Yesterday, the first big strategy game of the year slid out of its space-dock. Sins of a Solar Empire, which we've talked about previously (In short: Space Woo!) and will be reviewing shortly. But we need more! Born Journalistic Pirates, we boarded the celebratory cruise-vessel of Stardock and cornered Ironclad's Producer and Lead Designer, Blair Fraser, and Stardock's CEO and President Brad Wardell to prise away our desired booty. That is, talk about the game, their future plans and the surprising and somewhat disappointing reason why it doesn't have a UK distributor yet...
That, and absolutely no more over-elaborate analogies beyond the cut.
RPS: Firstly, being Europeans, a little selfish note. While it's in the shops in the US, and available via Stardock online, we can't help but notice it's not actually on the schedule to hit in the UK and Europe. What's happening there? I heard no-one's picked it up? What on earth are publishers thinking?
Brad: For the past year we've been trying to get major European distributors or publishers to pick up the game to no avail. In case after case we were told that Europeans just don't like "futuristic" games like this.
Blair: I have no idea and I find it hard to believe. We have an incredible number of people from various European countries already involved and Germany alone has more Sins fan sites than the rest of the world put together…
RPS: At which point we'll note that it's available to buy directly from them in a digital download format (Or download plus box sent to you). We'll also tap the side of our heads in the manner of Obelix and note that These Publishers are Crazy.
RPS: Anyway - regarding the game, focusing on a skirmish and multiplayer only structure strikes me as a brave design decision. Could you talk about why you decided it'd be better to concentrate your efforts rather than go for the simple fulfilling the back-of-box bullet-point list which many try to?
Blair: In my opinion the back-of-box bullet-point list should be a list of the coolest features in the game, not a check list of what has to be in there. I can’t count how many times I’ve looked at that list during a game purchase only to be disappointed that bullet point X wasn’t all that fun and was obviously shoveled in to receive the checkmark. The game would have been better off by dropping it. In a sense, things done poorly are worse than not done at all – especially when the resources involved could have made a “good” feature “great”. In Sins we felt we were breaking a lot of new ground and the only way we were going to make it work is if we picked very specific things to focus on and do them the best we possibly could. It isn’t that we didn’t want to dive into other areas (like a campaign) it’s just that we couldn’t do them justice without stealing quality from other areas. As a result of the decision to focus our resources, the single player sandbox mode of Sins is very high quality, has a ton of great features that make it very replayable (unlike most campaign focused single player modes), and allows you to create your own epic story.
RPS: How have people responded to that stance? I was following the debate on your forum where some people were hung up on what the game "lacks". Are you worried about people missing the point? What would you say to someone who instinctively shrinks away from a game without a campaign?
Blair: I’d summarize what Brad and I both said in our other answers. Sins has a very high quality, very replayable single player mode where you can create your own epic adventures. Actually if they shrink away instinctively I might be better off quoting my mother; “don’t knock it until you try it!”
Brad: Sins of a Solar Empire is more akin to Civilization than say Command & Conquer. Sins needed a campaign about as much as Civilization needs a campaign -- not much. While campaigns can be fun, what we decided with Sins was to create a game where each game was an epic adventure.
And here's another way to look at it that I suspect you guys can really appreciate - how many times have you gotten some great new strategy game with a big campaign only to finish it and realize that the single player game after that is merely a collection of a dozen or so maps (often derivatives of what was in the campaign)? By not having a campaign, we were able to do things like have random maps, user map creation, etc. all as part of the base game. I think in terms of replayability, it's a win-win.
RPS: Watching the debate, you talk that you do want to do something single player with more relations to a "campaign", but something which pushes things further than the traditional chain of missions. While I understand you may want to keep those cards close to your chest, care to talk about what you're thinking about, even in very general terms? As in, what do you think a RTS campaign should be like?
Blair: Again, we wanted to break a lot of new ground with Sins but we couldn’t do it in all directions at once. We’ve been working on some really interesting material that will present what we feel is a very compelling and moving story but whether it ends up fitting under the label of “campaign” or not remains to be seen. We are notoriously bad for trying crazy ideas only to have them completely scrapped in favor of some new crazy idea. Once in a blue moon one of them will work out and we’ll hold on to it but it isn’t often. Unfortunately, its way too early discuss the details of these crazy ideas and even sharing our thoughts on how an RTS campaign should be would be revealing too much.
RPS: There may be a small irony in that you've done all the worldbuilding stuff - who the races are, why they're fighting, what they're like - but there's going to be no actual story in the game. But what I find interesting is how a defined background adds character to a game, even when its not explicitly explored (Like the recent Armageddon Empires, which is brilliant in this). I presume this is something you concur with. If so, why do you think it works like this? What did you have in mind when creating the Sins universe?
Blair: Yes, I definitely agree. You have to provide a certain minimal level of lore, immersive detail and backstory so that players have a foundation on which to create their own story during single player. In this sense Sins provides a lot of material. Every ship’s appearance, abilities, and voices, all research trees and the specific topics themselves every music track, every sound effect – well basically everything in the entire game is based around the story and lore behind the three races and the rest of the Sins Universe. They aren’t just static props in a sterile environment – story or no story the galaxy feels alive and your actions feel like they have a purpose beyond the raw gameplay objective of galactic domination.
RPS: Have you got anything planned in terms of Post-Release support? It's an area which Stardock have been traditionally strong in.
Brad: Like all Stardock releases, post-release updates are extremely important to us. Sins of a Solar Empire includes no DVD copy protection whatsoever. Instead, we focus on providing an excellent out of the box experience and then add substantial after release updates that add new features and content free of charge to verified customers (a serial # comes in the box). This way, we reward people for buying our game. I don't know about you but it always bugs me when a game treats me like a potential criminal and makes me jump through hoops or puts stuff on my computer without my permission.
RPS: Finally: what's your favourite capital ship? I like the long-range Destroyer because I'm all about planetary bombardment. Are you all about Planetary bombardment?
Blair: Nope, I’m I’ll about planet suckin’. I love when the Vasari’s Jarrasul Evacuator (aka the floating mega city) powers up its Drain Planet and you watch all the debris fly up from the surface into its gaping maw in a giant, swirling, vortex of destruction. There is nothing more satisfying (or embarrassing depending which side you are on) than wiping out your opponent’s last planet with this.
RPS: Thanks for your time.