Mike Bowden: First of all, with the game coming out very soon, how excited are the team right now?
Andrew Grierson: We’ve entered a point which is probably familiar to most game studios where there’s a fine mix of exhaustion and excitement. The hours are growing longer but at the same time things are finally coming together. It’s great to walk around the studio and see people smiling and showing off their cool new features and final artwork. There’s also a lot of excitement about what’s coming - everyone is crafting their lists of things they want to add in after release.
For those of our readers living in caves with 56kbps Internet connections, can you give us a quick recap of the basic outline of what Saga is all about?
Andrew Grierson: Saga places each player in the role of a commander of a growing city-state. As the ruler of their own lands they need to build up their city both economically and militarily. To do so players send their troops on quests and campaigns, gaining experience, treasure, and new gear. As players get deeper into the game they also have the option to get involved in the global war effort their faction faces. Doing so opens up opportunities for more PVP, espionage, and greater rewards.
If you could let Strategy Informer in on one tiny secret about the game that you haven’t even told your dog, what would it be?
Andrew Grierson: I had to get approval to put this in. Can’t believe they let it go. So here you go: we’re aligning the factions into two sides. Orcs and Dark Elves together will comprise The Brotherhood, while Dwarves, Elves and Humans/Giants will comprise The Order. Those are the new sides, which drive the new storyline for Saga. The conflict is focused, your PvP goals are clear.
Seriously now, how difficult is it to incorporate RTS elements into a purely user-controlled, networking environment compared to say, an online FPS? Is it “same thing, different code” or is it as challenging as it sounds?
Andrew Grierson: Creating the network architecture for SAGA was a lot of fun but as you’ve hinted has also caused a lot of headaches. It’s definitely not as easy as that of your standard FPS, but at the same time there are some areas which were easier to develop than say your average MMORPG. With Saga we’re somewhat of a hybrid – by this I mean we have the MMO code in place for several aspects but for others such as the battle system we often got away with more traditional networking methods.
The game has been in open Beta since July. What did the team learn from such an experience and how will it affect the final build?
Andrew Grierson: Beta 1 was a great success in two ways - we were able to identify our strengths and also our weaknesses. We were pleased to see that much of the game design functioned exactly how we’d intended and showed us that MMORTS is thrilling and addictive, but perhaps more importantly we found several areas where Saga needed to change. When a game is altogether original and unique, you find that you have a steep learning curve as a game developer. Inevitably, it’s not perfect the first time around. Our player base has been very helpful in identifying the areas where we needed to rehash our plans and come up with better systems and solutions. We’ve done that and are excited to see the response to the significant improvements we’ve made to the game both graphically and in the overall gameplay.
Staying with Betas, I recently read that the game has now gone into its second Beta phase as of November 9th or that was at least when it was announced. What are you specifically looking for this time around that you didn’t learn initially?
Andrew Grierson: Beta 2 hasn’t actually begun yet so you still have time to sign up for it at www.playsaga.com – we’ve currently shut down the beta servers prior to releasing all the changed content and features. In addition, in Beta 2 we plan to focus much more on balance and spend a lot of time on polish.
What in your opinion sets Saga aside from the competing rabble from a design point of view? What’s it got that the others haven’t?
Andrew Grierson: There have been several forays into the MMORTS market. Most were cancelled before release due to design issues – a few projects have made a release but there are some inherent issues which keep many of the bigger studios from releasing MMORTS titles. We’ve come up with solutions that we think work really well and in the end create a solid game experience for those with a taste for MMO and a passion for RTS. One of the big hurdles many projects face is the question “how do we deal with both the casual and the hardcore player”? Another is “how do we create a feeling of reality and risk in a game where your ‘character’ – or kingdom in our case - is always online and yet prevent players from griefing or destroying your nation while you are offline”? Saga allows for all of these players to exist in the same world. If you’re interested in simply enjoying building up your kingdom you can do that successfully in Saga without opening yourself up to the PVP heavy side of the game. On the flip side, if you are in it to conquer your enemies then you have a host of options which will allow you to get deep into the fray. Sort of analogous to the PvE and PvP servers in MMORPGs, we’ve put them together and allow for players of both attitudes.
What happens to your kingdom if you say, go on holiday for a month or actually participate in something other than sitting in front of your PC? Won’t your world be completely ravaged?
Andrew Grierson: Saga was carefully designed with this issue in mind. Enemy players are limited in what they can do to your nation when you’re not online. There are portions of your nation which you can place into increasingly dangerous situations, with the potential for increased gains, but on the whole it is more or less impossible to come back to your home city burnt to the ground after a vacation or if you had a busy week at work. Inherent in this system are protections from mass espionage attacks and also methods for dealing with players who would want to create nations simply for gathering free resources while never playing. During the first beta we were really happy with how well the system worked.
From a design point of view, how difficult is it to keep the world fresh and interesting especially as it’s a world full of Orcs and Elves which are very familiar characters in the fantasy genre? Tell us about the challenges involved in keeping a well worn genre fresh and interesting.
Andrew Grierson: There are two sides to the traditional fantasy coin. On the one side we have a familiarity which makes entering Saga easier for players – there’s enough new in Saga that the last thing we needed was an altogether alien world to get accustomed to. For example, when a player sees an orc, they generally know what it is, and have a rough idea of how an orc should behave in a fantasy-game environment. On the other side we face the battle of making our orcs interesting to players. For us this comes down to making each troop in the game have interesting abilities for both questing and PVP. Additionally there’s an attachment players gain with their troops as they level and gain bigger and better items. Players can actually name their units so once you’ll see players fighting with not just another band of Orc Soldiers but instead something like the “Bleeding Marauders” who have cool glowing weapons and fancy armor. At this point they are no longer just any group of orcs…they’re *your* orcs. There is of course the third side of the coin – the story and quest lines. This is an area players haven’t really experienced yet in Saga. The initial Beta was full of temporary quests and was more or less devoid of any of the story elements. This should all begin to change as we roll out the story lines for Beta 2.
What design element are you most pleased with to date and why?
Andrew Grierson: That’s a really tough question to answer. There are a lot of systems that have worked out really well, and in many cases better than I expected. Perhaps one of the most pleasing is how Saga supports so many play styles. From casual to hardcore, we seem to please everyone fairly well. We were really worried about this but we’ve found Saga to be far more robust than we expected.
Conversely, what part are you least happy with? Have you felt maybe limited by the tech/game engine or has something not really gone as the team had hoped and has had to be scrapped?
Andrew Grierson: Saga has gone through its fair share of bumps and bruises along the development road. I’d have to say the most frustrating part has been areas of the engine which we know we want to rewrite but simply don’t have the time to do so right now. It’s definitely frustrating to have a vision of how a system could work but having to settle for how it must work due to an engine limitation. The good news is that MMOs never really reach a point of being done. We intend to get to those systems as soon as we can in post-release so we can polish things and get them exactly where we want them.
The game was rumored to have no subscription fees but be funded by expansion packs. Is that still the case?
Andrew Grierson: It is. We believe in the booster pack model we’ve set up.
Finally, are we any closer to a final release date? Can you stick your neck out for us?
Andrew Grierson: We have our internal milestones set but the best I can give you right now is we intend to be released during the first quarter of 2008.