When I said yesterday we’d have more Q&A’s for you very soon, I wasn’t lying.
Our latest chat with an indie developer is with the magnificent Ian Atherton, who just happens to be the brains and the beauty behind the hack and slash game, Crimson Keep. So let’s meet Ian and learn more about his career in gaming.
Hello Ian. How about we start with you giving a small introduction to our readers?
I’m Ian Atherton, I grew up and still live in the Pacific Northwest, United States. I’ve had a lifelong addiction to video games and love creating art and stories. I have an art degree from the University of Washington. And, I like dogs?
And how about going into a little more detail about your career in game development?
I’ve been trying to make games probably since middle school; writing stories, designing rules, drawing characters. I’ve always fallen on the more arts than science side of the spectrum so it’s been a struggle from the beginning not being all that interested in code or math savvy. As a result, the position I typically fill is artist, game systems designer, or level designer. But, having worked in the indie space I’ve had to wear many hats, especially on this project, doing things like writing lore, audio production, and voice acting are unfortunately not outside the bounds of my day to day job.
Now we’ve gotten to know you, let’s talk about your existing games. What titles have you developed so far?
In 2012 my first real paying gig was doing art for Malevolence, an infinite-sized dungeon crawler game. In 2013 I did art and game design for Fjall, a 2d action/puzzle platformer. In 2014 I made a small Android game called Dumb Phone Dodger. In 2015 I was one of the original people working on Shoppe Keep. And since late 2015 I’ve been working on Crimson Keep, the first major project of my own.
Let’s talk about your game currently in development, Crimson Keep. What kind of game is it?
It’s a first-person hack and slash game where you crawl through dungeons, find equipment, and improve your character. Every time you play it, it’s a little different; rooms, loot, monster spawning and placement is all randomized. The game also has permanent death, meaning no matter how far you got, when you die, that character is gone. The more you play the more content you unlock as well, like new areas, items, abilities and classes.
And what was the inspiration for Crimson Keep?
Initially, I just wanted to make a first-person slasher game like Hexen, but that quickly evolved into something with more RPG elements like Diablo. The combat also evolved into something somewhat resembling a first-person Dark Souls after I became obsessed with it for awhile. There’s also hints of The Binding of Isaac with the way content is unlocked. Roguelikes have been a huge inspiration, I can’t get enough of their wacky, random, and punishing nature.
What have you done to make it stand out from similar titles?
I think there are some games similar to ours that have neglected their combat systems. With Crimson Keep we’re trying to force the player into thinking tactically and reacting carefully but in that first-person perspective. It could end up being something players aren’t used to. “Jousting”, reading enemy movements, dodging, and using consumables and weapons situationally all kind of sound like the hallmarks of a great 3rd person action game, but in Crimson Keep we have all that combined with the accuracy of the first person perspective. Hitting an enemy on their shield will do almost no damage, and hitting them in their head will do extra.
People have told me the game’s art style has also helped it stand out. Many indie games with small teams have opted for pixel or voxel styles, but given the dark tone of our backstory, that just didn’t feel right for the game.
Were there any major issues you faced during development?
The game has been a pretty ambitious project from the very beginning. We have a pretty decent number of systems in place and making them all work just right, and then testing them and refining them until they feel really good has resulted in less time for content creation than I’d like. Fortunately, I think this is something that can be improved upon over time. We plan to continue updating the game with free content similar to what those guys over at Yacht Club Games have done with Shovel Knight. I’m totally on board with the example they and companies like Rockstar have set with increasing the value of a product well after launch.
And following on from that, were there any parts of the development that felt like major accomplishments? Maybe overcoming a certain pain in the rear?
The number of things our programmer, Ben Rog-Wilhelm, has accomplished over the course of production has been pretty amazing frankly. It feels great as a designer to never really have to compromise the vision for the game because of technical issues. When Ben got random level generation working with runtime navigation mesh generation (ai pathfinding) I was pretty blown away. There are games that have been out for years that were unable to get that working. The musician we worked with, Matt Oglesby has also made that portion of development rather painless, and people regularly claim the soundtrack is one of the best parts of the game.
Final question on your game; in 10 words or less tell our readers why they should check Crimson Keep out upon release.
Dungeon crawling has never hurt so good. *whip crack*
Just a couple more general questions to tie things up; firstly for people looking but are maybe too scared to venture into game development and start up a studio like you have, what advice can you offer? Are there any particular pieces of software you would recommend for beginners?
Start trying, start failing, you will fail, but if you really want to do it, the failing won’t matter to you. I started with gamemaker in middle school, but you can start with anything. Start editing existing games, or start with pencil and paper, make a board game. Just do!
And a little topical question for you now; Nintendo recently announced the Nintendo Labo which essentially brings virtual reality to the Switch. Do you think this is a clever bit of kit that fits well with Nintendo’s philosophy of being innovative and keeping things fun, or do you think a cardboard kit like this is a cheap novelty to the alternative for which interest will quickly begin to dwindle following release?
Not sure if I know enough about it to weigh in on it yet. From the teaser video they posted, it looks like it could be something interesting, but yeah, it also looks like it could go the other way.
And finally for a bit of fun; what’s your favourite film and why?
True Romance. It has the scummy charm and comedy of a Quentin Tarantino movie (he wrote it) but without his trademark weird/slow pacing. Great cast and soundtrack as well.
Never seen that film before, so I’ll definitely be checking it out later this week. As for the Q&A though, I’m afraid that’s all we have for today. Hopefully, you’ve found it interesting, educational and that it wouldn’t be deemed NSFW. If you want to keep tabs on Ian and Crimson Keep, be sure to check below for the usual details.
The Crimson Keep team is comprised of Ian Atherton and Ben Rog-Wilhelm. Ian is the artist and lead game designer, he has worked on various indie games since 2012 including Fjall, and Shoppe Keep. Ben Rog-Wilhelm is the programmer and co-designer behind the game, a veteran of the industry, he’s worked for companies from Snowblind Studios to Trion Worlds, most recently working at Ludeon Studios on their smash hit RimWorld.