We took some time at Play Expo to speak to Michael Peiffert, co-designer of upcoming strategy title Sigma Theory which is coming to PC and mobile devices.
Laurence (Last Life Club) sat down to try a playthrough of the demo version on offer while I spoke to Michael about the game and his thoughts on how games explore technological advancements.
Hi Michael, can you tell me a little about Sigma Theory?
Sigma Theory is an RPG-strategy game, where we are in the near future and there has been a breakthrough discovery in science which has introduced new technologies and progress in research much faster than we had before. All the superpowers are trying to invent new technologies based on this discovery, and even though they say they will work together to build a better world, they are actually developing technologies on their own.
So the game takes place in a second “Cold War”, where you are the head of an intelligence agency for a world power, and you must recruit a team of 4 special agents from a selection of around 50 unique characters (some are unavailable to begin with but they are unlocked as you advance through the game). Each agent has unique traits and skills which you must consider when recruiting them and sending them out on missions.
So you have to learn about your team and pay attention to their personalities when deciding how to approach missions?
Yes, each game will play out very differently as each agent will react in their own way to the situations you face as you play through. For example, some agents do not want to kill people, so if you direct them to kill someone during a mission, they might refuse the instruction, or they might kill that person and resign from the team after the mission!
It is a strategy game, but we have really focussed on the characters – with over 50 different agents and lots of different organisations and individuals that you have to work with – such as foreign diplomats who you must negotiate with or they may ask for your services. So, you have to manage the relationships with your team, as well as with other organisations around the world.
(At this point, Laurence failed one agent recruitment – he tried to buy the agent with cash but the agent turned out to be more complex than Laurence gave him credit for!)
Once we’ve recruited a full team – what happens?
The goal of the game is to send your agents all around the world to investigate and obtain Sigma Theory discoveries. There are only a handful of scientists around the world who can work on these technologies, so everyone is fighting to recruit these 20 scientists for their country.
You send your agents away to a different country and when they arrive you assign them missions – such as reconnaissance of that country, developing your relationships with people in the country (to make it easier to investigate), or obtain equipment like buying weapons from the black market (agents cannot carry weapons while travelling, so have to acquire them locally). When you find a scientist, you must investigate to get enough information about them to recruit them to your cause (similar to the recruitment of your team at the start of the game).
So you have to adapt your approach and carefully consider how to recruit the scientists too?
Yes, it is a sort of matchmaking game where you have to choose the best agent to approach the scientist. For example, if you are trying to recruit a male scientist who is gay, you have to send a male agent to seduce them, but if the scientist loves money then you should try to bribe them instead. If the scientists is not convinced by the politics of their country, you might be able to convert them to your own ideology, so you have a number of very different approaches which will be effective with individual scientists.
Once you have recruited a scientist, you can assign them to different branches of the tech tree, so they contribute to your unlocked technologies which are available to use through the game. The tech tree has five branches to which you can assign scientists, and each scientist is specialised in one of the branches of the tree. The branches of the tech tree also form part of the story in the game, so the technologies you uncover will change the world and could have a dystopic (or utopic) effect on the world, and this will change the endings.
How many endings can we expect to see? Is it just good/bad ending?
It’s like a rainbow! Also, you can fail – if you lose all your agents or all the scientists then you can lose the game. For example, if a country declares war against you then you will lose, but you may be able to work with diplomats to defuse the situation (although that country may still choose to close the borders against you, which will hinder your progress and recruitment).
This game deals with issues of the disruptive impact of technology and politics – do you feel that it is important for games to be considering these issues at the moment?
That is important for us, as we want to make a game that resonates with what’s going on today. Humanity has made breakthroughs in technology which has led to very quick progress – such as AI, military and medical technologies, and there are even millionaires who are funding scientists to find the secret of immortality. These are real developments and we are trying to address all of those topics within the game.
(At this point, Laurence is just starting a mission and has gone into the 3D tactical city map view)
Now into another part of the game – an exfiltration – so how does this work?
So this is a 3D city which is procedurally generated and it appears when you are extracting your agents with the scientists from a country. It plays out in turn-based tactical gameplay where you are like Obama in the War Room – you are just supervising the operation. You see your agents moving through the city and sometimes it stops and asks your advice or guidance to avoid the police and stuff like that. So you may have combat but it is not like X-COM, you just make decisions like whether to attack silently using a knife, or by using firearms, and there may be political ramifications.
I like how some games would give you direct control over the characters at that point but you decided to make the action in keeping with the rest of the game – where the player has a specific role rather than actually doing everything.
Yes, we wanted to keep the player in this role – where the characters are unique and they act on their own. So, you can give orders but they might not obey you, and you have to deal with that – with the “human” side of the characters.
So the consequences will come down to your choices – if you chose a violent character to perform a peaceful mission then that’s on you if it goes wrong!
Yes, you don’t always have full control over what is happening, and so the player has to deal with that.
How close to release is Sigma Theory?
Right now, almost all of the features have been implemented, so the focus is now on polish and adding all the content. There is a lot of content, a lot of narratives, branches and dialogues – stuff like that. Our goal is to have Early Access around March – we really need the input of gamers because it’s a pretty unique game, there’s no other game like that – so we need to see which direction they choose to take it, at the moment we are moving in the dark! We know where the game is going but we need the input of gamers.
Are there any games that influenced the design and gameplay of Sigma Theory?
We started with the narrative which set the design for the game. Just like when we (Michael and Fibretigre, co-designer for both games) developed Out There, our previous game, we didn’t think about other games – we started with a concept. With Out There, it was about loneliness in space, and we looked for the best mechanics to talk about that topic.
For Sigma Theory, the concept is to put you in the skin of a politician and everything you would have to deal with. What we know about politics is what we see in the media, we may think a decision is stupid but we don’t know what’s happening behind the curtain. They have to deal with a lot of different parties, a lot of different organisations and lobbies, and it is not easy to be in this position. People can have a lot of money and power and if they want you to disappear they can make you disappear, or destroy your career – so that is the base concept for this game.
What parts of the game were the most challenging to get working during the development?
This part (the 3D city exfiltration) because you don’t have full control over this part of the game, we started with quite simple text messages but the player didn’t feel like he was in the action. So we decided to make this 3D city, which will be procedurally-generated depending on the country where the action happens.
(At this point, Laurence has successfully exfiltrated the scientist and completed the mission)
That was a lot of fun – every few steps it offered a choice of what to do and how close I was to being captured was charted on screen based on the decisions I made. It’s not always obvious what is the right thing to do – which is good – but it does feel rewarding when you pick the right choice.
Well during an exfiltration, you have hundreds of possible situations you have to choose how to proceed, and depending on the skill of your agents it will affect your chance of being successful. Sometimes you have to use certain skills, like being very stealthy and your agent might have the trait “Master of Disguise” which will make it easier for that agent to hide or move unnoticed. That’s why you really need to know what your agents are capable of, and how to make the best use of them.
At the start, we picked 4 agents to recruit – do you always have 4 agents?
It is always 4 agents but during the game you can lose agents, so they can resign or they might die. They can also get arrested during exfiltration so you would then have to negotiate for that agent’s freedom, or you could choose to recruit a new agent, but you cannot have more than 4 agents.
How much do the agents develop their skills and can you give them special equipment or abilities as they develop?
Yes, there are lots of ways your agents can change. For example, when they get arrested they can be tortured to try and get your secrets, and that agent will lose life and strength every day they are in captivity. Also depending on that agent’s traits there are quests that you can unlock and that agent may earn a new trait, or the agent might gain some strength or intelligence. When the game starts you only have a small selection of agents and some of their traits are hidden, but they are unlocked as you play through the game. In this way, when you start the next game you know what traits that agent will have available. You will also unlock the new agents which you can use in other games.
So there’s a lot of replay value to the game?
Yes, we wanted to creative an emerging narrative so while it is a strategy game, it is quite light on strategy because we wanted to focus much more on the story and how the player creates and develops relationships.
How long would you expect a single game session to last?
We are aiming for between 4 to 6 hours to reach the end, but because there are a lot of different endings and lots of content you can experience then we hope players will come back for another session.
We really enjoyed the short time we spent with Sigma Theory and look forward to trying the game when it comes out on Early Access next year!
You can find out more about the game on the Sigma Theory website.
Update: this article was edited to note that Michael is the co-designer of both Sigma Theory and Out There, alongside Fibretigre.