We strategy connoisseurs have had a pretty good time of late. XCOM won hearts late last year, we've had news of a new Stronghold Crusader game and, this year, Age of Wonders is set to grace monitors for the first time in nearly a decade. Early images suggest this one's a looker having made the leap to 3D, while Triumph are developing the game with support from Notch. With interest piqued, Strategy Informer fired some questions in the direction of Triumph Studio's co-founder and Development Director of Age of Wonders 3, Lennart Sas.
Strategy Informer: It’s been 10 years since the last Age of Wonders game, why bring the franchise back now?
Lennart Sas: As the game that started our company, Age of Wonders remained very dear to us and we wanted to get back to it at some point. While we were working on Overlord we recharged with new ideas for a future Age of Wonders games. It’s funny that thematically both series are quite similar, in both games you’re playing leaders of fantasy realms, though of course the game play could hardly vary more. Still, certain ideas like putting the leader characters central can be attributed to the Overlord period.
Of course there’s also a business reason. The license to the series’ original publisher expired. This allowed us to do a digital re-release of the series on sites like Steam and GoG in 2010. We were very happy with how that was received; I think the original games now made more money in royalties from digital sales than from the original retail games for us. Thanks everybody that supported us in that way. The core PC games market seems to be going through resurgence; it’s great to be back with Age of Wonders during these times.
Strategy Informer: So you’ve been in development for a while without announcing it. Why take so long to announce the game?
Lennart Sas: Well, after ten years of waiting we thought the fans wouldn’t mind to wait a little longer! But seriously you’re right to make that comment. The games industry is getting more transparent. Through Kickstarter more gamers are expecting games to be announced at an earlier stage than before with them having active input throughout development. We went the old fashioned route: prototyped and implemented essential gameplay and tech systems before announcing. The advantage of this old way is that we are able to carefully lay down the foundations and there’s less chance of us promising things that later change. A side effect is that we’re able to make bigger impact with something of substance to show on announce and making that a basis to discuss with the fans - there’s still plenty of room for input.
Strategy Informer: You’ve dubbed it a modern reimaginging of AoW, how much will fans of the Age of Wonders games recognise?
Lennart Sas: Age of Wonders III absolutely stays true to its turn-based roots, with its mix of sweeping fantasy strategy, empire building and role playing mechanics. The game maintains its focus on detailed combat mechanics and multiplayer modes. Signature features such as the terrain modification and tactical combat system all remain.
Next to keeping the core gameplay systems intact, we also want to recapture the atmosphere of the originals, especially feel of the first one which many fans thought was the most magical. We are very happy to have gotten a lot of the original team together, including externals such as musician Michel van den Bos and writer Raymond Bingham.
Strategy Informer: Equally, what are some of the more drastic new changes?
Lennart Sas: The biggest change is that we made the leader characters more central than before. Players are no longer limited to playing wizards, but can chose to be a wide range of RPG-like character classes that include Warlord, Theocrat, Rogue, Sorcerer, or the tech focused Dreadnought, along with a choice of race and specializations that include spheres of magical. The skills coming from your leaders not just determine your personal or magical abilities, but develop your entire empire. Basically your empire is an extension of you. As a Warlord you create Spartan civilizations, as a Rogue you lead a rogue state squeezing out your own population while destabilizing the realms of others using stealth and acts of terror.
We have also changed the alignment system. No longer plundering Elves are fixed to a “good” alignment, this now changes according to player actions. An Orc Warlord playing like Mother Theresa will see his character’s relations to the outside world improve. Together with the leader customization, this change allows for to a stronger leader role-playing experience and varied gameplay, where your customized character and actions have an impact in the game world on many levels.
Strategy Informer: What was the rationale behind going 3D? Did you ever consider sticking with 2D?
Lennart Sas: There was no doubt in our minds that 3D would greatly benefit Age of Wonders 3. It doesn’t just make the game world more immersive – battles are now proper clashes between armies as opposed to chess boards - it also helps us to better represent player actions and customizations in terrain and the characters. The race-class combos probably weren’t possible to visualize if it wasn’t for 3D. The map views can contain more information with the players smoothly for player to smoothly scroll and zoom in a 3D map.
Strategy Informer: How different is the turn-based strategy landscape now to ten years ago, or even a couple of years back?
Lennart Sas: Turn-based games have been making a comeback; I think there hasn’t been a revival like this since the golden age of the genre in the mid-nineties. Some of the biggest strategy series are turn-based (e.g. Civilization and Heroes of Might and Magic) or feature significant turn based parts (e.g. the Total War series). We’ve seen X-Com return, and many phone and tablet games feature turn-based mechanics. At the same time the classic RTS genre isn’t as dominant as it used to be. Starcraft II sits alone at the top and the MOBA subgenre has taken a large part of the pie. Part of the reason is cyclical, with niche genres making a comeback with the rise of digital distribution.
Turn based games, especially 4X games, allow for a massive scope and variation with many ways for developers to implement all the aspects of running an empire. And as gamers mature, they might favor slower paced games that can be played in bite-sized chunks.
Strategy Informer: How unique will each of the computer-controlled AI components feel to fight? Have you spent time giving each of them a sense of personality?
Lennart Sas: Age of Wonders is a game about fantasy war, so rival AI Players have the intent to ultimately crush you. Some will go about it by being ruthless, using scorched earth tactics and not caring about their alignment. Others take a turtle approach by first building up their empire before making a move to steamroll the world.
We’re making great advances in AI, the advances in CPU power over the last 10 years is greatly helping with us with this. We have also reduced some game play AI bottlenecks like transport ships that were easy to sink by human players. All units now get their own ship and are able to use most of their abilities. Also Automatic Combat AI now uses the full tactical AIs, this also allows players to reply battles using the full 3D engine.
Strategy Informer: How has the UI changed? Is there an element of having to ensure it’s reasonably streamline?
Lennart Sas: Since Age of Wonders Shadow Magic got released, pc game interfaces have advanced a lot of course. Our goal is that strategy fans shouldn’t need any form of manual to play the game and feel right at home. We mostly stick to the genre’s interface conventions a have carefully layered information and options so screens aren’t obtrusive. Information is available via abundant mouse-over popup screens, to view descriptions but also see which modifiers affect resources or units for example.
Strategy Informer: Has having Notch help fund the game had any drastic impact on the game from a design perspective?
Lennart Sas: Notch is very busy with his own company and projects, he’s pretty much hands off on the project. It’s great to have him attached to the project as both an investor and a fan though and an inspiration on how he looks at games and interacts with his community. We’re working our asses off so we don’t disappoint him just like our other fans.
Strategy Informer: Has that situation given you freedom a publisher wouldn't have been able to?
Lennart Sas: It’s hard to say what would have happened if a publisher had gotten involved early, perhaps the next Age of Wonders would be a F2P iOS game! (not that we have anything against these type of games though). Triumph has always created original games and probably has experienced a larger degree of freedom compared to other studios for most of its titles. What we do notice is better interaction with the fans now the game is announced as we don’t have a publisher’s PR department breathing down our necks.
Strategy Informer: How much freedom will players be given with the toolset?
Lennart Sas: The community has created fantastic levels and mods over the last ten years, and has helped keep the series alive. Good tools have been on our radar since we started working on the project. For Age of Wonders III and its expansions, we plan on rolling out level and campaign editors to the community, either with the game or soon afterwards. We're looking into ways of opening up other areas of the game to modding as well, though we haven't made any final decisions on how far that will go.
It's fortunate indeed the next Age of Wonders isn't a free-to-play iOS game (not that we have anything against those games), and with Triumph developing independently, Age of Wonders 3 looks to be shaping up quite nicely. As is 2013 for strategy fans.