There are a lot of things you can say about Elemental: War of Magic. But the most important thing might have come from Brad Wardell, the President and CEO of Stardock, and the Executive Producer of the game. “In most [strategy] games, it’s really about your empire, your kingdom, your civilization,” he said. “In Elemental, it’s about you. The first question you’re asked in the game is, ‘Who are you?’”
“The story elements,” Wardell added, “have been something I’ve been working on for over a decade. It was originally intended for a trilogy of books but when the opportunity came to make a fantasy strategy game, it made perfect sense to bring this fleshed out world to the game.”
But that was only the beginning. Thanks to a deal with Random House, Wardell was able to fulfill his dream of publishing a novel, Destiny’s Embers, that’s based on the Elemental universe.
“During the course of developing Elemental, we began talking to Random House,” he revealed. “They were starting on a new venture in which they would collaborate with people like us to create an overall world in which stories could be made that could be released in different mediums (books, games, etc.). Elemental was early enough in development and had enough of a backstory from my own work that we could really flesh out the world.”
Wardell said that he and everyone else at Stardock were amazed by Random House’s flexibility. “For a big corporation, they were able to move on things and ideas that we wanted to do very quickly. I can’t imagine another company [behaving this way], with all of the legal stuff that has to be done.
“But late in the stage [of development] we realized it would be kind of fun if we created an additional campaign. So we said, ‘Hey, why don’t we make it so that people who buy the book can play this extra campaign.’ And [Random House] went, ‘That’s great!’ That was it, and they added it to the back of the book in like a day.”
“Elemental: Destiny’s Embers is my first novel,” he added. “It was a great experience and I got a lot of help and advice from Random House’s writing team and especially Dave Stern, who led the in-game writing efforts.
“During the writing of the book, I got a newfound respect for fiction authors. When I typically write for our games, I only have to come up with very brief snippets. There is rarely any exposition. But in a novel, you have to connect to the reader in a way you don’t have to in a game. In a properly designed game, the game itself builds a connection with the player. But in a book, the writing is totally responsible for that, and that was a challenge for me to learn to do.”
What about other mediums? Could we see Elemental work its way to the world of anime or comic books? “Depending on how successful Elemental is, there are a lot of other directions I’d love to see it grow into,” Wardell teased. “There is a lot of ‘world’ there to explore.”
Stardock is no stranger to mods, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they will be a huge part of Elemental: War of Magic. Wardell said, “For the casual gamer who wants to be able to download mods, they’ll be able to do it right in the game using Impulse. These are mods that have gone through our moderation process where we’ve rated them and we denounce stuff that we think isn’t of a high enough quality or is problematic in some way. That’s what we’re doing in terms of quality control for the mods.”
“But,” he added, “users who find that too restrictive will still be able to go online and download mods themselves and put them in their own directory just like a traditional system. So they can try out stuff that may not be able to get through our modding system because it’s too radical for the general player base.”
Wardell revealed that the campaign that comes with Elemental was made entirely with the in-game modding tools. In terms of what’s possible, Wardell said, “one of the things we did was in coding we used the term, ‘Eat your own dog poo,’ [which means to] make sure you can use your own tools for what they’re supposed to be able to do.”
Building a Dynasty
Who says that being a bachelor is the best way to live? In Elemental: War of Magic, it’s wise to settle down.
“Over the course of the game, you can get married and have children,” Wardell revealed, noting the benefits of doing so. “Magic users are extremely rare. It’s not like I can recruit a guy and he has this magic book of thousands of spells. Rather, if you want to turn one of your champions into a magic user, you actually have to sacrifice some of your magic and give it to them. Whereas your descendants are born with that magic, so there are some real advantages to being fruitful and multiplying as much as you can.”
The Ups and Downs of Original Games
As you may have heard, Stardock had once considered the possibility of developing a sequel to Master of Magic. But Wardell said that the legal requirements were too much of a headache so Stardock decided to build its own fantasy strategy game.
He then took a few moments to explain the pros and cons of developing a new game versus developing a sequel.
“Let me give you an example,” he said. “A city gets conquered in Elemental and you want the camera to go over there and show the city getting conquered, but at the same time you also have a unit that’s ready to move. Well, if you’re doing a sequel, that’s an [element] you’ve already [created]. But if you’re doing a brand-new game with a new engine, you have to program that functionality. So if it’s not there, it’s just bad.
“The betas on Elemental have been very, very rough. If a feature isn’t done, it’s not like there’s a previous implementation of it from the first version that we can fall back on. That makes things a lot more difficult and challenging to polish the game because you’re doing it from scratch.
“Still, it’s amazing to be able to start from scratch. It’s very nice to not have a bunch of gameplay that the fans are going to scream about if we change. I never liked the economics system in Galactic Civilizations, for example, but in the beta every time I tried to change it, the fans would go nuts about how they liked the 30 slider bars and stuff. Whereas in Elemental I feel I don’t have to worry about all that ‘cause it’s all new.
“It makes me tempted to, on a future beta (for Galactic Civilizations III, for example), we’d probably be inclined to limit the beta so we can make some of the changes we really want to make without there being an uproar in the forums over every little thing.”
“That would be the hypothetical Galactic Civilizations III that has not been announced,” added Stephanie Schopp (of Tinsley PR).
Wardell continued: “To be honest it’s not even on our development schedule right now. But my point is that when you’re doing a sequel, the upside is that even though it may look completely new and different, under the covers [the general rule is] 33% new stuff, 33% modified stuff, and 33% is just the same old, same old. So you only have to program 33% of the stuff, and the rest of [the time] you can, especially during beta, rely on the old stuff. Whereas with a new game, [everything] is all-new.”
“I think that’s one of the reasons why so many of the new games that come out are first-person shooters,” he added, “because the engines and assets for a shooter [are readily available], so if you don’t have something you can fall back on what’s already there.”
The Gamer’s Bill of Rights
Two years ago, Stardock introduced the Gamer’s Bill of Rights, which was described as a “statement of principles that it hopes will encourage the PC game industry to adopt standards that are more supportive of PC gamers.” When asked if any progress had been made since that time, Wardell noted that when we first spoke in 2008, “We were still in the area where you had to put your DVD or CD into the drive. Copy protection had gotten more aggressive in terms of not wanting users to load their game onto more than one machine. Now it’s rare that you have to keep your CD in the machine.”
Regarding Ubisoft’s decision to require a consistent online connection to play Assassin’s Creed II and other PC versions of their games, Wardell said that while it was one of the more controversial developments, he understands what they’re trying to do. “But I don’t think that’s the most effective way to get what they’re going for in terms of balancing good will versus effective anti-piracy,” he said.
“But in terms of a general, formal program, like the Gamer’s Bill of Rights/PC game alliance, I think what’s happened has been a lot more informal. Developers and publishers are a lot more aware of what users will and will not put up with and have tried to soften it a lot more. The Steamworks DRM is fairly soft. Obviously we still don’t put any copy protection on our retail titles. Other publishers have really backed off from the more draconian form of copy protection, with a couple exceptions.”
Elemental will be Stardock’s first game to feature Facebook integration. Said Wardell, “When you’re in the game, in multiplayer in particular, you can actually invite Facebook friends into the game or organize get-togethers.”
The campaign mode will contain several tutorial elements. “[But] in terms of an interactive tutorial where it’s like, ‘Now click on this,’ we’re staying away from that. I know some people like it. But it really drives me nuts. In my experience, I really just need someone to say, ‘This is how you play the game,’ so I’m not lost, and that’s what we’re looking to do.”