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Spell It Out: Stardock On Fallen Enchantress

Elemental, my dear Watson.

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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Jim Rossignol