Interview: Modernizing Turn-Based Strategy Games With Skulls of the Shogun

By Kris . March 2, 2012 . 5:33pm

Skulls of the Shogun from Haunted Temple Games is an attempt to make a more modern and accessible turn-based strategy game.  Game director, Jake Kazdal, hopes to do this by keeping the game simple, but also by introducing elements from other genres of games into it.

 

Kazdal, a fan of turn-based strategy games like Advance Wars and Final Fantasy Tactics, feels that the genre has seen better days, and that most turn-based strategy titles released in the present day are limited to a niche audience, due to a lack of modernization which is holding them back. We recently had a chance to sit down and talk with Kazdal about how he plans for Skulls of the Shogun to reach out to more people.

 

I looked at some of your background stuff. I know you worked for Enix and EA and Sega, of course, but what inspired you to start Haunted Temple and go indie? And then to…inspire Ryan Payton to do the same, I guess. [Laughs]

 

Jake Kazdal, Haunted Temple founder: It started as a side  project. I was art directing at Zombie Studios on Black Light Tango Down, and I had a child. My wife had a child. And I had a lot of time to come home at night, help her out. And I was kind of grounded; I couldn’t go anywhere, so I just started working on this as a hobby project.

 

I called my friend Borut [Pfeifer], who I’d worked with together at EA. He was the Lead AI Engineer on the Spielberg project, LMNO, and we just started noodling around on weekends, and worked on it for nine months together. And it really kinda came together pretty quickly and pretty good, and got to the point where we looked at it objectively and said, “You know, to get this thing done right, we’re gonna have to quit our jobs and do this full-time.”

 

And we found backing pretty quickly… financial backing… and we decided to just go for it.

 

 

One of the things I liked about Skulls is it sort of seems like a love-letter to 32-bit gaming. You’ve got the pseudo-[Sega] Saturn cover and… I don’t know why,I just personally affiliate top-down strategy with the Saturn or PS1 era. Is there anything that inspired a move to an almost 32-bit style game, or am I just making things up?

 

No, it’s very perceptive. I worked at Enix during the 16-bit days and I have a real special place in my heart for the action, adventure, strategy  genres of days gone by. I think a lot of these genres were really popular [during] the late 16 and early 32-bit era, and they’ve sort of fallen away.

 

I mean, they really don’t get made as much anymore. It’s been relegated to sort of a niche audience on like [Nintendo] DS. There’s a lot of like, the Atlus titles, and kind of a lot of the turn-based strategy stuff. It’s really sort of the handheld, Japanese-centric [games]… you know, they’re kind of holding on to a lot of the old things but they’re also holding onto too many of the old ways, I think. They’re not…upgrading anything. They’re not changing anything. It’s the same old thing, over and over again.

 

I wanted to recreate my favorite games of that era, but with some modern trimmings. You wanna just update the spots that need updating, some polish that hasn’t been put before in certain places, and it’s turned out to be a really successful formula. I think this studio will be founded on classic genres with modern polish.

 

One of the things you’re doing with Skulls of the Shogun is that you’re modernizing the genre, but you’re also making it more accessible while still retaining the upper-level strategy. Is there anything that you feel has specifically opened it up more?

 

I love turn-based strategy games. When I decided to make this game, I sat down and played through Shining Force. I played through the Advance Wars games again, which are among my very favorites of all time. Fire Emblems, Disgaea. All these games.

 

And I found that I was more attracted to minimal interface. I think Advance Wars with the animations turned off is as fast as it gets, and I wanted to go even further in that direction. When I play games like Disgaea or even Final Fantasy Tactics, it’s a very slow, tedious process. It’s interesting tactically, but it’s almost so much other noodling around that you lose the tempo of the fight.

 

So I felt stripping away all the non-essentials to the barebones – what do I need to do? I need to grab this guy, move over here, hit that guy. Why does that need to take several sub-menus and all that stuff? I wanted to make an action game version of a strategy game, where it’s just pick the guy up [and] do what you want to do. No questions asked.

 

 

I like that. You’ve probably played the PSP version of Final Fantasy Tactics. You attack and it takes 15 seconds. It’s ridiculous.

 

Right. This is the way it’s always been done. Japanese creators lately, I feel, have not really stepped outside of what’s always been done and I wanted to [see] how could I reinvent this whole process and streamline it and re-function it to our own needs.

 

And it took a long time. It was definitely not like, “Oh, I know exactly what I wanna do!” We did a ton of prototyping, y’know. Me and the other two core members spent years just prototyping and experimenting and testing…tons of playtesting, and bit by bit, piece by piece, it’s really coming together into something we’re really happy with and proud of.

 

One of the things I love — and I think this is absolutely brilliant — is that you gave Skulls a physics engine. Where did you come up with the idea to put a physics engine in a 2D, top-down game? (laughs)

 

Yeah! I mean, that’s the kind of thing, though. If you sort of pull back a bit, and you ask yourself, “Why are things done a certain way?” there’s a certain freedom. Once you start breaking the rules, you’re like, “Well, what else can we do?”

 

Colin and I are both huge Virtua Fighter fans and I love ring-outs. I realized, we’ve got this territory, with all kinds of stuff. We’re not based on a grid anymore, it’s not a black-and-white world. It’s this giant, grey spectrum. What else can we get away with here?

 

The idea of having a physics engine… I just brought it up one day with the guys.  I was like, “Can we throw in a physics engine and knock dudes off cliffs and stuff?” And they were like, “Sure.”

 

So, we tried it, and it’s become a great function [and] a great piece of the overall tactics of Skulls of the Shogun. It almost brings on elements of pool and bowling even. There’s a lot going on there.

 

It also gives the characters a little bit of weight, which is something that you don’t necessarily get all the time with grid-based games.

 

Well, part of this — to get back to the accessibility — I wanted this to be a strategy game for people who love strategy games, but also people who normally wouldn’t have the patience or they’re a little intimidated by the traditional system. Very heavy menus, grid-based, very dry and very cut, and black-and-white.

 

This is meant to be much more casual. Not in the sense that it’s a casual game, but more that it’s easy to pick up and play, and there’s an immediacy to the simplicity of the controls. You just move a guy. You don’t move him through grids and assign him arrows and stuff. You just pick him up and move him. It feels like Zelda. You’re just moving around, you go toward the guy you want to hit, he starts flashing, you know you can hit him, and you hit the attack button.

 

It really is arcade-strategy and part of that was getting this feel of weight and physics and sort of action-y [stuff]. You know, we keep saying, “How much fighting game can we bring into Advance Wars? How much could we possibly bring in?” And that’s a big part of it.

 

 

We were talking, while I was playing the new build, about balance. I like how the archers are really effective from afar against most dudes, but when you get up close, things don’t go so well for them. How long did it take to balance all this? Unlike other strategy games, you’re not using all these giant numbers. It’s just single digits. That seems almost harder than, “Oh, well this attack only does 50 million damage!”

 

Part of the accessibility thing is keeping the numbers simple, to the point where you can keep track and have a gut instinct [like], “Well, this is going to do two damage, he’s got six. He’s down to a third of his health.” We wanted to keep it as simple as possible. There’s no need for it to be in the hundreds of thousands. It’s a very simple system.

 

It’s just a lot of playing. I wanted to avoid the script. [The] rock, scissors, paper plan; the scheme that most of these games go with. In Advance Wars, you’ve got the aircraft and the anti-aircraft. There’s no question who’s going to win in that fight. I wanted Skulls to be different from that, in that every unit has a specific strength and a specific weakness. And you can use any combination of units to attain victory, but you need to be careful about utilizing their strengths to the fullest and minimizing their weaknesses. Travelling in packs helps.

 

It’s just a lot of playtesting, a lot of tuning, a lot of balancing, and just being really patient with stuff and playing it over and over, trying to say, “OK, how can we make this guy different? What’s his strength and how can we offset that with his weakness?” We didn’t want anyone to be necessarily more powerful than anyone else. They all should have their own role to play.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about the story? I mentioned it was very darkly “comic,” and why did you choose 8-4 to help you localize it?

 

So, the story is you’re a great samurai general. On the eve of your greatest battle, where you’re probably going to be named Shogun, you’re killed. You’re betrayed by somebody on the inside, [but] you don’t know who it is.

 

You wake up in the land of the dead, and there’s some sort of mix-up. It turns out, somebody took your spot in the land of the dead, and so you’re branded an outlaw right from the beginning as you’re trying to prove who you are and get through the gates to get into the actual afterlife. You come head-to-head with the guy who betrayed you, and there’s a whole story there, where you’re trying to clear your name. It’s a revenge story, it’s a love story… it’s all these different things.

 

 

Are you friends with a lot of the people that work at 8-4, or…

 

I’ve known John [Ricciardi] and Mark [MacDonald] since ‘99 now, so it’s been a while. I knew them even before they lived in Japan, when they were still at EGM and Gamers, and they’ve just long been friends of mine. Every time I go to Tokyo, I stay with them, they’re really good at what they’re doing.

 

They’ve sort of got a reputation for being the best at what they do. They’re really into the project. We’ve got a really strong script anyway. Most of it was written by Ben, one of the other two lead engineers, and 8-4 just seemed like a natural choice.

 

Microsoft, being our publisher, offered to do it for us, but these guys being our friends, I knew they were going to give it their all, and I’ve always wanted to work with them on something and this was the perfect opportunity.

 

What’s one thing that isn’t out there about Skulls of the Shogun, that you’d like to let people know? Something they just don’t know yet.

 

I don’t think many people have played a fighting game version of a turn-based strategy game, and once they do, I have to kick them out. People voluntarily come in to check it out, and I literally have to be like, “OK, I need to get back to work” because they will not stop playing.

 

I noticed that. [Laughs] I was like, “OK, I should probably be doing an interview now, but…”

 

People keep coming back. They’ll grab a different friend and come back and sit down. It’s a great multiplayer game, it’s a great single player game. It’s a huge game. For whatever [Microsoft] Points we’re going to offer it for on Microsoft’s store, it’s a giant game. I mean, our tester, it took him more than fifteen hours to get through the first time. Just single player. There’s a lot to it. It’s definitely a big game.

 

But, I guess the key message I’d like to get across is, yes, if you haven’t played a fighting game version of a strategy game, once you do, you’ll love it.

 

 

My next question is Rez-related. You did some art on Rez. The Project-K beta for Rez shows that the game had different music and was called “Vibes” at one point. Can you tell us anything else that might not be out there about the making of Rez and what was left on the cutting room floor, because you know, your art, particularly, the enemies look more organic almost Child of Eden-esque.

 

I think of all the projects I’ve worked on, Rez had more stuff left on the cutting room floor than anything else. We went through, like, four or five major graphic approaches until the last one really stuck. The name “Vibes” wasn’t around very long. I remembered that when you mentioned it, but it wasn’t really a sticking name.

 

We had different music. We had Underworld in the game, we never got them to approve it. And we didn’t end up doing them for the deal. There was a couple of other big musicians that we talked to, but it didn’t really end up working out, but the guys we did end up going with, it was a great relationship, we had a lot of fun with it.

 

What else can I tell you… there was some really different stuff. Some of it got really abstract. There was a point there when we were doing one of the looks and it got really abstract. It was really cool, and we got really into it, playing it everyday, but when we had people come in to focus-test, it was obvious that we’d gone too deep and we needed to pull it back to a little more gamey visual language.

 

It would be interesting if some of this other more abstract stuff showed up in the “underground Dreamcast scene”.

 

There’s a guy that follows me on Twitter, Jake Ford. He’s this British kid. He’s the world’s biggest Rez fan, he’s insane. He somehow got a hold of an older build of something, and all he does is, he takes it apart and he looks at the 3D models. He breaks down every single aspect of how many enemies are in every stage and like…he’s just constantly tweeting me like, “Hey, did you know that in area 3 there’s five enemies that are unused that are held up in the corner somewhere. Do you know why that is?” and I’m like, “No, dude, I don’t know…” [Laughs]

 

I guess one of the joys of Twitter is that you can communicate with everybody, but one of the downsides could potentially be that everybody can communicate with you. [Laughs]

 

I mean, it’s interesting! [Laughs] I love that he’s such a fan and he’s told me stuff that even I don’t know about the game. At this point, he knows more about it than I do, by far.

 

Space Channel 5 question. How did Space Michael get in the game, and what did you think when you heard the news?

 

So, this is a funny story. We were late in development and there was no Space Michael. And we were laaaaaate, like almost beta, I want to say? And one day, Utsumi-san, who was the head of Sega’s development at the time in Japan — who is now the president of Q-Entertainment with Mizuguchi-san — came into our office.

 

We were in a remote office, we were not down at Haneda’s main corporate office (Kris’s note: Sega’s corporate office is in Haneda in Tokyo), we were up in Shibuya, we had our own office up there with a couple smaller teams like AM1 and CSK. And we had sort of an impromptu meeting, and he’s like , “So, umm… I just got back from the states, and…”

 

He’d helped launch the PlayStation. He’s oldschool, he’d been around forever, he’s done a lot of cool stuff. He said, “I had a meeting, and umm…it turns out Michael wants to be in the game.”

 

And everyone was like, “What? Michael? What are you talking about?” And he was like, “Yeah. Michael Jackson. He saw the game and he loves it and he really, really wants to be in it.”

 

And we had like a month left. And we were like, “What the hell. Let’s do it.” So we buckled up and we just made it happen, and yeah, it was super-awesome. Of course, obviously, we were super-stoked. They’d worked with him before on Moonwalker, so there was a relationship there and I forget how we got the data in there. I want to say we used the Moonwalker stuff, but I can’t confirm that. I don’t remember the details. But yeah, it was exciting. It was like a complete rush, like slam, and we got it done and we were stoked that we got to include him in the game.

 

I don’t know if you’d be allowed to answer this, but United Game Artists sort of went quiet after Space Channel 2. After a while, they just came back with Sonic Riders. Was there anything that we didn’t get to see, that they were working on in between?

 

Yeah, there was a lot of stuff you didn’t get to see.

 

Anything that you’re allowed to say?

 

Probably not. None of it has ever surfaced, I don’t wanna be the guy that…

 

But after Rez, I moved on to another project with the the creator of Space Channel 5, Yuda-san. We worked on a really cool project for about a year. It ended up not making it. It was sort of a follow-up to Rez, which also… I guess, considering the sales of Rez were not that great. It was critically super-acclaimed, but it didn’t sell very well, commercially. So that sort of folded.

 

There was another project that hasn’t been seen by outside eyes that didn’t also make it. At that point, UGA was sort of getting folded into Sonic Team, so most of the guys moved onto Astroboy. I worked on that for a while. And then, after a while, the division all got eaten up by Sonic Team, and at the time, everyone either jumped ship and left or went to Sonic Team, and a lot of the guys are still down there.

 

The Q guys ended up leaving about the same time. All the heads of UGA went on to form Q-Entertainment and they brought some of the top guys with them, too.

 

Skulls of the Shogun will be released in early 2012 for the PC and Xbox Live Arcade.


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