Interview: Stardock’s Adam Biessener on Sorcerer King, building a rebellion, and more0 Comments
Not many games would start with you losing against the bad guy.
But, that’s exactly how PC strategy game Sorcerer King begins, with your butt whooped and the big villain dominating the land. Your job is to brush yourself off, rebuild your army, and stop him before he destroys all the world’s shards and gains unstoppable power. No pressure or anything.
Developer Stardock Entertainment says the game, which released in July after about a year in Early Access beta, is tough to categorize. The story takes place after Stardock’s traditional 4X game (more on that in a second), Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes, but the gameplay has more in common with a roguelike.
So what the heck is it? We spoke to Adam Biessener, the creative analyst at Stardock, to help wrap our heads around Sorcerer King.
How would you describe Sorcerer King, and how does it compare to other 4X games? And what the heck is a 4X game, in laymen’s terms?
Adam Biessener: “4X” is a term that is nearly as old as [Sid Meier’s] Civilization itself. It stands for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate — the core goals that players have in an empire-building game like Civilization, Fallen Enchantress, or Endless Legend.
Sorcerer King is a twist on the genre where players have many of the same tools — you found cities, develop them, collect resources, and move military units around a world map to fight battles — but you’re solving a fundamentally different problem. You’re not racing other empires toward abstract victory conditions like having a dominant culture. Instead, you’re building a rebellion under the radar — and later, defending your kingdom against the Sorcerer King’s wrath — until your heroes and armies are strong enough to kick down his gates and kill the Sorcerer King before he can destroy the world and become a god.
Of course, we give players new tools as well. To name a few, our crafting system is deep and powerful, each sovereign has unique skills that change the way you approach the game, and every hero has a unique skill tree and abilities.
For players new to the genre, do you have any suggestions or tips as they start playing?
Adam Biessener: Get out and get adventuring! Unlike other strategy games where how much territory you control or how developed your cities are [is] the measure of your power, the most important thing in Sorcerer King is how tough your armies are. Getting stronger means earning experience for your heroes and units and crafting or finding new and better gear for them, and later enchanting their equipment with powerful effects. That means picking fights early and often.
Check the Combat Rating of your army — in the detail window in the lower left — and that of an enemy stack for a quick-and-dirty comparison of relative strengths, and pick your targets appropriately.
Is there a good starter sovereign for rookies?
Adam Biessener: The Wizard and the Commander are the two most straightforward sovereigns. Their playstyles are exactly what you’d expect: The Wizard blows things up with magic — and steals enemy units with his awesome mind control power — and the Commander excels at building big awesome armies to steamroll enemies with.
Naturally, more complex strategies are possible with those as well as with our other sovereigns. Blowing up shards on purpose with the Tyrant because you need a high Doomsday count is always an interesting choice …
How has this game changed over the last year it’s spent in Early Access? In what ways has the community helped to shape it? Has the process been helpful?
Adam Biessener: Early Access was helpful, absolutely. For one thing, nobody finds and reports bugs like players do — for a small studio like ours, the technical benefits of an extended beta period are significant.
Perhaps more importantly, the community helped us zero in on the parts of Sorcerer King that are fun. When you’re making decisions about what kind of content to add to a game, having a community of invested players to serve as a sounding board and a source of inspiration is amazingly helpful.
I love the art design on Sorcerer King. The overworld map is really cool, and there’s a nice fantasy style. Can you talk about what you had in mind while creating the look and feel of Sorcerer King?
Adam Biessener: Thanks! Our goal was to make the world of Sorcerer King a fun place to go have awesome adventures, and to raise the visual bar — alongside Galactic Civilizations III — for Stardock as a studio. We went through a lot of iteration on the look and feel to be inviting and fun without feeling cartoony or cheap, and I’m glad to hear that we seem to have hit the mark.
One thing that blew me away personally during development was when Rich, one of our artists, made a simple change that dramatically improved the overall look of the game. All he did was add a “vignette” to the game — a fullscreen effect that dims the edges of the main view a little bit to draw the middle of your view more in focus — but it made the whole game feel cooler somehow.
When I first started playing, I really sucked at the battles. I seemed too weak to do much against enemies. Any tips for how to get stronger?
Adam Biessener: For one thing, check your combat rating against the enemy stack before you take them on — there are plenty of things out there that will kill you good and dead, especially early on. Pick battles carefully until you get a few levels and some equipment to help you out.
Craft as much as possible! Even the basic starting leather armor and such make a huge difference against bandits and wolves.
Use your mana! Mana is at a premium in the early game, but summoning a bear ally, hasting your hero, or blowing up a dangerous enemy can be the difference between losing everyone and losing nobody.
Remember your special abilities! Heroes have a bunch, obviously, but even vanilla soldiers and pikemen can hit multiple enemies, bash foes away from vulnerable allies, and more.
The story scenes actually remind me a little of Oregon Trail, oddly enough! What kind of vibe were you going for with the story? What kind of effects do player choices have on how the game plays out?
Adam Biessener: We hired Cracked.com writer Chris Bucholz to pen the hundreds of quests in Sorcerer King, and he delivered amazing work that pokes fun at fantasy tropes and has a generous helping of snarky humor to brighten up the impending apocalypse. I’m a huge fan, personally, and I absolutely love the stuff Chris has done for us.
Your choices have obvious effects — gaining a free unit or getting extra loot, for example — but also often give you personality traits like Honorable, Cruel, Cowardly, or Wise. These then unlock new options in later quests, play into our random event system, and even affect the final battle.
How important are characters and character customization in this game? Are they throwaway units, or are they more than that?
Adam Biessener: So important! To win the game you have to beat the boss fight by taking on the Sorcerer King in his throne room, so you better come strapped with some serious gear and enchantments if you want to save the world. The power of your strongest single army is the most important aspect of your kingdom in Sorcerer King, not the size of your cities or the sovereign traits you’ve unlocked.
I was surprised to see the Sorcerer King trying to make deals with my heroes! What’s going on there? What’s the price for trusting the ultimate bad guy — or resisting him?
Adam Biessener: He just needs a little bit of your life force for an unimportant little spell he’s working on. What could possibly go wrong?