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Stardock's Wardell On Elemental's Strategy Game Engine Power

Stardock's Elemental: War of Magic is a PC turn-based strategy title that CEO Brad Wardell says is "bigger than anything we've ever done" -- but Gamasutra also learns about the moddable strategy game engine behind it.
Stardock's 2010 release Elemental: War of Magic is a turn-based "4X" strategy game in a fantasy setting, a spiritual successor to Simtex's 1994 cult classic Master of Magic. But the Michigan-based developer has a secondary goal with the title, beyond the main game event: an entire engine specifically built around the strategy genre, aimed at allowing modders or even other developers to create full-scale strategy games of their own. "Most games in the past few years have been developed with engines like Unreal or Gamebryo. But there aren't a lot of game engines made for strategy games, which have very different requirements," Stardock CEO Brad Wardell told Gamasutra. "There's a real difference between a 3D engine made for a first-person shooter and a game that is made for strategic zoom," he continued. Strategic zoom refers to the feature that allows players to smoothly zoom in and out between enormously varying levels of scale. According to Wardell, the feature, which first appeared in Stardock's Galactic Civilization 2 and Gas Powered Games' Supreme Commander, is "not just cosmetic." "Our engine couldn't be used for first-person shooters, but isometric-type maps in 3D -- that's what it's made for," he explained. "It's specifically designed for level of detail." Elemental makes use of a level of detail system paired to its zoom feature that swaps out different models and textures as the player moves from examining individual workers at ground level up to viewing whole continents, at which point the perspective blends into a flat 2D "cloth map." That will be available to modders, who can import their own custom 3D models from 3ds Max or Maya to make their own strategy games. They can create all the intermediary versions of the models and allow for a game scalable across a broad variety of system specs -- or bypass the scaling system entirely if they don't have the development bandwidth to make all those extra assets. (To drive the performance issue home, Wardell was demonstrating the remarkably smooth scrolling on an aged IBM laptop with an integrated graphics solution. "And it's not even optimized yet," he noted.) Every level of the game -- with the exception of the core engine code itself -- is moddable, including all of the game's units, assets, and particle effects, as well as the Python scripting that drives the game logic. "The game mechanics are done with Python, so if you're a Python guy, you can actually make a total conversion. Someone could make Civilization V with this," Wardell said, then laughed and added, "Hopefully not." Players can even create high-resolution PNG files from their maps and dungeons to print out and use for tabletop strategy games or RPGs, a feature inspired by the Campaign Cartographer software Wardell used to use in his Dungeons & Dragons-playing days. Similar to Spore, players' custom creations can be uploaded to the cloud and accessed by other players, although in the case of Elemental, such content is selected by players from a shared community rather than being randomly seeded into their games. "Stardock's development schedule is kind of tapped for the next several years, so even if this game is a huge hit, we're probably not going to get to do a sequel of it right away. So what we want is to make it so that the players can make it keep going," said the CEO. "My gut tells me Elemental is going to be bigger than anything we've ever done," he went on. "But I could be wrong. Who knows, right?"

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