news\ Sep 27, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Exclusive Sword of the Stars Developer Diary Part 5

Exclusive Sword of the Stars Developer Diary – Part 5

In SoTS, each of the four races actually represents a different set of strategic and tactical options”

Space may not be the final frontier when it comes to the video game genre, but a well crafted space game is certainly a thing of joy.

Sword of the Stars, a PC title, is planned for an early summer release and looks to be counted among the well-crafted space games, opening vistas to the imagination while giving players an entertaining and challenging gaming experience.

Features include:

  • 4 races - Human, Hiver, Tarkas and Liir - each with technology advantages and disadvantages.

  • Each race has a unique mode of transport between star systems, creating very different styles of play, depending on what race you choose to control.

  • Slider bar controls and simplified interface to avoid the confusion of other games without sacrificing depth of gameplay.

  • Over 150 distinct technologies to research on a dynamic tech tree that changes from game to game. While the core technology of the tree is consistent, certain offshoots are random from game to game. There is no perfect path up the tech tree to memorize and exploit, because the path keeps changing!

  • New technology reflected in detailed ship models, weapons and combat effects. Over 40 weapons from six different weapon classes, in various size classes, from point defense, turrets, and massive spinal mounts!

  • Players can design and build ships from three size classes - Destroyer, Cruiser, and Dreadnought - by mixing and matching ship sections (command, mission, and engines), then outfitting them with armor and weapons to suit their preference.

  • Up to 8 players can play against the AI and one another over LAN or online.

  • Choose from a variety of scenario campaigns to play alone or with friends, each adding more color and depth to the Sword of the Stars universe.

But to truly understand the game from the inside, it is better to go inside and what better way to do that than with the developers chronicling what they are bringing to the game, as well as detailing the state of the development.

In this exclusive GameZone feature, we turn to the Kerberos team for an up close look at the making of Sword of the Starts. For a look at early entries in this diary, please see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. and Part 4 .  

Kerberos Productions Development Diary
Sword of the Stars – Entry 5

Developer’s Journal: Writing for Kerberos Productions
By Arinn Dembo, Lead Writer, Kerberos Productions

In order to be a good writer of background fiction, I need to have various skills. Over the course of my career I’ve worked primarily on science-fiction games, so naturally I need all the skills that any science-fiction writer needs: the ability to build believable worlds, alien races, political and cultural situations, etc.. A good writer in the gaming industry can do all sorts of writing: generate scripts, fictional histories and biographies, scenarios and stories, dialog and side-bars and documentation for the manual—wherever a game needs color and character, you have to be able to supply it.

As in all aspects of game development, of course, the Kerberos approach to background fiction is somewhat different than the norm. It should be noted for those who are unfamiliar with this aspect of the business that very, very few game development studios have the budget, the good fortune and the good sense to keep a professionally competent fiction writer at their beck and call. In large part, when a fiction writer is hired to create a background, a milieu, or a script for a game, they are not brought in by the developers—they’re brought in by the publisher, some time late in the production cycle.

In the computer gaming industry, a writer is usually a mercenary, hired to provide a quick fix when a project has been judged wanting by the publisher. Generally speaking, by the time the writer is whistled in, the basics of the title’s design and gameplay are already well-established months ago, and the developers will already have come up with a rough story and background ideas of their own. In essence, the writer is not being asked to help create the game, but to spice it up late in the day, or beef up elements that the publisher regards as weak. You’re being asked to do the same job that the so-called “script doctors” do in Hollywood — they give you something that ain’t workin’, and it’s your job to fix it.

This is not how things work at Kerberos Productions. At Kerberos, I was involved in the creation of the backstory and racial designs for this game from the very earliest stages of conception – while the game itself was being roughed out on the drawing board. The characteristics and personalities of the races of this game, as I first wrote them, were often used as a guideline for design decisions, and helped to shape many aspects of gameplay. I was never “doctoring” this game, in other words, or painting a coat of paint onto something that someone else had built long before my arrival. From the outset, I was helping to shape the game – and for this reason, most players will probably find the background fiction of Sword of the Stars to be quite a bit more integral than the usual entertaining-but-meaningless window dressing that you have seen in other titles.

Of course, because I have more power as a member of this development team, I have also had a great deal more responsibility. Through most of the development of Sword of the Stars, for example, one of daily tasks was to engage in an ongoing dialog with our fan base, answering their questions about the races of the game on our forums. The question-and-answer format between the fans and I helped to create an unheard-of level of rich detail in the background of this game.

Also, as months passed and more and more of the gaming world took notice of SotS, a number of our design decisions were questioned. Most of these fell outside my jurisdiction, and could be better answered by other devs, but some of them did fall into my court--and unlike most writers in this industry, I had to step up.

One example, which has come up repeatedly, is a negative comparison between SoTS and other more traditional 4X titles. People often ask: “Why are there only four races in Sword of the Stars, when so many other titles in the 4X genre have had 16 or more?” And, on a related note: “Why can you not design your own races in SoTS, when other 4X titles allowed you that option?”

The answer to this question is simple: the reason that there are “only” four races in this game is that four races is the largest number of unique strategic and tactical options ever to be featured in a game of this kind. We have given 4X players the most varied approach to gameplay that this genre has ever seen — literally, by creating four races, we quadrupled the richness of the game experience.

This may seem like a bold statement, but it is really just a plain fact. In the majority of 4X games that came before us, the “races” were really not unique or distinct from one another in any meaningful way. In most 4X games, a “race” is really just a little 2-D icon and a couple of plus or minus attributes on a spreadsheet: Race A = +1 research, -1 production.

In SoTS, each of the four races actually represents a different set of strategic and tactical options. You will have a different approach to the game’s master tech tree, a different configuration of your ships of the line, and a different way of moving across the stellar map and maintaining order both within your empire and on the borders of other empires.

By the SoTS definition of the term, the “races” in most 4X games are not really races at all; they’re really more like a set of “skins” that a player could wear. But since the SotS player will face a very different set of challenges when he/she plays each individual race, SoTS is, in fact, four different games — and other 4X titles, regardless of which skin you wore, were always the same game.

So, under the circumstances, it should be painfully obvious why we cannot easily offer our players the option of creating their own races for this game. It has taken months at a time for an entire development team to create each race, including unique programming challenges, a full set of unique 2D and 3D art assets, and a balanced design which could be stacked up legitimately against all three of the other races of the game. And this same standard will be applied to each new races introduced into the SotS universe in future expansions and sequels. These races are meant to be loved or hated but never forgotten or to be interchangeable with each other. The design team and I have crafted each race to be a unique facet of both the SotS story AND gameplay, instead of just being something to pad out numbers in a feature sheet. It’s an exacting process.

Of course, any modder that IS able to reproduce the efforts of an entire development studio alone, and produce a new racial design, including new ship art, new ship configurations, a new drive tech, etc.? Is more than welcome to submit their work to Kerberos Productions!

You never know. Maybe you’re that good. If you are, you might have what it takes to be one of the dawgs.

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