Friday, August 4, 2017

Interview with Daniel Leaver of Dreadbit on Ironcast


Ironcast is coming and bringing its unique version of both history (it is set in a steampunk Victorian era complete with giant mechs) and gameplay (gem matching with resource management with strategy? Of course!) to the Nintendo Switch. While it has been out elsewhere (you can read my preview based on the PC version) to this point the Switch version will benefit from numerous updates and enhancements! I was able to get some of Daniel Leaver's (the founder of Ironcast's developer, Dreadbit) time to discuss the game, its inspiration, and what it will bring to those looking for a strategic challenge on the Switch.

While, at first glance, the gameplay in Ironcast reminded me of the classic Puzzle Quest RPGs when I started to play the version on PC I was struck by how little it reminded me of that series in the end. There's more challenge and depth to Ironcast by a fair margin. What were the inspirations for the very strategic gameplay you end up engaged in? 

DL: You’re spot on when you referenced Puzzle Quest! I loved those games on my DS as they take a very addictive and satisfying mechanic (spotting complex patterns in coloured gems) and gave gem-matching a purpose beyond just ‘high score’. Ironcast was born from that same desire; to have match-3 form a satisfying resource generation mechanic for a turn based strategy duel. I was also playing a lot of Hearthstone at the time, so turn based combat was really ticking all my designer boxes!

For any strategy game to work it’s got to have questions without obvious answers. Ironcast works as a good strategy game because you’re ALWAYS thrown difficult questions to answer; do I fire my weapons, or raise my shields – I only have the resources for one of them. Should I pick that augmentation or that activated ability, both have strong benefits. Should I shoot the enemy’s main weapon, reducing the damage I take, or blow up their shields, improving the damage of my subsequent attacks!?


The look of the game screams gem matching but as you play you begin to realize that while there can be specific bonuses for some characters related to getting big combinations a lot of the time the goal isn't to simply clear as many as possible. Resource management within the turn and having a vision a turn or two down the road becomes important. Do you think there's a general sweet spot approach or do you think it really all comes down to the situation you're looking to manage?

DL: It’s really down to the situation. I generally always clear as many nodes as I can per match to maximise the experience points earned, but clearly there’s an argument for matching only as much as you NEED, leaving something on the board for the next turn.

Playing through the PC version there's no question the game brings the challenge to the table. What tweaks have been made for the Switch version specifically to either make it a little easier or to further enhance your options?

DL: We’ve made tonnes of balances for Switch. The game was too hard on PC, certainly, mainly down to inconsistency.

One example was that players could match 3 times per turn on PC, meaning they had 3 opportunities to completely fill their ammo bar, launch several shooting attacks, re-fill the bar and repeat. This meant that some enemies felt incredibly easy, as a player was able to ‘burst’ them down in a single turn if the enemy was caught out with no defences, making the next enemy they face feel really hard (taking 7-8 turns to kill if they did correctly use their defences). This inconsistency was frustrating. On switch, we give players only 2 matches per turn, but reduced the enemy’s maximum health to compensate. This gives a more consistent experience.
We also allow the player to fire on the first turn, rather than having to wait for weapons to charge, we allow them to sell unused or unwanted weapon systems for some extra cash and finally, we allow them to reshuffle the node board if it’s too unworkable, but at the cost of the rest of their turn.

I assume that for the Switch the game will support both the touchscreen and controllers?

DL: Correct! We’re really proud of the way Ironcast seamlessly works in both Handheld and docked mode. Players can, at any time, use full touch-screen controls to match nodes, fire weapons and perform any action in the game, or use the joycons or Pro-controller to play instead. They can even mix and match depending on what feels good. I like to match nodes with my finger but fire cannons with the triggers!


What is your favorite combination, I suppose unlocked within the first few hours, of pilot and mech and why? 

DL: I like to use Commander Henry Brent and the Windsor Ironcast (all our mechs are named after famous British castles, by the way). Henry Brent’s Commander ability is that you always start each battle with 1 free layer of energy shields to protect you from attacks, and the Windsor’s activated ability is that it’s able to steal and transfer a layer of energy shielding from your opponent to your own Ironcast. This makes for an incredibly well protected Ironcast very quickly, without spending any vital resources.

One of the challenges I started to have dawn on me quickly is that certain mechs, with their default weapons, simply don't play very nice with specific missions. Specifically Salvage. That said, I've somewhat learned to do all I can to avoid Survival missions as well. Since one aspect of roguelikes is the concept of risk/reward aside from the challenge being random, and offering a variety of scenarios for people to learn to contend with, would you say there are good reasons to seek out something like a Survival mission if you have the right equipment and strategy?

DL: Yes! You’ve hit on another thing we’ve tweaked for Ironcast Switch. Survival missions now award players with about 30% more scrap (the currency of Ironcast) for completing them, to help balance the fact that you tend to take more damage in them. Conversely, Salvage missions will give the player free systems (salvaged from the enemy wreckage) if completely properly, so we now give LESS Scrap rewards for those. Salvage missions used to be seen as a ‘must do’ mission type on Steam, so this makes those decisions a little less clear-cut now!

How has the process of getting the game seen in the Steam ecosystem worked out for you so far? Do you think the game's gem matching appearance, if people just stick to screen shots, has helped at all to generate interest since it is unique or do you think there's a chance more people may give it a skip just base on that impression? Any impression that the Steam marketplace is so vast that the challenges in getting Ironcast seen remain regardless?

DL: I’ve always said that there’s so many gamers on Steam that even the smallest niche of genre has the potential to sell 100,000+ copies. The way I view it is that those who hate match 3 would probably not give Ironcast a second glance (despite probably loving the strategy and depth it offers). However, for every player like that, there’s another who says “Oh, cool! It’s a bit like Puzzle Quest meets FTL, and I loved those games!” and end up buying it and having a great time!

Generally, I’ll do all I can do appeal to that second group of players, rather than try to convert the former. If the word-of-mouth is strong with Ironcast, they may find themselves giving it a try after all!

With the current state of the Nintendo eShop being far more curated, and there only being maybe a handful of games each week, even with the much smaller install base do you feel like your chances of doing well on the Switch are improved since the chance for getting eyes on your game are improved?

DL: Yes! Very, very excited to get some eyes on Ironcast in the eShop. I read somewhere that there’s currently less than 50 games on the Nintendo store right now to ‘compete’ with. There were over 50 games launched on Steam YESTERDAY. So, absolutely.


What has the working relationship with Nintendo been like as you've come through their process compared to having gotten through similar processes on other platforms?

DL: I personally can’t comment on this as our publisher Ripstone were the main point of contact with Nintendo. However, I can say that they passed Ironcast through their certification process with no ridiculous requests for odd changes to our content, so that’s a bonus! Overall, a very smooth process.

Once you're done with getting Ironcast launched on the Switch any tentative ideas for what you may be trying to bring to the table next?

DL: Yes! Loads of ideas, but nothing to speak about right now, I’m afraid.

I want to thank Daniel for taking time from his busy schedule as well as give a shout out to Michelle and the excellent folks at the publisher Ripstone Games for helping arrange this interview. Ironcast is set to change everything you thought you knew about classic Victorian England on August 10 on the Switch eShop!

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