Empires in Ruins by Hammer and Ravens Games is a story-focused 4X game that focuses on combat and empire management. It mashes up design aspects from Tower Defense and Real Time Strategy games to create an intense 4X experience for the player. We sat down with the lead developer, Emiliano Pastorelli, to discuss his new game.
Could you start by telling us about your team?
Ok, this part is always fun to tell. We’re eight and a half people, spread across Europe. The half person is Yannis, who joins us to check copy and text whenever his day job allows. We more or less span the extremes of the continent, covering Italy, Greece, Germany and Latvia. George (co-founder of the company and our 3D generalist and art chief in charge) and I (Emiliano) met in Estonia during our stay there (I was there getting my PhD, George for a work position).
After we met in Estonia, I moved to Germany and George went back to Greece. We started adding trusted members to the team, most of them friends or people recommended by friends. We were lucky – we found some amazing people that work their butts off around the clock because they believe in the project as much as we do. To summarize the current team and positions (in the order they joined the team)(http://www.hammerandravens.com/hr-team/):
- Emiliano (Italy) – Project manager, Lead developer and designer
- George (Greece) – 3D Generalist, Assets production manager
- Konrad (Latvia) – Illustration and concept art
- John (Greece) – 3D Rigging and animation
- Alex (Greece) – 3D Modeling and Texturing
- Marcus (Germany) – Programming and SFX Crafting
- Alessio (Italy) – 3D Static Assets
- Alban (Germany) – UI and UX Design
- Yannis (Greece) – Writing
Are you contracting anyone outside your company for art and/or music? Can you tell us a bit about them?
Yes, music is handled externally. We basically have two bands cooperating with us, as we wanted the character and feeling that studio-made music somehow lacks .
- Tribauta (Celtic Music, https://soundcloud.com/tribauta): These awesome guys gave us the rights to three of their songs. We will use them in the Empire management part of the game.
- Red Dew Hellpipes (Folk Metal) – Some very good musician friends who teamed up to write a folk metal soundtrack specifically for the game.They composed three “slow” songs and four other songs that pack more punch and are used during the battles. Besides the core band (Bagpipe, Guitar, Bass and Drums), the songs also feature some guest musicians (Contrabass, Accordion, Irish flute). (I uploaded a little medley s on http://soundcloud.com/reddewhellpipes/empires-in-ruins-1)
What was the inspiration for your game?
The very first idea of Empires in Ruins came out while I was writing a fantasy book inspired by the grim classics of Military fantasy, like Ericsson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen and Cook’s Black Company. The name of the book (I got to page 620 before the PhD and the game development ate every single second of my time) was called Empires in Ruins. It had a secondary character that I really liked: a field Sergeant named Hans Heimer. He is a guy that is a lazier, grumpier, and drunker version of Clint Eastwood’s Gunny Highway character from Heartbreak Ridge.
Then comes the technical part of the inspiration. I loved Tower Defense games, but they often felt shallow to me as a long time RTS and turn based strategy player. Our game started out in 3D, but then we realized that it was unnecessary for a strategy, grid-based game, and that with 2D we had the skill to achieve a much more competitive visual style. So after a year of work, we ditched everything, remade the game design document anew, and got started with a 2D style that aimed for being “a modern revised version” of Age of Empires or the first Warcraft. And that was the real beginning of this journey.
What about the setting? Could you quickly summarize the storyline and tell us about some big picture details?
When a rebellion arises in the Western Marches of the Principality of Koth, a very strange choice is made about the quality of the military forces sent to quell it . For some unknown (as of yet) reasons, they put in charge a simple 1st Sergeant who has huge problems with discipline and brandy, accompanied by a ragtag army of badly equipped men. The man is named Hans Heimer, the type of commander you would never want to be the subordinate of.
Later on in the campaign, several factions show up, representing parties whose interests were not supposed to be involved, but apparently are. The Krovan Kingdom, the neighbor with whom relations were rusty in the best of days, the Church of Kaer with their mysterious motivations, and the factions of the Kothian Army and representatives of the smug noble families that rule the Principality of Koth. The society surrounding this apparently simple campaign is dripping with corruption, hidden interests and betrayal. And into this delicate balance of powers, Sgt Heimer will charge with the sensitivity of a rhino in a crystal shop.
The setting and atmosphere is meant to flow throughout every single element of the game: grim and pessimistic, but with a strong touch of dark and low brow sarcasm.
Are there multiple factions in your game? Can you give us a few details about each one?
There are three in-game factions, but the player will only be allowed to play with one: the Kothian Army. Players start with a fistful of lazy spearman, workers, and some old defensive buildings. Through support from the Capital and the work of its engineers, players will have to try to build up a force able to beat the numerically superior and better-prepared enemies.
The opposing factions are the Rebels, a disorganized army that counts on number and rage as its main strong points, and the Kingdom of Krovan, one of the most technologically
advanced and well-prepared armies of the Young Kingdoms.
What is the object of play in your game? Is there more than one victory condition?
The game is strongly plot-driven compared to the average 4X games we play. The overall victory condition is to re-take control of the Western Marches (composed of 25 provinces), by quelling the rebellion and kicking back the invading Krovan army. All of that is done by keeping a delicate balance with the internal factions in the player’s society. Even though the victory condition remains the same, how that shall be achieved, and which faction will take the most advantages from a victory, is left to the player.
Let’s move on to combat. How will that work in this game?
Again, unlike the majority of 4X games, combat is the focus of EiR. The battles to rescue a province or to defend it from being re-taken by the hostile forces are handled through real time battles that mix Tower Defense and RTS mechanics.
First of all, there are no fixed building points for your buildings, no instant builds or upgrades, and everything is handled by desperate workers, crossing the map with a pick and a shovel trying to survive enemy fire. You have to manage resources (Gold, Wood, Stone and Iron) like in a classic RTS, and with bonus and malus provided by the economic situations of your empire.
You can deploy infantry on the ground, and the enemies – not the classic mindless TD critters – will attack both your men and towers. They will come at you from the ground, the sky, water and underground, to make sure you can never feel safe for too long.
Objectives can vary according to the current missions, e.g., defend your workers long enough for them to take down a bridge, prevent enemy reinforcements, block a caravan from crossing a strategic area, defend a village from a rebel attack, etc. The military situation of the provinces involved in battle, the skills, or lack thereof, of your commander and commanding officers, will also provide bonuses and maluses accordingly.
The player has 17 towers he or she can build (six archery, six artillery, two scouts, three temples) and five non-tower buildings (Barracks, Lumberjack, Quarry, Iron mine and Builder’s tent) and one deployable type of soldier – the Eagle Spearmen. Players can pick from a selection of 13 unique skills for each tower (poison arrows, boiling oil, caltrops, etc) and five temple powers.
The enemies can deploy 19 units altogether (seven for the Rebels and 12 for the Krovan army, including three vehicles), each with unique special abilities (e.g the Sappers can blow obstacles, clear forests, or dig tunnels to open new paths, the Divers can use both water and ground to reach your castle, the Witches can summon huge black bears or flocks of ravens to block your towers, the Provokers can turn your workers and soldiers into enemies, etc).
Finally, by leveling up, the player will have access to up to six cooldown abilities that will make the difference in panic situations.
As I said, the combat is real time, but it can be paused to give orders and, in the TD tradition, sped up to accelerate the action. When the player unlocks a new map in the campaign, it can also be played from the main menu in “arcade” mode, with some classic TD variations.
Can we get more information on unit types? Are there ranged, melee, siege, etc?
As explained by the game campaign, the commander has been provided a very shabby and badly equipped army, so he has to compensate by taking advantage of towers and existing defenses in the area. Therefore the player has very few units to deploy on the field. The Eagle Warriors are the main infantry – each Barracks can deploy up to three of them. The player also has access to War Hounds from the Kennels (an upgrade for certain tower types) and, once the skill is unlocked, can call emergency charges of mounted Eagle Warriors from the castle. The riders will charge down the enemies’ paths, trampling almost everything in their way. One of the artillery towers, the Bombardier, also spawns a single Bombardier Balloon that can only move within the range of its hangar tower.
The enemy units come in a variety of types. There are melee, ranged, flying, water, amphibious, siege and special units. Each of them has 1 to 3 unique special abilities that further characterize them. For example, the Brutes can smash the ground with their mauls causing area damage to towers and soldiers, the Gliders throw bombs at the player defenses while flying by, the Marauders wait right at the edge of your towers’ area of effect until the tower shoots and then try to sprint by without being hit, the Provokers cause your soldiers to change sides and can disable your towers, the Sappers dig tunnels or blow up obstacles to open new paths around your defenses, and several more that would fill up the whole page if described in detail. If I remember correctly there are 21 total enemy units to face.
How does empire management work in this game?
One of the main issues when a new province is taken back from the hostiles is to quell the rebellion and make sure that once yours, it stays yours. Sergeant Heimer is able to move his HQ around from province to province, and give direct building orders to the province he visits (the settlement screen evolves visually in a Heroes of Might and Magic style when you build or upgrade the assets). The provinces where he isn’t physically during a turn are instead assigned to Officers with a priority management queue. The problem with that is that most of the officers are corrupt scoundrels with sympathies for one or another of the Kothian factions. Betrayal, corruption and disobedience will be seen pretty often.
Building assets and taking advantage of your secret police is what will allow you to consolidate your influence in a province, and that will be handled in the way described above. There are two categories of settlements that can be built in the provinces: Military and Civilian.
Each one has three settlement types: Camp, Fort and Fortress are the military ones; Hamlet, Village and Town are the civilian ones. According to the settlement built, the province will have certain limitations in terms of assets, and will receive a bonus or malus to its statistics.
The higher the rebellious activity in your provinces, the higher the chance and the seriousness of Rebellious Events that might strike them, including the risk of finding your governor hanged and a crowd with torches at the gates of your headquarters.
Are there any special resources or locations players will be able to exploit? How will they affect play?
Each province, according to the geography of the main map, has some given resources available (bodies of water, grasslands, ore deposits, forests, etc) that might limit or enhance given production (Gold, Wood, Stone, Iron and Food) both in terms of buildable assets and overall output.
What are the limits to expanding one’s empire in this game? Are there any mechanics in place to limit or disincentivize city spam?
Unlike most 4X games, EiR has a fixed map of 26 provinces bound to the game campaign, therefore the limitation in expansion is intrinsic to that. When the player finishes conquering the whole map, he/she wins the game.
What about minor factions, quests, heroes, or random events? Are any of these in your game, and if so, can you explain what they are like?
Minor factions in the game are part of the diplomacy and are represented by the Kothian internal factions (Crown, Army, Church and Folk) and quests are mostly bound to campaign progress (plus a number of side quests that can provide additional benefits). Heroes are represented by the officers. Procedurally generated both in look (http://www.empiresinruins.com/Officers.mp4) and statistics, these units can be employed both as province governors (therefore providing maluses and bonuses according to their skills and feats) or taken to battle as a military board (up to three of them), providing modifiers in battle. Officers can be hired through random events, from enemy factions, in the province’s taverns, or during the campaign. Disloyal officers can be investigated by your secret police, bribed, fired, or hanged if the need arises.
Events can be Random or Rebellion-bound. The first ones happen randomly throughout the game and bring along such happy news as Pox, Drought, Circus in Town, Immigrants, etc. The second events will vary in occurrence and seriousness for each province. They can be as light as someone drawing mustaches on the Prince’s statue or writing not so flattering things about Heimer on the settlement walls, or can burn your settlements to ashes while your governor hangs from a tree.
Is there magic in the game? Can we cast spells or recruit magic-users?
The whole setting is very low-magic, and the magic effects tend to be styled more towards curses and blessings than the classic fireballs and chain lightning. The only source of magic for the player are the Temples (Shrine, Temple and Battle Temple), that provide blessings to the surrounding allies and curses to the enemies and have up to 5 powers to unlock. Their powers are a mix of moral boosts given by fanaticism and protection from the enemies’ magic. Only one enemy unit has a full range of spells – the Wood Witch, from the rebel army (the Krovan army is very technologically-oriented and shuns the use of magic). The witch can summon black bears to fight along her, flocks of ravens to temporarily prevent the towers from shooting, and is always surrounded by an aura of despair that weakens the player’s towers and troops.
None of the player cooldown abilities is magic-related, in order to mirror the Commander’s views on magic and temples.
Could you describe the nature of Research in your game?
Chief Engineer Gottfried Megler is the grumpy guy in charge of your research through a research tree. In the most classic way, each province, according to its assets, provides a number of research points for each turn. The research tree (currently being redesigned completely) uses these points to unlock technologies advancements that will both power up your towers and soldiers in battle, unlock new buildings and provide bonuses in the empire management part. We are considering having an optional AI that the player can give priorities to in order to handle research semi-automatically, but this is still being taken into consideration (it would be a way to wink at lazier players that don’t want to pick and queue up techs manually).
Outside of cities, will players be able to construct other fortifications such as bases, ports, observatories, etc.? If so, how will they affect play?
Nope, province assets are all bound to each province settlement.
Can you describe the basics of diplomacy in your game?
Diplomacy, Anger, and Drunkenness are quite bound together in EiR. I know it might sound weird at first, but it comes down to the main character, Sgt.Heimer. Diplomacy is handled through dialogues. Dialogue choices can raise or lower your relationship with one of the internal factions in your army, and the Anger and Drunkenness of the Sergeant will often lock or unlock some answeri options, therefore forcing your hand in some cases. Relationships with the internal factions can modify the loyalty of your provinces and open or close up some campaign options and outcomes.
How much will players be able to customize their units, factions, and game maps in this game?
There is no external customization in EiR. The way it was designed (all the data is provided to the game through embedded XML files) would potentially allow it, but for now we deemed that it would be too tough of an issue to balance out. Plus the graphics approach we’re taking i.e. pre-rendered 3D models turned into 2D sprites – strongly limits the options for visuals customizations. After release we might reconsider, but at the moment it’s not one of our priorities.
Are units persistent from scenario to scenario? Do they gain experience/levels/abilities over time?
The player’s towers and infantry gain experience over the course of a battle, but it’s not carried over to the next fights. On the other hand, the main character and the hired officers (despite not fighting physically in the battlefield), are persistent and can grow in rank and skills. Depending on the main character’s leadership skills, he can take up to 3 officers to battle, while the remaining ones will be employed as governors for the conquered provinces.
You talk a lot about the commander and his struggles, does the player have any control over that or does he just randomly show up to some scenarios drunk?
This is a very good question as it addresses a current design doubt we have. Since the beginning we endowed the main character with three attributes that are meant to provide certain control and information over his temper and bad habits. Self Control, Drunkenness and Anger. The basic idea is that his Drunkenness and Anger are tightly connected,the first can influence the latter and together they can influence dialogue choices, and some modifiers in battle as well. Self Control is used for all the occasions when the main character has access to booze (during dialogues, events or, for example, while visiting the provinces’ taverns in search of officers to hire or campaign clues). A successful Self control check will provide the player with the choice to control the main character. A failed check will force him to witness the sergeant drinking and giving up more and more to his temper.
The reason why I call this a design doubt, is that we have it potentially fully implemented already, but we are considering if to carry it over to the final version of the game or not. I think it really gives a further characterization and a nice additional flair to the game, but what we are afraid of is that might add another layer of management, beside the risk of having the player feeling a loss of control over the progress of the game. Most probably the feedback from testers will give us the solution about this.
What role does randomness play in your game?
There is what I would call an average amount of luck in the turn-based empire management part of the game. Most of the randomness is determined using a classic RPG-like percentage roll on a skill/statistics value, even though luck can positively or negatively influence some things. Luck plays a much smaller role in battles. The enemy paths have slight random variations, and the player’s troops’ morale might sometimes allow increased or decreased damage according to the situation, e.g. a tower is heavily damaged and has some other allied towers in range burning in ruins, there is a pretty good chance that the damage it causes to enemies will be halved. All in all it’s mostly a “controllable” randomness.
What does your game have/do that no other similar game currently on the market can provide?
Well, we like to think that it’s quite different from most everything else we see on the market right now. First of all the game is a hybrid 4X/TD, which for sure is something we couldn’t find anywhere else. Then the way the empire management is handled – i.e. with a strong “social” component through unreliable officers – is also something we deem as quite uncommon. Then coming down to the combat maps again, this sort of “RTS-y” Tower Defense is something we didn’t find anywhere else.
Last but not least, the art and music is unique. The pre-rendered 3D to 2D look was popular in the ‘90s-2000 and was completely abandoned after that in strategy games (partly I should say, wisely, because production-wise it is a huge pain in the neck and a time killer). Now though, new technologies allow us to produce absolutely stunning assets using this technique. As we allow a very close up zoom level, our textures range from 2k to 8k resolutions. We think that it gives quite a reward to zoom into some battle scenes.
Then music. We consider it a “gutsy” choice to pick folk metal for a fantasy game, but honestly, unless you have the world’s best composers, we think that strategy games’ orchestral music is mostly anonymous. We wanted the music to give the player the same grim but sarcastic feel that we are trying to communicate throughout the whole game.
What do you hope to accomplish with your game? What do you hope people will remember most about it?
Well, the basics of this answer are obvious, we want to make a great game, but this is probably what every game developer wants -1 point to me for the predictable answer.
To go a bit deeper, we want people to see it as a “gutsy” game. A game that challenges some certainties about genres and mixing of such, that went for an art and music style that captivates the user because it’s not a clone of anything else. And we want the game to have character – in both the gameplay choices but also in the plot, the dialogues and the characters. A setting that displays a corrupt society that mirrors the real world one, and does it so bluntly and without mincing words. A game for everyone? Probably not, but if you have no target audience in mind then you should make another mobile puzzle game, in our opinion.
Where does development of the game stand as of now?
I would say that we are in a medium-early beta phase. We already had multiple rounds of testing with external anonymous testers, and it was pretty satisfying. There’s still a lot to be done, but finally there are also a lot of things are being finalized. We’re modeling and rendering the last 4 units (out of 22 in total) and we just finished all the towers already (they will get a polish round before release, but mainly minor fixes).
The core engine is there for both the main map and battle map, but of course both of them need a lot of polishing, specially in terms of UX and UI (our latest team member, Alban, joined a couple of months ago to completely redesign the game UI, and he is doing an awesome job thus far). We just started the terrain production for the battle maps after two months of workflow planning to try to obtain the best results with the most agile workflow (otherwise 26 maps would take us forever), and we will soon be able to show them off as well.
The big “missing” thing from the main map is the plot and campaign integration – that at the moment might have made the testers feeling a bit lost or at least without a specific objective in the empire management part, but that is also in the works. We’re on it around the clock – two of us full time, the other ones part time but still with a very high productivity rate. The game has been in the works for almost four years now, but we only added new people to the initial team of two one and a half years ago .
We’re expecting the game to be ready this Summer.. We have a release date internally, but we want to get closer to it before revealing the date , to avoid screwing it up in public and making fools of ourselves.
What has been the most challenging aspect of the game’s development so far?
I would say perseverance, even though we seem to have handled the challenge pretty well. Perseverance because you can imagine four years of work with no income out of it, working around the clock and keeping a team of eight intertwining pipelines in order…
Then, of course, technical challenges arise daily – every week you face something to solve. In code or asset production there is always something that requires you to invent and optimize solutions that balance quality and work time. But hey, most of that was more or less obvious since day one, so we can’t say we didn’t know what to expect.
On what operating systems do you anticipate releasing your game?
The game was greenlit on Steam almost one year ago, so definitely Windows and Mac will be our base release. If no technicalities prevent it, we will definitely also have a Linux version. We think that EiR doesn’t fit on mobile or console, so that’s where we will stop.
Of all the aspects of your game, which are you the most excited about?
Oh well, I could say all of them. The feedback you await after putting years work out there in the public spotlight is seriously adrenaline filled. You love your work, but you also have it clearly in mind that everyone might see your work in a completely different way, so you find yourself refreshing browser pages endless times a day waiting for a new comment, a new form filled by the testers, etc.
As I mentioned above, I think that above all we want the game to shine in terms of character (not that this neglects all the endless other aspects of a game, like gameplay, UX, etc). We think that having it received by the crowd as flat or anonymous and characterless would be the worst possible outcome for EiR. We want a game that one can remember having played also after quite some time.
Before closing, is there anything else you’d like to tell the fans about your game that we haven’t mentioned yet?
Well, we hope that it is quite clear that we are putting heart and soul into this (but again, many indies do so). So don’t be shy in following us, commenting, giving us feedback, etc. We get a little tingle of joy with every single like, follow or reply. We think we have an enjoyable product growing in our hands, but the more the external feedback, the more we can make it not just “our” game, but everyone’s game.
We’d like to thank Emilion for his incredibly thorough answers to all our questions. If you have any questions about EiR, please feel free to post them in the comments below. We’ll direct the developers’ attention there.