The Tuesday Interview – Nikolai & George from Sovereignty
The guys from the latest Matrix Game 4x hit stop in to chat about their new release. ~
Brant Guillory, 21 February 2017
So it’s not like the world is lacking for 4X games. What made you think “the world needs this game?” and how did you get that vision from inception to the full release of Sovereignty?
Nikolai Soderstrom (Designer): To be honest, I don’t really consider this a 4x game. We certainly didn’t go into it thinking we needed to create a 4x game. I mostly consider Sovereignty an accessible turn-based strategy game. Manage your kingdom. Go to war. Fight battles on the tactical map.
Our inspiration is deeply rooted in the grand campaign worlds of Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Birthright, in Middle Earth, and in historical settings to craft a rich political and cultural landscape in which to set a strategy game. In Sovereignty, you can play any one of 34 different realms, and each one is unique. We wanted the rich cultures established in the lore to resonate in the gameplay itself. Each realm has its own playstyle, its own ambitions, fears and rivalries, its own unique units, spell repertoire, agents, economy, diplomatic position, and heroes.
What was something that was barely on the drawing board when you first started but ended up as a major part of the game, and how did you work it into the design as you went along?
Nikolai: When we started, we were going to build a much smaller game focused only kingdom management. Battles would have been automated in somewhat detached statistical clashes. The “Auto-battle” option that you can play out now is a version of that original concept.
As development progressed, it became clear that our game needed something more. Luckily, we teamed up with Lordz Game Studios. It was no great leap at that point for us to merge the two genres: Manage your kingdom from a continental view. Then go to war and zoom straight into a province. Move your units individually to fight battles on a hex map, Panzer General style. The tension between the campaign and tactical games makes for some really nice pacing, switches in action, and that “one more turn” hook.
Playtesters always come up with some of the craziest questions and ask about things designers never really considered. Talk to us about some of the adjustments you made based on playtester feedback, and how you addressed their concerns.
Nikolai: In truth, players have been at the heart of most of our refinements to Sovereignty. We’re a small indie team. We don’t have anything you could call a QA Department. We are active in the forums, and our players are active with us. There have been some bumps in the road, but there’s very little trash talking in our forums. Players recognise pretty quickly that we are accessible, we are responsive, and perhaps most importantly, we take action based on direct feedback. That results in a lot of constructive feedback and adult conversations about how we might best approach an area identified for features or polish. And before you know it, it’s in a patch and in the game.
What’s the coolest part of Sovereignty that’s going to make veteran 4X gamers jump out of their seats with excitement when they run across it?
Nikolai: Over and over, I hear players commenting about the richness of the world, its lore, this “ready-made” campaign world for people to get lost in. Even though the game doesn’t present any story to read, players comment how the game is almost a “story-generator,” as the fortunes of kingdoms ebb and flow. Perhaps some players find themselves living their own stories in the actions of their kingdoms and those of their rivals. Sovereignty gives you a chance to forge your own fantastical history.
As with every new release, there have been the inevitable bug reports start to pop up. How are you guys balancing bug-hunting with rolling out feature updates and building towards you next expansion release?
Nikolai: We had an extended, healthy Early Access. A lot of player feedback, a lot of updates and polish. Everything was ready for release with positive reviews, and then on release, the game suddenly started suffering from a lot of instability: crashes, bugs, black screens. This was the kind of nightmare scenario no developer wants to see: Everything’s going great. Get ready for launch….ok launch and…BOOM! Houston, we have a problem.
We don’t hide problems. We don’t make excuses. We’re clear about our roadmap supporting this game into the future: first stability, then gameplay, then AI.
In those opening days, while we were getting flooded with crash reports on the one hand and bad reviews on the other, we got back to doing what we’ve always done. Engage with the players no matter how bad the situation may seem. Patch. Engage. Patch. Engage.
As of this interview two weeks after release, the game has stabilised, and we have added a string of gameplay improvements. All along the way, we’re keeping it transparent. We don’t hide problems. We don’t make excuses. We’re clear about our roadmap supporting this game into the future: first stability, then gameplay, then AI.
Today, we’re already in the gameplay stage of patches, and we invite players who might have been discouraged in those opening days, to come back and give Sovereignty a second look. Come back and talk to us in the forums. You might be pleasantly surprised.
How easy is it to win without having to go to war? Can you trade and talk your way to victory? Or are you going to be forced to take up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them?
Nikolai: That question really depends on what realm you choose. Some realms are stronger in diplomacy or trade, and often these realms have campaign objectives that are focused on trade or diplomacy. Sometimes those objectives go so far as “Become a great Economic Power, but don’t invade your neighbour.” If you want to play a slippery schemer, give a little Crivia a try. There’s an evil realm that manages to put up a face of good standing to the civilised world, all the while manipulating from behind the scenes and putting one realm against another.
Digital gamers are always asking about 2 things: modding and multiplayer. Talk to us about how easy the game is for modders to dig into and monkey around with under the hood. How easy is it for them to tweak, and what parts of the game have you kept ‘off limits’ to the modding community?
George: We feel that modding is an important aspect of the game – we want players to be able to play with the game, to make their own creations and to share them with the community.
To that end, we have included a mod editing tool with the game – it makes many basic modding tasks (such as changing the stats of units, realms, provinces, etc, or modifying other aspects of the game database) very easy. It also integrates with steam workshop, to make it as easy as possible for players to share what they create.
For more advanced modders, the modding tools also include a code editor to modify or add game scripts – which control a great many aspects of gameplay such as campaigns, special events, spells, unit special abilities, and even the user interface – using these tools modders can get into the guts of the game and make considerable changes to how it plays. We also included a map editor, for those people who want to create their own world to play in. These tools are still easy enough to use but do require a bit more knowledge to use effectively.
There are some things which cannot be modded – modders cannot change most of the core rules of the game (for example, you can’t change the distance-to-capitol penalty for province income) – this is mostly for technical reasons, though, rather than design – If we had the time, we would probably let modders tinker with even more of the game systems than they already can.
Tell us about the multiplayer strategy, also. Obviously, Matrix has a long history of supporting robust PBEM capability. The initial release of Sovereignty does not support multiplayer, but is that is the plans for the near future? Why or why not?
Nikolai: While we did not include multiplayer on release day for reasons of scope, multiplayer remains on the table as a potential option for the future, depending on the popularity of the game and the desire of players.
What’s your personal favourite race/faction to play, and why? And what’s the best way to beat you at your own game?
Nikolai: I tend to play realms to fit my mood. One day, it’s Vikings! Another, it’s Elves. But among my favourite factions are Ravengard and Dunmar. Both are in precarious geographic positions with somewhat irregular armies. While Ravengard’s army tends to be weaker, it can field a unique vampire lord who also rules the realm. He can be a centrepiece in battles, but he can’t be everywhere at once over an exposed border. In contrast, Dunmar is more of an outpost in the wild frontier. It too has exposed borders, but it has some good scouts and a lot of rivers that their bridging infantry can exploit. You’ll find both realms in a lot of defensive skirmishes early in their campaigns, as they try to hang on against odds and gain experience (yes, units can advance levels and gain new abilities). Later on, once their armies and economies have built sufficiently, it’s satisfying switching over to the offensive.
What’s the most important thing for a player to pay attention to the first time they sit down to play Sovereignty? Why?
Nikolai: A lot of strategy gamers are used to wars of annihilation. Gobble land. Destroy kingdoms. Steamroll. This kind of thinking can get new players into trouble fast.
The realms of Sovereignty adhere to what is called the Code of War. In the Code, wars are honourable, but wars of annihilation are frowned upon. What this means is that diplomatically, world opinion isn’t going to be bothered very much if you’re resolving a border dispute by annexing someone else’s province. However, world opinion will definitely disapprove of the annexation of another capital province, which destroys that realm completely. In game terms, all of the world’s realms will start to become more and more hostile toward you. If you keep destroying realms, the world will turn against you.
This sets up a strategic tension. Do you destroy your enemy completely, eliminating that local threat, while decreasing your diplomatic relations globally? Or do you reduce that enemy to a smaller threat, while maintaining good standing in the world?
Often new players aren’t ready for this. They’ll happily destroy their enemies, and pretty soon, they find themselves at war everywhere. In contrast, a more experienced player will practice a conservation of enemies and find the balance between expansion and diplomacy.
What (if any) of the expansion plans can you share with us? What’s next off the desk?
Nikolai: 100% of our focus right now is on supporting this release, and in streamlining the gameplay and AI. One step at a time. We can talk about expansions when time comes.