[Interview conducted with Ido Yehieli and Ruari O'Sullivan on the topic of their new game, Cardinal Quest 2. This article was published in the July issue of Indie Game Magazine.]
IGM: Thanks for joining me today guys! Could you just give our readers a quick lowdown on who you are and the cool things that you do for a living?
Ido: I am the main developer behind Cardinal Quest 1 (CQ1), and Ruari is the main developer behind Cardinal Quest 2 (CQ2). We are both full time indie developers making a living from Cardinal Quest. Ruari joined me shortly after CQ1 was released, at about version 1.1 I believe.
Ruari: Ayup! I’m Ruari. I used to work for a major studio here in the UK and now I’m a full time indie developer. I put out a few small projects of my own last year – “Beacon” and “Fear is Vigilance” along with doing some contract work. I came onto CQ1 back in October and I’ve ended up doing a full blown sequel.
IGM: What did you guys initially set out to improve over the original Cardinal Quest? Was there any one particular thing that made you think “we can do better this time!”?
Ruari: There were a few huge things I wanted to fix. CQ1 really streamlined the whole roguelike template, down to the extent that you weren’t making choices about your character. I wanted to try and keep that accessibility but bring choice back into the game, so you get this real feeling of owning your character and making long term decisions.
Ido: Right, having more influence on long term character progression is probably the biggest thing.
Ruari: The other big thing I wanted to add was to really build up the world, so you have these functionally different spaces you’re travelling through; forests, towns, caves and so on. All to reinforce that you’re on a journey, you’re making progress, and you’re travelling to dangerous places which might surprise you rather than retreading stuff you’ve seen before.
Ido: Another big improvement is the role items play in the game. In CQ2 choosing your gear is a big part of the game, and you can further customize your character by having more possible “gear builds”, there are fewer obviously better sets as with CQ1.
IGM: Has it been difficult trying to preserve that streamlined aspect of CQ1 while still adding new content and mechanics?
Ruari: Yeah, massively! It’s not too hard to add content, but new rules that allow that content to be more varied or more meaningful can really cause trouble. It’s a matter of keeping a balance; of switching rules out for ones that are a bit more powerful wherever we can. One huge example of that balance is that we got rid of the inventory screen and management from CQ1. There was a ton of UI work done for it but it didn’t really add to the game much. By handling inventory management entirely when you find stuff, we could drop that aspect entirely, which meant it was much easier to bring the talent system in without overcomplicating the UI.
Overall, though, it’s just been a slow process of gradually refining what’s there; switching rules out for stuff that works a little better, redesigning the UI to make things clearer, bit by bit. It’s probably where most of the work’s gone so far.
Ido: Yeah, it’s not just bigger, longer, more stuff; a lot of the changes included removing or replacing things.
IGM: I noticed that auto-equipping is gone too! What was behind that decision? It’s something I found quite striking about the original Cardinal Quest.
Ruari: That’s totally about putting the player back in charge. Now that we have substantially different ways any given character can develop where they might want to focus on different strengths, it’s a lot more important to have the player involved in those decisions so they can shape things as they want. That, and the old system put items in your inventory when it wasn’t sure if you’d like them or not. Since we got rid of the inventory to make space for cooler features, we can’t rely on that anymore.
Ido: It’s also part of the fact that there are fewer obviously better and worse kits than before. They are more different than just different spots on a spectrum of quality.
IGM: Even in its very early alpha state, it already seems like there’s much more of a narrative going on than in the original Cardinal Quest. Is that an aspect you’re going to be expanding upon in a big way, or is it still low down on the priority list?
Ruari: The explicit storytelling in the alpha is a bit of an experiment. It’ll probably get cut back a bit as we add story and emergent narrative elements that can pull you in without relying so much on static text to help set the tone. So… yeah, narrative is at the heart of a lot of what we’re doing, but more in the sense of a really tangible world and potential for players to experience their own cool little stories rather than cutscenes and walls of text.
IGM: I’ve been really enjoying the more distinct playstyles that the 3 new classes bring to the table, especially the dynamic between the Ranger and his Dog! Are we going to see similar kinds of advanced mechanics extended to the original 3 classes and/or enemies as well?
Ruari: I definitely want to give the older classes some new toys. The talent trees give us some real room for expansion and there’ll definitely be some new class-specific skills you can unlock through them that’ll help expand the original classes’ playstyles and abilities. I’ve only got vague plans at the moment and I can’t promise anything before trying it out… but the Thief, for example, might get access to a skill which lets him dance around enemies and nip between them, whereas the Wizard might get the ability to use magic-casting enemies’ powers against them.
IGM: Are the new environments going to bring new possibilities too? The outdoor area from the alpha has a completely different feel from the original’s claustrophobic dungeons.
Ido: Not just feel, also different effects (e.g. the bushes increase your stealth and decrease your defence) – so tactics that might be good in one area might not be suitable to another and vice versa.
Ido: It serves as both thematic and mechanical variety.
Ruari: Yep. I mean, we have the claustrophobic dungeons too. The plan’s to explore different environments and environmental features, like rivers, and see what gameplay comes out the other end. Level design, monsters and items are places where we can add content and ideas without making the game feel any more complicated, so we get to really mix things up.
IGM: So far I’ve been really surprised how upfront the game is about its own mechanics, such as it telling me EXACTLY what effects any stat increases have on my character. What was the thought process behind opening up the game’s juicy innards like that?
Ruari: At one point there was a popup when you moused over an enemy that told you your odds to hit! That didn’t stay in.
Ido: I would say that being pretty transparent was always a goal for CQ, even in the CQ1 days. It’s a strategic game, so it lets the players make informed decision. That goal is simply better executed in CQ2.
Ruari: Yeah. I’m a big believer in a game being a series of interesting decisions, and to really have an interesting decision you have to have some idea what’s at stake and what the effects are. We can’t just let the stats feel like arbitrary numbers or when you’re presented with a choice, you might be like… what’s the point?
Ido: In my opinion, when it comes to games that are about mechanical challenge (rather than narrative for example, or cooperation) you got 2 main paths you can follow. I’ll refer to them as chess, and the other as judo:
In chess you have perfect information, and the challenge is to be overcome by analysing your situation and coming to an informed conclusion. You become better at the game by learning about the different possibilities and getting better at analysing the different situations it gives you
In judo you don’t have exact information about your opponent, so it’s more about gaining experience and developing an intuition. You try different things, and learn what’s better and what’s worse. The ultimate mastery there is being able to develop your intuition to the point where there is no conscious thought at all.
Since CQ falls into the 1st category moving closer towards perfect information (and being turn based) makes more sense.
Ruari: Well, we don’t give away everything. You’ve still got to learn which enemies are dangerous the hard way; there’s your judo. We just give you enough of the manual to get you involved in the strategic decisions you’re making, like talents and gear, without having to check a wiki or something.
Ido: Right, it’s a spectrum. Street Fighter is closer to judo than CQ is for example, and so is Counter Strike. Whereas Desktop Dungeons is closer to chess. Generally I envision CQ to be closer to the chess side of the spectrum. Like if chess is 1 and judo is 10, then CQ is maybe 3.
Ruari: Ultimately it just fell out of giving people these choices about gear and so on. If the decision’s informed then it’s a lot more fun.
IGM: Last time IGM interviewed Ido, he talked about the awkwardness of the app/android marketplaces. Has going through getting the original Cardinal Quest out on those systems changed that perception for either of you?
Ido: Yeah, the Android Market categories are horrible; they make no sense. That’s why I put CQ in “arcade & action”. Can you BELIEVE that was actually the least wrong category? The App Store is a bit better, but still not perfect. Strangely enough, Google’s Chrome web store has much better categories! It’s got an “rpg & strategy” category for example. I don’t know why these two genres are bunched up together, but it’s certainly better than the android market’s!
Amazon’s app store for android is also pretty good too, but unfortunately it is only available in the US. I put CQ1 there, but it’s not nearly as widespread as Google’s, so it doesn’t sell quite as well. That said, we did get pretty good placements in the app store (#16 in RPGs I think was our best ranking), so people were able to find the game. It’s not the next Angry Birds but we’re getting some decent sales.
IGM: Just a quick personal question: I’ve noticed you both seem to be very keen on Game Jam projects like IRDC and Ludum Dare. What is it about these kinds of events that appeals to you guys, and have they had much of an impact on Cardinal Quest’s development?
Ido: Yes, CQ1 started from the same code base I used for my 7DRL (Seven Day Roguelike Challenge) entry Detribus in 2011. Also, just making a ton of games makes you a better game designer and developer, you get experience that helps you when making bigger games too. I think it can really grind you down to work on a single big projects for months and sometimes year on end, it gives you a breath of fresh air to take a break and do something quick and small for a change. I’ve made 6 new games this year alone and it’s only June!
Ruari: Yeah, I really dig jams as a way to try out new stuff and recharge creatively. It’s easy to fall into a slump during a longer project but doing something new over a few days, finishing it up when you’re still totally in love with the concept, can be pure awesome.
IGM: I guess I’ll finish by asking by the one question no developer ever wants to hear: when can we expect finished version of Cardinal Quest 2?
Ido: later this year?
Ruari: Yeah, this year.
Ido: Ruari has a crazy AI system thing that can predict the exact date actually, but we don’t want to ruin the surprise!
Ruari: I admit to nothing.