Following in the footsteps of GameMaker success stories like Undertale and Hyper Light Drifter, Guardians of the Rose looks to be an ernestly developed, feature-packed, story-rich action-RPG which isn’t content to just ape classic games, but aims to modernise their winning formula. As his Kickstarter nears completion, we talk to Colorado-based project lead Broc Copeland about his break into game development, what makes Guardians of the Rose special, and how not to run a Kickstarter campaign.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you got into game development?
Broc Copeland: “I’ve always been into games, as long as I remember – some of my first memories are of playing Duck Hunt with my uncle when it was packaged together with Mario Bros. And I’ve been designing games since I was a little kid, but I put it away when I got older to focus on things other people said would make money, and what my parents wanted me to do.
“I got some experience doing web development, but decided I had to make video games. I realised I’d learned how to program, and wondered if that meant I could make games. I tried it; I could – and now after four years of flash games, we’re here.”
Is it just you working on the game?
“Mainly me, and I’ve had a contractor [Justin Stolk] helping out with art for four or five months.
“I do polls a lot on Twitter to figure out what I should do – just becaues it’s easier than making the decision myself – and I ask everybody who I should put on the team, like Dani Person who did the audio for Mother 4 I just signed on a few days ago.”
What’s the ‘elevator pitch’?
“I’ve had some issues figuring that out. I thought it was completely different to what everyone else seems to be into with the game.
“The first one I was using was: ‘An open-world action-RPG where you can explore a vast continent filled with ancient ruins, magical relics and untold dangers, encounter dragons, giants, and friends alike.’
“When I changed it, journalists kept telling me it was too much of a mouthful: ‘A skill-based, action-RPG where you choose your own way to play with customisable stats, skills, gear and craftable magic.’
“That was based on Twitter polls asking people what they liked about the game, but journalists really hated it. So I polled a load of them that were following me, and they said the coolest thing for them was the same as what I thought, that you’re playing a guildmaster named Thorne, who’s part of a secret society.”
It’s interesting that people seem more captivated by the story than the mechanical aspects of the game.
“That’s exactly how I wanted to go about it in the first place, to focus on the story, but I wasn’t saying it as well as the journalists were – that’s why they’re the writers, I guess. But everyone on Twitter and Kickstarter was saying the opposite.”
Something that struck me was Guardian of the Rose’s take on the pixel art-style, why did you choose to go in that direction, and what favourites did you draw inspiration from?
“I tried for a more Mega Man-esque, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night style with really high-detail pixel art, but I was really slow at it. It was taking me a month to make my main character. So I was thinking, ‘If it takes me a month to draw one enemy, how am I going to draw 100 more?’
At that moment, a month in, I decied to reduce it down to something I can draw quickly, but still look nice. So I reduced it every four pixels until it came out with something that looked like my character. It thought, ‘that’s cute’, and I worked with it.”
Do you use any specific programs for art? And what engine do you build in?
“Just Photoshop, and GameMaker: Studio.”
What can you tell me about the overarching story?
“You play as the main character in the game, who doesn’t have any magical abilities in a world where everyone else has at least some small magical potential. You put in the hard-work to become a Royal Guard, which is pretty much the most prestigious position in the kingdom. Shortly after that, you find out that other members of the Royal Guard are practising witchcraft, killing the King and most of his family. From there, you form a guild, a secret society, who call themselves the Guardians of the Rose, with the goal of restoring peace to the land by any means necessary.”
What kind of process did you go through to write the story?
“This game literally had a completely different story until about seven or eight months ago when that whole narrative came to me in about a second. I thought, ‘whoa, that would be sweet’, I wrote it down, and couldn’t stop thinking about it until I really forgot about the other story. I was still working on the engine at this point and just thinking about the story in my head – I had 20 pages of stuff written down but I’ll probably use that for a different game now.
“That was a very spoiler-free version – I can’t tell you the coolest parts of the story without spoilers.”
On Kickstarter, you say that there’ll be different endings. Are their branching paths and moral choices in the story?
“Definitely a lot of moral choices, everything you do weights towards one end of the morality scale. It affects how people talk to you and who you can recruit, stuff like that.”
Is that behind-the-scenes, or visualised in some way like a Fallout 3-style karma system?
“There’s nothing visual right now, and I was thinking that I’d like to keep it behind the scenes completely. Talking to people, it seems to be something they’re interested in.”
A lot of moral systems like that can be quite binary. How are you stopping that, unless you want it to be more classic ‘Good vs Evil’?
“I really don’t care about any of that, I just want the player to feel however they want to feel. I’m trying to make all of the paths as even as possible, and as empowering – if that’s the right word, it might be quite weird for someone to feel empowered by playing an evil person. But that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Would you describe the world as high-fantasy? Because there are some contemporary elements, like the main character wears a cap?
“That’s definitely a backwards cap. I think the way it’s put into the world makes sense. There’s no time-travel, someone was convinced but it’s not that. It’s explained in the story, but I can’t right now.”
How did you build up the lore of Guardians of the Rose?
“It’s an ongoing process. The main storyline came to me, but not the world, that’s evolved more as I thought of awesome stuff to be in it.”
How do you go about designing the bad guys in Guardians of the Rose, and what makes a good video game enemy?
“There’re a lot of enemies [in Guardians of the Rose], but there aren’t as many AIs as I’d like to make them do different stuff, so I’m trying to develop more.
“What I did with a lot of them was look at the formulas. I broke down the best games in the genre, and some of my favourite games outside of it, like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Super Metroid. I analysed how many sprites per animation they had, and other things like that in all of these games. Those numbers tell me that I want around 150+ enemy types – because I want it to be as much like the classic, awesome games as possible.“
You mention Castlevania and Super Metroid there – the two constituent parts of MetroidVania – would you put Guardians of the Rose in that genre?
“It definitely has a lot of inspiration from MetroidVania; there’re all kinds of different paths in this though.
“In MetroidVania you usually have to go get the first item, then use it to get the second – you don’t have to do that in this. There’s pretty regular item progression, and the story does point you towards it, but like in [The Elder Scrolls IV:] Oblivion you’re told to go do something, but you don’t have to at all. You could go and do hundreds of things in that game without ever taking any [story progressing, Deadric] gates. That’s the idea with my game too.
“In one area you can get snow boots to avoid some fairly strong enemies, or you can go slow in the snow and try to battle – once you get the dash ability you can try and use that to get around them too. There’re multiple avenues to get to a place rather than just having one required item like a traditional MetroidVania.”
If there are lots of different avenues and locales to explore, how big are you actually trying to make the world?
“Really big. As big as I can – Gameboy Zelda games big, you know?
“I was really hoping to make it a lot bigger than the more recent Gameboy Zeldas, but I just don’t have the time. I’ll have to schedule that for a later game where I can get more funding.
“But there’s a desert, a forest, a mountainous snowy area, a swampy area with a frog clan which is pretty cool, and an island level – that’s what we’ve got at this point.
If the world’s quite big, how do you get around?
“I have tried to draw a horse, but I just can’t make it look right in this environment – it just never looks good. The characters are so tiny anyway it makes the horse look incredibly small. But there is fast-travel, you get a fast-travel spell from a sidequest.”
You say on the Kickstarter that there’ll be a lot of sidequests – what makes a really good sidequest for you, not just a fetch-quest?
“Yeah not just a fetch-quest, but they can be cool too. The best sidequests make you feel like you’ve made a difference in the environment and actually change something.
“An example I’ve been using from the game is that a group of goblins are attacking a village, and you can save it or choose to kill ’em all by helping the goblins. You can also just leave them, go off and do something else, and when you complete three or four other quests you’ll come back to the village and it’ll be burnt down.
“Stuff that makes a difference is most important to me. Like in classic Super Metroid, at the beginning of the game the lights are off in the coridoors, but when you run back through they’re on – little changes like that can be a big deal.
What can players expect in terms of gameplay?
“I’ve just been saying fast-paced Zelda.
“You know how in Zelda a lot of the time you’re holding the shield, blocking, sort of circling around the enemy? It’s Zelda without all that, with a lot of attacking, there’s not actually a block skill in the game at all at the moment, I’m really debating whether to put one in or not.”
“I want you to be running around, trying to get behind the enemy – I want you to beat the boss, not time it out.”
How does ‘craftable magic’ work?
“You take items dropped by enemies to a witch and she’ll change ingredients into one-time use scrolls.
“Kind of like a Dark Souls-y kind of thing where you have a limited amount of spells?
“I really love Dark Souls, I didn’t even think of that influence. That might be where I got the idea from, just subconsciously.”
Have you applied any particular theory when designing dungeons and levels?
“I have a big notebook that I’ve taken over the past four years on how to make good levels – it’s really complicated. I think almost everyone would be surprised by how much thought goes into it. I had no idea back when I was 12 drawing out things.
“If you want to teach mechanics, you have to lay it out carefully. If you have a new creature, you’ll probably want to have just one in an isolated room at the start so you can learn one-on-one and not be interrupted.”
Why did you choose to go to Kickstarter above any other crowdfunding platform?
“Just because it’s the only one I know anything about, the only one I’ve backed projects on before myself.
“I went to Kickstarter because I need the money to keep going full-time. If I’m unsuccessful with this campaign, that means my wife has to go back to work full-time instead of staying home with the kids. She just had a baby, so I’ve been able to work on the game for 14-ish hours a day for 3-4 months now. It’s amazing how much I can get done compared to in 4-5 hours when I have the kids all day.”
Did you go into the campaign knowing exactly what you were going to do, or has it evolved as you’ve gone along?
“I’ve learned a tremendous amount as this has gone on. I researched this as I would game design for probably 100 hours – I’ve probably read everything you can about launching a Kickstarter campaign, and then a load of stuff about it that doesn’t even apply to video games just to see if there was anything I could use.”
What’re your top tips for prospective Kickstarter developers then?
“I’ve got a list of mistakes I’ve made, if you want?”
1. “The first thing someone told me was that no one cares about your game being high fantasy. My opening paragraph for a long time just explained the setting and some of the story, but they said that journalists don’t care about that part because every game is like that and it’s boring. Changing that seemed to improve the response rate that I was getting from people.”
2. “Another thing is a focus sentence – which is what you were wanting me to break it down to. I have a really hard time doing that, a few people have given me some, I’ve done polls too, but it’s important to have that.”
3. “Don’t make jokes about working with family. Someone wrote two or three paragraphs saying that my project will probably fail, that she thinks people that work with family and one-man indies have a high failure rate.”
4. “Post more updates. Anya from Kickstarter advised me to do that.”
5. “Add more about mechanics. I didn’t have anything to do with mechanics on there.”
6. “Don’t spam, and add images to your email.”
Guardians of the Rose’s Kickstarter campaign finishes on 23rd of June, and hopes to deliver on its promises by May 2017. Rewards range from a $10 tier which gets you a discounted copy of the game, to a $25 tier for early beta access, all the way up to $1000 for your own multi-part questline with NPCs and bosses.