We've had a chance to chat with Blue Byte's community developer Bastian Thun leading up to the release of Anno 1800. Examining the industrial revolution, the devs aim to revolutionalise the series with a fresh take on the Anno formula.
The last two Anno games were set in the future, why the decision to go back to the past for this one?
This is something we thought about a lot after the last two Anno games. We went back to our players and asked them what kind of setting they would like to see for a third title and people were telling us that the 19th century sounded like a really cool place to set an Anno game.
It's good and fitting for Anno with the Industrial Revolution and so on. With the previous two games there was the idea of technological advancement in the future. And if you think about that Anno 1800 or the 19th century is perfect for that kind of game as well. You start with a romantic setting, farming, agriculture, but then you have the Industrial Revolution coming and changing, everything. The rise of the Working Class for example. It's a perfect setting.
How accurately does the game reflect this period of history?
We like to say we're inspired by history, we aren't tied to it. For example, if you look at the Old World map - we called it The Old World, not Europe, and we don't mention specific countries or kingdoms by name.
But other than that we did spend a lot of time researching, especially when it comes to technology, how did buildings look, what kind of factories and machinery there were back then. That has influenced what kind of steam ships you can have in the game for example.
What can you tell us about the campaign mode - since a lot of players are likely to jump straight into Anno's sandbox?
First and foremost, the campaign game is actually integrated into the Sandbox mode. You don't have to create a new city or island every time you finish a chapter. You can play the classic sandbox with AI from the Sandbox mode plus a lot of hand-tailored Islands, and obviously new characters you can meet over the course of the four chapter long campaign.
The great thing about the campaign is that you can explore and experience the 19th century over a series of stories that we focused on and learn the game mechanics. You have a tense and dramatic story that is a little bit like The Count of Monte Cristo. There's a world-spanning conspiracy going on, you get to meet some exclusive and even elusive characters only in the campaign. If you finish that after the four chapters, you can just continue with the game. So we're not kicking you out of that - you can just build your Empire over the course of the story and then continue with the classic sandbox experience.
How does Anno 1800 fit into the modern RTS landscape?
Anno is in many regards its own beast. It is best thought of as a city-builder with a strong focus on complex urban development or an economy game with a very strong focus on the economy, maybe economy plus diplomacy for example.
Anno is a game where you have a huge city-building component, you have a huge economy component and you manage large and complex production chains on top of that, plus dealing with AI. I wouldn't call it a grand strategy game, more like vast city-building, plus exploration, plus production management game. I think that's what makes Anno so appealing - the combination of different features that allow you to play your own way.
You don't play factions in Anno, the only visual difference is in the biomes - the Old World and the New World. The New World is inspired by South America, and there you have a different population look, different buildings and production.
You can play both of these biomes at the same time?
Yes you can, without loading. As you explore the New World for example, you can swap in and out of both sessions seamlessly. You could move between the New World and the Old World maps constantly just by pressing a button. We're quite proud of this as a technical achievement, we have entirely eliminated loading times.
Anno runs off our own game engine, which being Germans and known for such things, we have creatively called the Anno Engine. This is the fifth game we are doing with the engine as developers and we're very pleased with how we can optimise it for a city-building game.
In the world of Anno you might end up with a situation where you have thousands of buildings, in which every single building is part of the game logic, and thanks to the power of this engine, we think we've done a really good job with optimising.
German board games as a thing have a distinct flavour, such as Settlers of Catan, would you describe Anno as a German strategy game in that sense?
Well, we have schnapps and we have beer in there! The roots of the game might have some German influence, we are a German developer and before that there was an Austrian developer, but actually, our team is quite international now.
The game writer is British, the second writer is Spanish, we have a lot of French people, our lead game designer is from the Czech Republic and other designers are from the Netherlands.
Since we became Ubisoft we have tried to get a lot of talent from across the world into the studio and I think that really shows. It was really good for the game that we got this British game writer, Matt Cooke, he is really amazing. So I would not say that Anno is particularly a German game - even in Germany, there is not a single game like Anno.
Combat is not something you usually find in a city building game, what can you tell us about it?
Anno 1800 has a full-blown RTS component, which is the naval battles and it comes from the history of the game - the roots of our studio, back in the day when we were focused on RTS games.
But as a player you are never forced to have naval battles going on - player freedom is very important for us. Partly that comes from the AI you choose, if you choose Alonso Graves for example, which is one of the hard difficulty AI characters - he is a raging warmonger and he will try and get you into a fight - but you also have the freedom of choice to pick a character which is more peaceful if you don't want to get into combat.
Beyond that we have variety - we have steamships, we have sailing ships, we have many intricate details such as the wind, which will play a role for sailing ships - so if you have the wind coming from behind, you get a speed boost.
Some ships have intricate details such as 360 degree turret controls, but other boats can only shoot dead ahead so this plays a tactical role. Plus a huge amount of items which you can then use to customise your ship. For example, you can equip your ship with a torpedo, or with a captain that is very experienced and get certain buffs.
So it is up to you, you can engage in high seas naval fleet battles with the AI or with friends in multiplayer, you can have harbour siege combat - it's up to you.
A player could devote themselves exclusively to naval combat?
It's not a separate element - but what you could do, there is a save in multiplayer - so you could create the perfect starting conditions for doing just that with your friends, and just reload that save game every time when you want to engage in that style of gameplay.
How central will multiplayer be to Anno 1800?
Previously we have had fans of the multiplayer version of Anno games. Percentage-wise it was never that many people - 10 per cent of the playerbase. With our closed beta, and the success of Twitch - a lot of players not only streamed it, but also engaged in multiplayer matches - a percentage way higher than we've seen before.
If we see that people want to engage in multiplayer post-launch, then why not expand on that and start creating custom game modes. It really depends on how it picks up. Right now for launch, we will have classic multiplayer which means you can invite people to your lobby, play with or against them, we have a quick match option which will match-make you in three different game modes.
Post-launch, we have first committed to a classic 1404 style core multiplayer that will come as a free update. We cannot commit to a date on that yet, but we are working on it. This will allow two players to play as one character - so you can share the islands. You can have one person who takes the care of the steel factories and the riot going on in the streets, while the other player takes care of ships etc.
What is your plan for supporting Anno 1800 with post-launch content?
How we plan to expand the game in the future, how we would like to add to it - we can't tell at the moment, but if you look at the history of the Anno games, we usually like to do stuff like full-blown expansions, or very expansive DLC. But that's something we will look at after the launch.
Will there be microtransactions involved?
No. The cosmetics - the ornaments - you can see in the game are not microtransactions, they are not purchasable, they are earned through Uplay points which you get by just playing the game. Basically, by getting achievements you can unlock a few buildings.
So, what's the deal with the Steam preorders and the shift to Epic?
People who ordered from Steam will get all future content. After releasing on the 16th it will be on the Epic store and on Uplay.