There is perhaps no better example of a video game working in total concert with its title than Numantian Games' They Are Billions. You are the chairman of a fortified Victorian state nestled in the craggy foothills of a world gone bad. Survival is the only victory, so you prop up alabaster castle walls and recruit clockwork mechs and bronze pyromaniacs to hold the line. The enemy - a hungry nation of zombies rendered in the lumbering Dawn of the Dead sense - offers no quarter. They are fragile, they are brainless, but they fill every inch of your screen. The titillating glee of a perfectly executed Zerg swarm is part of gamer folklore, simply because it's both terrifying and hilarious to lose your shorts to the lowest unit on the totem pole. They Are Billions is, essentially, an uncut distillation of that feeling. You zoom your mouse wheel out to see an endless morass of zombies dotting your purview like pixels, and you know that you are truly, truly fucked.
"For me the attraction lay in the concept of Pandemia - a disease that spreads exponentially from a patient zero, taking down a whole city while their citizens contemplate in horror how they lived with a false sense of security. This is the feeling you get in the movie World War Z, where the fortified city of Jerusalem falls under the horde of zombies piling up against the city walls," says Jesús Arribas, director of Numantian Games. "I always found amusing that no computer game had explored that idea, cities struggling to survive after a zombie apocalypse. That is the cornerstone of They Are Billions."
They Are Billions is $25 on Steam, and is still very much in the dregs of Early Access. When it officially releases later this year, Numantian will have added an ambitious campaign where the player will slowly develop a network of besieged colonies that shine through the undead muck. For now, you can enjoy mechanics in a more rote survival mode, in which you pit your wits against a series of exponentially overwhelming zombie waves. The scale is super impressive - any screenshot of They Are Billions shows off more individual moving parts than the bloodiest Total War offenses - and Arribas tells me that Numantian constructed its own engine to bring that vision to life. ("We tried with Unity but after 400 units the game would dramatically slow down," he explains.)
Today, the game caps out at 20,000 zombies, which Arribas says is a soft lock to make sure all computers can run the software without self-combusting. Please trust us when we say 20,000 can absolutely feel like a billion when you're in the thick of it. The rest of the world seems to agree: as of this writing, They Are Billions is the ninth most trafficked game on Twitch, lapping longstanding institutions like Minecraft, Heroes of the Storm, and World of Warcraft. It's a trend that reminds me of Darkest Dungeon, another hard-as-nails indie strategy game that caught on without any support from a major publisher. Darkest Dungeon revealed the perverse joy in watching a streamer's meticulous raiding party die a silent, cruel death in the catacombs of a godforsaken mansion. Frankly, that schadenfreude is even more spectacular in They Are Billions. "There is a guilty pleasure in watching a horde of infected annihilating a colony that took someone hours of game to build in seconds," says Arribas. "Just wait and see how you feel when is your Colony being crushed."
One of the things I appreciate about They Are Billions is how effectively it resurrects traditional real-time strategy, or RTS, mechanics. This is a game with build orders, macro unit management, dovetailing tech trees and nervy resource allocation. You plunk down a barracks, recruit an army, and send it out to war - a sensation that should trigger the dopamine synapses of any grognard PC gamer. It's funny how outmoded some of those ideas are now, in our era of hybrid MOBAs and micro-transactional champions. The cynic in me believes that the reason we haven't seen a new StarCraft or Command & Conquer is that the powers that be haven't established exactly how to monetize those paved-over mechanics. Numantian, to their credit, has resisted those inclinations so far. "We wanted to bring back the best of what the classic RTS had to offer, as we could see how they have been drifting into multiplayer tactic battles," says Arribas.
"In They Are Billions you can manage a colony with thousands of citizens, hundreds of buildings and an army as big as you can create to face the threat of 20,000 zombies, all in a seamless and fluid game experience," he continues. "That is what we missed more from more recent RTSes that seemed to be too dependent on the player’s performance or the player’s skill to memorize and frantically execute dozens of key commands."
He's right. The gratification of taking a large federation of troops and smashing them into a different-colored federation of troops has been lacking for far too long. As PC Gamer Editor-in-Chief Evan Lahti describes it, "They Are Billions is an RTS turtler's dream." Finally, a developer that embraces our latent desires to build high and wide! However, the game's popularity on Twitch signals an appeal that goes beyond grizzled old dudes reliving their greatest Supreme Commander victories. Clearly, young people are enjoying the journey too, which is something that the popular streamer Sl1pg8r, who's been playing a lot of They Are Billions, is theorizing about.
"I think there's an entire generation of younglings that don't even know about RTS and that's helping spark interest in They Are Billions," he says, in an interview with Glixel. "Considering those new people think it's the new hotness, and not old and busted."
Perhaps he's right, and Numantian is about to usher in a second golden age of RTS. The games business is notoriously cyclical, and plenty of us are relishing the chance to paint rectangles over sprites again. But regardless of any long-term projection, it's awesome that people are getting excited about a standout project that's steeped in this particular thread of PC heritage. Our RTS glory days are within reach, all it took was for someone to figure out how to generate 20,000 zombies at once.