We speak to Flying Helmet Games' Joey Wiggs about his team's ambitious new take on narrative design
A mage and a templar approach another mage. The player controlling the mage is informed that their objective is to protect and learn from this stranger. The templar is instructed to kill all mages at any cost. Neither player knows the other's objective.
This, in a nutshell, is the promise of Eon Altar, an episodic RPG by the folks at Flying Helmet Games. The RPG series harks back to the days of Dungeons & Dragons where players must work together, but never truly know who they can trust.
Better yet, adventurers aren't separated by internet connections and distance – this is local co-op, not online. To achieve total secrecy concerning each player's agenda, Flying Helmet has come up with a rather innovative control mechanic. Rather than playing via keyboard and mouse, gamers download a free app to their phone and use the touch screen to move their character, access their inventory, activate dialogue choices and – crucially – receive secret information pertinent to their role in the story.
We spoke to lead programmer Joey Wiggs to find out how all this was accomplished.
Where did the idea for the mobile companion mechanic, having your character sheet/dialogue on a smart device, come from?
Originally Eon Altar was a pen-and-paper RPG called Crythania that I had built way back in high school, which I inflicted upon my high school friends, which included lead designer Scott Penner, studio manager Luke Reynolds, and former creative director Ed Douglas. We all have pretty fond memories of our role-playing nights in our friends' basements.
Fast forward a few years later, Luke and Scott had taken Crythania and evolved it quite a bit, and they tried to make a board game out of it, including PnP RPG elements like secrets, backstories, and the like. They couldn't simplify it enough to ship as a board game, but video games could handle complex rulesets.
Luke or Scott – I have no idea who – had a lightbulb moment that hey, lots of people have smartphones these days, that would be perfect for keeping info to yourself. And boom, off to the races. From there it's been a lot of iteration, and the game has evolved from our initial vision as we learned more about what works and what doesn't.
Getting the controllers and the main game talking wasn't simple. That's part of where we ended up having to fight Unity a little, since their default networking model wasn't conducive to the game we were building.
What was the toughest technical challenge of implementing this?
I won't say that programming the game was easy per se – we've had many interesting and difficult engineering challenges – but between Leah Vilhan (our former lead programmer) and myself (the current lead programmer) we brought a lot of engineering/programming experience to the table.
Having an engine like Unity behind the game certainly helped in terms of rapid development, even if we had to fight it occasionally. Having a rendering engine, scripting engine, networking, and so on already ready and waiting to go allowed us to build something that from scratch would've probably taken us three times as long with at least three times as many engineers. Getting the controllers and the main game talking wasn't simple, either. That's part of where we ended up having to fight Unity a little, since their default networking model wasn't conducive to the game we were building.
The hardest part of the entire thing was actually user interaction. Not many games out there use the model that we do. Zelda: Four Swords, the Jackbox bundles, and a Scrabble mobile game were basically our inspirations, and yet our game is still very different. A lot of UI paradigms that game devs take for granted today had to be completely rethought due to the separate screens – like what information you display on the main screen, versus what do you keep on the controller apps. How do you keep people from bouncing back and forth from the big screen to their small one too often? When do you split the player's attention, and when do you get them to focus on one screen or the other?
In particular, our "movement marker" went through probably eight iterations before we finally got somewhere we felt worked. When you think of console games and mouse cursors, you probably cringe. Using a joystick to push a mouse cursor around the screen is probably the most tedious, frustrating, and imprecise task in a video game I can think of, so we had to make sure that whatever we did for the movement marker was responsive and easy to grasp.
From drag-and-drop on a main touch screen in our initial prototype, to mapping phone screen space to game screen space, we implemented a lot of ideas. What we eventually ended up on was mapping the phone's screen space to your character's space in-game. And it works, extremely well. But honestly, as much as I'd like to say we had some super special process, the results are just a result of old fashioned iterate, iterate, iterate.
With board games and pen-and-paper RPGs making a huge resurgence over the past few years, with think there's a definite demand for couch co-op play.
Were there any parts of your initial vision about how this connection would work that had to change due to technical limitations?
Remember back in the early 2010s when Microsoft was pushing Windows 8 as touch PCs and OEMs were showing off those 30-inch mega tablets? Our original prototype used one of those, laid flat on the table like a board game. Players would drag their movement marker on the main game screen and tap to execute. People's phones came in as character sheets and making combat decisions; when you had to make dice rolls, the dice would appear on your phone, you'd shake your phone and when you stopped, it would "throw" the dice from the phone to the main game. It blew people's minds when it happened.
When we showed off at PAX East, people thought it was awesome. But when it came time for Kickstarter, the prevailing opinion was: "Someone else is going to have a great time playing your game". Add to that the ergonomic issues that come with a bunch of people hunched over a tablet for extended periods of time, and the fact that the mega tablet trend, like 3D TVs, never really materialised with average consumers, it all really just didn't work.
So we went back to the drawing board, and that's where our current game with the couch co-op came about. And since we no longer had a central game with a touch screen, all character interaction had to be done through the phone. It meant some of our previous design decisions – like the dice rolling and everything being turn based – didn't work anymore in this new paradigm. So we streamlined, iterated, and eventually came out with what we have today.
In our original vision, we also had the idea that between game sessions, like D&D, you'd take your character home, level them up, read lore, and the like in the controller app. As I often say, programming is like magic: we can do pretty much anything we want, but the major limiting factor is time. How much time do we have to deliver the game? How much time can we spend on feature A, but that may mean feature B has less time or is cut entirely.
We never got around to solving the technical and design issues that stem from that feature – such as how do you solve merge conflicts if someone else had dropped into the campaign as the same character, or how do you transfer character ownership from one phone to another, or deal with people cheating and altering their character-and basically cut the feature because we just didn't have time. The controller app today has no persistent data; it's all in the main game. Maybe we'll revisit that decision again in a future season when we have more time again.
Programming is like magic: we can do pretty much anything we want, but the major limiting factor is time. How much time do we have to deliver the game?
Why focus on couch co-op rather than online play? Is there enough demand for local multiplayer any more?
Local co-op is probably niche. But indie games can't try to be everything for everyone, so personally I'm okay with being niche as long as we do it well.
For us, the big impetus for couch co-op is that's how we played games growing up: Goldeneye, StarCraft, Mario Kart, D&D, Palladium, and so on. Aside from Nintendo today, there just aren't that many companies doing that anymore. With board games and pen-and-paper RPGs making a huge resurgence over the past few years, we think there's a definite demand for couch co-op play.
One of the things that I think surprised us in our Steam reviews that we didn't expect is Eon Altar has been very popular with couples. A game that you and your significant other can play together and either cooperate or rib each other as you play depending on your personalities. In hindsight I think it's pretty obvious, but I admit our vision generally had more the 'D&D night with pizza and dice' in our mind. I'm not going to complain, though. There's definitely an underserved demand right now. Niche, yes, but it's there.
Why give each character/player their own agenda? It's an unusual type of storytelling for video games – what narrative opportunities does this open up?
Harkening again back to the board game idea, some board games have unique player success states. in Arkham Horror, you're working together to save the world from the Ancient One, but the player with the most gate tokens at the end is awarded the "First Citizen of Arkham" title. Another example is Castle Panic, where you're trying as a group to keep your castle from being overrun by monsters, but the player with the most kill shots at the end is the winner, unless you all lose.
Moving more to pen-and-paper RPGs, in games of D&D the DM would slip players secret notes, or even take them aside to another room to tell the players different things so they all had their own perspectives on what was going on. The latter we didn't see in any video game and we wanted to recreate that experience. We really like those ideas, as they bring in a bit of competition in what's ultimately a cooperative game; nothing prevents the players from playing nicely to try and achieve everybody's goals – but some character combinations and levels that's straight up impossible to do as they have totally opposing agendas.
As far as narrative opportunities, it allows us as designers and storytellers build in moments and decisions into the game that come naturally from each characters' personalities. When you read a novel, sometimes the plot just carries the protagonist along like a white-water river, and in other books the protagonists decisions actually drive the story. Video games are almost always the former, although BioWare is really good at building more character-driven stories. Our writing team are BioWare alumni so some of that drive to build more character-driven comes from that DNA as well.
Eon Altar is really five very different stories, and the way they interact with one another is up to the players driving them.
That character-driven narrative helps us present ideas and decisions to players that in a single-player RPG you don't often get, or if you do get it's just you making that decision in your head, as opposed to a game of D&D where the players can discuss their viewpoints and make arguments about going in one direction or another. Despite having solid agendas and personalities, we believe it can actually spur more player to player interaction with the narrative.
Here's a more concrete example: Marcus, the Guardsman, might empathise with the Keepers of Tarnum, and that colors his thoughts and potential choices, whereas Shasek, the Sellsword, has some strong opinions on the sellswords in the local area that may come into conflict with Marcus. Players playing Marcus and Shasek get to know their characters' thoughts, and this in turn changes how the story is told and feels for that player.
The player controlling Marcus has a different viewpoint into the story than Shasek does. It's ultimately up to each player to make decisions, but at the same time, narratively, we can actually tell the story in many different ways in a single session, which players after the fact can choose to discuss and put together all the viewpoints, or keep to themselves, like reading a novel from many different viewpoints.
How do you ensure each character/player has enough to do in their storyline to feel like the hero of the game (or at least a significant contributor to it)?
When creating each of the character, we worked really hard to make sure they all had a very unique back story, personality and goals. They each come to Tarnum with very different and personal reasons, and we never lose sight of these in our storytelling.
This is true down to the individual dialogue lines: each time a character speaks, they're doing it in their own way, with their own goals in mind and with their own unique way of seeing the world. These goals often come back to the surface whenever the group reaches a turning point or faces a major decision.
Eon Altar is really five very different stories, and the way they interact with one another is up to the players driving them. You can play the game five times with five different characters and you'll get a different story every time.
What's the long-term roadmap for Eon Altar? I believe you said it was episodic - why choose this structure?
We have a big story to tell. We don't have the budget or time to release an epic-length RPG all in one go, not to mention the gameplay style is unproven to the gaming world at large – our play tests say it's pretty great, though. There's a lot of development time and risk that we as an indie studio just cannot afford at the moment. We needed to get the game out there in front of people and show folks that our game works.
An episodic structure allows us to get the first few episodes out, continue to iterate based on player feedback, and hopefully allows us to continue telling our story long term financially.
As far as roadmap goes, we're planning on releasing more episodes. Episode II: Whispers in the Catacombs is slated for Fall 2016, and Episode III: The Watcher in the Dark is slated for Winter 2016. Episodes I, II, and III encompass our Season 1. From there, we have plans for two more seasons of three episodes each from a writing perspective – a total of nine episodes – but again, indie budget. We have to see where Season 1 gets us.
We're also looking at porting to console. Given "couch co-op" console is the place to be for that. Unfortunately, until recently, there were technical hurdles that couldn't be surmounted without Sony or Microsoft's direct help – mostly that you couldn't just hook up random devices on your network to your Xbox One or PS4 in-game.
The Jack Box bundle gets around this by having an Internet-based service, but given the need for frame-level responsiveness for character control between the controller app and the main game, an internet-based service is right out for us.
However, solutions have been since presented, and once we're out on PC/OSX, I'll be digging into said solutions there. There's a few other technical hurdles to jump, but like I mentioned earlier, it's mostly just about investing time.