You'll say it's a niche, but the return of the Pharaoh franchise is a really important event for many older players. This beloved old-school city-builder - as old as the Egyptian pyramids - returns prettier and updated, and we thought it was a good opportunity to ask the creators of the remake, Triskell Interactive studio, about how the game was created and whether we can expect any more "new-old" games formerly developed by Impressions Games. Our questions were answered by Théophile Noiré, the project director.
For many, Pharaoh is a legendary game. A city-builder that was embraced by the massProjees - even by those who didn't normally play strategy and city-builders. The original released in 1999 and its mechanics were based on the by then well-received and tested formula of Impressions Games' strategies, such as the Caesar series. After 24 years, the IP is back on our drives - revamped, adapted to modern hardware and displays, and enriched with a host of quality-of-life features, making it easier to both manage the city and generally return to this venerable genre. So, here’s what the game developer himself thinks about it.
The Pharaoh’s New Groove
Gamepressure: Having launched the game for the first time and tried the old tricks, I initially thought you had made a remake that was painfully safe. It quickly became apparent, however, that there were significant changes, such as new raw materials and the ability to recruit workers in remote areas of the map after connecting facilities by road. How big was the temptation to tamper with the source material? Did you consider any other ideas that didn't make the final cut?
Théophile Noiré: Only time will tell if we achieved the right balance, but we did not want to change too much. We wanted players of the original to be right at home, but also make enough changes and offer enough options so new players could get right in. Game design changed a lot between 1999 and today, player’s habits and expectations are different, but I’d say our goal was always to make a 90’s game in 2023.
A few of our initial ideas for the remake did not make it into the final experience; some were tested but did not integrate well in practice, like changing the algorithm behind the behavior of the walkers. Others might still come after release depending on player’s feedback and the iterative process.
One of the biggest changes is the completely revamped battle system, which no longer forces manual control of armies. I'll admit that this was one of the least favorite elements of Pharaoh for me, so I generally chose scenarios geared towards peaceful development – just to avoid battles. What was developing this layer of gameplay like and what informed the final decisions here?
This was a hard decision. I’ll say it, as a huge fan of the original, the combat felt like it could’ve been more. When we got in touch with Chris Beatrice, the original director, not only did he agree with me, but he was also the first to say it. We talked about what combat was for, what purpose did it serve, and we agreed. War in Pharaoh is an economic challenge, where you must divert resources from your city development into weapons & soldiers. This is another thing you have to balance while developing your city, and in the grand scheme of things, this is what makes the game interesting. Pharaoh is a big puzzle to resolve, but to make sure you stay interested, the game throws nasty things at you all the time.
We’ve tried stuff with real time combat, but nothing fun came out of it. The decision was made to have auto battles, but we did take some time to completely revamp the forts and add a few more military resources. You don’t painstakingly control your archers at 10% speed trying to kite Hittites invaders anymore – in exchange, you get to upgrade them with composite bows and a few other things.
Who is the game for?
The developers of the highly successful Dead Space Remake discussed the changes they intended to make with fans of the series, collected their opinions, and it turned out to be very important. What was the process like in your case?
Pharaoh is already part of a series where fans constantly disagree on what’s the best game of the bunch. I know – I’m one of them! Every game did a few things differently, and we knew from the get-go that we would not be able to please everyone.
This is kind of my version of Pharaoh. But it’s not a game I made for myself, I’m perfectly content booting up my CD and play in 800*600 for hours. It’s a game I made both for people who never played it and want to give it a try, as well as people who played it a long time ago and would like to go revisit it without having to grapple with 90’s UI & UX. It’s a game for my friends who are now parents that would like to share that part of their childhood with their kids, and also a game for my sisters who enjoyed it almost 25 years ago – they don’t play much anymore, but this is something they can play again.
You must decide for whom you make the game, because this is what ultimately shapes your process.
Weren’t you tempted to introduce worker routing along the lines of the Nebuchadnezzar game? In my opinion, it’s an extremely exciting mechanic, because it allows more control over determining how the city works. How closely do you watch the competition in the segment?
I try most city builders, it’s part of my job when I’m making one. Nebuchadnezzar did interesting things, but it touched on the one thing that makes the Impressions city builders unique. That was the one thing we were never going to change.
I’m happy that people try new stuff with this old recipe, because we were never going to do that with a Pharaoh remake. I think what’s important is that both games exist, there is room for everyone here.
Pharaoh: A New Era was released on February 15, 2023. In our review, the game got a decent score of 85%.
Can we expect remakes of Caesar III and Zeus?
I have a tremendous fondness for the game Caesar III, and I make no secret that I would love to see it remade in a similar way to Pharaoh. If you could, which game from Impressions Games’ catalog would you refresh first?
One of the first conversations we had with Dotemu, our publisher, was what game to pick, and what to do with it. If I’m 100% honest, my personal favorite of the bunch is Zeus, but to the question “what game of the series deserves a remake right now” the answer always was Pharaoh.
I don’t know if we’re going to have an opportunity like that again, because old IPs are complicated and put a lot of pressure on a team, but my heart would say a remake of Zeus (probably with more changes than Pharaoh) and my head would say a proper 2D sequel to Caesar III.
After several hours of playing, I have never had a single building collapse or burn down. Despite the fact that I've played hundreds of hours spent in the original Pharaoh and I use exactly the same solutions and techniques in the remake, these calamities did occur in the original a few times. Have you reduced the risk of fires?
Overall, it’s a bit easier, most of the buildings have less risk of collapsing or catching fire. But if the demo we put up last year is any indication, it’s still going to haunt some players because in its heart Pharaoh is an unforgiving and difficult game.
Louis, one of our programmers, tried to call it the Dark Souls of city builders for years (he’s still the only one to say it).
Didn't you want to solve the issue of the attitude of the gods towards player’s actions in some other way? The remake uses the same solutions as the original, and it's sometimes hard to figure out why the gods suddenly turn their backs on us.
The gods do work in mysterious ways…
Our gratitude goes to Tinsley PR, Dotemu and of course Triskell Interactive for making this interview possible.