Guns of Icarus Online Interview
Questions by Bryan King (Bryan), OnRPG Journalist
Answers by Jess Haskins, Game Designer at Muse Games
Grab your friends and take to the skies! Guns of Icarus, a popular indie 3D shooter, was released in May of 2010 as a single player game. In June 2011, a new webpage went live for the Muse Games team, detailing their efforts to release a multiplayer version of Guns of Icarus. I got the chance to sit down with Jess of Muse Games, to discuss the current state of Guns of Icarus Online, and what players can expect to see once they get their hands on it.
OnRPG: Hello, please introduce yourself to our readers.
Hi there! My name is Jess Haskins, and I’m a game designer here at Muse. We’re a small team and we all tend to wear a lot of hats (both figurative and literal, actually...you should see our funny hat collection), so my job ranges from gameplay and systems design, to level building, to narrative design, to various non-design things, like community management and copywriting. I’m the primary writer in residence, so I also handle most of the story and world-building for our games. Guns of Icarus has a really huge world with a complex history, so that keeps me pretty busy!
OnRPG: Can you give us details about the game’s storyline? What are players fighting over?
The game takes place some three hundred years after the start of the Great War, essentially what World War I might have been if it never ended. War devastated the planet and all but wiped out the population. Humanity is basically just getting back on its feet, salvaging old technology and scavenging for resources to support the scattered pockets of civilization that remain.
This game takes place about 80 years after the first game, Guns of Icarus, which was about a pioneering hero named Gabriel who built one of the first steam-powered airships to cross the desert and proved that it was possible to journey from town to town. In Guns of Icarus Online, Gabriel is a legend, some of those towns have become cities, and airship travel is becoming commonplace. The game is all about what happens when these isolated settlements come into contact with each other: trade, piracy, alliances, exploitation, opportunity, conflict. You’re fighting for what everyone is fighting for—peace, ultimately, but there are many different definitions of the word. For some it means conquest, for some it’s security, or wealth, or progress. The world is organized into six factions, each with its own unique culture, history, and goals, and faction politics inform every battle the players fight in.
OnRPG: For players who have already played your single player title, what can they expect to change in the multiplayer game?
The first game had a really tight scope, and did a lot with a very limited set of interactions. Alone, or with a few friends, you had to run around the deck of an airship, shooting incoming planes and fixing parts of the ship so you didn’t blow up or lose all your cargo. It was essentially a combination shooting gallery/time management game with zeppelins. We wanted to do so much more, so in Guns of Icarus Online we blew that concept out into a fully-fledged online team-based PvP combat game. We’ve added team PvP match types like deathmatch and king of the hill, piloting, terrain, realistic physics and flight models, weather and visibility systems, skill equipment, tons of new ships and weapons, customisable player avatars, and three different roles with all-new mechanics for captaining, gunning, and engineering. You’re still running around the deck of an airship shooting and fixing things, but there’s a ton of added depth that the first game simply didn’t have.
For players of the original game, aesthetically, standing on the deck of an airship or jumping onto a Gatling gun and letting loose into an enemy’s balloon should feel pretty familiar, and you’ll recognize this world. But just the fact that you’re facing other players in airships and have to coordinate with your crewmates and teammates changes things considerably. Suddenly, aerial naval tactics are a thing!
OnRPG: Can you tell our readers more about the game’s class system? Which class appeals to you the most?
Having the three specialized roles of Captain, Gunner, and Engineer actually serves a lot of different purposes. One, it helps crews work as a more cohesive unit. Since everyone has a clearly defined job to do, it lets the crew go about things fairly efficiently without a lot of discussion or stepping on each others’ toes. If it was just three or four people dropped on an airship without any sense of direction, it’d get chaotic pretty quickly.
Two, different roles are suited to different types of gamers. The Gunner is very simple, direct and immediate, the Engineer is more accessible for players who like time-management gameplay and can stay cool under pressure and keep lots of plates spinning, and the Captain is a great big-picture leadership role for a more deeply involved or experienced player. It can be tough to find a game that a reactive twitch gamer, an obsessive min/maxer, and a strategic leader can all play together on equal footing, but Guns of Icarus Online is very accommodating of divergent play styles.
Three, and perhaps most important, specialization helps support the team play model and ensures that multiplayer gameplay is cooperative in a significant way. The crew structure encourages solidarity, and having specialized jobs means that no one player can dominate or do everything in the way that a very strong player can sometimes carry the team in a melee combat game. This can be a danger as well as an opportunity, because it means that every player is vital and it’s difficult for others to pick up any slack, but as long as players are matched up with crew members of comparable experience and skill, we think it does a lot to enable each player to make a meaningful contribution to a true team effort.
As for myself, I think I prefer captaining. I think it’d be tougher if I were less familiar with the details of running an airship, and you definitely have to get comfortable with the other roles before taking on a command. There’s just something about taking the wheel and scanning the sky, spotting ships in the distance, revving up the engines and bringing the ship around for an engagement while calling out orders to the crew...it’s an interesting blend of freedom and responsibility.
OnRPG: Were there any snags you guys hit while in early development?
It has been a long road getting to this point. I’d love to say it’s all been smooth sailing, but I’d be lying if I said it was easy! Probably the roughest patch happened before I was even on the project, when I was working on our previous major title, CreaVures. I wasn’t personally involved at this stage, but I can tell you the story.
Early in the game’s development, we had the opportunity to work with an Asian publisher to take the game to markets beyond the US and Europe. We jumped at the chance to work with a large publisher, but after a brief honeymoon, things unraveled pretty quickly.
Part of the problem was that the publisher was big, with layers of bureaucracy, and the different departments didn’t communicate much. Their producers were aligned with our creative direction, but when other departments got involved, they started dictating a style that was completely inconsistent with what we wanted to do. We wanted to hold on to our creative vision while they wanted to make cutesy, big-eyed, anime-style characters with peppy children’s songs playing in the background.
During a breakneck prototype cycle, we crunched for almost five months straight. The publisher was slow with approvals, and asking us to do alpha work within our prototype budget on top of everything else. We weren’t getting nearly the funding we expected, and we couldn’t stand surrendering creative control. So we broke it off. As a parting shot, the publisher threatened to take our IP, but were fortunate enough to be able to retain our rights and keep making the game, this time on our own terms.
The whole experience left a sour taste in our mouths, and we learned some hard lessons. It won’t stop us from partnering with others in the future and forming great relationships, but it taught us to be wary of putting ourselves in any situation that could compromise our creative freedom.
OnRPG: How did your development team go about emphasizing the Steampunk elements in the game?
Once you get started, it’s hard to stop! Steampunk is a genre with a very strong, almost overpowering aesthetic, and a lot of us are big fans of that style. Once we started adding gears and and steaming pipes and fancy scrollwork to everything, it just kind of proliferated. We actually had to pull back in a few places and make sure that we were still representing a scrappy, rough world where resources were hard to come by and everything was kind of improvised, instead of this shiny, over-elaborate vision of top hats and gleaming brass.
Really, steampunk is only one of our keywords. We consider our look to be as much dieselpunk as steampunk—that’s like steampunk in the era of internal combustion—and we also draw on a post-apocalyptic, scrapyard aesthetic, not to mention a whole host of global cultural influences in our costumes, art, and architecture. We try to use rust and grit and grime to show that the world is tough and times are hard, but airships and guns are vital to survival, and their look reflects that. They’ve been handcrafted with a lot of love and care and attention to detail, which is really what the steampunk aesthetic is all about.
OnRPG: Did your team have any sort of inspiration when creating the game? Whether it was books, movies, or other games, did you guys utilize some source of media to better shape GOIO into a better title?
Oh, tons. For the visual look, the art team was inspired by steampunk references like Anthony Lucas’s Adventures of Jasper Morello and Katsuhiro Otomo’s short Cannon Fodder, and movies like Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind, Steamboy, Mad Max, and The Road. Just about every game we’ve ever played sticks with us somehow and can have an influence on our work, especially since Guns of Icarus Online touches on so many different genres. Some of the examples we keep coming back to: team play in Team Fortress 2, aerial combat in Crimson Skies, tank/healer/DPS roles in World of Warcraft, AI direction in Left 4 Dead, resources and crafting in Ultima Online, and community management, politics, and player-driven everything in EVE Online, just to name a few. You can also see where we got our snappy naming scheme from!
As far as narrative and world-building, I personally draw on a wide variety of sources for inspiration, from games and television to mythology and literature. I found Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s book Wind, Sand and Stars, a memoir of the pioneering aviator’s death-defying days as an airmail pilot in the 1920s, very inspiring for setting tone and mood: his lyrical descriptions of flying lonely cargo missions over vast deserts and visiting far-flung, exotic locales seemed to capture a lot of the tension and danger and beauty of piloting an airship in the world of Guns of Icarus. Changing gears a bit, a lot of us are reading and/or watching Game of Thrones, which has become a popular topic for water-cooler conversation. I think being immersed in that world has colored some of the things we’re building into our own world, from the contorted histories and political machinations of the factions to the heraldic designs of the faction colors and emblems.
OnRPG: Will players be able to control the aesthetics and traits of their ships?
We have a few basic ship designs with vastly different hull configurations and capabilities. Each hull has a different array of slots for weapons and engines, and captains can pick a basic ship class and choose what components to install. Ship hull and component choice is a very important strategic decision—it’s really the first step of the captain’s game, before the battle even starts.
We’re always working on new ship designs, and more customization options are coming as well, so you can choose things like flags and decals to show your allegiance or just make your ship look cooler, and even some “ship furniture” to customize and decorate your deck.
OnRPG: How has the community’s response to the Closed Beta been so far?
Really positive! We’re grateful to have an enthusiastic and involved community of fans who are genuinely excited about the game and eager to play it, and they’ve been having a great time. They’re also not afraid to tell us when things aren’t working or how they could be better, which is really important! There are some things we know are broken and some features that we won’t be implementing for a while, if ever, but we’re really pleased with the quality of feedback we’ve gotten and the strength of the community. Our beta players have really stepped up and helped one another, teaching the game to new players, given us thoughtful, intelligent feedback, and been patient with the occasional show-stopping bug, all while having a lot of fun playing some really exciting matches!
It’s been interesting to watch strategies we never even imagined taking shape and seeing how players handle themselves on the battlefield. The first time a captain hid their ship inside the giant wreckage in the middle of the Battle on the Dunes map and started sniping other ships, we were floored. We never thought of doing that! It made for a really good fight, too.
OnRPG: Your team utilized Kickstarter as a funding source, with a goal of $10,000. You guys made over 300% of that, making around $35,000. Did the success of this give your team a sense of motivation, and shape the development process in any way?
We already loved and were committed to the game, but I think the biggest boost to our motivation came from finally seeing how many other people were also excited about the game and wanted to play it. Until our Kickstarter project, we pretty much toiling in obscurity, and the campaign brought us a whole new audience and gave us a powerful way to connect with them. Our Kickstarter campaign brought far more awareness to our studio and the work we’re doing than anything else we’ve done.
Our backers not only supported us financially by pre-ordering the game, they were also willing to engage more deeply with us and become a part of our development and beta testing process. It’s always been our policy to maintain an open community and talk with anyone who has questions, concerns, or ideas, and people haven’t been shy about telling us what they’d like to see! Our dialogs with the fans on Kickstarter, Facebook, and our forums have definitely influenced the development of certain features and the direction of the game.
OnRPG: Can we expect to see any future content for the game past release?
Absolutely. We expect to be rolling out new features and content on a fairly constant basis once the game is released. The biggest addition we have planned is an “Adventure mode” that expands the game beyond its current Skirmish PvP mode to add features like a world map and a resource economy. That’s farther out on the horizon, but we are definitely taking an incremental approach to expanding the game and adding new features. Along the way, we plan to release smaller doses of new content periodically, like new ships and weapons.
OnRPG: Has your community pushed you guys to take that "extra step" to make Guns of Icarus Online a better game?
Extra step, sure...extra mile, even! Like I said, our fans are a creative bunch with a lot of ideas, and they’re eager to share them. In a few cases we’ve had to say no, that’s definitely not going to happen, sorry. (In case you were wondering, there will not be any boarding or hand-to-hand combat! This is by far the most requested feature, but we’ve had to put our foot down on this one. It might make for a cool game, but it’s not the one we’re making.) In most cases, though, we hear some really good suggestions, or just learn what players like or don’t like about our game and how they want to play.
Sometimes, the results surprise us. After our first beta weekend, for example, we were really concerned about how difficult it was to spot team colors on ships, so it was hard to tell friend from foe at a distance. It turned out that, while we were right about it being way too hard to tell what team YOU were on and we had to make that a lot clearer (we ended up adding little colored flags to your rigging), players actually liked the challenge of trying to figure out whether a little speck in the distance was friendly or not, and they felt it added depth and realism to the game. So instead of adding some UI or HUD overlay to enemy ships like we were considering, we just left it alone. In this case, listening to our players saved us some work!
OnRPG: When can users expect to see Guns of Icarus release?
Right now we’re aiming for a release in early Fall. In the meantime, we’re working hard to respond to beta feedback, while continuing to implement features and polish the game.
OnRPG: Any last words for our readers?
Our third closed beta weekend is starting on May 25th. We’ve got an all-new map for this one, King of the Flayed Hills, and we’re pretty excited to open the doors again and let players see what we’ve been working on since the last one.
In other news, even though our Kickstarter campaign has ended, players can still pre-order the game from our website at http://gunsoficarus.com and get some of the digital goodies like the soundtrack and costumes, as well as access to the open beta starting on July 18. We’ve also had a lot of requests for some of the physical goods like t-shirts and posters, which we hope to make available for sale on our site soon.
Closed beta has been an exciting time for us. While we’re frantically working to get everything in and working smoothly, it’s also just really gratifying to finally see other people actually playing the game! We’ve been at work on this for so long, it’s great to be able to show it to the world.