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The Minds Behind The Music: An Interview About Blade Symphony

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By: Stephen Crane (Photo: Courtesy Blade Symphony)

A couple of weeks ago the small, indie developer Puny Human made a bit of a stir on the internet. They had come up with a fun, interesting game concept called Blade Symphony and was looking to crowdsource its funding. Those working on the game had a modest budget of $15,000, and were hoping to achieve that goal by August 28. As of today more than $17,000 have been raised and it's still going strong.

 

I had the great opportunity to speak with the creative minds behind the game and ask them some questions about this interesting indie title.

First, I would like to thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start with introductions. Who are you and what projects have you worked on in the past?

 Tim “termi” Grant:

My name is Tim Grant / termi, I’m a level designer and artist on Blade Symphony. I was a founding member on Dystopia and worked on a handful of indie projects as well.

 Michael “flux” Chang:

My name is Michael Chang (aka flux) and I’m the designer, programmer, and creator of what used to be called Project Berimbau but is now Blade Symphony.

Michael “urinal-cake” Sanders:

My name is Michael Sanders, also called urinal-cake. I’m the business guy and handle the day-to-day running of the studio. I joined Team Dystopia in 2005 as a QA tester.

Samuel “spire” Rice:

My name is Samuel Rice, aka “Spire.” I’m an artist who originally joined Team Dystopia in 2007 as a QA tester after impressing the developers with some custom-made content for the game, and have since been building levels and models for Dystopia and Blade Symphony.

 

Some of you previously worked on larger games in the industry. How much did you enjoy that and how did making a large title inform you of the gaming industry? What unique challenges have you met leaving big studios and developers?

 Michael “urinal-cake” Sanders: I’ve only worked at two "big" studios, Epic Games and RedStorm Entertainment, but…

The single largest challenge for us is logistics and communication. Throughout the last 5 years, we’ve been developing Dystopia and Blade Symphony primarily over the internet, via chat services like IRC and voice services like Mumble and Skype. However, we’ve also managed to meet up in central spots once every year for the last two years.

In those times that we were together for a week (some of us only for a few days), we made more fixes and additions to our game than in the first 4 months of development. It really was overwhelming! Being able to work side by side with each other is a big hope of ours.

Michael “flux” Chang: I’ve worked with Will Wright on Spore during their early prototype phase. Maxis (now part of EA) really hammers home the process of prototyping your ideas, and getting something fun and playable as soon as possible.

How does a lack of corporate backing change or inform your decisions in creating games?

Michael “urinal-cake” Sanders: We find ourselves evaluating free software, including engines and toolkits. We also heavily research independent licenses and their costs, and weigh the benefits with the cost. For advertising and marketing we rely on social media, small websites and our fans. We also have no way of being able to support people significantly from a financial standpoint, which makes finding proper talent very difficult. However, throughout all the years of engaging in day-to-day activities, we've found that when forced into a situation we can be very resourceful and frugal.

Your decision to crowdsource the game instead of seeking loans or investors is pretty unique. What led you to this decision, and how well has it paid off? Do you think you have more creative freedom because of it?

Michael “urinal-cake” Sanders: The single largest thing in our mind, from a monetary perspective, has been that we don’t want this studio to take on too much more debt than it could handle and possibly become a sinking ship. Too often, independent development groups and even well-funded studios get in over their head with what they’re developing. We keep costs down significantly by working in our spare time, after we get home from full time jobs or school. Asking the public to pledge to our cause was only the next logical step for us, having put in so much money of our own throughout the years. We really wanted to "break through," so to speak, so that we could sell a game and in the future be self-sustaining. We've been (very pleasantly) shocked recently to learn that the public is very much in line with this ambition.

Seeking investment or loans from those who want creative control isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's just not our style. Many of us have worked corporate jobs before, where we’ve seen the creativity and inspiration sucked from the minds that spawned them, just by introducing a bad idea from way up on high. We aim to avoid the process as a whole, by avoiding the cause.

Back in 2005 you released the game Dystopia as a free Half-Life 2 “conversion”. Was this your first experience working with the Source engine?

Tim “termi” Grant: It was the first Source engine experience any of us had, but there were many similarities with it and the idTech3 and GoldSrc engines so it wasn’t a huge jump. When we first got our ideas together for Dystopia, Source hadn’t even been announced. We originally played with the Quake 3 engine for a few months before realizing it wasn’t capable due to the entity I/O limitations. When Valve announced Source at E3, I think it was, they were showing the tech demo with the Barrel pachinko machine and talking about the entity system, etc. We knew that was the engine for us, we started working on it as soon as we got our hands on the sdk. At least on the level / art pipeline side, we found it wasn’t too different from previous engines.

Since then you have moved from an intense FPS mod to creating an entirely different game on the Source engine. How have your experiences with Dystopia informed what your plans are for Blade Symphony?

Tim “termi” Grant: We had a history with Source at that point. We knew its strengths and weaknesses and had all but pushed it to its limits are far as level size/technical complexity went. As far as level design goes, we knew we wanted to go in the opposite direction and push it art wise, with many more models and higher quality textures packed into smaller levels, leveraging our art team to show off what we could do.

Blade Symphony looks like it is set to be an ambitious game. What are the main gameplay features you want in the game?

Michael “flux” Chang: Our main design pillars are:

– Sword Fights! Players need to feel like they are in control of a very skilled fighter, but always have direct control of what they're doing.

– Emphasis on 1v1 combat, allowing the strategy to emerge from crazy things players do with the moves we give them.

– No projectile weapons!


 

A lot of your modeling and combat styles appear to be based off real life modeling. Is this a similar style of development your team has used in the past, or is this something more original you bring to the table?

Samuel “spire” Rice: While all the animations were done by hand in Blade Symphony, we used live video where we posed and acted out moves as an additional reference to help bring as much detail as possible to the moves. This was just one of the ways in which we improved on our development methods from Dystopia, where we didn't include the same level of quality in the animations.

Our whole team is very proud of what we accomplished with Dystopia, but we’ve really tried to raise our standards to create content that is more visually appealing than anything we did before.

It looks like at least one of you is a martial arts practitioner, and in your website I saw at least one boffer sword theoretically used by a LARPer. How has this affected gameplay or storytelling elements?

Michael “flux” Chang: Animating martial combat and making it look good is really hard, but it just so happens that I took a years worth of Kenjutsu and two years of Muy Thai, just enough to know how "real fighting" looks and feels. However, we're not making anything remotely realistic or modelled to work like actual sword fighting. Our combat is inspired by a mix of Hong Kong Wuxia cinema as well as animé.

Blade Symphony seems to have had a pretty successful alpha stage. How much more do you plan to add to the game beyond what we’ve seen in the Alpha?

Michael “flux” Chang: One of the biggest concerns is replayability and we intend to address this directly by adding variety. It seems we've punched depth into the game in Alpha but now we need to expand the breadth a lot more. What this ultimately means is we're going to give each character entirely unique moves. This is a departure from our Jedi Knight II inspired roots, and moving somewhat closer to something like Street Fighter where every character has unique moves and attacks.

The other big thing is aerial combat. We originally left it out of Alpha due to the scope of designing and trying to refine the game. Now that we know we want to go retail, we have some more breathing room to add things like jumping back into the game. This is a very big deal, as attacks can now come from above as well as below, giving combat way more complexity than it had before.

Thank you for your time! Good luck with developing this game! Is there anything else you would like to let the readers know about it?

Michael “flux” Chang: We’d like to let the readers know they should go over to our Kickstarter page and pledge! Even though we’ve reached the funding goal, every additional cent means we can do more with Blade Symphony, faster. Unless they’ve already pledged, in which case they are the coolest people in the world.

About Stephen Crane

Stephen was hooked by the NES at a very young age and never looked back. He games on a daily basis and is currently trying to climb his way up the ranked ladder on League of Legends! Outside of the video game world he actually likes running and owns a rapidly growing collection of toed shoes. Stephen Crane is the owner of Armed Gamer.

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