IGM Interviews – Edward Douglas (Eon Altar)
Recently, a new PC RPG called Eon Altar was announced by Flying Helmet Games; their goal for the project is to bring back couch co-op with an experience for up to 4 players locally. The game intends to mix up traditional control schemes by utilizing mobile devices in conjunction with the PC visual experience. The developers emphasize that player choice will have a great impact over the ensuing adventure and available gameplay scenarios.
Eon Altar will be on display at PAX Prime this year, just before its official launch somewhere around the end of August. In anticipation of its release, IGM had a brief talk with Edward Douglas from Flying Helmet Games about how the game mechanics work, while also getting a more detailed explanation about the interactivity between smartphones and PCs.
Edward Douglas is Creative Director at Flying Helmet and Project Director on Eon Altar. He is an experienced game developer that has worked on projects with Electronic Arts and BioWare. Now he’s about to launch Eon Altar as his debut into indie development with his friends in the studio.
Indie Game Magazine: Can you tell us where the inspiration to create such a game came from?
Edward Douglas: Flying Helmet Games is founded by three friends, myself Edward Douglas, Lead Designer Scott Penner, and Studio Manager Lukas Reynolds. We’ve actually known each since high school where we got together every afternoon for D&D, Tabletops, and other such games. Gaming for us was hanging out with friends, having some pizza and pop, and having a good time together. As we grew older, we noticed two things – we have less time than ever to commit to the long, deep games we love; and there are less and less video games that bring us together in the same way, where we can experience a rich, interactive story hanging out together.
We are making a video game where you can enjoy fun action and deep, rich story with your friends, for a fun gaming night right at home, the way we loved growing up. One of the core elements of games we loved growing up is keeping your own secrets, whether it be your own cards or your RPG character sheet. When we looked at the modern devices all around us, we realized that smartphones were the perfect tool! They could be the controller and character sheet at the same time! In an early version we even tried a true ‘Tabletop Video Game’ with iPads and lay-flat, all-in-one PCs, but that game just didn’t make a lot of sense for most players.
Eon Altar is set in the fantasy world of Arillia, which also has roots in our RPGing days back in High School. After years of playing existing systems, some of the gang wanted to make their own system, and the world was born from that! The world, races, and history of Eon Altar are all nearly over 15 years in the making. When we started this game, we pulled a small slice out of those bibles to tell the story of this game, and the players get to explore it through the eyes of their characters.
IGM: How did Flying Helmet Games come about? What is it like to work with so many experienced people?
Douglas: Both Scott Penner and I came from AAA game development. We first worked together on many annualized editions of Need for Speed with EA. We always talked about making games of our own, so after many years of bouncing around to other various studios, we finally found the right time! When we decided it was time to go, we started calling up old colleagues from all corners of our careers, putting together our ‘dream team.’ Leah Vilhan, our Lead Programmer for much of development has worked with us at EA, and we were on Mass Effect 2 together; our current Lead Programmer, Joey Wiggs was another one of the ‘High School’ Pen & Paper guys from way back, and after years of working with Microsoft he was ready for a switch too!
When I was at BioWare, I started off in new IP development, which unfortunately got cancelled in the recession of 2009. But for Daniel Roy, Senior Producer on that project, and I, it felt like an incomplete part of our life. Daniel came on to develop our interactive narrative and wrote the entire game story and script, which feels like a continuation of the work we did at BioWare. And our composer, Tom Salta, well… I don’t even know where to start! If you’ve heard the soundtrack you know it’s absolutely world class. We worked together on Ubisoft projects and it was just a joy. When I showed him an early prototype of the game he said “I need to work on this!” It didn’t matter that we couldn’t afford him on our independent budget, he’d make it work somehow. I can’t tell you what a trip it’s been getting a call from him where he says “I’m out at the Skywalker Ranch recording for Halo, so I’ll get to that track for you on Monday!” And animators and tech artists helping out in evenings after working on Iron Man or Jurassic World? Crazy!
That’s what it’s been like – we have a budget, albeit very modest for what we’re trying to achieve, and we’ve been able to work with some fantastic people going far over and above what we could possibly hope for to make our game happen. Both experienced professionals, and juniors out of school, everyone has really given it their all and really made it their own, and we couldn’t be more grateful.
One funny thing about coming from that background is that we get some amazing benefits, like fantastic engineering discipline from our leads, and a wealth of experience that lets people know how to tackle problems the right way the first time, but we fall back on old, terrible habits. At EA, we always used to bemoan our bosses for all the procedure, meetings, and bureaucracy and always say ‘we’d never do that if we were running things,’ and then we find ourselves doing the same things! We really try really hard to be self aware and fix problems like that as they come up, but we’re not always perfect, and we’ve certainly made lots of goofs along the way. We always end up pushing to get more in the game than the schedule might reasonably allow, but I think that’s why we’ve been able to make something so much bigger and better than we ever could have imagined when we began.
IGM: Episode 1 is intended to launch on Steam sometime later this month, correct?
Douglas: We are aiming for a Steam Early Access release, along with iOS and Android Controller Apps as soon as possible. We’re avoiding announcing a release date until we’re absolutely certain we’re not liars! It’s incredibly tricky to coordinate 3 SKUs all at once. Since this is a whole new way of playing a Video Game, once we’re in Early Access our goal is to get as much feedback as possible on what’s working, what isn’t, as well as overall game balance, for combat, powers, gear and so on.
Eon Altar is built as an Episodic Story, and Early Access includes our Episode One – The Battle for Tarnum, with over 4 hours of content, and hopefully our first Combat Arena Challenge Level. There’s lots of content that we’ll add and update throughout our Early Access: We will have a new playable character for Full Release, and we have Episode Two and Episode Three close to complete, as well.
IGM: Where did the idea of mixing mobile and PC devices come from? Is the game only playable with both devices at once?
Douglas: Eon Altar is designed first and foremost as a couch cooperative game, of course with ample opportunity to screw over your friends; but like in any board game, be careful what you do or say, because if you screw over your friend he or she might get you back or might be your ride home! We’re starting on PC because it’s the most straight forward platform to get on first, but we believe consoles are where a game like this will truly sing, so we’ve started work on getting Eon Altar both to PS4 and Xbox One, but we don’t have any release dates yet.
The Smartphone Controller is a core part of the game. It’s how you control your character, interact in the world, use your Power Wheel to select actions both in and out of combat. It contains your Ability and Upgrade Trees, Gear Crafting, Narrative Dialog & Choice, and World History and Lore, and each player has their own private screen, so they can do any of these things simultaneously without interrupting other players. I see it like what the Wii U tried to do, but unfortunately the audience and games just weren’t there. Now we have a huge number of people with Smartphones, already in their pockets. It just seems like a natural evolution. We’ve even found in focus tests that players who like to hang out and play games, but have never played Console or PC games, pick this game up very quickly because the interface just makes sense. So it’s like you can get your friends who are always intimidated by the complexity of a 13 button controller to actually have fun with a fairly hardcore RPG quite quickly, and we think that’s awesome!!
IGM: What are the future plans for Eon Altar?
Douglas: The future of Eon Altar really depends on how people react to it! We know we’re trying something very different and crazy, and while we think it’s really awesome and focus testers have loved it, we’re never sure how people will react when it’s out!
The story of Eon Altar is 9 Episodes. We have that all mapped out and we know where each episode will take us. The first three episodes are nearly done, and we’ll start on the fourth as soon as we release. We’re also pushing for the console release as soon as possible. Depending on the response we get, and if we can afford it, there are tons of new features we want to continue to add as we develop each subsequent episode, so we’ll see what we can do!
Where we go after that? We have no idea yet! There are so many stories to tell in the world of Eon Altar – this game is just a small slice of it. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but we already have ideas for Eon Altar 2. And on the other side, we’re building a platform for a new way of party play – there are so many other IPs and types of stories we could tell with this style of gaming. Only time will tell, once we release!
IGM: Is there anything else our readers should know regarding the game?
Douglas: We actually had quite a long, tumultuous journey to where we are now! You can read about it in this blog post here, where we went from prototype, to nearly giving up completely, back to where we are today. There’s some fun stories in there and, I hope, an honest look at what a lot of independent game developers go through.