Behind the Scenes: Total Annihilation
“What began as a conflict over the transfer of consciousness from flesh to machines escalated into a war which has decimated a million worlds…” So begins one of the most iconic real-time strategy games of the Nineties and GamesTM chats to designer Chris Taylor to find out more
“I was such a fan of Westwood’s Dune 2 that I made a special trip down to the CES in Las Vegas to see their next game,” begins Chris Taylor, lead designer and engineer of the pioneering real-time strategy game Total Annihilation, “and I was absolutely convinced it would be a huge success.” The game in question was Command & Conquer and of course Taylor was quite correct – it would go on to become a global smash. “So I quit my job, called Shelley Day and Ron Gilbert and told them I wanted to start a company. Instead they persuaded me to join them at their company, Humongous Entertainment.”
Taylor was soon at work planning his project with new sub-label Cavedog devised to house it. “I had my own vision for the game,” he explains, “which was fundamentally based around real physics and with a S/F plot – I was a big fan of classic Science Fiction such as Asimov and Heinlein.” His plot involved opposing two factions: the CORE (short for “COnsciousness REpository”, the supposedly benevolent rulers of the galaxy) and ARM, a band of colonial rebels upset by CORE’s “patterning” mandate – essentially a law enforcing the compulsory transference of the human consciousness into a machine as a “public health measure”. A chaotic and deadly war swiftly ensued.
So with the basis of the game in mind, Taylor continued to develop his ideas on how to make Total Annihilation stand out from a fast-growing RTS crowd. “I was staring at a blank design document and trying to think of ways to make the game a little different,” he says, “and I knew that ultimately 3D was the future of games – so I wanted to bring this and the physics into the game. I also kept thinking about the King and Queen in Chess and how they were the focus of the game: the King was powerful but the Queen was MUCH more powerful - yet you could still win if you lost her.” Taylor’s solution was to combine them into one unit in order to make the player feel invested in the game, as if they were actually on the field of battle. “Looking back, the Commander unit seems like an obvious decision, but at the time, I was really reaching!” he admits.
By the time Taylor began prototyping the engine in the Autumn of 1995, he had already spent considerable effort studying weapon systems and battle tactics, specifically the key strategic element of elevation when employing heavy ordnance. “I wanted to create a game where controlling the high ground really mattered,” he explains, “and that if you hid in the shadow of a mountain you could protect yourself from certain kinds of projectiles.” Meantime other design ideas such as a hugely increased unit allowance and the wreckage from destroyed vehicles remaining on the battlefield were borne more from his own experiences in playing RTS games. “I was frustrated by the [unit count] limits and wanted immense over-the-top battles that could enthral the player. As for the wreckage, if you watch documentaries on war, it’s a huge aspect with roads and fields littered with tanks and other vehicles, blocking the path of other units. It gave a strategic advantage to the defender, which I wanted to reflect in TA.” And Taylor was convinced more could be made of the obligatory radar screen that had already become a RTS staple. “I thought we should give the player the ability to use the radar screen to give orders and be able to gather intelligence from the way the blips moved on the screen.” And more superficially, if no less impressive, was the weapon fire rendered onto the radar screen. “I coded that in five minutes. I was like, whoa, people are gonna love that!” he grins.
An inevitable consequence of the ambitious design was that the game’s engine would have to be written from scratch. “Back then we didn’t have 3D hardware, so had to rasterize the 3D using the CPU. We brought Jon Mavor in as a specialist to handle the rendering as it was such a key part of the game. He came up with some amazing solutions, buffering the graphics, anti-aliasing and incredible special effects.” Together with Jeff Petkau (shift-clicking interface) and Brian Brown (unit scripting system), and under the guidance of Taylor, the engine slowly began to take shape. The next step would prove to be another ground-breaking one for the genre.
“We came up with the idea early on of the music changing tempo whenever a battle commenced and created a complex design for how it would work.” recalls Taylor. When the TA designer met up with fellow Humongous employee and composer Jeremy Soule, they discussed at length how to incorporate this into an epic and exciting experience based around Taylor’s idea that the music should have a grandstanding feel to it, along the lines of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. “Jeremy composed two kinds of tracks, a set for battle and a set for building,” he continues, “and we just measured the amount of action on the screen with a simple algorithm and tried not to play the same track twice.” A seemingly simple solution, maybe, but with Soule given the creative freedom to do practically whatever he wanted, the soundtrack to Total Annihilation was destined to become an extremely popular facet of the game.
If we’ve made the development of Total Annihilation seem smooth, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. “We were hair on fire for the first 20 months – then the game wasn’t even properly finished when we shipped and we had to patch it for six months to get it right.” admits Taylor candidly. Even before then, the team had been working solid 12 hour days, seven days a week for some considerable time. “I think with the exception of Christmas holidays 1996, we more or less lived at the office. Fortunately we didn’t have responsibilities back then, so it was all fast food and late nights and we pretty much devoted ourselves to the game.” Taylor leans back and sighs heavily. “Still, I loved it, and know now that it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience.”
Despite the constant patching and bugs (“there were zillions of them!”), Total Annihilation was universally well-received, especially considering the extreme levels of competition. “We hadn’t realized that there were over 100 different RTS games in development at the same time as ours,” grimaces Taylor, “and I suspect if we’d known how terrible the odds were against us, we might not have bothered!” Fortunately, his vision of a game fundamentally based around real physics, in addition to the other original design implementations, ensured Total Annihilation would never be labelled as “just another RTS game.” Even Activision’s similarly-themed Dark Reign, released just a few months prior to TA, also to positive reviews, failed to dent the team’s confidence. “I remember playing it for maybe an hour one afternoon and feeling confident that they hadn’t scratched the same itch that we were trying to scratch.” remembers Taylor with a smile.
By the end of 1998, Total Annihilation had garnered countless high scores and game of the year awards. Chris Taylor, in the process of establishing his own new company, found it almost too hard to believe. “It wasn’t until years later, looking back, that I could truly wrap my head around the success of the game. I was too busy figuring out how to get Gas Powered Games going to revel in the glory of TA.” Consequently, Taylor wasn’t around to answer one of the biggest issues Cavedog faced from customers: support. “The community sprang up very quickly and was already doing great things,” he notes, “and they wanted us to help them. Unfortunately there was no way to pay for all the support so it became a complex business problem. I’d left Cavedog by then and in any case wasn’t involved in management decisions.”
15 years since the release of Total Annihilation, this community still exists and unsurprisingly, Taylor sees this as its biggest influence on gaming today. “I built the game data around the idea that it would scan the hard drive and look for files it should load,” he says proudly, “and that was a key decision from my experience on Hardball 2 which did something similar, looking for team mods. It’s amazing how working on sports games ultimately had such a positive effect on TA and the mod community, and then on the longevity of the game.” And in addition to the mod community, it’s obvious TA has had a huge effect on Taylor’s career since 1998. “It really set the bar high and gave me a great sense for how passion and love for the art of making a game can make it possible to create something truly amazing without having a zillion dollars to spend.” Today Chris Taylor’s Gas Powered Games continue that love with the spiritual follow up to TA, the Supreme Commander series, and Kickstarter projects such as Wildman (https://wildman.gaspowered.com/). But we end by looking back at Total Annihilation as he sees it today.
“In the end, I think we got lucky that nobody else at the time really went for the 2.9D real physics thing and that’s what helped the game stand out. Sure, there were things that I’d wished we’d done. For instance, our budget never allowed for any CG movies that would have helped explain the plot and given the game better production values; but I think we still did pretty good. We spent a little over a million bucks when most other games were costing at least five times that. It was a very special time in my life – making our little miracle game.”
Release Date: 1998
Publisher: GT Interactive
Developer: Cavedog Entertainment
Key Staff: Chris Taylor (Lead designer & engineer), Jon Mavor (graphics engine), Jeremy Soule (music score), Clayton Kauzlaric (art director)
Available from: www.gog.com
Modding and more
Throughout the late 90’s and the majority of the last decade, a huge community has built up around Cavedog’s classic RTS, principally to promote online play and modding, whether it be of scenarios, maps or units. At its peak there were several Total Annihilation “supersites” such as Planet Annihilation, TA Designers and TA Universe, although only the latter still exists today. Thousands of new custom units and maps were designed by eager fans while the most impressive work remains the 70-plus full mods and total conversions with TA Escalation and TA Zero currently the most popular. The remaining supersite, www.tauniverse.com is the number one TA resource, boasting a busy forum and thousands of downloadable mod items. You can even still play the game online.
The Look of War with Jon Mavor
“Basically, I met Chris Taylor at GDC in 1996 and he recruited me to work on the team,” says Jon Mavor, the technical wizard responsible for cramming in TA’s wealth of graphics. “And as soon as he showed me the initial stuff, I knew it was gonna be great. I turned down several other offers to take the job.” Mavor would soon be working on the game’s graphic engine, adding features and optimizing performance, all using the CPU rather than the nascent 3D hardware technology. “Just supporting all these units was a performance nightmare,” he grimaces, “so I just dug in and did my best!” Fortunately, Mavor could see their efforts were going to be for a good cause. “I still think the game is amazing and shows what can happen when you take cutting edge design ideas and apply new technology to them. To this day, there are very few other games that get people as excited as Total Annihilation.”