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Society E3 2005 Impressions

It's at least two years away, but Stardock's innovative online strategy game could be worth the wait.


Society is one of the coolest and most innovative ideas for a massively multiplayer game in years. Rather than going the traditional online-role-playing-game route, the folks at Stardock are aiming to create a game that's hard to describe but sounds incredibly cool. Perhaps the best way to describe it is that Society is part SimCity, part Diplomacy, part genetic engineering, and part persistent-world conquering.

Society takes place on a world divided into up to 50,000 provinces. You start with a single province on the map, and upon it you build a city. Since the game starts in a premedieval setting, this means building farms, roads, banks, schools, shops, factories, and more. One of the cool things about the game is that you can design your own buildings, and you can have total control over how your city looks. In your province, you'll also have access to certain resources. Now, the thing to keep in mind is that all the players in the game (or at least, on one server) will start with one province, which means that, theoretically, there could be 50,000 players on one world.

The game takes its name from the fact that you interact with other players in various ways. There's diplomacy, so you can forge alliances with other players, or you can wage war on them. You can trade goods and resources, research, and more. And one of the keys of the game is that players will eventually join in large numbers to form competing empires that consist of thousands of players each. This is important, because one of the ideas behind Society is that the game runs 24/7, even while you're not online. That means if your province or provinces come under attack, the game will try to warn you while you're offline (Stardock's Brad Wardell said one way could be that the game text-messages your cell phone). However, if you can't or don't want to come rushing back to the computer, the game would then ask an online member of your empire if he or she would like to step in for you.

There will be a gigantic technology tree in the game, so it'll also be important to mass-research capabilities in an empire to unlock new techs. Even then, Stardock anticipates that researching technologies will happen at about the same pace as leveling up in traditional online role-playing games. But it will be worth it, because combat in Society will rely more on the design and composition of your armies rather than tactics. Wardell envisions a real-time battle system that's reminiscent of the Kohan games. Basically, armies will be based on companies and battalions, not individual units. And if you have better tech than the other sides, you'll have better armies. However, it'll still be important to balance everything. You may have superb cavalry, but if you only throw cavalry against pikemen, you'll be in trouble.

One nice twist is that each province you have in the game has a ruling family, and the members of each ruling family age and die. This means you have to constantly reproduce to keep family lines going and so you can get the various bonuses they grant to the provinces they rule. This means you can offer up a son or daughter to the family of another ruling family, and you can try to breed for specific traits. And genetics will affect the offspring's appearance. And since there are different races in the game, you can get some very unique children.

As it stands right now, the first empire that conquers half the map will win the game, at which point the map will reset and everyone will start at zero, though the members of the winning empire will have some sort of reward that will carry through to the next game, such as being able to hold onto unique items. Wardell estimates that a full game, from beginning to end, will last a full year. Of course, you won't need to be involved from beginning to end, nor will you constantly have to participate. The idea of having huge societies means you can rely on your teammates to see your side through, even when you're not playing the game for long stretches at a time. You won't feel guilty about that, either, because Wardell says the game will not require a monthly subscription fee, like other online role-playing games. However, there will be a premium service where you can pay a subscription to get bonuses that regular players won't get. These may include better graphics, special technology protections for when they're offline, and no-wait queues to log in to the game.

Society sounds like a very cool concept, but it's still a game that's got a long way to go. Stardock is still in the early stages of Society, and Wardell says the team wants to take it slowly. As a result, the game will go through a lengthy beta process similar to that of World of Warcraft, which Blizzard tested for almost a year before shipping. That means we'll probably see Society ship in late 2007.

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