Interview: Switching Fantasy For Sci-Fi In Age of Wonders: Planetfall

Age of Wonders: Planetfall is a big shift for the long running series. Since its debut in 1999, it’s been set in a fantasy world, but Planetfall makes the jump from fantasy to science fiction – it will also see the series debut on console.

It’s got a lot of really interesting ideas behind it – you can catch our preview here – and we got the chance to sit down and chat with Triumph Studios’ MD and co-founder Lennart Sas at PDXCON last week.

TSA: Age of Wonders: Planetfall is interesting in how you’ve pushed back the fantasy, gone all in on sci-fi, but what was the driving force behind making the switch?

Lennart Sas: We’ve done fantasy for twenty years! Twenty years of elves and dwarves! So yeah, we grew up with Tolkien, just like we grew up with Lucas and Herbert and all the other big creators. We always entertained the thought of applying that to one of our games, and the gameplay focus of Age of Wonders is a great match to a mythological sci-fi world with destructive weaponry, especially when it’s in a world with a rich history. Fantasy generally looks back to ancient mysteries and whatnot, and we do that as well the with prevalence of the Star Union.

TSA: Do you feel that, yes, it’s Science Fiction, but it’s science fiction with a fantasy twist to it?

Lennart: Yeah, yeah. It’s like, what do you call in in Star Wars, this kind of used future thing? It’s old, there’s mythology and history, and that’s very important to us. I think that also makes the step for the fantasy fans a little bit less big than it might have been if we’d gone for hard sci-fi.

TSA: With the overarching plot, I’m curious how that is brought together in the game. It’s a galactic story, but you only ever play on planets, so are they tied together by a star map? Is there a story that you follow on the path to the Star Union throne?

Lennart: Well there is a Star Map, and basically any game that you play, whether it’s a campaign map or one of the random maps, it gets called out on the Star Map to show where this world is located. Any map which you play is going to have emergent storytelling that’s going to give you hints of things that happened, just like if you play Fallout and go scavenging through the wastelands, you’ll find history of what happened there.

The overarching story is the campaign mode, where at various points you can choose which of the surviving factions you want to play. They all make their way to the central hub of the Star Union, so everybody is making a journey toward a particular place.

TSA: So you’re switching between the different races in the game?

Lennart: Yes.

TSA: And I’d assume there’s then some titanic battle to finish, since this is the symbolic throne of the Star Union you’re trying to capture.

Lennart: I mean, I don’t want to spoil the story, but I think there might be a vacancy. [laughs]

TSA: Best print off your job application and make your way (with your army) to the interview! [laughs]

TSA: There’s quite a few interesting new ideas within the tactical combat, such as the destructible scenery, melee overwatch, the grazing shot. Was the intention to make it really quite pacy? Or to address some of the regular annoyances people have?

Lennart: Firstly, pacing is important because the tactical combat can’t last too long. [Compared to XCOM or Battletech] we’ve got way more units, so that’s been a major consideration.

Of course, the old Age of games had hit chances and some people loved it, some who hated it. We had people sending us death threats because they said they had watched the random number generator and that the chance that said 60% was actually 40%, and that’s why they lost this multiplayer game, and they were going to come over and blah, blah, blah.

TSA: Well, at least you’ve got dedicated fans, I guess.

Lennart: Yeah, death threats over the random number generator.

But now I think we’ve found a good middle ground and the excitement of taking a shot and being able to missed and hitting the scenery instead and avoid the frustration that a total miss brings.

TSA: Yeah, so the grazing system where you can still deal damage on a miss is interesting, but if I understand it correctly, it’s still just another percentage chance and you can still get a complete miss sometimes?

Lennart: It depends on the full chance to hit, so if that’s like 90%, there’s no chance that you will get no hit, so that 10% will always be a graze. It shifts downwards to scale, and I’m not sure how exactly, but if it’s 75% or lower, for example, then there is a chance that there’s a full miss. To make sure you know, if the targeting arrow is red, then there’s a chance that you might fully miss, but if it’s green it will always hit, but there’s a chance it’s a graze and not a full hit.

It’s very simple, but it reduces the frustration.

TSA: Yeah, I mean there’ll still be a little frustration because your plan isn’t coming together, but the beauty of these games is that you’re having to compensate and adjust your plans.

Lennart: Ah, it’s just controlled randomness, not full randomness.

TSA: The staggering and the area of effect attacks are other really interesting ideas, I feel. You said in the presentation that the standard tactic is always to focus fire on one enemy at a time, but this introduces other tactical possibilities.

Lennart: Yeah, exactly. It ensures that there’s a different rhythm to the game, new tactics and more fun.

TSA: Does it tie in with the design of some of the races, so that the Vanguard are better at focussed fire, for example, but one of the other races is more about area of effect?

Lennart: Or the Dvar, for example, who are all about explosives. Did I tell you about the Dvar?

TSA: I don’t think you did, no!

Lennart: OK! So the Dvar are basically people who live in giant suits and you never see their faces. If you customise their appearance, you’re customising the eye holes, an exhaust or an extra tube. They’re a little bit like space dwarves, but…

TSA: But underneath all that armour, do they still have big bushy beards?

Lennart: Nobody knows!

TSA: Go on, you can tell us. Do they? [laughs]

Lennart: Well, maybe. It’s like dwarf women, do they exist or not?

TSA: Yeah, and they’ve got beards as well!

Lennart: But anyway, you don’t get to see them, but they’re all about explosives and blowing stuff up, do tectonic shifts, and a lot of their battlefield stuff is about area of effect and staggering. They’re a fun race to play.

TSA: So, you’ve talked about three races now, but are those the only three?

Lennart: Six, but they’ve not all been revealed… and maybe I shouldn’t have told you about the Dvar… [laughs]

TSA: I’m sure you get to make that call!

TSA: You’re coming to console as well, which is something I think is always good to see for Paradox’s published games where it’s possible. You’ve had some experience with Overlord in the past, but this is the first for Age of Wonders, so how are you tackling adapting the interface to console?

Lennart: Yeah, so we’ve already got the combat working, but it’s a very relaxing game to play because it’s turn based so you can take your time. […] Of course, some interfaces will need to be reworked, like all of those things in the corners of the screen that you click on to get overviews, but we’ve changed that to a radial menu to access particular overviews.

It’s going well, but it’s just a lot of work. We haven’t encountered anything structural that we’re really stuck with.

TSA: It’s good with how it’s turn-based so you can take your time, I think you’ve just got to be careful that not everybody has a 55″ TV and 4K!

Lennart: You’ve just got to sit closer! [laughs] We do have interface scaling, and that’s a must, because if you have 4K 55″ against a 1080p 55″ TV, you’re even going to want to have a different interface scale there, and for smaller TVs you can pick a larger interface.

TSA: Finally, almost one year on from when you joined Paradox, how has it been?

Lennart: It’s been super fun. Just to do such an event [like PDXCON] would be impossible on our own, and being a part of a team that can pull this off and they have all these really talented, super smart people [working on grand strategy]. In many ways they approach grand strategy games in a different way, and there’s lots to learn from that as well.

TSA: Yeah, it’s really nice for Paradox to have a different take on grand strategy that they’re publishing.

Lennart: It didn’t dawn on me for a while, but as soon as we started to really analyse the differences between the two, they’re actually massively different genres between grand strategy and 4X.

Thanks to Lennart for chatting with us about Age of Wonders: Planetfall. The game is heading to PC and console some time in 2019.

This interview and related coverage came from attending PDXCON last week. Travel and accommodation were provided by Paradox Interactive.

Written by
I'm probably wearing toe shoes, and there's nothing you can do to stop me!