How do you create and play an unorthodox game like Miasma Chronicles made by an unconventionally named studio?
Brief talk with the director of this post-apocalyptic tactical wonder
Last year's Gamescom introduced a whole bunch of interesting titles that should finally (hopefully) make it to our consoles or PCs this year. One of these gems was Miasma Chronicles, a tactical adventure game sticking to a well-established formula, where developers from the absurdly named Swedish studio, The Bearded Ladies combine third-person free roaming exploration and tactical combat. Recently we were lucky enough to arrange an interview with them, and have the upcoming games’ director Lee Varley answer for us a few mind-stimulating questions. They’ve shared not only the origin stories of their studio, but also the experiences gained during the creation of this very game, plus many other interesting facts.
Right out of the blue I have to ask you a pretty silly and surely expected question. What is the deal with name of your studio? How did you come up with this, what are the origins and...why?
It was a bit before my time, but the story I was told from the founder Halli was the studio is a circus of people who want to entertain, and everyone started out having circus jobs. The Bearded Ladies was because we are an act that challenges people to think differently, and we want that in the games we make.
I absolutely adore the concept of the ‘Miasma’ substance! Is this plastic eating force based on some actual scientific that took hefty research? Can we produce something like this even nowadays or do you see an apocalypse like this one happening soon?
I could explain everything about what the Miasma is, and what its purpose is but that would be some very big spoilers! :)
I think if we don't take our environmental problems seriously on the individual level, I believe we are in trouble. We cannot just rely on big companies run by egotistical billionaires to come up with the solutions, we need to act as individuals.
The game's post-apocalyptic setting gave me from the very start a bit of westernish vibe, that I strangely associate with the Metro series. Are there any particular sources of inspiration, that gave life to Miasma Chronicles?
We have a bit of a western vibe going on, a frontier town with western type characters etc. We mainly wanted to build what I consider a feeling of going on a classic adventure with a group of friends. A zero to hero story, discovering lots of truths, exploring grand and long forgotten places, fighting over the top bad guys etc. I'm inspired a lot by RPG games, especially some of the classic stuff on the PS1 (I almost failed my education because of Xenogears). Playing these games always felt special, the sense of grandness, the lovable characters who are on a journey of their own, deep combat systems that really make you think and not just react. I wanted Miasma to recapture a bit of that feeling.
I'm all in for "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach. However, Miasma is a third game from your studio, that combines real-time exploration and turn-based combat and from an outsider’s perspective it looks incredibly similar to your previous titles. How does it differ gameplaywise from either Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden or Corruption 2029? Do you think that you have perfected the formula yet?
Well, no formula is ever perfected, if I was allowed, I would keep tweaking it forever :)
It's been an interesting journey for us, we built Mutant with the aim of challenging what is considered normal in these types of tactical games. Corruption 2029 was more of an experimental game where we wanted to just focus on gameplay systems and not so much narrative. But a lot of people missed the narrative and were disappointed it was very light in that department. We had built a fan base (without really understanding this fact) who expected a certain type of experience from us. So, we decided to go all in and give them the best version of that experience yet.
Gameplaywise we have opened it up to far more people now, the edge of your seat difficulty, that tests you in every way is still in, but we have added new modes and difficulties for people new to tactical games. We want more people to experience this fantastic genre where in my opinion some of the best games ever made live.
We completely rebuilt all the AI from the ground up, allowing for a lot more enemy variation, we added some side quests with super special loot hidden in them. Pretty much every gameplay system was revamped with two goals, 1) be cleaner to use, 2) allow flexibility to peoples play styles.
We also changed how critical chance works a bit, so now you can stack it far above 100% (anything about 100% gets converted to extra damage). Oh, and the Miasmas system, super skills you can find out in the world that can be upgraded with special “hack chips”.
How do you achieve a balance between the adventure and tactical gameplay elements? And how have you approached this tricky mechanics combination in Miasma Chronicles?
Pacing is super important, leaving space so the player can breathe, explore the locations and take in the sights is something that is hard to do. It's tempting just to have tactical fights everywhere, but you need that sense of space.
We also want the game to feel like you never know what is next. We avoid the open world so we can build more condensed and strongly themed locations that just look and feel interesting to explore, strong environmental storytelling is essential here.
We also wanted it to feel worthwhile to explore not just on the narrative side, we wanted every skill, every upgrade and every item you can find to feel meaningful, we avoid the pitfall of “gives 1% extra damage!” and try to keep everything more impactful. That is at the core of the game design and makes finding things in the world much more impactful.
By doing this exploring well can have a big impact on the tactical gameplay.
You have worked with Funcom on your first two titles, but Miasma is set to be published by 505 Games. Why change publishers? Is the workflow any different for you thanks to this change?
We wanted to build a whole new world and characters, and we got a great opportunity with 505 to make that happen. We have a very experienced team (some of our team members have over 20 years’ experience in game making) and it's been great working with 505 who has trust in us to make the right calls.
I would say our internal workflows have changed as the team has grown, but not so much on the publisher side of things.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced with your newest IP? Whether it was teamwise or technical in nature…
I could easily write a small book about the challenges in making something like Miasma, but I will give you the highlights.
A big challenge was figuring out how to improve the quality of pretty much everything from environment art to cutscenes, and how far to push it. How do you make a high quality cutscene, with great lighting, effects, face animation etc. without blowing our modest budget. This was something we had never done and did not have the budget of AAA, so we sought out non-standard solutions, we bought some mocap suits that can be used anywhere from a small company in Denmark, we incorporated brand new face tech in Jali, we are always looking for nonstandard ways to get the quality we want.
Another big challenge was the AI, we had a pretty good AI already, but it was not very designer friendly, and it took a long time to build new classes. So, we built a new system that acts like Lego blocks so behavior can be mixed and matched to create any number of new and sub enemy classes.
It was also a challenge building out the team, in the past all the maps were built by myself and Oscar (the Art Director). But the scope of content in Miasma is much bigger so we needed to build a proper art and level design team and transfer all the know-how over. It took time but we are in a great place now.
Who is the boy named Elvis, and when can we expect him to dance like a true rockstar? How crucial is the brother’s dynamic for Miasma Chronicles whether gameplaywise or storywise?
He was named after an ancient king. I'm afraid no dancing, just lots of secrets to uncover. Who is Elvis and Diggs really?
The brother’s dynamic is really important, they complement each other. Elvis is a bit more cautious and inexperienced, Diggs a bit more impulsive and reckless. These two traits make a perfect pair.
I had the chance of hearing some pretty amazing voice acting performances, especially from Diggs, who seemed to have a whole lot of fun. How do you motivate a voice actor to give his 110% to a game? Have any of them tried playing the game yet?
The voice actors we have don't usually need much motivation; they are really into giving the best performance possible. We also have a director who ensures the correct tone is delivered and our Lead writer John Zurhellen sits in the important sessions to make sure we push as hard as possible.
I'm not sure how much of the game they have played, they usually record out in the US and access to builds of the game are pretty limited.
Was there any motion/performance capture included whilst making the game? Or were the actors only sitting in a tiny booth, performing without any visuals? What is the creative process behind making voices work for a story driven adventure?
Been a small studio we cannot really afford to do full performance capture, instead we have a crack team of animators who acted out the scenes themselves and then use some pretty cool tech to generate the face animation.
Robust and detailed environments in Miasma truly spoke to my little explorer soul. What is the creative process behind creating worlds like this one and where do you even start? How do you create a broken world exactly?
Interesting question that I could spend days talking about. But we start by coming up with a strong theme for a level (such as an old southern mansion, or the skeleton of a crashed airliner), then build around that. We have many layers that go into a level, from initial layout, multiple art passes, effects pass, narrative pass etc. We also pace out pieces of environmental narrative (such as billboards, advertising etc.) to tell an overall story.
Then we do an item pass, say for example a med kit you find in the world, we try to build a story around it. Was it in a long-abandoned camp, did someone drop it while trying to heal themselves. We try to do this as much as possible to give the world a sense of being living, a sense of life.
What is your favorite part of your game? What game development position, in your personal opinion, is the one that goes under the radar the most?
My favorite part is the Arena, we bend the game rules a bit here and get a bit playful with the enemies. The position that goes under the radar for me is the producer, getting a group of highly creative people to deliver something on time and budget is almost impossible, a good producer will make it possible and much more.
Do you have any future plans for either Miasma Chronicles (after the release of course) or any new project? What setting intrigues you the most for a future project?
I cannot talk about future Miasma plans yet or our CEO will set the dogs on me, but I have lots of ideas for future projects. Personally, I am a big SCIFI geek, the older stuff which was more focused on expanding imaginations and not spectacle, that really interests me.