Let’s go back to 1997. Personal computers, while not quite still in their infancy, were at best approaching adolescence. This was the age of large cream-coloured cases that would sit on the desk with the bulky cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors above them. Owning one was still a novelty, and it was still considered unusual for one to be connected to the budding internet.
I was five years old at the time, so perhaps wasn’t able to take full advantage of the fact that my parents had a machine running Windows 95. My older brother, however, had figured out that the PC could be used as a tool for playing games. He had a modest stack of CD cases piled up next to it containing various titles, including Descent, Worms, Transport Tycoon, Desert Strike, Age of Empires, and one game which was always my particular favourite: Total Annihilation.
As the years went by, I eventually tired of all the others, but I continued playing Total Annihilation for many years to come. For a decade, no other game was quite able to match the spine-tingling glee that I got from seeing colossal robot armies clashing against one another while listening to one of the best game music soundtracks of all time. My rational thinking abilities hadn’t quite developed at this point (some would probably argue that they still haven’t), so I wasn’t able to pinpoint exactly what it was about this game that kept me coming back to it, but I do remember how much I wished that someone would make a sequel.
It wasn’t until 2007 that Supreme Commander, the “spiritual successor” to Total Annihilation was finally released. For at least a year prior to Supreme Commander’s release, I would check the development website on a semi-regular basis for any updates, blissfully unaware that the computer I was viewing it on would be woefully inadequate for actually playing the game. My rural home internet speed at the time was somewhere in the region of 0.1Mbps, which meant that in order to watch the trailer, I had to leave the webpage open for about half an hour for the 2-minute video to load. I did this dozens of times.
Supreme Commander was successful in capturing much of the same feel that had originally drawn me to, and kept me coming back to, Total Annihilation. It had many of the same mechanics, the plot even featured several elements that were incredibly similar to that of its predecessor. It wasn’t until much later on that I would discover why so many similarities existed between the two. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed the game immensely, and sank many hours into completing the campaign story for each of the military factions featured within, and engaging in various large-scale battles against computer opponents. I was still on torturously slow internet, and my parents’ computer was still horribly underpowered. It never crossed my mind to play against other people. My social circle at the time didn’t really permit it, and besides which I would have been faced with significant technological hurdles had I even tried.
I continued to enjoy Supreme Commander and its subsequent expansion, Forged Alliance – largely by myself, much as I had done with Total Annihilation for all those years previously. This continued as I finally built my first ever “gaming PC”. Sadly my 19-year-old self didn’t know quite enough about PC hardware at the time, and there was quite a disconnect between how powerful I thought my rig was and how powerful it actually was. Nonetheless it saw me in good stead as I moved out from my parents’ house in August 2011 and began renting a flat with my girlfriend.
I now faced a total change in my gaming circumstances. In the space of a few months, I had gone from a truly awful PC to one that I built myself, that I was proud of, and that was powerful enough to handle most, if not all, modern games. My internet speed, which had been among the slowest in the country, was now one of the fastest. Suddenly, multiplayer games were not only a possibility, but a tantalising reality.
I sent a few feelers out to old school friends that I had kept in touch with, and it wasn’t long before we started to find games that we enjoyed together and began regularly scheduling evenings on which to do so. As multiplayer gaming began to consume more and more of my time, I found that I didn’t go back to my old single-player favourites as often. We set up a group on the online gaming social platform Steam so we could schedule calendar events that would pop up on people’s PCs to remind them when we were expecting to be playing.
This Steam group shared the affectionate nickname that had been given to our dormitory at college – “The Realm”. I could go into all sorts of spurious and wonderful detail about the fanciful things that happened, the picturesque scenery, the adventures upon which we embarked to have been given such a nickname. However, the simple truth is that we were a bunch of nerds and The Lord of the Rings was still extremely popular at the time, so we got lumbered with it.
In the most time-honoured British tradition of receiving insults, we embraced it as an identity and proudly wore our mockery as a badge of honour. We appended the tag “[REALM]” to the beginning of our usernames on Steam, and made a habit of inviting one another to any new games that we investigated. This went on happily for some time. We found one particular game – Trouble in Terrorist Town – which we were all particularly fond of, and through which we met another group of people who called themselves Octarine Moon. We would regularly play on the game server that they hosted and the two communities became quite closely interlinked.
It was during one such gaming session that I made one of the most influential discoveries of my life so far. It was a weekday evening in August 2012. I’d got home from work, had dinner and sat down at my PC to play some games for the evening. We’d made something of a habit of spending evenings like these running around stabbing one another in the back, chuckling away to ourselves and causing my girlfriend tremendous irritation at the level of noise.
That night, over the in-game voice chat, I heard one of my friends casually ask in a tinny voice: “Have any of you guys seen they’re bringing back Total Annihilation?” There was a general murmur of approval and then people got back to the very serious business of trying to figure out which among the group was treacherously murdering innocent terrorists (yes, Trouble in Terrorist Town is a peculiar but very enjoyable game). I, however, immediately made my excuses, and excitedly closed down the game to do some further research.
What this research revealed was something far greater than even my vivid imagination had deemed possible. Although searching for a relaunch of Total Annihilation itself proved fruitless, after a little further exploration I stumbled upon a Kickstarter crowdfunding page. The game that was being proposed did indeed have ‘Annihilation’ in the title, but the word preceding it was not at all what I had expected. With my mind full of curiosity as to how this game could justify a name as bold as Planetary Annihilation, I clicked the ‘play’ button on the trailer at the top of the page.
The opening brass chord blasted, and then my ears were greeted with the familiar, deep, dramatic tones of John Patrick Lowrie, the man who had narrated my beloved childhood favourite fifteen years ago. I sank into a nostalgic trance as I watched the familiar scenario unfold in front of me. The single commanding robot made a dramatic entrance onto the battlefield and began constructing an army with which to do battle. This I had seen many times before, in both Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander.
The scene then cut to focus on a launchpad for a space rocket. I’m fairly sure my jaw must have begun to drop as I realised just what this rocket had been tasked to do, and the implications behind it. It picked up the Commander and transported him across to the moon that was orbiting the planet. These people were planning to take the largest-scale strategy games in existence and make them even bigger – we would be fighting on an interplanetary battlefield.
But it didn’t stop there. From the moon, the trailer’s protagonists expanded out further still into a nearby asteroid field. Gigantic rocket thrusters were strapped onto the side of one such asteroid, and it was sent careening into the planet which only minutes before had been where I expected the entire battle to take place.
The video then moved on to its second phase, where the guys working at at Uber Entertainment – the visionaries behind this new game – began to divulge a little more detail about themselves and their own backgrounds. It slowly dawned on me that I was now hearing from many of the same minds that had created Total Annihilation itself. That, unbeknownst even to me, was the moment at which I pledged not only the very limited contents of my wallet at the time, but my time, enthusiasm, and energy to follow the development of this game far closer than I had followed anything before.
After much haggling and argument with my girlfriend, I was able to pledge at the embarrassingly low $20 tier, which would grant me access to the finished game at release. I looked longingly at the higher pledge tiers, but we were still reeling from a particularly expensive round of car repairs at the time, so I had to restrain myself. I was extremely concerned that the game wouldn’t reach its funding goal, so over the coming weeks I took to all the social media I had available to me to get as many people on board as possible.
As it happens, these fears were completely unfounded; the project reached its initial goal of $900,000 by the end of August, and the next matter on the agenda was that of the stretch goals – additional features that could be developed for the game with additional funding from the Kickstarter backers. Uber Entertainment’s handling of the stretch goals, it has to be said, was absolutely stellar (no pun intended). Each one was announced to much fanfare, and it was evident that Uber were just as excited about them as the Kickstarter backers were – perhaps even more so. The steadily increasing funding milestones were smashed repeatedly and I managed to negotiate my way up to being allowed to pledge a whopping $40 towards the cause, granting me access to the Beta testing phase of development.
Despite having no further cash to throw at the game myself, I monitored the campaign closely, checking the Kickstarter page every day to see how much progress had been made. The one stretch goal which left me spinning in my chair was the announcement that the game would be set to a full orchestral score upon breaking $2 million. I vividly remembered Jeremy Soule’s epic soundtrack to Total Annihilation, and the idea of this new game being able to bring the amazing experience that I’d had as a child to a whole new generation of budding gamers, and to introduce them to the world of classical music as Total Annihilation had done for me, made me incredibly excited. I was absolutely ecstatic when that goal was broken, and set to finding out more about the composer who had been trusted with this great burden.
It only took a few minutes of research to realise that I had nothing to fear on that front. Among Howard Mostrom’s previous works were the soundtracks for both Supreme Commander 2 and Demigod. I had, of course, played a lot of Supreme Commander over the past few years, as it was the closest thing Total Annihilation had previously had to a sequel. Supreme Commander 2 is a game which I will pass further comment on throughout the rest of this account. For now, it suffices to say that I have many criticisms of the game, but for all its faults, it boasts an amazing soundtrack. Demigod was a game I’d picked up from playing with friends, and is highly underrated in my opinion. I was to find out later that there was quite a bit of backstory between Demigod and some of the people who worked at Uber, but that’s a story for a bit later on. In any case, it too boasts a vibrant and energetic soundtrack. Given this impressive background I was excited with the direction in which Howard had said he proposed to take the Planetary Annihilation soundtrack in the Kickstarter video.
The other significant stretch goal which will feature in greater prominence later on in this account is the Galactic War, which was unlocked on passing $1.8 million. The original pitch for Planetary Annihilation was for a game built entirely around singleplayer and multiplayer skirmishes – single staged battles that result in a winner and a loser. The reason that Uber repeatedly gave for this was that a traditional scripted campaign (where the single player progresses through a story in which the battles play a narrative role), as featured in most other major real-time strategy games, is an extraordinarily expensive undertaking. As an example, the budget for Supreme Commander has been posited as being somewhere between $11 million and $20 million – a significant portion of which was allocated to the development of the multiple campaigns. With the initial goal for Planetary Annihilation being less than $1 million, this sort of grand campaign was never going to be feasible.
However, as the budget began to grow, so too did Uber’s ambitions. The Galactic War stretch goal was released with an accompanying promotional video designed to stir up the imaginations of their backers.
Uber knew their audience well. Planetary Annihilation and its predecessors fit into their own subgenre of real-time strategy, identifiable through their use of a unique resource-handling system – dubbed the “flow-based economy” – which enables the player to focus on larger and more grandiose combat strategies by freeing them from a significant amount of micro-management in economy handling. The Galactic War, as pitched in the video, was the only possible logical extension of this. Where Plannetary Annihilation expanded the strategy from a single battlefield onto a planet, and then onto the solar system, the Galactic War expanded this still further to have players battling wits over an entire galaxy: the epitome of grand strategy.
The Kickstarter campaign ended on 14th September 2012, having raised around $2,229,000 via Kickstarter itself and a further $101,000 via PayPal, directly via Uber Entertainment’s website. All stated Kickstarter goals were achieved, and there appeared to be plenty of extra cash spare to really add a layer of polish to the whole affair.
I was giddy with excitement. Finally, after all these years, Total Annihilation was getting a new lease of life! Not only that, but it was getting it through the loving touch of many of the same hands that had sculpted the original masterpiece. If a game could be made so grandiose and still run on the PCs of 1997, what treats could we have in store for us in 2013?
I then set to doing what the other 44,000 backers were doing: waiting in the most impatient possible fashion. However, little did I know at this point that the seeds had been sown for a fairly momentous shift in my mindset. I’d never been this emotionally invested in a project before; nothing had managed to captivate my imagination in quite the same way. For me, my impatience spurred me on to things I’d previously never even contemplated.