Farflame talked with Matej Zajaèik, Technical Designer, Gameplay Programmer and Sound Engineer at Fatbot Sudios about their upcoming dungeon crawler Vaporum.
RPGWatch: Could you shortly introduce your studio? How did you get the idea to found a studio and start developing a dungeon crawler?
Matej Zajaèik: Our small studio, Fatbot Games, consists of 4 gamedev veterans, with about 43 years of combined experience. Most of us have known each other for a long time from other companies.
Tibor Repta (project lead) had a small working prototype of a dungeon crawler which his former colleagues helped him put together. It was still in its infancy, really, it barely did anything, but the uncommon steampunk visuals and Tibor's zeal fascinated me when I saw it for the first time.
We were long-time friends from Brazilian jiu-jitsu circles (wrestling) and often talked about how a gamedev company should work and how the respective companies we worked at back then were inefficient.
Being a code-guy, I thought, well, why not help improve a feature or two on the prototype. So I wrote some code to make the camera look more immersive and not so static. We also recorded an "in-exoskeleton breathing" sound to give it a more constricted, claustrophobic feeling, like you are really there, in the dark halls. We both liked it and I was hooked! We bit the bullet and made the leap, quitting our former jobs and going forward with our dream -- making our own game in our own company!
We created a 1-hour-long demo which we then presented to various financial parties. We clicked with one of them. They liked the demo and our principles, and I must say, they were quite unconventional. They gave us a much better offer we'd ever dreamed of, and so we founded a company together. Two high-quality, veteran game developers joined us soon after, and we started hammering away at this project full-time.
RPGWatch: What do you like or don't like in contemporary RPGs?
Matej: I like the modern controls and that most today's RPGs are a lot more accessible than the older games. I personally like original skills, mechanics, and if the game allows you to find and develop synergies in your character builds.
On the other hand, I don't like that 9 out of 10 RPGs re-use the same system of attributes and skills and whatnot that you've already seen a million times before. They rarely come up with a system of their own, one that would fit the story, the setting, and the unique mechanics of the game; they rather just slap your typical strength-dexterity-intelligence on it and be done with it.
RPGWatch: I assume you know dungeon classics like Dungeon Master, Ishar trilogy, Ultima Underworld, Wizardry, old Might & Magic etc. Which of them is your favorite and why?
Matej: To be honest, I might be the only guy on the team who came to love the crawling genre only thanks to Grimrock. The classics evaded me somehow back in the day. But I think I've made up for that by playing every single crawler that came out since! I love crawling!
On the other hand, our project lead Tibor has a wealth of experience in all the aforementioned classics, and we drew a lot from this when designing the game. His all-time favorites are Dungeon Master 2 and Lands of Lore 1.
RPGWatch: Story-driven games with strong narrative are trendy nowadays. How big a role does the story have in Vaporum? Do you have some NPCs and dialogues in the game?
Matej: For me, the story is always the force that drives me forward in any game, once the novelty of the setting, the mechanics, and the enemies fades. And yes, the story plays a major role in Vaporum. We always wanted it such. That's one of the reasons why Vaporum only has a single character with a pre-defined history that you reveal, and not a party of anonymous heroes. With this setup, we were able to tightly involve the character in the storyline and make it, hopefully, interesting.
As for the NPCs and dialogs, yes, you will come to know a few via logs and recordings, with their own personalities and motives. The major ones are fully voiced by quality voice-actors so you don't even need to read that much.
Actually, you don't need to pay attention to the story at all if you just want to have a blast killing enemies and beating puzzles.
RPGWatch: Real-time combat in dungeon crawlers is often criticized if you can apply simple "hit and run" tactics. Did you try to prevent this tactics in Vaporum? Does your combat system or enemy AI have some notable difference or advantage compared to average dungeon?
Matej: Oh yes! We are fully aware of this classical issue most real-time crawlers suffer from. We looked at the classics, we looked at Grimrock, and we realized that most enemies in them worked the same way, just had different appearance, damage, and health. We wanted our combat to be a lot more involved, interesting, and not suffering from the dreaded issue.
We spent a lot of time designing each enemy type so that each has something special or different than the rest. Some basic enemies are slow, and yes, in some situations, you can still apply the hit-and-run tactic. But most enemies are a lot faster, more unpredictable, and usually have maneuvers and attacks that prevent you from just waiting for them to come into your "line of fire".
You can also find ways to manipulate the enemies, either by pushing them away to make room, to force them to attack other enemies, and more...
Our experience with play testers (both in-house and at game conferences) is that they did not want to stop playing as they found the combat interesting and refreshing. :) So I hope our game doesn't suffer in this regard.
RPGWatch: Did you consider using turn-based combat system in Vaporum, something like the upcoming Bards Tale IV? If you have to compare both systems, what are their advantages and disadvantages according to your opinion?
Matej: No, we never considered that. The major mechanics must be clear from the start. We knew we were making a real-time dungeon crawler, with action combat, brain-wrenching puzzles, and dangerous hazards. It's not that we don't like turn-based or that we don't want to make a turn-based RPG; rather we had a clear idea of the game we wanted and we stuck to it.
Nonetheless, even if you're not a fan of real time, you can still enjoy Vaporum for its puzzles and lore on the lower difficulty levels, making combat a breeze.
Real-time combat has one major advantage over turn-based: adrenaline! The immediacy of danger that just won't stop coming at you until you beat it. You cannot just pause to think of your best next move. You got to be on the move constantly, making quick decisions. And then, when you do beat it, the pleasant feeling of peace and safety comes in. This can be quite addictive if done right.
On the other hand, turn-based combat can definitely be a lot, lot more tactical and involved in terms of your decision-making and "resource" management. Your mechanical player skills won't help a bit here; only your brain and intelligence can help you overcome the obstacles. And that's a big draw for many players.
I personally love both types of combat, for different reasons.
RPGWatch: Could you describe your character development? To have only one hero is some limitation compared to other dungeon crawlers. How do you try to make up for it?
Matej: Yes, having a single character may seem to be quite limiting in terms of development, and we were always aware of that. To make up for it, we employed a combination of "you are what you wear" principle and a long-term development of your exoskeleton. You don't improve your human character, instead you upgrade an exoskeleton that you find very early in the game.
So, what you normally call skills in most RPGs, like fireballs, poison novas, etc., come in the form of gadgets in Vaporum. Gadgets are just items you can put into your exoskeleton and use them right away. Gadgets do all kinds of stuff, like direct attacks, area attacks, buffs, debuffs, combat manipulation, etc. So, instead of locking you in a certain skill path of a character class, the game allows you to change your loadout at any time, to adapt to the situation, or to just try out different combinations of gadgets and other gear.
This is very flexible and we found out that especially on higher difficulty levels, some situations require you to fiddle with your loadout and change your approach to beat them.
A little side note: when you beat an enemy with special skills, they sometimes drop a gadget that enables you to use the same special skills against other enemies. So when you see some enemy do a cool attack, chances are you will be able to do the same.
We also found out that the "you are what you wear" alone would be shallow and uninteresting in the long run. So we added a more typical, long-term development of the exoskeleton. As it takes in energy from destroyed enemies, it becomes more powerful, allowing you to unlock and upgrade circuits on it. These give you statistical boosts in certain areas (weapon damage, defense, gadget-usage, etc.), but at certain ranks, you also gain modules (or perks) that are kind of like passive, permanent skills, which can significantly change your playstyle.
Another thing is weapons. We didn't like how weapons in most RPGs are basically the same thing only with different appearance and damage numbers. In Vaporum, each weapon type does something different from the rest. For instance, swords are strong against organic enemies, maces are strong against mechanical enemies, rifles are precise and powerful, but take a long time to reload, shotguns have short range, but deal damage in a cone and can stun the targets, etc.
Add to this a plethora of armor types, plus the rare weapons and rare armors with unique behaviors, and you have a large amount of customizability.
RPGWatch: Did you use steam-punk settings for puzzles? I mean something like big strange devices that take a lot of space in a level and player would have to inspect them and find out how to operate them.
Matej: Perhaps not as big as you picture them, but yes, we have some steampunky devices you have to figure out to make progress. Some of these objectives span a whole level or even multiple levels where you need to get individual parts to the whole puzzle.
RPGWatch: Could you shortly describe process of making levels in dungeon? Do you have some core idea what is purpose of each level? And do you use some tool or method that makes it easier for you?
Matej: We always have a core, level-wide mechanic, puzzle, or idea that dictates the flow and look of each level. We start with the core mechanic and then build the rest around it. We had initially created a large database of puzzles and ideas that we can always draw from, to fill out every part of the level with something interesting.
We created a tool (Prefab Painter) where you set up a "tileset", you know, floors, ceilings, walls, pillars, etc., and then you just paint the hallways and rooms with mouse and it all adds all these prefabs automatically. Then we add all the mechanics, level logic, and actors, and playtest the thing if it feels right. The tool is priceless as we can quickly whip up raw levels, change the layout in an instant, and test until the gameplay feels good.
When we are content with the raw architecture and gameplay, the artists put some love in it, decorating with all sorts of nice things to look at, lighting, atmospheric particles, and props. Then we make several more passes, adding sounds and little details until it's up to the audiovisual standards we set for the project.
RPGWatch: Is there some form of magic or some kind of replacement?
Matej: Well, yes. There's a mysterious substance that you will hear a lot about in the game. It has some very interesting qualities and it powers some of the more advanced technology in the tower. The most immediate thing that looks and feels like magic are gadgets, which are advanced technological toys that are able to produce various "magical" effects.
RPGWatch: It seems that you collect crafting material from killed enemies. Could you shortly describe your crafting system? Is it possible to craft something unique what can't be found in game world?
Matej: The material you collect from killed enemies is the substance I mentioned above. It makes your exoskeleton more powerful, but doesn't allow you to craft weapons or armor. Although you will get to craft some quest items at least. We strongly considered a crafting system early in the development, it never made it to the game due to mostly schedule issues.
RPGWatch: Dungeon crawlers are pretty niche products. But nowadays some developers try to make them a little more appealing for the masses, for example by adding party banter like in RPGs. Do you think that it really pays off to try to sell dungeon to the masses or its better to use your time to make the game better for your core audience?
Matej: That's a tough one.
I would rather make the game the best it can be for the core audience than make it super-accessible to everybody. This does not mean I don't want other people to be able to enjoy the game, though. But we want to give the players who regularly buy crawling games what they expect -- a solid dose of crawling fever, lore, and challenge.
From our experience during focus tests and game conferences, people who never played crawlers always struggled with the controls, but they got a hang of it eventually, and most of them actually liked Vaporum, even though they were quite shocked about how you moved on a grid instead of free analog movement.
Yet at the same time, veteran crawler gamers were right at home in the game, but still found it interesting and fun to play.
So I guess there may be a sweet spot somewhere. Only time will tell if we got it right. :)
RPGWatch: Puzzles (that are common in dungeon) are not really popular nowadays. Even modern adventure games put much more emphasis on narrative than puzzles. What do you think about that? Do you think there is some way to change this trend?
Matej: I think when people play a game, they want to have fun, and for most people, puzzles aren't fun. It's hard to tell whether 10-20 years ago people found them fun, or it was always like now, but a different kind of people and the number of them plays games nowadays.
Trends are usually changed by big, major events, or successes, or just evolve slowly over time. I don't think in these terms though, like how and why to change a trend. Especially if you're making a niche game -- niches don't usually conform to trends. That's why they are niches I guess. :)
RPGWatch: Recently I heard that it's better to have dungeons in underground as usual than make them in the open (like in Legend of Grimrock 2). I have some doubts about this idea. What is your opinion about it?
Matej: I personally like the combination of both. Indoor dungeons can be very well structured and can give you a specific experience in a well-controlled environment, while outdoors provide a feeling of freedom, breathing fresh air, moving around a living world.
So, Grimrock 2 hits the nail in this regard for me.
RPGWatch: Do you have some dream project for future?
Matej: I personally have quite a few. As a former Doom fanatic (both playing and making maps), mine has always been a first-person shooter in the veins of the original Doom, heavily focused on gameplay, fun, environment manipulation, and speed. But now I'm more inclined to create role-playing games as they tickle more brain cells. :D
Developer: Fatbot Studio
Genre: Dungeon Crawler
Play-time: 20-40 hours
Voice-acting: Partially voiced
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2017-09-28
· Publisher: Fatbot Studio