While today's action-focused RPGs might cost tens of millions of dollars to produce, the end result isn't always what long-time role-playing fans are looking for. Enter independent developers - small studios diligently working to fill in niches that AAA developers have seemingly long forgotten. One such indie developer is Planewalker Games, where a small but talented team is busy creating The Broken Hourglass, a party-based cRPG that shares many similarities with Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn. To get a better idea of what we can expect from the game and where the team currently stands in development, we chatted with the game's producer, Jason Compton.
GB: Bring us up to speed on where you currently stand with the development of The Broken Hourglass. Have your recently reached any major milestones or ran into any unforeseen issues? Any idea what the release date might be yet?
Jason: Aside from a few rough edges remaining on the engine, it's all about implementing playable content at this stage. Milestone-wise, I'm encouraged by the progress we've made on critical path implementation (much of "the stuff you have to do to win the game" is in place now).
All of our issues were fairly well foreseen, but we ran into them anyway--mostly a matter of "boy, this is taking longer and costing more money than I would have liked" with a dash of "what, you mean it's hard finding people out there who know how to make this kind of game and will work for indie prices?" That's not to say we haven't had a number of fine contributors working with us, but, as ever, better-faster-and-cheaper would be nice.
Believe it or not, we've actually started to be affected by the declining dollar. One of our overseas contractors recently raised his rates, as the dollar has depreciated about 20% against his home currency since we started working together a few years ago. In theory we'll make up ground later when selling our game, of course, as whatever we charge will look like pocket change to Euro-holders, but for the time being it's certainly annoying.
And I'm not talking about the release date anymore. There is little more I hate than being wrong, and I'm always wrong when I open my mouth about it, so...
GB: Run us through creating a character from start to finish. How many different attributes, skills, traits, and spells will we have access to initially and how many more (if any) will become available during the game?
Jason: What a perfect time to be answering this question, as we recently revamped the character creation wizard.
The character creation process starts with portrait selection: we have a sizable selection of predefined portraits, which have associated sprites and sprite colors defined for them. Players are welcome to add their own by simply dropping a JPEG or PNG into the right directory--predefining color and animation settings takes a tiny bit of extra work in XML, but that step isn't necessary as you're able to select and customize the animation/color settings later in the process.
From there, you pick a name, gender, and soundset. The first "game mechanics" pick is the race selection, from the six sentient strains in Tolmira: humans, Illuminated, the three Ilvari cultures, and finally the Feyborn, the human/Ilvari half-breeds. Each has different starting bonuses and penalties. The warlike, regimented Verai elves have a number of bonuses which reflect their military upbringing, but suffer from poor social skills and magical aptitude. The mysterious Illuminated all start with extra Mana, Judgment, and rudimentary ability with Water Magic, but they are not particularly strong and their glowing, pulsating skin gives them a huge disadvantage to Stealth. The Illuminated also innately possess the Pacifist trait, which gives them a penalty to most attack rolls.
The next step is the level path--roughly speaking, the "class". By default this is set to the Freeform Development path, meaning you will be able to spend all of your starting character points by hand. If you would rather use the level path system to give your character a head-start, you can select one of the paths in the wizard. On average, paths spend about 70% of your points for you. We haven't finalized the path list yet, but I expect it to be somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty. More, if we have sudden bursts of insight and cleverness.
Advancing through the path step spends the starting experience for that path (unless you select Freeform Development, in which case none of your points are spent without your explicit say-so.) Here, you are able to buy character traits, both positive and negative. There are several dozen traits, some granted automatically by races, others which are mutually exclusive (you cannot have both the Thick Blooded trait which enhances the effect of healing magic on your character, and the Thin Blooded trait which diminishes healing). Next is the character interface screen, and the 35 primary and secondary character attributes.
Because virtually all of the secondary attributes inherit from one or two of the four primary attributes (Strength, Agility, Toughness, and Judgment), it will be a pretty rare thing for a character to be interested in spending points in all 35 attributes--rather, a character not likely to be a very avid archer may never put any points into Bow Proficiency, and simply rely on the underlying Judgment and Agility bonuses if he or she has to pick up a crossbow in a pinch.
The major exceptions are Stealth and the five magical skills, which do not inherit from any primary attribute. That means if you want your character to be stealthy, or have the ability to cast spells, you need to explicitly purchase points in those disciplines (or pick a level path which will do it for you, such as the Rogue or Water Mage class). You are able to flip back and forth between the attribute and trait purchase screens without starting over, so if you have leftover points and wish to buy a trait, or want to add a negative trait in order to gain more points for additional attributes, that's easy to do.
Once you're satisfied with the stats, you move on to the wrapup stage, where you can customize the sprite animation and color choices for your character.
That was an awful lot of documentation for something as straightforward as a character wizard. It'll be quicker to use than it was to read about it, trust me.
If that wasn't enough, we've also commissioned a flexible little outside character conversion tool. Right now it only supports a few games, and makes only a tentative effort to really balance the resulting characters, but it was just too tempting. The tool is cross-platform and the conversion scripts are written in Python, so if we do go ahead with releasing it, it should be fairly easy for a sufficiently dedicated enthusiast to whip up importers for Wizardry or Dink Smallwood or Zelda or... just about anything, really. The free point-buy system makes this less than truly necessary, of course, but again--it just seemed like it would be a lot of fun.