Today we start this new section called “10 turns interview“. (thanks to GOFIG for your suggestion) It’s all about interviews with developers where we try to know more details about their life and development of their games in 10 questions. It will not have a regular cadence, at least for now then we will see.
To inaugurate this section, we had the pleasure of meeting Alexander Kamen, a young indie developer from Russia, currently working on Eidolons: Netherflame.
Eidolons: Netherflame is a game full of personality and many original elements which we have been following for a long time. Here you will find our Overview and just before the crowdfunding campaign that will start soon on IndieGoGo, we have been able to discover many interesting things about this promising project.
Lets start with the interview.
Hi Alexander, before talking about your project, Could you tell us a little about yourself, your training as a programmer and your ambitions?
Hi Marcello! Let me say first – it’s absolutely amazing to have this interview, especially at this time!
So about myself – I believe my road in life was set early on. I’m a Russian millennial, I grew up in the Russia of 90s, and those were some interesting times! PC gaming was getting more popular then – 100% pirated of course, usually without translation, which was quite educational.
When I was 5, my parents were eager to keep me and my older brothers away from the shady streets but had little time themselves. So they bought us a PC and thus solved a multitude of childcare-related issues at once.
I grew up watching my brothers play Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, and other appropriate games – more than I can remember now, but they’re probably deep in my psyche somewhere (Resident Evil certainly is).
Heroes of Might and Magic II was the first game I remember playing, at the age of 6, using purely empirical methods of clicking everywhere I saw my brothers click. That kind of worked, but later I recall in HoMM3 I got stuck on the tactics screen, unable to unleash my gremlins’ fury on the enemy gnolls, furiously clicking everywhere as my 30 minutes of play-time were inexorably running out. Ah, the memories!
I grew up watching my brothers play Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, and other appropriate games…
Custom map-making aside, I believe “Heroes” stuck with us the most because we could play it all together on the ‘hot seat’. And did things get hot there! The series was our family tradition all the way to the 5th sequel, which in fact inspired much of the combat system in my game Eidolons, as I’ve described in the devlog on itch.io.
We also played self-made tabletop and figurine games inspired by the games from our PC, so that was a kind of game design crash course for me.
Heroes of Might and Magic II was the first game I remember playing, at the age of 6
About my programming skills – I am a self-taught Java developer with about 8 years work experience. The basics I received about ten years ago with scrappy Pascal programming at school. Soon after I picked up Java and Eclipse, tried other object-oriented languages, tried and discarded Unity (back in 2013 or so), went back to good old Java and stuck with it. And with that, I set out to make the perfect Rpg logic-engine from A to Z… The perfect way not to release your game quickly (and slowly get depressed)!
The real breakthrough came when I discovered Mario Zechner‘s LibGdx – a small but powerful Java library for working with OpenGL. I can’t thank that guy enough! Eidolons wouldn’t exist as they do today without LibGdx. I was at my low-point in development and discovering an open-source, ready-to-go solution that promised such drastic visual upgrades pulled me out of the mire.
The real breakthrough came when I discovered Mario Zechner‘s LibGdx – a small but powerful Java library for working with OpenGL.
Apart from that, I have some experience as a DM, put on writer’s and artist’s hats sometimes, and as any self-respecting Russian nerd, I do of course play chess. I’ve also been modding games for a long time before going into game dev, released a few Warcraft 3 maps back in the day. They were kind of lost in the torrent of custom maps people were pumping out back then though.
About ambitions, here’s a quick confession – I’ve always dreamed of leading a small game studio somewhere in Canada. Working as a game designer on a big new-age MMORPG based on VR tech would be fine too. Otherwise, my ambitions are humble and tied to the nature of this project, so let’s get into it!
About ambitions, here’s a quick confession – I’ve always dreamed of leading a small game studio somewhere in Canada.
For those not yet familiar with Eidolons: Netherflame, how would you define it?
The shortest way I can put it – Eidolons is a dark tactical RPG in open-world with a roguelike/darksouls feel. But that could mean a lot of different things, so let me use the rare chance and explain.
The core gameplay in Eidolons is a tight loop of adventuring, creating new heroes and exploring treacherous dungeons that lead up to massive boss fights where you really have to use the tactical part of the brain.
Eidolons is a dark tactical RPG in open-world with a roguelike/darksouls feel.
Its main focus is turn-based combat with intuitive realism, atmospheric open-world adventure, and classic dungeon-crawling – exploring dangerous dark places. The game is replayable, but the finale is a straightforward story-driven challenge that you prepare for by building up your Chain of heroes.
There are other ways to describe it too.
Eidolons is a game in which you embody the idea of perseverance. It has no manual saves, and death is part of the gaming process. Rather than playing a single character, you will walk in the shoes of many, one after another until they die. They are never fully lost though, as long as you persevere.
Maybe if you are like me – a fan of epic RPG experience and darkly-inclined fantasy – Eidolons is the game that you’ve played in your mind already. A chilling tale of heroes struggling and dying in legendary battles that are too epic for quick real-time resolution, and must be taken in fully, savored in slow motion. Such a game does not need flashy visuals, it only needs authenticity. So I hope that in the smallest scope possible, Eidolons will be this impossible dream-RPG so many have given up on – players and devs – because of ‘realities’ of the market, industry and the traps of game-making.
I often feel that Eidolons doesn’t fit very well into the indie scene, with the realism-based art style, hardcore-depth and lofty aspirations I’ve now learned to save for the last not to put people off.
This is the main reason why I have to try and crowdfund the game – I know the professionals who can do things right but can’t afford them. To be really great, I believe Eidolons must reach the mid-tier level, that sweet spot between the pure-indie and heavy-weight AAA.
Often an indie project, starts from some basic idea taken from established titles and then go to modify that idea and make it unique or often improve it. Is it your case? Are there any particular games that inspired you?
Yes, Disciples II! All right, it’s not that simple, let me explain.
I believe Eidolons came about from synthesis of multiple ideas and inspirations, different for each of its aspects.
Talking about turn-based combat, I’d have to mention “Eador: Genesis”. This game is a very much overlooked turn-based strategy gem made by a single person (also Russian by chance, which of course made the original version with its “national humor” resonate all the more with me)
When I played it, I couldn’t believe how well-designed the combat was! It was relatively simple but realistic and gritty, so you can’t just go about swinging your sword left and right, nothing is too small to matter and a single misstep can prove fatal. I thought to myself – why not make this into a full-fledged RPG, the battles play out so epically it simply asks for a story and a bit more focus? (the game’s main flaw is its glacial speed, I could never finish even a single game, as it may take a few days of play!)
So the game’s combat rules – the wounds, fatigue, morale, raw damage reduction from armor – I’ve stolen it all. Made it a bit more complex of course, and added more DnD-inspired things like sneak/critical attacks, complex spells and something like Attacks of Opportunity of a few types.
The mood and aesthetic of the game was inspired largely by classic cRPG titles like Planescape: Torment and Arcanum, There were a few games later on that reminded me of what works and pushed me in the direction of the open-world-roguelike-rpg mixture that I kept trying to get right. Those games were primarily Battle Brothers and Darkest Dungeon. In fact, if the two were perfectly mixed together, we might just end up with a quasi-Eidolons game!
Then there is the Dark Souls series – hard not to mention this one! Although more of a late inspiration, that brutal action RPG has allowed me as a game designer to be bolder, trust my gut instinct – if a game that makes life so hard for the player become such a hit, there must be something to not having it all easy, right? So everything in Eidolons is designed with possible failure in mind – it is not something we want you never to have, but to overcome so the victory feels real.
Another thread of Dark Souls inspiration lies in my aim to deliver a gameplay-rich experience with atmospheric story elements that players will piece together themselves.
Finally, as many have noted, the most evident influence in terms of aesthetic is the legendary cult classic – the Disciples series! the epic melancholy, the brutal realism and the dark somber beauty of the Disciples series were like a secret religion for me from an early age (proves the name was chosen well!) So although it was never consciously picked as the game to base the setting on, the more I went into Eidolons, the more I realized that it’s the source of my inspiration. Perhaps the influence is stronger on me also because I listen to its soundtrack when I need to write something new.
With Eidolons, the intention was to get to something real, not to create a stylish dark vibe. Darkness in there is not a thing of jump scares, excessive gore or inherent grimness (no more than you should expect from late medieval age in a not very well-to-do part of the world). This is why I chose to make the art less stylized, despite the difficulty of sticking to realism. The moments when the twisted side really comes out must be memorable, not just more of the same! I also believe that giving up cartoon stylization made it more universal. This way the player’s mind is not locked in a small area but set free to wander and imagine things one could never fully flesh out in a game.
But as many have noted, the most evident influence in terms of aesthetic is the legendary cult classic – the Disciples series!
For those who follow your project, know that your game has changed the subtitle, from Mist of Ersidris to Nethergate and finally up to Netherflame, can you explain to us why and it’s meaning?
So the original subtitle – “Mists of Ersidris” – was really more of a working title. It reflected the project’s state well too – shrouded in mist!
The sentient Mist on Ersidrian peninsula is an important part of the setting, but it was all very broad, perhaps fitting for the cycle of stories that inspired the map that you so kindly praised. It took almost a year to complete, and dozens of letters exchanged between myself and Steffen Sommer, the artist. I like to think I inspired him with my lore a bit, but then his own passion was equally inspiring for me! Creative synergy is powerful. I couldn’t afford to do more of it, but I really hope that I will in the future! Ersidris is only about 1/9 of the game world, after all.
Beyond this, some people had poor associations with the name as it is, perhaps because of the acronym that it formed. Also I couldn’t forget about our German friends to whom “Mist” may have a poor sound or smell to it.
So I had a feeling that if possible, the name should change. Then came the Halloween Beta-testing. As per usual, new insights come to me at the most stressful moments, and this is how Nethergate campaign was conceived. It was greatly inspired by “Winter’s Gate”, the colossal metal-symphony by Insomnium, which helped me a lot with the crunch.
There is nothing like it when you listen to it and the real snowstorm hits and twilight falls, and you can’t see or hear, but only walk and run and hope you’ll get out somehow. The shivers!
Yes, so I grabbed on to this feeling. I realized this was the rock-hard core that the game lacked all this time, a singular thing to bind everything together. I keep listening to the thing when I need inspiration, so that’s the story.
Using my lore basis and throwing in some Lovecraftian bits, I wrote the campaign script in a few weeks of madness, and rashly announced the change and all the exciting new things I came up with.
Unfortunately, in my streak of passion, I failed to research properly and overlooked an old but well-acclaimed game by Jeff Vogel (Spiderweb) – Nethergate (1998).
For a time, I didn’t address the issue but eventually decided to write to Jeff. As expected, he asked me to change the name. I had a few tough days then. But soon it came to me – why not let the name reflect the force that drives the story, rather than the place where it will end? So that is when the Netherflame was born. Now I am glad that I was pushed to change it – after all, while the Gate is something you only pass through once in the game, the Flame is with you all the way!
We have seen some images taken from fights against huge Bosses. How will these battles work and tell us about the general difficulty level of the game?
Yes, I have fleshed out the first few bosses and I believe I found something exciting there, and not just visually!
So the way boss fights will work is this:
You arrive at the dungeon’s final chamber with a certain amount of Soulforce – which is basically just the metric of how well you have been doing (you get it for killing things, lose it when summoning Eidolons for aid to avoid dying).
The bosses will first try to beat you psychologically, which takes form of a text-event and can give either side a boost. Then the living heroes will have a special role there which I’d rather not spoil just yet, and most of the fighting is done by your old-time heroes, back from the dead for a while.
It is up to you when to summon which of your Eidolon-heroes and which one to control directly at any time. The system will encourage you to play each of your Eidolons in turn for a while during the fight. You may start off by doing smart spellcasting with your wizard, follow up by a bit of sneaky maneuvering with a rogue, and finish it in an honest melee with your favorite fighter.
Not that it will go smoothly – your Eidolons will get annihilated a lot, but being projections of their past selves, they can be raised again. You will just need to play your hand smartly, summoning the right Eidolons from your Chain at the right time, taking control where necessary.
And while the bosses won’t move a lot, you will have to, and smartly. Frontal attacks, unless timed perfectly, are a sure way to bite the dust!
The bosses themselves sport a few curious points too. Many will be made up of separate parts that you can target – tendrils, claws, spare limbs and the like – others will rely on structures or minions on the battlefield for support. Some will alter the battlefield itself actively.
All of them will change towards more surreal forms with each round, and grow in power – the bits shown in the trailer are prototypes of those late rounds in fact, blurry and overpowering. It won’t be all like this of course, and a lot can change before the release. Either way, this will certainly be the most challenging – and interesting – part for me as a developer!
The game’s difficulty is rather high by default, but it never punishes the player with grind or repetition (which I believe has no place in a deliberate turn-based game). Eidolons is about perseverance, you just have to move forward and come up with new solutions for the way things unfold.
So for example, if you are completely wiped, that is, killed when out of Soulforce required to raise your Eidolons – you will not lose all progress, but continue from a random spot on the map with a brand new hero, with most of your Eidolons still in reserve plus the late living heroes added to them.
The game’s difficulty is rather high by default, but it never punishes the player with grind or repetition.
The game keeps giving you another chance until the time runs out and the finale happens – which should be fun even if you don’t have the power to beat it, the story very much accounts for that.
I think everybody playing this kind of game wants a bit of a challenge, but many are turned off by the consequences of defeat – the grind, the repetition, being stuck etc. As a final comment on the original question – I believe boss-fights in turn-based mode are hugely underrated! Maybe it is because in many TB games there is a visible cap to what you can do with skill, so if a boss is really stronger than you, there’s no way to beat them without some ‘miracles’.
I’ve always found the sensation of slow epicness the most satisfying – when you go make yourself tea after gauging up the situation, going through the possible moves while you’re pacing around the room, unable to believe what you’ve gotten yourself into… Work better than the blur of motion in real-time for me!
Eidolons have one element on all that few games of this kind have, i.e. traveling companions. Can you tell us what the mechanics are and how they are managed?
It is true that the game is made with classic party of companions in mind, but the first campaign will have a certain limit – or a twist – in this regard.
Most of the time, you will only have one companion with you, called the Scion, while your own hero is the Bearer (of the Netherflame).
Your Scions will be very close to you, but they’re not your henchmen or servants, so expect to be surprised sometimes. Also you don’t have to ‘manage’ them if you don’t want to – they will buy and repair their equipment when in town, pick their own share of the loot, do all the basic routine.
You don’t have much reason to be greedy with your Scion there – after all, in a few weeks of in-game time, you will end up playing this hero yourself, start with whatever they managed to obtain and learn in this time.
Most of the time, you will only have one companion with you, called the Scion, while your own hero is the Bearer (of the Netherflame).
When exploring, mostly they will just follow your lead. In combat, there are ways to give them orders, which is where their degree of loyalty and respect for you comes into play the most. So you do not control them directly, though I am considering adding a ‘dual hero control’ mode.
Beyond that, you have some number of dead heroes with you that you can summon when you need them. These are called Eidolons, the game’s namesake. Managing them is not hard – they are there to serve, not to pester you with needs and wants – they are your ghost brigade after all! There are some tricks to it of course, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it all yet 🙂
What are the elements that make Eidolons truly unique?
A lot of ways to answer this.
My three design pillars with Eidolons were 1) RPG-depth, 2) roguelike-sharpness and 3) authentic melancholy atmosphere. I cannot say yet if I succeeded in all of this, but Eidolons is indeed shaping up to be a more lean and focused than bigger RPGs, but with more depth than your usual roguelike. As for the atmosphere, that one is of course subjective.
For many, the most obvious thing that stands out is probably is Eidolons’ token-based visual style focused on art and tactical awareness. I think it’s not easy to get into after playing full-3d games or pixel-art sprite-based ones, but to me it’s always felt like the most fitting. And it certainly is unique.
My three design pillars with Eidolons were 1) RPG-depth, 2) roguelike-sharpness and 3) authentic melancholy atmosphere.
Then there are a lot of smaller bits of innovation in hero customization, combat and campaign/narrative design. Every aspect of Eidolons has a bit of a twist if I may say so 🙂 But if we put aside all this as something that still was done before in some form, I believe we are left with the unique way the game handles death, and builds everything around that – the story, the gameplay, the atmosphere. I’ve described much of already, I’d only add that there is a very strong link between it and the story – it is not just an arbitrary piece of game design experimentation there. In fact, I cannot even say which I came up with first, the mechanic of its story basis!
What does it mean to be an Indie developer? and based on your experience to date, what do you feel to recommend to newcomers?
Indiedev is awesome. It’s a lot of freedom, a lot of ways to fail and an endless number of challenges to overcome. Except for the military, it’s the toughest thing to get yourself into I think. A real experience!
Now, I don’t know if I am a good person to ask for advice about it.
From the start, I followed a very idealistic path, took the advice of not chasing quick money a bit too close to heart. Money is indeed not top of the list, but community just might be, and I’ve none to boast to date, because I kept things quiet all the way.
I did some things right though I guess. So here’s my two cents of wisdom – first of all, you have to take care of yourself – in body, mind and soul. The long periods of solitary sedentary work can *destroy* you if you don’t have a good setup for keeping yourself well.
But personally I don’t like the negativity that has been hanging over the indie-scene of late. I understand it is mostly due to game visibility issues and the vicious cycle of sloppy devs and mistrustful players. To be fair, young people coming into the industry should be given the real picture, but then it should the full picture! There are lots of people in today’s indiedev having tremendous fun at it and doing fine financially.
Now, to be fair I can’t recommend following the course I took. Making an epic RPG solo for 8 years sounds more fun than it really is. I ended up sacrificing way too much for it already, and it’s demanding more with each day, a trend that’s not likely to change soon.
Making an epic RPG solo for 8 years sounds more fun than it really is.
I felt very strong about my commitment from the start, which allowed me to ignore the voices of sanity telling me to stop and reconsider. I suppose there is a fine line between dedication and obsession. I don’t regret the path I’ve walked, but God if I’ve done it the hard way!
But it can be awesome too, with just a few additions. For one, having a sense of financial security would go a long way in making this kind of process more healthy, so if there’s any way you can get that for the period of your project, it’s worth putting time into! Having some contact with another dedicated team or an open-source developer community wouldn’t hurt too, anything to stay sane and keep things in perspective.
Because in indie rpg gamedev, everything takes longer than you think, and making up for it with sheer grit is not always an option, you need to be smart! Another thing is – doing your dev quietly in the shadows and letting it grow on its own is very important, but you must set yourself time limits in this – or your project may grow into something unfathomable to others. Worse, you may lose grip on it yourself too. Being forced to communicate your vision is very useful to you as the developer!
Soon your crowdfunding campaign will start on Indigogo, what is the battle plan, and when will we start playing Eidolons?
Crowdfunding for Eidolons will start on IndieGoGo on 14th of May, delayed a little from the original date (30th of April). The good news is: our backers will have a demo to play from day one!
The demo will not have the features of Netherflame campaign, but it will give our backers a taste of what a turn-based soulslike game can feel like! It will be a singular challenge in the classic roguelike spirit, a bit like an arcade made up of a number of hand-crafted dungeon levels (while the final game will have them randomly generated).
In each mission, you have one life for each of four heroes from your Chain/party, and when you die, you are simply respawned with whichever other hero you choose and if none remain, it’s over.
I think that, while these special meta rules have nothing to do with Netherflame campaign, they may remain as a separate game mode if our players like them!
I believe the demo will be brutal, but fair, and fun to stream and to watch! There will be a lot of interesting things for our backers apart from the demo itself – an artbook, printable maps, an immersive score and an interactive story-quest.
Of course, in the end, it all comes down to people putting their trust in me and Eidolons’ final success. Some friends see my sticking to this project for 8 years and not letting in too much feature creep in or low-quality code already as a kind of success, but I feel that it’s only the beginning of the story. And that I have very kind friends 🙂
I guess most will agree that this stuff is tough – after all, so many fail or give up in solo game dev. But I can say that I really love the challenge that is Eidolons project, even now that it consumes so much energy and time. I can’t wait to deliver my vision to the players and, after that, well, maybe have a little of what people call ‘life’ 🙂 But I know I’ll be back to game dev in no time, it’s a life-long condition!
About playing the game – our backers will have a demo to play this summer.
Before leaving you, just a bonus question, the latest turn-based game you’ve played or still playing?
Sorry, no surprises there – when I heard that Pillars of Eternity 2 introduced a turn-based mode, I figured I gotta give it a shot!
So the game is very solid in most respects, but I cannot say that the combat itself impressed me, I was hoping they would come up with something special there, to use all the depth the game has otherwise. Also the balance for one thing seemed very strange – the initiative thing barely compensates for the sheer difference between an arbalest and a wand (3x damage I guess, more?).
Of course, some blame lies with me – I tried the most bizarre build possible (I believe it was an elven wizard-cipher with wand and unarmed combat skills… Jesus), like I usually do, to test the limits of the game’s balance – and wasn’t surprised to find it was legitimately broken compared to my sturdy companions. My conclusion? You don’t just ‘add’ turn-based combat and expect it to be good, you design it carefully and put it deep into the core of the game, and hope for the best!
Thanks, Alexander for the time you’ve spent with us, we wish you the best and we’ll keep following your project with great attention. Our blog will always be at your disposal because we love indie projects like yours.
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