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Editorial: Sacrifice

After your great reception of the Giants: Citizen Kabuto retrospective, Evan Shamoon is taking us behind-the-scenes of the development process of David Perry's Sacrifice.

Essentially, Sacrifice was a 3D real-time strategy game before 3D real-time strategy games existed. Unlike the genre’s leaders at the time—the Command and Conquers and Warcrafts of the world—Sacrifice took the bold step of letting the player control an individual character on the battlefield, and offered them the opportunity to play the game from an entrenched third-person perspective. It put the player in the action for the first time, rather than above it.

by Evan Shamoon



Essentially, Sacrifice was a 3D real-time strategy game before 3D real-time strategy games existed. Unlike the genre’s leaders at the time—the Command and Conquers and Warcrafts of the world—Sacrifice took the bold step of letting the player control an individual character on the battlefield, and offered them the opportunity to play the game from an entrenched third-person perspective. It put the player in the action for the first time, rather than above it.




[Our goal] was to create a realtime strategy game with intense battles, that you would personally conduct [...] so this was supposed to give you lots to manage, while also putting you right in the action.


“[Our goal] was to create a realtime strategy game with intense battles, that you would personally conduct,” says Shiny Entertainment founder David Perry. “We were all fans of the top-down Command and Conquer games, so this was supposed to give you lots to manage, while also putting you right in the action.” The ability for the player to control his or her group turned out to be more successful than the team had expected, and therefore gave them the flexibility to build in plenty of missions requiring smart management of resources. “In reality I think that works, as [the player] feels responsible when things go wrong,” he says. When Shiny kicked off the project, it was originally based on an old game from the 1980s called “Wizard”—largely because the Shiny’s lead programmer Martin Brownlow was a big fan.



In the single-player campaign, the player assumes the role of (unsurprisingly) a wandering wizard named Eldred, who leapt into the world when his own was destroyed. Eldred had been a man of substance in his old world; when the monarch died and power fell to him alone, he was despised by his subjects and was forced to turn to dark forces (and he confronts these dark forces towards the end of the game). Accompanied by an Imp named Zyzyx, the game takes place through flashbacks, with Eldred recounting his exploits along the way. You represent individual members of a pantheon of gods, which are not only central to the plot and the setting, but also to the gameplay itself: Each grants you access to his or her arsenal of magical spells. To summon creatures Eldred needs souls, and to cast a spell, he needs mana: these are the game's resources (remember, it’s a RTS). You can collect souls from the corpses of your enemies, and mana regenerates from fountains spread around the world.




I played Sacrifice more than any other Shiny game. I loved it, and played it until the fans just kicked my butt endlessly.


Single-player is just the tip of the iceberg, however. “We really felt kinda bad that we launched every single Shiny game without multiplayer, so this game was our chance to right that wrong,” recalls Perry. And as anyone who got their claws into it knows, this gave it immense replayability. “I played Sacrifice more than any other Shiny game,” continues Perry. “I loved it, and I played it until the fans just kicked my butt endlessly.” The game’s circular navigation interface was also one of its key components, and something that had never been done in a game before: The player would right-click to bring up a selection of choices around his or her mouse pointer, then choose the option—the faster you use it, the less it shows up. So when you get good at this game, there were no control items showing up, yet you’re firing off amazing spells and micro-managing loads of different things in real time. And that wasn't the only thing about the game that was pioneering for its time. Depending on which of the game’s five gods the player chooses to support, the story changes dramatically, creating several different endings.



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But the initial draw, of course, was the game’s spectacular graphics. The team at Shiny had been developing an engine for years that pushed the PC hardware of the time to its limits: the engine was scalable, meaning that everyone would get a different looking game based on the hardware they ran it on (run it on anything remotely new today and you’ll get the best it has to offer, of course). From the fantastic, bright terrain, to the uncanny creatures and over-the-top spell effects, the game has visual style to spare.




Joby Otero was the art director, and it was really fun to see how much he challenged what we all felt comfortable with. It [would have been] much easier to go for the Lord of the Rings kind of look, but Joby had a clear vision and we stood by him.


Even better, the game's third-person perspective gives the player a particularly good view of the world. “It’s just plain weird, and we knew it,” says Perry. “Joby Otero was the art director, and it was really fun to see how much he challenged what we all felt comfortable with. It [would have been] much easier to go for the Lord of the Rings kind of look, but Joby had a clear vision and we stood by him.” Perry recalls having to decide if he wanted to bet millions of dollars on the game’s particularly funky looking characters—and is glad he did. “I think the look of the game from certain places was simply breathtaking. I remember when the press would come to our office, they would actually say ‘Wow!’ out loud when I fired it up. In reality I knew where to stand to get the best views, but heck that engine was pretty stunning.” Perry remembers doing some pretty crazy demos at E3, where a massive group of people would congregate to watch him create tornado after tornado after tornado, and the engine would just keep on running. (This was due to its scalability: it knew you were looking at the massive tornadoes and so would steal away flowers on the ground and all kinds of little details you’d never notice.)



The game has maintained a loyal following to this day—not the least of which is Perry himself. “It’s still my favorite Shiny title (besides Earthworm Jim, which is near and dear to my heart as it’s the last game I programmed),” he says. “Fans still write to me this day asking for the sequel—I just got another request yesterday. They also asked how to get the source code so they can keep it alive. I hope that someday we can get a Sacrifice 2 going, but it would take multiple companies to work together and that would be complicated. It’s definitely not a ‘never’—maybe the community will revive it!”



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