Welcome to the first in what we hope will be many "Rolling Independent" interviews that we publish here on GameBanshee. The purpose of the series is to focus our attention on the people who are responsible for the burgeoning indie RPG market - an area of game development that holds a considerable amount of promise for those of us who continue to seek out game mechanics and design tenets that mainstream-focused publishers and developers have strayed away from.
Kicking off the series right and proper are the talented guys at Almost Human Games, creators of the Dungeon Master- and Eye of the Beholder-inspired dungeon crawler Legend of Grimrock. It's an ambitious project that's looking fantastic even in beta, so we just had to learn more about the game and the team behind it:
GB: Tell us a bit about yourselves. Why did you choose to pursue game development, and what prior experience does your team have in the industry?
Petri: Hi, my name is Petri Häkkinen and together with Olli Pelz, Antti Tiihonen, Juho Salila we kickstarted Almost Human in the beginning of 2011. We all have been doing games for many years before this, together with Olli we made freeware games already about 20 years ago, but this is the first time we have been involved in starting up a company. Olli and Juho have been previously working on Futuremark's Shattered Horizon and 3DMark benchmarks and Antti and I have been doing Alan Wake and Max Payne 2 at Remedy. In total we have about 30 years of game development experience in the house.
For us game development is a passion and developing our own games is a dream come true. It's the sheer fun of everyday problem solving and putting our creative potential into good use that makes us happy and drives us forward.
GB: For those readers who are unfamiliar with it, what can you tell us about Legend of Grimrock? What inspired you to develop a dungeon crawler in the same vein as the classic Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Master series?
Petri: Legend of Grimrock is a dungeon crawling game with an old school heart. It's a party based, realtime, tactical RPG full of mind teasing puzzles, exploration and adventuring. In the game the player controls four prisoners who are condemned to exile on top of Mount Grimrock, a desolate mountain prison far away from civilization. The prisoners are dumped there on top of the mountain to die. The only faint hope for them is to traverse a labyrinth of ancient tunnels dug inside the mountain by a long forgotten civilization. Presumably at the bottom of the mountain there is a secret way out back to the outside world and to freedom.
We feel that puzzles and also party-based gameplay to some extent are lacking in modern RPGs today, and this is one of the factors that led into development of Grimrock. But more importantly we are huge fans of the genre and can't bear that these types of awesome games are not made anymore. So clearly somebody had to step in and do something.
GB: When you set out to create Legend of Grimrock, what were your primary goals? Are you confident that you're going to achieve most or even all of them?
Petri: At the start of the project our primary goal was simply to make a game that would bring in enough money to keep us going. We are a very small, self-funded indie team and business realities can be really harsh when you're operating with a shoe string budget. We also wanted to make something different from what was available on the market and a game that we would enjoy creating. Initially the scope of the project was much smaller but since the reaction to the project was so positive and we got a lot of good feedback our confidence and ambitions grew. It was clear that there was a demand for this forgotten genre of games and we gladly accepted the duty of reviving the genre. Currently our primary goal is to make a game that appeals both to old-timers and to those who haven't played these sort of games before. In order to accomplish this we knew we had to offer undiluted old school gameplay combined with a nice presentation and a fluid gui which would appeal to the new generation. We are very happy how the game has shaped up to be and the comments from gameplay testers have been positive, so we are pretty confident at this stage.
GB: Did you consider any other genres before ultimately deciding on an RPG? What is it about the role-playing genre that compelled you to develop one yourselves?
Petri: We didn't really consider any other genres. We all have a passion for fantasy games and we have been talking about making a fantasy RPG since day one. In May 2011 I showed a very rough game prototype I had done earlier and I think on that spot we nailed what the game shall be: tile-based, party-based realtime dungeon crawler in the spirit of the old masterpieces by FTL and SSI.
For me RPGs and especially older games like Ultima, the gold box series, Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder have a soft spot in my heart. Thinking of these brings me childhood memories. I was also an avid D&D table top player for many years. I think the complexity and sheer number of options in these games and the use of imagination are the elements that captivate me the most.
GB: What is your definition of an RPG? What are the key elements that any respectable role-playing game should possess?
Petri: What separates RPGs from other type of games is the emphasis on characters and character development, and the separation of player skills and character skills. In encounters, be they action or story oriented, character skills are as important as player skills in determining the outcome. A good RPG also tells a story, but it does not have to be some predetermine epic storyline that the game designer has envisioned. If the game allows the player to use his own imagination to create his own stories about the characters and their deeds in the game world, the stories can be more fulfilling and richer to the player. A game with no predetermined story can tell a thousand stories.
GB: As an indie developer, it has to be liberating to have virtually no restrictions on creativity. But do you find that this is both a boon and a curse? Have you ever overextended yourselves when chasing "that one unique feature" that your game just has to have?
Petri: It is true that we have virtually no restrictions on creativity but practically speaking indie developers are always restricted by limited resources. Thankfully we happen to be in a good situation because what we lack in resources we can make up with our experience. That means we can estimate with quite good accuracy what we can do and what is beyond our reach. This is very important so that we don't waste precious time by developing features that would have to be cut in the end anyway.
Perhaps the only thing we underestimated was the time and effort needed to create a balanced skill system. The original plan was to make a simple and traditional class based system, but we didn't want to risk the game to be viewed as too simplistic. So, we decided to work extra hard and make a more detailed point buy based skill system but balancing all the skills deemed to be a bigger task than we anticipated. We are quite happy how it is now but we still want to add a little bit of extra and variety before release.
GB: What do you consider to be the primary advantages and disadvantages of independent game development? What advice would you give to other people considering the same course of action?
Petri: Clearly the biggest advantage is being able to pursue your own visions. It is clear that making an old school tile-based dungeon crawler wouldn't have been possible in any big, well established game development studio. The risks are just too big and big studios have to choose projects that have the potential to sell millions of copies. For us it's perfectly ok to aim at a smaller audience and smaller sales numbers. The primary disadvantage is equally clear: being limited in time and resources will with no doubt affect the games you make in some way and can make the work more stressful because the success of the project depends on every team member in a small team and therefore everybody has to work extra hard. On top of this running the business, doing the PR, blogging, and in our case also cleaning the toilet is something that we have to do ourselves and all this takes time away from the really fun stuff.
That said, my advice to other people thinking about going the indie way is to follow your heart. If creating your own games is your dream, go for it, but be prepared to work hard. Life is too short so better pursue your dreams now.
GB: With no publisher involvement, how challenging has it been to promote Legend of Grimrock and ensure that your target audience knows about it? Are there any specific promotional ideas that you've been kicking around as the game draws closer to release?
Petri: We knew from the get go that getting the word out on the street would be hard. That's why we decided to start fairly early and set up the blog for regular development updates. But the blog is not just an evil marketing scheme, we think it's a very important tool to allow potential customers to interact with us, so that we can make a game they actually want to play. For example, many things like the addition of food and the improvements to the skill system were suggested by blog readers. In hindsight we could have chosen a game design that would have allowed us to release the game iteratively, releasing often during development and improving the game based on the feedback. We are big fans of the release model of Minecraft, where the interaction with the developers and the players is maximal, and this is something we will definitely consider in the future.
GB: Legend of Grimrock will be available on PC, Mac, and iOS when it's released. How did you arrive at the decision to make the game available on these three platforms, and are there any others that you'd consider post-release if the game is very successful?
Petri: When we started working on Grimrock, the primary platform was iOS. The early teaser video we released even had the iPad gui. So the plan was to release on iOS first, and since we had an iOS version why not release on Mac too since the porting work would be half done already. Then we released the first gameplay video and the reception was so overwhelmingly positive and many of the commenters wanted to play the game on the PC. This made us realize that there is a clear demand for this type of game. So we switched our focus to the PC version because this allowed us to work much faster and make a higher quality game. Instead of making a simpler iOS game with quick ports to PC, we're now releasing a polished and expanded game on PC first, followed by ports to iOS and Mac later. We're also considering other platforms but frankly these three platforms are already quite a handful for our small team.
GB: Where do you see role-playing games heading in the future? Are there any modern-day design conventions you'd like to see utilized more often or removed entirely?
Petri: I'm not a big visionary or a good fortune teller but something that I'd like to see in the future is more diversity. The evolution seems to be towards a simpler, action oriented, single character RPG, something that I don't personally care that much for. I would like to see the rise of old school RPG goodness from the grave. For example, where are the modern equivalents of SSI's gold box games? Now, I don't see these becoming immensely popular among the masses again but there are enough old school gamers to support the genre.
GB: How about independent game development? With the growing success of Steam, Humble Bundles, App Stores, and the like, do you think it will be easier for indie developers to create, market, and ultimately be successful with their games in the future?
Petri: It's definitely looking good right now. It's certainly a lot easier to create a good indie game now than, say, 5-10 years ago thanks to the big studios who iterate the same concepts over and over. Right now it's also possible to market and self-publish games. But if you, for example, look at the iOS market you realize how difficult it is to stand out from the crowd. The iOS market is full of low price, simple and quite often low quality games. Mobile games and success of free to play are eventually going to push the prices of PC games down too, and this brings more competition to the low end market. Free to play in particular is a scary thing to me, not because of the competition, but because it will limit the type of games that will be made because in-app purchases have to be made integral part of the game design. For example, Legend of Grimrock wouldn't be the same game if it was free to play and had to support in-app purchases. So if the markets evolve too much into this direction, life can get again harder for the indie who wishes to pursue his own vision of the perfect game. It's still looking good today, but who knows how is it going to be in 5 years?
GB: Once Legend of Grimrock is finished, what's next for Almost Human? Would you consider developing expansions for Legend of Grimrock, or would you prefer to move on to a full sequel or another game entirely?
Petri: It all depends on the reception of the game. This is a one shot for us. If everything goes well and the sales numbers are good there are many things we could do. If the sales number are not so good, then it was hell of a ride! Ideally after Grimrock we'll expand a bit, so that we can do the porting work, support the PC version and start doing something new at the same time. We would definitely like to add mod support to the game and perhaps make some tweaks based on the feedback we get from the players. Expansions and a sequel are something that we have been talking about too but no decision has been made yet. We also recently got an idea about a different kind of game that would fit the Grimrock universe perfectly but it's way too early to even start thinking about it!