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4X Strategy in Real Time? Ambitious Project From Ex-CI Games Dev

FeatureJun 12, 2015 at 9:15a PSTby Lukasz Malik

4X Strategy in Real Time? Ambitious Project From Ex-CI Games Dev

Upon quitting CI Games its co-founder decided to gather his own team and set up a studio that will focus on a really ambitious production.

Star Drifters is the name of a new Polish development studio that is currently working on an ambitious 4X real-time strategy. During the gaming industry conference Digital Dragons 2015 that took place in Krakow, Poland in May we sat down with Michal Sokolski, CEO of the studio and the founding father of the project.

Looks like we have another player entering the Polish game development market...

Star Drifters was created to implement projects for which there was no room in CI Games. We focus on original game concepts. We don't want to do anything generic, or copies or clones of other titles.

Why did you decide to leave CI Games, the studio you were associated with for many years?

Several people have already asked me about this. I'd been thinking about it for a long time myself. I am one of the founders of City Interactive, and I executed many projects as part of this company. Some of them didn’t even reflect my taste, but I treated City Interactive as something that was not necessarily about always satisfying my personal ambitions.

I see CI Games as a child who has finally grown up, moved out and become independent.

Are you saying that there is no room for creativity there?

No, it's not like that. If something is consistent with the direction in which the company is heading, there's totally room for that. For instance, Tomek Gop was really comfortable working on Lords of the Fallen, and in my opinion it was the right project that prompted him to join CI Games. I called him the day he left CD Projekt, although I assumed that he might not be eager to change employer immediately and take on new challenges. There were surely specific reasons behind his departure from CD Projekt. I told him that we were working on an action RPG in CI Games, and that from what I knew he might be interested in participating. After a month he got back to me.

In Star Drifters we are working on a strategy game, and CI Games simply doesn't make such games. I think there might be no room for creativity channeled in this particular direction in that company.

You’ve followed the path that many developers paved recently, quitting large companies to focus on something that the big players were afraid to pursue, or that wasn't consistent with the policy of a given corporation.

Corporations are often afraid to take risks, to experiment. It’s common that big companies are focused only on creating more sequels, and the gamers know very well what to expect. There are also examples of extremely interesting series such as Heroes of Might & Magic, where it's the community that rebels against any changes...

They’ve got the old mechanics, but 3D still bothers them...

Exactly. And what are the authors of such a beloved game supposed to do? If they have a specific vision of its development, they want the game to change and expand to keep it alive. From a purely financial point of view, such a situation may be good, but what about the authors who are looking for new opportunities to implement their ideas? This is the main reason why people leave and launch new businesses.

The second reason is that in order to do big things you have to make compromises. This was the case e.g. with the Sniper Ghost Warrior series; I was one of the people behind this project. I wanted to make a game with extensive ballistics and the so-called sniper experience, with an open structure where the player wouldn’t be bombarded with as many scripted events as e.g. in the Call of Duty series. As you know, the second part, although better executed, went in a completely opposite direction.

First Sniper had something that the sequel lost – the open structure, larger maps, and more freedom. And I think that apart from the mechanics of shooting with a sniper rifle, this was one of the main reasons behind its commercial success. People liked this game, because it was something fresh in the FPS market that was dominated by titles reminiscent of interactive action movies.

But now you are making a 4X fantasy strategy for PC...

A real-time strategy. 4X games are usually turn-based. This is one of the characteristics that will distinguish our game.

It will not be a typical RTS. Games of this genre are often very "sports-like" due to the complete control we have over individual units. Time pressure usually deters strategists who appreciate classic 4X games – they prefer playing in turns, which allows them to control all aspects of the gameplay. This is a serious barrier obstructing the development of the genre.

In our project there is no full control over the units, and the game is played in real time. The units belonging to the player's empire are quite autonomous, and we control them by way of giving orders.

Do you consider the game you're making as niche? The market has changed dramatically due to digital distribution. Sometimes 50-100 thousand copies sold are enough for a project to pay for itself and secure a studio's future. Is this the case with your project? Are you aiming at a particular audience?

It is exactly as you say – it would probably be foolish if we anticipated a strategy production to appeal to a wide audience. Our goal is to create a game that we will later expand and have a community built around it. Just like the Civilization series which gathered a loyal fan base and is developing so as to meet its expectations. Civilization V is still alive today, 5 years after its release, although it represents a niche genre.

When we're working on our game, we experiment, and we put emphasis on iteration. A rather big challenge lies in finding points of reference and benchmarks. When you're working on something that is not a carbon copy, you can't just say: "Listen, I'm making a game that is like this and like that, with the combat mechanics taken straight from Dark Souls” and then put a label on it and place the game in an appropriate compartment. I think that in the case of our project we will be hard pressed to find direct comparisons, even despite the fact that many elements of mechanics can be seen in other strategy games.

In addition to the original mechanics we also want our title to stand out in terms of exceptional optimization, so that it would run and look good on laptops or 2in1 devices. We are creating a UI that will work well with keyboard and touchpad or mouse, but will also support touch screens nicely. Thanks to this, you will be able to play comfortably for example when travelling.

But you wouldn't call it a casual game?

No, absolutely not! What I meant were rather the things that to some extent are indicating the direction of the development of strategy games. Currently, these are generally carbon copies of a number of different patterns that are difficult to escape. We want to take advantage of the fact that we are not under pressure of any kind, and we are not limited by the size of the company. There's no publisher above us, no-one pushing us to make a gazillion euro on this thing. We would like to create something that gamers will love. This is our goal.

Can you reveal anything about the game world? Will it be epic fantasy, or rather your own take on things?

We'd love to create an original world, but we are maneuvering certain patterns that players are familiar with. We have several races which will be divided into classes: warriors, archers, mages... Representatives of these classes will be able to use flying creatures as means of transport. Each mount will have unique features. This will be one of the innovations because thanks to them we’ll create hybrid classes.

We're also trying to implement an original graphic style. When designing our game, we sometimes get inspiration from such inventive titles as Journey or Rime, although we have no intention of copying them. We appreciate their iconic approach to graphics; one that doesn't try to imitate a particular style, but rather deconstructs known patterns and builds them anew.

By using certain symbols...

Yes, but of course we are going to do this more literally, although it won't be classic high fantasy reminiscent of Age of Wonders with exaggerated swords and so on. It will be a 3D game built on Unreal 4 engine with hand-drawn (painted) textures. I hope that this style appeals to gamers, because it fits the character of the game.

What are the main premises of the plot?

So far, I haven't shared this kind of information with any media, and I think it's probably still too early for that. The story that we've created is inextricably linked with level design and makes the boards on which we play very original. Their topology is dynamic, and it's a very important feature of the game that stems from the story itself and has a great influence on the gameplay.

It is certainly a quite rare, if not entirely unique feature in games of this type. We could mention e.g. Populous or Godus, but these are different things altogether. It’s not the same kind of topography changes either – we don't carve the terrain, but for the time being I can't divulge more. [laughter]

Do you only have the multiplayer mode in mind or are you going to include a single-player campaign as well?

Solo campaign and mission generator are the foundation of the game for us, but we're also working on an online multiplayer mode. We want our production to be something that every player will be able to enjoy by themselves – just shut everything else off, play, and have a great time. Solo campaign is therefore our priority. Of course, multiplayer also creates many exciting gameplay options, but this is obvious.

When can we expect the first specific information?

The premiere will probably take place in autumn 2016, or at least that's the current plan. I think that we'll refrain from revealing specifics until we’re one year before the game's release.