Low Poly, High Expectations: An Interview with Eric Trowbridge of Kickstarter-Backed RPG Phoenix Dawn
It's a simple story. A young witch, alone in a world full of evil and uncertainty, must go on a quest to save her home from destruction. Yet she has almost no knowledge of how to control her magic, and no one to guide her. She's alone in the void, trying to do what she can to triumph over a seemingly insurmountable task. Between enormous foes, creepy dungeons and expansive deserts, the player must take this journey with her and learn the secrets of her world.
That's the story of Phoenix, the main character of the upcoming game Phoenix Dawn, one of the most recent video games to fundraise successfully on Kickstarter. And it's coming to life thanks to the vision and singular determination of Eric Trowbridge, an Apple techie-turned-game developer. He's embarked on a mission to create a beautiful, gripping, and technologically advanced indie game.
Oh, and it's for mobile.
But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. I sat down for a chat with Eric in order to get the full story of Phoenix Dawn, from its humble beginnings to what we can expect from the story's gameplay and a timeline for full release. We discussed the game's story and main character, Phoenix, and why he's chosen a "Low Poly" design style for his project.
Initial Spark and Kickstarter Success
Eric is one of those people who exudes energy and excitement. When we start our call, I can tell just from his voice how much he's in his element as he dicusses his work, even down to the smallest details. It's a helpful, even necessary, quality to have for an indie developer taking on such an immense project. We start with some small talk, namely how he's been doing since his Kickstarter project wrapped up at the end of September. In the two months since, Eric's moved shop from Chicago to his parent's home in Wyoming. He says his aim was to cut unnecessary costs and to put all the money towards Phoenix Dawn's development.
To start off, I ask him: how exactly did he get the idea to do this project, to drop everything that he was doing and run with this wild idea for a mobile RPG?
Eric Trowbridge: It kind of came out of nowhere. I had previously worked for Apple for eight years. It was when Steve [Jobs] passed that I was starting to think about going off and doing my own thing. I love Apple, but I know it just wouldn’t be the same minus Steve. I had a lot of self-reflection for a couple of years.
I thought about all the things I was passionate about in my life in the past was all related to three things: storytelling, art and technology. Those are my three hardcore passions. And when I thought about which medium did I want to use to use all three of those, game design was just the obvious choice.
Being a lone. aspiring indie developer, Eric decided he would start small, with a mobile game that would be manageable. But the idea didn't have much staying power for him.
Eric: I was like, you know what, if I’m going to have the opportunity to leave my nice job at Apple to build a game, I’m not really passionate about making a small mobile game...The games that I played as a kid that I loved - Chrono Trigger, Diablo, Final Fantasy, all those classics - I wasn't going to go for the scope and scale of those games, [but] I knew I wanted to make something smaller with the same kind of quality. I could take bits and pieces that I loved about those games and bring them together in a different world, and that would be something that I would be staying up all night trying to make.
People on Kickstarter liked the sound of that. With a goal of $33,000, Phoenix Dawn met its goal on September 25th. By the end of the month, it had beat its stretch goal of $50,000 and secured a spot as a Kickstarter Staff Pick.
After his move back to Wyoming, Eric says his focus is now on getting the backer rewards out quickly, to show his thanks and how serious he is about the project and the community he wants to build around it.
Eric: The next thing I wanted to focus on right after the Kickstarter was getting the backer rewards out. I’ve been involved in a couple of Kickstarters before and I always wanted to get the goodies. I just don’t like waiting months or even years before you start seeing some of the stuff that you were promised in your pledges. So immediately I wanted to get that out of the way, get the t-shirts ordered, and get some of these physical items out that these backers had paid for.
The reward levels include a copy of the game, access to a Phoenix Dawn "Preview" of around 20% of the game, commemorative coins and artwork, and even the right to design some of the in-game monsters and characters
Game Philosophy and the Story of Phoenix Dawn
I wanted to know how he sees Phoenix Dawn relating to those famous titles: paying homage, reworking their gameplay elements, or both?
Eric mentions again and again throughout our interview those three franchises that he loved as a child, the same three that inspired him to become a game developer: Chrono Trigger, Diablo, and Final Fantasy. In the Kickstarter pitch video and in other publicity Eric has done, they come up time and time again. But I wanted to know the specifics, what exactly about each franchise appealed to him, and which elements of each he looks to for inspiration as he develops Phoenix Dawn. Perhaps most importantly, I wanted to know how he sees Phoenix Dawn relating to those famous titles: paying homage, reworking their gameplay elements, or both?
Eric: One of the games that’s recognized worldwide as having a fantastic story is Final Fantasy 7...that game for me it was that story, and [story] is a big part of Phoenix Dawn. FF7 left you on these little cliffhangers, and you’re learning more about the characters. A lot of the appeal of that game comes from the story and how they tell it in-game. I really want to tell a story through [Phoenix Dawn] in that kind of sense.
What I love about Diablo is not only the art...but I love Diablo in the sense that it had randomization. Every time I played Diablo, the dungeons were different. Before Diablo 3 came out, there were many times when I was like “Oh I should go and replay Diablo 2”, and it was always fun and different. And I think that’s important for games, to make it different each time the player plays the game, even if they've played it a hundred times.
When it comes to Phoenix Dawn, however, the story seems more reminiscent of the Legend of Zelda franchise, with a young person growing up in a hostile world.
Eric: I knew I wanted to tell a story of a young lady kind of growing up and becoming her own and overcoming alot of different obstacles. And I knew I wanted the player to go on this journey with her. You start the game and she really has no idea what she’s doing and doesn’t know any magic but by the end of it you really see this transformation and her becoming a young woman.
The Kickstarter page gives a detailed preview of the design and genre of the game but lacked any details about the story arc itself. In the pitch video, Eric provides a short summary of the main character Phoenix: who she is and what challenge faces her and her world. But where is the story now, nearly three months on, and how does Eric go about developing what is such a crucial element for an RPG?
It gave me a better insight into Phoenix’s world, that magic isn’t something that everyone has.
Eric: It’s important that the game devleopment process be very organic...So when I was designing some of the creatures and thinking about the different parts of the game that I’m building for the Preview, including the labyrinth, I came up with these stone golems that you’ll meet in the labyrinth. A piece of the story just came to me right then and there.
It gave me a better insight into Phoenix’s world, that magic isn’t something that everyone has. Phoenix lives in this tiny little village in this desert. Her mother passed away in childbirth, but her mother was the only person in this community who had magic.
Before she had Phoenix, she put a bunch of these magical enchantment around the village to protect it from all these enemies outside. So this labyrinth and the monsters inside of it were something that Phoenix’s mom had made with magic. It’s a kind of interesting element, where her daughter is going through these magical enchantments that her mother, whom she never knew, had created.
Low Poly, Really? The Making of Phoenix Dawn
Eric Trowbridge isn't entirely on his own. Since September, he's recruited four others to support his work and the building of the Phoenix Dawn community. The majority of the work (coding, designing, artwork and story) remains Eric's responsibility, though he now has a community manager, a forum engineer, and two music composers. Eric spoke of how excited he was about working with the Danish music team, Jens and Per Kiilstofte of Machinimasound, on Phoenix Dawn's full-length soundtrack and in-game sound effects.
Eric: When I was thinking about the SFX, [my community manager] told me, "I’ve worked with these guys in the past and they’re fantastic, you should check them out." I went to YouTube and I thought their music was really great. And then I got a message from them on Skype saying, "Dude your game is awesome, the artwork’s there and we can create music and sound for it."
The samples that they sent me were exactly what that I wanted. My dream for Phoenix Dawn was to create a theme, you know...a lot of these iconic games that we grew up with, like Mario and Zelda, all have those theme songs that as soon as you hear it, you know what game world it belongs to. I really want something identifiable like that for Phoenix Dawn, to really brand the game from an audio perspective.
We discussed at length the gameplay elements Eric's working on: the mix-and-match "spell alchemy" system, puzzles like the labyrinth that will appear in the early game, and supporting characters.
The spell alchemy system purportedly will allow for Phoenix to have customized magical abilities, while the labyrinth and other dungeons are meant to take advantage of those randomization elements reminisicent of Diablo.
On supporting characters and NPCs, I asked if Phoenix Dawn will be a more isolated game because of system constraints.
Eric: I’m very conscious about the workload that I’m giving to myself [with extra characters]. If Phoenix had a party of like five people, to design five characters and animate them, to make sure that they all had deep, rich personalities, would be a huge feat for just me to do. So you’re right, I really limited this first part to really exploring and understanding Phoenix, as well as meeting a couple of really interesting characters in the game, maybe between three and five. But it’s really going to be an isolated game, so that the characters that I do put in the game really have that deep connection and are well done.
One theme that threads through our entire conversation is Eric's focus on the quality of the game. He keeps referencing his experience as a gamer, the games of his childhood, and why they stuck with them. Eric's personal standard when he's creating Phoenix Dawn boils down to a simple question: as a gamer, what do I expect of a game? For him, the question permeates every aspect of game development:
Eric: It’s so challenging to be able to get the art right, the story right, the music right, the SFX right, and all the tech, the UI and UX parts right, it’s so hard to make a really good game. You can have four out of the five of those things be really amazing, and if the sound or the music isn’t, people remember that.
Eric extensively promoted the decision to use a "Low Poly" design aesthetic during the Phoenix Dawn Kickstarter. Under "Art Direction", Eric describes it as "creating simple geometric shapes to represent what would normally be very complex 3D models." It's a design that is less taxing on system resources during gameplay. Yet Eric also sees Low Poly as a beautiful and challenging style to work in.
Eric: Many of us designers are familiar with Low Poly (LP). Going to back to Final Fantasy 7, that could technically be considered LP, not because it was a deliberate decision to make it look that way, but because of the limitations of the technology. Their story was so big, so they had to make the characters blocky-looking. People say to me, “Oh you’re designing it to look like FF7”. And in a way yes...I could have decided to make it look real. But instead my purpose is to make it look LP but also make it look really beautiful.
And I think the overwhelming response has been incredibly positive...Just like for any art style, there’s some really beautiful LP artwork and some really not good LP artwork. It’s not like using a deformer or an effect that you use to make it look LP. There are a lot of design decisions behind making LP look great. I love the challenge that that LP gives you: how can you make something be what it is, like a Low Poly bird...in as few polygons as possible, while still maintaining its essence and what it’s supposed to look like?
An RPG for Mobile and Porting to Desktop
Given his focus on producing an RPG with a quality, an original score, randomization and customized gameplay options, why would Eric try and make the game for mobile? Before I spoke with him, this was the one point I couldn't wrap my head around.
Eric: When you hear the term mobile game, what do you think of? You think of word games, gambling, you don’t think of Final Fantasy or these other console games. There’s a reason for that. When these games started in 2010, mobile devices couldn’t handle it: they didn’t have the storage capacity, they didn’t have the power to drive that sort of experience. But then I thought, that’s really not true anymore today. All these new Apple and Samsung phones are actually incredibly powerful devices.
I look at the larger developer community for mobile games as a whole, and we’re still making these tiny little games...I thought, “maybe it’s time to change the way people look at what a mobile game could be”.
He also takes issue with common mobile game tropes like in-app purchases and advertisements. He refers to them as symptoms of a "broken game", and the cause of much of the stigma surrounding mobile gaming as a whole.
But which phones will be able to play Phoenix Dawn? Eric says the decision was a one that required a sense of balance and "yin and yang", but that devices released in the last two years would be able to play the game. It makes sense, when you consider that many smartphone users in the US use contract upgrades to change their phones every year or two.
Phoenix Dawn will be also be coming to PC, Mac, Linux, Windows Phone and Ouya. Because the Kickstarter reached its stretch goal of $50,000, Eric plans to release ported versions alongside iOS and Android. The upcoming Unity 5 engine should help the process, though Eric made a point to say that he won't release a port of the game until he's tested it on each platform and is satisfied with the results.
Looking Ahead: Release and DLC Potential
With the backer rewards out and a growing Phoenix Dawn community waiting in anticipation, Eric's in the depths of game development. With full knowledge that game developers avoid doing so, I pressed him for a release date for Phoenix Dawn.
Eric: I put it out there that it would be some time in 2015, the first half of 2015. A lot of people said “that’s just not possible, there’s no way you’re going to get this done”. I’m not saying its not possible, the key behind meeting target is don’t put any specific pins on the board, like “it is definitely going to come out in June of 2015." My goal is to make a product that’s really fun and memorable, and keeping everyone informed where the game’s at, and being transparent about the whole process. And so my goal is still sometime next year.
On a cheerier note, I asked if he forsaw the possibiltiy of DLC for the game, given how much positive feedback Phoenix Dawn had received during the Kickstarter.
Eric: I have definitely left many pieces open to possible DLC, where the story could continue. If the game does do well and people like what I’ve set up, I want to be able to dive into her world even deeper.
And as a message for other prospective game developers, Eric hopes that Phoenix Dawn's success will inspire them to use Kickstarter to create their own artistic projects.
Eric: I want to make a game that can inspire others, and to tell them that I had no prior game development experience. I was just a techie. I’ve never put a game together from start to finish. But if you really want to do it, you can, you just have to make sure that you create something that’s really great and that you don’t compromise.