Despite his hectic schedule, Sierra veteran and Tilted Mill founder Chris Beatrice kindly offered to answer lots of questions for us covering us days working on outstanding simulator games that we grew up on (Pharaoh, Caesar) to breaking away to form Tilted Mill.
How did you get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and what was the first game you ever worked on?
When I got out of art school (Massachusetts College of Art) in 1992 I found an advertisement in the school career placement office looking for artists to work on video games. At this time there were people who could use computers, and there were artists, but there were very few artists who could use computers to make art (and I was not one of them!). So some companies concluded it’d be easier to teach artists to use computers than to teach programmers to make pictures…
The first game I worked on was for a company called ‘Legend’ and the game was ‘Gateway’. I did some alien portraits using an ancient program called Deluxe Paint or ‘DPaint’ (loved it! – Ed). I had only done that for a few months when an art director position came available at Impressions. I had been an art director (making t-shirts) so I went for it, and got it. I remember the guy who hired me said, “you’re the least qualified but the most interesting candidate.”
Many of the games you have worked on can be classed as simulator games, such as Pharaoh and the Caesar games. What was your main inspiration when working on these types of games and are the skills very transferable from one title to the next?
First off, thanks for spelling ‘Pharaoh’ correctly! We joke that the three big games in that series (Caesar, Pharaoh, Zeus) all have vowel combinations backwards from how they usually appear in English words…
Anyway… As I said my background is as an artist… I like to create. I have nothing against ‘violent’ video games – they’re just not something I’ve ever been interested in playing or making. Secondly, I love history. I find real Medieval history, for example, vastly more interesting than something like Game of Thrones. When you study history, there is so much, so many interesting things, when you then read fiction it feels thin and obviously just made up by one person. To be honest if there was a big enough market to support the budget needed for quality, I would sometimes have preferred to make purely historical games… I mean, I would emphasize historical accuracy more than we did in the Impressions games.
I loved playing the Caesar games on my PC when I was growing up. How do you reflect back on these games and do you think there is room for a new updated Caesar game?
Of course I did not invent the Caesar series – that was (Impressions founder) David Lester, and Simon Bradbury. They hit that magic formula that inspired so much down the road. I think it worked out well because after Caesar we were able to analyze and adjust, improve and evolve the basic gameplay to make better, more polished games, but that initial mix that just makes fun is very rare and hard to come by.
I do think a modern take on the Caesar style of gameplay would work well, actually. In my long history with games I saw PC games go through several big waves, for example, when everything had to be 3D and hyper realistic – a big problem for city-building both in terms of technology and gameplay. City-building games work better with clear, 2D graphics, I think. And the gameplay can be very, very simple, as some early social media cb games proved. Now there is room for lots of games, big, small, free, expensive, you name it. And I think the audience is there for a fun, creative non-violent game that might also teach you a little something about history.
The Lords of the Realm games allowed you to oversee many aspects of game development. What was it like working on this iconic series of games and again do you think there is room for a new game in the series?
This basic structure for a game is actually my favorite. I like simple resource management on one level, and combat on another level. I never really liked RTS games where it’s all on one level (though I very much appreciate the brilliance of that design). I really like the pacing of relaxed, turn-based county or city level management, which then supports the military aspect which is played out in frantic real time. So when you’re in combat that is all you think about, and when you are not in combat you don’t think about it. I think Impressions was the first studio to come up with that model, though it does not usually get credit for that. As for whether a new game in the series could work, I don’t know. I want to say ‘probably’ because (thankfully) games have gone back to where there can be a lot of variety, so there is room for many different types and levels of gameplay.
Out of all the great city-building games you worked on, do you have a personal favourite, and can you explain why?
I have to say Children of the Nile because it was my/our brainchild, and I think was revolutionary in a lot of ways. But as is often the case with games from that era, there was never enough time to truly perfect what we had. For CotN that was mostly about teaching the player how to play, not about the basic game functionality itself. We underestimated how hard it would be to break the paradigm we ourselves had helped create!
You quickly moved up the ranks while working at Sierra. How do you reflect back on your time there and why do you think the company closed down in 2008?
I feel so lucky, honored, blessed to have been part of a new creative industry during its childhood and teen years. It’s very hard to explain what that feels like, where talent and hard work are the only thing that matters, opportunities are everywhere, and the basic building blocks of what will become a worldwide, historic phenomenon are being formed right before our eyes, in little studios full of eager people of all ages and disciplines – artists, programmers, designers, musicians, sound effects people, writers, and many of them wearing four or five hats. It was an era where you’d ‘go gold’ (meaning produce the gold master CD of your finished game) at 3:00 am and send the person who was the most awake to the airport to personally fly it to the replicator in time. It was an era where you’d rush to the mall to buy the latest game releases, then crowd around the monitor analyzing how the developer was doing the water, or animating fields of wheat. It was an incredible time, which of course could not last.
What inspired you to leave Sierra and start your own game development studio, Tilted Mill Entertainment?
In those days most internal game studios (including Impressions) had started as fully independent developer/publisher operations, which had been acquired by the larger publishers in order to build their catalog. It was a relationship that I think could have been ideal – the developer does not have to worry about raising millions of dollars for a new game the instant the current game is finished, and publishers don’t have to do any micro-managing or game design, they can leave that to the experts in the given discipline. It worked well for a while. It worked great when the right people were in charge at Sierra. But when the nature of this relationship was misunderstood, it didn’t work at all.
A big part of that is that game developers sacrifice their whole life to making games (at least it used to be that way). As such it was critical that the studio at least feel independent, like decisions were being made at the studio, by the studio, and for the game. As studio head I spent a lot of time and effort basically being a wall between the internal team and Sierra, which was fine. But little things began to make that impossible, for example, marketing being centralized (so the studios did not have a dedicated marketing team who knew their games, and was directly tied to their success). Or when the publisher would have a bad year, profitable studios might be expected to cut budgets, which is really a counter-incentive. Meanwhile I saw independent studios living or dying based on their own mettle, and I just concluded it’d be better to give that a go on our own, so I left and took the team with me.
How did you get the opportunity to work on the awesome SimCity series and develop SimCity Societies?
In the early months of Tilted Mill, Jeff Fiske, Peter Haffenreffer and I spent a lot of time pitching ourselves, our team and some game ideas to different publishers, EA being one of them. We somehow got a meeting with Rod Humble, who was at the time (or became soon after maybe) head of the Sims brand. It went well but nothing came of it until years later. We kept our relationships active with all the major publishers, and one day the wheels just lined up. We were making Caesar IV I think when Rod contacted us about doing the next Sim City game, so of course I jumped on it. It was a really proud moment for the studio and a big deal to be working on two of (I should say both of) the big city-building franchises.
When we started TMill one of the things I’d observed about other spin off studios, which failed, was often the founders went in an entirely different direction from what they had established expertise in. It seemed they spun off because they wanted to do something different, which is fine, but when you are trying to get someone to risk a ton of money on you, you have a better shot if you have a proven track record for a specific type of game. That is the main reason TMill stuck with historical city-building games, because honestly, my only goal was to establish a solid company and employ a bunch of good people. The type of game didn’t matter that much to me.
How do you reflect back on SimCity Societies and the mixed reviews it received at the time?
Oh, looking back it was a lose-lose situation for us, I see now. In some ways it was a lose-lose for EA as well. I mean, it’s very common when you have a mega-successful franchise that you have a very, very vocal following of core fans who tend to want more of the same, and (in games) they want more complexity (‘depth’). It’s the same in all media, but (before social media) games were kind of unique in that there was this direct connection between fans and developers (which is one of the things I loved, actually). So if fans didn’t like something, you’d hear about it. The whole model in those days was based on making the game for, and selling it to, the core fans, then they would evangelize it.
SimCity Societies was very much not core SC gameplay. The only thing that bothers me because I feel it was unfair is that TMill got the blame/credit for taking the franchise in a new direction, when obviously that was not our decision. We were making the game EA told us to make – and I think we did a really good job of that. But at the time we weren’t allowed to say that.
I’m proud of the game because I think we came up with a lot of innovations, particularly for the city-building interface, that are now standard. I think we moved the genre back to being a casual, fun, creative experience, which is exactly what took off right after, with the early social media cb games. It was just a funny period that was difficult for us all to navigate. I thank Rod and EA for giving us the opportunity with the game.
If you could step inside any of the games you have worked on and live there for a day, which game would you choose and why?
Probably Children of the Nile, because it’s kind of a clean and fun version of ancient Egyptian life. I really love the ancient world.
Did you ever start work on any games that were never released and if you could release any of these game today, which would you choose and why?
Oh, yes, Medieval Mayor! I still intend to make that game… But before that there were lots and lots of games the world never heard of, because we shut them down in progress.
Out of all the artwork you have created for numerous video games over the years, which game and art are you most proud of?
Definitely Children of the Nile. When I first started TMill I actually had a vision for how that game would look. We were never able to get the fully immersive feel in the earlier Impressions games (though, as I say, I now feel that 2D is better for city-building gameplay, but one thing 3D has going for it is immersiveness). I stopped creating art for games during Pharaoh, I think, though I did a bunch of concept art for Hinterland. So the art I made for games was done at a time when games did not look that good! I supposed my second choice would be Caesar II, because at the time that game looked really good, with pre-rendered 3D graphics in an isometric 2D engine. The graphics in that game inspired my now good friend Rick Goodman when he did Age of Empires. That’s how we met, actually, he cold called me at Impressions and asked how we were able to find such great artists…
Why did you end up leaving the video game industry and do you feel you will ever get back into it?
To paraphrase… “I didn’t leave the video game industry – it left me.” But seriously, first off, I have a lot of interests in life, one of the big ones being my art. I had 15 or so very intense years in video games, starting as an artist, then art director, creative director, studio head, then president/CEO of my own studio. I worked with the most incredible people there are, often overnight, sharing three meals a day with, and being part of history. So there really weren’t any new experiences awaiting me there. With the vacuum left after SimCity Societies, and the general chaos of the PC gaming industry in the late 2000’s, the time was right.
What are your personal favourite video games of all time?
I am so not a gamer I don’t even want to say… seriously, the games I remember getting mildly addicted to were things like Diablo (1), like a million years ago, and then really simple arcade games. I always liked making games much more than playing them. Every time I started playing a game with some depth, which required focus and problem solving, I would think, “this is a waste of time, I could be using the same skills to make a game,” so I would go back to work designing…
What projects are you currently working on?
I have a lot going on, as always. I always have a full freelance schedule, but I’m also working with some former TMillers on a game based on a book series I illustrated. Recently I did a stint as art director on an animated kids TV show called ‘Treasure Trekkers’ which was super fun. I think it’ll be out next year.
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
Probably the market lady from Caesar III. Players have a love/hate relationship with her and I kind of identify with that.