Earlier this week I spoke to the formidably surnamed Jay Koottarappallil from WhiteMoon Dreams, the company responsible for turning Privateer Press' tabletop steampunk wargame, Warmachine, into a turn-based title for Windows and OSX. At the time of writing the target for their Kickstarter target had already been smashed, and with over two weeks left on the clock it was approaching a million dollars...
RPS: So you must be feeling fairly pleased...
Koottarappallil: I cannot believe it, man. Matt and I were putting this Kickstarter together for a couple of months, and initially we started out super-optimistic, “oh yeah, people are going to jump all over this!” We were looking at other Kickstarters and we felt like we had a popular IP, but then it's hardly as popular as the folks over at Obsidian. And then as we looked closer at other Kickstarters we got so afraid. We were looking at ways to go lower and lower with our target, but really we had to stop at $550k. I think the day before we launched Matt and I, and a lot at people at both studios, we just didn't sleep. We were so nervous! Then it started skyrocketing. We were funded in less than 35 hours. I was in the comments sections the whole time, and when we hit that target the effect of not sleeping slammed into me and I feel asleep on my keyboard.
Koottarappallil: Okay, well my company is Whitemoon Dreams, we're a small developer in downtown Los Angeles. We've been around for about six years now, and we're put together from a bunch of different industry vets who had the same vision of what they wanted to do with a studio. Privateer Press, which are the other studio in this, they're a physical games company which has been around since 2003. This year is the tenth anniversary of their game, Warmachine, and they began initially as a pen and paper RPG. They grew that into a miniatures game. Around 2009 we were introduced to Matt Wilson who runs Privateer, and at the time he was looking for developers to work with Privateer and take Warmachine to the next level. One of the co-founders of our company is Scott Campbell, who was one of the original designers on Fallout, and I sat him down with Matt. It was really cool. I could see Scott on the phone in our conference room getting super excited, so I knew magic was happening.
RPS: So why this Kickstarter?
Koottarappallil: We originally started another Warmachine game, actually. One of the big things with Warmachine is story, so we wanted to tell this big epic tale, but we were taking it to publishers and so on, and people were just saying “we don't know about the fanbase”, stuff like that. We got totally stonewalled. So Matt and I sat down and talked about how we'd like to make a strategy game. We love tactics games, XCOM, and early on we built a prototype of something like that. We said: what if we just did the Kickstarter thing? If was a weird thing. If it was a flop it could damage the Warmachine IP and make us look awful. If it didn't work we'd be back to the drawing board. But we realised we weren't getting anywhere with traditional funding methods, and everyone was ready to rake a risk. I mean, there it is, and it's so cool.
RPS: Can you talk us around your plans for Tactics then – how has that defined the pitch you've put in Kickstarter?
Koottarappallil: The Warmachine tabletop game centres around about seven factions that are fighting for control of this world. I mean the game /is/ called Warmachine! We're bringing that situation and story into a videogame format. Our vision is a turn-based tactics game. XCOM and Final Fantasy Tactics are the inspirations for us - the more sophisticated versions of chess, you might say. In Warmachine the characters themselves are unique, they are individuals, and that's really important for how the game plays out, and the mechanics in there. You have this concept of the warcaster, and these are the main guys. They are expert melee combatant and a spellcaster, but they can also communicate with these giant steam-powered machines called Warjacks. So what you are doing is building a squad out of a warcaster, some warjacks, and a number of troop units. These all have different abilities themselves, from spell casting to close combat. They're all being brought from the tabletop to the videogame space, of course, but so there's a lot of existing ideas. What we're doing with the stretch goals is related to that. Our base goal was two factions, and the first stretch goal took us to four factions. One of the things we're doing after that is adding in key characters from Warmachine that could play across any faction. Once we hit a later stretch goal, I think $1.35m, all those individual characters become their own factions. We're working on adding all that as we go. All this is playable in multiplayer of course, but at the same time we're building a single player story, so you can get a better taste of the lore that the game entails.
Koottarappallil: So I can talk through this from the point of view of multiplayer, because single-player is very similar, but with much more story! We're still figuring out some of the flow of this, but you'll start choosing the server you want to play on, then there will be a match-making layer based on difficulty, and from there you can choose who you are going to fight, choose which squad you are going to use. There are three squad layouts you can have pre-planned, and once you jump in your can see the other guys three layouts. You can't see what he's going to choose, of course. This layout stuff is crucial of course – in the process before you play you can go in and customise your squad. You can say you want this warcaster, these warjacks, and then set colours and so on. You can create bonds between warjacks and their warcasters, which enhances them. There are a bunch of other customisations you can attach to your squad, too. You can obviously set your colours and all that from there. That's a big part of the experience, and something you do outside of play. Once you're in the game on one of the multiplayer maps, the match begins in turn-based fashion, deploying them in stage-setting. Cover is a big thing – characters have stealth for example. There are a lot of ways to hide. Because the characters are all so unique, there's a lot of mechanics that they can employ. A lot of things we are going to see in this game that aren't in typical games, and they come from how characters interact with each other. The way we handle melee combat is part of that. A lot of games don't handle that well, you hit that guy, they hit you when it's their turn. One of the things we're doing is putting in the concept of striking the guy and moving on, so it's a quick, glancing attack. One of the big emphases we have, cover and stealth aside, is making close combat dynamic. We want to move away from that thing where two characters are just pounding away on each other in the middle of the battlefield until one falls.
RPS: How much does that stuff lean on the design of the tabletop game?
Koottarappallil: Initially we thought we would be leaning on it a lot, we though we'd be to some extent cribbing its design. But we wanted to do something different, so we really just started with the design and letting it grow naturally into a videogame. A lot of the stats from the tabletop game, well it's not a one to one translation, but you can expect the characters to have similar functionality. If a character is strong on the tabletop, he's similar strong in game. But there are a lot of differences, like what I was saying about dynamism in melee, that's only really true of the videogame. But there are things we've had to lose to make the videogame work, too, like damage to the warjacks. You can blow off parts of them in the tabletop game, but handling damage like that didn't really work for the videogame version. There are other things too, like trying to hone it to be a genuinely competitive videogame, that changes how it plays, and has done since the start of this project.
RPS: Why do you think the Kickstarter has been so wildly successful? Obviously you're not leaning on any real big PC gaming name nostalgia, so what is it?
Koottarappallil: I've been reading our comments section religiously, and we're on Greenlight too, and I think those showed us that it was the fans of the tabletop game who carried us across the baseline for the Kickstarter goal. It was mostly down to those guys. Once something starts moving fast on Kickstarter it starts showing up on Kickstarter front page, and on news outlets. But because we also launched on Greenlight, we are also getting a lot of exposure from more traditional hardcore PC gaming communities: people are coming in because they are just excited about tactics games. I am a big consumer of tactics games myself, and I know there are not enough of these games. I play every single one I can get my hands on. Fire Emblem is the only game I own on my DS! We're sating this need for PC gamers who like these kinds of games. And of course the IP is so cool, right? Magic soldiers, ninja nuns, big robots, it's a perfect storm of cool stuff. But really the success has come down to the Warmachine fans, they've done incredible promotion for us, and I could never have expected that to mean so much, or for them to be so excited.
Koottarappallil: One thing we have always wanted to do as a development studio is to stay close to the people who are fans of the game. Doing this via Kickstarter we've had loads of fan interaction, and we want to keep that going. Of course we're heads down in development – everyone can see that we're going to make it – but at the same time we're not only going to have backer updates, we're also going to build a proper development diary: the ugly stuff, the cool stuff. We want to show the guts of development, from making those levels to creating and testing the AI. We're developing a format for that now, and it's going to be a big thing for us. Anyone who is interested in game development will get something out of that. Of course the other side of all this is the normal business development stuff: sorting servers and so on. But also seeing what opportunities are out there for tactics-based games. We can take this to the world now.
RPS: And you'll be finished by August 2014?
Koottarappallil: We think so. We've had a leg up in that we've had a few months of development, we have character models, and we're also intimately familiar with the engine we're using (Unreal). That was a big advantage for us. The year schedule sounds short, and it is, so we're going to be busting a lot of ass to make that deadline, but it's not unreasonable. We'll get there, and it will have been worth it.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Warmachine Tactics is on Kickstarter.