The indie studio has built a solid reputation with colorful, frenetic games like Awesomenauts and Swords and Soldiers. Now, Blightbound can have quite a quick pace. It’s a mix of brawler and Diablo, and the Dutch studio was doing something new besides a dark artstyle and mood: multiplayer player-vs.-environment gameplay (in which you team up with other folks and take on the game, level by level).
Blightbound is also a change in how Ronimo is making games: This is the first time the studio’s launching in Early Access (it did launch a piece of Awesomenauts DLC in this manner in 2013). And Blightbound’s first update, the Wolfpack, just launched September 7, adding a new area, heroes, and loot.
Before Blightbound’s July 29 launch, I spoke with Ronimo Games cofounder and designer Jasper Koning. This is an edited transcript of our chat.
A darker path
GamesBeat: Blightbound is different than your other projects, isn’t it?
Jasper Koning: Awesomenauts was already a multiplayer, service-y game, but yeah, there’s also a lot of new stuff for us in this: Player-vs.-environment focused, a lot of 3D elements introduced. It’s definitely very different. And we’re working with Devolver Digital for the first time.
GamesBeat: How did this project come about?
Koning: The initial idea was actually kind of open-ended. We wanted to create some kind of multiplayer dungeon crawl in a 2D perspective. Also, coming out of Swords and Soldiers and Awesomenauts, there were things we wanted to try that we couldn’t in those games: mostly multiplayer PvE content, and also a bit darker tone than we’ve done before. There’s still lots of cheese, lots of ham, in the dialogue and the characters, but it’s not as overtly cartoony or bright as those earlier games were. That also made us gear toward this pitch.
GamesBeat: Blightbound reminds me of Golden Axe or one of those old D&D arcade games, but with a far more modern look. Is that the way it plays, or is it deeper than those games?
Koning: It plays quite differently. Obviously, the way you navigate around, your basic attacks, that’s fairly similar. But in a classic beat-’em-up format, it’s pretty much about trying to get combos off, trying to stun your enemies and prevent being stunned yourself, whereas this game is much more Diablo-like. You have a discrete set of skills with cooldowns. There’s some resource management. There’s also a lot of interlinking systems going on. You can only play this game with three players, and they all have specific roles, unlike a beat-’em-up, where you can play with any number. Even though you’re playing the same game, you’re not collaborating. Everybody is doing their own thing.
In our game it’s very much the mage shields people, the tanky guy needs to get everybody’s attention, and the assassin needs to both deal damage and interrupt bigger enemies to prevent them dealing their bigger attacks.
GamesBeat: What is this world in Blightbound like? What’s the story behind it?
Koning: It has no relation to the known Earth. It’s very much an over-the-top, larger-than-life fantasy. Conan was one of the inspirations, some of Tolkien’s work as well. You find yourselves in a situation where about five decades ago, there was some kind of resurrected titan that broke the sun. After a lot of fighting, the people managed to bring down the titan, but as it’s decomposing, the area became noxious. There was this blight, as we call it, covering the land. People had to flee into the mountains to prevent themselves from going insane. Now the player is one of those refugees, taking heroes into the world. There’s more to it, and obviously I don’t want to give away too much yet. But apart from the big story, there’s also a lot of smaller character stories. There’s a lot of voice acting. There are systems in place to make sure that you have your own story progression, even though you’re playing with other players.
GamesBeat: Is the fog part of the blight, part of the decomposed titan?
Koning: Yes. That’s also present in the dungeons. In the dungeons it’s mostly visual. It’s the reasoning why all these mutant creatures roam these lands. The blighted lands were there even before the titan fell on top of it, so there’s a lot of items and stuff to recover still in those blighted lands. That’s why the heroes still go in. Then there’s a mechanic where the heroes slowly get sick, which will affect their stats, but also their ability to get out. If you play a single character too much, they’ll become blight-struck. They’ll have to stay in the refuge for a couple of rounds and you’ll have to play other characters. The game is very focused on making players go wide instead of deep.
Traditionally in an action-RPG, you play your character long and hard and all the way to the end. By that time, a lot of players are already tired of the game. A lot of the excitement happens when you start up new characters. What we try to do, instead of taking a long time with a single character, we want to give you lots of reasons and rewards for trying to alternate. We’re trying to protect players from themselves when it comes to burning out.
GamesBeat: It reminds me of party-based roguelikes, where you keep recruiting different characters.
Koning: Darkest Dungeon was definitely one of the inspirations. In earlier versions we had a mechanic where a hero would actually go insane and disappear from the refuge, and you’d have to recover them again. Which was interesting, but also kind of upsetting, because people invested quite a lot into these characters. There are definitely inspired elements from Darkest Dungeon, but it’s more like you embody these characters, instead of playing a management game, as you do in Darkest Dungeon. The feelings people have toward individual characters are very different compared to Darkest Dungeon. We couldn’t leave those systems in.
GamesBeat: What was the shadow titan? Besides bringing this blight to the world after it died and getting rid of the sun, does it play another role in the story?
Koning: I’m not sure how much I’m supposed to tell, but before all of this happened … there was another people that felt they were superior to humanity. They were taller and generally smarter. They ruled a large chunk of humanity. But there was a part of humanity that was free, and they didn’t like the way things were. These other people derived a lot of their power from the sun, so they hated it quite a lot. The gods that made up the world, one of them inspired these free people to resurrect one of them, and that became the titan. The first thing he did was take out the sun. Some people, in hindsight, felt like this was maybe a little too much given the state of the world afterward. But there are still plenty of people who feel it was the right move to free humanity, even though the world is now a postapocalyptic hellscape. That’s pretty much the setup.
GamesBeat: How do the classes of heroes work? You have three base classes, but up to 20 heroes?
Koning: Correct. All the heroes fall into one of the three archetypes. Every one of the 20 heroes is either a warrior, assassin, or a mage.
GamesBeat: Are they all human, or do you have other types of cultures in the game?
Koning: They’re all human, although there are different cultures among the humans. They are no different elves or other races.
GamesBeat: The way these split up, is one wizard different from another character? Or is it about how you spec it?
Koning: They all have different combinations of skills. There’s overlap here and there, but their sets are unique. They also have different passives that make them feel quite different when you play them. Or they’ll feel quite similar, but if you want to get the most out of them you’ll have to learn to adapt to their passives and build around that as well. Once you start mastering those passive abilities, which can be quite impactful, enhancing them with items and stuff to build around them, those characters will start to grow more unique compared to each other.
GamesBeat: How does the gameplay loop work? Is it about the character’s progression, or finding loot, or some combination?
Koning: When playing for a longer time, it’s definitely geared toward getting more loot. That’s what excites me, trying out new builds, that kind of stuff. But there’s also other trajectories. There’s the refuge-prosperity level mechanism, where you can improve it by freeing survivors from the dungeons. There are individual character stories you can progress through. If you get more invested into the lore, you can play a lot with that as well.
Finally, there’s a notoriety system. If you play a dungeon and stick with your party afterward — normally you automatically stick to your party after you come back to the refuge. You change up your equipment or assign stats, that kind of stuff. Then you go back in with the same party, and as long as you stay with the same party, the party’s notoriety will go up. That means that some of the dungeons will be tagged with a marker, and those dungeons will be extra hard and grant extra rewards. It becomes a race to push the difficulty as high as possible, because notoriety levels can stack on the same dungeon. At some point they can become crazy difficult, and it’s interesting to see how far you can push yourself. It’s almost a roguelike mechanic.
GamesBeat: How big are the dungeons?
Koning: The dungeon runs should take about 15-to-20 minutes. We’re still trying different lengths to find the sweet spot between action and the management of your items and heroes.
GamesBeat: Are you trying to bring the sun back, or is it gone?
Koning: Well, in Early Access there’s definitely nothing you can do about it. There are some heroes in the backstory who’ve tried different things. We’re still internally debating where we’ll take this and how far we want to change the world. There are some very interesting, exciting directions we can take this. But we haven’t landed on a final approach for what we’ll do with the world in the longer term.
GB: Why are you going to Early Access with this?
Koning: The problem for us as designers is that we’re designing this game that requires three players. To iterate on this kind of stuff is hard by yourself. Of course we get together internally, but at some point, when players know the game inside out, their feedback changes. It becomes vital to get external voices involved as well. That’s why we want to try it. We also have a lot of content that’s in an advanced stage of development that we’re planning to release quite quickly after the early access launches, to keep people excited and busy, but at the same time we’ve also booked out a lot of development time to respond to player feedback and get a handle on which direction they find most exciting. But at the same time we’re trying to do that in moderation. Awesomenauts taught us a lot about dealing with feedback. You have to realize where it’s coming from, obviously. The most vocal players are usually also the ones who have thousands of hours of game time. A lot of the things they say make a lot of sense, but you have to keep in mind that there are still newer players trying to get into it. But it’s important for us to get the community involved earlier.