iTête à iTête – Interview with Arto & Peter from Dicework Games – Rimelands: Hammer Of Thor was actually the game we originally wanted to do.

Despite there being over 150 000 apps on the AppStore, many of which are games, quality RPGs are few and far between. And even fewer of them don’t go the Japanimation console style RPG route. Frankly, only three come to my mind – our own shigzeo’s favourite The Quest with its many addons, the excellent old-school Undercroft (TMA Review) and, of course, the much hyped Diablo-clone Dungeon Hunter (TMA Review). And don’t even get me started on Ravensword: The Fallen King (TMA Review). But they should beware, because it seems a new contender to the RPG throne is in the works. I’m talking about the game that came to my attention recentlyRimelands: Hammer Of Thor. Intrigued, I immediately contacted the developers of this ambitious project and secured an interview to learn more details.

Dicework Games is a small company located in the city of Tampere in Finland and consists of the CEO and lead designer Arto Koistinen and the talented graphics artist Peter  Finnberg. Having been laid off during company negotiations just 1.5 years after THQ Wireless’s acquisition of Universomo, they decided it was to go solo and started their own company. Their first game was the critically acclaimed Diceworks which was a test of both their skill as well as how well they could do at the AppStore. And now they are steadily finishing up the project they originally conceived when their company formed – a classic Rogue-style RPG game titled Rimelands: Hammer Of Thor. And today I have both of them on the line to talk about it!

As usual, my questions and comments are in modest bold.

1. Arto, Peter, thank you very much for joining me today! Could you tell me a little bit about yourselves and Dicework Games?

Arto: The company was founded about a year ago, the official date is about the end of April, but we started working on our first game around March. We were both working in Universomo, a mobile game developer owned by THQ Wireless before that. I was a game designer there and we worked together on a couple of titles. We both ended up being laid off during company negotiations, and decided that this would be a good time to go on our own.

2. Why did you decide to go into the business of developing games for the iPhone?

Arto: At the time the iPhone App Store was growing up fast and it seemed like a perfect platform for a small developer, which I think it still is, even if the competition has grown a lot tougher.

3. Your first entry on the platform was Diceworks – a dice/poker/puzzle game. How did you conceive the idea?

Peter: Actually it started as a test game first. We wanted to learn how to work with our platform Unity.

Arto: It’s an idea that was bouncing in my head at the time, I wanted to make a simple, approachable puzzle game.

4. Are you happy with how it turned out? Has it done well in sales?

Peter: I think it’s still a bit rough around the edges. We could have done a lot more with the concept.

Arto: It did well in reviews and I’m pretty pleased with the basic mechanics, but we could have done some things differently.

It didn’t sell very well, we didn’t get much attention for the game, mostly because there are so many puzzle games on the market. Also, I think it looks more hardcore than it actually is.

5. Rimelands: Hammer of Thor – your upcoming game is a full-fledged turn-based RPG, which is quite a leap from the puzzle genre. Why have you chosen to go this way?

Peter: This was actually the game we originally wanted to do. At the time there weren’t that many good RPGs for iPhone.

There still are only a handful of decent titles :) But please, continue.

Arto: Actually, one of the founding ideas of the company was to make RPGs for iPhone. A year ago the RPG market in App Store was a lot smaller and we thought there would be a lot more potential. But we didn’t want to go for an RPG as a first game, it was better to learn the ropes with a simpler game. After Diceworks we had a number of different ideas we prototyped and the RPG one was the one that took off the ground.

6. Could you describe the setting of the game a bit? The world, the races, the way of life?

Arto: The setting is an alternative future, you could say. The premise is that in the 19th century an ice age began, lasting a thousand years. The people went under the ice into gigantic vaults and during their time there, they discovered Steam, a kind of semi-magical substance that could be used to propel machinery they’d only dreamed of before. Now, the ice is slowly melting and people have begun to resurface, to find that the world has truly changed and all sorts of magical creatures are living there too.

As for the races, in addition to humans there are magical creatures, though not your standard fantasy tropes, but more the kind found in mythology.

Could you name a few just to set some common ground?

Arto: Faeries, giants, spirits, that sort of stuff, we don’t to go into much detail yet. As the title already suggests, there’ll be a lot of Norse mythology stuff and some other things, but we don’t want to spoil that surprise :)

7. What will the storyline involve? Who will be the main character?

Arto: The story will be about searching for the titular artifact, of course. There are other elements too, relating to the player character and her past and position the in world. The main character is a girl, under the tutelage of her grandmother, who searches the now abandoned vaults for treasure.

8. Could you talk a bit about the gameplay? How big will the accessible world be, how will the player move in it?

Arto: The game’s world map covers Northern Europe, and will include a number of dungeons and wilderness levels to explore. As the game advances, new locations will be available on the map. A part of the locations will be pre-designed and some will be random generated. There will be both levels related to the main quest and optional side quest levels.

Peter: The game is also designed so that we can easily expand the world and add new locations after the release.

Are you planning on expanding the game as free updates or do In-App purchases?

Peter: Yes, we already have some plans for that.

Arto: We’re planning to do both, but all the essential stuff will be free, we don’t want the players to feel they have to pay for something that should be in the game already (like the DLC quest in Dragon Age).

How are you planning to do the overall movement? I know the combat will be turn-based, but the out-of-combat movement?

Peter: It’s basically real time although you still move through the tiles. Once an enemy spots you it will go to turn based mode.

Arto: Out of combat, the movement is “real time”, under the hood, there’ll be turns under the hood, but it’ll feel real time.

9. A question from one of our Forum members:
Will there be a party or will it be the single character like the screenshot suggests? I mean round based fights allow to get some tactics into the game but without a parts it’s kind of pointless.

Arto: It’s single player, but there’s a lot of tactic to it.

Peter: We have a quite flexible talent system that lets you customize your character for different play styles and strategies.

10. You wrote a bit about combat in the blog post, but maybe you could elaborate?

Arto: We’re going for a somewhat boardgamish feel in the combat. We’ve been inspired by dungeon crawling board games as much as the digital ones. Personally, I think that board games feel more involving than many digital games because of the fact that every player knows the underlying mechanics, we’re aiming for the same kind of involvement in the game, but with the fluidity of not having to actually remember all the rules and calculate things.

11. What is the planned character development and customization possibilities? Classes, levels, stats, skills, inventory? Many of the so-called RPG games on the AppStore have serious issues in this department.

Peter: You can progress your character via paths and talents tied to them. We have currently three paths which are for melee, ranged and magic combat styles. Stats will be increased through paths and items.

Arto: Each path gives you talents and stat increases relevant to that combat style but they’re not exclusive in any way, so you can have any combination you want. Naturally some items will be geared towards certain combat styles, but other’s will let you compensate not having a said path.

Am I correct in understanding there won’t be separate classes in the game, rather the player will decide what path to develop?

Arto: Yes. You can build a pure warrior or a pure mage, or you can have a warrior with a lot of skill in ranged weapons, or a mage that’s also really stealthy.

Peter: The design goal was that you can build a class for yourself by choosing the talents you want. For example you can build a paladin style class if you go for melee and magic path.

That sounds fantastic. :) Could you give a rough estimate on the number of skills?

Arto: You won’t be able to get everything in one playthrough, so there’ll be replayability in that. Let’s say over 30, but not how much over :)

Peter: I think we have currently something like 15-20 skills, but you can also modify those skills via buff talents that change how the skill works. For example we have a healing spell that heals you once you use it, but if you buff/boost it will also place a heal over time effect on the character.

Sounds very cool :)

Arto: One of the main guidelines in the design was to have talents that really change the way the game plays. So they’re not only more efficient attacks, but they bring a variety of new tactics into the gameplay.

About inventory – are you planning a lot of slots for equipment? Will there be possibilities for enhancing existing equipment (enchanting, socketing, upgrading)?

Arto: We have four slots, plus an engineering system that lets you build new items.

Peter: Engineering is based on blueprints that you can find around the world. You can also share the blueprints with your friends

Does this mean there’s going to be multiplayer?

Arto: No, not as such. The blueprints are a community feature, and they can be exchanged via codes, so you don’t have to connect to the friend’s game to share them.

Are you going to use some kind of a social networking platform, like OpenFeint, Crystal or Plus+?

Arto: Probably, yes, but we can’t say which yet. We’re focused on making the game great first and implementing social networking later.

12. The graphics on the screenshots look very impressive. Are you using an in-house engine or a licensed one? How will the game run on the older devices?

Arto: We’re using Unity3D. We’re making sure that the game is smooth on older devices too.

13. One of the most common issues in many iPhone games usually have to do with the interface. What are your plans in this area?

Peter: I think most of the problems come from the game being a port from other devices, buttons being too small or controls not being responsive enough.

Arto: I think the interface is a very important thing, so we’re taking efforts to ensure that it feels smooth and natural on the iPhone. One of the ideas behind the game was to make a game that feels natural on the iPhone.

Peter: We’re spending quite a lot of time tuning the interface and it continously changes during the development. I think we’re getting pretty close to the final one now. :)

Arto: yeah, I think it’s finally coming together :)

14. What would you say were the main challenges you faced while developing Rimelands?

Arto: I think the interface was one, actually.

Peter: It’s hard to decide what to leave out from the game. There’s so much that we would like to add, but we just don’t have time to implement. It kind of grew a lot larger than we originally intended.

Arto: Yeah, that’s certainly true, but the game’s a lot better now for that too. Getting the mechanics right was one too, we wanted to have a game that was as simple and easy to learn as possible, but at the same time supported a lot of complexity and choice

15. If you went back to the start of the project, what would you’ve done differently?

Peter: I think from technical point of view we could have done a lot of the things faster now that we know Unity better.

Arto: I think we’d start to concentrate on content earlier, we now only had only a couple of test levels for a long time and were concentrating on adding features and tuning the interface. Yeah, on the code side I’d done a lot differently if I’d known Unity as well as I know it now. I think I’ve wholly redone the GUI part three times now 😀

16. In any project there are lots of funny stories. Could share one or two of them from your projects?

Peter: Well we’ve had a lot minor funny things happening. Like character animation bugging so the player character has a sword going through it’s head. I have actually a good picture of that too if you would like to add it. :) Not sure if the things are actually funny outside the dev team. 😉

17. You recently announced that you will be partnering with Crescent Moon Games for the finishing and publishing of Rimelands. Why did you make that choice and not one of the major publishers like Chillingo or Gameloft? After all, Crescent Moon themselves went with Chillingo for the release of Ravensword.

Peter: They’re actually helping us to develop content to the game, not just with marketing it.

Arto: It was, basically, because we found Crescent Moon to be a really good fit to us. They’re a similar team and they’re also using Unity3D, so they can help us with the development of the game. They share our views on how the game should be and how it should be marketed, so it’s really easy to work with them. I think it should be stressed that it’s more of a collaboration than just a publishing deal.

Don’t tell on me, but I was really disappointed with Ravensword mainly due to the fact that it went too light on the RPG elements – turning it into a 3d person slasher rather than the iPhone’s Oblivion it was marketed as. But I trust in your discretion and hope you’ll take only the best from them.

Arto: I think they also know that people were disappointed on that and they’ve learned their lesson :)

18. You’ve already got me super-excited about Rimelands. What the current target date for the release?

Arto: hopefully soon 😀 we don’t have a release date yet, as we want to be sure that the game is as good as possible when released. but we’re not Blizzard so we can’t sit on it endlessly.

Yeah, their “it’s ready when it’s ready” is classic. But you must have at least some idea?

Arto: While I’d like to give some date, I don’t want to make promises we can’t necessarily keep. Let’s just say I hope to get it out before I turn 30 :)

Peter: Rough estimate might be around 2-3 months.

19. As part of the iPhone community there is simply no way you haven’t heard of the iPad. What do you think about it? Will you be getting one?

Peter: It’s really interesting device from design point of view.

Arto: We’ve been thinking about it a lot, of course. I think it’s still much of a mystery, since it doesn’t really have a precedent. And yes, we’ll probably getting one for the company, but haven’t yet made any decisions whether to publish for it specifically.

20. So, will you make a special version of Rimelands for the iPad?

Arto: It’s still too early to say, it depends on how the market will turn out. Even with the multiplatform capability of Unity, it still takes time to churn out a version for the iPad, so we’ll see if it’s worth the effort.

21. Do you think the iPad will be a success on the market?

Arto: Damn it jim, I’m a game developer not a market analyst 😀 I can’t say, honestly.

Peter: It’s really hard to tell at this point.

You must have your own opinion :)

Arto: I believe it’s a great device in its own right, but I’m not sure if there’s a need for it. I mean, I still wouldn’t buy a chainsaw even if it was the best chainsaw around if I don’t actually need a chainsaw. But, of course, some twenty years ago none though they’d need a cell phone :)

Well, Apple has a habit of making you want something you think you don’t need :)

22. What do you think about Jailbreaking? Do you do it?

Peter: I can understand it if people want to customize their iPhone, but I can’t understand the piracy side of things. iPhone games and apps are really cheap anyway.

Arto: No, we don’t. I don’t really have an opinion on it. I think it’s really the same to me what people decide to do with their phones, but of course I’d like them to buy our games instead of pirating them. Yeah, with prices raging from 1 to 6 dollars, “it’s too expensive” is hardly an excuse.

23. Almost each month some developer publicly announces that they suffer enormous amounts of piracy and lost revenue. What’s your take on piracy on the iDevice platform?

Peter: I think the numbers aren’t true at all. At least the ones that I’ve seen.

Arto: It’s inevitable on any platform, and it’s all but impossible to say how much it actually hurts sales. I think that buying a game versus pirating it is not about whether you want the game, but about whether you want a sequel for the game.

Very nicely put.

24. What are your top 3 favourite AppStore apps and games for the iPhone?

Peter: The ones that I’ve played most are: Canabalt, California Gold Rush and Peggle (TMA Review). If I had to pick one I would definitely be Canabalt.

From Apps I’ve probably mostly used GoogleMaps, Facebook and World of Warcraft Mobile Armory

I find myself playing mostly the games that are fast to boot up and get to the actual game. And that can also be played in small segments.

Arto: it’s hard to say which are the favourites, though I think the game I play most on the iPhone is a solitaire game :) In addition to that I play mostly the RPGs. Of RPGs, I think the most recent one I enjoyed was Undercroft.

I wonder if I have any non-game apps… I did have a Japanese dictionary while I was visiting Tokyo… and Facebook, yeah.

Yeah, I think small segments are very important. And autosave!

25. Arto, Peter, thank you for your time. Could you say some final words for the TMA readers?

Arto: Thank you! Final words, eh? Sounds ominous 😀 Maybe, “keep on supporting the developers you like! And keep your eyes open, we’re currently working hard on getting the game’s site online”.

Peter: Thanks for the interview. Stay tuned for some more screenshots, concept art and video!

A project manager in a major telecommunications supplier, an iPhone junkie and lately - a TMA editor. Love long walks on the beach and my wife, who is the most beautiful girl on the face of this planet. You can also follow me on twitter for all things iPhone and project management (and some personal stuff as well):

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