Iron Helmet make games that aren’t really like other games. Long form RTS’s that can ruin lives are a special kind of rare delicacy, and I love them. In fact, I think they might be my favourite indie developers (regardless of the fact that they’ve only released two games) because what they have released has been so interesting in how the games shape a group of players over a long period of time, rather than focusing on the individual and the present. Anyway.
Our Blight of the Immortals game ended not long ago. It was pretty special, and with how much we liked that and my history with Neptunes Pride (it’s one of those games I don’t quite stop talking about) I thought it about time we cornered Iron Helmet and fired questions at them. However, someone told me that it wouldn’t be very polite to conduct an interview like that, so instead I gently asked Jay Kyburz some questions.
Who is Iron helmet?
Iron Helmet is Jay Kyburz and Penny Sweetser, a couple of game designers who met working at 2K Australia on Bioshock. We wanted to have a crack at Indie game dev and left to build our own games. I had worked at 2K Australia for nearly 10 years and learnt my trade working directly with two of the most talented game designers in the industry, Jon Chey and Ken Levine. Penny is really smart and has a PHD in games development, wrote a book about emergent games design, and first cut her teeth working for The Creative Assembly on the Total War Games.
Iron is always the worst metal in RPGs. Couldn’t you have been Steel Helmet, or Dragon Glass Helmet or something?
Around about 1880, a gang of Australian outlaws forged themselves some iron armor from plows. The armor weighed 96 pounds and could deflect bullets at point blank range. The iron helmets of the Kelly gang are central to one of Australia’s favorite folk stories.
Gee. Way to make me look like an idiot. Thanks. Let’s talk about Neptunes Pride a bit. It was the first very slow burn RTS that I had seen, and even now it’s a concept only repeated by yourselves to my knowledge – what brought the idea about?
I really liked the old turn based play by email games. I knew how much a game could get under your skin when you were just playing a few minutes each day over months. I used to play these games at work and I would would find myself always popping open the game, tweaking my orders and thinking about my plans all day long. I thought it would be cool if those games were always ticking away in the background so that every time I logged in there would be something new, just a little bit more information to digest.
Commercially it must have done ok for you guys to go on to make Blight, but did it do well enough? Basically, are you rich from it?
Haha, not really. Neptune’s Pride was built to be the game we wanted to play. We hadn’t really thought about how we use it to make money. As a result, we don’t get many people paying. Only the most hard core fans who want to start their own private games buy credits. Neptune’s Pride has made its development costs back so we can keep working, but we sure aren’t rich.
Critical reception was great (especially that wonderful bit-tech article that came out a while back), did you secretly know it was going to be or were you genuinely worried about it because of how different a type of game it was.
No, we never expected it to be a hit at all. I thought I was just making a nerdy little game that only my friends and I would enjoy. I think we were really lucky that people understood that the game was about holding fragile alliances together. I guess there are lots of nerds out there like me.
What has been the best story that you’ve heard that’s come out of a Neptunes Pride game? I’m surprised someone hasn’t been killed over it.
Actually my favourite stories are the ones where people are brought together by the game. I once had somebody write and tell me they hadn’t spoken to their brother in years, but got together in a game of NP and found themselves plotting, scheming and chatting far more than they ever had. Stories like that really make my day.
Now that I think about it in retrospect, and with Blight of the Immortals fresh in my mind, I think the backstabbing and the lack of trust in Neptune’s Pride serves to emphasizes the few occasions you find somebody you can trust. It’s rare, so it’s special and make the whole experience a positive one. Blight of the Immortals sets out to be a cooperative game, so it’s really not all that special when somebody helps you out. It’s expected. In-fact, when somebody starts to play anti socially, it’s that which stands out and is really annoying for the other players.
How do you play test a game like that? Surely with each “game” lasting a month it must be a nightmare to see how the pacing works and whether people stay interested?
Yeah, its really hard. It takes months, and that’s what we are doing with Blight now. We may yet make some major changes to get it right, but unfortunately that’s just how long it takes.
Ok, Blight of the Immortals then – a big switch in theme from Neptunes but still a long form multiplayer. Why the switch rather than “Neptunes Pride 2″?
We wanted to have another game that wasn’t just about players attacking other players. We wanted to experiment with encouraging players to work together rather than work against each other.
I’ve always most enjoyed playing traditional RTS’s like Starcraft or Company of Heroes co-operatively. My friends and I would all get into a game and team up against a number of AI’s. We would then gradually increase the difficulty as we play over and over again finding out how hard we can make it and still win.
This is where we are taking Blight of the Immortals. We hope that one day, players will get together in teams and play together over and over, trying to see how fast they can put down the Blight.
Standard interview question but what were the influences that went into Blight? I’d put money that you were all Magic: The Gathering players.
Haha, yes, we really loved magic the gathering back in the day. I really liked that the game was about looking at what cards you had in front of you and searching for the best solution. Everything you needed to know was right there in front of you.
Right now in Blight of the Immortals there are a few really powerful, really obvious combinations. These things aren’t exploits, the’re strategies. As we develop the game and add new units with new powers we hope that the best combinations, the best strategies will become more subtle, perhaps more sophisticated.
A lot of what made Neptunes both great and horrible (in a good way) was how it pitched people against each other, but Blight doesn’t really do this. Why the change up?
I think a lot of people find intense competitive game quite intimidating. I think a lot of players just enjoy solving the puzzle or besting the AI and not really looking for a fight on line. We wanted Blight of the Immortals to be for those players. We don’t think one is better than the other, just different. A change of pace I guess.
We hope that with some more tuning and polish, a PvP mode in Blight of the Immortals will be just as intense and exciting as Neptune’s Pride. It’s just not the default free game mode.
How has reception been? Is it commercially doing well?
Yeah, its been doing really well. I think players appreciate the fact that Blight of the Immortals is a lot larger game the Neptune’s Pride. There is a lot more variety, a lot more to explore.
We’ve not heard of anyone beating Blight apart from us, are we the first? Do we win anything if we are?
Haha, there will always be more zombies to fight. You’ve won the eternal gratitude of the Fairy Princess of Ironwood Castle.
What are the plans now? I remember seeing something about more game modes?
Right now we are focused on improving the basic game play in Blight of the Immortals.
We are working on an improved scoring system and changing up how the Blight spreads and grows. We want it to feel more like a zombie apocalypse. Each city on the map will have a population, and when it’s infected with the Blight you will see the population fall as new zombies rise up. The more zombies in a location, the more zombies will spawn until everybody in that city is dead.
All players will share a score based on how many people are left alive at the end of the game so if you sit back and let the Blight spread, all your people will die and you will lose. You’ll have to act much faster than you currently do, and once it spreads out of control there will be no reigning it in. You will have lost.
Lastly: 60 zombie ents with a level 3 commander are 24 hours march from a city. The city has with level 2 fortifications, 20 elves with a level 2 commander and 25 orks with a level 2 commander. The ents have just cast entangle on the orks and the player is out of currency. What is the probability the player will hold the city? Show your working.
Haha, it would be a close one I would say. The orcs would lose about 25% from the entangle. The elves would then be the largest army and fight first dealing about 46 points of damage to the zombies (20 strength + 20 fortification +2d6 leader). Then the orcs and zombies would fight. Orcs are around 18 strength +3d6 vs Zombies around 10-15 strength +3d6.
Luck plays a huge role in Blight of the Immortals. I would send in some reinforcements to make sure.
Thanks to Jay for answering all our questions. If you haven’t played Neptunes Pride and Blight yet then do head over to IronHelmet.com and give them a try.