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Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion - Producer Interview



Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion recently celebrated its five-year anniversary, and to mark the occasion, Ironclad Games and Stardock released a Modernization patch. With this update came 4K UI scaling, the ability for the game to use 4 GB of RAM, where before it was limited to 2 GB, and many optimizations and tweaks to the graphics, performance, and gameplay.

Along with this patch came an opportunity, as Stardock PR offered to set up an interview with series producer Blair Fraser. I was not going to pass this up:



Questions & Answers:

Question: With Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion now celebrating five years, and the original Sins of a Solar Empire obviously older, did you ever expect releasing a Modernization patch? If you did, can you remember what you may have expected to put into such a patch? (For example, did you think back then that UI-scaling for 4K screens would be a desired feature?)

Answer: We didn't expect a modernization update that's for sure. If we had, things would have been done a lot different. Consider that the Iron engine began in 2003 and we geared it towards the kinds of machines we expected for a few years beyond that. Also, this was well before digital sales took off so we only cared about the retail model and the shelf life of most games at retail was really short so you only cared about designing for that brief sales window. Looking back the three biggest things I would have done differently would have been multi-core, 64 bit, and scalable UI.


Q: I can remember a couple, now classic, 4X games I played years ago that some modern titles make me think of occasionally. Sometimes this is because of similarities, but sometimes it is because I wish a feature from those older games would return. Are there any 4X or, more broadly, strategy games that are like that for you; touchstones for what you may want to see or just personal classics? Similarly, are there any of these classic games you would like to see resurrected today?

A: The first one that comes to mind for me is Spaceward Ho! I probably spent more time playing and skipping school for that game than any other except maybe Final Fantasy 3. It's still available for iOS and Android but I'd love to see a modern design and production value version.



Q: Over the years I have seen a number of planned features be changed between planning, implementation, and public release or just dropped, so I am sure you have as well. If you are comfortable sharing them, have there been any features or mechanics you have seen changed or removed and wished they could be returned?

A: Definitely orbiting planets. One of the main influences for Sins was the Buck Rogers board game which features planets moving in orbit and this variable was an important part of your overall strategy. We implemented this for Sins but early tests suggested it was too confusing and complicated for most players so we dropped it. Now that the mechanics of Sins are well established and I've had the benefit of over a decade of thought, I think there is merit in reviving the idea.


Q: I hope you do not consider this an inappropriate question, but are there any squashed bugs you are comfortable sharing with the public?

A: I can't recall too many bugs that would be of interest unless you were a game developer yourself but one of the more hilarious bugs we tracked down was tied to a USB missile launcher. Every time one of our players would fire his device while playing Sins, Sins would crash hard due to some weird user interface interaction. Took a long time to track down because we had only considered his actions in the game as the only variable and he was playing remote so we couldn't see what else he was doing. We certainly didn't guess he was firing missiles every time he won a battle in Sins…


These next few questions focus more on the future with the success we are seeing from low-level APIs:

Q: When it was announced Ashes of the Singularity and its Escalation expansion were going to be merged, Brad Wardell commented in a dev journal that thanks to DirectX 12 and Vulkan the game can be run on "a potato practically." Ashes was also the first game released with DX12 support, so it and the Nitrous engine stand as early examples of what is possible for the strategy genre with these APIs. How and/or where do you see the genre growing with these APIs? Concerning how the genre may grow, something I have seen discussed as possible with low-level APIs is improvements to the AI, thanks to reduced CPU overhead, superior multithreading capabilities, and/or utilizing the GPU for some of the AI work. Not being a developer, I do not know how feasible that last example may or may not be, but what kinds of innovations do you foresee for the strategy genre?

A: I think you pretty much nailed it. The biggest growth in innovation is going to come from AI – but that isn't just a trend in strategy gaming or gaming in general – it's going to apply to everything. I'm not saying graphics, gameplay, platform (VR, AR) and other areas won't be areas of innovation but they will pale in comparison to the advances in AI. Even if I look at what I did for the AI in Sins compared to the GPU ConvNet approach I'm working with now it's clear to see where things are heading.

ConvNet is a C++ based GPU implementation of Convolutional Neural Nets, according to the project's Github page.



Q: Concerning where the genre may grow, the potato comment is what is mostly in my mind, along with other comments in that same dev journal about what the expectations were for Ashes prior to release, as far as player interest and how hardware requirements would impact sales. I can think of three extreme possibilities, and most likely reality will be between them, but I am curious where you think the balance will be. Of course there may end up being successful examples for any of those possibilities, but where do you think the genre may trend towards?

These are the possibilities that occurred to me:

  • The trend of rising hardware requirements will continue, with strategy games growing significantly in the complexity that new hardware and the APIs enable.

  • The trend of rising hardware requirements will slow or stall for a time, with strategy games using the APIs to grow in complexity instead of new hardware.

  • The trend of rising hardware requirements will be reversed to a point, with strategy games targeting a non-traditional audience with weaker hardware (for example, my mom and her aging laptop).


A: I can't speak for the industry at large as I don't know the goals of most companies and they differ widely (aside from making enough money to continue making games). I know that with Sins our goal was to keep the hardware requirements as low as possible but provide benefits to people with higher end hardware. As my answer to the first question noted, we don't always accurately predict the hardware our game will eventually run on but the intent was to provide scalability – from your mom's laptop to the gaming guru's super box. To that end, one point that we didn't emphasize in the marketing for the modernization update is Sins should now run on machines even less powerful than the original min specs. I made several changes that enable this and the details are available in the changelog for those interested. My hope is that hardware requirements for all strategy games will drop or at least widen their scalability.


Q: Stepping away from the low-level APIs and their real and potential impact, do you foresee VR and/or AR impacting the strategy genre, or more specifically the 4X and RT4X genre? Perhaps just the motion controls, or even gaze tracking for manipulating the map or other elements on a traditional display?

A: I think it will benefit certain kinds of strategy games but for games like Sins of a Solar Empire the visual immersion benefits will likely be outweighed by the user interface cons. The main benefit to VR (imo) is for games with a first person perspective with declining benefits the further removed you are from that vantage point. Zooming in on a Sins battle and attaching yourself to a fighter would be pretty damn cool but zoom out to empire management and even gaze tracking in conjunction with mouse and keyboard is going to be clunky and likely quite annoying. However, given how nascent the VR scene is, there is always the chance someone will figure out the 'standard' and we'll all benefit. I would certainly love any way to be more immersed in any strategy game.



Those were all the questions I asked and all of Mr. Fraser's answers. I hope you found them interesting.

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