“Great heroes carry the journey’s burdens, not on their shoulders, but in their hearts.” So begins the debut trailer for League of Geeks’ Armello. Stirring music builds. Next, a bloodied sword. Then a wolf stands upright, wielding the weapon, and I’m immediately transported to my childhood love of the universe of Redwall. The trailer only gets better and by the end, I’m desperate for a chance to play the game. Unfortunately, we will be waiting a while to see anything more, but I was fortunate enough to be shown the trailer by one of its creators - Trent Kusters - and to interview him afterwards.
I first met Trent at a game development conference in Melbourne at the end of 2011. After two days with students, programmers and artists, I was stoked to meet another designer. We talked and talked, and over the accompanying beers we eventually got to discussing current projects. Trent had somehow ended up with two jobs. The first as Creative Director at a digital media agency named Divisive; and another as the founder of a ‘game development collective’ called League of Geeks. He didn’t entirely explain LoG to me back then, but it sounded mysterious and I was intrigued.
Cut to not quite a year later, and I found myself again in Melbourne, watching Trent present at the Freeplay Independent Games Festival. He warned us his talk was very last minute, as he had been up all night releasing the trailer for his new game, and dealing with the media fervour surrounding it.
Having now seen the trailer, you know it whets the appetite, but manages to raise more questions than it answers. After Trent finished his presentation, I grabbed him to talk about the game and its development. My first question: just what is Armello, anyway?
We call it a swashbuckling character-based high adventure. It’s a digital card and board game... we take cues from a whole heap of different things from board games like Talisman and Catan and even things like Civilization.
But that’s jumping ahead, somewhat. How did he end up here? Trent had previously worked at Torus Games in Melbourne, but became jaded with traditional studio structures and was exploring doing things on his own.
I want to make good games... and I’m always trying to learn more and I really want to work with really talented people and I’m like how the fuck am I going to make the game I want to make...I want to do something epic that has some story and I want to retain all the rights and I want to give people I work with the money and the opportunity that creators should get.
...and then there was Bastion and I heard Greg Kasavin say they made Bastion with 7 people, and it was like all the pennies dropped and I was like ‘we can do this’... So I just got on the phone and I called Ty and Jack and was like 'it's happening, this is my crazy idea' and they're just like 'ok, let's meet up', and we met up and they were like 'fuck yeah' and then we started and we just didn't stop.
From there, it was just about developing an idea, finding the fun and making the game. The easy part, right!? Trent says the team wanted to “make a game that at the end we could all go out for a beer and sit around together and play”, which seems the noblest of aims. Inspired by a love of epic stories, as well as tabletop and digital role playing games, they knew how they wanted the game to feel, and so they started experimenting.
The team at LoG spent an impressive eight months on pen and paper prototypes before Armello was solid enough for them to start writing any code. Early prototypes, says Trent, were very different from what we will eventually see as Armello:
We started off [with] a square grid like a war game, just units fighting other units and moving around the board... And then it became apparent that wasn’t working, [and] it felt more magical when it was personal, when we were controlling just one character. That felt more like Armello, like an epic adventure.
That was the tenth version. Then they made another six for fine tuning. In fact, the way Trent tells it, only after the board game prototype became so featured and complex that it required two game masters did they feel it was ready for development on the iPad.
In his Freeplay presentation, Trent told us that, though he works as a game designer, he sees writing and storytelling as his strongest skills. I was confused: it seemed that Armello, born from war games and competitive board games, would have little room for a compelling narrative. Trent disagreed, and explained exactly how Armello would be telling stories.
Instead of a boardgame with a simple theme or goal - make the most money, have the most points - the team at LoG wanted to make a character driven game. They borrowed RPG elements that allowed players to create and grow unique characters over the course of a game, instead of playing out one of a number of archetypal fantasy classes.
Additionally, they incorporated storytelling techniques seen in Roguelikes: many byte-sized story moments that chained together, allowed for a different, compelling story to be told in each playthrough of Armello.
We wanted it to be a game that like you could replay endlessly... and because of the platform we can just update and... push out more and more little story bytes. We've structured the story and the narrative in these bytes attached to little system hooks so when the system calls that card then that little bit of story is attached to it... The way that they're structured within our system is the way we deliver engaging narrative each and every time and it's challenging, but it's far more rewarding.
I had managed to avoid bringing up Redwall and the memories Armello’s trailer had evoked, but I couldn’t hold back any longer. I wanted to know, was he just as big a fanboy?
A lot of things influenced us, but Redwall was one of the catalysts. Blake, one of the directors, absolutely loved Redwall as a kid... So Blake and I used to talk about these epic adventures... that used animals as these mythical representations of characters and emotions and it's just so strong and it's just so evocative and we love it.
Trent was careful to point out that the Geeks didn’t want people to perceive the game as any less serious because of its use of animals. Their world wasn’t all sweetness and light, but rather:
If a little youngling wanders off from the village it can be quite easily torn to bits and its bones be stripped of flesh in the darkness of the forest. They're the types of stories that the parents in Armello would tell their children, it's that world.
Trent wanted to save any big reveals and the specifics of the game for a later date, so we began to talk about the League of Geeks. After watching such a polished, professional trailer I was surprised that Armello was being developed by a team almost all working in their free time. The Geeks are unpaid, but have all signed profit sharing arrangements that Trent says, put “everyone on the same rate, because we’re all professionals and everyone’s work is as important as each other.”
When specialists are needed - like for the trailer - Trent and the League approach people to collaborate (in this case animation studio 12field). According to Trent, there is usually no trouble getting people on board - everyone benefits from the work.
In his presentation, Trent had quoted one of Australia’s best-loved game designers, Morgan Jaffit, as saying “My role as lead is to ensure every designer beneath me is better than I was at the same time in my career.” I loved this quote, and I wanted to see how Trent saw it applying to the League of Geeks’ non-traditional model of game development.
Trent was quick to point out that they haven’t really any notion of ‘designers’ at LoG, with the entire team credited for the design of the game. He went on to say that when they bring on a new ‘Geek’, they always tell them “We want you to grow as a professional and as a creative”, and that they work to enable that. The Geeks also believe their model allows them to help people outside the collective. By sharing as much of the process as they can, they’re able to teach the rest of the industry; improving game development across Australia.
We're very careful to ensure that we are inclusive at LoG, like the name says it all right “League of Geeks”... One of my slides in there was 'educate always' and that isn't about standing on a soapbox or giving anyone a lesson, it can be about talking through your creative process or talking about why you want to take something down a particular path or sending someone an article that you read... helping someone operate at the same level as you.
Overall, it sounds like League of Geeks is a company doing a lot of crazy things, but very much with its heart in the right place. Will it continue? Trent is optimistic, and believes that no matter the results for their first title, the studio will continue in the same vein. If Armello is a hit, Trent says they’ll “scale with success”, and even in an office of their own, will continue working as flexibly and reactively as possible. If not, as Trent points out, they already have “jobs that we absolutely love, and we only really intended this thing... to be part time.” And the beauty is that with setup where everyone works for the love of it, that can continue.
As much as the developers would love to hit every device and platform, Trent points out that “the model is fantastic but the only downside is that it takes a lot of time because we’re all working out of hours.” Armello is tentatively scheduled for a 2013 release for tablets only, with a demo to be shown off this month at GDC.
I design games and enjoy thinking about how they work. Shorter opinionated blatherings can be found on my twitter.
Jimmy the Geek