Jasper Koning from Ronimo Games allowed us a moment of his time to answer some interview questions via e-mail about the smash indie hit, Swords and Soldiers. You will get his views on the PC gaming industry, life as an indie developer, DRM, piracy and much more.
1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Swords and Soldiers.
My name is Jasper Koning, and I’m one of the two game designers at Ronimo Games. During the development of Swords & Soldiers, I worked on the Aztec campaign. I also made the AI’s for the skirmish mode, and for the survival challenge.
2. How did you get started in developing PC games?
Our first well-known project, De Blob, was a PC game by request of our contractor. We were still students, but the school had this cool program where it would acquire external partners for assignments. In this case, it was the Dutch city of Utrecht, they wanted a game to promote a large city renovation project.
Later, when we released Swords & Soldiers for WiiWare as Ronimo, it just made sense to do a PC version. We already had a PC build internally for development purposes, and we were already building a cool multiplayer mode with the help of SOE for the PSN version. It just needed Steam integration and broader hardware and software support to make it ready for release.
3. Where did the idea for Swords and Soldiers come from?
We were building flash games at the time, and while looking around for ideas we came across a couple of simple side scrolling strategy games. At around the same time one of our longtime Blizzard fans introduced Starcraft multiplayer to the office. That gave us the crazy idea to try to take the stuff that makes starcraft awesome and strategic (tech trees, unique factions, economy balancing) and try to squeeze them into this side scrolling format.
4. What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Swords and Soldiers?
One of the most important things we did right was putting the focus on usability. We invited new players to our office at regular intervals, and carefully observed how they navigated the game. They helped ensure that every new player got a proper introduction to the mechanics, and also helped us balance the longer term learning curve. One of our biggest failures was planning. Our original plan was to make the game in 3 months, it turned out to be a full year. We especially underestimated the amount of work it would take to really finish a game properly. As the saying goes, the last 10% truly is 90% of the work.
5. In its current form, how close is Swords and Soldiers to your initial vision?
Well, the original vision was to make a casual side scrolling version of a traditional RTS, and I think that’s just what we did. Especially now online multiplayer on PC and PSN.
6. Some developers admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Swords and Soldiers and if you faced a similar challenge.
Tuning the difficulty has also been one of the hardest challenges for us. As we pulled in external players, we were often confronted with extreme skill differences. But still we wanted all of them to be able to reach the end, but feel challenged at the same time. So we adopted a level design strategy where we let the game respond to player skill dynamically. In a lot of the earlier levels, the player is never attacked before the player starts attacking the enemy. This allows them to take their time and figure out what to do in their own time. A lot of early levels also contain fail safes where the CPU gives players a leg up if they’re in trouble.
On the other hand, in a lot of levels we introduce a lot of extra enemy units when players turn out be highly skilled. Another way to ensure that the game was challenging enough was through the achievements. It turned out that the skillfull players were also the most interested in acquiring achievements. So a lot of the achievements add extra goals to levels which require different strategies that are harder to execute, but can be highly rewarding. Apart from that, the margin for error does shrink and the later levels in the Aztec and Chinese campaigns can be plain challenging.
7. Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Swords and Soldiers would run on the various PC system configurations and platforms?
In general, ensuring compatibility has been about as hard as we expected. On of the advantages was that we had two sets of graphics, the HD for PSN and SD for WiiWare. So by letting players pick a graphics mode at startup has helped us a lot. Apart from that a few exotic cases popped up, but I guess this is to be expected in PC game development.
8. Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Not knowing anything apart from building games. We had to figure out how to run a company by ourselves. Luckily we had a lot of help from some friends and family.
9. Tell us about your overall experience in creating a multiplayer component Swords and Soldiers and what initially lead you to create one.
Doing multiplayer was even harder than we expected, and we expected it to be very hard. Especially the seamless system we designed for Swords & Soldiers turned out to be hard to do. But it was totally worth it. Players can just play any part of the single player content while the game looks for enemies to face off against. Swords & Soldiers was originally designed as a multiplayer game, and multiplayer still is the most fun part of the game. I still play the game once in a while, and when I do, it’s online in the PC version.
10. How much pull do you have when setting sale and regular pricing through digital distribution channels? Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
For the regular price we just took one that we feel is fair. As for special sales, that’s where most of our revenue comes from. It seems a lot of players are just waiting for the Steam sales to hit.
11. How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
Very positive, I haven’t bought a PC game on disc in ages. I love it that all these services keep my games safe and I can download them whenever and wherever I like.
12. Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Swords and Soldiers.
Both were developed almost instantly. Usually these things take a lot of iterations, but with this game both fell into place very quickly. One of our artists is always doodling small, funny and highly expressive characters, whenever he can. We combined them with another inspiration: the animated short Supermoine. As for the music, we hired local game audio gurus Sonic Picnic and we requested audio that was epic and cartoony at the same time. And I think they did an excellent job with that as a starting point.
13. You released a PC demo for Swords and Soldiers in an age where demos are becoming scare. What made you release a demo and was it difficult to develop one?
We didn’t actually release an official demo. We did bring out a bittorrent file containing the demo in the hopes of dettering some pirates while still giving them a taste of the game. We did develop a demo for the PS3 version, and we initially made the mistake to make the demo way to short and easy. It was just the first 3 levels of the game, which weren’t designed to show of the full depth of the game. We quickly remedied this via an update, and players’ reactions have been very positive.
14. How important is it to get instant feedback about Swords and Soldiers from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Very important, especially with technical issues. We wouldn’t have been able to stomp out some of the more obscure bugs without the help of our friendly forum posters.
15. How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Swords and Soldiers professionally?
Well, since we want to sell our games based on their quality, reviews are very important to us. But the only way we can influence those is by making great games, so that’s what we do.
16. How do you feel about the Humble Indie Bundle and “Pay What You Want Pricing”? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
Well, I think a lot of people are starting to realize that there’s a huge amount of people who want to pay for games, just not full price. Traditionally there were only two options: full price and ‘free’/pirated. These new, more flexible models allow players to try out more stuff for free while spending on the games that they love. I think the whole freemium and sale driven movement of digital distribution is also a part of this. And pay what you want is one of the more interesting versions. It acknowledges that there’s also an inherent value to having people play your games. We would definitely be interested in contributing, also because of the charities.
17. What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
The industry is still very much growing up. All kinds of models are being experimented with, so I think these are very interesting times. As for intrusive DRM, I think by now it should be clear that it’s impact is mostly negative. I do believe in forms of DRM that also improve the whole experience, like Steam does. Having your game in Steam gives you a lot of benefits as a gamer, as in automatic updating and a whole social layer.
18. How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
As a gamer I think DLC is great. It gives me the option to spend more time in the games I love. It could be a bit more coherent, though. All these different download stores, each with their own implementation. But I guess that’s the price you pay for such an incredible open platform. In the end the best solution will prove to be the most popular. At least all the implementations I’ve seen have been pretty solid and user friendly.
19. Recently, there has been a lot of talk about modding of PC games and the relationship developers have with modders. How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Swords and Soldiers?
There are many parallels between the modding community and the independent development community. These are people that enable a lot of innovation through experimentation. Some of the best ideas in gaming come from the modding community. It’s a shame we didn’t have the resources to build some user friendly tools, otherwise we’d definitely support and embrace modding.
20. What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Start small and grow. Make quality games. Games don’t have to be big or feature rich, as long as the stuff that’s in there is fun and polished.
We would like to thank all of the people at Ronimo Games for giving us a nice look into a bright star in the world of indie development. You can pick up Swords and Soldiers via the official site or Steam.