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Space Aces: Kerberos On Sword Of The Stars

To those in the know, Sword of the Stars was expertly and epically doing the space 4x thing long before Sins of a Solar Empire sauntered onto the scene last year. The first opus from Kerberos Productions, risen out of the ashes of Barking Dog - responsible for Homeworld: Cataclysm and eventually folded into Rockstar Vancouuver - it's picked up the sort of deeply passionate following you so often get with deep and complex space-games. On the eve of second expansion A Murder Of Crow's release, we had a chat with CEO and Lead Designer Martin Cirulis about Kerberos' past, present and future - including some first details on their next two games, RPG Northstar and the splendidly-named Fort Zombie...

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A Murder of Crows is a great name for a sci-fi game. Sounds almost like an Iain M. Banks novel – does The Sword of the Stars universe draw on his stuff at all, or are there other influences?

No, I don’t believe Mr. Banks was much of an influence on either myself or Arinn Dembo, who is the real genius behind both the name of this expansion and much of the SotS universe itself. Speaking for myself here, most of my space opera influences range from the 60s, 70s and 80s, (Asimov, Saberhagen, Silverberg, Laumer, Haldeman, Cook, Brin amongst many, many others) with a l’il Babylon 5 and Space Above and Beyond thrown in for good measure. Actually a good clue to some of the SotSverse influences can be found in names of stars in the game. A lot of fans on the board enjoy playing “spot the tribute name”!

Why expand the game again over two years on from its release? Is this about pleasing old fans or a sense that there's still a lot of room to cultivate new ones?

SotS was always meant to expand at this rate from the very beginning. Both BoB and AmoC were storyboarded out, so to speak, while SotS was still in production and most of their core features were meant to offer up a changed universe for anyone coming along, be they old fans or people who want to jump aboard something a l’il more than the usual space war game. So while we always hope to please fans, old and new, this is about more than just keeping people interested. Its always been about telling a story and creating a 4X game that is something more than just a spreadsheet to slot new art into.

With that in mind, does AMOC make a good starting point for someone new to Sword of the Stars? If so, why so? If not, where should they begin?

AMoC is an expansion pack and so it requires that you have either the original game up to the BoB level, or the recent Collector’s Edition that includes the original game, BoB and all the update content to that point, as well as an a ton of cool extras. So while AMoC will please anyone who likes big game getting even bigger, I suppose the ideal starting point for anyone interested in something new in 4X, would be the CE Edition. It even comes with a full novel, the Deacon’s Tale, by our amazing lead writer, Arinn Dembo. So between that and enhanced tutorial videos, there really is no better way for new players to get to know both the game AND the incredibly rich universe it is set in than the SotS CE Edition that came out this past summer and is still available in stores and on-line.

Once you get your feet wet there, I have no doubt the huge array of content, gameplay features and, of course, the new race of deadly tricksters, The Morrigi will draw a player deeply into the clutches of AMoC. I mean, what other expansion pack out there allows you sweet revenge against the race whose traps made your life hard in the previous expansion?

What's the most defining difference between Sword and other space-based 4X games to your mind?

Hmmm… MOST defining? That's a hard question because there are so many defining differences between SotS and the current space 4x status quo. While I would have to say that the game being a truly different experience based on which of the species you play and their unique drive system is usually what catches the eye first, personally I feel the most defining feature of SotS is how it rewards the player for thinking both strategically and, even more so, tactically.

Instead of relying on simple rock/paper/scissors balancing for a handful of ships and only a few actual distinct weapon systems which is the norm for both 4X, and RTS for that matter, SotS gives players a vast toolkit of sections, weapons and technology that rewards them for their own creativity. Where another game might provide missiles and then point defense that stops missiles and maybe add a couple levels of each to keep you chasing up the tech tree, SotS provides both but neither is a simple answer. Yes, missiles can be dangerous and yes, point defense can shoot them down effectively… but PD is not the only answer to missile defense nor are missiles totally useless in the face of PD. Since the combat runs in full 3D and uses polygon collision instead of dice rolls, a player can actually do something, to pick an example, like using kinetic weapons to knock ships out of a tight, PD advantageous formation and make them more vulnerable to smaller numbers of missiles.

These days, there are just not many games out there that reward a player for thinking outside the exact definitions of a weapon and its counter. And the reflection of that is that even after 2 years of multi-player goodness, there is still not a tried and true unbeatable tactic or surefire formula for victory that works every game. And the array of new ship sections, techs and weapons in AMoC only adds to the Star Admiral’s toolbox that is the SotS universe.

While I apologise if it's a comparison you're tired of hearing, why do you think it didn't achieve the profile that Sins of a Solar Empire did recently? Is it anything to do with a changed PC gaming climate over the last couple of years, or is there something else going on?

Ah, don’t feel bad about the comparison. I'm sure it’s only karma after for the times SotS was brought up to them before their release.

As for profile, well the simplest answer is that the RTS market is always a bit flashier in terms of press and coverage. I mean look at the RTS monsters coming down the road…Starcraft 2…Red Alert 3. One can only imagine the roar of those titles arrival. And, while I would love to have that kind of exposure and media coverage, the reality is that even an innovative turn-based hybrid is not going to garner as much attention. In the end, I suppose what really counts is what players actually are playing years down the road and if they feel like they got the maximum bang out of their gaming dollar.

Has having Sword of the Stars on services like Direct2Drive and GamersGate made a difference? And are you looking about making it a bit more download-focused, or is retail still your priority?

I think download services are critical in today’s marketplace. While retail is always good, the growing blindspot in retail for PC based titles makes quick and easy online access to a game even more important. GamersGate has been an excellent site in terms of service and support of our updates and in terms of the satisfaction of our fans. To reflect this, we were thrilled to be able to offer GG an exclusive sales period for AmoC before it is able to hit the shelves physically. Again the greatest advantage of on download services is the quick reaction time.

Sword of the Star's patches have been pretty significant – have they been a response to community suggestions or a matter of taking the game closer to what you'd originally hoped it would be? And to what extent would you say the game has changed since the patches and first expansion?

Now this is my favorite question of the interview! Not that the other questions haven’t been great but this one perfectly illustrates the difficulty in trying to do something a little different in the 4X realm.

At a quick glance you see a series of large updates for a game and you, not unrealistically, assume that these are due entirely to missing initial features and fixes. Now, while the fan base has been invaluable in suggesting numerous interface tweaks and additions to make SotS as friendly as possible, it would probably have taken a second glance at the details of the updates and the reactions from the message boards to get the idea that SotS is actually attempting to bring MMO-class post-purchase development to a genre never known for its dynamic content.

Long ago, we knew that we were going to be the type of developer that gave as much support to our games as possible as we are gamers too and nothing bothers us more than a game left to flounder after a release patch or two. But even after committing to long-term support for our games, the question we asked ourselves was, wasn’t there something more interesting we could do with periodic updates other than a few bug fixes and implementing a suggestion or two? The answer was provided in the incredibly rich background material that Ms. Dembo began creating for SotS from day one. Instead of just doing the same ol’, same ol’, we decided to build the game around the update system much like MMOs do. Providing not only improvements but also content and foreshadowing of events…a 4X timeline system if you will.

SotS, in its own way, is a game that lives and breathes not just through the traditional paid expansion pack system, but through the update system as well. When players downloaded an update to the original SotS only to find a new random menace, The Slavers, had appeared, they knew they had a different kind of 4X game on their hands. When the next update expanded the reach of the Slavers and created a refueling base encounter they knew they were dealing with something organized entering their game universe and so when Born of Blood arrived to give full life to the slavers, now known as The Zuul, it was more like they were involved in a new episode of a TV show than just buying another expansion with a few new doo-dads and thingamajiggies for the sake of 20 odd bucks.

Of course, doing that turned out to be just a matter of an extra bit of effort and pride in the game. Ah, but getting that to be seen or acknowledged in the media? That has turned out to be the rub.

But to get back to the actual question. Yes, we have gone a long way in aknowledging great fan suggestions and requests for interface features, but no, the game at any given moment has always been what we hoped and planned for from the start. And because of that I would proudly say the game has changed a great deal from its initial release, but it's still the innovative, risk-taking game it always was meant to be.

Can you tell us anything at all about your next game, Northstar? The fact it's got 'star' in the title seems like it's hinting at something...

Actually I would suspect the Fort Zombie Mini-game based on the Nstar RPG engine we are developing will hit the ground a lot sooner than Nstar…but that would be another question entirely.

Nstar itself will be a space trader/RPG game that looks to bring the space trader genre back a bit more to the adventure side of things as opposed to the flight-sim mechanic that has dominated for the past decade or so. The Nstar universe is completely new and separate from the SotSverse but will have the same kind of depth, innovation and detail. Basically we want to bring you back to the part of being a rogue trader where you sweat hidden cargo panels and dodging police ships instead of just dog-fighting starfighter’s for bounty. In terms of attitude and tasks, Nstar will be closer to Firefly than Freelancer and will have the third person RPG engine to back up the space-borne hi-jinks.

But perhaps a shameless plug of a partial feature list will explain it best though!

Countless RPG missions, nested with story-specific missions, that take place on ships, spacestations, planets, and moons! Shoot it out in ship-to-ship combat or shoot it out on the ground as you and your crew try and make a living!

- Faction-based reputation in dealing with various groups expanding throughout the stars, each modeled as the future, fictional version of Earth nations!

- Massive amounts of cargo that you can trade, sell, or use for yourself, including combining items to produce new items to trade, sell or use! Map new planets in the air and then explore the surface with your crew for your own purposes or to make a little extra cash from land-hungry colonists!

- Dozens of ship classes, each with expandable levels of technology - which are reflected in the ship models, weapons and combat effects. Dozens of weapons and technology players can outfit their ship with in order to fly further, fast, carry more cargo, and protect themselves better!

About Kerberos itself – roughly how much of the development team formerly worked at Barking Dog, and to what extent does their work on Homeworld Cataclysm inform Sword of the Stars?

The company core, all 6 of us, are all Bdog vets and proud of it. In fact that is part of the reason behind our company name and logo… We are still Dawgs and proud of it.

And definitely all of our work on not only Cat but our sadly overlooked Treasure Planet game, TP:Battle at Procyon, and even our time spent at Rockstar Vancouver shaped much of our philosophies on gameplay, storytelling and engine technology.

Given other Barking Dog employees work at Iron Clad, are there any ongoing ties between the two companies? I can't help but love the idea of a cartel of space 4x developers who all go out drinking

Well with, Nstar, Fort Zombie and as well as a couple other things we can’t discuss at this time, I am not sure Kerberos Productions will be seen as developing only space 4X for much longer. But you know us canucks, we can always be counted on for any excuse for a night of beer and hockey!

A Murder of Crows will be released on October 10th, published by Lighthouse Interactive and also available on GamersGate. Try the demo of Sword of the Stars here.

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