Planetary Annihilation preview—when strategy worlds collide (with moons)

To paraphrase George Carlin, Planetary Annihilation is proof that at some point, someone was playing an RTS and thought, “You know, I want to drop a planet on top of those guys over there, and this game just won't let me do that.”

If you're having these sorts of thoughts, it helps if you're Jon Mavor, co-founder and CTO of Uber Entertainment and a veteran developer who worked with Chris Taylor on both Total Annihilation and its spiritual successor, Supreme Commander . Today, Mavor launched a Kickstarter for Planetary Annihilation, a real-time strategy game that takes classic TA/SupCom gameplay and expands the battle across solar systems full of worlds, moons, and asteroids.

Then you can strap a bunch of engines to them and fly them at one another to unleash extinction-level planetary destruction.

Many worlds theory

Mavor got the idea from playing Risk 2210 , which is Risk with a wrinkle: you can deploy to the moon on a separate gameboard. “They basically have this concept of multiple linked playfields in Risk 2210,” Mavor explains. “When I started thinking about the direction that we could take a TA-style game, I thought the idea of being able to literally slam a planet into another planet—go to the asteroids, mine them, bring them in, use them as weapons, use them as resource bases—was a really cool idea. I didn't see any reason why we couldn't do that with the game.”

It's more than just a gimmick. Mavor describes how being able to occupy and maneuver other planets can create unusual tactics throughout a game of Planetary Annihilation, and sets up and endgame that sounds unlike anything else you've seen in an RTS. Initially, other planetoids are simply a new area to build bases and extract resources, and perhaps give local support to troops fighting on a nearby planet. For instance, you can station troops on a moon orbiting your starting planet, then use that moon to do orbital drops behind enemy lines.

Later, however, when you can afford to build the enormous, city-sized engine arrays capable of moving that moon, you can send it across the solar system into position near another planet. Now it operates like a gigantic carrier and gun battery, a Death Star that really is a moon.

As players explore the solar system, they can occupy new territory, but Mavor sees the endgame reversing that process.

“I'm picturing games that end where basically two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through the game, [the starting] planet's out of it. Your playfield just shrunk, because you guys have chucked enough rocks down at the thing that you can't really do anything with it anymore. Now your playfield has shrunk and you're forced to engage each other.”

Nukes, Berthas, and other family traditions

Jon Mavor loved the Big Bertha cannon in Total Annihilation, so much so that its replacement in Supreme Commander is named... the Mavor. So when he thinks about units that have to be in Planetary Annihilation, some kind of super-heavy artillery piece is near the top of the list.

It will be in a lot of familiar company. Mavor's design vision is shaped by his love for Total Annihilation, its aesthetic, and its design ethos. Planetary Annihilation is a battle of robots, heavy weapon emplacements, massive power generators and metal extractors, and a rate-based economy powering massive production lines working toward massive units caps. He doesn't want to make super-units a major focus, the way SupCom emphasized its Experimentals, but he loves what the nigh-unkillable Krogoth did for the Total Annihilation late-game.

And of course, there will be a Commander, “the king and queen of chess all in one,” Mavor calls it. “I like that idea, that you have to protect your commander. ...It's a little bit oddball: 'I have this really powerful unit, I want to use it.' And you can, but you're risking your game.”

There will also be plenty of air units, satellites, and some special units designed specifically for moons and asteroids. However, Mavor doesn't see spaceships being a part of the game, since its focus is overhwhelmingly on surface combat. However, he did say he is “cautiously optimistic that we'll do something with naval,” but admits, “it's really challenging, from the game design perspective, to do it properly.”

Launch procedures

Mavor explains that he felt Uber Entertainment had to go the Kickstarter route with Planetary Annihilation because the traditional publishing space has become so hostile to RTS games. Especially the enormous, over-the-top style pioneered by Total Annihilation that Mavor loves.

“When we sat down to say, “Hey, what else would be interesting to work on?” RTS games came up as a logical thing. The problem with an RTS game is A: we don't really do stuff with publishers that much anyway, if at all. And B: they would never fund it, because... It's just not a hot genre. It's not a genre where you can go out and make a deal and get a game done very easily.”

Uber is asking for $900,000 to make Planetary Annihilation, and right now Mavor is shooting for a summer 2013 launch. Via Kickstarter, you'll be able to order the initial version of the game for $15. Mavor and Uber are believers in the idea of “games as services” and they hope to offer tremendous modability and regular content expansions, but Mavor admits the business model is far from finalized. He stresses, however, that free-to-play is not an option for the kind of RTS he wants to make.

“Here's the deal with free-to-play,” he explains. “With free-to-play you have to modify your game design to make sure that it makes sense with the free-to-play economy. And I don't really want to modify the game design to do that.”

Thinking big

Planetary Annihilation's solar-system sized battlefields, packed full of planets and asteroids, will push traditional RTS conventions well past their usual limitations. Additionally, some of Mavor's and Uber's ideas for multiplayer are mind-bogglingly ambitious. He hinted at epic-scale “event” multiplayer games involving dozens of players and tens of thousands of units spread across enormous battlefields that could take up an entire day.

Having so many players and units in a given game also means that Uber is going to use a client-server setup for multiplayer matches, where the computing workload is distributed across each user's machine, and then a central server coordinates most of the action. This both reduces the amount of bandwidth required to run the game, and makes it easier for users with a wide variety of system specs to take part without slowing down the game.

While Planetary Annihilation can easily scale down for half-hour 1v1 matches, everything has to be designed to facilitate that large-scale play. That's why Art director Steve Thompson has prioritized “readability” as he gives Planetary Annihilation its colorful, abstracted art style.

“It's iconic and graphic. Simplified shapes. We can really get that quick read, no matter what zoom level you're at. If you're 20 meters above the ground, or 10,000 feet, you can get a pretty clean read of the battlefield, for selection and usability. ...We wanted to have a fun, colorful, blocky style, which I think works perfectly for what we're trying to accomplish here. It's stylized, it's colorful, it's fun, it's not too serious. It's all about getting into the game and starting to blow up robots as soon as you can.”

By emphasizing readability and interface, Uber is trying to get ahead of the biggest potential pitfall with an RTS this size: complexity. If players can't easily and intuitively manage these mutli-planet donnybrooks, Planetary Annihilation could be crushed under its own weight. The most frustrating thing about RTS games is that they often require a great deal of skill and practice just to acquire a basic level of proficiency. “I love RTS games, but I suck at them,” is why so many gamers feel excluded from games they otherwise enjoy. Supreme Commander already felt like it was operating at the outer limits of the average player's ability to multitask, and somehow I doubt many of them were thinking, “If only I had to manage battles across several worlds at once!”

But the possibilities of such an RTS are why Mavor wants to run this risk. “This game is a little bit of a retro-style RTS, with some new sauce brought into it. That's what we're going for here. Part of this is for the people who are passionate about these kinds of games. If you're passionate about Total Annihilation, this game is the game that we're building to scratch that itch.”

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by games like Total Annihilation, but it is even easier to be astonished. After years of seeing RTS games becoming smaller-scale and more streamlined, it's exciting to look forward to an RTS that dares to do more.

Planetary Annihilation's Kickstarter should be going up later today. Read more details about the game's balancing, design, challenges and inspiration in our Jupiter-sized interview with Jon Mavor.