Over the last eighteen months a small British company called Nicely Crafted Entertainment has been toiling away in the wilds of Cambridge to create a novel online strategy game. Set in a shattered world made up of rocky islands floating in space, each round of Time Of Defiance gives players one month to conquer as many of these islands as possible and build up an empire. The catch is that a few hundred players may be fighting over the thousands of lumps of rock scattered around the playing area.
With the game recently opened to the public, we caught up with creative director Ben Simpson to get some background on the game and to find out what the future has in store for its players.
In The Beginning
The original idea behind Time Of Defiance was to combine "the social aspects of playing a game such as Risk with the strategy of a game such as Chess, where all the actual moves are simple and the complexity and interest comes from the combinations and how you manipulate the pieces".
The result is a fiendishly addictive game with a strong community that sucks you in, which is hardly surprising given that some of the players you'll meet have been playing the game for the last year. "A game like this lives or dies on its stability, so we knew the version that went fully public needed to be rock solid", Ben explained, when we asked him why Time Of Defiance had gone into testing so early in its development. "Two million game hours is certainly a hell of a long time, but given that we only had two server crashes during that time, the last over six months ago, we've done really well."
And it wasn't simply a case of catching bugs and ensuring that the servers were reliable. "Our community has been a huge influence on the direction of the game. As developers, we can be too close to our game, and therefore a fresh pair of eyes can often spot the obvious. We've had great feedback about many little things, all of which have enhanced the overall feel of the game. It's also been amazing seeing the players develop their own strategies throughout that time. What might have been considered advanced during the early games is now pretty predictable; that's not to say those tactics aren't without merit, you just have to be sneakier about it."
It's not just the strategies that have developed during testing, the game has taken leaps forward as well. Even in the two or three months that I've been playing Time Of Defiance, the game's interface and functionality has improved noticeably.
"It's certainly much easier to get into now - early builds were fiendishly complicated", Ben admitted. "We've done a lot of work with our players to ensure that the first twenty minutes or so are as easy to get into as possible. There's no denying that Time of Defiance is a deep game, though - players will need to spend a little time getting used to its mechanics and suchlike. But once they're in, they'll be hooked."
The game still has a few rough edges, but the developers are working to smooth out these last remaining wrinkles. For example, one issue that we raised during the beta was the difficulty of giving orders to multiple units at once, and we're happy to say that NiCE are already working on a solution. "Interestingly, it's not until recently that multiple selection has been raised as a specific sticking point. We've introduced additional commander orders so that you can command groups of transports, as well as the already existing tactical commander orders to control attack fleets. Having said all that, it is clear that multiple selection would be something that would add to the gaming experience. We're currently working out a really decent system so that it works well within the Time of Defiance framework. Hopefully, we'll have something sorted over the next month or so."
Break On Through
Although work is continuing on the game, the fact that it's now out of beta testing and being run on a paying basis is obviously a moment to savour for NiCE. So how do they feel? "Relieved" is apparently the answer!
"The last few weeks in particular have been manic, but there's light at the end of the tunnel", Ben told us. "We're really excited - this is where the fun starts. We've become quite a close-knit community during the year of testing, [now] we're looking forward to meeting thousands of new players."
"The whole thing has been a voyage of discovery for us, and without the mistakes we would not have learnt a thing, so in that sense I'm pleased with everything. Even the early slip-ups! The whole development lifecycle has been an exciting challenge, and building the company from the ground up has been a brilliant experience. We picked possibly the most difficult genre to test - in single-player games, you can usually predict the actions of each gamer; here, the world is your oyster - which obviously affected the time it took to get a relatively stable build to release. But overall, I think we've much to be proud of. I wouldn't change a thing."
There's still plenty to do though, and although "up until now, we've concentrated heavily on ensuring that all the existing functionality is up to scratch", new features will be added to the game over the coming months. "The thing with an online-only game is that it never really reaches the stage of gold master - we can provide small, convenient patches for enhancements or whatever. It's likely that we'll look to increase the ships and resources available to players as the games wear on. We'll take a view on this after the first set of games."
Something else players can look forward to is support for mobile devices, allowing them to receive SMS text alerts sent by the game, and eventually to play the game on the move. "The SMS alerts which launch in September will give players the opportunity to know when their empire is being attacked. In an ideal world, players would be able to 'text' commands back, but sadly the technology to control such a vast empire does not currently exist, so these messages are simple warnings about who's doing it and where. Maybe in the future, though."
"The PDA version, however, is an altogether different proposition, fully networking with the 'proper' client to allow players on the go to retain control of their empire. The same account will work from your home PC or PDA, which will really speed things up. Imagine being able to fine-tune your plans on the train in the morning, or plan overnight retribution just before bed. Well, at the end of the year, all this will be possible."
And it doesn't stop there. "We've actually created an entire ten million year history and future for the world in which Time of Defiance is set. It gives a high degree of self-consistency to the world, because everything is there for a reason. The current maps we're using are 4000km by 4000km, and represent the old Northern Continent of the planet Nespanona (which is now just a collection of floating rocks held together by ancient quantum machinery). We will be adding to the Time Of Defiance universe throughout the coming months and years. Be sure to watch this space!"