As a huge fan of the Tropico city-management series, I was hugely intrigued to hear that developer Haemimont Games was trying its hand at the 1920s mafia setting.
Omerta: City of Gangsters puts you in the role of an up-and-coming mob boss, as you attempt to rustle up support, take out the neighboring families, and secure your own crime empire.
After several hours with the game, which is due for release today for Windows PC and February 5 for Xbox 360, it's clear to me that Haemimont is attempting to cater for a wide range of players with the title.
There's the Tropico-styled city management, which sees you sending your soldiers out to pubs and drug dens around the city, in a bid to cause some trouble and raise your cash flow. Then there's the turn-based strategy element, which will feel very familiar to those people who have just managed to shake their addiction with the recent XCOM remake.
Bisser Dyankov, game designer on Omerta at Haemimont Games, says that when it comes to combining the two completely different gameplay elements, it can be a tricky road.
"As a ground rule, we do not go into the direction of the choice between 'depth or accessibility,' he explains. "They are two different aspects of the gameplay, but they are not the opposite ends of the same line."
Treating depth and accessibility as individual elements is the key, believes Dyankov, and attempting to sacrifice part of one for the other is a fool's game.
"We did a complete redesign of the strategic part of Omerta - not once, but several times," he adds. "Only at the end we were content with the depth of the experience. We changed the way the economy worked, introduced independent businesses, etc. However, we believed that accessibility was more or less the same in each of the designs."
However, admits Dyankov, when it comes down to it, depth usually outweighs accessibility at Haemimont. "Strategic games are like that," he notes. "Depth is part of their heart."
But how does the studio tackle accessibility? What strategy game elements can really help pull those gamers in who perhaps aren't so familiar with the genre?
"A slowly rising learning/difficulty curve," answers the designer. "We've had similar experiences with our previous titles (the Tropico series). We always reach a moment when someone from the design team -- often yours truly -- starts complaining that the difficulty is too low, the challenges are too easy and the fun element is nearly eliminated."
"The game becomes less about entertainment and a more work-like experience," he adds. "The player knows what to do and he only has to make a number of obligatory actions."
Dyankov says that this moment usually happens around a year into development, when the game has gotten to a point where it can be shown to friends and family. These people inevitably have a hard time progressing through the game, sending warning signs to the team.
"Such events usually facilitate the 'polish the presentation' part," he says. "If those guys keep finding the game too difficult, we know we're perhaps overdoing it and we can adjust the learning/difficulty curve."
One method that the studio has implemented in its war on inaccessibility is allowing players to skip the majority of the turn-based battling if they so choose, essentially turning the title into more of a city-management experience. The only segments that are mandatory play are those which contribute to the storyline.
"We know that there are players who enjoy our city-building games," notes Dyankov. "Introducing the possibility to focus on the city-building is a nod to our fans, and does not limit the experience of the players who want to get their hands as dirty as possible. It is not a 'win-or-lose' decision, actually."
As for the aforementioned XCOM remake from Firaxis, Dyankov is fully aware that a comparison between the two games will be unavoidable, although he notes that X-Com was announced when Omerta development was already well underway.
"We definitely think that the release of XCOM is an advantage because it helps revive the turn-based combat idea," he adds. "We hope there is room for more than two games with emphasis on turn-based combat, especially with the efforts to bring those titles to the console market."
He continues, "Re-establishing a genre is something that is good not only for us as developers, it is good for the players, and it may help the industry as a whole. The whole video games market is reinventing itself, with the advent of the mobile platforms, indie games and Kickstarter."