IF you’ve followed me for any amount of time, you know there’s one genre I just can’t play: real-time strategies (also know as RTSs). I can’t wrap my head around the concept, I can never think that fast, and my fingers aren’t capable of moving at the speed of sound. But regardless, I came across this game on Twitter and had to talk to the team. CO5MONAUT is the lead designer of Death Crown, one of the most critically acclaimed games on Steam this year. He took some time last week to meet with me and share his insight into game design and he even tried to convince me to play RTS games. Keep reading to see if it worked 😉 But as always:
This is me
This is CO5MONAUT
And this is a GIF my brain trying to process an RTS game.
Alright, so we start every interview with the same question: how did you get into gaming as a hobby? What was your first game/console?
I fell in love with video games at a glance: it was Aladdin on neighbor’s NES. Then I was about five or six years old. Since then, I had not missed the opportunity to play with friends in Dendy, Mega Drive or PC – who had something of that. Well, I endlessly used to ask my mother to buy me at least something of the aforementioned.
I didn’t have a Spectrum (early PC), I didn’t program my first game in seven years and didn’t make my maps for Heroes or something. I got a Sega Mega Drive only in 2004, PS1 in 2006, and my own computer only in 2008. It had never occurred to me to create games. Nevertheless, I decided to connect my life with IT, and after school, I went to university to study “business informatics” because it sounded very cool.
I gotcha. Believe it or not many of the people I interview didn’t plan on pursuing game design as a career from the beginning either. So what finally pushed you to decide to start a career in game development?
In the third year of university, I mainly played Dota, dreamed of my own startup and read “Habrahabr”. Most likely, I would be sad at some local banking IT company if I hadn’t come across an article about how to use Construct 2 to create a scrolling shooter in half an hour without programming. That was my entry point to game development.
I immediately downloaded the program and started making my first game. I could not stop. I grasped at every new idea that arose in my head. After a couple of days, I had run into the limitation of the free version. The license then costs $100 on Steam. At that time it was significant money for me, but my heart demanded it. I decided at all costs to find the money and buy a license. On the same day, I found $150 right on the road near my house. In the next 10 minutes, I was already running to the bank terminal to replenish the account. And after 30 minutes I was already mastering the new features of the game engine.
Two years later, I was hired by the Game Designer at one of the local studios. We did Match 3.
Dude what a crazy adventure! So what were those early years like? What tips would you give to someone who just made the decision to start making games?
I had a lot of stupid ideas and I tried to implement them. I participated in jams and was very interested in the modern game industry. I read articles, watched GDC talks and so on. Gamedev for me is primarily an interesting pastime and the possibility of self-realization.
For beginners, I would advise you not to chase trends, but to find something that you like. If you like platformers, then don’t pay attention to the fact that they will tell you that the market is filled with indie platformers and it is not needed. If you really like them, then you will find a way to make the best platformer ever. But at the same time, I would not recommend getting stuck in one genre. Understand all genres, understand why people play a game that you hate. So it was with me when I got into the studio doing match-3. Before that, I hated match-3. But when I worked on them, I recognized the genre better, I understood and accepted it. I still don’t like Match 3, but I understand it, and it helps me in other projects. Without a broad outlook, it will be difficult for you to create something truly new.
I think that’s wonderful advice for everyone, not just game developers. Video games are such a broad medium. Anyone that tries to isolate themselves in a single genre or franchise is missing out on so many other experiences. I always urge people to try new things. For example, I just got one of my friends who’s been strictly playing competitive shooters like Halo and Fortnite to play Enter the Gungeon and SUPERHOT and he loved both of them (shoutout Darth_PurP).
Ok so let’s talk Death Crow. For those who are unaware, Death Crown is a minimalist real-time strategy game (RTS) in a 1bit style, where you play as Death herself, commanding her legions of death, and punishing humanity’s Kingdom for its overconfidence.
So let’s start with what caused the inspiration for the game’s theme. Why death vs. humanity?
Just because, taking into account the chosen 1-bit style, it seemed to me that the skeletons contrasted well with the knights. And also at that time, I was a little impressed by Dark Souls. I love skeletons. If there’s an option in a game where you can play for the undead, I will always play for the undead. My main character in WoW is undead. In Warcraft 3, I played for the undead. In Disciples 2 and HoMM, I also liked playing the most for the undead. When will I have time to play Divinity Original Sin 2 guess what time I will play?
Haha I feel ya. So tell me more about that 1-bit style. Why did you choose to use it and was it had to work with in terms of game design?
Honestly, I do not draw very well and have poor knowledge of color theory, but I love stylish things and it seems to me that I am well versed in this. And at the intersection of the circles “what I can do” and “what I would like to do”, I got such a 1-bit pixel art style.
But I would not say that it is very simple and saves a lot of time in contrast to the usual pixel art. You have to spend a lot of time solving simple questions. For example how to highlight an object against the background of others while having only one color, or how to indicate the difference between a sandy desert and an icy wasteland. There’s other issues that come up too like animation.
The hexagons remind me a ton of the board game Settlers of Catan. Was that an inspiration?
Hexagons are inspired by Civilization V. In the beginning, I had the idea of making the combat look like a Civilization V. But the combat was cut out, and the hexagons remained.
Never played Civilization. But I’ll be honest with you: I hate RTS games. They just don’t keep me engaged and I can never wrap my head around them. So as someone who plays and created an RTS, sell me on RTS games. What makes them fun?
I warmly relate to RTS, although I am not an ardent fan. I think I like RTS primarily for the storytelling approach.
My first RTS was Dune II the Battle for Arrakis on Sega Mage Drive. Next was Warcraft II on the PS1. Then I got a PC on which I played in Warcraft III, Dawn of War I and II, Red Alert 3, The Battle for Middle-earth, Starcraft 2. There were a couple of RTS, but it seems to be almost everything. Yes, I missed a lot of iconic games for the genre but I really love those games that I still managed to play. They are breathtaking from the scale of the narrative.
Unlike other genres of games (with a plot), in strategies, I could observe stories as if from above; I could see the stories of the confrontation between armies and states. In other genres, you usually watch the story on behalf of one observer and the scale of the confrontation is not felt so much. At the same time, in RTS, the story still feels rather personal and down to earth. Yes, you can object to me and give counterexamples, but I’m trying to say about genres on average.
“What does the gameplay have to do with it? If you like large-scale stories, then there are many genres besides RTS” — you could say. But it’s precisely the mechanics of the RTS that gives this feeling. You personally choose the place to build your first barracks and give the order to the newly hired soldier. You understand that this is YOUR soldier and you to be responsible for it. This is not the background for your main character, this is the main character who will fight for you, and may die for you. Yes, he is not unique and he does not have a name, that’s all the charm I think.
You can blame me that all this is not enough in Death Crown, and the story revolves around personalities. Yes, it is. But maybe someday I will surprise you with the scale of Death Crown II.
Wow, what a passionate response. I love that. Very detailed and thoughtful. I’m curious though, do you think the genre is dying off?
I think RTS is now in crisis due to excessive ossification. Everyone is used to seeing expensive RTS, which must have a base, workers, fog of war, barracks and all that.
The paradox is that fans ask for revolutionary new ideas in the genre, but at the same time they very much protect its postulates and often have a negative attitude to these any changes. And it seems to me that RTS is a rather expensive genre,. Hundreds of 3D unit models with thousands of different animations, a rich narrative, a lot of beautiful cutscenes, a very complicated balance, smart bots and so on. That’s what everyone expects from the genre and it is very expensive to create.
Honestly, we need Blizzard, of the best at RTS games, to take all the best from the genre, throw out all the bad, add a pinch of new ideas, a lot of money and again make RTS a mass product.
I think that goes for a lot of different genres as well. I think about games like Call of Duty and Halo, where the fanbase wants something new and fun, but at the same time wants the core gameplay to remain the same. It’s a hard thing to balance, and there are very few companies in the world that do it well.
One last question before rapid-fire: Death Crown has been received very well by the Steam community, but as always there are those who leave bad reviews. As a developer, do you read those reviews? What is your opinion on them?
I read all the negative reviews and, as a player, I understand them. I would like to correct or do a lot of what we are asked, but unfortunately, often we cannot take the time to do this. There are various reasons for this, from a banal lack of resources to an unwillingness to change the root features of a project. For example, some ask us to add more colors. But I can’t do this, as this will break one of the fundamental features of our project and spoil the magic. A lot of people scold us for the lack of content, and that is what we are mainly doing now. We planned two new campaigns for the game, as well as a new race and a couple of new mechanics.
I feel you. I for one love the product you have put out, and I also recognize that it’s the first title you’ve made. I think if one of the biggest complaints is people are asking for more content, you know you’ve made something great. Ready to head into rapid-fire questions?
Let’s do it!
Alright, favorite game of all time?
GREAT game. Favorite game this year (other than Death Crown)?
Interesting. I liked it but didn’t love it. Most underrated game of all time?
Space Rangers 2
Never really heard of it. I’ll check it out. Most overrated game of all time?
Call of Duty
Haha very true and also very indie dev response. Game you refuse to play (for whatever reason)?
Mass Effect: Andromeda.
Yea, as someone who poured too much time into that title, you’re 100% right. Lastly, do you think Fortnite is a good game?
Yea, it’s fine.
Haha, that’s it? Alright, I guess. Thanks so much for your time man and I wish you luck on your future work!
Alright, everyone, I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. I don’t know if I’m fully convinced to give RTS games another try, but at least now I know the fascination. If you want to know more about CO5MONAUT and his game, you can follow him on Twitter here or check out Death Crown on Steam!
Also, this is the last edition of Behind the Mask for 2019! For the next 2 weeks, I will be posting my winners for the first annual PartyChat awards, starting next Monday!
This has been an absolutely awesome year and I want to take the time to thank each and every one of the developers that took time out of their busy lives to answer some questions from a weird guy in a mask (actually I’m an awesome guy in a badass mask…). But next year, we’re going bigger and better. So stay tuned for the first Behind the Mask of 2020 on January 6th! I’ve already got the guest lined up and it’s. gonna. be. fire.