Q&A: How self-publishing brought Age of Wonders 3 back to life

In the wake of this fantasy 4X strategy game's remarkable launch, Gamasutra sits down with Age of Wonders 3 lead designer Lennart Sas to find out why the studio waited 11 years to return to its roots.
Age of Wonders 3 lead designer Lennart Sas sounds tired. It's late in the day when he answers my Skype call -- roughly half past seven in the Netherlands, where Triumph Studios is based -- but that's not his only excuse. "There's a whole lot of things still going on right now," he tells me, and I believe it -- I can hear the familiar drone of a busy office in the background. "I’m exhausted, but otherwise I’m pretty okay. The entire release craziness, all the post-release things not’s all been a good ride." Triumph released Age of Wonders 3 on Steam last month after letting the Age of Wonders franchise lie fallow for nearly 11 years, and since they published it themselves -- the studio's first self-published game in its 17-year history -- the folks at Triumph who aren't working on keeping the game's multiplayer servers stable or launching patches to shore up player-exposed flaws are handling community outreach or making deals to license the game for release in other territories. Sas seems to be at the center of it all. He's the managing director & co-owner of Triumph Studios, in addition to his duties as lead designer on Age of Wonders 3. To hear him tell it, this sprawling 4X strategy game exists because the game industry has evolved to a point where developers -- especially PC game developers -- can feasibly fund and distribute their own games without having to convice a publisher that a project is worthwhile. The fact that Markus "Notch" Persson partially financed the game's development probably helped, too.

It’s been awhile since we’ve seen an Age of Wonders game -- roughly 11 years, I think. What happened?

We were very busy with Overlord for a while, and we’re a small studio so we can really only focus on one project at a time. Also, the games market has really changed. In 2004-2005 the console market was really booming and the PC market -- you know, when digital distribution wasn’t as developed as it is now -- the PC market was really declining. Every publisher we talked to said “give us a console game!” so that’s when we started looking into making a strategy game on consoles. When we came out of the Overlord deals we saw that the console market had drastically changed. It was late in the lifecycles of both consoles, it seemed very hard to launch new IP, and there was a financial crisis going on.
"We could just call a meeting with key personnel and just decide to do something, because all the politics that surround publishing deals just aren’t a factor."
At the same time, we saw that digital distribution on PC was really booming, with lots of smaller studios and indies moving towards digital distribution and self-publishing. So we said 'hey, Age of Wonders is an old game we always wanted to go back to,' and creatively speaking we were loaded up with new ideas after all these years off. So we decided to try and bring the game back, since we were still very fond of it: we had kept our websites alive through the years to keep interacting with the Age of Wonders community. But we were also a bit scared of going back to Age of Wonders, because after we released Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic, we said we’d added -- how do you Americans say -- 'Everything but the kitchen sink'? It was fully complete, and it was sort of [our] zenith. We were worried about failing to meet people’s expectations; we were really sort of scared of our own shadow. But we started conservatively planning and laying out what kind of sequel we could do, depending on what kind of funding we could get, and I’m happy to say we were able to make the game we wanted to make and spend 39 months on development.

So how did you find that cash? How did you approach your inaugural attempt at self-funding?

The Overlord project was fairly successful -- we sold the IP -- but we maybe stayed a bit too long trying to chase more console deals, which didn’t work, so we had to scale back the studio. It was the only time in our 17-year career as a game development studio that we had to do that, but that reduced our burn rate a lot and allowed us to invest in a prototype for Age of Wonders 3. We didn’t know how to finance it yet, but the rights for Age of Wonders sequels reverted to us in 2009 or 2010, so we were able to self-publish those games on Steam. We were quite pleasantly surprised by the revenue that generated -- of course it was a small amount, but for ten-year-old games it was still quite impressive, and it allowed us to finish that critical first prototype. So when we reached a certain point, when we had that first playable, we went the traditional route of talking to various publishers; it was definitely a buyer’s market back then so people were asking for lots of sequel potential, sequel options, that kind of thing. And then by pure chance -- this was in 2011 I think, right before Kickstarter became really popular -- we noticed that Markus Persson had written something on the Minecraft splash screen that talked very favorably about Age of Wonders. Of course we knew about his success, and so we figured that if he was a fan we should send him a note and see if he wanted to do something with us. This was before Markus became super super busy, and he said 'Well, let’s meet so I can see the game. Come to Sweden!' So we flew over to present the game, and we agreed to work together on this. I mean, he didn’t really work on it, but he made a significant financial contribution to its development.

He didn’t have any creative oversight at all?

No, he was totally hands-off. He was an inspiration though, because he liked the game for what it was in the past, and so -- just like our fans on the forums -- he kind of represented the person we were making this game for. Markus has also been very inspiring to follow on the self-publishing path. The way he’s so open and engages with the community of his fans has been a great inspiration for this project.

So why didn’t you take a similar path, and offer paid alpha access to Age of Wonders through either Steam Early Access or a similar system?

Well, we have done a closed beta with a significant, hand-picked group of fans, and we’ve been very open in terms of showing the game in development through videos. At the same time, Minecraft and Age of Wonders are very different games. People have been waiting so long for Age of Wonders, that we wanted to have a certain quality level of gameplay there before we let people play it. So you’re right, we didn’t follow that sort of development-as-service model until after the initial release. But we wanted to make something available first that would make people say 'Hey, this is the cool game I remember,' and not some half-assed version, because people can always just go back and play Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic instead.

What tools did you use to build the game?

We used our own engine, so we had to write our own level editors to make the hex-mapped worlds and that sort of thing. We also used some middleware, like Iggy from RAD Tools for interfaces, because interfaces are extremely important in a strategy game like Age of Wonders. Of course, we used SoundEngine’s Fmod too.

So is this the same engine you used for the earlier games?

No, it’s a total rewrite. Actually, the old Age of Wonders games were written in a different programming language -- in DELPHI, a sort of object-oriented PASCAL language. The new game was written in C++, like most modern games are.

Got any good stories from three years of development on the game?

Oh man, there are so many little things. From disasters like key personnel affected by serious illness, localization companies going bankrupt while you’re waiting for the game to master, there’s always stuff like that happening. But at least -- the difference with self-publishing is that you still feel stress, but it’s a different stress because you have a greater sense of control. You feel like you aren’t totally swept away by the current, you feel more in control. You have a larger margin to improvise without having to defend your decisions or worry about what the publisher will think about your choices. I think we were able to move a lot faster in that sense, because we could just call a meeting with key personnel and just decide to do something, because all the politics that surround publishing deals just aren’t a factor.

Sounds like you found self-publishing sped up development and made it more smooth, which I find fascinating because many developers I speak to say they appreciate publishers because they provide milestones -- targets to shoot for.

Yeah, but we’re a studio who’s done this before. This is our sixth game, so we know how to manage projects. I’m not saying that everything went perfectly, and we’ve absolutely learned a lot from publishers -- they’re not evil by any measure -- but for us we really had to focus on making ourselves and our players the primary stakeholders.


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