In a time when so many great "metroidvania"-style games are on the market (yes, I just used that dreaded portmanteau), it was so refreshing to see something...old come back.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is the latest from game design legend Koji "Iga" Igarashi, the goth-lovin', cowboy hat-wearin' former head of all things Castlevania who left Konami to start the independent studio ArtPlay.
Bloodstained (published by 505 Games) is a spiritual successor to 1997's PlayStation game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Igarashi makes no claims that Bloodstained is some kind of innovative twist on the game that inspired so many of today's sprawling exploration games. Bloodstained is a direct, unabashed throwback to the Castlevania of the late 90s, and it's excellent.
Here, Igarashi answers our questions about independent game development, and designing an "Igavania."
How do you compare your life as an independent developer vs. when you were with Konami? Do you enjoy the freedom to talk directly with your players? Is it more stressful?
It's true that I can communicate much closer to the players after becoming independent. However, I always made sure to keep an eye out for player feedback when I was in Konami so it doesn't feel that different.
Another huge advantage of being an independent developer is that we can listen to player feedback during the game's early development. This time we used crowdfunding as a source of funding and promised a number of set goals from the start, which lead to a more challenging development [cycle] and [was] greatly different from the previous approach. While it's very challenging, I do enjoy the freedom of making decisions and being independent.
Do you think you'll return to Kickstarter to fund a future game?
Creating promises at such an early stage of development was much more difficult than I anticipated. There were many advantages in this case, but if I already have sufficient funding for the next project, I would continue to use that until the end.
However, there will be various situations where we'll need to ask for feedback from the community. Depending on how we use it, Kickstarter is a very powerful tool and there may be possibilities in the future after careful planning.
What were the design guidelines you made sure to follow for Bloodstained?
I wouldn't call it a design guideline but Bloodstained does follow a strict rule that I always make the team [adhere] to.
That is...the developer who creates the boss must beat their own boss without taking a hit and only using a dagger! (We almost didn't make it...)
We make sure that it's possible to beat a boss without taking a hit regardless of the difficulty and by doing so, we reduce the number of unfair enemy attacks. Removing the "unfairness" allows players to think about what they could have done to avoid a Game Over. It makes them want to challenge the boss again using a different method. It's a golden rule we follow in our games. (Honestly, don’t ask us to complete this challenge more than once though...)
Can you describe from a top-level perspective the typical design process you followed when developing Bloodstained?
First, I was figuring out how to approach a game for fans who wanted to play another exploration-based action game. This is also the first game I would be making after becoming independent, so I made it my motif to create a traditional game that would meet their expectations. My focus was to create a familiar game system that would give a sense of relief to returning players. New content needed to be added, of course, but the importance was on how the game felt in the player's hand more than challenging new ideas.
The theme [of] gothic horror acted as a pillar to the game design as well. There was also a specific event that happened in a certain timeline I wanted to include so the story is built upon that. From there on, I was thinking about creating abilities that would help expand the map; the rest of the design will be done when the game starts to take shape. On the game itself, Curry the Kid, who is the game director I worked with for many years, took the lead on the game design and its execution.
How did your approach to design differ in Bloodstained as compared to your Castlevania games? Was it a similar approach, or are there significant differences?
The approach was very similar in terms of just the design. From what I previously mentioned, how the game felt was more important than challenging new ideas so it was important to keep the approach similar.
What's the most difficult part of developing an "Igavania" game?
The important part about an "Igavania" game is the longevity and the replayability of the game. It needs to have a good amount of content and things to do without boring the players. That is probably the most difficult part of developing this kind of game.
For other game developers who are making games inspired by your work, and are making "Igavania" games, what tips and advice might you offer them?
It's important to think about what "they" would do to make the game better and where "they" would change things in a certain part of the game they are inspired by. Keep on creating with a strong individual opinion. "Fun" is different based on each individual and there is an infinite number of correct answers.
While it's important to listen to other people's opinion, ultimately what they feel is right should be where they are be moving towards. If they don't create something they completely believe in, whether that game succeeds or fails, they won't know what's right or wrong forever. It doesn't connect to the next goal. Also, they must finish a project they started.