Interview with Developer Experimental Gamer (Updated)

As a long time fan of retro Nintendo RPGs I’ve often wondered why more genres never got the Japanese style RPG treatment. One of the genres I had long given up hope of seeing made into an RPG was the Wild West genre. I have been lucky enough to interview Ben Rubach and Dave Welch from Experimental Gamer, developers of the newly announced Wild West RPG Boot Hill Heroes. We discussed Kickstarter, what makes their campaign different, their inspirations and lots more.

Laura: For those who don’t know you, could you introduce yourself?

Dave: We are Experimental Gamer – a two man team composed of Dave and Ben from Chicago. We’re roommates and we both love video games. What better way to spend a Chicago winter than staying home and playing some games with friends?

Ben: That’s actually how Experimental Gamer began. We played a lot of games together and always had some input about what we’d like to see in a game. After a while we started asking, well why don’t we just make one?

Dave: That’s the simple version of the story. But we had both always wanted to make games. I had always dabbled in game making and had some experience, but nothing much came of it. It just took the two of us getting together to gain the confidence to really go through with it.

Laura: How would you describe Boot Hill Heroes?

Ben: The easiest thing about the project is that all we have to say is “Wild West RPG” and people instantly get the idea. But I’ll gladly expand on the concept: Boot Hill Heroes is a retro-styled RPG set in the American Wild West. It’s about a farm boy, a gunslinging desperado, an Indian princess, and a calamity jane who must track down and bring to justice six notorious outlaws in order to stop a war between the people of Bronco County and the Chepakwik Indians.

Dave: Yep, and the game features four player local co-op and a power point battle system where you can use attacks and defenses.

Ben: Also, hats.

Dave: Yes, you can find various job hats that teach characters new abilities. Then you choose which abilities you want a character to have at once to customize them to your liking. And you can see your character sprites wearing the hats.

Laura: You’re big retro Nintendo fans. What are your favourite retro games, and what was it about those games that you enjoyed most?

Ben: I like that you asked that because while it is true that retro games like Final Fantasy III/VI and Chrono Trigger have a nostalgic appeal to gamers our age who played them as early teens, we often wonder if such games still hold up 20 years later? Or is our perception clouded by nostalgia?

Dave: In my opinion, these games still hold up. When we played Final Fantasy III/VI a year ago, it was actually better than I remembered it 20 years ago. But what is it that we enjoy most about them? I would theorize that the quality comes from succinctness. Technology was limited and they had to do more with less. So stories were concise, direction was tighter, graphics were more innovative. Sometimes when your creativity is not restricted, it causes you to lose focus.

Laura: The visual style of the game is very reminiscent of Earthbound. What other classic RPGs helped inspire Boot Hill Heroes?

Dave: Earthbound was obviously a huge influence in the graphics as we are big fans of the clean, colorful, and minimalistic style of those visuals. But the job hat mechanic could be compared to the Espar system from Final Fantasy VI or the job system from Final Fantasy V.  

Laura: When did you first know you wanted to make games rather than just playing them?

Dave: I think within a week of playing A Link to the Past when I was 11 I had already designed a tabletop RPG and started making my friends play it. Ever since I’ve been making board games, live action mystery games, tabletop games, and video games. But this is one of the few projects that I can say has been fully realized.

Ben: I checked out a book from the library when I was 10 years old about how to program video games on my Commodore 64. It turns out I was awful at it. But 20 years later I forgot how bad I was and Dave and I saw how people like us were able to make indie games. We figured if others can do it, why can’t we?

Dave: I’ve been fascinated with the medium of interactive entertainment. I believe video games allow us to explore and experience things in unique ways that are not possible through other passive forms of media because games add the element of discovery to the experience. Video games are the only medium that combine art, music, story, direction, and interactivity – just about everything that can be included. This is a really exciting time for game creators to explore that potential.

Laura: Would you ever be interested in creating a game for a Nintendo platform?

Dave: Absolutely. Like most gamers our age (late twenties / early thirties) Nintendo will always have a special place in our memories, even if we’ve moved on to other platforms. But from what I’ve heard, you have to be pretty well recognized in this industry before Nintendo will talk to you. But someday, who knows?

Laura: What inspired the design of Boot Hill Heroes? Why did you pick the Wild West setting?

Ben: Oh yeah, there are a lot of reasons for this. First, while we both love creating fantasy worlds, monsters, and magical places, we wanted to avoid creating yet another fantasy RPG. There are only a handful of video games set in the Wild West and even fewer RPGs. Just about every RPG fan out there has probably said to themselves at one point, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if someone made an RPG set in the Wild West?” We’re just one of the few people who are doing it.

Dave: When we were first talking about the game, we actually googled “RPGs set in the Wild West” and instead of finding any such games other than maybe Wild Arms, we found more posts on various forums of people asking “Are there any RPGs set in the Wild West?” So with that very little research we concluded that it was something people wanted.

Ben: And we wanted it too. My grandfather passed away recently and he was a lifelong fan of westerns. He introduced me to the genre and I had been thinking a lot about him when Dave approached me with the idea for a Wild West game.

Dave: Another reason is that our company is called Experimental Gamer and we wanted to experiment with the idea of telling a fantasy-style story through Wild West tropes. A very general description of the story of Boot Hill Heroes is about how an arrogant wizard attempts to manipulate an ancient evil sealed away by a group of legendary heroes, only for his hubris to allow the ancient evil to consume the kingdom in darkness. Except in Boot Hill Heroes, the “arrogant wizard” is a business tycoon, the “ancient evil” is an imprisoned leader of a gang of outlaws, the “legendary heroes” are the Boot Hill posse that apprehended the outlaws in the past, and the “kingdom” is the Wild West territory of Bronco County.

Ben: Exactly. There are so many similarities between fantasy and western. We watched a lot of spaghetti westerns like “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” “Django,” and “Ace High” and thought – yes, this could easily be an RPG. The names are different but the pieces are all there.

Laura: Why did you decide to start a Kickstarter?

Ben: One thing that we want people to know about our Kickstarter that seems to be different than other video game Kickstarters is that we don’t need the funding to finish the game. Boot Hill Heroes is our dream and it will be finished. We need the funding to finish it sooner.

Dave: I was earning a living as a freelance writer, but now I have been working full time on this game for about eight months. I’ve burned through my savings, and we have nothing left to pay for music and sound effects. So to get enough money to pay for these things and to live on, I would have to divide my time between earning income as a writer and working on the game. This will significantly delay development of Boot Hill Heroes. I don’t want to have to do that.

Ben: We’re not willing to make compromises on the game either just to get it out sooner. So any funding we get from Kickstarter will simply allow us to devote more time to development. We’re far enough along to estimate how long it will take to finish the game if we continue to work on it at our current rate. If we are funded through Kickstarter, the game should be ready by October of this year. It’s also a great opportunity to start interacting with the potential fans of the game early. We’re getting them involved with the creative process.

Laura: How long do you expect the story to last?

Dave: Although we noticed a lot of Indie RPGs will tout 40 or 50 hours as a positive, we don’t feel like adding a lot of generic battles, and grinding is not what people want from an indie game. We want the experience to be short and sweet. That said, I don’t think we’ll be able to tell the story we want to tell in less than 10 hours even if we cut every last bit of fat. We expect Boot Hill Heroes to be about 10 to 15 hours.

Laura: How did you go about designing an RPG that allows for drop-in multiplayer? How early in the game can players 2 – 4 join in?

Dave: I was really hoping you would ask that. Ben had never played one of my favorite games, Final Fantasy III/VI, so winter of 2011 we decided to play through that game. I knew that Final Fantasy III/VI actually allowed you the second player controller to take over some of the characters in combat, but we weren’t sure if that would even be much fun. Turns out it was a blast! We were left wondering why not all other Final Fantasy games and RPGs allowed for this. It’s simply a matter of associating a controller with a character. We also played local cooperative RPGs like Tales of Vesperia. Games with terrific narratives are just more fun when you can share the experience with others.

Ben: So the decision to allow this in Boot Hill Heroes came very early. And since the game featured four playable characters, why not make it four players? But we wanted to take it a step further. In Final Fantasy III/VI, the second player can’t do anything while the first player is walking around on the overworld, and only the first player can bring up the menu screen and change the characters’ equipment. We wanted to allow all players to do this and for it not to interrupt the gameplay.

Dave: For Boot Hill Heroes, we spent a long time designing a small and efficient enough menu system that would allow four players to simultaneously modify their characters through four menus that did not interrupt gameplay in the overworld. So one player can be moving the party on the overworld, while any other players can be tinkering with their characters’ equipment and abilities on the menu. Also, the leading player can press select to pass leadership of the party to whoever controls the next character in the party line – so player one does not necessarily have to always be the leader. It takes a lot of words to explain, but it plays very intuitively.

Laura: Do you have any final words?

Dave: Yes, we have so many people to thank. The XNA community has been extremely helpful every step of the way. Also, indie developers like Team2Bit (“Fist Puncher”), Muteki (“Dragon Fantasy”), and Zeboyd (“Cthulhu Saves the World”) have been very supportive and offered a lot of helpful advice. We’re lucky to be in an industry where we all work to benefit each other. And thanks to all the websites who wrote about us to help spread the word, like Destructoid and Co-Optimus. And thanks to you, Laura, for interviewing us.

Ben: We also must thank all our backers who have pitched in on the Kickstarter so far, although we can’t even really express our gratitude for this in words.

Dave: It’s true. You have no idea how it feels to work on something in isolation for so long while wondering if anyone is going to like it and then finally getting this positive feedback. I may have a stalker-ish relationship with our backers that’s quite unhealthy.

Ben: Also we want to let people know that Experimental Gamer isn’t just about game development, it’s also about the indie game community. We want to start doing interviews, podcasts, and editorials with other indie gamers, so contact us if you’re interested.

You can find out more about Boot Hill Heroes here and dont forget to check back with us for more info closer to the game’s release.

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