Interview with Ed Beach

Ed Beach, the Breakaway Producer for Emperor, was kind enough to brave an interrogation from Merepatra of Emperor Heaven. He’s better known to many of you as Gobi Bear.

Merepatra   Thank you for agreeing to answer our questions Ed. Would you tell us a little about yourself and your work history?

Ed Beach   Sure, I’m happy to be here talking to Emperor Heaven. I should be able to give you a bit of a “behind the scenes” look at the development of Emperor.

I am a programmer by trade, and spent 10 years, right out of college, working for NASA on scientific satellite projects. The Hubble Space Telescope and Gamma Ray Observatory to name a few. I started in the games industry in 1995, though at that time I was designing board games about the American Civil War for the Avalon Hill Game Company here in Baltimore. I’ve been with BreakAway for three years and it has been a lot of fun throughout.

Merepatra   That’s certainly a change, from NASA to games. What other games have you worked on?

Ed Beach   I was both lead programmer and producer on Cleopatra … That combination is probably a mistake I won’t make again, that was a busy five months! I also contributed to the scenario design for the Tropico: Paradise Island expansion. Tropico is a great game. Though it is still a city builder, it has its own unique strengths quite different from the features of the Impressions series. That’s one of the things I like about the city building genre: there are a lot of different styles of city builder game play and I think there are effective combinations of those styles that haven’t even been tried yet.

Merepatra   Do you have a favourite game from those you have worked on?

Ed Beach   For now I’d have to say Cleopatra. That was my first major role on a retail computer game, and I got a chance to get involved with many aspects of the project. I was able to write the code for the biblical plagues, tomb robbers, and mummies – it’s hard to find a more interesting combination than that! I think in time Emperor will become my favourite; we’re just all still decompressing from the usual scramble at the end to finish up.

Merepatra   What are your favourite games that you didn’t work on?

Ed Beach   Although I’ve played almost exclusively Emperor in the past 9 months, I have also had fun with Stronghold. I find a good hard-fought castle siege can be a great way to relieve stress at the end of the day. I’m also still an avid board gamer. There is a level of camaraderie when you get together with friends for an evening of board gaming that we haven’t quite achieved yet with online multiplayer gaming … hopefully the industry can continue to strive toward that.

Merepatra   You were Breakaway’s producer for Emperor, what did that entail?

Ed Beach   The producer acts as the focal point between the different teams (Sierra, art, design, programming, and quality assurance) and monitors the schedule to make sure the project is still on track. The Emperor team was a terrific group, so I thoroughly enjoyed working in each of these areas. You don’t get to dive into anything in depth as producer, but you do get the benefit of interacting with everyone on the project.

I was able to split off enough time to also do some design work (the Song-Jin campaign, Jin Great Wall, and the bonus campaign) and a bit of programming (I handled the sound and music integration).

Merepatra   How many staff worked on Emperor?

Ed Beach   We started with less than 10 and at our peak (late this spring) we had 28 people from BreakAway on the project. And that doesn’t count contributions from a handful of people at Impressions and a QA staff and marketing department from Sierra.

Merepatra   What do you think were the greatest improvements in Emperor over the previous city builders?

Ed Beach   Multiplayer was the biggest step. It opens up whole new modes of play never seen before in a city builder.

However there are other improvements that shouldn’t be overlooked. The Open Play system is one of my favorite features. There are a huge number of creative city maps that shipped with the game. Open Play allows you to choose one and it drops you into that city in the midst of an unknown Chinese political climate. It adds a lot of replay value when you tire of the historical campaigns.

I also love the addition of Feng Shui. At first it seems like just another way the Chinese setting was incorporated. But at the deepest level, these games are two-dimensional layout puzzles. Feng Shui adds a whole new dimension to that challenge by making the player consider how to properly match up buildings with their corresponding terrain elements.

Merepatra   The history within the game story is incredibly accurate … which came first, looking at the history & then designing the campaigns or designing the campaigns and then fitting them to the history?

Ed Beach   First we came up with a general design for all the campaigns where we decided what the game’s possible victory conditions would be (treasury, population, monuments, etc.), how many missions would be included in a typical campaign, etc. Then we looked at the history of each dynasty to get an idea what events we wanted to cover. Once that plan was in place, then detailed campaign design took place. So I guess you’d say the history comes first. The length of recorded Chinese history (3000 years is covered in the game) posed the biggest challenge. It made it tough to weave the story in and out when some missions had gaps of 50 or more years between them.

Merepatra   City building fans are always very forthright about what they do & don’t want to see in the games. Do you find this a help or a hindrance?

Ed Beach   The fans of the game series have been a huge help. Ever since we worked on Cleopatra, we’ve followed the city building community and forums very closely. Emperor was designed to take the best attributes from both Pharaoh and Zeus and meld them with a healthy dose of the most requested features.

Also, I can’t say enough good things about the team of beta testers on the project. Over 25 of them even stayed around for 6 weeks after the beta was over to help us develop and test some additional multiplayer scenarios that we will be releasing in the near future.

Merepatra   I love Emperor’s graphics; do you personally have a favourite graphic from the game?

Ed Beach   Wow, I forgot to mention the increased graphic resolution as an improvement, didn’t I? That was actually a big risk for us. Adding more detail to every graphic meant our art team had to work that much harder; we weren’t sure we if adding all that detail would affect the project schedule. But thankfully we couldn’t be more pleased with how it came out. I love the fact that many of our buildings are modelled on actual drawings of buildings from ancient China (the salt mine and mill are two of the ones that spring to mind). And I think our team took the building animations to a whole new level. I love the flickering flames, the molten metal pouring down chutes, the evaporation at the salt mines…

Merepatra   I’ve had people ask if there really are such animals as Gobi Bears. What made you choose them for the game and for your nickname?

Ed Beach   That’s an interesting story. Our design team was trying to find nine animals that are unique to China. We came across mention of a bear that lives in the Gobi desert, a sub-species of brown bear and the only bear that makes its home in the desert. But for weeks we couldn’t find any pictures of one. Then I found out that my two kids had seen an episode of the Nickelodeon show “The Wild Thornberrys” that included a Gobi Bear. It became a personal quest for our family to find information on it, and my 12-year old son (who played a lot of Emperor), found one of the first pictures of it on the Internet for us. It turns out they are almost extinct and extremely endangered, but considered one of the unique treasures of Mongolia.

Merepatra   Do you personally enjoy playing Emperor?

Ed Beach   Of course! Look for me in the multiplayer forum several nights a week.

Merepatra   Whose decision was it to add MP and why?

Ed Beach   We made that decision right from the start with Impressions. We wanted this fourth city-builder to introduce a major new component. China was a perfect setting for multiplayer as a way to represent the factional strife of the periods such as The Warring States and The Three Kingdoms.

Merepatra   Do you prefer playing Multiplayer or Single player?

Ed Beach   The city building series was designed as a single-player series and that mode of play is still its forte. But I am growing very fond of multiplayer play. The city building community is very hospitable to all; I feel like I’ve made a lot of friends playing online during the beta test and initial game launch. As a result I’ve found myself still playing multiplayer frequently, even though our testing activities are falling off.

Merepatra   When playing MP do you prefer cooperative or competitive missions?

Ed Beach   The cooperative missions are great when there is a stiff challenge to face and teamwork is absolutely required to win. However I’d have to give a slight edge to the competitive missions. We’ve been testing some new death-match scenarios and have had some very interesting combat situations develop. Guan Di battling it out against Huang Di in a field of waist-high hemp (as the farmers tried to harvest it) was my favorite.

Merepatra   Well since that was my Huang Di and I lost I remember it too, but I wouldn’t say it was my favourite memory ;). Do you have a favourite campaign or mission?

Ed Beach   Well having spent so much time developing and fine-tuning the Song-Jin campaign (the seventh and final one in the game where Genghis Khan’s Mongols make their appearance), I have to admit to being partial to it. However the Jin Great Wall multiplayer scenario, set during the same period, is a great mission if you have the time and inclination to play a long game. It is a cooperative mission to build the Great Wall, but as you are doing that the Mongols are breathing down your neck. You have to really scramble to survive in that one with a team of players.

Merepatra   Was there anything you would have liked to have in Emperor which didn’t end up in the released game?

Ed Beach   There are a few items, and we are looking into adding them if we put out updates to the product. No promises yet though!

There is also something I wished I had done throughout the development. We had a bunch of funny “outtakes” from mismatched graphics files and the like. I wish now I had been organized enough to collect those throughout the project. The mating Gobi Bears from the beta spring to mind, though I believe we do have that screenshot around here somewhere …

There were also some of these outtakes that were reported as bugs — and we intentionally left them in the game for their humor. That’s why you want to be very careful when your hero is bringing an animal back to the palace menagerie. Those cutthroat hunters stop at nothing to provide top-quality pheasant for the Emperor’s dining table…

Merepatra   Thank you very much Ed, we really appreciate you taking the time to answer our questions. Any other thoughts?

Ed Beach  To conclude I’d like to congratulate Heavens Games on the opening of Emperor Heaven. I’m sure it will be an invaluable addition to our city builder community. We’ll be checking in frequently.