Part 4 – Not afraid to be hardcore
FiringSquad: Have there been difficulties in balancing deep, complex mechanics with ease of play? Are you trying to appease the hardcore micro-managers or cater to the more casual crowd?
We’re catering a little bit more to the hardcore than your typical game. In fact, we’ve actually said we’re probably going to get bitten on reviews because this is a game that is designed a little bit more… We’ve had 5 or 6 years of every game coming out saying “Well, we’re like the old game that everyone loved, but we decided to simplify it to make it more approachable.” That seems to be the word of our new era in game design; we want everything to be “approachable.” Well, I don’t want Elemental to be that approachable. *laughs*
I want to be able to equip my units with weapons where there’s a difference between a cutting weapon and a piercing weapon, and have some subtleties in that. We are putting in a lot of work to make sure the user interface and the information is there, but we do want to… Let me give you an example. Tactical battles, right? How do you make a mounted warrior more effective than a footman, but not have it be a rock-paper-scissors [situation]. We do that through action points – there’s a system for handling how action points are done based on what equipment your unit has.
Some might say “Well, that makes the game very unapproachable to someone who just wants to go into battle and kill stuff.” And my answer is yeah, it does. So, it’s one of those choices where, if someone wants a really casualized strategy game, there are plenty of options out there for that. On the other hand, there are some really in-depth strategy games out there, and we’re not quite to that level, but it’s definitely not a casual game.
FiringSquad: That’s great, we love that! We’re tired of these dumbed-down games.
I think FiringSquad readers will probably like Elemental, but like I said, we’re already cringing [in anticipation of its reception]. People have gotten so used to “this thing does 5 points of damage, and this guy has 3 defense, and that’s all there should be to it.” But it’s not like that, not in battle, and there are so many games that do that already, so, you know, they can go play those games. I don’t mean it in a negative way; I’m a gamer [too]. I don’t play those games right now, but I think a lot of people are waiting for games that are willing to have a little bit more complexity to them, so to speak.
FiringSquad: You have large following of devoted beta testers that have provided lots of feedback throughout development. What impact have they had on the way Elemental has taken shape?
Oh yeah, they’ve had a massive impact on the game. Though if you were to ask them, they’d probably disagree, well some of them would. I think a lot of them were hoping to basically get to play the final version of the game before it came out, which is not what we do. We put out pieces of the game to the beta testers and get their feedback on what works and what doesn’t.
The economic system we have in the game came from the beta testers and it’s so much better than our original concept, which was way, way more complicated. Our original design, on paper… Every time I explain it to somebody they always go “Wow, that would’ve been great!” Well, we eventually did implement it, and it sucked. And that was, you mine the ore, take the ore and smelt it into iron, take the ingots to a blacksmith that turns it into swords, then you send the swords to an armory where you then equip your units. You get people that say “Oh, that sounds so cool,” but it was so boring!
That was over a year ago, but still, what we ultimately came up with – which I think is a heck of a lot more fun -- is this concept of land control where you’re not getting to conjure up the resources, but instead you see on the map “Hey, there’s a metal resource, I need to control that territory.” Part of my goal is not to crank out 50 cities or whatever, spewing out resources, but rather, make my cities control lots of area [by building them up] and then I control these resources and associate them with a particular city. That lets you specialize your cities and I find that a lot more fun.
A lot of these games drive me crazy, even though I love them, [because] at the end-game I have 40 cities or planets or whatever, and it’s just such a headache! It was fun in the first part of the game but in the last part I’m juggling all these cities that are basically the same. Whereas, in Elemental, you don’t have that. You have your city that’s doing pretty much all of your metal, you have your food city, and there’s nothing stopping players from having so many cities, they’ll just get wiped out because specialization trumps masses of cities.
FiringSquad: Because then you’re having to cycle through dozens of cities every turn deciding what each one should be doing.
And the way we solved that was from the beta testers. Normally, even on paper, it seems nice to have lots of cities, but the reason why the other games have all these cities is because you can’t make use of resources beyond N tiles away from them. But we came up with these improvements that let your cities potentially be able to make use of resources that are several tiles away, many, many tiles away. And by doing that, you eliminate a lot of the necessity of having lots and lots of cities, if you want to just specialize them.
Someone could actually compete with just one extremely well-placed and well-run city. I mean, not on a huge map; on a huge map that’d probably be a different story, but on a decent-sized map you could still get really far with one really well-done city versus someone who’s spamming out a bunch of level one cities. In fact, our cities have five levels, so the cities are almost like units unto themselves. So, when a city gets to a certain point in population, it actually gets to level up and you get to pick some special abilities for that city.
FiringSquad: So when the city levels up does it visibly change in size or is it just the upgrades that affect how they look?
There are some visuals, too, but the big benefit of leveling up, besides getting these special abilities, is that their zone of control massively changes, and that’s what lets you control more territory. It’s a lot more passive, but it has a much more obvious effect. Having a higher population in the city means I can control resources that are that much further away. Of course, the AI is trying to do the same thing, so you have these influence wars going on, even though you’re not actually at war.
Typically, food and resources get trivialized in these games. In the real world, if you want to produce lots of food, you have to find a really good spot. So we came up with these fertile land tiles, so you can only build farms on those, which are fairly precious. By doing that kind of stuff, it made the world a lot more interesting and fun, I think.