Quo Vadis Imperium?

As those of you who read my “regular” updates on the forum have no doubt noticed, I’ve gotten a good deal more “home-work” these days than just Imperium. 🙂

For this reason, I have spent some of the time during this summer holidays not only working on Imperium, but also speculating as to the possible futures of this “little” hobby project of mine. Basically looking at what is done, what remains to be done, and thinking back over the experiences of the past couple of years.

The status: In theory, almost every part of the game has by now been coded up at least once. The only place where there is really missing some game code is with the interface to the Roman political system, where I am still not 100% satisfied with how the game works. Some of the game mechanics could also still stand being polished (many parts have “only” been iterated on once or twice – as compared to the five or six times I have worked with various parts of the operational game engine) and the GUI needs to be made more user-friendly (in some parts, it is catastrophical). The final part of the game that really needs work still is the AI, where I am definitely not happy with what I see. It is not bad as such (ancient warfare is simple enough that even a simple AI – find enemy army, hit it with a big stick – would work fairly well) but this is the era of Hannibal and Scipio. A little bit of finesse would be nice.

Given money to live on, I could probably get the game in a publishable state within 3-4 months (I, however, build weather databases for a living rather than games and am actually quite happy doing so). At hobby pace, that amounts to a year or probably more of development still. Not much, when looking back, but it’s still a minimum estimate. Given the vicissitudes of life, it could easily take double or triple that amount of time. At which point, there would still a fair amount of work developing art work, game maps, sfx, beta-testing, etc., still left to be done.

I am generally not that good at taking the lessons from my professional life into my hobby ( after all, a hobby is play… ), but one mantra of professional (non-games) software development is “release early and often”. Interestingly, it is one that I heard Soren Johnson echoing in the podcast Three Moves Ahead recently, and it is one that I am now strongly considering applying to the Imperium project, in the interest of moving the project along.

Those of you who have followed this for a while may recall my discussing how to compartmentalize Imperium into modules in the past. The current thought that I have is to carry this one step further and place Imperium 1.0 on the fast-track to getting published as soon as I feel that the parts of the current game engine currently done are sufficiently polished up to stand on its own as a game.

My current idea would be a game called something along the lines of “Imperium: Campaigns of the Ancient World”. The operational engine in Imperium has seen a lot of refinement over the years, along with the battle and siege engines. The graphical UI and the artificial intelligence for these bits definitely need work to be of sufficient quality, but this is a matter of polish, rather than any major work. The main component missing for Imperium to already be such a game is implementing a victory point mechanism/win-lose mechanism, and perhaps a simple scenario-event system (to allow introduction of new leaders, reinforcements, etc).

Is there a market for such a game? Obviously, some of you who are interested in Imperium may not be interested in this idea. This would not be a grand-strategy game, obviously, but rather a game to allow the player to fight the various campaigns of the ancient world on the pure strategic layer (think something along the lines of Imperium Romanum). Although the Imperium game engine is fairly simple, I think it should be strong enough to carry stand-alone scenarios of this kind. And there is more than enough material: potentially a huge number of scenarios could be developed, containing some of the most fascinating characters of the ancient world. Even within the limited time period envisaged in Imperium, we have three Punic Wars, several conflicts in Spain, a couple of Syrian (Ptolemies vs Seleucid) wars, not to mention the Roman civil wars. Much of this is virgin territory at this level of computer strategy games – limited only by the difficulty of collecting historically accurate information for OOBs and such.

The benefits for myself are obvious: I will be able to get a game of this kind finished and ready much earlier than would be possible for the complete package. There should be less bugs due to the smaller scope of the product, hopefully allowing for a more productive beta-test period (allowing us to focus on the gameplay and AI issues). I would also be able to get quality feedback on whether the ideas I have for Imperium work or not. There is no better test for a concept than to have several hundred enthusiasts picking it over for faults to complain about.

The downside, of course, are that such an idea may fall flat on its face. I am not worried so much about the game flopping (I do think the game system is good – obviously – and if it isn’t, the sooner it flops the better so I can move on 😉 ), but there simply may not be a market for this kind of game. I have discussed the idea with one potential publisher for Imperium, though, and they have given me a tentative thumbs up. So this post is primarily to give you a chance to let me know what you think (all three of you who read this blog).

Following this plan does not mean that I’ll drop the other elements of Imperium. Once I have the operational module done, I would be able to continue polishing the political modules and the plan would be tosubsequently release the political modules + the grand campaign as an expansion pack to the core operational strategy game.