Interview: Stardock's Derek Paxton talks about Elemental: Fallen Enchantress

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In 2010, Stardock released Elemental: War of Magic, the first game in its fantasy turn-based strategy series. The game was highly anticipated but the final release was marred by both programming and gameplay issues. Now Stardock is planning to reenter the series again with Elemental: Fallen Enchantress, which will be released on the PC via digital download on Tuesday.

We got a chance to chat with Stardock's Vice President of Digital Entertainment Derek Paxton about the game, how he came on board Stardock after creating popular mods for games like Civilization iV and more.

First, you joined Stardock almost two years ago. What has the transition been like for you from mod creator to professional game developer?

It means I get to devote myself to the game. Making a game in my spare time meant I had to take weeks off because work was busy, and I would have loved nothing more than to focus on the game for a while. Now I get that opportunity. Also in the world of mod making I try to make the best game possible given some pretty severe limitations. There were things the engine simply couldn't do and things the team and I didn't have the skills for. We were cooking the best meal we could with the ingredients we had available. But now I have the ability to modify the engine, which is developed in house by Stardock, and I have access to talented people who are also able to be 100% dedicated to the project.

What were your goals in developing Fallen Enchantress?

I believe in the concept of Fallen Enchantress, 4x strategy in an RPG world. I saw a lot of potential in that concept and an opportunity to make a game that I would love to play. I believe in Stardock as a world class developer of strategy games, and I was honored to be able to join that team. There were 3 primary goals when the project began, to create fun tactical battles, to make an interesting world, and to create powerful spells. We implemented those and played the result. The move was in the right direction, but it wasn't good enough. I asked Brad (CEO of Stardock, Executive Producer and Lead Developer of Fallen Enchantress) for an extension and he granted it. We went back with 2 additional goals in mind, faction differentiation and an improved economic model. Once those were in and operating correctly we had our game.

While the game is a turn-based strategy title at its core, it also has an RPG aspect to it. How hard was it to integrate those gameplay styles?

Great question, this was a very thin tightrope to walk. Once we introduced the RPG aspects you put yourself in a place where you are doing something halfway. That’s a dangerous gamble, as it often seems like you are doing it, but not well. The goal was to find RPG tropes that made sense at a 4x strategy game level. Bonuses on units when they level-up, is a good example. These upgrades affect the military game and can affect other aspects when you choose skills for your champions that improve your empires research, mana production, etc. We carried that level-up mechanic over into our economic game, allowing cities to level-up as they gained population and pick their specialties. When your city gets 60 population it levels-up and you decide if you want to make that city into a town (ideal for producing gold and improvement that make your entire empire better), a conclave (best for research and magic) or a fortress (best for defense and producing armies).

What would you say were the main gameplay improvements to Fallen Enchantress, compared to the original game?

There isn't a system in Fallen Enchantress that hasn't been radically altered, if not replaced outright, from War of Magic. Except for some shared art and a common lore I don't think the games are very similar. The most obvious immediate difference is that the world of Fallen Enchantress is alive and dangerous. Everything from hordes of mites, to broken golems from ancient wars and terrifyingly powerful dragons lay claim to the world and your first task as a player isn’t to grab land or wage war with the AI. It's just to explore and survive in the world itself.

How much encouragement was given to you to make the game you wanted to make at Stardock?

I had total control over the game, which I am very appreciative for. I know it is a risk to bring a new guy in and give him the reigns. Stardock has a long history of producing great strategy games, they didn't need me. But they gave me the opportunity and the control to carry it through. That isn't to say I was alone. There is a very talented team here and they aren't shy about sharing their ideas. There were many nights were Brad and I sat and talked about the game, the industry and game design as a whole. That process of working through ideas with Brad, with the team, and then with the community made the game so much better.

Now that work on the game has been completed, how do you feel about the finished product?

I love it, I'm very proud of the game we created. I think that the industry has been rounding off the edges of their game design, focusing on selling to more and more people. I don't have a problem with that. I just want to make sure there are a variety of games out there to play. That rounding of the edges tends to create games with less personality. I like quirks, I like odd details, I like a game where you are still finding new things out 20 hours in. It may be a bit daunting or overwhelming, but there is a world there. The first time you figure out you can combine Arcane Monoliths and Cloudwalk to teleport around the map, that Blindness is a great way to negate Cave Bears maul attack, or that Magnar can kill that enslaved soldier to get the mana he needs to cast fireball are great moments of discovery that I worry that our very accessible games may be missing. But then I used to enjoy using graph paper to map the dungeons I was exploring, so I may be strange.

Do you believe that the people who were disappointed with the first Elemental game will be ready for this new entry?

Yes. The amazing story of War of Magic isn't that it disappointed players. There are a lot of games that aren't that great that come out every year. They typically disappear into obscurity and no one remembers them (sadly even a few pretty good games suffer that fate). The amazing part is how loud and vocal the reaction around the game was. I believe that is because there were so many people who really wanted a game like this, who believed in this concept. You don't get mad when you go to a restaurant and they are out of something you didn't want to order. You get mad when you wanted a steak and they don't have it. You get even more mad when this is a special night out, when you planned for this steak, when you drive across town for it, and then you can't get it. So I love the passion, I love that anyone who bought War of Magic in 2010 will get Fallen Enchantress for free so they can start playing. The beta has been running for months so they are already providing feedback, ideas and enjoying playing the game.

You are a mod creator, so how important was it to make the game mod friendly?

I like having the game be mod friendly because it makes our job easier. We could hard code values in code, but with a little extra work we can set that value in XML, which is easy to tweak and modify. Once we have a base that is easy to tweak we can spend a lot of time creating without having to pull developers to make changes. The terrain tools allow us to create maps without artists or programmers, the building tool allows anyone to create tile designs. It takes a bit longer to setup, but once it's done designers can really work. Plus we can expose those tools to players who can use them to make custom factions, custom sovereigns, custom armies for their empires, tweak their iron golems, give their units purple hair, whatever they want. All from within the game.

After that the modders can go on to create even more elaborate changes. One of our modders has an excellent mod called Stormworld that has angels, centaurs and a whole host of strange, bizarre and brilliant ideas for anyone who want to play. I love the game we made. But we only made one game, with mods there can be hundreds or thousands of games to play. Modders can fill out the city system with tons of buildings, and a player that wants that can get a mod that suits his tastes. He doesn't need to be held back by my preferences, he can make production faster, add the ability to train dragons, give a bunch of units the ability or whatever he would like.

Now that the game is finished, will we see extra content added via DLC packs?

Right now we are just concentrating on getting Fallen Enchantress to be the best game possible. Once it is released, and we get a little rest, we will plan for the next steps.

How has the PC game industry changed between the time you came on board at Stardock until now?

The transition from retail to digital distribution has been a lot faster than I expected. Stardock's first release since I started was Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion which was digital only. That would have been a scary thought a few years back when retail accounted for a huge portion of sales. But it had the highest preorder numbers of any title Stardock has released, even outselling the original Sins of a Solar Empire.

Rumors are you are developing an all new game at Stardock. Can you give us any hints about this project?

Right now all of my time, thoughts and energy are focused on Fallen Enchantress. Talking about next projects is like asking a woman for a romantic night out when she in labor. Hmm… I think I may have cast myself as a pregnant woman in that last metaphor. I shouldn't do interviews late at night. 

We would like to thank Derek for answering our questions!

Images via Stardock

Finally, is there anything else you wish to say about Elemental: Fallen Enchantress and your work at Stardock in general?

I'm so appreciative of the team at Stardock. Each one of them does everything asked of them and then comes back to me with ideas on how to make it even better. Yesterday I was listening to the team discussing a very minor mechanic in the game, some liked it, some wanted to change it. After 30 minutes of discussion about it in chat (we were having a play day where everyone plays the game) my project manager mind began to wonder if it was a good use of company time. But that’s what is so great about them. It would have been easy to state an opinion, or to not care either way, to shrug their shoulders and go on. But they are passionate. They want it to be great, which is why I love working here.

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