In 2015, I met many interesting indie game developers from many parts around the globe and interviewed them for a blog I was initially writing in Brazilian Portuguese. No, I had not gone on sabbatical neither was I traveling around the world freely with plenty of time on my hands to live the dream of #indiedeving like I should. I just contacted these great people online once I started to see their works on my feed in Twitter and felt compelled to learn more about what they were doing. Writing about it was a happy consequence.
Back then, I wanted to talk to the Brazilian audience and maybe connect it to what people were doing elsewhere in the #indiegame scene. However, since I wanted to use Twitter for promoting my blog, I had to speak the language everybody was speaking. There were no hashtags in Brazilian Portuguese successful enough to channel the Brazilian #gamedev tweets I wanted to spread the word about in my blog along with the international one mostly written in English. It turns out even Portuguese speakers prefer to read and communicate in English and my blog would only have a few readers.
Time went by, things have changed and here I am blogging again, but no longer in Portuguese. The good thing is that I was left with a precious unpublished material gathered for my interviews conducted in English to be eventually translated into Portuguese back then. This post is the first one in a series of interesting conversations I had with indie developers finally published in a more popular language. Enjoy!
Interview #1: The Hammers and Ravens team who is making the awesome Empires in Ruins
Who are you? Where are you from? What have you done to become game designers? Which positions have you experienced in the game industry so far, if any? What are you doing now?
This is usually a fun one to answer. To summarize it, we can say that the team is basically Italo-Greek and physically relocated to northern Europe. A friend with a terrible sense of humor called us a Tzatziki-covered Pizza that is better served with frozen Vodka...
We are currently six, with two new members joining the team at the time of answering this questions:
Emiliano - Co-Founder and Developer
George - Co-Founder and 3D Artist
Yannis - Story Writing and Marketing
Giacomo - Illustration and Concept Art
George - 3D Art and Animation
Dimitris - Illustration and Concept art.
Emiliano comes from a somewhat more scientific background (PhD in Virtual Reality and Scientific Visualization) and multimedia freelancing, George has been a 3D Generalist since ever.
Two members of the team already carry some experience in the gaming industry: Yannis and Giacomo. Our marketing man has been dealing with community building and promotion of Indie games for quite some time already, while plenty of games feature Giacomo’s bustling concept art.
You look like a diverse team and with members from very different and interesting backgrounds! How did you guys meet and decided to work together? Who had the idea and why did you think it would be viable as it turned out to be?
It was five years ago in Tallinn, Estonia, during one of its coldest nights in years. Emiliano and George met at a bar where they tried to fight -37°C with the help of fermented barley juice. It seemed to work when they also found out they were a programmer specialized in Graphical Programming and a 3D Artist. Some might have called it a great night out and about, but they thought it was the best setting to form a gaming studio.
Not long afterward, the two started working on their first game; mainly as a learning and bonding experience. A year and a half later they decided to take it to the next level. Although they started from scratch, with a new design based on a combination of research and experience, the core concept for Empires in Ruins was born. From that point on, the more they saw development evolve into something more concrete, the more time they invested in it.
In the last 6 months, Emiliano and George felt there was a need to bring more people in the team if they were to develop a quality game. After an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign, Yannis and Giacomo joined the studio. The four got to know each other from mutual friends and it was immediately obvious that they all shared the same passion for game development.
With Empires in Ruins growing in size both as a game and as a project, more people were interested in joining the team. Bringing skills and talents that matched the gaps in the team’s composition, they were a perfect fit! George and Dimitris were the last two members to jump aboard in September 2015. Their backgrounds will help the studio tackle our ever increasing needs in 3D Art (animation for all enemy critters) as well as Illustration and Concept art.
How do you usually come up with your game ideas and how do you test them to know they'll be fun and will work as expected?
Our main idea man tends to be Emiliano. He is Hammer & Ravens’ game designer with ideas about games hitting him in the most random of places and moments. Whether it’s a dream, commuting, driving, having a beer, or wherever his muses struck one of his creative cords, he will keep notes that he will later throw to the team to see what bounces back.
Each member’s contribution in brainstorming is vital in this preliminary stage: different backgrounds, varying angles, and perceptions, personal experiences and tastes in games... everything goes! This allows these preliminary ideas to grow creatively, and turn into a game that everyone in the team would love to play.
There are at least three more ideas that went past their larval stage and are currently on hold, waiting for the team to first launch Empires in Ruins.
Tell us about your current work with Empires in Ruins. What is it about? What's been the most difficult part of its development so far?
Growing as our studio’s first fruit of labor, Empires in Ruins will forever be the game that put everything in motion. It also happens to have quite a bit of history behind it, something that we feel like sharing a lot.
A few years back, Emiliano started writing a fantasy book purely as a hobby. Although the book was never finished, 620 pages of a full low-fantasy tale had already been written. In its nameless venal world (a striking metaphoric depiction of today’s real world) suspicion, corruption, and betrayal hid behind every corner. Seeing how Empires in Ruins’ core mechanics were taking shape, we decided that this setting would be the perfect place to develop its campaign and build the rest of its story.
We started by picking a supportive character from the book, an old grumpy Sergeant from a kingdom of snobbish nobles. We then outlined his life 25 years before the events in Emiliano’s book took place. This took Sergeant Heimer to his early military years, where his dependency on alcohol, almost complete insubordination, and intolerable cynicism would make him the man he would eventually become. So far, Sergeant Heimer proves to be a very fitting anti-hero for a game like Empires in Ruins and the storyline we have in mind.
Empires in Ruins’ main plot revolves around a mission inflicted on Sergeant Heimer as punishment for his overall character. He receives orders to march towards the Western Marshes, one of the most riotous outskirts of the Principality of Koth, and quell a rising rebellion.
As the players delve deeper into the game’s story they will discover that there’s a lot more behind Sergeant Heimer’s mission than meets the eye. Following the players’ actions, the true motive behind his punishment will surface and details about his mission’s true nature will be unearthed.
If we would have to mention one difficulty we faced, it would definitely have nothing to do with the development of the game itself. In a project that has been on development for the past 2.5 years, a huge amount of dedication from and faith to the team is vital. We know that we’ll need at least another six months to reach release phase. Working for extended periods of time on a project with no returns (both emotional and physical) takes a great toll on our lives. Thankfully, we use our fixation on excellence and quality as our main motivator and it keeps our moral high!
In regards to your game mechanics, they look very interesting. They seem to combine elements from strategy/simulation games with combats (like in the Total War series) to the tower the defense genre. What were your references to come up with the present result?
That’s right! You just summarized the core mechanics of EiR in one sentence. What we aim to accomplish with Empires in Ruins is combine three main gameplay mechanics: Turn Based Strategy and empire management, Tower Defense for its real-time combat, and RPG elements in its campaign, with the player’s actions altering the course of the game and producing different endings.
The inspiration didn’t come from referencing any one specific game. Even though a lot of people have pointed out similarities to Total War, no one in the team but Yannis who joined at a later stage had ever played it. We see EiR as a focal point of our experiences with almost every game we’ve enjoyed during our gamer lives thus far.
Our love for Tower Defense games could help explain why we mainly focused on that mechanic. Everyone in the team agrees that, as a genre, Tower Defense has been “wasted” on casual and somewhat trivial projects (with a few amazing exceptions of course). We always considered Tower Defense (TD) to be an enriched version of the strategy. Artistically limited to the traditional RTS games, but still deeply technical. We always like to compare it (understanding the differences, of course) to Chess games.
Empire management and turn-based strategy come from the years we’ve spent playing masterpieces like Civilization. No game could ever get as strong a hold on us as those that allowed conquering, growing, and evolving your kingdom.
Before we move to the next question, we have to confess that merging these two genres is a bit of a gamble. We believe some of the more traditional TD players have been conditioned to the nowadays casual feeling of the genre, making the management part understandably less appealing. On the other hand, hardcore Strategy gamers still see TD as somewhat “superficial.” Our mission is to show them both that these two genres can coexist, each highlighting different facets of the same strategy core concept we love.
What do you read or have read and you now recommend for beginners in game development?
For starters, you will need to hone the skills and acquire the tools necessary. Go online and research game engines and any other tool you might need (be it for coding, or art) and then contact people you look up to in the gaming scene; their suggestions might stir you in a completely different course than the one you wanted to set.
In general, expect to find a great deal of relevant information regarding any stage of the development process. With a quick search, you can get information on tools and skills, mentors and collaborators, the hardships you should expect to face, and other people’s trials and errors.
This last point brings us to post-mortems. Read as many post-mortems of other games as possible. The indie and AAA-indie gaming scene is full of people who are very open about both their success stories and their grave mistakes. Some of them will go as far as analyzing their development process (from the first line of code, to promoting your game) step by step to the community.
One good strategy would be to find your favorite game on the genre you’re working on and look for a post-mortem, if the development team has made one or course. If they don’t have one, read their development blogs. If they don’t have a development blog (pretty rare to be honest), reach out to them on Twitter and ask them a quick question. You will be amazed at how some of them are more than happy to help by answering short and to the point questions.
How do you think free software can help game developers nowadays? Have you used any free software to make Empire in Ruins?
Free software has played a major role in demolishing almost all entry barriers to game development. It’s like democratizing development or free education. Give people free access to the right tools, and chances are you will discover a lot of hidden gems that would otherwise never have had a chance to step into game development.
Even though we see the obvious marketing reasons behind the choice of most of the largest game engines to go free (or at least up to a point free), we also appreciate the effect that these action have had on the indie dev community.
We personally live off free software, both due to personal preferences and a limited budget. A new studio like us rarely has the budget to access the high costs that most professional tools once required. Nowadays? You get Unity3d, Blender, Gimp... and you have it all; and the best part, without spending a single dime. If you later succeed, if your business model evolves and your passion for developing games brings you an income, you can start considering more advanced and expensive tools.
What advices would you offer the high school student who wants to pursue a career in the game industry if he/she was to follow a path similar to yours?
As we described above, our path to game development was a pretty direct one. We are all way past our high school days. This gives us an advantage in terms of personal experiences and skills but also puts us in somewhat of a hurry for success.
Giving advice is always awkward... We can try giving a couple of suggestions, but every situation is different, every person's mentality is different, and that makes guidelines always something to be adaptable to the cases and never something concrete.
Having said that, learn as much as you can; specialize but never restrain your mind. You might want to become a top developer, but try to be aware of what surrounds your code, try to understand at least the fundamentals of graphics, game design, and sound design for example. Specialists in other fields will then like to work with you knowing you have an intersecting area of discussion.
Be passionate but smart. Going head first against a wall might take the wall down, but could also do things to your skull - no matter how thick you think it is. Start slowly, step by step, check what your strong points are and be ready to adapt. Why be a mediocre programmer if you have the skills to be a top illustrator, or vice versa?
Also think about this before you decide to sacrifice everything to go Indie. Right now, there are thousands thinking like you do. The market being the jungle that it is, the other developers (who will no doubt be as supportive as can be), can only help you that much. In order to get the spotlight and your 15 minutes of fame, focus on making something excellent and always aim to be unique and creative. Try developing first as a side-job/hobby during your studies or job, and then make your decision.
What would you have done differently in the past in your career if you could? What do you intend to do now to achieve the goals you wish to?
Surprisingly enough, none of us has many regrets. We have made mistakes at one point or another, both in life and our studies or careers. That happens to everyone. But what if those mistakes were part of what lead us to where we are right now? What if those mistakes were what taught us something unique and valuable?
So no, we wouldn’t choose to do something differently - it would be too “risky.” What we do choose, though, is to focus on the tasks at hand now with one eye constantly fixed on the future.
We want to achieve our goals by delivering quality and fun: pleasant gameplay, rock-solid bug-free code and game mechanics, and an immersive story. The devil’s in the details and we believe that in order to achieve quality, we have to make sure it exists in every single thing we make!
Learn more about the Hammers & Ravens team: