Sins of a Solar Empire is such a complicated game that I felt compelled to write an accompanying editorial with my review. Because Ironclad has tried something new and fresh, there are more than a few kinks to work through. At least in the current infancy of the game, a big issue Ironclad is tackling is whether a developer caters to the larger gamer audience crowd–even if they’re wrong, or the people playing the game the “right” way.
For various reasons, the game is very difficult to learn to play properly. In no particular order, let me throw a few out there:
1. The single player AI is too easy, to the point you don’t need to utilize counter units, so you don’t learn much about units
2. There’s no campaign to make you learn to use different units in different situations to make up for the general AI being terrible
3. The games are long, but more importantly, it’s long before you see any significant action, raising the time investment to gain skill at the game
4. The tech tree is very deep, and outside of certain critical upgrades, it can often be hard to figure out what’s needed, and this is compounded by items 1-3
Because of this collection of problems, the quality of online player is currently very low. People just don’t know how to play the game properly. One forum poster I read said that people need to “stop playing the game like it’s Sim City in space.” This is certainly true. Because the AI is so bad, it’s very easy to just happily go on your way building planets up and making them look neat with a small fleet to keep the AI from getting frisky.
Of course, anyone with half a brain then can build a large fleet and curb-stomp you Tony Soprano style, as you wonder what the hell happened. This extends to some incredibly silly scenarios that underscore the lack of multiplayer talent in the game. One unit is a frigate designed exclusively for planet stomping (called siege frigates)–and only planet stomping. Even the game’s piddly static turrets will make mince meat of these units. However, a fun tactic veterans (and the term veteran is used loosely) like to employ in online games is to rush a horde of siege frigates and to nuke a “Sim City” player’s planet. This caused all the kiddies who don’t know what they were doing to complain, so Ironclad nerfed siege frigates.
In classic developer over-reaction format, they nerfed them so badly that it actually became more cost effective to just build siege capital ships rather than siege frigates. Oops. So Ironclad was in such a frenzy to correct the perceived “imbalance” they neglected (or at least, made a decision) to make the unit so inefficient from a cost perspective it becomes near-obsolete. And this was a tactic that only worked on blithering idiots, not any player worth their salt.
What this brings up though is the fact that although this was the top selling game in February, for reasons I mentioned in the review, people don’t know how to play the game in March. So does the developer keep nerfing every “cheesy” tactic? Or do they sit tight and balance the game for the “pro” player? Do they hope the “skilled” player base builds and they can balance the game in a normal fashion? Will the “skilled’ player base ever actually grow? All of these are questions and challenges that Ironclad will face, and I don’t know if there is an answer, because the game is unique in its gameplay.
It should be noted that balance in an RTS game, as mentioned in the review, is a long process. I am typically scathing towards developers who rush PC games into the market then patch the holy hell out of them after the fact, or just blatantly lose interest. However, in an RTS, long patching is actually preferable because the player base is so creative and adaptive: you really need a few months of tinkering to get it right. So it is very possible that this game will evolve nicely, and what we’re seeing is just the start of a new online community. Starcraft and WC3 had some fairly significant imbalances that took a long time to work out before they were finely polished, so it’s unfair to hold Sins to a different standard, and I won’t. The challenge here will be for Ironclad to stay the course and commit the resources to maintain and balance the game, instead of dropping everything to work on the next project, like, say, Firaxis.
What concerns me is that in this day and age, anything more than a half hour to an hour is not how we are trained to play. FPS multiplayer matches are usually twenty minutes. RTS games are a half hour to forty five. Even “non raid” instances of World of Warcraft are designed to be about an hour (assuming all goes well). Creating a game that demands more may be a huge error. Civilization Revolutions may suffer from this as well, which is augmented by the fact that there are reports of no save feature in multiplayer on the Xbox 360 version.
Length isn’t always a downside. As discussed, Civ is a longer game, but is also much easier to save, and the community has adapted (you can find players will meet at set times to play a game). Additionally, the single player in Civ, although “challenging” simply because the AI gets bonuses to make it competitive, is a fun experience, because it’s a pure 4X game and it has a number of “peaceful” victory conditions. Sins doesn’t have that. Because Sins is ultimately an RTS game, no AI in an RTS can ever match a human short of unfair resource and numerical advantage because it can’t use its abilities and units with the same ingenuity a human can. The quest for a strong, non-cheating AI is something that has oft eluded strategy developers. This is probably a good thing, if Terminator has taught us anything.
The sum of my fears is that this is undoubtedly a good game. A developer tried something outside the norm, they clearly invested time in it, and the end result is enjoyable and thus far, a commercial success. But there may be some fundamental design flaws that make the game unable to achieve the staying power needed to become mainstream. And the last thing we need to see is an innovative developer not succeeding because they tried something new: EA and Activision’s vanilla factory of crap already have enough fuel to spew forth mountains of mediocrity.