In this Indie Stash interview, Kyle talks to John Ree of Coda Games about his upcoming game, Liege! In this interview John talks about the gameplay and story elements of Liege, some of his inspirations behind the game, the success of the Kickstarter campaign, and stretch goals he was excited to achieve.

King is dead screenshot

ME: Hello Everybody!!! This is twodashstash.com and today we are interviewing John Ree, of Coda Games, about his game Liege; which has just passed its goal on Kickstarter. It’s a re-imagining of the 16 bit RPG. So, John Ree, tell us about Liege.

JOHN REE: Sure, so basically the concept is that it’s kind of old-school JRPG inspired, but the gameplay is basically tactical. So it kind of has a lot of inspiration from games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem, Xcom and others in the genre. So basically the idea is to take the old-school top down 16 bit JRPG and then layer on other things, like the tactical gameplay from the aforementioned titles.

ME: I notice that this game, looking at some of the art, has a lot of influences just from the visual standpoint. I’m seeing a lot of anime in there, it almost reminds of me of Golden Sun some of the artwork.

JOHN: Yeah, definitely. As far as the art style is definitely influenced by, I guess we could say anime, for the most part it’s kind of meant to be a modern take on some of the older SNES RPG’s…

Me: Like Final Fantasy and Secret of Mana?

JOHN: Exactly. Crono Trigger, Final Fantasy 6 so if you just ran them on modern hardware this is what I’d always imagined that the game would kind of look like. That’s kind of what I was shooting for.

ME: So the gameplay is turn based like Fire Emblem and Xcom and a storytelling approach similar to the former, in which you fight a mission and then interact with the story.

John: Yeah, basically the idea is that I kind of wanted to take the free-roaming exploration elements of games like Crono Trigger and Final Fantasy and others in the genre, and then kind of blend that out into the tactics genre instead of getting whisked away into some separate battle map. I wanted to kind of leverage the main game world and use that as the setting for where the tactical combat takes place.

ME: The story in JRPG’s is very much a part of the main experience and I like the idea of incorporating the main game world into the tactical combat scenarios. How ambitious is your story? We’ve seen a lot of JRPG’s come out in the last couple of years. What does your story bring to the table? What experience are you trying to craft, so to speak?

JOHN: I think for the most part, at least a lot of people in the US and western markets kind of have lost interest in a lot what is coming out of stories in JRPG’s these days. Really what I wanted to do was to kind of tell, I guess, a story that’s more geared towards an adult audience that might have grown up playing some of these older JRPG’s but are kind of looking for something a little bit deeper now. That’s kind of the concept going into it. As far as the influences go, the big ones that come to mind are things like Game Of Thrones: A Song of Ice And Fire, other things like Dune and basically any series that kind of has like a big political plot and a power struggle in the center of it.

City Is Ours Screenshot

ME: That sort of deep mythos is very appealing to a lot of people, as you said a lot of people aren’t very interested in a lot of the mechanics and story elements that come out of JRPG’s these days. I, for one, very much liked the depth that a lot of these stories brought to the table. I have very fond memories of playing through the first Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem…I haven’t played Crono Trigger yet…

JOHN: It’s a great game you should definitely try it. Yeah, I think the format for sure has a ton of potential for telling stories. I think it’s probably one of the best sub-genres of gaming to actually tell a good story in. I think as a whole, at least in the games I’ve played more recently, there’s been a lot more focus on things like the production, the graphics and the spectacle of the game and the attention has kind of gone away from developing the characters and making them appealing and interesting. That’s kind of what I want to get back to a little bit.

ME: So, moving on from the story, let’s talk a bit more about the combat system. So it is turn based, so what I can gather, from all of the screenshots and all of the available information is that you can actually arrange your units into formations and there are skill trees that you can level up your units abilities in. Tell us a bit more about the combat systems and the way these mechanics interact with each other.

JOHN: Sure so, at the core of the gameplay the big focus is on the spatial element. So, instead of focusing on things like the amount of damage that your units deal, the focus is much more on things like attack range and the direction that you’re attacking from and things like that. And then you kind of see that reflected on the different types of classes that you can play as. I think one of the big differentiators in this game is that it’s going to place much less emphasis on the grinding and leveling aspect than you typically see in the genre. So while there’s some amount of unit progression it’s not like you’re going to be wandering through the countryside slaughtering all of the different creatures you encounter just so you can reach level 99. I think one of the big things that I wanted to shoot for is to make a tactics RPG that’s meant for people who just don’t have time to sink untold hours leveling up their characters and maxing them out. So the character progression is actually tied more deeply into the story or narrative, so when you see one of the characters getting upgraded it’s as a result of something that happens to them within the story, as opposed to you having killed the thousandth blob that you encounter.

Battle Screenshot

ME: That’s always been a major problem with a lot of JRPG’s that I’ve played, Golden Sun especially. One of its major flaws was the major grinding, you had to grind so much just to gain one level, later when you reach level 50 and above it was just annoying. I like the way that this game combines the story and this major gameplay mechanic, which is the upgrading of your characters. Not a lot of games do that, as in going through the story and leveling you up based on events that happen to you. My question is, will the story have different branching paths so that you can have different effects on your characters so that they develop into a different kind of unit?

JOHN: There’s a limited amount of branching, I can’t say that you’re going to be able to make decisions which will have a huge impact on the overall direction of the core narrative. The main reason for that is because I’m basically at this point a solo developer and with each branch that I introduce that multiplies the amount of content that I need to produce. The game is really about delivering this core narrative which is, for the most part, linear like you see in most JRPG’s, but within that you have player freedom to make some other choices within the story as well as the freedom to explore things in a different sequence and things like that. As much as possible I’m trying to create openness for the player while keeping the amount of content that I need to produce within what I can actually accomplish.

ME: Alright so smaller, individual choices will have an impact on the story and what units your characters become. That sounds like a good move. Let’s talk a bit more about the art style. It is, judging from the screenshots, a very unique style. I’m kind of liking it, it has a watercolor feel to it, it’s very atmospheric. How did you decide on this approach? I know you’ve said that you see it as a natural evolution of 16 bit JRPG’s but what other motivations did you have for choosing this art style?

JOHN: I would say that, ever since I was younger and playing these older games, I would always kind of imagine that once games got further along that it would be like seeing a moving painting. I think that games as a whole kind of took a different direction and they became really focused on realism. What I knew that I wanted at a high level was something that is kind of stylized, with a “painterly” feel. This is my best attempt at making that happen. That being said, now that the Kickstarter has done pretty well, I’ve actually been able to bring a new artist on-board. So some of that might be changing somewhat, I’m still looking to kind of retain the overall direction that it’s been headed in. Hopefully with this new artist’s help we can take it to the next level and bring it a much better look and execution.

Combat Example

ME: So this game has been very successful on the Kickstarter platform, it has raised 81,458 dollars, well north of its $15,000 goal. I must ask though, Why the relatively low $15,000 goal?

JOHN: So originally the goal was basically the minimum amount that I would need to complete the game, on my own, independently. That was kind of the goal, basically it was enough for me to just get by for the next year doing nothing but work on the game. Once we exceeded the goal, the scope of the project had changed somewhat, so instead of being a small title that was focused primarily on mobile and PC, the additional funds opened up the possibility for things like hiring a composer, hiring a new artist, as well as doing ports to other consoles like the PS4, Vita and Wii. so yeah, $15,000 was basically enough for me to do this for a year and get it as far as I can take it, but since we’ve gone so far past that the scope of the project has completely changed.

ME: I notice a curious absence of a version for the Xbox One or 360.

JOHN: I have nothing against Microsoft as a platform, for me as a developer my goal is to reach as many players and people as possible. The only reason why the Xbox wasn’t included was, at the time of the Kickstarter, Microsoft’s indie policies hadn’t opened up the way Sony’s and Nintendo’s had. If Microsoft was open to receiving indies in the same way as the other two big ones were I would have pursued them as well, but at the time Sony and Nintendo were the only ones with options so they’re the ones that I went with. From a personal standpoint it’s not like I have a grudge against them or anything like that, it’s just from my perspective more players is obviously a good thing for me.

ME: Now that Microsoft’s Policies have changed will you consider porting to their platforms at a later date?

JOHN: I have nothing against that as an idea, the only concern is that I already have a fair amount on my plate . Especially since we’re going through the Kickstarter process we have people who are already invested that want to see the game coming to them first. As a matter of priority the focus is going to be getting the game to everyone that’s backed it so far. Down the road, as long as the tech allows for it and the game does well, then Microsoft is definitely something that I would consider.

Campfire Screenshot

ME: Let’s talk about your stretch goals. So the $24,000 stretch goal: Ride horses throughout the game world and into combat. Explore the realm on horseback and unlock dynamic new tactics in battle. Does this mean that horses become a major part of the experience?

JOHN: Mounts were always something that I was considering for the game, I think that, especially because it places so much focus on unit movement range, it opens up a ton of possibilities. Plus I just think it’s kind of awesome to be able to travel with a mount, as opposed to having to walk around everywhere. But to make that happen that means that you have to code a lot of new mechanics in, re-balance the dynamics, you need to actually have the animated assets. That was kept out of scope for the initial target.

ME: Next Stretch Goals: Ships, Ports, and The Sea at 32,000 dollars. Travel through busy port areas and by sea between the kingdom’s coastal cities on big, beautifully detailed ships. This one sounds ambitious.

JOHN: I’m glad we reached this one because a lot of the game’s story, in particular this outlaw movement which is one of the factions in the game, they’re kind of based in these port areas and have ties to ships and smugglers, having this as an option would definitely help us do that. The reason it was kept out of scope (initially) was because, making convincing ships and the effects that you need for that, it’s a fair amount of work. The good thing is that we have our new artist, hopefully we’ll be able to make it happen and then make it feel convincing.

ME: The next stretch goal is bigger battles, at $40,000: Command soldiers in epic, larger scale, battles against enemy armies. This will use the same mechanics as smaller battles but with higher stakes. Tell us a bit more about this.

JOHN: Sure, I guess the combat system as it was originally imagined is kind of meant for smaller scale skirmishes. So you kind of have a couple of your main heroes and maybe some additional units which are kind of given to you through the narrative. So you might be dealing with a team of 8 or so units in a standard battle against around the same number of opponents. What the bigger battles goal was kind of meant to do is kind of scale that up a bit. So instead of dealing with 8-10 units in battle you might deal with several times that, on a much larger scale. This will definitely add things to those points in the narrative where you have these big battles taking place. So you won’t be limited to controlling just 8 characters in a large-scale battle, you’ll actually be able to control much more than that. The concern that I had with this, is that first: it’ll require some re-balancing of the mechanics, because it’s not really kind of built to support this many units. One of the big things that I’m kind of worried about is how to make it so that you can control 40 units without the process becoming tedious. So you don’t have to go through each unit one by one and tell them what to do for each turn. So we’re looking at things like grouping and selecting multiple units at once and issuing commands that way, and kind of tying that in to some of the original mechanics that we had in mind. There’s definitely going to be a lot of work there to make it feel right.

Units Menu UI

Units Menu System

ME: Next stage, the Burning City. $58,000: An elaborate, multi-stage, playable sequence at a pivotal moment in the story, where one of the kingdom’s great cities falls after a great battle. This was scaled back due to its size, but meeting this goal gets the scene implemented as it was first imagined.

JOHN: So this one is definitely exciting, especially from the perspective of the narrative, since it is one of the core moments or turning points in the story. What this really means is that we can implement a lot of these cool special effects and features that are gonna make it convincing. What’s difficult about this scene is that, from a technical perspective, there’s a lot of things that we need to get right. So even things like the fire effects, or making the city feel like it’s being destroyed and having these large-scale battles with lots of units, it’s definitely going to be one of the more technically complex pieces to implement. It’s definitely going to make full use of one of the stretch goals that we had. Everything from ships, ports and the sea and the bigger battles, we’re going to kind of see those utilized to their fullest potential.

ME: The next stage, Art Version 2.0. $67,000: A significant upgrade to how character and environment art are handled. Much smoother animations, switch from 8 directional to full 360 degree movement and improved, higher resolution environments. That sounds awesome.

JOHN: You definitely said it for this one. This really has two parts, the first is kind of a number of technical changes to our framework to support this upgraded art. So we’re going to redo things like how our character animations system works. So right now we’re using 2D sprite sheets, which really limits the number of frames that we can have in each animations, just because it places constraints on us from a memory perspective. So instead we’re basically going to be pulling the 3D assets that we have directly into the game, which is obviously going to give us much smoother animation. That’s the first piece, these tech upgrades, the second piece is bringing the extra artists on board. We found our artist, I’m going to be making an announcement next update with some samples from his portfolio, as well as some examples of what the new art style is going to look like. I’m definitely really excited to have this new guy on board.

Character Concept Art

Concept design for Jeril Rykhart

ME: Alright, do you have a specific release date in mind?

JOHN: The plan is to release by July of 2014, that’s kind of what we had set out with our Kickstarter reward, so that’s when the first game is going to be released. The plan is then to have the additional games spaced out by several months after that. So that would bring the third piece into somewhere around early 2015.

ME: Do you have a price point in mind?

JOHN: So as of now the thinking is to price it similar to how we had it in our Kickstarter reward, so $10 gets you the first game and $25 got you the full trilogy. The plan is to keep it as close to their as possible.

ME: So this has been TwoDashStash.com interviewing John Ree about his Kickstarted project: Liege, which has just passed its goals and will be coming your way early July 2014. Thank you for joining us John.

JOHN: Thanks Kyle.

For more information about Liege be sure to check out the Coda Games website and be sure to follow TwoDashStash.com for updates on Liege!

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