Sword of the Stars Interview Part 3

by on 10th Jul 2006

Sword of the Stars Conversation, Part 3

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

StrategyCore had the opportunity to speak with Martin Cirulis, CEO/Lead Designer of Kerberos Productions, regarding his new 4x space strategy game, Sword of the Stars. The conversations and game play demo took place in the Destineer meeting room at this year’s E3. Destineer is distributing Sword of the Stars (SOTS) in North America. StrategyCore also spoke briefly with Mr. Cirulis at the Frogster Interactive booth (Frogster is distributing the game in Europe).

Unfortunately, this will be the last article in this series. The remaining audio files of the conversation were lost with the PC on which they were stored. The PC's power supply failed catastrophically, taking down that PC and damaging two others that were also running Folding@Home.

SC: SOTS bears a striking resemblance to Homeworld, which was exceedingly linear. How non-linear is SOTS? Are there some missions that the player HAS to complete?
MC: SOTS is a war game for all intents and purposes, but does have historical scenarios and a very good scripted strategic system which have story line elements. For instance there is a scenario about the first meeting of the humans with the Tarkan Empire. The Tarkan player represents the Governor of a province of the Tarkan Empire. The Tarkan Empire goes back a hundred worlds off map. He's running the 10 worlds closest to the talking monkeys. It's his job to take out the talking monkeys. But you're not playing the guy with supreme power. Your playing the guy who's asking "I'd like to requisition 10 cruisers." And the Emperor 50 light years away thinks "If you build 10 cruisers, you might come and kill me!" so you are allowed to only build five. So you have a Tarkan player who has all this power but is hampered because he is not the master of his own destiny. Or you can play the human who's desperately trying to catch-up and survive against a much stronger, much higher Tech player. So the scenarios tell a story element in that manner.

SC: Homeworld was strongly scripted. Will SOTS be like that?
MC: Homeworld was a story-based adventure game. SOTS is a war game. In the Tarkan-Human scenario, the human goal would be get 10 worlds and survive. The Tarkan one would be take out Earth within X number of turns. In standard random play mode, it's just win. Everybody starts, you build up, you expand.

SC: What is winning? Killing everyone else?
MC: Or your alliance is killing everyone else. And basically we saw that has the other false thing that's been growing in 4X games. It's this fantasy about other kinds of victory conditions. Their sophistry is based on ignoring military power. Diplomatic victory! What's diplomatic victory? Diplomatic victory is everybody is either on your side or dead. That's a diplomatic victory. The only reason why people join your side isn't because you're a swell guy, it's because they better or else. Because we've seen that the ending of the Cold War has given games this strange fantasy about victory conditions. For instance, did we beat the Warsaw Pact because of a cultural victory? Possibly. Everybody wanted blue jeans instead of crappy pants made out of borscht and bad shoes made in Bulgaria. The fact that the culture was backed up by an absurd amount of military power had something to do with it. In history, they're been lots of moments where one side says "Okay, we're pretty much done.". But they're pretty much done because if they could fight, they would. You achieve cultural victory because the guy is like "I'd like to come over and take all your stuff, but I can't. So I'll just do what you do.". These artificial victory conditions all seemed to put the cart before the horse. So there is Allied victory. Your side beat the other side. There are nonaggression pacts, that sort of thing.

SC: Does your in alliance have to completely annihilate the other side?
MC: Or the other side will surrender.

SC: Will they surrender?
MC: Oh yeah. Totally. You can also make or break treaties. The AI remembers this sort of behavior even if you do it to somebody else. If you break an alliance with somebody else and turn on them, and then offer a treaty to another AI, the AI is more likely to respond "Yeah, thanks a lot, but no.". They are also not mindless. They will also do the same thing to you. If they are allied with you for a while but they think they have a shot at taking everything, they will seriously consider breaking the treaty. Some races more than others. And also they'll be more interested in allying with the same race as them self. In an eight player game, you can have as many players of one race as you want. If you're playing humans and there's a human AI being pounded by a Tarkan AI, the human AI will tend, if he can find you, to ask you for help. But that's the other thing. We linked the diplomacy to physical existence.

SC: In a single player game, how many players would there be?
MC: The scenarios have a set number. Or you can play a totally random game you could have as many as eight. And again you can set it up how you want. There is setting the AI to hard and there is also intuitive hard: I'm going to play Human and I'm going to make the other seven players all Hivers. :D You know what, the odds are that those seven Hivers are going to get together at some point and make your life really hellish. So that's another way of making the game more interesting as you learn the game. The idea is to keep this game on your hard drive a long time. We want you to able to deal with all your strategies and make up different plans and discover new strategies. We want you to go on-line and play it a lot, we want to play against the AI a lot. We want you to create situations for yourself. The whole point of SOTS has always been about it being a toy box/sand box situation. Instead of constricting the player to select weapons, research, ships, etc., the player instead has the ability to determine his own race, ship design, research and so forth. If you win 25 games as a certain race, you will unlock a badge for that race. There's also a Grand Badge for winning 25 games as all four races. So when you're playing multi player and you come across a player with the Grand Badge on the side of his ship, be bloody careful cause that guy he knows the game! You might want to ally up or just not piss him off. It's really about how well you know the game and we try to put a lot of game in there to know. Its an easy game to play, to start. Anybody can jump in, research your stuff, build your ships. There's miles and miles of things to get into and figure out, and improve on and mix together and that’s exactly how we want it. We want you to be challenged by what's in the game, not by figuring out the interface or the rules. That’s not a challenge, that’s tedium disguising itself as play value.

SC: When you're setting up a multi player game, can you restrict the 25 game badge players from joining the game, to make it a newbie game?
MC: (laughing) That would be interesting, actually. We don't have that, but I might put that into an expansion pack. The "Don't Hurt Me!" game. That would be good. :) But you can restrict races when you set up a multi player game. So if you know a guy's out there with his 25 Tarkan badge you can say no Tarkans this game.

SC: How many star systems would be in an average size game, and how long would an average game take?
MC: A game could be configured to take from 2 hours to 100 hours. The 3-D star map means that you have a lot of control. We don't have small, medium or large settings. We have a slider which varies the star map from 15 stars up to 360. For instance, you can set up a death match with 5 stars each for three players. That will be over pretty quick. Or you can set up it up so it'll take four hours before we even meet each other. If you want dreadnought battles with the most advanced technology, then you would need to set up a long game.

SC: How does exploration take place?
MC: Exploration takes place with ships heading out to new systems. Ships have scanning ranges and maximum distances. Different modules are better for exploration, like an extended range mission module which adds fuel tanks. Or a deep scan command module which sees farther.

SC: Can you send out scan drones to enemy star systems?
MC: In a sense. You can park a scanning ship at a star system and it'll see 8 or 9 light years around it. Every turn you can watch enemy traffic appear and you can pick up roughly what their trajectories are and how many ships are in the fleet. But if the enemy fleet has a jammer you then just get a signal that says "Enemy Fleet". If you know a bit about jamming, jamming makes it obvious that you exist, but gives no other information. A lot of times in games or movies, jammers are like stealth devices. Jammers are more like a guy screaming really loud into a microphone; you're aware that there's a guy there, but you don't know much more about him or if anyone else is with him. So that's how it works in SOTS. A jammer will let you know an enemy fleet is there, but you don't know whose fleet it might be or how large it is. Strategically, a jammer robs you of information on the star map. In combat, in the sensors manager, it broadcasts a gray disk so you can't see any telemetry information. I know you're in that gray disk, so I'm coming to get you! There's cloaking technologies as well.

SC: Couldn't you just barrage the middle of the gray disk?
MC: Not with the great volume of space involved. A barrage pass would hit nothing. Jammers don't make you invisible, in that you could close to visual range and pound the snot out of them. And that's the other nice thing about experience. After a while, you will recognize what a jammer section looks like. You can pan the camera across a ship once it gets within visual range, see the jamming section, and decide that it has to die. The same thing goes with command ships or other special purpose sections, such as force field generators. Again, we want to prioritize your knowledge of the game.

SC: Will a star system contain one or more habitable planets?
MC: Stars systems are abstracted down to a single planet. Mainly because we see a star system very much like Middle Ages Europe as far as combat goes. The battles take outside of the city. The city is the important production unit and everything else that goes with it. It’s abstracted down to the best planet in the system. We're aware that there's an asteroid belt out there and you could probably mine a couple moons here and there. But the reality is that whoever controls the prime world controls the system. We realize that’s an abstraction, on the other hand, there are many layers of detail and command and control required to make a game a real time combat game above multiple star systems. We couldn't find a way to add that level of detail and make it rewarding. We could create it, but it created more tedium than excitement. That's not to say it won't ever be that way, but the issue is we're not going to put it in until we find a way to make it fluid and entertaining instead of just adding to your workload.

In inhabited systems, that makes the planet the centerpiece of the battle. The planet is the vulnerable object. Planets can have satellites built around them for defense. The invader enters the solar system based on his incoming trajectory and his drive type. The invader has the choice of how the battle progresses - try and lure the defender away from the planet's defenses or come right in. The only natural defenses the planet has are traditional ground launched ICBM's, which are based on an abstract of the planetary population. The higher population, larger worlds will have more missiles to launch during a set unit of time. After that, it’s up to the player to built defense satellites and arm them.

SC: Would every planet have its own system defense fleet?
MC: It’s up to the player. You can have nothing around a planet if you feel like it. If I come in and you've left no defenses, it’s my choice to come in and bombard your planet. All I have to worry about is those ICBM's that come up occasionally to bother me. On the other hand, there can be three sets of defensive satellites, destroyer-size, cruiser-size and dreadnought-size (small, medium and large). They're abstracted into how much infrastructure the system can support. A small world, with 200 million people, can only support small satellites, with 10 satellites in a ring. A mid-sized world can support small and medium satellites, so its a double ring with the 10 mediums nested between the 10 smalls. A large world, from size 8 to 10, can have the smalls, the mediums and the dreadnought larges, all nested in the same ring. It becomes a very frightening ring of death. :) Arinn Dembo came up with the realization that a planet is like a city to fight over, but not every city is Stalingrad. So the big, heavily defendable worlds should be the big, special worlds. Those are the knock-down, drag-out, multiple-turn battles, the really epic ones. The little outpost, size 1 or size 2, where there are three guys and a ditch digger, that should be slightly faster battle. :)

SC: What would differentiate a good planet from a not-so-good one?
MC: Planets are rated for three things: environment, resource base, and size. Size dictates maximum population. Sizes range from 1 to 10, with populations ranging from 100 million to a billion. That basically dictates financial resources generated from the planet. Resource base is where we got kind of tricky. Strategic 4x games that use resources tend to use them up, which means you end up with a dead late-phase game. In Spaceward Ho, at the end of the game you had to blow up half the planets to get more metal. In SOTS, we wanted you to be able to keep pumping out units no matter what, but we didn't want it to become irrelevant how you do things. So, the resource base of a planet is a number anywhere between 3000 and 8000. This potential is then affected by the planet's infrastructure you have developed and how many people are on the planet. So you try and build up infrastructure to 100% so that you are using all your resources efficiently. That resource base represents the renewable resources of that planet which means that, everything being equal, there will be that amount of resources every turn. You can over-harvest that planet, which means I'm strip mining everything, baby, and running it through the factory as fast as I can. This will multiply output tremendously, but it starts eating into that total. So, basically, you can devour the world. In some circumstances that make sense, especially when you are setting up and you want to build industries quickly. It’s like "Fine, I don't care. Just dig big holes, gouge everything out, cut all the trees down, just build it up now!". You might do that for a couple turns to get a head start, and then shut it down. Maybe that costs you 2-300 resource points permanently, but it gets you started quickly. Or if you're under pressure and might not have time to develop a planet properly, you might want to do that. The other case is when the enemy is closing in and industrial output dictates how much ship you can build per turn. Say an industrial output of 10,000 is capable of building 3 destroyers or a less advanced cruiser for 9,000 points, but a big assault cruiser might be 11,000 points. So to build that assault cruiser it would take two turns under normal conditions. Over-harvesting the planet would allow you to build that assault cruiser in one turn, which could make the difference between keeping the system and losing it to an invader.

Conclusion: The game looks to be a classic. The demo will be out shortly, so keep your eyes peeled!


Add Comment Comments

Space Voyager\
13 Jul 2006 - 10:07am
Space Voyager

Slaughter, on 12th July 2006, 10:14am, said:

As might the preview copy that was just sent your way... :)

;) You made my day... week... month etc..  ;)

Definitely expect an extensive preview. I'll talk to Mike about how we should do it.
12 Jul 2006 - 10:14am
As might the preview copy that was just sent your way... ;)
Space Voyager\
12 Jul 2006 - 8:15am
Space Voyager
I know this is going to sound (be read) a little childish - even a bit more than I really am - but this seems to be one cooooool game.

The SC interviews definitely added a lot of spice.
11 Jul 2006 - 10:51pm
Oooooh, absolutely bee-yootiful...


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Sword of the Stars Box
Developer: Kerberos Productions
Publisher: Destineer



Sword of the Stars Series

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