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Interview with Derek Paxton and Jon Shafer of Fallen Enchantress

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Posted by: Ben PerLee

When Elemental: War of Magic came out, many reviewers found the game held a lot of promise. A 4X TBS, the game released with some unique features, but problems with bugs and general ambition interfered with the overall quality. The team at Stardock are well aware of the faults of the original and are back with an interesting sequel-expansion fusion called Elemental: Fallen Enchantress. This game aims to accomplish what the first one couldn't. We chatted with Derek Paxton (the lead designer and lead producer on the game) as well as Jon Shafer (a designer at developer Stardock and alumni from Civilization V), who gave us their impressions of this brand new title.

GameZone: First, could you tell us your relationship to the game?

Derek Paxton: I am the lead producer and lead designer for Fallen Enchantress. Prior to coming to Stardock in November of 2010, I was a project manager for a business software company and the creator of the Civilization IV dark fantasy mod, Fall from Heaven.

Jon Shafer: On Fallen Enchantress, I’m a designer. My main jobs are to help out Derek with design issues, provide feedback to improve the user interface, and build the campaign.

GZ: Please describe what players can expect once they jump into Fallen Enchantress.

DP: They can expect a game that merges a 4X game and a role-playing game. Many 4X games have adopted some RPG conventions (units that gain experience, etc.), but in Fallen Enchantress those RPG aspects are as effective as more traditional 4X strategies. Instead of building an army, you can invest in champions that you send on quests to level up.

Players can imagine their empire as one that recruits powerful adventurers to defeat monsters, sack cities, and battle enemy armies. They can have their population labor over forges, making armor and weapons for their own armies. They can have an empire based around a single powerful sorcerer, whose will is enforced through magic and powerful spells. They can strive for a more diplomatic path and civilize the wild creatures of the world and tame them for their own use. Or they can have some mix of the above.

JS: We’re expecting to deliver an all-around more polished experience. The graphics have received a nice tune-up, and the interface has been completely reworked. These are just some of the improvements we’ve made that will be most noticeable in the first play-through.

GZ: Many players are going to think the game is nothing but an expansion to War of Magic. How does Fallen Enchantress set itself apart?

DP: Fallen Enchantress is based in the world of Elemental, as War of Magic was. But as a game, every mechanic has been reviewed and reconsidered. It is a new game, not War of Magic with 20% more features. The nice thing about having a stand-alone game is that we can explore new ground, we can remove features, or completely replace parts that aren’t working.

There are three main focuses for Fallen Enchantress that we really wanted to invest a lot of attention and design time in:

1. Tactical Combat - Units and enemies have more strategic abilities, strengths and weaknesses. Every monster has been reviewed to be as strategically (and conceptually) interesting as possible. Elemental Lords are huge multi-tile monsters that are devastating to all but the most powerful champions and armies. Some monsters are unique in the world, setting up boss-type battles that give the game an RPG feel.

2. The World - A lot of time is going into making the world as interesting as possible. It’s a dangerous world; many of your early explorers will not make it back. But those who do will have resources, riches, and new recruits that make the risk worthwhile.

As important as making the world worth exploring is [making it] interesting to explore. Though it’s good to know that there are iron deposits in the next valley, we also want that valley to be filled with wilderness areas, sites, creatures, and opportunities for adventure that are new to even experienced players.

3. Magic - Magic should be as effective a path to victory as creating armies. A player that is sitting on a large supply of mana and has invested in magic should be able to change the course of the game, much as a player sitting on a nuclear weapon stockpile can in modern games. Magic should be available earlier, have a larger impact, and do more interesting things.

JS: More than anything, Fallen Enchantress is a more focused experience. Rather than being a big collection of features in a fantasy box, everything in the game has a place and has been thought through by Derek and the design team. He’s gone so far as to build a series of very detailed spreadsheets measuring growth over time, costs, etc.--all to ensure that the way the game plays is the way we want it to. A lot of the changes will seem subtle at first but greatly enhance the replayability of the game.

GZ: There was some criticism with War of Magic concerning technical issues, though the game was considered ambitious all the same. How has Fallen Enchantress addressed some of these problems?

DP: War of Magic was in development at the same time as the Stardock-created engine it is built on. The technical challenge of building a game engine and an ambitious game at the same time is herculean. Fallen Enchantress has the advantage of having the game engine available and ready from the start of the project. We are adding features to the engine for Fallen Enchantress. There are things in Fallen Enchantress that simply aren’t possible in War of Magic, but we aren’t dealing with a theoretical multiplayer system or a theoretical lighting system. We know the system because we created it.

Although developing our own game engine is a huge project and certainly made War of Magic ten times harder than it could have been, the advantage is that now we have an internal game engine that we control. So we don’t need to adjust our design because what we want to do isn’t supported by or is slow on a given commercial game engine. We can create features in the engine that we need in our game.

JS: Since War of Magic was released, a lot of improvements have been made to the game and the core engine. So even now the experience with War of Magic is very different from what someone would have had at release. Those improvements have been brought over into Fallen Enchantress, and further work is being done above and beyond that to improve the game’s performance and stability.

GZ: Jon, you have experience with the Civilization franchise. What do you think you bring to the Elemental series?

JS: While the games are definitely different, the fundamental problems in 4X games are all pretty similar. How fast does a player’s empire grow compared with his rate of technological advancement? How far should units be able to move? How does that relate to their sight range? What sorts of things should we be grabbing the player’s attention with in the interface?

Working on turn-based strategy games for several years has given me a good feel for a lot of these sorts of issues. Derek’s definitely steering the project, but I don’t hesitate to give him an earful of my opinions.

GZ: Some players were overwhelmed with the complexity of the original game. Will there be any assistance toward guiding players to success?

DP: The entire UI has been redone. So many game mechanics have changed that this [action] was required, but it allows us the opportunity to go through all the information the player needs to see if it’s really required or not. Critical information remains in the front, more detailed information goes to clean simple interface screens, and if data isn’t needed to play, it’s removed.

In general, I think War of Magic was complex because it had too many non-integrated systems and because minor or irrelevant data is presented at the same level as critical data, which made it hard for new players to figure out what they should be paying attention to. The new UI makes sure that the information is available at the appropriate priority level.

JS: Interface is one of the areas of game development that interests me the most (in case you couldn’t tell from how often I’ve mentioned it already!). The improvements we’ve made here should really help out new players. From major changes like the ability to mouse over new items all the way down to much more subtle things, like “are numbers laid out horizontally or vertically,” everything has been re-thought with the goal of being more intuitive and presentable. This will help new and veteran players alike.

Additionally, Derek has been mindful of including no more in the game than there needs to be. War of Magic housed a number of features that sounded cool in theory but didn’t really work out in practice. When you have a lot of “clutter” in a game, it makes even the really important concepts harder to grasp.

GZ: As a stand-alone expansion/sequel, there is going to be some new plot and gameplay elements. Can you describe some of the new features to the gameplay?

DP: One of my favorites is the trait system when champions level up. Armies get better hit points, accuracy and spell resistance as they level up, but Champions receive these as well as being able to pick from a selection of random traits each time. These traits could give the champion access to new spells, special abilities or passive bonuses. There are common, uncommon and rare traits. Some special ones may show up infrequently but are great to pick for your champion when they do appear.

JS: I’d say the biggest changes are to combat and the build-up and advancement of your champions. The combat system is completely new. Each unit has its own initiative value, and the higher this number, the more often it can take turns. In War of Magic, each side would move all of their units at once, which meant there was a lot less to consider and often the possibility that the player moving second might be completely crippled before he could do anything. This was particularly bad, since a unit could use 6 movement points either to move or attack 6 times, making high-speed units incredibly hard to counter. The new system is more balanced and just “feels” better.

In terms of advancement, players can now pick specific abilities for champions as they level up rather than choose which stat value to bump up. Players can now cast spells earlier in the game, and the way units are able to unlock new ones is completely new and much more interesting. We wanted to make sure that magic was front-and-center in the game, and we know this was a system that some people weren’t happy with before.

GZ: Is there anything else you'd like to say to our readers?

DP: Thanks for this opportunity to talk about Fallen Enchantress and stay tuned for future announcements.

JS: Everyone here at Stardock is looking forward to getting Fallen Enchantress out into the hands of our players! We’ll be talking about more of what’s new with the game soon.

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