Sins of a Solar Empire was built in the basement of a house by a small group of dedicated game makers, collectively calling themselves Ironclad Games. By the time the strategy game launched in 2008, the Vancouver-based team had grown from its three founding members to just 10 developers.
That small team size wasn't reflective of the game's scope or its sales. With more than 2 million units sold, Sins of a Solar Empire is an example of the success a small team can achieve with a little bit of innovative game design and a whole lot of talent.
Whereas Solar Empire was an expert mix of Civilization's 4X gameplay and StarCraft's real-time strategy, the online-focused Dark Age mixes the action RTS (a genre established by Defense of the Ancients) with the traditional real-time strategy genre.
Without seeing the game yet in playable form (it's eyes-on only at next week's Game Developers Conference), the most striking element about it might be the use of the free-to-play business model. Ironclad saw admirable success with 2008's retail- and digitally-distributed Solar Empire, but the market has changed drastically in the past four years. Now, microtransaction-based revenue streams are a proven option for online games like Dark Age, more so now than in 2008.
Blair Fraser, one of the original three Ironclad cofounders, told Gamasutra in a phone interview that the studio "played a crapload" of free-to-play games as homework for Dark Age. "We played all the Zynga stuff, even the more 'hardcore' strategy games," he said. "We've obviously been looking at what other people have been doing in the PC space."
Fraser said that during the course of free-to-play research, he didn't like everything he saw. One of those negative trends, he said, is the ability for players to pay to win in some free-to-play strategy games.
"The number one thing that we didn't want was to be selling in-game power, especially in strategy games," said Fraser. "Strategy games should be your skill, your brain, your tactical and strategic thought against someone else's, or against the enemy AI's strategies.
"If you're just going to allow people to go 'Here's a bunch of money. I win,' that just defeats the entire purpose for us," he added. "That might be a great way to make money, but it just doesn't jive with what our concept of what a strategy game is.
"We're not just in this to make money. We wouldn't have all quit our jobs and started up a small company if it was just about making money. I could've easily moved into banking or whatever."
Some free-to-play strategy game makers have adopted the same motto -- that players shouldn't have to, or be able to, pay to win. But then they go and make a game that requires excessive grinding in order to "unlock the fun" of new units and powers, a grind so heavy that it drives some players to spend money. Fraser wants to avoid that grind in Dark Age.
For Fraser, going free-to-play is partially about putting the studio's creative work in front of a larger audience. "The artistic side of us wants as many people as possible to play what we poured our hearts into, and giving the game away is a great way to do that," he said.
But it's not all about artistic expression, as Ironclad is a business, after all. Free-to-play offers a low barrier for potential customers, and a potentially large player base. Fraser explained, "You need the volume, the Blizzard-level number of people to make that 'get-in-the-game' experience as short as possible.
"If you don't have that critical mass, that whole premise is going to fall flat on its face. The best way to get that volume was to give the game away, and hope that people are willing to support the work that you're doing, and that they are interested in additional content," he said. Paid items in Dark Age will include new heroes, commander, factions and skins.
In the game, players take the role of a commander who builds up his base, builds up defenses, and builds up an army that will charge and assault enemy fortifications and forces. Fraser said, "At the same time [the player] has a number of human players who are controlling these powerful heroes who lead the army, gather resources in a different way, get gear and level up. It's this really interesting synergy between the two roles that makes this stand out as something different."
Being different will be important. The action RTS/MOBA genre has seen increasing popularity, as Riot rules the space with League of Legends, and Half-Life house Valve is coming out with Dota 2.
"We thought there would be upcoming competition, but we didn't think there would be as much as there is," said Fraser, looking back at when Ironclad originally decided to create Dark Age. "We think most of our competition is on the same path, to an extent."
"We feel our hook and our differentiation and innovation in both types of strategy [genres] are quite different. In my mind, the two big juggernauts are Dota 2 from Valve, and League of Legends, the market leader. I think we separate ourselves quite a bit from both of those, and everyone else is following along that path, so we're not worried about that as much."
For now, the real concern might not be in competition, or whether the studio has the game development chops. The biggest unknown is the new business model. "There's obviously a little bit of concern [about giving away too much content for free]," said Fraser, "but I don't really think anyone has really tested how far you can go with that. ... Maybe it's too much, maybe not, but we're going to find out!"