In the last part, we met HELM Systems, the Florida-based indie studio behind The SoulKeeper, an open-world RPG set in an expansive and expanding universe.
Now, here’re some exclusive new details – fresh from the developers.
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EPISODIC OPEN WORLD ADVENTURE[divider type=”thin”]
[su_dropcap style=”flat”]T[/su_dropcap]he SoulKeeper is an ambitious project, but one that HELM Systems fully believe that they’re up to the task of, championing new ideas in an effort to stand out from the crowd.
“I could start with the classic stuff, it’s an open-world RPG, blah-blah-blah, but then that’s something that everyone’s heard a million times,” says Myron Mortakis, founder and president of HELM Systems. “The first reaction that people have to that is, ‘that’s ambitious’. But we hope that what we’re sharing isn’t just ambitious, but also something that you haven’t heard before.
“The main difference between us and other open-world RPGs is that The SoulKeeper is an episodic title. I know that whenever someone in the industry hears the term episodic, they get a bit nervous, thinking, ‘here we go, another cash-grabbing machine’, but that’s not what we mean. We have a model in mind that, I think, will change the way people view episodic content.
“Since it’s such a huge world,” he adds. “I think it’s fair to the players to break it down into smaller pieces. Look at it like a trilogy of movies or a TV series, like The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. A TV series gives creators a lot more time to work-in details around the world and share them with the audience. The same model can be applied to games.”
The idea of a connected series of episodes is woven into every aspect of The SoulKeeper, which HELM say will feature multiple playable characters in a multi-facetted story.
“We have multiple playable characters and each character has their own playable story that’s separate from the others, but at some points they do intertwine,” says Mortakis.
“They also have their own gameplay mechanics. For example, one character could use melee as their primary weapon, whereas another could use stealth or magic. Since we put as much emphasis on story as graphics and gameplay, we felt that the best way to communicate all these experiences to the player was through an episodic format, otherwise I feel like they’d be overwhelmed and overburdened.”
Michael Poropat, who deals with PR at HELM, adds: “Another thing that we like about the episodic model is that we feel a lot of developers create games and, while they have the ability to update the games afterward, have the mind-set that ‘you’ve already paid the money, so we’ll get to it when we get to it’.
“We don’t like that. What episodes let us do is actually gather feedback from our players, who may decide how characters should live their lives, or die, as well as technical feedback. That gives us the opportunity with each episode to tweak and change to better fit our players. I think that’s a real huge advantage both for us and for players.
“They themselves can actually make decisions that affect characters not just in one game, but from episode to episode.” HELM hope that the branching paths they’re building into The SoulKeeper’s story are as good as any other modern RPG, drawing inspiration from the best the genre has to offer. “As a player, you have many different paths that you can choose from, which I think is pivotal when it comes to modern RPGs,” Mortakis says. “I mean look at The Witcher, everyone’s so happy because they have the freedom to choose their own path and alter the story.”
“That’s something that I want to incorporate and amplify in our game. The game will track the decisions you make and those choices will have consequences in later episodes. “Different players will have different experiences as the story changes based on these decisions. In my game, a character could die, or in yours another could die, while in another game, no one could die.”
The SoulKeeper also draws inspiration from many different periods of history, including the Viking era. An open-world RPG with Nordic elements is always going to draw comparisons with Bethesda’s genre juggernaut The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but this isn’t completely fair. “One common misconception so far is that people think this is a Nordic-themed game,” says Mortakis. “It’s not. What we’ve shown so far is only two of the races we have in the game, and there’re a lot more.
[pullquote align=”right” background=”on”]”In my game, a character could die, or in yours another could die, while in another game, no one could die.”[/pullquote]
“One of the races is Nordic and Viking inspired, but that’s just the one we wanted to start with. We understand that people think of Skyrim when they see that. But that’s only a very small fraction of what The SoulKeeper has to offer. If you look in the latest trailer, the guy with a hood is from a completely different race, a monastic brotherhood. They have nothing to do with the Nordic theme. We’ve drawn inspiration from all different periods of history, not just the Viking era. “We want to feel like each race has so much detail as if the whole game was about them. We were actually quite happy that people thought The SoulKeeper was a Nordic game, because it shows that we gave it the right amount of detail.”
TAILORING THE EXPERIENCE[divider type=”thin”]
Despite trying to incorporate as many styles of play into The SoulKeeper as possible, HELM understand that not everyone likes everything. So, for those that want to tailor their experience, they’re installing a work-around that also opens up new possibilities for story progression.
“For arguments sake let’s say you hate stealth gameplay,” Mortakis explains. “In this case, we’ll have two modes: campaign mode and story mode. In campaign mode, you get to play one character from start to finish, separately from the others. So if you don’t like certain characters, or certain gameplay mechanics, you don’t have to play with them at all. When you meet a character that you’d normally play as, you encounter them as an NPC rather than someone that you have to play with.
[pullquote align=”right” background=”on”]One season will be way over 200 hours of gameplay.[/pullquote]
“The story mode jumps between all of the different characters. Think of it like a TV series, there’re lots of different characters, but in the episode you’re watching you go between one character and another.”
Poropat continues: “What I like about the campaign mode is that you can play, say, four different characters and have each of those stories be completely different. So if they do intertwine in the original story, they may do so in different ways in campaign mode – four different versions of the same story on four different characters.”
Episodic content doesn’t necessarily mean bite-sized. HELM are aiming to make every episode of The SoulKeeper both sizable and meaningful, with each piece building up into larger, interconnected world.
“Every episode will feel like a whole game, because each will feature different regions,” explains Mortakis. “After all, we want this to be an open-world game, so we want people to be able to roam the universe. With each episode, you unlock new regions, and each one will have a whole bunch of locations. By locations, I mean anything from a simple dungeon to a huge city.
“It’ll still allow you to visit the regions and locations you unlocked in previous episodes, and not only that, you’ll also get new side quests, or threads of the main quest, within those areas. You’ll still be able to visit old locations and do new things there, even when you’ve switched to a new episode. If you think about it, with each episode the world grows exponentially, and in the end you’ll have this huge world.”
He continues: “As gamers ourselves we like having stuff to do in a game, and when I say stuff, I mean things that’re meaningful. One thing we hate are fetch quests. We want every single quest, whether it’s a side or main quest to feel meaningful. When you put it all together, and I’m only talking about one season because ideally there’ll be many seasons. One season will be way over 200 hours of gameplay.
“We also understand that people don’t have infinite time. If we look at ourselves, even though we’re avid gamers, especially now with the development of The SoulKeeper, we barely have time to play any games. I ordered the collector’s edition of The Witcher 3 over a year ago, but I’ve not had time to play it. So we understand that there’re gamers that want to experience the game, but at the same time, don’t want to spend a billion hours in it. That doesn’t mean that the option won’t be there, if you want to spend meaningful time with The SoulKeeper, you can, but if you just want the overall experience you can do that too.”
To make everything as smooth as possible, HELM want to implement lots of fun and interesting ways to get around in The SoulKeeper.
“There’ll be mounts,” elaborates Mortakis. “The traditional horse, something else which I won’t share right now, as well as man-made forms of transport like carriages and ships. We want players to have as much interaction with world as possible. Look at the GTA series, take away the cars and suddenly it’s not GTA anymore.”
HELM want The SoulKeeper’s story to be interesting without drawing on tired tropes in an attempt to be dark or gritty.
“It’ll be a mature themed story, with mature situations,” Mortakis says. “When I say mature, I don’t mean adult-only. Those two things have become confused in my opinion. It’s not about sex necessarily, but stories where you have complex and intriguing political situations with lots of grey area. We don’t want the classic good vs. evil. Each character will have weaknesses and flaws, some will be anti-heroes. It’s a mature and dark world where you can’t trust anyone, maybe even your own character at some points.”
Even though its story’s important, HELM know that The SoulKeeper can’t stand on that alone. They’re building what they hope will be a varied and engaging set of mechanics to complement the overarching narrative.
“From my perspective, I’d spend an equal amount of time in combat and non-combat situations, but it’s really up to the gamer,” says Mortakis. “I like talking to NPCs and finding out about the world, but we don’t want to water down the combat. If you want to wade in and kill everything, you can do that as well, of course there’ll be consequences for that.
“I’d say that the average gaming session would include interacting with NPCs, finding out about the lore, interacting with the world through mini-games. When I say mini-games I don’t mean puzzles, I mean like if you go to a tavern you can play a gambling game with someone there. Then the rest would be combat, because there’s such a plethora of mechanics that you can utilise.
“More specifically, melee, magic and ranged combat – and you might have two or three characters that specialise in melee, but they won’t have the same exact mechanics. For example, the Nordic-themed character Ulvar will have a heavier style of combat than the hooded man in trailer.”
HELM’s commitment to innovation doesn’t stop with their episodic approach. They’re actively looking for new ways to iterate on the tried-and-tested RPG formula.
“We want to do [levelling up] in a non-traditional way,” Mortakis explains. “What I mean by this is that we want to make the world as realistic as possible, it’s still a fantasy world, but it doesn’t make sense to us that if you’re playing as a veteran of 100 battles, that you don’t know how to fully use your skills. However, we still understand and respect the fact that most RPG players like levelling up and having some kind of skill progression.
[pullquote]“It’ll be a mature themed story, with mature situations” [/pullquote]
“We want to let them have this by deciding what to equip their character with. If you want them to be faster, equip them with lighter weapons and armour, and this’ll change the way they fight. But this might not be the best for all situations, so there’s some strategy involved in selecting the best equipment for a fight.”
He continues: “This isn’t a final decision. We’re always open to what the community thinks. The way we’re formulating this project is completely non-traditional, so it allows us to have more direct interaction – which is something we plan to expand on very soon with community forums.”
TUNE IN NEXT TIME[divider type=”thin”]
HELM hope that all of these ideas and innovations will get players invested in The SoulKeeper, and keep them hooked for duration of the season.
“We want players to be emotionally connected to their characters, and if you end up losing one we want you to hurt with them,” says Mortakis. “That might sound mean, but I think that it’ll improve the experience. We want you to feel like you’re inside this world, not outside playing the character.
“Most of the team’s involved in writing the story. The way that we approach it, is that we all take real-life experiences and try to apply them to The SoulKeeper. I think that’ll make our stories feel more realistic. It’s a more open process, we do it this way, because otherwise, the stories are restricted.”
Poropat elaborates: “Every time something happens to a character you’re playing as, we want it to feel like it’s your level 99 hard-core character in Diablo II. That’s the idea. If that thing dies, we want to you be so invested that you’re devastated, or if something good happens, we want you to be happy for them. At the end of the day, that person’s you.”
The SoulKeeper is currently being developed for PC, but this isn’t because of a lack of desire to bring the game to other platforms.
“Our technical director would have someone killed to have it on Linux,” Mortakis says. “I have no doubt that we’ll consider other platforms at some point.
“Being such an ambitious project, we have complete faith that we’re up to the challenge, but we want to give our full attention to the project itself, so we’re focussing primarily on the PC.
“We understand that not all of the gaming population use a PC as their platform of choice, so we definitely have plans to look at different platforms further down the road.”
Poropat continues: “It’s not that we’re not confident – with the proper resources we could probably port it to PS4 or something like that later on, but a lot of that depends on how successful the PC launch is, and how much time and staff we have on board to continue to support the main title while developing other version. It’s not something we’re ruling out, it’s just on the sidebar right now.”
A criticism of the episodic model is that fans are often left waiting in the dark, whereas you count on a TV show to be out on the same channel next week. HELM want to keep up a steady momentum with The SoulKeeper, and strike while the iron’s hot.
“We want there to be short periods of time between the episodes, because we want people to stay invested,” Mortakis explains. “The idea is that we’ll be using the same technology for each episode, so there’ll only be a three or four month wait between releases.
“Right now we’re at pre-alpha 2.0. Pre-alpha is pre-alpha, so there’re still a lot of mechanics that we’re experimenting with. We don’t want to rush anything, so I think at this point, it’s too early to give a release window. But we do want to keep people in the loop so that we don’t have to give a date and keep postponing it.”
The SoulKeeper looks to be an ambitious and interesting project from an indie team that’re committed to innovation and depth in equal measure.
“From the small amount of content we’ve released so far, a decent portion of the feedback has compared our game to others,” says Poropat. “That’s to be expected, we’re a comparative society, but I just want to make it very clear. A lot of the stuff that we’re doing is so different, so innovative and so new to the industry, that to say any game is like this game, isn’t doing it justice. There’re so many features in here that’ve never been used, never been seen, even, to our knowledge, been thought of before.
“Once everything comes together and all the innovations have been revealed, I hope that people realise that.”
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