Stardock's New Fantasy 4X Sorcerer King Q&A With Brad Wardell

We talk about what makes Sorcerer King different from Stardock's other projects, and why Steam Early Access was the right choice for this game.

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Stardock announced Sorcerer King recently , a new entry in the fantasy 4X genre. But despite the familiar underpinnings, the focus for Sorcerer King is a little different from Stardock's regular strategy fair. It's out now via Steam Early Access if you want to try it yourself, but we got a few minutes to talk with Stardock CEO and president Brad Wardell about what this new project us all about.

GameSpot: How would you describe Sorcerer King?

Brad Wardell: One of the things that we've been really happy about in the last couple of years has been the high number of 4X games coming out. In the past, I always felt like we had to make games that introduced new players to 4X, but we've had so many outstanding games in the last few years, such as Age of Wonders III.

Sorcerer King is essentially a fantasy 4X game that assumes you played those other games...and you lost. You lost really badly. So right on turn one, the Sorcerer King is not you, the player. The Sorcerer King is the guy who won the last game. Whatever the first 4X game you played was where you lost a battle, you lost to the Sorcerer King.

"Sorcerer King is essentially a fantasy 4X game that assumes you played those other games...and you lost. And lost really badly."

Normally in a 4X game there's a bunch of grunts of the evil empire that are trying to conquer the world, and you're trying to be one of them. The Sorcerer King was one of them, and he won. And in this game, he's going for godhood. He's already conquered everyone--all that's left are what are effectively minor factions, of which you're one. And your job is to stop him from becoming a god.

To do that, you have to first prevent him from destroying the remaining shards. Normally in fantasy 4X there's a trope where there's a magical resource that you've got to grab and control, and this time the Sorcerer King is trying to destroy those. So you have to protect the shards because every time he destroys one, he becomes more powerful. And you also need to gather up the remaining remnants of the former kingdoms and try to get them to work together to go and take him out before they succumb to his influence.

Why put the game on Steam Early Access instead of a more traditional release?

One of the big things for us is that we really want to get as much feedback as we can get, especially since this is very different from what we've done in the past. We have a fairly good handle on how to do traditional 4X, where you're dealing with other empires, and you're negotiating treaties and setting up trade. And we've done a lot of that sort of thing. But this time around, it's much more like a fantasy version of Star Control from back in the day. In this case when you're talking to these minor factions, you're actually having conversations with them. There is no: "Give me X for Y." There's no trade screen.

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The text is like FTL, it's multiple choice, except that the choices are dependent on what's happening in the game world. We hired a columnist to do all the writing, so it's pretty fun.

How do you balance that fan feedback versus what you know a game needs or what you want to do in a game?

Generally speaking, it requires a lot of judgment to be able to go through what is reasonable. Are the people providing feedback looking for a completely different game? That's versus the people who like the premise, but want some refinement in it.

One of the best examples I can think of is when we did the original Galactic Civilizations. One of the major features, major enough that it's on the front of the box, is that you build star bases. But it was the beta testers who recommended adding a star base into the game.

Originally, it was just the idea of a separate building that can spread your influence. And what players requested was the ability to build a building, in this case a star base, that would allow them to exert influence on the map rather than being completely reliant on colonies and planets. Adding that, even though it was still in line with what we were doing, it made the game so much more enjoyable and became a major aspect of the game. That's an example of the kinds of things that've made me a real believer in early access.

Are you worried about showing off the game too early?

This is actually much further along than anything we've ever gone into Early Access with. Historically, even Galactic Civilizations was available for people to try out. And the third version that's currently in beta is way earlier along than Sorcerer King. Sorcerer King is actually going to be out before Galactic Civilizations III. We've sat on this a lot longer than we normally do.

How long?

Over a year.

Who is the game for?

The target demographic are people who are already familiar with fantasy 4X. We've tried to make the game easy to understand and play. But the people who have the most appreciation will be people who already know 4X strategy games. Someone asked about this the other day, and the analogy I came up with is superhero origin movies. The first move is always the origin movie, and if you already know the origin, it's like, "Ugh, here we go again. Yes, you got bit by a spider."

It's the second movie where you hopefully get to some meat. The origin movie, if it's the first time you're seeing it, is usually pretty awesome. But if you've already seen the origin movie a bunch of times, it's like, "Ok, let's get to it." In Sorcerer King, we assume that players already know the tropes of fantasy 4X. Now we can take it in a slightly different direction, rather than the standard: "You are the king of a kingdom! And there are eight empires trying to compete. You must gather resources and build...." We don't have to do that now because they already know about that. They've played that game.

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So will newcomers still be able to get into Sorcerer King?

I hope so. I think so. I'm very interested to see how the feedback comes out, but I think that those people won't realize they're playing a 4X game. They might think they're playing some kind of adventure game.

As a departure from the regular 4X model, what makes this a Stardock game?

The AI. We've had a full year to be able to work on this, but we've effectively built a dungeon master player behind the scenes. That's not something I'm familiar with any game having done before. But anyone who's ever played D&D knows how important a good dungeon master is.

My job is to make sure that the player...I should say the dungeon master's job, not mine. I'm just his advocate. His PR guy. The dungeon master's job is to make sure that the player is challenged and entertained, but in a way that player can still affect the course of the game. We don't want the player to ever feel like they're just at the mercy of a random number generator. They want to see the consequences of their actions in the game, and my job is to make sure they experience that through the course of the game. I want to make sure that every time they play through it, Sorcerer King is a different game.

But the visual look of the game is much different from what we've done in the past. They tend to be fun games, even if they're not the most attractive. As a result, they tend to only bring in the really hardcore. When we sold Impulse to GameStop, we used the money as an investment fund to start up a series of new independent game studios. A lot of the people who joined us came from Firaxis. Sorcerer Kings visuals look really nice and different, and part of that is because they were mostly made by people who had formerly worked on Civilzation IV and V. Including the art direction, some of the animations, and the unit models. The people who modeled Civ V's terrain are the same ones who made the Sorcerer King terrain.

The people who aren't 4X players are going to look at this and think that it's something they can get into. It looks friendly. It doesn't look super complicated. The depth is there, but it's not tons of icons in your face.

So, is this a game that could work on console?

I think we'd have to be even simpler than we are here. Underneath the covers, there's still a lot of stuff going on. As an example, when you click on a unit, you get three stats: Combat rating, how many moves it has, and its hit points. That seems really simple, but what is a combat rating? Well, if you go and look at the details of the unit, you find out that that combat rating comes from 30 different stats.

If you're a console player, and you want to start understanding that part of it, it can get a little overwhelming, mainly because of the controller. With a mouse, it's pretty straightforward--I do a tool tip, and I can just show it. But if I'm a console player, that would be a pain, at least until they all have mice.

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Of course, some consoles support mice, but you wouldn't want that from a sales point of view. That would be tough thing to push. We are planning to get into that market, but we'd like to make games that have console players more in mind, rather than porting something over that was made for the PC. It's like how PC players don't like it when a console game is ported to the PC. I wouldn't want to do that back either.

Can 4X strategy type games work on console?

I think 4X, as a core, can certainly do that. It would require a revisit of how the user experience should be and how to work with the controllers and the way people interact with them. You're playing a console game in front of a television with a controller, and that has to be the start of your game design. It can't start with designing a 4X game and then trying to figure out how it works.

Some publishers use Steam Early Access to help fund games and bring them to the finish line. Is this a way to add additional content to Sorcerer King or to make sure you have the money to finish it?

There are a lot of misconceptions by developers, and gamers as well, but I've seen game developers make this mistake. We've been doing early betas for 20 years in different forms, as far back as Impulse, or even back into the '90s, and I can tell you only about ten percent of the people who might buy a game will buy it as long as it has the word beta on it. So it is not viable to use early access as a beta program to fund your game. If that's the developer's goal, it is a huge mistake. The game needs to be fully funded from the start, because early access won't save it. Early Access should only be used because you want players who are committed to this type of game to give it a try and provide honest feedback.

For us, we plan to release this game (as long as the beta testers are happy with it) early next year before GDC. Any developer who's ever tried early access should be able to tell you that. Even the ones who thought they could fund their game that way, it doesn't work. It's not the way to go.

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Some developers seem to use it like Kickstarter, to draw interest and get people playing it, but without a specific end-goal in mind.

To be honest, if I could get the feedback from committed players some other way, I wouldn't even use it. Overall there's a lot of harm that's done to a game by releasing it before it's done. Something my son told me, he's a 17-year-old gamer, is that the first impression gets locked in. As soon as the Let's Play videos come out and someone shows a video of something in beta, even though no matter how often anyone says that the game is still in development, their impression is locked. And it's really hard to come back from that. That's why early access needs to be used very carefully. If you're just doing it to try to fund your beta or alpha and it's not ready to go, you can really harm your game in ways that it will never come back from. If the only reason you're doing it is to get money, that's really bad.

Not long ago you wrote a paper talking about how retail is dead...

We kind of left retail a couple years ago. In the old days [laughs] I mean in the old days of three years ago, every time we released a game, we made sure we were at Wal-mart and Best Buy and all that. The problem was, if I make a $40 game, and it's being sold at Wal-mart, after manufacturing, after the distributor, after all that, we would get something like $11. And that's just not viable.

It's actually gotten worse over the years. When we started back in the '90s, if I had a $40 game, we would get to see about $25 of it. But the system keeps piling on more and more stuff to make it more and more expensive, even as manufacturing costs have gone down to make it less appetizing to do that. But if I make a game for digital only, and I sell it for $40, I'm going to see $28 to $29 dollars on that, depending. So that's a no-brainer for us.

"Early Access should only be used because you want players who are committed to this type of game to give it a try and provide honest feedback."

For PC games, retail is totally dead, and we would have never expected that before. We have this annual survey we've been doing for some years, and we send it out to our entire user base--last year we sent it out to six million people who have bought our games over the years--and the results came back that only a few percent of people are still buying games at retail. Whereas when we started this, and I'm going off the top of my head, but something like 90% bought their PC games at a store. And then downloading from the publisher, mail orders, Amazon, abd that kind of stuff, was on the periphery. This was back before 2010.

Now it's the other way around--it's all digital. I think part of it is that it's so convenient. I remember the days when buying a PC game was a nightmare. You'd go into the store to get a game, you'd get it home, you'd start feeding floppies in, you'd modify config.sys. You get it up and hope it runs on your computer...but you know it's probably not going to.

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We've switched to a situation where someone can find a game they like on Steam and then just press a button that has all that stuff ready to download. And because bandwidth is so fast now, I'll have it within five minutes and I can start playing. That's pretty hard to compete with if you're at retail.

What are your thoughts on the recent Steam Update?

I think it's really helpful for us. There's a lot of debate internally, and I can't speak for Stardock on this because I know that almost everyone has a different opinion on it here that are in leadership positions. My opinion, coming more from the gaming side: I love that curator thing. I just love it to pieces. But it's too early to say at this point whether it's good. But I like discoverability features, and I thought the curator integration was such a good idea.

You've also talked about problems with Microsoft's operating systems in the past. Do you think Windows 8 will cause any problems for Sorcerer King?

I don't think so. It works fine on Windows 7. It works fine in Windows 8. Windows 10 is just about out the door, and Microsoft has said they're going to be very aggressive at getting people to move to that. From what I've seen of Windows 10, it's going to be amazing. Wait until you see DirectX 12. We've been working a lot with that recently. And DirectX 12 affects Xbox huge. It's not just PC, we've been following what Microsoft's been telling us about how it's going to affect the Xbox One update, and it's going to be a big thing next year.

Justin Haywald on Google+

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