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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.

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.

GR: And there are 14 bosses. They're inspired by really well-known bosses, there's the Alfonsos [a reference to both Alphonse Al Capone and Alfonso John Romero].

AJR: Yeah, so there's 14 bosses, and many of those bosses are actual, real people that were in Chicago as bosses, and they ran their own gangs. And we have a bunch of other characters that we've created that create a really good diversity of characters - so anybody that's playing the game should see themselves in a character and want to play as that character. Not feel like "I see a bunch of characters I don't really want to play because they don't really look like me or they're not something I like". So we invented a bunch of characters to kind of fill up a rooster of just really interesting characters that you want to play.

GR: Some of the footage in the trailer shows three characters going together and shooting together. Does that mean any sort of multiplayer, or is it that you'll go with your gang and control all three? How does it work?

AJR: It's a single-player strategy game, so there isn't any multiplayer in it, and the characters that you have in combat are the ones that you hired. So, those are RPCs - that is, Recruitable Player Characters - and you find them out in the world, just the way you find characters or you get introduced by other characters to new ones. Some characters you might see in the world won't even talk to you because they don't even trust you, so you need an intro from someone else. Sometimes, kind of tech-tree-like, you have to get some RPCs to get other RPCs to get other RPCs. So, to get the really good ones you need multiple introductions, and possibly a higher loyalty value to even be introduced to other ones. So, there's a lot of stats that come into play in that part of the game, too.

GR: That sounds deep, complex, and tense. Super-important to this time is the music, and also the art, to convey the proper Chicago of its time. So, how are you guys working on those aspects?

AJR: Well, we have a really good composer who just kind of makes jazz. He's a great jazz composer, but he also makes a lot of really good tense music and, I guess, a variety of stuff that fits that time period. We actually have two composers because we wanted to make sure that the music was also diverse and better reflected like a diversity of audio, but still within the time period and the instruments that were used back then. But we also kind of wanted to give it a more gritty sound, so there's songs in the game that use traditional 1920s instruments, but then there's some metal guitar under some of it to give more of a gritty sound, and those are my favourite songs because those are like 'hardcore 20s', you know? [Laughs]

It was some cool experimentation to try and figure out what's appropriate and still sounds like a really cool song of the era - but has more of a heavy sound to it. So, the composers on the game are absolute experts. These people have been making music for decades - they're just awesome, easy to work with, and we have lots of music in the game, in lots of different areas. When you're in the street and you're looking at the empire and stuff, you just hear the environment. And so, in the environment we have weather, we have rain, you know, sun and night time, and all that kind of stuff. You kind of hear that in the city, the cars and all that stuff moving... and then you go inside of the interiors, and there's like music playing inside the speakeasies and stuff. That's what they did, you see bands playing on the stage that's in there, and all just makes sense, the way you'd expect.

Empire of SinEmpire of Sin

GR: What is also hardcore and fits into the concept is executions. I've seen a couple of them. I think the trailer didn't have that. They're pretty shocking...

AJR: It was Nintendo, yeah! [Laughs]

GR: I guess that was the reason. So, what can you tell us about this? Are they linked to specific characters as well? The way they kill, the way it splashes the screen...?

AJR: So, there's a variety of executions in the game, all in different ways, they're not specifically stuck to a certain character, so, when you're doing an execution, it could be a surprise that you see some other cool thing that you've done. So, you know, if you play one specific character, you don't want to see the same execution over and over again, so it's cool that you get to see a lot of different ones. And the executions are a great way to just immediately finish somebody off, because, at the end of a fight, there are characters that are unconscious or on the ground, bleeding out, and combat's not over because they're still alive and they aren't dead. They need to be killed and you can either sit there trying to shoot them with your gun and maybe you're missing, but you won't miss on an execution - you'll finish them.

You go over and perform that move and it kinds of ups that internal counter of how cruel you are, and so you acquire a cruelty rate from doing too many executions. And so, if you keep on executing over and over again, the same character keeps doing it, that character could become a serial killer. Serial killers are actually cool, they're really powerful characters, but they're dangerous to have on your team because they're hard to control, and if you leave a serial killer with one of your regular RPCs alone, they might just kill him. They're very unstable. And so, when you start becoming cruel - you do get bonuses for cruelty - but then you are going to have to back off the executions. [Laughs] Unless you want to be a serial killer or you want somebody to be a serial killer.

"If you keep on executing, that character could become a serial killer. Serial killers are actually cool, they're really powerful, but they're dangerous to have on your team because they're hard to control"

GR: So many systems going on behind the scenes... So, how can players expect to progress through the game and to try and conquer the whole of Chicago? I don't know about the structure they have to follow to reach that goal, or how long it's going to take.

AJR: Well, it depends on how long of a game you want. Some people might not want to spend 10 hours playing a single game. So, we have many neighbourhoods in the game that we've designed, and those neighbourhoods are a fixed creation. For each of those neighbourhoods, if you say: "I want a short game, so I'm just going to play one neighbourhood with one enemy." So, you can go into a game that just has you and one other faction, and you can quickly take over the game and probably be done in like half an hour or maybe an hour, depending on how things go. And if you want a really long, complex game, you can pick many, like 6 or 7 neighbourhoods, 6 or 7 bosses to go against, and have a 10-hour game trying to nail everybody down because there's so much stuff going on.

These neighbourhoods all look different - they are designed after districts within 1920s Chicago, so we had a big map and we just drew off districts that we wanted to recreate. Not exactly, so we don't have street names and all that because to us that's not going to be the important part of the game - there's a lot of other meaningful information, and that's less meaningful information. There will be landmark buildings that people will recognise from being in that area of Chicago, so people will feel like "Yeah, these are all different, the looks of the neighbourhoods", like the industrial area does not look like the art deco area, which has completely different streets, street lamps and buildings, and all that kind of stuff, the decor, it's all different. So, there's a really nice diversity of look within all these different neighbourhoods, and you have another great scale of how long you want your game to be.

GR: When can we expect to play Empire of Sin and on which platforms?

AJR: Empire of Sin is coming out Spring of 2020. It's commemorating the hundred years since Prohibition started. It's on five platforms: Mac, Windows, Xbox, PlayStation, and Switch.

GR: It's been so nice that you finally unveiled this, so send congrats to Brenda as well on finally showing this. And thank you so much for your time, once again, John.

AJR: Yeah, thanks a lot for having me. It's great.

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