In the computer entertainment realm, strategy/fantasy games fill a narrow niche with a limited but loyal following. At the top of that niche's pyramid sit three titles: Heroes of Might and Magic, Master of Magic, and Warlords. The latter hasn't had a major upgrade since 1993. But that doesn't mean Strategic Studies Group (SSG), Warlords' nine-person, Sydney, Australia-based development team, hasn't been up to its eyeballs making changes.
The dramatic improvements in Warlords III have the potential to not only please traditional, turn-based fantasy/strategy gamers, but also to single-handedly draw in many new players and establish a new gaming model for all such titles to come.
And this time around, Warlords will have the marketing muscle of a mighty publisher behind it: Broderbund. Until now, SSG's marketing was principally word-of-mouth. Yet, despite its small size and distant location, it managed to sell 175,000 copies of Warlords II. "SSG prides itself on having had an ineffective marketing department for the past 15 years," says Ian Trout, with typical deadpan Aussie humor. "Our primary concerns have been gameplay and artificial intelligence. That's what we built our reputation on and that's why we're still in business."
Through 1994, SSG had no trouble getting in retail stores, but lately, giants like Sierra, Virgin, and Electronic Arts have squeezed it off the shelves. So it partnered with Broderbund for Warlords III and with Microsoft for a reprise of its first game, Reach for the Stars. "We thought it would be rather prudent to allow two snakes into the pit, rather than one," Trout says.
Despite this serpentine relationship, Broderbund predicts Warlords III will play a significant role in its re-entry into the gaming business. "When we decided to get back into games we put SSG on the top of our developer list," says Broderbund senior product manager Dexter Chow. "Warlords has a loyal following and we're relying on that."
The changes in Warlords III range from subtle to dramatic. The game is already known for its strong AI, huge playing environment and geography, depth and variability of gameplay, subtle and clever economic management system, and quick combat resolution. Each of those areas has been improved, expanded, or accelerated in Warlords III.
The AI takes center stage. Roger Keating, the veteran game designer who developed titles for Strategic Simulations in the early 1980s and formed SSG with Ian Trout in 1983, is the man behind Warlords' AI.
"Unlike our competitors' AIs, Roger's ensured there's no easy way to fool the computer," says Trout. The AI doesn't "cheat," i.e., give computer opponents more resources, faster building skills, and more intelligence. Plus, it has strong diplomatic traits: Both computer and human opponents can share resources, become allies, coordinate attacks, and offer bribes. "The more money offered, the more likely you will get an alliance," says Trout. "Money will overcome natural distrust as it usually does in the real world."
The quality of the graphics will be improved to match the title's competitors. Each of the 82 units, including armies, heroes, dragons, and mercenaries, has a distinct appearance and all are animated. Short cut scenes will enhance gameplay.
The biggest change is what SSG calls simultaneous turn resolution. At the onset of each game, the player(s) decide how many turns will constitute a full game, how long each turn will be, and what the victory conditions will be - i.e., most money, most cities, most enemies killed. Then, as each turn progresses, the players hand out their orders -where armies should go, how much to build and buy, production levels for mines and factories, and much more. All these decisions are in real time. At each turn's conclusion, a brief pause is built in to give players time to assess the new situation.
"The size of the world is so extensive and the units have so much depth and variety that you can't keep watch on everything," says Trout. "That's why you get moments to think. It's substantially superior to real-time play."
It also leads to many different gaming styles. Playing 15 four-minute turns while using armies that don't take a long time to build leads to very exciting one-hour games. Or, if you follow the excellent new campaign system, which offers numerous scenarios, games can be exceptionally long.
Warlords III can be played on dedicated Internet sites, over a LAN, modem to modem, or on private servers. It also retains the traditional turn-based gameplay as an option and supports e-mail games or even the old-fashioned "hot seat" approach where a bunch of players share one computer.
"We think we've captured the strength of real-time play and retained the strength of turn-based play," says Trout. Sounds like the best of both fantasy worlds.