Interview With SteamTank Entertainment’s Geoffrey White

The folks at SteamTank Entertainment are busy at work on their first Action RPG, To Be a Hero. We chat with studio lead Geoffrey White to find out more.

Tell us a little about SteamTank Entertainment. How big is your team, and is To Be a Hero your first game development project?

Our team is made up of one full time person – myself – and three part time contractors who help with level design and music. This would technically be my fourth development project. Two of those were past indie projects, where the team members bailed because of life issues. The third was some contract work I did on SiN Episodes.

Career wise, I had always been a 3D artist but my passion was game design. Specifically, role playing and strategy games. I had always been a fan of computer games from the early 90’s but have felt disappointed by the direction of the industry over the past few years. So I bit the bullet, bought a programming book, and three years later I have a nearly completed game.

The first thing I noticed about Hero is the striking visual perspective. Did any particular games influence your visual design approach, or was it simply your goal to do something that stood out?

Originally, To Be a Hero was going to have an isometric perspective. Unfortunately, the frame rate was really low in early tests using that method. The second method I tried was the traditional orthographic perspective you see in most RPGs. The problem I had with that was, graphically it just didn’t stand out, and I couldn’t put much detail into the environments. So I started looking at old games for inspiration and noticed several games such as Ultima VI and Lord of the Rings: Vol I that used a cheated isometric perspective. It looks isometric-y, but it’s just drawn slanted. I haven’t seen many games that use this, so I decided it would be fresh to see once again.

How does the class system work in Hero?

Classes in To Be a Hero are all based on which job you are currently employed in. When you start out, you get to put several skill points into either base stats or unique starter skills. You start off as a squire. We are actually looking at renaming that to something more unique, but that’s the name for now. Each time you level up, your base stat growth is determined by your job class. For instance, squires get one strength point every time they level up. More advanced jobs actually get several points each time they level up. When you level up, you get to pick a skill to improve. The skills are determined by your job class. Most skills are passive and some are active.

Classes come in three basic flavors: melee, ranged, and magic. As you advance through the class tree, you get to pick classes that are either pure melee, ranged, magic, or any combination of those. For instance, you may start out as a squire, then choose to be a magic user like the chemist, then upgrade to a mage. Now you realize you are really strong in magic but weak when creatures get close to you, so you decide to be a battle mage. Then you realize you like close combat, and choose paladin as your next class.

One limitation, however, is that you can’t train to be every class. This forces you to make decisions and adds an element of replayability. I think one mistake RPGs make these days is, they let your character be everything at once. This takes away replayability and turns the game into one large grind fest.

Another interesting feature of class is, it determines how much money your character receives when he kills a monster. This way, you also get non combat related benefits to job advancement.

In many RPGs, a visit to a town or city usually involves some shopping and the usual “Welcome to Cornelia!” message from non-critical NPCs. It looks like you’re going for more intricate NPC interactions in Hero – what all does the player do in the game’s villages?

The player spends most of the time in villages learning what to do next. However, you can’t just talk to everyone and expect to learn anything. You also have to ask the right question. For instance, when the village elder gets murdered, you may want to ask people about the murder. In the process of doing this you may learn the assailant had some defining feature, like a dead eye. Now that you know he had a dead eye, you may want to ask people if they’ve seen anyone with a dead eye.

Another useful thing with NPCs is asking them about local monsters. Many of the monsters can’t be beaten simply by hitting the attack button. Most of them have a weak spot that villagers are aware of.