Once upon a time, a studio that likely would have been considered “indie” by today’s standards called Cavedog Entertainment created a real time strategy game called Total Annihilation. The game tells the story of a relentless, multi-millennium intergalactic war between two factions: the all powerful Core, and the rebel Arm. Humanity has become entirely extinct and in its place: self-replicating machines continue to vie for domination where the “only acceptable outcome is the complete elimination” of the other side.
You might think this sounds like a simplistic, cliche sort of storyline, and in some ways it is. However, in 1997 – few games were tackling such a subject matter in the way Total Annihilation did. Back then, real time strategy (RTS) was still relatively new and widely unknown to most gamers. Sure, there was stuff like Dune 2, and maybe Age of Empires that same year. Starcraft made its debut shortly after in the following year and arguably made Blizzard Entertainment its first fortune. But when it came to literally inventing some of the mainstay mechanics of RTS, we should look to no other place than TA [wayward – though Dune 2 and Herzog Zwei also contributed mightily to the formation of the RTS landscape].
A small list of the things that other RTS games were not doing at the time that TA brought about:
- “High ground” tactical advantage – units at a higher elevation do more damage
- A unique graphical engine using two dimensional tiles but creating the illusion of full 3D through height maps
- Simultaneously, the units of the game were present in actual 3D
- Line of sight could affect ranged unit attacks’ firing distances and ‘hills’ can obstruct unit projectile fire
- Radar would show enemy units on a map even when covered by fog of war and conversely radar jamming units would prevent the appearance of blips on a minimap
- Units could be grouped into squads using Ctrl and 1 thru 9 keys, then be selected using Alt plus the corresponding number. Unlike Age of Empires released the same year, this hotkey system allowed greater tactical control of unit groups, allowing players to quickly toggle the selection of units after assigning squad numbers. This was particularly useful in, for example, selecting all ground units on a squad number to move to a certain position, then selecting a group of air units to provide support.
TA managed to introduce many to the world of military tactics and strategy games. A community still surrounds the game today at TA Universe, and even spawned the creation of the open source Spring RTS engine. Countless different game maps, mods, and custom units have been created over time.
For me, Total Annihilation was one of the seminal games that generated my love for the real time strategy genre and since my teens has inspired me to learn the skills necessary to create games. During the prime time of the 28.8 and 56k modem era: I played hours and hours of multiplayer games with my brother. The nostalgia is extreme to this day, and even now, in the year 2016: TA is simply a great game.
Later, the game’s lead designer was, of course, none other than Chris Taylor. Chris Taylor would later be under a magnifying glass when he would return in a big way to the game design world upon the release of Dungeon Siege, Supreme Commander, and other games. Like the world of movies, many games are now attached to big names (just use the prime example of Chris Roberts of Wing Commander / Star Citizen fame). Similar to the movies, though, the directors of projects are not always the genius minds we necessarily think of them to be.
Make no mistake, Chris Taylor as a designer was responsible for this genius classic, but he was not alone. While his name would later shine bright in its attachment to TA, other brilliant people like Ron Gilbert, Jon Mavor, and Dave Grossman would be responsible for bringing the game to life. Even the TA soundtrack became famous, and could easily be argued to be the compilation of music that launched composer Jeremy Soule‘s career.
Something about the team for Total Annihilation brought about unbelievable magic.The formula was later perfected in many players’ eyes with Supreme Commander. But the original ideas that made TA special, along with the manner in which it was executed, was very grounded in the brilliance of Chris Taylor.
After creating Dungeon Siege and proceeding to make Supreme Commander, it is possible this stirred brand new concept in the minds of Taylor’s company, the late Gas Powered Games. This lead to the launch and failure of the Wildman Kickstarter campaign.
And then, finally, to the fall of Gas Powered Games itself.
Today, Chris Taylor works with Wargaming.net which has, at last, purchased the intellectual property rights to Total Annihilation. Following the IP purchase, TA has finally premiered on the Steam platform as of December 2015. As he mentioned in his Matt Chat interview, perhaps he is actually building a game in his basement. Perhaps it is the forgotten but beloved Wildman. Or perhaps it is the long awaited Total Annihilation 2.