I’m always looking around and checking out info on the newest indie games. I noticed recently that the creator of Break Limit, an indie game I had some fun with a little while ago, had a new project called Last Age: Broken Shadow. This prompted me to seek out Christopher Hill, founder of Zombie Monkey Games and see if he would be willing to answer a couple questions about his brand and the upcoming title. Needless to say, we got way more information than expected!
What is the story behind Zombie Monkey Games? How did you get started?
Ever since I’d say I was around 10-12 I’ve always loved making up stories. In my teens several games I enjoyed featured map utilities and level editors that allowed me to take their content and make it my own. From this I realized that I could make my own stories come to life. Over the years I began to learn programming and reshaping many games into my own final product.
I would say the ultimate culmination of this was with Warcraft 3. I made a map for Warcraft 3 called Final Fantasy Forever. If you Google search that it’s the first link that comes back. Its difficult to explain it, its Warcraft 3 as a multi-player RPG with Final Fantasy abilities and classes. In the past 2 years I bumped into the XNA program and started looking into creating real games myself, instead of tweaking existing ones.
We often ask about formal education. What skills do you thinking a budding indie developer needs to make sure they have?
The desire to succeed, achieve and not cut corners or skimp on their vision, and staying power. Finishing a game is something you have to really want and stick to. Formal education isn’t something I view as necessary. While I have 2 degrees in the game design field myself I don’t think they are ultimately helping me much with XNA. My drive to succeed and the availability of information via the internet are the biggest contributors to getting things done. If you want to make a game and are willing to take the time to find a way, you will.
Last Age sounds really cool, what was your inspiration behind it?
The premise of Last Age is one of many settings I dreamed up back in my college days playing Dungeons and Dragons. With our group I was always the Dungeon Master, though really the title was more of world master. I would dream up complete worlds filled with cities, characters and active timelines. My games always featured an evolving storyline that changed regardless of what the party did. It was set in stone that Antagonist of the story would be revived after 6 days at a certain location.
If the party they got there first and intervened then I had an alternate timeline all set for if that event was stopped. I am designing Last Age with this philosophy. So many events in the game will have an expiration timer. When that timer hits something happens. If the player intervenes before that timer hits, something else happens instead. Major story points will close some boss fights and events, while opening others. This gives the game replay ability and keeps the same story interesting for several play throughs.
Can you give us a description of what the Last Age will be like once it is completed? When are you expecting release?
In addition to the branching event timeline mentioned above, the game features a battle system that is a mix of ATB and borrows a few concepts from the SMT series of games. Unlike most ATB predecessors however, Last Age only pauses combat while you make your selections. Enemy attacks do not stall out battle. They make their decisions and quickly and frantically announce to the player what they are doing, then immediately going. The result is that you spend more time fighting and less time doing, or reading text. Everything is visual / audible and happening quickly. We will have video of this combat in action once a few final pieces of it are polished up.
The Piece we’ve borrowed from SMT is that certain actions actually refill part of your action bar. Critical hits restore half of it, and attacks that aren’t reduced restore a quarter. To qualify for the attack that isn’t reduced the attack needs to have some resistible component. Solid melee attacks can’t be resisted so they don’t get this. A good example would be that you cast a fire spell on a goblin warrior, he has no spell immunity or fire immunity so the spell’s effect isn’t reduced any. As a result you are immediately returned ¼ of your action bar towards your next turn. In this same scenario you cast the same spell on a group of 6 goblins. 2 of them are shamans and so they have 25% fire resistance. This means that the spell was reduced some in effectiveness and you don’t get the bonus.
The last aspect of this is defending. I’ve borrowed this from a very old, but much loved, game from my SNES days, the 7th Saga. In the 7th Saga when you defended and then followed it with a physical attack, you did double damage. I’ve extrapolated this sort of incentive in Last Age. Defending makes you take half damage until your next turn. It also only costs half an action, so you immediately regain half your action bar. In addition to this, ANY action performed the turn after you have defended, except for using an item, is doubled in effectiveness. Buffs, Heals, Offensive Spells, Attacking, it all gets doubled. Keep in mind enemies use this as well in their AI, and as a result you may need to defend, just to survive the onslaught of a turn of defending enemy spell casters!
But wait, there’s more! The ability system for Last Age is designed to be a unique and rewarding experience for those that take the time to understand it. Abilities are built out of a possible combination of up to 5 soul crystals. The resulting ability’s power is derived from the type of ability you’ve made, either physical of magical, and which crystals are used. Certain combinations make certain abilities. For example Dark + Fire as a magical ability makes the Fire spell. Crystals range in power from 0-10000, a Fire spell made from a 4000 and 5000 power Dark and Fire Crystal is much weaker than one made from 2 10000’s. The overall effectiveness of the ability is shown in the designer.
The Ability Creation screen allows for experimentation though. While the game currently boasts 60 unique combinations, more may be added before release. However you can, if you like – tack on additional crystals (up to 5 in all) to make the ability stronger. So in our previous example for fire, if you were to tack 3 light crystals onto the end of our 4000 and 5000 combination that were 4000 power each the result would be 5000 + 4000×4 (or) 21000 power. This would cap the fire ability’s power and then some creating a very strong ability.
The system though, is a bit complex and might be too much for some gamers. Each ability you’ve created also appears as a recipe you can just select from a list and it will automatically find the best possible combination out of the crystals you have and build it for you. Recipes for every skill will be scattered throughout the game for you to discover, should you not care to tinker with the creation screen. Those that do, however will find it very rewarding.
Everything I’ve just described is already up and running in the game, and will be going as our entry into Dream Build Play. My intent is to build a REAL RPG and see if I can get the game onto steam or xbox live arcade, or both. As such the release date is a bit of a question, but rest assured that there will be press releases prior to release.
So far, the titles that Zombie Monkey Games produced or are producing cover several genres. Do you plan on sticking to a specific few or getting into everything?
I’ve been working very hard to get a strong RPG system base developed for Last Age – The Broken Shadow. This is meant to be a prequel to the main game. Using the established combat code I intend to create many and more RPGs, as this is really the genre I’ve always had true passion about and for.
As a one man “Indie Team” the mountain of work must be unbelievable! Do you have any help from anyone else?
I have help from several people. I have two artists, who will be sharing in the profits from the game: Joe Ford and Somjade. Somjade is only part time with us where Joe is only working on this project. I’ve also contracted all of the music and sound for the game through HyperDuck sound works, and they are doing an awesome job with that. The game is also built on the Aaron Foley’s Transmute Engine – which I am working with the developer of myself, and adding my own pieces to it as well.
What exactly do you think is the “it” factor for a game?
A strong an enjoyable branching story that changes based on what you do, fluent and face paced combat and a rewarding character development system are all coming together to create a very exciting RPG experience. The “it” factor will be experiencing for yourself how all of these parts blend together into an immersive and engaging experience!
We have heard some great things about the XNA community, how has your experience been?
XNA is a wonderful platform and I’m excited to get to work on it. Making a game of any kind for a console is truly a blast. Admittedly I am not all that excited about the level of performance that the XBLIG service as whole has shown for games that were more deserving of success than what they received. I will be working very hard to see that the complete story of Last Age has the best shot possible at making it onto the larger services such as Steam or possibly Xbox Live Arcade before settling on an XBLIG release. The community is great, but the support of the service is rather flakey. The sales results for even great games also don’t really do them any proper justice. We will see how things go though.
What games are you currently playing? What game are you most excited about?
I am looking forward to the Last Story and Kingdoms of Amalur – though I’ve got a few days already reserved for whenever Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet comes out. I am currently still trying to finish Amnesia the Dark Descent and The Witcher 2. Due to Dream Build Play deadlines I haven’t had much gaming time lately. Looking forward to playing these two, and the Final Fantasy 4 collection (if PSN ever comes back) June 14th forward, after the submission.
What other shout-outs or special mentions would you like to bring attention to?
I think this is already wordy enough, no? =) Ah let’s see…I would say Zeboyd Games and Dean Dodrill of Humble Hearts for being such great friends and strong inspirations. I continue to strive to be doing this full time someday. Hopefully Last Age will be the doorway to that. =)
We’d like to that Christopher for taking some time to answer our questions. As always, we urge our readers to support indie devs, so take a look at Break Limit on the Xbox Indie Games Marketplace. Also be sure to keep an eye open for Last Age: Broken Shadow when it launches. Zombie Monkey Games could have a runaway hit on it’s hands!