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Spelling It Out: Worlds Of Magic Interview

Plane Talking

Worlds of Magic could be as authentic a successor to Master of Magic as any game released in the last couple of decades. That's a sobering reminder that the Microprose's classic strategy game is almost twenty years old. I wanted to know how close Wastelands' game will be to the game that chiefly inspired it, and how the D20 combat system and seven planes of reality might change the experience, so I spoke to lead designer Aaron Ethridge and producer Leszek Lisowski and secured some answers. We also discussed the addition of artist George Edward Purdy, who worked on Master of Magic, and agreed that recreating the second world war isn't quite the same as making randomised worlds full of skeletons and wyrms.

RPS: For those who don't know Wastelands Interactive, can you tell us a little about the team and your previous games?

Wastelands: Officially, for more than four years now and unofficially for about seven years Wastelands Interactive has been developing computer games. We are a small team of dedicated people who really like their jobs, love the community and have spent sleepless nights making things work. So far we have focused on World War II strategy games, and among others have created two pretty large games which cover both theatres of operations: Europe, in Time of Fury and The Pacific, in Storm over the Pacific. Those are medium complexity games with gameplay lasting over 300 turns. If you add the fact that you can control every country or combination of countries in all kind of ways it gives the games a great deal of play time. With our last game - Strategic War in Europe - we wanted to try something little bit different, so we ended up with a fast playing European theatre which is reminiscent of a tabletop game, but you don’t have to bother about your cat running on the table or explaining your wife what you are doing with your friends in the basement.

Over the years we’ve learned a lot in terms of design, coding, and planning. We are closely cooperating with different development communities trying to constantly improve our games according to suggestions and feedback. Definitely I can say that I love to make games.

RPS: How long have you been planning to make Worlds of Magic and at what point did you decide to launch a Kickstarter campaign?

Wastelands: Worlds of Magic has been in development for about a year. Last Autumn I teamed up with Aaron and convinced him that the best thing for the game would be to move it to Unity3D (the work originally started in a 2D game engine), so we starting porting what had already been coded. We also decided that Kickstarter offered us a great chance for making this game faster and better looking very early on. The amount of units and buildings require many assets, and this is the largest chunk of the budget. We calculated that if we wanted all the assets ready at the same time as when the gameplay, AI and all other elements were ready, we would need to get additional funding, and Kickstarter seemed to be the best choice for that.

RPS: On the Kickstarter page, you state - "Our primary goal for Worlds of Magic is to capture the essence of what made Master of Magic the classic it is" - what do you believe are the most important features and what have other games lacked?

Wastelands: There are a number of elements that we feel made Master of Magic the incredible classic that it is. Just browsing over the feature list on our Kickstarter page will give you an insight into our thought process. I’ll take a moment to touch the highlights here: First it’s very important to maintain the true 4X feel. Procedurally generated random maps, fog of war, interesting locations to discover, long lost loot to find, it’s all in Worlds of Magic. Spells, magical artifacts, and magic in general are also an essential piece. With Worlds of Magic we’ve expanded on the concepts found in Master of Magic. We offer a wider range of magical schools (we call them circles) to choose from. Your spell circle choices have an effect on what spells you can research and cast. It also effects what kind of artifacts you can make for your heroes. Of course, heroes are yet another fundamental piece. Just as Master of Magic did, Worlds of magic offers a number of unique heroes you can persuade to join your armies. They can gain more experience and reach higher levels than normal units and you can equip them with magical weapons, armour, etc. There’s a great deal more, but I can’t touch every point here. Our Kickstarter page has a much more in-depth explanation.

As far as other games are concerned I would say that we haven’t seen a real spiritual successor to Master of Magic because developers tend to want to put their own new “spin” on things. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and if you add nothing new you just end up making a clone, not a successor. Worlds of Magic has a lot of new stuff in it. However, it’s stuff we’ve worked hard to make sure would have fit into Master of Magic in the first place.

RPS: Do you find the time to try other fantasy strategy games? Have you learned or appreciated anything in modern titles, such as Warlock and Fallen Enchantress?

Wastelands: I try to play every strategy game that’s released, unfortunately there are only 24 hours in a day, so some of them don’t get all that much play time. I tried Warlock before its release and I really enjoyed the game. It reminds me of a fantasy version of Civilization V. Especially the hexes and the camera make me feel that way. The thing that was missing for me was lack of tactical battles and a city screen. Fallen Enchantress is much, much better than the previous game of the series. Also the new Age of Wonders looks very very promising, I can’t wait for that to be released.

RPS: Why did you decide to use a d20 system for combat?

Wastelands: There were actually a number of reasons we made the decision. The main driving factors were time, balance, and expandability. Before I go any further I want to address the base concern that D20 is a RPG system and not a tactical combat system. Strictly speaking this is true. However, one of the major elements of D20 role playing is, in fact, turn based tactical combat. In fact, a majority of the rules are to address combat situations. So when we started looking for an established rule set for dealing with turn based tactical combat the D20 ruleset was an obvious choice.

First, it saved us the time of developing our own system from scratch. This may seem like a minor factor, but it isn’t. There are so many elements in a game like Worlds of Magic that you want to do your best not to reinvent the wheel whenever possible. We could have developed our own rule set for turn based tactical combat, but there was an “on the shelf” solution with millions of play hours attesting to its success. Why spend time creating our own from scratch when we could spend that time more effectively elsewhere.

Second, balance is a real issue that has to be addressed. Now, some people will jump up and down screaming “D20 is NOT balanced!!!” I would have them consider these facts: If it was easy to balance a rule set then D20 would be balanced. How many thousands of man hours have gone into that system? If you claim that D20 isn’t balanced, what kind of chance would our small team have of balancing such a massive combat system? Our team has literally decades of D20 experience. We know how to fudge numbers here or there to level out the balance. D20 may not be perfect, but it’s a lot more perfect than you’re going to get by starting over. It has a very solid foundation for balance. With very minor tweaking it’s a relatively balanced system in our opinion.

Third, we needed a system that could handle combat, spells, magical weapons, experience, levelling, damage types, damage resistance, spell resistance, poison, acid, etc, etc, etc. Every time you add a new element to a rule set you have to make sure the addition is balanced. The D20 system already has rules to address all these elements. Again, balance may not be perfect, but it’s a lot closer to that than starting over would give us.

RPS: Are the different factions in the game similar to the races in Master of Magic? Do they have unique units and buildings?

Wastelands: Absolutely! All the factions have unique units. Most have a number of buildings in common (although the look will differ from faction to faction) and a number of unique buildings. Some of the factions, like Undead, play very differently from the rest. For instance the undead don’t collect gold from taxes, don’t negotiate with their enemies, harvest negative energy rather than food, etc. Most races are similar with little differences, some are different with little similarities, if you see what I mean.

RPS: Master of Magic was incredible diverse in terms of spells, creatures and magical items - judging by the numbers on the Kickstarter page, you appreciate variety as well! How unusual will aspects of the magic system and world be?

Wastelands: It’s hard to say what will be unusual about the magic system. After all it’s all magic and therefore unusual (laughs). Still, I think that one of the things that makes our system unique is our take on spell schools. As I mentioned before, we call them circles and there are twelve of them. Six of the circles sort spells according to the element from which they draw power, fire, death etc. The other six sort spells according to their effects, summoning, destruction, etc. This allows players to focus on a single element like death or a single effect like summoning. We wanted to offer players as many viable spell strategies as possible. Our spell circles were the result of that desire.

Probably the most unique aspect of our game universe is the different planes of existence. There’s the Prime Material Plane (which is a fantasized “real world”), the elemental planes which are like the PMP infused with elemental energy (fire plane, water plane, etc) and micro-planes that exist, kind of floating in the void. Exploring our universe will prove very interesting to most 4Xers. There’s a lot to discover and a lot of little (and not so little) differences to spice up the game play experience.

RPS: Almost every leader I created in Master of Magic was an artificer, because I took great pride in making awesome magical armour for my heroes to wear. Will you allow the creation of unique magical items?

Wastelands: Absolutely! Creating magical items is one of the basic building blocks of Worlds of Magic. In fact, we’re working to open it up a bit and make it slightly more accessible than it was in Master of Magic. In MoM, I’m sure you remember, item creation was tied to a spell. Creating an artifact would prevent you from casting global spells. That could lead to some unfortunate consequences. In Worlds of Magic we decided to go a different route. Item creation is its own thing. You’ll be able to create items and still cast global spells while you’re waiting on you item to be completed. Now, you will still only be able to create one item and cast only one global enchantment at a time. However, we feel that one not preventing you from doing the other is a good step.

RPS: You mention the unique nature of the undead as a playable race on the Kickstarter page. What will be the different challenges for zombie overlords?

Wastelands: I touched this in a previous answer, but this gives me a chance to fill out the idea. Undead have a number of “disadvantages” to start with. They don’t collect gold from taxes. So, if you want to hire a mercenary and keep them paid your going to have to raid other civilizations or find gold and build a mine. Then, of course, not everyone will work for the undead. In fact, most creatures won’t. Most creatures won’t have anything to do with them. So, diplomacy pretty much goes out the window. In any plane other than the shadow plane you can’t just build a city. You have to corrupt some land first. There are a lot of little challenges the undead have to overcome.

So, why is it worth it? Well, power really. It’s a matter of creating unbalance on purpose. We hobble the undead on the empire level (keep in mind all these limitations make sense from a story point of view and so none of this “hobbling” is just arbitrary) so that we can make them more powerful on the battlefield. Some undead units are very powerful. Most have forms of damage resistance or eerie powers like the ability to ignore armor. We wanted to bring that power to the battlefield without making undead the ultimate race. Now, it is a balancing act and it’s going to take a lot of play testing, but we think it’s worth it to make the undead truly unique.

RPS: Will tactical battles be similar in size to those in Master of Magic and Age of Wonders, or will more units be involved?

Wastelands: We are planning to make the tactical battles similar in size to those in Master of Magic. Of course battles are fun, but I think they shouldn’t last longer than just couple of minutes. Of course we are thinking about such things as ambushes, reinforcements, etc, but those details are not nailed yet. We wish to discuss them with the fans, and then decide. Also the game will allow you to play custom battles, so we might consider preparing larger battlefields with more units available. If people like it, let’s give it to them, but again, this depends on the community.

RPS: How will having seven planes of existence work? Will they all exist in each game or only a couple? What advantages are gained when they are conquered?

Wastelands: When you start a new game there are a number of settings you can change. One of those settings is the number of planes, another is which planes you’ll get. The “standard” game would be one of each of the seven planes along with a few micro planes. There are a number of advantages to dividing the universe into planes. One of them being that you can take control of a plane and hold it against attack while you build up your forces. (This would be a mid game tactic.) You can also use magic to “seal” the planes and prevent travel between them. (Not everyone can do this, but it is possible to do it.) The planes are sections of the universe. Discovering and utilizing them has the same advantages that discovering and utilizing the “new world” had for the “old world”, if you see what I mean. Each plane is a new world of danger and opportunity.

RPS: I notice that Worlds of Magic has appeared on Steam Greenlight but you are reassuring people that they will be able to play without a Steam account - how will you handle distribution of the DRM-free version of the game?

Wastelands: First of all, I personally like Steam, this is quick and elegant way to get most of your games without spending half a day driving to the Best Buy. But, of course I do understand that lot of people prefer to own the game the have bought. So if Worlds of Magic gets on Steam, for sure it will be optional. Everybody will be able to get the game from different sources, like GamersGate, Gamestop, GOG, also directly from us or some other places. We are also starting to get in touch with some local distributors, to give a possibility to buy the game in local store.

RPS: What are the major differences between working on historical strategy games and creating a fantasy world?

Wastelands: Great question! There are two foundations of gameplay when you’re working on a game which has a historical setup. Those are smoothness and probability of events. Both are very closely linked. So first, it needs to give you the feel that the war you’re fighting is close to the historical course of events, so this means that in the European WW2 you have got huge fronts moving back and forth, even if Soviets are attacking Germans first, you still have got two large armies in constant movement. When you’re playing World War 1 the western front should be much more static. The second thing which is probability is based very much on balancing the game. This is really hard work for grand strategies. What we try to avoid are situations where playing as Albania for example you’re able to conquer all of Europe. This of course might be fun, and somebody might make a great AAR (After Action Report) from such play, but it’s nowhere near what might really happen.

Another thing is that you have to make the AI do certain things, like Germans should usually be aggressive and attack one enemy after another, Soviets should use mass tactic no matter what etc. People expect World War 2 to be challenging but also they usually want them to be close to the original course of events. So you have to balance things like recovery of the Soviet Army and on the other hand allow German players to win from time to time.

In fantasy games, you just need to make a great AI, which will be able to use all the features available for human players. It’s much, much easier to design and create the AI which will try to do its best most of the time, which won’t withdraw units, just because this really happened in 1941 or 1944. Of course you still have Orcs using “Charge!” tactic against every enemy, but here you never know when and where they will seize you.

RPS: The announcement that George Edward Purdy, an artist who worked on Master of Magic, has joined the team provides a strong link with the past. How did you meet him and role will he take in the team? How will his involvement help the game and will the contents of the artbook change?

Wastelands: The fact is that there have been so many attempts at making a Master of Magic successor that we felt the entire Master of Magic team would have a case of “Heard it all before” syndrome. So, we didn’t even try to get in touch with them. Fortunately, George is involved in Kickstarter and just happened to run up on us. He took a good long look at what we were doing, felt we were heading in the right direction and offered to join us. Needless to say we leapt at the chance. He’s accepted the role of lead artist for the team, which fits right in with his natural ability and previous experience. He’s going to help Worlds of Magic follow in Master of Magic’s artistic footsteps. Part of MoM’s classic charm was the art work. George was a key part of the team that made that happen. He’s going to do the same for Worlds of Magic. Also, he knows the genre, he knows D20, he knows the game we’re trying to make. His feedback is going to help us follow Master of Magic and even go beyond it in the same direction. All in all, he’s bringing a lot to the table.

RPS: You invite your community to take part in important decisions such as the races and general design. Is it difficult to work so tightly with the community, and what are the advantages and disadvantages?

Wastelands: The advantage is easy to see. Our community is made up of a group of excited and dedicated fans. They’ve already made a number of game-changing suggestions. These are people that love the genre and want Worlds of Magic to be something truly amazing. They are really helping make that happen.

The only “disadvantage” is the time it takes to go through our forums trying to give “official” (albeit tentative) answers to questions and feedback. It’s actually a lot of work, lol. Some of these guys are basically experts in the 4X field and will do multi-page posts on complex ideas complete with sample numbers. It can be a lot to try to peruse. Still, the advantages clearly outweigh this small “disadvantage” by several orders of magnitude. We feel that community input is really going to help us make Worlds of Magic something special.

RPS: Thanks for your time!

Worlds of Magic is currently Kickstarting.

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About the Author

Adam Smith

Former Deputy Editor

Adam wrote for Rock Paper Shotgun between 2011-2018, rising through the ranks to become its Deputy Editor. He now works at Larian Studios on Baldur's Gate 3.