Interview with Steamroller Studios, the people behind Deadwood: The Forgotten Curse

Like I promised, I got to talk to Steamroller Studios about their popular Kickstarter game, Deadwood: The Forgotten Curse. If you haven’t heard about this game, or haven’t seen my Kickstarter Shout-out article about it, go to deadwoodgame.com. It is basically a combination of Don’t Starve and The Legend of Zelda. As of writing this article and interview, the game is extremely close to reaching its PlayStation 4 and Xbox One stretch goals. Hopefully, they put a Wii U stretch goal in there as well. The answers were given by Adam Meyer, the lead game designer, and one question was answered by their animator, Jalil Sadool. Now then, let’s get started!

Cam’s Eye View: Where did the inspiration come from for Deadwood?

Adam Meyer: The whole idea of making a game about wooden zombies was actually a complete accident. When we started, we were simply developing a zombie game for mobile. Now keep in mind this was about 5 years ago, so the tech of the mobile market meant that we had to do fairly simple models. So, while drawing very squarish-looking zombies, Keith our technical supervisor pointed out to me that he thought one of my drawings looked like a wooden zombie. I of course took all the credit and told him that was on purpose and we haven’t looked back.

Cam’s Eye View: For me, Deadwood reminds me of something that Jim Henson would do/make during his big fantasy film phase because of the wooden characters and the art direction of game. Where did the art direction for the game come from?

Adam Meyer: Thanks, I take that as a huge compliment. 80’s animation and movies were big influences on us, including Henson’s Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. They were movies aimed at kids, but still had a darker tone to them. This is something we are aiming for as well. But inspiration comes from everywhere. We were also influenced by Iron Giant, Studio Ghibli, Zelda, Tim Burton, and the list goes on and on. I’d like to think that we have developed something that is more than the sum of its parts.

Cam’s Eye View: Was Deadwood originally meant to be this combination of Don’t Starve and The Legend of Zelda, or did this game start out as something entirely different altogether?

Adam Meyer: We didn’t set out for that. We simply started making the game we wanted to make. It was only recently that we had to start thinking about how we could explain the game to people in just one sentence. “Zelda meets Don’t Starve” is just the quickest way to get some to understand the gist of the game.

Cam’s Eye View: One element I found interesting was the fact that the main character holds a gun. What went into choosing what weapon the main character used? Were there other weapons before the gun was chosen?

Adam Meyer: We’re very early in development, and so the “Pea Shooter” gun you’re referencing is just the first of many types of weapons. Lathe will also wield other popular gun types such as a shotgun, but also other more original types such as the “Crank Saw” a hand-powered chainsaw. Or something like a “Termite Gun”. Our goal is to come up with a good amount of original weapon types that are fun to use.

Cam’s Eye View: Since this game leans heavily on making sure you choose the right items to use during the night sequences, what was the process of making sure the game was difficult in the right way, and not the way where players want to be like Roguard and smash their controllers in frustration?

Adam Meyer: Well, balancing the game is a big deal for us, and it’s something we’ll continue to tweak all the way to the end. Our goal is to make a game that has a difficulty that constantly scales up as you advance, but never feels like you’ve been cheated.

Cam’s Eye View: How much focus will be put on the story of Deadwood? Will it be a mix of focusing on the development between characters, and the lore of the world?

Adam Meyer: Story is HUGE for us, especially coming from our movie backgrounds. Our focus is on the main story which revolves around our two lead characters. There is an overarching plot to this “Forgotten Curse” mystery, but more importantly, it’s about the friendship that develops between these two unlikely companions. Having said that, the world we have developed is very rich with history and lore, and we hope people will be excited about exploring all the nooks and crannies.

Cam’s Eye View: How many other characters will the player be able to interact with, and will there be voice work in the game?

Adam Meyer: We’ll have a good amount of NPC’s in the game, with a few very special ones that have a big impact on the story. As far as voice work is concerned, we want our two leads’ friendship to develop passively as you play, and not just during the big story sequences. That means banter. Kind of like Left 4 Dead, you’ll get to know them as they talk through your adventures. Gameplay and story all at once! But the main story is advanced similar to classic RPG’s with text boxes. We’d love to have the whole thing voice acted but it’s not possible with such a small team.

Cam’s Eye View: Since you all have worked on some quite awesome animated movies (loved How to Train your Dragon 2), what goes into how the animation of each character will look like?

Adam Meyer: I’ll let our Creative Director and Animator Extraordinaire Jalil answer that one…

Jalil Sadool: A lot!!! The first thing we do is get to know and understand that character. We need to know how that character will react in as many situations as possible. We need to know how that character will react to other characters around him/her. That character development phase of animation can take months, and sometimes a character is only figured out after sequences have already been done - We would then only go back to the early sequences if we have time or if the budget allows for it. For a character like Toothless for example, we referenced a lot of cats and dogs ... We used the "best Friend" side of dogs for the interaction with Hiccup but then used cats as the main reference for battle sequences. On Deadwood, we really wanted Roguard to move almost like a child, like a jolly character that doesn't even know its own strength and powers. We really wanted to make sure he was lovable. For the 'Sprouts' we made sure to push more towards fun than vicious. We wanted the players to have a good laugh while trying to survive the nights - a philosophy we want to maintain while moving forward. Since we've already established an animation style, we can now "easily" fit in all the other characters' motions into our world.

Cam’s Eye View: Were there any mechanics that were going to be in the main game, but were cut because they didn’t fit?

Adam Meyer: There’re always things that end up on the cutting room floor. Originally we were planning on having different types of resources. So instead of one type of “rock” there would be 4 or 5 types that all had different strengths. But it was getting too complicated and so we opted for a more streamlined approach. But I’d never say these ideas get thrown away, just put away for a rainy day.

Cam’s Eye View: Besides finding newer crafting items/upgrades, what will help give Deadwood variety so that it won’t get/feel repetitive among gamers? Are there going to be puzzles or boss fights?

Adam Meyer: There will be a steady stream of new things we throw at you, including side quests with some very outside-the- box type puzzles, as well as a few boss battles. As we ramp up the difficulty, we’ll make sure you have the tools to handle it.

Cam’s Eye View: Will your giant pet rock Roguard gain any abilities as you traverse through the land? How are you going to make sure no one cynically labels him as one huge escort mission?

Adam Meyer: He does have a few special abilities that he gains throughout the game that will make him even more powerful. But as far as avoiding the escort thing, that’s something we’re making a very big priority. We’re constantly looking for new ways to have him help you during the day and not hinder. To start with, he’s invulnerable during the day so you don’t have to babysit him. So unlike the usual escort missions, you don’t need to protect him. He actually protects you.

Cam’s Eye View: One thing I really love about this game is the fact you all went for a 3D gaming experience. What went into the decision to make this a 3D game instead of going the route of 2D and pixel art?

Adam Meyer: We love 2D games, and honestly, it would have been easier to pull off the cartoony look we’re going for in 2D. But the scope of this world demanded a 3D game. Exploration is a big part of Deadwood, and that typically works much better in 3D.

Cam’s Eye View: Was there some concern about making a crafting/survival game when we are in a market of games where crafting/survival games are all over the place and are mostly of not-so-high quality (Early Access or not)?

Adam Meyer: I think what we’re doing is quite different than these other games. Most survival-type games put you all alone in the same area night after night. Death is inevitable. For us it’s all about advancing the story. Which means, every night is different because you’ll be in a new spot, and ultimately there is an end game. You can actually “win” which is something other survival games don’t usually allow. Plus, we hope that the quality of the game will help us stand out from the pack as well.

Cam’s Eye View: Since this is the second time you have launched the Kickstarter for Deadwood, what would you say didn’t work out the first time? Was it that when you released it, there was a big game release that happened? Was it because of another Kickstarter like Crowfall? Or was it something more political from the gaming/Kickstarter scene?

Adam Meyer: I can’t say for sure, but I think it was a collection of a few things. The biggest misstep we took the first time was launching the campaign and that same day driving up to Boston for Pax East. Which means, the first week we weren’t around to really push the campaign, and the first week is everything on Kickstarter. We also polished a few other things the second time around, such as making our pitch video more punchy, making rewards clearer and more enticing, as well as overhauling all our graphics on the main campaign page.

Cam’s Eye View: Was there any fear about launching the Kickstarter due to recent controversy of The Stomping Land, Godus, and CLANG?

Adam Meyer: Of course, I think that’s another thing that hurt us. Kickstarter has become a bit of a dirty word lately, and we found it very difficult to get any press because people don’t want to write about Kickstarter campaigns anymore. That’s why we worked hard towards making a good portion of the game first. It’s not just a concept, but a fully-fledged, in-production game with all the necessary staff in place to make it.

Cam’s Eye View: In the infamous Rock Paper Shotgun interview with Peter Molyneux, Molyneux said that he was told to always ask for less funding than what you actually need when you go on Kickstarter. I don’t really understand that, but what is your opinion of what to ask for in terms of funding for a Kickstarter project?

Adam Meyer: I can see both points of view. It definitely isn’t a good idea to promise a game to people without having a firm plan in place for full funding. But I don’t think it’s right to ask for the backers to take on all the risk of a project by asking them to fully fund it. For example, our campaign has a goal of 65k for which we’re thrilled to have passed already. But that is not the full amount needed to fund the production. The full amount is honestly not attainable by a smallish studio like ours without name recognition. So we’re using it as a way to get as much backing as we can, and then supplement the rest of the budget through a variety of other ways, including self-financing, investors, pre sales, merchandise, etc. The goal is to retain as much control on a game as possible, and that’s what’s great about Kickstarter. The less money we have to take from a publisher or investor, the more freedom we have. But as a studio, you have a responsibility to have a solid plan in place to get the game done with the resources you have, whether the funds come from Kickstarter or some other avenue. We have that plan.

Cam’s Eye View: With this looming opinion that there are more Kickstarter horror stories than successes (which I disagree with whole-heartedly), what would you personally think is the solution to make sure that the reputation becomes more positive in the future? What do you think caused this negative image for crowd-funding?

Adam Meyer: There’s no easy answer, but I think studios need to be more transparent about their needs and what they can actually deliver, and I think Kickstarter needs to make it more clear that there is always a certain risk involved, and that your money doesn’t guarantee everything runs like it should. Which stinks, but I think it’s mostly about having better communication. That would go a long way towards making expectations and reality meet up.

Cam’s Eye View: In terms of indie gaming and Kickstarter-funded indie games, are there any kinds of indie games you would like to see less of/more of?

Adam Meyer: I’m pretty happy with the diversity of indie games out there. As an artist I would personally like to see more stylized games that aren’t made with generic 3D graphics. I’m also a bit tired of the pixel style you see everywhere, but I certainly see its appeal.

Cam’s Eye View: If Deadwood becomes successful, are there plans on expanding the universe, in a style of Oddworld, where there are many stories within this world? Or would you rather work on something else, and then make a new game in the Deadwood universe?

Adam Meyer: Hopefully both, we certainly have plans in place to expand the world of Deadwood into future games. But we also have ideas for new IP’s that we’d like to work on. I like how Pixar does it, they have their franchises but that doesn’t stop them from creating new properties as well. It’s a very healthy way to run a business from both the financial side and the creative side.

Cam’s Eye View: In your personal opinion(s), what makes a video game Kickstarter appealing to you and the individual team members? What elements do you look for when you may be interested in donating some cash to a Kickstarter?

Adam Meyer: Just two things. A cool game idea, and the firepower to actually make it, Cam’s Eye View: Do you have any favorite Kickstarter-funded games that have been released that you love? What Kickstarter-funded games are you excited about that are coming out in the future?

Adam Meyer: One we’re really excited about is Obduction by Cyan. Myst was such a big influence on us and one of the games that inspired us to be game creators. One I personally am excited about is episode 2 of Broken Age. I know things have been a bit rocky with Kickstarter and Double Fine. But I love story-driven games like that with an awesome art style. Another big one is Jenny LeClue from fellow Florida developer Mografi.