The original Fantasy General saw release in 1996, itself being the third installment in Strategic Simulations’ Five Star General series. Lifting numerous mechanics from its predecessor Panzer General, Fantasy General took strategy fans from the trenches of WWII that the franchise was known for to the fantastical realm of Aer in order to defeat the menacing Shadowlord.
It may have been more than two decades later, but on September 5, 2019, Fantasy General II arrived to the joy of old-school strategy gamers everywhere, all made possible thanks to the efforts of developer Owned by Gravity and publisher Slitherine. But how did the revival of this classic strategy title come to be? What were the goals when it came to creating a modern game rooted in a game from decades ago? And what is the future of the franchise now that Fantasy General II has been released?
We recently chatted with Jan Wagner, managing director of Owned by Gravity, to get some answers to the questions above and much more, such as how some of the original SSI developers felt about a new entry in the series, DLC plans, and what a Fantasy General III might look like.
Q: Fantasy General II is a sequel that came decades after the first Fantasy General. Why did the original game need a sequel, and what the team want to accomplish in updating it for 2019?
Jan Wagner: Does any game really need a sequel? (laughs) But in this particular case, the way it came about was in 2016, 20 years after its release, we had just played it [the original Fantasy General] again. We used to play it back when it came out, because we’re that old, and it held up really well. The core gameplay is actually still quite attractive and there’s a lot we really like about it. It’s just not something you can play outside of a DOSBox, and obviously a lot of UI and everything else, isn’t, let’s say, up to modern specs anymore.
We thought “hey, wouldn’t it be neat to do this?” And when we did it, we realized part of the game we thought we played 20 years ago was mostly in our head. A lot of the storyline, the world setting, the way the research of troops works, a lot of the components of the game were things we imagined much deeper and more extensive than they actually were. So we looked at that very solid core and core gameplay, and looked at all the stuff around it that wasn’t as good as we thought it was. But at the time thought it had a great story and all these great RPG heroes, but it really didn’t, it was just a couple of units and they added some text to it.
The goal in doing the sequel was we want to keep that core gameplay, modernize it UI wise and make it 3D, and use the way 3D helps support the gameplay itself. We also wanted to add those elements we thought we experienced to be actual parts of the game, so it actually has a storyline.
Q: What were some specific examples? I know you mentioned the story and the characters. Where there any other systems that on the surface seemed in-depth and you were impressed with the first time but when looking to modernize it you figured didn’t work?
Jan: Two things actually. One is the research tree. You had your units, and you could research more units. When we played it back then we thought “oh cool, I got a new unit, it’s going to be much more than the previous one, it’s going to bring new things.” What it actually had because it was quite linear was you had your missile person one and missile person two, and they are the same person, they just have a different visual and slightly improved stats. But they don’t really in any way change the gameplay, it’s just the same unit but better. More, but better. That’s one of the things we were really surprised to learn. Fantasy General had, I dunno, 200 units. And a lot of them were the same, but better. So what we wanted to do was actually make them different. In our game, the unit upgrades, actually change the tactics that are available to you, they change the interplay between units, they change roles the units may have. We don’t have linear upgrade trees, missile one, missile two, missile three, missile four, missile blah, blah, blah. We actually have branching missile people. We have people that go from being a missile to being a tracker, and they don’t shoot things anymore but they are still stealthy. We’ve got people that go from missile to be magic or heavy armor. We’re trying to add more variety and more tactical breadth to the game.
Q: So you have more options basically.
Jan: Exactly. And actual real options, not just a linear upgrade tree. A linear upgrade tree is I can just get the same guy. You need to actually make decisions, and that comes to the second thing. Decision making for us is part, in any tactical game, decisions are important. Do I go left or do I go right? Do I take this guy or do I take that guy? Who do I attack? How do I do it? That’s all decision making, in essence. We wanted that to be important, and the dialogue, for example, is also part of that. We put the story not only around the game itself, before a map and after a map, but we actually put it into the map. There are decisions you make that do effect the combat and effect the way your army, what units you can get. All of that is much more intertwined.
It goes towards little things as well, like aerial units. Fantasy General I had aerial units because it was a successor to Panzer General. They essentially took World War II units and made them fantasy. For this reason, you have fighters and bombers — fighters were dragons and bombers were people dropping rocks from the sky. In essence, once you go 3D, a dragon and a guy floating in a balloon should be different, they should feel different. So we used the move to 3D to change the balance of the game. Our dragons are really big and have powerful things. When you get a dragon, you should be really impressed. We took the stuff they did and tried to make it more like it would be real. A dragon is different from some guy floating in a balloon. A troll is larger than a human, so it’s not 10 trolls and 10 humans standing in the same square, they look different. So that’s another thing we did.
Q: How did the licensing work, how did the team get the rights to make Fantasy General II? Do you know?
Jan: I do know. I’m trying to think what I can say. The story is essentially in 2016 when we thought “wouldn’t it be neat to make a sequel of that?” we started looking for the license. It’s a little convoluted, because all the General series, this and I think Pacific General are the only ones that didn’t go the same way as the rest of the licenses for the series. The rest of them are with Ubisoft, and these two are with GOG, for whatever reason. It took time to actually figure that out and then it became clear to us we would need a partner because we can’t buy the license. We approached Slitherine and they were doing the same thing and thinking, “wouldn’t it be neat to do a Fantasy General sequel?” And we were like “I know where the license is!” We met and talked about the same thin and both realized by coincidence we were looking for the same thing, so it seemed logical to team up.
Q: Have you talked to or interacted with any of the original Fantasy General developers? Had you gotten their ideas on anything or talked after Fantasy General II released? Were they impressed by it?
Jan: We did talk to two of the guys who were involved in the development and we talked to a couple people who were with SSI at the time, the original publisher and creators. They were quite happy. We were a little afraid of approaching them because it’s their baby, and 25 years after the fact we come on and go “hey, we know better how to do that thing.” They were great because they were really encouraging us to do our own thing. The funny thing is at that time [in 1996], they were about the same size we are now. They were a really small team of about eight people in the core and a couple of people around it. They came from the same background, in a sense, of how can we make the best of things with what we have, and you can’t just throw money at it and go “let’s get 10 more people and get more graphics in.” It’s a lot more heavy lifting from everybody on the team on their end and on our end. They were very understanding of the conditions and restrictions that we had to adhere to. That was good.
After the fact, we got a relatively good score, the Metacritic score and press reviews were quite positive for a game that is essentially in many ways very old-school. We do a campaign with a story, single player, it’s not sandbox, there’s a lot of stuff that’s different. Even the visuals have an old school feel with handpainted unit drawings and things like that. They were quite happy we were successful because it spoke to the strength of what they did. We tried to honor the license without just making a copy of it. They were happy we took it and modernized it and put it on the next level. They said at the time, was what they could do. It wasn’t “this is the only way we can do it.” It was “this is what we could do at the time.” And then we went, “this is what we can do now,” and they were like “yeah, we totally appreciate that.”
Q: Moving over to the gameplay, over the course of the game your units receive experience and get stronger. On the flip side, if you have a powerful unit you’ve built up over the course of the campaign and they get killed because you make a bad decision, that really hurts your power, it goes way down and you have to build that back up. What about that dynamic did the team find interesting, and was that something that came from Fantasy General I? Was there a similar XP mechanic?
Jan: There was an XP mechanic in the same way. You could gain levels with a unit and it would get better, and then on top of it you could upgrade it and it would get even better. Both of those factors came in. In this regard, it’s still the same, because it’s really how much time did you spend with a unit and how much did you invest in it? In Fantasy General I, same with us, you pay resources, or money into it, which is another kind of resource, gold, and you pay time into it because it gains levels over time. The attachment is similar. We added the fact that you can name the unit after it reached level three, to make it even more personalized. There’s other ways to personalize it. There are dialogue and events where whatever unit goes into that event has choices that will also influence the future of the units. It could be fated and get certain special abilities that other units of the same kind won’t have because this is the only one that went with that particular dialogue.
There’s a lot of personal attachment. We went in fully with our eyes open that if you lose that [unit], you’re not going to be happy. This is, for us, what we talk about with choice and consequence. Choices have consequences, if they don’t they are meaningless. In this way it’s a little old school. We are essentially saying you can stick with it, just go “yep, I made a mistake, I pay for it, it sucks but that’s the way it is.” But we give you ways to soften the blow to a degree. Later on you unlock the ability to buy higher tier units, you get magic items that the unit could have been equipped with. If it gets killed, the enemy gets that, if you kill that enemy you get it back. You can’t replace the unit one-to-one but you can get quite close to it. On a technical level or army composition level you aren’t losing that much, you’re losing money and you’re losing time. The levels can be regained. Your leader, for example, has a specific skill where units will start at half of his level. So if you’ve got your hero, your main hero is always with you, units will start at a higher level when you hire them. That’s all softening that. But we still want you to feel the pain. We want you to go “These guys, I’ve had them from the beginning, I gave them a name, I remember they went into the blood oak and got cursed and did this thing.” They have a bit of a history, and we want that. Honestly, the way I play, if I lose that unit, I’m going to load a save game. (laughs) I hate losing them.
Q: That’s intentional then. You don’t want people to feel locked in, so you give people a way to go back.
Jan: Yeah. I think a lot of people play that way. If you’re a perfectionist, you always reload after a mistake anyway. If you’re like me, you go “this unit I didn’t care about, they can go. But oh no, this guy, I’ll reload, that’s worth reloading for me. The others not so much.” That’s the way we handle it. We give you ways to soften the blow and we allow you to reload. If you’re really tough, for the next DLC there’s going to be an ironman mode for people who really want to suffer for their decisions.
Q: I’ll ask about the post-launch support. You guys fairly recently did a major patch which added the content editor, balance changes, and things like that. Specifically about the content editor, why did you feel it was important to add that to the game. Was it something the community was asking for?
Jan: It’s something that was planned from the start. Ideally we would have given a mod pack that allowed you to do everything, but that was too much work for us to really make it safe so you couldn’t break anything by doing that. But the content editor is quite powerful. It’s actually the same tool we are using. One of the things we did when we created our own editing tool to build the campaign and the scenarios was building something that could be used outside of our company by anybody doing content. The reason is quite simple, it’s for the longevity of the game. If people like it and they can do their own stuff with it, why should they be limited to what we do? It’s always more interesting if new people come in and add their own ideas and thoughts to it. Being a small team, it’s also sensible because we won’t be able to churn out content monthly. But if there’s people out there who want to add stuff, that’s helpful and it will bring up new ideas and new ways of creating that content that we wouldn’t be coming up with otherwise. It’s an inspiration source, essentially.
Q: You mentioned adding the ironman mode. What other DLC plans are there? Expansions with new units and things like that, or will it be more new modes, balance changes, and things like that? Or both?
Jan: Both. Currently we’ve got two DLCs we’ve already planned. The first thing is going to add a new way of playing that’s more open, more like the Fantasy General I campaign. We’ve got a story campaign that’s heavily, heavily involved in the story as well, so it’s limiting to a degree in that sense. We wanted to give a campaign that’s more open and more like Fantasy General I played. That’s going to be the first DLC, which is named Onslaught. That will also get a dozen aerial units you didn’t have initially, like giant eagles, pegasus, nightmare horses, and loads of stuff. We are adding the full aerial combat to the whole thing, and that goes back to the campaign. There will be a map that allows you to retroactively recruit them for the campaign that you’re currently playing.
That’s the first one, and the second one will be a heavy story thing that will look at what happens after the story ends at the end of the first Fantasy General II campaign. It will pick up there and play the Empire side, which is the enemy side in our current game. You’re going to turn the tables and be the enemy. Both armies are fairly different in terms of composition, so there’s different tactics and different ways of playing as the Empire because their units have different advantages. Even the way you get your resources is different. So it will give it that different feel, and it will continue the storyline to where we want it.
Q: We mentioned earlier the difficulty and loading saves if you have a character die. I did notice in the most recent update you did make some changes to the difficulties in the game, what they are called and what they mean, the effects they have on the campaign. Was that a response to the reviews and things that mentioned how old school and difficult it was? Was that why those changes were made?
Jan: Yes. We did do beta testing, but obviously you get a specific kind of people that are willing to beta test a strategy game. We used them as the baseline, and I don’t think they are representative of the average user, they are more the hardcore user already. So even our easy mode tended to be a little hardcore. That’s why we added that, this is why we put a new difficulty degree, in the middle between normal and hard is now challenging. Challenging is what normal used to be. Essentially what we did, it was our mistake, we made it one level too hard on every level. Which is fine in the upper levels, the very hardcore guys we could have named it insane level and they would have played it. It’s definitely difficult enough, and if you see some of the strategies used by these guys, they really take the systems to town and use every advantage they can get in a way we couldn’t have imagined.
But the average player, who has played one or two of these games and isn’t deep into it and doesn’t want to plan out each move for ages, that person currently, before the patch, was a little too challenging. We asked you to think through every move at a level of depth that you don’t necessarily have. We have three levels of information. We have your high level thing where you just look at it and go “I can attack that unit, can I kill it, how many can I kill, how many wounds would I get, okay that’s fine, go.” You don’t need to know anything, you don’t even need to know numbers, you just look at colored bars and go that looks good. And a lot of information is on the map. In the woods, I’m probably protecting against missiles. Standing in a river? Probably going to be harder to attack from there. You don’t need to look at numbers. That’s how it should be on the easy level, but the easy level currently required you to know too much of the systems and made it more difficult than it needed to be.
Q: It’s good to know you guys are aware of that and paying attention. I saw in the update you will have more analytics for the campaign to get more data for that stuff going forward?
Jan: Yeah. One of the things we found, currently we have a system of AI scaling that’s reactive to the player, so if you’re having a hard time and have few units the AI has fewer enemies. If you’re really good, the AI spawns a few more. A lot of people didn’t like that. It meant if you played exceptionally well, it got harder for them, it got a little more punishing. It’s not 100 percent true because some of the advantages they gained aren’t mirrored by the AI, it’s not like it just automatically threw more stuff at them, but there is level scaling there. The problem is the data we have from the beta testing is not applicable anymore because there have been balance changes, and also we already found the beta people were not representative. So that’s why we’ve added the analytics to understand the average player of that difficulty level has how many units, what kind of units, and get a fixed enemy scaling we could derive from that, and put that in the game so people can face that fixed scaling. For better or for worse. It means if you’re really good you’re going to be better than the AI, if you’re not as good, you’re at a disadvantage because the AI is going to bring the same amount of people. We want to make that optional.
Q: Will there be a Fantasy General III?
Jan: (laughs) You’d have to ask the publishers that. From our end, we have a lot more ideas for the current one. For all I care, we could do that for a couple of years. We have factions we want to do and stories we want to tell. We’ve got more continents from the original we need to cover. I could do with a couple more DLCs before we move on to number three.
Q: So you have ideas for Fantasy General II and you’d be interested in doing another sequel you think?
Jan: Yeah. Every project you learn a lot. For the current one, we looked at Fantasy General I and we needed to adhere to certain things, the things we identified as core elements. But that also means we left out a couple other things. We don’t have a world map manager, the map we have you pick your targets and that’s about all you do, any manage your army. But there’s no interaction with the world, you don’t build up cities, there’s no meta-level gameplay because there wasn’t in Fantasy General I, and also that cost extra money and increases the scope. But that’s something we would love to do. It adds that extra layer of more strategy choices to the tactical layer of the actual battle maps, so that’s something we can imagine for Fantasy General III being really nice.
Q: For fans of strategy games who have never played the original Fantasy General, why should they check out Fantasy General II?
Jan: The way we tried to build it is it’s a really good turned-based strategy game. Whether or not you played the original doesn’t even matter. It’s a challenging game so it’s for people who like a challenge, but it’s got an involved storyline so you can also play it if you’re not interested in just dry numbers. It’s not solely a wargame, it has a little more soul and meat on the bones. If you know Fantasy General I, you’ll find things that you remember. Units you remember, you’ll find traces of the original heroes that you played. The world is filled with places where you find the body of one of the heroes from the original one, and you can get his helmet. If you don’t know Fantasy General I, you just find a guy who’s been some hero in an old war apparently, and I get a helmet. In terms of understanding the game it doesn’t make any difference, it’s just an additional level of enjoyment and nostalgia we give you. We specifically didn’t want to do something where you needed to know the first one to play the second. It’s like Civilization or games that have a similar legacy. Of course, if you played two and three and four and five, you’ll have an easier time understanding six, but you shouldn’t need to know any of that in order to play the game. We lead you into the whole thing step by step, we introduce the rules and the mechanics one after another. And the world, there’s absolutely no need to have prior knowledge of anything, it just makes it more fun. If you do like it, you’re likely to like that one [Fantasy General I] as well. If you just like strategy games in general, that’s a good thing too.