The Early Genius of Total Annihilation, and the Sleeping Giant Chris Taylor

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.

TA

Chris Taylor

Later, the game’s lead designer was, of course, none other than Chris TaylorChris 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 SiegeSupreme 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.

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6 Comments on “The Early Genius of Total Annihilation, and the Sleeping Giant Chris Taylor

  1. Fun article, but there were a few factual errors. As pointed out, the original C&C (and I believe Dune 2) had a streaming economy. Additionally, The original C&C (the DOS granddaddy) was the first I’m aware of to do numbered control groups with CTRL and ALT. C&C also had AoE damage for certain units and attacks.

    TA’s successes with LoS and terrain (as well as the uniqueness of its engine) should not be understated, but about half of that list was in other games that did predate it.

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  2. Don’t forget Dark Reign (released a few months earlier) which introduced the Line of Sight innovations (in a 2D engine) as well as revolutionizing unit AI and waypoint controls. Total Annihilation offers many of the same (UI) features though often less complicated. TA is the better game imo only because it feels more 3D/spectacular and looks more natural/clear than Dark Reign. DR is also one of the fastest RTS’s ever made which didn’t help it back in the day I’d say. Both games also gave away free new units after their release.

    Dark Reign and Total Annihilation were the big next-gen RTS games in 1997 (although Age of Empires clearly took the commercial crown that year). One can definitely make the case that the rest of the genre didn’t follow through (even up until now) with their innovations, especially not in the case of unit AI and UI-options. SupCom came close and surely made its mark by streamlining the Strategic Zoom view (first featured in O.R.B: Off-World Resource Base) but it sacrificed more detailed terrain/LoS options/unit animations for its larger scale gameplay and better performance. Compare the flight movement of a TA fighter to a SupCom fighter plane; the TA version still shows a more visceral flight path every time.

    I know there are many good reasons for its supremacy but seeing StarCraft II and its offspring ruling the waves of real-time strategy these last few years is a sign how little we have come to expect from an RTS in terms of technical advancements, unit AI and UI innovation. I am sure that having a proper campaign, very different factions, great overall balance and a big online infrastructure is important to many folks (and surely, the likes of TA, DR, SupCom and others didn’t always shine brightly there) but to say an RTS only needs those things would be very short-sighted. The market is wide open and is there for the taking, I hope Wargaming and Chris Taylor won’t fail us with Total Annihilation 2…

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  3. I’m not sure about the rest of you, but TA introduced me to queuing orders by holding the shift key, good for inputting move or patrol orders (or rally routes) with complicated paths.

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  4. >“High ground” tactical advantage – units at a higher elevation do more damage

    This isn’t correct, they didn’t do more damage.
    Units with ballistic weapons did have longer range, due to how projectile physics works; but there was no fudged damage modifier.

    And that’s what *was* amazing about TA.
    In Starcraft (1) higher units would be ‘missed’ by lower units randomly, by a dice role basically, fudged in.

    But TA was more of a physics simulation – units would shoot further because they were higher – thus high ground was an *emergent* advantage – that’s what was ahead of its time.

    Similarly “Line of sight could affect ranged unit attacks’ firing distances and ‘hills’ can obstruct unit projectile fire” – ‘hills’ shouldn’t be in quotes there – they were real hills – the terrain and simulation was 3D, just the terrain graphical tilesets were 2D overlaid on it.

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  5. Another small error: In Total Annihilation, humanity hasn’t been fully replaced by machines..not exactly, anyway. The Arm rebellion was a resistance to humans being uploaded into a collective digital consciousness. While its barely mentioned in the admittedly paper-thin backstory, its implied that at first this uploading of minds to a digital state was voluntary, and half of the galaxy had said, “no thanks.” After a while this collection of identities spawned an emergent collective overmind – the Core Central Consciousness – that quickly assumed full control of..well, pretty much everything. *That* entity decided that “patterning” of humans should be mandatory, and that’s when the opposition transformed into an outright rebellion. To match the production of Core war machines driven by digital minds the Arm resorted to a massive cloning program. The irony is that to make this work the Arm would have needed to resort to patterning themselves, so a preserved identity could be quickly downloaded into the replicated body of a fallen soldier. Talk about staring into the abyss. I’ve long thought that TA should have gotten some official novels – it was ripe for exploitation by veteran sci-fi authors (particularly military sci-fi).

    Planetary Annihilation and Ashes of the Singularity are clearly influenced directly by TA. In the case of Ashes there’s a similar but much more detailed backstory that’s a little more high concept.

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