Interview With D20Studios’ Ross Przybylski

Hero Mages is now live on the App Store. Here’s our interview with studio founder and developer Ross Przybylski, and also check out our hands-on preview while we work on a review!

Let’s start by learning a little about the D20 team. How many people are working on Hero Mages currently, and what drove you to make the jump from tabletop game designer to videogame designer?

Well, so far it’s just me, Ross Przybylski! I’m the founder, manager, and currently sole employee of D20Studios. While I programmed all of the game code myself, I had plenty of support from my friends, family, artists, players, and most particularly my wife — without whom I never would have made it this far.

My original aim was to produce Hero Mages as a physical board game. I actually printed playing cards and a roll-out vinyl game board that could be used in conjunction with pewter miniatures. I got as far as having the product professionally reviewed: it got a high rating in entertainment value, but it lacked a certain product distinction (marketing gimmick) required to get an agency sponsor. My friends and the local hobby shops I play-tested at really enjoyed it though, so one of my friends challenged me with the idea of using my Flash skills to port it to a web-based game. Having never programmed a game before, I was skeptical at first. I started with creating a simple engine that could shuffle colored circles around on a grid. A couple months later, I had a multiplayer prototype up and running.

How challenging was it to create a world and storyline for a game that was meant to be multiplayer from the outset? In what ways does this process differ, do you think, from any single-player strategy games and Strategy RPGs you’ve had a chance to play over the years?

I’ll be honest in saying that story was never at the forefront of Hero Mages’ design. While I absolutely love superbly written RPGs like Dragon Age: Origins, I believe that a game too closely tied to story can rarely succeed as what Spry Fox game designer Daniel Cook dubs an “evergreen title.” The dilemma of story-driven games is that once the story is told, the game is over. Rather than focusing on story arcs, an evergreen title focuses on interactive loops in the form of unique and recurring gaming sessions.

It’s the difference between watching a movie and playing a sport. Sure, you can watch a movie more than once, but the primary entertainment value – surprise – loses something with each sequential viewing. I focused the design of Hero Mages on multiplayer because I wanted a game that could be replayed infinitely and offer a distinctive sense of drama and suspense in every single playthrough.

Just how many platforms does the Hero Mages community span in addition to iOS? Did you have to heavily retool your game engine as you expanded, or did this work out surprisingly smoothly on the programming end all things considered?

In addition to iOS, Hero Mages is available for Android via Google Play and Amazon Appstore. It’s coming soon for Nook Color and Blackberry Play. Hero Mages is also currently available on PC and Mac as a free-to-play web browser game (a full-blown installable desktop client is also in the works). Players can play cross-platform multiplayer games together regardless of which platform they choose, and all game accounts automatically sync to the website’s robust community forums.

The beauty of building the game with Adobe Flash is that I can simultaneously export apps to any platform with AIR (yes, Flash games do run on iOS). While there was quite a bit of work in designing and programming mobile-specific features (touch gestures, multiscreen, graphics optimization), these challenges would have been the same whichever language I chose to program with. It may surprise you that I don’t know Java or a lick of C#, but I’m proud to say Hero Mages runs on Android and iOS using identical source code written in ActionScript 3. This means I’ll be able to apply more frequent and rapid updates that everyone can enjoy!

Whenever I think about multiplayer TBS games, I guess I’ve always had the impression that they’d usually be asynchronous, play-by-email affairs. Hero Mages seems to be the exact opposite with its snappy live matches. Did you ever consider going the asynchronous route, and what advantages have you found in fully synchronous multiplayer?

As a matter of fact, I am in the process of planning a new TBS title based in the Hero Mages world that features asynchronous gameplay. With all the success of games like Words With Friends and Draw Something, what’s not to like about this idea? Friends can play casually on their phone without having to be locked into a dedicated gaming session.

On the opposite swing, however, the lack of a dedicated gaming session is really frustrating when you want to actually, well, play with friends and not simply kill time when you’re bored. There’s a huge element of fun that happens when a group of players join up for a round of Hero Mages. The turn-based nature of the game presents plenty of opportunities for humorous quips about the Barbarian’s murderous rampages and light hearted jabs at the crapulence of your opponents’ dice rolls, or as we like to say, “whiffs.” Our community is amazing: you can literally sink hours into a gaming session and end the night with a huge grin on your face and a sore stomach from laughing.