This week on OnlySP our feature interview is with HELM Systems, the Florida-based indie studio working on The SoulKeeper; an ambitious episodic RPG set in an expansive universe inspired by the low fantasy pulp fiction of Robert E. Howard.
There’re plenty of world-exclusive details to divulge, but first, we’ll meet the team behind The SoulKeeper.
MODS AND ROCKERS[divider type=”thin”]
The SoulKeeper’s roots lie in Rune, a third-person Viking action-adventure released for PC in 2000, before making the jump to the PSone a year later. Rune’s healthy community was supported by official “RuneEd toolkits”, which let dedicated players build their own maps and modes.
“The first time I interacted with game development was in 2000, when I was a very active member of the Rune community,” says Myron Mortakis, founder and executive producer at HELM Systems. “It was a melee combat, Viking themed game using Unreal Engine 1. The publisher, GOD [Gathering of Developers] Games, doesn’t exist anymore, the developer, Human Head, are still around; most people nowadays know them for Prey.
“I remember there was a friend of mine that was running the biggest fan site. Since I was pretty handy with the level editor and Unreal Engine, he got me on board with the site, which I eventually ended up running. That meant I was director of the official Rune editing community, where I could write tutorials and guide others through tools to create custom content. From then on, I always wanted to make my own game, which is now The SoulKeeper.”
He continues: “I was contracted to go to E3 2002, which was a great experience for me because I got to see all of my idols speak, and analyse their techniques and ideas. I realised then that my ideas weren’t that farfetched, so I was like, ‘Ok, why don’t I give it a try’, see if maybe I could start my own studio with my own team, where I could realise my own vision of my favourite game.”
HELM’s first professional project wouldn’t begin to take shape for another two years however, when the release of Unreal Tournament 2003 brought with it enhanced modding tools for the second Unreal Engine. Over subsequent years, Mortakis and other members of the HELM team continued to work on The SoulKeeper, but were consistently frustrated by a lack accessible development software, meaning they had to create their own engine, only to jump back in with Epic after the public launch of Unreal 4.
[su_quote]I got to see all of my idols speak, and analyse their techniques and ideas.[/su_quote]
“When Unreal Engine 2 became available to the modding community it was the perfect opportunity for me to start putting together a team to work on this project,” Mortakis explains. “Back then, we just started as a total conversion mod for Unreal Tournament. It was quite popular. The last release of the mod in 2006 was one of the top 25 most downloaded on FilePlanet, which back then was pretty much the biggest website to get gaming files.
“Between 2009 and 2012, we actually started building our very own engine, because in that era game engines were extremely expensive, the indie scene was basically non-existent, and it was impossible if you were an independent developer to get a decent engine on your hands. We’re taking about seven-figure licences. Our solution was to try and build our own engine, which we succeeded in doing.”
“Then in 2013,” he adds. “We were negotiating with different investors, some of them didn’t like us, we didn’t like others, so we never closed the deal. Then in 2014, Epic came out with Unreal Engine 4 and made it publically available, which was again the perfect opportunity to switch and start the first commercial version of The SoulKeeper the way we always envisioned it. Now we’re here.”
Modding is often associated with enthusiasts, and the recent Skyrim Steam mods debacle only goes to show that the water’s still murky when it comes to charging for unofficial fan creations (especially when the modder’s only collecting as little as 25% of the revenue). However, The SoulKeeper’s start in modding was a means to an end for HELM, who’re keen to show how far their project’s come with the experience they’ve gained in the industry.
“My intention from the start was to make a serious project with a serious game behind it,” says Mortakis. “It was quite tough back then, especially since I was in college, where there weren’t any programmes focussing on game development. I was a computer science major, that was as close as you could get to games, but it really wasn’t the same. The only way to get started, since there were no resources, was as a mod. Even though it was very far from the vision we have now, it was a great way to learn the ropes, how to manage teams, recruit people, train them to meet deadlines, reach milestones and even how to interact with the press.
“It was a great way to learn about the whole game development process, not just from a developer’s view point, but a business perspective too. After the last release of the mod, we got to negotiate with different publishers, but in 2007 the financial crisis affected a lot of studios; it was a period of time where a lot of studios would actually close down, and of course that scared the publishers as well and they became more reluctant to invest in new ideas. We’ve been an underdog for a long time, but I would say that one of our best qualities is our persistence. We’ve changed many people over the years, from the original team only two remain, myself and our technical director. Right now, we’ve got people with experience in all kinds of related industries, like CGI graphics for films and so on. We haven’t been working on the same game for all these years, we’ve been working on The SoulKeeper as a fictional universe, but it’s not the same game at all. The version we’re showing now started back in 2014 when Epic released Unreal 4.”
[su_quote]My intention from the start was to make a serious project with a serious game behind it.[/su_quote]
DAY AND NIGHT[divider type=”thin”]
The HELM Systems team have a diverse skillset and complete dedication to the cause.
“There’re 15 of us from all over the world,” Mortakis says. “Most of them work remotely, but we try to localise it as much as much as we can. Of the 15, four are definitely full-time. But it’s hard to define what’s full-time. Some of us spend as much as 16 hours a day, whereas other people that’re supposed to be part-time spend eight hours a day, which is technically full-time, so it depends. It’s an injustice to call them part-time members, but compared to the other four that work day and night, I guess that’s how you could qualify them.”
One of those 15 is Michael Poropat, whose the PR consultant for Helm Systems.
“I went to university for Music and Mathematics, and wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but my interests were games, sports and music,” he says. “Then at the end of undergrad, I thought, ‘there’s nothing I can do with any of this with a Math major’. I hadn’t gone into programming, it was already a little late. My sister was a lawyer, so she made the suggestion of law school, so I went. I ended up going to New York Law School out in Manhattan, they have a very good intellectual property programme, they even had a small programme for video game law. Then I went and interned for companies like Take Two Interactive and the International Game Development Association, so I got some experience there.
“My mentor’s firm were setting up a fundraising thing for a handful of developers, and Myron happened to be one of them. That’s where I first met him, they were pitching The SoulKeeper when they were building up the engine. I loved the pitch and talked to him afterwards, we hit it off, we had a lot of the same ideas, and over the next six to eight months, he kept giving me titbits of where he was going with it, and it got to a point where it just dropped my jaw and I said, ‘you just have to make this’.”
Florida doesn’t have much gaming pedigree, but that’s a stereotype that HELM are looking to break with The SoulKeeper.
“It’s not a big community, we’re definitely one of the oldest studios around. Especially back in 2005 when we officially formed HELM, whenever we’d go to conferences like GDC and mention we were from Florida, they’d just laugh at us, say things like, ‘oh, there’re games there? We thought it was just a swamp’. Lately it’s been picking up a lot, especially where mobile games are concerned, but as far as AAA goes, there hasn’t been much activity.”
For HELM, creative freedom is paramount, so they’re exploring every opportunity to make The SoulKeeper happen without compromising their vision. Despite negotiating with various investors over the years, they remain very open to the idea of crowdfunding.
“Based on our experiences dealing with investors and publishers, one of the reasons that we’d turn down offers was that we like having the independence of creative control and property ownership,” says Mortakis. “Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general are a great way to actually keep that. We still haven’t decided if that’s the way we want to go, but realistically speaking it’s definitely in our sights.”
“I’m a big fan of Kickstarter,” Poropat adds. “It’s really a win for everybody. It gives us the opportunity to get investors without giving up equity. It gives the fans an opportunity to pick and pay for the projects that they want to succeed, as opposed to AAA projects that’re put together that people think they might like. If it’s a cool concept, and you’re willing to pay for it, then you get it. It’s a much better opportunity than regular old investing. Additionally, we’re able to offer the game at a discounted price, or with more merchandise. But above all, because we have so many new ideas, it gives us the assurance of a proof-of-concept. If we succeed on Kickstarter, we can say, ‘everyone thinks this is a good idea, this is going to work really well’.”
“It means we can get the people that will play the game involved in the process as well,” Mortakis explains. “That’s something that I like about crowdfunding that you can’t do with traditional development models.”
[su_quote]Whenever we’d…mention we were from Florida, they’d just laugh at us.[/su_quote]
Kickstarter seems to be transitioning into a new phase with the success of Yooka Laylee and Koji Iragashi’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night – the celebrity campaign. But their lack of celebrity appeal doesn’t worry HELM, who still have faith in the platform to fund outstanding projects that really need the help.
“I just it’s just the nature of the beast. You have the ability to ask your audience for what they want,” says Poropat.
“I back a ton of board games. I’ve seen stuff backed by just a small, niche market that doesn’t make any sense to me, but you know what, those 500 people wanted it, they put together $5000 and now those people have it. That’s great for them. The 500m other people who didn’t want it didn’t have to put any money towards it. At the end of the day, it’s whatever the customer wants to pay for, and whether that’s a big name person with a ton of money still getting crowdfunding or a no-name, when the customer’s making the choice, does it really matter who the project owner is?”
HELM’s attitude to developing The SoulKeeper is characterised by their company logo, a Spartan helmet, symbolising their desire to beat the odds and make their project a success.
“I love all kinds of history, and I love the Spartans,” says Mortakis. “One of my inspirations was the Corinthian helms that they used. Just like the Spartans were outnumbered but still managed to fight, it represented our spirit.”
“15, 300, what’s the difference?” Poropat jokes.
In the next part, we’ll learn more about The SoulKeeper, including world-exclusive info you won’t find anywhere else.
198X Review — A Nostalgia Trip Without a Destination
Some short stories feel more like chapters—snipped out of a larger work—that struggle to make sense on their own. 198X represents a translation of that ethos to video game form. As a result, the game feels unfulfilling, though that does not detract from the overall quality on offer. Ultimately, the player’s appraisal of 198X will depend on whether they place more stock in story or gameplay because while the former leaves much to be desired, the latter will be a hit for anyone with fond memories of the 8- and 16-bit classics.
In the framing and overall structure, 198X is decidedly modern, but everything else pulses with a retro vibe. At its core, the game is a compilation, weaving together five distinct experiences under the auspice of a story of personal development. From the Double Dragon-infused ‘Beating Heart’ to the turn-based dungeon RPG ‘Kill Screen’, each title feels slick, if a little undercooked. Those old-school originals could only dream of being as smooth as these throwbacks. However, the two-button input methodology results in the games feeling just a touch too simple, though their brevity—each clocking in at a maximum of 15 minutes (depending on the player’s skill level and muscle memory)—makes that less of an issue than it might have been. If more depth is present, it is hidden well, as the game lacks any sort of tutorial to guide players. Nevertheless, the stellar presentation goes a long way towards papering over the cracks.
The pixel art aesthetic of 198X is staggering. Each of the worlds that players make their way through is pitched perfectly to fit the mood it evokes. From the grungy brawler of the first game to the more melancholic mood of the open-road racer, the screen is drenched in lavish colour and far more detail than one might expect from such a seemingly simple art style.
Easily a match for the visuals is the audio. The in-game sounds of a car engine or bone-crunching strike are low-key, which allows the music to come to the fore. Those tunes are all from the electronic genre, simple, yet layered with enough depth to not feel tedious or tiring. Easily overshadowing all the rest though is Maya Tuttle’s voice-over narration as The Kid. Her tone is one of pervasive resignation that works to reinforce the same mood within the script.
That melancholia will surely strike a chord with anyone who has grown up on the fringes. The Kid speaks of once loving and now hating the Suburbia of their childhood, where memories of happiness collide with a contemporary feeling of entrapment. The words and lines are powerfully evocative—made even more so by the connection between the gameworlds and the prevailing emotion at that point. The problem is that they amount to nothing. The story comprises of these snippets—these freestanding scenes of life lived lonely—that never coalesce into anything. The Kid may find an arcade and speak of finding some sort of home and a source of strength, but it goes nowhere. The game ends just as things start to get interesting. Setting up for a sequel is no sin. Plenty of other games and media products—from Dante’s Inferno to Harry Potter—have done just that. However, to be effective, such first parts need to offer a story in and of themselves, not just the promise of a story to come, and that is where 198X falls apart.
With each game in the compilation being a straightforward, one-and-done affair and the overarching narrative feeling like a prologue at best, 198X is wafer-thin. The presentation is simply remarkable, and the package has enough variety to be worth a look, but the unmistakable impression is that something is missing.
Reviewed on PC. Coming soon to Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
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