Developer Interview: Wartile
The folks over at Playwood Project were kind enough to answer some questions we had regarding the interesting looking Wartile, a real-time strategy game that brings board games to life in a way that has never been done before. The following interview was co-ordinated by Barry Davis, and me, Harris Iqbal. We hope you will find it informative and back the official Kickstarter if you are interested.
Push-Start: To begin, I’d like you to introduce yourselves to our readers and perhaps explain in your words, what the game is about.
Michael Rud [Playwood]: I am Michael Rud – founder and game designer at Playwood Project, a game studio that was formed two years ago. After almost 7 wonderful years at IO-Interactive working on Kane & Lynch 2 as artist and HITMAN as game designer, I felt the time was right to pursue my deepest dream of creating a game project of my own. At that time, I was happily unaware of the fact, that my wife 3 month later would announce that she was pregnant with our third child!
With WARTILE we wanted to create a different table top experience, encompassing it as a video game, where players assembled their team from a collection of different miniature figurines and battled it out on beautiful diorama battle boards in campaign missions with cultural themes, or against friends in multiplayer duels. It’s a real time strategy game with a twist of turn based elements, all delivered in a mythological and historically inspired universe where you have figurine characters, ability cards, table top dioramas boards and a Viking based campaign with a compelling story and lore.
Push-Start: Was the team built gradually or did most of you come together at once? Furthermore, did you set out to do a game like Wartile from the beginning, or was it the result of various brainstorming sessions after getting the team ready?
Michael Rud [Playwood]: The team of WARTILE has changed a bit during the two years of development. In the beginning I joined forces with a former IO – Interactive colleague who was looking for new challenges. Together we made the first playable prototype, but starting an Indie game studio is a rough climb, especially if you’re starting with very little finance. Sadly, he had to find paid work elsewhere. Luckily we were approved for support from the DANISH FILM INSTITUTE and this, combined with my own investment, set things flying like a rocket.
Jens Emil is our programmer who joined the project and was able to adapt, and learn quickly in order to help move the overall development forward. Then we slowly started to build up the team, but with a different approach than most game studios. From the start we aimed at having a small core of in house developers and then connect and cooperate with a few freelance artists that would come to love WARTILE as much as we do, even if they didn’t work on the project fulltime. This is our setup now, and we are blessed with the fact that we have some really talented and experienced freelance artists, animators, a composer/sound designer connected to the studio that are each able to deliver when we are in need. This flexibility makes us really agile in periods where we need to test or clarify our creative direction or have to stretch things due to our financial situation.
The first draft of WARTILE was focused on creating a special feeling or experience for the player. We wanted to create a living table top board game, with living figurines as a video game. Furthermore, it should not be turn based since it also had to reflect the memory of actually playing with figurines. So, we ended up brainstorming and testing a time based system that would change the pace in such a way that the players would be able to counter act on each other’s moves, without having to wait for their turn. Looking back at our first game pitch we have ended up creating this very concept, only iterating on the individual game mechanics to make them work as we intend. And we still have some way to go before they are as good as they can get.
Push-Start: Glad you mentioned the real-time system as the one thing that particularly draws my interest is that the game is real-time as you said, which is quite uncommon with the board game and strategy genre. What were the challenges involved with approaching this project with that direction?
Michael Rud [Playwood]: Initially we wanted a game where you didn’t have to wait for other players to finish their turn, but still had some feeling of turns. We wanted to keep things flowing, without losing too much of the tactical overview and control you usually find in turn based games.
We ended up with a time based system that works on the individual figurines. This mean that when moving a figurine or if it is engaged in combat, it will suffer a cool down penalty of a few seconds. In this time, other player is able evaluate a counter move. It also means that all figurine pieces are moved around just like pieces on a board. One of our first metaphors was to imagine a speedy game of chess without turns. You still need to hit the clock, but don’t have to wait for your turn. Regarding the challenge, our biggest challenge was the length of the cool down. We have now decided to have a short cool down period during single player games, and a considerably longer one in multiplayer games to accommodate the pace of the game. The second largest challenge is to explain this mechanic in words, and have anyone be able to understand it.
Push-Start: What was the main thing that drew you over to Unreal Engine 4? What affordability do you think it can provide you with that most others can’t?
Michael Rud [Playwood]: The Unreal Engine has Blueprint a system to do visual scripting, to basically program systems without actually having to write any codes. This was what really convinced me. Well that and Unreal 4’s awesome graphical pipeline and user interface. Visual scripting would enable us as a studio to rely less on coders, and more on designers, since a level designer or technical artist would be able to create code through visual scripting in blueprint and actual make pretty complex game systems without much support from the coder, who could focus on more complex backend systems. This flexibility is a huge strength when you are only a small team.
Push-Start: From what I have seen from the prototype videos, the animations seem really good so far. One of my favourites were the slow-motion ones, are they still going to be put in the game? If so, what role does the slow-motion play, is it purely aesthetic or is it associated with a different mechanic?
Michael Rud [Playwood]: The slow motion animations were actually some of our early prototypes, with the goal to emphasize certain figurine expressions, like killing blows or deflecting an attack. They are today, not part of the game, as this really didn’t end up working well in battles with more than 4 figurines. Today we have found a different approach to our animation system.
Push-Start: What references did the animator use while animating the board pieces, and what are the challenges involved with bringing the board-pieces to life?
Michael Rud [Playwood]: One of the challenges in all our animations is that once the figurine moves, it has lost its identity as a figurine and becomes a “normal” game character. To avoid this, we focused very much on short animations and on exaggerated poses with short pauses. Also our figurines don’t have any idle animations and quickly go back to a static pose, once any action is completed.
Push-Start: One thing I have noticed from an Alpha gameplay footage is that the environment seems static, such as the water surrounding some of the maps. Do you guys plan to animate your environments as well or is it that they’re better of static in your opinion?
Michael Rud [Playwood]: We want to keep a very tight static look on our battle boards, especially with large elements that you expect to be moving. For us this really enforces the illusion of a handmade table-top landscape. Still, we want the battle board to feel alive, and thus we still aim to have parts of the environment animated, such as flags, bushes, trees, seagulls in the air, on the coastline boar, and maybe the shadow from clouds on the surface. It’s a fine balance between maintaining the illusion of a table top landscape and a fascinating and living environment.
Push-Start: The card system looks really interesting, how does that mechanic work with the game? What is the total numbers of cards have you designed for the game so far?
Michael Rud [Playwood]: To be honest, there are only a few so far, but we have a wall of ideas with them. The thing is that we will drop them in as they prove themselves worthy, so to speak. When we are playing multiplayer we often discuss ways to impact the game, features that would make the game fun to play all so while supporting the tactical aspect of the game. We have two types of cards. One is “Ability Cards” that belong to a specific figurine class, and the other are “Action Cards” that can be either of godly or tactical nature. The action cards can be compared to the joker cards commonly found in most playing cards. As a player you can assemble your card deck, but you can’t decide when each card will be drawn to your hand, so you need to adapt your tactics to you cards and the situation on the board.
Push-Start: I am personally a huge music fan, and a budding composer myself, so I have to ask what direction do you guys want to take with the music.
Michael Rud [Playwood]: With our title music we wanted something that was memorable, a sound that when you heard it once you would recognize it when you heard it again, just like a visual brand. The music in WARTILE is not intended to be from the medieval age. It’s more composition that highlights the moment and situation you are in, inspiring you to explore, fight, fear or enjoy what you are doing. For the Viking campaign it will be heavy, manly, determined and with the sense of adventure made with a mix of both classical and modern instruments.
Push-Start: What are some of your favourite board games, and I presume that board games are played in the office? If so, which ones?
Michael Rud [Playwood]: From childhood, we come from a background of Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer, Gettysburg, Advanced Squad Leader and still remember the joy of painting figurines and building landscape models. Our current background is very much video games and we don’t really get to play many board games at the office, but we really should.
Push-Start: I understand that you have worked with various teams of large sizes on your previous projects. In your opinion, what are the benefits of working with a small team as compared to a bigger one?
Michael Rud [Playwood]: At larger studios every artist, coder, producer, sound designer etc. are mostly Seniors or principles in their area of expertise and this creates a very professional and inspiring environment. That however, comes from my own fortunate experience. With the projects I have been attached we have had a big creative ownership, and creative ownership I believe is one of the key differences from a large studio compared to a small. Depending on your role at a large company, you can have little to no impact on the creative direction of the game you are working on, but in a small company everyone gets to pitch in, their opinions matters and it’s easy to make a creative impact if that is what you want to do.
Also in regards to the ability to react to feedback and adjust the creative direction, in a small team everything is easily communicated and debated. Decision are usually made on the go. Where in a large company you will see that feedback tends to bounce a lot for a long time, before anyone takes responsibility for it and adjusts the direction, if it ever gets approved through all the different channels in the production.
Push-Start: Would you like to expand into a bigger team in the near future?
Michael Rud [Playwood]: We want there to be a few more developers working in-house on the creative direction and to fill out key positions required to make the game, but then it’s as much about connections to talented freelancers as well, who as artists also love the project you are working on, and can pitch in when needed. This flexibility is key for game development in my opinion. When you make a game or just a system or a new feature, you never know if, or when it is going to be fun, and on the other hand, having a large team sitting in-house waiting for the greenlight, or just working on stuff that might come up, rhat is a burden to any studio and quite potentially can spell death for a small studio.
Push-Start: What sort of age rating are you aiming for? Would you like a younger audience to give your game a go as well?
Michael Rud [Playwood]: To be honest, you never really know who your audience is going to be. From a marketing perspective you can choose who you want to aim at. I would think we are hitting at the male average age of 30+ with a history or passion for table top games, RPG and RTS video games, who have seen it all and think that WARTILE is a fresh take on the genre. Second, is everyone else. The biggest ambassador we have is my 8-year-old daughter who really enjoys playing the game and has been testing it since the beginning, so if she can play it, we hope everyone else can play it. WARTILE is by no means complicated to learn, but it takes some time to master. We, of course, hope that young as well as the old, will enjoy the game.
Push-Start: If you had one existing game license to choose from, what project would you love your team to take on?
Michael Rud [Playwood]: It would have to be a TV license, and that would be Game of Thrones. It would be a perfect match with the many factions, and interesting locations and characters generally found in Wartile. As for videogames, it would be hard to select a game license, as I would rather see the developers responsible for it carry on the work. The whole point of being an indie studio is the creative freedom to make what we believe in and what makes our bellies burn with excitement.
Push-Start: What genres would you love to tackle in the future?
Michael Rud [Playwood]: It would still be a tactical real-time strategy game but with much more focus on multiplayer and online worlds.
Push-Start: What are some of the games that you are looking forward to this year?
Michael Rud [Playwood]: It might sound controversial but I rarely have time to play games. When I get time to play them, it would be XCOM that is already out, HITMAN that I have been working on which is also going to be a tactical, strategic and creative game. And of course, Ubisoft’s For Honor because of the armoured knights with big swords bashing each other in what looks to be a skill based sword game. I enjoyed playing chivalry and this look like the AAA version of that. Apart from that, I keep an eye out for good indie releases, as they quite often surprise.
Push-Start: When can we expect to get this game in our hands? What are your thoughts on Steam’s early access program? Do you see yourself using something similar for this?
Michael Rud [Playwood]: Yes, we aim to release the game on STEAM as early access later this year, but we want our audience to get their hands on the game earlier. Community feedback is crucial for us to adjust the gameplay and design for the best possible game experience, and for that we need to develop the game together with the players. With the Kickstarter campaign it is possible to try our Pre-Alpha demo that offers a small tutorial as well as the coastline battle map and we’re hoping that from this, it lays the foundation of our Wartile community.
Push-Start: Would you like to see your game ported over to smartphones and tablets if possible?
Michael Rud [Playwood]: In the future we would love to see the game developed for a portable system. The design and controls are really applicable to the tablet platform and we also think that the game is both enjoyable from your couch and on the go, as most battle boards have a small pick and play system, usually lasting around 15-20 minutes.
Push-Start: On an ending note, what advice would you like to give new and budding young indie teams? Furthermore, anything you’d like to share?
Michael Rud [Playwood]: Coming with years of experience from AAA game development, I thought I would know how everything needed to be done and pan out, but I didn’t. Building an indie studio is not only about knowing how to make games, but it is also knowing how to run a studio, how to address investors or create a supportive community. It is figuring out legal issues your human resource plans or when to have one. It’s understanding the company budget, making salaries, handling tax and lastly making sure that we are also actively marketing our project. It’s just so much more than just jumping into the creative rocket aiming for the stars. So, before you go indie, be sure to ask yourself if you are ready to handle the entirety of responsibilities it will entail, like the ones I mention. If you aren’t, make sure to partner with some who is.
On the more creative note, remember to focus on gameplay, and keep testing and iterating on it. It is easier to create beautiful works of art or compelling pieces of story when a good amount of talent is involved, however it is just as hard to create gameplay that resonates with your players, and to get a grasp on how many iterations it will take before you reach your goal. Even though, it is the art and story that is your best mean of communication as people respond well to beautiful images, but they despise a lacklustre and ugly prototype even more.
As we are launching our Kickstarter, we are very excited to share and show WARTILE with the intended audience and I am quite sure we will be very busy once the campaign is over in order to adjust our designs according to all the feedback we receive and the first looks we will be getting, but this is one of the really big advantages about being a small indie studio, you can openly share your projects and evolve it in a close relationship with the audience from an early stage of the development. We don’t expect WARTILE to a perfect game yet, but it’s a different game experience and in-time and together with a growing community, we will be able to make something unique that will stand out from the crowd. Knowing that makes it really fun to be part of this project.