Editor's note: Pay attention to the final answer from Breath of Death 7 creator Robert Boyd — it encapsulates my own beliefs on proper role-playing-game design. Do you agree? And let us know if this interview results in you purchasing the game. I hope Zeboyd Games brings Breath of Death 7 to the PC. -Jason
In the aftermath of E3, it’s easy to forget some of the smaller guys — the indie developers — that make those free (or cheap) games. E3 is for the big games, where the critics write their guesstimates on which hardware or title has the power to propel this industry forward.
Robert Boyd from Zeboyd Games doesn't have a few million in the bank, but he’s confident he knows the three necessary ingredients for a good role-playing game — and tells me so in this e-mail interview.Ine
Zeboyd Games released Breath of Death 7 on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Indie Games platform in April, where it’s been met with praise from critics. For only a buck, it’s a steal. For those of you that haven’t tried it yet, I’d suggest buying it, playing it for an hour, and then coming back.
Carlos C Reyes: Some congratulations are in order. I’m not sure of the profit you’ve made at this point from Breath of Death 7, but I’ve noticed it being talked about on a number of popular websites, with Kotaku being the most recent (Hidden Xbox Games You Need to Know About). It must be a pretty exciting time for you.
Robert Boyd: We’re very excited at the game’s reception, both critically and commercially. That Kotaku article was especially nice for us, as we’ve seen a very noticeable jump in sales and downloads since then.
CCR: Your website says that you’ve achieved over 11,000 purchases with a trial-to-game conversion rate of almost 60 precent. Has that number jumped any in these last two weeks? And what would you attribute that conversion rate to?
RB: We’re at 13,693 purchases with a conversion rate of 61% as of June 1st. [Edtior's note: As for July 6, Breath of Death 7's conversion rate is 66.6 percent, with more than 20,000 sales.]
As for the conversion rate, I imagine our high rating combined with the general attractiveness of getting an RPG for such a cheap price has resulted in many people buying the game outright without bothering with the demo. Also, we did our best to make the first few minutes of the game into a good sales pitch, which I think has helped as well. Far too many XBLIG developers waste their entire trial time period instructing the player when they should be trying to hook them ASAP.
CCR: Breath of Death 7 makes some obvious homages to Dragon Warrior while also referencing Earthbound, Final Fantasy, Lufia, and Mega Man, among others. From checking out what others have said about the game, what particular homages/references do you wish people were noticing more? What helped keep these asides relevant to the game?
RB: From reading various threads about the game on the Internet, it looks like most of the references we put in are being noticed. The one reference that I haven’t seen anyone mention, though, is the Final Fantasy 10 plot referenced at the end of the game.
CCR: Your game brought on not only a lot of nostalgia but great memories as well. You added elements to BOD7 that really make your title relevant to the current age. I remember being in middle school and playing the original Dragon Warrior for the NES, grinding outside of the first city to save up for the Copper Sword. Your game actually streamlines this process without ruining anything by simply allowing players to open up the main menu and select Fight to speed up the grinding process. What's the thought behind this and your decision to limit random encounters within dungeons?
RB: One of the major problems I’ve had with commercial RPGs lately is how slow most of them are. From slow-paced battles, complete with lengthy animations and load times, to every dungeon taking hours to complete, everything’s just so slow. Gameplay elements in Breath of Death 7, like being able to start a fight instantly if you want to grind — and making it so grinding is optional if you play strategically — was a reaction to this. If the game goes as fast as the player wants it to, they’ll enjoy it more.
The funny thing is that I think, instinctively, many RPG developers realize that their games are too slow paced. This is probably why action/RPG hybrids have become so much more popular lately. I find this quite ironic because the problem isn’t the turn-based format (Breath of Death 7 is very fast-paced, and it’s turn-based), it’s the pacing.
CCR: This reminds me of Final Fantasy 13, which people jokingly refer to as having a 20-hour tutorial — and I don’t blame them for doing so. I think you’re onto something. A close friend of mine is actually playing through Dragon Quest 7, which I love, but starts slowly. It's 2 hours before you engage in your first battle and 15-20 hours until you get job classes. I really don’t blame gamers for not having the patience.
RB: Yeah, I’m with your friend. I’m a huge fan of the Dragon Quest series, but DQ7 was just too slow for me. Maybe I’ll give it another try if it ever comes out on the PSN.
CCR: The combat in your game, while very similar to Dragon Quest, takes a common formula but tweaks it by adding a combo system for the heroes and a strength bonus for each turn the enemies stay alive. This was a very cool idea. Were these laid out to help balance the game, or were they systems you thought of early in development?
RB: The combo system and the enemy turn bonus were both gameplay elements that were in the game at a very early stage. One of my problems with RPG “strategy” is that all too often, gameplay becomes trivial once the player has access to spammable multitarget heal spells. Putting the battles on a pseudo-time limit — take too many rounds and the enemies may become so powerful that they start one-hit killing you — and adding a risk/reward mechanism with the combo system was an attempt to eliminate this problem.
CCR: Having previously worked on XNA titles that were interactive stories — similar to "Choose Your Own Adventure" books — what would you say was the most difficult aspect of making your own role-playing game?
RB: Probably programming the battle system and related code. I went in thinking that I’d have the battle system code done in a week or so, and it ended up taking over a month to do.
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CCR: Since you mention programming, how has your background helped you create BOD7? What advice would you give gamers who may have some solid gameplay ideas but feel that they lack the resources to do what you’ve done?
RB: Actually, my formal programming background is pretty minimal. I took one programming class in my freshmen year of college, and I’ve read a few books — and that’s it.
If you have some good ideas for a game but lack the programming skill to actually pull it off, I’d say get the programming skill! Either that or find someone with the skill. I will say that you need to disabuse yourself of the idea that you can just be the game designer or writer and let other people actually do the work of building the game — that might be true later on once you’ve proven yourself as an amazing designer, but early on, you need to actually get in the trenches, so to speak, and help build the game yourself. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to be a programmer, but you do need to be able to actively contribute something essential like code, graphics, or music.
CCR: I noticed a lot of smart gameplay decisions in BOD7. Its combat lacks a lot of distinct attack animations, but special sounds and extremely fast combat make up for much of this. Did you do this to that very reason — to speed up combat? Or was it just a reasonable decision considering your time and budget restraints?
RB: The lack of much animation in combat was primarily a result of our time and budget constraints. But I am a big fan of fast paced combat, so that was a nice bonus that came out of that decision. In fact, toward the end, I was starting to get worried that the game was maybe too fast-paced and people would end up being able to beat the game in just a couple of hours. I was very pleased when my first complete playthrough of the game revealed a game that was about as long as we had been shooting for.
CCR: The endgame content is easy to level up for once the player acquires a certain “Unite” attack. Did you design like this to help the player complete the optional dungeon without giving them a headache?
RB: Yeah, I figured at such a late point of the game, the player has earned the right to some easy grinding if they want it.
CCR: This bugged me: Why did you choose to treat potions as the ultimate all-purpose elixirs? Did all other items seem gratuitous, or did some kind of restraint make that decision just the right one for your game?
RB: Originally, I was going to have a greater variety of items, but it dawned on me: When the player has a lot of items to choose from, they usually end up saving most everything because the powerful stuff is rare and they don’t want to waste them on a less important fight. By just having one powerful item, the player is more likely to use them when necessary because they know they’ll just get more later on.
CCR: Would you consider Earthbound a large influence on BOD7? I very much got an Earthbound vibe when I was running into random encounters with “Looters” and cars in the more suburban “dungeons.”
RB: Yeah, I’m a big fan of Earthbound, so I’m not surprised that it ended up influencing our game a good deal.
CCR: Now that you’re working on your next title, what’s the most valuable lesson you think you’ve learned from BOD7?
RB: Gameplay and good writing are key. Our game is much lower tech than your average retail RPG, but despite that, I’ve received many e-mails from fans saying that our game has been the most fun they’ve had playing an RPG in a long time. You don’t need fancy graphics or complicated systems to make a fun game. You just need good pacing, a well-thought-out design, and enjoyable dialogue.
CCR: At the other end of the spectrum, do you believe BOD7lacks anything that you'll be sure to include in your next game?
RB: Like most RPGs out there, I think I could have handled status ailments better. That’s one thing I’m really focusing on with CSTW, the acronym for our next game [Cthulhu Saves the World] — making sure that there’s a greater variety of battle situations, so that less straightforward abilities like status ailments have a chance to shine. One status ailment in particularly will be crucial to the gameplay and story and…whoops! Almost gave it away!
CCR: What's the one thing you want players to take away from Breath of Death 7?
RB: I hope they have fun with it and look forward to our future games! I also hope it inspires some people to make their own RPGs – give me something fun to play!
We now know the most valuable aspects to an RPG: good pacing, design, and dialogue. Let’s see how Robert does in those regards with his follow-up RPG, Cthulhu Saves the World, coming out in August.