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Strategy game Empire of Sin’s second chance: “It became a group effort”

We sat down with Brenda Romero to talk about her crime empire management game's first year

Empire of Sin just received a new expansion and free patch today that’s aimed at giving the prohibition-era strategy game a second wind. Paradox’s recent quarterly report mentioned that Empire of Sin didn’t sell as well as expected, and reviews from the game’s launch window – like ours – were positive but full of caveats.

Not hitting the initial mark is always a possibility, game director Brenda Romero tells us in an in an interview. “There’s always the risk that the game is not going to meet expectations in some regard. That comes with the territory. You could win a BAFTA for a game, or it could just go right down the middle of the road.”

The lion’s share of the incoming improvements comes from the free Precinct update, which overhauls aspects of the management layer, as well as filling the act of growing your underground empire with more strategic choices. The inclusion of a new ‘depot’ building means that certain battles become more meaningful, and the need for supply lines and expansion via adjoining precincts means you have to focus your attention. Do you want to take over your local neighbourhood, or make a beeline for another neighbourhood and set up shop there?

Even the game’s technical performance is smoother, and there have been quality of life improvements at all levels.

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Brenda tells us how one of the first things the studio did after launch was collect group of engaged fans called ‘the Family’ – which has comparisons to Relic’s initiatives with Company of Heroes 3 and the ‘CoH-development’ council – which helped it navigate the initial wave of feedback that dropped post-launch.

“Once a game is out, it really becomes not so much ‘my’ game – mine and the development team – it becomes ‘our’ game. It’s out there,” she said. “It really became a group effort [with fans], and we ended up getting a group of really vocal players… we got a mix of them… they played really early builds of the game as they were available.”

It’s not only ‘the Family’, but the general playbase at large that helped guide some initial patches. Never underestimate a strategy gamer, and one massive exploit was uncovered pretty quickly that compelled the developers to respond.

An example of the new depot building coming to strategy game Empire of Sin

“The safehouse rush was one of those things we did not anticipate,” senior game designer Chris King explains. “We had to save them from themselves, because once you’d seen it, you couldn’t unsee it. Although funnily enough, when we were doing testing, we would rush safehouses. But we thought, ‘no one’s gonna play that way’. But it turns out they did.”

Another change involves fixing the minimum number of neighbourhoods you can set during world generation. Previously it could be three, but now it’s been raised to seven, mainly because Romero and her team noted that less than 1% of players played matches in the three to six neighbourhood range. This allowed them to better balance the game for a smaller range of game sizes.

“Chris and I actually speculated that it was us. We were the 1%,” Romero observes. “Because when we’re going to test something, we would go with three neighbourhoods for ease.”

We also found out more about the incoming mod tools that will also be dropping with the new update. Chief architect Chris Gregan tells us how in the first wave alone, a lot of tools are going to be offered to the players. “All of our gameplay scripts let you set up scenarios in the game or control how the AI behaves. All of that stuff has been written in Lua scripts, which are fully accessible to modders. If I had to put a number on it, it’s probably like 70-80% of the game code is written in Lua. And that’s the part that we’re given to modders.”

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The second wave of mod tools will enable support for 3D and other visual assets. Whether all of this will help Empire of Sin get a second wind remains to be seen – it’s certainly a much-improved game compared to how it was at launch, but not every game can pull a No Man’s Sky.

Empire of Sin: Make it Count and the free Precinct update are available right now on PC via Steam and the Paradox store.