Armageddon Empires was our favourite turn-based strategy game of 2007. That Cryptic Comet's next project is a political wargame set in hell is enough to get us to say things like "We're hoping that Solium Infernum will be the greatest use of extraneous latin in a videogame since Deus Ex" with a straight face. We talk to Vic Davis about putting the Demons in Democracy and reveal the first in-game shots...
RPS: Top level: How are you explaining Sol Infernum to people? The concept's easy to grasp - dukes of hell warring over its throne - but actually what does that mean? What are people getting up to?
Vic Davis: My sales pitch is that it’s like playing a grand strategy board game on the computer. I took a look at what some of my favorite board games in the genre provided and I wanted to evoke a similar feeling on the digital board. That meant setting up a system where you had shifting alliances and opportunities to bully, back stab, or just lay low and snipe away at the leader until it was time to make your move. There are a lot of pitfalls from a design stand point to be avoided… run away leaders, kingmakers, ganging up on the leader and multi-player solitaire syndromes so I had to navigate a design minefield of a sort.
The short of it is that you get 2 to 6 actions per turn to build a Great House in Hell and garner as many Prestige Points as you can along the way. As the game is played “Conclave Tokens” are drawn randomly and when a predetermined amount has been drawn the Infernal Conclave convenes in the Capital City of Hell known as Pandemonium and the new ruler is chosen. All players total up their public and secret Prestige Points and the player with the highest total wins. The player with the second highest is selected as Lieutenant. Of course what would Hell be without some special rules so there are some unique ways to manipulate all this to your advantage at the end of the game.
RPS: Armageddon Empires was a classic single player approach. Sol Infernum, while includes single player opponents, is more slanted towards the multiplayer experience. How has it changed your thinking? How big were the technical hurdles?
Vic Davis: The key design point that I had to implement was a simultaneous turn resolution. Each player queues up a group of orders and then submits them to the host player usually via email (although hot seat is available as well). The host then places all the turn orders into a folder and processes the turn. The results are sent back to the players and the cycle then repeats. I like this approach a lot because there is a “trepidation” factor as you wait to see what the results of your orders will be. Even in a single player game you hit the next turn button with the anticipation that despite your well thought out plans, something unexpected is going to happen because your opponent was plotting away as well.
One thing that mars a lot of games like this is that the late game gets bogged down with a tremendous amount of micromanagement and the game goes on for months or years. In many cases the game just dies as the players lose interest or real life intervenes. I took a few hints from some of the classic mechanics that you see in board games to address this. You get a limited number of orders per turn which cuts down on micro management and the Conclave Token system limits the length of the game. Combined they act to create a quick paced game of limited duration that focuses the players actions into a tight decision space. Simple decisions can yield complex interactions though. My design mantra was “simple but elegant.”
RPS: What kind of research have you done for the game? Have you been picking apart your Dante or is it all just cheerily made up? What influences do you have on the hell of Sol Infernum?
Vic Davis: Research? You mean beyond the normal dissolute, amoral life that I lead now? No seriously, I did a fair amount of research. The primary inspiration for the game is a phrase I loved the moment I read it in Milton’s Paradise Lost when I was in high school:
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell: Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
But I cast my net in a wide area for inspiration. You’ll find places in the game like The Wood of the Suicides from Dante’s Inferno or the Pit of Tartarus from Greek Mythology. Some of the legions that you command will remind you of demons that you might see in a painting by Giotto or Hieronymus Bosch. My wife is an Art Historian so I had a lot of her books to look at as well as the fact that I’ve seen most of the art first hand while getting a personal guided tour.
The Hell that I have imagined for players is a fantasy vision of Hell that draws on my own invention as well as multiple cultural resources including even some pop culture references. I’ve been really careful though not to spoil the mood.
RPS: I admit, I've been somewhat surprised when seeing it discussed that some people immediately just switch off on the concept on moral reasons. It's probably naivety on my part coming from pretty-much-secular Britain, but were you surprised by it?
Vic Davis: I did have in the back of my mind a fear that it would drive some prospective customers away just because of the subject matter. I can also understand that at face value the concept might not appeal to everybody. When I play computer role playing games or even table top games, I don’t typically choose to be evil or a ruthless assassin… my ascendancy to the leadership of The Dark Brotherhood in Oblivion notwithstanding. I’m usually more like Snake Plissken… your classic anti-hero. This ironically is how Milton portrays Lucifer in many respects.
Anyway, morality in games is a topic for somebody’s dissertation but I’m not really approaching that here. The Hell of Solium Infernum could be replaced with Feudal Europe or the Warring States of China. I’m was trained as a national security analyst in a previous life so my lens focuses on balances of power, dynamics of anarchic systems and whether Mammon is trying to corner the ichor market in the Infernal Bazaar.
RPS: With Armageddon Empires the character portraits were enormously effective in terms of creating atmosphere for the game. You've taken a similar route with Solium Infernum. What's your thinking behind this?
Vic Davis: Absolutely, and I’ve teamed up again with a talented group of artists to bring a very powerful visualization of Hell to players. I wanted to project a combination of old gothic and high fantasy ala Brom and Vallejo. The colors of the interface are rich bronzes like polished versions of Rodin’s Gates of Hell. My sister Katie Davis did the lion’s share of the UI work. The game board concept is built upon a textured grey manuscript look. I wanted the game map to be simple and elegant so that information could be quickly divined from it. Ben Sones did an amazing and meticulous job illustrating the land marks of Hell from the dark turgid waters of the River Styx to the bottomless chasms that dot the landscape to the Places of Power that the competing Archfiends must capture and control. Finally, Matt Bradbury returns for a tour de force performance as grand digital painter and breathes life into the legions, praetors, unholy relics and infernal artifacts that you will encounter in the game. It’s really brilliant stuff.
RPS: What are you looking forward to in 2009? What do you think the big PC trends will be?
Vic Davis: Losing some weight, winning the lottery, Martin to finish his book…. Oh you probably mean games? Well, 2008 was an amazing year for PC gaming and I’m still catching up on my back log. I do have my eye on Dawn of War II despite my love hate relationship with real time strategy games. Total War: Empires looks promising. I’m an old age of sail grognard....at one time I could draw out pretty good schematics for Trafalgar and The Nile from memory. And I bought a bottle of Nelson’s blood at Gibraltar in the tourist shop. I’m also looking forward to Elemental: War of Magic from Stardock. What turn based strategy fan isn’t?
Trends? Digital Distribution and Games as a Service are what the gurus say and I tend to concur. I’m going to continue my grand experiment as a niche filling indie and see if several long tails stacked on top of each other can earn me a living. I’m betting that I can get my development times down by reusing all my design patterns, AI techniques etc. and combine that with a growing base of players who know that I exist and expect to come back for more turn based strategy games that are low on flash but high on brain exercising content. After Solium Infernum I have an idea for an “adventure strategy” game that I have been laying the ground work for. I just wish after I designed the things that they built themselves. Despite some interpretations of cosmology that say there is a universe out there where that happens, I don’t think this one is it. Oh well. Coffee break is over. Back on my head.
Sol Infernum will hopefully be out in Summer.