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Interview with Wally Wachi!

Interview held on 10/3/2003

Just who is this Wally Wachi fellow? As many of us know, he was the lead producer of AoM's x-pack, The Titans; but how did he end up joining the gang at ES? Many thanks go to Wally for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer some of our itching questions on himself, his work, The Titans, and the anything else I was able to think of to ask him! Without further ado, here it is!


Socvazius: Heya Wally! To start things off, could you give us a little bio? Your education, how you got into the gaming business, when you started working with ES, stuff like that.

Wally Wachi: Hey Soc! Okay, here’s the bio:

I was born and raised in the city of Angels about thirty minutes from the beach, and five from Compton. I tried college and realized there weren’t any majors or curriculums that inspired me. After working for the county government for a few years, I became motivated to find a more fulfilling and fun occupation – if I could only buckle down and stop playing games through the early morning hours! I got my start in the industry in the fall of ’95 at Virgin Interactive, testing over 55 titles during my tenure. A few were good but most… well, the experience sure taught me a lot about games and the game business. I then spent time at NovaLogic for about 2-1/2 years working on titles such as Tachyon and Delta Force: Land Warrior before jumping at the opportunity to come to Ensemble in Feb. 2002.

Part of the team

Socvazius: How do you like things at Ensemble? Is the job everything you imagined it to be? Do you have monkey butlers like in the Swiss Family Robinson?

Wally Wachi: Ensemble is the best place I’ve ever worked – and I don’t mean just the best game company. There are enough people here to make big production, high quality games, but it still has that small company feel – more like a big family. The management really cares for its employees and it shows in the great environment and atmosphere. Plus, its an incredible feeling to be part of a team that is very passionate about their work, are the best at what they do, and push themselves to succeed and create quality product. So yes, the job is everything and more than I’d hoped.

Socvazius: What kinds of things do you do in your job as the producer of The Titans; you get to carry around a baseball bat, tapping it threateningly? ;-)

Wally Wachi: No… they took the bat away recently

Seriously, as Producer on the Titans my job was to keep the big picture in mind while the team focused on the details. I depend heavily on the Leads of each dev department to maintain a realistic schedule and notify me when things are not on track or unforeseen issues arise. With this information, I am able to aid in managing risk and guide the project around pitfalls. At times, I am also the tie-breaker in situations when there isn’t a clear, correct answer and the team is divided.

I’m the key person that reports project status and risk items to management and will often draw on their experience and advice at key junctures. My duties also included corresponding and coordinating with Microsoft shared resources for print, text review/editing and localization of the product.

"I’m the key person that reports project status and risk items to management and will often draw on their experience and advice at key junctures."

Socvazius: Does everyone pitch ideas to each other for the game, or is it restricted to specific departments?

Wally Wachi: Every person in the company has the opportunity to give feedback and pitch ideas, through various channels – email, office visits and design meetings. However, the most common way and in my opinion the best is during the daily playtest. Each person is assigned one day per week to play the game for a couple hours and give their feedback on gameplay, art, menu flow, balance, story ideas, and/or anything else. Then the designers sift through all of the feedback/ideas and make tough decisions to keep only those which advance or complement the vision of the game. Although not all ideas are incorporated, it’s a great way to see the product from many different perspectives and skill levels resulting in a game that is fun for all types of players and play styles.

Making the game...

Socvazius: Specifically in The Titans, what made the team choose that theme for AoM's expansion pack? What made Atlanteans and Titans stand out above all of the other ideas?

Wally Wachi: Purely the title – how can you go wrong with that? Actually, the company and team discussed this topic for a few weeks resulting in lots of good ideas. In the end, the team decided that the Atlantean culture was by far the most epic in comparison to the original three and allowed us to stretch past some of the normal creative restraints of historical-based cultures. Plus, many wanted to know what happened after the original campaign story ended! Once this was decided, the team embraced it and really turned out some great content.

"In the end, the team decided that the Atlantean culture was by far the most epic in comparison to the original three and allowed us to stretch past some of the normal creative restraints of historical-based cultures."

Socvazius: Speaking of the other ideas for AoMX, what were some of the other notable suggestions made?

Wally Wachi: Nearly every civilization, past and present, existing or extinct was proposed for the new culture – like Chinese, Romans, Haitians, Babylonians, and lots more. For the campaign, there were prequels, spin-offs and completely new myth stories – lots of cool and interesting ideas. Looking back, I’m surprised we were able to narrow it down so quickly.

Socvazius: Balancing in AoM has proven to be quite difficult, since all of the civilizations are so different and one small change can snowball into a huge problem. How did the team work out balancing such a huge addition to the game with the introduction of a 4th civilization?

Wally Wachi: In addition to the daily playtests I mentioned above, Design also relies heavily on the Balance team to find imbalances and suggest solutions. They attacked this problem by creating the Atlantean units and balancing them against the original three cultures first. Once all four cultures were relatively balanced (I make that sound easy, but it took time and many passionate discussions) they began making changes that affected all the cultures. They started with the ideas that affected the game in big ways first, and narrowed that scope as production got closer to the end. It was quite a feat for Design and the Balance team and I’m really happy with how balanced the game feels.

Community Support

Socvazius: Earlier this summer, Ensemble asked for suggestions from the fans of fansites such as this for changes to AoM to put in the x-pack and patch 1.07; how much weight did the team put on these suggestions?

Wally Wachi: Ensemble takes its community relations seriously and appreciates all the feedback (not only specific info that we might ask for) we get on the forums. As for these suggestions, it was treated like the feedback that is received internally. Ideas in line with the vision of the game are considered and weighed against development constraints, resources, time and risk. The best thing about browsing through these lists is many of the ideas out there mirror what folks here at Ensemble suggest – great gamers think alike. As such, many fans will see some of these ideas in the Titans.

"Ensemble takes its community relations seriously and appreciates all the feedback we get on the forums."

Socvazius: A lot of those suggestions did go towards EnsembleStudiosOnline. Do you think anyone will have any complaints with the multiplayer server with the release of The Titans?

Wally Wachi: We have made a number of improvements to ESO that will enhance the online multiplayer experience. Lots of work and time went into making connectivity and matchmaking easier, faster and stable, resulting in a less frustrating experience. The advanced games list has been updated to display more information about players, the list is scrollable and users can now filter games. To keep from dividing the AoM community, players of AoM and the Titans will be able to communicate on ESO – although they won’t be able to play each other. And finally, the new self-rating and stats decay (recently deployed for AoM and the Titans) are steps toward keeping ESO a great place to game.

Scenario Design

Socvazius: A lot of talk has been going on about the changes made to the game's scenario editor. Are you pleased with the editor that will come with The Titans?

Wally Wachi: The lead programmer on the project, Rob Fermier, deserves much of the credit for adding the new features to the editor. He’s always been a big supporter of the content generating community and put in many long hours to deliver new triggers, animation viewing and camera controls to give editor users even more power in creating content. I’m excited and can’t wait to see the scenarios and cinematics that will be created in the months to come. So yes, I’m pleased and I’m certain the community will be as well.

"Fortunately, this team is very dedicated, hard working and talented and always pushes to deliver the best experience possible."

Socvazius: While on the subject of scenarios, could you briefly tell us what the process of making a successful campaign/scenario in the game? I'm sure everyone agrees AoM's campaign was awesome and the one in The Titans will be, I'll bet a lot of people are wondering just how ES does it.

Wally Wachi: Much like the rest of the design process here, iteration is key. For the campaign, the design team begins with a good, solid story. From there they begin to carve out the scenarios and begin testing their ideas/mechanics in prototype scenarios early on. Once the scenario is at a playable stage, it is opened up to the company through the daily playtests where the designers get lots of feedback (they answer questions, but mostly listen and watch). This iteration continues through the end of production, with less and mostly minor changes made closer to the end.

Throughout the process (over simplified for clarity), there’s lots of support from the other departments. Programming provides special code for mechanics and other one-off situations, while the Art and Sound depts supply assets that may only appear in the single player campaign. During this entire process of revision, playtest and more revision, there are tough calls to make contingent on time, resources and risk. Fortunately, this team is very dedicated, hard working and talented and always pushes to deliver the best experience possible. I’m certain players will be happy with the Titans campaign.

The Future...

Socvazius: The RTS genre has gone through some twists and turns in its long history. Where do you think it's headed now?

Wally Wachi: There’s definitely an interesting phenomenon growing in Asia for real-time strategy online games. While I personally haven’t played any of these titles, a few here at Ensemble have and have shared that knowledge. This is intriguing to me for various reasons. I think this will inject new blood into the RTS market, we’ll learn of cool elements that may inspire ideas for incorporation into future ES titles, and opens doors for ES to diversify and create new properties for new and/or different markets.

Socvazius: This year, all three of the main RTS developers (Ensemble, Blizzard, and Westwood) released/are going to release an expansion pack for their latest game. How do you think The Titans will stack up against the other two?

Wally Wachi: It’s definitely the RTS player’s dream year with so much great content arriving in time for the holidays. Gamers we are, and we’re just as excited to get some great gaming in and to offer a quality and fun game that will hold its own this season.

Socvazius: If you had a chance to be involved in designing another game besides the ones you've already been involved with, which game it would be and why?

Wally Wachi: I don’t think in terms of a particular game or genre like I used to. These days, I want to be involved in projects where the team consists of skilled, talented, and passionate professionals that focus on the right things (the game, not politics) and the vision of the game is clear. With that you can create a triple-A title in any genre. So I’m very happy to be here at Ensemble and work on the future titles that have not been public announced yet

"So I’m very happy to be here at Ensemble and work on the future titles that have not been public announced yet."

Socvazius: What are your future plans with ES and the gaming industry?

Wally Wachi: Moving on to my next project and continue making great games!

Socvazius: Maybe the same question, but what are ES' plans for the future? Or would you have to kill me if you told me?

Wally Wachi: Hehe, if I had a dime for every time I was asked… I know it’s hard to wait, but it’ll be worth it!

Socvazius: Ooop, one last question: What kind of bribe would I have to give you to change the names of the the Atlantean ships to the USS Enterprise, USS Defiant, and USS Voyager? ;-)

Wally Wachi: Not much at all (a few beers would’ve done it) – but your request comes too late as we’re already on the shelf!!

Socvazius: Thanks for your time Wally, I appreciate it!

Wally Wachi: Thanks Soc!!