Interview: Rob Lemon from Gilded Skull Games

Galactic Keep Logo

If I’m not careful I might start morphing into something resembling a journalist.  In what has shockingly become my second interview in under a month I decided to talk with Rob Lemon, art and design lead of Gilded Skull Games.  The company recently unleashed Galactic Keep on the App Store, a labor of love that has been six years in the making.  See what Rob had to say about what I feel is one of the most original games to hit the App Store in quite some time.

Concept Artwork

Concept Artwork

First of all, I want to offer the customary “thank you” for taking the time to talk with me.

Thanks for giving me this opportunity, there’s a lot to talk about!

Q1. So Rob, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and Gilded Skull Games?

Gilded Skull was started almost seven years ago now. I design the games, write them and create the art while the other half of Gilded Skull, Chris Sokol, programs them while refining the design. He keeps me from going too far overboard and helps to wrangle and re-process the unreasonable and outlandish ideas that I often have. We spend a lot of time bouncing ideas back and forth, refining them then implementing them. Chris is on one coast and I’m on the other and that’s likely one of the reasons why things have worked so well for us thus far.

Q1a. So you’re saying that if you worked together in the same office you’d drive each other nuts (laughs)?

Hard to say. Actually, we get along quite well when we have met up so who knows.

Oren'Sel Character Card

Choose Your Character

Q2. Galactic Keep is your third game on the App Store that’s actually been published under the Gilded Skull label, and it’s about as far removed from the other two products game play wise as one could imagine.  What influenced you to make this turn based, board game style strategy game?

This has always been the game that we sought to make. Galactic Keep was what sparked the company into existence. I grew up playing tabletop games and own a fairly extensive collection of classic sets, modules and rulebooks to this day.

I’m drawn towards gaming oddities like the almost immeasurably complicated board game Magic Realm (I own a complete copy but have never played!) and non-fantasy RPGs like Gamma World and Star Frontier. Re-reading D&D modules by Gygax years ago inspired me to start writing the basic foundation for the Galactic Keep universe and its cast of characters.

Q3. While there are certainly other games out there with similar length and pacing, what was the draw for designing a game that takes time and patience to play in a realm that’s focused on quick bouts of gaming on the go?

Our goal was to create a game that you could pop open on a train, get some loot, kill a weird creature and shut down. You can make some quick progress and then continue on with your day. We also wanted you to be able to sink into your couch and fire up the game for an extended play session. The game needed to be both because that’s how people play, at least that’s how I play.

The tutorial is a bit long and drawn out. There’s a lot of information to get through and we dispense it in a very granular way but you can quit out of it at (almost) any time if you feel you want to get going. After that, and it only takes a few minutes, there’s not a lot to hold you up. The game auto-saves all the time, with almost every action you take, so you are always progressing.

The Story Of Galactic Keep

Tell Me A Story

Q3a.  Interesting.  I never really thought of the game as a “quick fix”, but then maybe it’s just because I got hooked every time I fired it up.  So far, does it seem like people are taking both approaches as you suggest, or does the fan base by and large hit Galactic Keep in longer gaming sessions like me?

It seems that people are playing in long sessions but there has been some positive response to the iCloud save support and being able to switch between devices, playing the same game, so there are people who do play it that way. We wanted to be open to both play styles

Q4. What is one or two features that you’d like to especially highlight about the game?

We didn’t plan for the game to have an open world. We originally thought that it was going to be a linear but branching, choose-your-path type of game almost like a game book. As I re-read a pile of game modules it occurred to me that in trying to emulate the decision-making in an actual tabletop RPG, with a DM, we’d never be able to give the player enough choices to cover the infinite directions that they could take, so we scrapped that direction.

Instead of leading a player down a track of predetermined choices, a DM will leave the flow of the game open to the players, guiding them at key points. Describe the location, give a hint (or red herring) to pique the players curiosity and then let the players figure it out for themselves. That was what I set out to do. You’re dropped into this foreign universe, the stage is set and then you are left to explore and figure out the world for yourself.

Another great aspect of the game is that you are free to stumble into things that are off the beaten path. Sometimes, the best parts of a campaign might not be in the module storyline at all, they could be on a little side path the DM took you on, into an eerie location with a memorable character who said something that resonated with you in some way. We tried to allow that to happen in Galactic Keep.

Explore The Sewer (iPad)

Explore The Sewer

Q5. Given the 6 year development cycle, I think there’s no question that this could be considered a labor of love.  I know some people have compared it to Duke Nukem Forever in that regards.  So since I’m sure the question is burning in the back of some folks’ minds anyway, what took so long?

I’ll be honest, we never expected it to take this long.

When I first posted character designs and screenshots onto the interwebs I had just finished writing what I had originally thought would be the initial module of the game. At that time, the game was a long series of multiple-choice questions that lead to a variety of game endings. Based on your choices, you’d move in various directions on a map. Most directions and story turns ended in death but some of them would bring you, inevitably, to the one ‘good ending’. It was like a game book crossed with a roguelike.

As I figured out what the iPhone could do, I realized that this idea could be expanded a lot. The game began to evolve into more of an ‘arena adventure’ where you’d roll a character and take them into an arena to battle various opponents and possibly other players. We started building that and created a demo of sorts that we showed around a bit. People liked it, but it needed more depth and the newest hardware could handle that.

It was at that point that we shelved the idea to work on a more commercial project. As we developed that, I began rewriting Galactic Keep from the ground up. Once the other commercial game was complete, about a year later, we used the newly created outline to make the game into more or less what was released.

[my response] I’m glad you went the current route.  Not that I don’t like the modern crop of electronic gamebook adventures, but I feel the approach you took sets Galactic Keep apart from anything else out there.

I loved gamebooks as a kid and being able to read / play many of the exact same books that I played way back when in a digital format is amazing!

Level Map

Won’t Find This On MapQuest

Q6. In a market that’s being driven increasingly towards the F2P model, why make Galactic Keep a premium game?  Given it’s modular nature in both campaign and cards, it seems the perfect candidate for being F2P.

I’ve never really trusted free to play games. I feel that they’re (innately, based on the ‘free-to-play’ name) not upfront about needing you to pay for them. They aren’t free, someone has to pay or they will disappear.

For Galactic Keep we thought about following that road at one point but decided we didn’t feel right about that direction. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t have in-app-purchases in the future, but we wanted to have the core of the game sold at a set price.

[my response] Well I for one appreciate this approach.  And given the length and complexity of the built in module, I could still see paying a couple of bucks extra for new modules.

Q7. Now that the initial game is out, do you already have plans for future updates?

We do. The very first update, which was just submitted and has not been reviewed as of this writing, is all about bug fixing. Many more people are playing the game than ever have before and there was bound to be things that needed fixin’. Next, we have three main components that we held back so that we could launch: A way to swap characters easily, an item storage area that was accessible to all your characters and some sort of ‘mini-map’ or zoom out feature. After that’s released, we plan to work on adding more content. We currently have several modules in various states of completion. We’d like to continue to work on the game, expanding on it, for a long time.

We are also discussing a PC version with third parties and the possibility of bringing the game to other platforms and consoles.

[my response] Well I for one hope you do get the chance to work on this for a long time.  And I’m very excited to hear about the mini-map!

Q8. Do you have another casual game in mind for when you need a break from Galactic Keep enhancements?

We have several game engines that we could use to create a casual game at this point but no, there’s nothing else in the works. We’re going to try to focus on this, our core brand.

Board Game Mockup

Physical Board Game Mock-up

Q9. So given the board / card game inspiration for Galactic Keep, would you ever consider making a physical interpretation of the game, whether it be a full blown board game or some type of card game?

A lot of people have asked if this was based on a printed product (that was lost in obscurity). We have thought about it and went so far as to create a mock-up product a while back. We haven’t pursued publishers or anything like that but it would make a lot of sense. You never know!

[my response] Wow, that’s pretty awesome.  I think I can speak for all the fans in saying thanks for sharing that bit of background.

Thanks for your time, and I really wish you the best with Galactic Keep.

We sincerely appreciate the support that we’ve had so far. Thank you!

Galactic Keep Gilded Skull Games, Galactic Keep – $3.99

Note: This interview was conducted via email.  Also, Galactic Keep actually runs quite nicely on an iPad 2, which is great news for me.

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