Get Your Game On - S2 Games
S2 Games (www.s2games.com) is the independent game company that made a huge splash in the summer of 2003 with the release of Savage: The Battle for Newerth. It wasn't the graphics or the engine that particularly made this game notable. It was the merging of two distinct genres—real-time strategy games, such as Warcraft, with first-person shooters, such as Quake—into what S2 Games calls a “real-time strategy shooter”. This is not a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG), but instead it is run like a team-based first-person shooter, where a group runs its own server instance, and then all of the players join that instance.
In some ways, it's easier to talk about the Savage games in terms of other games with which you may be more familiar. There is a thorough breakdown of the game's general rhythm available at savage2.s2games.com/gp_overview.php, so I won't repeat that here. First, Savage is nothing new with having two teams (the humans versus the “beasts”) trying to destroy each other on a dedicated server. It's also not new to have the option of playing combat characters or support characters. For example, Tribes allows you to take on the role of a repair engineer to keep the equipment in repair. However, in Tribes and most other first-person shooter games, all of the characters spawn as fairly identical units—it's the equipment that allows for specialization. Some, such as the Team Fortress mod for Quake, did allow people to select a character class, such as engineer, that remains throughout the game.
In the Savage games, one player takes on the role of the Commander, and then there are three additional classes: builder/conjurer, scout/shape shifter and savage/summoner. (The name of your class depends on which side you have taken in the battle.) Other first-person shooters that allow creation of Commanders have used them only for strategic purposes, such as coordinating the action players. Building, however, is new to first-person shooters, which brings in a feature from the real-time strategy side.
Another difference is that one phase of the game involves sending your action players out to hunt NPCs for both experience and gold, much as you would in an MMORPG. Typically, there are no NPCs in such team-oriented first-person shooter games. While the players hunt, the Commander researches technology and builds weapons, siege engines and more, which is another real-time strategy and MMORPG-style feature. Through the remaining early phases of the game, things continue to work in a real-time strategy mode as costs for building upkeep come into play. So, gold mines and more need to be owned and maintained to help keep everything in good shape.
Although first-person shooters are almost entirely modern day or science fiction, the Savage games are held in a fantasy setting. In many team-oriented first-person shooters, to gain access to more powerful equipment, groups often need to complete some kind of task, such as capturing a certain number of flags or destroying something valuable to the enemy, such as its generator. In Savage games, you have to create possessed/Hellbourne pits in order to gain certain powerful fighters. Once this goal is achieved, along with some others, the actual combat between the two teams commences. Soon after this point, the Commander switches from building and researching to tactical command, directing the forces. Both siege and battle units are important for winning. Perhaps the closest parallel to this type of play is the Battlegrounds in World of Warcraft.
With this level of complexity, the Savage games go far beyond merely “shooting each other dead”.
In the Linux world, S2 Games made another splash as well by offering not only a server for Linux users, but also a native client. At the time, it seemed a no-brainer for the company, because its Silverback game engine is written for OpenGL (www.opengl.org), the cross-platform graphics standard typically used by those who want to develop for more than one operating system simultaneously. An advantage of hosting its servers on Linux is that the operating system has so much less overhead than Windows that it is possible to host multiple server instances on the same Linux machine without losing performance. This is not the case with Windows.
The Linux community responded with enthusiasm, accounting for approximately 15% (7,500 units) of the sales for Savage: The Battle for Newerth according to Mark DeForest, lead designer and cofounder of S2 Games. Due to the strong Linux community support and the fact that S2 Games' collective personalities find a kinship with some of the Linux community's attitudes, when it came time to build Savage 2: A Tortured Soul, the company wanted to continue providing a Linux client. However, the decision was made to use DirectX for the next engine, K2, because DirectX is still easier for programmers to work with, and there is far more middleware (software that game developers can purchase instead of having to write every tiny piece themselves) available for DirectX than for OpenGL. DirectX is also easier to tie into Microsoft Windows and the related APIs (programming interfaces allowing programs to talk to one another).
Rather than abandoning Linux, S2 Games decided to go ahead and make an OpenGL version of Savage 2 as well. As S2 Games wanted to make a lower-end renderer for those who have older video cards, the company folded this functionality into the OpenGL engine as well. Doing so means that both Linux and Windows users have the option of playing in both high-end and low-end graphics settings, keeping those with lower-end hardware able to play the game. Ultimately, including support for Linux adds more expense, frustration in terms of getting things working, project management and support efforts and costs, which makes the fact that none of the S2 Games staff are actually Linux users particularly interesting.
If Savage 1 broke ground and created a new genre, Savage 2 refines it. DeForest says that the game-play mechanics will not change. There will be new role-playing game (RPG) elements added, but otherwise, most differences are going to be a matter of polish. Savage 2 will simply “look and feel better”, as the company takes the game to the next level. For Savage 1, S2 Games didn't have time to polish the product fully. This time, the developers promised themselves that Savage 2 truly would be a step above, rather than resting on their laurels, as no one else has seriously entered the genre they created. If you look at the pictures from both games, you will see just how far they have come (see Figures 1 and 2 to compare). Many more images are available on the S2 Games site.
Beta testing for Savage 2: A Tortured Soul begins July 31, 2006 for both Windows and Linux, and the game is scheduled for release in November 2006, as of this writing. This game is available for pre-order on-line, for those who are interested, and the Linux client launches at the same time as the Windows client.