Elemental: Fallen Enchantress (also, EVE)

This entry is written from an ‘out of character’ perspective to discuss Elemental: Fallen Enchantress, Stardock and eventually CCP & EVE-Online.

So, what is Elemental: Fallen Enchantress?  FE is a turn-based fantasy strategy game that plays a bit like Civilization or more like Galactic Civilizations II.  But crossed with an RPG.  You control a fantasy empire and start off with just your Sovereign character and a Pioneer unit (a settler)with you you found your first settlement.

From there you expand to build more settlements and outposts, research technologies, build armies and all such activities you might expect of a 4X game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate).  Also, your Sovereign and any champions you find level up acquiring new abilities/spells and can be equipped with gear you find while exploring the world and killing monsters.

There are quests which randomly appear as you go about the game that reward you with items or resources and require you to make ethical choices or maybe just go off kill a couple of Dragons and return with their eyeballs.  Dragons are damned tough in this game by the way, you can expect to lose more than a few units trying to take one down.  Champions not only acquire new abilities but also permanent injuries if they fall in battle, so killing a Dragon with my mostly hero-based ‘army’ came with a long term cost to it, as most of my champions picked up lasting scars from the experience. 😉

I have been played FE a fair bit over this weekend and I am relieved to say that I’m enjoying it and can recommend that you go check it out, if you are interested in 4X strategy games with something of an old-school feel to them.  I have actually been waiting two years to say that, because you see, Elemental: Fallen Enchantress is a sequel.  The original game was called Elemental: War of Magic.  It was a game that I had been very much looking forwards to, but turned out to be a big disappointment that I could not have recommended.

WoM was a game in which the developers lost sight of their project.  When it shipped the CEO and head designer, and senior producer, and the AI guy, and a bunch of other job guys all felt that WoM was a strong product ready to roll.  Thing is, all those guys were actually the same guy who had managed to end up giving himself all the hats to wear at once.  There was a fairly small development team working with him but the project had become too large and they had all become too close to it.  It was a labour of love.  And it was a mess.

The company behind Elemental is one of my favourite developers, Stardock.  These are the people who made both Galactic Civilizations games, GalCivII being a huge success in every respect.  Stardock also act as a publisher and have brought us Demigod (Gas Powered Games who made Supreme Commander) and Sins of a Solar Empire (Ironclad games).  Stardock don’t just publish the games, but they also lend developer support in getting the games made.

When Demigod launched it turned out that the networking code was just not adequate once several thousand players tried to use it at once.  Stardock were developing War of Magic at the time and effectively stopped production for a month or more to throw their developers at supporting and fixing Demigod’s launch problems.  Stardock have an excellent record of post-release support for their games, and not just when it comes to bug fixing.  I speak highly of Stardock because of their attitude, for about a year after GalCivII shipped it received frequent and substantial updates that in places were on a par with paid expansions that other companies release for their games.  Their games continue to develop and improve in substantial ways long after release.

But the important part is, their games are strong and worthy of release at the time they  ship.  GalCivII was a complete game at launch, but Stardock just kept on giving anyway.  Only when it came to WoM, it all went horribly wrong.  Flush with success and accolades following GalCivII, Stardock had overstretched themselves.  Elemental was made using a new engine developed in house, something Stardock had not really done before.  And it was an ambitious game with a new I.P. in a new setting.  They simply did not have the manpower they needed to get it all done, and worse yet their small team development process failed to scale up to the much larger project they were now attempting to deliver.

A week after Elemental:WoM launched, Stardock’s CEO had this to say.  This along with a few other statements around the time adds up to a heart felt and honest mea culpa from Stardock.  They allowed themselves to lose perspective and objectivity while developing the game only to later realise that they had failed to deliver something fun.  They enjoyed making it, so assumed it must be fun to play.  It wasn’t.  The mechanics were deeply flawed and it just had not turned out the way the devs had originally intended.

Now in that post, Brad Wardell (A.K.A. Frogboy) talks about setting to work on bug fixes to resolve immediate issues with their new engine but also producing the game’s first expansion pack which would begin to address core mechanics failings.  Stardock pledged to give this free to anyone who owned WoM at the time they would release version 1.3.

That first expansion eventually became Fallen Enchantress, which in turn became a full blown sequel.  The two years since WoM’s launch face plant has seen Stardock dramatically reorganise the operation of their games studio and the hiring of industry veterans to fill out those key positions that Brad Wardell had tried to do previously all by himself.  FE is now a very different game to WoM.  In fact, it is the game I had originally been looking forwards to playing but did not get 2 years ago.

When Fallen Enchantress launched last week, 100,000 people received their promised free copies.  That is a $4million apology and thank you to their fans and customers.  It took a long time, but Stardock has finally made good on their promise.

Do you recall what was going on in EVE around September 2010?  We were in the infamous :18 months: period of Incarna development, the Incursion expansion was just around the corner and players were getting uncomfortable with CCP’s direction for the game.  At that time I was watching one of my favourite dev’s face-plant with WoM and on the other hand watching my other favourite Devs not addressing the core concerns of their player base while charging off into unknown territory with Incarna.

Sadly, the Incarna face-plant shares many similarities with the WoM face-plant.  In both cases there was an ambitious new project involving new technologies.  In both cases the developers lost sight of their goals and ended up creating games that just weren’t fun.  And what they launched just was not ready.  Then both companies were faced with the need to go back to drawing board and fix their mess.

There is another parallel. Recall that bit about the WoM dev’s being pulled off their project to work on fixing Demigod for a full month?  During Incarna’s (long) development history, the team stopped work for several weeks as CCP stopped everything to put the whole company to work on the Apocrypha expansion.  CCP t0rfifrans once said that when they returned to Incarna they decided to start over.  The code had ‘decayed’ in the time EVE had still been developing and the decision was made to go in a different direction with a clean slate.  It makes me wonder he such breaks in development can contribute to losing sight of the project as a whole, loosening focus and creating gaps in the design or execution.

So, following their disastrous launch, Stardock set about a long term project to turn Elemental into the game it should have been.  They went back to the core mechanics and redesigned the game until it worked as intended and delivered on its promise.  It took a long time.

Following Incarna’s abysmal failure, CCP have been doing something similar.  When Retribution launches we will be 18 months on from Incarna.  In that time CCP have been busy delivering three rounds of ‘little things’ and delving back into old and neglected core mechanics of EVE.  They are making the grand old game work again, slowly but surely, making good on long periods of neglect and half-delivered promises.  It has taken a long time, and the work is ongoing.

EVE is much improved on the summer of 2011, although we wont be seeing the promised Incarna by the time we hit that 2 years marker.  The realisation of that beast is still a long way off sadly.  A vibe I have picking up on this past week through the EVE blogosphere is that many players are currently evaluating their relationship with EVE.  They are asking themselves if EVE has lost its spark, or if they are losing their spark.

EVE has changed considerably in the last 18months in little ways, but not so much in big ways (unless you’re in FW ofc).  Some wonder if EVE is just not the ambitious game development journey it used to be.  This is the result of three expansions focused on renovation and polish.  We are not seeing the BIG FEATURES and have less genuinely new stuff to get excited about as the releases largely rework and tweak what was already there.  Seismic Stan at Freebooted has written a very good pair of articles about these themes.

Over the years players have often called for CCP to stop adding new stuff and to instead fix the stuff they already put in.  We finally got that wish, and now players are turning towards the other end of the spectrum and want CCP to give them more cool new stuff.  The question becomes, how much longer should CCP spend on polishing and frankly fixing EVE before they start pushing forwards again?  I am looking forwards to fanfest to learn the answer to that question.

Could Dust514 be to EVE what Fallen Enchantress is to Elemental?  Could it be that big step forwards and breath of fresh air we are all hoping for after 18 months of fixing and polishing?  I’m intrigued to find out.

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