Interview with Keith Burgun
I hadn’t posted about Auro yet, in part because I wasn’t entirely clear what the deal was with the game. At first, I simply thought it wasn’t coming out, as it had a failed Kickstarter–but then it came back again and succeeded not long afterwards. But I still wasn’t totally clear on what Auro was. It looked to me like a roguelike, but it used hexes, and nowhere did the developers themselves ever actually refer to it with the word “roguelike.”
What is this thing, anyway? I wondered. After a bit of digging, I took it upon myself to get in touch with Dinofarm Games developer Keith Burgun and find out. The interview follows.
My name is Keith Burgun, I’m a game developer from Westchester, NY. I’ve been working on games ever since I can remember, really, but I got really serious about doing it as a career when I got the opportunity to do 100 Rogues. I’d say that the iOS App Store really is one of the things that spurred me to get into game development. The other thing is that since about 2006 I’ve been writing for various blogs on the topic of game design, and I feel like I really have something special to contribute in this arena. This is in contrast to say, music composition, which despite the fact that I feel very competent at it (I studied composition in college, it’s what I’m actually trained in), I don’t feel like I have as much to contribute, probably because there has already been such a rich and developed history of music. Games are new, and I feel like I can make a much bigger impact.
You put out 100 Rogues not that long ago. Are you satisfied with that game (creatively, commercially, etc.)?
Yes, I’d say so. Creatively, I’m quite proud of 100 Rogues. Of course if I could do it again today I would do many things differently, which certainly any creative person would say about anything they made 5 years ago. But, I really think the spirit of 100 Rogues is really charming and attractive, despite a lot of flaws. Commercially, I’m also quite satisfied with how it went. That’s not to say that I personally made much money from it, but simply that it really did for me what it was supposed to, which is show the world that my lead artist, Blake Reynolds and I know how to make a fun and attractive game. Because we made 100 Rogues, we were able to make AURO, so that’s a success in and of itself.
AURO’s original working title was actually “The Roguelike” – this was sometime in 2011. At that time, I originally wanted the game to be the “most pure” expression of the Roguelike genre. Unfortunately, what I discovered is that Roguelike games are actually such a convoluted mess of a number of conflicting “core mechanisms”, and you can’t simply boil them down. What I realized is that I’d have to take just one of these large core mechanisms and focus hard on that, if I wanted to create an elegant design.
I chose “tactics” as the core mechanism: positioning yourself against arrangements of monsters in a favorable way. Once I decided that, though, a cascade of other issues started to pop up. What do “items” have to do with tactics, really? What about stats? I was also making some really huge realizations about game design during this process too, particularly due to my exposure to designer European boardgames, much of which is documented in my book. For instance, I’ve realized that if you have a skill-based game, having your tool (your avatar) grow in power during the game is actually quite often a bad idea. The player is getting better at the game, so why does his tool also become better? It makes balancing vastly harder and I can’t see why — it seems to me to be one of the vestigial elements from D&D that has just sort of stuck with us. AURO is now almost finished, and I’m happy to say that it really is just a pure tactics game, and I’m really excited to get it out there.
I couldn’t help but notice that you’re combining procedural level generation with deterministic mechanics. I’ve written quite a bit about how I think this is a good thing to do. Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share on that subject?
Yeah. I think it’s useful to delineate two kinds of “randomness”, as defined by the Ludology Podcast: “input randomness” and “output randomness”. Input randomness is randomness that all players have the opportunity to observe before they make their decision – randomness that informs their decision. So this would be like random map generation in Roguelikes or tile-drawing in the game Puerto Rico. Then you have output randomness, which is randomness that decides whether a decision actually works or happens, or to what degree it happens. This is randomness between the player and his agency. I actually think that this kind of randomness is generally bad to have in strategy games, because it severs this incredibly important tie between the player and the agency-feedback loop which ultimately brings understanding.
As to input randomness, I think that any solitaire strategy game absolutely will need it. Without this, solving any game is simply a matter of guess-and-check, trial and error and eventually rote memorization. Whatever “strategy” there was on the first play is now replaced on the second play with memorization.
Why let the player only control a single character at once during any given playthrough, rather than a team or a squad as we see in most tactics games?
It was an early design choice to allow just one character, and mostly just because it solves a lot of UI issues and mobile control issues. One really nice thing about how we have things in AURO is that there’s no need at all for a “mini-map”. The game is always centered on the player, the maps are linear, and very rarely will there be anything off screen that you need to keep track of. If you had multiple characters, not only would there have to be some UI business about switching between them, but also there would probably have to be some kind of mini-map in case your characters got really separated. Really though I think the game could probably be adapted to have multiple characters, perhaps for a variant we’ll try something like that.
I’m a little surprised to hear you say that leveling and items don’t contribute to tactics; in my mind, at least, those things are both fundamentally about resource management. They pose the question: “do I trade time, food and restorative items for experience points, or do I press onward?” Where do these fit in if not under the “tactics” umbrella?
Yeah, technically those are all tactics. I should have been more specific – I meant spatial tactics. Resource management is something different than spacial tactics. We still have some elements of resource management, but it as with everything else in the game, it was “how much of this do we absolutely need?” As it is, we have health, a bonus-point meter, spells and cooldowns for spells, and single-use spell candies (kinda like scrolls in most games). This is already a ton of stuff, really. People in the RPG milieu tend to forget how much each little stat costs on a system for someone who’s not already acquainted with the standard D&D-influenced kit of statistics. For people who don’t already play those games, every single one of those stats has a cost, and that cost is having to learn it and process it while you play. Our game is, again, about spatial tactics, so there should only be a small amount of resource management that’s in support of those spatial tactics.
I noticed that there are three schools of spells the player can specialize in in Auro. Is this a front-loaded decision, as in choosing a class? Will the player have access to all spells from the start, or will Auro learn more as the game progresses?
Other than Story Mode, which is kind of a training mode that introduces you to the lore, there are two primary modes in Auro. One is called Trials, which is the main “single-player” way to play. In this mode, you can choose one new spell every level, but it’s in a tree-structure. So there are the 3 trees: Air, Fire, and Ice, and at first you just have access to the tier 1 abilities in all three of those. In all game modes, the maximum number of spells you can learn is 5, but we’re balancing the game as such that only the best players will really even get their fifth spell.
The other game mode, which I think will probably become the primary way to play the game, is called Match Mode. This is our multiplayer mode, which has much wider swings in its map and monster generation. The way it works is, I play a game on a randomly generated world. In addition, in this mode, your skills are picked for you at random. Then, the game passes that exact same random seed to you, and you play a game on the same map with the same abilities. If you beat the score I got, it comes back to me, and we continue in this way until one player fails to beat the score of the other player, at which time he loses the match. With this mode, we’re trying to test the widest possible range of skill for the game.
I’m trying to think of who would be in the market for a tactical roguelike variant that isn’t already familiar with at least some D&D-derived character stats, and coming up blank. Are you looking to expand the market here, or is this simply a matter of design purity?
We don’t consider AURO a roguelike, and won’t be marketing it as such. It is a “dungeon-crawling tactics game”, really a game of its own kind. We absolutely want to be able to reach all kinds of people. We think that AURO can find a place next to abstracts like Chess or Tetris, and we’re shooting to make it as accessible as either. So, “expand the market” isn’t quite right, because AURO is definitely not an RPG and in my mind it’s also definitely not a roguelike (although people argue a lot about what that means exactly). It’s a new kind of game, so its market is going to be a new one.
Assuming you do adapt the game to allow for multiple characters, do you think that would make a stronger case for introducing individualized character stats? Do you think disparate abilities alone are enough to sufficiently differentiate character roles?
I haven’t given much thought to the matter, to be honest, but if anything it seems to me that if there were multiple characters, that each of them should be less complex, not more, since you have more of them, so I’d be against adding more stats, if that’s what you mean. I imagine that the way I would have to do it would be to, yes, give characters very different abilities so that they need each other. But maybe one class would have less or more health than another, that might be OK.
Auro has a really lovely art style. What are the influences there?
Our lead artist, Blake Reynolds, can answer this question better than I can, but I know he’s really inspired by The Minish Cap, Pixar films, and also Capcom’s 2D fighting games. Overall our direction is to make the game look as charming and fun as a Zelda game, but insidiously, beneath that deceptive veneer, be an interesting challenging strategy game that allows for creative play.
The art style suggests something very light-hearted; it almost makes me think of a well-illustrated children’s book. I’m curious to know a little about the narrative in Auro.
Sure, yeah. It is light-hearted, although not quite farcical the way 100 Rogues was. The story mode of our game tells a simple coming of age story for the young prince Auro. He’s got a reputation for being a prankster, not paying attention in tutoring, and generally being a delinquent. At the start of the game, he’s asked to do a very simple task. It’s customary for 12 year old princes to have to go out and slay a dragon, but for Auro, they made a special exception. All he has to do is go down into the sewer and fix a drainage pipe that someone, some prankster clogged full of dead squids. In going down to do this, he accidentally unlocks an ancient evil, and so now he has to actually grow up a little bit and save his kingdom.
This mode serves primarily as a tutorial to get people acquainted with the lore and how to play the game. We may, post-release, release a larger expansion which has a much bigger adventure, with outdoors areas and stuff.
When is Auro coming out, and for what platforms?
We plan on an August release… although you know how it goes. We’re doing everything we can to get it out in that month, though. Initially it will be iOS and Android, and soon after, PC, OSX, Linux, OUYA, and more.
Thanks for your time.