I've been a big fan of the 4X genre since I first got my hands on the first Master of Orion. Since then fans of the genre have gotten a somewhat inconsistent stream of games. Next month will see the release of Sword of the Stars II and I was lucky enough to score this interview with Chris Steward, the producer of the game.
Could you provide us with a high level back story of the universe the game is set in and the major plot points from the first game that will impact Sword of the Stars II?
Not a small question! I’ll try and give an overview, but I encourage people to check out the SotS wiki
and our own messageboards
, where Arinn Dembo, our lead writer and the mind behind all our races, maintains books and books of background information on all of them.
The short version is that in roughly a couple of hundred years from now, the human race has gotten its act together, but we almost didn’t. The Reconstruction Age takes place and we get our planet back into shape, we work together to keep war and strife to a minimum, and better yet, we accidentally discover a drive technology that can take us to nearby stars within a fraction of a lifespan. Only, just as we send off our first exploration ship, the Nova Maria, we find out we’re not alone. And not out there, amoung the stars – they actually find us. It’s the space equivalent of opening your front door to move to another country, and a giant monster is standing there and it proceeds to punch you in the face.
These are the Hivers – it’s a small nesting fleet and they take a liking to Earth and proceed to bombard us from orbit for two days, only we manage to strike back with the last of our mothballed nukes. They limp home, while we humans rebuild. We rebuild our interstellar-capably ships, this time with guns, and we head out looking for new worlds to colonize and a chip on our shoulder.
Somewhere along the way, and some years later, one of our small exploration fleets tracks an energy signature, which we figure to be Hivers. Which is when we find out the hard way that it’s not a Hiver energy signature, but a battle between two new races, the Liir and the Tarkas. The Liir ships fall to the Tarkas, which is a shame, as we probably could have had a good talk with them – the Tarkas don’t talk much though, and faced with our comparatively simple ships and technology, they decide to shoot first and file a report later. Again, SolForce (the military governing body of the Human colonies) is spurred onwards and upwards. Our first decades out amoung the stars is nothing but fighting and loss.
Eventually we start to talk and deal with the other races. We find out the Tarkas haven’t been out in space much longer than us – a few hundred years – but their society can look back through tens and tens of thousands of years. The Hivers aren’t simple minded insect drones, and the Liir are a peaceful race, who have only taken to the stars and to war to protect themselves, after being enslaved by The Suul’ka.
We eventually encounter the Zuul and Morrigi, who also have histories with the Suul’ka. The Zuul were genetically engineered to serve them, after the Liir drove off the Suul’ka. The Morrigi empire was decimated by them.
The first Sword of the Stars series ended with a scenario where players competed against one another to collect pieces of an alien derelict, pieces that had been lying around the game since day one – the scenario ended with a movie, where the scientists of the winning empire cobble the alien technology back together again, because, hey, what could go wrong. Repaired and powered up, the alien technology begins to broadcast to its old owners… the Suul’ka. And now they are returning in Sword of the Stars II.
And THAT’S the simple version…
For you, what are the key components of a 4X strategy game? What do you think has been the biggest step forward in the genre in the last five years or so?
The key components are in the genre name – you have to explore, expand, exploit, and if anyone gets in your way, exterminate. How those are presented in a game can vary. In the last five years, the first three areas have all stepped up their game, partly because computers and interface aren’t what they were at the start of the genre, but I think the biggest step forward has been in the last X – exterminating your opponents has never been more visually engrossing, and a player’s control over your forces – for the games that include this control – has never been better. What started as strategic abstraction (“You lost X forces, they lost Y.”) out of necessity has now grown into the kind of real-time tactical action players expect. The genre is now turning players into battlefield commanders as well as arm-chair generals.
Is it hard to come up with new game play ideas in the 4X space? The genre is pretty set in it’s conventions and execution, how hard is it to innovate new ideas in the space?
Actually, specifically because the genre is so set in its traditions, it’s easier to come up with new ideas in the 4X space. SotSII is partly a handful simple changes that are pretty straight forward – refinements, let’s say. Randomizing the tech tree is a good example of that. And then at a certain point refinements become big changes in the conventions of the genre. If your refinement is to work towards making each race more than just a collection of slider settings, at some point, around the time you’re giving them wildly different modes of travel or letting the players design the ships, it turns into something well outside the genre. The hardest part is after we’ve made all these refinements and broken a tradition or two, when we add in new alien races. If all the races are highly unique, how is the next race unique – how does that balance in the game? Fortunately having Arinn Dembo as our writer and Martin Cirulis as our lead designer means these are just hard work, but not impossible. I hope the Suul’ka are a good example of this – we added a new race into the mix and they play entirely different from any other race. I’ve even seen what’s coming down the line, and there’s a lot coming to keep blowing people’s minds with.
When people think of the 4X genre they usually think of the Masters of Origin and Galactic Civilization games, could you contrast those games to what you are doing in Sword of the Stars II?
For us, the traditional 4X game was well represented, and honestly represented a very specific, rarified type of strategy player. We totally understand where they were coming from, being fans of the old kings of the genre, but we wanted to accomplish two things; open the game up to a broader gaming audience, which meant moving away from and streamlining the empire portion of the game, and expanding on the area the old games could only abstract, the combat. To us this meant hybridizing the classic turn-based strategy portion with a complex and rich real-time tactical layer. We made some small tweaks that we thought suited the game well, or were even outright critical, a couple I mentioned above, like the tech tree and the race play differences. We cover all the same ground as MOO and GalCiv, the difference being we put more focus and depth on the combat portion of the genre, and just to keep the game from being overwhelming, downplayed the empire portion. So now PC gaming has a variety of games to suit a variety of players, each with their different tastes.
Could you tell us a bit about the Suul'ka? What are their strengths and what weaknesses do they have? What was the inspiration behind their design?
The inspiration was set very early in the designing of the first SotS game. Arinn Dembo had fleshed out the galactic backstory for each race, and throughout there was this reference to an ancient race that had at one point or another wreaked havoc affecting all the major races, excluding the Humans, as we’re the new kids on the block. Arinn had already worked out who the Suul’ka where to the point that the entire first series was in some ways all about setting up their arrival in this new, second series. The Zuul were bred to serve them and the Morrigi have a huge bone to pick with Suul’ka, having had their civilization decimated by them. Now players will finally learn how they relate to the Liir – and relate is the key word. Liirians are a long-lived race, and players from the first game will know that over centuries the Liir grow and become Elders. But the Suul’ka is what can happen when Elders choose not to give in to their physical limitations planetside and pass away, choosing instead to move into space, where their longevity, minus the crushing gravity of their homeworld, let them live forever. And I should be very careful to point out I’m not sure if that’s a “practically forever” or “real forever” – I should check on that, but regardless, live long enough that it might as well be forever to us short-lived space monkeys. And those that take this step – the mindset required to take this step is so antithetical to what the Liir are as a culture – are a powerful and cruel minority.
They are extremely powerful psionics, with an arsenal of psychic powers. Their power is great enough that they can personally fold space as a way to travel between the stars. Their weakness, if you want to think of it as such, is their uniqueness. The Suul’ka are one-of-a-kind players on the SotS field. When you successfully call one to your empire, there will be much bwah-ah-ah-ing. And if you should ever carelessly lose them in battle, you’re not getting them back – they are officially the stuff of legends.
How have the other races in the game changed since the first game? Which race changed the most since the last game?
There have been changes to all the races in some way or another – we’re actually calling them factions in the game, as you now play not as a single alien race, but in some cases as an alliance of races. I think the biggest changes in the game were the Liir and the Zuul. The Zuul have changed in that as a race they have achieved their driving goal from the first series – they have begun to rejoin and serve their masters, the Suul’ka. Having the Suul’ka on your side, as a Zuul player, is going to be a big change. Some Zuul however have rebelled and in a bid to survive in a galaxy where their creators have returned, these Prester Zuul (as they are called), have joined forces with the Liir, the only other race that knows the truth about the Suul’ka, and more importantly, has stood up to them and survived. So, Liir players will now be player a Liir faction that is similar to what they are familiar with from the first game, but now includes elements of the Zuul. For those wondering, the drive technology for the faction remains the Liir stutter drive – the Liir are entirely against the idea of forcing opening node connections in the universe, so no rip drives for the Liir. But with Zuul crew, the strength of Liir boarding just got a whole lot meaner.
One of the interesting things about the first game was randomized tech tree, could you talk about how that will work, why you did it, and its impact on gameplay? What have you changed about the tech tree for the Sword of the Stars II?
The randomized tech tree was something a couple of other games had tried in the past and we went full bore with it in the first SotS game – it worked even better than we hoped so it was a given on the SotSII feature list. What we wanted out of it, along with a number of other elements in the game, was replay through randomization. The basic idea is that static tech trees lead to optimal paths, and the person who can get up this path the fastest wins. That’s boring for long time players and it makes a game all but inaccessible to new players who don’t know the path. Our tree has a static trunk – the central parts of the tree that every player has and that will always allow them to get to the top levels of the game – so, everybody will get to build every class of ship. But the branches are randomized for every player. And on top of that, there are different weights to that randomization, depending on the alien race you play as. The end result is that even long time players, who are intimate with the tech tree, can’t count on a particular ship section or a favourite weapon to appear in their tech tree. The result is that nobody knows what they’re getting, they don’t know what the other guy has, and everybody has to do the best they can with what they have at any given time. Weapons and tech in SotS aren’t rock-beats-scissors, so an absent technology means your old tech is less effective until you can upgrade some other way, not ineffective. And it worked – we have players of the first game that have been playing it since day one 5 years ago, and it still keeps them on their toes. Not knowing what you’re going to get is a challenge and challenges are what keep games interesting!
The tree in SotSII will be very familiar to people, though we’ve taken to calling it a tech forest – it contains the lion’s share of techs from the first game, as well as a lot of new technologies, including a couple of new tech classes, such as Psionics. I think the biggest change is the feasibility study – before you start researching a technology, you can initiate a feasibility study, in which your scientists spend a couple of turns looking into an upcoming technology, and letting you know how likely it is they feel they can make something of it – so, players now get an idea of how hard it will be to acquire a technology. The tree still makes players player smart to earn their wins, but now players have a bit of extra intel they can use when making decisions.
What design lessons did you learn from the first game that you are applying to the sequel?
Well, we certainly learned what stuff worked well in the first game and so we kept them, or made minor changes to them, usually to add some new depth or options for players. I think the biggest lesson we learned is that everything scaled well throughout a game, no matter how long you played or how big the galaxy you played in – with one exception. Everything was very explicit in the game when it came to ships and their missions. Order to move. Then order to mine. Then order to return. Then order to dump. Then order to move again. By the end of a game, when you have a big empire, you start forgetting about stuff – you’re fighting off the enemy and you just lose track. So, we shifted away from the explicit and now you send your ships on missions, and they’ll handle everything involved in the mission without you having to worry about it. The only time you have to get involved is if the mission is interrupted by an encounter with the enemy or a menace.
How large will the single player campaign be? Will there be a different campaign for each race or one primary campaign?
SotSII remains like the first game, which is very much in the sandbox 4X vein – and this sandbox remains configurable to the player’s tastes. Play alone against one AI, play with seven human pals, big map, little map, sparse starting conditions, or everybody starts out fat and rich – whatever a person prefers. Traditional 4X gameplay doesn’t include a single player campaign. The game however will also have its scenario maps, which are often linked to parts of the SotS universe backstory, and have special win conditions, and even gameplay. Scenarios can even be linked, with the completion of one taking you to the next one, so unlike traditional 4X games we are going to have a gameplay experience that is more like a campaign.
What kind of innovations are you introducing on the multiplayer side of the house? How big/long can multiplayer games get?
We put a lot of options into multiplayer with the first game, all of which is back in the new game. We have added more communication between people in-game and people out of the game. The games can get pretty big and long, but that’s only if the player wants. We’ve always made it so that players can player a short game on a small map with one friend all the way up to a big map with 7 friends that will take many many weekends to epically complete.
One of the big features of the new game is the Leviathan class of ships, what kinds of game design and balance issues do ships of this size create and how did you get around those issues?
The Leviathans are monsters, no two ways about it, but so were the Dreadnoughts in the first game and getting yourself a dreadnought wasn’t an instant win. As mentioned before, SotS isn’t a game you lose when you fall behind. It’s a game you have to play smart when you fall behind. Your Cruisers and Dreadnoughts aren’t pointless when someone gets a Leviathan. In fact, for all their massive firepower, Leviathans are such
Have you changed how battles are handled at all? How involved are players once combat between groups of ships happens?
Players have two levels, roughly, they can play at in combat. As always, players can stand back and move ships as an admiral would – picking groups, moving them to a particular area, giving them specific targets, all the while the ships themselves will also undertake shots of opportunity. So, players can focus on the broad tactics, but not have to worry about controlling every turret on every ship. If a gun sees an enemy, they’ll shoot at it.
In some situations, players will want to take care of some very particular tactics and act more like a single ship’s captain, in which case they can focus in closer and be very specific about their targets – they can aim for individual weapon turrets or manoeuvre to shoot at a particular side of the enemy ship that has weakened armor. In some cases, it is these micro-tactics that can turn a battle where you’re at a disadvantage into a win, or at least a loss that was costly to your opponent.
Two things have changed the nature of combat the most since the first series – first is the armor mentioned, or put a better way, ships now have an interior life. So it’s not a simple matter of chewing up hit points, but chewing through armor and when armor is depleted, damage can be caused to internal ship systems, killing crew, damaging power systems, and generally reducing the effectiveness of the ship. We also took the loose 2D combat plan (SotS has always been a full 3D combat, but to keep the action tight in a short combat round, players moved around a fuzzy 2D plane in the first game) and turned it into 3 2D planes, if you can imagine that. We maintain the tight action and keep the combat focused, while at the same time giving players more 3D options. So now you can move up and down between planes, rolling your ships so that depending where you are, you’ve moved your weaker armour away from you opponent, and setting up 3D formations. All in all the combat what worked so well in the first game has gotten some excellent additions to give players even more options in combat. And in a game that asks players to play smart and in-the-moment, this is a big deal.
How has your approach to developing the game changed since the first Sword of the Stars?
Mostly changes out of necessity. The new engine meant we needed more programmers and even more artists. At its core, SotSII is very much the next chapter in the series, only we’re starting with way more stuff to begin with – six races and mechanics and assets encompassing the first game, two expansions, and a ship pack, PLUS anything new we were trying. That more than the indie team from 6 years back could do themselves. We also have way more opportunities to talk to a wider range of gamers thanks to our publisher, so we’ve had to change to take advantage of those opportunities as well. Plus a Tim Horton’s opened up nearby, so we now have timbits on Fridays.
Has there been any thought to developing a console or tablet version of the game? Any DLC or expansion plans in the works?
Absolutely and you betcha. We are always looking for new places to take the SotS brand, so when a good opportunity arises and we can make it happen, we will. As for DLC and expansions, we wouldn’t be us if we weren’t thinking about the future while designing and developing right now.
What’s the biggest gameplay change that’s gotten the least amount of publicity?
The role of politics in the game. We’ve mentioned it a few times, but I don’t think people have quite grasped the implications. Typically, you pick your government in games, and that gives you some bonuses in one area, some minuses in another, and away you go – regardless of your decisions and actions in game, that never changes. In SotSII, you don’t pick your government, your actions pick your government, and if you don’t like the pros and cons of being a particular type of government, or worse yet, your type of government is keeping your from achieving something you need (say, an alliance), you may want to adjust your style of rule accordingly.
Also, the Suul’ka are something we have, by design, only recently sharing information on, so they’re a very different challenge for players, both playing with them or against them. But as we talk about them, they generate a lot of excitement, so I think they’ll get lots of publicity leading up to the game’s release.
Is there anything else that’s important that we missed?
There’s a lot going on under the hood of a 4X game, SotSII in particular, so there’s lots we didn’t talk about, or talk about in full details, but that could take forever. Suffice to say if you’re familiar with SotS, this isn’t simpy the first game with better graphics – there’s lots of new challenges and cool things to play with. And if you’re new to the series, don’t worry. You don’t have to know the first game to jump into the second, though we hope people who dig the SotSverse in SotSII will give the first game a try as well, and see where we’ve come from.
We'd like to thank Chris for taking the time to answer our questions as well as Troy for setting up and coordinating the interview.