Interview With Robert Basler, Developer Of The Imperial Realm: Miranda

Interviewer’s note: Minor grammatical changes have been made to improve readability.

I recently had the chance to sit down with Robert Basler, the sole developer of the upcoming MMORTS, The Imperial Realm: Miranda. We talked the game, its inspirations, and the challenges of being a solo developer as he gave me a tour of the game in its current form.

Me: How has it been working on an MMO on your own? Have there been any specific challenges?

Basler: Lots of people, it bothers them to work by themselves. That doesn’t actually bother me. I’ve got family around that give me people to talk to.

As far as developing an MMO by myself, yeah, that is tricky because you literally don’t have thousands of people to try it for you so what I’ve done up until now is small testing where it’s just a couple of people. Shortly, I have to figure out how to get more people into the game. That’s something I’m trying to figure out right now; how to get more people to play. And the game isn’t quite ready for that yet so when it is I’ll have to figure that out. For now, a few people playing is fine.

So what made you decide to make an MMORTS instead of an MMORPG or an RTS?

Back when World of Warcraft came out I thought it was really cool to be able to have so many people playing together at the same time. At the time, I was playing mostly Command and Conquer. My friends, they would all come over in the evenings and we’d all set up on the LAN. We’d play either co-op against the AI or teams. As they became grown ups they moved away. I thought it would be cool to be able to play the same games in the same room. It grew out of how cool I thought World of Warcraft was and the kind of games I wanted to play.

There weren’t really any MMORTS games at all. I mean, there’s been a couple of attempts but they haven’t really gone anywhere. They weren’t the game that I wanted to play, anyways. I always really liked Command and Conquer so I kept waiting for EA to make an MMO Command and Conquer with giant multiplayer and they just never did. That was kind of what happened.

I noticed that the map is currently separated into squares controlled by each faction. It reminds me a lot of 10six. Did you ever play 10six?

You know, I’ve never heard of that, so I guess not. The zones sort of came out of the technology that runs the game. The way that all of the terrain is managed is little square chunks. Those zones are actually four chunks and they just sort of ended up in that shape.

At this point we log into the game for the walkthrough.

Alright, I am at the map screen.

Right now, you will want to choose a square in the flat part of the map. You will want to move over to the right. That tends to be where the flatter areas are. Eventually, some units will be able to handle really steep terrain while some units won’t. So you’ll be able to build on the really crazy areas but right now it’s a problem so I tell people to go to the flat parts.

I have found a zone.

So the first thing you have to do when you build a base is build a construction yard. Once it builds, it turns into a round thing and you can click on it and move your mouse around on the map to place it. You will also want a war factory for building tanks.

So the first time you click it, it researches it?

No, it’s the same as Command and Conquer where it takes a few seconds to build the building.

So this is very much based around Command and Conquer on a massive scale?

That is the idea. The Command and Conquer series sort of peaked for me with Red Alert 2. I played that game constantly, over and over with all my friends. That game was awesome. So in terms of mechanics and types of units, they’re pretty much what you would see in Red Alert. Some of the newer games are alright. I liked Generals, that was a lot of fun, but the mechanics were different in it. I like Red Alert 2. Command and Conquer 4 was terrible.

Yeah, they’ve been a lot more focused on small, tactical fights than the more fast-paced RTS nature that games of the past had. I actually played a lot of StarCraft.

I never played StarCraft other than a couple times. It did a couple things that made me mad and I didn’t play much after that. I have played StarCraft 2 a little bit.

Okay, so I have made a tank. Do they do formations?

Yeah, they do. When they come out, they’re just a grid formation by default. At the bottom left of the screen there’s a little blue button. If you click on that, you can select all of the formations.

Getting that to work was tricky. Most RTS games, the units don’t do formations. They’ll go wherever they are or wherever they want to go.

They’ll zerg.

Yeah. Getting formations to work is really tricky.

Now we can get you a minimap. In the bottom left, it’s the one with the satellite dish on top. Once you build that you will have a minimap.

And I see you can go over the zone borders. I had assumed that it was instanced out but it looks like I can go straight into each zone.

No, there are no instances. It’s all one world with everyone playing together.

Are there any specific difficulties you’ve had setting that up?

Yeah, pretty much everything has been difficult. See, you’ve got your little base on the screen now. If you take a look at that, zoom out and just keep zooming out. The final map will be 225 times bigger than that. It’s a big map. Getting that to work has been pretty tricky. I’m not sure that it’s working yet but it’s getting close. I wanted everyone to be able to play together.

Are there plans to close off specific zones based on the size of the playerbase? For example, if people stay too spread out, will you close off different areas of the game? With that large of a map, there’s the concern that they won’t interact quite as much. That’s a problem MMORTS's like Mankind have had in the past. They had two billion star systems but, due to the size of the playerbase, the most recent edition of their galaxy has only brought it up to, I think, 79,000 open.

Right. The idea with the size of the map and the number of people is that I’m giving them the choice to do what they want. So when you log in you get to pick where your base goes. With just you logged into the game, there’s nothing going on on the map. If there are other people logged in you can see where combat is going on and where other players are. So, you can choose to be close to the action if you want to get in a big fight or you can move farther away and just be by yourself and have your own little base. You can build a base and have your own little building that protects your base so that someone can’t just come in and hammer on you if you don’t want to fight with them. But it gives you the choice.

In going with that, are there going to be any major persistent objectives that benefit a specific faction or is it primarily just going to be war over territory?

There are a few different game modes. The thing with designing a game like this is that you want different things for different people to do. So, for people that are explorers, if you remember the old Command and Conquer games, they’d have a shroud that would cover the map until you sent units there. The game will have a shroud so that explorers can keep track of their exploration and the idea is for them also to have different interesting things to find.

I’ve got a couple of things on the map where there are ships buried and there’s a buried city.

I’m seeing a lot of artifacts as I’m scrolling around right now. You want to give the impression that there was a civilization here before.

Yeah. Miranda was, at one point, the center of Imperial...oh, I totally forgot my backstory. Anyways, it was a vast empire and this was where the center of society was; where the empire lived. He burned the planet pretty badly and now there’s not a lot left. If you look around the screen, you see dirt and those flowers and a few things that are sort of sticking out of the ground. That is actually by design and not because I can’t make it look different and add plants. I don’t want plants. It’s supposed to look like that. The idea is that when the game is done, there will be several different zones. The zone you’re in, the ground is white and there are a few flowers spread around. The north and west, you’ll eventually get into a zone where the dirt is black and there are giant crystals growing out of the ground.

But anyways, back to things to do. For exploration, you can reveal the shroud and explore. There are also those monoliths and pipes and things. There are actually monoliths around the world, there will be 100 of them. If you click on them you’ll get some story. You’ll have to find all of them to get the full story.

Then there’s the faction war, which is a “try and take over the world” thing and you can take over areas of the map. The way that works is that you can capture an individual zone, one of those squares, but if you fill in a circle around a zone, surrounding an area that’s owned by other factions and there’s no one in that area at the time, you capture that area. You could, in theory, capture the entire map in one go if the whole thing was surrounded. So the map capture has tactics and not just capturing the map for your faction. Land capture will have benefits. I haven’t worked out how that will work yet but the idea is that you will get benefits for your faction, along with a leaderboard.

The last part will be the “Nemesis System.” It will be a button on the screen that will give you a “nemesis,” another player in the game that you will play against for that session. You will either have the same goal or different goals. The goals will be something like “destroy the other guy’s base,” or “capture a building,” or “destroy all his harvesters,” or “capture an area on the map.” There will be a whole bunch of win conditions. You’re not told what the other guy’s doing so you may have the same objectives, you may not. You have to figure out what they’re doing while you try to accomplish your goal.

People need a way to find people who want to play with them.

So it’s sort of like matchmaking for a random objective while still in this world that everyone else is still fighting in.

Yeah, it gives more direction to people who want more direction. This game is very much a sandbox game. You do what you want. Having the Nemesis system gives people who aren’t sure what they want to do something to do.

Back to the faction system, in games like Planetside 2 they have resets. You’re going to hit a point where you run out of resources or one faction is dominating so much that it’s hard to make a comeback. Are there going to be resets? Will there be a system to block off a certain area so that people can build back up and fight back?

I don’t see the faction system as giving people such a huge advantage that the current non-winning faction can’t take it back on their own. Part of the challenge of building a game where everyone’s playing together all at the same time is that you can’t go World of Warcraft where one guy is 100 times as powerful as the guy next to him. So part of the design curb is to make the progression a lot flatter. So, instead of getting super powerful units you get different ways to play. So, instead of getting a tank with ten times the firepower, you get a tank with a different ability, like maybe it can teleport or something.

The challenge is keeping the leveling curve flat.

What I’m saying is, you have this massive map but what if one faction or two factions take over the entire map, leaving no space for the other one(s)?

See, as long as no one is on the actual square when you login, you can log in and take it over for your faction. It doesn’t lock other players out from where you can go.

So the buildings aren’t persistent between sessions?

No, what happens is when you log out your base disappears. When you log back in, if there isn’t another player there, you can put your buildings back instantly. If there is another player there, then you have to pick a different square and lay your buildings out again.

The persistence thing is a real challenge for a game like this. Originally I wanted to do persistence but all the buildings that are there, you have to simulate them all the time, even when the player’s logged out. They’re still there, they’re still using CPU on the servers. When someone logs out and never comes back you end up having junk all over the place. As cool as it sounds I couldn’t find a way to make it work long term. So, I kinda came up with this system where you can place your base back where it was really quick or you can place it somewhere else. It also gives people the option to choose what they want to do that day where they can either go back or continue. If they’re somebody who’s building their cool base, they can go back and continue building their cool base. If they want to get into a fight, they can say “no, well, I want to place it over there where people are fighting right now.” It just gives them a choice.

So you really are trying to create a battlefield but one that only works if people are fighting in it.

Yeah, if there’s no people you get a big empty field. Which is one of the challenges of making an MMO. You have to make it interesting for the people that are playing.

So is there going to be any persistent progression at all?

For the player there is. None of it is in yet but I have figured out how progression will work. Skyrim has this form of leveling where the way you play the game, whatever you use is what you get better at. If you use swords, you get better at swords. If you use shields, you get better at shields. The idea is the same here. If you use light tanks a lot, you will get better light tanks. If you use shields a lot, you will get better shields. I haven’t figured out what all of the abilities are going to be but I have a list of perks and there are like 200 perks on the list.

And as you’ve said, you want to keep the leveling curve flat so you have to make it an advantage without making it too much of an advantage.

Yeah, so all of the advantages are small. Someone who’s been playing the game for a long time will definitely have an advantage over someone who’s just started but it’s not like 200 times more powerful. It might be like 10-15% more powerful. Someone who’s starting out is still going to have a chance. The other thing is that, if you have someone who’s really powerful versus someone who’s just starting the game, the amount of loot you get when you blow up their stuff will be higher. So, you might get a situation where multiple newbies are joining up against a more experienced guy to get better loot.

It will be interesting to see once people start playing how they take advantage of that.

I’m kind of dying to see how that works out. Even just seeing a few people playing right now is, “That is so cool. They are playing my game.” Even if it’s only a three or four and not a couple thousand.

So, as I’m looking through this I noticed, is there any resource collection yet?

Right now, there are no harvesters but there is a refinery. If you build a refinery, you get money. I just haven’t done the harvester AI yet. Eventually, there will be harvesters.

And I can just drop a refinery anywhere? It doesn’t have to be on top of a resource node?

No, it can be anywhere. There will be resource fields like the old Command and Conquer. They will probably be crystally things.

There will be a resource system just like Command and Conquer where you have your resources that you can go out and collect and your harvester will have to bring them back and you’ll get the money. There will be two kinds of resources. If you remember, in Red Alert, there used to be gold and diamonds, and diamonds were worth twice as much as gold. It will be like that. I’m also planning to take the resource spikes idea from Generals where you could go out and capture a resource spike and just get money from then on.

And you have been doing all the modeling yourself?

The 3D models, most of the resources you see like tanks and stuff that you see in the game, I bought them. I’m not a 3D artist. I’m becoming a 3D artist because everything you get, you have to change it a little bit. If you look at the models, they’re ones that I bought from a website that sells 3D assets. That’s because someday I’ll be a 3D artist, if I have the patience for it, but I’m happy to take the models and change them a little bit.

That’s one of the challenges because if you log in as independents, you get a different set of buildings. It turns out that the buildings in that set were in another game, Beyond Protocol, which is another MMORTS that I think stopped being a game in 2011. It’s the same buildings, which is kind of funny. I posted a screenshot and one guy went “hey, that looks like Beyond Protocol” and I looked at it and went “oh, you’re right. Now what do I do? I like those buildings.” So I have to find a way to customize them so that they’re not as obviously the same buildings.

That’s one of the problems of using premade art but, that said, I’m not an artist. I don’t have the money to hire an artist to do this for me. So you use what you can; try and make it look cool. All the buildings are tinted with your own player color. I figured out how to do the tinting myself. It’s sort of rudimentary modeling but every little bit makes it better.

If you look at the buildings, the satellite dishes move and there’s smoke coming out of the refineries. That’s all stuff that I added to it. There’s a lot more I want to do with that; it’s sort of just a start, but it makes it look not so static. More alive.

You mind spawning in for a minute so I can get a look at how battle works right now?

Sure but right now all of these units are just placeholders. I use these for debugging. There’s one weapon effect, one explosion effect. That’s what I’m working on right now, replacing all these units with new units. So combat will be a little different.

If you click the third button to the left, you should see something that says “Inventory and Design.” On the left, you have all the components you have at the moment. You can pick a chassis, like at the moment, you have the tank chassis. If you double-click that, on the right, it will show you all the components that chassis can take, like the power plant. You have a blue, green, or purple power plant. You can also pick a shield, guns, and a sensor suite so that it can see other units. If your design is legal—power and weight requirements are met—you can put the design onto your construction yards and build them and if you have more than one construction facility you can control which ones build which items.

So how is the number of designs you can use going to be limited?

It will be limited to a certain number to start. Currently, it’s 24 but that is way too low. Like other games, you will be able to get more by doing certain things in-game. One of your perks might be to get ten more designs.

The parts, are they going to be researched, looted?

They will be looted. They all will have different requirements so say you get this really fancy tank chassis as loot but it’s a heavy chassis and you haven’t really used heavy chassis, you might have to go and build some of the basic ones first before you can use that one. They’re going to have pre-requisites. That’s part of the progression system.

There isn’t a research system. It’s a progression and loot system. There might be research at some point but, for now, that’s not the plan.

Alright, so, are there going to be AI factions or will it all be looting from other players?

It’s all going to be looting from other players. AI is something that I thought would be really cool to do but basically couldn’t figure out how to do it within the scope of the initial game. It’s a thing that might come in as an add-on after the game has shipped and I’m not worried about making the basic things work.

So if you’re looting from other players, how is it going to decide what loot you get?

There is a list of loot that each faction can get and it chooses from it randomly based on a bunch of input.

So what the other player has isn’t going to have any bearing on it?

It does, actually. Every unit has different values so if you blow up a really fancy tank, you get more loot from that. Your level difference also plays into that so, if you take out a guy that’s really experienced, and you’re not very experienced, and you blew up his really cool tank, you’re going to get even more loot. It all feeds into determining what you get.

I see that you can create multiple forces and I assume that you can create multiple forces of different factions. So will your faction not be as permanent of a choice?

You can try the different factions but each faction is different as far as the units it has and the things that happen to it. The factions do have a bearing on what happens in the game.

Do you have a concern that if people have forces in multiple factions, they’ll log out when one faction is losing and log into another one?

The whole “winning faction” thing. Yeah, I’m not sure that that will be a big problem. The “winning faction” thing is not going to be a huge advantage. I’m not sure that it will be enough to make them switch when one faction is winning. I’m hoping it will make them just want to fight a little harder.

So it’s a sort of “wait and see” thing?

Yeah, it’s not determined yet. A lot of this, you have to wait until more people are playing and see how it actually goes.

So when are you planning to open it up a little more?

Actually, I’ve got a few people playing it now. I’m working on getting a basic set of balanced units into the game so that the basic stuff that doesn’t work right now will work, like designing the tanks. Then I’ve got some technology stuff that I need to be able to support more players and then I’m going to try to get more players into the game.

So the answer is fairly soon. With a lot of change. I kind of suck at estimating when things are going to happen.

What’s the planned business model?

Planned business model is buy to play with a store that lets you buy extra things like extra character slots, inventory slots, design slots, skins. Nothing that gives you extra power, just convenience things. But it’s buy to play. Once you buy it, you can keep playing it, including everything in the game.

Do you have a ballpark price in mind?

Think of the other buy to play games that you’ve seen. It will be in the same ballpark as those. While, yes, it is an indie game, it is a specific niche, which is something other games aren’t going after. There aren’t any games that are trying to make the game that I’m making so I’m hoping that the people who want to play that game will want to support it.

So you’re not planning crowdfunding? You’re just going to keep working on it?

That is to be determined. The interest for crowdfunding for me is not the money, it’s more the “getting the word out to more people who want to play the game” and better connect with the people who want to play a giant RTS game. So it’s more of a promotion thing than a “needing money to finish the game” thing.

From my perspective, I’ve been working on the game for most of six years and the to-do list at the beginning was really long. I’m down to under a page now. I can see the end of development. Ideally, I would like to finish the game before I start selling it to people. I don’t know if that’s actually what will happen because running a game like this costs a lot of money. So it may be that I get the people that are interested into the game to help support the servers and other costs to run it. So that’s still undetermined: whether I’ll sell the game before it’s finished.

So at this point, the infrastructure is mostly done and you’re just kind of filling everything in?

The bulk of the really difficult things are finished. As you can see, there’s a game world, there’s buildings, there’s tanks, they can fight with each other. It’s crashy but I’ll fix the bugs.

I built a lot of the technology and there’s a lot more that it can do but it’s not in there because I haven’t put in the data. There’s two kinds of guns but there can be 1000 kinds of guns. It’s a matter of adding to the game, not building new things. It’s adding more content to the framework that’s there.

So there’s not a lot of infrastructure left, though?

There’s one major piece left. Right now, the simulation, which manages all of your tanks, buildings, and has the players talk to each other, it only runs on one computer. The last thing to do is make it so that it runs on more than one computer and still has everyone talking to each other in real time.

All the technology to do that is there. I just haven’t debugged it yet. In theory, it should work. That’s sort of my last remaining technical thing that I haven’t actually tried.

A lot of this stuff, you don’t really know if it’s going to work until you try it. That’s the last thing in the “I don’t really know if it’s going to work until I tried it” category.

It’s an RTS game now but it hasn’t got all the things that I want yet. But a lot of those things, like the Nemesis system and the progression system, are fairly simple add-ons. They aren’t complicated technologies that I’m unsure they’ll work. Like, I’m sure I can make menus. I’m not sure that I can make it work on 1000 PCs and have everyone talking to each other at the same time. It’s the level of uncertainty.

When I started out, I had lots of things I wasn’t sure I could make them work. So, progression.

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Currently, there is no release date announced for The Imperial Realm: Miranda but you can keep up with the game on Basler’s blog. The pre-alpha has been running for about a month now and he plans to open it up more "soon."

I've been playing MMOs since back in the day when my only option was to play Clan Lord on the family Mac. Since then, I've played too many MMOs to count. I generally play niche, sometimes even bizarre, MMOs and I've probably logged the most hours in Linkrealms prior to its current iteration. Currently bouncing between a few games.

  • Great interview! For a solo project this is incredibly impressive. The UI reminds me of the old Total Annihilation if I'm remembering it correctly. The MMORTS genre is really untapped - the stuff out there now is uninspiring. It's probably because it's not an easy game to design. Looking forward to trying The Imperial Realm: Miranda though!

    I think the buy to play model is ideal for indie developers too; free to play is harder to develop around for a small studio.

  • Deyirn Skysand

    I'm not very good at strategic games, but damn, I want to try this out, especially, because it's being made by one dude.