Farflame talked to programmer Marc-André Jutras and designer Mat Boudreau from Cradle Games about their upcoming game Hellpoint, which is currently trying to get funded on Kickstarter.
RPGWatch: Could you briefly introduce your studio? How did you get the idea to start developing your own game? Were you little tired of the usual AAA production?
Marc-André Jutras: Thanks a lot for the opportunity!
Cradle Games was created on April 2015 by three veterans from Ubisoft and Activision. I believe most people who work for bigger studio all have the dream of making their own game at one point or another. It's normal for an industry made-up of creative people; they want to be creative and sometimes it's not possible to fully express yourself by being part of a 500-people team.
However, making AAA titles is in my opinion a very important learning step for anybody who wants to work in the industry. There are just so many talented people that you can learn so much from. There are so many mistakes you can avoid in working with experienced people. Experience is in my opinion very important in an industry that is so complex and evolves at a neck-breaking speed.
After twelve years, I felt ready to do something wilder. I was given the chance to start Cradle Games with two friends who were in the same situation. So, what do you do when you have that chance? You do what you like to do! We love Dark Souls, science-fiction, and splitscreen co-op. And if nobody has ever done that before? Even better! We learned later that there is no souls-like game on Linux or (perhaps) the Switch, we will be the first.
Mat Boudreau: I've been poking Marc for years to start our own studio. Eventually he said "allright, allright I'll do it, but you'll have to design a souls-like game." So, I said "gosh really? fine, let's make a souls-like game and see what happens!"
It was my plan for 20 years to work in big studios, learn, git gud, and come up with the best studio startup plan. I kept the soul of the 90s safely in a heart shaped box and opened it up with Cradle.
I am most grateful to From Software for making the hardcore games market relevant again and in the same stroke give a stronger voice to us gamers. We've been caught in this "casual games" stuff for quite enough time.
RPGWatch: What do you like or don't you like about contemporary RPGs? What are your favorite RPGs (aside from Dark Souls)?
M.A.: In the Souls-like genre, mine is definitely Bloodborne. In the wide RPG genre, it is hard not to like Fallout 3 New Vegas or Skyrim. On the older RPGs, I believe the one I spent the most time on is Chrono Trigger.
I have a ritual when I play a new From Software game; I solo every boss alone, without summoning any help. A kind of me versus the game challenge. Makes the game longer, but then I can claim to have really beat it on my own.
Mat: I don't like that most RPGs as they make more money tend to catch what I call the "Budweiser" syndrome, in that they start to taste more generic to become more mainstream. So, I get bored easily, I need a stronger brew.
My RPG will always be Earthbound. I was a kid and I created a table top game with Earthbound to play with friends. I must have scratched and sniffed the back of the strategy guide until it went blank (Shroom!! was just disgusting but I kept scratching, hehe), and the game actually taught me English! I think I'll start a new game again soon, I do that every 5 years or so. Okdesuka!
RPGWatch: You have experience with big studios. Could you tell us a bit about how a normal week in a big studio looks like? For example, the meetings, how many people check or consult your work, how are groups of developers organized?
Mat: The best productions I've been a part of was whenever the production team entrusts the development team. The producer would keep us aware of everything we needed to know and we kept delivering with a good focus. Him and I both were taking care of the client relations so he never committed on unreasonable stuff on behalf of the team and we made great games so everyone was happy. Close to no overtime. Cases like these are among my inspirations for how to manage Cradle Games.
I think big productions are as bad as people are willing to stomach. I've always been merciless on production scoping and wanting to develop games with a team that enjoys restorative sleep, not just to be kind, but because it is more productive. Developers are getting older, getting kids and so on, so this whole thing of capitalizing on their "passion" to endure very bad management, it doesn't work on senior devs.
M.A.: That really changes between one production and another. For example, on Prince of Persia, we were about 75 while on Assassin's Creed 3, we were close to 750 over 7 studios. It's also drastically different if you're a director versus an artist. The style of your producer can also really change the overall mood.
When I was hired by Ubisoft, I was a level designer, so only my lead, and sometime the creative director would have a say in my work. A level designer only does meetings with the level design team. While a director ends up having meetings with the team, leads, producer, other directors, other studios, and so on.
Fast forwards to Assassin's Creed 3, and I was technical director. I was checking everybody's job and everybody was indirectly checking mine, from bug fixes to technical documentation.
I've had productions with hundreds of hours of overtime. On the other hand, in AC3, our producer believed overtime was a result of a failure from his management. Anytime, overtime was needed, he would stay and help the team. While it was one of the biggest production from Ubisoft in term of budget, I've ended up with only 30ish hours of overtime over two years, which is really not a lot.
That smooth production is what allowed me to do stuff like the Assassin Turkey near the end of the production. Google that if you don't know what I'm talking about. 😉
RPGWatch: It seems that many veteran devs like to be indie nowadays. Tools are cheaper and these small teams are able to produce very good graphics. While much bigger AAA studios have often problems with bugs (especially on PC ports). Do you think that this trend will continue? Will we see more polished AA games from small indies?
M.A.: The trend will totally continue. Making a game like Hellpoint with a team like ours would have been impossible just five years ago. The more performant platforms also give the developers some space for graphics and physics that was impossible in the last generation. For example, do you spend hours optimizing a tiny bit of your game, or do you spend making gameplay more fun?
However, not to brag - but will do a bit anyway - we spend years developing our own set of tools to allow us to make Hellpoint. Tools, even in bigger studios, are often underestimated. Even public engines like Unity, Unreal and CryEngine have tons of flaws and often requires a third-party plugin to work as efficient as possible. We decided very early that we needed a huge set of extra tools to work quickly and be able to make Hellpoint with a reduced team.
The issue with ports is that more often than not big studios use their own engine. A custom engine is usually in a constant state of instability. A friend of mine defined the development of a game as making a house of cards. The moment it's stable, you ship it! Because if you even breath near it, it will fall down. This is even worse when not only your game, but your engine too is in state of flux.
Mat: I think it can happen but devs need more production and business discipline to gain the trust of the audience and investors. Just knowing to make good games is not enough since you don't have that huge corporate structure to shelter you and allow you to create a solid international release.
I hope to see more though! I think 80% of the games I've purchased in the last few years were not AAA's. The indie scene is where most of the disruption is happening right now, and it's also the last refuge for many legendary developers who can't function as well as they'd like to inside giant corporations. The AAA industry is definitely showing some cracks and they'll probably need some time to figure out what's going on. So hurry, get out there and make your game!
RPGWacth: Now to Hellpoint. Where did you get inspiration for the idea about the black hole and the station near it?
Mat: There was a whole bunch of different game rules and world dynamics that I wanted to have fun with and we needed to find the best setting to justify all these. I wanted to have an ever-evolving world prone to emerging gameplay, and a throwback to what I consider to be the golden age of game creativity, in the '90 and early '00. It resulted in what's become Hellpoint, with its real-time clock, its dynamic event system and the inspirations from Doom, Event Horizon, Old School In Flames, that type of stuff. I believe the Hollywood type games are getting out of breath and we need to come back and really think to explore what only a video game can do. So this type of world design is going to be a staple for where Cradle Games wants to go as a company, and for our future titles.
M.A.: It's mostly a team work. The idea kept changing as we tried things and developed the core gameplay and story. Of course, we took a lot of inspiration from Mass Effect, Alien, Event Horizon, Dead Space, Doom, Dark Souls, Bloodborne and so many others.
We wanted to have a story-based justification as to why the player "comes back to life". We didn't want to do the same everybody else does. When he dies, he is transported to the nearest parallel universe to resume its exploration. The force allowing him to do that is in the center of the storyline. From that, we derived the gameplay, like the ghost of your past self that you must hunt down to retrieve your axions. (Like your souls).
RPGWatch: Hellpoint takes place on space station, but it seems pretty medieval. So will we see also some appropriate modern tools and sci-fi weapons that you would expect on such a station? For example, in the ARPG Technomacer, set on Mars, they use a lot of improvised weapons like tubes, big cogs on sticks, staves etc. Its logical for the setting and a welcome change from the usual melee weaponry.
M.A.: In the story, thousands of years in the future, every species is at peace with one another. There is no reason for weapons anymore. When the quantum cataclysm occurs, the player has to find ancient blueprints to craft weapons to defend himself from... everything. The cataclysm turn sever sane individual into a twisted being, partially merged with their counterpart from parallel universes.
In the demo, while we have more ancient stuff, we also have a railgun and an energy shield. Another set of armors we are currently producing is a very high-tech exoskeleton. We wanted to explore from very old gear to high-tech ones.
We also wanted to explore, what would a space station so far in the future look like? Would you even see the wires? What if the station is 3D printed and all the technology is integrated at the same time in its structure? What if the station can self-repair and self-sustain itself without any outside help?
One type of architecture we liked and found to match the game's mood perfectly is the brutalism. On top of speeding up drastically our development process, it also gives for an oppressive futurist style.
Mat: That's probably because of where we started from with the melee combat, with the Bloodborne inspiration and all that. Now 99% of what we do is focused on deepening the brand that Hellpoint is becoming. The bird has left the nest and flies on its own, so we're moving forward with cyborgs and exoskeletons, animated mechanical weapons, plasma weapons, magnetic weapons, badass guns, grenade launchers, drones and tech, etc. But we're also a horror game so we got disgusting weapons, occult powers, cosmic monster armors, so it's the type of things that you can expect to show up in the following updates.
RPGWatch: I noticed this feature - "forge your own supernatural skill using a revolutionary power crafting system". What does it mean?
M.A.: From the start, being a small team, we have to focus our effort on features that we believe would give the most in the whole game and not just a few minutes at the start. Most RPGs would have a character editor where you can make your nose bigger using sliders, and the moment you start the game, you equip a helmet that hides it.
Instead, we decided to take those sliders and bring them over on a power editor. In Hellpoint, powers are like spells. For example, you have the basic energy projectiles (magic missiles). You can decide its size, speed, range and damage using sliders. Each of those affect how much energy (mana) it would cost, or how long it takes to launch it, or even how fast you can walk while casting it.
On top, each power has modifiers slots. Those modifiers that you insert into a power change its behavior. You can make the energy projectiles to explode on impact, bounce on wall, split when touching an enemy, pushing the enemy back, and more. Each power has two modifier slots, so you can combine them for unexpected effects. Each modifier also has sliders so you can tweak them for the result you wish.
Our goal is that when you meet someone in multiplayer, you simply have no idea what to expect.
Mat: That's a testimony that we still believe Hellpoint will confirm online multiplayer soon (it's still unconfirmed just to be clear), but even if it doesn't it's still a kick ass customization tool to have in an offline game. Just the many ways you can customize your healing power really brings a ton of different dynamisms in gameplay.
RPGWatch: You mentioned terms like "rituals" and "occult sci-fi". Does it mean that you could pray or sacrifice things to cosmic deities and get some power in exchange?
M.A.: Without trying to give any spoilers, the quantum cataclysm literally broke reality in the multiverse. However, something amazing was also created at the same time. What was created and the chaos surrounding it is what attracted entities of cosmic powers to the station, from the depth of space or from other dimensions.
While praying to them has no direct effect - they might try to kill you anyway - how you deal with them changes the station and the potential outcome of the story. We do have many endings, and none of them is the "happy" ending. You always end up sacrificing something to preserve something else. It's up to you to choose what you feel is worth protecting.
Mat: What we want to do is create Cults which basically is a way to offer a beefier, more integrated achievement system. Roughly speaking, depending on the type of player you are, an achiever, a killer, a socializer or an explorer (see the Bartle test) you'll find an extra motivation inside one of the various Cult. It also allows you to tweak some of the rules of the game overall (make it easier or tougher) and of course there is sweet loot at the end of the process.
RPGWatch: Is there some class or specialization for the hero? I mean something like "demonic fighter" who is generally better with "demonic weapons", or "scout/explorer" who has a higher chance to find secrets (so it won't be only about fighting) or "occultist" who is more favored by gods so he relies more on their powers... Something like that.
Mat: Everyone plays the same main character inside one of the infinite parallel universe. You will be able to fiddle with your genes at the beginning of the game to play with starting stats, prior to getting 3D printed, but beyond that what your character looks like depends on how your adventure goes. I found that once I got good in Dark Souls I wanted to try new "build paths" in the next playthrough, but it wasn't exploited in the souls game as much as I would have wished. Progressing towards a build and finding the best path inside the station to do so is half the motivation for all the hardcore gamers who will want to master Hellpoint.
M.A.: While we don't plan to have starting class, we do have armor sets, weapons and stats that follow different paths. If you want to be a nibble ninja who uses short quick range attack with a light armor, it's totally possible. You invest your level point into stamina and dexterity. If you want to equip heavier armor, you will have to go with the load stat and probably use a strength based weapon.
Unlike other RPGs, for now we are planning the player to start naked and to build its character the way he wishes. In the other hand, that also means when you press "New Game", you get in the game without spending time in menus.
RPGWatch: Could you briefly compare your combat system to Dark Souls or other ARPGs? Are there some notable differences?
Mat: I wanted the players to be able to take more risks in combat without getting constantly punished for leaving the beaten path. I think if Dark Souls is Zelda and Nioh is Ninja Gaiden, ours could be compared to Super Smash Bros, oddly enough. We're adding a new dimension with the jump mechanic so there is one more direction that the combat can take. We're also putting more love in the hit reactions and enemies flying off in the air, smashing on walls, etc. Combos are simple but each have their specific purpose. So it's more about your positioning on the battlefield and choosing your next action strategically.
Compared to Dark Souls 3 I would dare to say that we've brought poise damage back in the way it's supposed to work, also the enemies do not have infinite stamina so you can dance properly and exploit windows of opportunities. Lastly, we make sure that every weapon is valid in combat whether it's small and fast or huge and devastating. We're working hard to make magic very useful as well.
M.A.: There are many differences and similarities to many games. We do have iframes and poise like in earlier Dark Souls. However, we have firearms like in Bloodborne. We have on-spot jumps like in many action-oriented games.
Anytime we added a navigation feature, we made it possible to chain it with attacks. Those contextual attacks usually give you an edge in speed, but cost more stamina because they come from another previous action. For example, you can do a dodge attack which quickly get you closer to an enemy. Or a sprint attack, which pushes the enemy away. Of a jump attack which breaks the enemy guard or crush it on the floor. Or you can sprint while blocking to ram an enemy to the ground.
On top of that, our fighting system is offering much more complex combos. We created a tool that allows our designer and animator to chain combos in any way they wish. This allows us to make each weapon unique. You have to learn how attacks chain with each other.
Finally, the weapon also levels up with you. As you deal damage, it progresses too, unlocking perks and abilities. Those abilities are different for every weapon. One ability gives you infinite stamina for a few second, another allows you to create an explosion to push back all enemies. Another one is a quick series of devastating blows or a long-range forward dash to impale your target. Perks are simple stats boost applied to your character when it's wielding that weapon.
RPGWatch: I noticed this feature - "The path you take inside the open-world-like station determines which enemies take control of various parts of the station". How does it work? Does it have some bigger consequences if enemies take control of some specific part of the station?
M.A.: The station is controlled by different rival species. If you kill one boss, the other species might invade its territory. In doing so, NPCs might move away or be killed. If so, some ending might become possible or impossible. Exploring some part of the station might become easier or harder.
Our goal is to have a bit smaller game environment, but one that can drastically change from one playthrough to another.
On top of that, every time you start a new game, the station is a different "parallel universe". So, an enemy that was on your left in your first game, might be on the right now. If you check some videos of people playing online, you might notice the game is never quite the same from one player to another.
RPGWatch: The idea about events caused by a black hole is interesting. But to what extent does the game show you when such event happens? Does it tell you exactly what happened and where? Or just cryptic hints where to look? Or there is no info, events happen in background?
M.A.: The top left of the screen, is a clock showing you where the black hole is in the sky. There's also a golden needle showing you the orientation the current section of the station compared to the black hole. If the black hole shines of a part of the station, something might occur... Or not.
Each species and section of the station reacts differently to the black hole's cycles. They might get harder, crazier, or shy away and try to avoid you.
The black hole can also affect the world around you; open a passageway, allow hordes of enemy to invade some rooms, summon a powerful foe that roam the corridors for a short time. Each section of the station has its own mechanic bound to the black hole. The player will have to discover them by itself from discussion with NPCs, item description and so on. If you're looking to be taken by the hand, Hellpoint isn't that kind of game.
RPGWatch: Could these events somehow change the layout of levels like creating some new walls and remove others? Or create traps around you?
M.A.: Of course, in the demo, we have an example of that. There's a giant red energy wall that only disappears at specific hours. There's a mini-boss walking around only between a specific hour and for a specific time. You can start fighting it, and if the time is up, he opens a portal and steps out of your reality. You missed your chance of killing it, until the time is right again.
We are currently exploring much deeper mechanics, where you could explore layers of reality on specific times using the spatial breaches. More on that later.
RPGWatch: Will we also meet rare NPCs with dialogues and traditional quests?
M.A.: Totally. One thing we made different is that some NPCs can also be trapped in mind vessels. In this future, people would transfer their mind into a numeric container, a "mind vessel" for long distance interstellar travels. Once arrived, their body would be 3D printed back, and the mind reinjected in it.
Some individuals are stored that way until they are needed for a specific purpose. This way, the limited resources of a deep space outpost are not drained.
While you explore the station, you can find some of those scattered around. They might not be sane, but they can give you clues, or ask you to perform specific tasks. They also have their own point of view on the events. What is interesting is that they are in your inventory. You can talk to them anytime you find a mind vessel interface.
We also have the more traditional NPCs that roam the station and are harder to find. However, they are also the affected most by the cataclysm.
Mat: Well, it's part of our Quantic system to approach NPC's in a fresh way. It's unlikely that we will make classic quest givers. A lot of them wander inside the station just like you, so either you know where they hang around or you find some way to track them. Another is watching you in the shadows and will only come out under specific conditions. Another is super sensitive to the black hole so you have to watch out. We have one main NPC that you can ally with, manipulate or antagonize depending on your own personal agenda. It remains to be seen if all of them will make their way into the final game, but broadly speaking that's how we want to use NPC's.
RPGWatch: I was surprised that you mentioned "puzzles" on the KS page. So, can you describe what type of puzzles could we expect?
M.A.: We try to see the world as a puzzle. Sure, we have rooms that you have to search and figure out how they work, but we also want you to figure out how the world works. Something you do in one section of the station can have deep effects elsewhere.
Honestly though, I think Mat can answer more about that.
Mat: Sure! I'm thinking the main game for a minimum of 3 walkthroughs, each one building on top of your previous knowledge of the world and getting you closer to the truth. It's as if you carry knowledge from one universe to the next...
Eventually though, if you want to truly find out the truth and "complete what was undone", you'll need to exploit the black hole, the NPC's, the mechanisms of the station and the final boss in a precise way. So that's the puzzle game hiding behind the action RPG stuff, it's about the long term gameplay loop. I want the whole community to unite against the game to unlock the final puzzle.
RPGWatch: Could enemies injure parts of your body and make the combat harder for you (unless you heal completely)?
M.A.: Not on enemies or on the player... However, we are exploring the possibility to cripple bosses. Do players really enjoy being crippled in the middle of a fight?
Mat: We couldn't do it this time, but I can say that Hellpoint 2 will have serious dismemberment action.
RPGWatch: Do you plan some interactivity in the space station? I got this crazy idea that you could trap some boss in airlock and just open the outside doors. :) That is something you can't do in a pure fantasy game.
M.A.: Absolutely! We do have some section of the station open to vacuum. To go there, you need to find some pressurized suit. If you open an airlock, enemies might get blown away.
The station is in orbit around the black hole, so twice per orbit it passes across its accretion disk. It's a disk shape chunk of asteroids, plasma and matter in fusion in prosses of being crushed and eaten by the black hole. While that happens, any section of the station open to vacuum becomes quite deadly. You must be careful where you are, but also when.
On the other hand, taunting an enemy to be at the wrong place at the wrong time can also be an easy way to dispose of it.
RPGWatch: It's probably too early to ask, but do you want to stick to Dark Souls-like games in the future or could you create different types of RPG?
M.A.: Anything is possible. We started with Hellpoint because of our experience in third-person action-RPGs. It allowed us to feel more at home on the genre of game, while also doing something a bit similar to something we love; Dark Souls. We all have different game we would love to make one day. Personally, I would love one day to make an arena shooter like Quake 3. Or a space shooter like Colony Wars. Or a platformer like Crash Bandicoot. The future will tell.
Mat: I like companies like KLEI or Valve that keep building on their expertise while offering wildly original new ideas every time. I think it's a risky idea to just clean the slate and start from scratch with each new game. I see us capitalizing on the dynamic world tools that we made and bring it to a whole new universe. Always with multiplayer. I have many unrealized fantasies left in my gamer soul that are hard for me not to spoil, but you'll just have to wait. 😊