I have a tendency to buy and play a fair number of indie games. Sequence, a DDR meets RPG rhythm game; FTL, a rogue-like in space; Game Dev Tycoon, a game about building and selling games; Puzzle Quest, one of the first Match-3 RPGs; Dust: An Elysian Tail, a gorgeously animated RPG-Platformer, just to name a few.
Some of the best, most innovative games out there are done by indie studios. People who have the creative freedom to take risks on new and interesting mechanics, stories, and formats, as opposed to the big studios such as EA and Activision which are selling the same old AAA stuff. Sure, it’s nice to play the super polished games with the grand cinematics, but as a developer, you can’t just throw money at something and buy “fun factor” for your game.
|Shared play space, and personal characters on personal devices. They're targeting Windows 8, Android, and iOS.|
And so I want to talk a little bit about Eon Altar, done by Flying Helmet Games. They’re an indie studio that’s doing cool things with technology, using both smart phones and tablets together to create a tabletop-style RPG where combat and exploration takes place on the main shared screen, and character stats, level-ups, shopping, and dialogue takes place on each player’s personal device. That way while one player is taking their turn on the tablet, the other players can watch them, or they can assign skill points, read lore, or plan their character.
Their trailer explains the game better than I:
They’re actually almost finished the game, they have a working demo/prototype that shows all of their features in working order. They just need some time, and of course money, to get the product finished. To that end, they’ve shopped around big name publishers, but everyone who was interested also wanted changes to be made that went against their creative vision. The big draw here is a game that you play with your friends, D&D or Pathfinder style, but still a video game, with all the benefits technology can bring you. So to be able to keep their creative vision intact, they’ve put together a Kickstarter.
|Dialog and character events happen on your personal device. Players can read dialogue aloud, or choose to keep information to themselves.|
Now, I could go on about the features, or the ideas, or the characters, or any number of things, but honestly, the Kickstarter page gives you all of that. Rather, let’s talk about the people behind the effort. Full disclosure time, I actually went to high school with the three founders listed on their web site: Ed Douglas, Scott Penner, and Luke Reynolds. I’m not involved in the project directly, but interesting story, the project does have its roots in our days of role-playing back in High School.
Roll the clock back to 1999, when I first moved to the same city as these guys. We were entering Grade 11, and I knew nobody in the city. I’m not sure if I met them through Scott and Ed in the music program, or if I somehow got together with them later. Pretty fuzzy. But it quickly came to light that we all were pretty big nerds, big on D&D, Rifts, Palladium, Vampire, and other tabletop RPGs. Back in my old town I had already been DMing for a couple years, so quickly and naturally I fell into a DM role when I joined my new friends.
However, it wasn’t enough for me to just be running campaigns. As a budding game designer (which eventually led to my decision to get a degree in Computer Science, and a concentration in Video Games Design), I had already played with making my own game systems, but they were small efforts. Enter “Crythania”. A homebrew Pen and Paper RPG that I had designed from scratch. It was pretty video-gamey to begin with, and super rough, but we started using the system as our primary gaming system. I still have really old Wordperfect and Word 97 documents that have nascent rule sets lying around my storage server.
|How does someone come up with a name like this?|
One of the most hilarious events in our gaming career, and how the company got its name “Flying Helmet Games,” was the case of the random merchant. I liked to throw random events at my players between towns, and this day was no different. On the road they ran into a merchant who was selling magic items. Innocuous enough, right? Well, they wanted to know what items this merchant had, and working off the cuff I just waved vaguely and suggested if they wanted it and could afford it, he probably had it. Scott, Luke, and the rest of our friends looked at each other and I started to get an inkling I had made a terrible mistake.
Now, given the system was pretty nascent there weren’t a lot of magic items yet. I had a small list of them at the back of the printed stack of papers that made up the player’s guide, and of course, as players are wont to do, they had pretty much memorized the items and knew precisely what they wanted. So one of them, I honestly don’t remember if it was Scott or Luke, asks if the merchant has a Helmet of Flying. I made a roll, and said, "Yeah, sure," suspecting something but unable to figure out what they were up to.
Then the other asked if the helmet was cursed. Made another roll, and yup, it actually was cursed. The unlucky wearer wouldn’t be able to take it off. When Luke asked if his character could inspect it I realized what they were up to, but it was far too late. His character nabbed the helmet and promptly put it on the merchant’s head. Cursed and unable to remove the item, he was carried away into the sky, leaving all of his goodies; I was panicking, “Aw, crap, crap, crap, what now, mister DM?” In a fit of pique, I determined he actually had nothing of real value on him when the players looted his stuff, and they got nothing, but damn if they weren’t clever with that little bit of role-playing. I think I’d handle the situation a little differently now with more DMing experience under my belt, but it was funny as all get out.
Over time the group played and we iterated. It was honestly an awesome experience, being able to design a game, and then get feedback from your friends who are playing that game with you, and keep iterating. Things went from having Chrono Trigger-esque combo attacks and damage in the millions of hit points to having something that was more linear yet flexible, with customizable classes, skills, and spells, not to mention more reasonable numbers. By the time we graduated high school and finished our first year of college, the game was in pretty decent shape.
But we were growing up. We all went on our separate ways, going to different schools in different parts of Canada. With my moving on to University, I ended up abandoning Crythania, and Luke took up the torch from there, continuing to iterate on it over the years. Ed and Scott eventually went on to work for EA, and Ed moved on to Bioware, then EA again when Bioware got bought out. Ed’s worked for Ubisoft and Sony, as well. They’ve got a lot of technical experience under their belts before they started the project.
Eventually the trio got back together and Crythania had evolved to be something quite different from what we had started out with back in the day. I don’t even know if they called it that anymore. I was busy with my job in the US, while they lived, worked, and played in Vancouver. And so from that auspicious beginning Eon Altar was born. They had the vision, the game play, and the technical chops to make a video game, and they threw together a prototype in relatively short order.
|Scott Penner playing the pen and paper prototype of Eon Altar with friends.|
The demo has been shown at PAX East, GenCon, and the Intel Developer Forum. I’ve seen it work (and even saved their bacon at PAX East with my American cell phone with a data connection that was decidedly better than anything the Boston hotel had when they had to pull a new build for the convention), and while I’m not directly involved in the game, I’d love to see it succeed. They’ve worked so hard and have a quality dream, and a really neat concept.
|I'm behind the camera here, and we were celebrating getting the PAX East build up and running. Phone tethering FTW.|
So honestly, check out their Kickstarter page (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/flyinghelmetgames/eon-altar-a-tabletop-videogame-for-2-5-players) and see for yourself. And if you like the concept, throw a few dollars their way, or even just pass on the word. I can vouch for their drive and character, and having seen their game I can vouch for that too. It’s going to be great!