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Postmortem: Stardock Entertainment and Ironclad Games' Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion
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Postmortem: Stardock Entertainment and Ironclad Games' Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion

October 9, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

The original Sins of a Solar Empire released in 2008 to critical and commercial success. Development responsibilities for the game and its two subsequent expansion packs were shared between Ironclad Games and published by Stardock Entertainment.


Staffing breakdown for Stardock developers on Sins: Rebellion

Even after two expansions, the teams felt the definitive version of the game had not yet been realized. With Ironclad Games working on the forthcoming Sins of a Dark Age, Stardock took a greater role in the development of the stand-alone expansion Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion to do just that.

Sins: Rebellion was developed with a small team over 13 months, including about a week of crunch (mostly individual late nights clustered around the various beta and final releases). Stardock's staffing peaked at 11 developers, as shown below.

What Went Right

1. Focused Design

The original Sins of a Solar Empire was a game of considerable scope and depth when it was initially released. After two additional expansions, simply adding more ship variants or weapon buff technologies would have been adding content without purpose.

We also had logistical constraints. Stardock's other internal projects limited the number of art staff that would be available to us. Additionally, engine memory constraints limited the number of assets that could be added. We ended up taking a quality over quantity approach, both as an intentional design choice and out of necessity.


Concept for one of the six new Titan warships (click for full size)

Careful gameplay balance was needed to make these units game-changers, without overpowering other strategic options. Click for larger version.

With this in mind, the design of the game followed the approach of adding unique and game-changing technology, ships, and victory conditions. With that approach came additional risk. Features like destroying entire planets or players abandoning their homeworld and "going mobile" added new strategies, but also could have upset the balance of the entire game if implemented poorly.

Gameplay balancing to avoid these risks quickly becomes a time sink when a complete match lasts 5-plus hours. We also needed to balance the needs of hardcore competitive multiplayer fans with our larger single-player focused audience. Since the development of the original Sins, an "MVP" program was used to mitigate these problems. Through this program we invite some of our most active community members to receive regular builds throughout development and give feedback on the balance of new gameplay features.

The MVP program combined with our team's strategy design expertise and long experience with the franchise allowed us to walk that fine line of making big new changes without breaking the core of what fans had grown to love. This paid dividends in reinvigorating the gameplay and was the high point of many reviews.

2. Cutting Scenarios

One of the complaints that showed up consistently in reviews of the original game was its lack of a campaign. We'd always felt that a campaign wasn't a good fit for the type of gameplay that Sins of a Solar Empire offered. Our sandbox style games also tend to last as long as most single player campaigns. Though a traditional campaign was off the table, we did design a "Scenarios" feature to address a player's desire for more controlled and deliberately paced gameplay challenges.

About eight months into development, we took a hard look at the work remaining on the project and realized that moving forward on the Scenarios feature would likely result in:

  1. Pulling design resources and attention from core features
  2. Significant crunch or delays
  3. Still falling short of user's desire for a story-driven Sins experience
  4. All of the above

We decided to cut the feature, while leaving in the underlying tech for modders to experiment with post-release. It may be odd to have a complaint from reviewers and fans alike in the "What Went Right" section of a postmortem, but we feel we made the right decision to ensure what we did deliver fans was of the highest quality.

3. Proven Technology

Despite the Iron Engine nearing five years old, it's solid and proven technology that our engineers loved to work with. The ability to update art and design content and see the results on the fly was invaluable, especially in a game where single play sessions can last in the tens of hours.

If we weren't confident in the existing tech, the project would have likely been cancelled before it got off the ground. We knew from the start that switching engines or making major overhauls was out of scope for the time and budget we had to work with (as is usually the case with expansions).


One new ability allows players to destroy whole planets, drastically altering the map

While the core tech worked great, the game was beginning to show its age. Instead of major overhauls, we identified graphics features that would keep us visually competitive with recent releases while staying within the scope of the project. Some examples include dynamic shadows, anisotropic filtering, and improving anti-aliasing quality. These features allowed us to keep using tech we were familiar with without letting down fans and critics with dated visuals.


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