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Exclusive Interviews

Airship Syndicate Talks Life After Vigil, Battle Chasers: Nightwar, Kickstarter and More

Earlier this year, the small game studio Airship Syndicate launched a kickstarter campaign to raise money for its game Battle Chasers: Nightwar.  The studio was founded by Joe Madureira and Ryan Stefanelli, formerly of Vigil, the studio behind the Darksiders series. On September 10th, the campaign reached its goal of $500,000 with more than a month to go. Battle Chasers: Nightwar is based on the unfinished comic series Joe created, and pulls from the JRPG tradition. Yet the game pulls from so much more. Dungeons and character management are mixed with 3D animations; traditional RPG compositions are seasoned with modern rhythms. I had the chance to speak with Joe a few weeks after the Kickstarter campaign reached its funding goal.

In the Beginning

Joe’s interest in art and design began with comics. “I started when I was drawing comics when I was right out of high school. I made my way into some pretty popular titles at Marvel. And then right after that I left X-Men to do this comic Battle Chasers. Everyone thought that it was a questionable career choice, but I was kind of done with doing superhero comics at that point… I’ve always been really into fantasy and there really weren’t any fantasy comics in the US… so I was like ‘I wanna do this.’”

Yet during his career in comics, the videogames industry grew more appealing. “Over the years, while I was working on [Battle Chasers], the lore of getting into the gaming industry was, like, tugging at me. I eventually transitioned into games, so the comic series was never finished. ”

What surprised Joe after his transition was the core fan base of Battle Chasers that kept asking about the return of the series. “I thought for sure that, you know, too much time had passed and nobody would really be into it, but I’d literally get bugged about it at shows all the time. At first when people asked me ‘are you ever bringing back Battle Chasers?’ I used to say ‘no, probably not,’ and then it was like ‘maybe’ and then eventually it was like ‘huh, I probably should.’”

Joe, along with David Adams, Marvin Donald and Ryan Stefaneli, founded Vigil Games in 2005. They released Darksiders and Darksiders II to critical acclaim. “After we did the two Darksiders games – I was one of the founders of Vigil and we did the Darksiders series – Vigil sort of fell apart after THQ, our publisher, went bankrupt… everyone kind of scattered to the winds at that point and I did some more comics,” Joe said. He wanted to return to video games, but prefered to take the small studio route.”When we founded a new studio, we knew we wanted to be indie and make a smaller type of game that we can make really super-high quality with a pretty small team and a much smaller budget. We brainstormed what kind of games played to our strengths and RPG sort of rose to the top, and we knew we wanted to do kind of a classic, old-school, JRPG-style console RPG.”

That game would become Battle Chasers. “Once we settled on that, I mean, I kinda toyed around with the idea of doing a new fantasy world, but I figured there are so many fans of Battle Chasers that would be excited to hear that it’s coming back,” Joe explained. “We were like ‘you know, it’s a rich RPG world,’ and as a side bonus, I could work on some new comics and progress the series a little bit more, so there’s a really nice synergy there. As soon as we started on it, we knew it was the right choice. Everything clicked. Everyone on the team is a big fan of the series.”12036367_918982308183694_8397940960195583729_n

Fans of the comic were also excited about the return of the series. “We got amazing support from the fans, as I hoped that we would. There aren’t too many people outside my door with pitchforks and torches like I thought there might be for not finishing the series. It’s to be expected, of course, but luckily there’s more people that want to see it than there are that don’t, so we’re pretty excited. There’s definitely nothing that I would rather work on right now, it’s been super fun.”

The team identified Kickstarter as the route to go about funding the game. However, they also understood the amount required – $500,00 minimum – was quite steep. A viable demo to demonstrate the game’s potential, was needed.  “We knew that it was going to be hard to pull off the Kickstarter, ‘cause you know, we are asking for a substantial amount of money,” Joe said. “We knew that if we went into it with a couple of images from the comics and a concept, it probably wasn’t going to fly. So we had to kind of tighten our belts, call in as many favors as we possibly could from people that are just fans and excited about the game, and we were able to get a playable demo, which is really what we were shooting for.”

“We thought if we [could] let people on Kickstarter see that we’ve already put a substantial amount of work into the game – and you can actually see various part of the game, especially the combat and the characters visually represented – we’d have a way better chance. I think that paid off, it was a lot of work, but we’re pretty happy with the results and it gave us a good head start on the game as well. It’s hard to go to Kickstarter these days with a couple drawings… we just didn’t want to take the risk.”

Risk & Reward

Their efforts paid off: the campaign raised a total of $856,354 with a total of 14,175 backers.

I spoke with Joe not long after the $500,000 target was hit. If there’s one thing I learned, the campaign needed to be completed before key decisions could be made. “There’s… the stretch goals that we announced on the Kickstarter campaign that are like ‘hey if we make this much money we’ll be able to do this,’ but obviously … internal goals like as far as staffing up and how many guys we hire and what office space we move into, things like that, are very dependent on the final number we get at Kickstarter.”

I’ve never participated in a Kickstarter campaign, and I learned a lot about the experience. “It’s kind of weird but you’re kind of in stasis during the campaign. Some of us are still moving the game forward but a lot of it is just managing the Kickstarter campaign and trying to get press and constantly tweeting and being on social media, ‘cause that stuff’s important. I think people don’t realize sometimes… when you first hear about a Kickstarter and you’re like ‘oh, I’m gonna check it out,’ and you look and it’s already funded, you’re like ‘oh, they’re already funded, maybe I’ll check it out later,’ you don’t have that urgency that they do like in the first few days when you first hear about and you’re all excited to jump on it. We’re trying to get people to realize that the more pledges we get and the more funding we get, even though we are funded, will have a dramatic impact on the final game. It’s like every variation, every addition to the game costs money – artists, designers and animators’ time – obviously, the more that we get at the end, the stronger game we can get. So there’s certain things we’re waiting to see how we do so we can hire the right people and know… we have to scale the game accordingly. But it’ll be nice to have the campaign over and have everyone back on the game full time.”

Included in these stretch goals was the addition of a mini-game. “We had kind of an early game prototype that we were doing for a game and it was pretty fun,” Joe said. It was something we quickly did with a couple people at the studio when they had a little down time, and we kind of shelved it when we began full production of Battle Chasers. When we were thinking about the NPCs and the town and just the game flow we were like, ‘wouldn’t it be so cool to have a minigame in the tavern?’ and we’re like ‘why don’t we finish game x?… [We were] like ‘It wouldn’t take that much more to, like, just put a few people on it and finish it and we’d have this fun little game…’”

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Despite the game’s ties to the comic series, Joe stressed that Battle Chasers: Nightwar is meant to be enjoyed by all gamers. “One thing I do want to stress is that the game is gonna be fully playable and enjoyable by gamers that have never even heard of the comic. I don’t want to make you have to… find the books in order to know what’s going on. It’s gonna be pretty self-contained.”

“If you talk to anyone that’s done it, it kind of becomes like a full-time job for a couple people.”

Finishing on explaining his experience, Joe gave some advice to those thinking about launching Kickstarter campaigns themselves. “If you talk to anyone that’s done it, it kind of becomes like a full-time job for a couple people. Just managing it and doing all the updates… you definitely should plan for it when [you’re] planning to go that route. Just know It’s going to eat up a lot of your time for like, obviously the month that it’s running, but also the month or two leading up to it, just getting everything prepared. It’s quite an undertaking.”

It’s undeniable the influence Kickstarter has on the indie gaming community, an influence that’s unlikely to go away. “I think it’s definitely going to stick around for a while,” Joe explained. “Until people can’t make money doing it this way, I think it’s the most appealing way to do it. When you work with a publisher or get investment, the minute you start taking on funding of any kind, you are kind of working for someone else. A lot of times that starts to take away your freedoms. Going to Kickstarter is extremely risky but, in the end, you are working for the people that are actually buying your game – the consumers and the fans. ideally, those are the people that you want to make happy, right?”

The great advantage to using Kickstarter is the ability to keep your fans and backers involved throughout the process. “Regardless of how you got to that point, if you’re going directly to them and you have their involvement and their feedback, it is the best. And they’re supporting you ‘cause they already believe that you… they have faith that you’re gonna make a good game. it’s probably the most pure way to develop, and you have the most freedom. I think… games on [Kickstarter] are more and more high quality, and the studios that are coming out now because they’ve seen this trend and they’re kind of like excited by it, I think you’re going to see a lot more actually, and I’m excited about it. I think a lot of the coolest games out are the smaller indie games.”

The emergence of indie game studios, and their potential for creating quality games, is what brought Joe back into the industry. “Personally, it was one of the reasons that I came back to this because… Vigil got pretty big and having been on a really big development team. After that I was offered jobs at a lot of huge studios and… that wasn’t my vision of game development. It was always, like, smaller teams making passion projects. I didn’t even think that was possible again until the Kickstarter thing started happening and I saw all these indie guys doing it, and I’m like  ‘Woa! There’s, like, people getting their games out there and they only have like three people or five people.’ You the same way that it excited us and drove us to do this… I’d be shocked if it just, like, went away… I think it’s gonna get bigger.”

The Small Studio

The indie studio offers many advantages when it comes to discussing core design aspects, including animation. “We’re literally sitting in the same room. It’s not like ‘let’s schedule a meeting to discuss animation on Friday, when’s everyone’s schedules available?’ It’s like, you know, the animator, who also happens to be my brother, he just goes ‘Hey Joe, can you look at this?’ and I’m like ‘Oh yeah, make him lift his arm higher when he’s throwing the punch.’ ‘Alright, cool’”

Lead animator Steve Madureira has been key player in the game’s design. “Steve worked on Darksiders and Darksiders II. He did most of the bosses, actually, in the game,” Joe said. “He did a lot of the important characters, including Ruin, who is the horse. Horses are notoriously hard to animate, but he’s one of those guys who’s so persistent and super talented as well.”

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While the small studio approach brings advantages regarding communication, Joe said that everyone’s dedication to the game is what’s truly bringing it to life. “Everyone involved is like a fan of the series and we all want to bring the characters to life and as true to the book as possible. This isn’t a license where we’re, like, doing a game based on Marvel characters, this is my book and my baby and everyone on the team is really working their butts off to make it, like, super true to the book. It’s interesting ‘cause a lot of stuff comes up for the first time, where it’s like ‘Does Calibretto move like a person, or does he move like a robot?’ and it’s like ‘Huh, you know, I’ve never really thought about it.’ It’s like I draw it a certain way in the comics, but as soon as you start to think about how things need to look – from different angles and move and how’s he gonna punch and how’s the gun’s gonna work and does the gun go away? – all these little things that you’re like ‘I don’t know, I didn’t think about that when I was writing the comic’. It suddenly becomes important.”

“I can only imagine if we were licensing it and we had to set up meetings with the licenser to discuss all this stuff every single time a question come up… one of the benefits of doing our own IP, we can sort of decisions as we go. I honestly don’t think any other team could make this game, you know? If I were just like contracting it out to somebody, or licensing it, I just don’t think you’d get the same results.”

Battle Chasers: Nightwar

Joe and I moved on to discuss the game itself, starting with the chosen JRPG genre. “We really wanted to like a Metroid thing, you know, like a sidescroller,” Joe said, “but because Battle Chasers is a team book and, like, the party-based system of like an RPG, it just seemed to work the best. It could showcase all the characters. Obviously making a really fun, playable character, even one, is kind of a challenge, but when you have five or six, it becomes kind of crazy. We do have a limited budget and a small team so the turn-based combat helped with that, and allows us to showcase all of the characters. That, in addition to the fact that, you know, JRPGs really inspired the comic, in a way. I mean, I was at that when I pitched Battle Chasers a lot of people feel like ‘Oh, you’re doing fantasy? Is it gonna be like Conan?’ That was like the only point of reference in the US at the time.” ”

Despite the United State’s limited exposure to JRPGs, Joe has a long history with the genre. “But I had been playing JRPGs for years. I always laugh about how I bought the Japanese PlayStation when it was first available in Japan from an import store. I bought a bunch of games in Japanese. It was like a year before it came out here, and I got Arc the Lad, it was in Japanese, and I couldn’t read a damn thing but I was so into the game. I would like, through trial and error, just keep using the items to see what they did.. I would write it down and memorize it. And I somehow managed to bear the entire game. I was just into the Japanese RPGs, and obviously Final Fantasy came out here, six and seven, Lunar was one of my favorite RPGs. And I was like ‘No I’m gonna do airships and robots and guns and awesome technology and sword and sorcery, it was like all of it. I think people didn’t really quite understand what I was talking about until I did it. And so it’s awesome to, like, now, not only be making a game of Battle Chasers but it’s actually a JRPG-style… at it’s core it has a lot of similar mechanics that, you know, will recognize from the classic JRPGs. It really was the best choice for this game. Someday we’ll do a side scroller…”

Apart from the JRPG influence, Battle Chasers: Nightwar is meant to be a challenge for players. “We did go with the idea of making the game pretty difficult,” Joe said. “So you’ll have to kind of manage your supplies. So you basically have to prepare for each dungeon and learn as much as you can about it before you go in and then once you’re in there, you can only switch out your stuff – or say anything you’ve found in the dungeon at one rest point that each dungeon has, so finding that will is gonna be, like, your first order of business – if you die before you reach that point you basically lose anything you’ve gotten up until that point in the dungeon. It’s kinda hardcore, but it makes every battle more impactful and it makes every road scary and worth exploring.”

A key aspect to the game is its sophisticated asset and character management systems. “In addition to just the items and consumables and stuff like potions that you’re gonna have to get, you’ll also have, there’s like a duel mana system. One carries over throughout the entire dungeon and the other one is just for battle to battle… certain characters use more of than one than the other. When you have five or six characters to chose from, you can only use three at one time in your party, so even that choice is kind of important as far as your party make-up, surviving battles, but also getting around the dungeons. In addition to combat skills, each hero has dungeon abilities too. For instance, Monica can pick locks and so if you don’t have her in your party there’s certain door you’re not gonna get through and you’ll miss stuff in that dungeon. Nole can make might, so there’s certain dark rooms you wouldn’t be able to go into. Things like that, disarming traps. So like when you’re building your party and planning your way into the dungeon, you’re gonna have to figure out who’s your most valuable asset in there. That kind of ties into the asset management as well. We’re gonna have like a crafting system now, ‘cause we hit our weapon crafting stretch goal, so you’ll be finding ingredients and components and stuff like that as well for building weapons. Again if you don’t get to that safe room to make it, you’ll lose all that stuff. We’re trying to balance it to where it’s actually fun and not leave you infuriating.”

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While Battle Chasers: Nightwar certainly has a JRPG influence, it’s anything but constrained to that genre’s conventions. From the animation to the soundtrack, Airship Syndicate has pulled from a variety of influences to create a unique experience for the player.

“A lot of the game is represented in 2D art, but when you get into combat, the characters are 3D,” Joe said. “Because we use 2D backdrops… it’s a really unique effect. It kind of blends 3D and 2D… we want it to have a very illustrated, concept art feel to it. When we do the battle surges – that’s what we call them, they’re basically like the limit brakes in Final Fantasy, the super moves – the camera does unlock. We have these really awesome-looking characters, but at the game camera and their size, they’re kind of small and unimpressive-looking on the screen. When we do this, you get a much better look at them and they do their most awesome moves and they look really cool. That was the main reason for that, just so it wouldn’t look so static the entire time during the battle.”

Other animation goals include the incorporation of 2D cut-scenes. “That’s a good example of like, the bigger budget we get and the more stretch goals we get, the more awesome stuff we make. The 2D animated cut scenes… are something that I would really like to have as many as we can in the game for the key story moments, not just for the opening title and the ending credits, but throughout the game when you would achieve a major story goal, like the story would be kind of forwarded by these 2D cut scenes. Obviously another huge influence on the game was anime, and being able to see these characters, like, animated in that format, like in running style, it’s pretty amazing. At the bare minimum, we’re definitely gonna have, like motion graphics, you know, just art that’s sort of being moved around, but we’d like to take it to the next level and do more of that kind of stuff that you saw in the video. Just basically, like, anime, full-on animation and at a really high production value.”

If there’s anything else the entire Airship Syndicate team get behind, it’s a solid soundtrack. “We are all huge fans of game soundtracks. We’ll listen to it while we’re working. I would buy all the Final Fantasy piano solos and all that stuff from the import store again, like Japanese CDs before they were available here. I know like the music, the sweeping in a RPG is part of what keep you coming back for more. So when I heard Clark’s music – our composer is Clark Powell, he’s a pretty young guy – all of his songs have so much heart and emotional weight. It had the right sound that we were after. We are trying to inject some modern elements into it, you know. You’ll hear kind of more like an industrial beat or hip-hop beat here and there, kind of like blending traditional fantasy RPG music with a little more of an urban edge. Battle Chasers was never a traditional dwarves and elves, Lord of the Rings fantasy, it always had an edge to it, so we are trying to bring that into the music as well but still… we always say ‘heart’ is the most important thing. It has to have an emotional connection, and so, it’s been a lot of fun. I mean, he’s a super talented guy and we have a ton of really good tracks already. It’s extremely important to us that the music be top-notch. I want people playing the soundtrack even when they’re not playing the game. That’s what we do.”

“We made the dungeons a lot more involved, ‘cause it is one of the things people really loved about Darksiders.”

Of all the potential influences for Battle Chasers: Nightwar, it was inevitable that the Darksiders series would be among them. “I feel like my art has evolved over the years. I mean, I spent seven or eight years working on Darksiders. Yeah, you know, it’s hard to shake that influence once you’ve been drawing a certain way for so long. Coming back to the Battle Chasers characters, I feel like I’m sort of infusing them with some Darksiders edginess I guess, or like whatever my refined art style is. It’s a little less anime, I would say, and probably like way overly detailed just to give people headaches when they’re working on these 3D characters. And of course, everyone on our team, on our core team right now, is from Vigil and they worked on the Darksiders games as well and so from animation to art and design – just the dungeon design – it’s the same people.”

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“A lot of that carried over, I think it was one of the main reasons why we decided to make the dungeon exploration more action-oriented and have puzzles and hazards to avoid instead of just kind of running around in a maze and randomly getting attacked by monsters. We made the dungeons a lot more involved, ‘cause it is one of the things people really loved about Darksiders. I think the setting too – night works definitely different than [in] the comic series. It’s more fantasy-horror, Castlevania-ish, finding vampires and werewolves and undead stuff. That was never really introduced into the comics. I think a lot of that came from working in that dark fantasy genre. We just love it, and I think we do it really well and so, we kind of wanted to keep doing it, and it adds an interesting, new twist to Battle Chasers.”

A Company Culture Dedicated to the Game

“Regardless of sales, [Darksiders] got pretty good critical acclaim,” Joe said, “and more importantly from devs and artists. The gaming community holds it in very high regard. It’s always cool that people will be like ‘yeah, I want to work with you guys because I loved Darksiders.’” The team also continues to find fans of the comic series that also want to work on the project. “We keep finding people that somehow have read the books and are already big fans before we even get there, so that’s helped a lot.”

It’s this interest and dedication in Battle Chasers: Nightwar that Joe knows will push it forward. “The company culture is something that’s so important to us. We wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t fun…. game development can start to suck when you don’t enjoy the people around you. When we interview people it’s not always just about ‘can they fill this role’ ‘cause there’s always more than one person that can fill that role and we try to find the person that is just gonna be fun to work with every day and bring something to the team, not just the game, but the team itself and the dynamic. Having worked on really big teams and having dealt with a lot of drama, it was a lesson we learned early on that we just want to bring on people that have the best interest of the game and the rest of the team at heart.”

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