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Zeboyd Games Interview: Bill Stiernberg talks Cosmic Star Heroine and Indie RPGs

Over the past few years the independent games development scene has really latched onto the RPG genre. One of the more recognizable indie studios making RPGs is Zeboyd Games, and today we had the pleasure of speaking with one of the minds behind the studio in Bill Stiernberg. We talked about the history of Zeboyd Games, the state of RPGs as a whole, and of course their new game Cosmic Star Heroine!

RPG Site: For our readers that may not be familiar with your studio, could you give us a brief history of Zeboyd games, your experience in game development, and how the studio came together?

Bill Stiernberg: Zeboyd Games was started back around when Microsoft was still running the Indie channel on Xbox Live (Xbox Live Indie Games aka XBLIG). At the time Robert and I knew each other via the Penny Arcade web forums where we mostly talked about industry news/developer/publisher data and stuff. I had made a 16-bit remake of Adventure for Atari while Robert had developed some choose-your-own adventure text games for XBLIG; we decided that since there weren't many traditional JRPGs on XBLIG that we should work together as a team and split the revenue, and our first project was Breath of Death VII!  

Afterwards we wanted to build on the foundation of Breath7, but expand the horror/comedy elements so we decided to create a parody of Cthulhu, which led to Cthulhu Saves the World. It's still our most well known or popular game ever. Around that time, we were contacted by Penny Arcade about bringing the then-canceled Rainslick series back into game form, and of course we agreed! After releasing CSTW+Breath7 on Steam, Robert and I were able to leave our "normal" jobs (he was teaching, I was working as a lawyer) and work on our small studio full time, and subsequently put all our effort into the Penny Arcade games. 

Working with Penny Arcade was great and went really smoothly, and we learned a ton. We're trying really hard to leverage everything we've learned since Breath7 and what we did right and fix what we did wrong and put it into our new IP, Cosmic Star Heroine.

RPG Site: Cosmic Star Heroine looks as though it's a much bigger project than anything you have worked on previously. What are some of your aspirations and goals for this title?

Bill Stiernberg: It's a MUCH bigger game in every way! We knew that there's kind of a gap in the market of indie RPGs. There aren't that many games out there that focus on the late-16-bit/early 32-bit era in terms of style or presentations, or the Sega-CD / TG16 style of RPG in terms of presentation (whereas there are many 8-bit RPGs in terms of style). We also knew there was a strong demand for something akin to games like Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star, and those have been huge inspirations for us as a team and among our favorite games. So we wanted to at least attempt to try to make something in that vain, both because we really, really want to and because there's a market for this. 

As such we have a much bigger game world (3 planets, spanning 228 maps of much much higher detail than any of our last games), with dungeons that have more interesting mechanics to them, battles that take place on the maps themselves (rather than a battle mode or random encounters), enemies you can see and dodge or face head on, cutscenes that mix both special sprite animations on the maps, high quality portraits for dialogue, and Sega-CD-esque cutscenes segments.

The OST is huge and we're excited to have another game with HyperDuck SoundWorks doing the OST, which is huge and has over an hour of music. And I guess a big deal to us is the chance to release a game both on Steam and the "proper" channels on consoles; so instead of just an XBLIG release, we'll have a full fledged PSN and XBLA release on PS4, Vita, and Xbox One!  We're even getting a physical release for PS4 and Vita by working with Limited Run Games, which is immensely exciting for us.

RPG Site: From a distance it seems like Cosmic Star Heroine has a much richer world than your previous games. How important is the story in the game?

Bill Stiernberg: Story is always really important for games like this. We always come up with the general concept and characters of our games first, and from there, we actually develop the gameplay mechanics before detailing out the stories. That way we can make sure the mechanics of the game and story meld together pretty well. And then once the mechanics and general plot of the story is conceptualized, we detail out the plot beats so that we can decide what worlds and maps and dungeons and towns to incorporate in order to tell the story and pace out the game. CSH is going to have a much more involved story than our previous games and tying the pacing and plot in with the pacing of the maps/dungeons/gameplay is something a lot of classics RPGs did well, so it's a big goal for us.

Alyssa L'Salle, Cosmic Star Heroine's protagonist and Bill's favorite character he's ever designed!

RPG Site: Cosmic Star Heroine is the 5th game you've worked on at Zeboyd Games, what sort of lessons did you learn from your prior projects that you were able to apply to the development of this latest game?

Bill Stiernberg: So many. For me, Rainslick3 and 4 were something I really experimented with in terms of lighting and shadows for maps.  You start to see what I mean in Rainslick4, but I really pushed myself to create detailed lighting and shadows in Cosmic Star Heroine to give them a really rich look.  

We also knew from our previous games that pacing is super important, in terms of both story and gameplay. We've learned how to smooth out the flow of dungeons a little better and also how to keep story moving along so that players always feel compelled to do the next thing.  

But it's also really hit home for us that in our first 4 games, we never really focused on developing a solid UI, and we never really did as much as we should have with our game worlds. With CSH, we're trying to make the UI a lot easier to navigate and more intuitive, both in battle and in the Main game menu. We're also trying to give key dungeons some kind of gameplay and/or story hook to keep each one from being a simple maze with battles, and we're trying to make our towns interesting rather than "facades" for weapon shops with NPCs that tell silly comments.  So we're trying to really make towns useful in terms of information, and create interesting side quests (something we never really did in our past games), provide opportunities to recruit characters (a new mechanic where recruits expand your base and offer perks in battle; something inspired by Suikoden).  Among other things.

RPG Site: How long have you been working on Cosmic Star Heroine?

Bill Stiernberg: Since late 2013 at least. We conceptualized it years ago while still working either on CSTW or the PA games. But we didn't really dig into it until right before our kickstarter, when we had established the story/characters, general style and mechancis of the game.  That was late 2013, so, it's been over two years of hard but rewarding work.

RPG Site: In the past you have described Cosmic Star Heroine as a throwback to old 16-bit and 32-bit era JRPGs. What are some specific titles you drew inspiration from, and how did these games influence development?

Bill Stiernberg: Right, a lot of gamers absolutely adore the late 16-bit / early 32-bit era of JRPGs, and there aren't that many current indie projects to serve that still viable niche.  Some of the big ones that inspired us to create CSH include Phantasy Star, the Lunar Games, Chrono Trigger, Suikoden, Shin Megami Tensei. We're also inspired by all kinds of things to a lesser extent, games like Diablo or Bravely Default. There's just a ton of interesting ideas and ways to try new things in this genre, so while these inspired us, I think people will really enjoy our unique spin on the gameplay.

Cosmic Star Heroine features a "hacking" system similar to demon negotiation in the Shin Megami Tensei series.

RPG Site: Breath Of Death VII had a fantasy/undead aesthetic, while Cthulhu Saves The World had a horror/comedy/fantasy aesthetic. Now with Cosmic Star Heronie it looks like it's your first big jump into sci-fi. What made you want to go with a sci-fi setting and how has that impacted the art direction?

Bill Stiernberg: We were SUPER eager to jump into a sci-fi setting with Cosmic Star Heroine because we had done two fantasy games (Breath, CSTW) and two games which were pseudo-fantasy (Rainslick3 had a more 20's/30's setting but had fantasy elements, RS4 took place in a hellish underworld that was very fantasy-esque).  Also, there aren't a lot of current JRPGs/jrpg-inspired games, indie or otherwise, that really go all out with the sci-fi setting, and we think that it really needs to be explored a lot more since it's more unique or at least stands out more than another fantasy JRPG/JRPG-inspired game.

The art direction has been a blast for CSH.  The general presentation is inspired by games like Phantasy Star and Chrono, but the art direction itself has been this really fun dive into the "80's vision" of the future.  There's so much really cool sci-fi that came out of the 80s, and it seemed sort of fitting given the retro look of this game.  So there's a heavy influence from movies and media from the 80's, such as from the Alien movies, or Blade Runner, or Star Wars, or Moebius' comics, among other things.  So the settings have a really clunky, rusty, sometimes cluttered sci-fi look. Things glow in bright (sometimes neon) colors, computers are large and clunky.  It really goes well hand in hand with the lighting and shadow work I'm putting into maps.

Also of note is that HyperDuck SoundWorks, Chris and Dan, did a FANTASTIC job bringing the 80's sci-fi influence to the OST but giving it a more fleshed out modern sci-fi sound.. you can check out some previews of their music on the Kickstarter page or our website.

RPG Site: A big point of contention among JRPG fans is random battles and whether or not they're a hindrance on the experience. What are your feelings on the whole random encounter debate and how are you approaching random battles and combat in general in Cosmic Star Heroine?

Bill Stiernberg: I think Random Encounters are something that a game has to be carefully designed around.  I think a reason people dislike Random Encounters is because they associate it both with "grinding" and with a general unfairness or feeling like time is wasted.  However I think random encounters can be really fun, because if done right they can keep the player on their feet, not knowing exactly when or what monsters will "jump out" at them, requiring them to leverage their battle skills and (depending on the design) their ability to ration their items and hp/mp throughout a dungeon.  So if you can design a game around well-spaced random encounters (the rate, but give it a diminishing effect of sorts) and keep the variety of battles up, or changing, it can be quite compelling.  

That said, I think there's a huge demand for a game, like CSH, with battles that take place on the map with enemies you can see and sometimes avoid; it generally helps keep the flow of the game up (no switching to a battle mode) and everything feels like it flows better. And sometimes it feels rewarding to skip certain battles.  This has also helped us adjust the difficulty curve and pacing of the game better, too, because there are a set number of required and avoidable battles, rather than an unknown number of encounters someone might have in a game.

There's plenty to explore in Cosmic Star Heroine's world.

RPG Site: In the last generation of consoles, it felt as though RPGs (especially JRPGs) needed to be hybrids of sorts with other genres and a lot of big publishers seemed to lose faith in traditional role playing games. Now we are seeing a major resurgence of RPGs, what is it you believe is reinvigorating the genre?

Bill Stiernberg: I think publishers are starting to realize that the genre is still viable, and there's money to be made there. I think they are also realizing that they don't have to dump a hundred million dollars into production values and launch on PS3/360 or PS4/XBO to do it.  Last gen we saw only a few big JRPGs on consoles, but the handheld space was still very lively, and more recently games like Bravely Default have shown the big companies that a more traditional style of JRPG can be successful without going overboard on budget.  So hopefully that sort of motivation is carrying back over to consoles where, hopefully, more games of this genre can come out with modest expectations but still great production values and more importantly, great gameplay / experiences.  As a side note, a fair number of JRPGs / JRPG-inspired games are selling very well on Steam, so some reinvigoration will hopefully come from that platform too, since JRPG publishers have traditionally not bothered with Steam / the PC.

RPG Site: How do you think indie RPGs like Cosmic Star Heroine fit into this resurgence?

Bill Stiernberg: I think that for indies, we often fill spaces in the market left open by big publishers; so indies have had a decent shot at selling in this market for quite some time.  The "resurgence" is going to be great for indies too; big games like Persona 5 or FFXV can only come out so often, and it's just helping the market for this type of content get excited about it.  Indies, and games like CSH, as long as they are well made, unique, have good selling point(s), can really capitalize on this.  They have to be well made, polished, unique, and go after a less-served area of the market though to really stand out and sell though. 

RPG Site: Could you drop a hint for a release window for Cosmic Star Heroine?

Bill Stiernberg: Early to mid this year!  Won't know for sure for a while since we're doing way more platforms at once and we've never gone through the official channels for release on PSN or Xbox Live.. so we'll see. Stay tuned.

RPG Site: Any final message you have for the fans eagerly awaiting the release of Cosmic Star Heroine?

Bill Stiernberg: I just want to thank anyone who has followed our team, our games, or followed Cosmic Star Heroine all this time - we know it's been a long time, we certainly feel it, but we also feel that it will be worth it.  We're putting our hearts and souls into this game, we're super excited to show it to everyone at release.  Your patience is truly appreciated, and your enthusiasm is what keeps up going!

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