Nailing precise controls on touchscreen devices is the kind of challenge developers of all shapes and sizes across the industry face title after title.
In action games the hurdle is inched up even higher, but RocketCat Games - creator of Mage Gauntlet and Punch Quest – is credited by many as being one of the only studios to have come anywhere close to matching the precision of a traditional controller. The controls in the studio’s new game, Wayward Souls, are anything but wayward.
One thing that makes this mastery of a difficult area of games development all the more impressive, is looking into the history of the people who work at RocketCat.
"We arbitrarily decided to make games one night," recalls RocketCat Games’ Kepa Auwae.
"I was a registered nurse, Brandon [Rhodes] was delivering pizzas and posting comics to 4chan, Jeremy [Orlando] was tied to a radiator, forced to program Mahjong games in Flash by the Yakuza. Our first and second games did well enough where we could start working on games full-time."
Before RocketCat’s first game, Hook Champ, the team didn’t have much industry experience between them. Yet, somehow, the three of them together formed a formidable team.
The depths of the unknown
For Wayward Souls, Auwae designed the gameplay and level generation, Rhodes was on art and writing duties and Orlando - now free of his Yakuza captors - was responsible for particle, lighting and sound effects.
"Even since 2009’s Spelunky, I wanted to do a game that was like Secret of Mana, but endlessly replayable and randomly generated," says Auwae. "Also with a faster, positioning-based combat system. Our previous action-adventure game, Mage Gauntlet, was supposed to be exactly this. At the time, we weren't skilled enough to figure out the random level generation."
Wrapping their minds around the procedural generation was the team’s biggest obstacle. RocketCat wanted to give the game a fresh feel for each play through - seeing as the player is thrown back to the start each time - whilst retaining the atmosphere and keeping the game visually interesting.
Wayward Souls manages this, even with its simplistic pixel art visual style, by using rain and lighting in tandem with the sound design; the dangling lanterns, which swing as the player knocks into them, give the dungeons a sense of foreboding.
Even since 2009’s Spelunky, I wanted to do a game that was like Secret of Mana.Kepa Auwae
Even with the visual and aural tricks the team deployed, however, the illusion would have been lost if the procedural generation had forced them to create simple layouts for each encounter.
"Procedural generation is hard if you're trying to do something new," says Auwae. "We wanted random levels that still looked like they had some sort of logic to them; we wanted decorations and traps, and various room sizes; we looked at other games, particularly traditional roguelikes such as Nethack.
"The problem with that level generation style is that those games were full of bland, empty rooms: rectangles, hallways, doors, some loot strewn around."
Auwae admits that he’s not a fan of the term ‘roguelike’ as a genre, but he is a big fan of procedurally generated games, mainly because of their intrinsic replay value. Because of this replay value, games of its ilk tend not to have "all the filler" that games with hand-crafted content tend to have.
"So you can make a game that takes an hour to beat if you master it, but can be enjoyed for a hundred hours or more," muses Auwae.
"What we ended up doing was using a system very similar to Spelunky's level generation system. How we decided on this, overcame the struggle of implementing a level generation system like Spelunky, was mostly due to articles by Darius Kazemi. Darius dissected and explained how the level generator works. His older articles were very helpful, and were what we used.
"Wayward's level generator is similar in that we use hand-made rooms, that are randomly selected to be placed in a level. The hand-made rooms also have a lot of variations, to keep them fresh. Different from Spelunky: we can vary the room sizes and general level shape, and have the wall shapes and sizes of each room also be randomised. Also different is that our rooms are generally more arena-like - most of them have a group of monsters with a locking door."
RocketCat created its own tools for the level generation and gameplay balancing, and Wayward Souls was also created in RocketCat’s own game engine. The team at RocketCat might be learning as they go, but it’s blindingly obvious by speaking to them that they’re all perfectionists. Which brings us back to those controls.
Bringing them to the level of precision they’re currently at took a lot of iteration, but RocketCat’s previous game, Mage Gauntlet, laid much of the groundwork. Mage Gauntlet and Wayward Souls were both inspired by a game that left its mark on Auwae as a child: Secret of Mana.
It's a game Auwae looks back on fondly, but even in his memories, the combat was a bit too slow-paced.
"Playing it as an adult, the combat really didn't hold up too well for me," reflects Auwae. "I wanted to make combat that was similar to Secret of Mana, but much faster paced. For this, I looked at the combat in action-adventure games, but also took cues from fighting games like Street Fighter, which have amazing amounts of thought put into combat design.
Our first control schemes were awful on tiny screens with no stylus, and it was awful for fast-paced, difficult combat.Kepa Auwae
"Mage Gauntlet was our first attempt at this, and was our basis for Wayward's combat. We even have a character, the Spellsword, that is essentially just a rebalanced version of the main character in Mage Gauntlet.
"What we tried to do is make every action have consequences, so you had to weigh its pros and cons; attacking would root you in place for a little while, making you vulnerable to projectiles; using your special attack took energy, and you also used that same energy to dodge, so you have to be careful that you weren't vulnerable at the end of your special attack. We tweaked many things over the course of development, and abandoned a bunch of ideas.
"One thing we tried and abandoned in Mage Gauntlet was requiring energy to attack. We thought this made the pacing too slow. Dark Souls does this, so it obviously can work, but we thought it made melee fighting too boring in our game. Attack, back up slightly, etc. Maybe it's because it's 2D, not 3D. We also tried a bunch of different control schemes, including one that was like The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. Tap onscreen to move, gestures for attacks. That was awful on tiny screens with no stylus, and it was awful for fast-paced, difficult combat."
Auwae isn’t afraid to criticise his own work, either. He’s always pushing forward, always tweaking and tuning. It could even be said that Wayward Souls is the game he wanted Mage Gauntlet to be in the first place. Auwae’s main criticism of Mage Gauntlet is that the main character, Lexi, was overpowered.
"She had a quick, huge sword," says Auwae. "Since our system doesn't require energy for attacking, she could stand in a corner all day against melee enemies and just slash repeatedly to make a wall of death in front of her.
"In Wayward, we split characters up into longsword, shortsword, and dagger attackers. Longswords have the same range as Lexi's sword, but attack slower. Shortswords attack at around her speed, but have much less range so melee enemies have some chance against you. Daggers attack even faster, but have tiny range. We also tried to make the enemies in Wayward all smarter, with more attacks, since enemies that just use melee attacks in our system are pretty boring."
The key to Wayward’s success seems to be variety. Like Dark Souls, much of the depth comes from different loadouts, personified in Wayward Souls by unique characters, instead of equipment. In many reviews, a comparison to Dark Souls has been made. Maybe it’s the perma-death, which sends the player back to the beginning of a section until the area boss is defeated, or maybe it’s just because both games have "Souls" in the title. Who knows? Maybe it’s because they’re both difficult and we know how much emphasis is put on the difficulty of Dark Souls.
Kepa Auwae thinks it could be down to the intricacies of both games’ combat and its nuances.
"They both have combat that's based on careful timing and positioning, or you'll get murdered," he says. "That's about the only similarity, I think. We ended up having to change the name late in development - due to King’s quasi-legal dogshit claim of ownership of 'Saga’ - and the three words we liked were ‘Souls, Spirits, and Throne’. It seems pretty much impossible to not use a word that isn't used by another game title now, unless you just make something up. Also we saw that another upcoming game was going to use '... Souls' and we just decided to go for it."
Back to that variety: Wayward Souls could have been a completely different beast, had RocketCat stuck to its initial vision. Part of the reason the game has multiple characters, and therefore different equipment loadouts, in the first place is because it was going to be free-to-play
"It was originally going to be free, with buying in-app purchase characters," admits Auwae. "We abandoned this concept for now, but will probably revisit it in a future game. The problem was that all our characters are pretty complex, due to all the different playstyles and how each equipment upgrade they get changes their play style more. So making ten-plus characters ended up being too difficult, and you really need a lot of characters to support the ‘buy characters with money’ idea."
It seems that the choice to go premium is paying off, too. In a couple of weeks, Wayward Souls is projected to surpass Punch Quest in profit. In a few months it may also surpass Mage Gauntlet. "That's really amazing, because we're talking about games that have been out for two and three years, respectively," reveals Auwae.
Praise the sun
There’s a school of thought that says you need to make games F2P on mobile to make the big money, so it's natural to wonder just how successful Wayward Souls might have been if RocketCat had gone down this route.
In Auwae's view, however, the game's commercial standing may have in fact been impacted had the studio opted to adopt the F2P model.
If you're making a F2P game, you want to get as many downloads as possible.Kepa Auwae
"For one, it's a really niche game," admits Auwae. "The App Store isn't exactly full of extremely difficult randomized action-adventure games based around permanent death. The no-buttons control scheme was also risky, and seems somewhat divisive. If you're making a F2P game, or, hell, if you're making a mobile game and aren't terrible businessmen like us, you want to get as many downloads as possible.
"I'm thinking the numbers you want for a free game is at least five-million. To get this, there's a big incentive to make a game that is as ‘lowest common denominator’ as possible. You want to make something that everyone can sort of like for awhile, while not really offending anyone by being too different than something that's already popular.
"Actually, I'd say the last line is great advice for any mobile game developer," he laughs. "Maybe a little cynical?
"Second, we originally wanted to do a free IAP system that didn't mess up the gameplay. So no tying IAP to progression - the easiest thing to do. Instead, we wanted to have new characters you could buy, with all of our characters changing how the game plays. There's a few problems with this. First is that you need a ton of characters to have this work. League of Legends did this, but that game also had millions of dollars of Venture Capital funding.
"Second is that every update we'd have to add a bunch more characters because free IAP games really benefit from constant updates. We'd pretty much have to devote the rest of our time to the game. Third is that our characters are really complicated, with lots of further gameplay variation based on equipment you find. This just makes the previous two points even worse to deal with.
"I'd like to give the concept a shot, though. I want to prove that you can make a niche free+IAP game that's both fair to the player and successful. We may still try this for an upcoming game. I think it may be more feasible if the characters are less complex than they are in Wayward Souls."
Whatever the next project, RocketCat undoubtedly hopes things go smoother next time, especially if the team will have to devote a lot of time to the game long after development is over.
The prospect of such a longterm strategy for Wayward Souls - although updates are planned - was horrifying for the team, after spending two and a half years developing the game, with a six month "period of despair".
"We almost cancelled the game, at around the one and a half year mark," recalls Auwae. "At that point, it took twice as long to make as any of our other games, and it didn't look like there was any end in sight. It's already a bad idea to take nine months to make a game on iOS.
"Taking two-and-a-half years is pretty much just throwing yourself off a cliff like a lemming. We realised this despite doing this. So, for 6 months, we more or less didn't do anything of value for the game's development. It was almost completely dead time."
That’s not to say Wayward Souls is getting abandoned now it’s finished. In fact, the game is currently at a lower price whilst RocketCat implements all the tweaks and updates it has planned - the price is set to increase once the team is happy with it, which, judging by Auwae’s responses, could well be never.
"I'd like to make some final adjustments to the controls, especially since the swipe sensitivity is currently a little off on iPads," admits Auwae. "But I think this is pretty close to making us happy. We may make the controls open source to other developers, at some point."
More updates are also planned, the first of these will add a huge new area for players to explore and die within, and whole new enemy variants with fresh attacks to kill them with. Controller support is another thing on the agenda.
"All updates will add other new things, balance changes, little surprises, and bug fixes," says Auwae. "After the second update, we'll be working on a port to PC, along with a third update that adds an all new character to the game."
As for the studio, work is already underway on its next project, Death Road to Canada, which is being worked on by the studio’s other team. "After Death Road and the PC port of Wayward Souls, we have a lot more games planned," reveals Auwae. "Two close ones are a first-person shooter, and a game similar to Wayward Souls, but much more arcadey and free with IAP."
There seems to be a lot of variety imminent from this young studio. RocketCat is the personification of what makes the mobile scene so exciting: completely unknown developers with no traditional development background going out of their way to produce polished products that take commercial risks. Wayward by name, then, but definitely not wayward by nature.