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Sword of the Stars 2: Interview Outtakes

November 2nd, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 15 Comments · Interview, Sci Fi

As I’ve written many times, I am really not a big fan of scifi games, 4x or otherwise. You really need something special to keep my eyes from glazing over. Sins of a Solar Empire did that, Gal Civ 2 did that, AI War sort of did that but even there it was the design idea more than the game itself.

So I skipped the first Sword of the Stars. I played it a little so I could get an idea of what Kerberos was going for – enough to appreciate the writing and the setting, but I never really grokked why it developed such a following. Still, a job is a job and I need to know something about it so I can talk to the devs about how the game evolved in the sequel.

As is usually the case, my interview with Martin Cirulis for the PCGamer preview of Sword of the Stars 2 generated a lot more stuff than I could actually use. My first draft of the preview was heavy on the theoretical stuff behind why Cirulis and Kerberos made their game this way, which was, my editor pointed out, kind of silly since this was the first that PCG readers would have even read about this game. So I went in a more traditional route. (Thank heavens for editors who can save me from myself.)

Here are some more bits from Cirulis. He’s a loquacious guy, and very, very excited about his franchise. So shutting him up is harder than getting him going. It’s not all golden, but he and his studio think seriously about a lot of things.

On the link between gameplay and narrative:

The conflict between storytelling and open gameplay only exists in the most literal interpretations of the word “story”.

Yes, if you want to tell the player that the giant space squid is attacking them and if they survive that mission they will learn the whereabouts of the Space-Doohickey of Freedom, then you are definitely constraining gameplay to serve story, sometimes to the detriment of both. SotS, on the other hand, through some risky but innovative choices, amazing background materials and a bit of luck in emergent gameplay ended up taking another path.

In the SotS-verse, players find themselves navigating not the minutia of a story, but instead almost becoming an active participant in a grand stage of plot points. Instead of telling the player its time for big menace mission in order to find something out, we simply add the new big menace in an update and let all the needed clues be derived by the player from the sound and visuals of the new event.

When you combine this with the ability to add new “Canon” scenarios to the game in both expansions and via the update systems, SotS has developed a very powerful system to convey “story” to players in a way that makes them feel like a part of an evolving universe, as opposed to traveling down a tightly plotted rail.

The major change for SotS2 is not the story elements but the new toolset for conveying them to players. The idea is not only reward them for their curiosity and innovation, but also to allow them to add their own experiences and impressions to the game as they play. For example, SotS2 will include an on-board encyclopedia as a separate entity that runs parallel with the game you are playing, instead of just being a screen you go to instead of playing the game.

On faction design:

It’s not that we HAD to work harder as much as that we planned to do so from the very beginning. Part of the old paradigm we wanted to overturn with SotS was this trend in 4X of ever increasing numbers of factions with every game that really only amounted to a handful of pluses and minuses in a spread sheet and a cool bit of art. Our plan was from the start was to craft 6 races that would turn every cliché we could find on its ear and that would result in actual relevant gameplay. Our lead writer, Arinn Dembo did an amazing job of crafting races that actually lived and breathed in ways not usually seen in 4X. We didn’t want people to just have races they liked, we wanted them to have races they hated!

Once we knew what a race was going to be about, and how their unique drive system reflected something important about them, we then set about to question every aspect of gameplay those attributes connected with. This is a thing that is a lot easier for me to say than it was to do in practice…at one point the main design board in the office bore the sage observation: “Remember! Your ‘cool idea’ has to work SIX different ways BEFORE you bring it to the meeting!”

In the end, though, the hard work was worth it. Few things make us happier on the boards than seeing the fans argue about which race is their favorite, not based on balance, but on pure play style and taste.

I suppose that the universe dictates gameplay differences and sometimes that takes us in directions we never expected at the beginning. As you will see when the Lords of Winter finally appear as a playable race!

On the tech tree and research:

There were things that still nagged me during SotS, and SotS2 will continue to push the envelope in terms of tech tree implementation and its effect on gameplay. New features will include further reductions in the predictable aspects of tech trees, while at the same time arming the player with more data in order to make more informed choices.

Your scientists will now give you a better idea of what they think may be possible, further up the tech tree–but they won’t have a clear idea of what is most likely till the spend a few turns exploring the feasibility of the tech. This means that everyone will see Pepper Box Arrays on their Energy Weapon tree, but your scientists will have to tell you how feasible they think a given technology will be…and of course, you will have to decide whether you believe them or not.

Another new aspect of the tree will be memory. When you come across a new technology in some wreckage, or on some distant set of ruins orbiting a cold sun, even if your scientists can’t put it to good use right now, they will store what they have learned and apply it in the future to the appropriate tech. So a berserker meson beam may be far beyond you when you first encounter it, but farther down the road, when you finally get to the point where you can start researching that tech for yourself, you will find your scientists will already have a leg up.

To go alongside this system, players can expect to find many more research tie-ins to exploration, and many new special projects that will unlock rare techs, weapons or reveal critical story information about the SotSverse.

As for the technologies themselves, players will not just be looking at a rehash of the original tree with a contrived extra layer of super lasers, super cannons and super drives plunked down on top. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know here at Kerberos there is a slight sigh of disappointment when you excitedly install a 4X sequel only to find yourself starting at the very beginning yet again.

And finally, on the SotS fan community:

Without the dedication of our amazing fan base, I doubt SotS2 would ever have come into being. The sheer enthusiasm and ferocity these people showed in response to what was, lets face it, a game that went out of its way to break the rules and shake things up, has been pure inspiration for us. We go out of our way to interact as much as possible on our Kerberos boards and the result has been an incredible synergy of questions and suggestions that have really pushed us to do amazing things.

So when it came time to start nailing down the nuts and bolts of SotS2, I had no qualms about going to the community and asking them what SotS meant to them both in the things there were interested in and NOT interested in. The responses were very reassuring at times and at others very surprising. It’s one thing to decide yourself what a game is and isn’t, but another very different thing to listen to those thoughts from the people who have come to love the game from the outside. I think it’s very safe to say that the fan base has been critical in many ways, and their feedback has helped to determine the shape of things to come.


15 Comments so far ↓

  • Rorschach

    Thanks for the additional material on SotS2. Hope you’re allowed or want to continue covering the game and see how it progresses.

    Would you care to elaborate on SotS1 thoughts beyond a lack of grok?

  • Evrett

    When Martin says they go to the community – I would take that with a grain of salt. The Sots community has been whittled away over the years to reflect only the people who regularly agree with Kerberos since they, Cirulis in particular, tend to be abusive to those who dont share their vision. Which consequently has resulted in nearly every product and patch by this company being initially buggy since criticism isnt welcome at all.

  • Troy

    I take everything people tell me with a grain of salt, especially community relations. I have seen many devs start at one extreme and move to the other at break neck speed. Some become more open and welcoming, most becoming less.

  • Zed

    You might want to take Evrett with a grain of salt too. ;)

  • Hargert

    I have found the community over there to be quite good with far more communication from the devs to the fans and back then anywhere else and less spam or imature posters then I have ever seen on a game forum.. Most companies just use the forums as a mouth piece of the marketing department. Evrett they dont mind criticism but they do not put up with someone just coming in and saying “your game sucks and why is it not like game X” or acting like a jerk and just insulting people or their work. There are numerious examples of them changing and adding to the game based on player feedback. Look at the first Sword of the Stars UI and what the game is now and there are a ton of improvements in there. I must also be one of the lucky ones that have not had issues with the patches and while yes there have been bugs name a game that does not? I dont see to many developers still supporting a game this long after release with new patches.

  • Apprentice

    I’m really looking forward to reading the main preview if the tech tree information was considered “cutting room” material. How much did you end up cutting overall?

    And with respect to Ev… well, several grains of salt. Just ask yourself what kind of person is so invested in a scenario that they post negative commentary years after being repeatedly banned.

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    I really, really wanted to love SotS. On paper, so many of the elements — the “Total War in Space” concept, the distinct races, the ship design — sound amazing. I gave it plenty of my time, adequate opportunity for it to win me over. And yet, the game left me cold: the strategic game ultimately felt too much like a bland, micro-intensive exercise in pushing megastacks around a soulless map. And yes, I did play the expansions (all except Argos Naval Yard).

    Still, I hope that SotS2 will have the magic for me that the first game lacked.

  • frags

    Peter: My thoughts exactly. I also felt the 3D ness of the user interface to be the most useless gimmick that makes things more difficult for players. 3D tech tree? The amount of mouse wheel zooming in and out you needed to do was painful.

  • Eleahen

    Thank you for this.
    Very interesting details about SotS2 research system.

  • Mordachai

    Looking forward to Sots2. There is no way that everyone will be satisfied with what happens.

    Not every game is a good match for every person, or anything close.

    Sots2 is for the epic space strategy enthusiasts. It’s imperfect – requiring too much micro here, or leaving you without as much as you desire there. But that criticism is eternal: all games are imperfect and sometimes create too much or too little.

    Sots is easily one of my all-time favorite games to play – and it has definitely evolved in fun, creative, and ingenious directions over the years.

    “It’s Brilliant” is an understatement.

  • JonathanStrange

    SOTS is also one of my favorite games to play and probably is my favorite space-themed game, at least in terms of hours played – and I have played many. Other space strategy games are seemingly more ambitious and realistic but frankly good intentions aren’t enough.

    I’ll play that spreadsheet-in-space GalCiv game or a brain-dead-AI space empire game a few times but for repeated, heavy-duty, back-and-forth gaming, SOTS is a winner. Whether I’m firing up a simple small 2D galaxy map SOTS game or huge 3D anything can happen epic, SOTS has delivered for me.

    I look forward for more SOTS. I agree: it’s brilliant!

  • Tssha

    SotS has consistently delivered the experience of down and dirty, up close, drag-em-out fighting in space. When all you need to do is click on an enemy ship’s turret for your weapons to target it, you know it’s a smooth human interface. Little is more gratifying than to see your opponent’s missile turrets fly off into space after being melted by your lasers and beam weapons. Perhaps the only thing more gratifying than that is to know that despite your inferior numbers, your fleet came out on top due to a wise choice in armaments and ship classes, as well as prudent leadership in combat.

    I will definitely be there to play SotS2. I’ve sunk hundreds of hours into SotS, how could I not give its sequel a chance?

  • KoBe

    SotS surpassed the original Civ as the strategy game I have played the most, over two decades of playing computer games. It was great in singleplayer mode, it was great in multiplayer mode, and the expansions were all worth the money.

    So I will be getting SotS 2, no doubt about it.

  • bEKRO

    One of the best epic space strategy game -after Homeworld-.The way that battle happening, seeing all the missile flying and of course the huge lasers melting the target ships is just so good to be real. Of course there are some problems but with a brand new graphic engine I cant just wait for the SotS 2

  • Misfit

    I’m a huge fan of Sots. It really is the best 4x game ever made. It feels and plays like a true successor to the Master of Orion series, is less micro than SE5, and is lightyears ahead of Galciv.

    Add to that tactical space combat that reminds the player of the glory of Homeworld, a game that has yet to be matched, and youve got Sword of the stars. A near perfect blend of several elements that for the right player can make hours of fun.

    Id also like to add that the Kerberos staff often plays in or hosts public multiplayer games, and are generally helpful even if youre asking a dumb question during an active game.

    Now if SOTS2 can manage to run on machines over 3 years old i’ll be happy.