Siliconera caught up with Fumi Shiraishi, one of the creators of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King. Shirashi along with fellow Square Enix LA Studio alum James Margaris formed Dark Roast Entertainment. Their first title is Lucadian Chronicles, a deep card battling game for Wii U, which is a mix of Magic: The Gathering and Ogre Battle.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King was a cute twist on the Crystal Chronicles series. How did this game get started and how did the design change from the original idea?
Fumi Shiraishi, Co-founder of Dark Roast Entertainment: My Life as a King started with trying to come up with a cool game that would still work within the downloadable size limit. I think we’ve seen RPGs before that had elements of city and hero management, especially Romancing Saga 2, so thinking about how to make the game work came very naturally to everyone. I remember when I pitched the idea to Tsuchida-san, our producer and creator of Arc the Lad and the Front Mission series. He loved the idea right away, saying he had wanted to work on a game like this also.
A side story is that I was sitting next to Kawazu-san, the creator of Romancing Saga 2, during the launch party for My Life as a King… and I didn’t have the guts to tell Kawazu-san that his game was the original inspiration…
Compared to some games, I think My Life as a King actually stayed true to the original plan for the most part. In some ways, because the game core stayed consistent, it was easy for us to incorporate small features as we came up with them.
The log based battle, for example, was not part of the original design document. I remember our project manager mentioning it, and after that it just felt like the obvious feature to add.
James Margaris, Co-founder of Dark Roast Entertainment: In our first prototype for Lucadian Chronicles the battle was in a similar log form! Instead of watching an animated battle you would just read through a log of events – that worked pretty well in My Life as a King but for Lucadian Chronicles the quickly proved to be a terrible idea.
FS: Another example, a small feature that I like a lot is how the heroes go home and get changed when their class change. That actually was a bug, which we thought gave the game a lot of character and decided to keep.
Speaking of bugs, during production, we had a problem where enemies were randomly getting poisoned. It turned out that the black mage was broken in that he could poison every enemy in the entire world! That was a cool bug, but we couldn’t find a good way to keep it. On the other hand, that bug gave us the idea for the tower bosses, who can damage every hero in the dungeon, not just the heroes that are currently fighting. The poison bug also lead to our idea for one of the DLC items, where the player can power up every hero in the world at that time.
Having a HP bar just for the last boss was also an idea that we came up with in the 11th hour, but we went ahead with it anyway.
We did have to take out features that were originally intended. For example, we had a system where when you are in a store, you can watch heroes come in, talk about what’s being sold, and make a purchase. We even had this partially working, but decided to take it out, because it seemed cool on paper, but felt rather lame in practice.
Let’s talk about the setting, characters, and story in Lucadian Chronicles. What mythology did you draw from when creating the world?
FS: I drew ideas and inspiration from a lot of different stories. As a baseline, I’m a huge fan of Nobunaga’s Ambition/Romance of the Three Kingdom games, and I wanted to create a story which was just a small part of a long and intertwined history. In that sense, in my mind, none of the characters or factions are necessarily good or evil. Rather, they just have different objectives, ambitions, and grudges.
Another source of ideas was actually the conflict in Yugoslavia actually. I know this sounds like I made this up for this interview, but I was reading The Powers that Be by David Halberstam when we were working on the story, and I was thinking about all the history and conflicts in that small region, and what a sad but interesting story it would be for a game.
JM: Lucadia is a world in which five kingdoms (that we know of) struggle against each other. Some are warlike and organized, others are loose collectives content to simply exist in peace.
The story is structured to jump to different characters from different kingdoms throughout the campaign. It begins with the siblings Rob and Janika and their legendary elder Ulthur, fighting for the people of Mirkwood to repel an invasion. From there it moves on to follow a variety of other characters as they intersect paths. Kingdoms fall and allies are betrayed as the different plot threads dovetail into a final confrontation.
In terms of mythology we tried to stay away from things too reminiscent of Tolkien. We have creatures from fairy tales and myths but not Orcs or Elves – our rule was that if it was known primarily as a Tolkien creature it was out, just because those are so mundane at this point. I’m a big fan of Greek Mythology but not a lot of that fit into the game – originally Poison Mage was Medusa (or at least a Gorgon) for example, but that felt a bit awkward. There are still a few bits in there though: “Reaper” is modeled off of Clotho and “Cactus Bull” is reminiscent of the Cretan Bull. Some of that is mechanical and some of that comes across if you read the backstory in the Almanac.
A frequent conversation we had during development was Fumi remarking that a character or event was similar to Game of Thrones and me reminding him that to me Game of Thrones is just two minutes preceding Veep that my DVR recorded. But from what I understand that comparison works in some ways – the game is less about what nefarious plots wizards are spinning via magic crystals and more about human conflicts and failings.
Compared to other card games where players tap or use abilities each turn, but Lucadian Chronicles has cards automatically attack. Also, rare cards in Lucadian Chronicles only have cosmetic differences, that’s a big change from other card games like Magic the Gathering where rare cards often have desirable abilities.
FS: I personally don’t think we’re that different from Magic: The Gathering with our approach to rare cards. In general, I think the rare cards have the crazier, more interesting abilities, which can sometimes be really good, but can also be really bad. Another way we think about it is that as we go from common, to uncommon, to rare, their use cases become narrower and narrower. So the common cards can be used in many different teams, but a rare card may dictate how the rest of the team needs to be assembled.
JM: Describing the game is a bit hard because while it does have similarities to games like Magic:The Gathering the core gameplay is very different. In some ways it’s more like a puzzly Ogre Battle with cards as the metaphor.
For each node on a campaign map you form a team of up to 5 front and back-line heroes and take on the enemy team stationed at that node – so it’s similar to forming an Ogre Battle team but with the heroes represented by cards rather than icons. The strategy is in forming a team that can beat the enemy team and also fulfill harder optional objectives like winning within a certain number of rounds. The use of cards gives us a way to present ability text clearly and have nice 2D artwork but the game doesn’t rely on card game concepts like shuffling and drawing cards – it would still work with models or miniatures.
Card games, especially those designed with versus play like Lucadian Chronicles, feel incredibly complicated to balance. What is the process Dark Roast goes through to balance Lucadian Chronicles?
JM: Balance is tricky in that the value of cards is very tied up in what other cards exist and what is powerful in the meta-game. Some cards that seem weak are good simply because they are good against certain dominant team types, and other cards that seem fine can’t find a place.
We have a lot of rules of thumb – defense is worth less for back-row units than for front-row units, since they get hit less often. Red spell casters are more mana efficient than other spell casters since they take self-damage when casting. But those sorts of numerical rules only get you so far.
One of our philosophies is that every card should be useful in some circumstance. That may sound obvious but for a long time Magic: The Gathering included “bad” cards on purpose, under the theory that they were a “skill test.” (Where the test was simply knowing not to use the card!) For us it’s important to be able to imagine a scenario in which a card shines.
Once we make a card that conforms to our power / cost / color rules and has a theoretical use we test it in the different modes to see if it can find a home. Now that the game is live we can also view anecdotal player feedback as well as statistical feedback.
Overall I’m pretty happy with our initial stab at balance, though we’ve adjusted a few things already and will continue to do so. And as a general rule I prefer to buff cards than nerf them, I think it’s just more satisfying for the players.
Lucadian Chronicles is available now for Wii U as a free download with online play on the Nintendo eShop. The base game is free, but it has a shorter single player campaign and only allows one draft per day. In the Draft multiplayer mode, all players select cards from the same pool before they battle each other online. For $7.99, the full game along with a complete single player story mode and unlimited drafts can be unlocked. Dark Roast Entertainment says they have no plans to add in any microtransactions for items.