Features > 3aDay > Process interview, Expeditions: Conquistador
    • posted on: 2013-06-19 by Jerry Kline | 0 comment(s)

      Process development interview about the game: Expeditions: Conquistador

      Questions answered by:
      ● Alex Mintsioulis
      ● Daniel Eskilden
      ● Søren Gravesen
      ● Jonas Wæver
      ● Ali Emek
      ● Lasse Rasmussen

      Hello Logic Artists, how are you doing today?

      Jonas: Hello! We're obviously pretty excited for the release of Conquistador, and we think we've made a really good game, so morale is high.

      Let's start from the beginning; why did you choose to develop the game for the PC, MAC and Linux platforms?

      Ali: We liked the feel of the old mouse and keyboard RPGs and while consoles are also a great place to experience them, as proven by the recent X-COM, this was our first game and we thought that focusing on our niche was important. So Windows PCs are an obvious choice, but making Expeditions: Conquistador available for MAC and Linux came up when we decided to use the Unity engine. Unity has done some great things with their engine allowing devs to build versions for all three operating systems out of the same project. That’s not to say that it’s a cakewalk. Each operating system has their own special intricacies.

      How did you come up with the game’s premise?

      Jonas: It grew out of a small university project where the task was to create a game demo for a target audience of one person. I wanted to do a text-heavy game about exploration, so I picked the age of exploration because it has exploration right there in the name. The Spanish side of that seemed the most exciting and philosophically complex, and a bit more fresh than the English perspective. Then when I started researching the setting, all these incredible stories and thought-provoking questions emerged from the source material, and it was abundantly clear that there was more than enough foundation there for a full PC RPG.


      Tell us about the setting of the game. Why did you choose this setting?

      Jonas: Historical settings tend to be underused in games in my opinion, perhaps because they impose difficult restrictions on the game mechanics. When you accept that challenge though, there's plenty of inspiration in history, and it doesn't necessarily have to limit your creative freedom all that much. The Spanish conquest of the Americas is a very complex subject that a lot of people only have superficial knowledge of, and it's full of drama, politics, ethical questions, heroism, and cruelty. Also, Spanish names sound really cool.

      Was the game always set in the time period you chose, or was it initially set in another era?

      Jonas: The setting is our primary unique selling point, the game was always meant to be set there!

      Was it hard writing for a game with a specific historical setting?

      Jonas: It was quite a challenge, for several reasons. First of all, history is murky and one must always be critical of one's sources. Most of what we know about the Aztec Empire is from the Spanish conquerors or from the tribes that the Aztecs were oppressing, so they're not very reliable sources. On the other hand, post-imperial history has not been good to the Spanish, and many people now see them only as evil, genocidal bigots crushing a peaceful, harmonic culture. It has always been my chief goal to portray our setting with fairness and balance in all its complexity, and that's hard without a lot of reliable sources.

      Secondly, we're making a roleplaying game, and we can't allow history to stand in the way of the players' engagement in and co-ownership of the plot. Even if we accept that most conquistadors were cruel, power hungry, exploitative bigots, we have to give the player the choice to be a good person in our game, and there was always a very real danger that we might end up glorifying the conquerors out of fear of alienating our players. The solution we chose was to express the real opinions and world views of that time through the non-player characters that the player encounters or commands.


      In a few words, what is the art style of the game?

      Søren: For the art we wanted to go with a ‘stylized realistic look’. We wanted it to look as realistic as possible, maintaining the feeling of a historic event, while the stylization allowed us to work with the busy schedule we had, being a small company and all.

      Jonas: Also, it was important to us that realistic not necessarily means "brown" - we've got a lot of nice colour in the environment and character art, much of which is used to communicate pickups, objectives, factions, etc.

      Daniel: One of the words we’ve used a lot over the course of development is “authentic.” We wanted something that looked authentic, but still stylized, facilitating the fact that we’re a very small studio with limited resources. A lot of time went into research of objects and places, and basing our art on these things, while still adding our own interpretations and ideas.

      Lasse: This was true for animation as well - I recall that I was linked some videos about how authentic sword, spear and halberd fighting techniques actually looked. The problem was that while it was very realistic (and surprisingly brutal!), it simply didn’t fit with the constrictions of gameplay. That’s not to say that some principles didn’t make it into the game (The deft strike with a halberd, for example, is more or less lifted directly from live reference), but some things had to be more stylized (most swipe animations, the sword attack animations, etc. etc.). Again, it was about getting that “authentic” feeling of impact, weight behind your attacks and hopefully “feeling” the pain of your adversary as he fell to the ground, gurgling blood and clutching wounds!


      Was it challenging to design the UI for the game? 

      Daniel: In the beginning, yes. A lot of the interface elements came about on a per-need basis, which meant they ended up being very mixed in terms of colours and style. It wasn’t until we had most of the icons done, that I redid the design for buttons and such to be more streamlined across the board.

      As for design of the overall interface layout, it came about very fluidly. We talked about what we wanted out of the interface, drew a sketch and revised it if we had any revisions. When we then had it implemented, we’d often change certain aspects we didn’t feel worked. I know Juan did not like this approach, as he had to do A LOT of tweaking. I know we all wished Unity had a better interface integration. We’ve definitely learned from our mistakes regarding interface.

      What unit types can players expect to control? 

      Jonas: We have five Spanish character classes that more or less conform to archetypal combat roles: the soldier (tank), the scout (damage), the hunter (ranged), the doctor (healer), and the scholar (support). As you promote them, they'll unlock new abilities that sometimes make them more specialized, sometimes more flexible, and you get to select passive abilities for them as well that might change the way you use them. We also have six native classes, three of which roughly correspond to some of the Spanish classes, two of which are super units for late-game balance, and one of which is a civilian class that mostly exists to make you feel like a horrible person if you decide to role-play as a real conqueror.

      Daniel: If you play your cards right, you get to control all of them, but depending on your play style nothing is guaranteed. All of the units are available in multiplayer though, so if you want to have soldiers vs. civilians fight, you can.

      What roles does terrain play in combat?

      Daniel: It’s one of the most important factors in combat. It determines where you are in cover, and where you need to move. If you start out in the open, you’ll want to move to cover in the first round, or if you start too far back to reach the enemy in the first turn, which is often the case, you’ll want to position your men strategically so that you are more likely to get the first strike. Creating bottlenecks is a viable strategy, and barricades can make or break a fight sometimes.

      What is the game’s control scheme?

      Daniel: Pretty straightforward; tried to imitate the staples of the genre as much as possible, and include as many useful shortcuts as we could think of.

      Jonas: Yep, your basic heavily GUI-dependent mouse and keyboard controls.


      In a few words, what is the goal of the game?

      Jonas: The player's goal in Expeditions: Conquistador is to mount an expedition from the island of Hispaniola (modern-day Dominican Republic) to Mexico, amass as much gold and influence as possible without losing too many expedition members or suffering a mutiny, and then return to Spain. During this endeavor, you may end up determining the fate of the Aztec empire, if you so choose.

      How can a player lose the game?

      Jonas: An actual game over is fairly difficult to get, but will occur if you run out of expedition members. You start with 10 people and can only recruit more at plot points, and you may lose them gradually as they succumb to injuries or disease, or suddenly if their morale drops too low and they mutiny against you. Failure is typically a long, slow decline in this game, and you may well limp along and make it back to Spain alive even if things go very poorly indeed - just don't expect to get the best ending in that case!

      Why did you choose to make it a turn based strategy game as opposed to a real time strategy game?

      Jonas: We wanted to make a very small-scale tactical game, with the player in control of no more than 6 characters at a time, and that works best with a fair amount of micro-management, which works best in a turn-based system. It makes for a lot more thorough planning and clever tactical maneuvers, and it calls to mind the old RPGs from Black Isle or BioWare.

      Why did you choose perma-death as an option for a party’s expedition members?

      Daniel: Because it helps drive home the point that your actions have serious consequences, in terms of narrative. The sudden death-option in combat is very unforgiving; hence it being something the player has to opt-in to. You will get incapacitated followers no matter what, so having it on could really devastate your crew both in and out of combat, should they die on the battlefield. The injuries themselves can be tough enough on their own to deal with, especially if you have several injured at a time. The decision to make it an option though, was because we know from ourselves, and other players, that knowing you might lose your men in a fight, will force you to consider your moves and strategies more carefully. It makes the victories that much sweeter, but the defeats equally more devastating.


      What was the hardest thing to animate in the game?

      Lasse: I was surprised as to what animations were the hardest to get right during the process. Initially, I came with the expectation that attack related animations (swings, stabs, flourishes, gunshots, bowshots, etc.) would be the most complicated; however, as I got my hands dirty with animation, the hardest animations were those of people falling down and getting up from various injured states. One of the hardest parts to get right in animation is the conveyance of weight and solidity - if a soldier gets up too fast when healed, it feels as if he’s too light. This results in a feeling of weightlessness that doesn’t really mesh well with a realistic setting. Also, without paying proper attention to where weight is at any given time during the animation, you’ll end up with an unconvincing performance that’ll detract from the immersion of the game. The hardest animations were the ones of the soldiers getting up, consequently; I was very frustrated - and had a lot of fun - figuring out how to make it feel just right. Another tough set of animations were all those related to the horse. Animating four-legged creatures is hard enough as it is, but horses in particular have a very distinct way of moving, if you get it wrong, your horse suddenly begins moving like a dog, and we totally don’t want that.

      Jonas: Lasse is being modest, his horse animations are fantastic and he finished them super quickly, that's just the caliber of people we hire at Logic Artists!


      Were the music and sfx down in house, or outsourced?

      Daniel: The music was all done by our good friend and talented composer, Leonardo Badinella. Jonas had worked with him before, and listening to his stuff, it really was a no-brainer. We couldn’t be happier with the score for the game.

      Jonas: Plus, with him being in Chile, there's a sense that his music has an extra layer of authenticity because Leo grew up in the mixed culture that started with the events in our game, and he's easily able to bring in both the Spanish instruments and the Native American rhythms.

      The sfx was a mixture of outsourcing, and in-house. We had them come in to the office as much as possible, but the bulk of the sounds were done in the comforts of home, mostly due to logistics.


      What engine was the game built with? Why did you choose that engine?

      Juan: The game is built in Unity3D. The reason of choosing this engine is that we had previous experience with it, it allows fast prototyping and it offers great support from its user’s community.

      Were there any unexpected challenges that you came across?

      Juan: Making an RPG where your choices have deep consequences in your adventure is a challenge itself, as you have to take into account all sorts of different possibilities. Some of the challenges faced during the development were the creation of the in-house tools that the designers could use as well as making all the different parts of the followers management fit together.


      Was the game tested only internally, or was it tested outside of the company as well?

      Alex: Expeditions: Conquistador was tested in a few different ways. We did do a great deal of internal testing for QA, but with a team of 10 people, the majority of whom were working on actual scripting, coding, modeling, and animating, we needed more than that on QA, especially because of the wide variety of player choice.  And some of the choices in encounters are only available if you designed your character stats and party members to fit a certain play-style.  We were very lucky in that we had a small but obsessively devout group of external testers that scoured the game over and over for bugs and glitches.  We also offered a Beta version as a reward to some of our Kickstarter backers who were also very helpful.

      Were there any glaring bugs or balancing issues that the team initially missed?

      Jonas: We had an unfortunate amount of logic glitches in certain plot branches that weren't found until we sent the game out to volunteer external testers. Especially near the end of the Mexico campaign, the plot logic gets pretty convoluted, and our event editor has no validation or anything, so there's only really one way to make sure every combination of events work, and that's by throwing a lot of eyeballs at it.


      Now that the Kickstarter funding is over, how do you think it went? What did you learn from crowd funding?

      Alex: Kickstarter is an incredible system for indie projects.  There are very passionate gamers out there and Kickstarter has empowered them in a way, at least in the sense that when enough people say they want a certain type of game, or genre, or a specific idea that isn’t mainstream enough for the big devs to take notice of, they can back projects that fit their criteria.  For us, we’re happy for a few reasons: Firstly connecting with the community in this way was special, we have heard from people all around the world, very supportive and passionate gamers, folks we never dreamed of reaching with our first 3D project. 1,569 of the classiest, coolest people across the globe threw their money into the Kickstarter ‘hat’ and now we have a game, kudos to the crowd!  

      Juan: It has been a great experience definitely. It helped us to fund a part of the production and to established a game community which has been really active and dedicated.


      Looking back at the overall development process, did the team learn anything new?

      Daniel: Oh yes. I tried out a lot of new techniques in an effort to be more efficient, and to produce better content, some of which worked, some of which didn’t. Scrapped the ones that didn’t and stuck to the others, and I’d say I’ve become many times better than when I started the project.

      Lasse: I personally learned a lot about the close relationship I as an animator have with the programmers who implement my animations. You really come to understand the importance of cooperation, compromise (especially compromise!)  and finding sometimes unconventional solutions to the challenges we face. You also really come to appreciate those much smarter people who have to somehow get your animations to work as intended - all the custom scripts that had to be made for my work to actually get into the game is dizzying! What I’m trying to say is: Love your programmers, okay!?

      Jonas: I've mainly learned about the limits and capabilities of the Unity engine, but it has been fairly enlightening to build an RPG from the ground up. I didn't truly appreciate how much math is involved until this project, and how important it is to get your formulas absolutely right. I've also learned that there is apparently no limit to how much unpaid overtime I can ask Daniel to put in, he really has no concept of maintaining his own mental health (though, jokes aside, we only crunched for about a month).

      How big was your core development team? 

      Ali: We’ve 10 full-time developers and some freelancers/interns. So in total we’ll be around 15-16.

      How long was the development for the game, from start to finish?

      Ali: We spent one year for the development of the game.

      Any advice you can give to other developers?

      Jonas: Arranging and negotiating distribution is a long and time consuming process. Your position is much stronger if you've got a mostly finished game by the time you contact publishers or outlets, but remember to set aside at least half a year to get your ducks in a row, and time your marketing accordingly.

      Daniel: Players are your hardest critics, but ultimately, you’re the one with the vision of the game, and you’re the one that has to make the decision, taking into account both the vision, and the end-users.

      Lasse: For people coming into games from an animation perspective, dispel all notions that game animation is somehow worth less than feature film or commercial animation. Not only do you get to work on a lot of variety (recall, I did every animation for all characters, including the horse and pig! If you start counting what activities they cover, you’ll be surprised) you also see first-hand how your animation comes to life in  the hands of the  players. If that isn’t an awesome experience, I don’t know what is.

      Oh, and your ego is stroked, because one individual animator has a much larger impact on the end product in a game than at a commercial or a feature film. 

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