Set in a fantasy realm, Strifeshadow is an independently developed, multiplayer-only real-time strategy game that lets you play three races, each with unique abilities and skills.
Developer: Ethermoon Entertainment
Release date: Spring 2001
By T. Byrl Baker
Strifeshadow is the ultimate example of an independent project that simply wouldn't be possible without the Internet. Five of the six team members are scattered across the United States, and one lives in England. The game hasn't been released yet, but that hasn't stopped a devoted fan community from forming already.
Technically, the Internet has let all this happen, but the fact remains that there would be no interest at all if Strifeshadow didn't look like it will be a great real-time strategy game. Set in a fantasy realm, Strifeshadow has a novel-length back story that has really drawn potential players in. That's a good thing, since the game will be multiplayer-only. Both Internet and LAN support will be implemented initially, with the possibility of a single-player version of the game, if the multiplayer version sells well enough.
Strifeshadow focuses more on combat than base management. It does this by forcing you to string out your bases, making them much harder to defend and emphasizing many small clashes instead of massive end-game battles after a buildup period. Tactically, the game should provide more depth than RTS fans are used to seeing. Units hit from the sides or rear take more damage than if they were hit in the front, and infantry can be used to engage enemy units, preventing them from slipping past and hacking away at more valuable units in the rear. Infantry that is engaged will be vulnerable to flanking attacks from the sides, so committing forces to an attack will take far more planning and maneuvering than most other games require.
Certain units can be combined to create more powerful units with special abilities (and newfound weaknesses). You'll learn a little more about this in the interview. Ethermoon decided to go with a 2D graphics engine to avoid camera trouble, but that hasn't prevented the company from factoring terrain into battles. Units can be hidden in forests, ready to spring an ambush. Ranged units placed on hills will be able to fling their projectiles farther.
There will be three distinct races in the final version: the accursed, the sylvans, and the dark elves, each with completely separate units and play styles. The first are a lumbering race of undead humans with units like skeletons that can sometimes spring back into battle after being smacked down. The dark elves specialize in close combat and are better suited for ambushes and setting traps. One of their special tricks is the ability to hide powerful troops in an ambush cellar, which looks like a normal part of the terrain until it pops open and the unit emerges. The sylvans are intelligent but reclusive forest dwellers who rely on their mobility and defensive spells.
Adding to Strifeshadow's appeal is StrifeEdit, which basically will give you the same tools the developers had to create the game. It uses a graphical interface that lets you create scenarios, maps, new units, or nearly anything else you can dream up. If you grow bored with the original game, you can just slap on one of the many total conversions that are bound to appear and play what amounts to a completely different game. We asked Martin Snyder, Strifeshadow's lead developer, to tell us what it was like to create and balance such a complicated game and to describe what it was like working with such a far-flung team.
Next: Q&A with Strifeshadow lead developer Martin Snyder
Q&A With Ethermoon President and Strifeshadow Lead Developer, Martin Snyder
GameSpot: When can we expect the full version of Strifeshadow?
Martin Snyder: We're planning on a release sometime this spring.
GS: Has anyone inspired you to do what you've done?
MS: I don't think any of us really have individual people who inspired us to create a game. We all share a common love, though, for many of the classic games from the old days. If anything inspired us, it would be those classics, games like Ultima V, Star Control 2, and Archon.
GS: Are there any games that influenced Strifeshadow?
MS: I think it's safe to say that Strifeshadow was inspired by the entire RTS genre. If you forced me to pick specific games, I'd say Starcraft and Myth because they are, in my opinion, the best multiplayer RTS games currently available. Honestly, though, I think the genre is established enough that it's not really fair to say that any specific games influenced Strifeshadow any more than the genre as a whole has.
GS: What will Strifeshadow be like when it's finished?
MS: Strifeshadow will be an intense and draining experience expected to last about 20 to 30 minutes or so. It will leave the players longing for rest yet unable to prevent themselves from initiating another game. We hope to end many otherwise promising academic and professional careers.
GS: What sets Strifeshadow apart from similar RTS games?
MS: We've put together a specific feature set for multiplayer gamers, and [we] spent an extraordinary amount of time fleshing out every aspect of the design.
GS: What's your favorite aspect of the game?
MS: My personal favorite aspect of the game is all the support we've built in for the amateur game designers. It's really easy with StrifeEdit to implement and distribute your own unit, mod, race, total conversion, or whatever. I think likewise the annotation feature is a great creative vehicle for people to really drill down into the gameplay behind Strifeshadow and share their thoughts with others.
Of course, I favor these "outside the game" features because I get routinely stomped by Tom and Fred in play testing. I can't wait to reach the beta so I can start winning for once.
GS: How much testing has Strifeshadow undergone so far?
MS: Testing is a hard thing to measure. Some parts of the product, like StrifeEdit have been in use for most of this year. We've been playing the game internally for about three months now while we completed the media required for the third race.
GS: You've said that Strifeshadow focuses more on tactics than other RTS games. How so?
MS: We do this in a variety of ways. RTS games are primarily games of time management. From a high level, we want players to spend more time fighting battles, which means they won't have as much time to do things like build an economy and produce troops. However, since it is the balance of these elements that make RTS games so great, we can't disturb the strategic importance of noncombat elements.
Next: Resource management and production systems
Our resource and production systems are the primary areas where we "create extra time for combat." Since players have more time for combat, we extend the length. Part of this is simply tweaking the numbers so combat takes longer to resolve. We also implemented features like "melee engage," which allows melee troops to obstruct other troops (like offensive linemen in football).
We've created a situation where the battles take longer, and there are more of them. We then throw into the mix some additional tactical features--things like side and rear damage so that troop positioning (both tactical and strategic) has a greater impact, height and other terrain bonuses, and, of course, special abilities for many of the units. Because all of these creations are designed to have a significant impact when used correctly, the player now has a variety of tactical avenues to pursue.
GS: How do the game-recording and annotated playback features work?
MS: The game recording is pretty basic. What it essentially does is record all of the player-issued commands in a game. When you play it back, the Strifeshadow engine reconstructs the game for you. You can control the speed and view the action as one of the individual players or as an omniscient observer. It's handy for analyzing a game to see why you won or lost, sharing games between friends, or demonstrating a particular technique.
Replay annotation is far cooler though. What that lets you do is edit any game replay (even one that was previously annotated). You can insert text messages into the annotation and even insert animations or sound effects.
Annotators can also control the viewpoint of the game, replay speed, and other things. This means that you can script a replay to skip past the boring parts and focus on the interesting parts. You can spice up the action in a variety of ways--giving the units character, giving the impression of a sportscast, whatever.
We're going to use annotated replays to create tutorials for the game. We know that no one reads instructions manuals for anything, so we're hoping a two-minute tutorial will help people understand the game instantly and get them online and duking it out that much faster.
GS: How did you keep the game balanced while still keeping the units unique?
MS: Very carefully. Seriously, balance is a pretty complex topic because unit-vs.-unit balance is only about five percent of "balance." There are two things we do, however, when addressing unit balance. The first is to give each unit a single purpose. In cases where a unit has a dual purpose, there will be some price to pay to switch back and forth or to activate both abilities. The second is to generally make units harder to use the more powerful they are.
Archers are a good example of a simple unit. You don't have to try very hard to use archers to their full potential. Support spellcasters on the other hand are far harder. You typically have to manipulate them singly rather than in groups, and you have to be very precise with your targeting.
Next: No ultimate weapons?
In Strifeshadow there is no ultimate weapon really, nor is there any "superflexible unit" that works well against all threats. The combination of all of these things helps us to determine the relative value of the units fairly easily. Of course, once you've determined relative value, then all you have to do is price the units correctly and your game is balanced.
Balance is a tricky subject, though. Some unit-vs.-unit matchups are very imbalanced, but they are supposed to be that way. The game might not seem balanced to all players if they are not using the proper weapons to face a certain situation. We're trying to make it as clear as possible how the combat dynamics work so people can be effective commanders.
GS: Tell us more about the unit and spell combination system.
MS: We use unit combinations to allow the Gremlin Carver [to] mount a Moor Moag to create a Moag Raider. From a visual and logical standpoint, it's pretty much what you would expect. The humanoid Carver walks over and jumps on the back of the war-beast (the Moag) and then rides around as a single unit.
All three units have different advantages, though, so depending on the situation you might want to combine those units or uncombine them to best face your enemy. For instance, Carvers are melee troops so they can engage enemy troops. This is important when you're trying to establish a defensive perimeter or prevent enemy troops from fleeing. Moags are fast, agile melee attackers. They can't engage, but they get a big bonus against archers because they are so hard for archers to hit.
Put a Carver on a Moag, and you combine the strength of his weapon with the speed of the Moag. As an added bonus, the Moag carries extra battery packs so the Carver's arc spear turns from a melee to a ranged weapon.
Ritual spells are another way units can work together. Here, multiple spellcasters of the same type collaborate on the more powerful magic. Since the cost of researching and casting one of these spells is high, the effects are decidedly dramatic. Some rituals summon the most powerful creatures in the game. Others unleash torrents of fireballs, wiping out enemy armies. They stop time; they open gateways across the map...
Of course, you'll want to be careful. If one spellcaster dies while working on a ritual, a feedback effect can result. This could kill all three spellcasters, turn the spell against you, or worse! In general the more destructive the spell, the more risk you face in using it. There's no substitute for helpless spellcasters working diligently in the front lines of combat to get a spell off. I can already see the players biting off their fingernails trying to stop (or protect) a ritual that is nearing completion.
GS: Besides its gameplay, what do you think has most contributed to the buzz Strifeshadow has created?
MS: I think people appreciate the combination of features we've put together as something that all multiplayer gamers will really enjoy. I think the single most important thing, though, is our participation with our growing fan community. We try to be as accessible as possible while not neglecting our duties.
Next: Can you work on a team without seeing your team members?
GS: How much input do fans and beta testers have on your project?
MS: When you're interacting with users, whether it be in a focus group, beta test, or any other arena, you're always collecting input, but not in ways that people typically imagine. The single most valuable feedback is gleaned through users' questions. A user's question often identifies an area that we'll want to work on more; it really helps "wake the team up" and identify things they were taking for granted.
GS: What's it like to work with a team that rarely (or never) meets face-to-face?
MS: Lonely. I won't lie to you; it's not an optimal setup. However, with the right combination of self-motivated people, it can work. It's worked for us so far, but I think we will consolidate our operations before we work on another game.
GS: As an independent developer, what has been the biggest obstacle you've faced in producing your games?
MS: I think the biggest obstacle has been maintaining [the] focus and stamina required to do something like this. If you look in the credits for any of the games that Strifeshadow is compared to, I guarantee you'll see a lot more than six names. With each person handling so many tasks, it's very easy to let things fall though the cracks or to get derailed for too long on a minor project. With everyone working effectively seven days a week for over a year, it gets to you.
GS: Any tips for other independent teams who want to publish a game on their own?
MS: Don't listen to all those guys on the sidelines telling you it can't be done. Those people are on the sidelines for a reason. The sooner you start, the sooner you'll be done.
GS: Were you hindered by technology in any way during the development of the game, or are the proper tools readily available for those willing to take the time to learn to use them?
MS: For the right people, all the tools are there for Windows, Mac, or Linux development. Obviously you'll want to have some basic knowledge in the four key areas (design, programming, art, sound).
There are always "gotchas" when you do something for the first time. For instance, did you know that floating-point operations are not entirely consistent across different families of Intel processors? That one cost us a little time.
GS: What tools are you using to create Strifeshadow?
MS: I try to avoid this question because I don't like to give tools that much credit. What we did was fairly simple, though. The entire game is written in C++. It uses DirectX and a couple of free libraries we've listed on our Web site. The game art is done mostly by creating and animating 3D models and then rendering a series of animation frames from those models. That means that even though the art is generated using 3D tools, the graphics engine is sprite-based. Our sound effects are created mostly by purchasing "stock" sound effects and mixing, altering, and combining them to achieve appropriate effects for our creatures. Voice recordings are done using a high-quality mic. All of our computer systems are fairly standard for today's world.
Next: Development obstacles and how they were overcome
Along these lines, I want to tell all of the budding game developers out there not to go out of your way to make things too complex. Our "best guess" at how to do things turned out to be more than adequate for most of our needs.
GS: What do you think the future looks like for independent developers?
MS: I think if anything it will only get easier. Education at the high school and college levels is getting more and more advanced, and all the new hardware and libraries are making things like assembly optimization far less useful than before. The technology is getting better, the platforms are getting easier to develop on, and people are getting more education on both earlier in life.
GS: Do you have time to play other computer games?
MS: It's quite ironic that I haven't had any time to play games since I got started on Strifeshadow. I checked in with my top researchers (Tom and Joe) to see what they've played recently. Tom really liked Baldur's Gate II because it's a polished RPG with a lot of depth. Joe loves Counter-Strike and Team Fortress Classic (both mods for Half-Life) mainly because he rocks the house at both.
GS: Were there any unexpected glitches you encountered while developing the game?
MS: We got a chuckle over one bug involving aerial transports. One of our more diligent play testers would run through a bunch of ideas in the test mode and then exploit bugs against us in actual games. In one game our armies were clashing [when] in moved a chaos manowar. Manowars have a lot of powerful abilities, and I wasn't sure what was going to be unleashed against me. Unexpectedly, the manowar moved into the front lines and started picking up troops, turning the tide of combat. The unfortunate part of this was that he was using his transport to pick up my troops (which were then effectively removed from the game).
Somehow it stings more when you're beaten by a bug in the game that's your fault.
GS: Are there any other projects in the works that you'd like readers to know about?
MS: Strifeshadow is it for us right now. Once we release [the game], we'll probably take a nap and then start thinking about additional titles.
GS: How many people are involved in the development of Strifeshadow, and what are their roles?
MS: There are a total of six people as follows:
Martin Snyder, president and lead developer
Tom Cadwell, lead designer
Joe Poppa, lead artist
Rob Chilcott, composer
Joel Steudler, artist
Fred Wilson, writer
These titles are all misleading because everyone contributes in so many ways. All of the contributions have been significant.