Lennart Sas has been making strategy games since founding Triumph Studios with his friend, Arno van Wingerden, in 1997. It’s known of the Age of Wonder games, which are turn-based strategy games set in a fantasy setting. Triumph has also made Overlord, an action-role-playing series that casts you as an over-the-top bad guy with a host of silly minions (it feels like a Monty Python sketch at times).
But now, Triumph is setting aside dwarves and goblins, magic and mystics, for laser guns, bioengineered soldiers, and mechs. Age of Wonders: Planetfall takes the 20-year-old franchise into a science fiction setting, keeping its turn-based combat. It’s also an evolution on past Age of Wonders game, offering both more tactical options to how you approach exploring the map and combat.
Planetfall follows what’s been a successful period for Triumph. The studio self-published Age of Wonders III in 2014, and by 2016, it had sold more than 500,000 copies. This helped Triumph put out a pair of expansions. And all of this success led to Paradox Interactive acquiring the studio in 2017.
In 2017, Paradox wasn’t sure if it would change how Triumph made Age of Wonders. And despite Triumph picking a new setting, it sure looks like the Swedish publisher is leaving Triumph to do what it does best — make strategy games with tactical depth.
That’s what I found with my hands-on session with the PC version. Age of Wonders: Planetfall is coming out August 6 for PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Afterwards, I talked to Sas (Triumph’s CEO and Planetfall’s creative director) about what I played, the studio’s business before and after the Paradox acquisition, changing to a sci-fi setting, and the burgeoning competition Steam is seeing from the Epic Games Store, Discord, and more.
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
No post-acquisition paradox here
GamesBeat: You self-published the last Age of Wonders game in 2014. Did you not have anyone interested in publishing it, or did you just want to do it on your own?
Lennart Sas: No, there was lots of interest in having in published, but it was sort of the golden age of self-publishing, so we gave that a shot. The game was hugely successful for us. It went really well. We did two expansions, Eternal Lore and Golden Realms. It went really well. Paradox approached us somewhere in 2016 and said, you’re doing nicely, but would you want to consider doing this as a part of Paradox? That’s when we got acquired.
GamesBeat: It’s hard to say no to Paradox. It’s a very good company.
Sas: Absolutely. It’s a very compatible culture. It seemed like a natural fit.
GamesBeat: Triumph was in fine shape, then, when Paradox came knocking.
Sas: Absolutely. We were profitable. You have sell high, not sell low.
GamesBeat: What’s it like, after the acquisition, to continue on with Triumph and not go found a new project?
Sas: We’re in it for the games. As directors we’re still heavily involved in making games. We’ve been going in the same way as before. The only thing is we don’t have to worry about a lot of the business decisions that we used to have to worry about, like finding an external investor or sorting all sorts of legal stuff surrounding the projects. We can just focus on the creativity and tech side of things, which we really like.
GamesBeat: Which engine are you using? Is this something you built inside?
Sas: It’s our own engine, the Creator engine we call it. It’s a 64-bit native engine. It’s tailored to this type of game. We have an entire modding engine for the fanbase. It’s our own engine.
GamesBeat: How you do you view the landscape for turn-based strategy games these days?
Sas: It’s still going very strong. If you look at the position of turn-based strategy as opposed to RTS, for example, there’s been a renaissance of turn-based strategy over the last couple of years. Starting off with Civ and XCOM breaking through a long way. If I look now at what Age of Wonders 3 compared to the sort of golden age of Age of Wonders games, the late ’90s and early 2000s, Age of Wonders 3 outsold that by a big factor. Not 20 percent, but a couple of hundred percent more. That says a lot, I think, about the genre. The audience has grown a lot because of digital distribution. It[‘s a lot more accessible compared to those old days where you had limited shelf space and a lot of these niche titles between brackets. They managed to stay on the shelves for a lot shorter time. It’s a very good time to make turn-based strategy games.
GamesBeat: Europe seems to be a hotbed of turn-based strategy game between what you’re doing, Paradox, Amplitude, and a host of indie studios. Why is turn-based strategy feeling so strong in Europe?
Sas: I don’t know if it’s just Europe. It’s America as well. If you look at sales numbers from large titles, they seem to be doing equally as well in America.
But I think it’s something to do with an aging gamer population that keeps on playing. Especially when you have kids, it’s very convenient to play a turn-based game. You have your laptop, between other stuff going on in your life. The way we set up multiplayer, where you can take turns with your friends. That cloud-based gameplay is very convenient. It works well on laptops. It works well on consoles even. I think that’s one of the factors.
From sword & sorcery to mechs and laser beams
GamesBeat: Was it difficult for your team and for yourself to get out of the mindset of fantasy medieval units and work on sci-fi?
Sas: A little bit. Of course we’ve been science fiction fans for all our lives. We grew up watching the old Battlestar Galactica. I was a six year old boy. That defined a lot. Star Wars, all that stuff. We know all the pop culture stuff. But translating that into a game world is a lot more work. Especially, Age of Wonders was more of a classic fantasy setting, relying on more direct tropes. In science fiction there’s a lot more freedom to shape your future. The entire world, the Star Union, all the faction designs, they rely less heavily on predefined tropes. Of course sometimes we still talk about, oh, let’s cast a spell, when we really mean let’s use an operation. It’s been a lot of fun to do a science fiction game for once.
GamesBeat: What’s one aspect of science fiction that you’ve put into this game that you yourself love?
Sas: Primarily the way that the world of the Star Union is a reflection of our own world and what could happen to it. The doomsday scenarios looming over the horizon that we made real in this game. The technological changes affecting the world, like mass automation maybe resulting in mass unemployment, doomsday weapons, sentient AI, ecological disaster, genetic modification. What does it mean to be human in such a world? What ideological differences are there between people, between factions? Where does humanity go to? Those questions are things we deal with in this game, especially in the single-player campaign.