In space, no one can hear you scream. And fortunately, in space, no one can hear you curse angrily as your alien neighbors invade your territory in Galactic Civilizations II, the well-designed strategy game from Stardock. The game will soon expand into new territory with a new expansion pack, Dark Avatar, which will add customizable opponents, new worlds to explore and conquer, and new customization options for building fleets of your very own starships. Lead designer Brad Wardell gives us the first details.
GameSpot: What can you tell us about the titular Dark Avatar? We understand that it refers to the campaign, and that it involves some kind of splinter faction within the Drengin Empire. We also understand that the campaign itself has a very unique starting situation. Can you fill us in?
Brad Wardell: In Dark Avatar, you play a clan leader of the Drengin Empire. The Drengin Empire is a vile, evil, nasty civilization bent on enslaving the entire galaxy. In Dark Avatar, they are the good guys. The alternative to the Drengin are the Korath, a splinter group of the Drengin Empire who have gained power and are starting to dominate the empire. They want the rest of the galaxy exterminated outright. So, the campaign focuses on thwarting the Korath's plans to exterminate everyone else. Conquest and oppression: good. Genocide: bad. You just have to know where to draw the line.
GS: How difficult will it be to play as other races if the Dark Avatar campaign begins with the Drengin about to dominate the galaxy? Do you solve this by having the player play only as the Drengin, or can you play as the other races? Will there be an easier race to play, or a harder race that's in a tougher position?
BW: The campaign is really a relatively small part of the game. It helps move the overall story forward and helps get players familiar with the game. The real meat of Galactic Civilizations II is in the stand-alone games where each galaxy is randomly generated and each game is made to feel like an epic story.
In the stand-alone games, players will be able to play as any race they want, or design their own race and then play against the main alien races, or--and this is one of the big new features--players can design their own opponents. They can assign them a behavior, an intelligence level, a style of play, a style of ship, what they look like, and a dialogue style.
GS: Tell us more about this new espionage feature in the expansion. How, specifically, will this help you lead to victory? Will opponents know if you're the one responsible for acts of espionage or sabotage, or can you plant evidence to blame another faction? And how do you defend yourself against spies?
BW: Espionage is something we're really trying to flesh out with the expansion. In Dark Avatar, you put money into espionage, and that money recruits agents. The agents can then be placed on opponents' planets to stifle/sabotage production, research, and other targets. When someone does it to you, you will see a red figure in the tile that is being sabotaged, and you can then use one of your agents to neutralize it.
GS: The expansion will also introduce new ship parts. Are they there to give players more flexibility in how their ships look, or will they have an impact on gameplay as well, and if so, how?
BW: The new ship parts are largely cosmetic. We were surprised by the popularity of the ship design feature. When I go to forums on various game sites, I inevitably see entire threads of people showing off the cool ships they've made. It's like a grown-up version of Lego blocks. People can design any type of ship they can imagine.
In the expansion pack, we've taken what we've learned and really upped the visual quality of the ship parts and created a whole bunch of new ones. We know that fans of the shipbuilding aspect will love the new ship parts.
GS: What can you tell us about the two new races in the expansion? How will they fit in with the existing races, and do any of them address a balance issue that you detected in the game?
BW: One of the new races is the Korath. The other race is tentatively called the Zrim. The Korath are an offshoot of the Drengin, while the Zrim are entirely new and are real rascals. One of the surprises in the game will be to find out which of the existing races is going to be wiped out and will not be in a future sequel (they'll still be in GalCiv II and its expansions, though, as a playable race).
The Final Frontier?
GS: Why does Stardock add "special worlds" that can be colonized only by specific races to Dark Avatar? Is this designed to slow down the gameplay? And how will players eventually unlock forbidden worlds?
BW: The idea is to give players more strategic options at the beginning of the game. Right now, at the start of the game, choices are pretty linear. But we want to give players some choices in how to appropriate their resources: Do they colonize the worlds they know how to colonize or do they put resources into trying to research technologies needed to colonize other types of worlds?
GS: Players will be able to "choose" which algorithms the computer opponent uses. Is it a difficulty setting, or will it let players create a game where all other races are friendly to one another, as opposed to the current game where you usually get a warmongering race or two in the mix? And Stardock has long prided itself on "non-cheating" AI, so why have the choice of allowing the AI to cheat now?
BW: The computer players employ a whole set of different general strategies to win. Imagine, if you will, a typical multiplayer game. There are lots of different strategies that players will employ to try to win. The choices we'll give to players will let them pick from a number of different strategies, or a randomized strategy.
GS: We understand that the expansion will add asteroid fields as a new "terrain" that can provide resources. Why add this new terrain type? How big of a resource yield will they provide, and will you need to build a space station to take advantage of them?
BW: We wanted to give players some additional things to consider when conquering a star system or planet. Right now, it's all about how good the planet is. In Dark Avatar, we want players to also consider what resources might be near that planet. Asteroid fields will let players construct bases on them, which can provide resources to the closest colonized planet. Some asteroids will be special and hence be another thing that players will fight over.
GS: Turn-based strategy games can be hard to test and balance during development because there are essentially too many potential combinations and outcomes. However, once a game is released and played by thousands and thousands of players, issues are easier to detect. What have you learned about Galactic Civilizations II that you didn't know beforehand? Were there any big whoppers? How will the expansion address these issues?
BW: We had some major whoppers that have given us a renewed sense of humility. I confess I've been in the camp that thought that any game that had any problem when it shipped was "rushed." In our case, we literally spent the last six weeks of development just play-testing the game.
Yet when it shipped there were things that we didn't know about. For instance, the 1.0 version of the game ran very hot on some video cards. This in itself wasn't a big deal; we tested on those video cards and it wasn't a problem. Where it became a big deal was on those video cards that were put into older PC cases that weren't well ventilated. The result is that the game would crash due to weird errors as the card got so hot. We fixed it right away, but it was still pretty unnerving.
Another thing that we failed to recognize is how players would design their ships in ways that really surprised us, but in hindsight seemed obvious. For example, up until v1.2, attackers had a massive advantage in a battle. They would fire first, and only if the enemy survived could they fire back. As a result, players would build wimpy but incredibly fast ships with a massively powerful first-time attack and then send them around to devastate the AI. In the 1.2 update, we modified the system so that both sides fire first. You can imagine our surprise when we'd get these saved games where players were using cargo hulls to build these incredibly lethal "interceptor" ships.
Things that we overlooked we have tried to address in the updates. Our updates are, I think, fairly unusual. There's an expansion pack's worth of new features in the updates already. For instance, the economic system was significantly tweaked so that unused planetary social production was automatically put into military production if it needed to be.
We really want the expansion pack to focus on expanding the game in ways that players themselves might not have thought of, but would want in hindsight (like user-created enemies, asteroid fields, spies, more diplomatic treaties, more ship stuff, and so on). People should never have to pay for our mistakes, only for things that genuinely expand the game.
GS: We understand that the expansion will be available only via digital distribution, and without copy protection?
BW: It was a tough choice about retail. Most of the copies of Galactic Civilizations II we've sold were at retail. However, over half the revenue generated by the game has come from digital sales.
As much as we like retail, the problem is that there's a significant up-front cost. A box is a box as far as retail is concerned, so cost is the same whether it's a whole new game or an expansion pack. It made sense for us to have the main game at retail, but it's a tougher call when it's an expansion pack. We decided to use this as an opportunity to test the waters of pure digital distribution.
GS: Fair enough. Thanks, Brad.