Stardock's forthcoming strategy game, Elemental, is looking rather interesting. It kicks off with the player mooching about, alone in the world, and ends up with you directing a colossal dynastic 4X empire-building game with user-generated content and a hefty multiplayer offering. Last week we talked to Stardock CEO Brad Wardell to get a bit more information about the user-generated content, multiplayer sessions lasting six months, and the world-building collaboration with publisher, Random House.
RPS: So Elemental is the sort of proof of concept of the Impulse Reactor stuff. What does that mean?
Wardell: All the multiplayer stuff, all the online functionality [from Impulse Reactor, which we talked a bit about yesterday] will be in Elemental. If we do it right then users won't be able to tell what is an overlay and what is actually a game.
RPS: So the game is scheduled for the summer. What should we expect?
Wardell: Elemental is a fantasy strategy game set in a world that was previously left in ruins by a war of magic. When you arrive in the game you do so as the single player character, you design your character, setting out his strengths and weaknesses, how they look, and so on, and then you are set down into this devastated world. It's like the start of many RPGs, but from there you build up a kingdom by founding cities and building up those cities. You expand the kingdom by designing new military units and using those to increase your reach and power in the world. You can learn spells, start familie - you can start dynasties with your offspring having magical abilities and becoming heroes within the game world. Overall you win through supreme conquest, or through completing a master quest, or by getting enough power to cast a spell of domination on the world.
RPS: So essentially a 4X game with more of an RPG heritage?
Wardell: Yes, it's a 4X strategy game with a little Baldur's Gate in it. The closest game I can think of is Master Of Magic, that's been a bit of an inspiration for us. What we wanted to do with Elemental is to make it more of a personal experience. We really want you to be a presence within the game world, with your dynasty, with the way you design your units. When you go and zoom in and look at a unit you can see them all in the world, and they'll all be a little different. And we want to move away from it being abstract. If I have a village with fifty people I can't just click on it and ask for a legion of people. Those people have to come from somewhere. If spear-men come from a particular village, then there are less people left living there. It's more personal in terms of you not just being this over-arching power, than other games in this genre.
RPS: Right, so what's the sort of scale we're looking at? How big is the game world, for example?
Wardell: Well that largely depends on how large the player wants it to be. Out intention is that in the training levels you should be able to win within an hour, especially if you're playing multiplayer. If you're playing the really epic maps, then we hope for the game to be able to last six months, on a map that is just beyond anything. Actually, we are going to come up with a 64-bit edition that could allow you to have even crazier-sized maps.
RPS: Six months! And that's multiplayer too?
Wardell: Yes, you can go and save that and come back to it. It's client-server, so there are no connectivity issues there. Someone can set up a custom server for their "Middle Earth" game or whatever - obviously we're not going to set that up! - and then they can play from there with their own customisations. The idea is that the games remain persistent so you can play with friends over a weekend, and then you can come back the following weekend and the savegame is still there and you can continue.
RPS: So how much of the game is customisable?
Wardell: There's a whole lot. You can make your own races, for example. There are no elves in the game world, but someone could make them if they wanted to. Or orks, or gnomes, whatever. We've tried to stay away from the high fantasy type stuff. Our ten races are five from races of men, and five from races of "The Fallen", which are like a mix of goblins and trolls, except not actually that, they're our own thing, The Fallen. In terms of customisations to the game generally we have what we call "the workshop", in which people can make their own land tiles, there own spells, their own effects. They can submit that and then it goes into our cloud. People will be able to select that online and make the world richer and richer as we go. That's all part of the game out of the box, and it's the same kind of tools we are using to make the game in the first instance.
RPS: How finished is it if you're looking to release in the summer?
Wardell: Well it's in a private beta right now. Anyone who pre-orders will get straight into the rolled out betas that we are doing. And then at the end of the summer it should hit on Impulse and at retail.
RPS: Has Elemental presented any other challenges, other than the obvious ones in creating these kinds of tools?
Wardell: I'm writing a book! Wow, that gives me new-found respect for writers. I am usually a technical writer and so I thought "oh I know how to crank out 90,000 words" but then you realise how much more that actually is when you're being creative the whole time. And rewriting! And rewriting...
RPS: The editing is the killer, it's true. I think we went back seven times on This Gaming Life. I was so tired of it by the end.
Wardell: That's where I am now. It's the Devil's Bargain: "how would you like to write a book? How would you like to write it over and over, forever?" But yeah, there's a lot to do. Random House's editors are working with me on it, and they'll send it back with notes and oh, that same scene again... It's exhausting.
RPS: And that's all tied into Elemental?
Wardell: Yes, Random House has been working on the in-game fiction with us. One of the things we thought would be really important is to have something different for the single player campaign. Just having that "you have to eventually kill the Dark Lord" quest didn't really make sense for this game, something hackneyed really wouldn't work. We wanted something special and interesting. It really changed my opinion of this stuff, because I thought "well, anyone can write a fantasy quest", and then they challenged that, because we were looking at just standard heroes' journey stuff, and they've thrown all that out. You know, that's something really significant for us.
RPS: That's the value of experienced editors, I suppose. They're smart people, they do bring ideas in.
Wardell: It's amazing how many things in game they've changed. Little things like them asking "what's your unit of currency?" Well it's gold. Obviously it's gold. But then they pointed out: "No one actually calls their currency gold. Not ever." That's how it's done in other games, sure, but that doesn't make it right. And its up to use to fix it. In fact, the currency name needs to be based on a reason generated by the game world. You don't need to explain it, the explanation didn't need to come up within the game, it just needs to make sense. So we went ahead and did that, and it works a lot better.
RPS: How did working with a book publisher come about then? It seems pretty unusual for two creative companies to working at that level with each other...
Wardell: They came to us, actually. It's the same team that has been doing the Star Wars expanded universe. They now want to collaborate with game studios. We're their test run, working with a smaller studio, getting into the game-making process. What they wanted was create a fictional game world and allow stories and games to come from that. So the book is not of the game, it's of the world. And the game comes from that world too. It's a world for generating this stuff that is collaborated on by both of us, books and games.
RPS: A world-building exercise across two companies.
Wardell: Exactly. When we first spoke to them I had this timeline of the world for backstory, and by the time they were done with it we had this vast Tolkien-esque backstory with a full history of the world! This flowed through the entire team, like the art team, once they had seen this, started coming up with stuff. They were able to create things that they could sprinkle through the world, artifacts, buildings and so on. The collaboration has made it so that the game was not generic. We knew it couldn't be "oh the orks again" and instead we've made it so that players can make that stuff if they want to include it.
RPS: Thanks for your time.