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Interview

The SoulKeeper – Helm Systems Discusses Their Upcoming Episodic Open World RPG, VR & More

Over a year ago we introduced you to The SoulKeeper, an ambitious open world RPG that’s taking a very different approach than your traditional open world fare. Helm Systems is building an episodic open world adventure, and I’ll assume that’s something you’ve probably never heard of yet and will be explained in detail through this interview. It’s an ambitious concept that Helm Systems, thus far, seems very confident in being able to accomplish.

I recently spoke with multiple members from the team at Helm Systems to get some updates on how development is going and to learn a bit more about their upcoming VR project which serves as a prequel to the upcoming open world RPG.

No platforms or release date have been announced for The SoulKeeper yet, but Helm Systems plans to reveal even more about the game before the end of the year.

ONLYSP: For the start of the interview, if you three wouldn’t mind refreshing our readers on who you are and, in basic, what you’re developing?

Myron Mortakis: Sure thing. I’m the President of HELM and executive producer.

Michael J. Poropat: Sure. I am Michael Poropat, one of the VPs, and the director of business development for the company.

Jan Subijanto: I am Jan B. Subijanto, Technical Director of HELM.

Mortakis: Last we spoke, we were working on The SoulKeeper open world RPG. Naturally, this is still a work in progress, as since we last spoke we also started working on The SoulKeeper VR, set in the same universe, but specifically for VR.

ONLYSP: The main game, The SoulKeeper, is still an episodic open world RPG, correct?

Mortakis: Yes, absolutely. We are still aiming for the same format. And we have been working on it quite a lot. We have expanded the set of characters, NPCs, environments, while also working on mechanics, including melee combat system, dragon flight and fight system, spell casting among other things.

We have been keeping quiet, is the truth, as your article from yesterday points out. But this is because we have been focusing all the promotion on the VR title. The VR title is much smaller than the open world RPG, so it is a smaller project all together, yet with the same level of quality and with many of the elements we aim to have in the open world RPG.

We had to focus our efforts on the VR title due to the timing of the events surrounding the VR side of the industry. That is not to say that we stopped working on the open world RPG though. As a matter of fact, the VR title will serve as an introductory prequel to the events that are to follow in the open world RPG.

ONLYSP:  Is the VR title exclusive to VR, or will players be able to play without VR as well?

Mortakis: Well designing for VR requires a different approach to the implementation of mechanics. Although developing for VR shares many of the methods and tools used for any other game development project, it does require different optimization, and different design and mechanic implementation. So, it would be quite a challenge to have a VR game (especially one with hand controllers such as the HTC Vive, Oculus Touch or PS Move) be playable at the same time on the standard mouse and keyboard or gamepad setup.

So, the VR title will have to be an exclusive to VR. Naturally, some of the implementations we conduct for the VR edition will come in handy for the open world RPG as well, e.g. some of the combat systems, fire propagation systems, AI etc.

Subijanto: We also have been spending a lot of time researching and working on technical aspects and implementations, such as a fire-propagation system, which, especially along with the already mentioned dragon flight system, was asked for very often. Of course, work is done on many other technical aspects of the gameplay as well, such as the spell casting and melee system, which we want to be as refined as possible.

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ONLYSP: So, the elements you’re working on VR will translate to the base game? That’s interesting. Will the base game also have VR elements in it, or is it a straightforward third person RPG? Or, I guess,I should say ‘gameplay elements’ for the first part of the question.

Mortakis: VR is offering us the opportunity to place the player straight into the world and make them the protagonist. Sure, they will still be playing as one of the characters in the world, but thanks to the level of immersion VR can offer, we have to design the game in different ways than we would otherwise. The VR version will be in first person, as we believe that is where VR truly shines and can separate itself.

So in the VR version the dialogue system, the NPC interaction and even the combat are designed to feel more personal. On the other hand, the VR version’s environments will have to be smaller than the ones in the open world RPG and more optimized. However, the systems under the hood, like the fire propagation system, the spell casting system, the melee combat detection system, the AI itself, can be common for both.

Subijanto: Indeed. For example, the spell casting system works via Gesture Detection, a method that can be applied for both for the openworld RPG, using a mouse, and, for VR, using whatever handheld controllers are available.

ONLYSP: Is the VR version of the game more of an on-rails experience, or do you allow freedom of movement?

Poropat: Certainly not on-rail. The experience allows players to move around freely, as if they were in the game. This allows us to give the user the highest level of immersion and make the game feel as close to reality as possible. Currently, the main form of transportation within the game is using a teleportation spell to, sort of, blink from one spot to the next. The user can use this teleport to reach nearly any location, within the boundaries of the virtual space.

The idea is to make the user feel as if they are actually the character, not just playing as one. While teleportation is the main form of transportation, we are also experimenting with different ways, and different devices, to allow the user to move more realistically. You know, for those of us who would rather be the brute warrior than the lame mage!

ONLYSP: Sounds more like my preference! HTC Vive is currently the only announced platform I think I’ve heard of for The Soul Keeper VR; is it planned for PSVR or Oculus Rift as well?

Mortakis: We started off with the HTC Vive, since it was one of the first HMDs we received, and it has been going great so far. We have showcased the game to over 1,500 people, but of course now, as the VR market and industry both mature, we are experimenting with the all the other available headsets as well, as we would like to offer the game and the overall experience to as many people as possible.

Poropat: I’d like to point out as well that the Vive is the only one available that currently offers room-scale at a high capacity. What this allows us to do is create situations where our users can actually physically walk in a confined space and move around in the real game. This means that, in the current state, if you teleport a few feet from the wall, the user can then physically walk up to the wall and check it out. It adds a huge element to the game that we need to experiment with on other devices.

ONLYSP: Interesting. I just watched a video of another game using the Vive and its room-scale capabilities, and was really impressed by it. Although, the person playing the game did happen to walk into the wall a couple times. How do you confront the problem of setting boundaries for players in confined spaces when you have the freedom of movement?

Mortakis: Well there are many ways to counter this issue. HTC Vive so far has the “Chaperone” system, which pretty much warns you whenever you approach the boundaries of your play area (which you set up according to your space). So pretty much what you see once you reach these boundaries is a neon grid (for lack of a better description at the moment) which is non-intrusive at all. It is just there to remind you that there are still physical boundaries.

The other HMDs are not supposed to be full room-scale at this point, although we do manage to make them work in a similar fashion. But given that they were not designed with this in mind, usually the users have to set them up in areas that are free of any objects around the play area. So probably movement in those systems will either be slightly more limited, or perhaps by the time we release we can come up with an efficient way in the game to help users know their physical boundaries.

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ONLYSP: So let’s go ahead and take a look at the base game then, shall we? We actually talked about The SoulKeeper back in June of last year, so you guys have a had a year to continue working on that game alongside the VR version. How has it been shaping up?

Mortakis: Well, being indie developers sure makes it much harder for us to work on two projects simultaneously. So it has not been easy, and of course we wish we could have two separate teams working on both games at the same time. Nonetheless, the base game is our crown jewel. It is the one we would pamper by far the most, and it is after all by far the more ambitious of the two, therefore also the one that would require a lot more work. We have progressed quite a lot with the story and with a lot of the mechanics.

Last year we were not happy at all with the melee combat system, which was more of a placeholder prototype, so we totally started it off from scratch and have been working to make it more accurate, but also more fun. In a 3rd person perspective, one has to be careful how realistic they aim to make the melee combat, as it might end up taking away the fun factor, and we wouldn’t want that. We have also invested a lot of time in the dragon mechanics. We had release a playable prototype for people who had registered on our forums back in the beginning of the year, and we had also showcased it at PAX South.

Of course, we have evolved it quite a lot since then. We have been working on an entirely different fire propagation system (different than the one used for spellcasting), and we have been even working on dragon AI, independently from the other forms of AI. We have also been working on several of the playable characters, redesigning them, modeling them, and experimenting with mechanics for them. We have also been doing a lot of work on the spellcasting, both with hand gestures and with a staff.

We didn’t work as much as we would like to on things like an inventory system and dialogue, and we wish we had built a lot more environments, but in an open world environments certainly require a lot of time and optimization. So, with the VR project being the focus, we had to take it a bit easier on that front.

Subijanto: It required quite some research to even get something seemingly simple as the dragon flight done right. As our demand was to have it both easy to learn, yet believable and smooth to play, it required a lot of analysis, right down to checking the actual algorithm with some math-software.

ONLYSP:  Sure, that’s totally understandable! I think in our original interview with you guys the scope was rather massive? Has your scope changed at all since you initially talked with us?

Poropat: If anything, it’s gotten even more massive, as we are always adding new lore and new ideas to the core gameplay and story. But no, it’s still a massive scope and the VR universe just adds to it.

Mortakis: Yes, to the point that we are questioning our sanity. But seriously, focusing on VR was more of a requirement due to the timing of the events. That, however, certainly does not change at all our original vision for the base game. If anything, it reinforces it. Having to visit some of the character backstories to events prior to those taking place in the base game, actually facilitated us to understand these characters even better, and pay more attention to details that will be found later on in the base game.

ONLYSP: I have to assume that recent open world releases, mainly The Witcher 3, have had some impact on your development of quest lines and stuff like that in an open world title? It seems many people, myself included, are quite tired of the generic, you know, ‘go fetch this, go fetch that’ type of quests.

Mortakis: We have been against such quests since the conception of the SoulKeeper IP. We feel that many of the quests used traditionally in RPGs are taking away from the realism of the world, and that is something we wish to avoid. In our opinion, quests have to feel natural, as in having a purpose that makes sense, and having a continuity with the rest of the world that also makes sense, rather than feeling forced upon just to fill in the quota of total gameplay time.

So, whether it is a side quest or a main quest, we want players to feel that the quest serves a believable purpose in the world. So no more rat-infested basements, lost persons in minds that were attacked by monsters, and certainly no fetch quests. Although, I do have some fond memories from such quests from certain games released in the 90s.

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ONLYSP: I’m sure anyone interested in the game will be very happy to hear that! In terms of the main storyline, you’re taking the episodic route. How is that going to work out with the use of an open world setting. Previously you stated that it would take place in different regions of the game world with each episode feeling like it’s own game.

Mortakis: Yup. With each episode you will have a set of mini stories that are told and resolved within the episode, along with the larger/main ones that span throughout multiple episodes. In each episode you will have access to a number of regions, each one with side quests and whatever parts of the main quest necessary. With every new episode, there will be new regions introduced and, of course, all the regions from the previous episodes will be accessible as well, with new side quests (or even parts of the main quest if necessary, again).

And, of course, with every episode or a couple of episodes, new characters will be introduced as well (both playable and NPCs). In some episodes you might loose some of your playable characters though. However, that largely depends on how the game is played, as we will allow multiple routes for each character’s storyline, and each one will be tracked individually. So when the first episode is released, we would advise to keep these save-games handy as to get a more personalized story progression and not necessarily the vanilla one.

ONLYSP: How big is open world for The SoulKeeper expected to be? The map you originally showed us for the game looked quite large.

Mortakis: Uhm… yeah… huge probably is a good way to describe it, but remember, it is episodic, so it will build up to that scale.

ONLYSP: Right. I was going to ask, as you did mention that Helm Systems is a smaller indie team of developers, how are you managing to build such a large scale game? I’m guessing with the episodic nature of the game, you’ll be releasing episodes with a pretty lengthy hiatus in-between each episode.

Mortakis: The episodic format certainly allows us to manage this even with our indie status, as it allows us to break it into smaller segments. Of course, the support of the gaming community with each episode’s release will enable us to reinvest resources gained into the production and development the next couple of episodes. So with every episode’s release, we would anticipate to be able to grow in scale as well and put more of that back into following episodes.

As for the time period between episode releases, we don’t want it to be too lengthy. After all, many of the core mechanics will be shared, so it will be mostly a matter of adding content and story with each new episode.

ONLYSP: That’s what I figured. I keep confusing myself between just the narrative being episodic and not the whole game. But I got it now — you’re releasing the whole game in an episodic format and adding more and more content as you go. Seems like a really smart format to me, as with a lot of large scale open world games, you can quickly be overburdened with the amount of stuff to do, and get burnt out from the game really quick.

Mortakis: Yeah, we think it is easier on us and easier on the players, because then they can choose how much or little time they want to spend playing the game at any given point. Which is why whenever someone reacts negatively to episodic, we immediately provide the above explanation and then we actually find that they find the episodic format a lot more attractive than what they originally thought we meant with episodic.

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ONLYSP: I think the episodic format is becoming more popular as time goes on. Keeps people interested in the title and what comes next and, with how many games are released a year now, pushes the player to stay invested with the game.

Now, you mentioned that you guys were working on revamping some of the core mechanics of the game, namely combat. How has that been shaping up? Any recent examples of combat in games that you’d compare it to?

Subijanto: Well it is hard to compare to other games, especially since we do try to implement rather unique elements to our combat systems. If I absolutely had to compare to another game, I think it would be closest to Shadow of Morder, but as said, we really do want our combat to be unique, yet easy to pick up.

ONLYSP: That’s certainly a good combat system to compare your game to!

So, you also previously mentioned that the development of The SoulKeeper has been slowed a bit by working on two projects. Any idea of when you might be ready to reveal more about the game?

Mortakis: Well we want to maintain the focus on the VR game until its release, which should be soon, and then we would definitely start showing more of the base game again. And sometimes we got some really exciting things in the works, that we are quite eager to share, but from a marketing perspective it could harm the VR game, which, once again, due to the timing of the events around the industry, has to receive priority.

So, that is one of the main reasons we have been quiet for the most part, and even on social media. We used to have almost weekly screenshot Saturday updates, and we stopped them for this reason. Of course we can promise you that when we start pumping content out there again, it will be quite a lot of it and we think it will get a lot of people excited.

ONLYSP: Still no plans to bring The SoulKeeper to Kickstarter or other platforms like Steam Early Access either?

Mortakis: To be perfectly honest, we are considering it as an option, as it could facilitate development. But we haven’t made up our minds yet, as launching a Kickstarter campaign is quite time consuming in itself, and right now all time and effort goes into the development of both projects at the same time. Of course we wouldn’t exclude it from being part of a future strategy, but in any case we would not want to rely on this alone.

I believe many teams make the mistake thinking that a Kickstarter campaign will fund the entire game, and that is not the case. Kickstarter should be viewed more of an extra helping hand in the entire development process, rather than the main resource, and if we were to launch a Kickstarter campaign, rest assured we would see it as another way to help development, rather than base it entirely upon.

ONLYSP: Sure, that makes sense. Well, I can’t really think of anything else to ask you guys as of now, mostly because I have yet to see the game in action, “wink, wink. ” But, as for the VR version of The SoulKeeper, is there an expected release date for that one?

Mortakis: We are aiming for end of the year, although there might be a surprise between now and then, which we cannot say much about.

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ONLYSP: Teases are the best.

Mortakis: I mean, there is not that much time left in the year, so it shouldn’t be too long until we reveal that surprise.

ONLYSP: Well, thanks for taking the time to talk with me about The SoulKeeper, guys. Really interested to see how it shapes up, both the VR and the base game. Is there anything else you guys would like to let our readers know about the game(s) before I let you go?

Poropat: Did we mention there are dragons?

ONLYSP:  You did, and I just had a look at your website — seems to be three main playable characters in the game, the dragon being one of them.

Mortakis: Well, there are a lot more than 3 playable characters and we never counted the dragon as a playable character, although rest assured the dragon (and more dragons) will be absolutely playable. Dragons are to be thought of as mounts, fully controllable and loaded with fighting abilities, as well as a great mean of transportation.

That is not to say that they won’t have their own AI though, so make sure you don’t anger your dragons.

ONLYSP: As long as you make an ability for me to poke the dragon with a stick, I will do my best to anger it!

Poropat: The last person on our team to poke the dragon with a stick was Greg… notice there is no Greg on our team anymore.

Mortakis: We welcome the thought, and are eager to see the dragon’s reaction to that, as well as your reaction to the dragon’s reaction!

ONLYSP: Even better if you do it in VR! Would make a fun mini game me thinks.

Mortakis: To address your question about whether there is something we would like to add… if there is something to add it is probably that we understand that there are a lot of people who are excited about our IP in general, and we have been very quiet for the most part of the year, but we want to reassure them that quiet in our case means good; it means a lot of work is being done.

Being indie developers allows us to experiment and bring in innovations that larger studios would be unwilling to bet on, but at the same time it gives us a lot of disadvantages, such as having to sometimes focus in one area more than another.

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