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The Trek Nation - 'Armada' Lead Programmer

'Armada' Lead Programmer

By Jeff 'Koganuts' Koga
Posted at May 24, 1999 - 5:00 AM GMT

As part of my continuing coverage of Star Trek games at E3, I spoke with Dr. Ian Lane Davis about Activision's Star Trek: Armada. Based on what I saw, I'd very superficially describe Armada as the Star Trek equivalent of Blizzard's Starcraft, but as Dr. Davis explains, there's a lot more to Armada than that.

Trek Nation: "What is your title?"

Dark Reign - Cover Image Copyright Activision Ian Davis: "I'm the technical director/lead programmer on the project. I was the lead programmer on Dark Reign. I've done strategic AI for Battlezone and Civilization: Call to Power. I have a PhD in robotics and artificial intelligence from Carnegie Mellon University. I used to teach AI to people at Carnegie Mellon. We have another guy on our team who also have a doctorate from Carnegie Mellon. Our team has some industry veterans who've been around for a long time. And it's got the best programmers, designers, and artists that I've ever worked with."

Trek Nation: "How much of the game, percentage-wise, has been completed?"

Ian Davis: "It's hard to say in some ways because the way Activision works... we have four full teams' worth of people. But when one team needs more resources, we give more to them. We've only had it as The Next Generation game since January, but we've been working on a space combat game since about last July. But on and off we've also been helping on other games -- Civilization: Call to Power, which just came out, I did the combat AI on that, and spent a lot of time on that -- so I'd say as a whole team, we've spent about, if you were to sum it all up, it would put probably put us about five months into development. We're reusing a lot of code from other games that Activision's done. This game has code from Mechwarrior 2, Interstate '76, Battlezone, Dark Reign, Civilization: Call to Power. Our team has worked on all those games, so we understand strategy games in a way a lot of teams making games out there don't. So we know how to hit the sweet spot of the strategy market. And we're doing everything we can to make this a polished triple-A title. And so percent-done, we're 80% done with the core technologies, but we're just starting on the polishing. We're putting things in like plasma venting out of the warp nacelles. All the little goodies that just make the game special."

Trek Nation: "How many people are on the development team?"

Ian Davis: "Seven programmers, including one intern who's finishing up soon. Three designers including our director Trey Watkins who's standing over there. And I think six or seven artists. Plus our producer Mark Turndorf. And then the rest of the Activision infrastructure. Our boss is Scott Laiman[sp?] who's in charge of the whole internal studio -- fabulous guy. Laird Malamed who knows everything about Star Trek and made all of this happen. So it's a real team effort. Plus, we help out each other on different projects, and some of the guys from Sim Team[?] are working on our game right now throwing in some stuff. Putting some of that polish in. We say, 'Oh we want plasma venting but our schedule's are full.' We'll find somebody who's at a low point on their project [and] say, 'Hey, come over here, and do this for a little while.'"

Trek Nation: "It helps that you have Star Trek fans working on this game."

Ian Davis: "We have some Star Trek fanatics on our team. Our lead designer, who's standing around here somewhere, you can ask him anything about Star Trek and he'll tell you. He's a nut, he's up on everything. Laird Malamed, who's our brand manager, [who] handles all of Activision's marketing for these games and supervises them all, [and who] works with Paramount, his office is wall-to-wall Star Trek. He's got every toy that has ever come out."

Trek Nation: "How has Activision's relationship with Paramount been?"

Ian Davis: "Paramount's been so generous helping us. They want us, Activision, to take this franchise, shine it up, and... give it the respect and the consideration it deserves. So we have a library of every episode of every show that has ever happened. And if we're sitting there going, 'You know, I'm thinking about something for the Borg that I want to put in,' I'll go down to Laird and ask him, 'Do you have any episodes about this?' and he'll pull five or six out, put me on the library checkout list, [and] I'll bring them home to watch them that night, [and] bring them back. It's really a pleasure working with Paramount and working with all the guys on this team. It's also been the most professional software development team I've ever seen. Which is why we're so ahead of schedule that it's given us a luxury not to worry about, 'Oh are we going to get it just working for ship?' but 'Are we going to turn it from a great game into a classic?'"

Trek Nation: "So tell me about Armada."

Star Trek Armada - Copyright Activision Ian Davis: "It's a real-time strategy game set in the Star Trek: The Next Generation universe. We're on the cutting-edge timeline. So we're current with everything. We talk to Paramount every week about development. In addition, we have a few new ships and elements that we're introducing into the Star Trek canon. We go through Paramount and through their approval process. They've been just absolutely wonderful to work with. The game features Federation, Borg, Klingon, and Romulans. We have voiceovers in the game and in our cutscenes from Patrick Stewart, Michael Dorn, and even Denise Crosby as Sela."

Trek Nation: "Where in the Star Trek timeline is this game set?"

Ian Davis: "It's after the Defiant blows up. I think it's set about six months after the end of Deep Space Nine in the timeline, so we're on the cutting edge. It's why we're talking to Paramount all the time."

Trek Nation: "How many ships can you control?"

Ian Davis: "You're the admiral in this and you control up to 30 ships at a time in your fight on a given map. So here I've got a number of ships -- an Akira class, Nebula class, and Sovereign class -- and I'm going to send them off, send them looking for some trouble."

Trek Nation: "What other Federation classes will be available?"

Star Trek Armada - Copyright Activision Ian Davis: "The standard ones [are] the Sovereign [which] is really the battleship, the Nebula class [which] is really a cruiser, then we have destroyers and frigates, to the Defiant class, Akira class, Steamrunner class, and we even have the Venture class, which I think they showed... in the most recent movie. Smaller ships, you're basically using [them] as a scout ship or a Runabout or something like that. There are others on other missions too."

Trek Nation: "Again, not the actual Defiant?"

Ian Davis: "It's [a] Defiant-class [ship]. It's not the actual Defiant because we're set after the Defiant's already blown up."

Trek Nation: "What about Intrepid class ships like Voyager?"

Ian Davis: "We don't have the Voyager in here, although we do have a game based on Voyager right over there. [Voyager class ships are] not in this game. Maybe in a sequel, maybe in an add-on, who knows."

Trek Nation: "What about the Enterprise-E?"

Ian Davis: "We do have the Enterprise in the game. This is just a Sovereign class ship, but we do have [that] particular Enterprise ship also."

Trek Nation: "What about Galaxy class ships? I'd imagine that would make the Federation too powerful if they had both Sovereign and Galaxy class ships."

Ian Davis:"We want to try to balance the teams. Most of the core ships have a corresponding ships on the other side. I don't know that we don't have the Galaxy class in certain missions, but it's not one of the core ships we use. It's easy in add-on packs and stuff we could very easily add ships into the game."

Trek Nation: "Can you name your ships? What about the captains?"

Star Trek Armada - Copyright Activision Ian Davis: "You can name the ship, not necessarily the captain of it. You're playing as the admiral, so you have this sort of higher level of control. I can tell this ship to attack that ship, or if I have special weapons, I can have him launch a proton [torpedo] over there, but I don't control the individual shots, because I'm in charge of an entire fleet of ships."

Trek Nation: "In this demo, you're playing as the Federation. Will you be able to play as the Klingons, Romulans, and Borg?"

Ian Davis: "Well I'm playing a mission right now which has me playing as the Federation. You can play as the Borg, as the Klingons, or as the Romulans. And in the later missions, in the last single-player missions of the game, you will have all of those ships at your disposal."

Trek Nation: "In multiplayer games, isn't there a danger of making the Borg too powerful against the other races?"

Ian Davis: "We're going to balance the game. We're spending a lot of time. You can see the game is in a very far advanced state already, where we've got the AI working, the multiplayer working, the map editor working for multiplayer games. We've got missions laid out, the graphics engine's looking great. What we're going to do between now and our ship in the fourth fiscal quarter, which is January to March, is polish it, and we're going to balance it. And yeah, there might be the Borg cube which is really super-powerful, but it might take a long time to build, and be very expensive. Whereas most of the Borg ships, you've got a smaller Borg ship that is much weaker but you build quicker. And since we're in the future a little in the Star Trek timeline, we're adding some special weapons into the Federation ships which will make them... counterbalance some of the Borg abilities. So we're going to try and make it so they all have recognizable powers. The Borg cube is definitely the most powerful Borg ship, [and] the Sovereign class is the most powerful Federation ship. We're also going to balance it out so that all of the races are equally fun to play over multiplayer."

Trek Nation: "So each race naturally has their own ships. What about weapons?"

Ian Davis: "You can research special weapons. I'm upgrading my research station which will give me a benefit in combat. So I've got a few ships fighting up here. And it's not just about choosing which ships to build, it's about how you upgrade them and how you make them better and better in fighting. Now [that] I've upgraded, I've chosen a special weapon, called a chain-reaction proton [torpedo]. When I shoot it out, it bounces off all of the enemy ships and damages them. And that's what the real fun of the game [is] once you're into it. The realtime strategists will love being able to upgrade their ships, [and] put[ting] the special weapons on them. And the different races have different types of special weapons. The Federation have defensive-oriented ones, the Klingons have big guns, the Romulans have stealth-type weapons and things that will infect your computer systems. And the Borg have assimilating-type things. So the Borg can suck crew out of your ship to enhance their ship's capabilities, as well as reduce your ship's effectiveness."

Trek Nation: "How do you get the resources to build your ships?"

Star Trek Armada - Copyright Activision Ian Davis: "Right now I built out of this starbase a freighter. A freighter is used to mine from dilithium moons, and that's where we get our material and energies. So you can see the ship being built inside that starbase bay right now. So here you'll see this freighter go over, find the dilithium moon, and start mining it, and as it mines it, the moon will get smaller and smaller."

Trek Nation: "And there's a fog of war?"

Ian Davis: "There's a shroud and a fog. The shroud is stuff I've never seen which is in the light grey, stuff I've seen but don't currently see is in the dark grey, and black is what I can see currently and is within my sensor range."

Trek Nation: "So how do I get from one area to another?"

Ian Davis: "There are two speeds. You can go impulse speed or warp speed. For gameplay purposes, we're making warp speed about three times faster than impulse speed. It's a gameplay conceit just to make sure the game is still really fun and engaging, so that you're not instantly popping all the way across the map."

Trek Nation: "If my ships are damaged, can they go back to Spacedock or a space station and get repaired?"

Ian Davis: "Absolutely."

Trek Nation: "What else is there?"

Star Trek Armada - Copyright Activision Ian Davis: "The coolest thing that we've added in is what we call the 'cinematic window' over here. So I have normal realtime elements where I can see the status of my ship, [and] give it orders... like 'Attack,' 'Move,' [and] 'Stop.' But what's really great that we've added is 'cinematic view.' That shows you interesting events at any place on the map, in 3-D, in the sort of views that you would see in the movie or the TV show. It serves four purposes. One, it looks cool. It's eye candy. The second thing is in a realtime strategy game, if I'm still over here, looking at the lower corner of the map, and I don't know what's going on in the other corner of the map, typically, you'll hear something like, 'Your base is under attack,' but you won't know if it's important enough to go look down there. With us, it will show you the attack going on. So I can see this battle going on here and I can click on that and pop right up into the battle to take care of business. This computer [Dr. Davis points to the computer monitor next to the one he's currently at] right now is sitting, watching that computer play. And so you go to that view to get an overall sense of what's going on, or in a tournament, you can be playing against someone. If you lose to them, in the next game... you can see them play. Additionally, you can replay your game. So I can play it in this mode, or then replay it with just the 'cinematic window.' So that's one of our real great innovations."

Trek Nation: "You really like this."

Ian Davis: "What I think our game does is appeals to every Star Trek fan because of that cinematic motion, the cinematic battles, the way they unfold... I feel like it's something you haven't seen before. You're the admiral in this, and we're giving you the view of big combat. I really like that."

Trek Nation: "You mentioned cutscenes earlier."

Ian Davis: "This mission will show you how our cutscenes go. Our cutscenes give the story for a particular mission. This first mission is called 'Premonitions,' and it's where you learn of the impending Borg attack from a ship called the USS Premonition, that comes back through time."

Trek Nation: "You also mentioned add-ons earlier. After Armada's been released, will you be supporting the game further with add-on packs that have additional scenarios and ships?"

Ian Davis: "We're still a ways away from that. It's very easy to add new missions, add new ships, add whole new sides."

Star Trek Armada - Copyright Activision Trek Nation: "So fans can add their own ships?"

Ian Davis: "You can configure them, [but] the tough part is they've got to make the art. We have very good artists working on this, and they're working on high-end workstations with very expensive software. So you could, I wouldn't recommend it."

Trek Nation: "What's the biggest difference between Armada and Interplay's Starfleet Command?"

Ian Davis: "They're very different games. Our game is a traditional realtime strategy game where you build a large fleet of ships, 30 ships at time, and you control them as the admiral. That game is one where you're mostly in charge of one ship and you manage that ship at a much lower level. And sometimes you have, I've heard, I'm not sure exactly, up to a half dozen ships? But any point in time, you're really controlling one. I shouldn't talk too much about it because I haven't seen it. But it's based on Starfleet Battles which is the board game. I'm sure it'll be an interesting game, based off a very interesting board game."

Trek Nation: "Who's your favorite race to play?"

Ian Davis: "I love playing the Borg."

Special thanks to Dr. Ian Lane Davis for participating in this interview.

Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Jeff 'Koganuts' Koga is a regular contributor to the Trek Nation, as well as webmaster of unofficial fan sites for John Woo, Chow Yun-Fat, and Garrett Wang.