Conducted By Adam Ames
Orcs Must Die! released a few weeks ago and is still among the top selling indie games on Steam. Justin Korthof from Robot Entertainment, developers on Orcs Must Die!, recently got with TPG for an e-mail interview. You will learn how Orcs Must Die! came to be, how they were able to fund the game, successes and failures in doing so, and his thoughts on the PC gaming industry.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Orcs Must Die!.
I’m Justin Korthof, and I’m the Community Manager at Robot Entertainment. What that means, basically, is that I help out with building and retaining a community of players for our games, as well as doing a ton of marketing and PR work for our studio. I’m involved in the development of Orcs Must Die! in similar ways as many others in our studio. I don’t necessarily create art or code for the game, but we are all part of the testing and feedback loop for the game – we all get to play the game every week and throw ideas onto the table of what could make it better or what’s not working.
Where did the idea for Orcs Must Die! come from?
Orcs Must Die! started with just a small handful of developers in a corner of the studio playing with several prototype ideas. As we were wrapping up our work on Age of Empires Online, we were experimenting with several ideas for our first original game. We looked at various games that we were playing at the time, including various horde-mode and tower defense type of games. After throwing together a few prototypes mixing various gameplay elements that we liked, we came upon some really fun ideas. As we developed the trap ideas further, the game started to take on a really fun personality of its own, and we ran with it from there.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Orcs Must Die?
We were really pleased with how much game we were able to put together at a very high quality level in about a year of development. As we went into the game, it was unclear what could really be done in that time. We learned a lot about how to think with a triple-A mindset on a smaller, downloadable game, and about how to be honest with ourselves about what we could and couldn’t get done in that time frame.
In its current form, how close is Orcs Must Die to your initial vision?
Extremely close. The largest difference is that the game was initially very serious. It was a much more traditional fantasy setting – something more like Lord of the Rings. But as we developed the physics traps and started tossing enemies across the fortresses, or chopping them into ham-sized bits, things just got a lot funnier. We ran with that and ended up with a much more light-hearted take on all aspects of the world – traps, characters, settings.
Some 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 Orcs Must Die! and if you faced a similar challenge.
One of the advantages of having everyone in the studio play the game on a regular basis was that we got a lot of feedback from players of all skill levels. Some people played many times a day and were very good, and some played once a week and were very casual about it. We spent a lot of time iterating on our difficulty, and it’s the reason we developed the three difficulty levels that we have. We did go back and forth a lot with some of our better players insisting that the game was too easy for them, and others insisting that the overall game was way too hard. At the end of the day, we feel like we struck a nice balance but managed to keep the game very challenging. We see a lot of players who lose but immediately want to jump back in and try again, and that certainly makes it feel like you’ve done something right with your difficulty settings.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Orcs Must Die! would run on the various PC system configurations?
No different from any PC game, really. We constantly tested as much as we could on as many systems as we could. Inevitably, there will be configurations out in the wild that you couldn’t test for, but we try to support those players as much as we can through patches and one-off fix suggestions on our forums and the Steam forums.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Orcs Must Die!
As I mentioned above, the game originally started out much more serious. When we introduced elements of gameplay that were making testers chuckle during playtest, it only seemed appropriate to revisit the tone of the game. From there, the art department dug into making more stylized versions of the enemies that fit the tone of the gameplay more appropriately. After a new visual was established, they set out to create a slightly cheesy new hero that drew a lot of inspiration from characters like Ash from Evil Dead. Once a uniquely humorous visual style had been settled upon, everything else flowed from there. We decided to just go over the top with everything, including the dialogue, music, and even the name of the game.
Our designers had a general rule of thumb when it came to pulling the game together – if there was ever something that cause a moment of reflection, caused us to think “man, should we really be doing this?” then the answer should always be “Yes. Yes we should be doing this.” The game really found its own personality as it came together, and we all did our best to push it further down that road.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
I think that one of the biggest challenges is simply getting exposure. Without the traditional publisher influence and marketing money, you have to do a lot of the legwork yourselves. We have a ton of great experience from our past projects that helped us in that area though, and we had several people who were more than willing to jump into the promotional pool feet first and help get word out about the game in any way we could.
How did you create funding for the development of Orcs Must Die! and did you receive emotional support from your family and friends during this time?
Orcs Must Die! was a completely self-funded game. We were fortunate that when we opened the studio, our first project was a very large title for Microsoft. Not only was it a great experience for so many of our guys to work on a game they were all familiar with, but it also set the studio up to look forward to funding our own original games.
For the most part, big budget studios no longer release PC demos while almost every indie developer does. Why do you think this trend is occurring? Tell us why released a demo for Orcs Must Die! and the difficulties in doing so.
I think, for us at least, it goes back to the issue of getting exposure. There are a ton of indie developers out there now, and it’s not always easy to know what their work is like. When you buy from a major publisher, you generally can have a reasonable expectation of what you’re getting in the box. It’s not always so obvious from indie devs. Even more so, Orcs Must Die! was a new type of game for us entirely. Had we worked on an RTS, people might have had more obvious expectations. As we took the game around to various trade shows over the summer, we encountered a lot of the same sentiments – people were unsure about the game, but once they played it they were instantly hooked.
Players would come back to our booths over and over again to play, bringing friends back with them each time. We wanted to extend that experience beyond the trade show floor in whatever way we could. Part of that was done with the Interactive Gameplay Trailer that we released, and then ultimately it was pushed all the way out with the demo. We knew that when people played the game that they would love it, so it made perfect sense to let people play a bit of the game.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Orcs Must Die! from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Extremely important. We’re still a very small studio (less than 50 people) and we have 2 full-time community workers on staff. That’s a lot for a studio of our size, and I think it speaks to our commitment to building a relationship with our players and incorporating their feedback into the work that we do. In the initial days of releasing Orcs Must Die!, the forums were essential for finding and tracking bugs that inevitably pop up in games. It was also handy to utilize other members to help find suggested solutions to other player’s problems. When you cultivate an educated community around a game it can really release some of the direct pressure from the developers to have to be everywhere at once.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Orcs Must Die! professionally?
I hesitate to put a hard number on the value, but we certainly pay attention. We have our own ideas about what works well in the game and what could be improved upon, but getting feedback from other players is always valuable. But at the same time, you can never say that any one person’s opinion is absolute. For example, with Orcs Must Die! we had some reviewers say that they found the main character to be annoying and others said that they found him to be hilarious. At the end of the day, you have to realize that you’re reading subjective opinions and that none of the reviewers of community posters is necessarily right or wrong. You look for the things that resonate the most with people and fold that into your own decision-making process.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
They’re great programs and a really exceptional way to battle the lack-of-exposure issues I discussed earlier. At the moment, though, we’re not planning to be in one of these programs.
Bill S.978 was introduced to the Untied States Senate earlier this year which could make it illegal to post unauthorized copyrighted content on YouTube and other video sharing sites. How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Orcs Must Die?
Again, this is about exposure. We love the large number of walkthrough and strategy videos that have appeared online for Orcs Must Die! Obviously, as long as they’re being used in this sort of an educational light, and not being altered or somehow unfairly adjusted to try to make the game look bad, then we love having a community that creates this type of stuff.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
I’m not sure that it’s really fair to comment on the whole industry, as every developer has their own needs, resources, and ideas about what their game community needs or doesn’t need. We certainly love the idea of using DLC to expand a game, but we are also trying to be aware of avoiding any kind of DLC-fatigue with our players. We’ve got two planned DLC packs, the first of which is already out. Beyond that, there is no other DLC planned for Orcs Must Die! If we find that people really love the DLC that we released and are clamoring for more, then we’d probably want to revisit the idea and consider more, but as I said, we currently just have the plans for two packs.
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 mods created for Orcs Must Die?
There are plenty of people at Robot that love the idea of Modding. Several of our developers started their gaming careers as modders. That said, modding needs can’t come before the needs of the game itself. Modding will always be a smaller subset of your community of players, and you want to support modders in any way that you can, but you have to be cautious not to do it at the expense of the larger, less vocal player community. Orcs Must Die! was never designed to be a game intended for modding, and we released no modding tools for the game. That said, we do have a small community that’s working to try to create a few custom mod tools for the game, and that’s always exciting. We’ll watch and support what we reasonably can as long as it’s not interfering with our support of the core game for those who aren’t interested in modding.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Go make games. I get this question a lot, actually, and I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a real grounded experience in making games. There are plenty of tools out there now to help amateur game developers get that experience. XNA is a great tool for learning to publish on Xbox, and the Unreal Development Kit is available for free to modders and amateur game-makers. There’s no experience quite like doing, so get in there and get your hands dirty. When it comes time to apply for jobs in the industry (and yes, you should be applying. Don’t wait for jobs to come find you), then having that experience of building a small game or mod from beginning to end will give you a leg up on your competition. -End
We would like to thank Justin for his detailed answers and everyone at Robot Entertainment for their hard work. You can pick up Orcs Must Die! via Steam.
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