One of the cool things about running a gaming website is the constant barrage of cool and interesting game concepts. Some of them are probably a bit too far out there but some of them just pop in your imagination. Such was the case with Guns of Icarus Online which will be making it's big debut at PAX East this week. We were able to get a few questions in with the team before they headed up to Boston.
For those who haven’t seen the game, can you give us the quick elevator speech on Guns of Icarus backstory?
Guns of Icarus Online is a team-based multiplayer online airship combat game. Captain or serve as crew aboard an airship with your friends and fly into battle against other ships in a steampunk/dieselpunk-inspired, post-apocalyptic world. Each player takes on one of the three roles aboard the ship—Captain, Gunner, or Engineer—and must work together to take down enemies and keep the ship flying. The game is all about teamwork, tactics, and fast-paced action.
The game is set in a world where the Great War never ended, and three hundred years later the scattered survivors are living in isolated settlements in a landscape that has been ravaged by war. With resources scarce and most of the old technology lost, humanity is just beginning to rediscover the techniques for building airships to cross the barren deserts and reestablish contact and trade among the far-flung settlements. But with contact comes conflict, and the Age of Air is in many ways a new age of war.
Are there any particular inspirations for the art style behind Guns of Icarus?
In a very literal sense, our game is the culmination of three distinctive artistic genres: steampunk, post-apocalyptic, and pre/post World War I. In addition to these aesthetic guidelines, we combined various aesthetic elements of Team Fortress 2, Final Fantasy, Ratchet and Clank, Steamboy, Otomo Katsuhiro’s “Cannon Fodder”, Jasper Morello, and various photo reference from the early1900s. While inspired by steampunk, we also wanted to infuse designs from various cultures to add a sense of diversity.
You guys did a Kickstarter before it was cool, why did you decide to fund your project that way? How did you come up with the amount of money you asked for? Was it difficult to come up with the different reward levels or not?
We actually started using Kickstarter early in 2011 for our other project CreaVures after hearing about it from a friend who used Kickstarter. We created a campaign two weeks before we were set to launch the game on Steam, and we were really surprised by the positive feedback and support we received. We realized then that Kickstarter was a powerful way for us to reach out to and interact with fans, so when Guns of Icarus Online’s development finally got to a point in alpha where we needed players to help us test the game, we knew creating another Kickstarter campaign was the best thing for us to do to start building a beta community, to interact with fans in a deeper and meaningful way, and to raise funding to cover for things such as sound design, music, and art.
We tried to figure out a minimum number of closed beta players we needed, as well as what it would roughly cost us to support those players in terms of paying for game servers, hosting solutions, etc. We also hoped that the campaign would cover the costs of sound design, music, and some game art, so the amount was based a bit on that as well.
Having gone through a successful campaign for our other game CreaVures, we learned some good lessons about what worked and what didn’t work. Some of the more interesting gift items, such as the captain’s log book, were the result of that. For other items such as the USB stick, we basically sat around during lunch one day and tossed some ideas around, creating a wish list of what we would dream about getting for ourselves and fans. We then looked for vendors that had cool samples and designs. Once we were sure of good design and quality at prices we could afford, we set the reward levels on Kickstarter. Overall, setting the rewards were a lot of fun, and it wasn’t too difficult.
Free to play is all the rage now, was there ever any thought of going that route with the game?
We went through that thought process as well, but decided resoundingly against it. We just felt that we would end up having to make design and balance sacrifices to cater to free to play. For Guns of Icarus Online, we could not afford to have pay to win. Player gear is inseparably tied to the core game play. To disrupt game balance would be unfair to our core players. Since we are a small team, we have to satisfy our core players and build the game for them. For all the players who like to have customization options such as costumes and a distinct ship parts, we will have decorative items on sale in an in-game store. This way, we can keep the game balanced the way we envisioned it while giving players ways to show off their distinctive looks and personalities.
When most people see online FPS all they think of is shooting other people, how are you getting players to actually cooperate and play together?
This is probably the most unique aspect of Guns of Icarus Online, in that players have to cooperate and play together to fight against other crews. Being in a confined space on the ship with distinct classes and game play for each class, the players don’t have as much of the expansive space or overlapping roles for them to individually dominate the battlefield. In Guns of Icarus Online, regardless of how skilled a gunner is, he or she has to depend on an engineer to keep the ship afloat and a captain to navigate against the enemy. While each class of players can do different things and help the other classes, the team that delegates roles and plays together would have a much better chance of winning the battle. Cooperation is really at the core of the game, and players cooperate because it is to their greatest benefit to do so.
How did you come up with the three classes in the game? How have you refined the classes? Where there any classes that didn’t make the final cut?
The classes initially came out of breaking up the two main jobs that players divided their time doing as the solo captain Gabriel in the original Guns of Icarus game: shooting things and fixing the ship. Those became our Gunner and Engineer classes. We also introduced the ability for the player to actually fly the ship, too, so that was the third job, Captain. Each class in the game now has a lot more depth. The Gunner class has a wide variety of weapons to master; the Engineer class plays a full fledged time management game; the new Captain class is responsible for not only navigation, but for scouting, crew direction, and ship customization as well.
There is one class we had that got cut earlier in development. We used to have a separate Pilot class that was responsible for flying the ship, with the Captain as a kind of meta-class that would perform one of the other primary jobs (Piloting, Gunning, or Engineering) in addition to commanding the ship. It turned out that this was more complicated than we needed. Rather than dealing with the potential difficulties of having a Captain relay navigation orders to a dedicated Pilot while still leaving the Pilot some autonomy and interesting decisions to make, we discovered that one of the best ways for the Captain to control engagements and take on a leadership role was to be the one actually flying the ship. Everything was suddenly a lot clearer when we cut out the Pilot and gave the Captain the wheel.
Could you talk about how matches are going to be setup in the skirmish mode. Is it strictly one team vs another or are you allowing for giant battle orgies (for lack of a better word)?
There will be several different options for players to choose from. Some will be more structured like a capture the flag or a protect the VIP kind of scenario. Others will be open and allow for huge melees. One Skirmish map comes to mind, Battle on the Dunes. Two oasis cities, Nalm and Sylka, have been at war for as long as anyone can remember. The desert between them has become a constant battlefield, littered with wreckage from generations of ships. Each Skirmish map is grounded in the world we’re trying to build, each one has its story to drive the objectives beyond just getting from point A to B.
What’s been the hardest part of the game to design and balance? What was the biggest thing that you didn’t know when you started development?
The hardest things to balance are the combinations of skills that players will use and the kinds of guns on board a ship. Because these are ultimately up to the player, a source of hundreds of different strategies and tactics, the possibility space is very large and it’s very difficult to test. It’s easy to balance a rocket launcher vs. a gatling gun—even if each gun has at least 8 variables—each gun has its purpose. But what happens when all 5 gun slots on a ship are gatling guns? Maybe only the port side of the ship has gatling guns and the starboard rocket launchers. What is that like? Suddenly 8 variables balloons to maybe 20-30 and is unique to every ship layout.
We can create as many simulations, graphs, or data tables as we want, but what it comes down to is allowing the player to explore these possibilities and see what works out the best. It’s very personal to some degree. Then we have the scenario of players onboard that customized ship. How will that unit use the equipment? There’s a yearning to make sure every possibility is fun for the player and ensuring that is the most difficult part. This is why once we get our closed-betas rolling out, we’ll have a much better idea of what kinds of equipment combinations and strategies/tactics are overpowered, underpowered, or just right. It’s a bit of a juggling act, but we think the best solution is to stop coddling the baby and put the game in the hands of players.
How will the trade portion of the game work?
Our concept of Adventure Mode is built on the idea of a trade economy where players can be not only warriors but merchants, using their ships to carry goods from town to town. Towns will produce natural resources and manufactured goods, making them valuable assets to the factions that control them, but they’ll need to be protected and well provisioned or they will collapse.
Whereas in the original game, Gabriel had a hold full of mysterious, unidentified “cargo,” in Adventure, you’ll actually be dealing in specific resources—food, water, raw materials, weapons—whatever towns need to survive and thrive. Not only will this drive trade, it will also drive conflict, as factions compete for access to the best resources and airship captains have a choice of career, from independent trader to mercenary escort to pirate raider.
We know the title has the word online in it but is there any single-player content for players who wish to play offline or practice against bots?
There is no offline mode to the game; as implied by its name, you’re always online, in the same shared world with everyone else. However, for training purposes or just a bit of fun if you’re feeling anti-social, there will probably be the option to play certain skirmishes against AI, and as a Captain when you’re selecting your crew, you always have the option of opening positions to the public, friends only, or filling your roster with AI crew. Our focus is definitely on online multiplayer interactions, though, and anyone who’s going up against humans with an all-AI crew will probably be at a noticeable disadvantage!
Could you talk about the various ways players will be able to customize their airships? How much will players be able to change the aesthetics of their ships vs. the speed and firepower?
We’re allowing a lot of customization as far as firepower goes. As mentioned, the range of possibility of weapon arrangements ships can have is staggering and leaves us with a big question mark on how some of these combinations will work in battle. It’s at a point where we think if the player has a good understanding of the ship movement dynamics, weapon characteristics, and of his/her enemy, then any combination can be a good choice. It’s just about finding those edge cases for rebalance. So on the weapons level, players will have a lot of fun trying different things out.
As far as ship movement, engines and their placement play a huge part. Our physics behaves as you would expect, and ships with engines further apart (horizontally) turn faster. Right now, those positions are fixed due to the ship models, so only engine power comes into play. In the future, we’ll have total ship mass in the equation, and if we’re clever, the possibility for more flexibility in the engine positioning.
For aesthetics, we plan on having a variety of decals, flags (yes, that move with the wind!), and banners that players will be able to choose from that will appear in set locations on the ship. We’ll have a fair collection when we release, and we plan on to keep making cool ship ‘hats’ for a while.
When will you be opening the game up to non-Kickstarters? Can you sneak us in?
We will be showing the game in public for the first time at Pax East! Guns of Icarus Online is a featured project at the Kickstarter Arcade (http://www.kickstarter.com/pages/PAXEast2012) and we’ll also be doing live giveaways of closed beta access and in-game costumes. All people have to do is to like and monitor our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter to find out when.
We are also working Steamworks integration, so we would be able to start closed beta shortly after Pax East.
Is there anything we missed that you think is important?
One recent development that we’re very excited about is our new collaboration with award-winning composer Zain Effendi, who worked with Hans Zimmer's team at Remote Control Productions on the scores of films such as Pirates of the Caribean 3, Kung Fu Panda, and The Dark Knight, and will be lending support and working on the music for Guns of Icarus Online. Zain actually found the project on Kickstarter and reached out to us. We are really glad to be working with him, and it’s really cool to have someone as accomplished as Zain taking an interest in an indie project like ours.