Each title in Sandlot Games’ Tradewinds series starts with a unique location. In the case of Tradewinds Caravans, Central Asia and the history of the Silk Road proved to be a fascinating setting that was steeped in mystery for people in the West.
Brian Lynch, the game’s producer, describes the extensive background research process as "the ultimate class project" where the Tradewinds team combed through books about art, history and fiction, watched old documentaries and movies, played games that had touched on the subject matter before, and explored resources on the Internet.
"[Central Asia] is such a vast area of the world and every new culture you learn about is exploding with interesting stories, it’s hard to pull back and try to cover the whole spectrum," said Lynch. "There are cultures built around falconry and horses. There is the extant ‘hieroglyphic’ script of the Nakhi people. There are lost cities, a moving lake, an unearthed terracotta army of nearly 10,000 unique soldiers. This is a rich and ancient region – it’s full of surprises. I guess the biggest one is how little we know about it."
As for the characters, many of them start out as discussions of what people think they know about the region and history, and turning that on its head. According to Lynch, the character of Delaram is a perfect example.
"We wanted to have a strong, attractive, educated woman from the heart of Persia as a protagonist. This image is quite the opposite impression people in the West have about women in this region. But there were and are women like this. Portraying this in a game in a positive way was very important to us."
Achieving a balance
Sandlot Games was faced with the daunting task of satisfying two camps of gamer with Tradewinds Caravans. They wanted to make an in-depth and challenging strategy game, but one that was still accessible to more casual players. They compromised by automating some complex events and allowing players to focus on aspects of the game that they prefer most, whether it’s exploration, combat or trade.
"Every time we added a new feature we made sure that there was some ‘minimum engagement’ level required of the player that wasn’t too difficult," said Lynch. "In combat, a casual player can choose to sit back and let things unfold. A Tradewinds veteran can dig in to the strategy and directly influence the outcome."
The tricky part was to balance the game in such a way as to keep things interesting for veterans of the series while not alienating the new players.
"We started with an easy learning curve and upped the difficulty before our fans had time to master all of the new features. When the game isn’t hard, it needs to be interesting. Once it does get hard, the player should know what to do. In the end what we got wasn’t perfect, but I think we succeeded," Lynch said.
"We took a well-loved franchise, overhauled the design, added a ton of new features and gave the project to a new team on the other side of the globe. In retrospect, combining all of these ‘features’ in a single project might not have been the best idea, but worked out very well in the end. As with every project, there’s a bit of experimentation. Combat went through the most changes. Ultimately, we settled on the best one."
Crafting the look
In terms of art style, the team chose a very different look from previous games, which is true of each title in the Tradewinds series.
"We seem to go with a different look for each Tradewinds title," said Lynch. "It’s partly so we don’t get bored or get into a rut. Plus, with each new setting we find something that fits it best. In the case of Tradewinds Caravans, we went for a lush, detailed, and bright look that combined the cultures of this region. When traveling, the player will see a parchment-like world get filled in with color and animation as they travel through it. The cityscapes are just filled with interesting tiny details. Our art team was phenomenal – we’re lucky to have such talent working on our games."
"One funny moment was the design of the dragon model for Ao Jun (an unlockable character). We wanted an authentic Chinese-style dragon, but movement animation was a challenge, so we experimented. One of the mockups went in a funny direction that was completely unintentional. I’ve paired up that image with another that might be familiar to some."
It’s also perhaps a little known fact that the music in the Tradewinds series is created by Sandlot Games CEO Daniel Bernstein.
"It’s awesome having a CEO who’s also a composer," said Lynch. "For me it’s that final glue that makes a game come together, like the score of a movie. The music in Tradewinds Caravans pulls from many cultures as well and is fun to listen to on its own."
Around the world
The Tradewinds series has taken many twists and turns since its swashbuckling pirate origins. When asked if the series might go back to pirates some day, Lynch was coy.
"We’ve been in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Western Asia, and now the Silk Road. Each game has a unique feature not seen in the others and fans argue over which are their favorites in the forums," said Lynch. "We’ll keep visiting new places and trying new things, that’s for sure. As for pirates… well, let’s say that they always have a special place in our hearts and we’ll never forget them."