Super Roman Conquest Interview: A New Retro RTS Experience

We talk to the indie developers behind Super Roman Conquest, a new SNES-inspired strategic side-scroller.

What’s so great about indie games is their ability to introduce new ideas into the gaming world — things we never imagined could be done, but are achieved through unbelievable design or even simple design. In the most successful indie games, the ideas click so perfectly that you wonder why no one had thought of them before. Indie developers approach game design in a much more humble manner, trading expensive new technology for ideas that were right under our noses. 

SeaCliff Interactive’s Super Roman Conquest belongs to this school of thought — that some of the best ideas lie in the past and that they deserve to be revisited and made fresh again. A multiple-lane side-scroller RTS, SRC flips the beloved RTS genre on its head and introduces a whole new way to play. 

Super Roman Conquest pits the Romans against the Barbarians in battles all over Europe and the Mediterranean during the Late Roman Republic era. The game allows you to conquer the world and turn your country into an empire. 

We love this game so much, we included it in our list of 101 New & Upcoming Indie Games We’re Excited About.

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I spoke to Matt Boland, Co-Founder/Lead Designer at SeaCliff, and Tim Temmerman, Co-Founder/Lead Engineer, about SRC‘s ambitious design, the Republic of Rome, Hannibal of Carthage, and some TINY projects he worked on during his time at LucasArts:

Why did you choose to create a multi-lane side-scroller RTS as opposed to the traditional top-down design? What are the unique challenges of creating this type of game?

T: We’ve always wanted to do a strategic side-scroller, in the vein of one our favorite SNES games, King Arthur’s World. After designing a quick prototype of Roman units battling on a single plane, it became clear that some extra layers of strategy were required. The developers of King Arthur’s World [Argonaut Games] made that game work by steering it in more of a puzzle direction, with timing of traps, using teleporters, and order of operations being critical.

For SRC, we wanted to steer the game more in the direction of strategic depth. Once we opened up the Z-axis, allowing players to play on different lanes within a given encounter, it made the game much more interesting. The biggest challenge with this type of design is to allow tactical freedom and strategic depth, while still keeping basic side-scroller mechanics.

There haven’t been many games in this style, so we’re learning a lot, creating new systems and unit types that work within the linear play field. Things like Cavalry that can break enemy lines, archers that can fire over front lines, and heavy defenders that can stop their opponents progress, all provide various options of dealing with encounters. 

How do multiple lanes force gamers to strategize more carefully in a side-scrolling RTS?

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T: We craft our encounters with various objectives, and design the layouts such that the player has a variety of options in completing them. We don’t want to force players into a path they’re not prepared for, and by using multiple lanes we allow players to choose. Certain objectives require the player backtrack a bit, or take a side route in order to complete an objective — the player can choose how to get it done, and that choice plays to the strengths of their army. Are you an aggressive commander, who sacrifices his own men for a quick and decisive victory, or are you more calculating and prefer to use experienced, leveled-up troops? 

Because our multiple lanes are intertwined with each other, the choices we present to the player aren’t simply black and white, but a complex network of decisions they make in real time that hopefully reflect the type of Legion they’ve amassed. 

SRC allows you to capture prisoners and decide what to do with them, where to attack, and many other things during your campaign. Can you talk more about the micro-management system?

T: We wanted to bring a rich, narrative-based campaign that captures a lot of the intrigue around the region during the Roman Republic era. We started out SRC just as a series of one-off combat encounters — a linear progression through combat — but we realized we were missing half of the picture, half of what was so compelling about this era. The campaign is our opportunity to slow things down a bit, allow the player Commander to choose their path through untamed barbarian lands, the types of soldiers in their Legion, and their style of leading during critical events.

As the player marches south to Rome, they’ll choose their path between various destinations — towns, villages, points of interest, each one offering an event that further defines their story. During these events, you’ll be faced with an unfolding narrative, or perhaps a dilemma amongst the ranks that must be dealt with, things that define the type of Commander you are.

Of course, these events will not only progress the story, but often have a tangible effect on your Legion. We use various Commander traits, such as Honor and Authority, to determine your capabilities and the type of Legion you’re able to lead. For example, an honorable General might garner more loyalty and have a more experienced fighting force, but a General who commands with Authority can lead a much larger Legion consisting mostly of new recruits.  

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What historical moments from ancient Rome are featured? Did you take inspiration from any battles? Do we get to fight Hannibal and his giant elephants?

T: Super Roman Conquest takes place during the Late Republic era — our story takes place before Caesar assumed control of the Roman Republic. This was an interesting time period for us, as it takes place before the Roman Empire was formed and was still plagued by civil war. The Romans were in a period of rapid expansion, and the territories to the North were still foreign lands with barbaric tribesmen. We are putting players in the midst of the Gallic wars, starting their campaign far from home in hostile enemy territory.

We also want to bring the political intrigue from Rome into the player’s campaign. While the player is not currently serving in the Senate, they will be influenced by the politics of the region, and forced to play a part. The entanglement of the military and politics of Ancient Rome is really appealing to us, and adds great contrast to the savage battles of the North. 

Why did you choose Rome as the setting for your RTS? What’s your favorite RTS with a Rome setting?

T: The Roman Army was a powerhouse, arguably the most successful in history. They were driven by a society geared towards supporting it’s military, rooted in an archaic sense of honor that leads to some awesome moments of bravado and brutality. Despite being a small legion in a hostile land, we want the player to feel the superior training and craftsmanship of the army.

Another important draw to to this timeframe is the moral ambiguity of the Roman’s motivations. We get some great story and choice moments where the player is choosing between the honor of their Legion, the growth of Rome, and their own personal ambitions.

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Rome: Total War was an inspiration for us, though we’d like to tell a more intimate, personal story about one Commander’s journey to Rome amid the turmoil of civil war. 

Can you tell us a bit more about the story? Is it completely based on history or do you get to build your own adventure with your very own general?

T: The story is only loosely based on history, depicting many of the events and notable figures of the time, but through the eyes of a fictional character who’s experiencing this on more of a ground level. So yes, indeed we’ll be playing our own adventure with our own General. This was important to us, because the role of the General in SRC is flexible, and dependent on the player’s own volition. 

The basic premise of our story starts out in the North, far from Rome. While campaigning near modern day England and France, you receive a letter from Rome, written by your brother. Civil unrest has boiled over in Rome, and your family’s enemies are gathering their power . As you journey South, more of the political intrigue behind the Senate’s motivation unfolds, and your allegiance to Republic is challenged. In the end, your choices will help determine the fate of Rome.

Can you tell us more about the Senate decrees system? What is the value of setting up a Senate system that influences the game?

M: The Senate decree system is something we came up with while running our Kickstarter late last year. Some of the more interesting Kickstarters we’ve seen find a cool way to work their various reward tiers into their product. We wanted to find a way to do the same while also leveraging the community engagement that Kickstarter is founded on. With all that in mind we developed a system in which backers could buy into various tiers which would give them extra power over the development of the game and, of course, over their fellow backers. 

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The “money buying power” dynamic is already built into the way Kickstarter works. If you spend more money, you get more reward tiers. What really interested us was that this was very similar to the way the Roman Republic functioned politically. Of course there were other factors such as pedigree that played into it but so far as we know, there isn’t an aristocracy that’s developed on Kickstarter quite yet. Though other KS creators may disagree…

Unfortunately, up until now we haven’t yet had a chance to run a full round of the Senate system. Both Tim and myself have been so busy developing/refining the core game that the supplemental systems that we envisioned the Senate voting into the game haven’t quite hit the schedule board. 

That said, we’re still completely committed to the Super Roman Senate and hope to call a session sometime soon. 

Are there any other factions besides Romans (obviously) and Barbarians? Again, this might tie into Hannibal and Carthage. I really want to fight Hannibal! [in which I totally fudge history]

M: At launch Rome will be the only playable faction due to the immense effort we’re putting into making units, both Roman and Barbarian, act, move, and fight differently. We want the mix of different Roman player units and Barbarian enemies to really affect the tactics players use in battles. Had we allowed multiple factions at launch, we would have had to either dumb the units down across the board or tack on a bunch of time to development. 

We did have a Punic Wars-themed stretch goal on the KS that unfortunately didn’t quite make it. This “expansion” of sorts would have, of course, featured Hannibal as the main antagonist and Carthage as your enemy. 

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The problem with doing a Hannibal module as part of the launch product was mainly the time frame of our game against that of the Second Punic War. As we said earlier, SRC takes place towards the end of the Republic, from around 50BC – 0. The Second Punic War took place around 200 years earlier and as you could imagine, featured a Roman army that was entirely different than the one seen in the Late Republic. As a historically based game, we just couldn’t stomach allowing centurions and legionaries to battle Hannibal’s elephants instead of the hastati and triarii units that actually fought. We’re history nerds and wouldn’t want to let people down with those sort of blatant inaccuracies. 

But we hear ya. I mean, who doesn’t want to fight Hannibal?! 

I see that there’s a Mediterranean campaign map. Are there other regions ripe for the conquering in SRC? Tell us more about them.

M: Oh yeah, players will spend a great deal of time outside of the Mediterranean locations we’ve shown so far. As we said above, you’ll start the game in Gaul, which roughly corresponds to modern France, and work your way back to the more “civilized” areas of the Mediterranean. Players can look forward to spending a great deal of time trekking across large stretches of Barbarian territory while working their way back to Rome.

How far along are you into the Greenlight process? Has it been grueling to put your baby up on a site to be judged by thousands of gamers?

M: I think as of today we’re about 70% of the way into the Top 100 games on Greenlight. Actually it’s been hovering around that number for awhile now as we haven’t been marketing the game as aggressively as maybe we should. We’re working on it, though…

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By far the most grueling part of Greenlight is simply getting buried under the massive amount of games currently on there. It can sometimes be a frustrating process as you’ll see games that get Greenlight in a week that are heavy on promises and light on gameplay while games like ours can kind of get lost in the shuffle. Though in the end, we’ll definitely get Greenlight, as the game is looking and playing better every day. Once we get it out there, we’re sure people will see what we see. 

As for the judgement from gamers, thankfully, so far most of the comments have been positive. We have a lot more to show to convince people that SRC belongs on Steam, so we’re excited to get it out there and in front of people.

You worked at LucasArts. On 1313, specifically, correct? What part of 1313 were you most excited about? Can you give us some details that will make us cry even more about its cancellation? How about some info on First Assault? Were there plans to turn that game into a full-fledged Battlefront 3?

M: It’s hard to say one thing about 1313 that made me most excited. I guess it’s somewhat cliche, but really the most exciting part about it was the development team working on it. LucasArts attracted talent from all over the world, and the mix of experience and skill we had on 1313 is impossible to build from scratch.

As far as cry worthy details, towards the end there was some awesome stuff developed using Boba’s jetpack. We were just starting to prototype how the jetpack could integrate into a cover-based shooter without us cheaping out and committing the sin of arbitrarily taking away the jetpack at certain points. 

We also had an assortment of wrist-mounted gadgets players could use to gain advantages in combat, an epic story involving the Coruscant underworld, and a world class art team who created next-gen visuals when the PS4 and XBONE were mere twinkles in first-party executives’ eyes.

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To this day, it’s still the best looking game I have ever seen and it’s been 2 years since development stopped. The only thing that comes close is that new Silent Hills demo PT. If you guys haven’t seen that you should download it. That shakin’ ghost, tho…

First Assault was also making great progress up until the closure of the studio. We had a fantastic military shooter, pitting Rebels against Imperials, and were expanding on Battlefront-style heavy vehicle gameplay. Battlefront 3 was always on the radar, though the notion was always deeply rooted in a struggle between the goals of Sales and Marketing to carry on the franchise, and that of the design team to craft a completely unique shooter. 

Can you speak about LucasArts’ legacy? What do you think was the company’s biggest contribution to the gaming industry?

M: Personally, I think the legacy of LucasArts will always be one of innovation and risk-taking, even if all those weren’t completely visible to the public throughout. Everyone who worked there loved the Golden Age of LucasArts and worked their asses off trying to create products that fans would enjoy. 

A great number of times what the public might have seen as shitty work or laziness from LucasArts were actually the results of decisions from much higher in the LucasFilm food chain. In the end, LucasFilm is a film company, not a game company, and I think that knowledge gap lead to LucasArts taking hits for a lot of products that everyone (teams included) knew weren’t ready for release.

The most important thing to remember about LucasArts is that it was made up of people who came from all over the world, with all sorts of skill sets, who just wanted to make great games. Trust me that that these people put up with a lot of shit to try and accomplish that, and I hope fans realize that no one wanted a LucasArts comeback more than us employees who worked there. There’s no doubt in my mind that we were on the right track with both 1313 and First Assault, and I only wish the public could have played those games before Disney decided to shut us down.

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Thank you so much! If you liked what you saw — and, yikes, why wouldn’t you?! — support this game on Steam Greenlight!

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