Grogheads Developer Interview! KatHawk Studios

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Grogheads recently had the opportunity to meet with Steve Hawkins, the man behind KatHawk Studios, developer of the upcoming Sci-Fi 4x strategy title Alliance of the Sacred Suns (“AotSS”).  Taking place a thousand years in the future, humanity stands on the brink of collapse. Noble Great Houses belonging to the last human empire compete for control over a deteriorating feudal state on the brink of a new interstellar dark age. Players take on the role of a young newly crowned emperor or empress who carries the last glimmer of hope for a brighter future among the stars.

Described as a “grand strategy game, with 4X elements, but also character and House management,” AotSS adds a 5th ‘X’ to the 4x formula, which the developer calls ‘eXist’.  AotSS differs from most other 4x strategy titles in that game play centers around the development of the player’s character, who will rule by interacting with other characters in order to develop a web of beneficial relationships.  These characters must be appointed into central roles within the player’s government in order to carry out the players directions and objectives.

If games like Master of Orion, Stellaris and Crusader Kings interest you, read on to gain more insight into this very exciting upcoming title.

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Alliance of the Sacred Suns

By: Craig Handler

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GH:  Thanks again for taking the time to answer some questions about Alliance of the Sacred Suns, KatHawk Studios (“KHS”) and your future plans. As I mentioned, I’m a HUGE fan of sci-fi 4x games and AotSS is right up my alley. A lot of the guys in our forums are interested in this title and its ongoing development too.  Why don’t we start by you telling us a little bit about your background in gaming, how KatHawk Studios got started and how AotSS was born. What other titles have you and/or KatHawk Studios developed?

KHS:  Basically, it started as a hobby. I’ve been more or less programming for my whole life, but it was never anything ‘serious’ until recently. I have always been fascinated by strategy and 4X games, and have probably played every mainstream and semi-mainstream strategy game made since the late 80’s.

I started KHS once I got fairly deep into a project called Imperia, which was the predecessor design to AotSS. It had many of the same elements, but it was not nearly as character-driven, didn’t have Houses, no military system, the economy was different (and more complex), etc. At that point I thought I might be able to do something commercial with the project, so I created the studio (of one). AotSS/Imperia was born from a desire to have a different kind of experience in 4X-type games, where you don’t play as a nameless grey eminence but as an actual person, dealing with other actual people to get things done, and managing your relationships and your time was just as important as managing your build queue.

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Will your rule be just?

GH:  What are your personal favorite games to play and how have they influenced AotSS? Due to the central role that key characters play in AotSS, comparisons to Paradox games like Crusader Kings will be drawn. Was creating a “Crusader Kings in space” one of your goals for AotSS? I’ve also seen you compare AotSS to Master of Orion 3. This really intrigues me because I happen to be one of the few sci fi 4x gamers who place a patched and modded MOO3 into his top five best 4x games of all time. For me, it checks nearly all the boxes and scratches all the itches.  What mechanics or elements of MOO3 specifically are featured in AotSS?

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Develop your empire through projects

KHS: I love MOO2, and as you say, MOO3 was actually a huge influence on the game design. Emrich’s vision of ‘IFP’s and the way that an emperor couldn’t do everything really appealed to me, and frankly made a lot of sense. I feel that unfortunately, the design was probably ahead of its time, and Atari didn’t feel like gamers would be ready for such a drastic pivot from the ‘tried and true’ MOO design. Maybe they were right; unfortunately what we got was neither fish, nor fowl, nor any good. And it killed the franchise for a very long time. I have played a modded MOO3 and it definitely had the bones to be a very good, very dynamic design. I would love to see someone take another swing at that specific design.

Regarding Crusader Kings, I’m glad you brought that up. Let’s be clear. We don’t want to be CK in space, per se. It’s inevitable that people will draw that parallel, and that’s fine for a back-of-the-napkin comparison, but really, CK focuses on telling stories, and the actual business of running your kingdom/barony/etc is somewhat abstracted. With AotSS, you’re trying to reunite the human race against a existential threat, and the game is about YOUR STORY. Just you. Not your dynasty, not your son or daughter or third cousin who you married off to a Siberian princess after losing a bet, but you. And we put a laser focus on telling the story of this one incredibly pressure-filled, fraught, tense, and extraordinary life. When you end, so does the game, and if you haven’t done enough, humanity dies. Period. And those are the stakes we want players to understand, and play through.

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The Character Nexus

GH:  Notwithstanding influences from other titles, as a sci-fi 4x strategy game, AotSS is fairly unique. Few PC games put the player in the role of dynastic ruler in space during a challenging an era of decline and collapse. Even fewer titles place the emphasis on top-layer management with a focus on building relationships with other influential nobles and characters, while directing the path of your empire primarily by appointing key officials to take care of the “minutiae.” Only a handful of games have taken this approach, such as Stellar Monarch and the recently released Star Dynasties. Can you talk a little bit about what is particularly unique about AotSS’s top-layer macro management approach, as well as what traditional sci-fi 4x elements will be familiar in AotSS?

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The Star Map

KHS: It has been very hard to orient the game towards a top-down design, because most players in this genre are inveterate micromanagers. So we kept having to focus upwards, and always ask the question: “Would a grand galactic emperor do ____________?” And if the answer was ‘probably not’, we either stripped it or moved it to a higher level. Ideally, you manage through your Primes (your ruling council, in the US it would be the equivalent of your Cabinet) and your high-level governors (system and province). That’s how the Designation System came to be. With it, you can simply point to a system and say ‘I want that system to be a farming system/science system/economic system’, and lo, it will be so. Well, not really. It’s not the same as an auto-governor because first of all, you have to consider the Houses that actually run that system and their strengths. So, for example you can ask House Waldegrave, a Spartic House with a strong military tradition, to run their system as a farming system, but (if they even agree to) it will be done very poorly, whereas if you ask House Iogarajah-Bas (a farming House) to do the same, thing, they’ll probably be a lot more willing to do it (because it’s their House tradition and they’re good at it) and it will turn out a lot better. Designations allow an Emperor to run their Empire at a high level, but they have to know the strengths of their systems, planets, and Houses, and if the relationship between Houses that are affected by a Designation is poor, it’s probably worse than if you had just let them alone! Plus, there is economic upheaval, changes to a planet’s economy and employment, people are thrown out of work if the new Designation doesn’t have enough jobs for them… major policy decisions have ripple effects, but at the end of the day, if you want science and hang the consequences, just set a Province to Science and the game will (try to) do the rest.

As far as traditional sci-fi 4X, you are coming into a curious mix of high technology and feudalism, and the science is slowly trending backwards. So you still have space wars, ground combats, science tree, etc… but you don’t have aliens, you have human cultures, and you still have planets to explore, systems to discover, colonization, linking your empire through a system called the Logistical Network… you have all the 4X’s there, (and a 5th, eXist!) but the lore and the scope is a little different, for sure.

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The System View

GH:  How does a typical game of AotSS play out? Is it turn-based, real time, or a combination of the two? What modes are featured? Is there a story-based campaign, a sandbox campaign? How are new campaigns created or generated and will starting conditions always be the same, or will they be unique adding to replayability? What are the victory conditions and can they be adjusted by the player? Will there be a tutorial and multi-player support?

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A Sit-Rep

KHS: AotSS is turn-based, and currently there is a sandbox mode, and there will be several story-based campaign, one based around the Xyl (the big alien baddie) and one around reunification of the Celestial Empire, as well as a few others that are House-based. You always start on New Terra (the civilization homeworld) in the Neo-Sirius System in the Enosis Constellation, but beyond that EVERYTHING else is generated randomly: Houses, systems, planets, technology granted, constellations in the game, position, where fallen civilizations are, etc.

Currently, there are 2 victory conditions in the alpha: dismantle the Celestial Council and reunify the CE as a tyrant, or research the Lazarus Project and bring you-or your people- into an immortal digital plane of existence. There is currently a tutorial – a ‘hold your hand’ part I that basically explains the interface and major concepts, and a part II that is a guided campaign that gives your objectives to progress that teaches you more advanced concepts. There is currently no multiplayer, and no plans currently to add it given the complexity of the AI and the relationship interactions.

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Early play options

GH:  With respect to core features, can you please break down and provide some detail on how AotSS handles the more traditional aspects of 4x gaming? How do players explore the universe, colonize worlds, manage their economies, conduct research, diplomacy, and perhaps most importantly, prepare for and engage in combat? Please explain how players build military forces and engage in space battles. Will AotSS feature planetary invasions or ground based combat of any kind?

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The War Prime and the Military Nexus

KHS: Well, that’s a very large question. Essentially, you manage though Projects and Planetary Actions. There are no ‘build queues’ in the game, except for shipyards (which you set to build a specific type of ship). Everything else is built through Projects. Projects have a leader (which you appoint) and several contributors who add their knowledge and skills to the task. Projects are how you do things like build shipyards, add infrastructure, build trade hubs, claim Systems, etc. Players explore through using scout fleets, and by using scout drones to reach constellations that Scout fleets can’t reach yet. You colonize worlds through a Project, but you have to have a Claim on a System (basically a legal stake on the star system that you have backed up with external influence like military units or outposts, or influence radiating out from adjacent systems that you control) and the System must be attached to the Logistical Network, the system that allows civilian trade and travel throughout the Empire. Economies are managed through the planetary Viceroy, and Pops (people on the planet) have a specialty such as farmer, miner, administrator, etc. and work on the planet in Sectors that match their specialty. You do not directly build these Sectors – you can influence them with Designations, and you can ask your Viceroy to nudge development one way or another – but planets are managed as much with their ruling House in mind as what you the Emperor wants from that planet!

Research is conducted in Academic Sectors, and Science Points are generated throughout the Empire. Houses will share them with you depending on the relationship you have with them – allied Houses will share nearly all their research, while unfriendly or hostile Houses may not share any at all! You choose fields of study, and you can see potential Breakthroughs that your Academics can find, and then as Emperor you can decide to pursue a field of research (a Discovery) or kill the project – but it will never be available again, and if you kill too many Breakthroughs in a given field, you will never be able to advance to the next level!

Diplomacy is handled through House Leaders; your relationship with your Great Houses are determined in large part through the House Leaders. Later, when lost civilizations are added, you will be able to engage with their leaders as well.

The military system just got an overhaul in design and we’re actually very excited about it! Essentially, you challenge Houses for either territory or honor (Power) and then a Campaign is created automatically against that House. From there, you can create Operations to target systems or planets to conquer, attrit defenses, terrorize the public, destroy orbital military installations, etc. You have a global pool of Operation Points that are used for each Campaign and Operation – these are finite and really serve to keep your scope focused. From there, as Emperor, you make sure that your War Prime has the Fleets needed to effectively conduct the Operation, and if not, ensure that there are sufficient Shipyards to build the Fleets needed. You will then review the final forces, and once the Operation fleets are at the target, you will get an updated intel briefing and have one more chance to proceed or retreat. While the operation is in progress, you will get a battle report each turn, with the option to continue the operation, retreat to the nearest friendly system, or retreat fully to a home base. Ground battles are also in the game – you drop ground armies and they fight to take over Sectors, which are contained within Regions. When all Sectors in a Region are conquered or destroyed, the Region is controlled by you. Once over 50% of the Regions have been controlled by you, you control the planet militarily and if that was your primary Challenge goal, you can demand a peace treaty to formally claim the planet.

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Stellar information and Planetary Actions

GH:  You have referred to AotSS as a “5X” grand strategy game. Take a little bit of time to expand upon the 5th ‘X’ which you have designated, “eXist”. We understand that this includes the management and development of the player’s character and House.  How central will this aspect of the game be in AotSS and how deep are the mechanics. What will the player be able to do in order to build and develop his or her in-game character and noble house? How will these mechanics impact game play?

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Diplomatic actions and relations with nobles

KHS: So I kind of touched on this earlier – basically, you’re playing as the life of this one specific emperor – it’s your story, and if you die at any time, the game ends, which is certainly unique among any strategy games I’ve ever played. So there’s a fair amount of keeping yourself managed – you have what’s called spirit, which is your mental health, and affects your ability to do things (reduces/expands your Action Points) and if it goes too low, you risk suicide, which would end the game. You also have personal Health and your Age, and you can die of old-age, heal yourself, and generally you have personal Actions that you can use to impact these. You as Emperor also have a large personal skill tree that can shape how you play and the choices you have – this is still being developed and refined but basically you earn personal development points over time and you use them to ‘level up’ your character – it’s meant to simulate you growing up and learning how to be an adult and sort of choosing what type of person you will be. Your House is not directly run by you – it has its own House Leader, but it represents your influence and command over the political side of the Houses. You also have numerous in-game Events that can change your health, Spirit, give you new skills, and do a whole lot of other things to tell your personal story!

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Events and decisions contribute to character development

GH:  The lore and universe featured in AotSS is new and appears to have been created to provide an exciting backdrop for the game. There do seem to be some obvious influences from sci-fi canons, like Dune and Holistic Design’s Fading Suns, for instance.  Tell us a little about how the AotSS universe was conceived, what role, if any, popular sci fi IPs influenced the AotSS lore and how you see this “universe” developing in the future, perhaps beyond AotSS. For instance, I can definitely see the AotSS universe translating well to the tabletop or the miniatures market.

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Six Great Houses

KHS: Yes, there is definitely some influence there with the Houses – they became very important to provide an ‘internal’ tension and threat. Virtually no other 4X game have houses, some have factions, but they don’t really work the same way. I thought it would be really neat to have a fallen Empire made up of Houses who are basically waiting for the last ruler to fall, then they can fight for the remains. You have no heir, and you can not support one, so you truly are ‘the last emperor’ and humanity’s last hope. Our other writer, Oliver Milne, has also been very instrumental in creating this world with the timeline and with filling in a lot of creative and world-building gaps. We’d certainly like to set other games in this world – I actually have a solitaire print and play game called Star Requiem (found on BoardGameGeek) that is set loosely in this universe, during the second Terran/Xyl war. If AotSS is successful, that would be a design that we might consider bringing to the computer with some upgrades and changes. But certainly, there’s 1000 years of history to work with, and there’s a lot of time to fill!

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A Space Combat Force

GH:  Will AotSS be mod friendly? Will there be Steam Workshop support? Through robust mod and workshop support, games like Stellaris have been vastly improved and expanded upon over the years. What aspects of AotSS, if any, will be moddable by fans and the community?

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Intelligence and espionage

KHS: We’re planning on it – don’t know how much Workshop support AotSS will ultimately have, at least in its initial release, but the game is quite mod-friendly already (you can add new planet/name lists, techs, Houses, cultures, and events, among other things). Most everything is either XML or text files, and we’re rewriting the event engine to use special Lua templates to make events much more flexible! Our challenge is in modding graphics – we use Unity as our base engine, and it’s not terribly easy to add graphics to a build (they are converted into an internal item called a meta, so you can’t just drop in a PNG file or such and have it read easily) There are workarounds, but graphic mods will be less of a priority beyond the ability to change House graphics and Character portraits.

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We love the character design

GH:  Where is AotSS presently in the development cycle? Is it feature complete and in beta? Will it be released in early access? Where will players be able to buy AotSS, other than on Steam?

KHS: Currently, we’re in late alpha. Technically, the game is feature complete, but we’re reworking the military system and the associated UI – that is the last major system to need a real overhaul; the rest of the game just needs a UX pass, balancing, and continued work with bugs and adding content. Currently we do not plan to have an early access release, and currently the game is slated for release on Steam. If we add additional storefronts, we will certainly make that public!

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Science and technology

GH:  Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers about AotSS? Perhaps some insight into your own strategies when playing a game in its present build, or some challenges you have faced during the development cycle?

KHS: This has been pretty comprehensive, so really I think most of the game is covered with your excellent questions! My strategies? Explore a lot, don’t spend too much out of your treasury to overcharge your budget (you can go broke and lose the game, and it’s harder than you think to refill your savings!). Try to make friends with at least 2 Houses – due to their own relationships, it will be virtually impossible to be on allied terms will all the Houses. Pick a House that is strong in where you are weak. Find good people for your Primes, and realize that the political costs for firing one can be worth it if you have a truly excellent candidate to replace them! Don’t be afraid to build outposts – they are an excellent way to build Influence, and they provide much-needed resources, but at a loss to your empire cashflow. Don’t forget the science! Always have your Science Prime working on at least 2 fields, but remember that it’s inefficient to work on more than one at a time. And don’t forget to level yourself up – there are some great skills that make managing relationships much easier. Energy is life. Don’t run short. Fluxmen are in short supply, don’t be too proud to ask Houses for energy when needed. And finally, power is everything. If you drop below 20, expect a very tough go of people demanding things from you as they see your power wane. Sometimes, the only way out is to stand up to bullies and let the people see you’re not afraid. You may lose a House relationship, but you’ll keep the people – and your Empire – a while longer. Good luck!

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Grand Vizier

AotSS is currently in development and will be available on Steam in 2021.

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