Good news for fans of good news. All the Age of Wonders games have been re-released for the Direct Download market. At the time of writing, all three are available in a trilogy pack (plus soundtracks) on Impulse, the first is on Good Old Games and apparently they'll be on Steam imminently. They're some of my favourite turn-based strategy games of the last fifteen years, so I thought I'd grab the chance to talk to Triumph Studios' original design director, Lennart Sas, about how the games came to be, his memories of them and the possibilities of a third one...
RPS: Could you talk about the inspiration of Age of Wonders? Why did you decide to make it? What games - and books or films, for that matter - influenced your thinking about it?
Lennart Sas: The origin of the Age of Wonders project goes all the way back to the first half of the nineties when I met Triumph co-founder Arno van Wingerden at college. We set out to bring the sweeping scope of fantasy conflicts, as seen in books like Lord of the Rings, into strategy and empire building games, with RPG and adventure elements added to the mix. Games like the first Warlords and Civilization as well as the Rogue-like RPGs were an inspiration.
We made a prototype called World of Wonders which caught the eye of Epic Games, who at that time were into shareware publishing. When we graduated in 1997 we started again from scratch and decided to make a commercial retail game out of the concept to start our own games company. In the meantime Heroes of Might and Magic and Master of Magic came out but we found our title added to the genre by having a strong multi-player focus built on a rock solid strategic core - complete with a hexagon grid! I also think the tone and style were different and much more in line with the high fantasy experience.
RPS: What were the big hurdles?
Lennart Sas: The difficulty in making these sweeping strategic titles lies in creating the AI and accounting for the huge variety of gameplay situations. The core these games are sort of like chess but with thousands of 'pieces', such as military units from a dozen races, leveling heroes that can carry an arsenal of magical items, a spells library, and a large set of landscape features including developing cities, surface and underground locations. Making the AI and game systems work together in a fair and balanced way with all of these combinations is a hell of a job, but this key in creating the experience.
RPS: Were there problems in finding a publisher - when talking to developers of turn based games, I've heard a fair few stories about them being reticent about it, even back then.
Lennart Sas: We didn't have too much trouble finding the retail publisher at the time. As a "starve-up" company, we managed to create a large portion of the game before pitching so the publisher risk was low. Furthermore the great guys at Epic Games opened doors.
RPS: What's the key of the game? Why do you think people were so into them?
Lennart Sas: Looking back I think the multiplayer, solid strategic core, and modding tools are what made the Age of Wonders games stand out. There is a community of players still active today. For people new to the series, check out the community site http://aow2.heavengames.com for tons of user created materials, extensive manuals, background info, and people to challenge online.
RPS: Looking back on the games, what are you most proud of? What grates and you would perhaps have done differently given hindsight?
Lennart Sas: I'm most proud of the series' replay value. Seven years after release of the last title, people are playing the games and making additions. But at the same time I think we should have made the pacing of the game quicker especially for the larger maps.
RPS: What was your favourite of the three?
Lennart Sas: For players trying out a single game of the series I'd recommend Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic as the gameplay systems, multiplayer options, balance, and AI had all reached their peak.
My personal favorite of the series has to be the first one. It's a matter of taste, but I think the music, graphics, branching campaign, and the epic,yet charming fantasy experience brought by the Raymond Bingham's story all come together really well. Despite being called retro even at its release, I think Age of Wonders 1 with its pixel graphics and fantastic "mod" music (by Michiel van den Bos) aged remarkably well over 11 years.
RPS: After Shadow Magic, Triumph moved onto the (lovely) Overlord games. What prompted the change in direction?
Lennart Sas: We felt we'd added everything but the kitchen sink into Shadow Magic (although the fans disagreed and made a huge variety of mods and levels which can be accessed). After three successive AoW titles, we wanted to do something different and explore opportunities of the console arena, do something crazy.
We made a big switch moving to Overlord, moving from PC to console, from Strategy to Action RPG, and from serious fantasy to fantasy parody and we're very happy with how well received and successful it has been. Now in 2010 we're moving onto even more exciting things, including this re-release of our first games and an as-yet unannounced but amazing new game.
RPS: Why did you decide now was the time to bring them to the Direct Download market?
Lennart Sas: With so many channels becoming available to online buyers and the still active community, we thought it would be great to let people try out the Age of Wonders games again. With mint copies of Shadow Magic having been known to sell for a couple of hundred dollars this seemed a way people could easily get hold of them for a more reasonable price.
RPS: And to ask the question which I suspect most of the Age of Wonders fans will be asking - depending on the success of the pack, would there be any chance of a fourth incarnation in the series?
Lennart Sas: We'd never say never, and making games that lots of people will play and enjoy is what Triumph is all about. So buy these games, actually why not buy them twice!
RPS: And even talking hypothetically, what areas would you like to have pushed Age of Wonders in next?
Lennart Sas: I think today's connectivity and distribution methods would allow a great Age of Wonders game with online focus, with players being able to participate in sessions from work, your laptop, possibly your iPad. Age of Wonders has a tender spot in Triumph's heart and the idea of returning to it beats insistently. See, that's how much we still love Age of Wonders -making me sound all mushy.
RPS: Thanks for your time.