Joystiq interview: Ironclad talks 4X strategy with Sins of a Solar Empire

Jason Dobson
J. Dobson|02.01.08

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Joystiq interview: Ironclad talks 4X strategy with Sins of a Solar Empire

PC strategy games come in a variety of flavors, from casual to hardcore, though it's those dubbed 4X that are the most exhausting, and arguably the most fun of the lot. The term 4X has some interesting roots, having first been coined in a magazine review for Microprose's classic Masters of Orion, the label is now used to call out an entire sub-genre of strategy games that exhibit four underlying goals: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate.

Traditionally, though not always, these games are played in turns rather than in real-time, though it's extremely rare to see a title subscribe to both schools of gameplay, something that Ironclad Games' upcoming 4X release Sins of a Solar Empire takes to heart. With the game set to be released on February 4 by GalCiv publisher Stardock, we decided to sit down and speak with Ironclad's producer and lead designer Blair Fraser to get some added insight into what appears to offer an unique take on this particular class of PC strategy.

%Gallery-15134%First, we've gotta congratulate you all for coming up with what is possibly the coolest name for a game in ages.

Thanks! We had a lot of fun brainstorming that one but I don't remember any specific spark of inspiration. I do remember very clearly being on the phone with my brother Craig in Nova Scotia when the final form of the name was first spoken and everyone listening just knew it was right. I guess if anything is to be considered a source of inspiration it would be the titles of the science fiction novels and short stories that we immersed ourselves in as teenagers.

4X strategy games have traditionally been home to a rather niche following, but have begun to gain traction in mainstream press recently, especially with titles like Stardock's own Galactic Civilizations II. To what do you credit the growing appeal of the genre?

It's likely the combination of a number of factors. I think when RTS's supplanted 4X in the 90's they didn't take along a lot of great strategy game elements. Now that the prototypical RTS game has been done to death, people are looking for what was left behind (albeit with some modern polish), or perhaps they are looking for something new - something perhaps a bit more strategic and a little less twitchy. The added bonus is technology has improved so much since the original 4X games that now we can afford to run both the sophisticated strategic simulation and the cool graphics – 4X games can look just as great as games in other genres. Finally, there have been superb games out recently (like GalCiv2) that have really helped bring the genre back into the mainstream.

There's something to be said, though, for maintaining a niche appeal. How do you as developers strike that balance between appealing to a large segment of gamers while simultaneously staying true to what makes 4X games so appealing to the existing community of gamers?

I think the most important thing we did in this regard was to keep the core 4X gameplay but present it in a new way so it was easier to pick up the basics, was more immersive and visceral, and was more multiplayer friendly (no more waiting for turns). RTS games already provide us with a solid decade of experience on how to solve these three problems, so we opted to move 4X into real-time, include real-time multiplayer (with the ability to save multiplayer games!) and to render the entire galaxy from the smallest fighter to the largest star, in full, high quality 3d.

Whether you are a mainstream gamer or not, I think most people really like seeing the living/breathing universe unfold in real-time where everything in it is actually something they can view at the flick of the mouse wheel and almost all of it they can control. When you are told there is a battle with hundreds of ships involved going on at some planet, you aren't forced to a new screen or menu and you aren't just watching numbers crunch.

You can actually zoom in and refocus your camera from anywhere else in the galaxy to watch the battle play out and control it if you like (all while the rest of galaxy continues in motion). It's also just as much fun for me to watch the little trade ships travel their routes, or the sub orbital traffic zip around the planet as it gets more developed. It's this sense of 'alive-ness' that keeps it prevents it from feeling like a spreadsheet and will appeal to a wider variety of players. But at the same time, the depth of the simulation behind what they are seeing and the complex inter-relationships between simple gameplay mechanics is more than enough to appeal to the hardcore players.

It's interesting that as you said the game boasts a mix of both real-time and turn-based 4X elements. Can you explain a bit more how these two different types of strategy have been blended, and what sacrifices had to be made in order to make these elements play well together?

We basically took the 4X premise of building a space empire, took out the turns and tried playing it in real-time. The blending process was essentially playing it for a few years and seeing what worked and what didn't. Do I have time to move my ships around? Do I have time to figure out what research I want to invest in? Do I have time to lay out my planetary defense? Can I still conduct diplomacy?

There wasn't near as much sacrifice as there was innovation. We really didn't want to lose anything so it forced us to come up with a lot of new ideas. One of the first ideas we had was that you needed to be able to view both the micro and macro aspects of your empire very easily; so we developed the concept of the epic zoom system. This involves being able to zoom in and out over massive distances and all the special features that go along with it. It's probably best described as similar to the system in Supreme Commander but it was developed independently, before Supreme Commander was announced in 2005, so it evolved in a slightly different direction.

Another key user interface innovation is the Empire Tree. We realized we needed a way to keep tabs on all our planets, ships, and fleets so we came up with a node based collapsible and expandable tree on the left side of the screen that tracks objects in your empire. It allows you to view important details and issue orders to anything in your empire without moving the camera. But even though we made things easy to view and control, we knew it would be impossible to micromanage everything once your empire grew past a certain threshold. In response to this we provided a lot of automation options (if you dislike automation, it can all be done manually).

Some examples would include auto placement of structures, auto-cast for almost every action a ship can take, auto strikecraft replacement and so on. We also added fleets which is a collection of ships that know how to work together and operate as a unit. This way you don't have your repair and flak frigates running all around when they should be sticking with the core fleet performing their support roles.

Even though we have a nice list of innovations there were a few areas where we did have to cut standard 4X material out completely. It proved way too time consuming to allow players to build up the surface of their planets in a detailed manner (building in orbit is still very detailed) so despite all the art and gameplay material we had developed for this, it was taken out and simplified to a purchasable upgrade system.

It also proved too time consuming to allow players to design their own ship models during gameplay. We even tried reducing this to a simplified "drag and drop" slot design system but it still proved unfeasible in a real-time environment. Ultimately, it was changed to the method we have now where you can name your capitalships and select upgrades for them which works very well in real-time. We hated to lose them but Sins development will continue well past the initial release, following the same pattern as the Galactic Civilizations series, so we hope to find ways to bring these sidelined elements back into play.

So walk us through a standard campaign in Sins. What's the basic setup like, and how is it different from say GalCiv, as you mentioned, or even Masters of Orion?

A 'campaign' in a 4X sense is not a linked set of missions that tells a story like it would be in a standard RTS. The campaign in 4X games is typically a sandbox galaxy where you usually begin with one planet and expand to conquer the rest of the galaxy; and it isn't really any different in Sins than it would be in Galactic Civilizations or Masters of Orion. In the standard Sins game you will start with a single world with some basic upgrades, a frigate factory, 2 construction ships and some nominal amount of resources.

Of course there are plenty of starting parameters to play with: you can generate your own random map, you can design your own map with Galaxy Forge, and you can choose from over 25 initial handcrafted maps some of which vary the starting setup (I suppose these could be called scenarios). We'll be adding more custom setups to some of the maps in our free bonus packs and modders are already busy creating their own that will be available for download. Ultimately, the setup is really dependent on how you've chosen to play.

Sins is billed as the first chapter in a larger franchise. This seems like a tall order for an as yet unreleased game in a niche market. Is there concern that the team could be putting the cart before the horse here, laying out plans for a series without knowing for certain how the initial volume will be received?

There's a horse? And a cart? You mean we don't have to be riding this crazed donkey?

In the beginning, we just had some really neat ideas we wanted to try out and we knew they would never get the go-ahead at most companies, so we decided to try them out on our own. We know how the game business runs and we were told by plenty of people in the know that what we were doing was commercial suicide (you have to do a sequel, you can only do a slight variant on game x, you need to latch onto an existing IP etc).

The question we just kept asking ourselves is "Well, then how does anything new get created?" This kind of talk can get you labeled as a loose bunch of artistic dreamers but we do have a solid business plan - it just has a few more intangible rewards listed under what we consider "profit." Luckily, Stardock understands and shares many of the same philosophies. It's worked out great so far and we see no reason to stop, even if the initial volume is poorly received – this is something we'd all be doing even if it wasn't our full time job.

With just three playable factions, we have to assume that each must bring something very different to the table, correct?

Yes, each of the three races has a unique package including its appearance, units, research topics, play style, various gameplay mechanics, abilities, music, and sound. While we've let them share the same basic mechanics at the start of the game to keep it from getting overwhelming, they gradually grow more and more differentiated as you progress through the research trees, unlock new features and upgrade their units. The units, abilities, research topics, play style and basically every aspect of each faction is also completely integrated with their lore. The Trader Emergency Coalition (TEC) is a group of independent human occupied worlds that have recently united to defend themselves from resource hungry aliens. These particular aliens are known as the Vasari and they are an ancient race that once ruled over a quarter of the galaxy until some unknown disaster forced them into an exodus.

After ten thousands years on the run, they eventually run straight into the TEC and become entrenched in a bitter battle from which they can't retreat until they've acquired enough resources to fuel the next stage of their exodus. All the while, an ancient band of humans who were exiled from Trader space some time ago have now returned for revenge only to find the majority of the Traders in the midst of a ten year war against the Vasari. They now call themselves "The Advent"; a new breed of human and a radically transformed society from that of their exiled ancestors. Having developed and mastered the use of PsiTech (psionic powers enhanced by technology), they are using it to ravage their brethren's undefended front.

Why would a player choose to throw their support behind the independent trader worlds rather than 'The Advent'?

I'm always partial to the good side and the more 'human' of the factions in any game, as I find the idea of being the good guy and defending mankind against the 'outsiders' fulfilling, but in Sins the situation isn't so clear. The Vasari weren't really out to wipe out the Traders, for the most part they just wanted resources so they could escape from a greater threat. The Traders aren't just trying to defend themselves, there are those in the coalition who are using it to further their own ends and are willing to do some pretty nasty stuff to their own people; and the Advent are also humans who were wronged in the past and not all of whom want to wipe out the Traders and are more interested in their unique form of evangelism.

Without getting into full detail, the motives are all gray enough that it isn't clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are so I'd have to base my choice on something like aesthetics or play style. If you are interested in commercial ships hastily converted into desperate weapons of war, really nice economic bonuses (particularly with trade), crude weapons (e.g. nukes), rebellion, sabotage and starting out as the underdog you are probably interested in playing the Trader Emergency Coalition. This would contrast heavily with the Advent's elegant ships, their heavy use of energy weapons and shields, their extremely strong culture, martyrs, resurrection, and all facets of their deviant PsiTech powers.

How does Sins work in diplomacy and espionage, two elements that usually play a fundamental role in 4X titles? How are each of these handled differently depending on the faction being controlled?

Diplomacy in Sins is distributed over a few different areas. The main diplomacy screen allows you to select a player to offer/revoke/accept treaties with. These include cease fire, peace, declare war, trade, shared ship vision and shared planetary vision. In this screen you can also see how happy AI controlled factions are with you and you can check on the status of any demands they've made of you.

Completing these demands will help improve your relationships and failing to complete them will hurt them as will attacking their ships, structures, and planets and terminating agreements. An unhappy AI player may revoke existing agreements and will likely shift his strategic priorities in your direction. Although, if an AI player is really happy with you, you may be able to convince him to attack or defend planets of your choice. Another key pseudo-diplomatic feature we've added is the concept of bounties. In the "Underground" screen you can elect to place anonymous bounties on players of your choice that can be collected by destroying their units and structures thereby encouraging other players to "ally" with you in a sense.

Naturally, these bounties are anonymous so you could place them on mediocre allies you intend to backstab (the most entertaining part for me is when you are paying for the bounties against them with the profits from trade with them.) The other side effect of this is that by placing bounties you are effectively 'bribing' the npc pirate raiders to attack that player as well; they go where the most money is! It also provides a valid option for the economic player who needs to have some 'dirty business' taken care of. We've set it up such that playing the bounty game is an interesting and essential meta-game particularly when the pirate raid timer is nearly expired – the bounty process can almost border on an eBay-esque bid sniping frenzy.

Espionage in Sins is really a function of each faction's scouting capabilities of which they have a variety of options. The TEC for example can research a probe for the Arcova Scout that can be deployed on planets to monitor the local area for a limited amount of time. The Vasari Jikara Navigator can phase cloak to monitor the gravity well (or for defensive purposes) and the Advent's Revelation Battlecruiser can consume antimatter to reveal foreign planets.

I can't understate how important knowing what the enemy is up to is in Sins. It can take a fair bit of time to move your fleets around your massive empire (which is why I use multiple fleets to cover multiple fronts) so you don't want to be caught with the enemy moving towards your homeworld without you already having taken action to defend against it. Once your empire is large you really need to be thinking ahead, not merely reacting.

One of the most engrossing aspects of 4X games is the inclusion of a robust tech tree. Could you explain a bit about the tree the team has implemented, and how research is worked into the mix?

The research tree in Sins approaches the size and quality of a 4X research tree and dwarfs pretty much any RTS game I can think of. There are many different paths to take and the direction you choose will have a dramatic effect on the shape and future of your empire. Each faction has a completely unique combat oriented tree and a completely unique empire oriented tree that is designed around their lore and play style.

These two primary trees are then subdivided into faction specific categories which are also designed around the same criteria. In total there are just over 300 research topics (you should see the tech tree poster we made!), many of which are upgradeable multiple times (so instead of 3 Laser research topics named Laser I, II and III, we sometimes include this as a single research topic that is upgradeable 3 times) and this also doesn't include all the special research-y type things that can be discovered including special planet bonuses and artifacts.

Research topics fall into a wide variety of categories including unit specific upgrades, global upgrades, unlocks and so on. In order to begin researching a particular topic you must have the requisite number of labs that support the particular tree the topic is in (e.g. Military Research Labs for the combat tree), and you must have the requisite number of credits, metal and crystal. Clicking the topic will then place it in the research queue with the speed of research controlled by the particular game settings.

An interesting strategy in Sins is to knock out people's research labs to deprive them of access to unlocked ships and structures at the appropriate tiers. In early betas we actually had it knock out all benefits of research at the given tier but this proved too punishing. However, when we didn't provide enough of an incentive to keep labs around, players would just research everything to the max and then scuttle all their labs to free up space for other structures. Over the course of the year long beta, the research system has gone through a lot of evolution and one of the key problems has always been managing the massive trees in real-time (although you can pause the game in single player). I'm happy to say this is no longer a problem.

Besides a complete graphical and layout redesign we also included some great suggestions from the beta testers. It used to be difficult for new users to find the research topic they needed to build something. Now, when you click to build that object, it will cause the specific research topic to light up in blue the next time you enter the research screen. Another improvement is when you are in the main view building up your empire, controlling combat or what have you, the research screen button will now pulse yellow when research is in progress, turn color when new research can be started, and turn gray when you can't conduct any more research. There are also appropriate graphical and audio cues when research is complete. Naturally, we'll be looking to add more research content to Sins for some time to come, but the number of topics, bonuses and artifacts included already will keep you busy for quite some time.

How is the multiplayer game working out?

Oh, we absolutely love playing multiplayer in the office and we've put a lot of work into making sure the multiplayer experience was as good as the single player. Out of the box you can play Sins with up to 10 players over LAN and over Ironclad Online (ICO) for free – there is no monthly fee. One of the coolest features with Sins multiplayer is you can save your game at any time and pick it up when the rest of the gang is ready to continue. There are a lot of options to help you configure the experience you want; setup a quick deathmatch or a weekend long campaign with multiple stars and tons of planets (which is where the multiplayer save games come in especially handy). Another really neat feature is if you create a map in the in-game map designer it will automatically transfer to all the other players.

These random maps are great for my personal favorite multiplayer mode where I team up with some human friends and take on a whole bunch of AI players. I just love cooperative play and Sins has a lot of mechanics oriented around working with other people including trade, faction synergies, being able to view your ally's units' orders, communication enhancements and so on. One of these enhancements is a smart ping. We have the usual ping system but there is also "Attack" and "Defend" pings that communicate to your allies exactly what you want to do at the location without any typing. And before I forget, I have to give my kudos to the beta community again; they've built multiplayer mods, designed new maps, and most importantly helped us weed out a lot of the technical problems and cheese tactics.

Thanks again for your time. Before we wrap up, do you care to describe a recent multiplayer battle you've taken part in?

The last multiplayer battle I played was a 3 v 3 office match on a map called "Foreign Invasion." Our team agreed to split up roles. My role was to provide strike craft support and I was TEC, so I chose the Sova Carrier Capital which grants a great bonus to all surrounding strike craft. Right off the bat I started tech-ing up to get early access to Percheron Carriers that would accompany my Sova. My allies sent me plenty of crystal and helped shelter me until I got a decent flock together.

Once we had colonized the key planets near our homeworlds we scouted out the enemy positions and hit the enemy's homeworld. I basically stayed way back along the gravity well so I could easily retreat and my fighters and bombers could strike anywhere in the gravity well anyways so I had no need to move in closer. Also by this point I had Embargo upgraded which hindered the enemy's economy at the planet (while improving mine) for the duration of the battle. Unfortunately, they beat us off and we were forced to retreat to the adjacent dead asteroid where we regrouped and hit a separate, less important world. Once again they beat us off though I could see my bomber runs were wearing their capital ships down as we weren't giving them much time to repair between strikes. The critical moment came when we saw that a high level pirate raid was impending. My ally had done special research to improve his dealings with the pirates so we sent him a whole lot of money and at the last moment he put a huge bounty against our opponents which they failed to counter in time.

When our scouts detected that the pirates had begun their raid we watched them divide their forces to deal with it. That's when we hit one of their lucrative terran worlds with everything we had – and by this time I had added a healthy fleet of Krosov Siege Frigates with Heavy Fallout (nasty radiation bombs) upgraded. Most of my strike craft were dedicated to protecting my siege and my allies helped tie up the bulk of the remaining enemy forces – most importantly they took out a lot of the enemies newly constructed anti-strike craft frigates and fighter carriers (which were obviously intended to counter mine). They put up a great fight despite being outnumbered and it was a nail biting, well coordinated battle by both sides for a good 6-7 minutes but we finally took the planet down, killed the majority of their forces and forced a rout. With the remainder of their forces split and heavily damaged we plowed our way through the remainder of their key defenses and happily accepted a surrender.
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