We all know that role-playing games are awesome, right? In my childhood, it was the Final Fantasy series that really introduced me to the whole rebellious good vs ancient evil saga, and although it’s seemingly cliché nowadays, it still gets the job done when looking for escapism. Retrieving crystals has become the norm, as has delving into the often-complicated relationships of characters. RPGs allow you to embody a character and go through their struggles, triumphs and sacrifices, and that is one of the reasons why the genre is hugely successful.
While still in development, Gravia Tactics is already starting to stand out thanks to the originality it brings to the table. Carrying a compelling plot which follows a group of misfit adventurers who go through hardship in an exacting mission to save the world, this anime-styled PC game focuses on powerful storytelling, like RPGs of old. Players will enter a rich and beautifully crafted world where, using a multi-layered combat system, they will defeat impossible enemies, track down powerful ancient treasures, and earn unique rewards in the form of rare items and additional story snippets. The game is being developed by Punchbag Entertainment, which was founded in August 2012 and consists of duo Steve Lillis and Jun Chu, who have dedicated a lot of time to crafting Gravia Tactics. In a bid to find out more about the game, I recently spoke with the team, who agreed to answer a few of the burning questions:
Candy Lebby: How did you two come to start Punchbag Entertainment?
Steve Lillis: Jun and I went to high school together. We actually collaborated on a homebrew early Final-Fantasy-style MMO called Phantasm Souls, which was a total passion project. It got a lot of good feedback, despite being written in Visual Basic and saving all of its data in raw text files! We stopped development of it when Jun went to university and I went into full-time employment. A few years later, I started work on Brimstone for XBLIG, and when I needed someone for the art, Jun was the first person I thought of.
Jun Chu: That takes me back! I remember there were a couple of other projects that Steve and I had started bouncing ideas back and forth on soon after high school–who knows, perhaps we will revisit them some time. So, after a few years’ hiatus I received an email from Steve who had invited me to work on Brimstone, which by then was already quite far down the development process. Steve had already bravely started Punchbag on his own at this time, and it was after successful completion of Brimstone that we realised that we had a good thing going and I officially joined the Punchbag team as the Creative Lead.
Candy: Did you always want to make RPGs?
Jun: I actually aspired to writing graphic novels! However making games fulfil the same ‘itch’ for me of creating a vivid world, filled with intriguing characters, rife with opportunities for adventure-telling and drama, now with the added opportunity to compliment the story-telling with exciting gameplay. Games I enjoyed the most include Vagrant Story, Front Mission 3, Kessen 2, Grandia and of course Final Fantasy. As you can see I have an inclination towards J-RPGs and strategy/tactical games so making one was a very natural step!
Steve: I grew up playing a lot of games, but all of my favourites have at least some sort of RPG element. Metroid, Zelda, Final Fantasy, Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape Torment… all the usual suspects. For me, RPGs are an incredible genre because they combine amazing narratives with the sense of personality that comes with customising your character over time, defining who he or she is. I’ve always wanted to craft that experience where the player asks themself “What would my character do in this situation?”–Which for me is usually answered with “The sneakiest, most villainous thing possible”.
Candy: Your previous game Brimstone was a straight-up hack-and-slash RPG. Why did you decided to create a more “narrative driven” game with Gravia Tactics?
Steve: Brimstone was my first proper venture into game development. It was the game where I said “I’m going to build this thing and I’m going to finish it, and it’s going to be good”. It felt like consoles lacked that feeling of the original Diablo, stomping around dungeons with a group of randoms, smashing monsters and fetching loot, so that’s what we focused on. That genre doesn’t really need a strong narrative, so we boiled down the experience to ensure that we delivered a core game that people would enjoy playing, whilst learning the ropes of development ourselves. We did that and I’m really proud of the feedback we received. Gravia Tactics is the full package, it’s tight gameplay and compelling storytelling, it’s the game we want to go full time on and make it truly epic.
Jun: I think Brimstone was very much a warm up for both of us, but having said that, it was a milestone as it was the first game we took all the way to the finish line, while learning the ins and outs of distributing on a platform. Being our first ‘trial run’ and a learning experience we held back and deliberately tried not being overly ambitious to ensure we had something we could manage relatively quickly in what spare time we had outside of work. It may be a little rough around the edges but I’m proud of our achievement and am glad it’s done as well as it has. It gave us the confidence and impetus to aim even higher!
Candy: What ideas and lessons, if any, did you take from Brimstone while working on Gravia Tactics?
Steve: I learned a few things that I honestly did not realise before Brimstone.
1) Polish is a big phase. You spend over half of the total development time fine tuning the gameplay mechanics, graphics, user interface, animations, menus and sound effects that you implemented in the first half.
2) And this leads on directly from the first point, for the first few months your game will look and play terribly. It’s programmer art and a clunky interface, so you have to know what you’re aiming for in order to judge whether you’re getting there or not. Brimstone started with one monster type called ‘Urglings’ and they were these little green blobs with eyes that followed you around the dungeon and popped when you hit them. It took me 2 months to get that demo built and even though it was nothing worth playing, I could feel the potential in it. In the next 2 months we had animated enemies, dungeon floors and combat mechanics. Even then, it was still another couple of months of development before the game became truly fun.
3) Game development is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. When the first Brimstone fan told us how much they loved playing the game, it made the eight months of evening work building it completely worth it. When I logged on and found three players exploiting a glitch to get all the epic items, I actually felt honoured!
Jun: That I needed to improve my digital art! I come from more of a traditional media background and while I have played with things like digital painting and graphic design before (and some sprite work way back from Phantasm Souls) – it wasn’t my forte to be honest; a pencil was my best buddy. It was a learning curve and I’d like to say I’ve improved since then!
I second Steve’s point about Polish. I was driven close to madness over the numerous reiterations on artwork just to get the ‘right look’ or ‘feel’. I remember it took us a while to get a result we were happy with Brimstone’s HP/experience GUI.
Another key thing I learnt was how to work with code monkeys [ahem] software engineers, producing artwork to specification and how to make their lives easier by packaging or organising the artwork so there is less time needed spent implementing graphical assets.
Also, I found the ‘Urglings’ strangely cute!
Steve: Oh yeah, and communication! It’s second nature to us now but when we were working on Brimstone there were a couple times where we had different ideas about what we’d discussed and it wasn’t until after a week or two of building it that we realised this fact – much to both of our irritation! We’re pretty much on the same wavelength these days but we still have bi-weekly check ins where we show each other what we’re working on, discuss tweaking it and that sort of thing. For the really big stuff, we prototype in a day and then hash out the details. It’s much easier to discuss a concept when you have a tangible representation of it. To see what Jun’s been up to is a great motivator too… I’m probably the biggest Gravia Tactics fanboy right now!
Candy: How long have you been making Gravia Tactics?
Steve: Just over a year now. In that time we’ve built all of the development tools we’ll need, fine-tuned the plot, character concepts and proof of concept gameplay demo. We’re about to start work on a content creation phase, so this is where we’ll be adding a lot of value to the game using those tools, systems and concepts we’ve put together. We’re really excited because this is the phase where people are going to really start to see what Gravia’s made of.
Candy: Tell me a little bit about the plot behind Gravia Tactics. Does it draw any inspirations from other games?
Jun: To give a very general overview; the story is based in a waning ecosystem and the struggle that ensues over limited resources, involving the antagony brought about by the appearance of a mysterious new power that eclipses the old ‘sludge’ technology. Gravia is a place where almost every possible environmental disaster that we worry about today, has happened. It’s not a great place to live and mankind struggle just to continue living their frugal lives but even in this oppressive, rotting world, are souls that dare to challenge those in power and enact change. There will be hardships, villains and personal conflicts for our group of characters to face.
The plot does share some common elements and conventions that are a staple in the genre, things like the opposition of technology and nature but are rehashed to make something fresh (and did I mention summon creatures and airships?!). I wouldn’t say the plot owes to any one game, more like it is a result of our exposure to the wide range of fantasy plots from games, novels, manga and anime that came before it along with our own feelings on the state of human activity on our planet- we ought to look after it!
Steve: Yeah, we grew the plot organically without any particular game or movie or other media form as a reference point – I think there’s a danger of being too influenced by one source that way. Like Jun says – and without giving too much away – there’s this huge social and industrial change happening that sets the backdrop for the plot and it’s definitely one element of it, but as the player and the party head out and take on the challenges of a world gone bad, there’s recurring themes of coming of age, hope versus naivety and overcoming really extreme adversity. My favourite stories are always the really personal ones, the ones where one minute you’re laughing with the characters as they’re messing about together and the next you’re in a stunned silence because they’ve been struck by some awful misfortune, often due to their own shortcomings.
Candy: I love the anime stylings for your new game; it’s beautifully themed. What inspired you to incorporate an anime art style into your game?
Jun: Thanks! Well I love anime! I was raised on Doraemon, Q-taro, Dr Slump, Astro Boy, Tonari no Totoro and Ranma ½ being just some of the first ones I remember watching as a kid. And having practiced manga style art for a very long time, it was a natural thing for me and I feel it is a flexible style that I think lends itself very well to the sort of storytelling and action of Gravia Tactics.
Steve: I love the visual richness of anime, and the way you can have really dark, dark themes without having to resort to washed out palettes and grim settings. There’s just a lot of flexibility about what ‘reality’ is, you can introduce some pretty crazy concepts into an anime world without them seeming out of place. Beyond our general passion for it, we’ve known for a long time that we wanted to bring the visuals and gameplay of a game like Gungnir or Disgaea to the PC and similar platforms, so the style was a natural fit for this project.
Candy: How challenging has it been to put this game together? Did you come across any unexpected challenges?
Steve: We’re both at a stage where we’re feeling pretty capable in our respective crafts, so there haven’t been any serious technical challenges. I’d say that the major issue for us both is finding the time to work on Gravia Tactics without completely sacrificing our personal lives. There’s a lot of content to get down and we’re really passionate about getting the experience right, so it can be frustrating to not have the time we want to work on the game all the time. Hopefully we’ll be able address this soon by going full time on Gravia Tactics’ development.
Jun: Yes, there’s never enough time! Also, being a small team we often wear different hats and doing things outside our specialism, for instance I take on the majority of video editing tasks. We work to self-enforced deadlines so it can be a bit frustrating if I find that at the last minute the audio goes out of sync for some reason or something else goes wrong with the encoding.
Candy: You do a very good job keeping your fans posted with all the latest news for your game, have you kept anything to yourself as a surprise for the fans?
Jun: Short answer- Yes!
Steve: There’ll be progressive reveals about gameplay mechanics, general locations and some of the side characters and items, but with regards to the major plot arcs, some of the big reveal characters and abilities… I definitely want the player to experience those first hand in the game. It’s not much of a shock reveal if you knew about it two months before the game came out!
Candy: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about Gravia Tactics?
Steve: Just that we’re very interested to hear future players’ feedback, we want to work with the community as much as possible as we shape the game. Also, follow us on Twitter to get regular updates about what we’re doing! We’re @PunchbagEnt.
Jun: That we really need help to succeed! We’re fans of the genre making a game that we’d love to play but it’s not enough to make a game that pleases us alone so we’d be very interested to hear from other fans and to help us spread the word!
Steve: Haha, yeah, definitely that too. Word of mouth is pretty much our only way of getting the word out about Gravia Tactics, so if everyone can tell everyone they can about it, that’d be a massive help to us and we’d be really grateful.
If that wasn’t enough to get you interested, Steve and Jun recently released some pre-alpha gameplay footage. You can check out that video below, but keep in mind that it is early in development; things might change between now and release. Are you excited for Gravia Tactics yet? Let us know in the comments!
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