The Azure Order, The Potatoes, and The Business Demons are the cast of Gem Wizards Tactics. A solid and colorful turn-based strategy game released on 16th of February 2021 on Steam. We played and covered it; here’s our review, and today I’m with the indie dev behind the game for a new 10 Turns Interview. We talk about his creation, experiences, emotions, and future projects. Keep reading to learn more about a super indie dev, game designer, author, composer, and visual artist. Let’s go.

Keith Burguns
Keith Burgun. independent game designer, author, composer and visual artist.

Hi Keith, thank you for giving us this 10 Turns Chat. Tell us who is behind Gem Wizards Tactics ? (From now on GWT)

About 95% of the work for this game is done by me, Keith Burgun. It’s mostly a solo-dev project. I hired an artist to do a couple of full-screen illustrations, a friend to write one of the songs (Azure Order’s theme), definitely got some help with playtesting from many in my community, and things like that. But generally speaking, it’s just me.
As to who I am, I’m an author of several books on game design. I also run a game design podcast called the Clockwork Game Design Podcast. In school, I studied music composition and political science. My day job is usually doing pixel art animation.

GWT has just been fully released on Steam, so far you have worked impressively on fixes, updates, and add-ons. How much longer will GWT keep you busy?

The current plan is to work on GWT for at least 2-3 more years, but if I can maintain at least a small player-base I would like to keep working on it for something more like a decade. In general I feel like it takes a very long time, a lot of iteration and polish, for a strategy game to become the best version of itself and become someday “truly finished”.

How did you approach the GWT advertising? Are you happy with the exposure obtained so far?

I did everything that I know how to do: ads on facebook, reddit, youtube, twitter, etc. I paid many streamers. I posted myself on every social media thing imaginable. I hired a company called Indie Bros who did a great job of emailing lots of websites, and I hired them again to help out with social media last month. Ultimately I put a lot of time, energy, and money into advertising and trying to get the word out.
That said, I’m pretty unhappy with the exposure obtained so far. Back in 2010 when I released my first game, if you made a new game, lots and lots of websites would write about it and cover it. Now, it seems almost impossible to get noticed by anyone. Out of all of that, the only mainstream-ish coverage we got was an article in PC Gamer – which is super awesome, but that’s been it so far, and I sort of got the sense that that article itself didn’t see a lot of traffic. PC Gamer isn’t what it was back in the 90’s, it seems!
So yeah it’s really rough out there. People were talking about the “indie game apocalypse” five years ago, and it has really only gotten worse since then. The issue is that there are just *so* many games, and with Covid-19 keeping everyone indoors last year, I think that actually magnified the number of games even further, as many people (myself included) were kept inside for a whole year, and what better way to spend that than making a game?

Gameplay
Engulfing the whole level in procedurally spreading fire, is something that can happen in game.

Are you satisfied with the work done in GWT? Is there anything you would have done differently?

Definitely. GWT is easily the best game – the best *thing* – I’ve ever made. It’s not exactly the thing that I originally set out to make, but it’s also a lot better than the thing I originally set out to make. That said, of course, there are many things which need to be improved upon (and will be improved upon) in the future.
In terms of regrets, I’m not sure. It’s hard to say. I suppose something I kind of regret is perhaps launching the game on Steam without getting a publisher first. I’m looking for publishers now actually to help with the transition to other platforms (mobile, Switch). But trying to do a serious commercial launch of an indie game just isn’t smart, I think. There was a window where you could make money as a truly independent developer, but I think that window has more or less closed.
Another thing that would have been good would have been to add Story Mode into the game before launching, since I think that helps the game a lot, especially for newer players.

Each project has its own story, emotions, difficulties, and experiences, what is the thing you will most remember and maybe bring with you from GWT development?

This one is hard because, as I mentioned above, GWT definitely isn’t “done” yet. I hope that it’s still really only getting started in its journey. With that said, probably the best and most memorable thing I’ve seen with GWT has been watching streamers play the game and HOWL with delight when they see what’s possible in the game. No other tactics game lets you do the kinds of things that GWT lets you do, with characters who roll infinitely when pushed, with dropping heavy ice blocks on characters crushing them instantly, engulfing the whole level in procedurally spreading fire, and so on.

Squares or Hexagons, I think I know which one is your favorite from the games you have developed, but, are there any technical differences in terms of development?

Yeah, hexes are very annoying to work with. Squares are far easier from a development point of view, both in terms of making the art (especially for pixel art) and in terms of building levels and everything like that. I’m using a two dimensional grid for the hexes in the code – something I also did with Auro – which I’m actually pretty used to now so it’s not so much an issue. But there are little things like needing to “HexTranslate” when I want to instantiate new effects or things like that to compensate for the “not square” grid. That all said, I think that especially for the kind of tactics game I want to make, having the even freedom of movement that hexes provide is somewhat crucial.

You are engaged in so many things; digital games, tabletop games, a podcast, a youtube channel, you’ve written books, and even offer freelance services. Are you able to dedicate the necessary time to every single commitment? How do you plan all these activities?

The short answer is “no”, although I gather from hearing other people talk about things that I’ve gotten quite good at time management and managing myself. In terms of recently, I haven’t actually written a book since 2015, so that hasn’t been occupying much time (although I would love to do another book, perhaps next year, if I can find the time). The freelance services are my main way I make money – I do pixel art animation, and game design consulting, mostly. As to my YouTube channel, I haven’t really been making content for that either, except for some promotional things for GWT and also I upload my weekly streaming show and things like that. The one thing that I do really keep up on is the Clockwork Game Design Podcast, which is now in its sixth year. I’m really proud of that and we’ve had so many cool guests on over the years.

Dragon Bridge Board Game
Dragon Bridge is the boardgame developed by Keith Burgun. https://keithburgun.net/dragon-bridge/

What are the games that marked your childhood and that perhaps influenced your video game development path?

Growing up as a child I actually had very little interaction with strategy games. I was super into fighting games, stuff like the original Mario Kart, platformers, shooters, that sort of stuff. It wasn’t until my early teens that I discovered that strategy games even existed. It was games like the original X-Com (1994), Master of Magic, and Fantasy General which inspired GWT most of all.

As a developer (who has already developed a lot of turn-based games) what do you think about this genre? Is there still room for innovation?

I have developed a lot of turn-based games, and I’ve published about five (six if you count my card game, Dragon Bridge). Actually, the number is a lot higher if you count free games over on my itch.io page! My biggest releases were 100 Rogues (2010), Empire: The Deck Building Strategy Game (2013), Auro: The Monster Bumping Adventure (2014), Escape the Omnochronom (2017), Dragon Bridge (2019), and now GWT.

I personally don’t think of “turn-based” as a genre any more than I think of “real-time” as a genre. I think these are really broad terms that cover many genres inside them. That said, I think there is TONS of room left for innovation. The biggest problem is that because of how the market is, I think developers are strongly encouraged to be very conservative with their designs. I think this is particularly true with turn-based games, which is already somewhat of a “niche” within games more generally.

But my general feeling is that we have not even begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible. I feel like, as much as I love GWT, and as much as I feel like GWT is experimental and weird and different, it still is very much existing rather tightly within some design borders put up back in the early tabletop wargaming era.

The tricky thing is that, for games to really become the best version of themselves, they need players. They need that iterative social process, that back and forth between the designers and the community. And how do you get people to try out and really engage with some weird thing when so much gaming oxygen is already accounted for by thousands of huge, super-polished games? This is the conundrum that I see for us in terms of doing more than scratching the surface. But eventually, it will happen, and I look forward to it.

Gem Wizards Tactics
The three factions available now in Gem Wizards Tactics with a fourth coming soon.

What’s on the horizon for Keith Burgun Games?

Well, in the near future: more Gem Wizards Tactics. I have a fourth faction that I’m working on now, so stay tuned for that! Also as I said I can’t wait to do other platforms and at some point, multiplayer.

Other than that, I have a card game that I’m really interested in doing if Kickstarters are still a viable option by the time I get around to it. It’s kind of like a “non-CCG monster basher”, if that makes sense, and it would (like Dragon Bridge) also be set in the Gem Wizards universe.

Other than that… I don’t know. Figure out a way to keep surviving. 🙂

Bonus Question: Last turn-based game you played?

The honest answer here is definitely Race for the Galaxy, on my phone. Such an incredibly good game, been playing it for years against bots and I never seem to get bored of it. I’ll add that I’m also somewhat excited for Baldur’s Gate 3.

Official website: https://keithburgun.net/

Gem Wizards Tactics: https://store.steampowered.com/app/1360270/Gem_Wizards_Tactics/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/keithburgun

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