Sins of a Solar Empire is what some people call a Reece’s game in that it mixes two good things together in one place at a near perfect ratio. In this case it’s the game play elements of a 4X strategy game and the faced paced action of a real time strategy game. Charles and I have been playing the beta for nearly a year now and were eager to ask the folks at Ironclad some questions about the game. Here’s our interview with Blair Fraser from Ironclad Games.
Perhaps you could take a moment and introduce yourself and your design team. It’s always a pleasure to get to know the folks behind the game.
Hi, my name is Blair Fraser of Ironclad Games and pretty much the whole Ironclad team is the design team. That would include me, Stephen Mackay, Craig Fraser (my brother), Jamie Seward, Josie Stephens, Allan Corrigall, Hatem Zayed, Ed Sarabia, and Paul Schuegraf.
Could you give us a brief history of the Sins universe? Could we maybe get a sneak peek at that mysterious third race?
The short version is something really bad happened to the alien Vasari’s once mighty empire and the survivors have been on the run for ten-thousand years. As they head towards the galactic edge, they periodically drop out of phase space to acquire resources to fuel their exodus. Only this time they arrive in Trader space. Initially, the independent human worlds provide little in the way of a resistance, but when they combine to form the Trader Emergency Coalition (TEC) the situation begins to shift. The TEC union grows ever more powerful, causing the war with the Vasari to drag on for years. A decade later, a new faction arrives and begins raiding the undefended sectors of the TEC’s other front. This mysterious foe is eventually identified as the descendants of a group of deviant exiles that were expelled from Trader space at the beginning of the Trade Order some thousand years ago. Calling themselves “The Advent” they are relentless in what analysts have best guessed to be some sort of prophesized return focused on the often conflicting goals of revenge and evangelism.
I’ve been playing the Sins beta for a while now, and I have to say I’m very impressed. The sheer size of what Sins accomplishes is amazing, and the space opera feel is spot-on. Also amazing is the fact that you even tried to tackle a “4X RTS” game of this scope. What on earth were you thinking? And how did you manage to pull this off?
Haha, we sometimes question if we were thinking at all – there was probably more emotion driving the project than anything else as it’s been a childhood dream of everyone here to bring something like this to life. We blame Asimov, Heinlein, Niven, Herbert, Simtex, TSR, Palladium, Lucas, FASA, et al for our insanity. I think the most important factor in getting Sins to the state that made us happy enough to ship it was our willingness to experiment and try new ideas, and an equal willingness to throw out all the work involved in implementing those ideas if they proved to be dead ends. It can be depressing to count the man hours sitting in the trashcan but it’s a necessary part of the creative process.
The game has been in beta for a while, was there anything that came out of the beta that you didn't expect? What's been the most valuable part of the beta experience?
Yes, it’s been almost a year since beta 1 first launched – crazy. I’m really happy Stardock convinced us to move in this direction. Something we certainly didn’t expect from the beta was Pink Space Ponies, which amazingly somehow ended up in the game. It’s something silly that came that came up one time and evolved into a running gag amongst the community. It’s things like that (and certainly some of the more interesting characters) that I think really helped hold the beta together through some of the rough patches. The most valuable part of the beta experience has been the amazing feedback from the testers and the testers themselves. We can’t help but feel attached to people we’ve interacted with everyday for a year and they were absolutely critical to honing the final game.
I’m sure not everything has gone smoothly in the production of something this size. What were some of the trickier obstacles to overcome? How do you handle the overwhelming amount of things to manage in the game?
The most difficult obstacle in the production of Sins was getting the right people together. It took us quite some time to assemble the team, but once we did things really started falling into place. The Sins development team is only nine people, so managing the amount of material is a bit crazy at times but everyone has a diverse set of skills and there is a lot of synergy so it works out in the end. We also follow a number of philosophies that overarch everything we do. These really help keep us efficient, focused, and true to the vision.
What can expect from the game in terms of multiplayer support? Can you talk about the various multiplayer modes in the game and how matchmaking will be handled?
Sins has a lot of great multiplayer features – not the least of which is the ability to save multiplayer games, which is great for those epic matches against your friends. Take a break for the night and pick up on the next. Of course you can always switch into fast mode, select a small map (or build your own using one of our two powerful map designing tools) and play a much shorter online deathmatch. Sins supports up to 10 players over LAN or Ironclad Online (free service) and you can play with a friend using only a single copy over LAN. There is a variety of set up options but my favorite configuration is to place a bunch of AI players on a single locked team with game speed fast, hard AI, high resources and team up with a friend or two to take them all on. There is also a whole lot of in-game mechanics designed to work particularly well in multiplayer as they take on a psychological element or rely on multiple player interactions to create really cool dynamics. An example that captures both of these elements is the bounty system. Players can anonymously place bounties on other players. If you kill any of that player’s units, you receive a portion of that bounty. Because he doesn’t know who is putting that bounty on him, it’s possible that you - his “ally” - could be doing it. Possibly with the profits of the lucrative trade agreement you have with him! This is also a great system that helps enemies work together against a powerhouse player – especially once you factor in the fact that the pirates will chase the highest bountied player as well. Every so many minutes the pirates will leave their special, hidden pirate base and go looking for loot. When word comes down that you have a high bounty on your head, they just may come for you. The more bounty and trade ships you have, the more pirates will join the mob. In my opinion the most exciting part about the whole thing is that near the end of the pirate raid timer where all players are trying to snipe (ebay style) the final highest bounty placement – in critical situations it can be quite suspenseful!Not only is Sins of a Solar Empire a blast to play, it also looks great. Care to expound a bit about the engine powering this game?
The engine is called the Iron Engine and its primary objective is to handle incredibly large game environments and very large differences in scale. We actually had to redesign how 3d engines are normally done in order to make this work because standard practices will lead you into problems with limitations of 32-bit CPU’s when you move onto this scale. The Iron Engine also boasts the ability to handle a VERY large number of units. Some screenshots taken by Multianna, a prominent member of our community, shows the engine dishing out over 20,000 ships. I’ve also seen maps of over 10,000 planets. It’s also very scaleable; it allows Sins to run on quite old machines (laptops included) and also rewards those with high-end uber machines. Some of the key graphical features include per-pixel specular lighting, dynamic fractal generation, post process bloom filtering, high resolution compressed textures, environment mapping, custom pixel and vertex shaders for all meshes and effects, an advanced particle system. extensive bump mapping and more. Perhaps the most important feature is it is VERY stable. We’ve been in open beta for almost a year and throughout the entire process we’ve heard regularly that even in beta the Iron Engine is more stable than most games at release. It’s even more so now.
Fan base is very important to this type of undertaking. How have the fans been supporting Sins? And how does Sins plan to support its fans during and after the launch of the game?
They have been and still are incredible. We’ve had a steadily growing fan base since the day the game was announced a few years ago and it really picked up when beta 1 started last March. They’ve been helping us with everything from testing, marketing, balancing, bug fixing, technical support and so on. I can pretty much count on entering any major gaming forum and find at least a couple Sins fans leading a discussion on the game. And how do we support them? I think the best way so far has been our constant, day-to-day interaction with them on the forums and the Sins IRC channel. They are in direct contact with us and they know what they say makes a difference – we’ve proven it to them with Sins’ progression. Anyone who has been with us through this process can play the final product and say “Hey, I remember the discussion about that and I remember being able to play test the result of that discussion.” We will continue to hold contests, release free new content on a regular basis, regular patches, balance upgrades, tutorials, new features, new tools, ICO tournaments and more.
Will the game support modding? Will you be providing any tools for modders when the game is released?
Definitely. Modding Sins is so easy that people have been doing it since the second day of Beta 1. Already we’ve got experimental new mods, new maps, new ships, new abilities, new races, fan built map editors, fan built mesh editors, fan built map sharing utilities, various popular science fiction projects well into development and more. And we haven’t even released all our tools and tutorials. Galaxy Forge, our offline map editor, is the only one out so far and it’s free for anyone to check out from the Sins downloads page. We’ve got map and mod upload and download pages already up so it’ll be easy to share with other players; and the Iron Engine supports integrated mod organization, loading and enabling. Sins was built with modding in mind.
After Sins of a Solar Empire’s release, what do you see in store for the future?
A lot of sleep, some Bioshock, Mario Galaxies, Rock Band and cleaning house in Sins (I don’t get to play online much). As I mentioned a couple answers ago, we have a lot of Sins support and extended content to continue on; I definitely want to get started on finalizing the direction we want to take on some key features for our new project.
What tips do you have for first time players? Anything advance players might find useful?
New players should play through the four tutorials to get the basics down and at least take a quick look at the main sections of the manual so they know what new concepts to look out for. One common mistake is not upgrading the population centers of new founded colonies. These will drain money from the imperial coffers, so keep an eye out for “red” income values in the empire income summary - this means they are costing you. Another common mistake is not accounting for the pirate raids. When the skull starts flashing, make sure you place more bounty on someone else’s head then on your own. You don’t want the pirates coming after you – unless of course you have defenses ready and you’d like to earn some valuable capital ship experience turning the pirates into space sludge.
Advanced players? That’s a tough one – some of those guys can probably beat me. I’m noticing that in many online games even the advanced players aren’t taking advantage of some of the special ways of earning money. Raiding enemy trade and refinery ships can be quite lucrative. After being reduced to a single crappy asteroid, I bootstrapped my way out of imminent death by doing this to forge a mighty empire bent on revenge. Players also have to remember to watch the black market price graphs. If they see the prices are climbing, they should put some of their own metal or crystal up for sale and make a killing selling it anonymously through the market to other players. They won’t even realize they are funding the very fleet you will use to squash them with.
I’m sure you’re all extremely busy with the last-minute polishing and tweaks. Any final words before you go?
I really feel Sins is a very fun game that will keep you up very late more than once and will entertain for a long time to come. Despite its depth it’s very easy to learn the basics, it runs great on all sorts of machines and there are a lot of really cool new ideas in it that most people feel is a breath of fresh air in a genre often criticized for lack of innovation and creativity. Besides can you really lose with giant battle fleets, massive interstellar empires and monstrous planet sucking floating cities in space?