Spell It Out: Stardock On Fallen Enchantress

By Jim Rossignol on June 1st, 2011 at 2:22 pm.


Last night I had a chat with Stardock’s Derek Paxton, the man responsible for making sure the production of Fallen Enchantress – the follow-up expandalone to Elemental: War Of Magic – goes smoothly. Read on below for what he had to say about the upcoming game and the issues surrounding its creation.

RPS: Hey Derek, you’re new at Stardock, and new to us! Can you tell us a bit about who you are and how you came to be heading up the development of Fallen Enchantress?

Paxton: Sure! I came to Stardock in November of last year, so that was after Elemental: War Of Magic shipped. Professionally speaking, I was working as a project manager at a software company dealing with banks, government agencies, that kind of thing. In my spare time I liked to work on games, and I worked on a Civilization IV mod called Fall From Heaven. That did really well and it got me talking with Brad (Wardell) because he’s a big fan of turn-based strategy games. I was invited to come up and talk with him to discuss the game design work that I had done. Once we started talking he found out that I was a project manager and Stardock had just got done making War Of Magic. For fifteen years they had been making great games with five to ten people, and with Elemental they grew to around twenty people. The scope there became pretty huge, with the world, the new IP, the kind of game that it was, and before that time they had not had much project management. They worked like small indie outfits do with everyone throwing out ideas and working hard. That doesn’t work on larger projects. So Brad asked me to come and help out on Fallen Enchantress, and I have come in to do design work, but also to act as lead producer. It’s my job to bring some of the processes and procedures from the business community into the way Stardock makes games.


RPS: It’s interesting you should say that, because the thing that seems to be coming up more and more when I speak to developers now is that the biggest issue in game development isn’t technology, or the design, or anything else content-based, it’s just the overall complexity of project management. That seems to be the difficult problem of game production, and one that isn’t getting any easier. It seems to me that some of the most successful teams aren’t necessarily the most talented, but the best managed? Do studios need to get better at running their projects?

Paxton: I do think the role of producers in game development has been undervalued. Especially as you get to the larger games that’s a critical role – making sure that the producer has a handle on creating the plan, controlling the plan, and making sure there’s a consistent vision is key. And that’s more than sharing a few Google docs and running the spreadsheets for the game. Good project management definitely makes the difference between a game that doesn’t hit all of its marks and the one that does.

RPS: Why “Fallen Enchantress”? What does the title mean?

Paxton: It’s to do with the way we are focusing in on the characters in the game world somewhat. The title was actually created before I got here, but I like it a lot. I do feel that one of the weaknesses Stardock has faced is not creating great characters. You play GalCiv and what character do you think of? As good as the game is, there’s not one that stands out. Lots of other games have that strong recognition of associating a particular stand-out character with the game, and I like that way of doing things. The game is named after the sovereign of one of the factions in the game, and we’ll get a lot more depth and detail on her in the campaign. Jon Schafer is working on the campaign, making sure it plays well and is fun, and we have Dave Stern who is a professional author and he’s working on the writing and the storyline. The two of them are creating a lot of depth for that campaign and they’ve made it interesting to learn about the Fallen Enchantress and what makes her tick.

RPS: You’ve talked a bit about how you see this as a more “focused” game than Elemental was originally. Is /that/ the focus – the story and the characters?

Paxton: The campaign is story-focused, but the traditional game remains with that big sandbox experience. Story is a dangerous beast, because it can rob your game of life and steal options from the player, or done well it can add a lot of depth. Getting a balance right is important. In the campaign, then, we tell a story and let you find out more about some of the characters, but in the sandbox game we do let the player create the story. They know the backstory, they know what is going on, and then it’s up to the player. For the open sandbox game’s challenge for us was to make the tactical combat more interesting. We’ve done a lot of work with the creatures, making sure they have interesting abilities, strengths and weaknesses. We want a player to really have to think about the army they are taking into that battle, and what their own strengths and weaknesses are. The other thing we have been focusing on is the world itself. We want there to be something exciting out there for the player, so there are monster lairs, wildland areas, and champions that you can recruit to fight for you. There’s reward out there in the world and a reason to get out there, but also risk. Those early scouts that get out there into the world won’t all be coming back, but those that do should be well rewarded for their efforts!


RPS: I suppose that was one of the key issues with Elemental’s sandbox approach: there wasn’t quite enough to find, quite enough variety, for it to really feel like you were exploring and getting the most out of this world…

Paxton: Sure, and that’s a shame because the backstory and the lore really does support the creation of an interesting world. It just wasn’t reflected in the gameplay. We had large plains, and then hills, and then plains again. There’s not much to encounter out there, and so one of the pillars of Fallen Enchantress is making sure that the world is full of new and interesting things. Whenever a player starts a new game this time around, they will have something to discover.

RPS: Magic was a bit underwhelming the first time around, wasn’t it?

Paxton: Yes. We’ve gone through all the spells for Fallen Enchantress and looked what they did. We had a decent spell engine in War Of Magic, it could do a lot of things, but maybe not with as much as variety as we wanted. Many of the spells felt too similar. Some of them did the same thing with different numbers, so this time we are looking at each spell individually and we’re coding these spells specifically. That’ll give us unique effects from each of them, different reason why they are used. We also want larger impact spells in Fallen Enchantress. If you have 1000 mana stored then that’s a Civ player sitting on nuclear weapons. If you see someone creeping up on that, you might want to deal with them. Magic will be a significant part of this game, as it was in Master Of Magic.

RPS: Is this game a direct response to the criticism of the original game, then?

Paxton: I think Stardock learned a lot from the reception of War Of Magic, and they did an excellent job of understanding what went wrong and then making sure that was fixed for Fallen Enchantress. One of the reasons I came to Stardock after the release of War Of Magic was that they are passionate about making sure these issues are addressed. I love the fact that if you bought War Of Magic before December 31st 2010 you will get Fallen Enchantress for free. Where a lot of companies would have just said “oh, well, this game didn’t deliver, so we’ll shelve that”, Stardock said “no, we believe in this game”, and we’ve had developers on it for months afterwards. New features, not just fixes. And also giving away that new game at considerable cost to Stardock! Well, that’s all about saying that if you had faith and you believed in the Stardock name then here you go, give us another chance and we’ll pay for it.


RPS: There was an interesting panel about the future of strategy at GDC this year which covered some issues around the genre. The consensus seemed to be that it was the middle-sized companies like Stardock and Paradox that were actually going to be the most interesting in terms of what they were doing with strategy. What do you think about that?

Paxton: I sat in on that panel too, so I am glad you brought it up. I do think that once you start making games that have such a large budget that you have to sell a million copies to break even, or that’s the criteria for success from the publisher at least, then there are certain areas that you as a designer cannot explore any more. You can’t have some of the things that we love in our games if you want to appeal to the masses. We’re hardcore turn-based strategy gamers, and we understand that this is not something that everyone wants to play. As a middle-market company with a middle-market budget, we don’t have to sell that many copies to operate, and that lets me on the design side do more of the things we love, even if they do not make mass-market sense. Our games might be a little too complex for that “jump in and play thirty minutes” thing – nothing wrong with that of course – but I think there’s a great opportunity for turn-based strategy developers to create games that appeal to a segment of the community that might be smaller, but that are very passionate about those kinds of games. We get a lot of posts from gamers excited about and waiting for Fallen Enchantress because they are members of the hardcore community that is out there. We’re making this game for them.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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54 Comments »

  1. .backslash says:

    ‘RPS Feature’? WHAT FELL SORCERY IS THIS?

    • Mike says:

      Are we going to have every thread starting with these comments for the next week?

    • Mike says:

      And the edit system is broke so I can’t even hide my horrible meanness by editing it out. :(

    • baby snot says:

      Hey Mike you can just block yourself so you don’t have to live with the shame.

    • d32 says:

      And what’s that ugly ‘block’ button of yours, he?

    • Mike says:

      I’ll just blank myself then.

      :(

    • Groove says:

      Hey everyone, get a picture of me commenting on the feature!

  2. pakoito says:

    If the support is the same than Demigod got, count me out. 50$ down the drain.

    • pakoito says:

      Plus they just sold Impulse to GameStop.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      I don’t really get the backlash about GameStop, as if Impulse was some temple of purity they’ve now corrupted. Impulse/Stardock’s refund process was condescending and awful, and Brad “Frogboy” Wardell is a complete asshole. I’d much rather give money to the shareholders of GameStop than to him.

    • Wilson says:

      @pakoito – I never bought Demigod, but I get the impression that Elemental has already had more support than Demigod got. They seem far more invested in Elemental, with another expansion planned after this one I think. Plus having Derek Paxton on board is a huge thing for me, Fall from Heaven was fantastic and packed with neat ideas.

    • hotcod says:

      You do know with gamestops own DD you have to buy the ability to re-download a game? ya…

    • amandachen says:

      Brad sold Impulse so he can focus on making games (and that Desktop Commander software of his, or whatever it’s called). Real smart move.

    • Sigh says:

      “I never bought Demigod, but I get the impression that Elemental has already had more support than Demigod got. They seem far more invested in Elemental, with another expansion planned after this one I think. ”

      Yeah tons of post-release development time that has achieved little. I was such a passionate defender of Stardock and Elemental back in August/September, but all of the patches and bug fixes have done little to alter the boring core of the game. At least this interview points out that while WoM was a sandbox exploration game there was nothing to find but dated cell-shaded barren terrain and the same 6 treasures over and over and over…

      I wish the development team the best with Fallen Enchantress and while I would have received it for free I removed Impulse from my computer after the GameStop acquisition; even going so far as to re-purchase a game I owned on Impulse at another digital distributor site.

      Let’s just say that was the most expensive pewter dragon I have ever bought, in my life.

  3. Zeewolf says:

    Sounds quite cool. Just hope they release a boxed version in Europe this time.

    • Tridus says:

      There won’t be a box copy anywhere this time, it’s digital only.

      Boxes are rapidly becoming a thing of the past for PC games.

  4. MCM says:

    “Jon Schafer is working on the campaign, making sure it plays well and is fun”

    I can just envision his memos –

    “Game is decent so far but needs about 73% more Panzer General to reach optimal fun”

  5. kyrieee says:

    A Stardock game?
    *pokes with a stick*

    • Josh W says:

      The game makes a strange groaning noise.
      What do you want to do?

      >

  6. Premium User Badge

    Schaulustiger says:

    Well, I’m at least glad that I’ll be able to get Fallen Enchantress for free. But if they cannot deliver this time, I’ll not be interested in any Stardock game again. Elemental: WoM was so bad that I’m still a bit angry about it after all these months. It shouldn’t have been released and they should have known that.

    Is there a more precise release date than “summer 2011″?

    • skinlo says:

      Why not? If its a good game on release, don’t let ‘morals and principles’ stop you buying games. Its cutting off your nose to spite your face.

    • Unaco says:

      “don’t let ‘morals and principles’ stop you buying games.”

      On a similar token… why let morals and principles stop you pirating a game?

    • Warskull says:

      “Why not? If its a good game on release, don’t let ‘morals and principles’ stop you buying games. Its cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

      Demigod was awful, Elemental was awful, that’s a trend. If the expansion is awful he has no reason to believe their next game will be good and it isn’t worth risking $50 to find out. Usually a studio that makes awful games continues to make awful games. There will always be a few crazy people who say anything is great, you had fanboys defending Demigod.

      While there are a small number of great games, most games are merely average and fun to play for a while. There are plenty of fun playable games out there. Missing out on one average game because odds are the company will produce a terrible game is no big deal.

  7. skinlo says:

    Cue comments about how they “betrayed me once, I’ll never fall for it again ” blah blah etc.

    • Unaco says:

      There’s an old saying, that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again. So there.

    • Premium User Badge

      TeraTelnet says:

      Yeeeeeeaaaaaahhhh

    • MCM says:

      “There’s an old saying, that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again. So there.”

      Tee-hee. Relevant and funny. Oldie but a goodie.

  8. Dlarit says:

    I preordered the first game and despite the bugs enjoyed it, i’ve been waiting for it to be patched to give it another go so cant really complain that we are getting the next game for free.
    Whats the worst that can happen thats what i say

  9. NR says:

    “It seems to me that some of the most successful teams aren’t necessarily the most talented, but the best managed”

    Off-topic, perhaps, but did anybody else immediately think of Obsidian when Jim said that?

    • kyrieee says:

      Obsidian has talented writers and not much else.

    • Coillscath says:

      @kyrieee
      That is the most fair criticism of Obsidian I’ve ever seen. I just wanted to put that out there and say thanks for that. Usually people go for the cheap shot with them.

    • InternetBatman says:

      I would say Obsidian has talented level / system designers too. They really know how to fill maps up with weird things that are fun to find. Some of their systems designs fail in certain points, especially when they’re overly ambitious, but the programming and biting off more than they can chew problems seem to point to management more than anything.
      9 months to make Old Republic II? Management needs to negotiate a better deadline.
      CQC broken in AP? Deciding what features to put in is a huge part of developer management.
      Insufficient bug testing, probably based on time deadlines? Management issue again. (Also from what I hear not that different than the old Black Isle and Troika games).
      Dungeon Siege III controls and menus need to be reworked for PC, a separate release date probably would have been better? Another management issue.

  10. Berious says:

    Yeah, going to wait for the reviews, the backlash and the backlash’s backlash before even considering this one.

    • amandachen says:

      I feel angry and cheated even though I didn’t buy or play Elemental. (But, yeah, nearly bought into the hype and got the game.)

    • Pamplemousse says:

      You feel angry and cheated for something you didn’t even invest anything in? In what way can you feel cheated? If you didn’t even buy or play the bloody game how can you voice – and continuously thrust – your angry opinions about it all over the comments?

    • amandachen says:

      Only people who bought the game or played it are allowed to comment? So just idiots or people who like a gamble.

  11. karry says:

    “In my spare time I liked to work on games, and I worked on a Civilization IV mod called Fall From Heaven.”

    Which you left in a messed up state for other people to finish. Ok, you werent paid to see it to completion, and so on, but still, you started something too ambitious for you to finish, and you slinked off instead of cutting features. Seems like Stardock set a task to gather all the second-rate devs. Paxton, Schafer, Wardell…who’s next ?

    • Acosta says:

      Oh RPS gods, thanks for the block options! Karry, feel honored, you are my first blocked poster, joy!

    • amandachen says:

      Brad “Wargboy” Fraudell phoned Molyneux and Roper, but they didn’t answer his call.

    • MCM says:

      It’s not a horrible claim. There were many problems with FfH2 in the state he left it in, which were taken up by any number of modmods and even modmodmods. Now the FfH community is fractured into a million pieces.

    • Hobbitmolester says:

      After spending a nice chunk of his life working on a project that when he left had more content and polish than 95% of games currently being released,he decided to move on to something bigger and hopefully better.
      How much of an entitled asshole do you have to be to begrudge him that I wonder?

    • Pamplemousse says:

      I am furious that a man I barely know did not finish a game he wasn’t paid to make.

  12. Acosta says:

    In Paxton I trust. Fall From Heaven was fantastic.

  13. Thule says:

    I’ll give this a chance, if only because it’s free, because I was one of the schmucks who fell for the hype. If it sucks though, I’m done with it forever.

  14. GreatUncleBaal says:

    I bought Elemental fairly early on so I’ll be due a free copy of this expansion. I never really went back to Elemental even after the patches, as something just didn’t quite click for me – there was potential in the game, but the world just didn’t feel very alive or interesting (And I bought the game knowing there were problems and it was likely to be a bit of a gamble,but figured in the long run it might become something worth playing.).
    The stuff they’re focusing on now will make exploration more interesting, and the combat tweaks sound promising. A general better implementation of magic will be key, and the good thing is they know that and are working on it.
    I think if a lot of this stuff is realised – and given the team they’ve got now on it there’s no reason it shouldn’t be – then this could be a big step forward.

  15. The_Great_Skratsby says:

    Colour me curious. I was eyeing Elemental before release and the aftermath put me off, but this is all promising.

  16. mrjackspade says:

    Am I one of the few people who bought Elemental *after* the release fiasco, patched it, played it, really really enjoyed it and thought it had huge promise, and can’t wait for this new release?!!

    Only encountered one serious bug that just required restarting from the previous turn every few hours. Seriously epic (and totally original) game.

    • Vinraith says:

      You’re certainly the only person I can recall seeing who was completely happy with it, yes.

      totally original

      That’s an… interesting thing to say, especially since the original design intent was to produce a modern Master of Magic, not something “totally original.” I’m curious, have you played MoM? Age of Wonders? Heroes of Might and Magic? Dominions? Disciples? No judgement implied, I’m just curious what makes this game “totally original” compared to other titles in its subgenre.

    • Coillscath says:

      @Vinraith, I’ve played HoMM and Disciples. I loved Disciples but was underwhelmed with HoMM (Then again I played V at a friend’s behest, and later learned it apparently wasn’t as good as the earlier ones. Go figure.) and, while not totally original, I do think this game does strike out in an interesting direction which hasn’t been tried before with this combination of features. The turn based combat and spells on the main map aren’t new, sure, but plonking down cities and empire building with diplomacy is a new step for the fantasy genre.

      Then again, I haven’t even seen gameplay of the other games you mentioned, so I could be completely wrong there. I keep hearing about Master of Magic and I would love to try it. From the name, can I assume it was done by Microprose in their glory days?

    • Nick says:

      Yep, MoM is brilliant.. for the HoMM series I’d try 2 or 3, both are great.. most people believe the third is the best, but I have a massive soft spot for 2. Especially the music.

  17. ts061282 says:

    Yep, just five short years until I buy the Elemental Complete pack for $4.99 during Steam’s christmas sale. Keep up the good work Stardock. BTW when’s the announcement of Political Machine 2012?

  18. Josh W says:

    It might be quite nice to hear about what he’s changing there to make development work better.