These are heady days for fans of turn-based strategy. Dutch development team Abbey Games, creators of the well-received god sim Reus , are the latest to try their hand at the genre with Renowned Explorers, a strategy title in which players take the role of an intrepid team of adventurers searching for gold and treasure in the far corners of the Earth. I recently had the chance to speak with designer Manuel Kerssemakers and art director Maarten Wiedenhof about their upcoming game.
Strategy Informer: There's relatively little information on Renowned Explorers out there at the moment. Could you just give us a little overview of how the game will work?
Manuel Kerssemakers: We're still very early in development, we've only been developing for about two months now, so lots of things aren't final but we're talking about our version of the game for now. Basically there's two levels to the game, one is the strategy game, turn-based strategy with your crew of explorers on location trying to explore an area and find the treasure, or hints toward the treasure - of course there are all sorts of dangers there. Then there’s the overworld, where you recruit crew, spend your days travelling and where you fill up your museum with recovered objects. Games like XCOM are the entry point, for the strategic combat and also the metagame. Right now we're working hard on the turn-based strategy, creating randomly generated maps which will all provide a super-cool exploration experience. We're working hard on the combat but also dialogue and conversation, so we want to make sure that our conversation system is the equal of our combat system, we want to have a conversation that's mechanically as interesting to the player but even more valuable in terms of narrative.
Strategy Informer: Is the idea that the player always has a choice between combat and conversation/diplomacy?
Manuel Kerssemakers: I think you'll be able to avoid it altogether. We'd really like to have the player select their team any way they want. There aren't too many requirements as to how they should play, so for example you could make a team full of only very strong physically-focused crew, or light-footed scouts or people that really speak well.
Strategy Informer: Will each fresh campaign be dynamically generated? Or will there be certain common elements?
Manuel Kerssemakers: Of course we have some common elements, but the goal is to make a game about exploration. That means every time you start a new session, you have to have a completely new world. We have a world that's based on Earth around 200 years ago, but there's also secret locations, like Indiana Jones travelling around the world, that are randomly generated. So you don't know what's going to be there or how your going to find your way to the treasure if it's even there. So in that sense you'll have complete new areas each time.
Strategy Informer: And bring back those treasures to your museum.
Manuel Kerssemakers: We're thinking about that a lot, because of course there's also the connotation of stealing. We don't want to use Nazis as enemies to smooth over everything like the Indiana Jones movies did, we're going to have find a way to make it morally acceptable. Or maybe not, if you don't want to.
Strategy Informer: Will you be able to choose between approaches? For example playing a villainous thief or a benevolent historian?
Manuel Kerssemakers: We want it first and foremost to be an entertaining game, but of course there's also going to be a message in there somewhere. But if we can only make a nice entertaining game, that will satisfy us.
Strategy Informer: The way the Renowned Explorers website is set out reminds me of a classic puzzle game. Will there be any puzzle elements in the final product?
Maarten Wiedenhof: I think the website represents how the game feels visually and thematically, but it doesn't have anything to do with the gameplay of the game so that may be misleading. We'll be focusing on a very strategical game.
Manuel Kerssemakers: We're still developing the concept of the overworld game, but something like the Da Vinci Code, where you're following lead after lead and discovering new clues? It would be really nice to have that element in the game But we have to look into it still.
Strategy Informer: Will we get to upgrade our crew with new skills and equipment?
Maarten Wiedenhof: Of course we're looking into skill trees due to the strategic elements of the game. Maybe something in the XCOM way, the details aren't clear yet but yes there's going to be character progression. Items we aren't sure yet. The combination of crew members is going to be really important either way.
Strategy Informer: You mentioned that players can recruit and set up their team however they want.
Manuel Kerssemakers: Yeah, but you probably won't be able to pick all the crew right at the start of the game. You'll have to collect them in some way over the course of the game.
Strategy Informer: Will you be trying to capture that XCOM feeling of attachment to your squad, of needing to get them back home alive?
Manuel Kerssemakers: Yes, we'll probably create a perma-death mode, but we want it to be accessible. And perma-death mode isn't that accessible! But caring for your team is important, and caring about the stories and adventures you go through with them is even more important.
Strategy Informer: What places will we visit around the globe? Presumably we'll see different environments and not just jungle ruins.
Maarten Wiedenhof: We want to focus on themes that fit the game and the setting; pirates, Mayan temples and so on. There are all sorts of cool explorer themes we want to try, we don't really have the list of that yet but we have some ideas. It won't just be Mayan jungle, there will be several randomly generated areas n your game.
Strategy Informer: Can we expect slightly supernatural elements in the vein of an Indiana Jones movie?
Maarten Wiedenhof: I'm going to say yes, but I don't want to spoil anything or promise anything.
Manuel Kerssemakers: If you imagine 200 years ago, people didn't know a lot about the world yet. There were still unknown places. They had a lot more imagination than we did back then, and we definitely want to capture the feeling that everything is possible.
Strategy Informer: Abbey Games titles have a very distinctive look and feel. Who's responsible for the visual design?
Maarten Wiedenhof: Maybe me, but I think as artists we work non-hierarchically. Everyone has an input if they want too. I'm technical art director, but also the rest of the team is doing a lot of the art. There's a lot of talk about what fits the game we're making.
Strategy Informer: I was also interested in your background as a relatively recent indie studio. How did you get together and set up Abbey Games?
Maarten Wiedenhof: We were students in Utrecht, in the Netherlands we have these student loans which are quite cool. We used this to start up up the company, working in a basement at the university. We started working on Reus, which eventually became what it is now, and we grew the team from what is now to around thirteen people. The student loan paid for expenses, basically just food and rent for ourselves, so when Reus became a success that was quite cool.
Manuel Kerssemakers: We should mention the Dutch Game Garden, which is this really cool initiative supporting new game developers in Utrecht that took us in and helped us a lot. They really helped us with how to run a business, we spent a lot of time learning business and marketing, but also working on a game which everyone told us was way too big for a starting team. Our background was in computer science, while most teams have their roots in art and design, so that was a big advantage for us.
Strategy Informer: Finally, and I know you're still in the early days of development, but is there a planned release date for releasing Renowned Explorers?
Manuel Kerssemakers: Probably next year, we're hoping next year.
Many thanks to Manuel and Maarten for talking to me. It's early days yet for Renowned Explorers, but expect more information to emerge as the game gets closer to that planned 2015 release date.