Due out today in the UK and reviewed yesterday here on EuroGamer, Theocracy is a real time strategy game with a difference, developed in eastern Europe but set in medieval Mexico.
As part of our on-going series of interviews with European developers, we talked to Zsolt Vamosi, CEO of Philos Labs, to find out more about the game and the company behind it...
Philos Labs is based in Hungary, but although the country isn't that well known for its computer games yet, Philos are hardly alone there.
"Computer games have been developed in Hungary since 1985. The pioneer was Appaloosa with the games 'Eco The Dolphin', 'Tini Tank', and so on. The 'Imperium Galactica' series was also made here by GT Interactive, and an off-road simulator called 'Insane' is in progress as well (published by Codemasters)."
According to Zsolt, the Hungarian game development community is all one big happy family as well... "We regularly meet these teams and exchange our experiences. To tell the truth, we don't regard each other as rivals at all."
Philos was originally founded back in 1995, but originally they mostly worked on "making advertisement graphics".
"Then in 1997 the developers of the Amiga game 'Perihelion' (published by Psygnosis in 1993) joined our company", Zsolt told us. "And we started to create our first game, 'Theocracy'."
The original idea behind Theocracy was to combine the strong points of two of the best games of the time, Command & Conquer and Civilization.
"When we planned to develop a computer game, we used to play the real-time strategy games of that time, which were quite innovative and novel then", Zsolt explained. "Command and Conquer, Warcraft - these were all brilliant creations. But I didn't like the mission-to-mission build-up, and I missed the empire building part of Civilization and the free gameflow. That's why we started to design an RTS game that was build upon the concept of Civilization."
All that remained now was to pick a setting for the game, and in the end it was the artists that selected this... "The graphic artists picked up the topic background for this idea, and they persuaded us that the Aztec culture is a pretty excellent choice."
Losing Their Magic
Two years later everything seemed to be going well, and according to Zsolt "the master version of Theocracy was ready last February".
"We took it to Interactive Magic in North Carolina saying : Here's the game, get it tested and it can go to the shops. IM started the testing and they liked it so much that we could even improve the conditions of the contract in some clauses."
But just as the game seemed to be ready for release, disaster struck. "IM got their 1998 business report in March, and they decided not to release any 'packed' games in the future, on the grounds of their financial results."
Interactive Magic had surprised everybody by deciding to get out of retail games publishing completely, and concentrate on online titles instead. Theocracy's future was suddenly uncertain, along with other I-Magic titles like Mortyr and Seven Kingdoms II, which were also close to release at the time.
"It was clear that we wouldn't be able to find another publisher for the game due to lack of time before the summer, while the version would be rather dated later."
Philos weren't about to let the game die that easily though, and set about buying back their rights to the game and updating it.
"We paid all the advance payments back to Interactive Magic, and changed virtually the whole game's graphics. We re-drew each building and character, we switched the resolution to 800*600, and we changed the menus. A completely new part was built into the game. The 'chronicles' consisted of 8 new missions with briefings and tutorial movies. The main function of these was to help players to get acquainted with Theocracy more easily."
All this work paid off, as French publisher UbiSoft soon took an interest in the game and picked up the publishing rights to it.
"UBI Soft gave us a great deal of ideas and suggestions to make controlling the game easier. And during this period we refined the balancing (about 1500 variables had to be setup), we cleaned the game of bugs, and localized (translated) the game into seven different languages."
The result was a better looking, better balanced, and better designed game. The release might have been delayed by a year, but the extra work has helped to make Theocracy a much better game. In fact, so many changes were made that Zsolt told us "here at Philos we call the new version 'Theo 2'".
After its protracted development cycle and all the publisher woes of last year, are Philos happy with the finished product?
"The game changed very much compared to the original plans", Zsolt admitted. "We had our hands tied especially because of the pressure of circumstances (equipment resources)."
"Nevertheless, I'm pleased because the basic conceptions are reflected in the game - controlling thousands of units simultaneously; a complex economy; formation handling; spells, magic items, heroes, and RPG elements; and free though real-time game flow."
"My favourite features are the different AI supports", Zsolt told us. "For example, after a certain time the managing of the economy can be made automatic as well as the trade with the help of the trader. If my army is large enough, I don't need to bother with every piddling battle as the battle emulation will sweep off the enemy. Thus, I can always concentrate on the strategy parts of key importance."
"Of course, many features were left out from the game. After the feature-stop last summer, tons of new ideas arose that are very difficult to describe in a few words .. so all of them will be integrated into the follow-up."
The new game is still very early in development though, so Philos couldn't tell us much about it at this stage... "The topic of the sequel (which culture and when) is still under debate, so it'd be too early to tell anything about it."
Escape From Alcatraz?
The Theocracy sequel isn't the only new game under construction at Philos at the moment though. The company's website mentions a game called "Alcatraz", and we asked Zsolt about this...
"Phew, just very briefly 'cause the publisher will bite my head off :) It's a 3D tactical game in which you have to rescue the key figures of an underground movement who are fighting for liberty from different prisons, and ..."
And .. that's all he would tell us. You can be sure we'll be bringing you more information when it's available though!
Until then, thanks to Louise Gabriel at UbiSoft, and of course Zsolt and the folks at Philos Labs!