Sins of a Solar Empire can be looked at as a new take on the traditional tropes in real-time strategy games. It's been dubbed a "RT4X game" by Ironclad Games - the "X"s standing for "eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate". What does that mean for you? It means that Sins of a Solar Empire is going for an epic size of game, a 3D real time strategy game in space that will require the player to juggle economics, colonization, diplomacy and even warfare if the player wants even the chance to win. It might be a bit audacious, but the potential payout for such a game might find a lot of players who've been looking for this combination of in-depth play. Meanwhile, Ironclad Games, hopes to not alienate other players who may not be as good at micromanaging or handling their empire through some interesting auto-management tools.
Blair Fraser: Sins is really the combination of a childhood dream project and the natural byproduct of an obsession with certain sorts of games and entertainment. Three of us grew up together and we played a lot of games. One of the games we played a lot of, and which is probably the earliest influence, was TSR's board game Buck Rogers: Battle for the 25th Century. It had big fleets, hero characters with special abilities and planet conquering, and we always imagined it would make a cool video game. Unfortunately, a few of the rules were open to interpretation so we had the occasional board flipping and a switch to some other game for awhile. Over the years, most of the Sins team followed the same progression of video games, most of which influenced Sins to some extent. Some of the more notable influences would include VGA Planets, the Master of Orion series, Spaceward Ho!, Galactic Civilizations, Starcraft and the Homeworld series. Three of us already knew each other, but we wouldn't meet the other founding members of Ironclad until some of us worked together at Barking-Dog Studios (credits on Homeworld: Cataclysm) which would eventually become Rockstar Vancouver. At some point we all decided we wanted to get back to our favorite type of game, and Sins was born.
Blair Fraser: The background material, story and lore of the Sins of a Solar Empire universe is an original Ironclad idea, that no doubt draws influences from a wide swath of science fiction across all media and perhaps even a bit of history and current events. We have not revealed whether the Sins universe is in the future or in the past, but we have described various events and their rough timeframe relative to one another. The Vasari's story (ancient alien race that once ruled a quarter of the galaxy) begins about 10,000 years prior to the events in the game. They caused some unknown cataclysmic event that all but wiped out their civilization and species, and now they are on the run until they are stalled by one of the other factions. The two human factions enter the story at the same time - about 1000 years prior to the game's events - with one group forming the Trade Order and the other exiled into deep space by these Traders. Over time, the Traders become very wealthy as a result of developing economic and industrial expertise. The exiled group returns a millennium later to find the Traders have been fighting the Vasari for roughly 10 years and they are anxious to involved - a bit of revenge for being exiled so long ago. Appropriately, they have dubbed themselves "The Advent" and they are masters of PsiTech - a psionically enhanced weapon technology.
Blair Fraser: An Interesting observation! My best guess is that the common starting phoneme of Explore, Expand, Exterminate and Exploit is more memorable when represented by 'X' than 'E'. This happens a lot in English either as a shortcut, acronym, or awesome new marketing ploy (Xtreme man!!!). Aside from that, I think that X is just a visually and audibly much cooler. E is just too cutesy for a grand strategy war game - if I heard 4E I would just think of a kid on the playground going down the slide screaming "Weeeeeee!!!" That isn't the sort of imagery I want in my mind's eye when I'm out to conquer the galaxy.
GamersInfo.net: You've mentioned the battle automation for players. Will it be possible to fully automate the economics side?
Blair Fraser: There are numerous automation options for players at all different levels of Sins, including both combat and economics, but no system is fully automated as we still want players to make choices and take action to direct their empire. For example, in combat you can sit back and watch an entire battle be played out, but you still have to choose the "who, what, when, where, and why." Which of your fleets, against which of the enemy's, at what time, around what planet and why do you need to take it out. An economic parallel is trade. You decide the need, the timing and location of the trade ports in your network, but once you've constructed the high-level picture the details can be taken care of for you. For example, trade ships will automatically figure out the optimal routes to take to maximize your profits, and any that are destroyed can be automatically replenished. Similarly, if you are running out of resources and decide to build a refinery, choosing where to place this refinery is critical; but once you've done so the refinery ships can take care of optimizing where they make their pickups and where to return to. When it comes to building your resource extraction mines, you can micromanage it as much as you like or instead, simply select a planet and ask it to build, for example, a metal extractor. The game will automatically find a metal asteroid, assign a construction ship to it and have it built. There are also many helpful interface features like infinite queuing of things to be built, the option to queue something to be built even if its prerequisites aren't complete yet (e.g., queuing up a trade port to be build even though the research isn't done), and any ship that performs an economic-related function can have that function fully automated (e.g., Embargoing a planet).
GamersInfo.net: With it not being turn based, how will the game handle problems such as latency and perhaps inconsistent network connections in online games? Will it support dial-up or just broadband?
Blair Fraser: Multiplayer is a really important part of Sins, and given the epic scale and the number of units possible to have, it is critical to make sure that latency and inconsistent network connections are handled properly. There are a whole lot of pieces that work together to make this possible, and the details are quite technical, but I'll mention a few of them. First, we spent a lot of time minimizing what had to be sent between machines - less information traveling means fewer network problems no matter how bad the connection is. Next, if one player starts to lag behind, Sins will very subtly adjust the simulation speed for a brief moment so he can catch up. This is a very temporary and unnoticeable change as the other players will continue to play at apparent full speed because their orders are queued up and the visuals run slightly independent of the game simulation anyways. If that player lags so bad that the other players will likely perceive a drastic slow down, the game will automatically pause, a lag indicator will appear, and the option to drop the player will be given. These are just a few examples, but we've been testing the multiplayer technology for well over a year and across multiple continents, and it looks like all the pieces are working very well together. Given how well it's performing at this point I would guess that it would play reasonably well over dial-up but we aren't officially supporting it.
Blair Fraser: Technically it is possible but realistically it is not - yet. On the other hand I would also say it is almost impossible to win with a pure military strategy. The interesting thing about Sins as a real-time game is that the economic and political systems are not just systems that allow you to pump out more ships - they can be used directly to affect other players in meaningful ways. I'll elaborate on a few examples. First, it is possible to establish reasonable control over resources, which may force players to buy resources off the commodities market, which you can then start manipulating the price of by buying up hordes of the resource in question. Next, you can establish various treaties with players so they feel you are on their side, but at the same time you can backstab them by using your economic advantage to place bounties on them without them knowing who is placing them. This bounty money will encourage other players to do the dirty military work for you as they are likely quite greedy emperor wannabes and will want to collect the reward. As an added bonus, independent pirate forces are lured to attack players with high bounties and plunder lucrative trade lines - again someone else doing the dirty work for you. Another system we have in place is called Culture. If you are playing as the Trader Emergency Coalition (TEC) faction it is possible to build Broadcast Centers that will start spreading your culture around the galaxy. As culture reaches enemy planets, the population will start to shift towards your faction and you receive bonuses as a result. At this point we are definitely leaning towards culture having a more profound effect on your campaign -for example, a dominant culture may cause the ownership of a given planet to change.
Blair Fraser: Given the open nature of the Sins environment, it is not really well suited to a linear campaign. The single-player game is a sandbox experience where you create your own campaign each time you play, and the events of the game never play out the same way twice, as it's all randomly generated based on constraints you establish at the beginning. For example, I may choose to play a four-solar-system game with lots of planets, marauders, numerous AI factions and various other settings. At this size, my single campaign could last for a week or more (saving the game of course) and how it plays out is completely up to my choices and the natural evolution of the rest of the galaxy's entities and all their interactions. In this type of game I often take the time to name my key planets and my best ships and I remember various important events as if they were critical campaign objectives. For example, on the western frontier of my empire, the key junction planet of Aloras was assaulted by a massive Vasari incursion, even though all reports suggested the Vasari were mobilizing against another faction. Fleet #3, being led by "The World Destroyer," a level-10 Marza Dreadnaught, was responsible for the western planets and was sent to defend Aloras. For the next 15 minutes I was engrossed in mobilizing my fleet, fighting a prolonged massive battle, and organizing reinforcements. I barely survived but I held the planet in time for reinforcements to arrive and solidify the sector.
As a result, I offered various agreements to the faction closest to that Vasari player and we formed an alliance to wipe him out - and that we did. While this was a single event in the game, it was a very important, critical mission I had to complete in order to move forward in the overall scheme of conquering the galaxy, and it had long-lasting effects in the direction the game / story would take from there on out. Sure it wasn't a scripted "defend and hold" mission that I would find in a linear campaign, but it some ways it felt more exhilarating and real knowing that it wasn't planned and it was a dynamic part of my story. In my story, Fleet #3 led by "The World Destroyer" became a living and breathing character, Aloras became a celebrated landmark and the Defense of Aloras was noted for all time as a crux in my empire's history.
Blair Fraser: Sins is very mod-able. Within two days of the launch of our first beta we had people adding new ships, changing weapon layouts, modifying galaxy settings and so on - without any help from us. Closer to release we will be issuing our in-house tool suite which will make it even that much easier. Players can already add their own factions, design their own planets, solar systems, ships, technologies, weapons, special abilities, etc. We fully expect that complete conversion mods will be available following release. We have taken care to listen carefully to what modders are requesting to make their creations come to life.
GamersInfo.net: Can players play "co-op"? Not just allied, but perhaps as sub-commanders or commanding certain sectors under one player who does the "overall" strategy?
Blair Fraser: This is not possible in Sins and we currently have no plans to implement it. We found that this style of play in the few strategy games that included it was, for the most part, an unused feature and had the potential to be more frustrating than anything. We are however very much in favor of creating great synergy between players, creating systems that reward cooperative behavior and making it possible for each player to focus on a specific role to support the team.
Blair Fraser: As we talked about in question four, many elements of Sins are completely automatable. If you aren't interested in the low-level, twitchy micromanagement of combat, turn all the ships in one of your fleets to the automatic settings that you like and send them to a planet you want taken. They will take care of the rest. Aside from the various degrees of automation, Sins offers a different pace of RTS if you're interested in a more strategic experience. It takes considerable time to move ships around (especially between solar systems) and even battles can take some time. You can afford the time to plan your research, conduct some diplomacy or play with the market while a few battles are raging. Naturally, if you really want to handle everything, you can always pause the game and plan it all out. Finally, when it comes to actually interacting with everything and giving them orders, Sins offers a very clean, intuitive and symmetric interface.
Aside from including a lot of standard UI elements, we've also introduced a number of new ideas that really help keep your empire manageable. The most important new elements are the zooming system and the Empire Tree. It is possible to zoom in on a single fighter and very easily pull back to see the capitalships the fighter is zipping around, pull back further to see the entire battle, back some more to see the planet they are fighting over, back some more to see the whole solar system and finally pull back to where you could see an entire galaxy of multiple solar systems. This type of capability makes it very easy to visualize and control low-level tasks (e.g., battles) and control high-level things (e.g., fleet movements, trade networks, strategic positioning, cultural influence, etc.). The transition from battle commander to emperor is completely seamless - simply scroll the mouse to the level you like to play at.
To make it even easier we provide the Empire Tree. This is a collapsible/expandable HUD element on the left of the screen that has a variety of filters and can allow you to see and control everything in your empire without moving the camera. Objects are sorted by location (planets with stars, ships with the planets they orbit, etc.) and then sorted by ownership (your structures, your ships, enemy ships, etc.) and then sorted by type (all your fighters, all your colony ships, etc.). If you need more or less detail, simply expand or collapse the various levels of the hierarchy. As you collapse levels, the abstraction level changes, sacrificing detail for a higher-level view and control. For example, instead of dealing with single ships, you can collapse the view and manipulate the entire fleet's pip group as a single unit. The best thing about the Empire Tree is it is possible to perform almost any action in the game without moving the camera, simply by operating on its Empire Tree representation. For example, if your camera is off at some backwater planet as you plan out some new mining operations, you can use the Empire Tree to select targets for your ships at another far-off planet. For the extreme anti-RTS player I can say this: it is 100% possible to play the game effectively and have fun without zooming in or managing a single battle. We are very confident that anyone, RTS fan or otherwise, can easily pick up and control Sins despite the fact it is a massive empire game being played in real-time :.