When Nick “DarthVader” Thomadis quit working on the highly-regarded DarthMod series for Total War - a bit of a huff after perceived slights from Creative Assembly and growing fatigue with the series as a whole - it was easy to think we’d seen the last of the outspoken modder.
Instead, he got an opportunity to make a game of his own. The result, Ultimate General: Gettysburg, would prove to be one of 2014’s best games and perhaps the year’s best wargame. For Thomadis, it was less vindication than it was the culmination of a lifetime’s passion.
Thomadis was an opinionated and sometimes blustering persona on the Total War forums, someone as passionate as he was talented. After his clashes with Creative Assembly and departure from the modding community, you might expect Thomadis to claim vindication and do a little “I told you so” crowing about his latest achievement.
But during a slightly scratchy phone call from his home in Athens, the 39 year-old Thomadis comes across as more self-critical and thoughtful than his Darth Vader alter-ego ever did. He’s humble about his work as a modder, perhaps even a bit deprecating.
“I had reached let's say the peak of this ‘career,’” he says, and you can hear the eye-roll in his voice. “Some things were written about me. People mentioned my mods and they were enjoying them. So I was very fond of the game industry, and I was searching to find something there.”
That’s when Maxim Zasov, the CEO of the developer Game-Labs, contacted Thomadis and offered him a chance to make a game of his own, with a small team and development budget. Zasov’s sole directive was that Thomadis make a game that any wargaming novice could play and enjoy.
A more civilized age
When he sat down to think about what he wanted to do, Thomadis had a couple options that he was excited about.
“My first idea was to make a game about ancient Greece. I thought as an era it would be interesting, and I am Greek and I know a lot about this era and its history. The other proposal was to make a game about the American Civil War, and it was one of my favorites also. I like this period a lot, and have read about it. So I didn't think about it much. I didn't want to push my agenda. If it was this era that Game Labs required, I would do it and enjoy it,” he says.
Both periods spoke to Thomadis’ interest in historical, premodern warfare, when massed formations of soldiers clashed in the open field. As a child, he would even sketch the kind of combat he found so riveting.
“I don’t know why I was so interested,” he admits, then pauses. “They were heroic times. When you watch movies, you get an intense feeling of how it was then to be a soldier. Maybe I wouldn't try it in reality. I think it would be better in a game than to do it myself. To stand like an idiot, not trying to find cover, just because someone tells you to stand in a line and shoot? And you do it? Insane, if you think about.”
The DarthMod series was clearly inspired by this love of spectacle. Thomadis crammed every possible ounce of historical detail, every last brass button and length of gold braid, into his mods. But Thomadis is also someone who cares deeply about realism, and historical truth.
The Total War mods ran up against the limitations of the Total War games themselves. But this time his limitations were both technical and conceptual. How could he capture the spectacle of Civil War combat without undertaking more than his small team could handle? How could he capture the tactical realities of the period without making his game entirely inaccessible to the kind of people that that Zasov and Game-Labs wanted to reach?