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The founders of Frost Giant Studios finally got their moment in the sunlight today as they revealed early gameplay for Stormgate at the PC Gaming Show.
Stormgate is a real-time strategy game that blends both science fiction and fantasy genres in one “science fantasy” storyline. It’s a free-to-play game coming in 2024 for the PC, and in my demo of early gameplay it felt a lot like StarCraft.
Irvine, California-based Frost Giant Studios was founded in 2020 by former Blizzard devs Tim Morten and
Tim Campbell, who helped create some of the most acclaimed and best-selling PC games of all time–as well as some of the most-watched esports–including Blizzard Entertainment’s WarCraft III and StarCraft II.
Fans of real-time strategy games have been anxiously awaiting this game for its modern take on the
classic RTS formula. Now they’ll finally see it in action during the upcoming Stormgate pre-alpha
Today, during the show, Frost Giant showed gameplay for the humans, one of multiple races in the title, where future space-faring humans discover an ancient race from a fantasy universe and the result is a clash of civilizations. We haven’t yet seen the fantasy race, which is called the Infernal Host – demonic alien invaders hellbent on claiming the Earth.
Stormgate closed testing begins in July and will continue into 2024. The founders said Frost Giant’s custom-built SnowPlay technology gives Stormgate the crisp, ultra-responsive
gameplay that makes it more fun than ever to control the battlefield.
In addition to the story-driven solo or co-op campaign and the completely free-to-play 1v1 mode, Stormgate will include a robust three-player co-op vs. AI mode featuring unique Hero characters; 3v3 team-based competition; and a powerful yet intuitive editor that will empower creators to build maps and mods.
I played a demo of the game in its alpha stage and then I interviewed Morten and Campbell about it.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What can you say about the game at this stage? What do you have finished, and what’s still to be done?
Tim Morten: The closed testing that’s about to start will begin with one race, the human race, from our story, playing in 1v1 competitive. We start with that mode because it’s the most foundational. It’s the lowest player count. Doesn’t require teams or a lot of AI. As we continue to develop, we’ll obviously add more races and game modes over time.
GamesBeat: Was it humans I played against in the peaceful demo?
Tim Campbell: Yes, and for reference, we’ve confirmed that we will have more than two races, but not a specific number. We’re leaving that open.
GamesBeat: So we don’t have a sense of the fantasy side of things quite yet.
Morten: That’s right. We’re working on the next race right now. We’ll be rolling that out into external testing later in the year.
Campbell: Each race is designed to reflect certain themes. The human race is grounded in Earth technologies and where we are as a people in their efforts to survive. The infernals, the next race we’re working on, is more of a magical race. We’ll bring in more fantastic elements with them. As we move forward, we’ve tried to approach what we’re doing beyond that as also carving out its own unique space.
GamesBeat: What are you going to show and talk about on Sunday?
Campbell: This will be the first time we’ve shown any gameplay footage publicly. We did some captured, scripted footage before. But this is the first time we’ve shown anything interactive. Tim is the one who actually shows it off.
Morten: The goal with this was to show honest to goodness gameplay. We only have a few minutes with them, so it’s clipped, but they’re clips from an actual game. The goal with it is to give people a glimpse of where we are in development. We’re officially in pre-alpha. We’re starting up our external alpha, and we’ll go through multiple shades of alpha and beta and beyond. But we’re pre-alpha at this point.
It’s encouraging to us, really encouraging, how fun and playable the game is even at this early stage. This is a more put-together and enjoyable experience than any other project I’ve worked on at this stage. We thought just giving players a view into gameplay would be exciting at this moment. We’ve only shown individual units in screenshots before, so actually seeing army sizes and clashes and shots fired and hearing some of the sounds of that stuff should be exciting for people who’ve been following the game. We’re also hosting a version that has some commentary by the two players who are playing the game.
Campbell: We’ll support more players than two, but this first mode will be 1v1 because it serves our purposes for testing the game and testing the service as we stand things up. Early on we’re worried more about just–do the pipes spring a leak? Do our servers stay up? Does this operate at a technical level? Beyond that, as we bring in more players and turn on more modes and factions, it will be more about gameplay, balance, feedback, and tuning the game.
GamesBeat: Will you have cinematics to show off as well?
Morten: Not at this show, but we will continue to work on cinematics and campaign missions over the course of this year and next. We look forward to sharing more of that content on the road.
Campbell: I loved that about StarCraft, particularly from a storytelling perspective. As you play through campaign missions, we want to be able to introduce you to factions and characters and conflicts. Some of that can be done during gameplay, but some of that is difficult to do with gameplay. We need to bring out different types of storytelling tools to give players good glimpses into that. That’s definitely something we’ve tried to extend on from Warcraft and StarCraft.
GamesBeat: Was there something about the StarCraft user interface that was appealing to you? Did you want to build on it in some way?
Morten: There’s been a lot of opportunity for us to iterate and think about how to improve on the interface that came before. But we’re also comfortable with just Blizzard’s right-click style. Even the way collecting resources works in a Blizzard RTS game. Our starting point is very much inspired by Blizzard RTS. But what we have is an improvement on the existing UI.
Campbell: We’re huge fans. I still actively play Warcraft and StarCraft. As a starting point, Blizzard’s UI for their RTS is the gold standard in the genre. We’re not looking to throw that away and come up with something wildly different. We want to start with our roots in this type of interface. But we’re absolutely on the hunt for ways to continue improving and refining.
Some of those ways are bigger and more obvious. Some are smaller. One of the more obvious ways we’re improving it is what we call the quick macro buttons. These are buttons above the command cards where you see the different actions like move and attack and abilities. What the quick macro buttons do, they allow you to place a building, even without a worker selected. Or they allow you to train a unit even without a building selected.
You can very easily, as a new player who might not understand the tech tree requirements and what unit comes from what structure and all this stuff–you can easily say, “I need a building like this here.” The game will select an appropriate worker. There are lots of ways we calculate that. It will select an appropriate worker and bring them over to construct that building for you, and then send it back to do what it was doing before you pulled it. Same thing for the units. You can train soldiers and have them come out of the appropriate training facility.
There are lots of smaller details too. We’ve repositioned where the resource counters are. We’ve made sure that our tooltips are right next to that. You can very easily compare visually between how many resources you have, how much supply you have, and the resource and supply cost of what you’re trying to build. We put it spatially in the same place. That hasn’t always been the case. There’s a lot of little things like that to hopefully make it feel much more playable.
GamesBeat: I noticed there’s a maximum number of workers that can work on something.
Campbell: The resources are very much in flux right now. They’re probably one of the most variable aspects of the game, because they ripple into every aspect of the game experience. We’ll tune them throughout development. But yes, we want to clearly communicate to players visually whether they can put more workers on a resource, or whether that resource is effectively full.
We also wanted to add some more strategic gray area, a range of strategic choices, into our second resource, our tech resource. That’s a resource that grows and expands. It replenishes and can actually get bigger and more enriched. Players have a choice to just throw the proper amount of workers onto it, in which case it maintains equilibrium, or you can over-mine it. You can throw more workers on it to a point where you’re harvesting it faster than it’s replenishing. The net effect is that you deplete that pool of resources. Or you can do the opposite and put fewer workers on something that’s over-mined to let it grow back again. That still clearly communicates the optimal amount of workers, but it allows players to maybe redline it a little bit, and then also pull off it a little bit.
GamesBeat: Is that motivated by trying not to clog up any one part of the map with too many things happening?
Campbell: That’s part of it. One thing that we want to do with our maps is to support a wider variance of map styles for competitive play, and also break open the pattern of expansions a bit. Looking back at Warcraft and StarCraft, they’ve historically had a well-established map style with a well-established sequence of expansions. We want our resources to facilitate more variance in how players expand and take control of the maps.
Aspects of our resources, such as the way they enrich when they’re not used, those are designed to encourage players to choose different locations on the map to expand to than they might naturally choose, just from a map layout perspective. They might say, “This spot is easier to get to, but that one farther away is worth more. I’ll leapfrog and take that further expansion point because it’s more valuable.” In this way the resource design fuels player decisions, which feeds into different types of strategies.
Our tech resource is something that players will encounter in a couple of different forms. The different forms have different gameplay attached to them. Some forms are patches of the resource that are already spread and available to harvest. That might be near your starting spot. Others are undiscovered. They’re effectively veins of this resource under the ground. Those have to be shattered and opened up. There are more ideas that are on display outside the map you played.
GamesBeat: Those spots where you had to kill something and then go grab the resources, that’s a kind of tiered reward? It gets bigger the more you–
Campbell: The chickens, yeah. The chickens are a beloved mascot for us. Those are our version of crate camps. We are inspired by crate camps that people have seen in MOBAs or in Warcraft III, but we’re trying to approach them in a very different way. The crate camps you played with are in progress still. We don’t even have the models for the monsters that are going to be there, so we put giant chickens with viking helmets on them as placeholders. Those camps will provide different rewards for you. They’re not mandatory. You don’t have to clear those camps. But those camps do provide certain benefits, like increased vision, ways to speed up your units, things along those lines that will open up different strategic options for you.
We’ve iterated on a bunch of those already, and we’re going to continue iterating. But we feel like we’ve struck on some ideas that will help these crate camps feel really unique to Stormgate, and they’ll contribute something to the basics of the game that you haven’t seen in previous games.
GamesBeat: The mecha sure look big. Do they almost feel like the tanks of the human side?
Campbell: That’s a good equivalent. We’re working on different parts of the tech tree right now and playing with scale. Scale is one of the aspects of the game that we’re trying to push on more. We’re trying to give a greater range from the smallest unit to the largest unit than previous games have had. That’s something that fortunately is a benefit of the technology we’ve built to support the pathfinding and the number of units in our game while operating at a smooth performance level. We have a bit more flexibility in terms of unit scale and size and how they move together. We’re trying to push that on the creative side.
GamesBeat: I remember from StarCraft that the battlecruisers, the big ships, they were always fun to build, but when you wound up with too many of them it was all over. They looked pretty weird overlapping each other in one space, too.
Campbell: Big flying units are in a special category. They can obscure a lot of what happens underneath them. Big flying units are something we’re still figuring out. We haven’t shown a lot of our flying units right now. But I think you’re right to mention that there are some issues there with having flying units be too large.
GamesBeat: There still needs to be something big, but is that something you’re figuring out? What to use as the premier unit for the whole battlefield.
Campbell: There will definitely be big ones, but at the same time, you don’t want the big flying units to also be the most numerous flying units, to exacerbate the problem. If something is going to be big and take a lot of space on screen, you probably want to have fewer of those. We’re taking that into account as we finish fleshing out the tech trees.
GamesBeat: Are there other games that also proved useful to look at along the way, besides the Blizzard games?
Campbell: We’re looking at a lot of RTS games, to be honest, not just Warcraft and StarCraft. Age of Empires is a big influence as well, even though they don’t have traditional flying units. They can’t help us on that side of the tech tree. But we look at the Command and Conquer games a lot too. Several of us worked on them. There are some classic flying units there, whether it’s the Kirov in Red Alert 2 or some of the other ones. They present interesting gameplay that’s different than Blizzard RTS. Command and Conquer traditionally has banking and sorties. Their air units behave totally differently than Blizzard air units. But we’re absolutely looking for inspiration across the board.
GamesBeat: I’m guessing that Supreme Commander is a direction you’re not going.
Campbell: The Supreme Commander games are great, but they’re also–there are a lot of different flavors in the RTS genre, and we’re specifically aiming at the Blizzard style. There are definitely lessons to learn and things to take inspiration from in Supreme Commander, but those are very, very heavily macro-flavored RTS, in the same way that Total War presents a totally different scale of conflict than StarCraft. We’re not directly making a game that feels like that. But those are good examples to look at for things that have been done well in the genre.
GamesBeat: How big is your team now?
Morten: We’re closing in on 50 full-time and another 20 contractors. It’s roughly the same size as the StarCraft II team when I was on it.
GamesBeat: For something like a large beta test, how far away do you think that is now?
Morten: We’re going to steadily increase the number of participants in external testing over the course of the year. The biggest player counts will be next year, though, as we add the next race and more game modes, so people can help us exercise more of the game.
GamesBeat: Have you decided whether to do a console version?
Morten: Not out of the gate, no. The door is open to consider that in the long term, but we’re really focused on PC right now.
GamesBeat: I was surprised to see Company of Heroes try to do that. Based on what happened there, it doesn’t seem like it turned out well. It’s one of the hard things about this market.
Morten: It’s interesting that there hasn’t been a breakout RTS success on console yet. There have been a lot of really good developers, including Relic with Company of Heroes, or Ensemble back in the day with Halo Wars, or the Command and Conquers that got ported over. But the control interface is just a big challenge for a variety of reasons. Many of those games are still fun to play on console, but they just haven’t achieved the same success that the genre has on PC.
GamesBeat: I played the entire campaign in Company of Heroes, and then I went online to play multiplayer and I think I won one match. I don’t know if you have a way of somehow balancing or counterbalancing against people who are at such a high level that they crush new players.
Morten: It’s so interesting. StarCraft has this reputation as being primarily a competitive game. But the reality we found when we looked at the numbers is that 75 percent of players play against the AI. That’s campaign and co-op, but it’s still 75 percent of the player base. That competitive player base is just so engaged and so vocal, though, and esports is such a big part of StarCraft’s history. The perception is that competitive is the primary mode, even though it’s only 25 percent of players.
We’ve found that there’s a certain kind of player that really gravitates toward competitive. That player often will watch videos, go through build order trainers, and focus on technique for how to be a competitor. Players who prefer PvE tend to be more interested in story and that social cooperative experience in StarCraft II that ultimately became the most popular mode in the game after Legacy of the Void launched. It suggests that there’s a social element to just hanging out and experiencing missions together. We’re trying to build on those learnings with Stormgate and make sure that our competitive modes are more compelling and have more rewards for players to continue forward. Expanding player counts to support three players should make the experience for players like me, who are intimidated by competitive, a little more adventurous.
GamesBeat: Is that 3v3 then?
Morten: We will have 3v3, but this is actually three versus AI. That’s the next mode that we’ll roll out.
Campbell: Your experience is really a case in point. Campaigns are a lousy way to teach players how to play multiplayer. That’s something they’ve traditionally tried to do, having campaigns bridge people into multiplayer, but there’s a huge gulf between those experiences. That experience that you summed up, that informs how we’re approaching the campaigns.
We are not using campaigns as a way to bridge people into multiplayer. Campaigns are a way to experience the game in its own right, for storytelling. They provide a different experience. They’re not intended to lead you into competitive multiplayer. In between those two is a big gulf. People who want to play multiplayer, but who don’t want to play competitively, or who aren’t ready to dive in. If they did dive in they might have a negative experience and then stop altogether.
In that middle area is where we’re trying to innovate with different ways of playing the game cooperatively. It’s really important to us that Stormgate is the easiest RTS to have fun with, to be able to just enjoy yourself with friends. Our campaigns aren’t just solo experiences. You can play those cooperatively as well. As Tim was just talking about, we have a three players versus AI co-op mode where you can come together, play as a team, and work together so you’re not solitary and responsible for your own defeat. You share responsibility with your teammates. Maybe you can opt to play different roles, playing more support or more aggressively or on defense for your team. Those are fun, social, cooperative ways to enjoy the game without the pressure or the punishing experience of losing at competitive. That really fills that middle for someone who may have tried campaign and wants to play with other people, but doesn’t want to shift all the way into competitive play. They can just enjoy the game cooperatively with their buddies.
GamesBeat: Auto-battler games have become a lot more popular now, especially on mobile. Have you seen any lessons to learn there?
Morten: That genre was first built with the Warcraft editor, right?
Campbell: Yeah, totally. There are definitely opportunities there for the future. But we really want to stay focused on the core version of Stormgate and have that be as good as possible. Those sorts of opportunities are further down the line. We look forward to getting into that one day, but they’re not things we’re working around right now.
Morten: I don’t know if you’re familiar with our plans for the editor, by the way, but we plan to take the same tools we’re using to build the game and make them available to our players.
Campbell: Warcraft III was really the breakout for Blizzard when its editor was released to the public. It spawned subgenres like tower defense and even MOBAs. That all came from DOTA, which was made in Warcraft III. And then StarCraft II added a lot more power to their editor. We’ve continued that lineage of editors. We’re building an editor for Stormgate that, for the first time, is integrated directly into the game engine. It’s not a separate, stand-alone application. Players can toggle between editing and playtesting with the press of a button.
It’s definitely a step forward, building on the lessons we’ve learned over the years of building RTS content, in terms of making it easy to use, enjoyable to use, and powerful at the same time. We’re going to take that tool we’re using to build the entire game ourselves, and we’re going to put that out for end users to be able to check it out and play. Hopefully people can goof around with it and have fun, and maybe even fall into building more complex maps and mods and share them with the community.
GamesBeat: Is there anything else you want to cover, especially about Sunday?
Campbell: From my point of view, Sunday is just the start. It’s the tip of the iceberg for us. We have a long road of development still ahead of us. A lot of stuff we’re working on is not going to be shown there. What we’re showing is just the first glimpse. It’s humans. It’s 1v1. In many ways, it’s the tightest focus we could have for gameplay like this. We’re hard at work on cooperative modes, on additional factions, on all sorts of other things we’ll share with the community going forward. That’s the exciting thing from my point of view. We’re early. This is pre-alpha. This is just the start of more fun things to come.
Morten: It’s important for us to get feedback early and often, so we’re able to make sure we’re building resonance with players. It’s easy to get holed up in the office playing against each other and not be as informed by the community. Now that we’re starting this process of external testing, it’s going to cause us to really broaden our perspective and incorporate all that player feedback in our decision-making.
Campbell: That’s the big reason why we want to share gameplay footage this early. A lot of teams would wait until they’re much closer to being done and fully launched to begin doing that. But from our perspective, we’ve tried to be very open, even since the early days of announcing the company and beginning work. The reason we’re here building this type of game is because of the community that supports Warcraft and StarCraft, and that’s supported Frost Giant since the beginning. Finding a way to share our development progress with the community, and also loop their feedback and responses back into informing what we do next in development is central to our vision for what we’re doing here. We hope that this will generate a lot of interest and enthusiasm, but also generate a lot of feedback back to us to help make Stormgate as great as possible.
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