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Q&A: How self-publishing brought Age of Wonders 3 back to life Exclusive
April 22, 2014 | By Alex Wawro




Age of Wonders 3 lead designer Lennart Sas sounds tired. It's late in the day when he answers my Skype call -- roughly half past seven in the Netherlands, where Triumph Studios is based -- but that's not his only excuse.

"There's a whole lot of things still going on right now," he tells me, and I believe it -- I can hear the familiar drone of a busy office in the background. "Iím exhausted, but otherwise Iím pretty okay. The entire release craziness, all the post-release things not ending...itís all been a good ride."

Triumph released Age of Wonders 3 on Steam last month after letting the Age of Wonders franchise lie fallow for nearly 11 years, and since they published it themselves -- the studio's first self-published game in its 17-year history -- the folks at Triumph who aren't working on keeping the game's multiplayer servers stable or launching patches to shore up player-exposed flaws are handling community outreach or making deals to license the game for release in other territories.

Sas seems to be at the center of it all. He's the managing director & co-owner of Triumph Studios, in addition to his duties as lead designer on Age of Wonders 3. To hear him tell it, this sprawling 4X strategy game exists because the game industry has evolved to a point where developers -- especially PC game developers -- can feasibly fund and distribute their own games without having to convice a publisher that a project is worthwhile.

The fact that Markus "Notch" Persson partially financed the game's development probably helped, too.

Itís been awhile since weíve seen an Age of Wonders game -- roughly 11 years, I think. What happened?

We were very busy with Overlord for a while, and weíre a small studio so we can really only focus on one project at a time.

Also, the games market has really changed. In 2004-2005 the console market was really booming and the PC market -- you know, when digital distribution wasnít as developed as it is now -- the PC market was really declining. Every publisher we talked to said ďgive us a console game!Ē so thatís when we started looking into making a strategy game on consoles.

When we came out of the Overlord deals we saw that the console market had drastically changed. It was late in the lifecycles of both consoles, it seemed very hard to launch new IP, and there was a financial crisis going on.

"We could just call a meeting with key personnel and just decide to do something, because all the politics that surround publishing deals just arenít a factor."

At the same time, we saw that digital distribution on PC was really booming, with lots of smaller studios and indies moving towards digital distribution and self-publishing.

So we said 'hey, Age of Wonders is an old game we always wanted to go back to,' and creatively speaking we were loaded up with new ideas after all these years off. So we decided to try and bring the game back, since we were still very fond of it: we had kept our websites alive through the years to keep interacting with the Age of Wonders community.

But we were also a bit scared of going back to Age of Wonders, because after we released Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic, we said weíd added -- how do you Americans say -- 'Everything but the kitchen sink'? It was fully complete, and it was sort of [our] zenith. We were worried about failing to meet peopleís expectations; we were really sort of scared of our own shadow.

But we started conservatively planning and laying out what kind of sequel we could do, depending on what kind of funding we could get, and Iím happy to say we were able to make the game we wanted to make and spend 39 months on development.

So how did you find that cash? How did you approach your inaugural attempt at self-funding?

The Overlord project was fairly successful -- we sold the IP -- but we maybe stayed a bit too long trying to chase more console deals, which didnít work, so we had to scale back the studio. It was the only time in our 17-year career as a game development studio that we had to do that, but that reduced our burn rate a lot and allowed us to invest in a prototype for Age of Wonders 3.

We didnít know how to finance it yet, but the rights for Age of Wonders sequels reverted to us in 2009 or 2010, so we were able to self-publish those games on Steam. We were quite pleasantly surprised by the revenue that generated -- of course it was a small amount, but for ten-year-old games it was still quite impressive, and it allowed us to finish that critical first prototype.

So when we reached a certain point, when we had that first playable, we went the traditional route of talking to various publishers; it was definitely a buyerís market back then so people were asking for lots of sequel potential, sequel options, that kind of thing.

And then by pure chance -- this was in 2011 I think, right before Kickstarter became really popular -- we noticed that Markus Persson had written something on the Minecraft splash screen that talked very favorably about Age of Wonders.

Of course we knew about his success, and so we figured that if he was a fan we should send him a note and see if he wanted to do something with us.

This was before Markus became super super busy, and he said 'Well, letís meet so I can see the game. Come to Sweden!'

So we flew over to present the game, and we agreed to work together on this. I mean, he didnít really work on it, but he made a significant financial contribution to its development.

He didnít have any creative oversight at all?

No, he was totally hands-off. He was an inspiration though, because he liked the game for what it was in the past, and so -- just like our fans on the forums -- he kind of represented the person we were making this game for.

Markus has also been very inspiring to follow on the self-publishing path. The way heís so open and engages with the community of his fans has been a great inspiration for this project.

So why didnít you take a similar path, and offer paid alpha access to Age of Wonders through either Steam Early Access or a similar system?

Well, we have done a closed beta with a significant, hand-picked group of fans, and weíve been very open in terms of showing the game in development through videos.

At the same time, Minecraft and Age of Wonders are very different games. People have been waiting so long for Age of Wonders, that we wanted to have a certain quality level of gameplay there before we let people play it.

So youíre right, we didnít follow that sort of development-as-service model until after the initial release. But we wanted to make something available first that would make people say 'Hey, this is the cool game I remember,' and not some half-assed version, because people can always just go back and play Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic instead.

What tools did you use to build the game?

We used our own engine, so we had to write our own level editors to make the hex-mapped worlds and that sort of thing. We also used some middleware, like Iggy from RAD Tools for interfaces, because interfaces are extremely important in a strategy game like Age of Wonders.

Of course, we used SoundEngineís Fmod too.

So is this the same engine you used for the earlier games?

No, itís a total rewrite. Actually, the old Age of Wonders games were written in a different programming language -- in DELPHI, a sort of object-oriented PASCAL language. The new game was written in C++, like most modern games are.

Got any good stories from three years of development on the game?

Oh man, there are so many little things. From disasters like key personnel affected by serious illness, localization companies going bankrupt while youíre waiting for the game to master, thereís always stuff like that happening. But at least -- the difference with self-publishing is that you still feel stress, but itís a different stress because you have a greater sense of control.

You feel like you arenít totally swept away by the current, you feel more in control. You have a larger margin to improvise without having to defend your decisions or worry about what the publisher will think about your choices.

I think we were able to move a lot faster in that sense, because we could just call a meeting with key personnel and just decide to do something, because all the politics that surround publishing deals just arenít a factor.

Sounds like you found self-publishing sped up development and made it more smooth, which I find fascinating because many developers I speak to say they appreciate publishers because they provide milestones -- targets to shoot for.

Yeah, but weíre a studio whoís done this before. This is our sixth game, so we know how to manage projects. Iím not saying that everything went perfectly, and weíve absolutely learned a lot from publishers -- theyíre not evil by any measure -- but for us we really had to focus on making ourselves and our players the primary stakeholders.


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Comments


Lihim Sidhe
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I am still on my first play through of AoW1. I have to say AoW is the best Magic: The Gathering game I ever played and I mean that as a compliment. The game reminds me of what happens on the 'ground level' as the planeswalkers go at it. Triumph Games should at least send Mark Rosewater an email and see if there's any interest.

Other than that I love the game. Got it on GoG.com for $3 and I probably played it close to 60 hours at this point. Talk about value!

Kujel s
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I love AoW 1 but the first level is so damn hard I've only eer been able to finish it once :( Anyway I can see the comparison between AoW and Magic: the Gathering.


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