Worlds of Magic sees two indie developers teaming up and taking to Kickstarter to create a spiritual successor to a classic PC strategy game: Microprose’s Master of Magic. We talked to Leszek Lisowski of Wastelands Interactive and Aaron Ethridge of newcomers Lucid Dreamers about why a 1994 4X game is such an inspiration, get a detailed insight into the features of Worlds of Magic and discussed the excitement and terror of crowdfunding.
Strategy Informer: To start off, could you give our readers an overview of the features of Worlds of Magic?
Aaron Ethridge: Absolutely. It’s really a long list of features. I think the first one that really needs to be mentioned is that we are working hard to give birth to a real spiritual successor to Master of Magic. That may not seem like a feature to some, but it definitely is to us.
Once you get past that foundation, we’ve got 10 leaders, very much like in the original Master of Magic. You pick a faction leader that has preset skills and spells, and the others then play against you as A.I. opponents. You’ll also be able to create your own sorcerer to rule over your faction.
Right now we have six different factions, four of which are decided, two of which are still open to the public. We’re going to have votes to decide on the last two factions that make it into the game, merely because, with such limited space, we want to make sure we’re giving people exactly what they really want.
The factions play differently, again much like in the original. When you pick a faction, to a certain extent you’re picking a play style. Each of those factions has a number of units, and we have units that don’t fit into any particular faction that you’ll encounter as guardians of particular places or monsters wandering the map.
We’ve expanded upon the whole idea of magic with Worlds of Magic. We offer twelve different spell circles, where spells are sorted by the element they derive their power from, such as fire or water, or the effect that the spell has, such as destruction or augmentation. The reason we decided to do this was that it allowed players to more finitely control the spells they have access to so they can further define their sorcerer. They can create a leader who has access to certain spell circles, pick a faction and really build a play style.
We’re going to have over 300 spells in the game; these are going to be on both the Battle and World Maps. Some spells will affect units and deal direct damage. Meanwhile terraforming spells improve the land around where you’ve built a city.
We’ve added a number of different Planes to explore. We have the Prime Material Plane which is basically a fantasized natural planet, and then six Elemental Planes which are twisted by elemental energies such as fire.
The game has a number of special units that you can recruit or encounter. We’ve got heroes and champions that you can equip with magical items or equipment. All the units in the game gain experience, so even the humble starting units, if you level them up to Elite status, they can be a real fighting force. And then there are things we call Titans - mega-beasts that wander the earth causing all kinds of havoc.
Sorry if I’ve run on [laughs] but that’s a very basic overview to be honest. I could go on and on!
Strategy Informer: With Master of Magic being such a driving influence on the game, can you explain exactly what it was about that title that so inspired you, and why you feel it hasn’t really been matched since?
Aaron Ethridge: Master of Magic was unique in that it was the first fantasy 4X game I had ever seen. It dates back to when the idea of 4X as a genre was still relatively new. It had a lot of charm - I don’t know how else to describe it - that other games have never captured. The idea that you are running a fantasy empire and using magic instead of technology to get a military edge - that in and of itself was appealing.
With the randomly generated maps, every time you created a new game, you’re wondered what lay just beyond the fog of war. Is there a temple over there with a Hero captured in it, or am I going to find a spell book?
I had been a big Master of Orion fan, so it following in those same sort of footsteps, where the races define a play style and you had so many options, created a huge amount of replayability. Just the magical research was a fascinating element. You’re in a battle, you’re shorthanded - you can summon fire elementals. That is something you just don’t get in a lot of other 4X games. In Civilization, you brought your army and that was basically what you had. In Master of Orion, you didn’t have backup that you could just pull out of your pocket. That was something that Master of Magic offered that was very, very unique, and I just fell in love with it.
I don’t think my experience was unique. I think for a lot of people, when they first encountered Master of Magic it stuck with them. It was the first time that 4X had ever been done in a fantasy setting and I think it stands out as being really the only true 4X fantasy game, in my opinion. That will start a huge argument! There are obviously other contenders - Age of Wonders is an excellent series - but as a pure 4X game, Master of Magic is the quintessential example of that.
That was one of the driving forces behind me getting involved in a project like this: I wanted a sequel to Master of Magic. I personally don’t feel that anyone has captured the magic of Master of Magic in the same way and that is what we’re trying to do.
Strategy Informer: One of the key features in the original and in Worlds of Magic is the use of procedural generation to create the World Maps. How difficult is it to create a world generation system that produces something inherently playable?
Aaron Ethridge: At the basic level, it’s actually relatively simple, mainly because it is based on some mathematical algorithms that are old and very well established. We’re using the Diamond-Square algorithm to produce our base terrain, and the original used something very similar.
So that part is simple. What is complex is that as you’re building more realistic terrains, you’re thinking of things in terms of biomes, i.e. swamps and deserts don’t end up side by side in nature so it shouldn’t happen in the game. But say you have a race - this isn’t official, I’m speaking theoretically - of Lizardmen whose home terrain is swamp, and you have huge areas of swamp then none on the rest of the map, because that’s what happens in real life. You’ve painted that race of Lizardmen into a corner of the map.
So you have to take solid procedural generation that is spitting out realistic terrain and then kind of paint over it with a certain amount of random and unnatural elements to create something pseudo-realistic, but that works for what you’re trying to achieve in the game. That is where the art is.
Then you have to layer on top of that the placement of all the world features - dungeons, fallen temples, evil wizard towers - and weave them in with the starting city locations to make sure you have enough and they are all placed with access to excitement, but not right across the street from their immediate neighbours. That’s where the challenge is.
Strategy Informer: You talked about the sheer amount of units and spells in the game. How do you go about creating those individual elements? Is it something where everyone throws an idea into the ring, or do you have specific in-game functions in mind that you design them to meet?
Aaron Ethridge: It’s a little bit of both. In order to make a faction viable, it has to have a certain set of units that work together, so that you can build an effective fighting force. If you have a faction, for instance, without any ranged units, that’s incredibly limiting. We don’t want to boil it down to “You’ve got two melee units, you’ve got a ranged unit, a siege unit, two different cavalry units” and so on - we want to be able to express ourselves imaginatively with greater range than that - but we have to take those considerations in mind to ensure that the end result is a balanced faction that a player can use to build a functioning, viable army.
So it is a little bit of both. We have people who throw ideas into the hat. We are very dedicated to the idea of getting fan feedback for this game. A lot of Master of Magic fans are very dedicated to the idea of this kind of gameplay and so you can get a lot of good, insightful feedback from them. But we do have certain regulations we have to fall between to make sure a faction is playable.
A lot of this is tweakable. Related to all this is our decision to go with the D20 system for our tactical combat, which has raised a lot of eyebrows. People have asked us why we decided to do that. The fact of the matter is that, yes, the D20 system is a roleplaying ruleset. However, if you were to take a look at the ruleset and ask what percentage of it deals with turn-based tactical combat, you’ll find that a vast majority of the D20 system is actually focused on that. That’s one of the reasons we decided to go with it.
It also offers things such as challenge ratings, which give us a base power level for a unit, where it boils down all the numbers for that particular entity and gives us a starting point for balance. We can then make units that are comparable in challenge rating, play test them and fine-tune that balance, conceivably saving ourselves thousands of man hours.
How does this relate back to the faction units? It’s very simple. When we are laying out our factions and we have a unit a little over- or under-powered, we can use the D20 stats to tweak it and give us a foundation to build balance.
Strategy Informer: Staying on factions, you talked earlier about how each necessitates a different play style, and one that you focused on on the Kickstarter page was the Undead. Could you talk us through how the game plays differently through the lens of that particular faction?
Aaron Ethridge: Sure. The Undead are an extreme faction, they are going to play very differently from the other races. A lot of undead in games are just people in a zombie costumes, and that’s not what we wanted at all. The Undead are out for the extermination of all life - they want to overthrow all life and destroy it. So this fundamentally changes some of the gameplay elements.
For instance, diplomacy. The Undead are totally undiplomatic! They’re not going to make a deal with you, they want you dead. They don’t pay taxes, they have no need for gold. When you start off with Undead as your faction, you’re not going to generate any gold by default. Yet you may want gold, because you can hire mercenaries in the game who, whether they believe in the destruction of life or not, will work with you if the price is right. In order to get gold, you have to set up a mine or raid towns - you have to go where the gold is.
Only on the Plane of Death can the Undead simply found a city. On the Prime Material Plane, they have to send a unit to corrupt a tile of the World Map and fill it with negative energy to allow an Undead city to be built on that location. You can expand it by corrupting other tiles, but it’s an uphill battle because on the Prime Material Plane the balance of energies is tilted towards the side of Life. So it’s a constant struggle to fight against that, although if you become powerful enough in the late-game you can change that balance with world altering spells.
Another thing is that the Undead don’t produce or consume food as normal races do. They produce negative energy, and feed off that, so a certain percentage of their population has to be dedicated towards that. That’s one of the cases where, although it’s different, the mechanic is more in line with the other factions.
The Undead are at the extreme end of the spectrum, with Humans being at the other end. Elves and Dwarves will play slightly differently, but they and Humans are the kind of “meat and potatoes” races that will play in a similar manner. Other races will fall somewhere inbetween the two extremes, with some unique mechanics.
Strategy Informer: The recurrent issue with 4X games has always been the late-game: the amount of micro-management required by that stage and also just keeping things interesting. Are there steps you’ve taken to ensure that Worlds of Magic remains compelling as you get to the later stages of a game, especially considering some of the huge World Maps you’ve talked about?
Aaron Ethridge: This is something we’ve got our eye on and are very aware of. We’ve got some ideas, but at the current stage of development we can’t really talk about specifics, because we have made no firm decision.
We’ve got a lot of ideas floating about, one of them being that as the game progresses we open up more and more earth-shattering, game-changing spells. so the player has access to things that will speed along the end game. Master of Magic to a certain extent did that with the Spell of Mastery, and we have an implementation of that that we call the Spell of Domination. That’s one of the things we plan to implement.
Another idea is to develop A.I.s that can handle parts of the micro-management for you. Part of the doldrums of the late-game is checking city after city after city, when you have a set pattern of tweaks for them. Perhaps we can offload that onto a city management A.I. Some people feel that may take away from the game, but it will be optional. Then you will have a semi-automated city management that gives you updates in your message logs, so the game continues to move right along and you can focus more on military victories than food micro-management.
Strategy Informer: Talking about yourselves for a moment: Wasteland Interactive have got quite a back catalogue of strategy titles, while Aaron, although he’s got a long history in software development, is relatively new to game development. How did you guys hook up? What was the attraction of working together?
Leszek Lisowski: In the second half of last year, I had seen that Aaron was working on his game while it was under another name, and was being made with a different engine. But when I saw what he was doing I was impressed - or rather by what I read, because the graphics looked bad!
Aaron Ethridge: Yeah, it did not look good!
Leszek Lisowski: Aaron is a great programmer, but he has a complete lack of graphic skills. So I talked with him and proposed making the game with Unity. We’re not making a AAA title, to be completely clear. We are an indie developer with a small budget and that was why we went to Kickstarter.
The concept and what Aaron had already done with the project made it something that I wanted to be involved in. Master of Magic was a game from my youth, one that I had always wanted to do, and I had a background in making computer games so I had already made all the mistakes [laughs]. Our titles are niche games, but pretty complicated in terms of design and coding, so I knew what things we should be careful about and what we should avoid, what we can’t promise, stuff like that. Strategy games are a pretty difficult market, and customers of that genre are very demanding.
So I started talking with Aaron, and after a couple of emails we decided to work together on this project. Personally, Worlds of Magic is the project that has excited me the most in my entire development career, and working with Aaron is a great pleasure.
Strategy Informer: Kickstarter has become a huge deal in game development funding in a very short space of time, but we’ve already seen a level of unpredictability to it, with some high profile projects failing to find funding or just squeaking past their goals. With 20 days to go [at the time of the interview] and over halfway to your goal, can you give us an idea what the experience of using Kickstarter is like on a personal basis?
Aaron Ethridge: Exciting and terrifying!
Leszek Lisowski: Yes. I’m emailing Aaron all the time, asking “will we make it?” and he’s telling me yes, we will. When we started the Kickstarter, we tried to be realistic. We really did the homework and spent a lot of time asking ourselves what we can do and how much it would cost. Some people have said that we won’t be able to do this kind of game for the money we’re asking. That’s true! The money we are asking for is mostly to fund the game’s assets. We went to Kickstarter to speed up development. We could try to make this game using spare money from other projects, but that would take much longer.
Aaron Ethridge: I don’t want to sound like a commercial for Kickstarter, but I love the idea of it. Running your own is both exciting and terrifying, as I said, and we did put in a lot of homework and then a whole lot of work writing the pitch and creating screenshots. We’ve seen smaller projects trying to do something similar to us, such as Mage’s Initiation which was a throwback to the Quest for Glory games, and were very successful in their funding.
I think that’s because, for people in our demographic, the games of our youth were incredible. I feel we lived through one of the golden ages of PC gaming, but since then it’s been muddled by flashy graphics and exciting intro videos while the core of the games have lost something. So you see developers from the past returning, such as Richard Garriott, bringing back old concepts that may have a little bit of dust on them, keeping the core of what made those games great while modernising the graphics and so on. I think a lot of the projects doing that have been successful.
Kickstarter is a good system for putting developers in touch with fans. It builds a feeling of community. Almost every single one of our backers loves Master of Magic just like we do. They want to see Worlds of Magic become what I want it to become. I think that’s a wonderful thing.
You can find out more about Worlds of Magic at the game’s official website.