John Romero is one of the iconic names in the games industry. Best known as the co-founder of id, John helped establish one of the biggest genres, and steer the ship of game design in the 90s. Brenda Romero, Johns's wife has an equally impressive history in the industry and three years ago the pair teamed up to found Romero Games, and start working on their first title: Empire of Sin.
Mobsters and the prohibition era are sadly underrepresented in the gaming world, with only a handful of games that let you pick up a tommy gun and run booze across the US. Empire of Sin plans to leave a permanent criminal stain on the games industry with its mobster management that blends XCOM, Civilisation, and RPGs together. At PDXCON 2019 in Berlin, we caught up with John, now COO of Romero Games, to ask about the latest title, and what we can expect from when we take the role of a famous crook in the 1920s.
As a reminder, Empire of Sin is coming out in Spring 2020 for PC (Steam), PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.
It's my wife's game, she's the lead designer and she's been wanting to make this game for twenty years. Her favourite tv show is the Sopranos, she loves Boardwalk Empire, Peaky Blinders, all that stuff. So she’s been excited for the longest time. She even grew up on the border between the US and Canada right where they used to ship alcohol across the border during prohibition. So even the town she lived in has a history running alcohol.
So she’s wanted to make a game like this for a long time and she’s also a huge fan of the Civ series. She worked on Jagged Alliance 1 and 2, and obviously XCOM is a really good example of the combat system. Everyone likes XCOM's combat and it's just a lot of really good influences put together in one place.
Did you ever come across any research that went against what we think of mobsters?
Not really, we found stuff that was crazier than what you could come with. Stuff you wouldn’t believe is real, and we decided to use a lot of that in the game. The crazy stories of the stuff that happened back then. Like, in the 1970s people let kids play with stuff they probably shouldn’t and that’s in the 70s, so imagine that but in the 20s. Like kids playing with dynamite and stuff.
Crazy stuff happened back then. And doctors weren’t that good. There was a lot of crazy stuff people tried, for medicine and stuff. There’s a lot of really funny stories we could put in the game as missions or events.
We’re big supporters of the nerd pillar because Paradox folks are big fans of the nerd pillar. So we have a newspaper in the game that covers every single month that the game spans. For thirteen years, from 1920 to 1933, every month a newspaper comes out and it covers stuff that really happened at the time, and the stuff you’ve been doing as the player, or other characters in the game. So if you don’t know exactly what’s going on with the other factions you might be able to read it in the newspaper. But our nerd pillar is other information that’s not directly relevant to what you’re trying to do in the game, but it's informative and historical and interesting.
Was there any worry about including brothels because of the human trafficking that is associated with them?
No. We are just covering what happened back then. We didn’t really present it as a human trafficking thing. So like if you watch Deadwood it doesn’t make you think there’s human trafficking in the salon. There are no missions that make you think that’s what happening there. There’s no wording about it. Its a brothel, that’s what people did. In fact, there are women running brothels and one boss even has a brothel bonus because that’s what she did.
Would you attend a speakeasy?
Me? Well, I don’t drink alcohol so I would never go to one. So I guess you could ban alcohol across the whole world and I wouldn’t care because I don’t drink it and my wife doesn’t either. And we’re making a game about prohibition. Maybe I’d go, I guess. If it were the 20s and I drank I guess I would go. Just cause it might be interesting or something?
The mad stories, how will they come into the game?
Yeah, they’ll be in missions and events.
And what about emergent storytelling, how much can I go off the track?
The mission is just a task in your journal and you can kill it if you want. You don’t have to do any mission in the game if you’re not interested in it anymore. So it's okay if you don’t finish stuff and do what you want to do instead.
Will the historical figures meet the same fate their real-life counterparts did?
Don’t worry, you don’t have to wait for Capone to die of Syphilis to win the game. You’ll get to kill him. But if you’re playing as Capone and get an STD and don’t take care of it you could die, then you’ve lived his life for real. So yeah, you can get STDs in the game, they are a thing, and some designers are trying to see if you can weaponise them in the game against people. It is pretty funny.
Wait, so can you infect a brothel with an STD to ruin the establishment?
You can’t take an STD and force give it to someone, they have to make a connection and one of them has to already have an STD. To do that they need to be in a group for a long time, then they have a relationship and it spreads that way. And that’s only if the infected one doesn’t die of it before getting to pass it on.
I’ve heard the game described as a mobster matchmaker, is that something you wanted to do from the start?
Yeah, so traits and relationships are really important so you know you’re having to manage the social things. So you’ll have a character who has enemies and friends, has things and people they love, and have these problems. So you have to manage all those things. So one could have PTSD, be in love with Baby Ruth, and have a hair-trigger. And that’s just a simple thing.
You can have a love triangle where two people love the same person, and one is probably going to kill the other. And then there’s cruelty, if you execute too many people and if you do that too much you become a serial killer. And if you leave a serial killer in a room with another person they might kill them.
Will that draw more police attention?
No, I don’t think so, the killer will do it quietly. He’s not like the Zodiac killer, leaving letters to the police or anything of the sort. The police aren’t interested in smaller things like that. They’re more interested if bombs are going off.
So if you use a bunch of grenades they’re going to come in and start shooting whoever has the worst faction.
In XCOM a lot of players grew attached to the soldiers because they named them after friends. Did you include these traits so that players could connect with their gangsters?
You’re going to be able to name your mobsters in Empire of Sin too. Because everyone loves naming them. Players do, streamers like to name them after other streamers or fans or whatever. It is just more personal and more fun that way.
But you will find characters that you like the best as well. So right now there’s a nurse, Racy I think she's called, and she's got a BAR, a WW1 machine gun, and she just mows everyone down. She's the first one I hire when I get into the game.
You’ll find characters that are your favorite, and you can promote them to underboss too. So with underboss they get more bonuses and you get to hear on the street what's going to happen to you, which is a huge advantage.
Sounds good. Thank you for your time!