Interview: Alchimia Studios on Echoes of Aeons

Independent dev talks about upcoming ARPG.

Interested in RPGs and independent development, I decided to talk to Alchimia Studios, developer of the upcoming action role-playing game, Echoes of Aeons. Being developed by a dedicated team of just three – and with the intention to release on the game on iOS, Android, PC and Mac – the studio, with its Kickstarter-in-progress, lent me two of its members, Jordan and Josh, to talk about their inspirations, the rigors of small-scale, independent development and, of course, the game itself.

Gematsu: Could you describe what Echoes of Aeons is, exactly?

Jordan: At its core, Echoes of Aeons is a hand-painted 2.5D ARPG for iOS, Android, PC and Mac OS, with a massive 60+ song OST and over 20 hours of gameplay. We really wanted to make an RPG that had the qualities of our favorite RPGs – the ones that inspired us to study art and game design. We wanted it to have attributes from all of our favorite classic RPGs. We drew inspiration from games like Legend of Mana for the art style and 2.5D set-up, and Final Fantasy for the linear story-driven game flow, as well as the Chrono games for their awesome music and atmosphere – as well as more modern games like World of Warcraft, Skyrim, Odin Sphere for the battles and gameplay.

The game will be mostly linear but will have a lot of side quests and exploring like the aforementioned games did. We really wanted to try and capture that whole RPG experience that you got from the classics, we want this game to make memories for people.

Echoes of Aeons will follow Eldric, a young man that was orphaned in his youth, who, unknown to himself, is one of the Descended, and Rin – the daughter Heir to the throne of Lusec, a peaceful nation on the brink of war due to lies and treachery. As they get thrown into the chaos that is brewing in Terra, their fates eventually cross, and they must overcome all odds as they learn who is really pulling the strings in their world – that the fate of not only Terra, but of an unknown world lost to the ages, is riding on their shoulders.

We are making sure the story is top notch. This game will not be a storyless random dungeon grind-a-thon, like so many RPGs on the App stores are today. The story will really move the pace of the game, much like in the Final Fantasy games. It will be told from multiple points of view. We are big fantasy fiction fans as well, we love the Wheel of Time series and SoIF, Tolkein, Sanderson .etc and our editor and dialogue writer knows how to write a good story.

Josh: Jordan covered it pretty well, although I’d like to add that the game isn’t always serious, so expect plenty of comedy, a game reference or two, and maybe even mini-games.

Why an ARPG? Particularly on touch devices, wouldn’t a menu based system have been easier to design?

Jordan: The reason we decided to go ARPG is because with an ARPG you always have this sense of motion and flow through the game. You are more in control of the character, he moves where you tell him to. So, I guess you can express yourself a bit better in that way. We were able to get a really good analog control scheme set up really early on, it’s nothing like those horrible D-pads you find on iOS and Andriod KRPG ports, and even on that Seiken Densetsu 2 port to iOS. (How could you dip so low Square!). Anyways, we were able to make it feel accurate and good, so we decided we would develop around that control scheme. We really want the battles to have a good flow to them, were you are not just spamming the same buttons. We also really wanted to have involved boss fights, were you are running for cover and actively moving out of area of effects, etc. There will definitely be some MMO boss fight inspiration in the game, and while ATB systems are still equally awesome, we just felt that this would fit the game better. The game will end up playing a bit differently for the PC and Mac ports because of the keyboard input, but should be equally as enjoyable.

What is the combat system like? Could you give us an example of a typical fight?

Josh: The combat system is in real-time. You’ll see enemies on the actual level patrolling around. So let’s say I see one roaming on screen, first thing I’d do is target the enemy and “pull” it using a spell or ranged attack. This allows for a few seconds to either cast again or use the environment to your advantage like using objects to block his ranged attacks, etc. The enemy will then be put in combat mode or it will “aggro” which means it’ll chase and attack you (getting too close has the same effect usually). Once the enemy is within melee range I’ll attack it and start my combo I’ve predetermined in my combo menu. Now, it’s time to use another spell. Because I have used two spells, I’ve gained two runes which unlocks a bigger spell. If it has an area of effect, I’ll likely aggro another enemy to get some nice damage going on that one, sort of chain things together. That’s basically what we want you to do: chain and combine everything together in your own way. You won’t be penalised for doing things the way you want, but good strategy is important.

Josh: The melee system is built around combos. Not necessarily in the sense that you spam a button that add up in a hit counter. But you have combo slots that you can assign melee attacks to, so you can create your own customized combo order. You can also retain a combo “point” for variable timings in combat. I could essentially have one enemy behind and one in front, Start my combo on the one in front, wait a half a second and attack backwards and then move to align them both for the third hit in sequence, in this sense you can be creative and more effective than just spamming attack. Factor in the different strengths or effect of any given ability and you’ll have even more strategy involved with just melee.

The spell system allows you to cast spells, gain runes and use those runes to cast more powerful spells. The runes represent a type of magic. I’ll let Jordan explain.

Jordan: As you are battling, you will build runes based on spells you cast and the class of magic they are in. This will open up other spells during combat based on your runes (like Breath of Fire 4’s magic system). If you cast a fire-based spell, this will add a fire rune. If you cast an earth-based spell after, a meteor spell will become available. The spells available will be based on your level and how you have specced your character. We will also have diversified enemies with their own unique strategies to overcome, as well as multi-phase boss fights with destructible environments.

As you level up you’ll gain stats and skill points. Skill points can be spent in your skill tree, which allows you to specialize in different abilities and gain modifiers. There will be some room to choose how you want to spec, not just follow this path.  The stats system is pretty standard using STM, STR, INT, etc.

Could you describe a typical day of development?

Jordan: Ha ha, well… the first thing we do is make a pot of sencha… then after that we talk about the various tasks that we need to accomplish that day. For the past 10 months or so we will lay out what needs to be done during a certain month. Because we are such a small studio it can be overwhelming because we have so many different tasks to attend to. For the most part we have been trying to focus on getting all of the areas painted first, while at the same time working in the game engine, building various systems along the way.

So anyways back to the tea.. after we have tea and we know what we are doing for the day we just start working. If we need to collaborate on a certain piece of art or maybe a game system, we do. Then after a while of that, a fight will break out with nerf swords in the studio, and it can get pretty crazy. After egos are crushed and battle wounds are treated, it’s back to the grind.

So, I guess I can go into detail on how we go about designing a level. We have the whole world mapped out, so we know all of the areas that we need to paint. We kinda just spent time deciding who would get which areas. We then broke it down into battle-based areas, cities, and story telling scenes/non-combat areas. The story scenes are based on storyboards that we do.

So once we have a scene, we start sketching, or sometimes we make 3d models for certain architecture based on the complexity of the perspective or what not in sketch-up. Then i come up with a color scheme based on a method by James Gurney called Gamut masking. Then we just start throwing paint down with brushes in Photoshop. We use Wacom Intuos 4 tablets to paint with. You can always check out our livestream if you want to see it in action!

After the scene is painted, this takes about 8-20 hours depending on the scene, we then cut it up and assemble it in the Game Engine. Then we add animations to water, critters, fauna and flora etc. As well as lighting, perspective logic, boundries, particle effects, pathing, and the list goes on. All in all it can take 2 weeks or longer to set up an area from start to finish and that is just the art aspect of the development. Its a slow process but it is rewarding seeing the game come to life.

How many work under the banner of your studio? What difficulties do you encounter with such a small team?

Josh: We have a total of three of us. That’s not including a few friends who’ve helped a bit with music and logic. The nice thing about it is we don’t have to have things go down a chain of command, everyone is pretty much aware of what’s going on because of the small size of the team. We also get to oversee every aspect, which is great for creating cohesion in the game. The  main problem is, we also have to wear quite a few hats each. So we have to plan it out in sort of phases; basically “ok for the next month work on the battle systems and bosses” or “for the next two months were doing all of the background art” and then we assign those tasks to one of us. Of course there is some overlap as we test things out and put the game together.

Jordan: I agree, having to do every job class (see what I did there?) can get pretty overwhelming.

What has been the biggest hurdle so far?

Jordan: I would say, not having a bigger team, with a dedicated animator and programmer.

Josh: Yeah, just finding the time to do everything.

What are your creative and design influences?

Jordan: In terms of artistic design we drew inspiration from games like Legend of Mana, World of Warcraft and the Final Fantasy Series. For my level designs and characters I personally drew inspiration from artists like Daniel Lieske (WormWorld Saga web comic), Tetsuya Nomura, Kekai Kotaki and anime like Full Metal Alchemist. While the characters in the game are not really in an anime style, I still drew a lot of inspiration from it.

Some of the early areas I started painting when we were developing concepts for the game ended up being in a different style than the areas I paint now. The visual style just kind of developed. So now, I will have to go back and rework them to be closer to the new style. We wanted the visual style for the game to really differentiate itself from what is currently out in 2D RPGs. They are usually done in a pixel style, and while I love those classic games, most people just take advantage of the “Retro” look these days. We shot for a good mix of cartoon and realism, I guess kinda how blizzard did with World of Warcraft and the new Diablo. We wanted the game to have a lot of varied color palettes and be well-rounded visually.

We opted for the 2.5D set-up because of the way we could use the perspective to really create compositions out of the scenes, much like the PlayStation Final Fantasy games did with their pre-rendered backdrops. We like this because it gives us a really cool perspective on the world, and allows for stronger story telling, I think.

What drives the studio? I mean, why bother?

Josh: Because it’s enjoyable. I honestly love the actual process of creating games. I want to make games that I would like to play. Looking at the App store and Google Play, there is a shortage of solid RPGs. I’m not saying that they are non-existent, but they’re few and far between. We’d like to change that with Echoes of Aeons and bring something a bit different to the table.

Jordan: I agree, it’s the thought of knowing that people will get to enjoy an awesome RPG and, hopefully, impact them in some way. Plus, I was kind of sick of not finding a very memorable RPG on the app stores.

Why should people invest in you and your game?

Jordan: Well, I guess the best reason would be to support a company that will strive to bring about a new generation of amazing RPGs! Honestly, I would have loved to have supported Squaresoft as they sought to release their first couple of games. I mean, you will be a part of gaming history. I think that is something really cool!

Josh: Because we care about making great games for people to enjoy. We’re not trying to create some generic game here. So if you like developers who actually put heart into their games, and if you like RPGs, then it’s only natural that you’d want to support us. We love supporting other indie developers via Kickstarter or Indie Bundles when we can.

What would you say to those thinking of embarking on a similar venture?

Josh: We wish them the best of luck. Remember to have some fun while in the creation process. Creating a game is a monumental task, especially with a small team. Make sure it’s something you can handle, and always be prepared for it to take longer than expected. Try to get the word out.

Jordan: Yeah, we definitely underestimated the amount of work and time a project of this size would take. We would sit around and be like “Yeah, we will be done in 6 months tops” and then 6 months would come, and we knew we were in for a long ride. Another thing to expect, is if you are not doing it for your only work, then it will suck all of your time away.  We pretty much had to give up gaming and all of our free time until this game is done. Between me and Josh, we put about 80 hours a week into the game outside of our full time day jobs. So just be prepared for a time investment! But I guess more than anything, do it because you love to. If it is something you enjoy doing, then it will always be beneficial, no matter the outcome!

Of all the RPGs released, which do you wish you could have made?

Josh: Released? I’d say Final Fantasy 9. The world was so cool and different in that one, sort of steampunk mixed with full on fantasy. I remember when I was younger going to Barnes and Noble and looking at the art book for FF9 in awe. I still look at the book today, the line art is so intricate. But it’s funny to see how far technology has come, even for pre-rendered or 2D games. Guild Wars 2 looks pretty great, and I’m sure that would have been a blast to create. At the same time, I can’t even begin to fathom the amount of work that went into that game.

Jordan: Geez thats a hard one, I would have liked to work on FF9 and Guild Wars 2 as well, just because of the awesome art teams those games had. But damn I love so many games so its hard to say!

What needs to be done before the game is ready for release? 

Josh: A lot. Based on our videos and screenshots, people have this idea that we are close to release somehow. The fact is we are not close at all. We have enough of the very base systems to build the game, but the act of putting together a game of this length that is not using repeating assets is a lot of work. That’s without including all the refinements and the systems that are not in place. When you’re making a game like this you have to literally make everything. Making a butterfly fly around the stage and land at different points is not automatic. Pathing, animation, layering, art, and timing all factor into something so simple.

So if funding is successful we are looking at 6-8 months with all that is planned with funding, if not then, we will scale our launch platforms back and make edits where we can do it in a year or so.

What, exactly, will the funds from Kickstarter go towards?

Jordan: We need to hire a dedicated programmer to hopefully take over all aspects of logic and systems building. We would also like to get an animator to help with character animations. Besides this, we are looking to have enough to allow Josh to quit his day job and focus another 50+ hours a week into the development. To do all of the things we want to do, like a a 4 platform release, we need to have a bigger team to help accomplish them. We also wanted to explore the possibility of voice actors, as well as a full orchestra for some of the main theme compositions on the original soundtrack. Also legal fees, copyrights, translation fees and localization. As well as software and game engine license fees. With all of that, the 40k we get after Kickstarter/Amazon/Physical reward overhead costs are accounted for, we may not be able to do all of those things.

One way or another we will finish this game, and many more games to come. We started this project without the idea of kickstarter and we will see it finished. We may just have to sacrifice where we can.

Josh: Yeah, if we had the funding we have the right contacts to hire people for all sorts of things, like voice actors, writers, localizations, and programmers.

Thanks for your time. 

For more information and the game, and to contribute to their Kickstarter, click here.

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