Indie Spotlight is a series at Gaming Nexus that explores the origin and development of unique and innovative games designed and produced by independent developers. Each article includes a developer interview that focuses on examining the concept and design processes involved with each project. Indie Spotlight strives to showcase new and upcoming games that range from a variety of genres and development studios across the world.
You would be hard pressed to find a more dedicated set of fans than those of the PC-strategy market. We’re talking about a dedicated set of gamers who sink hundreds of hours into their titles; they can be picky, too, and don’t like to see their patented formulas altered too much. Because of that, seeing a company make an attempt to bring something new to the genre is something that draws a little bit of attention.
That is what caught my eye with Epiphany Games’ Frozen Hearth. Take the classic PC real-time strategy (RTS) formula, throw in some role-playing game (RPG) elements, and add a hint of multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) for good measure, and you have Frozen Hearth. The game is now available through its official website, and hopefully soon on Steam if all goes well with its Greenlight campaign. Recently, we had a chance to chat with Samuel Jensen, lead designer, to learn a bit more about the project and their plans for it as a franchise in the future.
Can you introduce yourself to our readers, tell us a little bit about how you got into the industry, and describe your role at Epiphany Games?
I'm the Lead Designer here at Epiphany. I got into the industry, basically, through Epiphany. In the earlier days, while I was at the university, my role was sort of helping out writing some narrative here and there, helping out where I could. As I moved onto my honors year, I really started to pour more of my time into the company, working a lot more on the design side of things and producing documentation. We started to build steam and Epiphany required a single designer to really focus all the ideas and work that had been coming in, I assumed that role. I began to provide that singular direction with design and narrative, working with our other guys, like Matthew Corrin, who provided a great deal of design input.
As the Frozen Hearth project moved into full production, my role expanded into a managerial role. Working with our lead dev, Josh Green, and our CEO, Morgan Lean, I had to work on getting the product up and out into the world. I also do a lot of the “talkie” sort of stuff, heading to things like GDC to pitch to potential investors, publishers and other people.
What is the inspiration behind Frozen Hearth? What games do you compare the project to and what is it that your project does that sets is apart from the rest?
Frozen Hearth has a number of points of inspiration. In terms of game, of course Starcraft, but also Company of Heroes and Dawn of War. In terms of narrative or story, I just wrote a fairly straightforward "exodus" tale, which, as it turns out, ended up being very similar in a lot of ways to Game of Thrones. This is despite never having read any of the books in the least and it was all written long before the TV show show happened.
I guess the things that set it apart are its broad feature-set with genuine co-op play, RPG elements, varied RTS- and RPG-influenced map types. Plus there is our world-setting, as well as the high level of customization of armies and heroes within any given game.
It is clear in both the early stages of the game and your marketing that the experience is a combination of both RTS and RPG gameplay. I sense a bit of MOBA in it as well. Was it always your intention to mesh the two or three genres (RTS and RPG) or did the project begin as one of them in particular?
While we've always had RPG elements firmly in mind from the get-go due to our desire to introduce people to our Amorra world-setting, the project originally began as a much simpler RTS, with typical resource harvesting methods--more like Age of Empires than anything else. It was a much slower-paced build-up sort of game. As we worked further on the design, I really felt the game needed to be much faster-paced and wanted to have typical multiplayer player vs. player (PvP) maps last somewhere in the 20 to 30-minute range. To achieve this, I looked at the action-RTS or MOBA style games like DOTA and League of Legends, and even more so like Dawn of War II. I looked at how the PvP experience was streamlined, particularly through its base-building mechanic--or lack thereof. As a designer, I felt it would make for a much more interesting game to provide a sort of mesh of these genres, which would also help differentiate us from other games, through providing a more hybridized feature-set.
How deep does the character advancement and customization go? How does it work in conjunction with the various character classes? Is it possible to create varied versions of the same class of character?
The more open-ended level of hero customization is a hallmark of Epiphany's general approach to game design. While it is a little cut-down in terms of customization from the other design docs we've written for, the approach we've taken is sort of the opposite side of the coin to other offerings. It is much more closely aligned to what Diablo III turned out to be which was a game that I thought from very early on was going to be Blizzard's own genuine offering into the action-RTS/MOBA space. I think a real opportunity was lost with them not releasing Diablo III with PvP; when I heard that was the case, my interest in that game dropped to zero.
Instead of predetermined or pre-rolled characters with set abilities and moves and defined roles (that if you dare step out of, fear the gamer rage of your teammates), we sort of offer a series of templates that have a particular leaning but allow you to build in your own way. As we further developed and improved upon our item system, it became even more diverse. The general aim I was going for was just playing with the typical tank/healer/damage-per-second (DPS) dichotomy--or trichotomy--we typically see in post-World of Warcraft massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, but sort of blur the lines a little. This was intended to bring this gameplay feature into the RTS space to offer something a little different, in both PvP and co-op campaign modes.
Tell us a little bit about the world that you have created. It is clear that there is more to the world of Amorra. Do you feel you have set yourself up for a potential series or further exploration into this fascinating world?
Our Amorra setting was originally devised for an MMO project which we have put on the back burner as we set about raising the money and the actual tech required to actually build an MMO. Frozen Hearth functions as a genuine first chapter that introduces players to our world and tells the story for why the player-race of the MMO are in the situation they are in upon launch of the MMO. The setting itself draws upon a lot of Gaelic mythology--Cuchulain, Finn McCool, and all those myths--as well as some Norse, eastern European myth, and also dark fairy tale.
The art of Brian Froud (The Dark Crystal), in particular, was a key influence. The setting is a little more dark, a little more sinister, and a world where good and evil are much more subjective concepts. The "bad guys" of Frozen Hearth, the Shangur, for example, aren't necessarily evil; they are more akin to a mindless force of nature, given nightmarish form. Such are the "-tagonists" of our world, both "pro-" and "an-." A game-related influence here would most definitely be Planescape: Torment, which to me is quite simply the best RPG yet made, at least from a narrative point of view. We have a great deal of further exploration planned, with further expansion of Frozen Hearth and into new games and genres entirely, with new and fascinating races, places and stories to show and tell.
If you do have plans to branch out into this universe further, is it your intention to stay within the RTS genre or can you see the game branching out a little more into other genres such as a dedicated RPG or action-RPG games?
As I said, the Amorra setting was developed to couch a number of games. While we will be working on an expansion for Frozen Hearth (which will of course be RTS), we intend to develop an action-RTS, also two-player co-op, as well as the aforementioned MMO. Beyond that we have a whole bunch of other ideas up our sleeves, but what game developer doesn't?
It isn’t very often that you see either of these genres offering the ability to play a cooperative campaign. How important is the cooperative mode to the Frozen Hearth concept and what inspired you to pursue the cooperative concept? Co-op was so hot right then! Ha, while that is true, it was always a gameplay mode that appealed to all of the guys who I have played games with. From games like Doom to System Shock and into Baldur's Gate II, and many others, it was sort of a no-brainer for us to go in that direction.
Accordingly, cooperative is a core mechanic, and core concept to the game as a whole. That really seems to have resonated with our players, as the vast majority have really responded positively to the cooperative setting, and it is something that I am looking to push even further with upcoming expansions, particularly playing with the sort of balance of cooperation and antagonism that was touched upon in our original campaign. The fact that the co-op game starts out with a PvP match between the two players is something that I personally loved! It really sets a great tone, in terms of presenting the Danaan as the people that they, to a large degree are (insular, individualistic, and largely uncooperative), while at the same time, brave, heroic and worthy of admiration.
The game is currently running a campaign to make it through the Steam Greenlight process. Can you tell us a little bit about your thoughts on the entire Greenlight program and how this would benefit your project?
Ah, the Greenlight process is a bit of a fraught one. On the one hand I can definitely see the need for Valve to implement it, especially after seeing the sheer number of games that have been submitted. How they found the time to look at all the games before Greenlight, I don't know. On the other hand, it seems to have resulted in creating yet another hurdle for indie devs to have to negotiate before getting to market, which also has the side effect of making life even easier for the AAA studios who get an even more clear path to market. Us little guys now have to pile up the dead bodies of every other developer around us to get through to the top 100.
Added to this is the "Black Box" that is this "Top 100" of Greenlight. Making into that section doesn't guarantee making it onto Steam, it just gets your game looked at. As such Greenlight itself doesn't benefit any indie dev. Getting onto Steam properly though benefits every dev, as Steam accounts for something like 70 percent of the digital distribution pie. My own feeling is its much higher than this. Apparently only something like five percent or 10 percent of the Steam user base actually look at Greenlight, so, its also not like it's getting your product out in front of all the Steam user's eyeballs. Anyway, that's a bit too much whining. Suffice it to say that it's a challenge.
Do you have plans for expansion of the current project? Can we expect expansion packs and additional content for the title down the line?
Yep! We are currently in very early pre-production for an expansion, which, if and when we go ahead with, will be releasing details about from very early. Beyond this, Frozen Hearth, like all games nowadays, will be regularly updating units and features and adding tweaks and patches, etc.
How has the feedback been from the community thus far?
Feedback from our players has been fantastic! We've had a really great response from everyone, which is really gratifying to see. I'm really looking forward to giving the guys heaps more content, more spit and polish, more narrative, and just generally “more” as we go forward and foster a community of players that just freakin' love us.
Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know about the project?
Well, I guess as far as Frozen Hearth is concerned, for those with the game or about to buy: we are adding in online multiplayer very soon. It’s in very advanced development and everything is going ahead with it smoothly, so keep your eyes out for that and other additions and refinements to the game. If you haven't already, vote us up on Greenlight, and get all of your friends to do also!
We here at Gaming Nexus would like to give a great big thanks to Samuel for taking the time to chat with us, and to the entire team at Epiphany Games for their work and dedication on the project. If you would like to learn more about the project, or are interested in picking up the game, head over to the official Frozen Hearth website and check out the Steam Greenlight page for the title.
If you have been here before, you know the basics: lifelong gamer, father, and of course, certified news monkey. I have been blogging on the industry for close to a decade now, in some form or another. It wasn't until I landed here at Gaming Nexus that I really dove in head first. Now, writing about games has become what I do for fun (and sometimes work) and something I intend on doing until the day I die.
I'm a huge fan of just about everything you can interact with using a controller, no matter how old or new, good or bad. If you put it in front of me, I will play it... end of story.