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Turn-Based Tattle: Battle Worlds - Kronos Interview

The Wisdom of Crowds

Battle Worlds: Kronos has almost reached its $120,000 Kickstarter goal with more than a month to spare. It's the kind of game that is ideally suited to the crowdfunding platform - a turn-based strategy game that references the likes of Battle Isle, simultaneously exciting people like me, and causing publishers to purse their lips and tighten their purses. I spoke with Jan Theysen, co-founder and Creative Director of KING Art, to learn more about the company's approach to crowdfunding, Battle Worlds history and the game itself.

RPS: Hello! We know KING Art as the developers of point and click adventure series, The Book Of Unwritten Tales. Battle Worlds is a very different project and based on a six-year old prototype, if I understand correctly. Are the same teams responsible for both games?

Theysen: Yes, indeed! The old Battle Worlds: Kronos prototype was the first offline-game we ever started developing. After it became obvious that we wouldn’t be able to obtain outside funding for the project we focused on another of our favourite ideas and pitched The Book of Unwritten Tales with the same team. Now a lot of the BoUT people are back working on BW:K.

RPS: Could you talk about the prototype a little? What did it involve and who actually worked on it?

Jan Theysen: It was our pet-project for about two years. We did a lot of web- and community games at the time and wanted to do “a real game”. So we worked on it whenever there was time. Pretty early on we gathered some turn-based enthusiasts from all walks of the TBS community around us and developed the game together with them. The prototype was pretty advanced, actually. We got the first three missions of the campaign, we got playable multiplayer-maps (hot-seat & LAN), we got a basic AI, an editor… it’s still playable today and it’s fun.

When it comes to basic game-design, balancing, controls and stuff like that the old prototype is still our starting point for the new game. We didn’t use any assets or code, though. We actually started all over again in December.

RPS: Did you pitch the project to publishers over the last few years?

Theysen: We pitched the old game for about two years, and then basically had to give up. At that time it was impossible to get funding. Turn-based strategy was dead (at least in the eyes of the publishers). And there were other problems. I remember one publisher explained to us that our asynchronous multiplayer mode would be dead weight, as everybody would know, no one wants to play just a few minutes every day, but spend large chunks of time on it only. Anyway, it was widely known that we were still interested in doing this project, but whenever we brought it up in other project discussions with publishers, people got this blank stare that you get when you stopped listening a long time ago….

When Kickstarter became the phenomenon it is today we instantly knew that Battle Worlds: Kronos would be an ideal game for the platform. It enables us to do exactly the game we and our fans wanted to play for so long now, and we are glad that so many people responded. It’s still up in the air, but just maybe, Kickstarter and other crowdfunding tools will truly change the way games are made for good.

RPS: For those who might not be aware of the series, what are the features of Battle Isle that you’re particularly interested in reviving?

Theysen: Actually, while the name of the game is clearly a nod to Blue Byte’s great series, there is a lot of games we draw inspiration from when it comes to TBS, like Advance Wars or the SSI classics Panzer General, Fantasy General and so on. What we like about them and want to bring to the forefront of our game is the fact that these games do not require fast reactions but clever tactics.

We are also big fans of RTS, but when our art director Alex is slaughtering three of his colleagues in StarCraft 2, he is probably not the better tactician, but the guy who knows the production chain inside and out and can execute roughly one thousand commands per second (as a rough estimate). That’s skill, no question about it. But it’s far less tactical and strategic than you might think. Many TBS we like have very simple rules that can be learned quickly and easily. After a few matches, everybody knows the rules equally well. From that point on, the better tactics, the better plans will win.

RPS: Why do you think the time is right for this game? Is the rise of Kickstarter a large part of it, or do you think the success of big budget titles such as the new XCOM has brought a new turn-based audience as well?

Theysen: I think, gamers are generally curious for new gaming experiences. Battle Worlds can be played alone or with buddies in live multiplayer. However, Battle Worlds’ asynchronous multiplayer also allows for a type of multiplayer experience that has not been done right in years. To beat your friends in epic battles, maybe fighting 4 or 5 of them against several friends at the same time, and finally achieve victory after weeks of campaigning is new to many players. As a novel concept, however, it is exciting to think about from a gamer’s perspective, but frightening since unpredictable from an investor’s perspective. Doing it the Kickstarter way did not only allow us to present a TBS game, but to include modes like this without fighting zombie hordes of marketing managers reurgitating market data that does not show anything, because no one has dared to ask questions outside the box.

Surely it hasn’t hurt that XCOM is a great game and probably exposed hundreds of thousands of gamers to turn-based strategy for the first time. It’s a great example by a great studio, of how unconventional or “lost” genres can be honored to the benefit of gamers, developers and publishers.

RPS: Do you think that publishers will look at the Kickstarters that succeed and react quickly or at all?

Theysen: I’m not sure… I don’t think you’ll see EA making a new, isometric Ultima or Ubisoft bringing back Battle Isle as a boxed game. Successful Kickstarter campaigns are collecting enough money to produce small to medium-sized games and bring it to a few ten thousand to maybe about a hundred thousand gamers. That is not a scale that registers with the major publishers. However, for small and medium-sized publishers, Kickstarter campaigns might be interesting. That’s a good sign. There are projects that are well suited for Kickstarter, while others might not be as compatible with it. If those projects get financed by publishers who took notice of a project on Kickstarer… why not?

RPS: You have an arrangement with publishers for your adventure titles – what makes Battle Worlds different? And do you think there are differences from region to region as well?

Theysen: It’s essentially the size that matters. If we’d put a “Book of Unwritten Tales 2” on Kickstarter, we would have to raise over a million dollars (since after fees, taxes and rewards, there would maybe be 600,000 left, which is about what the first BoUT had as a production budget).

That doesn’t mean that we might not try to finance a bigger project through Kickstarter, but for our first Kickstarter campaign, we needed a smaller game, production-wise, that we could develop on our own dime to a significant state so that we felt comfortable pitching it in a Kickstarter. From the feedback we are getting to the pre-alpha video and screenshots, we seem to have been right about this. It’s also a question of countries… we are from Germany. To have a successful Kickstarter campaign, you can’t make a “German game” that only caters to the German gamer’s tastes. You have to make a game that appeals to as many people around the world as possible. We seem to have hit that nerve with Battle Worlds: Kronos.

RPS: How long have you been considering a crowd-funding campaign?

Theysen: It took about 2 hours from the start of Double Fine’s Kickstarter campaign? It was a revelation: to be able to produce a game without publishers, only because you know that there are enough fans out there who would like it? Wow.

RPS: Have you watched other crowd-funding campaigns and learned any lessons from them?

Theysen: Quite a lot of them! One of the most important lessons we learned was that campaigns are difficult to compare in the first place. If there’s a big name behind a project, it works differently from a campaign headed by nobodies like us. A well-known developer can stand in front of a camera and hold up three pieces of paper, and maybe talk a bit about their vision… and there’s a million dollars waiting for him at the end. As a small fish, you have to present your backers more than that. You have to excite them for your game, and you have to convince them that you will be able to deliver. This does not mean that big name projects aren’t well thought out in general, it just means that the road is a bit steeper if you are not a gaming legend. This is actually where the classic publishing model and Kickstarter are understandably similar, despite its democratic qualities.

Another underappreciated factor seems to be how the media react to Kicktarter. A few months ago, it was much easier to obtain coverage for a Kickstarter project. Today, it’s quite a bit of work. Some of the big websites seem to be cutting back on Kickstarter campaign reporting on principle, if there is no big name attached to them. I am pretty sure that many campaigns that reached their funding goals 6-12 months ago would not have the same chance today. You are just not getting the press coverage. With Rock Paper Shotgun being the shining exception to the sad rule. And it actually DOES MATTER. The success of a campaign still is connected with media coverage. I’d wish that more sites would judge campaigns by what they are showing and not by the names they are having connected with it.

RPS: Talking about the game now – how will the single player campaigns work? What aspects are carried across from one mission to the next?

Theysen: You could think of the first of two single player campaigns as a gigantic tutorial. Bit by bit, all the different unit types and game functions are introduced. You are the commander of the House of Telit, one of the factions that are fighting about domination on the planet Kronos. You rise to the top of the heap of heroic fighters for this faction, but - spoiler alert - will in the end be brought to your knees rather roughly.

The second campaign is about the story on the side of the so called Residents faction. While Telit and the other two “invading factions” possess lots of high tech units, and TONS of them, the Residents are fighting a guerilla war in the shade. Thus, players will have to learn different tactics all over again in the second half of the game. The individual missions are connected by a background story we are trying to make as diverse as possible. Wherever it makes sense, story-wise, surviving units will be taken from one mission to the next, including all their upgrades they already won.

RPS: You mention every unit having unique characteristics – could you go into more detail about how they vary?

Theysen: A few days ago, one of our backers wrote on Facebook that he would rather have less different unit types than more, since the best strategy game in the history of man only had 6 specialized units. I think he was referring to chess, and I think he has a point. 200 different units might just end up feeling somehow very similar and exchangeable. We want to make each unit count by differing in skills and behavior from all the others.

Each unit is supposed to have their own character by having individual strengths and weaknesses and special tasks to perform in battle. One of my favorite units is the rocket buggy we named “Bandit”. It’s a cool unit, because it can attack twice each turn, if you choose not to move it. However, the Bandit can only attack targets that are two tiles away, so he is extremely vulnerable in close quarter combat. That’s why it works best to pair it with a Cerberus tank or another heavy defensive unit that you can position between the Bandit and the enemy unit. But of course, the Cerberus is slow, so you kind of have to balance the speed advantage of a buggy against the protective ability of the tank, losing the speed bonus if you always play it safe… We continuously strive to give players something that they can fiddle with and tweak their tactics.

RPS: Will there be significant differences between the two factions?

Theysen: The Invaders and the Residents are the basic factions. The invaders, however, are split into three houses. All three houses play very similar, but each house has an own special ability that only they can use. The Residents feel decidedly different. They can use conquered Invaders units, but most importantly units welded together from metal trash and heavy infantry. Those “self-made” units are not as powerful as Invaders units, but they do have an important advantage: they can repair themselves with the wrecks of destroyed enemy units.

The infantry of the Residents can also cloak itself, which the infantry robots of the Invaders cannot. Cloaked units are only revealed if a unit is moved next to the cloaked unit or if the cloaked units start to fight. Naturally, this skill qualifies the Residents troops for ambushs.

RPS: It’s an attractive game, but do you use modern technology for anything other than the graphics? Are there things that it’s possible to do now that wouldn’t have been possible fifteen or even six years ago?

Theysen: The whole online-gaming aspect has become much more important than it was six years ago. We want to offer players a ladder system, a good match making system, tournaments and a platform for exchanging maps they built with the map editor. Some years ago we might have taken less interest in developing these community features. Back in the early days, writing a “clever” AI was a huge problem, especially if it was not to take up tons of processor time to make its next move. Today, we have a lot more processing power at our disposal, which can be used to make the AI much more powerful as well. The problem nowadays is to make AI play still feel like fun and feel “just right”.

RPS: Is there any base building or are facilities already on the maps to be captured?

Theysen: No, there is no base-building. That’s a decision we made even before we started development for the first prototype. The player is supposed to be able to concentrate on what is happening at the front lines.

RPS: There are tablet versions listed under the stretch goals, with cross-platform play proposed. Are you confident that moving to other platforms won’t hinder development of the PC version?

Theysen: Certainly. We will finish the PC version first and treat the tablet version as a true port. We do not believe that “one control scheme fits all”. You want to be able to use the right mouse button on your PC, as well as Keyboard shortcuts, even if this means we have to think of new ways to design the controls for tablets.

RPS: You actually have a reward tier that is called 'the Notch edition'! And somebody backed at that level. Can you tell me if it was Notch or would that break some sort of digital secrecy act and end up with RPS shipped off to some sort of holding centre a mile underneath Buckingham Palace, being nibbled by attack corgis?

Theysen: I would love to see that. It sounds rather spectacular! But it won’t come to this, I am afraid. No, it wasn’t Notch who pledged. It was Klaas Kersting, CEO of Flaregames and co-founder of Gameforge. He is an old friend of ours and we knew he loved Battle Isle, but we didn’t know he loved it so much!

This is actually one of the most positive, uplifiting things we encountered in the first days of the campaign: Being supported not just by gamers, but by fellow developers as well. Brian Fargo and the guys over at Obsidian became our backers and did shout-outs on Twitter, and many developers shared our campaign and were actually campaigning for us on Facebook… Kickstarter seems to be one of those things that brings out the best in people, probably because it is so close to what all of us really want to do: Games we like ourselves for fans who like them too.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Battle Worlds: Kronos is Kickstarting right now.

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