New tactical RPG Symphony of War shadowdropped on PC as part of IGN’s Summer of Gaming Expo. We spoke to the creator of the game, Dancing Dragon Games’ Phil Hamilton, about development, balance, and when to expect it on the Switch.
Graham Russell, Siliconera: Could you start by telling us a bit about you and the game?
Phil Hamilton, founder and lead developer, Dancing Dragon Games: We are on our fifth game now. We’ve been making JRPGs. We’ve always made some new system for our new game. Like Skyborn was our biggest release before, and it was a straight-up JRPG. Then the next one, Echoes of Aetheria, was a new system of formations, but it was still a JRPG, so there was one party but 15 slots that you could put your formations in. Again, we’re doing another new system for this one, and hopefully we keep this one for a while and do some sequels on it. But this engine took six years to make, so we’re super-excited to be able to be at the finish line here.
The main inspirations would be Ogre Battle and Fire Emblem. Two of my favorite series of all time. We knew going into this that we were going to be, fairly or unfairly, judged as a Fire Emblem clone. Because we’re increasing the scope, with up to nine units in a squad and up to 20 squads, there’s a lot more participants! But we’ve both dramatically scaled back the amount of depth per unit — for example, in Fire Emblem, you have a whole list of items that one person can have and a whole bunch of traits that one person can have — there’s still a good amount of customization you can do per person, but I’d say the great majority of customization work that you do is on a squad-based level.
There’s a lot of customization in Symphony of War. How much flexibility within optimal builds is there?
Hamilton: There’s absolutely an effort to make any type of army work, whether you make a super-mixed army or specialize. I’ve personally played through the game with an entire army of light archer cavalry, so like a Mongolian-horde-style game. Which is so cool because you get a bonus to evasion on attack! So you just go in, pick off, run away and you’re fine just like the Mongols did. Or you can go on a mage-heavy run, using the left [Academy of War] tech tree right away, and just don’t worry about any armor. But we’re working on the balance. We’re going to babysit this game so hard after launch.
It seems like there’s incentive to commit to something?
Hamilton: I think early game, yeah. You can unlock a whole tech tree and reach a tier-four ultimate upgrade for a generic troop you’ve been growing right around chapter maybe 20 to 22 out of 30. Early and mid-game, you’ll have to kind of make those sacrifices. But late-game, you’ll be able to do everything.
Are generic characters meant to be roughly as strong as the story characters, or should you really be using story characters and others are supplemental?
Hamilton: We think about balance a lot, and one of our design pillars is that imbalance can be fun. For example, Lysander is obviously out-of-the-box one of the best units in the game, so everybody’s going to be using Lysander as a squad leader. But we can design around the fact that we know everybody’s going to use Lysander’s squad. We don’t think there’s an obligation to make generics at parity with story characters, though in effect, you can absolutely make generics way beyond a story character.
But we have some story characters that are literally gods. [laughs] So you probably won’t surpass the gods, but pretty darn close.
I’m going to ask a question that might be a sore subject.
Hamilton: Bring it! [laughs]
You’re still letterboxing the menus and that sort of thing. Was that a struggle? What was the choice behind that?
Hamilton: Well we started this in RPG Maker, which is hard-coded to be stuck in 640-by-480. Which is a tiny little resolution, which I don’t think in itself is a terrible thing? You can have games that are exactly half the resolution of 1920-by-1080 and have it look totally fine. The problem with RPG Maker is that it was stuck in 3-by-2 [aspect ratio] instead of 16-by-9. We’ve actually worked with a developer who has developed something called MKXP, which is a set of DLLs and EXEs that you just slap on top of RPG Maker. It blows up the resolution to 16-by-9, and it also gets rid of lag and a lot of things that were endemic to RPG Maker.
The letterboxing, I hate the fact that we have those. We’re kind of stuck with it, because we can do a whole UI redesign, but I’m sure you know how much time that takes. That would be a really big technical challenge in the scope of what we want to do with this game. That was a hard choice to decide we’re not going to be able to fix this for this game. But it doesn’t happen in the battles, on the tactical map or anything like that.
It’s not a sore spot, it’s just sort of a reality of indie development.
Roughly how long would a normal campaign map take? How long would you have to dedicate to get yourself through one?
Hamilton: I’d say about 30 minutes. We do have mid-map saves, you can quick-save and quick-load anytime you want. (Except for in Ironman Mode, an optional harder difficulty.) You’re always going to be thinking about your moves, unless you’re one of these crazy speedrunner guys and you have everything memorized. [laughs]
It’s a tough one, because for whatever reason people don’t automatically make the connect that you can save whenever you want and just come back later. It’s kind of a hard sell, I don’t know why.
For me personally, the mid-battle save is a contingency. I’m glad it’s there! But when you think through your strategy, analyzing what’s coming and from where… “I’m just gonna forget everything and try to pick it up again later!” [laughs] That’s not ideal.
Hamilton: Right. Yep yep.
But of course, it would be helpful if you’re looking toward portable systems later. Which makes me ask the question I’m required to ask every time: do you have plans for other platforms?
Hamilton: Yep! I think it would be a terrible crime if this didn’t end up on the Switch at some point. Because of the history of Switch games and GBA games, it just seems like such a natural home for a game like this to be on. So absolutely.
Bryan Herren, Director of Marketing, Freedom Games: We’re not simultaneously launching on any other platforms besides PC. Our hope is that we see a lot of success, a lot of excitement and people wanting this game, and that’ll give us the confidence to start the process to swap it over. We’ve, as a publisher, done several Switch ports so far, and have a pretty good relationship with Nintendo, so we’re pretty confident in our ability to get that turned around pretty quickly.
In terms of timing, you said you were going to babysit the game for a while after launch. So you’ll get the game where you want it to be before starting the porting process.
Hamilton: Yeah, there would be a long period of post-launch patches to the PC version, and then I can tell you it is not an insignificant amount of development time to port to Switch. You know, earliest would probably be next summer.
…That’s being conservative, it could be earlier than that.