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Solium Infernum Interview

Solium Infernum Interview

Interview - posted by Jason on Tue 23 December 2008, 06:28:50

Give us an overview of Solium Infernum.

Solium Infernum is a grand strategy game set in the Infernal Pit a.k.a Hell. The basic premise is that the Infernal Throne (Solium Infernum is the Latin term) sits empty and you play an Archfiend vying for it. You do this by amassing the most Prestige Points by the time the Infernal Conclave convenes to select the next ruler of Hell. You can gain prestige points in a number of different ways. The most obvious way is to claim strategic points on the board called Places of Power that dot the landscape of Hell. But you can also get points by performing unholy rituals, demanding tribute from and insulting your opponents and eventually claiming Vendetta or Blood Feud and sending your legions out to punish the other pretenders to the throne.

Other than the setting, how will Solium Infernum differ from Armageddon Empires?

Well, Solium Infernum is much more like a board game. It probably actually most closely resembles a digital version of something that Fantasy Flight Games might publish.....strong on theme, with fantastic art and a mish mash of Euro and war game mechanics. The perjorative term from the “board game wars” is “Ameritrash” and that would be a badge that Solium Infernum wears proudly.

You've mentioned the deception path and gluttonous accumulation path as two ways to be successful in Solium Infernum. Gluttonous accumulation is fairly self-explanatory in a strategy game, but what exactly does deception involve in gameplay terms?

Like I mentioned earlier, the victory condition for the game is based on the accumulation of Prestige Points. Those come in two flavors: known and secret. Known prestige is the most common and is generated by many actions in the game including the holding of Places of Power. The known points are displayed above each player’s portrait/icon in the diplomacy screen so everybody can get a sense of who is “in the lead.” But the secret prestige makes things a bit more complicated. You cash in Secret Objective cards that you have completed at the end of the game for Prestige Points. These are things like perform 10 destruction rituals or destroy X enemy legions between now and the end of the game. If you fail to complete the secret objective though you are penalized the points so you need to be careful about what cards you keep when you draw them.

The “Paths” to victory revolves around the idea that you can use different play styles to accumulate Prestige Points. There are 5 disciplines of Infernal Power that you can level up in and they roughly correspond to 5 different play styles: Wrath, Deceit, Prophecy, Destruction and Diabolism. Each time you level up in a power you unlock special bonuses and rituals that can be performed. Deceit focuses on manipulating your enemy and disrupting the front end of his “OODA cycle.” For example, you get access to rituals that place dummy icons on the board or hide your icons briefly from view. You can also steal his resources, artifacts and relics or bribe his heroes (Preators) to abandon his cause. The three big design words that I jotted down for this power were: Deny, Dissemble and Manipulate.

How do Rituals fit into the game? What about Infernal Artifacts/Relics?

Rituals are super powers that you use during the game. They would probably be called global spells in your typical elves and dwarves fantasy game. Each player has a ritual chamber that has a given number of open slots available. You generally unlock slots by leveling up your Prophecy power but you can also acquire unholy relics that give you a +1 slot bonus. You spend resource cards that are brought to you by your minions to power the rituals. The rituals themselves are divided into the 5 power categories and act along those lines.

For example the basic destruction ritual is called Infernal Affliction and it damages a legion’s or Place of Power’s hit points directly. That’s handy to use on an enemy to soften them up before an assault. The level 6 rituals have the greatest power and my design goal was to make them effective but reasonable. They aren’t game changers but they can be momentum shifters. The level 6 destruction ritual does permanent damage to both hit points and attributes so the target is never going to quite be the same again if it fails its resistance roll.

Infernal Artifacts and Unholy Relics are used to power up your legions and Places of Power. Artifacts are combat oriented and grant a unique special ability to the legion that possesses it. Relics are attached to Places of Power and usually grant some special bonus to the player i.e. + 1 Ritual Slots. The twist here though is that you generally acquire artifacts and relics by bidding on them with your resource cards in the Infernal Bazaar.

Describe the way Vendettas work. What are the consequences? How can your Praetors be customized for this?

Vendettas are sanctions from the Infernal Conclave to do violence directly to an opponent. You have to follow what I call the Infernal Protocols to be allowed to claim Vendetta. You do this by issuing demands and hurling insults at your opponents. Depending on how they respond you will eventually be offered the opportunity to claim Vendetta and at that point you can start marching your legions into his territory. The conflict is heavily regulated though. You basically wager prestige points that you can either capture so many Cantons (hexes) or destroy so many legions or capture a place of power. Once you do that you win the Vendetta and are given your wager back and awarded bonus points.

The player claiming Vendetta also has the option to settle the matter via single combat. Each player designates a Praetor that they control to represent them in the Infernal Arena and they battle it out for the honor of their respective Houses. Preators have three combat stats that are used for this: Attack (Skulls), Defense (Shields) and Infernal (Orbs). When a praetor wins a combat they often get leveled up and can increase these stats. In addition you can find via your minions or buy in the Infernal Bazaar rare manuscripts that increase these stats but more importantly offer special combat moves.

How far along is the title? When can we expect a demo?

I’m behind schedule because of a lack of discipline in adding features that I think are “too cool to pass up.” I’d really like to get SI finished by 2nd Quarter 2009. There will definitely by a demo on release day.

Where did the initial idea and vision of hell and its political system come from?

I first read Milton’s Paradise Lost in high school and there was a line that really stood out for me.

To reign is worth ambition though in hell:
Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

Did you have any concerns that the subject matter would generate any negative reactions (i.e. some religious type accusing you of promoting Satanism to their children)?

Mostly no. From a business stand point I don’t envision my audience as being that young. My hubris is probably considering my niche to be mirror images of myself as far as gaming tastes are concerned. I’m an indie so I won’t be getting an ESRB rating for this game but it’s definitely not an M rated game.

I think there are also people who will just not like the theme. I’ve read comments in forums where gamers have said they don’t like playing the bad guys. All I can say is that playing a bad guy is not really what the game is about. The game is a fantasized vision of Hell without any real moral or religious commentary. You won’t meet Brutus in the Ninth Circle or find any of the people who harrassed Dante in real life. You could even play the game, claim the throne and then (in your own mind) decide to reconcile with the Almighty....although to reign is worth ambition.

Now that there's a big budget game and movie based on Dante's Inferno in the works, is there any worry that folks might mistakenly think SI is an attempt to cash in on it?

I hadn’t actually thought about it that way. My first thought was that it might be a bit of a boon...kindling (Hell joke there) some renewed interest in the setting. Although from what I understand this is going to be an AAA action adventure game and mine will be a solid B indie turn based strategy game made in Adobe Director. At this point though even a small hubub about SI cashing in on anything would be welcome for the free publicity.

What is your idea of a good challenge? Is it simply having the odds stacked against the player or something else? How do you try and gauge what a player is going to find fun and what they'll find annoying?

Ha! Those are great questions. I’ve been asking myself recently a somewhat similar question lately..... namely “Should a player ever lose.” This is of course in a single player context against computer AI’s. SI will have a PBEM multi-player component so in that case somebody definitely should win and it should be challenging. But for the single player game I have been philosophizing about the questions that you pose.

What kicked it off was my recent experience with some sports game that I have been playing. I’m not naming any names but I’ve recently had some moments where I have lost and felt the desire to punch my monitor. It seemed that the AI decided that I was having too good a time and that now I must pay and it responded with what I thought was an unstopable scoring move. Now having written an AI for my last game I know in my heart that it probably was just not case. It was most likely “operator error” on my part but the sequence just ended up annoying the hell out of me.

It’s like the emails I get where players are convinced that the dice rolls in Armageddon Empires are rigged. And the truth is that they are not but they probably should be, but in the players favor. Soren Johsnon has written about this a little. It’s called “playing to lose” and it’s a good design goal for AI programmers. If I was skilled enough I would probably have done some serious stochastic analysis of how human players were doing against the dice and what their general game situation was and then starting tilting the odds in their favor. Of course you can’t tell players about this because that messes up the psychology of the experience for them.... the cheap win feeling is worse than the invincible steam roller feeling. So the Holy Grail would be to let the Wookie win but not let him know that your throwing the game though. But if you throw the game every time, then even a Wookie is going to start getting suspicious. It’s a real dilemma. You could get a Ph.D. writing a thesis about this....or an aneurism.

Why go with card-based mechanics rather than more traditional turn-based strategy gameplay?

For Armageddon Empires it was really just a fortuitous circumstance. I was looking for a unique way to deploy agents to the game board. Solium Infernum replaces the CCG deck mechanic with a blind bid type system. Here you need to do a little game theory and try and anticipate what your opponents are going to bid on and how much. It’s a pretty common mechanic that you will find in a lot of Euro-style games. My design approach is to make these turn based games as board game like as possible but to leverage the computer’s advantages as well. The computer allows you to do alot of things that a designated “Game Judge” would have to do.

Any plans or desire for working on a more typical (i.e. historical) wargame?

Absolutely. But while I might use hexes, it won’t be your typical thousand counters and a combat results table. I’d be more likely to take the Richard Borg approach with his line of card driven games like Memoir 44...or maybe something like Paths of Glory by Ted Raicer

What about plans to expand further on Armageddon Empires (sequels, patches, mini-expansions)?

Right now I’m pretty focused on just Solium Infernum. After I finish SI, I’m going to give it some thought but to be honest I’ve got some other ideas that I’d like to run with first.

Any likelihood of moving away from Director for future projects due to limitations in the software?

Maybe after I finish up these first couple of games. I’d like to be successful enough that I could afford to take the time to retrain in something more powerful. At this point I don’t think I could start from scratch. I’ve built up a lot of design patterns that should really acclerate my productivity. I’d like to get the time down between releases to less than 18 months consistently.

Seeing as you're one of the recent posterboys for indie gaming, what would it take for you to give up your independent status? Armageddon Empires 2 published by Ubisoft using the Unreal 3 Engine? A design position on Take 2's upcoming X-COM sequel? 30 minutes alone with Salma Hayek in a hot tub full of Jello?

Depends on the flavor of the Jello. I’ll be here until Thursday. Try the liver.

Seriously, I’m not team player material any longer. As much as I loved my time in the Navy I have two rules that I live by now: Never have to say “Yes Sir” again. Never have to report for something at “O” dark ugly.

Ever consider doing a mech title? As in BattleTech, Titans of Steel, or Front Mission rather than AE's Machine Empire. If so, what would you do differently than what has gone before?

I’d look at the old Avalon Hill Starship Troopers board game and do it like that. Actually the tactical nuke in Armageddon Empires was inspired by Starship Troopers. I’d also tighten up the focus and make your mech/powered battle armor part of a drop team that has to capture a victory objective. And you would have a special unit activation system and I’d do an X-Com style squad development where you really became attached to the squad members. But it would be hex based and use a special die system where you rolled customized die to determine hits and damage….and you played “Command Cards” to change the results…. Just brain storming here mind you.

Let's talk about your blog. Sure, doing a blog is good promotion for the game, but you go a lot farther than that. Why do you give such a detailed peek behind the curtain, so to speak? Are you just trying to explain why things are the way they are? Are you hoping for feedback or is it something you're archiving for yourself so you can go back and read it years down the road? Or is it just something you find therapeutic?

You hit all the nails on the head there. It started out as a marketing tool but morphed into something more. I’ve felt bad lately that I haven’t kept up the original pace but now that I’m really driving hard on finishing SI I have had to cut back on the posts. I have some general design entries that I have been working on but mostly I’m using it to give a glimpse into what Solium Infernum is all about.

I’m not really looking for feedback since I have disabled the comments. I do welcome feedback on the forums. I just can’t respond to it and still get my milestones on my work done. I keep an open thread though at my website for general improvement suggestions…. The Wish List. I do read them all and they influence my thinking on many aspects of my design process.

Thanks to Vic Davis of Cryptic Comet for the interview.


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