It's no secret that Elemental: War of Magic, a fantasy turn-based strategy game from developer Stardock, had a bit of a rocky launch. What was an otherwise solid strategy game was plagued by numerous bugs and a problematic user interface. Its first expansion, Elemental: Fallen Enchantress, is aiming to expand on what made the original great while making some substantial changes. We caught up with Derek Paxton, lead producer and designer on Fallen Enchantress. Paxton discussed how the game is coming along with us and he also explained how Fallen Enchantress won't make the same mistakes as its predecessor.
GameSpot: War of Magic was a massive strategy game, but it sounds like you're scaling back this project to make it a more focused experience with a deeper story. Can you talk to us about some of the broad changes you're making in Fallen Enchantress?
Derek Paxton: Fallen Enchantress adds a lot of depth and options to some systems and reduces or removes others. The result is a more focused game. The systems that we determined were critical to the game have received a lot of designer and developer attention and love. Most notably these are the broad strokes:
First up, tactical combat. Units and enemies have more strategic abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Every monster has been reviewed to be as strategically (and conceptually) interesting as possible. Elemental lords are huge multi-tile monsters that are devastating to all but the most powerful champions and armies. Some monsters are unique in the world, setting up boss-type battles that give the game a role-playing-game feel.
Second, the world. A lot of time is going into making the world as interesting as possible. It's a dangerous world; many of your early explorers will not make it back. But those who do will have resources, riches, and new recruits that make the risk worthwhile. As important as making the world worth exploring is [making it] interesting to explore. Though it's good to know that there are iron deposits in the next valley, we also want that valley to be filled with wilderness areas, sites, creatures, and opportunities for adventure that are new to even experienced players.
Third, magic. Magic should be as effective a path to victory as creating armies. A player that is sitting on a large supply of mana and has invested in magic should be able to change the course of the game, much as a player sitting on a nuclear weapon stockpile can in modern games. Magic should be available earlier, have a larger impact, and do more interesting things.
Other systems, such as population storage (aka housing) that used to require that the player find food to build houses to grow cities, have been simplified (less city micromanagement), and systems such as dynasties have been cut entirely. Technology research is a more elaborate system where the player can plan out his future goals and plans. Leveling up your champions and designing units both offer more options and, more importantly, more flavorful options.
GS: Could you give us an overview of the new game's story and context? Will players still be attempting to build out a desolate, empty world? Who is the titular Fallen Enchantress?
DP: Yes and no; the point of the game is still to conquer and rule, of course. But the main difference in Fallen Enchantress, in terms of gameplay style and overall functionality, is that the land must first be conquered and then you can start building before you make choices to defend and/or expand. The world is not just an empty plot of land that you can harvest for your own from the start. There are bigger, more magical creatures out there that exist that you will encounter (and have to conquer) before you can truly call a land your own. I think it helps pull people into the game faster and provides a lot more action up front, which is always exciting for players. As for who the Fallen Enchantress is…we're not saying too much about her at this point in development, though we will be releasing more information about her as we get closer to launch.
GS: It's no secret that War of Magic had some major issues on its launch day. What are you doing to make sure Fallen Enchantress doesn't give a repeat performance?
DP: There are now dedicated people for the critical aspects of game development. There are dedicated producers, designers, and a formalized production pipeline that we have borrowed from the enterprise software world. The design is focused, fixed (with some flexibility as we iterate and improve), and communicated to the team. Time is set aside for iteration (after we are feature complete) rather than still implementing critical features until release day.
GS: What other lessons from the development and release of War of Magic are you bringing to the development of the new game?
DP: We touched on this in the first answer, but to expand on a couple tangible areas that directly affect the players, the UI and tech trees are two really good examples. When you look at the options, features, and sheer amount of data in War of Magic from a player perspective, it can be quite confusing to newcomers…what they should be paying attention to. When we revamped the UI, we only provided necessary information. It's definitely a more intuitive experience and one that was born from lessons learned from War of Magic.
And, if you look at the tech trees in War of Magic, they work for that game. But when we set out to restructure the player progression in Fallen Enchantress, the old system just didn't work. So we completely overhauled that system to better match what we were making.
GS: What are the most commonly cited community requests for War of Magic? How will Fallen Enchantress address those?
DP: The most common [request] is more interesting spells. Because we believe this is critical both to War of Magic and Fallen Enchantress, the War of Magic post-release patches have dramatically improved the spells the game offers. Fallen Enchantress goes far beyond what War of Magic offers, with new spells, new types of spells and it's all built to be easily modable.
The second most common request is to make the world more interesting. Without variety, risks, and rewards, it feels very similar and bland. In Fallen Enchantress, the player's first challenge is to conquer and civilize the world around his starting area. Send out scouts to explore the world. Many may not return, but those that do may bring back valuable knowledge, experience, and treasures.
GS: After meeting with Stardock at GDC, we got the distinct impression that Fallen Enchantress will follow closely in the footsteps of the cult-classic modification, Fall From Heaven 2. This includes the insanely powerful stationary monsters and a deadlier world overall in which early scouts pretty much never survive their initial recon missions. Is it fair to say that Fallen Enchantress will basically be a spiritual successor to that mod? Any other returning features from that project appearing in the new game?
DP: The real influence for Fallen Enchantress was Master of Magic. There are some touches that are similar to Fall From Heaven, but the game manual I always have in my laptop bag and the design I return to when I consider going down path A or path B is Master of Magic. That doesn't mean that I always do what Master of Magic did; we have to do what's best for Fallen Enchantress. But Master of Magic remains the real inspiration behind the game.
GS: Given that Elemental was a game with its own systems and complexity, and given that Fallen Enchantress will be making sweeping changes, what will the new game do to help new players get started?
DP: We do have some context-based walkthroughs planned. That work hasn't been done yet. Creating tutorial/walkthrough/manual while the game is in flux is like running on a treadmill without the aerobic benefit. But the big change is in the UI; making sure that the player has all the relevant data available where he needs it, that tool tips describe what that data is, and that the heirgamenon answers the bigger questions about the way systems work.
Part of the confusion in War of Magic isn't that the information isn't available; it's that critical information is displayed together with low-priority information. How is the casual player supposed to know what to watch and what to be concerned about…which is a lot of what we gain by focusing the game. If some information isn't critical, isn't strategic…we have to ask ourselves if it's needed at all.
GS: Is there anything else you would like to add that we haven't touched on already?
DP: I would like to express how committed Stardock is to making this game great. I came to Stardock three months after War of Magic was released and largely because they stood behind their game. They have made the organizational changes required to make Fallen Enchantress a success. They have kept developers and designers working on War of Magic well after release. And [they] have offered a free copy of Fallen Enchantress to anyone that purchased War of Magic before December 31, 2010, so that those that bought because they trusted the Stardock name and history will be rewarded for their loyalty.
GS: Thank you for your time.