Stardock Interview Part 1: Brad Wardell on Elemental

I'd heard a lot about Stardock's new fantasy-strategy game Elemental before coming to PAX. It sounded interesting, but I wanted a closer look. I got one.

Elemental looks like the PC game of the 21st century. It draws its inspiration from the combined progress of decades worth of strategy gaming, but it does so in an elegant, approachable way. It takes the depth of a Galactic Civilization and melds it with a modern design sensibility. This is no more apparent than in its world map, or lack thereof.

From the furthest zoom, Elemental looks like a Tolkien illustration, a Total War-style map drawn in an elegant cloth-like style. Zooming in, the engine adjusts to a full 3D view akin to Civilization, icons shifting into tiny armies and sprawling landscapes. As the camera approaches the ground, forests separate into trees, individual units viewable from a near-third person angle. This is all done so smoothly that you can barely tell where one level of detail ends and the other begins.

But being a true PC game, there are also endless options hiding behind the simple interface. Have a slow system and want to play the game entirely in the cloth map-mode? You can. Would you rather your barracks look more like a farm? Use the built-in unit editor. Want to import someone's custom-crafted spaceship units into your game? Well, Brad Wardell might think you're insane, but it is technically possible.

I didn't get to see the game's real-time battle engine, which Wardell has described as "tactical, with X-COM being a major inspiration, but designed to be relatively short." However, I did observe world-ending spells cast, cities and road networks, and a very impressive unit and building editor.

After a quick look at the game in action, I sat down with Stardock CEO Wardell to talk about the ambitious title, the state of PC gaming, and his troubled past.

Shack: Where to start.

Brad Wardell: Well, once I got out of prison, that chapter was closed. But as an ex-con, I knew that the big house would change me forever...

Shack: [laughs] We should cover Elemental before we get into that. Now, there aren't many companies that are still making these kinds of games anymore. Do you take a conservative approach in figuring out whether your audience can support a game like this, or do you just make what you think is fun and go from there?

Brad Wardell: Oh, well, we're gamers. The people here are all part of the game development team. We just want to make the game--we're looking at moving the release date up again to where we can spend more time working on it. Not because the game needs more time, as much as, we enjoy making the game. So we want to have more time to put in little touches that are just fun. And there's no real business justification other than "we really enjoy the games."

Like, I'm writing the computer AI for Elemental, right? Now, I write in C++, but I learned to script in Python, so I want to port the AI to Python so that other people can play with it after we release it, because that's cool and fun.

Shack: Let's cover the basics. Elemental is... what?

Brad Wardell: Elemental is a turn-based fantasy strategy game in which you play the leader of an empire or a kingdom that is trying to rebuild the world after a terrible cataclysm by building cities, and researching new technologies, and researching new spells, and going up against potentially 31 other players, online or offline.

Shack: I'm a big fan of Civilization, and judging from the demo, it seems like you're blending a lot of interesting genres.

Brad Wardell: Oh yeah. A lot of my friends that are game designers--they look at themselves as artists. I am not an artist; I rip off from every game that I can.

Shack: Well, great artists steal, right?

Brad Wardell: Yeah, so I steal ideas from Civilization--here, I'll give you an idea. At the Game Developers Conference, me and [Civilization 4 lead designer] Soren Johnson--our algorithm for rivers in this game is from Soren Johnson. We were having a heck of a time making cool-looking roads and rivers, and he said, well, here's a way, a technique to do it. And we were like, oh right, we didn't think about it!

Shack: That's really cool.

Brad Wardell: Yeah, so games like X-Com, and Star Control 2, and of course Master of Magic, we love those games. And so we take bits and pieces, and we take our own ideas of things we wanted to see in games. I think the family tree feature of Elemental is pretty much something that we're bringing to the genre that's fairly unique.

Shack: Talk about that tree.

Brad Wardell: Well the idea is that, in these games, it's pretty normal to have heroes, and you can recruit heroes in this game as well. But we wanted the player to have more diplomatic tools than the usual treaties or tribute or whatever. And instead, while you are immortal, you can get married, have children, grow old and die. And you can actually arrange marriages and that kind of thing, and they'll have offspring that are a genetic blend of the two.

As an example, lets say I'm playing as the Altar, and we have an AI player, and their daughter is married to my son. She becomes a part of my family; I can control her, she's a unit in the game. Royalty in the game are actual units that you just get. Well, now she's my unit. Alright, I have her in my capitol city, and [she] just has babies or something. Or what do you know, she gives a 25% morale boost to any army she's in. Maybe I'll send her off with the army. Uh oh, she died. Well guess what, the other player's going to declare war on me because I killed their daughter.

Shack: There's the potential for some very twisted scenarios there.

Brad Wardell: Or how about this. The AI player's sovereign gets killed. He's out of the game. What happens to his kingdom? Well, his daughter is in my family, but what if his son was married off to some other family? Now there's a civil war in his kingdom. Some of his cities join my side, some of the cities join the other side.

One of the things in Galactic Civilizations is that people felt there was too much randomness when a civilization surrendered, who they surrendered to. Now it's not random at all. You can predict what's going to happen when someone surrenders or breaks off.

Shack: It's an interesting system. You have all of these components moving around behind the scenes, but when you look at them on the screen they're organized in fairly sensible tabs, with a pretty comprehensible progression. Almost in the same way that when you zoom out of the map, things become gradually more simplified.

Brad Wardell: Yeah, one of the things that we really wanted to do with Elemental was make the game seem more approachable. With Galactic Civilizations, you were bombarded with quests everywhere. There was like 12 quests right out of that main screen, and you click on a tab and you get a hundred little boxes. If we did that with this game, it would have been so complicated that nobody but the hardcore would have played it. And so many normal, non-hardcore players could get something out of this. I think they really enjoy games that are presented in a straightforward manner, but have a lot of depth to them.

Turn the page for more. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: On a basic level, you start out and have to build your city...

Brad Wardell: There's also combat. There's quests in the game. There are NPC adventurer parties running around this world. Your army will be a guy; you'll see this little party of adventurers run into a dungeon. Something will go wrong, and pretty soon a giant dragon emerges from it chasing them off. And you're like, oh crap, now there's a dragon loose in my kingdom that I have to deal with.

And so the game does have quests you can complete to get items. You can also research spells that make you ever more powerful. One of the things that we're really going for is making it not obvious who's going to win the game until the end. Too often in strategy games, the first half of the game is fun, and the second half is not at all.

Shack: And the experts know immediately who will win the game after ten minutes.

Brad Wardell: Right. Whereas in Elemental, you won't. I'll give you three examples that I think people will recognize. The marriage thing I was talking about. Let's say throughout the game I've maintained a relatively modest empire. I don't seem very powerful at the base of it. But throughout the game I've been breeding my daughters, for lack of a better word, that have high beauty, which makes them very desirable to various players.

So I have slowly become a major part of everyone else's family, so that player X, he thinks he's just more powerful than everyone else. But then these guys just start surrendering, but they're all surrounding to me. So now I've inherited 20 kingdoms, and I'm huge. This guy thought he was going to win, but now actually I'm going to win.

Shack: So you're quite literally planting the seeds of victory.

Brad Wardell: Right. [laughs] Yes. But that's one example. Here's another example: again, I don't seem to be that very powerful. Someone else has a huge army. But I'm actually busy sending my heroes on quests to recover bits of this ancient artifact. And just as he thinks he's going to win, I put this artifact together, and I can now make my relatively small army 100 times more powerful than it normally would be. Or maybe I've been spending my time researching these spells. Like you saw in the demo I give, my one guy approaching this city with this huge army, and I cast a spell and he's gone.

Shack: Right. And how does another player hope to counter those strategies if you're coming out of nowhere?

Brad Wardell: Well, one thing we're doing is, if someone's doing proper reconnaissance, they'll know what spells they have, they'll know what technologies. What they won't know is what various quests they're on. You can't spy on quests, but we're still thinking about that.

Shack: So that's how you would measure the relative strength of each nation.

Brad Wardell: Right. But it's not like Galactic Civilizations where you'd have a bar graph. You're going to have to be intelligent about that.

Shack: What's the deal with multiplayer? Is it essentially the single player component with human players?

Brad Wardell: Not quite. We have some special modes for multiplayer. We have an arena mode, which is almost a little bit like Demigod, where you go into a tactical battle. Whoever wins that wins the game. That's for the guy who only has 20 minutes to play. Then you have small maps, very small maps, where the object is not to destroy the other guys, because that can take a long time, but rather to capture and hold victory shards. It's kind of like Company of Heroes, where you have to capture victory flags. I don't know how much of that will show up in single player--single player will have its own campaign mode and stuff. The idea is to have a very broad audience for this game.

Shack: And multiplayer servers are using your own tech?

Brad Wardell: Yeah. Now when Demigod came out, we were originally going to use GPGnet, but that wasn't available for that game, which lead us to have to utilize a third-party solution, which had some issues. It's not that that solution was buggy, it's just that it wasn't scalable. We ended up having to develop our own thing for Demigod, and that's the service we're using for Elemental. So now our servers can actually host the games, so we can guarantee no lag, a good experience. But we can also let players host their own games if they want, if they want to do their own thing.

Shack: The level of modability is very impressive. Players can use the in-game editor to create new buildings and stuff, and then you have high-level modding support for additional 3D models and other gameplay tweaks. Was that something borne out of looking at your past games and seeing what the Stardock community wanted?

Brad Wardell: A little bit. One of the reasons why we've been able to do these things on the games--take as long as we want to do to make these games, is that we have this non-game side of the company that does really well. We make programs like Windows Blinds, and desktop apps like that. And one of the reasons we've been successful over the long term is because people create their own content for these programs.

And so we've really wanted for a long time to bring that into our games. If people want to make their own swords, or spells or potions; if they're non-technical, they can use the assets that are in their game. If they are technical, they can go into Maya or 3D Studio, make the models, and I don't remember the format we used--it's basically an open standard. You can import it into the game and then share it with other people.

Shack: When you import new models, are they automatically shaded to the art style?

Brad Wardell: Well, we moderate them. They don't just show up automatically. They have to go through moderation, and we'll rate them whether they're canon or non-canon. Canon are things we've either rated ourselves or fit into our world. Non-canon is when it's like, okay, that's really cool, you've made a giant sword, but it doesn't fit in.

Shack: Or a spaceship.

Brad Wardell: Well, I don't know about that. We'll have to play wait and see. If people start making flying saucers, I don't know. We may have different levels of canon. Maybe we'll have a slider for "totally canon" and "extreme non canon." Right now it's just a check box.

Shack: So if you want to populate your game with user-made buildings, there's just an in-game option for it?

Brad Wardell: Right. There is a setting where you can actually choose what level of canon. We should probably explain what canon means to people: canon is when it's officially sanctioned as part of the universe. So in Star Wars, the books set after Return of the Jedi are considered non-canon. Whereas the movies are considered canon.

Shack: Yeah. Basically it adds ten more pages to any Wikipedia entry.

Brad Wardell: Exactly. "Non-canon-wise, Luke Skywalker can destroy blah blah blah." Well, same thing in Elemental.

Shack: So that's automatically populated.

Brad Wardell: Yeah, but it's not like, "Oh no, I want non-canon stuff but now I'm stuck with it." You can set it for every game. So if you want to play some weird game where there's going to be Pacmen and aliens running around the world, they can do that.

Stay tuned for the second part of our interview with Brad Wardell. Elemental is set for a mid-2010 release.