Muse Games chief executive Howard Tsao talks to us about rebooting Guns of Icarus, building a gaming community and the new power of Kickstarter
The latest buzzword in gaming is Kickstarter. In a little over six weeks, the service has gone from being an interesting source of investment for cottage industry projects to potentially changing the entire landscape of video game development.
One early adopter of the service is Muse Games, an indie developer that concluded a successful campaign for the forthcoming Guns of Icarus Online not long after the publicity storm whipped up by Double Fine Productions own Kickstarter.
Chief executive Howard Tsao spoke to Press2Reset about his experiences with the crowd-funding service. “We actually started using Kickstarter early in 2011 for our other project CreaVures after hearing about it from a friend.
“We created a campaign two weeks before we were set to launch the game on Steam, and we were really surprised by the positive feedback and support we received. We realized then that Kickstarter was a powerful way for us to reach out to and interact with fans, so when we finally got to the alpha stage of Guns of Icarus Online’s development, we knew we had to create another Kickstarter campaign for it.”
But the strengths of the Kickstarter model were not exclusively investment-related. It also served to manage communications with and feedback from invested (literally) fans of the concept. Tsao says, “We realized that we needed closed beta players for Guns of Icarus Online to help us test and give feedback. We didn’t do a good job building a community through social media from the original Guns of Icarus, so in a way, we had to start over again.
“With Kickstarter, we found the best way for us to build the closed-beta community. We had aimed for no more than 1,500 people for closed-beta, figuring that was about what we could manage. But with the support and demand we received, we ended up with more than 1,800. Aside from the money raised, which was helpful to pay for things like sound design, music, game servers, hosting, and some additional game art, Kickstarter is powerful in building and engaging with the player community. Our campaign really speaks to the versatility and reach of Kickstarter.”
It’s likely that you have heard of Guns of Icarus before. It’s a steampunk airship combat game that blends turret defense features with shooting mechanics. The player’s task is to pilot the airship Icarus and its cargo along trading routes beset by air pirates. The trick is balancing repairing the airship vital systems with manning the guns that can shoot down attacking forces. Knock out the opponents and the ship takes less damage but ignore the onboard fires for too long and your airship will go down.
The original game was released in 2010, following a short four-and-a-half-month development. The team had a small budget and were just starting out so, although they were bursting with ideas, the game lacked the scope and people to implement them all. However, getting into Steam and the Mac App Store helped Muse Games grow to the extent that now the team feels the time has come to revisit some of those ideas that couldn’t be used first time around.
So, specifically, what’s changed for Guns of Icarus Online?
Tsao says, “The major difference between the two is that we’ve given the player more choice. In the first game, it was mission after mission where the airship would be flying on its own. Now, players can pick a ship they want to pilot and fly through a competitive multiplayer Skirmish match how they see fit.
“Guns of Icarus Online is also full-fledged multiplayer, pushing the envelope in team-based combat. On top of that, there is more specialization in terms of choosing classes – Captain, Engineer, and Gunner – with unique mechanics for each class. The combat on airships blends these mechanics together, so the experience has a lot more depth.”
It’s not just the mechanics that have been broadened and explored. In the original game, missions began and ended in towns that were little more than dots on a map with a splash screen adding a little character and a fragment of story. The effect created a waft of mystery that left many gamers wanting more. “Airship adventures and battles in the skies are only one part of the story. The rest is the story of the people living on the ground, the settlements they built, how they survived all this devastation after the Great War. What kind of communities would they form? What would industry look like?” says Tsao.
“Guns of Icarus Online is and will always be a game about airships, but we wanted to give players a sense of community they could belong to and an idea of what they were fighting for, and that’s these towns that they’re fighting to protect, invade, or bring supplies to. In Skirmish Mode, each skirmish has a story behind it: what towns or factions are involved, what they want, why they’re fighting. You can play on whichever side you choose, but they’re not symmetrical, faceless conflicts or red team vs blue team. Instead, they’re a window to the larger world that will gradually be revealed.”
This time around there will be two gaming modes – Skirmish and Adventure. Tsao describes the differences between the two as similar to the differences between a PvP combat arena, like the Battlegrounds in World of Warcraft, and the adventuring aspect of a typical RPG – trading, fighting and travelling. Tsao says, “Adventure Mode includes both the combat matches (Skirmishes), and the ‘adventure’ stuff, flying around on trade routes and visiting towns.
“In Skirmish Mode, you get to a skirmish by waiting in a lobby and joining a match, like a ‘raid the town’ skirmish where your team’s objective is to break through a town’s defenses and steal a resource. In Adventure Mode, you get to a skirmish by flying to a town and then accepting a mission, like a request from the town’s mayor to help defend against a wave of incoming raiders. It’s possible that it might even be the same players playing against each other in the same match – we’ll be looking at ways to integrate the two modes.
“When the skirmish is over, the Skirmish Mode player will go back to the lobby and find another skirmish to join, and the Adventure Mode player will go back to whatever she was doing in the town, maybe exchange some cargo and then fly off on another trade route.”
Recently, Muse games confirmed that the Skirmish Mode would be ready to go on sale before the Adventure Mode is finished. Tsao explains how gamers will be able to get both modes, “We will be charging additionally for Adventure-specific features and content, but we haven’t decided on the precise format, and the final offering may be more flexible than a single DLC bundle. However we release it, it will all definitely be the same title. We will also continue to update and improve on Skirmish features as well, finding the best ways to integrate the two experiences.”
While the team are motivated to expand on those ideas put on hiatus back in 2010, there is another driving factor behind returning to the IP. Not everyone was happy with the gameplay on the original title. Some critics felt the play was repetitive and others drew attention to the weak communication tools for multiplayer.
Tsao readily holds his hands up to these charges, but points to several mitigating factors, “The players, our customers, our fans, are right. What it came down to was what we were realistically able to accomplish given our tight resources. We take everyone’s comments to heart, responding in our forum and by email as best we can. They are our inspiration. We’re making a product for them.”
And there is every sign that this is a heartfelt commitment as he explains in detail how the team have addressed these issues. “So as far as making communication better, in Guns of Icarus Online we’ve tried to build in a lot of implicit communication at the gameplay systems level. For example, the Captain has a spyglass that can spot enemy ships and even individual ship components. Not only does spotting serve as a visual marker, it also causes the spotted object to take more damage. This is extra incentive for Gunners to aim where the Captain has spotted.
“It’s those kinds of things that we think will make the play experience smooth. There are also UI/HUD features that will help, and shipwide text chat is always available, but of course if players want to get really good, they’ll be using voice chat. Voice chat is something we’re looking into very carefully.”
And the gameplay concerns?
“We think that the specialization of classes introduces a lot of depth. It’s really the tank, DPS, and healer metaphor from RPGs that we love so much, except we’ve constrained it to the deck of the airship. In addition to that, we have several different PvP skirmish types like capture the flag, VIP, and resource races (similar to Arathi Basin in WoW).
“Not only are players playing co-op with people on their ship, but they are playing against people on other ships, blasting them out of the sky. So in this game’s combat, every match is unique. We think this is the missing part of the equation that we’ve now added to Guns of Icarus Online.”
So, Guns of Icarus is roaring back to our screens in a new and improved version. Some of that is through the determined vision of the developers and some is through the astonishing rise of crowd funding. But is Kickstarter really the start of a revolution? Tsao thinks it could be. “Having gone through two successful campaigns, we realized how powerful a platform Kickstarter is, as it is the most direct way for indie developers to reach and interact with fans, and for fans to support indie projects.
“We were thinking that if Kickstarter continued to grow, it would eventually cross a tipping point, and funding for indie teams solely through Kickstarter would be more and more of a reality. Then, the Double Fine project and Wasteland 2 happened, and they hugely accelerated Kickstarter’s march to that tipping point. In an incredibly short span, Kickstarter has become a primary way to raise funds for indie projects. More and more gamers are also finding Kickstarter to be the destination to discover new games and projects. Success stories like these are definitely changing the playing field for the better.”
And that can only be a good thing.
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