With the ludicrously huge sci-fi playground of Galactic Civilizations 3 only recently moving out of Steam Early Access, you might be forgiven for thinking that Stardock Games would take the opportunity to have a bit of a lie down. Maybe a pina colada or two. Instead, they’ve just released the final version of another grand strategy epic, the fantasy 4X title Sorcerer King. While it’s set in the same universe as previous efforts Elemental: Fallen Enchantress and Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes, this time around things are a little bit different. You’ve already failed to save the world, for one. Oops. I recently spoke to Stardock CEO Brad Wardell, in an attempt to find out more.
GameWatcher: What was the decision behind this new take on the Elemental universe, which until now has been an interesting but more mechanically traditional 4X series?
Brad Wardell: We created this world, Elemental itself, over a number of years as sort of an offshoot of Galactic Civilizations, same universe just different time periods. If Elemental: War of Magic had been a success we would have had Elemental: Fallen Enchantress, and then maybe this would be Elemental: Sorcerer King. But since War of Magic had a really rough launch…
I think I was my own worst PR enemy on that, I’ve been back and played it and my disappointment has kind of faded, it’s not actually that bad. It’s just I was so hyped and ready for everyone to love it, and it came out and showed that we just weren’t ready… we’ve learned a lot about how games are made, advanced games are made since then. I didn’t realise how much involvement the video card makers have in these games, on these newer games AMD and Nvidia are here on site, and when we did War of Magic we had no idea how hard it was to make a PC game if you don’t have video driver guys around.
So anyway, War of Magic came out and it had a decent fanbase, and we built on that with Fallen Enchantress and its expansion Legendary Heroes, which were very traditional 4X strategy. You choose your kingdom, you build up and you take on other, identical kingdoms, who are playing the same game as you are. You sign treaties, you go to war and so on. And both those game were pretty well received. At that point we had been making these games for a long time, and in that time there had been lots of games in the genre that we like, Age of Wonders, Warlock, and lots of others. So the question was; do we do Fallen Enchantress 2, or do we take it in another direction? If we make another, we’re kind of another player in this already huge playground, but if we take it another way, we can kind of stand out. So that’s what happened with Sorcerer King, we had the idea of a game where you’ve already played a traditional 4X game and you’ve lost. Someone described it as a kind of 4X RPG, because you are building your kingdom, building your armies in the traditional sense, but then there’s that extra factor of having that super-powerful enemy figure ready to come down on you like a tonne of bricks.
GameWatcher: What were your inspirations for the more plot-focused approach in Sorcerer King, with this big bad guy hanging over everything?
Brad Wardell: A big part of it was Star Control 2. Have you played that game?
GameWatcher: Actually no, but I know you guys are rebooting that franchise.
Brad Wardell: Oh, it’s a classic. We are making a new game, yes. That was another thing, actually, we didn’t want Star Control to be our first game where we hired… because for Sorcerer King we actually brought in writers, paid a lot of attention to things like voice-acting where we could, so there’s just a lot of time and money that needs to be spent to build that up, and I didn’t want Star Control to be our first attempt at that stuff. So Sorcerer King was kind of a dry-run for that.
But yeah, the premise in Star Control 2 is that there was a war and Earth lost. Earth is now basically enslaved, and unfortunately the bad guys want to snuff out all the other races too. So you have this time limit where you need to go and build up this force, this alliance to take them on. And so that was a little bit of the inspiration, expect of course this is a fantasy game, but you still need to go and recruit allies, forge your equipment, train troops and build enough of a kingdom to take on the Sorcerer King. Or as an alternative, if you’re playing the evil way, replace him by building up your spell mastery and essentially trying to do what he was doing.
GameWatcher: You’ve got Cracked writer Chris Bucholz on board, writing the quest text, and it’s often very funny. The world in general feels a bit lighter in tone than previous entries in the series, what was the idea behind that more humorous approach?
Brad Wardell: Well one of the things is that because there are so many fantasy strategy games out there, they all take themselves very seriously. Fallen Enchantress also took itself very seriously. With Sorcerer King we didn’t want it to be a comedy, but we did want to make it slightly more tongue-in-cheek. The idea is we wanted people to read all the quest text and stuff, rather than when it’s so… like in a lot of recent fantasy games, everyone wants to be Tolkein, right? So there’s fifteen games like that, so why not take a different path? At the same time it conveys how important (the plot) is, but it’s more of an Army of Darkness feel. You’re basically Bruce Campbell in this game, when you read the text you can sort of hear his voice going “ah, I didn’t get every single word there, but I got the gist of it. Isn’t that good enough?” At the same time those films took their subject reasonably seriously, so that’s what we were aiming for – to be the Army of Darkness of strategy games.
GameWatcher: Sorcerer King doesn’t exactly take away all the complexity of the 4X genre, but there’s definitely a softening of the edges. Things like the tech tree have been scaled back and so on. Is that an attempt to make the game a bit easier for genre newcomers to get to grips with?
Brad Wardell: Actually it makes the game a lot more complicated in most respects. The rationale behind it was that in GalCiv 2 it’s one thing to research techs, get better weapons and so on, but in a game where it’s basically set in a medieval world it’s not that interesting to make you research metallurgy. Like, really? I have to learn metal-working? It’s too short of a tree. It’s something we ran into in the previous games, actually, how do you make one side’s tech tree different from another, really? It’s just a holdover from GalCiv being the granddaddy of the genre – like, of course we have to have a tech tree. So we wanted to move away from that, so we thought “let’s move our tech tree to each Sovereign, and we’ll call it a skill tree.” And this way, because it’s tied to each Sovereign, we can really go nuts. Have some really crazy, imbalancing stuff. Everyone always says “this talent is way too overpowered”, and here it’s like, “yup, it is”. Because you’re really powerful, and you’re going up against a god. You need to be powerful.
GameWatcher: I suppose that’s because you have that more plot-focused approach, and there’s no multiplayer balance to worry about, you can throw some wilder stuff in there.
Brad Wardell: Exactly. That’s the other thing that helps us stand out. It becomes clear pretty quickly that you, the player, are very powerful, as much so as you would be at the end of a traditional 4X game. In Fallen Enchantress, one of the ways the player could win is by building the Forge of the Overlord. In Sorcerer King, you start with the Forge. That’s how powerful you are. It’s just that you’re not fighting mortals any more, you’re fighting a god.
GameWatcher: This game, more than any other entry in the series thus far, has those role-playing elements, the quest-writing, the character classes and development, pushed to the fore. Have you ever considered, as a developer, trying your hand at the RPG genre?
Brad Wardell: Yeah, in time we’d love to do one. I mean it’s pretty far out now, with Sorcerer King, GalCiv 3, we’ve got Ashes of the Singularity coming up, Servo, Offworld Trading Company. But RPGs are out there that’s for sure, I love playing them. But I want to make an RPG I can play over and over again, and that’s something we strove for with Sorcerer King, it plays kind of like an RPG in that you can play it over and over, and it plays differently each time.
GameWatcher: In terms of the future of Sorcerer King, are you looking to replicate a similar DLC model to something like Fallen Enchantress, which had lots of mission packs, new factions and so on, or are you concentrating more on expanding the options for modders?
Brad Wardell: Well, we’re looking at both. We give away the mod tools, we have a pretty slick set of mod tools that comes with the game, for people that want to get crazy with them, and on top of that I’d like to add the Steam workshop support that we have with GalCiv 3. But yes, we do also plan on having a lot of DLC. We plan on working on Sorcerer King for a long time, and we’re usually able to do that through the sale of DLC. So we’ll put out 1.1, and we’ll put out a pack with new maps, or more quests or what have you. And every so often we’ll try to put together an expansion, we have lots of idea on where we can go with this game. We feel like we have such a solid start here, it was great to see the reviews start coming in and find out people like the game. I’ve had people say – which I have mixed feelings about because GalCiv is sort of my baby – that this is the best game we’ve ever made. Glad to hear that!
GameWatcher: This is the second major game you’ve put through Steam Early Access in the last year or two. I know you’ve always had playable Betas for your games as well. Is Early Access something that Stardock is very familiar and comfortable with using now?
Brad Wardell: Yeah, I mean I rely so much on Early Access feedback from the people that are going to buy the game. It was particularly valuable with Sorcerer King, because we were moving in that new direction. If we were making a standard fantasy 4X like Fallen Enchantress, which is a good game, but we would have a much clearer idea of how to handle that. With Sorcerer King there is a lot more pacing and balance. Like, how fast should the Sorcerer King get mad at you? You could ruin the game if you had him go “wow you built a city? I’m going to completely destroy you now.” That would probably not be a very well-received game, but on the other hand if he completely ignores you that’s a very boring game. So without that long Early Access that would have been a lot harder to nail down.
GameWatcher: As for the future of Stardock as a developer, how have you found the process of moving into the RTS genre with Ashes of the Singularity? Has that been a difficult transition to make?
Brad Wardell: Well, we did publish Sins of the Solar Empire, which we were pretty involved in its design, and in many respects Ashes of the Singularity is Sins on a planet. Hopefully marketing comes up with a better slogan than that. But that’s probably the best way to describe it. In fact our friends at Ironclad were visiting and we were showing them that, and they were like “yep, there’s the Empire tree, and these are like your phase lanes”. It’s very similar, but because it’s on the ground and you can’t compete with a galaxy in terms of size, because it’s all on one planet, it lends itself better to multiplayer and the singleplayer is a little easier to grasp. But yes, an RTS is different. Luckily we’ve been able to recruit some really talented people to work on it, and that’s made it much, much easier.
GameWatcher: Stardock’s quite a wide-ranging company at this point. I mean you’re involved not just in development and publishing of games, but also other software. What are your immediate aims for the future? Will we see the company move further towards publishing, now that you’ve got these two big titles out there?
Brad Wardell: As a developer and a publisher we don’t want to become a company that’s releasing thirty, forty games a year. If anything, and this is more on the business side of things, there’s two windows of opportunity we’ve seen; one is that the PC market will change dramatically in the next few years, and we’ve already seen that with things like the Oculus Rift, the Hololens, a lot of the virtual reality stuff. We’ve known about that for a while, so it’s not that we want to get into that market, but we do think there’s a window of opportunity to establish our games as brands with their own fanbases. So as the PC market changes, we’re in a position to move with that. We’re not stuck creaing stuff from scratch.
The other thing, and this will sound a little out of left field, is that Stardock has many different units - we have a game studio, then we have a software unit, an investment unit. And the software unit is in for some challenges, and we’ve seen that for a long time, because it’s been dedicated to things called desktop enhancements. Those are things that enhance your Windows experience, but as mobile’s taken over, as more and more people start to use tablets and phones, that market is going to decline. Windows 10 might be a real turning point. From our perspective the software side of the business is one of the things that’s been funding our investment. So the objective is to get these new titles out there generating income, so that they can offset the changes in the software market.
GameWatcher: You mentioned the Hololens and the Rift there. Perhaps at first glance virtual reality doesn’t quite fit the strategy model as well as other genres, but with the Hololens there’s some interesting potential. Is that something you’re keeping an eye on, as primarily a strategy developer?
Brad Wardell: Right now we’re watching it very carefully, but in the long term if we were to think about… a lot of people think that first-person shooters will do well with this kind of thing, but I would say that strategy games are more suited to these interfaces than shooters. Because in shooters, you have to move, right? Whereas for a strategy game it might be hard to imagine it right now, but give it five years, when the Hololens is the same price as a Kindle, like $100 bucks. I could imagine controlling an entire galaxy, sat in my computer chair, being able to turn around and control an entire galaxy in that way. We’re not working on anything like that at this point, but in the future I can see some kind of Galactic Civilizations spin-off, or an Ashes of the Singularity spin-off, where you’re managing this crazy strategy stuff that you just can’t do today.
GameWatcher: Like getting blown up by a Drengin in virtual reality?
Brad Wardell: Yeah, well let me give you an example. Did you ever play Populous? Imagine a Populous game done with Hololens or with the Oculus Rift. Now I’m actually shaping the world with my hands, picking people up and putting them down and stuff. That would be the first game I could imagine on hardware like this, I mean god games would be huge.
Many thanks to Brad for the chat. Sorcerer King is now available in its final form via Steam, after just under a year in Early Access. Our minions are still preparing our official review, so keep an eye out for that shortly.