Sword of the Stars Interview Part 1

by on 4th Jun 2006

A Conversation with Sword of the Stars Lead Designer, Martin Cirulis

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

SC: For those who have not already watched the Sword of the Stars movies, please summarize the game. What is the game's back story?
MC: Sword of the Stars is basically about the entry and collision of various races into this area of the galactic neighborhood. There are four races: Tarkas, Human, Hiver, and Liir.

Tarkas would be a cross between lizards and apes; they're built along the lines of a gorilla but are egg layers. They're martial but have a deep culture. Tarkas technically have two and a half sexes: they have females, unchanged males and changed males. The changed males are equivalent to a silver back gorilla in behavior. Unfortunately once the males change they tend not to cooperate very well with other changed males. They're really big on either dominates or subordinates but are not very good at the casual cooperation thing. Fleet command is run by the changed males So the powers behind the throne are their females, which are the scientists, intelligence and command & control officers, that sort of thing. The dangerous combat positions are run by unchanged males trying to earn their place in society. They're waiting to become egg worthy in a Seinfeld-esc sort of way. The Tarkas have been in space the longest (500 years). Their culture is old and is very charisma-based.

SC: What year is it supposed to be?
MC: The game events occur between 2200 and 2400.

Humanity stumbles across the Node Drive. This is a string theory exploitation which follows fracture lines between stars. We figured out how to get from point-to-point very quickly in subspace but we're restricted to these natural pathways between stars. That's the only drawback to the Node Drive. In our first couple of explorations nobody's out there so it's all great. SETI still hasn't found anybody. Everything is quiet. So we build up the colony ship and get ready to go out. And then the Hivers find us.

The Hivers would be the insect race of the game. They are not mindless drones, but have a hive-based society with artists and scientists. They don't travel faster than light per se, but can get close to C but not exceed it. But once they are near a large gravity well like a star they can build a Teleport Gate. Their fleets churn across space for decades at a time until they arrive at a star. They then build the gate which allows every Hiver in the universe to come and say "Hi!" if he feels like it. So, Earth was accidentally bumped into by a small Hiver exploration fleet. By our standards it was death on wheels. They wiped out our colony ship, our orbital facilities and basically bombarded the planet for three days. That was their standard operating procedure. A Hiver Fleet cannot let allow anyone to survive in a system it arrives in because if the gate is destroyed they are cut off for another fifty to a hundred years until they get somebody back. That was just their natural order. They didn't even expect to find us. At first the theory was "Oh, they've come to get us! Its all a plan.". No, they just stumbled across us.

SC: Do the Hivers lack compassion?
MC: It's not a lack of compassion; it's just the way it has to be. When Hivers arrive at a system, they send out a signal, which is "Do you want to be friends?". We don't understand it because we don't speak the language. They assume that they are in danger so they just pave the planet and set up the gate. The only thing that saves us is the fact that there are about 3000 ICBM's sitting in their silos. They hadn't been scrapped, and that allows us to rack launch all of them at the Hiver command dreadnought. We take it down and that activates their, "We can't hold. Let's leave and go someplace else for a 100 years." signal. So they leave, we recover and we now know the universe is kind of dangerous. The long trailer that we have out there, "Second contact", shows the story of humanity's next trip out into space. We're smart enough to build cruisers and scanning destroyers. We come across the Liir and the Tarkas skirmishing. We pop in to say, "Hi, how are you doing?" Again, another misunderstanding. The Tarkas assume that we're with the Liir. After they finish the Liir off, they take us out. It establishes that we're the new kids and it's a dangerous place out there.

The Liir are cetaceans, basically aquatic mammals. They are psionic in nature. That's how most of their tool use occurs. Their civilization arose to the point of manipulating metals above volcanic vents, telekinetically. The Liir were basically Iron Age and not very interested in expansion or going much further. A very conservative and telepathic race. They were encountered by someone called the Sulka. We don't know what Sulka means; that's the Liir name for enemy, menace, monster. That's all we know about them; that's all they'll tell us about it. The Sulka took the Liir as slaves and we suspect the Sulka may be water-based as well, which is why they were using the Liir. The Liir were psionically enslaved and made to work at building star ships, this sort of thing. After a few decades of deciding the moral weight of their slavery, they decided that the Sulka had to be removed. So they built a virus and killed every Sulka in this sector. All we can count on is that Liir were masters of biotechnology. So we have a race of pacifists who recognize the fact that for your own good, you may have to be killed. It's unfortunate and it shouldn't be done lightly but it may have to be done. That's their story and those are the four races in conflict.

And that's the point where I want to make the point that the races are not mixable and matchable. You know that in 4X games, it's very big to create your own race, grab these disadvantages, pick that type of ship.

SC: It's fun!
MC: It's fun, but A) For us, it's been done. It's become a standard for the genre. So we weren't that keen on repeating ourselves and B) We wanted to create a mood . For instance, everyone can pick their favorite race from Starcraft. It's very hard to find that same conversation for MOO2 (Mater of Orion 2). People will say, "I like how the spiky-looking guys look and I pick the purple-y ships. But there no deep affiliation to any one race- there's no guy out there going, "I'm a Klacton guy and I'm going to slap anyone who says otherwise!" We realize that once you do strong identification, someone's going to like something, someone's going to not like something - we're O.K. with that. If there's a race in SOTS you hate, more power to you.

Because that means there's another race you love. And if you want to play them more than the other races, we're fine by that. Because there's going to be some other player out there, who only wants to play the other race. All the races are equally well balanced, so it comes down to personal preference. This dovetails into the other thing about each race, as you've been noticing, each race uses a different drive technology. The Hivers sub-light teleport. Humans use Node lines. Liir use the stutter warp which gives them very fast, almost inertia-less drive, but is very bad around gravity wells, where the gravity pulls them back as much as they move forward. They lose efficiency coming into the star systems. Tarkas, capable of generating warp fields around their ships, but initially they still need reaction thrust to move so during the fission of fusion ages their ships are double binded. They need both the star drive and the reaction drive. The Hivers only need the reaction drive and so can pack a lot more weapons on their engine sections, a lot more armor. All of these things have trade-offs. Performance has both strategic trade-off - in which they move differently between stars and tactical trade-offs which in 3D combat means they move differently, more efficiently under some circumstances than in others.

So, that's basically it, the game starts with the beginning of the age of contact and exploration.

SC: You've got quite a good back story, huh?
MC: It's very deep. Arinn Dembo wrote our back story - she's a science fiction and horror writer. She's worked on the back story of games like Home World, HomeWorld Cataclysm, Ground Control and Arcanum. So she has a broad base in this sort of work.

SC: Why will SOTS be the best 4x to date?
(Laughter) It will be the most novel to date. That's really our aim; our aim isn't to replace the entire genre because that's for people to decide. It's not for us to decide. But we want to break away from the way things have always been. We've noticed in the past 5 or 6 years that things have just...

SC: Ossified?
MC: Ossified to the point of ritual, almost. Why is this feature in the game? Well, because it was in the last game. Why is this other feature in the game? Well, because it's always been there. We went back to the groundwork and we didn't say "All this is stupid" but we did say is "Is this fun? Is this an enjoyable thing to do?". And that's why some traditional aspects made the cut, others didn't. For instance, planetary exploitation, that's interesting. Planets are forward bases, their production units, that's great. Is worrying about whether everyone on the planet has soybean meal fun when you are supposed to be commanding starships. Not as much. If there were some sort of soybean meal mini game we could have made that might have been a different matter. (Laughter) And that led us to some things which are controversial. For instance, we turned spying into a proactive thing. So for instance, it's now traditional that spying and espionage is, you open a menu box, click a slider for money, hit OK. Five to eight turns later a window box pops up and tells you whether something blew up or you found something out. That seemed really distant and spreadsheetish to us. To which we said well, what is the interesting aspect of espionage and finding stuff out? Well, its more interetsing to go out and find out yourself. So, we should have technologies for that. We should make building a scout ship interesting. We should making running a scout ship pass an enemy ship to see what is firing interesting. These are the things we want to do. So that's what we built into the game. We stepped away from diplomacy. For instance, in SOTS when you first meet another race your ship is set to default not fire and so is his. You enter into combat but you're two ships of people who don't know each other and what do you do?

SC: You try and talk with him?
MC: Yea, well if this first contact, you don't know each others languages and it takes researchers to figure out how to talk. You're a scout ship, he's probably a scout ship. Do you shoot first? Because waiting you might not survive. If you take this ship out is that race going to hate you for the rest the game? Again, these are the choices we want to build into the game. Do you get close enough to try and see what his gun barrel looks like? Because when you play SOTS for a long time you begin to recognize the various barrels and the various technologies. You can tell a high-end laser from a mass driver from how the turret looks. These are the things we add to the game. So all that is achieved by a menu box that says "Spy on guy, tell me what tech he has". We decided to make it more proactive, more interesting for you. And that's got a lot of decisions for the player to make. It makes it involving. It makes experience worth something instead of "I'm good at SOTS because I can click my mouse button the fastest.". Being good at SOTS means I know the game. I know what a weapon looks like. I can go "Holy crap!" and get out of way.

SC: I do that a lot, by the way :)
MC: Exactly! And what's interesting is when the newbie guy approaches you with his cool weapon and you leave as fast as you can with him calling "Wait a minute, come back, come back!" after you, and you answering "No! I know what that barrel is. Thanks. Bye!". I'll stay out of range and belt you with a crappy weapon from far away till combat ends and I can run away.

So ends Part One of StratagyCore's conversation with Martin Cirulis, CEO and Lead designer of Kerberos Productions, developer of Sword of the Stars. Stay tuned for the next episode in this on-going tale.


Add Comment Comments

7 Jun 2006 - 3:24pm
Thanks for the link Slaughter, guess I was a bit behind on this game :eh:

Now that I've seen more of it the similarities to Homeworld seem almost obvious to me. The gameplay looks like it'll be quite different though. :thinking:
Azrael Strife\
7 Jun 2006 - 12:37am
Azrael Strife
The game sounds like the wet dream of a strategy player, this is really looking like what I was expecting but didn't get from Master of Orion III and Galactic Civilizations.
6 Jun 2006 - 4:51pm
I can't say for sure that the game will be good, but I can guarantee that they put a lot of thought into every aspect of the game! I was very impressed with Martin's eye for detail, and how they had pretty much thought of everything we asked them.
6 Jun 2006 - 2:52pm
Well, I'll give them this much: their chosen races sound pretty interesting and well fleshed out, which gives the game some added character.


I'll be sure check out their take on the gameplay in further sections of the interview. :thinking:
6 Jun 2006 - 2:43pm
You'll find several trailers for SotS here. As for Homeworld influence, check out the Kerberos profile.
6 Jun 2006 - 2:04pm
I can see some similarities to Homeworld, but we'll know for sure if it's alike when there's a gameplay video out (unless I've missed one?). Homeworld's ships moved and fired in a pretty unique way and I think I can see some typical things in the screenshots...the rather ugly ray-like weaponfire for instance :thinking:

It's looking promising anyhow, interesting interview :eh:
6 Jun 2006 - 12:38pm

Slaughter, on 6th June 2006, 4:06pm, said:

Not sure about the Homeworld influence...

The missile trails, the sharp, crisp angular designs, the blocky turret barrels...
Mouse Nightshirt\
6 Jun 2006 - 10:31am
Mouse Nightshirt
Reminds me strongly of ascendancy...
6 Jun 2006 - 8:06am
Yeah, some of the battles we watched were MASSIVE. Not sure about the Homeworld influence, but they are fans of Babylon 5 (as am I!).
Space Voyager\
6 Jun 2006 - 6:59am
Space Voyager
Slaughter, that seems to be the most lively (non-formal) interview that I've read in quite a while! Great work.

About the ships design; perhaps the human ships have a slight HW resemblance (except fot the circular drive, naturally), but the ships of other races are way off. What reminds me of HW in them is mostly the slightly tuned-down level of detail, which is intentional to allow huge armadas on screen instead of five ships.
5 Jun 2006 - 10:17pm
Several of the SotS guys worked on Homeworld Cataclysm, so that's probably more than a coincidence :thinking:
5 Jun 2006 - 9:47pm
I don't know why, but the ship designs remind me of Homeworld.

They seem Homeworld-ish, anyway.


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



Sword of the Stars Series

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