League of Geeks is dropping a new update for its "grim fairytale boardgame come to life," Armello, to fix one of the game's biggest problems: questing, founder and director Trent Kusters recently told Polygon. It's been a process filled with bumps and some emotional bruises.
"When we went to Early Access, we knew the quest system was broken," Kusters said. "We actually say that in our description. 'Hey, this is broken. This is one of the reasons we're bringing this to Early Access so you can help us fix it.'"
Armello is a fantasy-based role-playing game built in the style of tabletop board games. Players pick their animal hero and wage battle through the use of cards and dice tosses in an effort to claim the throne of a dying king. Before they can rush the throne, however, they'll build their strength by completing quests or battling and deceiving other heroes.
Dubbed Engines of Fate, the update is League of Geeks' largest to date. It includes new content and some big changes to the game's quest system, much of which Kusters said has been inspired by the Armello community.
With the game's new system, players can choose which items they want to pursue — treasure, for example, or special items known as spirit stones. They'll also be able to choose which stats they want to improve on their character. LoG hopes to improve upon player experience during their battle downtime, among other things.
"We had a lot of problems with our mid-game and our in-game strategizing," Kusters said. "Players would get to the mid-game and sort of float around a bit. They didn't know how to help their path to the end goal."
The community may not have designed the quest system, Kusters added, but it's "directly a result" of discussions had between the two parties.
League of Geeks has another big announcement as well: it's partnering with Dust: An Elysian Tail co-writer Alex Kain to help write these quests. Kusters said Kain has been involved with the project "for awhile now" and came onboard following discussions at PAX East last year.
"He played a build of the game, liked it," Kusters said. "And then he just sort of hounded me to do some work on the project. In the end, I was like yeah, let's do this."
With Kain co-piloting some of the game's writing, Kusters hopes to ease some of the difficulties of writing about anthropomorphized animals — a genre that comes with a unique set of problems. Armello has no horse heroes, for example, because how can a horse hold a sword? And if horses are still present in Armello's world, is it OK for other characters to ride them?
"There's all these weird things like that," Kusters said.
"the other side is sexy wolves with six packs."
There's the problem, too, of writing a dark game for an audience of all ages. You don't want to sexualize the animals, he adds, or include very graphic violence.
"Really the darkness and the consequence and the heavier sort of Game of Thrones-esque themes come from our quests and things like that," Kusters said, "where you might do some cool move and decapitate a troll or something like that, or take someone's life or something. I think [Kain] knows how to balance that quite well.
"With animals you can just go too cutesy, or you can go into that kitschy area. It's the same thing with art as well, when you do the animal thing. It's like on one side is the cute Disney thing, and on the other side is sexy wolves with six packs. We want to stay totally away from both ends."
The exclusive content learning curve
As development on Armello progresses, League of Geeks is working to solve other problems as they arrive. Most recently, they've learned a hard lesson about exclusive content.
When Armello launched on Kickstarter, League of Geeks offered an exclusive bundle of four Bandit Clan heroes to backers at the $55 tier. But as development progressed — and LoG got more feedback on that exclusivity from places like Early Access — that promise became harder to keep.
"What we didn't expect to learn was that we had a huge negative response from the Steam community, or just our broader community now, about the fact that we had exclusives in the game," Kusters said. "One, that they were gameplay content; two, that they were perpetually exclusive; three, that it was in a multiplayer environment."
Alone, or even as a pair, those complaints might have gone unaddressed. But to have the issue steeped in all three was "completely unacceptable," Kusters said.
"We came to Early Access to learn, so if this is the lesson that Early Access is going to teach us — how to do exclusives — then it would sort of betray every decision we've made about the game if we didn't look at it."
"it would sort of betray every decision we've made about the game..."
There was another, more pressing issue as well: the problem of how to deliver that content across multiple platforms, like PC and tablets. This was something Kusters said the team researched even before the Kickstarter campaign started; they were eager to pursue it. When complications with the Bandit Clan content began to surface, LoG revisited this effort. What it found wasn't great.
"For the third-party services we would need to get," Kusters said, "the project was going to take us just on that task almost the same amount of time it would take to finish the game with everyone else on it. It was this huge, gargantuan task that we had no idea was that big. Our initial investigations had never indicated that. We spoke to other people who'd done a similar thing and attempted to do it, and in the end it just was not feasible at all, whether financially or technically."
The problem, then, was how to deliver the promised content to players on other platforms, like the iPad. It wasn't possible to exclusively release the content on the App Store, the dev said; either it's out there for everyone or for no one. Instead, it would have to make that content publicly available. That in turn brought up another problem: the initial promise of exclusivity. LoG went to its backers-only forum — which the developer granted Polygon access to — to give backers the chance to vote on two solutions for exclusive content. The first would offer that content as a timed exclusive, available on all platforms once the game launched months later on iOS. The second would only allow that backer exclusive content to be available to the Steam players who originally met those requirements. Following voting, the community opted for a timed exclusive with 516 votes — 80 percent of those polled.
Kusters praises platforms like Kickstarter and Early Access for opening up development to the game's community, but adds that each comes with its own obstacles. Kickstarter is made for success or failure, but not necessarily the gray area in between.
"Kickstarter only permits for the ideal scenario — the dream," Kusters said. "... We're trying to do this crazy, ambitious stuff, and things change all the time in development. Those realities of development, it's hard."
The price of promises
Kusters calls the exclusive content episode a hiccup in the development process. League of Geeks still plans to "over-deliver" on everything, he said, and the team's development schedule is still on time.
"I think there's a hypersensitivity to it at the moment with everything that happened with [Peter] Molyneux," Kusters said, pointing to recent criticisms of 22 Cans and its Kickstarter project, Godus, for failing to deliver on promises made.
"Everything on our Kickstarter is completely, 100 percent to schedule and delivered on everything. It's this really unfortunate thing where we can't do cross-platform content, and it's upset a portion of our community."
"Bear with us," he said. "We're gonna get there."
The challenge for LoG now rests with finding a way to fairly price the exclusive content. Kusters points out that Kickstarter is not a shop, but more of a donation-based platform. You give money, and you're granted rewards in return. However, the dev plans to work with its community to find a solution that feels fair. Kusters is quick to praise the community for its contributions in making the game better, but being involved with them so deeply comes with a kind of emotional toll as well.
"It's hard," he said. "People on the internet are fucking intense. When we went on Steam, we got called the cancer of the games industry. People making out like I'm the inventor of the Ponzi scheme. People legitimately think that we went to Kickstarter to make all this money and then knew all along that our plan was to go, ‘OK, but then we'll just release the [exclusive Bandit characters] anyway.'
"That's super disheartening, because games are such a personal thing. We literally put ourselves into them, pieces of ourselves. Especially running a studio and working on this thing ... for four years or whatever, the amount of, God. How fucking hard just making games is, and then to have people be like 'You're the cancer of the fucking games industry,' or 'You are a money-grabbing asshole that deceived me' is like — it's a fucking bummer. It's really hard to deal with. For the first time ever, in my entire career, when the Steam thing blew up, I was like, I don't want to work in games. Why put up with this shit?"
"People on the internet are fucking intense."
That was a fleeting moment, Kusters said. Five seconds, perhaps, but it was the first time he'd ever had that thought — and it came down to the people who made the attacks personal.
"The big thing is that we broke a promise," Kusters said. "Yeah, we did, and fuck — that's a total bummer. It bums us out. In fact, it bums us out more than you that we can't do cross-platform content. We wanted to do it before we even touched code.
"But, we're not fucking horrible people. Oh my God. It's tricky. It's heartbreaking watching the team go through it ... to watch the guy that's making all the cards and is just so invested in this game, everyday who works his heart out to make it awesome, and then to, on his break, read that forum and just be like 'I want to fucking kill myself.' It's really tough to watch them go through that, especially when it is a vocal minority."
That minority, he said, includes only about 10 people — out of a community of about 8,000 — that have asked for refunds. And for those that remain angry, he adds, it's understandable.
"They're angry because they care about Armello," Kusters said. "They care about what we're doing, and they care about our game and the content, and they're invested. A lot of these people identify with games."
The dev said that overall, the experience of working so closely with the community has been a positive one. Fans send in artwork and letters, and many stop by to say hello at community events like PAX.
"It's always worth it," Kusters concludes. "We're here because of Kickstarter, and our backers are amazing. They're all fucking awesome ... Even for that week, when it exploded and it was super vitriolic and they made me hate what I do for five seconds or whatever it was, our game is going to be so much better for it.
"It's a really exciting time to be developing games. I think it's really exciting for the medium and developers — but fuck me if it's not a treacherous path to trailblaze."