Earlier this week I spoke to Damon Alberts and David Bowman, the founders of Burst Online Entertainment, and we talked about their first big project, Stone Wardens. It's a cross-platform multiplayer tower defence game where players take on a series of character classes and persistently develop them to better both themselves and their towers in the forever-war against creeps. With a cute cartoon style and a promising multiplayer feel, it looks like an interesting proposition.
With the game having materialised on Kickstarter after a couple of years of development, I wanted to ask Burst what they were up to.
RPS: What can you tell us about Burst as a company?
Alberts: David and I formed Burst a few years ago and we set out to create high quality cross-platform game experiences. Our goal was that big multiplayer experience, that social connectedness you get from all being able to play together. So we wanted to make multiplayer games, and Stone Wardens is the first of those. Regarding the team specifically, we have a veteran team: we have people here from Bungie, Nintendo, Turbine, and so people have worked on some very successful franchises including Halo and Asheron's Call. David is our creative director, and he worked on the original Halo, Myth, and a number of multiplayer games on consoles when he was working at another company he formed with a friend from Bungie. So he worked on the console versions of Left 4 Dead, Call Of Duty: World At War, and Age Of Booty.
RPS: Big names indeed! How did all this lead to Stone Wardens?
Bowman: We're big fans of tower defence games, and well, this started off a while back before people really started doing this, and we were asking ourselves how we would make a tower defence game that people can play together. We also looked at the other thing we really like, which is the sort of MMO role-playing game methodology of having an avatar in the world, and we decided we wanted to make a game where the towers are really just backing you up. We started going through that, and the rest of the game decisions fells out of that idea. How do you keep the tower defence strategic level interesting, and how do you solve the puzzle – because tower defence at its heart is a puzzle! – and how do you keep the stream of interesting decisions there at the combat level too? All those questions. We prototyped and playtested, and began to see other people doing similar stuff, so we knew we were on the right track. Our balancing goal was to make sure that the towers were still relevant. We want to make the split fifty-fifty, where the players have growth and are powerful. Ultimately we've come up with a prototype where the moment to moment action is fun and the overall strategic game is interesting.
RPS: Can you go into a bit more detail there? I suppose people will now be familiar with this idea of having an avatar running around in a tower defence game – what are the details that make Stone Wardens interesting?
Bowman: Well – to use some of our game fiction terminology – the towers are “ancestral guardians” and they are statues that you call down. And until you imbue them with spirit, they are just statues. The player's job is to manage that resource to bring this statues to life. So there's in-game development in terms of where you have invested your resources, how you have upgraded them and so forth. And then on the other metagame side of it, you get character progression like you might do in any online RPG. At the end of any successful session you get a chance to win enchanted equipment that allows you to change your appearance and stats. You can go to a store to purchase some of this stuff with the gold you earned in your game, too, but the best gear comes from playing of course! We don't [drop loot] during the battle though, because we find that to be distracting. We like the idea that you are going to get something for your warden at the end of a successful game.
RPS: Just to be clear, that's persistent as a character?
Bowman: Yes, you are building up a warden over time, building up their abilities to a certain level. We're shooting for about six abilities, and these level up with you. It's a shallow level of progression, you aren't going to be shoot up to level eighty or anything crazy like in a big MMO. But your equipment improves too, so we have two systems working there – a traditional character leveling system, and a gear system. That's persistent and maintained on our servers. You're going to be able to access that on whatever system you play on.
RPS: So what's the deal with being able to play with chums? Is my hardcore mate going to level off over the horizon?
Bowman: Ah, these are big MMORPG challenges, right? I am level 80, you are level 1, how do we play together? Well to start off with have a much shallower level progression, and this is not an effort for you to feel like you can't play with a noob, it's an effort to make you feel like customising your character means something. Every ability you have is useful. More powerful characters, though, are not going to be like ten times as poweful, it's small increments, percentages. In MMOs you get this thing where a level 80 character is a thousand times more powerful than a starter character, and we're not going that way.
Alberts: There's something else here that I think we should mention, which are the systems that enable players to play together, because I think that's important. One is that the players are not competing with each other during a session, not for loot drops, not for anything. It's all fostering co-operation. There's a boost system in place which allows players to adjust the difficulty, and that covers a very wide range. The game also responds to the number of people play it: if you're going to play with a friend and you are level 10 and they are level 5, you can adjust the boost setting so you have a better chance of success together. We want people to play these challenges over and over and beat them on higher difficulty.
Bowman: And there are online leaderboards, so the challenge here is actually co-operative competition. You get to see how you are doing in the game compared to other people.
RPS: That seems like it focuses a lot on individual performance – is there much in the way into team interplay? Can I be a support class? I notice you have support pet classes, too?
Bowman: You can play support, but... well, we have a couple of challenges here. I need to make this game fun for one person to play, and I need to make that fun for two, three, four players. So all the wardens need to be fun to play. So the Vester class is more about manipulating AI, rather than a mage which would be more about damage, and as such is more of a support class. But you can also beat any challenge just with that class, even if it's a lot more skilful play. If I am playing with other warden types as the vester, I am mostly setting them up to make the most of their abilities against the AI. As for the pets, we call them familiars, you can unlock all of them, and they're available to each warden. You can choose whichever. They can gather spirit, they can spend that spirit making the guardians more powerful, or you have them back with you where they passively or actively magnify your abilities. They do not level up, so they're more of a tool that you can use, but they're not a pet class as such – wardens aren't levelling up as a pet class. Familiars are a momentary tactical extension if you, you can say “tonight I want to try this”.
RPS: Let's talk about Kickstarter, then. Why go that route?
Bowman: From the team perspective there's two things for us: we want to get input from an audience. If we can get a playerbase invested, and they're interested enough to back us with some money, then we want to be able to listen to those folks. It's a community-based game, so that's going to be essential to prioritising content. We have an idea about what's fun and what works, but players will decide. We want to be able to follow that fun with their guidance. User experience and UI, a lot of games I've worked on showed that takes time to get right, so getting a larger scale usergroup in there is really great, and really helpful to getting it working as it should.
Alberts: From a company perspective, the current climate right now with publishers and developers for smaller studios, anything less than $2-$3m, the publishers are not funding people to make content. That means their expectation is that the game be largely finished when it comes to them. For us to make enough content for a product to thrive, we needed to launch a Kickstarter. That gives us a budget to produce and balance that content. We could have a product that is 90% complete. At that point we could have our pick of publishers in terms of marketing and distribution, and so they can do everything that publishers do best.
RPS: What happens if this fails? You seem to have a long way to go...
Alberts: We're still talking with external investors, angel investors and publishers overseas, so we'll keep going at that until we get the funding that we need.
RPS: As you mentioned, the avatar in tower defence thing has expanded in the past two years: why do you think people should pay attention to Stone Wardens particularly?
Bowman: This is a relatively new genre, and there are just a few games in this space. They've all been fairly successful and have been fun to play. We think we bring some neat twists, but also we think we bring a long-term game. It's the kind of thing you can get together with friends to play again and again, and get better at. You know it's an exciting game when the developers want to play one more instead of doing development! Right now we just want to have a bunch more people to play with, and that's what Kickstarter could bring.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Stone Wardens is currently on Kickstarter.