En Masse Entertainment’s own KitTeaCup sat down and fired off a bunch of questions to Russell Brown, the Lead Programmer for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics, and in the process learned how BonusXP’s designers planned how to build the game…and how they followed their plan.
By way of introduction, Russell told KitTeaCup: "I’m originally from Leeds, in the United Kingdom. I’m a senior programmer here at BonusXP, and specifically, I am the Lead Programmer on The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics."
From the beginning, Russell was very excited to be working in the world of The Dark Crystal. "The IP offers so much richness in terms of content, and Thra is such a vibrant world."
A lot of Russell’s excitement stemmed from working with The Jim Henson Company. "There’s quite a lot of differences between working on an original IP, and one that came from outside of our studio. Given that, there are always a lot of unknowns about how things will go." But, he says, BonusXP was very fortunate, in that The Jim Henson Company was extremely engaged throughout the process. "They provided us with great feedback regarding everything from the art to elements of the gameplay."
This close relationship was extremely helpful during the development process. "A small number of our team members were able to visit the Henson Creature Shop, with one of the goals being to get visual references for the game," he says. "This was far more useful than photographs, since they were able to get a better impression of how they moved, and what they looked like from several angles. Pairing this with their feedback allowed us to create a suitable look for a video game, while treating the world of Thra with the respect it deserves."
The Henson Company also had useful guidance for when Russell and his team were working the storyline of the series into the planning process, and needed to know as much as possible about the series—because, at the time, it hadn’t yet aired. "We started breaking the story down into key moments and locations, and used these to define key missions that we would later integrate into the campaign."
That plan made a great starting point for adding original characters and side stories to the game, meaning that players who had seen the show could experience familiar content, but would also discover new characters and storylines, too.
So, what did Russell and his team do to translate the series to a tactics game? That is, how did they go from a blank screen to maps, missions, and character combinations?
"Well, we started with a basic board, and then started adding elevation, and made sure that worked with simple character movement," Russell explains. "From there, we started looking at some basic abilities, which allowed our designers to start boxing out some level designs. This informed how we moved forward with other features—including going back and modifying previously-developed features—which then fed right back into level design. It’s an iterative cycle that you can do forever...if you don’t set yourself some kind of end goal."
What about character classes? How did Russell and his team approach the leveling process? "That’s a bit of a balancing act," he explains. "Gameplay impact is the primary concern, followed by things like fitting in with the theme, and making sense to the player. Since it’s a tactics game, there’s a lot of depth that simply has to be present, but we also wanted to make the game accessible to fans of The Dark Crystal who might not otherwise be tactics game players."
On top of that, there was a considerable challenge involved in creating jobs that each had their own identity and playstyle, to distinguish them from each other, even as some of the jobs aim at a similar overall archetype or combat role. "As an example, we created the Tamer class with an emphasis on summoning and controlling other units, and its ability kit reflects that."
Who decided the class hierarchy? Was it an easy process…or did it go through several iterations?
"This was trickier than you might imagine. There's a lot of different ways to approach this, and it did go through a lot of iteration before we ended up where we did." It’s something of a balancing act, Russell explains: "I think that what we ended up with offers a decent amount of depth, while still being understandable and usable. Players should be able to craft some pretty interesting team compositions with the characters they create!"
With all the characters to choose from—and then balance—how did BonusXP decide what classes were going to be featured in the game?
"The Dark Crystal universe provides the pool from which we could draw the characters we could use," says Russell. "From there, the Gelfling and Podlings are the most obvious choices for the player’s teams. Of those, I personally found the Podlings to be the most interesting."
"Well, in the show, they’re a very weak species that we only really ever see fighting with a spoon. How do you make that both interesting and useful to the player?"
Furthermore, the jobs aspect of tactics games meant that BonusXP needed to be able to provide several jobs that the player could choose from when planning their team composition. "I think we ended up with a really compelling—and useful!—set of jobs for the Podling characters, that we think players will love to use. In fact, my favorite character is Hup, the Podling who wants to be a Paladin! Everyone loves Hup, right? Don’t let his small size fool you: He has a lot of tricks (and tunes) up his sleeve!"
Speaking of favorites, KitTeaCup asked which mission was Russell’s personal favorite. "It has to be ‘Enter the Hunter.’ The Hunter is the Skeksis’ ‘extreme warrior.’ He’s pretty intimidating in the show—to the extent that he’s quite feared, even by the other Skeksis! That being the case, I think the level we designed does a pretty good job of conveying that ‘fearsome’ vibe through to the game."
Finally, as usual with her interviews, KitTeaCup asked Russell her standard, all-purpose questions:
- What is your favorite word?
"Tough one! This really depends on context. I tend to overuse ‘probably,’ so I’d probably say that. Probably."
- What is your least favorite word?
"‘Awkward.’ It’s just so awkward to spell and type! Though, that makes it self-describing, which is kinda cool. Hmmm..."
- What sound or noise do you love?
"Rain is pretty relaxing, and here in Texas, it’s especially nice after a long, hot stretch."
- What sound or noise do you hate?
"Really high-pitched sounds bug me."
- What is your favorite curse word?
"‘Bollocks!’ It’s so flexible, and relatively inoffensive, so it’s usable in most situations. That being said, I don’t get to use it much in the US, because many people don’t understand it (ironically making it rather inflexible here)."
- What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
"Something related to music, I think. I’ve played guitar since I was pretty young, but I’ve never really given it my full attention. It would be fun to be able to really dig into it."
- What was the first video game you ever fell in love with?
"Probably the original Civilization. I remember playing it with a friend on his IBM PC. We’d discuss strategy together, and take turns at...well, at taking turns. I’m also honored to work with Civilization designer Bruce Shelley here at BonusXP."