Soul Saga: less dead than previously suspected

Soul Saga Alpha
Despite appearances, it seems Disastercake merely dropped off the internet for a few months, and that development on Soul Saga Episode 1 continued (albeit in silence). In his first blog post in months, developer Michael Gale goes into the problems he experienced working with contract animators:

You remember my animator, right?  Well, he quit.  And so did about 4 others in the past 5 months for various reasons, basically all coming down to the point that they didn’t have enough time to spend on the project for the budget I have been able to put aside for the animations.  This was because the rigging job was so insanely huge, and the models weren’t even made right to do it!  After months of time wasted because animators kept losing confidence in the art assets, I decided to take things into my own hands…

Gale states he then taught himself to rig and set up the game’s models so he could get animators to stick around and actually animate them. He has posted a detailed developer diary explaining in detail what he’s accomplished during the past few months, but it’s very much a missing the forest for the trees thing. The nature of the game itself has changed dramatically, the jRPG style seemingly abandoned entirely in favor of “fast paced hack and slash combat” and a “procedurally generated story and world.” Which is to say: it’s a Diablo-alike now.

Curious to know exactly what’s been going on and what new direction the game will be heading, I emailed Gale with some questions. The interview follows…

Hi Mike! Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself and what got you interested in making games.

Hi!  I’d say it all started back when I was in elementary school.  I was infatuated with fantasy books like Lord of the Rings, and started playing a lot of Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy 6 (called 3 at the time), Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, you know the list.  I started spending a lot of my free time drawing out maps and mazes and creating my own small RPGs on paper and having my friends go through the mazes and fight the battles I had planned.  It was my dream to make RPG games that people could enjoy.

I spent the next 15 or so years trying to ignore that dream. That ended poorly.  Every time I tried to stifle my creative urges and just follow a “normal” path through a generic college degree and 9-5 job, I would relapse and and obsessively focus weeks or months at a time on my stories and worlds.  These went nowhere since I never channeled my energy to learning important skills such as programming or art.  This was a painful cycle that lasted until I was 25.  When I was 25 I threw all my stuff in my car and drove out to Seattle.  I had never visited or even seen Seattle… I just knew that it was the United State’s gaming capital and that it had to be closer to my passion and dreams than my parent’s miniature horse farm in Michigan.

After about a week of being in Seattle I grabbed a job at Microsoft as a Game Tester.  It was a good experience   I was able to save up some money to fund my project, and it helped motivate me to focus on the critical skills I needed to make my dream a reality.  I then spent the next 2 years teaching myself how to program (while taking 20 credits a quarter for a Business Degree), and it eventually led to also learning technical art skills, such as rigging a 3D character, or editing models.  I’m not a one man development team, but I know enough to be the main developer and manage the people I outsource.  Now I’m working about 8-12 hours a day on Soul Saga, and neglecting my school work as much as I can while maintaining decent grades.  I’ll also have my Associate’s this month.

It seems like Soul Saga has changed pretty dramatically over the past few months. You originally envisioned Soul Saga as an RPG patterned after the “Tales Of” series, with heavy character customization, Final Fantasy 10-style combat and a cell phone styled after the one in Catherine. Now, it sounds you’re aiming to make the game much more in the Diablo style. Just how much has changed? How many of your original ideas are still planned for Soul Saga?

Soul Saga has pretty much done a 180 in it’s Game Design.  I originally had planned to go for a side scroller battler like the “Tales of” series.  Once I learned more about programming, and realized how hard it was to find good 2D animators, I decided to switch to 3D.  Unity makes a lot of cool stuff easy in 3D, but doesn’t do a whole lot to make 2D easier.  The switch to 3D from 2D was both a decision to make a better game, and for it to be easier to make a game.

I then decided to change the game to a Final Fantasy styled battle system.  I made this decision because I “thought” it would be easier to make, and I had never seen it done for the PC before.  However, to make the turn based battles interesting, you need a LOT of work on animations, special effects, and camera movements.  And by a lot of work I mean expensive and tedious work.  It wasn’t fun for me to spend days trying to get dynamic camera movements right, and there was no way I was going to find an animator in my budget to make enough high-quality animations for this type of system.  Not only that, but I found that the more I worked on the game, the more I became bored with it.  I wanted to make a game where even a developer who was looking at it from the inside for 2 years could still be surprised and excited by what happened in the game.

I’ve lately been highly motivated by rogue-likes, especially dwarf fortress, and want to bring a game to the genre that boasts a visually appealing anime style.  Mostly because I’ve simply never seen it before and I think it’s great so far!  Procedurally generated content can be amazing, and my primary goal is to find a way to create procedurally generated stories where people can still become attached to the characters involved, even though the exact script wasn’t completely written by hand.

I’m already happy with what I see.  Each time I test the game, I get procedurally generated dungeons to explore, random item drops, random enemies, etc, etc.

I have now permanently (… no, seriously… come on stop looking at me like that!) decided to go with a rogue-like Diablo-styled hack and slash game.  This style is not only fun, but it can branch off in to tons of other gameplay options like town building, hunting, and farming without deviating far from the general gameplay mechanics.  I think there’s a good reason this style of camera is used in a majority of PC games we see.

You mention Dwarf Fortress as a primary source of inspiration. However, part of what makes Dwarf Fortress work is that it’s a massively complex simulation accounting for multitudes of different systems with every update in its main loop. How are you planning to accomplish something like that in real time, in 3D, with a limited budget?

Well, it was partially inspired by Dwarf Fortress, not a Dwarf Fortress clone with graphics.  I feel that inspired means that something sparked an idea in your brain to make something else happen.  The idea could be ( and in this case, is ) completely unrelated to the original subject matter.

Because Soul Saga was influenced by a fusion of several genres, I can’t really compare it to any specific game.  I have never seen the story telling methods I am using in Soul Saga used anywhere else.

How do you plan to approach procedurally generated stories?

It’s hard to go into detail in a single interview, but I do plan to go into more depth in the Kickstarter I’m planning to launch in April.  It will cover my theories on procedural story generation algorithms and how I plan to apply those algorithms to create a procedurally generated JRPG feeling to the story.  This is truly something that has not been done before that I think JRPG fans will love: a game with a completely different story every time you turn it on.

Are there any particular jRPG tropes you’re looking to nail? (MacGuffin-collecting? The Hero’s Journey? Etc.)

The goal is to have a combination of a lot of popular elements.  Since the story is procedurally generated, there are several main themes planned that can occur.

Can you give any examples?

I hate to give examples this early.  I notice that people like to take a lot of comments at face value, and then hold the developers to those assumptions a year later.  Things are always subject to change as I progress with the Soul Saga development.

A rough example I can give is that when you start a new game, the story generation engine chooses a core theme for the story.  These can be general themes such as, but not limited to, “stop the cataclysm”, “stop the evil villain”, or “Recover the ancient technology that can save your home”.

However, getting one of these themes does not mean that it is the same core story each time.  The supporting characters, the world you’re in, and the protagonists involved are subject to change in aesthetics and personalities.

There are also different types of goals that could be required.  For example, the ancient technology may be in a desert in one scenario, under the ocean in another, or inside ancient underground ruins.

On top of the core story, the engine then intelligently develops sub plots and side quests based on the locations the player is taken.  For example, you may come across a zombie infested village and you are tasked with eliminating the source of the problem.  This source, and the people involved in the story, are different every time you play it, just like the core story is.  For example, the source may be an ancient relic deep in the catacombs, or there may be a malevolent necromancer behind it.

With only the few examples I’ve given, we already have enough possibilities for hundreds of different plot outlines.

This system essentially means each expansion to the game isn’t just a small piece you can play, it adds an almost immeasurable amount of variations to the story possibilities, compounding on previous content.

From an outside perspective, this system may seem impossible to achieve, but it’s very much a reality.  I’ve come up with a modular and systematic way to  deal with the story generation that allows for the combinations of story elements to exponentially grow as I add more content to the game.  The best part about this, is that the stories don’t seem contrived or forcefully placed together.  They flow well as if it’s a script for an actual anime series.

This is something I’m truly fascinated and passionate about working on for the rest of my life.  I feel that this introduces a new type of story telling that has had the surface touched with small proofs of concept, but has never truly been delved into.  Also, when anyone has touched on these elements, they rarely take modern design standards into consideration.  Music and visual elements are an important part of story telling, and they add a whole new dimension both to the complexity of the game develop, and the audience that can enjoy the content.

I plan to spend the rest of my life researching and perfecting this type of story telling.  Luckily, Soul Saga, the first of many games I plan to make like this, should be out sometime within a year with expansions being adding frequently — if the Kickstarter goes well.

Thanks for your time.

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  • Disastercake says:

    Hey Craig,

    It kind of sounds like you’re overall disappointed with the direction Soul Saga is going. Why is that? Were you really hoping for a another nostalgia ride? I decided not to go the nostalgia route because of how many people are already riding that train.

    However, I’m interested to learn more about your impressions of the new direction. Is your overall impression caused by the fact you’re unsure how this will end up because it’s new territory? Do you dislike the action genres? Have you read the dev diaries about the controls that set Soul Saga more towards an old school Zelda instead of a Diablo? I haven’t created a detailed update explaining the controls yet.

    Also, what does “very much a missing the forest for the trees thing” mean? I’ve never heard this phrase before.

    I’m always interested in constructive feedback!

    Mike Gale

  • Craig Stern says:

    I’m not disappointed; I think a roguelike is probably a more manageable endeavor for a tiny developer, since there’s a lot more emergent complexity going on. As you say, jRPGs require a lot of content to stay compelling.

  • Matthew says:

    It is my personal opinion that language like, “nostalgia ride” is going to get you in trouble, sir.

    JRPGs that use turn-based combat (we call those traditional JRPGs) still live in our modern age. There doesn’t exist the same quantity nor quality but when games like Persona 4 are being released you cannot deny the potential fun factor inherent in a traditional JRPG. So yeah, don’t treat us like we are old, bitter and living in the past.

    There will be plenty of folks that think switching from strategy/tactics to action is a cop out. Unfortunately, for each of those persons will be two or three more that agree with your decision. I’m sure you’ll move more units this way but this is about integrity as well.

    My disappointment has only reached the heights it has managed because there was mention of FFX’s combat system… which if tweaked properly could be one of the best turn-based combat systems in all the land. (without comparing it to systems based also on movement) I’ve been upset with Square ever since they abandoned it, thus your abandonment ignites a similar fury.

    Truth is, I enjoy the Diablo games and roguelikes (are you putting in permadeath…?) and I really, *really* like the randomized story telling aspect. I just wish it would be layered onto a game more like FFX.

    Good luck with your game. I’ll support it when the time comes. I just hope that perhaps you’ll return to your original vision some day.

    • Disastercake says:

      Hey Matt,

      I’m sorry if my wording was offensive. I’m in a similar demographic where I grew up with those RPGs (I’m nearly 30 now). I still have about 3 boxes full of PSX and PS2 RPGs that I crack open often. My large collection of SNES RPGs were lost in a house fire though. =(

      I do see what you mean about the turn based system. I still really would like to try it someday, but it’s actually surprising how much work has to go into making good dynamic camera movement, animations, particle effects, etc to make a system like that very engaging. There’s a reason why we don’t see indie RPGs that look like Persona 4 ( love that game by the way) or FFX. An indie dev working on a battle system like that is like trying to make a AAA movie by yourself.

      Thanks for your support, and please keep me updated on the Facebook, twitter, google+, or IndieDB sites on your opinions.


  • […] may recall this as the 3D jRPG I covered under the suspicion that development had stopped, only to recant when I learned that it had merely transformed into a 3D roguelike. Well! Now it has reverted to a […]


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