Just want to start this post on a positive note by saying that I believe Elemental can be great. I've been following things for a while and even made a couple of passionate posts about things I'd like to see improved.
I was a designer/programmer for a games company for 6 years from the late 90's to mid 2000's. Worked for a smallish company making RTS and turn-based games not too unlike your own - some here might have even heard of some of them. I also did AI programming for these strategy games so my hat is off to you there. You're a much better AI programmer than I was, I'll say that. It's one of the hardest things to get right and people crucify you when you don't. My AI's ranged from 'reasonable success' to 'epic fail' but nowhere near the level you've reached in the past and will reach again. You have my utmost respect in that area.
Anyways, just a couple of quick points I wanted to bring up from my own experience. This might be slightly releveant or totally not at all.
1) After a long, intensive development cycle working on a game, the fun starts to become the "working on the game" rather than the game itself. You start to become invested and attached to the choices you've made and the systems you've created because you are proud of what you've done and you feel that they're fitting in with your overall vision. Much care needs to be taken to seperate this from what others who casually pick up your game and give it a go would find logic, interesting, flavoursome, strategic and FUN.
One distinct feeling I remember after having my head buried deep in the system design and coding of a game for 2 years, once the game finally nears completion, is - "oh my god. I have no idea if this is actually FUN for the average person to play!" That probably sounds really weird to most people here but I think anybody who has gone through a full game dev cycle and shed blood, sweat and tears over it will probably know what I mean.
What I'm saying is, I think its easy for devs to get so wrapped up in the day-to-day workings of the games they're involved and emotionally invested in that you can lose the forest for the trees very easily. Sometimes I wonder if this has happened a little to you with Elemental because, since (bugs aside) most people still seem to think that (design wise) this game is currently very promblematic and has a long ways to go, you constantly quote that is "the best game you've ever released." I've played some of your other games Brad and as a person who just loves strategy but is far less emotionally invested than you, I just don't agree.
I hope you've got a couple of people close to you that you *really* trust that have the same vision for the game as you but are not nearly as tied up day-to-day in it or invested emotionally in all of its design choices. You can use such a person/people as a barometer as to how good the game really is. I'm talking about someone who digs the style, grand concept, strategy and content but will give the game a shot once a week for a few hours and then give you honest feedback on what works and what doesn't. Beta testers could possibly fulfil this role, but there are all too many of them and opinions can vary wildly. Either take a step back yourself or start listening to others whose judgements you fully trust who can do that for you.
2) I want to make it clear that I"m referring to game design here, not problems with the new engine. Also, this is a description of the way we used to do things and how they seemed to differ from Elemental - not a "you should have done it like this!" rant although regrettably that may be the way it comes across.
Beta phase and release strategy. I have never seen a release strategy like yours before. Clearly it worked for your previous games like GalCiv2 and kudos to you for that, but honetly I don't know how. Yeah maybe things have changed a bit in 6 years but in the company I worked for, your "Betas" are called "Alphas" - its where you're weighing up game systems against each other, keeping the same basic systems but messing quite a lot with how they work. I would typically be doing this around 6-4 months before release. An example of an ALPHA task during this timeframe would be fundamental changes to the city building mechanics and resources mechanics. The type of changes that I was amazed to see happening 4 weeks out from elemental release.
Once your alpha is feature complete, all your system functionality and behavior is locked down, then you go into "Beta" where you don't mess with core game systems, its just bug squashing and balance, balance, balance. This is actually the phase when you really, properly *play* your game the most and discover where all the fun lies, and what areas could do with extra injections of fun. We'd normally start this process about 3-4 months before release so that by the time gold came around we were in good shape. Of course you are still going to have bugs because testing with a QA dept of 16 different machines can't possibly conpete with the millions of combinations out there, but after 3 months of beta polish, bug-squashing, tweaking and balancing they'll be down to a minimum.
From what I can tell, this beta stage for Stardock was called "getting ready for gold" and happened about 2-4 weeks before release. Again, this strategy has clearly worked for you in the past but I think I"ve seen enough game dev to know that its *very* different to the way most development houses would choose to do things if they had a choice (like you guys do) rather than being pushed around by publishers like most small devs. I just can't fathom how you can gel a whole bunch of independently tweaked game systems that are only finalized and come together two weeks before release into a really full game in that timeframe. In my experience created the balance and bringing the fun out of most games takes a lot longer than that - because, and I hate to use this cliche, but in the truly great games i have played what has made them truly great is that the whole is far superior to the sum of its parts. You don't get this without a LOT of love and care in the true 'beta' period of the game.
So, thats it really - i hope I haven't come across as being too harsh or even hateful. Thanks for listening (or not .. I know how many posts are made on these forums.) I really hope Elemental will become the game everyone wants it to be. I know you love Elemental like your baby, but I just get the gut feeling that you might need to step back and accept some home truths about its current *design/balance* (rather than just its engine/bug state) for the fun in this game to truly come out and shine. I sincerely hope that happens as trust me, this game has the potential to be far, far greater than anything I ever contributed to.