Interview: Zeboyd Games’ Bill Stiernberg sheds light on Penny Arcade’s Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3

You’ve probably read the webcomic, but not everyone has played the games. Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is releasing its third episode this summer, but progress stalled when Hothead Games settled down with Deathspank and left the series without a developer. That’s when Penny Arcade creators Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik called upon Zeboyd Games, makers of the throwback RPGs Cthulhu Saves the World and Breath of Death VII.

The new installment, which will be priced similarly to Cthulhu Saves the World’s $2.99 tag, is scheduled to land on Xbox Live Indie Games, PC, Mac, iOS, and Android. Set a week or two after the events of the last game, the episode doesn’t require gamers to have played the previous entries to enjoy the story. “We did this since a lot of fans of the retro style can hop right into the series with this game, and also so that our own fans can jump right in with our own newest game,” Bill Stiernberg of Zeboyd Games told us.

The game will appeal more to a market looking for a small investment of their time. “The 5-10 hour gameplay length and lower price is beneficial to a multi-part series like this, since players usually want to see the story to completion.”

Interview - Rain-Slick 3 - 1

According to Stiernberg, their involvement with the game began in the Penny Arcade forums, where a fan of the series suggested bringing on Zeboyd Games to complete the third and fourth chapters. “Breath of Death VII had come out by this point, and they specifically mentioned Zeboyd Games,” Stiernberg recalled. “Robert posted in the thread saying, ‘Well, we're busy finishing up Cthulhu, but if they ever approach us about it we'd be excited to work with PA on resurrecting the series.’ Sure enough, Robert Khoo [President of Operations and Business Development at Penny Arcade] had seen this forum thread and contacted us a few weeks later, and the process of bringing back Rain-Slick in game form was started.”

Stiernberg and his partner Robert Boyd were fans of the webcomic before Penny Arcade Adventures even debuted in spring 2008, with Stiernberg dating his own readership back to 2001 and forum membership to 2003. The developers met through the site and founded Zeboyd Games together.

One of the reasons Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik contacted them, Stiernberg explained, is because their “own previous games combined humor and game culture, so I think it’s a great fit. So indeed, Rain-Slick 3 will have a quirky humorous tone similar to our past games. As far as source material, the story continues to be the one Jerry designed for the series, and his writing is here so it maintains this aspect in the game. As far as other bits from the comic, I have also gone through the many hundreds (thousands?) of PA strips to get ideas for enemies, so if you're a fan of the webcomic you'll recognize a lot of neat stuff we have thrown in, as well.”

When the two companies sat down to discuss the third episode, the focus was to take the game in a fresh direction rather than to create a new form and shoe-horn old material in, said Stiernberg. As a result, they overhauled the game with a new graphical style — that of a 16-bit RPG. Stiernberg noted the positive reactions of fans when showing the official public demo at PAX East this month. “A lot of people seem to find the visual style we're using very nostalgic and often compare it to Final Fantasy V or VI, and that's been great to hear. Most people are also so excited that they get to play the rest of the Rain-Slick story in game form that they are open to a fresh new direction with gameplay and visuals.”

Interview - Rain-Slick 3 - 2

The similarities to Final Fantasy most likely derive from the new battle mechanics, which are presented close to those of the classic games, with new exceptions. “For one, we are using a Time Bar similar to the Grandia games, which allows players to see where in the battle the next move (of the player's or enemies') in the battle will occur,” Stiernberg said. “This allows players to plan more effectively, as they can see where turns occur and use opportunities to interrupt enemy attacks or prepare for slow-charging, hard-hitting boss attacks. We are also using a system of MP that starts at 0 for each character at the onset of a battle and builds up with each turn. This removes a player’s tendency to try to ‘save up’ MP for boss encounters, and encourages use of different abilities in every battle. It also requires players to decide whether to use physical attacks to allow MP to charge up for use of a better ability later, or use a less MP-intensive ability more immediately; so it provides an interesting twist on battle strategies.”

The game will also implement an “extensive, customizable class system.” Each character can equip three classes (one of them a constant base class), allowing them to perform different abilities in battle and creating a greater variety of tactics overall.

PAX attendees also responded well to Holkin’s flavor of writing for the game. “He's really enthusiastic about giving as many items, abilities, and enemies their names and descriptions, and it gives every aspect of the game a unique sense of humor,” Stiernberg commented. “I think people will enjoy seeing (and laughing) at all the little details that Jerry is bringing humor to.”

Interview - Rain-Slick 3 - 3

The indie developers have faced challenges, though. “The main difference in terms of working on this game compared to our previous work has been the fact that we are working with and building upon another author's existing and ongoing story,” Stiernberg pointed out. “As a result, I think that this collaboration between Jerry and Robert on the script has been producing really great results … PA has been very encouraging to let us design the gameplay aspects how we believe would be most fun, so we don't feel constrained or anything. I think it's a great arrangement.

“I think the most important thing for these two examples is that there is plenty of content for fans to recognize and enjoy,” Stiernberg continued. “With Cthulhu, we tried to tie in as many Cthulhu-mythos bits both into the story, settings, characters, and enemies as we could, so there would be plot points but also little details that Lovecraft fans would enjoy. We're trying to do a similar thing with adding details from the PA strips from past years into the Rain-Slick 3 game.”

The developers have already laid the groundwork and general concepts for the fourth episode, but part three is still demanding the bulk of their attention. Stiernberg admitted that in the future, he and Boyd would like to explore other genres. “We are seriously looking into doing a more action-oriented game (Zelda-esque) or an RPG-flavored exploratory action-platformer (like Metroid or Castlevania). But RPGs are a genre we love and we'll continue to work within that genre for quite some time, I imagine.”

Follow @wita on Twitter for tales of superheroes, plumbers in overalls, and literary adventures.