Real-time strategy games as we know them have been around for more than a decade. They let you build up a base of operations, churn out a formidable army, and crush your opponents before they can do the same. We've seen real-time strategy games that have taken place in many different settings, including the far-flung future, the modern-day world, and even high-fantasy kingdoms. Encore and Phenomic are putting the finishing touches on a high-fantasy real-time strategy game called SpellForce, which presents itself as a colorful game with attractive 3D graphics. The game will let you take control of a main character who will eventually develop, conquer, and explore a chain of islands by building up fantastical armies of elves, dwarves, sorcerers, and exceptionally powerful hero characters. Lead designer Volker Wertich graciously answered our questions about this soon-to-be-released strategy game.
GameSpot: Thank you for taking our questions. SpellForce is currently available in Europe and will be available in North America soon. How has the response been to the European version? Do you have any improvements you're working on based on the comments you have received?
Volker Wertich: We have had lots of very positive feedback from the gamers. A survey done by a large German games magazine showed that 94 percent of those who bought the game do recommend it to others. Of course, the slightly delayed release in the US was used to fix some previously undetected compatibility issues that were discovered only after the release in Europe.
GS: Part of the appeal of the game is that you can improve your character in so many different ways, much like a role-playing game. For instance, there are nine different abilities. Could you discuss these abilities, and character development, in a bit more detail?
VW: The character development is what you would expect in a typical RPG. What is special here is that a character development system this complex is brought into a real-time strategy environment. The critical thing in doing this is getting the balance right. If the creation of strategy units grows too strong, then the character development aspect is lost to the game. If your character gets too strong, then the strategy elements become less important. In SpellForce, the units you can create in the strategy part are linked to the skill level of your character, which allows us to control this fragile balance.
Of course, your character's skills grow with experience. But since this is only one character of often more than 60 that you control, your character would gain very little experience if only your own combat involvement counted. So we decided that any combat involvement by any of your units counts as experience for your character, which proved a rather elegant solution for this problem.
GS: SpellForce also has an impressive magic system with more than a dozen different subclasses of magic. Could you discuss the role of magic in the game and how magic spells work?
VW: Your character and many of the special hero units in the game have many varied and powerful spells that make sure that magic plays an important part in any battle. You've got the classic heal, protection, damage, strengthen, and poison spells, plus a few special things that we would like players to discover themselves. Spells can affect everything from single units to groups to large areas. The latter are more than just highly impressive visual effects; they provide almost godlike powers.
To ensure that you can use this variety of spells effectively, we've implemented an optional new control method, which we call "click 'n' fight." When you select an enemy unit and then all of your own heroes, your character and your defined unit groups display buttons for every function that can be applied to this particular enemy unit. Of course, you can choose to control your units like you would in a standard real-time strategy game, but we think the click 'n' fight system could have the potential to become a new standard.
GS: The game has a persistent world, so there are events occurring on different islands at the same time, even if you're not around to witness them. How is this managed without being overwhelming? How can players manage all these events at the same time?
VW: Persistency in SpellForce is actually quite like in any other modern RPG. But let me explain how exactly this persistency works in SpellForce.
The world of SpellForce consists of islands that are connected by magic portals. You could compare these islands to a typical map in any real-time strategy game. On each map, you pick up quests. Some of these can be solved on this map alone, while some others require travel to other maps. So if you go to other maps and return to the first one later, of course, all the quest and nonplayer character (NPC) states will still be the same as when you left. Of course, you have a journal, which keeps track of all the active quests and their current states, so it's actually very easy to stay on top of things. There are no things happening in the world in your absence.
Mazes and Monsters
GS: SpellForce is a real-time strategy game, but you can also run around the world in third-person mode, like in an action game or in an online role-playing game. Why was this perspective added?
VW: It wasn't so much added as it was a part of the game right from the beginning. When the development of SpellForce began, Phenomic set out to include a massively multiplayer online component, so you will find several traces of this in the game. But it was finally decided that the unique gameplay experience provided by SpellForce would be more suitable for a classic single-player/peer-to-peer multiplayer game for now.
Including the third-person view in the game was a rather obvious choice. The engine and graphics had to meet the requirements for this anyway--since we wanted the frequent cutscences to immerse the player as much as possible--so we needed the perspective of the inhabitants of this world.
GS: Tell us more about the multiplayer modes in the game. We know that SpellForce has a deathmatch game of sorts, but what are the other options, and how many players does it support?
VW: The SpellForce multiplayer features a variation of the classic deathmatch mode. It supports up to eight players. Instead of picking just a race, you also pick an avatar. Then, you build up your holdings and fight each other as you would expect. What make this mode interesting are the very different races, especially if you play in teams and you mix "dark" and "light" races into one team--like trolls and elves.
GS: Explain SpellForce's story. What were the major events leading up to the game? How did it come together? Were there any specific sources, such as movies or books, that you drew inspiration from?
VW: In a world far away, 13 magicians--blinded by the promises of some evil gods--ignited chaos and mayhem in their greedy pursuit for godlike power. Summoned by the magicians through dark rituals, fierce elemental powers have torn the world's continents apart. Now, small islands remain--floating in the sky--and are connected by magic portals. Eight years after the end of this huge sorcerer's war, evil tries to make its way back in to the world to finish what it once began. But prophecies tell of a man--a human. Bound to the powers of the blood runes, he needs to stop the armies of darkness. This is the setting where the game starts.
Most people on our team are, or were at some point, fans of pen-and-paper role-playing games. So this really is where the basic story derives from.
GS: As a German developer, what sort of differences do you see between American and German tastes in strategy games?
VW: There are a number of differences in the players' preferences. For example, many German players prefer realistic or historical settings. A fantasy setting, like in SpellForce, is not exactly the classic approach to the German market. But I think that if the game is good, the setting doesn't matter too much.
Also, German players tend to be a little more persistent and accept more failures before they succeed, which is why many German games can be a little too daunting for American tastes. We've even got German gamers calling for an "extra hard" mode, which we will probably supply in a patch in the near future.
GS: What's next for Phenomic? Is there a possible expansion pack in the future or perhaps even a sequel? Or do you have a new project in mind?
VW: Well, SpellForce's gameplay opens a whole new field, which we would like to explore further. The universe created in this game opens a lot of interesting options. We will stay in this universe at least a little while longer.
GS: Finally, is there anything you'd like to add about SpellForce?
VW: In my opinion, the real-time strategy genre has shown little true innovation during the last few years, so I hope that we've managed to change that a little with SpellForce. The success in our homeland, Germany, makes us very confident that we succeeded in doing what we set out to do: introduce innovation to the genre without alienating the fans. We have combined real-time strategy and role-playing without ending up with a weak strategy game plus a weak RPG. Instead, we have provided a new experience that will truly satisfy fans of both genres.
GS: Thanks for you time, Volker.