Co-Optimus: Why historical figures as the protagonists and how did you determine which ones to use?
Dana: Back in the era of arcade games there was also of course no character creation. The technology didn’t allow for it. To me, most of the games I love have strong characters that you play. In our genre, that’s almost non-existent these days. Everyone spends 20 minutes customizing the length of their nose then never looks at it again. I’d bet you anything my Skyrim character looks exactly like my Fallout 3 character… and I couldn’t even begin to guess what either one looks like despite the hundreds of hours I spent in those games.
We decided a stronger route for us was to focus on collecting bigger, functional things, rather than just “set of gloves 2” as so many other games do. What’s more important than the actual characters you play and abilities you perform?
Once committed, it was a bit of a nightmare to pick the roster. Our goal is fun, not to offend people, so given how we subvert and poke fun at these people, we immediately crossed off unequivocally evil characters (although there are debates to be made all over, no doubt). We also have no urge to offend anyone on religious grounds, so that eliminates another group of people. The final restriction, of course, is legal. That’s why all of the characters are long dead.
With those things in mind, we developed a list of several hundred people and started arguing. We wanted a good mix of ethnicities, genders and time periods (doing Queen Elizabeth I took Henry VIII off the table). We also wanted comedy. Christopher Columbus would have been a great character, for example, but for whatever reason we never came up with a good joke for him.
We finally settled on the mix we have today. Cleopatra, Leonardo da Vinci, Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon are names that universally known, while slightly less famous people like Queen Elizabeth I, Marie Curie, Montezuma, Blackbeard and Nikola Tesla each bring something to the table that we just had to include. We just wouldn’t be proper gamers if we didn’t have Tesla, for example.
It took a lot of debate, but I think that as a group we’re very happy with the 12 we settled on and we really look forward to adding more over time. It’s limitless.
Co-Optimus: The relics that you collect at the end of the levels provide a nice way to customize your character, along with the purchasable upgrades. Why stop short of customizable/upgradeable skills? Was there a particular vibe you wanted, or one you wanted to avoid? I suppose the other way to ask that is, “Why not make another Diablo clone?”
Dana: We made a very explicit choice to provide our options through collection, not customization. Ultimately, I would argue you have access to as many skills and abilities at any time in our game as you do in any other game, you just need to recalibrate your expectations of where you’re getting them from. A new character gives you two more abilities, a new relic gives you one. At any time, a player can do up to seven different abilities available to them (two characters with two abilities each and three relics) and then can totally swap them 15 minutes later.
Traditional dungeon crawlers give you lots of abilities, but they’re much more restrictive. You pick your class and you usually have a “best” thing to be doing at any given level. As our game goes on, you gain more and more options, all of which are viable depending on how you want to play, your mood, or the challenge you face.
Co-Optimus: What’s been the greatest challenge in developing this game? Has there been any feature that you thought would be easy to implement, or that you wanted to add in, and just couldn’t get it to work quite right?
Dana: There was a lot of trial and error. Any developer who tells you they had a perfect plan on day one and executed it to the letter is probably telling you tall tales. We’ve tried lots of different things before we finally settled on what the game is.
Far and away the toughest thing has been making the abilities “feel right.” It’s an intangible thing, but there’s a lot of voodoo that goes on to make a mace to the face feel like a mace to the face. No one seemed eager to do any real world field tests, so we just kept iterating until everyone thought it felt right… in the game. It’s something we’re constantly working on and includes everything from animators and FX artists all the way to server programmers.
Co-Optimus: So how did you decide upon the different character abilities? Was there something about Abraham Lincoln with a chainsaw that screamed "well he needs to spin around with that"? What does "feel right" mean?
Dana: There are two different parts to that. First there is the design element of what we wanted to accomplish with each character, which I think is what you're getting at here. With Lincoln, we knew he'd be laying into hordes of monsters and easily surrounded, we also wanted a character that could easily "clear a path" so to speak. Functionally, a whirlwind that sends all enemies flying accomplished those design goals. It's also just pretty cool.
The second part is to make each one "feel right" and comes later. Once we were happy with what Lincoln did and how he played, we had to make sure it wasn't just mechanically correct, but also gave you that visceral enjoyment of whatever it was you're doing. It's tough to explain, but it's important that each time you fire a gun or swing a sword that it feel like it has the proper weight behind it. It's one of those things you don't realize when its done right and feels horrible when it's done wrong. There's a lot of art iteration that goes into making every ability have the same impact and it's something we're still working on to this day. With 12 characters, we have a lot of abilities to polish and make sure each feels as good as the next.