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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Interview: League of Geeks founder on Armello, Australia, and working with Sony


Aussie independent studio, League of Geeks, has enjoyed significant success with Armello. After a successful Kickstarter and PC launch of the board-game-with-cute-animal-heroes, now it's coming to the PlayStation 4 platform, complete with additional features and characters.

Games like this one, and Hand of Fate before it, have been very positive signs for the Australian games industry, which continues to struggle its way to recover after a few years of decimation. With Armello now coming to console, I felt it was a good idea to sit down with the founder and director of League of Geeks, Trent Kusters, to tak about the port, as well as the general industry for Australian game developers at the moment.

Digitally Downloaded (DD): What made you decide to bring Armello to console?
Trent Kusters (TK): We always knew that Armello would translate well to console. Due to the hex-based play, it doesn’t suffer the same control issues on a gamepad that most strategy games do – and most of us played XCOM on console and loved the experience, so we were always curious how Armello would present in that same format. But, we’re a small team and didn’t really have the bandwidth so we put it out of our minds. Then Sony approached us and have gone above and beyond to not only help us get Armello onto console, but to ensure it’s as successful as possible. We have a huge amount of respect for what Sony is doing for indies around the world, and we do have a bunch of console gamers on the team, so they didn’t really have to twist our arm to be honest.

Trent Kusters

DD: Have you encountered any challenges in bringing it from PC to console? What are these challenges?
TK: How it controls was always going to be the big one. The seemingly innocuous things that end up actually creating really tricky design issues. For example; a mouse is really a single-input device. You click on a spot. You can’t be clicking on another spot while you’re clicking on that spot. So you move through development based on safe assumptions like that, then you put a PS4 controller in a QA guys’ hands and they press all the buttons at once and everything breaks.

That’s just the technical stuff. Finding a way to do all the things on a controller. The mapping, etc. However, the real challenge is designing the controls and UI so that it feels like Armello was always meant to be a console title. That is a huge paradigm shift for design, but one that’s critical to making the game feel like a phenomenal console title and not a port of a PC title.

That’s incredibly important to us. The Armello experience should be the very best it can be on each and every platform it’s on. If we didn’t feel like we could do that, we simply wouldn’t do a console version.

I’m super happy to say – as someone who loves console gaming – I couldn’t be happier with how the game feels with a controller in your hand.

DD: The console audience hasn't traditionally been associated with serious strategy games. How do you think this game go in introducing them to the genre?
TK: Brilliantly. At the end of the day, Armello is a board game. You won’t find many folks that don’t like board games. We are doing a lot to ensure that Armello has that ‘simplistic depth’ that we really care about here at Legaue of Geeks (LoG); games that are easy to pick up, but have multiple layers of depth there for those hardcore players who want to feel that rewarding mastery of a great strategy title.

Also, Armello is a great fit for PS4’s catalogue. We are as indie as they come and PlayStation have really solidified themselves as the home for quality indie titles. Plus, the game looks absolutely stunning on the big screen so we’re super confident that Armello will find a solid base of players who are looking for a console strategy experience unlike any other.


DD: We've seen some great successes with indie games on consoles, including from Australia with the likes of Hand of Fate. Why do you think indie developers are standing out for console communities?
TK: Because we care. We create boutique, curated, experiences that we’re personally invested in. Creating an independent studio that can publish to console is not an easy thing to do. You gave the example of Hand of Fate; that’s the only independently published and developed Australian game on PS4 and Xbox One. To be able to do that, you’re rolling the dice. Our development budget is seven figures and we’re to answer for that, not a multi-billion dollar publisher. So the indies who do roll the dice on console are either crazy or wholly committed to making it work.

Plus, the console experience is typically the AAA blockbusters that instead of diversifying, seem to be offering more and more of the same. So when you’ve got indies around the world populating PSN with mid-scope titles, for console gamer it’s not hard to form an argument for three or four $20 boutique experiences that don’t just explore diverse concepts, but push at the very seams of the medium, over sinking that cash into AAA game X.

Obviously, I’m not saying indie games are objectively better than what AAA offers (I actually think that’s a false dichotomy), just explaining why we stand out.

DD: Do you see any opportunities to expand on the game further? I know there's a new character coming, but what are some of the other enhancements you could see coming to the game in the future, perhaps as DLC?
TK: Yeah. For sure. We have lots of plans for Armello and intend to support it for as long as is financially and creatively feasible.


DD: The Animals of Farthing Woods theme is quite strong in Armello. Was this a deliberate aesthetic decision, and why animals rather than a more "standard" set of characters?
TK: Animals have been a major part of human folklore since the dawn of time. We want as many people as possible to enjoy our games and culturally, we cast a huge net when our heroes are animals.

Plus, we all had fond memories of films and franchises that had used anthropomorphic animals to great success (Redwall, Disney’s Robin Hood, Watership Down, etc) and so we were keen to create something of our own. But really the thing that nailed it was the connotations, the archetypes, the emotional connection, there’s just so much preloaded into animals that we can tap into. When you have limited opportunities for narrative delivery (like for example if you were making a digital board game) the benefits offered by anthropomorphic characters are just too great to decline.

DD: Armello was a Kickstarter success. How did you find the process of engaging with backers and fulfilling rewards after the campaign finished? Would you recommend Kickstarter to other developers?
TK: It’s great! And I say that because it’s still an ongoing process. A large portion of our backers have been in-game for almost a year now and Armello would never be what it is today without their support and feedback.

Kickstarter is a great platform, but it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. I mean, the campaign itself is a nightmare. 30 days of stress, no sleep and working around the clock. We also have a community of 6000+ people who on the whole are fantastic, amazing, awesome people, but of course, you’re likely to get a few who ‘don’t play well with others’ and that’s always going to be super trying.

So yeah, I’d recommend it to other developers – with the incredibly huge caveat of saying “make sure you know what the fuck you’re signing up for and that you’re ready for it, pals.”


DD: What would you say is most important for indies in order to find success in the increasingly crowded market?
TK: Execution. Above everything else. Anyone on a street corner can come up with ideas for a game. It’s having the taste, ability, and tenacity to take those ideas and turn them into world-class interactive experiences that opens up doors for indies these days. I mean games are fucking amazing these days, right? So no matter how small, different, or cool you think your idea is, don’t even bother trying to cut through the noise if you’re not committed to making sure it’s as good as the best out there.

DD: Finally, what games are you playing at the moment?
TK: Armello. I mean, we’re just two and a bit months from shipping and it’s not a myth that game developers don’t really get time to play games. It’s the one true curse of game dev.

But… I am going to give Her Story a shot very soon and the last thing I did get time to boot up was Invisible Inc.

- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
Interview: League of Geeks founder on Armello, Australia, and working with Sony
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