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Interview with Aaron Hall, creator of Space Empires

Space Empires. Aaron Hall. Malfador Machinations. If you've heard of one of these, you've most likely heard of the other two. But for those who don’t know:

Space Empires is an incredibly successful space strategy video game series, available in various incarnations since 1993. Particularly impressive is the detailed game play and the ability to customize most major and minor aspects of the game. Fans are eagerly awaiting Space Empires V, currently being beta tested at the time of this interview.

Malfador Machinations is the company created in 1995 to release Space Empires II. Since then, it’s been constantly hard at work bringing you the Space Empires game series, as well as others like Dungeon Odyssey and Space Empires: Starfury.

Aaron Hall is pretty much responsible for it all.

It's easily argued that Aaron is unusually interactive and friendly with fans and users. Perhaps this is natural, since Space Empires allows heavy game play customization (so much that plenty of quality user modifications were officially provided for Space Empires IV Gold). Perhaps it’s because he’s just a generally nice guy. Most likely it’s a little of both.

My website tracks interesting or helpful information about technology. Often this bleeds over into reporting on entertaining or interesting software. And since the Space Empires games are entertaining and interesting with innovative and fun future technologies, I’ve taken advantage of Aaron Hall’s generosity and time to ask him five questions.

On to the good stuff:

Andy: The tech levels in Space Empires span a mind-boggling range, from single-planet civilizations just starting to explore space, to galaxy-spanning super beings creating solar systems for fun. Apart from more popular technologies seen in mass-media science fiction (warp points, cloaking devices, etc.), where do you get inspiration for the many advanced in-game technologies?

Aaron Hall: Most of them come from the creation of the game engine itself. You create weapons and components that use all of the various abilities you've built into the engine. Many ideas come from the players themselves, and some come from science fiction novels.

Andy: Though we're still a few years away from a Stellar Manipulation like creating a sphere world or destroying a black hole, do you think video games have any influence in defining new technologies or technological R&D direction?

Aaron Hall: I don't think that video games have much influence, unless they reach mainstream status. I think most of the influence comes from science fiction TV shows. Ever notice how many cellular phones look like the communicators from the original Star Trek?

Andy: Much of the user-customizable aspects of Space Empire's AI are logical "if-then" statements. How much of your proprietary AI is that same type of programming, versus recursive "look ahead" determination? Would you rate the SE AI level as tic-tac-toe, checkers, or chess?

Aaron Hall: Most of the AI in Space Empires is similar to "if-then" statements. This mainly has to do with the fact that programmers are so used to this construct, that creating the AI is much easier in this fashion. If I had 6 months to devote to just AI, I could come up with something much more advanced. Unfortunately, I rarely have time. I would rate Space Empires at a checkers level. Its programmed with a few variations of the standard empire expansion methods that most players use. Though our plan for SE5 is to make the AI scripts external!

Andy: Space Empires is a future-based game with alien races, universe-level colonization, and some pretty cool gadgets. Imagine the far, far-off future for Earth and the Milky Way. How would you like the concepts in Space Empires to compare to this future?

Aaron Hall: I wouldn't mind too much, except maybe for the stellar manipulations. I don't know if we'll ever be ready to create and destroy stars and planets. The biggest IF is the method of travel between the stars. Space Empires uses warp points (which is essentially the idea of folding space to move from point to point) while others use faster than light travel. That method of travel will be the biggest determining factor on what the future will look like.

Andy: Assume you had unlimited resources and time to work on only one aspect of Space Empires V. What aspect would it be and why?

Aaron Hall: That's a tough one. It would most likely be the AI. If I could create an AI that would actually think like an alien, then the game would be incredibly engrossing. Your communications with them would be like talking to a person, but with a totally different history and mind-set.

Space Empires V is set for release in early 2006, and will be published (and available for purchase) by Strategy First. See the press release.

For more Space Empires information, check out these links:

Malfador Machinations
The electronic home of Aaron Hall and the Space Empires game line. Get the latest game development information, FAQs, patches, contact information for the development team and links to 50+ fan sites.

Shrapnel Games
Publisher of earlier Space Empires games. Also check out Shrapnel's incredibly helpful Space Empires user forums.