Going pottery? Total Annihilation's Chris Taylor is back and making a new RTS

He does not do things by halves.

By Robert Purchese. Published 6 June 2017

"It was completely divine inspiration I swear to God."

Chris Taylor - creator of Total Annihilation, Dungeon Siege and Supreme Commander - had found himself in an art shop. He had decided to pursue a hobby in oil painting and needed some equipment, but two bags of discounted clay caught his eye instead. Impulsively, he bought them, then about a year later took a bag to work.

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"I'd signed Microsoft's Age of Empires Online and there was a lot of meetings," he tells me. "I'm a good talker but I'm not a good listener. I thought, 'Well if I keep my hands busy - if I grab a handful of clay and I'm sitting there working on clay - then I will sit there and listen.'"

He started modelling little characters, with no real skill, until eventually he had a collection and pieces he wanted to keep. Yet to do so would require firing in a kiln. 'How much would a kiln cost?' he thought.

"I went to this place called Seattle Pottery and I walk in there and they have all kinds of kilns, and there's this one on sale for a thousand dollars," he says. "And then I saw the wheel.

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"The guy comes out and I go, 'That wheel's cool,' and he goes, 'Oh that's a great wheel - that's the Whisper-two-thousand,' or whatever, 'and it doesn't make any noise whatsoever. That's on sale too.'

Chris Taylor at work, image from his Instagram.

"I ended up spending about five grand."

To begin with he couldn't make anything happen but, determined, he stuck at it. "I said, 'You know what? I'm not quitting this - I'm gonna do this. I'm going all the way with this.' And I went all the way until my stuff was something people were excited about."

Chris Taylor Pottery is the result. He is not a man who does things by halves.

But what happened to him making games? What happened to the great real-time strategy hurricanes of war he made in Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander? His Gas Powered Games disappeared into World of Tanks maker Wargaming four years ago and we haven't heard a peep since. When will we get those famous Chris Taylor games again?

That's when he - long hair flapping in the Adriatic breeze at Croatia's Reboot Develop conference 2017 - reveals his ace. He's back, he's independent, he's energised. "I'm going back to RTS."


Pottery couldn't save Age of Empires Online, couldn't save Gas Powered Games. In 2013, Chris Taylor was on the ropes. "I had probably the closest thing to a nervous breakdown," he says. "I'd heard about nervous breakdowns but I'd never had one.

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"I was out of money; my studio was fifteen years old; I'd worked so hard my whole life to build something and there I was seeing it die. Imagine a parent having a child that's starving to death: that's what it felt like. It was horrible and I was a wreck. I was wrecked."

He recorded a video interview at the time and he hates that it still exists. "You can see all the pain and all the stress," he says. "I want that video to go away; that video is terrible. But it's real so I might as well own it. It's not going away."

A year earlier, everything had been fine.

"We had three projects running in 2012, and things were really, really great." The global recession had ended and Gas Powered Games had Age of Empires Online plus an unannounced game in development with Microsoft, and a card game in development with Square Enix.

"Well Microsoft, they cancelled both of the projects," he says, "so of course we started going into lay-offs. But we had a little bit of money in the bank. Then the Square Enix title got cancelled as well. All three projects cancelled by October of 2012. The company went from being fully busy to not a single dollar coming in the door."

GPG had been working on a game called Kings and Castles but it would be too expensive to realise properly, so Wildman was born. That's when I last spoke to Chris Taylor, when he was pitching Wildman. 'Play human evolution in a cartoony blend of strategy and role-playing!' Wildman sought $1.1m on Kickstarter but barely raised half, and Taylor pulled the plug.

"The Kickstarter just didn't catch on," he says. "People just wanted Total Annihilation, they wanted Kings and Castles, they wanted another Dungeon Siege, they wanted Supreme Commander. They just didn't want a new thing - and it broke my heart."

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Yet far away a saviour's ears pricked up. 'Those guys are probably in a position where they would entertain an acquisition,' someone thought, and Wargaming boss Victor Kislyi made his move.

"When that conversation got started I was like, 'Yes you're right, we would,'" Taylor says, "'because I have people I've worked with for 15 years, they're like family, and I don't want to see this family broken up.'

"We sat down and in a very, very short period of time - in a matter of an afternoon - shook hands on a deal." It helped that Taylor had known Kislyi for years, of course, had mentored him in the days before World of Tanks was a monster hit. They were friends. "It was a good number for both parties," he adds.

Gas Powered Games was put to work making something completely new and from scratch. Something big; the team grew from 30 people to over 100. But even now, more than three years on, Taylor can't say what the game was. It still hasn't been announced.

"We dropped little hints like: it's going to be a big 'World of' game of some sort - maybe it's going to be similar to some of the other 'World of' titles, but you can't say too much. They're still working on it," he says, "they're still cranking away."

Taylor grew frustrated as he slipped further into management and further away from making games. The game he was making could take another year or more, but he could not. "I'm getting old," he says. "I'm 50 years old and for me, time is at a premium. When I turned 50 in September, a switch flipped.

"I left Wargaming last October and I didn't know exactly what I was doing. I just knew I wanted to go back to... It was like the world wants me - and I want me - to make another game in a series of games people would think of as a Chris Taylor game. They want that and I want that, so if you want it and I want it, why am I not doing it?"

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"I'm going back to RTS," he says. "I'm going to change the paradigm.

"My goal is to put RTSes on more screens than ever. I want to move the football way down the field. I want to change, fundamentally, not only the way we play RTS but the way we access the RTS experience.

"What if I told you you could be playing on your dual-screen PC with your quad-core whatever and when you had to run to a meeting you could continue playing on your phone, because you want to, because you're dying to, because you don't want to have to wait to get back?

"What if I told you you could just turn the power off on your PC and when you went to your phone you could continue playing without any disruption in the experience? A real continuous experience on any device."

What would you say?

"I promise it will be something where people will genuinely be shocked," he adds. "It can't be a disappointing, trivial little thing that people shrug off."

But how do you do that so it works on phones and on PC?

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"The way the design works is when you're on PC, it's going to feel like a PC game," he says. "When you're on a mobile device, it's going to have a slightly different method of interface to serve you on that device, on that screen. That might even mean the speed of the game changes. It has to change: you cannot make one experience and cram it onto every device."

But how will Steam and the App Store work together?

"No Steam, no GOG, no App Store," he says. "It's going to be on my own website. People will hear about it and get a link and go to my website and play the game, and that's all there is to it. Absolute pure independence."

It will also be free-to-play but, he adds, "I'm changing the free-to-play model".

"When another developer sees what I've done, and I mean this, they're going to say, 'Ooh that's really interesting - I should do something like that.' I'm going to set up a bunch of stuff they're going to want to leverage, and I know that starts to sound like a platform because," he adds, "maybe it is."

Chris Taylor started work on his bold new idea in January, writing the game design then planning the ambitious technical design. He says it will be in the vein of Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander but not necessarily the same. He's quite keen on taking you on a hero's journey as in a role-playing game.

Taylor works alone in an office next to his pottery studio - both housed in a 1000 sq ft building on his estate - with help from a handful of people working remotely around the world. "I'm abandoning completely the idea of a central office," he says. Another experiment.

His new company isn't officially up and running but apparently the pieces are in place. More importantly he says he has a partnership with "a large cloud-based company" - unnamed - to make his dream come true. But to be clear, "It's not a $10m game or a $20m game."

Yet he's promising an awful lot. He's promising a change of real-time strategy paradigm, and to make a game people can take from PC to phone and back again. He's promising a new kind of free-to-play game and a new gaming platform it can live on. To say he has a lot on his plate would be an understatement.

But then, Chris Taylor does not do things by halves. He buys five grand's worth of pottery supplies one afternoon and challenges himself to make it work. He dares - and sometimes it doesn't work out. But when it does we get Total Annihilation and we get Supreme Commander. When Chris Taylor is in the mood - and he looks like he's in the mood - you can't rule him out.

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