Interview With Lee Dotson of ZarkSoft Games

Let’s start off by learning a little about the ZarkSoft team. How many people are working on Empire of the Eclipse, and is this everyone’s first videogame industry experience? Is it everyone’s first big MMO project, for that matter?

There are currently three people working on Empire: Jeff Lawton, Jeff Williams, and myself (Lee Dotson). I’ve been in the games industry for about 14 years now and have worked on projects like Anachronox, Alice, Diablo 3, Unreal Championship 2, and Hellgate: London to name a few. Most recently I was the Art Director on Star Trek Online. Jeff and Jeff come from a business background, handling network architecture for various large corporations, but have been making games on their own since the 8-bit Atari days.

Our first joint project was back in 1994 when we made a dungeon crawling MMO that supported VGA graphics and up to 150 players simultaneously, something we were very excited about at the time considering that 14.4k modems were thought to be blazing fast in that era.

Just how long has Empire been in development? In hindsight, do you feel you were completely prepared for such a massive, multiplayer 4X going in, or has this project taken way longer to develop than the team had bargained for?

Empire has been in development for three years now if you go back to the very beginning. We always knew that taking on this kind of project was a little crazy, but that’s also been part of the fun. It’s taken longer than we initially thought but we never expected it to be a quick and dirty project. When we started getting into heavy beta testing last summer, some of the mechanics weren’t really working like we’d initially planned so we pulled back and spent a month heavily redesigning the core systems of the game based on feedback we were getting from players.

In the end I think that decision has resulted in a much stronger and more balanced game experience. Additionally, it’s really highlighted one of the benefits of being independently funded: if we were working with a publisher it’s likely that we wouldn’t have had the option to delay and refine the game.

Walk us through the structure of a typical Empire game. Do all players start out of the gate together, or is it possible to join a game in progress? Is the victory condition capturing the most territory within a set time, or does the game run as long as it takes for someone to conquer the entire universe?

When starting a game, players can choose between two server types: regular and tutorial. Tutorial servers are always open and planets in your home system cannot be conquered by other players. There are no win conditions and it’s generally meant to be a testing ground where players can experiment in a less competitive environment.

On a regular server you’ll be put into the list of players signed up to join that game. Once a server is full, or 24 hours have passed, a galaxy will be created scaled to the number of players and you’ll receive a push notification that the game has begun.

Once the game begins you’ll start with one colonized planet and a couple mining outposts. The first thing you’ll want to do is build some harvesters and set up harvesting routes to move resources from your mining outposts to your main colony. Next up, you’ll want to build some probes and start exploring the galaxy in order to find the best systems to expand into and so you can meet your neighbors. You’ll also want to choose a specialization and begin researching new technologies.

Your specialization determines what you’ll need to do in order to win and how you’ll go about playing the rest of the game. The exact numbers vary based on a game’s size, but Warlords will need to destroy a number of planets using the Planet Killer unit, Researchers win by building the ascension device and achieving dimensional travel, and Traders win by accumulating vast stores of wealth.

We’ve worked very hard to make this a game where there isn’t a single “best” strategy to win, so where a player goes from there is really up to them.