Barry Hoffman from Mystic Box was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the newly released indie hit, Runespell: Overture. You will get his take on DRM, piracy, life as an indie dev, Valve and much more.
1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Runespell: Overture.
Together with Jesse America I have founded Mystic Box at the start of this year, after we have been working on Runespell for over more than two years. We started it as a project in game design originally, but it finally ended up in a company the start of this year. My role is part PR, part community manager, part AI / Gameplay designer and part executive producer.
2. How did you get started in developing PC games?
I started in games development when I got involved with the development of an MMORPG called ‘ The Chronicles of Spellborn’ back in 2005. It was a great time at the start but when the game never got finished I left the company in 2007. Since then I have worked part time with GamePoint that produces and publishes multiplayer webgames on its own portals and social networks. Next to that I have worked part time on other games industry projects in a company called Ingress. Both have been great supporters in our development of Runespell: Overture.
3. Where did the idea for Runespell: Overture come from?
It is basically three fold:
The first one was based on some nights of brainstorming where we played the first format of Mythic Poker with a few decks of cards.
The second one is that most of our friends that play online RPGs also played poker online. Later research confirmed that a lot more RPG players are known with these concepts.
The third one is that we wanted to create a game that is an RPG, but can be played in short bursts at a time, as we understand that older players only have so much time to play due to lifechanges. Ever heard the sentence: “I used to play hours per day, but now I have kids I have less free time on my hands”. We did hear this from a lot of players we interviewed on the forums.
Of course another group with less time on their hands were the MMORPG players that only can play short bursts of gameplay in between sessions with their guilds.
4. Talk about creating the unique gameplay elements in Runespell: Overture.
We wrote the story for Runespell back in 2006 when we didn’t even know yet what the game itself would become, or whether it would become a game at all. The story languished on a hard drive for many years before we dug it up once more. The game play concept was created during a few evenings of brainstorming. It was prototyped with physical playing cards, drafting the rules as we played. Then a few weeks later we created a prototype in XNA. We played the hell out of the prototype for several months, ironing out the rules; we created a lot of rules that were eventually discarded. All in all we took about a year to prototype what we would call “Mythic Poker”. We weren’t even sure at that point whether this would become an actual game or whether it just had been a cool exercise in game design.
Eventually we sat down and asked ourselves: “what are we going to do with this?” That was the point where one of us suggested that we could make a game like Puzzle Quest. Not because we were literally inspired by Puzzle Quest during the making of Mythic Poker, but because we envisioned that we could use what we had created to a similar effect. So then we introduced the Runespell story to the team, and they liked it, and we took it from there. One of the first things that we did was draft a mock-up of how the Battle Screen should look: the placement of the cards, the Power Cards, the avatars, the “location window” that shows where in the world you are fighting. The rest kind of flowed from there. And we switched from XNA to Unity before starting real development.
All in all, Pre-production took 1 year, and actual development took 1 year.
That is always interesting. What we are very proud of are the production values that we managed to achieve on a limited budget and with a small team; I think our special effects, our designs, our character models and 2d artwork really pop and have a quality appearance. The game looks professionally made, and when people see it they usually remark how they are amazed that it is so well executed, knowing that we were severely limited in our resources.
We are also very happy that we have managed to create a game that is at the same time very recognizable for a lot of people, but at the same time offers an experience that is pretty unique. We like the fact that by and large, the people who play Runespell remark that it reminds them of games they have played before, yet at the same time they consider it unlike anything they have ever played before.
The biggest failure were two things:
One, there was a moment where we lugged an early beta version of the game around publisher and investor meetings in order to see whether we could get the funds to increase the scope of the game. Not that Runespell: Overture is lacking either in scope or content, but you always would like to add more. Make it bigger. It didn’t work out (the credit crisis being in full swing and publishers and investors taking even less risks than they did before) and we lost several months in getting the game to market because of that.
Two, we are now early in development of a multiplayer component that is going to be added as a free update to the game. Early on we were very much multiplayer focused, then that went away and now we realize that we should have persisted in that vision. The people who play Runespell really love the concept and the gameplay, and want that multiplayer element. We are going to provide that after launch, for free, but we could have packed that in before – if we would’ve had more resources. Our launch window is now set though, and we’d rather be updating the game continuously as we go than wait longer in releasing it. This will also allow us to thoroughly test the multiplayer with our fans and community.
6. How close is Runespell: Overture to your initial vision?
We have worked very tight as a team with Mystic Box, ODD1 in Canada and several freelancers in Europe. Both Jesse and me have been involved every day, every step of the time directing our vision. I think Runespell: Overture is very close to our initial vision, but also has that extra which only the love of a development team can add to it.
7. Some indie devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Runespell: Overture and if you faced a similar challenge.
We have done the initial balancing ourselves and only late in the process did we add two other external designers to look at the balancing. We have done approximately 7 rounds of balancing. We started with a very tough game, but we scaled the challenges down as we received feedback from an early test audience. We also have about 5 stages in the game that add the need for an adjustment of strategy as you go.
The current beta audience ranges between very hardcore up towards casual players. I am pretty sure we will add some difficulty level or NG+ to the game that will allow the super hardcore players to enjoy but I think the game has become a great challenge for casual players, but still a great play for core players. I think we call that easy to learn, difficult to master.
8. Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Runespell: Overture would run on the various PC system configurations?
We have had few problems during both internal and external tests. The use of the Unity engine prevented this, I think.
9. Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Having to do everything yourself, from development to PR, to publishing in the evening hours. But we have had a great time and continue to do so.
10. Tell us about your relationship with Valve. How did making Runespell: Overture available via Steam come about? Also talk about how you created Steam Achievements.
We sent an email to Steamworks accompanied with an advanced demo of the game. After a while we received approval. Since then the team of Valve has been an enormous help.
The achievements were created by looking at all game statistics and milestones in the game. By playing the game numerous times we knew where the challenges were and added achievements accordingly. Two achievements: Runespell Marathon and Take The King were named because of early preview items done by the press. We loved them so much, so we honored them with their own achievement titles.
11. How much pull do you have when setting sale and regular pricing through digital distribution channels? How did you come up your initial launch price?
We actually have given complete self-control from Steam. And actually we came done from our original $14.99 to $9.99 as we followed the main price setting for our type of games.
12. How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
We love it, it gave us the chance to have a global store presence without too much hassle. Thank you Valve.
13. Are there any plans to take Runespell: Overture to retail stores?
Not for now, but if there are publishers that are willing to take the step we are open to suggestions.
14. How important is it to get instant feedback about Runespell from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Very important. We currently run a closed beta with 300 players and their feedback already resulted in a shift of post release development by prioritizing multiplayer feature over new content. We listen and reply quite often at our forum, Facebook, Twitter and Steamgroup.
15. How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Runespell: Overture professionally?
The same as the community, each of them is an expert like we are, with a fresh view from the outside. So we scan the internet for comments on our game and will use this great research for future updates and releases.
17. What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I think piracy has been as old as the gaming industry. Of course it is nice to know that our game has some sort of protection, but we always realize it can be hacked.
18. How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
I think we are in the early stages where DLC is just a first step towards ongoing platforms that have ingame content that can be unlocked as you go. Graphical, content and gameplay updates instead of whole new games. Both F2P MMORPGs and social games are already using this.
We hope that we can augment Runespell in future with free and paid DLC as we think every good game needs an extension of their lifetime.
I play Magicka at the moment, but my interest ranges from poker to RPG. The other founder, Jesse America, plays tons of games more than I do including all consoles. I am only playing PC and mobile games at the moment. Once we have released Runespell I am very much looking forward to playing more Magicka, starting “Orcs must die” once it is out there and play Frozen Synapse.
20. What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Crack your bank and start doing it. You get help from the whole industry ranging from DD portals like Steam up towards most of the writing press. Make a great game, execute it the best you can and release it. It is the only way to break into the business with your own product nowadays, so again just do it.
We would like to thank Barry and his team over at Mystic Box for taking the time to offer some great insights into the world of indie development. You can check out Runespell: Overture via Steam. Also, be on the lookout for our very first review which will be none other than Runespell: Overture in the coming days.
-Conducted by Adam Ames