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Zeboyd on balancing modernity and RPG obtuseness for Rain-Slick 4

Zeboyd Games, the two-person team behind RPGs like Cthulhu Saves the World and Breath of Death 7, is known for filling its games with modern innovations of obtuse role-playing mechanics; but some players, the studio found, want the hassle.

Its games may look like those from console generations long past, but that gives studio co-founders Robert Boyd and Bill Stiernberg bandwidth to focus on the mechanical meat of their titles.

"One of the advantages we have is we don't have to focus on those AAA production values, so we can focus on story and gameplay, and what really matters with the games rather than focusing on how pretty we can make it," Boyd told Polygon during a PAX East interview.

"Basically, when we started making RPGs, I've loved RPGs ever since Dragon Warrior 1, but we didn't just want to copy what great RPGs did," Boyd said. "We wanted to look at it, take the good stuff and get rid of the bad."

The team's last game, Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3, was a shining example of its forward thinking design. Items were recovered automatically after each fight. Random encounters were removed entirely. Travel between towns and inside dungeons took place on an organized system of nodes. The game's heroes could swap roles and level them up independently, building incredibly customized characters. Mana was replenished during battle, letting players use their spells and abilities guilt-free. Perhaps best of all: There was little to no grinding.

It was a slick production with great ideas, but the innovation actually proved a little much for hardcore fans of the franchise. Some players, Zeboyd discovered, like grinding and love getting lost in deep, labyrinthine dungeons.

"There's always a line of balance you have to make of how far do you take the streamlining without cutting out stuff that people still like," Stiernberg said.

"We occasionally get emails saying, 'Why did you take out random encounters?'"

The next title in the series, Rain-Slick 4, backpedals on its predecessor's node-based exploration system. Players are now free to walk around dungeons and the overworld map in any direction they see fit, Battles are still represented by enemy sprites on said map, letting players pick and choose when and where they do combat.

"We occasionally get emails saying, 'Why did you take out random encounters? I love random encounters,'" Boyd said. "You like what you grew up with, so they're like, 'Oh, I like this game way back when, I want more games just like it.' It's really a fine line where we have to figure out how to make these games feel nostalgic but also very modern in their design sensibilities."

One of the new title's biggest additions is the new, collectible pet-based combat system. The game's protagonists — fist-flinging Gabriel and reformed archnemesis Dr. Blood — are now trainers, who can impart skills and stat bonuses to the monsters in their thrall. Choosing which monsters to send into battle, and which trainers to assign them to adds a new layer of strategy to the proceedings; one that innovates on the tried-and-true progression systems of Pokemon.

It's also another collaborative effort between Zeboyd and Penny Arcade — a relationship that Stiernberg and Boyd hope will continue after Rain-Slick 4 launches later this year on Windows PC and Xbox Live Indie Games.

"We've seen the whole process from start to finish after completing Rain-Slick 3, so we had this group meeting in Seattle together and hammered out a lot of stuff collaboratively, and all got on the same page," Boyd said. "Obviously, some stuff wasn't fully fleshed out, but it was a better starting point than Rain-Slick 3, and we knew how to work together. It was way more streamlined, and I think that's why we're a lot further along with Rain-Slick 4 in less time than we were in Rain-Slick 3.

"We've discussed [future Penny Arcade games], but we haven't made any firm plans there," Boyd added. "As you can imagine, everyone at Penny Arcade has been rather busy the past few weeks. We're really busy finishing up the game. I'm sure once we finish it, we'll have a nice long talk and decide where we want to go."

The next level of puzzles.

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