As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to miss weekly game marathons. My friends and I would all get together, setup our consoles or PC’s in the living room, order pizza, drink way more Mountain Dew than a human should have in their system at once, and game for hours on end. Flying Helmet Games is making all of that possible again, for even the busiest gamer. Their project, Eon Altar, seeks to bring back the social aspect of gaming through a face-to-face setup utilizing smartphones. Edward J. Douglas, co-founder and creative director at Flying Helmet Games, took the time to give Indie Game HQ the details on their latest project.
Elle: Would you like to tell us more about Eon Altar, especially for our readers who may not have heard of it yet?
Edward: Eon Altar is a fantasy RPG, and I know anyone who’s familiar with fantasy RPG’s immediately thinks, “Okay, I’ve played a lot of those. What’s new and what’s different in this?” What we’re making is a video game that you can play face-to-face. We call it a tabletop video game, and you play in the style that you might play a board game or a tabletop RPG, but it really is just a video game that uses devices that so many of us have now, like an iPad or smartphones. You can play the kind of games that you would normally play on a PC, Xbox, or Playstation, while hanging out in a living room.
Elle: I think one of the biggest questions when you have such an accomplished and talented team—which you all clearly do—is why indie? You have people who have worked at EA, Bioware, and Ubisoft who have worked on some of the biggest and most popular AAA franchises of the most recent console generations. What prompted the switch?
Edward: It’s a switch that I’ve seen quite a few people doing. In Vancouver there are a lot of groups doing that. So for myself personally, as well as a couple of other people on the team, we spent a lot of time in AAA and worked on a lot of pretty fantastic projects, and, for me, it was the chance to try something on our own—something different, something a big studio may not risk. I was at the point in my career where I had the choice to work as a creative head on a project at Ubisoft or doing something on my own.
Looking at what’s been happening in the AAA game space, there’s less and less games being made. The games being made now are just bigger, bigger, and bigger. There are fewer opportunities for creativity now, whereas eight years ago, you could have—like a Playstation 2 game—made by thirty people, and the number of games and the amount of creativity was just unbelievable. Now, in AAA, that games that make a big dent are one hundred or two hundred million dollar games. Looking at the lineups for the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, there are some really cool indies and just a few AAA’s, and they all look the same. There are a few shooters and a few sequels, and for a lot of us I think the opportunities were take a shot at trying something of our own or jump in and keep working on the same kind of stuff over and over.
Going out on your own is risky. It’s scary. You don’t know what will happen, but I think for a lot of us, it was time to give it a shot and see what happens.
Elle: So Eon Altar takes the pen-and-paper experience out of tabletop RPG’s and transfers it to the virtual world. What has been the biggest complication you’ve had with that so far?
Edward: We really see it as a video game that you play face-to-face rather than taking a tabletop RPG and giving it virtual elements. There’ve really been a lot of fun and challenging aspects to it. We’re designing a game where, on the main screen, there’s no up and no down. It’s a flat shared space, so we spent a lot of time figuring out how to deal with character orientation on that screen, how do you direct things towards the right players at the right time, and how do we make sure we know where everyone’s sitting.
Another thing, of course, is that you can hide things from other players. Everyone has their own individual screen, which is their controller, but it is also their own individual screen, so players can have their own story for themselves. They can choose to share or keep it private, which was a lot of fun when we discovered that was an element that can be transferred from tabletop to video game, outside of online play.
At one point we were saying—Well, I come from Bioware so I’m used to rich storytelling with voiceovers—there’s no way we can have voice over to that extent. I called up an audio director and said, “Okay, I know we can’t afford it, but tell me how much it would cost”, and I cringed when I found out what it would actually take. But we don’t want to shy away from story, so we thought reading is the way it works in pen-and-paper games. Players can read to each other, just like the way they would if they were playing Arkham Horror and you draw a card off the deck and want to share the lore with other players. So we put the voice of the characters and the voice of the narration into the players mouths, and they can take on the characters and make choices through that, which will bring that role-play aspect in there. And not only can they read to each other, they can read what they do or don’t share, too. One person can discover something that benefits only them and choose to hide it from the other players.
In addition to that, since everyone’s around the table, we can do things that we could never do in even a MMO. There’s some griefing that goes on in MMO’s, but you design a game such that you can curate a lot of those player vs. player experiences enough so that no one can really be too big of a dick outside of certain PvP scenarios. When all the players are around a table, they can curate themselves. So say we have our trading mechanics: You can trade items with other players at any time, so we can encourage situations where you want to convince or bribe a player to do something for your benefit—I jump into battle and realize I’ve taken on too much and ask for help. I say, “If you help me, I’ll give you this item I know you want” and they help—At the end of the battle, the game doesn’t force you to do that. The players will force it to be resolved. If you try to rip your friend off, you have to deal with it yourselves. That’s just something we could never do in designing any other kind of game.
Elle: The game has gotten a lot of praise for sort of reinventing the future of tabletop gaming, and, in that sense, it makes the game a lot more attractive for people who have wanted to experiment with a tabletop RPG setting but don’t because they find having a character sheet and all the pesky math really intimidating. At the same time, you’re taking a way a lot of the imagination involved in tabletop campaigns. Do you feel like this design has made it less or more immersive?
Edward: So, we’re in no ways trying to replace tabletop campaigns. We love it. We still do it. We have our Sunday sessions right now with some of the guys from the company. We’re going through some really old 1970’s DnD campaigns. We’re in no way trying to replace that. We say in our lives these days we have less and less time to play these long campaigns. We still love getting some food and drinks and hanging out with friends, but as we’re getting older and have families, going an hour or two is reasonable, not the eight or ten hour sessions. So what we’re trying to do is use modern technology that lets us have this kind of relationship and play that is harder and harder to have time for while also, like you said, allow us to bring people in who would be intimidated by that paper aspect, who don’t want to spend hours figuring out a character or their stats. For example, our lead designer’s wife loves having people over, loves hosting game nights, but she doesn’t want to jump into these games with us because it’s not what she grew up with. I know a part of making this game was being able to have a game he could play with her with the same kind of story and immersion.
It’s a different kind of immersion. It’s the immersion you feel in a video game where you have an atmosphere with your character and story and you can see all the cool stuff we’re building and showing, but you’re just playing with your friends around the table.
One of our stretch goals on Kickstarter is a level editor. We want to make tools to let a DM-type personality build their own levels and stories. We know that’s really important, because at the end of the day, if the community really likes this game and there are tools out there, people will be able to make more content faster than we ever could.
I think to answer your question; it’s a different kind of immersion. A tabletop game and video game can be immersive but in different ways without one replacing the other.
Elle: So the game is very heavily reliant on technology. It requires smartphones as well as a central tablet. Most people these days have a smartphone for sure, but do you worry that the price of that central tablet may keep people from playing a game?
Edward: There’s around one tablet for every five smartphones out there in North America. In some of our videos, we have bigger tablets just to show off on. We think there are enough people with tablets out there for this. We think of it as the tablet is like the dungeon master guide, so one person has that, and all the story information is there. The smart phones are like character sheets, which are free downloads so anyone can jump in. We do have ideas for what a pass and play situation may be. We also realize that not everyone may have these devices, so it’s easy to run on PC or display on a television.
Elle: I saw that on your Kickstarter. I think you all refer to that as “couch mode.” How does that work? I notice when you’re using the tablet, you can move your characters around in game utilizing the touch-screen. You can’t do that with a TV.
Edward: Yeah, you’re obviously not going to walk up to your TV and start pressing it. The smartphone becomes a mini-controller for the screen. If you’re in couch mode, you’re on your handset, and you’ll have an interface where you can move a marker to move your character around. Instead of touching something on screen and dragging it around, you’d just use your controller.
Elle: There are currently nine adventures set in stone, each having their own group of Session Quests. You mentioned that you all were also considering a level editor, so players can create their own content. Do you all plan on releasing more content down the road?
Edward: I was just having that conversation outside my door. Another friend was saying, “So, what are you going to do after?” So when we get to the end of the nine, that’s going to be the end of the story for these characters discovering the truth and the secrets of the Eon Altar, and that’s going to setup what’s next in our story. The questions for us will be: do we continue that in Eon Altar—more campaigns or more stories with different characters in this engine—or is time for it to evolve and call it “number two?” We have more story, and we’re going to continue the story one way or another, but we’ll take a look at the technology and decide to make something more using what we have or use new technology for something different. We’ll just have to see what the technology looks like, how people are playing, what works, and what doesn’t.
I mean, you know how fast technology changes. It’s like trying to figure out how to make a game for the Xbox One a year or two ago. So we’re not trying to plan too far ahead technologically, but we definitely know where we’re heading in a story direction.
Elle: Players can choose one of five characters for their adventure. Who is your favorite and why?
Edward: That’s a tough question. They’re all like my children in a way. I think my favorite is Muran, the Battlemage. She’s a historian and an adventurer. In any other situation, she would be a bit like Indiana Jones and after a discovery, but in this situation she’s very driven towards a single purpose. I think she’s a very interesting character.
I believe later today or tomorrow, Scott, the designer, is going to be putting up some character stuff about her up on Kickstarter. We’re trying to do weekly character updates and upload more design videos, but it takes time to get it all about.
[Editor’s Note: Muran’s character update was never posted, as Eon Altar has cancelled Kickstarter funding for the time being. More information can be found at the end of the interview.]
Elle: You wake up your game world. What’s your personal plan of action?
Edward: So if I’m down in the caverns, I’m going to find other adventurers and try to discover what they’re after and how I can use them to my advantage to keep myself safe. I know I can’t continue on alone. It’s too treacherous, but I know I can’t completely trust everyone else, so I’d keep them at arm’s length and rely on them only when I have to.
Flying Helmet Studios has currently cancelled Kickstarter funding to pursue other business options, but they haven’t cancelled the game by any means. Eon Altar is still slated for a mid-2014 release. For more information, you can still check out their Kickstarter or visit their website.
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