Solium Infernum: An Interview
Solium Infernum is a turn-based strategy game, set in The Infernal Pit. You take on the role of one of the archfiends of Hell to fight for the right to claim the Infernal Throne and become the next ruler. We recently sat down with Vic Davis, the lead designer of Solium Infernum and owner of Cryptic Comet, to discuss this upcoming game.
RPGWatch: Vic, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions. First, can you give our readers some background on your company Cryptic Comet and your previous game Armageddon Empires?
Vic Davis: I’m a small one man indie outfit. I do all the design, project management and coding. Then I hook up with talented artists, writers and musicians and put flesh on the design bones. I started doing this full time about 5 years ago when I began work on Armageddon Empires. I had been encouraged by my success making Civil War battlefield CD-ROM’s and thought that I would try my hand at a turn based strategy game, since it was one of my favorites genres - albeit a dying one even back then. AE puts you in charge of one of 4 factions after the earth has been destroyed by warring alien empires. I tried to give it a board game/collectible card game feel by adding some common design elements and mechanics that you would find in such games…things like deck building and dice rolling. The game was very well received and has gathered a bit of a cult following…but it’s not like Turn Based Strategy fans have a lot of choice nowadays. :)
Vic Davis: Solium Infernum is my attempt to do a grand strategy game. For the mechanics, I was inspired again by board games which have had something of a renaissance in the last few years.
I had a lot of players wishing that they could play AE with their friends since the game was single player only. So I decided to start the design process from the ground up with multiplayer in mind…and that meant simultaneous turns. So the core concept of the game is that you issue 2 to 6 orders every turn with the goal of generating as much “Prestige” as possible before the game clock runs out. An average game is 45 to 55 turns. There are a lot more twists, turns and special exceptions so that the race is made interesting of course.
RPGWatch: Solium Infernum is based in the Infernal Pit. What made you decide to go for a demonic setting?
Vic Davis: The theme is a riff off of my favorite line from Milton’s Paradise Lost:
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
The choice of a game’s theme is really important for me since I end up being stuck living with it for a couple of years. I try to choose off the beaten path settings. It helps me compete better with the large companies that feel forced to use generic high fantasy setting like Frodo’s Dungeon of Elven Doom.
RPGWatch: How does the player go about becoming the next ruler of hell?
Vic Davis: The primary way is to get elected by your peers at the end of the game. You do this by having amassed the most Prestige Points during the course of the game. Most prestige is visible to everyone but some is secret and at the end of the game it is revealed and can shift the outcome. Prestige itself gets generated primarily by holding important locations on the game board but there are a host of other ways to get it…from backstabbing your competitors to destroying their legions.
RPGWatch: What other games were you influenced by in creating Solium Infernum?
Vic Davis: Oh, a whole bunch. In the board game world I would say Diplomacy, A Game of Thrones, Dune and Ticket To Ride. Fantasy Flight Games is one of my favorite companies on the planet and I play almost everything that they make.
On the computer side, a game series called Dominions by Shrapnel and Illwinter was very formative for me. For me, the Dominions PBeM experience hasn’t been topped and the depth of its design is a real master piece.
Vic Davis: I teamed up with Matt Bradbury again for all the “flavor” illustrations that breathe “fire” into the game. He really out-did himself again. If you have played AE then you will recognize that Matt painted the Mutants and Machine Empire illustrations as well as almost all the “Independents” and expansion pack art.
Ben Sones did all the beautiful map and game piece art work. In addition to conceptualizing all the locations, symbols and terrain he made the whole tile system work which wasn’t an easy task.
David North did all the cool “Manuscript” illustrations. These are fragments of parchment that you can assemble to evoke various effects during the game.
Finally my sister Katie Davis did all the great UI work. It’s a yeo(woman)’s job and she came through for me again.
RPGWatch: How similar will Solium Infernum be to Armageddon Empires?
Vic Davis: You will notice the pedigree but conceptually the game plays in a different space completely. There are some big differences in mechanics that were adopted to allow for multiplayer. But as for similarities the big one that I am hoping for is the “one more turn” effect. If they both have that in common then I’ll be happy.
RPGWatch: In your blog you mention some interesting situations that you did not plan on in the creation of the AI. Tell our readers a few of the more memorable experiences you had dealing with creating the computer opponent.
Vic Davis: The AI for Solium Infernum was unexpectedly tough to do. Maybe it was a little naiveté on my part but after having written the AI for Armageddon Empires, I thought it would be easier the second time. The problem was that probably like most designers, I created the mechanics first and then only after it had been implemented and all the human UI stuff had been completed, did I sit down and think how the computer would approach a lot of the game problems.
I decided to stick with the goal-based system that I had developed for AE but it had to be drastically changed to suit SI. In a goal-based system a pretty obvious key component is the ability of the AI to identify and prioritize the best goals for a certain situation. With AE they all competed with each other based on their priorites for “action points” to do things in the game. In SI, the action points equated to “order slots” and instead of having a large pool you have a small number like 2. So having multiple competing goals that vie back and forth for focus doesn’t work as well. Needless to say, I had to go back to the drawing board twice to find an approach that worked.
RPGWatch: Speaking of AI, it was well regarded by players. Why were you so successful at creating a competent AI when so many bigger companies fail?
Vic Davis: AI is simply hard. I think AE has a competent AI and that in the end you can get an entertaining experience from it. And that should really be the goal…to provide a stimulating experience. And it’s not just the technical aspect of how the AI performs but the psychology of it as well.
Vic Davis: You can player either by email “PBeM” where you exchange turns with a “host” player or Hotseat where you all take turns sitting in front of the computer and entering your orders.
RPGWatch: One of the few complaints about Armageddon Empires was that there was no option for the player to create their own cards to add to their deck. Will this be an option in Solium Infernum?
Vic Davis: Sadly, I haven’t advanced much on the customization and modding front. A lot of this has to do with the limitations of my development environment. It also just honestly tends to get put at the bottom of the list since for a single person the scope of the work is just massive. I actually had to purposefully reduce the modding scope in some areas out of concern for cheating in multiplayer games. Things like costs for actions being stored in text files that could be modified locally by a player to cheat…that sort of thing. It’s always a tough trade off.
RPGWatch: Another complaint was the interface. Some people were put off that you couldn’t view all of your cards at once and the dice rolling speed. Later on you sped up the speed at which the dice rolled and fixed a few issues with the deck. What were some of the interface problems you fixed and what lessons did you learn from Armageddon Empires concerning the interface?
Vic Davis: I’d like to think that I’ve made some progress here but it’s become apparent to me that my brain might just perceive the UI world differently than “normal” people. :)
My big idea for SI was to come up with a single information interface viewer for all the players’ game assets. I call it the “Ministerium” and you can basically do almost anything you want in the game there. I’ve gotten better with hotkeys and tooltips but there is still a ways to go.
RPGWatch: Armageddon Empires enjoyed a level of developer support unheard of in the gaming world. You added two free mini expansion packs to the game. Are there any plans after you release Solium Infernum to add more content as you did with your previous game?
Vic Davis: It’s a possibility. But I’ll honestly have to see how sales go and what type of response I get. I’ll definitely be on top of any bugs that pop up after release and improvements to balance and game play that make sense.
Vic Davis: What is this quality control that you speak of? It frightens and confuses me. :)
QA is what you would expect from a small setup like me. I test on friends, family and neighbors etc. My son is 11 now and helps me out a great deal. Someday son, all this will be yours…. No not the curtains.
I also did a small beta that lasted about a month and is still going on with some of the testers submitting those really hard to find bugs at this point. I can’t thank those QA volunteers enough actually. The only down side is seeing their games when they send the save game files in. I designed the game and I’m amazed to see how much better a lot of people can play it. Right now I am running a couple of multiplayer games for fun with the testers and let’s just say I’m not going to be ruling The Infernal Pit anytime soon. Guess I’ll just be an imp. :)
RPGWatch: Thank you for your time, Vic. Before we go, is there anything you would like our readers to know?
Vic Davis: Just that if they want to try out Solium Infernum, I will have a demo up at release time. It’s a niche game for turn-based aficionados and reading the manual is always a good thing.
Our thanks to Vic for answering our questions and we wish them all the best for the release.
Information aboutSolium Infernum
Developer: Cryptic Comet
SP/MP: Single + MP
Play-time: Up to 10 hours
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PC
· Released: 2009-11-18
· Publisher: Cryptic Comet