Summary: Ever get tired of hearing about the same-old games? Come to FiringSquad! JCal has yet another interview with a small-time developer pushing a great game out the door.
FiringSquad: First, how did Ironclad Games come to be formed?
Blair Fraser: Ironclad was officially formed in early 2004. The founding team is composed of ex-Rockstar Vancouver / Barking-Dog employees that wanted to explore some interesting technology ideas and make the kind of sci-fi real-time strategy game that we had dreamed about since we were kids. When the opportunity arose, we took it.
FiringSquad: Ironclad is working on a space strategy game and another Vancouver based developer is close to releasing their own space strategy game. Are there any friendly rivalries going on between the two?
Blair Fraser: The founders of both companies know each other from our time at Barking-Dog Studios and Rockstar. Given the culture and work experience we’ve shared, it’s not surprising we both decided to work on variations of space strategy. The direction they took is very different than our own and thus, from our perspective, there is no rivalry. We see some of our key features and gameplay being more akin to something like Supreme Commander, but even still, Sins stands apart from any game we have played or see on the radar.
FiringSquad: How did the idea for Sins of a Solar Empire come about?
Blair Fraser: The vision for Sins draws its influences from almost 2 decades of gaming. Three of us have been gaming together since we were children and the others share very similar experiences. One of the earliest inspirations was from playing an old board game called Buck Rogers – Battle for the 25th Century made by TSR. It featured a dynamic solar system, fleets of warships, heroes with special powers, planet conquering and so on. While we enjoyed the game immensely, we often ended up in heated arguments (including the occasional board flipping!) over interpretation of some of the more loosely defined rules. Further inspiration for Sins includes all the 4X games we used to play, most notably Spaceward Ho!, VGA Planets and Master of Orion 1 and 2. 4X refers to explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate, and are often considered the four pillars of space strategy gameplay (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4x for a more in depth look at 4X). Before the birth of real-time strategy games we always talked about how cool it would be to play those games without having to take your turn into the school computer lab on 3 ½ discs to resolve it and even better if you didn’t have turns at all!
FiringSquad: What can you tell us about the storyline for the game?
Blair Fraser: The ancient Vasari Empire once ruled a large portion of the galaxy. Following an apocalyptic event 10,000 years ago, what remains of their civilization has been on the run from an unknown threat. Every so many years they drop out of faster-than-light travel in Phase space to build more starships, increase their population, and acquire the necessary resources to fuel the next leg of their exodus. This process was repeated countless times with little complication until they entered what was known as Trader space. For 1000 years the Traders had lived in peace and prosperity and were unprepared for the alien force. Lacking any formal military structure, weapons, technology or training, the outer Trader worlds fell one by one. After devastating losses, some of the key worlds unified into the Trader Emergency Coalition (TEC) and began organizing a defense. Now, after years of war, they are on the verge of finally stalling the Vasari advance. Little do the TEC realize that the Vasari want out of Trader space just as bad as the TEC want them to leave. The Vasari know the longer this drags out the less chance they will have to escape what they perceive as a greater threat. The the game itself takes place 10 years after the initial Vasari invasion and just after an old ‘friend’ of the TEC has come back to pay a visit. The newcomers were exiled from Trader space many generations ago for scientific and social deviancy. In the time that has passed they have established their own empire and are now calling themselves “The Advent”. Carrying a thirst for vengeance, a nasty superiority complex, and an insatiable hunger for the rare resources that fuel their way of life, they are now causing havoc on the other side of Trader space.
Blair Fraser: Each race has a variety of unique ships, structures, abilities, research, planet preferences and resource needs. The lore for each race is suggestive of how they are going to play. With roots as a commercial empire, the TEC boast greatest capacity for making money, trading and economics. Their lack of warfare experience or technology shows in their extensive use of old kinetic weapons, crude nukes, and a fleet primarily consisting of hastily converted commercial ships. The Vasari once controlled nearly a fourth of the galaxy and are very accustomed to living and ruling from space. Their technology is much more advanced especially in the areas of nanotechnology and Phase space manipulation which is not only used for more advanced travel but for weapons as well. Being on the run, they are very good at quickly grabbing resources from a variety of sources and in ingenious ways. Perhaps their greatest weakness is they have very few ships left and can’t afford to lose anymore. The Exodus fleet is all that remains of their kind. The Advent are masters of social control, energy weapons, and PsiTech – a strange new melding of mind power and technology. PsiTech comes a price however, as few hull materials do not interfere with it, and those that do are somewhat rare and aren’t very effective for constructing well armored hulls. Consequently, the Advent favor energy shields as their primary means of defense, and suffer with economic disadvantages compared to the other factions.
FiringSquad: What will the single player campaigns be like?
Blair Fraser: Unfortunately, this is an area I can’t say much about. Our attempts at adapting a typical RTS campaign to this style of game have not met our standards. With such an open and expansive gameplay environment it is very difficult to steer the player through a linear story. We recognize the importance of the single player experience and feel we’ve come up with a satisfying solution.
FiringSquad: What are the dev team's favorite units to use in the game?
Blair Fraser: There isn’t much question that the capital ships are the dev team’s favorite units but as to which ones I don’t think there is any particular favorite. It really depends on what strategy one is going for. So why are the capital ships so interesting? Well for starters they are much bigger than the other units (e.g., 500-750m for capitals compared to 150m for frigates and 10m for fighters), they are more powerful, and they are more interactive. We also really wanted to create a sense of investment and uniqueness in your ships so as they are more successful they get more powerful and deserving of the special names you can give them. Capital ships improve with experience which can either be bought (training) or earned through combat. As they level up they get a variety of default upgrades like fighter capacity, damage repair rates, antimatter reserves, and so on. The player can also select from a variety of special abilities for the ship. The choice of abilities helps define the role you want that ship to play and could be different than other ships of the same type and a fair bit of combat tactics revolves around proper timing of these abilities and their synergy with others. Not that all abilities are combat oriented. Some, like the Vasari’s Planet Resource Drain, are purely economic, while others are focused on travel, espionage, support, and sabotage.
FiringSquad: What will the multiplayer features be like?
Blair Fraser: Up to 10 players can vie for dominance over LAN or the internet. A number of usual formats from 1v1 to free for all to team games are possible. A variety of starting conditions from initial resource levels, galaxy size and more can be adjusted, allow players to fight short deathmatches or conduct lengthy campaigns. Alliances can be made, ex-allies can be betrayed, trade agreements can be established. Online play will be supported via Ironclad Online which is our propriety matchmaking, statistics tracking and player ranking service. Sins multiplayer features should appeal to both casual and hardcore gamers.
FiringSquad: What other interesting gameplay elements will Sins of a Solar Empire have?
Blair Fraser: One of the most interesting elements is the epic scale and seamless environment. There is a lot of confusion coming from players who are used to certain conventions in various game genres. From the 4X crowd we often get questions about the ‘star map’ and ‘battle-mode’ and from real-time strategy fans we often get questions about ‘maps’ and ‘sensor mode’. Sins does not have a separate star map, battle mode, specific maps or sensor mode. They are all one in the same and which ‘mode’ you are in really depends on where you have your camera. If you are zoomed into a massive battle watching a fighter you are just enjoying the cinematics. If you zoom out a bit more you are controlling a single fleet in combat around a single planet. If you zoom out a bit more you are analyzing the tactical layout of everything in orbit around that planet. If you zoom out way past the planet you are viewing the strategic positioning of your fleets, planets, and trade routes in that one solar system. If you zoom out way past that you are examining the strategic layout of multiple solar systems within the galaxy. At any point you can zoom back down to watch and control one of potentially many simultaneous battles for a key planet. After describing this there are usually two questions. First, “How big is it all?” and second, “How can I control it all?” The answer to the first is straightforward: “Really big”. The distances and relative sizes of things are pretty crazy. These numbers should give you an idea:
Blair Fraser: Big numbers certainly don’t guarantee great gameplay, but they do introduce some unique mechanics, strategies and help with immersion. You really get a sense of both space and empire!
FiringSquad: What can you tell us about the graphical features for the game?
Blair Fraser: Sins is powered by the Iron Engine and features a host of the latest graphical techniques and full DirectX 9c support including bumpmapping, per-pixel specular lighting, dynamic fractal generation, post-process bloom filtering, environment mapping, full Shader Model 2.0 support and more. There are also a variety of options to reduce the graphical demands so Sins will run on older machines and cards. We released a few new screenshots to show the latest pass on the graphics and they will only continue to improve up to release.
FiringSquad: What is the current status of the game's progress and when will it be released?
Blair Fraser: We aren’t committing to a release date but Sins is progressing very well. Our latest passes on the art are getting closer to final and the feedback from internal testers is really helping us nail down the user interface and improve the ‘fun’ factor.
FiringSquad: Finally is there anything else you wish to say about Sins of a Solar Empire?
Blair Fraser: Sins of a Solar Empire is a very unique and innovative game that we feel will appeal and be accessible to both casual and hardcore players of strategy games; whether they be real-time or turn-based. If you would like to learn more about Sins, view some screenshots or watch the TEC trailer, drop by www.sinsofasolarempire.com. If you have any specific questions, feel free to join up at the forums. We interact with members regularly and much of the feedback we’ve gotten from them has directly influenced the game for the better. We are always open to suggestions and constructive criticism. Finally, thanks so much to John Callaham and Firing Squad for hosting this interview.
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