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Empire of Sin

Un-prohibited: John Romero talks everything Empire of Sin

Alfonso John Romero quenches our thirst for details by explaining the mechanics that underpin Brenda Romero's long-awaited strategy game.

  • David Caballero & David MolinaDavid Caballero & David Molina

One of the most surprising announcements at this year's E3 was without a doubt Empire of Sin, a strategy game set in 1920s Chicago, created by Romero Games, and unveiled during Nintendo Direct. In Los Angeles we got to learn more about the project and, by talking to producer Alfonso John Romero, we realised how deep the interconnected mechanics of the game can go, and how several different variables come into play. The more enthusiastic the Doom/Wolfenstein/Quake co-creator's answers got, the more striking the game's intricate systems sounded to us, and as such, we decided to bring you the whole interview in both video and transcribed text format below.

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GR: We're in Los Angeles for E3 2019. We're lucky to have you, John, with us once again. We met several times in Spain, but we mostly talked industry and abstract things, but now we can talk games, finally. How does it feel to finally unveil Empire of Sin, and the way it was unveiled?

AJR: Yeah, we loved the mystery... People knew that we were making a game with Paradox, and when they didn't see it during the PC Gaming Show or any of the other show announcements, people were wondering, "what's going on?", like, "well, the only thing left is Nintendo Direct, and that doesn't happen with Paradox." [Laughs] And then, the game showed in the Nintendo Direct video, and then people were like: "Oh my God! This is crazy!" So you know, for Switch! Which is amazing. I think it just surprised a lot of people, and then that just became something interesting to a lot of people to talk about during interviews.

GR: What also surprised was the style of the game. Not being a Paradox game, but being a Romero game, we'd usually expect hectic action. But, this is a quite different type of hell we're going to play in.

AJR: [Laughs] Yeah, so it's a deep strategy game, right? Which is what Paradox is known for. And the lead game designer is Brenda Romero. And Brenda has a long history of, you know, complex RPG development. She worked on Jagged Alliance, with all the personalities interacting with each other. She's played and loves Xcom, loved Civilization for decades... And this is the time period of her choice; she's loved Chicago 1920s Prohibition era. And her favourite TV show of all time is The Sopranos. She just loves mob games, mob media, mob stories... So, she wanted to make this game for 20 years now, and the reason why it happened now was because we, in moving to Ireland, we retired of our United States social game company and decided to make core games in Ireland.

"[Brenda] loved Chicago 1920s Prohibition era. And her favourite TV show of all time is The Sopranos. She just loves mob games, mob media, mob stories..."

AJR: And so, she decided she's going to write the pitch for this, and when she was writing the pitch, it was like, you know, "Paradox is the perfect publisher for this game because it has a really strong historical pillar", but it's also a deep strategy game that has a ton of information in it. And it's an empire management game. So, it's like you can go all the way from empire management down to combat with people right on the street. It was perfect for us to pitch to Paradox, and they immediately understood that this fit with everything that they were doing, so that's why we teamed up with them.

She actually told us about this secret project in December in Bilbao, saying...

Brenda Romero: "I wish I could tell you everything about it, but just... This is the game I've wanted to make for probably 20 years. So... it may be even longer. Certainly, at least 20 years."

Empire of Sin

GR: How are you guys balancing the combat, the action, with the management and the strategy, and with how you try to create your domain around Chicago?

AJR: So, the way you win the game is through domination, which means combat and wiping everybody out. So, it's not like an economic victory, where you have a bunch of friendly allies. You do make allies in the game and then you will kill those allies to win the game. Right? [Laughs]. And everybody will do the same to you - they'll make peace with you and be allies, but then they're going to attack you at some point. So, that means that there's combat, but for players that are less into that style of combat - you know, right down on the ground and choosing your action points and everything - if you're into mostly the management part of it, the empire management, when combat happens, you can just have it auto-resolve. And it's finished.

So, you can concentrate, at above city level, on the empire management part of it, so you can just click on all of your buildings or just bring up an entire screen that just shows every building and just sit in there and do diplomacy on the diplomacy screen. On the racket screen, you upgrade your rackets and go through your whole list of stuff. Just sit in management screens and play the game that way, and then auto-resolve combat whenever something happens or, if you think it's really important, you can be in the combat and make it happen. So you have all levels of how you like to play available in this game.

GR: Tell us a bit more on how you upgrade those buildings and those [different rackets] to keep your domain strong.

AJR: Oh there's upgrades on security - you need to protect the place because people will try to take it over. And you don't want to always station your RPCs inside of a building because they're pretty valuable to have in the crew to combat somewhere else. So, when you upgrade buildings, you can actually have them just assign guards to it. They just come in and they're ready - they're outside and inside the building, totally protecting it.

There are five levels of upgrades, and pretty much every part of the available upgrades on racket buildings. So there's the decor of the building that you can upgrade, so that makes it more attractive to customers - you can bring more customers in, and you can make more money because you are selling more booze. There's probably about three or four other kinds of upgrades that are on these different buildings that give them more of a money-earning potential, and word of mouth is an upgrade. You can pay to get people to talk about it to add to the draw, the attraction of the building, but it's a risk because when word of mouth gets out, the Bureau of Prohibition could hear about it, and they can come and shut you down if they hear about your racket. So, it's risky to do that, but your draw goes way up if you start doing those upgrades on word of mouth.

"You can pay to get people to talk about it to add to the attraction of the building, but it's a risk because the Bureau of Prohibition could hear about it, and they can come and shut you down"

And so, there's other things like that, where it's a risk for you to do some things, but the reward is pretty big. You could just be completely shut down and everything you've put into that racket is gone. [Laughs] You know, so the game's got a lot of 'risk and reward' in it. And lots of stuff, there's a lot of surprising, interesting content in it that you don't find in other games, especially the inner relationships with characters.

Empire of SinEmpire of Sin

GR: I was about to ask you about the characters...

AJR: Yeah, the characters have relationships with each other, they have temperaments, they have these traits that will give them bonuses during combat, or during negotiations or other parts of the game. And those things change over time, so just like people change over time, in the game, characters change over time depending on who they're exposed to and what kind of situations they're in.

And so, you could have a character who has the temperament of an alcoholic. So, this person's an alcoholic and, why would you put an alcoholic on your team? Well, they're like the best sniper ever, they have the best marksmanship, you know? So, OK, I want that person, but they get drunk. And that's kind of a problem because they may or may not do exactly what you want them to do during combat. And then, you have other people on the team in combat, there's other people starting getting drunk because they hang around with this alcoholic, and if they hang around him too much, they become alcoholic. And so, you have to deal with getting these guys away from him, you know, and maybe just bring him in for certain things and leave him alone in the safe house while you're out, and only bring him in for the boss kills. So, if somebody has a lover, the lover might be on the opposing team's combat unit. And so, when you guys earn an ally, you know, Maria sees her lover Bruno somewhere, it's like they refuse to shoot each other and maybe they just leave combat, so now you've lost somebody. Maybe just one of them leaves and now they have one more person because your person left, and it's like "Oh, no. That's not fair!" [Laughs]

"You're trying to triangulate who the mole is, and you can accuse them and they can leave your racket. Or, if you're really mad and you think you know who it is, you can go kill them, but you don't want anyone else around"

So, a lot of that stuff happens. Your characters could get picked up by the police or by a federal agency, they could be interrogated and then they could be flipped. And you don't know who got picked up. You know someone got flipped and now you have a mole in your own organisation. You don't know who that mole is, and now you're trying to triangulate who that person is, and you can accuse them of being a mole and they can leave your racket. Or, if you're really mad and you think you know who it is, you can go kill them in an office somewhere. You don't want anyone else around, because if the other RPCs see you killing RPCs, they'll think you're going to kill them too, so they'll leave. So you have to be careful who sees what. And you get information from your underboss. They're almost like a communication system, they hear things. And they'll tell you "By the way, somebody just went into interrogation with the police, you know, so you have to watch them".

And, you know, in the game, even as the boss, you can go to jail, and while you're in jail your RPCs have to run things for you, your underboss's RPCs are around, they have to bail you out to get back in the game. The game is over when you're dead. When everyone else is dead, you win.

Empire of SinEmpire of Sin