In the first part of his interview with OnlySP, Iron Danger lead programmer Heikki-Pekka Noronen explained how the Action Squad Studios team is taking a highly iterative approach in trying to create an RPG unlike any before it. In this second part, he delves deeper into that process, as well as the transmedia ambitions the developer has for the project.
“We sort of were more set to make a great game than making a RPG,” lead programmer Heikki-Pekka Noronen told OnlySP. With its upcoming title Iron Danger, developer Action Squad had many references and ideas it was toying with and looked at many non-RPGs.
This process continued, with Noronen going on to say “we did lots of decisions that are not so much in line with most of the RPGs. Our aim to minimize grinding means that the usual inventory management and continuous item improvements are very minimal, which in many ways turns the non-combat parts of the game more towards adventure game kind of approach.” To hear how the team worked through these conventions is fascinating and insightful, showing how working through the behemoth of the RPG genre is not a simple or direct process.
Even though the player may not have as many choices as in other games, Noronen reassures players that “we were […] very focused on story-telling from […] day one. We wanted people to really get into the world themselves and give immersion of this unique and beautiful world of Iron Danger. In that sense, character interactions is something that RPG fans should be very familiar with.” Even without as branching a story as other RPGs, the way characters interact will remain a familiar foothold for RPG gamers of all types. Noronen, in summation, offers that “sometimes it is hard to categorize the game to simply tactical RPG as there is lots of variation [from] what you usually see. However, I think it is the closest category: it is pretty hard to initially start telling about the game without putting it into some category.” By categorizing Iron Danger as such, Action Squad shows that while it may not be offering the choice by choice story heavy RPG of other titles, the studio seems up to the task of making the player feel in control by making the gameplay itself dynamic and tactical.
Kipuna, the player character, can manipulate time, allowing for a compelling and engaging approach to combat scenarios and puzzles alike. “The time manipulation was actually the original core idea of the game mechanics [,] and we started to build on top of it early on,” said Noronen. “It is also something that we have spent a lot of development time as it is not very easy to get both easy to understand and fun.”
Getting at the difficulty of making the mechanic accessible but also diverse enough to keep the game fun, Noronen adds that “the biggest design challenge that we originally faced was the complexity that time manipulation can bring into the game. There was a time that learning curve for the game seemed impossible if you had not been taking part of designing the system itself. And even if you had, it was so complex that it was not really fun.” In order to reduce this complexity— “a pretty hard nut to crack,” in Noronen’s own words—the team implemented a “heartbeat system” to “better synchronize actions and limiting [the] number of active party members to two at any given time,” as well as numerous UI improvements to better understand the system. In doing so, he says that “there is still some learning curve that we aim to tackle with [a] couple of in-game tutorials early on, but now it is more in line of [the] usual amount of learning you need when picking up [a] new kind of game.” Rather than abandon the mechanic altogether or try to compromise on its vision, the studio instead worked hard to realize that vision and deliver Kipuna’s unique ability to the player in a digestible but nevertheless challenging way.
Continuing the topic of combat, OnlySP also asked how designing enemies is shaped by the time manipulation, to which Noronen says “When thinking [about] the enemies, I think that the biggest challenge is ensure that they cannot be fooled too easily and their actions are not too repetitive. As you can keep on trying different approaches, we would like the solution to not be just repeating some overpowered action but something that would need you to combine different kind of actions.” While some games rely on waves of enemies or artificial difficulty scaling, Action Squad seems to be taking the harder but more player-satisfying route, pouring time and effort into making sure that each battle requires attention and focus, not simply passively grinding the same combat scenario over and over again. Noronen goes on to say, in reference to the levels themselves, that “we have also put lots of effort to ensure that level designs are such that you can take many different approaches to encounters. Being able to approach from different routes, taking advantage of interactive environments and such.” By offering multiple options to the player while still holding onto the core of the time manipulation throughout, exploring the world of Kalevala looks to be quite the adventure for Kipuna and their companions.
When asked what inspired the creation of this world, Noronen offers that “Sami Timonen, who is [the] original father of the Iron Danger world, has described Iron Danger early on with phrase ‘Lord of the Rings meets Transformers’.” An ambitious combination of ideas to be sure, but one that becomes more apparent as Noronen continues. Kalevala is an allusion to the national epic of Finland, a compilation of epic poetry with deep roots in Finnish folklore and mythology, and he says that though the team brings an eclectic mix of inspirations, the common thread is this folklore with deep roots in the identity of the team. As Noronen explains, “there is connection with lots of myths of which we bravely steal, change, and rewrite for our own purposes. Most of the team is from Finland and the tales and the world they stem from are running very much in our veins.” He also cites the nature of Finland as a big inspiration, “especially on the visual looks and overall atmosphere of the game.”
Specifically, however, Noronen uses the mythological Keyus as an example to illustrate the team’s approach, saying “Keyus are small faery tale kind of creatures that spread sickness and decay the corpses. In Finnish the word ‘Keiju’ means nowadays pretty much same as fairy or pixie, but in the past it meant something very different. In the past, Keijus were told to be these small dust-like creatures that were flying around the deceased people and were told to cause the smell of the decay. During the centuries, they ended up getting more influence from south and west, especially from Swedish folklore, and ended up being pretty much like pixies. Our Keyus are somewhere in between.” To see such attention to detail—that the team is pulling from a rich historical tapestry as well as more modern titles—shows the capacity for games to pay homage to other mediums and allow players to interact with stories previously only found on paper in ink.
Players will not only be exploring Iron Danger as a game, however, as a comic series is planned as well, and the origins of the game are from a different medium altogether. “I don’t know if many people know it, but Iron Danger originally started as a movie concept trailer which can still be found from YouTube,” Noronen explains. “It was made by bunch of people with Sami being the main man in there and at least Jussi from our current team was involved as well.” He was very excited about the project from that first trailer and goes on to say that “When Jussi called me at some point and told that there is this Iron Danger game project brewing and asked if I would like to help to make it reality, it was just like [a] match made in heaven for me.” To come from that starting point to a game nearing the end of production is an amazing tale, and Noronen’s excitement permeates his answers.
In explaining how the comics are part of this exciting project, he explains that “the original thought was not to make comic books that support the game, but instead start building the world of Iron Danger with [a] variety of products. The game, comic books, and maybe even with that movie at some point. In that sense, they are separate products where you meet different heroes and villains of the world and tell stories on different parts of the world’s timeline.” By fleshing out the world in mediums beyond the game (a popular method of many modern storytellers) Action Squad allows many ways to experience its world. The comics will explain how Lowhee, the witch queen of the north (a reference to the “hag of Pohjola called Louhi” from the Kalevala), became the game’s antagonist, information that will give more dimensions to the character when players encounter her. Noronen says that “I see that they complement each other really nicely and give depth to each other, but you can also enjoy the game without reading [the] comic books and vice versa,” striking a balance in how the world and story are offered to the player.
With games inspired by Norse mythology and the Vikings enjoying a renaissance of sorts, from God of War and Northgard to Rune and Bad North, OnlySP asked Noronen his opinion on this phenomenon and where he sees Iron Danger fitting into the trend. His answer is direct but encouraging, saying “there were times when Zeus and his merry group of gods were really popular and now it is time for Odin’s bunch. Let’s hope we can ignite the next trend with Finnish folklore as there is so much of untapped potential!” He also highlights the difference between Nordic and Finnish folklore, explaining “Even though part of Nordics, the Finnish folklore is actually pretty unique and has maybe more contact points with Baltics, Russian, and Sami folklore than with Norwegian.” He speaks to the myriad possibilities therein, mentioning how J.R.R Tolkien’s books touched upon that potential, but more still can be done, and how Iron Danger hopes to lead the charge. He concludes his thoughts saying, “So in that sense I don’t think that resurgence of other Nordic myths has [a] massive impact on us, but of course I hope that it is indication that lots of people are excited to have their adventures in the mysterious northern lands.”
The excitement and passion Noronen has for Iron Danger and his team at Action Squad should be all players need to know about the commitment he and the others have in delivering a final product matching their vision. This ambitious blend of genres both narratively and gameplay wise is enticing, and the exploration of Finnish folklore and mechanical menace alike makes for a very intriguing RPG on the horizon. Be sure to stay tuned to OnlySP for future news regarding Iron Danger, which is available to wishlist on Steam now with an expected release in 2019.
The Occupation Designer Reveals Game Length, Talks Design, Inspiration, and More
After a protracted development period, fixed-time thriller The Occupation is set to release in one month’s time. Between its retro aesthetic and immersive sim-inspired gameplay, the game is shaping up as one of 2019’s most unique titles.
In light of that, OnlySP recently spoke to Pete Bottomley, designer of The Occupation and co-founder of developer White Paper Games to find out more about the promising project.
OnlySP: I thought I’d start off with a fairly obvious question. Given the real-time nature of The Occupation, how long can players expect a single run through to last, and by how much can that time be shortened or prolonged by the player’s actions?
Bottomley: The core gameplay is designed around 4 hours of play. There are some sections that are untimed, whether it be for narrative impact or tutorialisation for the player. As we’re playing through the game as a team, it’s taking us around 6.5 hours to play through the game.
OnlySP: How many endings does the game have?
Bottomley: The game’s outcome is a reflection of the steps the player took through the game. I think when playing games, you always want the outcomes to reflect your approach and we’re massively inspired by how games such as Dishonored can tackle that. Our hope is that the ending you experience feels like it reflects their approach and actions.
OnlySP: Tied to that, approximately how many playthroughs would be required to see everything that the game has to offer?
Bottomley: Our intention wasn’t to design a game that required multiple playthroughs. I’m personally the type of player that plays through a narrative, gets an outcome, and that’s my story. That being said, we’ve tried to fill the world with a lot of content, and because of the real-time character simulating actions, hopefully with second and third playthroughs, players will uncover different ways to solve challenges or narrative threads they hadn’t picked up on before.
OnlySP: How did you come to settle on the politicised premise of an Act robbing citizens of civil liberties?
Bottomley: Since we invest so much of our lives into making games, you have to work on something you feel is meaningful and rewarding of your time. At the time of concepting The Occupation, there was a lot of friction between what was happening in the UK and abroad. It affects us all and we wanted to work on something that may put people’s views into perspective.
Our previous game Ether One dealt with the difficulties of seeing a family member suffering with dementia and our aim is to continue these important themes throughout all of our games.
OnlySP: Also, issues surrounding privacy and freedom of speech, among other civil liberties, are pertinent right now. How close to your mind were the modern concerns about the topic while you were concepting the game? And have real-world events impacted the story of The Occupation across the development period?
Bottomley: The world around us always inspires us, but we don’t really rely on specific events to drive any part of the game’s narrative. When you’re developing a game that tries to get its own narrative across but ground it in the real world, you have to try to distil them to focus on the story you’re trying to tell. In a sense, real world stories inspire us but it’s more of an observational thing rather than a particular event we want to depict faithfully. We tend to focus on the emotional and societal impact of the event itself.
OnlySP: How present will those sorts of themes be within the average player’s experience? Or should players expect to be able to lose themselves entirely in the investigation without really leaning on the context?
Bottomley: We aim to put context on all of your actions in the world otherwise there’s not much meaning behind the choices being made. That being said, you can choose to follow certain narrative threads over others, which allows the player to follow the most interesting lead they come across.
OnlySP: Players take the role of a journalist in the game; how accurate would you say your portrayal is of the technologies and general aesthetic of late ‘80s Britain? How much research went into getting the language and atmosphere of the era right?
Bottomley: It’s interesting you raise that point as we’ve just been speaking about the world limitations in this game. In our previous game, Ether One, we aimed to deliver a grounded narrative that had certain sci-fi elements. With The Occupation, we wanted to go even more grounded and aim to deliver a world that belongs in the ’80s so any aesthetic and technological choices were always taken into consideration. Surrounding yourself with these limitations can create really cool gameplay mechanics such as our pager as a message delivery system, public payphones to update your objectives, and fax machines to deliver information.
OnlySP: The game has been delayed twice now, both times quite close to the scheduled release. Is there any chance you could shed some light on the causes of the delays?
Bottomley: Delaying a game is a gut wrenching decision. You’ve put a promise out there and you push yourself to deliver. We’ve aimed incredibly high on this game both technologically and in the game’s design. On top of this, we wanted to deliver the game in as many languages as we could along with sim-shipping on PC, XB1, & PS4 and doing a retail disc submission so that people could pick up the game in stores if they wanted to hold a physical representation of the game. Because of these platforms, the game has to be ready a couple of months in advance to help distribution and all the different regions to have the version of the game you intend for them. With complexity always come more bugs and since our last game shipped in a buggy state, we didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. We’ve QA’d the game for months and had support from our publishers in helping to identify the issues. As with any game, we’ll no doubt spot some issues on launch, but we’ve already put processes in place to address these as quickly as we can and hopefully the execution of the game will immerse people and keep players engaged so that nothing disrupts the experience.
OnlySP: I recall on Twitter that you once wrote that you were testing the possibility of a Switch port. How seriously have you looked at that possibility and what’s the likelihood?
Bottomley: Right now we have a Switch development kit frustratingly gathering dust in our studio. Since we’re a small team, it can be a tough choice trying to figure out where to best use your resources. We’d absolutely love to get the game onto Switch but we’ve not tested a build yet. It’s the first thing we’ll be moving onto in March so we should be able to update people as soon as we know how The Occupation runs on it. Thankfully using Unreal Engine makes this process a lot more straightforward and we’ve seen a lot of developer friends find success on the Switch so it’s a great opportunity to reach a larger audience.
OnlySP: How does it feel for you and the team to be just about ready to wrap development after four years of work?
Bottomley: It’s not quite set in yet. Although we’re done with the game and excited to see the reception it gets from people, it’s really only 50% of the work, especially when you’re in a small team. We’re currently planning all the marketing and PR opportunities along with reflecting on the development cycle and figuring out what we can do better (to hopefully not spend another 4 years on a game!).
OnlySP: Finally, do you have any closing comments for our readers or anything else you’d like to say about The Occupation?
Bottomley: The whole team has put an incredible amount of energy into The Occupation. If you look at our previous game compared to The Occupation, you can see how far we’ve come. It’s been a huge learning curve for the studio both technically and in production and we’re excited to move onto another game to push ourselves. We’re unable to do that without game sales. It sounds corny, but we really can’t develop games without our community’s support. We value each purchase and we want to grow and keep pushing to create more interesting games. We have a lot of goals and drive and we’re focusing on growing and creating more experiences for the player. If you’re reading this and have purchased any of our games, thank you. It absolutely means the world to be able to wake up in the morning and be excited to develop games. Thank you.
The Occupation is set to release on March 5, 2019 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
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