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SAGA - Exclusive Pre-Launch Interview
Angelo M. D Argenio

So in case you haven't heard, a new TCG is coming out soon, along with a new MMO and a new RTS, and get this, they are all the same game. Yes, Saga, an ambitious upcoming game from Wahoo Studios and Silverlode Interactive, is an online troop and resource management game with a sense of permanency and some Sim game thrown in for taste. How does a collectible, tradable, raisable, levelable, battleable, raidable, buildable game work? Well the official website has this to say:

Saga is persistent and played online in a massively-multiplayer environment. Every building you build, troop you buy, and piece of land you conquer remains with you as long as you play the game. That means every time you fight your friends, you won't have to rebuild your castle from scratch. It also means every time your buildings get damaged or your troops killed, they stay that way unless you repair or resurrect them. Troops gain experience over time, meaning that they move with you from battle to battle, improving their skills and finding exciting new armor and weapons to equip themselves with.

That's enough to wet our gaming whistles, but it still leaves a lot to the imagination. If Saga delivers on all of its claims it will be absolutely huge, and that's a lot to fit into one paragraph. Saga promises to be a landmark in game innovation, but there is so much we still don't know about it. For me, an addict of all the aforementioned genres, it simply wasn't enough. So I sat down with one of the developers to see if I could squeeze just a bit more info out of them, for all of you gamers out there. Hopefully, this will shed some light on what might possibly be the next biggest thing in four or more game genres.

Let's start with something simple for the uninformed. What exactly is Saga? How is Saga different from other games out there?

The easiest way to describe “what SAGA is” is probably to tell the story of its origin, or how the concept came together.

Having been players and collectors of collectible games like Magic: The Gathering, we one day realized that what we really loved was basically imagining ourselves as commanders of fantasy armies. When we play a card, we're imagining giving an order to our troops or casting a spell or using an item in an army we command. We realized that the ultimate desire we had looming in our imaginations (I do know how this is sounding, and yes, we're pretty big nerds) was for our troops to come to life and follow our orders, if not in real life, at least in a virtual world. We further realized that this was why we liked both collectible games and RealTime Strategy (RTS) games. So we decided to make a collectible miniatures game that came to life in an online MMO RTS.

The big difference between SAGA and other RTS games is that SAGA is “real”. It's not a one-hour scenario where you build up defensible cities and hundreds of troops and then win or lose it all, game over, start again…

SAGA is an online virtual world, where every battle is just one event in an ongoing war of factions. Your city develops over real time, your treasure exists forever in your online account, and you use it to build better defenses, upgrade your technologies, equip your troops with better weapons and armor… When you're in a battle, and the enemy's battering ram is smashing holes in your city wall and your archers are being mowed down by enemy cavalry-- it's serious, it's real. It's going to cost gold and stone and wood to rebuild that wall. The stakes are far higher than in any strategy war game ever yet released. And because of that, SAGA's a thrilling experience, the flagship of a new fleet of RTS games. What MMO did with RPG, SAGA has done with RTS. – Jason Faller Executive Producer

What is the overall theme and story of saga? How does the story add to the online gameplay experience? What made you choose to go with this theme over all others you could have chosen?

The overall storyline is that the Gods created a planet, and each wanted to populate it with their own created race of beings: Humans and Giants, Elves, Dwarves, Dark Elves, Orcs… The result was multiple races, multiple factions. The Elves, Giants, and Dwarves formed and allegiance pact called The Order, and the Orcs and Dark Elves formed The Brotherhood, an alliance to defend themselves against The Order.

And of course, this set the world in a perpetual state of war. Each commander is given land and a starting village, and must do his or her part to quest and battle against their sworn enemies, and expand their empire for the fortune and glory of their faction.

The storyline is very important to the quests, and what is really exciting about the story is that the players in many ways will determine the future storyline of SAGA through their own efforts and choices. Our first expansion, for instance, is being developed in many of the quest storylines that exist in SAGA right now… When these quest chains are completed by the players, it will lead to the release of our first expansion set. I'd best say nothing more about that for now, or I'll spoil it.

SAGA being the first of its kind, we felt it was best to go with the tried and true standard fantasy setting. Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft… SAGA sets itself along these story margins, with a lot that players will be familiar with, but with a lot of new twists. - Jason Faller Executive Producer

What is the in-game world of Saga like? What Aspects of MMO gaming, such as quests, items, NPC's exist in Saga? What does Saga give to the gamer that is looking for more than just battle?

Wow, that's a big question (laughing). The in-game world is divided into five continents, one for each of the sub-factions: War (Orcs), Nature (Elves), Light (Giants), Magic (Dark Elves) and Machines (Dwarves). Quests are spread over the whole world, and are discovered as your nation gains levels. There are different terrain sets for each of the continents.

As for aspects of MMO gaming, I think I can safely say all of the above, and we have plans to continue expanding all of these features. Weapons, armor, crafting, questing, treasure, resources, tech development, experience, auction house, mail, trading, guilds, raids, espionage, PvP, PvE, NPCs, buildings, cities, defenses, spells, special abilities, you name it, SAGA has it. I think in a sense that because of having the RTS and RPG and MMO features all brought together, we might have the widest scope of any game ever made. Saga has just about everything, and if we don't have it, you can bet we're planning it. - Jason Faller Executive Producer

Saga combines several different genres of gaming all into one. Other than this combination, what sets Saga apart from other MMORPGs? Other TCGs? Other RTSs?

Well, I suppose in a way my answer would be “just that”. Just bringing these genres together is new enough and interesting enough that we've actually tried to not be much different in other respects. We don't try to improve what may already be perfect in each of these genres.

What is new and different is the consequences of bringing all these genres together.

In traditional plain-old RTS, you don't care about your troops, you just send them wave after wave to die until you win or lose. In SAGA, you feel it every time one of your troops falls, because it's a collected piece that you own and care for.

In MMORPG games, you are just one person, perhaps with a pet to boot. In SAGA, you're a nation that can grow into a full-blown empire, with hundreds of buildings, great walls, defensive battlements, peasants, etc.

In TCGs you play a turn-based card strategy game, which we all know and love. But in SAGA, we make those cards come to life and talk and fight and develop and gear up as you play them in realtime.

This combination can't fully be described, it has to be experienced. - Jason Faller Executive Producer

Considering that random booster packs can be purchased in real stores and leveling units introduce an aspect of variance into online games, what are you doing to maintain game balance? What problems with balance have you encountered thus far? How have you overcome these problems?

Great question, long answer. There will be a variety of modes of competitive gameplay in SAGA; Sealed-deck tournaments, constructed-deck tournaments, head-to-head PVP, Team PVP, guild wars, and other super-secret modes in development that I can't talk about. In addition, there are competitive spheres such as whose nation has the best economy, or which guild is the most dominant… Each of these modes has its own game balance issues and demands. There are, of course the natural issues with balancing spells, special abilities, and overall game balance between the five factions for PVP battles either stand-alone or guild war This will be an ongoing process as the game continues to develop.

We are planning on two primary tournament modes: sealed, and constructed.

Similar to most collectible games, SAGA will offer players the ability to enjoy a completely balanced competitive game with the sealed deck tournament. In this mode, troops will not have any differences in level or equipment which could cause a balance issue. Players will simply have their understanding of game mechanics and their skills as a tactician to rely on, and perhaps a little “luck of the draw”.

The other mode of tournament play, the "constructed"-deck tournament requires a bit more hands-on approach by our design team. We've broken these tournaments down into brackets to help insure a more level playing field. Additionally we have safeguards such as item level requirements for troops. This will help prevent players from making "twink" nations which have been given powerful end-game gear from dominating. Troops will not be able to equip gear unless their nation's level is high enough so within each bracket players will have a clear understanding of what types of equipment their enemies will be bringing to the field.

One last point is that, after all, this is a strategy game, and we're certainly finding that players who carefully plan and coordinate effective strategies typically win the battle, regardless of any differences in gear or booster packs or troop levels... – Andrew Grierson Project Lead

Did you have any particular type of gamer in mind when you were developing saga? MMO gamers, TCG gamers, and RTS gamers generally expect different things out of the games they play. What does Saga do to bring all these gamers together? What sort of gamer, in general, was Saga designed for?

To be honest, I'd have to say that we started out believing it was all for the collectible tabletop gamer, but the more the game developed, the more it became about RTS and RPG players. But lately it's swinging back again, so it's really hard to say. I ask myself the same questions all the time. Is it avoiding the question to think that both genres have equal weighting? I suppose my hope is that there are a lot of TCG players that are also RTS lovers, and then I think (laughing again) we perhaps don't have to pick favorites. It's not a great answer, but it's a tough and very insightful question. - Jason Faller Executive Producer

How does the interface of Saga work? Is it point-and-click similar to RTSs, or is it directly tied to the keyboard like an MMO? How is the actual gameplay experience and control different from other games we may have played in the past?

Since Saga is both an RTS and an MMO it made sense for us to cater to both types of players. Many functions in the game can be accessed through both the mouse and keyboard. The goal of every good designer is not to make the control any different then previous similar games. Saga is such a massive game with so many features; the last thing we want players to do is learn a brand new interface. “B” for example as you would expect brings up the build menu in the town management screen, in combat holding down CTRL and pressing a number will create a hotkey for a group, stuff like that.

Every now and then we try to add some new functionality that is uncommon or completely new, such as being able to target special abilities and spells on troop icons as well as on the actual troop figures on the game map, for convenience when a unit is not on the screen. So there will be some new things to learn, but on the whole we've tried to make players feel right at home. – Slava Zatuchny Marketing Director

What plans do you have to have to build A community in Saga? How will guilds work? Will Saga have any sort of "party" system so that friends can play with each other?

Saga is first and foremost a community of players. The chat system has been designed to allow for custom channels to be created where friends can meet. Guilds also have their own channels where players share information and plan attacks on their enemies. Forming guilds brings real benefits beyond communication. Members of guilds gain bonus resources based on the questing success and nation economy of their guild-mates.

The quest system is designed to allow for grouping. It has always frustrated me that I was never able to find an RTS that I could cooperatively play with my friends. Some of the quest lines end in epic boss encounters that will pretty much require the help of a friend or guild-mate; in addition, players can repeat completed quests at a higher difficulty level where grouping is encouraged. – Slava Zatuchny Marketing Director

What sort of out-of-game support will you include for Saga? Will there be tournaments? Raids? Special events?

If by raids you mean raiding the town of your enemies, absolutely. In addition, a world conflict system will be introduced at some point in the future. Tournaments, however, will be in the game at or shortly after release.

The tournament system will allow players to compete for saga products any time, day or night. Once 8 players join the tournament queue a tournament will be spawned by the system. Tournaments will have an entry fee paid using event tickets similar to Magic: the Gathering Online or Legends of Norath for Everquest. Winners will be awarded prizes worth many times their entry fee.

Throughout the year some tournaments will be invitation only, based on a number of factors such as PvP ranking, tournament ranking, best dressed, etc. We are currently planning on holding a huge world tournament at the end of the year to crown the Saga world champion. The invitation only tournaments will of course be free and offer even larger prizes. – Slava Zatuchny Marketing Director

How newbie-friendly will Saga be? What, both in game and out of game, will work to introduce new gamers to Saga smoothly?

I'll be honest. I don't think any amount of hand holding will ever teach my mom to be a good RTS player. SAGA will however do everything possible to lower the learning curve. If you are familiar with RTS games I would wager you can play SAGA with no instructions whatsoever.

The initial quests are the tutorial quests and teach you the basics of RTS play and introduce you to some of the special features present in Saga, such as using command points to deploy your troops and capturing your opponents' buildings to increase your command point pool.

A central help channel is separated in its own window and can be used by players to anonymously ask questions they may feel like a newb for asking. The help channel is monitored by volunteers called Guides who are always willing to lend a hand. – Slava Zatuchny Marketing Director

Some gamers play online games for the single player experience, rather than to play on a team. In MMOs gamers solo, in RTSs they play either free-for-alls or 1v1s. What does Saga give the gamer that is looking for a single player experience in an online game?

Saga was designed to appeal to a variety of players. While we promote guilds by adding guild benefits, we have been careful to balance those benefits so as to not make joining a guild absolutely necessary to compete. If you never sleep and purchase a fairly large army I suppose it will even be possible to compete in the world conflict system as a guild of 1. I wouldn't recommend it though.

Most quests can be completed solo. Hundreds of them are currently in the game with more being added every day. It has always been our intention to create epic quest lines that end in bosses that a single player would not be able to beat. Most MMO's currently have such bosses and players enjoy the challenge. We have however seen one extremely talented player beat a quest line that we thought unbeatable solo. We'll just have to make more challenging ones in the future. I would say 90% of the content in Saga will be playable Solo at release. – Slava Zatuchny Marketing Director

Now for something important for the poorer gamers out there. How much does saga cost? How much will booster packs cost?

The final pricing has not yet been determined but we expect registration to cost $19.95 giving players ~$16 worth of product. We have to add in a small premium to discourage players from just buying registrations and running multiple nations, which btw is against our rules. Soon after release we will also have a free version allowing players to try the game with the market turned off so as not to pollute our economy.

Saga has no monthly fee. In theory, a player can register the game, then through questing and smart trading amass a huge army and reach the top ranks. In beta 1 a player did just that. There will always be players with money who are willing to trade a few troops for that sweet weapon you found or gold your nation produced. So, it takes a little more work, but poor and rich alike can compete on completely equal terms, given a little work and time for the poorer… – Slava Zatuchny Marketing Director

How will booster packs and expansions be handled in Saga? Will there be promos and special items?

Expansions will be released as often as we can put them out, and will be triggered by players completing certain key quests in the ongoing SAGA storyline. Each expansion will have a new set of troops and spells to get in boosters. There will be certain “golden ticket” items that will be introduced periodically into boosters, which will be ultra-rare and valuable. We'll do everything we can to keep SAGA always moving forward with fresh content. - Jason Faller Executive Producer

Where do you see Saga going in the future?

Ahh. I think we're going to grow exponentially for years to come. All things going as planned, this will be our life's work. We plan on adding free expansions as often as possible, with new quests, new items, new features, new troops and spells, new factions, visual upgrades, etc.

A good part of all funds that SAGA generates will go straight back into the game. We all love the game, and will do everything we can to make it the best it can be.

As I've said before, MMO changed RPG forever. I'm not sure that new offline, PvE RPG games will even exist beyond a few years from now. I think the same will happen to RTS. Who wants to play isolated skirmishes or single battles against PvP opponents? Empire-building strategy games are all going to turn MMO soon enough. Players are looking for something better, where your exploits really count, and your nation exists dynamically in a community of other nations. That's SAGA. We're not going anywhere. We are the future of RTS. - Jason Faller Executive Producer

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