JH: For those who haven’t heard of Sins of a Dark Age, please give us the quick and dirty rundown on it.
Blair Fraser: Sins of a Dark Age is a hybrid between action-RTS (aka MOBA) and traditional RTS games. From the MOBA perspective, 5 players on a team play Heroes that earn money and experience by accomplishing goals and killing enemies and use these to purchase power items and unlock new abilities. From the traditional RTS perspective, the sixth player on a team is playing the “Commander” role. He can build up an army and control it in an RTS fashion but he can also unlock powerful abilities that can be used to support his Hero teammates and annihilate the enemy.
JH: It seems like everyone is creating their own MOBA-style game these days. What would make me want to play it over something like League of Legends?
BF: Just like there are a lot of different first-person shooters and a lot of different RTS games, we are offering a unique spin on the MOBA-style game. We think there is a lot of room to continue to evolve and innovate in the genre. Our primary take is to combine elements of traditional RTS with standard MOBA conventions. It’s difficult to point out a single factor that makes the experience different as its really a “sum of parts” result but the most obvious one is the way in which the presence of the Commander really changes up the overall dynamics of the experience and even breaks down into a number of components. The simplest example is how Heroes have to respect the enemy Commander’s army – it can trap you, outflank you and more – there is no direct analogy in any other game of this nature.
JH: One large issue I’ve come across from games with MOBA elements is the high barrier to entry and a lack of true training options. How are you going to address this?
BF: We feel the game has been designed in such a way that anyone who has played any MOBA or RTS game will immediately be able to pick up and play both the Hero and Commander roles respectively with a decent level of proficiency. For those who haven’t played either, we will be providing tutorials but perhaps the most important element will be the replay system. I learned most of my RTS skills by watching how I lost my games. Sins of a Dark Age automatically records every game played and you can instantly watch each of our games over again with full rewind and fast forward capabilities and tons of statistics to analyze. Just like Sins of a Solar Empire (a comparatively complicated game) we added a ton of interactive elements that make it very easy for players to figure out what everything is – learn it on the fly. Finally, one of the major barriers to getting good at the game is determining how to itemize your Hero. Our recommended items are crowd-sourced so new players can always view some of the most popular and most effective builds available right in the game so the burden of knowledge is reduced.
JH: How does the Commander role actually function? How is communication facilitated between Commander and Hero units?
BF: The Commander does not have a physical representation in the game – he is the over-head guy like in most traditional RTS games. And like most traditional-RTS games he doesn’t really start with much. As he levels up and earns money he can unlock units and abilities that allow him to field an army, support his Heroes and attack the enemy. It’s important that everything is effectively coordinated because in general, we are finding that the more coordinated teams are winning more often. There are several communication options available and we will be examining more especially once we get more feedback in beta. Players can chat, we have several different ping options (general, attack, defend, scout), and the UI presents a ton of essential feedback. The importance of this third example can’t be understated – the Commander will be constantly monitoring his HUD for various states of his Heroes in order to quickly determine who needs what and where. One of example of some upcoming experiments will be a hot-key shout-out system whereby a Hero and very quickly execute a call for a certain kind of support (e.g. Heal me!, Haste me! (so he can get away or hunt someone down) etc).
JH: The original DOTA community was very unwelcoming to newcomers and Dota 2 from Valve has taken strides to be a ‘good citizen’ of sorts. You’ve said you are taking steps to minimize the hostility. What kind of things are you doing?
BF: Always a tough problem and we can’t control the internet but we do have a variety of systems in place that we think will help. First, we’ve designed out a number of the very common sources of fighting between players on the same team such as kill stealing. We’ve also spent a lot of time on an algorithm that dishes out rewards for kills in a very fair way. Next, one of the major sources of frustration are players who don’t know what they are doing – as I talked about a few questions ago, we’ve taken great strides to make it easy to learn and attempted to reduce the burden of knowledge (e.g crowd-sourced recommended items). Another way to deal with this is to have an effective matchmaking system so players of equal skill are matched up well. I think we are making great progress here. My personal pet-peeve that often makes me start thinking ‘hostile’ thoughts is when people rage quit. We do make it very easy for players to rejoin a dropped game but many people have no intention of coming back and it can potentially ruin the experience for everyone else. What we are doing here is implementing a system where players can opt to join games that are short-handed. If they do this we will reward them with bonus currency to spend. If they join a short-handed game and they manage to pull off a win, they will earn even more.
JH: You’re including AI based scenarios. Can you explain how those will work? Are they simply the same maps from multiplayer with computer controlled opponents?
BF: There are two types. You can play against the AI in the same maps as competitive multiplayer but you can also play specific scenarios that have no competitive analogy. They are primarily designed as cooperative events. In one scenario, the goal is for the cooperative team to defend a castle against ever more powerful waves of minions while also trying to secure resources on the map (reinforcements, materials to repair the walls, siege machinery etc). We recognize that not everyone is interested in competitive play all the time (or at all) so there will be options for them as well.
JH: Sins of a Solar Empire is a rather popular game among strategy gamers yet Sins of a Dark Age has gone in a different direction. What was involved in determining that Dark Age would be under the same branding? Do you feel it may lead to a little confusion in the marketplace?
BF: Sins of a Dark Age is definitely moving in a different direction and it should be said that it is not a fantasy version of Sins of a Solar Empire and because I get a lot of worried email about this. I should also say it doesn’t mean the end of our work on the Sins of a Solar Empire series. We still have plans for where we are taking it after Sins: Rebellion. As far as the branding, our goal was simply to align our strategy games under a similar banner even though they play quite differently. It’s not unlike how Blizzard uses “craft” with“Warcraft and Starcraft. As a strategy gamer, I consider those two experiences to be substantially different and don’t consider the craft suffix as an indicator of anything more than “it’s one of Blizzard’s strategy games”. “Sins of a” should be interpreted as “one of Ironclad’s strategy games”. In this case the Solar Empire indicates the science fiction based universe and Dark Age is the fantasy.
JH: The free-to-play model has worked well for games like League of Legends and Tribes Ascend. What kind of things will players be paying for in Sins of a Dark Age?
BF: The number one rule is players won’t be paying for power over other players – this does not work for a strategy game. Our basic rule of thumb is this: if it affects gameplay you can earn it for free or you can buy it (e.g. Heroes and Commander powers). If it makes you look cooler you have to pay for it (e.g Skins).
JH: How are you ensuring that people who choose not to pay will still have a great experience?
BF: We want as many people playing as we can as that helps us guarantee that matchmaking works effectively in that players are playing fair games and the response time to get into a game is short. We fully expect that the majority of people playing will not be paying and we are cool with that as they are helping the community. To reward them for that we are not locking off any content that affects gameplay. They will be playing the same game as everyone with the only major difference being that if they want to look different or cooler they will have to pay. However, we fully expect that the game will be very fun and rewarding to play no matter what you look like. In fact, we often play with headless, untextured units all the time (for testing purposes) and it’s still a blast.
Thanks to Blair Fraser and Stephanie Schopp for helping make this happen. Sins of a Dark Age does not currently have a release date.