Interview: Learning necromancy with darkForge Games' Nekro
After previewing an early build of Nekro, an upcoming action-RPG with prominent strategy elements, we had the opportunity to sit down with Scott Thunelius, lead developer on Nekro over at darkForge games, to talk about the path of their project, their vision for the game, and how it changed as development progressed.
[GameZone]: Nekro had to go through Kickstarter’s hoops to get off the ground. What was that like? Do you think the game would even be a thing if it had failed its KS target?
[Scott Thunelius]: When I first saw Kickstarter, I thought "This will be huge for the games industry as a way to go around publishers" and "I’d love to make use of it to get the money; let’s try it out." We worked on the game for a year prior, because we didn’t want to show up with just concept art and an idea, we wanted a demo. [The team] all had full-time jobs at other studios, often working on MMOs and what not, and it was difficult to make the game, so we were always crunching. But it was fun to push hard to get this thing that we were going for, and then our Kickstarter finally launched.
We launched and saw that our line was flat. It was difficult to find people who had interest in the game, since everyone found it hard to value a Kickstarter project. Eventually, some YouTube personalities helped and we reached out to the sites we knew, and we ran some numbers and realized that if we could get around 2,000 supporters to give about $10, we’d be good. So we got an incentive—a box copy— and send out a message to our community, and went from $30,000 to $70,000 almost overnight. It was extremely difficult, very rewarding, and ridiculously emotionally tense—like being caught up in this horrible race where your future can change radically. But without the Kickstarter, Nekro wouldn’t even be a thing. We’d probably still have an idea, and I actually had an idea of making a mobile game about zombies. [Laughs] I hate mobile games, by the way, which is probably what Nekro would’ve turned into otherwise.
[GZ]: What was the original idea with Nekro, and how does the current game differ from or reflect it?
[ST]: Our original idea was a randomly generated open world. That was the biggest change. It started with a methodical open world where the King’s people started towns. They were growing their towns as you were growing your army, and you had to beat the townsfolk. But the king already had a city in place, and you had to get an army ready before he started his Crusades, this unstoppable offensive, so you had to beat this time. The technology we had couldn’t handle this. We were using a third-party dev kit. You put 10 characters on screen and it starts chugging. So we said, "Okay, scale it back. Make individual fights." Then the random worlds didn’t really work because the individual fights were too specific. You needed tactics for it to work, not random. The game eventually became these battle arenas, and a very tactical approach to [summon minions] and change the environment. More like a Diablo meets RTS, which is when we went "This is the direction of the game." And I love the way it came out now.
[GZ]: What sort of multiplayer scene are you looking to build? What would a day in the life of online Nekro be?
[ST]: The big focus is the co-op. So far, that’s the extent we have planned. The team is essentially eight members, very part-time, with three main people: me, an artist and an animator. It’s kind of crazy how much we all have to share. Kickstarter helped a lot, but we still have to do things in a special way. We don’t have the scope or budget for a big versus battle, so co-op is the focus. Luckily it’s all local—you can play through LAN and such. I would love to add a versus mode where two Nekros fight, but we’d have to redo the summons because they aren’t balanced for that. If it has a future, it’s [versus mode], but it’ll probably be staying co-op. Maybe after launch we can patch in something more, but the single player campaign takes up every second of our time. But if I had the time and resources, I’d do it.
[GZ]: What kind of scope are you looking at for Summons and Powersets: a handful or a few dozen? (Summons are in-game spell-lite minions, and Powersets are essentially classes.)
[ST]: What we want to have is about five Powersets total. We currently have two more planned [in addition to the three in the current build]: The Lich, who has this really interesting javelin mechanic where he throws it out and either pulls himself to it or pulls it to him. He can move quickly, despite being a slow character, using the javelin. You can also pull your units out of battle and reposition them, so he’s like the tactician of the group. The fifth would be Scarecrow, who has this birdcage of crows on his back which follow him. He can control the crows and leave dummy scarecrows around to cause aggro.
[GZ]: Last question—an easy one. Your Kickstarter page mentions that you and many team members are drawing on some old-school favorites and vibes. Care to name a few inspirers?
[ST] [Laughs] Absolutely. The biggest influence, aesthetically, was Myth: The Fallen Lords and Myth 2, from Bungie. Those games were way ahead of their time, and had this permanent blood system where it changed the pixels of the ground below it. I knew that whatever tech they had, I wanted it and had to modernize it.
Then there’s Giants: Citizen Kabuto, one of my absolutely favorite games. It was so far ahead of its time nobody knew what to do with it. It was mechanically incredible, and had these three factions—witches, space marines, and these big monsters like Trolls—which went on to inspire the Nekros and King’s men. There’s even a level we just added where you kill this Troll, and get a baby Troll that you grow by gaining blood and he becomes a powerful ally—it’s straight from Giants.
And then Dungeon Keeper, definitely. Like it, I wanted these minions that run around and do different things. That didn’t get to come as far as I’d like it to and many summons have obvious uses, which is the only thing I’m a little sad about. And of course, stuff like Diablo, and even first-person shooters in terms of screen blurring.
Oh, and, and we’ll be adding this soon, a bigger focus on the storyline of the game. We want to capture that humor some games have, so we hired a writer to write up some briefings. It’s not a cut-scene, but a way to show you the map and tell you the story of why you, the Nekro, are here, at the beginning of each battle. Every new level tells you some story that will help with that humor and context.