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Developer Interview: Kristoffer Osterman, Illwinter Games

December 11th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · No Comments · Interview, Shrapnel

I’ve previously referred to the Dominions games as titles that demand study. No other series requires as much homework. But just like the real world, doing your homework has great rewards. Dominions 3: The Awakening is one of my top games of the year – and I haven’t really touched half of it yet.

Kristoffer Osterman is one of the co-designers of the games. He and Johan Karlsson have created a world that is a curious pastiche of almost every cultural mythos you can imagine. Kristoffer agreed to speak on behalf of the team and answer a few questions about this game that I wish more people would take the time to appreciate.


What games have been the biggest influence on the Dominions 3 design?

Some pen and paper role playing games are probably most important. Ars Magica, Earth Dawn, Powers and Perils come to mind. The setting and system of Ars Magica is probably the single most important source. Also some board games such as SPQR and Warhammer Fantasy Battles. VGA Planets, Master of Orion II and to a lesser extent Master of Magic are probably the most influential computer games. VGA-Planets gave us the whole idea of a multi player game with simultaneous hosting. Master of Orion II had a research system we were very fond of, and it inspired us to make an interesting research system. Master of Magic was quite fun and had something like global spells IIRC.

One of the first things people notice about Dom3 is how diverse the nations are. How important is this diversity to the core game?

When we first came across PbEM games we were annoyed that sooner or later every nation/faction was able to recruit or acquire the units of other nations/factions. This felt wrong. We wanted our game to keep the thematic difference intact. Still, it is only from a thematical perspective that this is important to the game. Diversity balance-wise comes as a result of the thematic diversity. I never design new nations with a balance concept in mind. I design them from a feel/mood concept, and then it usually turns out different from previous nations. If it feels too close to an existing nation you just have to add some interesting tweak that adds flavor and new game options.

You’ve drawn influences from literature, movies, myth…are there any ideas or influences you discarded as being too weird or too conventional?

AD&D’ish concepts might be discarded. Johan Karlsson (co-designer) likes Beholders and AD&D goblins and would be mighty pleased if I made a Beholder in the game, but I would be surprised if I ever made one. Apart from that I rarely discard Ideas. I just do not use them. There is an enormous smörgåsbord of ideas and concepts floating around. You just have to pick the best ones. Beholders are there among elves and dwarves, but so are mesopotamian Sirrushes and Vanir and Dwarves of norse myth. Why choose the less interesting ones when there are so many to choose from?

Dominions is clearly fantasy, but not the fantasy that people are used to. Do you sometimes wish you had used more elves?

No. I’m quite satisfied with the current extent of elves in the game. On the other hand, I’m quite fond of Warhammer Fantasy Battles and would like to see someone make a full WFB mod with elves and all. I don’t mind regular fantasy elves; I just think other people can make them well enough.

There is always a risk that adding more to do and see will lead to balance problems; somebody discovers a killer strategy that wasn’t seen in testing. How difficult is it to balance a game like Dominions 3?

I think it would be very difficult to add a killer strategy in this stage of the game. There are so many spells and units that every killer strategy would probably have a possible counter already. Generally I make a guess regarding spell costs, etc., and let the beta group try it as well. Some tweak later we are satisfied. If it turns out to be a balance breaker it is always possible to mod it or fix it in a patch. Balance has never been too problematic. Hard core gamers might disagree, but the possibility to mod the game alleviates the problem.

Dominions 2 was already a broad and expansive experience, but you chose not to streamline it, in favor of an even bigger game. Why not scale back and focus more on interface issues?

Heh, we actually tried to focus on interface issues in Dominions 3, to the dismay of some Dominions 2 veterans who wanted more changes and depth. To answer the question, it would be boring. Taking a fun game and removing things or just making it more streamlined seem to be a good way of losing interest in what you are doing.

Many people find the interface a challenge to overcome, in spite of all the improvements since Dominions 2. Are there things you could do differently to get people to the fun faster? What are the trade-offs?

No idea. Perhaps a startup with a random god and nation, but then you would miss the fun part of creating your mighty pretender who will follow you through the entire game. Perhaps games that started with extant empires and research set to certain levels. But I suspect new players would be overwhelmed if they were introduced to a full blown empire with mages, monsters and armies they had never seen before.

How do you see the magic vs military balance in Dominions? One good spell can knock out hundreds of warriors, after all.

How I see it? Not sure what to say. I see it I suppose. It could have been balanced differently. At times I wish it was, at times I’m content with it. The possibility to choose research difficulty and the spell modding tools gives players the ability to alter the prevalence of magic, should they want to.

The Dominions series has been called a niche hit – very popular with its fans and followers, but with a very low profile in the wider gaming world. Is there a risk having rabid fans as your primary market?

I like rabid fans – better than uncaring fans. There might be a risk if you suddenly want to earn big money or go with a big publisher. Rabid fans might not like what big publishers like, and I have no idea what demands such a publisher would place on me. Probably they would not allow me to do what I want, and that might aggravate the rabid ones. So at the moment I’m not too concerned about Rabid Fans as being the primary market.

If you could give three pieces of advice to starting players what would they be?

1. Have fun. Take a Monolith as pretender. Or don’t. It just sits there.
2. Identify yourself with your pretender. Monoliths can be sensitive.
3. Inspect your commanders so you know when they become heroes and later get battle afflictions and die tragically in the midst of the enemies.

Who’s better: Kris or Johan?

Me of course. Johan is just a monolith that sits there. I can actually move.

Will you ever leave the Dominions series behind to try something new?

We will probably leave the dominions series sooner or later. We haven’t really started on any new projects, but we have some ideas. There are still lots of new nations in my mind for Dominions 3 patches, but we have also begun fiddling with new game ideas. They might or might not end up in the Dominions universe.


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