Q&A With Abyssal Arts

Another developer I met at Play Manchester 2015 was Keaton White of the indie outfit Abyssal Arts. Having worked at Capcom for a number of years and assisting in the development of Street Fighter V among other titles, Keaton White was in Manchester last year showcasing Abyssal Arts’ upcoming game City of the Shroud. Mixing fighting game mechanics with many fundamentals of the tactical RPG genre, I tried the game when it was on display at the show, and I was intrigued to find out more. Therefore, I requested a Q&A with Keaton White for the blog, and this is what he had to say:


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What were the influences behind City of the Shroud?

When we set out to develop City of the Shroud, we wanted to make a tactical game that played like a fighting game. While iterating on the fundamental design, we also took inspiration from a few places. It’s a tactical RPG, so we looked at classics like Final Fantasy Tactics (I’m a huge fan) and modern takes on the genre like X-COM, and even extended our research out to MOBAs. In terms of fighting game mechanics, we looked at games like Street Fighter and Soul Calibur, since the strategy of the gameplay lay in the interplay of action between players, but we also looked at games that merged fighting mechanics with RPG gameplay – one particularly strong reference is Legend of Legaia from the PSX days.


What has the developmental process been like?

The development process has been an interesting shift from AAA. There’s a juxtaposition of needing to bootstrap the whole thing budget-wise, while at the same time having absolute freedom to make the game we want to make. Instead of huge teams, large budgets, and higher-ups to answer to, we have no one to hold responsible for but ourselves. Funding has definitely been an issue – we’re remotely based, trying to create a new type of gameplay with a new (and labor-intensive) story mechanic, so we’re not prime targets for investors or publishers. Instead, we’ve done contract work to keep ourselves alive (there’s a good write-up I was interviewed for here) and have put what we’ve earned back into the game. That said, we’ve had incredible freedom to pursue our passions, and the response has been very positive. Players really like the gameplay, the story idea gets people excited, and we’ve had major platform holders and game shows approach us about bringing our game to them (on our own dime, however). Overall, it’s been an enormous learning experience to go from the specific, stable, and structured world of AAA to a chaotic mass of tasks but complete ownership over the results. I will say that we’ve done a good job of staying organized and on-task, so despite our limited development capacity, we’ve made sure to squeeze as much out of our own work as possible.


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How close are we to seeing the finished product?

If we’re successful on Kickstarter, we’ll actually be quite close – most all of the underlying systems for the game are built. We’ve had online multiplayer forever, our story mechanics are working – we even have cross-platform cloud saves. All that remains is to build the art we need to complete the package we want to present to players, then integrate it. While that’s going on, we can add and tune the remaining three character classes (already designed and in the system), get feedback from players, and polish. Right now, we’re on schedule to have the first chapter of story content live and running this summer!

What has been the most exciting aspect of development?

Seeing players have fun with the game. At our first show, before doors opened, a 5-year-old girl came up to play the game. Generally, a real-time tactical fighting RPG with early-stage UI is not a game for kids, but she picked it up and played for 30 minutes. Then she came back at the end of the day to play more. We’ve had people send in fan mail, comment about how excited they are on our YouTube videos before we’ve announced them, and been selected for indie game shows, and even got featured on Kotaku UK. We’ve spent an incredible amount of time and effort to make this game happen, and seeing people really enjoy it and get excited about it is a huge rush.


What has been the most challenging aspect of development?

Since we’re a new studio that’s bootstrapping development, everything is balancing budgets with what’s possible. There are a million things we’d like to do, but it’s always up in the air whether we can do it or not. We’ve made several conscious decisions not to put certain mechanics or scenarios in the game, and that’s been really difficult, but we want to be certain that each aspect of the game players see is completely polished when we release.


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How well has the game been received so far?

Players have had a lot of fun playing the game. We’ve been to two-game shows so far (PlayExpo and Insomnia 56), and the response has been really good. We’ve been called, “Better than League of Legends,” which was nice (she was 13), and at Insomnia, there wasn’t a spare minute even to eat because so many people were playing the game.


Did your time at Capcom influence the development of this game to any great extent? If so, were there any Capcom franchises in particular that did?

There are a few, but the first element was trying to nail down the “feel” of an action game. We wanted the game to be clean (I did a piece on clean gameplay on Gamasutra), and we wanted your success in combat to be a matter of ability, not dice-rolls. That meant spelling things out and making sure there wasn’t any randomness to what’s going on – everything is under your control. The other aspect of feeling was making it felt good to push buttons (or move the mouse). When you make an input, the game has a clear reaction – we still haven’t nailed this one perfectly, but we’re steadily working towards it. We’ve gotten feedback from designer friends that it’s fun just to input combos, so hopefully, that’s a good sign. It also means we were able to get away from the most tedious part of most tactical games: attack input. As for franchises, Street Fighter was obvious a big one. The game is a big departure from SF, but we tried to take some of the general theory behind the gameplay and apply it to our system.   There are also elements of Dragon’s Dogma and Mega Man Zero in there, but I’ll let you try to figure out where those influences are hiding.


What platforms are you looking to bring City of the Shroud to?

Right now, we’re focusing on bringing the game to Windows and Mac via Steam. We’re launching a Greenlight campaign at the same time as Kickstarter (February 2). I’d like to bring the game to more platforms as time and resources allow; we’re approved PlayStation developers, and Microsoft has asked us about bringing the game to Xbox, so it’s something we’re considering for the future (players have also asked if it’s coming to console). It also plays well on a tablet, so that’s a consideration too.


Do you have any advice for aspiring developers that may be reading this?

Oh man, there are so many things to say. I think it depends as much on the individual receiving the advice as the person giving it. On one level, I’m really glad I worked in AAA for several years before going indie – it gives you a good idea of what’s necessary to make a (usually) quality game, insight into why ideas and plans fail, and a general understanding of the game-making process. In general, though, I see two things as critical to making a game: understanding and working with your own strengths and weaknesses (understanding limitations and being creative within them), and the ability to stay focused and passionate no matter how long it takes or how hard it gets (production skills and willpower). I often see developers lose focus on their goal or aim too high, which often results in a failed project. That’s not always a bad thing, but if you want to make games (particularly self-funded games), it’s really important to be realistic while remaining fired up for what you’re doing.


Where about on the Internet can people find you?

You can find me on Twitter as @shibusuke and on www.abyssalarts.com in our forums. I’m also on IndieDB (Shibusuke). Feel free to get in touch!


Do you have anything else to add?

We’re launching a Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight double campaign for City of the Shroud on February 2; please support our game! We’ll be driving the live, 4-part story based on the choices of you and every other player (community-driven story!) over the month, so you can get a glimpse into how everything will work in the final game. The backing is the only way to get access to these Kickstarter-exclusive story episodes, and if you want to make your influence felt, be sure to back early!www.abyssalarts.com/kickstarter will redirect you straight to our Kickstarter once the campaign begins.


I would like to thank Keaton White for taking the time to answer what questions I had and would like to wish him and the rest of the team at Abyssal Arts the best of luck with City of the Shroud. Keep a lookout for the game on Kickstarter.

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