This week I had the remarkable privilege of getting to have a Skype chat with Frank Klepacki for almost an hour. Frank is the legendary composer behind the games of Westwood Studios and Petroglyph, including Dune, Blade Runner, Empire at War, and of course, Command & Conquer!
We talk about his career, other musical interests, his favourite projects, current work, and we peek behind the curtain into how some of the Command & Conquer songs and sound effects came to be.
I apologise for some of the audio quality as the connection went iffy once or twice.
A timeline of the conversation’s questions are listed below in case you don’t want to watch the full interview.
You can check out Frank’s awesome music on his site www.frankklepacki.com where you can stream or buy dozens of his albums and soundtracks. I highly recommend that you do (‘Just Do It Up’ has been stuck in my head for two weeks now).
Interview Timeline references
00.21 – When did you first start playing music? What was your instrument?
01.49 – [Starting at Westwood Studios]
03.34 – Have you any advice for people on getting into the industry?
06.56 – You voiced the Commando in the first Command & Conquer. What else have you done?
09.44 – [Voice samples on early tracks] What led to that?
12.41 – What’s your favourite track that you’ve ever recorded and what’s your favourite soundtrack that you’ve worked on?
18.20 – Any chance we’ll see an Empire at War 2?
19.08 – What are they yelling in ‘Hell March’?
22.30 – Tell us about the second half (the electronic part) of Hell March 1?
23.34 – Do you play the games yourself? GDI or Nod?
25.05 – Are there any game soundtracks from other games that have impressed you in recent years?
27.51 – Do you like any Irish music?
29.10 – Do you have any advice for us as composers, and as RTS developers?
32.14 – What did you use to get the awesome industrial bass sound on the C&C soundtrack, particularly on Target (Mechanical Man)
35.59 – What’s your favourite band/ game/ C&C game?
39.12 – [Asking about his goals with more mainstream music. Includes talk on Sly & The Family Stone]
45.00 – [Playing Hell March with Video Games Live]
45.52 – What are you working on right now? What’s next?
For this week’s blog, I’m happy to be conducting my very first interview! Hopefully it will be the first of many. Colm Larkin of Gambrinous, the team behind the recently released Guild of Dungeoneering, was kind enough to give up some of his precious time to answer some of my questions.
For those of you who don’t know, Guild of Dungeoneering is an extremely charming card-based dungeon crawling game with a twist! You don’t control your hero, but you lay out the dungeon before him or her, placing rooms and monsters and trying to steer your Dungeoneer towards victory. Not for their own sakes, mind you, but for the glory of the Guild, which you ultimately control. The Dungeoneers’ lives are of only a minor importance to you, though a (rapidly growing, in my case) graveyard does serve as a shrine to their efforts.
The game has undoubtedly got a sense of humour, the gameplay stands apart from a lot of what’s out there, and if you add to that the musical odes to your heroes’ victories and inevitable deaths then you’ve got the recipe for a game that is capturing hearts and imaginations all across the digital world. Many notable YouTubers and Twitch streamers, including Total Biscuit, Felicia Day and Dodger, have even featured the game on their shows.
I asked Colm about the game’s development process, and about what’s next for our dear dungeon diving friends.
KM: When people think of the development cycle for an indie game, they might reasonably guess that Kickstarter and an Early Access program were part the process. Guild of Dungeoneering didn’t take this approach and remained unavailable to the general public until release. Would you like to comment on that decision and any advantages or disadvantages to the approach that you discovered during development?
Larkin: I’d have almost certainly tried Kickstarter if it had been available in Ireland at the right time. Early in GoD’s development you could only run a Kickstarter if you were based in the US or the UK and while people did work around that by setting up shell companies and the like that’s a LOT of hassle. In October 2014 KS was made available in Ireland but at that stage I was quite far along and was already talking to publishers. In the end I went with a publisher and am very happy I did. I will probably look into Kickstarter for future projects though!
Early Access comes with a lot of player negativity, I think, and also really dilutes your launch hype by spreading it out across several months. It can definitely work for the right kind of game, but I didn’t think it was right for GoD.
KM: The game will have add-on Adventure Packs with the first one being Pirate’s Cove. Aside from a pirate themed makeover for our Dungeoneers, dungeons and enemies, can we expect to see other new features like new dialogue or shanties?
Larkin: We hope to invent a few new mechanics in the expansion (which we’re designing right now), but nothing really game changing. It’s really ‘a bit more of everything’ expansion for folks who enjoyed the game and want more. There’ll definitely be piratey dialogue (how could we not!?) and we’re looking into some piratey music too!
KM: Are the adventure packs standalone or do they link back to your existing Guild in some way?
Larkin: They aren’t standalone – they expand the basic game instead. So in the campaign there will be a new zone (for Pirate’s Cove we’re looking at it being an extension to the Jungle zone) with new quests and classes to unlock there. But for the new loot we’re looking at including it throughout the game; so simply by having this expansion you have more toys to play with at all stages of the game. To me this type of expansion expands the game horizontally (adding variety to the base game), and we’ll also be looking into bigger expansions that expand the game vertically (adding more game).
KM: How many Adventure Packs might we expect to see in the future, how much will they cost, and what themes have you in mind?
Larkin: Creating this first one will give us a good idea of how difficult they are to make and if people think they are worth buying. We’re pricing Adventure Packs at $4.99 with the base game costing $14.99. If people like Pirate’s Cove I could see us doing 2-3 more of this size over the next year or so before focusing on a bigger expansion. Thanks to our extremely silly world themes will NOT be a problem, I feel. I think we could make almost any theme fit in the game!
KM: There’s been a number of articles in mainstream Irish (and international) media recently about how the Irish games industry is not yet the contender it could be worldwide, but how we’re primed to explode and really just need one big breakout hit to put us on the map. Do you agree with this appraisal of the industry? Modesty aside, could Guild of Dungeoneering be that hit? Or will it take more than one big release, do you think?
Larkin: I really agree with that sentiment. We have a superb game dev community in Ireland, are starting to set up some fantastic events here, and we are creating very interesting games. A breakout hit doesn’t change any of that, but perhaps it helps to inspire people to go a little further with their ideas & prototypes, and perhaps it helps with stuff like government funding for creative game projects. Guild of Dungeoneering could be that hit, or it could be one of a few moderately successful games that result in a similar effect. I think we’ll see over the next year or so.
KM: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think The Witcher III recently became the first game to sell more copies of itself on GOG.com than on Steam. Where do people seem to be going for their Guild of Dungeoneering copies?
Larkin: Lets not forget that the company behind the Witcher series is the same company that created GOG, so it makes sense that their fans supported them on their own platform. It’s very unusual for a PC game to see a large proportion of its sales outside Steam. We released on Steam, GOG, Humble and a number of other smaller storefronts at once and Steam is our number one spot by a massive proportion. Still, it’s good to support more than one platform. What would we do if EA or Microsoft bought Valve?
KM: In the game, as we expand our Guild we gain access to new characters with different strengths and weaknesses, but also ones on more expensive tiers. Once you unlock a Tier 2 character are you basically done with all of your Tier 1 Dungeoneers?
Larkin: Unfortunately yes, but I’m not that happy about it. The idea with classes is that at each tier they offer different strengths and weaknesses. You might be having a hard time in a particular quest with one class, but find it possible with a different one. And the classes are very unique and interesting, I think. We’re going to make it so your lower-tier classes are still somewhat viable in harder levels by buffing their health as you reach the harder zones. This way you can still use them, but the upgraded classes are still better.
KM: Who is your favourite class of Dungeoneer, and why?
Larkin: I like a lot of them. The Barbarian is interesting because he changes how you play. Instead of avoiding higher level monsters he rushes straight at them (but has a big bonus when fighting harder monsters). Using this ability means playing very differently than with other classes, and that’s fun. At the starting tier I like how the Apprentice’s very simple bonus to the Fire skill means you can stack equipment with Fire bonuses to get to the super-strong Fire III and Fire IV cards quicker than usual.
KM: There are so many games nowadays, did you ever find yourself coming up with an original mechanic all by yourself, and later somebody says “ah, just like [x-game]” that you’ve never actually heard of?
Larkin: Of course! I don’t think there are that many original mechanics, though you can still create something that is original as a whole. People even do that when they are wrong. Recently I read a review that claimed we were simply piling onto the popularity of, and poorly copying Darkest Dungeon’s ideas. Never mind the fact that GoD had public gameplay before DD was even announced, that they haven’t fully released their game yet, or that there was only a few months between their hitting Early Access and our release. As a creator you have to learn to shrug off this kind of thing or you won’t be able to continue.
KM: Did any games in particular influence Guild of Dungeoneering or cause you to change design decisions during development?
Larkin: Well there’s this game called Darkest Dungeon that.. haha just kidding! I think I was most influenced by board games. The very first prototype was trying to play with the idea seen in DungeonQuest where you put down a random tile in front of your hero and then deal with how it changed the map (though I hadn’t played the game in about 25 years!). I had also been playing Carcasonne more recently which is all about building a map from random square tiles. I play a lot of games and try and learn from them, so I hope they all help influence what I make.
KM: If you had to pick one thing, what is your favourite aspect or feature of Guild of Dungeoneering?
Larkin: I think the classes are really superb, they feel so different to play and have such scope to build on them in different ways. For example for almost every class I’ve heard people say it’s both unplayably bad and brokenly overpowered. As a designer I think this is the holy grail, when you cause such differing opinions about balance. Particularly in this kind of game with layered systems and mechanics.
KM: Do you have a hefty list of new games you’ve wanted to play but didn’t have the time for during development? What’s at the top of that list for once you catch your breath?
Larkin: Probably Pillars of Eternity and The Witcher III. Both clearly games that will take a lot of time to play through!
KM: Many people, myself included, have thought that this would make a great mobile game or that a controller might be preferable to the mouse. Are there any plans to tackle new platforms or input devices? Rift support, maybe? (jk)
Larkin: Hey I announced Oculus support back on April 1st 😉
We’re definitely going to start on touch platforms next (tablets + mobiles) as it will be such a natural fit there. We’re also looking into consoles but we’re not sure yet how or when.
KM: So what’s next for Gambrinous?
Larkin: I think we’ll be doing more content and platforms for GoD for at least the next year. That should also give us enough time to work out what’s actually next! I’d love to do a series of internal game jams where we work up a few prototypes before choosing which one to make into a ‘real’ game. Then maybe take that prototype to Kickstarter?
KM: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Larkin: Just my usual advice for anyone wanting to get into making games. Start with some game jams! Get used to finishing small prototypes, then try something bigger.
I’d like to thank Colm very much once again for some great insights into the game and for some great advice for any aspiring developers. I also strongly encourage you to pick up Guild of Dungeoneering if you haven’t already!
Follow Colm on Twitter @gambrinous or the game directly @dungeoneering. The Guild of Dungeoneering website is here. Publisher ‘Versus Evil’ are here. An extensive development log of the game was kept here if you’re interested. The Gambrinous website is here.