This is going to be long and go into both Escalation, the development of Ashes of the Singularity and discuss the technological singularity.
Our story so far…
This past Spring Stardock released the real-time strategy game, Ashes of the Singularity. It’s a game set in the post-technological singularity future in which humans have begun to expand to other planets. In this future, a single individual is so powerful that they can manage entire armies of semi-autonomous machines called constructs. In Ashes of the Singularity, the player is part of the PHC (The Post-Human Coalition) tasked with dealing with renegade humans as well as dealing with a new enemy: The Substrate.
The game received generally favorable reviews with gamers praising the adoption of modern hardware to deliver an unprecedented scale to the genre and gorgeous visuals (provided you had the hardware). But the game was also criticized for having a campaign that felt tacked on, uninspired art direction and a tendency for those thousands of units to end up being a giant unmanageable blob late game due to the game’s insistence on keeping the camera relatively close to the action and a general feeling of missing strategic depth.
In November, we are releasing the first expansion pack, Escalation, which aims to address those criticisms and more.
For Escalation to be successful, we first needed to think long and hard about some of the basic premises for the game. And now for those thoughts…
Not a technology demo
Since Ashes of the Singularity was the first DirectX 12 game and includes a built in benchmark for testing DirectX 12 thoroughly, it naturally received a lot of coverage for its state-of the art engine, Nitrous. This caused many people to conclude that the game itself was a technology demo. And to be honest, while that wasn’t our intention, a pretty decent chunk of our time and budget was spent on the underlying technology to drive the game which naturally meant less time to think about the game itself.
With real-time strategy games, you can’t really escape addressing the technological requirements. I’ll spare you the details here as I wrote about it, at length over at IGN. So it is true that a lot of our thought was going into how to build Ashes of the Singularity since, for us, Ashes of the Singularity is a long-term project for us. We strongly believe that there is demand for real-time strategy games, the challenge is to make any new RTS compelling.
It wasn’t until Ashes of the Singularity was released and we started talking to other RTS developers that we realized our market misconception on the genre became fully realized.
Here is the short version: In the age of digital distribution your game competes with every game that has ever been made.
When we released Sins of a Solar Empire in 2008 we were only competing with the other 38 SCUs at Walmart. What some other RTS had in the past was irrelevant because it was not competing with us for sales. Sins of a Solar Empire didn’t have to compete against a Homeworld: Ultimate Edition or really even Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance (other than at the beginning).
Ashes of the Singularity was released fully realized. Every unit, map, etc. was planned from the start. We added a campaign (something Sins didn’t have) a couple months before release because players wanted one. So from our perspective, Ashes of the Singularity was the most mature new game we’d ever released. Months of QA and testing along with great support from AMD, Microsoft, Intel and NVIDIA meant the game wasn’t buggy on release. Both races came with about 15 units each, a strong AI and lots of maps. So great right? Wrong.
Your game competes against every game ever
||Price on Steam
|Company of Heroes
|Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance
|Age of Empires II HD
|Ashes of the Singularity
One of these is not like the other.
The argument “But Ashes of the Singularity is new!” is not very compelling on its own.
The player wants to know “Why should I pay $50 for your game when I can get these other games, that have a lot more stuff, have been vetted for years, have established communities are less than half the price?”
Ashes vs. The World
So what makes Ashes of the Singularity distinct?
- Ashes of the Singularity can support huge world-wide armies…But SupCom: FA supports pretty large armies and has strategic zoom so managing them is easy.
- Ashes of the Singularity has true line of sight…But Company of Heroes has that too and takes cover and position into consideration for calculation damage.
- Ashes of the Singularity has a really good single player sandbox with great AI…but Company of Heroes has pretty good AI too.
In fact, if you were to make a table of features comparing recently released RTS games to the classic and the comparison chart looks pretty brutal right now. It’s not that the RTS market has died, it’s that new RTS games don’t compare well against games with $20 million+ budgets from the past.
What Ashes has going for it is technology. It is a brand new, 64-bit, multi-core, 4th generation engine. The first of its kind. What it needs is time to build up the content and refinement of the classics.
Unfortunately, it was released under the old retail model. It’s a new, fully featured game and thus is $49.99 – the same price or less than other new RTS games when they were released at retail. That model no longer works.
Finding your niche
The original plan for Ashes of the Singularity was that it would be a roughly 15 unit per faction game with DLC and expansions adding new races, maps, naval (add say 4 naval units) and stay very accessible as a strategy game. In our PR for Ashes, we talked about Ashes being a “reintroduction” to the RTS genre for a new generation. With hindsight, that’s breathtaking naiveté. People interested in dipping their toes into the RTS market could try out Supreme Commander 2 for $5 during the next Steam sale. Even if youdon’t like Supreme Commander 2, you must admit that it does a pretty decent job as a casual introduction to RTS games (92% review score on Steam btw).
For Ashes of the Singularity to succeed, it has to find a niche that can leverage its strengths that no other game has now or is likely to have in the near future:
- No one can touch Ashes AI potential. The engine scales almost linearly today to 10 cores. We are not aware of any other RTS that scales beyond 2 cores. That means the AI can keep getting more sophisticated over time.
- No one can touch Ashes potential for strategic depth. Potential being the operative word since it doesn’t have that today. From a simulation point of view, Ashes can do crazy complex stuff. The game needs to evolve in that direction.
- No one can touch Ashes visual potential presently. 5K montiors? 8K monitors? Ashes loves them. HDR color? Vulkan? Movie quality lighting? Ashes can do all of that and more.
- Ashes has amazing modding potential if we can get tools and exporters to the community. With 64-bit memory and a data driven engine, modders could literally recreate every RTS they ever wanted. We just have to build the tools for modders to do this.
But the key takeaway is niche. It has to find its own niche. You can’t be all things to all people when you’re competing against every game ever made.
Escalation vs. Ashes
By this Summer, we realized we had two different paths we wanted to take simultaneously. We still wanted to have an RTS that acted as a good modern introduction to the genre. One that was constantly supported with improvements and updates but also kept fairly approachable and inexpensive. We also wanted an RTS with immense depth and detail that was most definitely niche in its demographic. This game would target the experienced RTS gamer who has always wanted to run a world wide war against lots of opponents and deals with lots of resources and strategies and doesn’t feel rushed.
From these two contrary visions we got:
Ashes of the Singularity (the base game)
Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation
Supporting early adopters
The idea of pricing Ashes of the Singularity to compete on price at $19.99 sounds great on paper until you remember that a lot of people paid $49.99 for the base game. They have to be made whole otherwise you are punishing your most loyal fans. How do address this?
Because we know the Founders and those who were in Early Access we can do something for them: Give them all the DLC for Escalation until they get enough DLC that it more than makes up for the price difference. Whether that be a year or three years.
Escalation Design Premise
I’m going to be up front about this. Escalation isn’t for everyone. We are adding a lot more units. A lot more map types. We eventually will be adding more types of resources along with more units that will require those resources types. There will be units you build that you will automate to go and do things for you. In short, you will be building a machine. It’s an RTS with a lot more depth than the base game. That’s another reason why the base game will continue to be developed and evolve too because some people will want a simpler, lighter RTS.
Next up: What’s new!