RuneStorm is responsible for the upcoming Chess/arena deathmatch title, Rooks Keep. You will read about development processes, personal aspects to being indie and much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Rooks Keep.
We are RuneStorm; a team of three brothers lurking about in South Africa. We’ve been modding for many years now. Our first public release was Ballistic Weapons for UT2004 in 2005. It turned out to be a big hit. After we finished working on that in 2008, we decided to enter the Make Something Unreal Contest for UT3. We snagged a few prizes there for our characters, weapons and ‘Crucible‘ mod. We won ten prizes in all. Lots of practice and crunching during that time, especially working on next(current)-gen content.
For this interview, I(Arn) will be doing most of the answering, with some input. Our roles on Rooks Keep have been varied.
- Nolan: Design, programming, 3d modeling and concept art.
- Logan: Design and programming, especially on the UI.
- Me (Arn): Design, animation, texturing/graphics, audio & music and level design.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Since Doom, and even some earlier games, we’ve been interested in game-dev. Doom was the real clincher for us though. It propelled Nolan into learning programming early on, and then into other aspects of modding, such as art, etc. We’ve basically been working on modding or gamedev since the late 90’s. Games are just interesting; encompassing so many creative aspects. Games were very appealing in that they combined many interesting and challenging creative and technical aspects in one package. They provided an opportunity to turn the crazy ideas of our (then) young minds into something tangible. Also, demons and chainsaws… they had chainsaws.
Where did the idea for Rooks Keep come from?
It was after the MSU contest that we began looking into making our first commercial game. We spent a year after the contest was over trying out all sorts of ideas and protoypes. In early 2011, we decided to create something reasonably simple, and settled on the established design of Chess. We also wanted to create it as a UDK demo, with extensive development blog and such. We quickly changed plans though….
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Rooks Keep?
The main thing we suffered from was changing our goal as we went. It started as simple Chess, but we quickly found it wasn’t enough for our tastes, so we added an interactive combat component to a separate Chess game-mode. As that mode evolved, we created free-roaming Deathmatch and similar modes and extensively polished the combat system. This changing and evolving process was costly in terms of time, and that was something we should have managed more carefully – although it did result in a game that find very enjoyable now. Going into it with a more complete and strict plan right from the start could have made things a lot easier.
The whole process has been very educational, of course, and we’ve even learnt a few things beyond what we were expecting to encounter. We’ve managed to get a game from the start, to right to the end now and that is an invaluable experience. Making a full game is a very different challenge to just making a mod.
In its current form, how close is Rooks Keep to your initial vision?
It’s really quite far from the original vision, which was just Chess with static pieces in a fantasy setting 😛 We just kept adding to it until it became something really fun rather than just a quick-finish demo.
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 Rooks Keep and if you faced a similar challenge.
It was revealed to us through beta-testers and previews that the game was quite difficult for beginners, and that’s something that we are working at the moment. We definitely wanted the AI in Rooks Keep to put up a real fight and offer a proper challenge to the player so we put quite a bit of effort into developing a real killer bot for combat. Along with this, we have added support for standard, external chess engines which tend to have very high skill levels these days.
Of course, having these blood-thirsty bots means we have to be more careful adjusting the AI skill level for entry level players. What we have done is provided quite a few difficulty tiers for both combat bot AI, and for chess AI engines. At the lowest level – which is near the default – the bots can be killed using little more than just the most basic attack, but on the higher levels they can also be ramped all the way up to being almost impossible to beat.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Rooks Keep would run on the various PC system configurations?
Thankfully, the UDK is a tried and tested development platform, so that has been a huge plus. It’s also really quite scalable, so we’ve added many options for graphical quality, which range from shadow qualities, light-shafts and ambient-occlusion to physics simulation and dead-body settings. One of the trickiest areas is actually adjusting the UI to various monitors and resolutions. I suspect many players won’t appreciate the time spent getting the UI to show up properly for all those resolutions 😛
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Rooks Keep.
A lot of the inspiration for the Rooks Keep theme initially came from Quake 1, believe it or not.
Visually, we wanted something that was solid fantasy, with Gothic elements. As we worked on the first visual prototypes, the style came more into it’s own until it got to it’s current final state.
It probably ended up brighter than we had initially envisioned
With the map designs, I tried to theme each environment uniquely. I got better at color control as we progressed, so I tried to incorporate what I’d learned into the maps. Layout-wise, the melee nature of the game meant that maps couldn’t be too large and would also benefit from being open. Adding pickups and points of interest helped the flow of things as well.
For the soundtrack, we wanted something a little more unique, so we went for something with an industrial slant, mixing with ‘traditional’ instruments. I’m not a fan of the current wave of orchestral music in many games, which just comes off as rather bland at the end of the day. High quality, well produced blandness, if you will.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Obviously it’s always hard to work within a tight budget and then working very long hours on tasks that are not always fun or immediately rewarding could drain the soul of a titan, but we try to make a game of it. First we see how many bugs can be fixed in the first hundred hours, then we try to beat that record. :p
Wearing all the hats is certainly one area that gets tough. I mean, you have to do everything for the game, modeling, programming, animation, audio, marketing/PR, web-dev, writing, etc. It’s often a quite a slog to get through some of the areas you don’t enjoy, but have to be done (I’m looking at you web-dev!). We’ve split the tasks between us, so when something on the game needs to be done, one of us has to pick it up and get it done.
How did you go about funding Rooks Keep and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
We were very fortunate in that our family did believe in and support us and didn’t simply dismiss our crazy dream to make games. It’s all been personally funded by us, and a lot of that came from our MSUC prize money, which we’ve been very conservative with. But we do need to release quite soon now 😉
Tell us about the process of submitting Rooks Keep to the various digital distribution platforms and the reception you have gotten on Greenlight.
I’m still busy with this at the moment, so I can’t really say. It’s too early Our Greenlight is still a bit of a battle though. With Steam specifically, the implementation of Greenlight completely the overturned the process we were expecting in order to get onto Steam. Before Greenlight, the impression that Steam gave us was that Valve would (eventually) look at the game themselves and assess it on its merits.
The value of Steam was not really the infrastructure, but the exposure potential of the platform. With Greenlight, this process seems to have become a straight up popularity contest which is obviously a big obstacle for a relatively unknown indie like us. One plus of the system is that we do get some exposure via our page on Greenlight, but overall we have to focus on the other digital distribution platforms. Getting exposure for our game is the current mountain that must be climbed, as the actual development comes to an end.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
Well, I’m still figuring this out, but almost certainly I will be looking at what I think are similar titles. One difficulty with this is trying to find other games are similar to Rooks Keep, because it’s not a game that easily fits a particular genre.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Rooks Keep from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
We’ve only done private beta testing so far, so large social networks have not really come into the picture yet. We have mostly used private message boards and instant messengers in this process and there certainly is great value in getting quick feedback from testers. From our experience with our big public mods, feedback from users was very important and had a lot of influence on development on top of speeding up the bug fixes.
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?
Well, in all honesty, I’m not very clued up on the pay-what-you-want bundles and the methodology yet, but what I have heard so far does sound very promising. We would absolutely be interested in being involved with a promotion like that in the future.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
While I often don’t run into problems with DRM in games, when I have it really does stick out in some cases (GFWL, I’m watching you..). Taking hours, looking up things online and having to install other junk just to install a game is ridiculous.
On the other hand, I can understand why publishers or developers want to try to protect themselves from potential losses. I mean, as a developer, if people don’t buy our game and simply decide to pirate it, we can’t stay in business and that’s obviously a very serious matter. But I don’t believe implementing draconian DRM is actually an effective solution; it annoys the legitimate user and only damages the experience of the game – in addition to that it is sure to be a massive generator of support tickets. I think that when developers or publishers – through the implementation of DRM – can’t provide a better experience to the user than what could be gotten by pirating the game, then they are really shooting themselves in the foot. Simultaneously, I also don’t like the idea that I may not own the copy of the game that I’ve bought…
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Rooks Keep?
I’d very much welcome it! If people are having fun with something we created, well, that’s great
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
I really don’t often buy DLC, and when I have, it’s been in a box. I’m certainly not against all forms of DLC. I think paid content packs or expansions for your game are, in general, a good thing. Players can decide what they want based on their interest/investment in the game.
Being former modders, how do you feel about the modding community in general and how mods will be implemented into Rooks Keep?
Modding is amazing, and I’d encourage anyone to have fun with it We got started with modding, so it’s an important area for us. We have build “mod support” into all our projects so far (which, beyond just a map editor, is about modularity and arranging the code in such a way as to foster quick editing/creation). It helps of course, if the type of game is one that really invites modding from a design point of view. If you look at games such as Unreal Tournament, Minecraft or Skyrim, they are open ended games filled with content, rather than a linear or story/based approach. I think simply having that openness is something that encourages a modding environment.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Advice? Give up and get a real job! Seriously though, if you are really determined, I think the most important thing is to just start making games and mods. Start with very simple things and build up skills and experience from there. There are plethora of tools and resources available, so just get started! From then on I would say it is mostly a case of relentless leveling up skills until you have something people will pay for.