Rush, Boom, Turtle: Sins of a Sins Developer
No sooner do I write a column on how turtling has fallen out of favor than a developer comes along and blows my theory out of the water by making an entire add-on about turtling. In fact, the only way Ironclad's recent Entrenchment add-on to Sins of a Solar Empire could be more about turtling is if it were called Sins of a Solar Empire: Turtling. So I called Sins designer Blair Fraser and gave him a piece of my mind. Plus, I'm really digging the Entrenchment add-on and just wanted to talk to someone about it. Mr. Fraser kindly obliged me.
Tom Chick: I just wrote about how very few real-time strategy games still have turtling. My point was that it's fallen out of favor because developers want their real-time strategy games to play faster and be more accessible and action-y. Thanks for making me look like an idiot. Now, you guys have had turtling all along, but with Entrenchment, you've reemphasized it in the whole balance of things. Isn't that risky? What made you decide to do that, to buck the trend?
Blair Fraser: We like turtling. Well, it's more complicated than that. First of all, there's a lot of feedback that the city-building and base-building aspect wasn't up to the level of combat and fleet-building. We get tons of emails and forum responses regarding that, so we really wanted to put more of it into the game. It's something we love and apparently a lot of our fans do, too. We're also not very scared of the idea that the game could get longer or drawn-out because of turtling. The majority of our customers are single-player, and they really like that sort of experience. We did put a lot of elements in to make sure it didn't just destroy the time frame of the game. For instance, we put in the new assault cruisers and the Quick Start option, so it wouldn't totally destroy multiplayer. Mostly we made sure the star bases could be used both offensively and defensively. We had to do a lot of recoding to allow you to build in enemy territories, but I think it was worth it.
Chick: That was key to using them offensively? Letting players build one of the constructor ships, fly it over to someone else's system, and construct a star base there?
Fraser: Yeah. You can upgrade them in certain directions, and there are certain build patterns that are used if you intend to use a star base offensively. So you can fly your constructor ship and put the star base up in enemy territory while you engage their fleet. Then you get your base up. Now, say you're the TEC. You can put up their repair facility, so you can fly your ships back within the same gravity well, get the repair, and then continue the assault. You don't have to retreat all the way back to another planet. So that's how the TEC do the whole tower rush, in a sense. It's not really a rush, but it's the best analogy I can think of. With the Vasari, you can get immediate upgrades to anti-structure weapons. Once you've got those in there, the star base can fly around and destroy the buildings while you take care of the ships. Just a couple of examples.
Chick: Also, to counter the star bases, each side gets a new -- what are you calling them? Anti-base cruisers?
Fraser: Assault cruisers, but the forums seem to be favoring "anti-structure."
Chick: Everybody gets one of these? Is that correct?
Fraser: The Vasari don't. They're a bit asymmetric in their design. Actually, all the sides are asymmetric. The Vasari don't get a special unit, though. It's tied into some special upgrades in their star base, and the fact that it's mobile. So they can use their star base to clear out structures. The Advent get the Adjudicator, which is more about clearing out large clusters of defense guns. It's a pattern we saw in the first version of Sins, so they can engage five or six targets at once, and take them all down at the same time.
Chick: The Adjudicators can do this?
Fraser: Oh yeah.
Chick: I've seen them drop the plasma balls that line up on a target, but those can track multiple targets?
Fraser: Yes. Anywhere from five to 10, depending on your upgrade levels.
Chick: Ah, so that's why they're great against clusters of weapon emplacements?
Fraser: Exactly. We saw that a lot of people were entrenching that way in the original Sins. We wanted to have a counter to that, so clearing out a gravity well didn't take half an hour.
Chick: And the TEC, they get a cruiser?
Fraser: The Ogrov. Basically, it's a mobile ICBM launcher. It's probably got the single largest damage per shot. But it's only really useful against structures.
Chick: So you've got already in Sins of a Solar Empire an intricate system of balance and counterbalance. What is it like when you guys first sit down to do something like Entrenchment? Does it feel like breaking it and rebuilding it, or is it more a matter of adding a new dimension onto the side?
Fraser: It's probably a bit of both. We have this huge whiteboard that I'm staring at now. We constantly have lines erased and little boxes, and we're rejiggering the entire Tetris field of how it all works. It's probably gotten too complicated for its own good, but that's the path we're stuck on for right now. We do have to break it and piece it back together, and add in a new dimension. You'll notice, if you're into modding, we added some new damage types and armor types in order to try to clean it up. Certainly, the modders really appreciate it, and anyone who looks at it in more detail will see it is cleaner.
Chick: One of the new dimensions you added is the interplay between mines and scout ships. That seems like a no-brainer in terms of adding new space stuff. Was that one of the early decisions for Entrenchment?
Fraser: That was the most popular request -- minefields -- and probably the most complicated thing to do. We started off with the basic proximity mines the TEC get. They're basically built like structures. The problem was, how do you counter these things? Originally, we wanted them invisible, and then that turned out to be an absolute nightmare. It was just a micro-fest, trying to detect them and make sure your ships are in the right place and moving correctly and predicting where they were. You had to manage all that. So we changed them to being phased-out, so you know where they are but you can't shoot them. And also we were, like, "Wow, the scouts are really obsolete toward the end of the game, so we can add this new functionality to them, and it makes sense with the lore -- so they can detect mines." Then we started looking at how we could differentiate the mines for the other two races. We knew the Vasari are always very mobile and can get around easily, so we allow them to place mines anywhere they want in the entire galaxy. And we gave them another type since they're the masters of gravity manipulation; so they get gravity mines. Then, for Advent, we always wanted to give them a new fighter type. So we allowed them to build fighter mines from their carriers. They all work completely differently. If you were there for the first beta, it was an absolute nightmare trying to make it all work. It took us three or four iterations with a lot of people bitching. We're happy with the results, but it was a nightmare.
Chick: You have to pay for mines, right?
Fraser: Yes, they all cost resources. That's because in the beta, back in November and December, people were just building insane numbers of mines. Thousands and thousands of these things. You couldn't counter it. People's computers were going down. It was just ridiculous.
Chick: They were free?
Fraser: Exactly. It was an antimatter cost, similar to how fighters are produced. That didn't work. People know how to maximize their antimatter. They'd fly to the star and recharge quickly, then pump out another hundred mines. They worked the system.
Chick: The beta must be invaluable so you can see how people try to break things.
Fraser: Oh, yes. It's pretty embarrassing, though. Even with the original Sins, as well as Entrenchment. It goes out to the public so bad, all they do is trash you for month after month. We've kind of trained ourselves to get used to it. For the original Sins, we didn't have many people at first because nobody had heard of it. We built up gradually this resistance, trying to learn to filter the good information from the bad. It's definitely worth it, though. Nobody knows how to trash your game better than the people who pay for it.
Chick: What's one of the most surprising things you've learned from the beta process?
Fraser: In the original Sins or from Entrenchment?
Chick: Either. Both.
Fraser:Fraser: Boy, there are lots of these. Probably the biggest one that led to the most fundamental change to the entire game was in the original Sins. You could phase-jump to any planet you wanted. There was no concept of phase lanes, so there was no map interconnectivity, no chokepoints. Our original design was based more on "Ender's Game," where you committed your fleet to a flight and when you went there, it had better be the way you expected it. But the community went absolutely batshit over that, and we had to remodel the entire basic infrastructure.
Chick: I could have told you that wasn't going to work. Doesn't Sword of the Stars do that?
Fraser: Yeah, that's the way it works.
Chick: It means you don't really have a map. You lose part of the flow of a game. Which, by the way, is something I really love about what you've done with Entrenchment. You have a map and you let the players affect and mold the map. They give it character. This is a dilemma in a space game. Space is, by its nature, a vacuum with a planet here and there. But I just think that, with the Entrenchment add-on specifically, Sins does a great job of giving space a sense of terrain. I really like how that turned out. But that's so funny to me that you guys thought you could let everybody just go where they want with no phase lanes.
Fraser: That was the original design. Space is open. It's realistic. We did other silly realistic things, too. We had a full gravitational model. I kid you not. Planets were originally spinning around the star.
Chick: Oh god.
Fraser: Ships were spinning around the planets. It was possible to control or predict anything.
Chick: That's kind of endearingly naïve.
Fraser: Welcome to the early Sins development. And then we had this huge fallout because there were all these ultra-simulation people who went on a slag-fest, trashing us when we took all that out. I was getting threatening emails. It was ridiculous.
Chick: We RTS nerds can get very angry. So I want you to fess up. The game is called Sins of a Solar Empire because either you lost a bet or you were drunk.
Chick: I have to say I love the title in a "so bad it's good" kind of way.
Fraser: I was on the phone with my brother before we merged companies. He was in Nova Scotia and I was out here in Vancouver. We were trying to think of these names that resonated with us from the old sci-fi books. All the classic Golden Age sci-fi stuff. This was the name that just brought up those emotions. I'll admit it doesn't make much sense, or it's cheesy, or whatever, but it got the emotional response we were looking for within ourselves, so we stuck with it.
Chick: Do you remember other names that were being considered?
Fraser: Oh yeah, we still use it. Our entire code base in abbreviated by the term "GS". It's basically a vestigial remnant of the original name of the game. Galactic Supremacy.
Chick: Ouch. Wow. Yeah, that's as generic as you could imagine.
Fraser: Generic games work very well for working with code.
Chick: Galactic Supremacy. Holy cow.
Fraser: That really comes from this old board game I used to play called Supremacy.
Chick: Oh yeah. I loved Supremacy. Going for the early nukes.
Fraser: And your L-Stars and whatnot.
Chick: So that name sort of raises the question of what exactly are the "sins." I doubt there's an answer for that, but it leads to another issue. Some players have complained about the lack of a storyline. They want a campaign that tells the backstory, but they don't get one. So there's no indication of what these sins are or which solar empire is even sinning. How do you guys feel about these complaints that there's no single-player campaign?
Fraser: It's a very popular complaint and we are listening to it, but let me address something first. There is a backstory. There is a ton of lore. All the sins are known, and we know how it all plays out. All the races and abilities and the research and the names of the ships -- everything is unified under that umbrella. However, you're right. There's absolutely no campaign and very little storyline.
Chick: Well, let me interrupt you real quickly. Could you say in a nutshell what the sins are?
Fraser: Yeah, but it's probably better explained if we ever do a campaign. We were very influenced by the events going on in the US in the early 2000s. We were trying to think about what if things had gone this way or that way. I know I'm being vague, but I don't want to get into the details because I'm hoping we will put this out. We think it is meaningful.
Chick: Fair enough. That's pretty intriguing. I'm glad to hear you guys are thinking in that direction.
Fraser: We always have. I know a lot people say we just cheaped out, but it's so meaningful and important to me that I didn't want to do it in a half-assed manner. I no longer play RTS games that have a certain style of campaign. I don't buy them, or I just don't play that portion. I'm basically sick of it. And we didn't want to do that with Sins. We'd rather figure out how to present it in a new way that's meaningful to us.
Chick: Fair enough. Going back to feedback from the beta tests -- this might be a difficult question because you might not be able to answer it diplomatically -- but what are some of the sillier complaints you get from fans? For instance, I'm just going to throw out a couple that I've heard. I hear people complain that the turrets don't move on the capital ships. Or that non-fighters don't fly around during combat.
Chick: I've seen both of those and I think they're completely immaterial to what you guys are doing. Do you get a lot of complaints that you think are silly and miss the point like that?
Fraser: Totally. You named a great example and a bad example, and I'll explain why. In terms of turrets, a lot of people coming from Nexus or Homeworld expect that level of detail. But given what we were trying to simulate, and the system specs we were trying to hit, turrets doing that just didn't make any sense, especially at the scale we're doing it. It was absolutely silly. Waste of our resources, waste of the CPU's resources. So we didn't do that. Now, the other one -- ships not flying around with fighters -- we actually did that at the start. The problem is, given the number of ships you can potentially have, it was absolute chaos. It made for very poor gameplay. As realistic as it may have been, or as "Battlestar Galactica" as it may have been, it just didn't work. However, we did know it was something we could provide as a modding option. In Entrenchment, we actually unlock that capability. There are several mods right now that incorporate that as a gameplay feature. If you go to the modding forums on the Sins site, you can see a couple of examples. Who knows? They may be able to tweak the physics to make entertaining gameplay.
Chick: What are some of the complaints you hear that you actually agree with?
Fraser: Well, I mentioned the example of the phase lane thing. No campaign: I absolutely agree with that. We'd love to put our story out there. The 2-gig barrier. A lot of people want to make these huge galaxies with tons of ships. I really want to get past that, but we need people with 64-bit machines before we can do that.
Chick: Is that a limitation on the size of the galaxy or the number of units?
Fraser: Both. It's a limit for 32-bit operating systems. Some people say we should be able to do more, but it's really out of our hands until we get more people on 64-bit. They basically want us to release a second version of Sins in 64-bit form. But as much as I'd love to do it, it's not worth it at this point. Other complaints? Online play sometimes takes too long. That's a difficult one. Sometimes I love these long, epic matches, but I recognize that some people just have an hour to play. We try to deal with a lot of that in Entrenchment by providing the Quick Start, increasing the importance of homeworlds, making it easier to clear out planets. But it's probably not where the average person wants it. If you look at games like Dawn of War II, they've really cut down that per mission time.
Chick: To be fair, you guys offer a lot of options for faster games. You can speed up research and production and travel, with the equivalent of sliders. Can you tell if many people use those?
Fraser: I think the majority of people use all the fast options. But not a lot of people know about the Quick Start option yet, based on what we're tracking on Ironclad Online.
Chick: You mentioned earlier that the majority of your customer base plays single-player. What are the figures on that?
Fraser: The last public number we put out for sales was something over 500,000. It's quite a bit more than that now, but in terms of public announcements, it'll give you the magnitude. And we've only got about 75,000 people registered for online play. On any given night, a very small portion of those people are actually playing online.
Chick: Are you surprised or disappointed at that number, or is that what you would expect?
Fraser: Certainly, I'd like it to be higher. But I recognize that Sins does fall more into the old 4X sit-in-my-room and play-it-over-a week thing, like Civilization, where it goes on and on, and you pause it or save the game and pick it up later. But considering how long some of those games take, I'm impressed the numbers are where they are. If I were more of a businessman, I would say multiplayer isn't even worth it. However, we basically only play multiplayer, so there is multiplayer because we love it. We're in this because we love it.
Chick: You've mentioned some of the capabilities you've unlocked for modders. What are some of the cool things the modding community has done?
Fraser: Every time I put out a patch, I give a very detailed list of everything we've done, and there's a whole section for modding. I always make sure there's a bullet point or two that's a direct response to their requests on the modding forum. With Entrenchment, we went all out. We added a whole new manifest system that allows them more control over what files go into the mod. We gave them dynamic ships in combat so they could move around. We gave them the ability to have multiple targets per ship. One of the most important ones is that you can stack mods. So now you can have a visual mod that works in tandem with other mods in a priority system.
Chick: What sort of mods have you seen people making?
Fraser: Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, basically every major sci-fi. Then there are the guys who take all the mods and combo them into mega-packages, like 7 Deadly Sins; plus they add all their own new material. It's pretty crazy.
Chick: Finally, there are two things I'd like to talk about, where I think you guys have done a wonderful job. If I were to look at the game without either these two things, I would probably just throw my hands up and want nothing to do with Sins. The first thing is your empire tree, the interface on the left side of the screen. That, to me, is the key to the game. I couldn't imagine Sins with a conventional mini-map. Tell me how that came about. Was that an epiphany? I can just imagine the "Hallelujah" chorus playing when that thing finally clicked.
Fraser: It was literally a three-year slow evolution. There was no epiphany. It was iteration after iteration after iteration. We were doing mini-maps at one point. What it really evolved from -- you're going to laugh at this -- was that I used to play the crap out of this turn-based strategy series that you probably know, the Dominions series.
Chick: So you mean the army lists?
Fraser: Yeah, sort of. It was the section where you laid out the organization of your army before you went into combat. We had a version of that on the side where you would organize your fleets in a column-centric list. That very slowly emerged into the empire tree over three years. It's the weirdest thing. I could show you screenshots from over the years. It's hilarious and it's quite interesting. So it evolved from an idea we stole from Dominions.
Chick: I'm surprised that of all the things to copy from Dominions, a game developer would choose the interface.
Fraser: I know, I know. But I absolutely love those games. I thought it was a cool system they had, and I thought it was something we could use.
Chick: The other element of Sins I couldn't do without is you guys' philosophy on units with special abilities and autocasting. So much of Sins of a Solar Empire is a matter of what ships can do what special powers. You have to research many of them, so they figure into your larger strategy. They're like spells that figure prominently into the combat. Yet, you guys are willing to let the AI handle that almost entirely by letting people right-click to set an ability to autocast. How do you draw the line between the AI always using these at the optimal moment and encouraging players to manually use them and see the effects of them?
Fraser: I think it was more a matter of letting the player choose. Give players both options and let them decide whether they want to do it or not. But we did provide incentives. If you look at the capital ship abilities, they're more powerful than the ones for the frigates and cruisers. It's our hope players would take their powerful capital ship they got to level 10, and they named something special, and then they micromanage the powers, but they leave the rest of the ships to do their thing. At the same time, we knew if the AI on each of the abilities was crap, there would be an incentive to micromanage, which is the opposite of what we wanted. We didn't want people to apply micromanagement to the entire fleet. We wanted them to pick and choose. Yet they had to trust the AI would do it somewhat intelligently in order to be able to make that choice. If it's not intelligent, there is no choice.
Chick: Do you want a player who micromanages special abilities to defeat a player who lets the AI control the special abilities?
Fraser: In a given battle, yes. A micromanaging player will beat the other player. However, we wanted Sins played on a more strategic level. If you tried to micromanage multiple battles at the same time, you would lose and the player operating at a higher level, who only micromanaged that which was absolutely essential, should win.
Chick: I have one final question. There's a Unit of the Week for every Rush, Boom, Turtle column. If you were to pick one single unit from Sins as your favorite -- any unit, any race -- for aesthetic reasons or gameplay reasons or whatever, what would it be and why? Remember, you can only pick one.
Fraser: Probably the TEC's Kol Battleship. Whereas all their other ships were adapted from civilian or commercial use, it was their first ship designed for war and a symbol of them finally overcoming the odds and making a push back against the superior Vasari. I like that sort of imagery, but even more, I like that I can stick it in right in the middle of a massive force and have it kick ass in all directions, especially once I fire up Adaptive Shield and Finest Hour. And recently it's become especially satisfying to watch it fire Flak Burst. The increased usefulness of carriers has led to a dramatic increase in the use of fighters and bombers. Watching the Kol annihilate clouds of them in one or two bursts is hilarious, particularly when I know I'm dashing the spirits of some online player who thinks the carrier mob is the be-all end-all of strategies.
Chick: I see a little of the backstory plays into your choice.
Fraser: The Kol backstory was one of the seeds to the entire backstory. The character used to voice the Kol's commands is one the key protagonists for the TEC's story and he's the commander of a Kol. He's also the guy in the opening cinematic and in the old, embarrassing trailer we did with the early Sins prototype in order to get some publisher to notice us.
Chick: Has the Kol changed at all over the course of patching? Was it always good against strike craft?
Fraser: Aside from the art change, the Kol hasn't changed all that much. More of what has changed was the relative utility of the various abilities, particularly Flak Burst due to the carrier changes in an early patch.
Chick: Is being able to attack to all sides something unique to the Kol?
Fraser: Well, a bug was preventing the Kol from making full use of his 360-degree bank coverage. On paper, the Kol was supposed to have the best damage coverage but this was never reality until the Entrenchment bank re-coding. Multiple bank targeting is not unique to the Kol but he's the best at it.
Chick: So there we have it. This week's Unit of the Week is the Kol Battleship from Sins of a Solar Empire. Thanks, Blair!
Note: You can see the original Kol model here, around the 1:00 mark, and how it forms the original Sins of a Solar Empire logo at the 1:50 mark, with the silhouette of the nose like a shark breaking out of the water. The current logo, which you can see at the top of the Sins of a Solar Empire site, is slightly revised, but it's still very much a Kol Battleship.