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Times change for strategy publisher Slitherine as they bring Sovereignty to Early Access

A strategic view in Sovereignty

Sovereignty: Crown of Kings is coming to Steam Early Access later this week, the very first game from wargame and strategy publisher Slitherine to do so. It’s an unusual move for Slitherine, who have traditionally been one of the more conservative and hesitant publishers when it comes to Steam.

But then again, Sovereignty is an unusual game. Mixing fantasy 4X strategy with classic hex-based wargame elements and card game mechanics, Sovereignty is one of the most genre-blending games Slitherine have ever published. Now, as Slitherine are attempting to take the game from “good” to “great”, they are also in the process of learning how to get what they want out of Steam.

In the past, Slitherine have tried to do everything via their own digital storefronts and communities. While they’ve employed an “early access” model before, Sovereignty: Crown of Kings marks the first time they’ve opened the floodgates to Steam’s massive audience before finishing a game.

Producer Marco Minoli explained that they’ve had varying levels of success with that approach with their two previous early access efforts: Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager and Battle Academy 2.

The results to date have been mixed. While early-access players made huge contributions to Space Program Manager, and basically invented some key game modes via feature requests, the Battle Academy 2 early access period “was, to be honest, the least successful one. I guess mainly because it was a sequel. We were looking for the players to really improve and already pretty solid system, but we didn’t have much feedback from the community.”

A screenshot of Space Program Manager

Battle Academy 2 was the new instalment of Slitherine’s entry-level wargame series and, as Minoli explained, the problem is that most of the important fan feedback had already been taken onboard after the first game. “So when we released early access Battle Academy 2 it was much more about balance than about new features,” Minoli said. “So the feedback on the forum was, ‘Yeah, I like it. Thank you, it’s cool.’”

That is not what Slitherine want out of Early Access, however. “Early access success is not about how many copies you sell,” Minoli said. “We had that with BA2, where we sold very well with the early access, but the amount of feedback we had, and the amount of changes we were able to make to the game before release was very limited. So I would say that was not a success.”

Slitherine genuinely want player feedback from early access, not just bug reports and early sales.

“We were expecting much more stuff,” he admitted. “Like what can be done to really make the game different enough from Battle Academy 1? And that didn’t happen. On Sovereignty …I think if we manage to reach the same level of Space Program Manager, and we have a really solid community contributing, we can really take this game to a very, very high level. Which at the moment it’s a very solid game, but it can be much, much better.”

The battle map in sovereignty

Power fantasy politics

Sovereignty is an odd cocktail of genres and inspirations, and that’s why Slitherine need to get it to Early Access.

On one level, it’s a traditional fantasy 4X, but with a lot more factions in play and with a slightly more complicated diplomatic and economic framework. The 35 factions all have unique properties, including different racial compositions that affect both their play style and their relationships with other kingdoms. But then, beneath the strategic layer, Sovereignty is also a traditional hex wargame in the vein of Panzer Corps or Panzer General, albeit with some added wrinkles via card mechanics.

Sovereignty has already gone through a lengthy early access process via Slitherine’s own store. But now Slitherine need a few things to come together to finish the game the way they want.

“We started with the beta a year ago, and we kept having lots of very good feedback, but the main issue with most of the feedback we had was that we wouldn’t be able to fund it to implement the cool things the players were talking about,” MInoli said. “So we decided the thing to do would be to launch EA and basically do a beta 2.0.”

That makes this Early Access program more of a revision stage for Sovereignty.

“We basically now have a game that is fully playable from start to finish, with all the main features in,” Minoli said. “What we’re asking to all the players is, ‘would you help us in improving it and implementing some of the features we couldn’t make available so far?’ So it’s a game that’s almost complete, but we’re missing that 10-20% to finish it.”

A battle map in Sovereignty

Harnessing Steam power

This is just the latest piece of new ground that Slitherine have broken with regard to Steam. After years of selling all their games at a premium through their own digital storefronts, Slitherine gingerly embraced Steam in the last year or so. But Minoli was measured when he described Steam’s impact on sales.

“Steam is a great platform for certain games,” he said, slowly. “We have seen this pretty clearly over the last year, where we launched a very mixed variety of different kinds of games.We’ve launched hex-based wargames, we’ve launched Space Program Manager, we launched Qvadriga [a Roman chariot-racing management sim], and some of these games did very very well. But some of these games are still doing better on the Matrix store.”

The main thing Slitherine has to be careful about is the “race to the bottom” on game prices on Steam. Slitherine have always made games that appeal to very small, niche audiences, and they charge that audience a premium for what are deeply specialized products. But that’s harder to negotiate on Steam, and it’s one reason Slitherine have been slow to bring over some of their best-known wargames, like Gary Grigsby’s War in the East / West series.

“I think overall there is potential, but it needs to be carefully managed because otherwise you end up with a lot of flak because, I don’t know, the game is too expensive,” Minoli said. “We need to very careful from the community management point of view.”

Still, Steam is already causing Slitherine and its developers to make Steam-specific features a priority.

“Command Ops [a modern naval wargame] is a good example of a game that carries on selling a lot over time,” he said. “I think that the Steam release boosted its potential reach. So much so that now the guys at Warfare Sims are implementing more Steam-based stuff, which wasn’t planned at the beginning because we were just releasing the game. Stuff like achievements and cards, and stuff like that.”

It all adds up to a major shift from the wargame publisher. Just two years ago, the idea of a Slitherine game having Steam Cards was laughable. Now it’s becoming a major focus for people making some of the crunchiest wargames and military sims in the world.

But while Steam is proving to be a success for Slitherine, they’re definitely using all its features on their own terms, in their own time. When Sovereignty hits Early Access later this week, Slitherine will have started their next major experiment with the service.