We recently had a chance to visit with developer and distributor Stardock to get an update on the studio's software developments and on Elemental: War of Magic. Stardock is hard at work on its "GOO" (Game Object Obfuscation) copyright protection software--a simple copy-protection setup that requires users to enter their name, e-mail address, and serial code online to register the game once, then be able to claim full ownership over that game regardless of time passed or computer used. The software has already been adopted by such publishers as Ubisoft and Paradox and, according to Stardock frontman Brad Wardell, will be used by "all the big publishers" for their PC games in the near future. The studio will also soon be taking the wraps off the next revision of its Impulse online distribution client, which will feature a new "ready to play" system that will let you fill out a personal profile for yourself and then actually have prospective multiplayer partners suggested to you based on profile matches--assuming none of the people on your friends list are available for you to play.
The studio also made a brief showing of the next Sins of a Solar Empire microexpansion, Diplomacy. Diplomacy will, like the last microexpansion, Entrenchment, sell for $9.95 and will offer new gameplay content to the space strategy game. Diplomacy will add new interfaction diplomacy features and new diplomatic tech-tree options to research, including the ability to form treaties with other alien races and to trade treaties with other races. While Sins of a Solar Empire currently has an excellent space combat system, it doesn't have a way to manage relations with other space races, so the new microexpansion will draw inspiration from the diplomacy system of Galactic Civilizations II. Diplomacy will go into beta this fall and is planned to launch next year.
Finally, the studio gave us an updated look at Elemental: War of Magic. Elemental is currently in a very early beta-testing phase where Stardock is testing only gameplay concepts. In fact, the early beta presented to the testers has what Wardell refers to as a "cloth map" interface--an interface that looks like a cloth map but is actually just the game zoomed out all the way back. The version of the game we saw was zoomed in, and even though it's still very early, the graphics already had a stylized look that resembled the faded color art you might expect to see from medieval European paintings.
Elemental is still very much in development--a work-in-progress--so we were able to see only the basics of the game in action. You start with nothing but an immortal sovereign unit who can commission new buildings, though later you can marry into one of the game's other 12 base factions and sire prince and princess children who can also be married off, increasing your standing with them. Unfortunately, while your sovereign, who is both a powerful wizard and a mighty military general, is immortal, his children aren't, so when that good-for-nothing son of yours kicks the bucket, his wife's family may not react kindly. Wardell compares the courtly intrigue of Elemental to one of his chief inspirations, the Game of Thrones novels by author George R. R. Martin.
An actual game session of Elemental will let you try to do the same thing you do every night in every other explore-and-conquer game--try to take over the world--but in a variety of different ways. Among other things, you can conquer the world through military force; you can amass powerful diplomatic ties; you can win through sorcerous means (a combination of extensive magical research and controlling different magical shards that may be attuned to one of five different spheres of influence: earth, air, water, fire, and life); or you can win by "questing." Elemental's maps will have lengthy, story-driven quests that are being crafted to resemble role-playing game content, and by completing an epic arc of story-related quests first, you can also attain victory.
Elemental's graphical engine, while still being worked on, provides an impressive level of detail and seamlessly zooms out to multiple zoom levels with a single glide of the mousewheel--all the way out to cloth map view, and all the way in to a close-up view that lets you see the tiny peasants building up your kingdom as they putter around, hammering and chiseling the walls of your castle. Elemental will support robust level-of-detail rendering to play the game at different zoom levels and will let you lock in the zoom to support the best combination of zoomed-in graphics and performance that your desktop or laptop computer can handle. The engine (and map editor) will also support deformable terrain so that the randomly generated scenario maps will have valleys, volcanoes, and bodies of water (the latter will primarily act as obstacles that you'll need to traverse by putting your infantry units onto boats).
In preparation for extensive experimentation on the part of the fan community, Stardock is planning to ship the game with the same editing tools that the studio's in-house developers use. While Stardock expects that fans will definitely create new fantasy races to play (the base game will have only playable human factions), the editor will have no polygon limit, so as computing technology increases, the fan community might continue to build huger and huger maps. Wardell even suggests that the robust editor will be useful for applications beyond playing Elemental--as an old-time Dungeons & Dragons fan, the studio head pointed out that Elemental's robust toolset could actually be used to generate maps and campaign aids for game masters running tabletop games such as D&D.
Elemental is still a ways off and is scheduled to ship next year. Like Stardock's other games, and in keeping with the studio's "Gamer's Bill of Rights," of which Goo and Impulse v4.0 are a part, the game will ship free of any DRM software.