon told me Planetary Annihilation was tailormade for me – it would give me the chance to exercise my passion for AI without the influence of having to deal with a publisher. So I decided to make the move.”
Gas Powered, meanwhile, are struggling. Despite their critical and commercial success, none of their projects made enough money to start earning Gas Powered royalties. The terms of publishing deals for medium budget games are just too demanding: if a developer needs 10 million to make their game, it has to make five times that before they start seeing any of it. That left Gas Powered dependent on the next publishing deal for its survival, and those all fell through last year.
Their last hope was Wildman: an action RPG with RTS elements that they hoped to fund through Kickstarter. But it was a tough concept to grasp, and wasn't close to getting funded when Chris cancelled the campaign four days before its scheduled finishing date.
In a cryptic video , he said the reason is related to something that might save Gas Powered. Two days later, World of Tanks creators Wargaming.net announced they'd acquired them. We still don't know what that'll mean for Gas Powered's next project, but it has to be a positive that they still exist.
If the developer of something as spectacular and enduringly fun as Supreme Commander can't stay afloat, there's something seriously wrong with this industry.