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An Interview With Iron Helmet Games

If one thing gets RPS' collective heart racing, it's slowform strategy games with inscrutable diplomatic dimensions. Well, John's bit of the heart doesn't race to that, but it's cold and black, and makes this weird groaning noise... Anyway, one company which has been masterful in the production of these kinds of games is Australian outfit Iron Helmet, who have been responsible for first Neptune's Pride and now Blight Of The Immortals, both browser-based multiplayer strategies of excellent repute. We spoke to their mastermind, Jay Kyburz, and asked him to explain his activities.

RPS: Hello! Can you tell us a bit about Iron Helmet? Who are you and what is your plan?

Kyburz: Iron Helmet is a small studio dedicated to making cool web based strategy and mobile games. Our Plan? To make fun games and be our own bosses!

RPS: Good plan. Neptune's Pride seems to have made quite an impact, and was one of our highlights of the year - but how do you feel it went down? Did it deliver what you intended? And was it a commercial success for you guys?

Kyburz: Neptune's Pride did much better than I was expecting. I thought it was a weird little game with no graphics that would only appeal to me and my nerdy friends. I didn't expect people to understand the Diplomacy part of the game at all. We were really lucky that a few key media people really "got" the whole diplomacy thing and enjoyed some long games with their friends. It was a financial successful in that we recovered our development costs, but it hasn't made us rich.

RPS. That's a shame, because being rich is awesome. Tell us a bit about how you came to be developing Blight of The Immortals, and what process lead up to that... What is the game about?

Kyburz: Blight of the Immortals is a bit of a departure from Neptune's Pride. We wanted to build a game that had a more interesting world for players to explore. We wanted some mechanics that were a little deeper or more complex. We wanted to give the players more to think about. Most importantly we wanted to make a game that was less intimidating than Neptune's Pride. A game that is less stressful and more enjoyable to play. We decided that the best way to do this was to allow players to work together rather than against one another.

I had a theory about Neptune's Pride that I think a lot of the enjoyment of the game comes from the alliances and friendships you make. The nefarious back room dealings and backstabbing create a lot tension and excitement, but it only servers to contrast the good stuff. I wanted to see what would happen if you take away the backstabbing and replace it with a really scary, mindless, zombie AI. Would the game still be exciting? Blight of the Immortals is about players working together to fend off a common enemy.

RPS: So yes: Blight seems focused on the PvE game right now - is that the intention? For PvP to be the less important game? (I say this because PvP seems less balanced, at least from the game I just played.) Would you like to see more co-op strategy games? (I've always thought that those FPS games where a bunch of you fight waves of AI bots needs more equivalents in other genres, this seems to be that.)

Kyburz: We've been really focused on this idea that Blight is about working with with people, rather than against them and we're not even happy with this aspect of the game yet. We are still looking for more tools and special powers that will allow players to work together in interesting ways. I'd love to see more co-op strategy games. I've spent many an evening playing 4 player vs 4 computers in games like Company of Heroes and Dawn of War. Its heaps of fun to rush over to save your friends from an AI horde, or plan a big attack together.

One thing I like in these games is that with each time you play you can increase the difficulty of the AI to discover how good you are as a group. In Blight of the Immortals we have plans for an achievement system that will encourage players to complete each map at harder and harder difficulty levels.

RPS: Hmm. The starting positions for both your games, particular the PvP in Blight, seems uneven. Position, resources - that can all give you a better or worse start. Is that deliberate?

Kyburz: I really love Starcraft but one thing I don't like about it is that everybody starts on an even playing field. The sides are carefully balanced and each player starts with the same amount of resources and access points.

Most people would say this is absolutely critical, but I would argue that is actually makes that game more difficult and less enjoyable for new players, limits the number of interesting strategies for experienced players, and reduces the amount of player interaction.

When the player starts are perfectly balanced the game is more difficult and less enjoyable for new players because when you lose, there is nothing else to blame except for your own ineptitude. Whether is your shoddy build queue or your clumsy micro, when the map is balanced it's perfectly its clear to everybody why you lost. You suck. When the map has a little randomness in it, there are lots more reasons why you had your ass kicked. When the game is over you don't feel like a loser, you feel like you want to jump back in and try again, this time you'll get a better starting spot, start a little stronger, and with a little luck this time you'll win.

It limits the number of interesting strategies because players don't need to alter their build queues or troop movements based on the strengths and weaknesses of their start. Starcraft is notorious for it, players practice a single strategy over and over. You can read all about the perfect Terran build, or how to rush with Zerg. Admittedly no plan survives contact with the enemy, even in Starcraft, but often by the time your armies are fighting the game is already over. It's far more interesting to have to think about what you have, scout your enemies to see what they have, and actually develop a strategy based on your relative strength and weaknesses. A strategy game should be about developing strategies, not just practicing and polishing the one or two ideal strategies the game affords.

I love player interaction, the more the better. It's so much more rewarding to play online with real people than sit at home jumping though the hoops of a game designer. When you start a strategy game weaker than the other players, one of the best things you can do is try and line up some allies. Your first move should be chatting with the other players, trying to line up a mutually beneficial deal. You have to or your dead already. Ideally, even though you are small, you'll have something they want. A rare resource, a special unit, or even just a border they can trust. Making a deal, with real people, is really fun and rewarding.

Both our games Neptune's Pride and Blight of the Immortals drop players in random unbalanced player starts. It sux to get a bad start, but in the long run we think its leads to a more fun, more interesting game that encourages players to work with each other as well as against.

RPS: Good answer! It's almost like you thought about this stuff before I put it to you... Anyway, isn't the issue with a timer-based game like Blight that people can win by "setting the alarm clock" and being there to spawn armies, or reverse their decisions, when the time is right?

Kyburz: It's a difficult problem for us because a lot of the excitement and tension in the real-time game comes from the fact that it's always ticking along in the background. You think about your game all day because at any time you can fire up your browser and see how things are going. Perhaps dispatch an army or spend a few coins. The challenge for us as game designers is to limit the advantage this buys you. One of the things I didn't like about Neptune's Pride is that as you researched Speed, it took less time to travel between stars and as a result, as the game progressed, required more and more of your time and attention.

In Blight of the Immortals we are trying to avoid mechanics that speed up the game. We want players to be able to get into a rhythm of logging in at times that are good for them. It might be first thing in the morning, at lunch time or the evening. It might be all three. If it takes 18 hours to march from one city to the next at the start of the game, it should take the same amount of time at the end. To some extent, in the co-op game I think its ok for you to do better than the other players because you worked a little harder. In games like World of Warcraft you level up faster by grinding more hours. In Blight you can kill more zombies by logging in more often.

For players who really object to this and want to play on a level playing field we have the turn based mode. Each player has 24 hours to queue up a set of actions and then when everybody is ready, the game jumps forward 12 hours. These turn based games are great for the office because you can ask everybody to have a turn ready every hour and play 6 or 8 turns a day. You could finish a whole game in a week.

RPS: The ability to be able to stop an army in Blight seems like a major problem for PvP - in NP you had to make the decision and that was it. Surely it should be the same here, to avoid those last minute "oh no actually I will turn back" moments. it seems like this kind of game needs to make you commit, so you aren't popping in to micromanage every hour?

Kyburz: There is a problem with any action that is instant. Changing the direction of your armies, casting spells, or buying reinforcements. Any action that an opponent might want to be able to respond to. You get into a watching and waiting game with your opponent, and if you don't log in as often as them you might miss your opportunity to act. Neptune's Pride had a similar problem where players with large fleets would face off, waiting for the other to show their hand before choosing which target to attack or defend. Players would try and wait for their opponent to be asleep or away from their computer before attacking. It's more complex in Blight of the Immortals because there is so much more you can do each day. So much more you have to respond to.

There is a real tension here between the PvP game and the PvE game. For single player we deliberately added features that you can see and enjoy the benefits of immediately, while you are logged in and playing. When you buy reinforcement, it's cool to see the size of your army increase. In Neptune's Pride it was disappointing that nothing happens while you are sitting playing it, you have log in the next day to see the results of everything.

I don't think PvP is ever going to work well as a slow real time game. It will always demand to much of a players time and attention in order to win. I was saying before how I like asymmetrical player starts, but disadvantages to overcome in game are different to being on the back foot because you simply can't play every hour on the hour 24 hours a day. Instead PvP is going to be best played in turn based games. In a turn based game you have to commit to your moves every turn. In a turn based game, everybody effectively logs in the same amount and there is no point getting up in the middle of the night to tweak stuff. I'm really excited bout PvP in turn based mode. It has all the fun of the single player game, but with the extra tension and excitement of having to make and break alliances as in Neptune's Pride. Co-op is the focus right now but we are putting a lot of effort into turn based and PvP too.

Perhaps our next game will be entirely turn based!

RPS: Why browser-based games and not a standalone client?

Kyburz: Because browsers are everywhere and there is nothing to install! It makes it much easier to get into a game and start playing. We have players on Windows, Mac and even sometimes Linux. We have plans to see the game on mobiles and tablets one day too. There is no way we would be able to support all these platforms without being browser based.

Another great thing is that nobody owns the platform. We don't have to seek the approval of Microsoft or Apple before making a new release. And we can fix bugs and make a release every single day. And we have direct access to our customers. And we own and manage our own advertising on the site. There are heaps of advantages.

RPS: What games do you look at and feel envious of?

Kyburz: Love Armageddon Empires, Solium Infernum and I'm looking forward to Cryptic Comets next game Six Gun Saga. I think these games have a great flavor, depth and complexity that I would like to see in our games too. I think Revenge of the Titans was amazing. Great style, simple concept, heaps of polish. Gratuitous Space Battles is also a really cool game. I haven't played it as much as I would have liked. It looks great and I love the concept. Played heaps of Desktop Dungeons, do you think I could make a rogue-like strategy game?

Also been playing a little game called Bronze from Deamspike Studios. It really captures that board game on the computer feel. I like the historical flavor of this one. I heard that the developers did quite a bit of research about the Bronze age while developing it. I'd like to make a historical game one day.

RPS: Hmm. I would not complain about more great browser-based roguelikes. So you turned Blight around pretty quickly after NP - is that going to be characteristic, are we going to see a game a year from you? Or do you expect to slow down and evolve things further?

Kyburz: Right now we are really focused on Blight of the Immortals and Neptune's Pride. We want these games as good as they can be before we think about taking on a new project! But we have so many cool ideas for new games...

RPS: Oh, me too! But, er, thanks for your time.

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