Designer Biography – Eggman

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Bio- Christopher “Eggman” Theriault

My scenario designing career began in late 1997. Previously I had (and still do!) made board games as a hobby, and I had also made a few games using BASIC for my Commodore-64 (including an ASCII version of Gauntlet).

In 1997 I was serving in the military and had just returned to my home station in Germany from a tour of duty in the Balkans. Being temporarily flush with cash I decided to buy myself a new laptop and two PC games- C & C:Red Alert and Age of Empires. Just prior to that I had played Dune II on the console and been introduced to Command & Conquer, so I was developing a passion for RTS games. My favorite story from this period is remembering downloading the AoE demo at the wonderful rate of 200 bytes/second. The first time I watched a Villager carry off a load of meat he had carved up, I was totally hooked on it. Not many of my friends also had it though, so our gaming mostly focused on Red Alert matches. Since fighting over the same turf over and over started to get repetitive, I began to delve into the map editing tool. Nowadays people seem to have the impression that developers should allow them to edit everything they possibly can about their game, but back then having any editing tools at all was still a big deal. The tools for RA were quite primitive by today’s standards- for example, there were no brushes for painting terrain. Each possible tile was prerendered and you had to build the map like a puzzle trying to get tile edges to line up properly. Sometimes you couldn’t get the shape you wanted for a coastline or whatnot because there weren’t enough variations in the tiles and you had to redo whole parts of the map. At this time the work I did was just for me and friends, I hadn’t tapped into the online community. I had also spent a few minutes poking around the scenario editor included with AoE, but since I refused to read the manual (I’m a ‘learn by doing’ kind of guy) I had no idea what was going on and quickly gave up on it.

After 2 years serving in Europe I was transfered to Ft. Lewis in Washington state and arrived in early 1998. During a trip where I was catching up with old friends, one of them mentioned he was playing AoE and asked if I had spent any time fooling around with the editor, since he knew I had a passion for making games. I told him I hadn’t, really, but the idea of it was then stuck in my head and when I returned to Ft. Lewis I fired up the editor again and started to figure out how it worked. Since I had left most of my friends behind in Germany, I was now visiting the Microsoft Zone to play AoE online to get my competition fix. One day I tried to join a game called “British Isles” (or something close) but I couldn’t play! The host told me I had to go and get a map from a place called Age of Empires Heaven if I wanted to play his game. At this time the Zone was listing the top ten fan sites for each of their games, and AoEH was right at the top of the list. I finally decided to click on the link and visit the site.

I quickly discovered that this was THE place to go for anything AoE-related. I never found any other site that could match it for content. Back then they were featuring the “Top 10 Downloads” list, and #1 was a campaign called “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Joey S. I played this campaign and absolutely loved it! To me, it blew away all the campaigns which had shipped with the game. The length of the campaign was awesome, too. It was long enough that I had a sense of the epic nature of the Roman Empire, and yet not a single scenario seemed like filler material or was out of place. I kept on playing and playing and was saddened to get to the end. After this, I then moved on to Gordon Farrell’s works, starting with Persian Wars #5, which had just been released within the last few months. As I was just getting into using AoE’s editor myself, these and other works greatly inspired me to produce my own material.

Even though I didn’t know what I was doing, I immediately decided to make an ambitious production along the lines of “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire”. I like to work with subject matter not always commonly used by others, so my first project was to be a 16 scenario epic covering the whole history of Mesoamerica (the Central American cultures of the Aztecs, Olmecs, Maya, and so forth) from the earliest human presence to the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s. As a learning project, it worked out very well. My first scenarios, being about early migrations which didn’t involve heavy combat or empire-building, gave me a good opportunity to learn about vital editor features, such as allowing players to win! But as usually happens with overly ambitious projects, my enthusiasm fell short at the end and I wrapped it up early, including only(!) 12 (not 16) scenarios, although later I would make a “gold” version that upped the count to 14. Since this was my first campaign, I was not making any conscious efforts to try and enhance the genre, except in one key area I felt was lacking: the introduction maps. I had yet to play a work produced by a fan that had any sort of intro art I felt was decent (in fact, many works had no maps at all!), let alone coming close to the quality of the maps shipped with the game, which I thought, and still think, are among the best of any game shipped. I knew I was no magician in the digital art world myself, so I came up with what I thought was a novel idea: I printed out a blank copy of the AoE intro map, then drew my map on it and scanned it back in. Then I went into the image editing tools and added text and units on top of it, the end result of which was quite pleasing.

I make scenarios for 2 reasons, the first is to express an idea I find interesting. I can’t make an exciting work if I don’t have something I think is a cool idea to work from. The second reason is to see my work enjoyed by others. This is as much a character flaw as it is a part of my personality that allows me to make interesting games, as will become evident. As soon as “Mesoamerican Chronicles” was released, I was hitting the AoEH forums every day to see if anybody mentioned it. My ultimate hope was that one day I might make it onto the vaunted “Top 10 Downloads List” (which I did, BTW). Imagine my surprise when I popped into the forums and read a message from none other than Gordon Farrell saying my work “showed promise.”! That slight praise given at that time gave me more encouragement than any more elaborate praise has since then. I was all set to make something else, but had no idea. I can’t just set out to make a work – I have to have an exciting idea.

By this time the release of the Rise of Rome expansion was coming, so AoEH sponsored a contest where the topic was some campaign relating to Rome. The subject matter for the contest finally gave me a new idea, and because of my predeliction for going with something not mainstream, that idea was to give highlights from the Roman conquest of Britain, which everybody knows happened, but few people can elaborate on. I found an excellent research source in the works of Winston Churchill and I plunged ahead, the result being “The Last Frontier – the Romans in Britain”, one of my favorite works. As a contest entry, it didn’t do well, however, as some parts of it were simply ahead of its time. I had wanted players to be careful with how they managed their armies, but the means to do so with Age’s editor were very crude. I was forced to monitor individual units to see if players weren’t losing too many troops. Since I knew that telling players “Don’t lose more than 2 Cavalry Archers” would lead them to keeping Cav Archers hidden in remote parts of the map, which I didn’t want, I kept the bulk of what I was looking at as a loss condition a secret. The end result however, was frustration for the players, not fun. Nowadays in the world of triggers I could easily do a “Don’t lose more than 50% of your army” thing, which was what I really wanted. Well, horses for courses, as they say in England. This army management fiasco was the only serious criticism I received on the work, and it scarred my designing for quite some time afterwards, as I was resolved not to do any more experiments in the future. This was also my first “Eggman” campaign. “Mesoamerican Chronicles” had been released under my real name, but I was noticing that everybody seemed to be using a fake name on their stuff, so I figured I should have one, too. I picked “Eggman” as I am a big Beatles fan, it’s from a line in the song “I am the Walrus”. I am the Eggman, they are the Eggmen, I am the Walrus! Goo goo g’joob!

While I was waiting for the contest results to filter down, I was contacted by a representative from a company called Creative Carnage. These folks were putting together a scenario add-on pack with campaigns done by fan designers, and Gordon Farrell had given them my name based on the strength of “Last Frontier”. I was able to get in on the project, but there was one catch- they were nearing a deadline, trying to get it out before Rise of Rome hit the shelves, and I had only 1 week to send in any finished campaigns I might have! Luckily for me I had started a new campaign after finishing “Last Frontier”, “People of the Sun”, another huge epic that was a sequel to “Mesoamerican Chronicles” and told the story of the early South American tribes up through the Incas. This 10 scenario saga was only half finished, so I had to crank out nearly a scenario and a half a night in order to get the campaign finished by the end of the week. I would get off work at 5pm, spend all night working until 2 or 3 am, then get up at 5 am for the Army’s daily routine of physical exercise. It was a rough week, but I managed to finish the campaign, sat late at night in a hallway with my laptop plugged into the first phone jack I could find. My campaign was accepted into the product, which ended up not being released! All my effort never made it into the public’s hands, which was a huge blow. I took solace in starting to do research for a campaign covering ancient Korea, another (I thought) untold story waiting to be brought to light.

During this time, the Age community was entering a period of the “Super Designer” (to put a poor label on it). The RoR contest was the debut of a great designer going by the handle of Imhotep, who took away the top honors of that contest and afterwards produced other incredible works regarding the life of Isreal’s King David (and much to my pleasure, he was also a designer who believed in a high-quality intro map). The design community was totally abuzz with Imhotep’s work- it seemed almost every other post was related to him. On his part, Imhotep was crusading hard for developers to rely on their fan base for content development, and wrote an open letter to Ensemble Studios that nothing (I know of) came out of. Disgusted, Imhotep disappeared from the community over this lack of response from the developers (at least, this is one of the reasons we were left with). Ironically enough, just about all of his requests for developer-fan interaction came true a few months later, and if he had stuck around he could have been a part of it! Ah well, c’est l’guerre.

Imhotep’s place in the limelight was quickly filled by Ingo Van Thiel, who hit AoEH like the Beatles hit the music scene in the 60’s- everything he did went straight to #1 on the charts. The whole forum filled up with Ingo worship. I checked out his works and couldn’t figure out what the apparent magic was that he was hitting that the rest of the design community wasn’t. He does have a good knack for coming up with new gameplay ideas based on tricks with the editor, but from my view this alone didn’t justify the huge amount of accolades he was getting. I wasn’t totally the odd man out on this, either- one disgusted forummer posted a message titled “Quit with this Ingo is my god Crap!”.

I don’t want to imply that he doesn’t deserve every bit of the praise he’s earned from his works, but this had a huge effect on me and my own efforts. Reading over the glowing reviews, it became clear to me there was no way anybody else was going to have another hit without coming up with some new trick. Sitting down for hours combining every feature with an editor to see the effects with every other feature is a lot of hard work with no clear payoff, and is not one of the parts of designing I enjoy, so I pretty much resigned myself to never having another hit again. I also felt that this total devotion to one particular designer was a huge slap in the face to the rest of us (as I mentioned earlier, I like getting my “fair share” of attention, and yes, it’s selfish!), so, feeling the fan community had given the other designers the collective finger, as it were, I decided to retire from designing. I wrapped up the Korean scenarios I had going at the time and released it as “Sword of Choson Part 1: Kingdom of the Morning Calm”, thinking that after a hiatus of sorts I would come back and finish out the campaign as I had intended. It turned out though, that I had become burned-out on the whole RTS genre and never did get back to it.

In 1999 I left the Army and went back to my original home in Arizona, with the intention of becoming a service technician for Windows-based systems. The military was paying for my schooling by day, and I spent my evenings playing many different non-RTS games, although I would still pop by the AoE forums once in a while to see what was happening.
When the release of Age of Kings drew near, once again AoEH sponsored a contest, this time regarding an aspect of the Mongol Empire. It took me a long time to persuade myself to enter, as I assumed it would be a foregone conclusion that Ingo would enter and win. Even if the contest was close, I reasoned, the aura of Ingo’s fame would be enough to hand him the victory. After some thought, though, I decided that the 2nd place prize was worth having and that I had a shot of at least making 2nd if I came out of retirement for one last campaign.

I knew that everybody and their brother would be doing a campaign on Ghengis or Kublai Khan, so I once again decided to go the road not traveled and told the story of the Song Chinese dynasty and their futile attempt to hold off the Mongol attacks of the 1270s. I knew that to meet the current expectations I’d have to find some sort of “gimmick” to include, and after a lot of thought I managed to find one: helping a computer ally complete their own scenario goals. The idea was to protect your computer ally while they made a Wonder, but I could never get them to make a Wonder no matter what I did, so I had to settle for some lesser buildings, but the overall effect still acheived what I wanted and the scenario turned out well.

Well enough that, to my surprise, “Song of the Sung” tied for first place! I also managed to get my first 5.0 rating from a reviewer on anything I’d ever done (and, if you’ll indulge my boasting, the only contestant to get a 5.0 from Greg “Deathshrimp” Street, the Ensemble rep on the judging board). Of course, these results were not without some controversy as some people felt that Ingo should have won, and he would have, if one judge hadn’t run into an unexpected problem playing one of his scenarios. Despite this, winning this contest was a huge boost to my morale and started to rekindle my interest in doing scenario work (as I said, half my pleasure comes from knowing people like what I do). I also managed to land a phone interview with Ensemble Studios and spoke with ES_Sandyman himself, altough it went disastrously! He called right when I was in the middle of cooking a meal, and in fact, I had just received my contest prize of a copy of AoK a half hour or so earlier and was in the middle of going through the William Wallace campaign when he gave me a ring. I was afraid to make any demands of a potential employer and so answered a series of questions I was completely unprepared for while I tried to keep my noodles from burning, like “What are the top ten things you would change about AoE?”, and “What are the top ten things you would change about AoK?”.

I didn’t get the job, but just the fact that I had even been in touch with a game company was still a big thrill for me! I was totally back with a desire to do more design work, but I had no idea to work off of, except for some vague idea of doing a sequel to “Song of the Sung” that never really gelled. AoK also introduced us to triggers, which was a whole new thing to learn. This obstacle, combined with trying to wrap up my Microsoft certifications and landing a full-time job, served to nix any other work for that year.

Late in 1999, though, I was contacted by Rick Goodman of AoE fame, who was putting a team of designers together to help him plan out the campaigns for his new product, Empire Earth. This group included most of the top names from the Age community like Gordon Farrell and Ingo Van Thiel, my peers who had once again put me forward as a candidate to a developer. Even though my future was still in doubt as I needed to find a job, I eagerly joined in with this group of top-notch talent, which was just the kind of group Imhotep had been pushing for all those months ago. To this day, I am still mystified that there are great designers who turned down this opportunity, such as Mark Stoker and Joey S of “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” fame. As a warning to anybody reading this, if a developer knocks on your door with an opportunity, you say YES! Even if the deal seems like a bad one to you, it is invaluable to have your name in the credits of a finished product if you have any hopes of being involved in the game industry.

After a few weeks of interacting with this group, I was in for another surprise- Stainless Steel Studios, Rick Goodman’s new company, was looking to hire somebody full-time to manage this group from their offices in Cambridge. I flew out to the east coast for an interview, and they said they were impressed with my work. Interestingly enough, the work they were judging me on turned out not to be “Song of the Sung”, my last and, I think, best effort, but my aborted attempt at a Korean campaign! Nevertheless, the interview went well and I got the job! Wow!

It was a little awkward for me, at first, since I was now supposed to be in charge of my peers. We all have different ways of going about our designing, but I was determined to stay as hands-off as I could manage so that everybody could produce their own campaign in their own way. In the end, as we worked together on Empire Earth, the various demands involved in producing scenarios for EE as well as maintaining their own lives proved too much and our little gang largely fell apart, leaving me to play a lot of catch-up at the end, finishing work on scenarios they no longer had time to work on and hoping I was still capturing some of the feel of what they wanted to acheive. The end result was passable but falls short of the goal of being the best work ever, that we had wanted to achieve by hiring the best designers out there. I learned a lot working with SSSI, but the most important thing is that even in modern times, the “American Dream” can still come true. If you believe in yourself, who knows where your future will lead? 🙂

– C Theriault