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Evil Genius 2 interview: Rebellion talks crafting a "love letter" to a cult classic

It’s been a long time coming, but Evil Genius 2 is almost here. The secret sauce to this rather belated sequel? Going back to basics.

It’s hard to think that Evil Genius was released seventeen years ago. A unique strategy management and simulation game, it captured the imagination of fans. It’s part Dungeon Keeper, casting you as the villainous head of what is basically a dungeon to ensnare heroes. Usually in video games you’re infiltrating this place - but in this series you’re building it, placing traps and employing guards to subdue or eliminate those pesky heroes.

This sub-genre of management games has been around for a while, but what really set Evil Genius apart was the setting, which basically cast you as a classic James Bond-esque supervillain with world domination on your mind. The tropes to toy with here feel practically endless - and so it’s a surprise that it took so long to get a sequel, especially after the 2004 original became something of a cult classic.

As Rebellion gears up to launch Evil Genius 2, we got a chance to sit down with producer Ash Tregay and lead designer Rich Edwards after going hands-on with the game many hours. We chat about the process of crafting a sequel so long after the original, the precarious process of finding the right balance of complexity, and more.

VG247: Very broadly when it comes to this game and approaching it as a sequel to a game from a long time ago... To me it feels like you've approached this almost like you would have approached a sequel had no time passed. I think that's really interesting because I feel like a lot of the time when you get a soft reboot to a sequel to something from that long ago, over fifteen years, a lot gets changed. But you haven't strictly done that, really. It's very faithful. So how did you guys approach making a sequel to this beloved but older game?

Ash Tregay: So I'll let Rich do most of the talking on this one because it's fundamentally a design question, but I think the key aspect for us is that in every element of building the sequel we started by looking at the original Evil Genius and saying well, what did Evil Genius do right? Why is it such a cold classic? Why did we all have the love for it then and why is that persisted? And then look at well, okay that was a very long time ago... How have modern expectations changed? What bugged us about the original game that we'd like to go back and fix if we could?

Rich Edwards: I mean that's basically the essence right? We've had a lot of years where people have been saying you should make a sequel to Evil Genius. And we've been sitting going 'absolutely, this should exist'. Before I joined Rebellion, I was one of the people going 'I really want to sequel to this', to the point where when I'd just graduated I actually attempted to build it myself in my spare time. Now that I'm actually part of a company that can do this, it's going much more smoothly! [laughs]

We've been wanting to make a sequel to Evil Genius and what made that original game so great is obviously in that original game. It's there for everybody to see. If we had approached that game with a more sort of ruthless attitude to cutting things out and remaking it and making it something new then it wouldn't be a sequel.

We've deliberately kept the title - we've kept that two there because this is a love letter to that first game. Pretty much everybody on the team is a big fan of that first game. We are in love with it, and we want to make sure that what we do is a love letter and a homage to that first game.

Ash Tregay: While still being its own thing; I think the key aspects where we have changed things are looking at what modern player expectations are. Of course strategy management games have seen a massive resurgence in the last few years, and going back and playing the original game you can find some things which annoy you a little bit or don't quite work the way you expect them to. So we're making sure we're addressing those - and of course, modern systems are a hell of a lot more powerful, so there's a lot more we can do there in terms of the scale and the complexity of the game, which of course as I'm sure you can tell we're embracing.

VG247: Yeah, you can definitely tell that. You just mentioned there it's been a time of resurgence for strategy and management genres but I guess from my perspective anyway, it doesn't feel like the dungeon master style game has benefited as much from that renaissance. So was there anything that you guys were looking at, aside from the first game? Where were you guys looking for inspiration to see where things had gone, what was possible?

Ash Tregay: We're big strategy management fans in general on the team, so we didn't have to look very far outside of our own Steam libraries for inspiration! [laughs] In terms of dungeon management games, the Dungeons series is the most obvious one which has continued that - so we've certainly looked at those to see what they did well. Aside from that, we started pre-production on Evil Genius 2 back in 2017, so at that point we didn't really know about things like Two Point Hospital, or Surviving Mars, or Jurassic World Evolution. So seeing each of those being announced and coming out and getting to grips with those has been really heartening, I think. Because we'd look at what they're doing and go 'Oh, we had that idea as well!' or 'Ah, we're doing this, but slightly differently - great!'. So that's been really encouraging for us - kind of seeing the parallels and also the differences.

Despite that, as you say really, the nice thing for us I guess is that although the strategy management genre has seen a massive resurgence in the last few years, there's still nothing out there quite like the original Evil Genius. So that puts us in quite a good position to kind of go 'hey, did you enjoy these other recent strategy management games? Why not give this a go, even if you didn't try the original game?'

We want to make sure this is a good on-boarding point for players new to the Evil Genius universe as well. There's no prior knowledge required of Evil Genius to get to grips with the sequel and and get the most out of it. Though there are plenty of nice little nods and references, and of course returning characters for those who are.

VG247: You mentioned before, obviously there's a lot more power available to you guys now... so how do you balance that with the tone? As you get higher visual fidelity, there's the risk of campier elements coming over too silly. But this is a series almost grounded in its silliness. So that had to make things more difficult - how was that process?

Rich Edwards: It's a fascinating question and I think the interesting thing here is we've basically stylized the game. The first one was stylized to a point, yes, but also it was quite limited, especially compared to modern day computers. We've been able to put in a lot more love and attention to how we want this world to function and how we want everything to come across. A really good example of how we use this power is making sure that every single one of our characters has got a unique silhouette that matches their personality type. So if you're looking at a technician who's quite sort of brow-beaten and runs around your lair making sure that all these fires are put out whenever agents start invading, you've got this slight silhouette that has characteristics of how they're going to be moving around in a very different way to one of our guards or one of our more powerful henchmen. Just having that extra power does allow us to to put greater emphasis on these different character types.

Ash Tregay: You're absolutely right that the extra power and complexity that brings with it does need to be kind of carefully balanced as well. That's been a constant source of interplay within the team - making sure that as an Evil Genius you can focus on the big picture decisions. You can say, y'know, I want a lair with 150 minions in it, I want you to maintain this balance of this many mercenaries and technicians etcetera... then your Minions will work their hardest to maintain that balance. But for the players who want that extra level of complexity and min-maxing, they can go into our minion manager and identify the weak links in the chain and summarily execute them, or make sure the people suited for particular roles are given those roles.

VG247: Following on from that... I'm only a few hours in, but I can already see the depth. But how do you decide where to cap that? The size, the complexity, how much stuff is going on at once... are you more informed by hardware and engine limitations, or are you basing it around what you feel is going to be manageable?

Rich Edwards: It always comes back, from my point of view, to what a player was able to manage at any one time. So every system in the game we approach with a sort of multi-layered philosophy where we want to make sure that when you just start playing the game you can give an order - say build a room or put this bit of furniture over there - and your minions will organize themselves into the teams to do it for you. That all just works straight out of the box.

But I'm also aware that there are players out there who want that fine grain level of control, who want to dive into every sort of little minion and say are you actually a good fit for my organization, are you in the correct role? So we've added features like a minion manager which allows you to specify which jobs which characters are able to take and that is entirely optional. If you want to dive into that, if you want to engage with the game at that level you can but if you also just want to play at the very surface level and and experience the game as an Evil Genius would with a big picture focus, you can as well.

That's allowed us to put an awful lot of detail into the areas where we wanted to. For example, each loot item in the game, every unique piece of loot you go out and steal does have a different impact in your lair. If you want to spend time making sure that you put each loot item in exactly the right place for your lair you can, but if you just add it to your lair anywhere, it is going to give you a bonus in some way.

Ash Tregay: I think technical constraints are always going to be a thing, but I think that's where having our own in-house engine and tech team support has been really helpful. I think early on the project our engine guys were saying to Rich Edwards 'okay, cool, what kind of maximum numbers of minions do you want in a lair?' and the immediate response to the answer was 'You want how many?!' [laughs] We're then kind of going cap-in-hand to the tech team and saying hey, here's what we want to do, can help us get there? This happened in a variety of areas because it's obviously a new type of game for our engine so they've been extremely helpful in making sure we have the support and the additional features that we need to to deliver the experience we want to.

VG247: One of the things that I think really sets Evil Genius apart in a weird way is that compared to a lot of these games, it feels more narratively-led. I'm the guy who often just clicks Sandbox in these games, but here there's more to encourage me to do otherwise. How did you guys balance that to make sure that sandbox is still satisfying or at least you give replay value to the narrative? How do you approach that to sort of make sure that if someone wants to pump hundreds of hours into this as they do into a Cities Skylines or Surviving Mars or whatever they can do that?

Rich Edwards: So I think the first thing is we have four different campaigns. Each Evil Genius that you play as does have their own unique set of objectives and their own unique set of challenges that they have to overcome. So there's some inherent replay value there as you pick which genius you want to play as next - and how you're going to overcome those challenges is going to vary based on the way that you choose to play.

Also, we've got three different islands in the game each with their own effects on the way you approach the world map and also with a different set of building constraints. So, for example, one of our islands has a nice sort of wide open space, whereas one of the other islands might be a bit thinner but much taller, encouraging more sort of vertical building.

Those small things... in the very early game, you're going to think of course I'm going to be able to build this in a way that you know, I can just apply this one cookie cutter to things. But as you advance and start unlocking more things and need to play an ever increasingly complex game of Tetris with your items, make sure you fit them into all the right places, you'll find that these do give you brand new challenges as you go.

I mentioned the items earlier - we've put a large amount of optional content into the game. So if you're playing the game you might run into a crime lord who you didn't see in a previous playthrough or who you just chose to ignore and who this time you might want to recruit and bring into your side.

VG247: I wanted to ask about mods, because that was a big deal for the original game, right? The mod community really helped to keep Evil Genius alive. Is mod support something you've been thinking about?

Ash Tregay: We're really conscious of the fantastic job that the Evil Genius mod community did and continues to do - they're still very active to this day, breathing new life into the original Evil Genius. We don't have any plans for launch but we're very conscious of that community. We do kind of snoop on some things they've been up to in the mods that have been made since we announced the sequel! So, it's an area that we're certainly very interested in exploring.

VG247: I just wanted to finish up with a couple of questions that you might not be able to answer at all, but -- down the line, do you have any interest in other platforms? Is that something you want to look at down the line?

Ash Tregay: I think it's a really great question. At the moment we are very focused on PC launch and making sure it's the best PC game it can be. What I would say is that we do actually have gamepad support from day one, so if players prefer to play their games on a gamepad or with the adaptive controller and that kind of thing, we're keen to make sure those are supported as well. In terms of other platforms, who knows? Who knows. We'll have to see - but it's an area of interest.

VG247: Lastly, do you guys see a tail for add-on content and stuff down the line? I look at it certainly and see how through the choice of geniuses and islands there's a path to tell more stories or whatever if you want. Is that something where if the game goes on and is nice and successful that's something you'd want to do?

Ash Tregay: Absolutely. I mean, if you look at some other Rebellion titles - Zombie Army, Sniper Elite, etc - then you know we've got a track record of supporting our games with a good amount of post launch content for players who want it. The Evil Genius universe and the inspirations for it is certainly ripe and rich with further opportunities for exploration, so that's absolutely something we're interested in.

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