"What we like to do as a company is take all sorts of different strategy genres and mash them up," says Ironclad Games producer, Blair Fraser.
A couple years back Ironclad Games caught the attention of many a strategy fanatic with Sins of a Solar Empire, a game that mixed traditional real-time strategy with the longer term games such as Civilization. This time out, they're going after the League of Legends crowd by merging a DOTA-style strategy game with an RTS. More importantly, they've found a way to make MOBA games accessible to those who've never played the genre before.
Sins of a Dark Age is a 'hero and commander strategy game,' according to Ironclad. What this means is that it's a five-person team-based affair where one person assumes the role of a commander, while the other four select heroes.
The commander is an overseer. They see the map from a further zoomed out perspective and are in charge of gathering resources, building structures, and deploying troops. Different commanders have unique special abilities. Some of their basic powers include making a team-mate run faster or casting an area heal on allies, but they get more specific and interesting from there. A dragon lord can summon a colossal screen-filling dragon to aid their army, while a merchant can accelerate their mining rate or give resources directly to their heroes.
Meanwhile, heroes take on a more immediate role, controlling specific characters on the battlefield. This part of the game has more in line with a traditional MOBA. These hero types range from the customary knights and fairies to the more esoteric mandrakes and four-armed creatures that resemble Goro from Mortal Kombat. The art style is varied - creative director, Craig Fraser (brother of Blair) cites Dali, Bosch, and Giger as inspirations for the character designs.
Despite the various aesthetic inspirations, consistency is important to Ironclad. "This is all going to be from the same time period. You're not going to see weird technologies that don't belong," notes Craig. "Every one of these characters has lore written for them. They're all inter-related. They all have their own motivations and own place in the virtual worlds where they come from."
Each hero has a series of special powers on a cool-down meter. The fairy, for example, can shrink enemies, make allies larger, create a bubble-like shield around friendlies, or levitate a group of foes before dropping them to their doom. While the commander accrues currency by sending out troops to harvest resources, the heroes add money to the coffers through kills.
This is all well and good, but with much coordination between teammates it might appear that experienced players would get frustrated with neophytes, while newcomers, sick of getting chewed out, would run for the hills never to return. Here's where Sins of a Dark Age pulls out its best trick to allow veterans and noobs to peacefully co-exist.
You see, a commander can issue instructions to other players. They can tell everyone to attack a certain place on the map, in which case a sword icon pops up on the mini-map to alert the rest of the team where they should be headed. If they want to be more specific, they can select another player as if they're an AI unit and give them orders. When this happens, a dotted line appears on the selected hero's screen, dictating what their superior wants. They don't have to follow it -- they are their own person after all -- but if they're new and simply want some guidance, they'll have a clear sense of what's being asked of them. "The commander is armed with a set of tools that allow them to be a mentor for new players," adds Blair.
Furthermore, the most popular gear for each type of hero is displayed as a recommended purchase when they enter the upgrade menu. These suggestions will be crowdsourced, based on what's popular with other players. "What everyone does right now is they've got another window open where they've got different Wiki sites that show all that stuff on a website," Blair notes. "We're eliminating that step and just going right to the database, tracking statistics and presenting it in the game."
Importantly, Sins of a Dark Age will be a free to play game. This may come with negative connotations regarding battles balanced in favour of the highest bidder or endless grinding, but Craig is quick to point out, "you can't pay for power."
"Anything that influences gameplay can be acquired for free." Blair adds. Instead, you pay for aesthetic changes. If you want to give your hero a different set of wings, change their armour, or even alter part of their overall shape, that can be done at a cost.
All factions, heroes, and commanders will be free from the get go, but the kicker is they won't all be free at the same time. A handful of characters will be available pro bono each week, allowing players to dive right in and play. Once you've tinkered around with a hero or commander enough that you favour them, you can unlock them any time by either paying for them, or accumulating enough in-game points. "We're not asking you to grind," Blair says. "The barriers are very low. We trust that people will pay for the aesthetics and to support a stable, polished, and fun game." Always the optimist, Blair cites how fans rewarded them for not putting DRM in Sins of a Solar Empire.
The cheerfulness extends to Sins of a Dark Age's unique way of dealing with players dropping. If it's a short term disconnect the AI can take over until the dropped player can hop back in. There's also an option to be put in a short-handed game. Doing so will allow you to earn more points, especially if you manage to beat the odds and win. "We're rewarding you for helping improve the experience for other players." Blair explains, before his brother adds "We want to reward you for good behaviour. Not punish you for bad behaviour."
Rounding out the package will be a co-op survival mode where five players defend a castle from waves of enemies. Environments are fully destructible, so you'll have to gather resources to patch up parts of the crumbling scenery. Outside the castle are several sidequests that reward you in a variety of ways. For instance, if you rescue the captain of the guard from a gang of monsters and escort him back to base, he'll reciprocate with a steady stream of reinforcements. Rescue the siege engineer and he'll repair your catapult, which can be aimed from a bird's eye view. Your hero can even jump into it and be launched at the opposition.
PC strategy games have always been a niche genre, but Sins of a Dark Age's low barrier to entry in both cost and learning curve should make it an exciting prospect for those who've always wanted to give MOBAs a spin, but couldn't get past their impenetrable opening hours or hostile communities. Sins of a Dark Age may take place in a medieval setting, but its intuitive designs could bring about a renaissance for free to play strategy games.