GDC INTERVIEW: Ed Annunziata talks Space War Arena

Monday, May 6th, 2019

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Space War Arena | LogoSpace War Arena, the latest title from heavy-hitter and Sega of America legend Ed Annunziata, is one of those rare types of video games in 2019 that is a multiplayer game where online gameplay is discouraged (and in fact, the game didn’t even launch with the online feature). The underlying idea behind Space War Arena is simple: build a space army out of twenty-plus different types of ships that you can level-up and change before sending them out to attack your opponent’s fleet in a real-time battle. With a solo-campaign mode, multi-player mode, and more available, there is something available for everyone…but the heart of Space War Arena s definitely the multiplayer mode.

I caught up with Ed Annunziata at GDC 2019, and we talked about Space War Arena, Ed’s background in creating video games, why he wanted to make such a couch multiplayer-centric game, and more.

Space War Arena is available now as a Nintendo Switch-exclusive.

You can also check out Space War Arena at the official website and at the official Twitter account.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Operation Rainfall: My name is Quentin H. with Operation Rainfall, and you are?

Ed Annunziata: Ed Annunziata.

OR: Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

EA: I am a video game designer [and] video game producer. I’ve been in the business from almost the beginning. My first game was on the Atari 800- Ronald Reagan was president. It was 80s, mid-80s, I think. And then I’ve never looked back. I’ve been making games ever since. I was in New York at the time, I made a few 8-bit games, and then I got involved in educational software. So I was making educational games on Apple II, IBM, PC, XD, that kind of thing. And that was fun- I liked making educational games as long as they are fun, they are cool, and kids like them and they learn, it’s great. And I moved to California in 1989, when the Loma Prieta Earthquake hit. And I was only there for three days, so I decided to stay. And then I got a job at Sega of America about 1990, right after the launch of the Sega Genesis. And when I went for my interview, I was like “I got this idea for this dolphin game.”

Because when I was doing this educational software, I was involved in this project called The Voyage of the Mimi, which was this multimedia PBS-created educational series. It was actually Ben Affleck’s first role as a boy- he was 11 in the show. But it was about sperm whales and whale migration, whale behavior, and the science of whales. And I got to produce the Apple II games that went along with that series. So I really got into the sea mammal thing. It was [the] echolocation thing, how intelligent they are, how they see with sound, and that not only do they use sound to see things that are beyond their sight, but they ‘sing’ what they see. So they could broadcast what they are seeing to another. So they are communicating in imagery and pictures. And when they see other lifeforms, they can actually sonogram them and see inside them. And that blows me away. So I was really into the sea mammal thing.

And, of course, back in the original 8-bit video game [era there were] the first GPUs, like the ANTIC chip and the Atari 800. So that smooth scrolling and sprites- all the games were side scrolling games because the hardware was there to support it, to do it at 60 hertz. So they are beautiful. So it was always a side-scroll- those were my first games, and I always think that way. So the whole ‘you gotta be a dolphin’- originally, it was ‘you gotta be a whale’, but the whales are lumbering and they jump out a little bit, so alright, ‘it’s a dolphin’. And a prototyped it, and I felt it immediately that this was an extremely fun play mechanic. And everything filled in on top of it. So I pitched it to Sega when I first got there when I was interviewing. And then I made a bunch of games- Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin, which is the first original Sega of America designed title- and I did a few other games like EA licenses’ Abram’s Battle Tank and 688 Attack Sub. They were fun games to work on. It was fun to take these old PC games and make them work on the Genesis.

So they were doing good, I was starting to look reliable, so I finally convinced them to make [Ecco the Dolphin]. I know it’s weird: there’s no guns, there’s no inventory, there’s no fisherman, no spearhunters- which is weird. At some point, Sega decided “okay, we’ve got to be weird, so let’s let Ed do this game.” And so I got to do that. And after the success of that, I was able to do more original games for Sega and then for other platforms right up to this point.

“[W]hen you play against people, it’s never predictable. And the other element that I think the game has that I think is wonderful is that there is a pace to it that you have to be ‘on it’.”

OR: What is Space War Arena?

EA: It is my first Nintendo game. I’m genetically a Sega gamer. So Nintendo, to me, was always the enemy. So its weird to me to have a Nintendo game. But we fell in love with the Switch. Like I was explaining to you before, what I am going for with Space War Arena is the two-player fun-factor. You know, two kids sitting on the couch playing each other. To me, that’s the core of the game. And that’s what I’m emphasizing as much as possible. When we were prototyping it, prototyping it on a PC or playing it in Unity – no graphics, just to get the feel of the idea of the game system, I knew immediately that it was going to work. And I knew it was the kind of game where you do a layer-design, then you play that, and then it unwinds into- you’re no longer designing it, you’re discovering things. You’re finding things that weirdly existed somehow. So I really feel like we found that game. And that’s what we did. Anything that felt fun, we just kept going with it without being biased by anything like ‘What are people playing now?’ [or] ‘What do games need now?’. And when I got to know the Switch as a platform, I was like ‘This is it, this is the right age-range. This is a living room game machine.’ You play it in your living room, but you can carry it around. So its something that’s good on mobile and good in the living room. So ‘Okay, let’s go with Switch.’

OR: On Reddit, you said thatSpace War Arena is a real-time strategy game. A game that is specifically designed for two player head-to-head on the same screen like the original Spacewar, which can be said to be the first head-to-head game EVER created.” Why a 1962 title? Why create a game inspired by it?

EA: Well, first of all, I was a kid when I played that. A really young kid. And I fell in love with the little ships. Like Defender, even Asteroids. Something about a little ship that beats lots of little ships appeals to me. And, as soon as we have swarms of them flying around with different behaviors, I just love[d] that. And it’s my own bias with the twelve-year-old that’s inside of me. And that just made me- it brought Space War to my attention. And then I realized, in understanding that game, it’s like a two-player only game. I mean, how many games in our universe of video games are two-player only? You can’t play single player. And I loved that about that. It’s really charming. And it happens to be the first video game. It really, truly is pretty much the first video game that was made from software running on a computer.

So that just inspired me. And then once I got on this little treadmill of thinking about things, it just keeps building and building and then it starts getting momentum.

OR: You said when we were talking [before recording] “There is a paper, rock, scissors relationship between the units.” Could you elaborate a bit more on that please?

EA: So all the units behave very differently and they have different parameters like speed, how much damage they do, how much health they have, and what’s the area of effect of explosions [when they explode]. So all those different permutations- you end up with a natural- for this unit, the perfect answer to it is this unit. And so they kind of match up that way in a paper-rock-scissors way. Like, this one will always beat this one. But only if it’s on a track and they are launched at the same moment and they come together, this one will always beat this one. But what happens is that you get to put them anywhere, you get to rotate them, you get to wait until the unit that will normally kill this unit- it goes by and you do it, and it gets a couple shots in from behind. And so suddenly, because of the moment you let it go, that unit becomes ‘paper’ instead of ‘rock’.

So what I was trying to tell you before -and I probably didn’t say it right- is that at the basic level, there is a paper-rock-scissor relationship between the units, but the human elements of the chaos introduced by our brains makes the game sort of a strategic landscape and wide open. So we have a handicap system. So if you’re new to the game and I’ve been playing for a long time, I could reduce my shields and take down some of my defenses and you could amp yours up so now we’re kind of even.

When you play against people, it’s never predictable. And the other element that I think the game has that I think is wonderful is that there is a pace to it that you have to be ‘on it’. And I always have this feeling that as soon as I commit to where a ship is on its way, I try not to pay attention to it, so I can put my focus elsewhere. And if I can move my focus fast enough, I can get an advantage. And somehow, the game really rewards that kind of play.

Space War Arena | Battling

Space War Arena pits two space fleets that you can customize and build against each other to see who comes out on top. (Images courtesy of Nintendo).

Space War Arena | Destruction

OR: What modes are there in Space War Arena?

EA: There’s a single player campaign, where there’s many missions that you go through. Beating the missions unlocks new units. And then when you play through the entire single player campaign, you get about thirty units in your fleet. And then we have another game mode where you have six AIs with different skill levels and strategies that they take. And you can play them continuously over and over again. Every time you win against them, you evolve or level up each of your units. Usually, the units that were most involved in your victory. If you lose, you don’t get any EXP for your units. So what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, but what kills you, doesn’t help you. So as you’re playing through the single player campaign, if you come up against something too difficult [and] you hit a brick wall, take your units, go into Evolve, grind against an AI until they level up a little bit, and then go back and you should do much better.

OR: There is currently no online play for Space War Arena. Is that coming in the future?

EA: Yeah. Another two months, we’ll submit it. So I would say three months from now, it would be available as a patch free for everybody.

“We put every penny that we could get out little grubby fingers on into this game.

And now we’re trying to promote it ourselves and build it up.”

OR: And this game is currently available for Switch. Why did you pick the Switch as your first console for it?

EA: It just seemed like the right platform. It is in the living room, as a sort of traditional video game console, but it’s also mobile. I feel like it’s the perfect platform for two kids or more to play together. I think it brings people together on the couch and that’s- like I said eight thousand times already, that’s really the emphasis that I was going for with this game. I really emphasized me-versus-you. And so the Switch just felt perfect for it. And I didn’t want to do mobile or free-to-play. I really just wanted to make a video game that people can play together and enjoy. There is a real focus on the game system, not so much on the ‘fluff’ that is around it or the IP or the backstory. Although, there is, I think, a very interesting backstory to Space War Arena that I kind of keep back a little bit. We touch on it a little bit in the game, but I think there is a lot of future to it, because there is an emphasis on AI and consciousness and sentience. I’m a sci-fi fan, it’s a dream project for me. I’m really happy how it came out too.

OR: You also mentioned on Reddit that something you were looking at was to train your own AI, who could play as you when you’re offline. And that this is a perfect machine learning game. Could you elaborate a bit more on that? Why do you think it is a perfect machine learning game? How would you implement it to play when you’re not online?

EA: And so, a long time ago, 1999, I released a game called Small Ball Baseball on the PC, and then licensed it to Nokia [for the N-Gage]. That’s how I started my relationship with Nokia. But the way that the game worked, and it’s still running today,, you start your own baseball team for free. It’s the first free-to-play game that ever existed, at least in the United States. Anyway, you get a baseball team. You get thirteen little guys [and] they all have different skills, different strengths and weaknesses. But they’re not reported to you as metrics on a UI. You have to play with them and discover that this guy is a good pitcher or this guy knows how to hit. And you train them to emphasize their skills, and then you position them. And when you’re ready- you throw the switch and anybody can challenge your team anytime.

And when I first [experienced] that as a player, and getting an e-mail that right now somebody just played my team, and then I could watch the game, there’s something powerful about it. It felt like my team was out there representing me, and how well they did was directly proportional to my understanding of them and my time that I spent with them. And so instead of wasting time playing a video game, having fun for a moment and then turning it off and its all gone, with Small Ball Baseball, all the time you put into your players- it remains in your players. And the other thing is that when somebody would play my team and then beat the crap out of them, I was like ‘I’m gonna go after that guy.’ And then there’s this natural drama that happens.

So I fell in love with this idea of ‘I’m gonna work on something and make it better and better and then put it out in the world and let it do the best it can. Let me live my life, and then come back and see how it did. And adjust my strategy based on that. I’ve always loved that idea.’ Okay, put that aside for a second. One of the guys that worked on this game, his name is Lazlo. He is my age. He is so good at this game that it’s scary. I like to win sometimes, he’s untouchable. And I’m like ‘What is it? What does he do that is so-‘. You get lucky, you win sometimes. But if you want, he can dominate. And I love the idea of the game recording all of his moves, all of the situation, building a table, called a Bayesian database, of all the moves, and then using that to control strategy of an AI. So I have this dream that Lazlo plays two-hundred battles, and at the end of two-hundred battles, there is a virtual Lazlo that Lazlo can now put out in the world and play with other virtual players or other real players and you could see how it’s done. And he detects a weakness in his virtual Lazlo, he can bring it back and try to train it to overcome those weaknesses.

I love that play pattern. And the game is all the ships and the star bases- they are run by minds. There are no little guys in those ships. Nobody dies in this game. In fact, even when one of the ships explodes, their mind goes back to the base. They get reassembled and they’re alive again. And they learn from everything that they did. So that’s really what I wanted to do in the future for this game. And like I was mentioning to you before, the approach is solid gameplay system as the foundation, and then all of these gameplay modes and different ways of enjoying a game system like this could arise in the future.

Space War Arena | Ship Selection

There are a lot of different ships that you can build your fleet from in Space War Arena, and you can customize them as well through leveling gameplay against AI in the Evolve gameplay mode. (Images courtesy of Nintendo).

Space War Arena | Evolve

OR: Your game came out on February 28. What has been the response to it so far been like?

EA: I’m really happy with the reviews. There’s only like one review that’s annoying. Hopefully not more than one. So I think, on a review level, it’s doing quite well. I’m very proud of it. I see people enjoy it when they try it. So I’m bullish about it. We didn’t have the money to do a big marketing spend. We’re a little shocked. We put every penny that we could get out little grubby fingers on into this game.

And now we’re trying to promote it ourselves and build it up. I think one of the things that we’re considering is to do a free demo, but it’s two-player only. Can’t even play single-player. And I think that it might work, because it’s what I want people to feel: ‘How fun is this with my friend?’. And if I give them a free version of it where it’s all they can do, either they’re not going to play it or they are going to have to get their friend to play it, which is what I really want them to do.

OR: Do you plan on bringing [Space War Arena] to the Xbox One, the PlayStation 4, the Stadia, or PC?

EA: Yeah, I’m gonna get the online play going, get the Japanese version out. There’s a bunch of balancing that we still have to do based on real players playing finally. As soon as we get over this hump, we will get it out on all platforms. It’s Unity, so it will work everywhere for PC and Mac.

Space War Arena | Defeat

While you can only defeat your friends in person right now, an online multiplayer will be coming to Space War Arena. (Image courtesy of Nintendo).

OR: Final question- somebody who may not have heard of Space War Arena until now and is interested in picking it up, what do you have to say to them?

EA: Try it, you’ll like it. It’s the kind of game where it’s the gameplay that’s what’s valuable about it.

OR: Thank you.

Space War Arena is available now as a Nintendo Switch-exclusive.

What do you think of Space War Arena’s couch multiplayer-centric gameplay? What is your favorite type of ship to use in combat?

Let us know in the comments below!

About Quentin H.

I have been a journalist for oprainfall since 2015, and I have loved every moment of it. Do you want to do an interview? You can reach me at