April 8, 2011 5:00 AM | timw
The Penny Arcade Expo shows are pretty kind to the indies, even though they tried to hide their booths in the edges of the conference. One of the many standouts was Skulls of the Shogun, a back-to-basics turn-based strategy game.
Skulls of the Shogun has no menus or grid, and very quick round times for multiplayer. It was so quick that it felt less like Advance Wars and more like Starcraft for mortal humans.
Here, Jake Kazdal, founder of Skulls of the Shogun developer Haunted Temple Studios, talks about his transition from AAA development on titles like Space Channel 5 and Rez to striking out on his own as an indie.
Tell us about your team at Haunted Temple.
I’m the director, artist and art director. I also do a lot of the business development, marketing and PR. Borut Pfeifer is our lead engineer, he does the AI and a lot of the engine stuff, and a lot of game design. Ben Vance is the other engineer who does a lot of the graphics rendering stuff and a lot of the interface rending and technicality.
We share the game design responsibilities but I’m the point man with that stuff. There’s tons of design stuff to be done and all three of us are always working on that.
How did Haunted Temple Studios form?
We’re all long term developers; we’ve been doing AAA for a long time. We worked at EA LA for a couple of years on the Spielberg LMNO game that got canceled. I quit and moved to Seattle two years ago and was art directing at another studio, and I wasn’t having much chance to do actual art for the first time in my fifteen years, so I was kind of freaking out and I started doing a project on my own, at home.
I talked to Borut Pfeifer, who was the lead AI engineer on that Spielberg project and he was just quitting EA and wanted to do some indie stuff. And I was like, "This is great. I have a concept, you have an engine."
He has some ideas he wants me to help him with later, but for now we’re going to be doing this project. It started off as a small hobby project and picked up steam pretty quickly, and we decided to quit our jobs and go full time.
When did you decide the project was worth quitting your job for?
We were noodling on it for about nine months, just nights and weekends and stuff. He spent a couple of months full time on the engine while he was freelancing and about a year ago we decided to go full time.
How has the transition from AAA to indie been?
It’s been awesome. All three of us are veterans of AAA development, we have design processes, we know how to do all this stuff, we’ve all been leads of our respective fields, so it’s great to not have to get further permission from anybody. We all sort of do our own jobs and sit down and get it done and it’s been fantastic. I can’t imagine going back at this point.
You mentioned you were too busy art directing to do any art.
At my last studio I was too busy art directing. Art directing is managing and making sure that everyone’s on the same page. I was doing style guides and lots of reference stuff but I didn’t have time to do a lot of art. I did a couple of paintings but I’m used to doing hands on art every day and I didn’t like not doing that.
Now I get to do everything; all the character design, all the animation, all the background design, all the background art, all the effect animations, all the logos, I mean everything. I get to do every part of the game and I love it. It takes a long time and it’s a lot of work but it’s so rewarding. It’s amazing to apply everything in my whole career to one thing. It’s fantastic, I love it. It’s just my vision. It’s just me doing everything.
How did the idea for Skulls of the Shogun come about?
I am a huge fan of old Japanese SRPGs like Shining Force. They had a really minimal interface and were pretty quick—really simple to play. And then I loved Fire Emblem and Advance Wars. If you look at a spectrum of strategy games those are definitely on one end of the spectrum. They’re the fastest paced, most accessible, well marketed and well sold, but they’re very minimal on menu stuff. On the other hand, you’d have a PC strategy game with tons of options and tons of menus.
So we wanted to go even further from this end of the spectrum and make this a “fighting game” of strategy games. So no menus, no grid—anything that could slow it down is gone. We wanted it to be this really simple, polished interface, like an action game or arcade game. So it feels like an arcade game, it moves and looks like an arcade game, but it actually is a turn-based strategy game; it's as fast-paced as you can take something like this.
Is that why it has that arcade-like, cartoonish visual style?
The visual style is just something I wanted to do. I love old 60s anime and this was very influenced by that. And I love sort of urban character design, modern pop design. It’s mixing those two looks together, and the final thing—although we haven’t had a chance to put a polish on the UI yet—I really want it to feel like a Japanese fighting game.
It’s in your face, high tempo, high paced, and we’re trying to get as much of that into the game as possible, which is funny because it’s a strategy game. Those things don’t normally go together at all. But it seems like it’s been pretty successful.
One of the things I really liked was how the timer for each player’s turn was set at 45 seconds, which was less time than I had, so I found myself really scrambling to make decisions and it felt much more tense.
That’s something that I really wanted from it. I noticed if I was playing a four player match here at home--we do a lot of playtesting with friends--in the four player matches, if everyone has plenty of time, it can get kind of slow. It still has a faster pace than any other strategy game, but people still start drifting off and checking their Twitter and stuff.
But if there’s a 45 second time limit you need to have a plan by the time it gets to be your turn. You’re paying attention, you’re more engaged, you’re aware of the situation, and you’re aware of everything that’s going on, and when it’s your turn you’ve got to operate right away. We’ve found that it’s a very good pace for this sort party-mode style gameplay. It’s kind of like speed chess. We’re trying to get it to feel like an action game without actually being one.
What’s been your experience as an indie designer and with other indies in the community?
I’ve become pretty good friends with a lot of guys that are operating at a smaller scale. In fact, there are a couple of teams just from my company alone. I was at EA LA, and EA LA and Pandemic were sort of sister studios there. When that all shut down, the Bastion guys at Supergiant formed, and the Skullgirls guys are also ex-Pandemic guys, and we were all drinking buddies working at AAA studios in LA and now we’re all doing our own thing. But we’re all doing very similar things; we’re all basically doing our dream games from our youth, often inspired by the 16-bit era.
It was a very formative time for gameplay mechanics and a lot of cool new stuff was going on back then. Everybody’s reinventing them and making a new experience on top of this classic gameplay that people recognize. Even our friends over at Moonshot [Fallen Frontier], who are also based in Seattle, we go over with them a couple of times a month for lunch and dinner. And again it’s very Super Metroid influenced but it's bringing a lot of new mechanics in.
Everybody’s super excited and super passionate, making the kind of games they want to make without some executive somewhere screwing everything up for them. I think this is going to be the next big thing, these ex-pros that are scaling down but doing stuff they are super passionate about, and reinventing these forgotten genres. AAA games now are these big massive productions and I still love them and play them, but this is the elegant simplicity of the 16-bit games and I’m really thrilled that this is making a booming comeback right now.
It’s interesting that these games really were fun, and haven’t stopped being fun, though the industry started dropping them as the graphics improved.
People got so in love with the whole 3D thing that they threw it out in this mad rush for this new era of gaming. And that’s great too, it’s totally valid, but it’s just sad that some of this other stuff got forgotten. It’s so great now to see some of this stuff picked up and put back on the train and taken even deeper than it was before.
Can you talk about the process of adapting a game from the 16-bit era to everything we’ve learned about game design in the meantime?
When I look at Advance Wars or I look at Fire Emblem, I see a really solid system that is time proven and it’s solid as hell and people love it, but it really hasn’t evolved in the past 10-15 years; it’s really the same game over and over. So the first thought for us at a mechanics level was that we wanted to get out of that grid-based system. We wanted something more analog, to start experimenting with this grey space in-between.
It’s the same as getting rid of all of the menus and clicking: you just grab the guy and move him up there. It ended up being a Pandora's box; it was a lot more work than we thought. There were a lot of ambiguities that had to be cleaned up. We had to find new systems to sort of clean up the rough edges.
Can you talk specifically?
Sure. Take Advance Wars. You have a ranged unit that has bad defense, so you take a big fat tank and put it in front of him. Problem solved. In an analog world, where you can move anywhere on the space without a grid, all of sudden you’re like, “How do I defend this guy?” I can put a brawler in front of this ranged unit but you can sort of just squeeze around it. We wanted to bring back some of that black and white digitalness in this grey analog world, so we came up with this concept of a spirit wall.
Everyone in our game has a full physics and collision system, so you can bump guys out of the way or squeeze past them. You never get stuck in traffic jams like those old games. But when you get right next to a guy you form this wall that makes the unit unable to be bumped out of the way or fired past. So you can build a temporary defensive wall around those units. We’ve had to invent new ways of getting rid of the mess left by getting rid of that structure and order.
When did the concept click for you? When did you finally realize what you had was fun?
You know, it was the first night that we did anything. I just had my baby son, and I was sitting at home a lot, helping my wife. She and the baby went to bed pretty early so I started noodling on this stuff, I stayed up late, sketched a bunch of stuff, just at an idea phase. I had this really abstract thing and I scanned it all into Photoshop and I actually did a fast crappy painting, and I put all the guys in different layers in Photoshop.
I had their movement radiuses as a circle around them. I got some dice was playing with my buddy. Even that first night, the two of us played for hours against each other. We grew up playing D&D together and we were like, “This is fun already.” It obviously needed tons of work but at that level it was playable, it felt fresh, and we were stoked.