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Interview: Ironclad talks about Sins of a Solar Empire Entrenchment

Everyone loves a good underdog story and you can't get a better example than Vancouver based game development studio Ironclad Games. The company came out of (nearly) nowhere with their first game earlier this year, the space strategy title Sins of a Solar Empire. Published via Stardock the game's excellent reviews and its lack of a traditional copy-protection scheme enabled the game to sell over 500,000. It stayed on the top 10 best selling PC games list for several months.

Fans of the game got a surprise earlier this summer when it was announced that Ironclad and Stardock were not going the typical route with an expansion pack for Sins. Instead of one big retail expansion, there will be three mini-expansions that will be released via download on Stardock's Impulse service. Big Download got Ironclad co-founder and creative director Craig Frazer to talk more about their first mini-expansion, Entrenchment, as well as some other topics.
First, the unexpected success of Sins of a Solar Empire has been a huge surprise to many. Has everyone at Ironclad bought their new sports cars by now or are things still on the low-key side at the studio?

Hehe. We are all extremely pleased at the games success, but we aren't quite in that league yet. We had a team to reward and ramp up, not to mention patches, expansions and new projects that require significant resources. Hopefully after the next title we'll be able to spoil ourselves a bit.

When the time came to come up with expansions, why was the decision made to go with small mini-expansions?

If PC gaming is to survive, the industry will need to be open to change. We went out on a limb with our anti-DRM stance and it paid off really well. We tried an unusually long beta period and that worked as well. Micro-expansions are just another experiment we are trying out to improve the market. These small expansions give us the opportunity to provide highly focused, high quality content within a reasonable time frame. Micro-expansions also reduce the development risk associated with a 1-3 year cycles. With lower risk, we can be far more progressive in terms of gameplay and content.

Do you feel that having a $9.99 price tag with these micro-expansions was the right business move?

Not really, we've kicked ourselves a bit. At this point in development we've realized the price is too low, but the bar is now set for the other two expansions. Our team got overly excited, feature-creep sunk in, and we went over budget in terms of content and features. I suppose from the gamers' point of view it's a good thing, but are going to try and pace ourselves a little better next time around!

Why concentrate on defense for the first micro-expansion: Entrenchment?

One of our primary goals was to offer player more tactical options to fortify their planets. We felt it would be a lot of fun to try and predict your opponent's strategy, lay out the perfect defensive plan and customize your new powerful defensive units as required.

In the original game units became spread out quite a bit on the map. Although this was the intention, we felt a defensive expansion could provide a new experience that was much more focused and cinematic. Entrenchment reduces the management overhead across the map, while increasing the tactical gameplay at core positions. We expect to see far less drive-by raids, where players skip past outlying nodes and head directly to the juicy home planet. We also except to see more complex fleet compositions because new defenses will combat unit spamming directly.

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