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Interview with Keith Lee about Duelyst Kickstarter

Interview with Keith Lee about Duelyst Kickstarter

Interview - posted by Whisky on Mon 31 March 2014, 13:57:24

Tags: Counterplay Games; Duelyst; FerrousPilot

Not content with merely interviewing Julian Gollop, Duckard/FerrousPilot collaborated with Tacticular Cancer on an interview with Keith Lee of Counterplay Games about his Kickstarter for Turn-based Tactical game, Duelyst. Let's have a look:

You've worked on a lot of high profile games, how is it like working with a smaller team compared to what you've done earlier?

So, working at Blizzard wasn't the most amazing experience and it was like manna falling from the sky especially because I had basically spent endless hours playing Diablo 2 back in college, so everything from collecting SOJs on eBay to doing Mephisto runs, that's what we did. So having the opportunity to work with a huge and phenomenally talented team was incredible. So, I think that the contrast is as you get larger, you do have more and more features to work on, more money and a higher budget to be able to perfect everything, and I think that the expectations are very high for Blizzard and AAA companies, the expectation is to have a really perfect game when it comes out. So I think what we want to do is do the opposite, have a small team, less than five people, and the nice thing is that you can get involved in the design or programming and you're not necessarily siloed into a particular role, so that's one of the things i really like on a day to day basis. What happens too, is that when you become really small, you have to build a game on very limited resources and that's where a lot of the creativity can emerge and I'll give you a great example: Counterstrike, the original guys who made it, they have very little money or resources, but they wanted to make a massive Call of Duty game with single-player and all these other things, but they only had enough time to build a small set of maps and build up the weapons for Counterstrike, and as a result, the game totally blew up in popularity because they didn't have to worry about these other things, to match parity with other games in that category. So, I think similar to us, we want to have very extreme constraints, so that it will force us to prioritize ourself and be creative everyday. I think that's part of the challenge and fun of being indy, and there's no more worry about having to do a big publishing or investing deal, distribution is much better on Steam and it's more freely distributable and there's a lot of opportunity for creativity to emerge in the small pockets of veteran developers.

Since we're here talking about Duelyst, could you give a basic overview of the gameplay?

Duelyst is a tactical turn-based strategy game with a heavy focus on ranked competitive play, so it's brought to you from guys who've worked on Diablo 3, Rogue Legacy, and the Ratchet and Clank series. So, the focus of this game is squad based tactical combat on a tactical map and the idea is to have fast-paced multiplayer where victory comes from defeating your opponent's general. We love the idea of squad-based tactics, we kind of grew up on XCOM, Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, and we wanted to combine those games, those traditional games, with multiplayer and bring it into modernity with games like League of Legends and Hearthstone, and these really great matchmaking games, because I play a lot of squad-based tactical games but they're all single-player, I play through the campaign and I'm done with it. I want to actually invest my time and learn about the units and play with real people and really play some strong tactical games each time. So, at launch, which will be the end of this year, there will be five unique factions and a roster of 100+ units and battle spells.

So, you're really focusing on the multiplayer here, so there's not going to be much in the way of a single-player campaign?

Yeah, it's going to be pretty minimal. We really want to focus on putting all our resources into creating good match-making systems, ranking systems, leagues, and stuff like that. That being said, we do have a single-player mode where you can practice against the AI and it helps you unlock new spells, very similar to Plants VS Zombies or Hero Academy and things like that; we do still have single player, but it's more for teaching the player how to play the game so that they can be slowly introduces to new units and spells and go into the multiplayer mode prepared.

One of the bullet points you have on the Kickstarter is, "Not another generic fantasy," could you tell us a little about the world of Duelyst?

When we were building out this world, we wanted to have the capacity to continue to build this IP, this world; having been gamers for so long, we're all tired of the standard fantasy tropes, Tolkien, High Elves, etc. But we love fantasy, of course, but we're just used to a certain look and feel. So what we wanted to do is, you'll notice that the story is really different, the environments are different, the colors are different; we wanted to have melee weapons, so that's a staple of fantasy, but we wanted to avoid using guns but we didn't want to do steampunk either, so there's elements of technology and that's kind of where the story is getting driven, it's actually set in the far future; and so there's a little bit of sci-fi elements and we wanted to create a world that felt unique with interesting characters and factions.


And how do you make it so that players can get invested in the world when you don't have a huge story-based campaign?

Well, I think that comes down to resources, and we would love to build out the world, we've written a lot of the lore already, it's really about time and presentation. One of the traps is building a really large single-player campaign as a small company because building single-player content is pretty much infinite, you can spend years and years building it and we wanted to really focus on the other stuff. Now that being said, and I'll give you a great example, Hearthstone doesn't have a single-player, they might have an adventure mode, but it continues to be very successful; League of Legends doesn't have a hardcore single-player campaign, but they do really well; so I think that's where we really want to position ourselves and we can continue to flesh out our world as our game continues to be successful.

Definitely, and I suppose you can also use the units and the spells to flesh out the world.

Yeah and at the end of the day it's actually really thought out, we've thought about the names of the units and why they're there, so they're not arbitrary in any way, but we just don't want to spend too much on exposition to try to explain the world yet, we want to slowly reveal it. We think that's the best approach for people to find it interesting and then slowly dig into the world more.

Considering your previous experience, you've focused more on action-oriented style games, why are you switching to a "slower" tactical turn-based game?

It's a function of two different things, I think that I've personally always liked turn-based strategy games and we like to be contrarian in terms of our approach and I just didn't think it was an under-served market. I love tabletop, I love to play competitive games, and those two have never really connected and so that was a personal passion of mine, to pursue this opportunity that way.

Secondly, we could have done real-time, I've worked on that in the past, and we might do that for another game. So, I think we just wanted to do something different this time.

You mentioned tabletop in your Kickstater and I have to ask: how helpful has it been in designing the computer game by trying it out on tabletop first?

I would have to say it's massive in terms of how much it helped us, because if you're trying to design as well as program it becomes very hard because if you decide to change your design a lot of things you program might not be very useful or they're building up more code in your codebase. So, our approach was, "Hey, let's build up a really cool tabletop game, one we can actually play with other people," and if we start to see issues we can change it in real-time based on the games we play with other people and we get a good sense of how the game works based on how other people are enjoying it.

Would you say it helps mitigate risk when it comes to the final product?

A tremendous amount of risk. It reduces the risk, it reduces trying to think back and forth about whether you need to change a design because it could take two weeks to program that design to work in the game. While with tabletop, you can just decide to use Design B and throw it out to a couple of people and you know if it works or not. So it's a really huge help.

On your Kickstarter you mentioned terrain bonuses, which aren't implemented, but what kind of bonuses can we expect?

The terrain bonuses will offer permanent and temporary buffs for the units occupying that tile. In some cases if any unit lands on that tile, they may get better defense, they may get better attack, they may increase their movement speed, but one of the most important ones is that there's this notion of what it basically a Mana Spring, so essentially your player can have more AP to do moves if one of your allies is standing on that tile. So it allows for a lot of strategy from a position standpoint, you're not just attacking the enemy's general but you know you'll be able to afford more AP and more moves by also having one of your units potentially grab one of these tiles.


Looking at some of the descriptions of Duelyst, it kind of reminds me of a card-game kind of like Hearthstone. Would you say you were inspired by those?

Yeah, we play a lot of CCGs, everything from Card Hunter to Hearthstone, and even if you look at a game like Hero Academy, in some ways it's like a CCG. We love the elements of randomness in having a different set of units in your opening moves and strategies and that's what we love about CCGs, and also the ability to customize your squad. But the big difference is that it's a tactics game, your units aren't cards, they're actually placed on a tactical map and you have to think about spatial positioning, and that's something that's not in most CCGs where you just throw a card down on a playboard.

So, the game is turn-based, but is it completely sequential or do you have things like interruption moves or bonus turns?

There's no bonus moves, there are some counter mechanics which are specified by particular battle units which can be imbued by spells to have counter mechanics, but basically your turn sequence would occur where you have 90 seconds to make your moves until you run out of AP and if you're done with the AP, you're pretty much done. AP or mana can be used for a lot of things, deploying your units, casting your spells, moving and attacking units, so that's how the turn-based sequence occurs, and basically you have 90 seconds to make a decision on what to do.

Could you tell us some of the interesting units or spells?

So, every faction actually has seven particular classes shared by each of them, so you have an Assassin which is a strong melee unit, a Guardian which is tankier. One example, the Songhai Empire Assassin has a ability called Transcendence, and it allows them to get an extra turn if they kill an enemy on the same turn, so you could do a lot of chaining; so these Assassins will have higher DPS, lower armor, above average movement speed, we wanted to thematically create this Glass Cannon archetype, so those are shared, but in contrast the Assassin for the Lyonar Kingdom has a different ability, this one has Twin Strike which allows them to simultaneously strike two units within attack range. So you kind of have to understand how each unit works, while an Assassin is very clear that they do melee damage, every faction will have their own unique abilities.

So is that how you're differentiating the factions, the unique abilities for each class?

Yes, we wanted to differentiate on that front, we also wanted to create an interesting Rock-Paper dynamic, of course, we made sure that each unit has only one ability, so we wanted to avoid units having 4-5 abilities and open a sub-menu to figure out how to utilize it, we figure that adds too much UI complexity to our game.


Since, of course, Duelyst is meant to be played competitively, I have to ask, Free-to-Play transaction model is very popular and you've made it very clear you're not using that. Why?

A lot of reasons. I think for us, we want to have a game where you can just buy it and play it with your friends, I think that's what we're used to. I think that we're targeting the Kickstarter and Steam market, where people are more comfortable with that model as well, and there've been a lot of games that have been successful that way. We're not there to optimize revenue per say, we want to create a great game that people want to play, that's why we decided to make this game, we love tactics games and we wanted to have a game out there that doesn't exist today that has ranked competitive approach. We could do a F2P approach, but, for me I don't really like doing that, I don't know if you do. I think that's really just a developer preference.

Would you say also to help balance it? As we know, many F2P games often turn into Pay-to-Win.

Well, you look at a game like Hearthstone, I don't anyone would say it's Pay-to-Win, despite being Free-to-Play. People often link those together, but they're not necessarily co-orelated at all, so I think to answer your questions, you never really have to make something Pay-to-Win if you don't want to, if you want to just have unlocked items in a different approach it can work in both F2P and Paid games.

I have to ask, you have all these factions, how do you make sure they're all competitively viable.

That's why we need to have very long, extended beta tests and we work with some fantastic friends who are in the gaming industry who have designed everything from boardgames to tabletop to having designed a lot of competitive games. So we run it through the gauntlet with these guys first and then track and look at different statistics and how it's played, the win-loss ratios, and we just have a lot of eyes on each of the units. We have 100+ units and we want to make sure they're all balanced. There's no way to predict how people are going to play it until it comes out, so we just hvae to run through as many games as possible and spend as much time talking to the community and talk about what things should be nerfed and things like that. It just takes a lot of time for people to play it before we can release it.

So, are you planning on doing something similar to Hearthstone, with the early closed beta?

Yeah, I think that for a competitive game like this, the longer you can run it in a beta format is always going to be better for the consumer that buys it later.

The art in the game is just absolutely beautiful, but why would you go with a 2D pixely style rather than 3D?

Well, it's our philosophy to try something different, we really liked the pixel art look, we felt that it would be really cool for this game. We realized that we didn't really need a different camera angle, so if you're going to be changing your camera angle all the time, 3D would be great for that. But from our perspective, we want to pay homage to Tactics, Fire Emblem, they're all pixel art, they're all very readable, it's very easy to understand how the game is played, so first and foremost we want readability and we also want the pixel art to be expressive. If you start making 3D models it's harder to animate them, it's harder to rig them, and also you're going to be constrained by the rigs you build. In contrast, with pixel art, you can make a big monster, you can make a six legged monster, you can make a two legged female overnight, and so, it allows us to have a huge repertoire of units to build, we can customize them in a lot of different ways. Can you imagine building 100+ 3D models? So this way, we can make a lot of units in a shorter amount of time and make them really cool and dynamic.

Just to round us off here, Kickstarter, how has your experience been with it?

The experience has been amazing for us, because this is the first Kickstarter we've done and we were really fortunate to get our funding very early on, I think it's hard for creators to evaluation what funding goal they want to hit it at, so we were really fortunate. Most of all though, we were just amazed by the number of backers and people who wanted to dig into the game, so it's helped us a lot because you get bombarded with quite a lot of questions, so it helps us a lot to not to be in a black hole, but to think about the questions they're asking and to answer them, and it makes our game better, because we're getting a lot more early feedback, and the Kickstarter is very motivating because, I think for developers, the hardest thing to deal with is working on game for many months, many years, and sometimes no ones seen it yet, and you just build up more and more trepidation around it and you're so scared because you've spent so many hours building it and no ones seen it. So, the good thing about Kickstarter is that we were able to push out and show people what we're working on and to get their feedback and thoughts around it and now that people do want the game, it's extremely motivating, you've got your first batch of people that want to buy it and you're like, "Damn, I wanna make this game now, it's going to be super awesome."

Can you just tell us a little about your Doge Coin game-funding website?

So, one of the things we wanted to do was to find alternative ways for people to pledge, because not everyone has Paypal or Kickstarter, and some people have a surplus of Doge Coins. So we thought, why not build a little widget where people can pledge their Doge Coin directly to games? So we tried it out and it's called and if you go to, basically that's a widget that other developers can freely use so that other people can pledge Doge Coins to their games. So we're really excited about that, it was something we were doing because one of our rewards was a Shiba Inu as an alternative skin in our game. So those are the things we like to do and we're huge fans of that kind of stuff.

We'd like to thank FerrousPilot and Keith Lee for agreeing to this interview. Duelyst has reached it's Kickstarter goal of $68,000, but you can still donate for the next nine days.

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