Kickstarter is a tool that means a lot of different things to different people. In the case of Zeboyd Games, it means the opportunity to simply do more. Founders Bill Stiernberg and Robert Boyd founded the studio in 2010 and in just three short years have released four full-fledged titles. With each new project the wide-eyed creators became more skilled and dedicated more time to making sure that their newest endeavor was to be their best yet, but they quickly came to the realization that to achieve their ambitious dreams they would need a helping hand.
The duo’s latest title-Cosmic Star Heroine-may have existed without the crowd-funding giant, but it’s clear that the pair would not have been able to fully realize their vision otherwise. Hot off the heals of a successful campaign I caught up with Zeboyd Games Co-Founder Bill Stiernberg to talk about his experience in getting Cosmic Star Heroine funded.
Brian Sharon: First off I’d like to congratulate the both of you on a successful Kickstarter campaign for Cosmic Star Heroine. Looking back on the process, what was the experience like?
Bill Stiernberg: It was a lot more work than it seemed at first. We had been watching and studying the various successful (and unsuccessful) Kickstarters for a long time. We had many long discussions about what works and what doesn’t for a Kickstarter page, and how campaigns are run, and what pitfalls there can be. Coming up with reward tiers and adjusting them was a lot of work too; rewards that are realistic to do and ship without killing us on time and shipping and other costs, then constant tweaking before the Kickstarter launch. Building the page was tons of work, I had to create a ton of custom assets for it and try to lay it out professionally.
We scrapped a number of things and added others, rearranged the page, and rewrote sections quite a bit. Finally, the video was somewhat challenging – we knew what we wanted to say, but explaining it well and try to be concise and not messing up on video is its own challenge! Thankfully Marc at Inlight-10 Productions did a great job recording and editing the final video. Once launch, Kickstarters remain a ton of work – you have to keep interest up and answer backer questions and tweets and so forth. Then you sit and watch the funding with a mix of excitement and stress. Our first day did super well, which took some pressure off, though, thankfully. So now we’re onto making the game, whoo!
It’s clear that as developers you draw a significant amount influence from titles such as Chrono Trigger. What is it about the genre that appeals to you as gamers?
Bill Stiernberg: The RPG genre has a lot of appeal to us as gamers. What really drives RPGs for us, though, are the mechanics as well as the story. Obviously, RPGs tend to have a broad world to explore and tons of varied and interesting characters. Exploring zany worlds and interacting with these characters is incredibly fun. But the mechanics behind RPGs are extremely important. We often come up with the gist of the mechanics shortly after we come up with a general concept and setting. Then, of course, the idea that you can start a game and explore and battle enemies and increase in strength, power, and diversity of abilities over the course of a long game is really rewarding.
The term JRPG was once nearly synonymous with quality, but today has fallen to become a dirty word of sorts. As fans of the genre, how do you feel about the current state of JRPG’s?
Bill Stiernberg: Well, the past several years could have been better for the genre. The HD-consoles have made it difficult to produce big-budget console JRPGs, and so you see many of the really good ones show up on the handhelds in the past few years. So they’re there, and there are many great ones. But we’d all like to see more show up on consoles and PC as well. Fortunately, it seems that more JRPG style games are showing up on digital platforms, both on consoles and PC (Steam) of late. I think going forward less “big” genres will find a lot of success that way.
Music found in 16-bit RPG’s have proved to be amongst the most enduring in the medium. Though you have had a strong relationship in the past, what does it mean to have Hyperduck working on Cosmic Star Heroine?
Bill Stiernberg: Oh it’s incredibly exciting! HyperDuck has always produced awesome OSTs for games – just check out their past stuff. But we really got a chance to work with them on Rainslick4, and I can’t believe how awesome that OST is. Music is incredibly important for RPGs – so much time is spent exploring, and battles, and solving things, that having an excellent OST is crucial. HyperDuck understands this, and they also seem to love working on RPG OSTs. They were really easy to work with on RS4 too. They always seem to really get what it is we’re looking for with a given track, and they’re always able to make tweaks to it as they write and record so that it comes out just right for the game. Super talented guys, very exciting to do a scifi game with them.
Speaking of Hyperduck, Kickstarter has afforded you options for Cosmic Star Heroine that were perhaps once out of your reach, such as allowing for a longer development cycle. What does the seemingly simple benefit of extra time offer you in the development process?
Bill Stiernberg: It pretty much offers more and better everything! We have the obvious expense of music/audio, but our past games have been limited by how much time we can spend on them. I always found myself wanting to put more detail or variety into a given map, or sprite, or selection of enemies or effects, and just wound up having to stop at a certain point in the interest of time and moving onto the next map/sprite/etc. With the additional dev time, I’m hoping we can really reach the potential that we feel we have. We can make this game bigger and more detailed and more polished than any of our past stuff, and really push our 16-bit style of game.We just can’t do CSH justice if we have to cram it into an 8 month dev cycle. As a side note, we also need the extra time to support more platforms, which we plan to do, and also become more accustomed with Unity, which we have not used before. But those aspects are going well, which is very encouraging and exciting.
This is your first game set in the under the diverse veil of science-fiction. What kind of universe will players enter in Cosmic Star Heroine?
Bill Stiernberg: Well, CSH is set in a universe where humans and alien life forms co-exist. So there will be planets that are more human in style, and others far more alien. There will be a variety of different sentient species you will encounter, and in fact join up with on the adventure. Just having a galaxy to work with gives us so many options for locations and life forms and alien cultures, and advanced human cultures. This is what I love about the game, it’s not limited to an earth-like planet or a fantasy-esque style. We can do a lot of cool, crazy ideas that we’ve been sitting on for a few years now.
Cosmic Star Heroine looks to feature a strong and capable female protagonist. Was it important to you to have a female lead for the title?
Bill Strienberg: Cosmic Star Heroine was a concept we had been brewing for a few years now. The original idea was to feature a female protagonist, and it’s something we’ve always wanted to do. We had 2 primary main characters that were male in the Rainslick games, and Cthulhu was obviously the main character in Cthulhu Saves the World. So it was important to us to stick to this idea featuring an accomplished female secret agent for Cosmic Star Heroine.
Despite Cosmic Star Heroines strong ties to classic Role-Playing-Games, what are some aspects of the game that will make it feel fresh and original?
Bill Stiernberg: We’re presenting the game in a 16-bit style, but the mechanics themselves are something that we’ve come up with and think people will find fresh and interesting. We’re a fan of buffs in RPGs, and so we’re going about buffs in an interesting way with CSH. We’re limiting the number of buffs available to be active at a given time, but they can be changed out during battle. Secondly, buffs will have a limited turn duration. This should help balance buffs in CSH while also allowing for some depth in strategy, since you can’t just take every ‘good’ buff and stack it throughout the battle. We are also planning on a Mastery system – essentially a system of abilities that each character can pursue that is unique to each character. It will give players the ability to basically customize their characters, but retains a unique identity to each.
We are also considering ways to let players re-spec their characters’ masteries further into the game, since many gamers have told us they don’t always like being “stuck” with a given series of skill choices further into the game. Masteries will also be limited based on rank to prevent players from dumping all points into a single mastery; and lastly we plan to provide the series of bonuses players get for given masteries to help them plan out their characters as they play (rather than taking choices now without knowing how it will affect their characters later). To make Items more meaningful, we’re considering a “backpack” system – a pack with X number of slots for players to equip with various items while at their base or a safe point.
We would allow items to be used up during quests, but give players the ability to restock their packs at their base of operations. It would essentially allow us to avoid letting players over-stock and spam powerful items by limiting the number they can take with them, but still allow them to replenish them. There are a slew of other ideas we’re hoping to put into this game, such as a base building and support character system as well. These are just some specific examples.
Upon release Cosmic Star Heroine will be released on a few choice platforms such as PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita. Speaking about the PS Vita specifically, what was it about the device that appealed to you as a destination for the project?
Bill Stiernberg: We really wanted to get CSH on at least 1 portable handheld device that worked well with a traditional console-style game. Sony has been incredibly helpful in working with us, and they approached us and have been doing so much to smooth the process that the Vita was an obvious choice of platform to include along with PS4. The Vita is also great for this – it has traditional controls so that interface won’t be difficult to port, and a lot of pixel art games just look amazing on its vibrant, resolute screen. We are also spec’ing the main game resolution of CSH to fit well on 1080p when upscaled, and it turns out that the native resolution we chose also scales perfectly to the Vita’s screen. Add to that the fact that RPGs tend to work well on handhelds and that we plan to have a crossplay option with PS4, and it really makes a ton of sense to support the Vita as well as the other platforms.
Recently it seems as though Sony and PlayStation have truly embraced independent creations and have worked hard on establishing relationships with developers. Given your collaboration, how do you feel about this new stance?
Bill Stiernberg: I think it’s awesome. Sony sought us out and have done a lot to work with us. They have lowered or removed a lot of barriers that we might have had in producing content for a console or handheld, and have also done a lot to help us promote Cosmic Star Heroine. Sony also jumped on all of this a long time ago, and the other major companies are just now catching up. It puts Sony, and devs who are planning PS4 or Vita projects, a huge step forward because we’ve been able to sort out a whole lot of logistics and get started on these versions while other companies are getting similar indie-friendly systems into place. It’s pretty awesome that we have this opportunity and it’s great to see Sony actively bringing quality independently developed content to their major platforms.
I know that there is a ton of work to be done, but could you share a target date for Cosmic Star Heroine?
Bill Stiernberg: Hehe, we won’t be able to set a specific, narrow date until sometime next year. But we are budgeting the rest of this year and most of 2014 for this game’s development, as we hope to release in the latter part of 2014.