I recently sat down at the computer and loaded up Sins of a Solar Empire to play through a few small maps to remember how engrossing the game is and subsequently lost an entire afternoon and evening. As MMO players, the best analogy to describe a 4x game is if you took the entire world of EVE Online and condensed it into an overhead view, and then took direct control of the different ships and planets. 4x games are a mix between an orchestra full of strategy and constant fear that you’re forgetting something.
How is this relevant? Well, Ironclad Games, the developers of Sins of a Solar Empire have launched out into the world of multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs) with Sins of a Dark Age. Taking their experience from making one of the modern era’s best 4x games, their goal is to make a MOBA that advances the genre forward and forks a little bit from the current “Dota” model.
I had the joy of sitting in on a roundtable between some of the gaming elite and Ironclad Game’s Blair Fraser as we talked extensively about SoaDA.
One of the questions presented focused around what makes SoaDA different from other mobas. The moba genre is expanding rapidly with both Dota 2 and Smite launching in the new future and other titles slated for later this year and beyond. Their response was encouraging and truthful, which is something I love to hear. Their goal is to try and design their own version of a MOBA, influenced by dota sure, but infused with many new fresh ideas on how a MOBA should be made.
While many features are in development and can’t be discussed, there are some that are already public knowledge. The first new idea is utilizing the day / night cycle, a hangover from the Warcraft III engine. At night, the game world becomes a bit scarier, more brush spawns, abilities change, items differ, and it creates a scenario where you need a different strategy than for the day, maybe pull back and don’t take so many risks since you could be ganked at any second or go more on the aggressive and utilize the fearsome night to your advantage.
The other feature is the realm quests. These dynamic quests will spawn during the game with a simple objective (think destroy a tower) and it’s up to the players if they want to make the risk of losing something to gain the reward. The reward is really good, but so is the risk, so you could gain a tactical advantage completing the quest and it’s another layer of strategy on top of the existing formula.
One thing is for sure and that’s Ironclad is well aware of their competition and is striving to make a product that offers something new and fresh and isn’t just another rehash of League of Legends.
Commander mode was going to mix in RTS elements with MOBA elements, where there was a RTS player moving units, building buildings, training units, etc. and heroes who were moving around the world on their own. This sounds great on paper, but sadly Ironclad had to shelve the idea after a year of work because it just wasn’t fun.
There were a lot of reasons why it wasn’t fun, most of it boiling down to the commander having tons of disposable troops he can send anywhere to do whatever he wanted with and the heroes having only one troop and its loss was much stronger than losing a few units for the commander. Then there is the economy portion, in an RTS you convert resources into power, when a unit is defeated, those resources are removed permanently from the game. In a MOBA, the resources aren’t ever truly removed; they are turned into items and persist permanently. So that can kind of mess things up.
I’m not going to lie, I’m kind of sad to see commander mode go, but if isn’t fun then it isn’t fun. The best example I can think of is Savage which had a commander mode where the commander built the base and researched upgrades while players were in the FPS mode. I think that game was a success and the system was fun, but we’re talking an FPS here where the commander gave the upgrades to the heroes, not the heroes and the commander working in opposite tandem. So I can see why the system wouldn’t work.
Iteration and Quality
Commander mode is a great example of Ironclad’s commitment to quality, a feature with over a year’s worth of time was discarded in the attempt to make the game the best that it can be. That speaks of only good things to come. I haven’t had any hands on time with the game yet, so I can’t speak from experience, but I love hearing stories about developers actually invested in a quality product.
Day / Night
One key detail gleamed from the roundtable is a bit more information about how the day and night cycle works and it’s something I took particular interest in. A lot of times in an MOBA you’ll be in sort of a stalemate where there isn’t something to turn the tides in one direction or another. Everyone is in a holding pattern until something gives. In SoaDA that something will be night falling. Moonbloom will arrive, giving more brush to hide in, abilities will change, items will change, and the game dynamic will become riskier.
I find this to be interesting on a lot of levels, mostly because it solves the tedium of the midgame, when everyone is just farming their way to their next item. It makes it a bit more heart pounding and interesting. At the same time, we as Humans love static. We like our playing fields to remain perfectly clean and the same. Alterations can make us feel uncomfortable and the rules of the world changing every few minutes may not be that fluid. We'll have to wait and see.
One last interesting note Ironclad will not be targeting making SoaDA an e-sports game, at least at the start. This is good and bad news, in a way. The bad part is that there is a big community of players who find fun and excitement out of climbing ladders and working toward prizes. The good news is that making it e-sports worthy isn’t for everyone and the balance methods used for e-sports can sometimes zap some of the fun away, at least that's my opinion.
Overall, SoADA is looking to be a solid contender in the MOBA market and I can’t wait to see more of it. If you’re interested in more details, feel free to visit the official website.