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Thoughts On Sins--An Interview With Blair Fraser

GI: Can you talk about what you didn’t want the game to be when you first began the design process? What pitfalls do you think developers face when designing RTS/4X games, and how did you try to avoid them?

Fraser: It’s tough to narrow one thing down, so I took an office poll and the winner is: We didn’t want Sins to be another deep strategy game that was inaccessible to the average gamer (and by the same token, we didn’t want to simplify it so much that the hardcore gamers would be bored). I really feel we succeeded quite well with this goal using the guiding philosophy that you should design simple systems that can interact in such a way that complexity emerges as a natural part of the environment. The main pitfall in designing an RT4X is that RTS games and 4X are near polar opposites. RTS games run in real-time, typically force fast decision making, often rely on high levels of micro-management and are usually more centered on tactical thought than strategic. 4X games are typically turn-based (or turn-based + one-at–a-time real-time battles), allow for prolonged decision making, are abstracted to suggest you are macro-managing (though I could easily argue the macro tasks are micro-managed given the amount of time I’ve waited for some of my friends to complete their turns), and are more focused on strategic decisions than tactical.

Each genre also has a very distinctive “feel” that I couldn’t begin to describe, but I know it when I feel it. The strategy we used to avoid this primary pitfall is to experiment, experiment, experiment. We basically started by building a flexible real-time engine sandbox and implanting various 4X features. Then try playing it with each feature. If it doesn’t work, try to re-imagine it, innovate, simplify it, combo it with something else, try a new feature that catches the same feel, speed it up, slow it down, drop it, pick it up later, throw it out for good – basically any operation you can think of, give it a shot. Ultimately, the number one rule is you can’t be afraid to throw stuff out. Sure you put 100 hours into it, but if it doesn’t work, it gets the boot.

GI: When the game was being developed, what elements of RTS’ and 4X games did you think were essential at the core, and which were you more than happy to shed?

Fraser: For the most part we didn’t want to lose anything from either genre because we love them both, but as I mentioned before the genres have some conflicts and elements had to be cut. The only feature of 4X games we were sure we wanted to get rid of was the turn-based element. We still love turned-based games but for Sins we wanted a really great multiplayer experience. Turn-based multiplayer just doesn’t have the same multiplayer appeal because there is too much time spent waiting for other players to complete their turns. A major 4X system we reluctantly had to shed was detailed planet surface development (we still have detailed orbital development). Originally, we had a system where you clicked on a planet and you could view a 2d layout of the terrain and choose to build various structures on the available terrain hexes. Each terrain type would have different bonuses, restrictions and penalties for the type of structure placed on it.  In the end, it was too time consuming and distracting from the main gameplay to fit into real-time, so away it went. Another major 4X system that we really didn’t want to cut but ultimately had to was detailed ship construction like in Galactic Civilizations II. We started in this direction and quickly realized it was too time consuming for players to do in real-time. We then tried ever more simplified versions of it until we arrived at the current system where units are fixed (like in most RTS’) with selectable upgrades. This is most true for the capital ships – you can give them names, customize their fighter layouts, and unlock powerful special abilities. They have a sort of RPG feel to them and as they get more powerful you can grow attached to them (as demonstrated by the sense of loss you feel when your level 10 flagship is taken down for being a bit too bold in trying to solo a pirate base).

GI: Sins revisits the now-standard idea of focus firing in some interesting ways (shields getting more powerful as more damage is inflicted, targeted enemies losing accuracy, etc.). At what point in the design process did you decide to look into those mechanics, and what solutions did you finally end up choosing?

Fraser: The design process for Sins was very organic and effectively continuous right up until we went gold, and I honestly can’t remember when the focus-fire issue first came up. I think it was during one of the early betas and we were reading some posts complaining about a number of different issues. One of them said that combat looked a bit boring and unrealistic because all the weapons fire was directed at single targets; the other said that it was clearly advantageous to focus fire and focus firing was micromanagement intensive, so to remain competitive you had no choice but to micromanage as well. Initial attempts to solve the problem focused solely on making it easier to focus fire including automatic focus fire, but that didn’t address all the issues. One of the more interesting attempts was to add the idea of suppression where units under fire suffered a dps penalty, but our simulations and math suggested that it was still advantageous to focus fire.

At some point we came up with the idea of “shield mitigation” which means that as a unit takes fire, more and more of the damage is absorbed by the shield up to some limit. As damage against the unit falls, so does the mitigation. This was on the right track but there were still a couple of problems. First, as soon as shields fail, it becomes advantageous to focus fire directly against the hull, which in some ways actually increases the micromanagement because it forces you to sit and observe the state of the targets and then act on state changes. At least without any mitigation and regular focus fire you just had to queue up a sequence of targets and you could go do something else. We then decided that when a ship’s primary shields fell, weak emergency hull integrated shields would kick in to maintain the mitigation. The final problem was more emotional based than anything. It just didn’t feel right that a level 10 capital ship that you worked all game to develop could be taken down in seconds by a horde of low level units – he should at least stick around for a bit, kill a bunch of stuff and die a heroic death. So we changed how mitigation works for capital ships; as they level up their max mitigation level will increase. And that is the final state of “shield mitigation” as of Sins gold master.

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