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Designing CrossCode to stand out in the retro RPG market

CrossCode's lead developer and composer talk to us about making and selling a retro-flavored RPG in the crowded markets of 2018.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

November 12, 2018

15 Min Read

A few weeks ago, the developers at Radical Fish Games released the full version of CrossCode, a Steam Early Access RPG that's garnered a passionate following built a loyal fanbase over the last few years.

This success was notable in part because CrossCode isn't a multiplayer game or survival game, it's a retro-flavored action RPG that aesthetically resembles the SNES era. For this kind of game to succeed on Steam Early Access, and keep players interested in coming back for the full, final adventure, CrossCode's developers needed to think outside the box while making this game. 

Thankfully, we were able to invite lead developer Felix Klein and game composer Deniz Akbulut onto the Gamasutra Twitch channel for a conversation about CrossCode's development. Even if you aren't working on a retro-flavored game, you might be particularly interested to know what they did to create an appealing adventure that succeeded not just because of nostalgia, but community-building and inspired design choices as well. 

We've compiled some of Klein and Akbulut's most insightful comments from our conversation, which you can now read below. 

What's the appeal of retro-flavor games anyway?

Klein: There’s a lot of retro games out there that these days are still very popular. There’s definitely this demand to have this classic old graphic style because there’s a lot of nostalgia connected to it. We decided to pretty much… I mean, there’s several reasons, again we have been working with RPG Maker, and it kind of looks like RPG Maker.

One reason is definitely because we’re familiar with this style since we’ve been working with this kind of graphics before. So we could take this experience and apply it to our first project and that was kind of less risky than trying something entirely new, to some extent at least. The other thing is that we also just like the style. It tries to simulate the graphics you have from old Super Nintendo Games like Seiken Densetsu 3 in particular or Terranigma or Chrono Trigger, you know these are all very popular games.

I think actually it’s not that widely spread among indie games these days. Because a lot of indie games with this retro style the sprites are more close to the 8 bit sprites you have from the NES since they are kind of more minimalistic and detailed. If you look for instance at Hyper Light Drifter it has this very fancy grade and shading everywhere, but the base sprites are… They’re not exactly 16 bit because they’re very minimalistic in terms of colors, there’s very few colors. That’s what a lot of indie games do, so there’s not too many that have this 16 bit graphic style unless you do of course count the RPG maker games. There’s a lot of those and they often look like this.

So it’s kind of like at the same time it’s a curse but also a blessing. Because there are these kinds of people that really like Chrono Trigger and all these old Super Nintendo classics and they really like the style. And then you have these other guys that know there’s tons of RPG Maker games out there and they’re usually not that great, so they see our game and go like “Nah, that’s just another crappy RPG Maker game” so we have both of these people essentially. 

How retro-themed games can borrow from multiple generations 

Klein: I think the only part where we pretty much said we wanted to do it like in the old games was roughly the graphic style. It was just about this look and feel you that have in these old games, but even when it comes to graphics it we took a lot of liberties. Because this is definitely not authentic Super Nintendo if you look at it closely. First of all, of course the resolution is 16:9, the resolution is much larger that you have in Super Nintendo game. And there’s also a lot of lighting effects applied to the game. 

That’s actually something funnily that has been done in the RPG Maker community quite often. You very often have these 16-bit Super Nintendo graphics but then people just put Shadow Maps on them because it looks fancy. That’s pretty much what we did as well, just tried to do it a little bit better because we had alpha channels, back then actually we didn’t have any alpha channel which was kind of ridiculous. We still tried to do shadows by blending dark and bright colors over...it often didn’t look too [good]. With modern RPG Maker and also with our engine you of course could do alpha maps, it kind of like has this more advanced lighting look and that’s one example where we didn’t really stay authentic to old games.

When it comes to mechanics, a lot of stuff is actually much more modern. Like you can look with a look stick in arbitrary directions, you can aim... It’s essentially a dual stick shooter in terms of gameplay; you aim with one stick and you move with another, or you play with mouse and keyboard of course. The physics are much more advanced. You actually have more or less 3 dimensional physics since you can jump up and fall down. That is something that I think wasn’t possible on the Super Nintendo. The more that I think about it, I think pretty much the only thing where we tried to stay true to the original was just the pixel art style. I think everything else is actually more inspired by games in general, kind of like just trying to take concepts from any game that we knew we thought would fit.

Akbulut: I can also say something about the music. It’s not really Super Nintendo inspired, it’s more like inspired of PlayStation 1 and 2 games when they started to have streaming audio from CDs. I actually went as far as purchasing like an old—well actually this is not old—a module. Back in the 90s or early 2000s they used these very rack synthesizers, these boxes. Some people call them MIDI boxes, some people call them romplers. They basically contain all these sounds that they used to make music for all the games for PlayStation 1 or PlayStation 2 games, especially in Japan. These actually come from Japan.

I tried to get this very authentic sound of a PlayStation 1 or PlayStation 2 game. Even a game like CrossCode could be on the PlayStation or the PlayStation 2, they haven’t stopped making like 2D top down RPG kind of games after the Super Nintendo. So I thought it would be kind of a cool thing. Also because I’m probably also the only person in the team that grew up with a PlayStation 1, not the Super Nintendo.

Yeah, and most of our team played PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2 games obviously so that was also a big nostalgia factor for us. 

How do you develop so much content efficiently?

Akbulut: Taking breaks.

Klein: It’s kind of ironic, but because in the beginning, since we didn’t have a lot of experience, with just working full time on something like this. Some of our team members essentially just burnt themselves out from working all the time and then we eventually realized that it’s actually a good thing to take breaks. You’re actually more productive in the end if you do that.

The thing is, we didn’t really have…we didn’t crunch real much on how much people work per day or per week. We do have this kind of thing where people are paid by the hour, so of course if you do work you get paid more essentially, but we never went ahead and said you have to work at least this and that much. 
I mean, that’s essentially one of the most important things is that you just specify tasks pretty clearly and try to work with deadlines because it always helps to have that little bit of pressure you need to actually make decent progress. Because if you’re too relaxed with everything its very easy to get stuck. You kind of like have to find this right balance of setting deadlines to keep working on stuff but also take time for breaks and stuff like that.

I mean, in our case, it’s somewhat unique since, I don’t think I actually mentioned this in now in the interview, but everyone’s working remotely. We don’t really have an office, so we just communicate over the internet. That’s also why it’s pretty hard to control how much everyone is working. A lot of it is based on trust, essentially, so you just trust that people stay in the team and pretty much do their work. 

There have been times where some members have been distracted with other things, like some of our team members… I mean everybody’s essentially on contractor basis, and some had some other customers that they had to take care of so sometimes it happened that some team members just couldn’t work for a few weeks or a few months.

And we just try to stay flexible in that sense, always presuming that some people might not be available and just keep a list of tasks and whenever somebody is available you can just keep em working on the task. At least like the core members that really made most of the content development have been full time employees more or less. So I think that was the important factor to keep things rolling, even though everyone wasn’t available all the time.

An unexpected Early Access marketing method

Klein: I think part of it is probably since we are trying to be very transparent with how we operate. That is, we’re often writing update posts. Actually not too often. In the beginning we did this every few weeks. And later we only did it every month or every two months. However, we also do game dev streams actually on Twitch about every week, every weekend we just stream development of the game and people can join the chat and talk with us, ask us questions, we talk about recent development and changes and what we’ve been working on. 

I think that’s one factor, so people see that we are always available that way. And then of course we also have our public discord server. Where we are also in the chat and people can ask us directly anything and most of the time somebody from our team is also available to answer. Then of course we’re also very active in Steam forms. When people write stuff we answer rather soon and even to minor questions we always try to answer directly and if people see that the developers are always there, they always do stuff, they always reacting to things, I think that’s very important so people have confidence in the project.

Of course we do have a publisher, something I should also mention, that is Deck13, also a German developer actually. They’re working on The Search. But they also help smaller developers like us, mostly in terms of marketing and also to give us advice how to manage the development of games like this. They definitely also have a big part of why it worked out since they have always been doing marketing and other things, making the game available on a lot of stores and things like that.

To be honest, it’s kind of stupid because we really didn’t think much about [Early Access.] What happened is just, we started with the crowdfunding, and we looked at other games that did crowdfunding as well and we saw that most of these games offered a beta perk. Which means you get an early beta version of the game. And then we thought, yeah let’s do that too, and then we offered a beta version as a special perk and that beta version essentially became the Early Access version. And then we thought that “well since this is an option, let’s just do that” so we would just give our backers the beta version and this would also be offered on Steam as Early Access."

What’s kind of funny is how the prizes are calculated for these things. Because if you come from crowdfunding, it’s always that the beta version is usually worth more than getting the final game. Because you essentially have two options: either you wait long for the final game, or you get an early version and then you also get the final game. So the latter kind of sounds like it has more value, that’s why you offer it for a higher price.

But on Early Access its more like the opposite. You often offer a game for a lower price because its not finished, and then you raise the price when the full version comes out.  It was kind of weird since we actually offered the beta version for I think 25 euro, so it was more expensive than the Early Access version on Steam. And that was a little bit critical because all of these people already bought this expensive game, and then other people got the Early Access version for less essentially and that was a little bit complicated. 

But, in the end it was fine and people accepted this. One compromise we made is that, especially people actually bought the game on IndieGogo for €15, they kind of argued “man those people on steam that just bought the game for €20, or then there’s a sale and its essentially €15 and they already get the game now” and then we decided to give all our backers that just bought the game also access to the early access version, a little bit later so that the true beta backers still got it first. That is what makes it a little complicated.

Again, the problem with RPGs and that they’re not the best platform for Early Access is definitely true. That’s something that we noticed very early on. I think we just make sure, we have been aware that this is a game where people only play the story only once mostly. Like most people play RPGs like this only once to experience the story, maybe try to do everything, then it’s done and you play another game. So it was always about finishing the story, and once the story’s finished you want to have the complete game because people should not be able to complete the game when its not finished because they’re not going to play it again.

So that’s why we decided to do the story last essentially. We first developed the gameplay mechanics, those have been there in the very beginning, most of them anyway, and then we decided to add content first, that means different areas, towns, dungeons. And also some optional quests, those have been more or less developed first. And the story has been developed at the very end. The very last update, version 1.0, actually added about 50 percent of the, half of the story has been added in the very last update. That way we made sure that people can still experience most of the game at least in a very polished way. In general the development was structured that we tried to polish things early on. 

When we actually released a dungeon, it was more or less already finished, how it was supposed to be in the final game. Of course we sometimes tweaked things when we got some feedback about some puzzles being too difficult or other things we of course made adaptions. But otherwise we had this very linear development process, and I think that’s why its worked. Its essentially like you’re watching a TV show and just you watch maybe one season then you wait maybe a year or two and you watch another season and that’s ok. And that’s kind of like how our game worked too. So you kind of like play the first few hours and then you wait and we release another patch and you can play another hour and do a few more quests.

And we always make sure that you can keep your save. At the very beginning we actually didn’t do that and then we very quickly noticed that we should really make sure to keep saves compatible so people can keep using their saves and not play all the content again. So I guess that’s how it worked. We have two types of Early Access players. We have one type that actually really enjoys the gameplay they just play whenever we release something then they play the game again and again. Those are actually amongst the most valuable; it’s very good to have these kinds of players since they give you a lot of good feedback about the game.

Then you have the other players that just buy the game, play a little bit, and then decide to wait until it’s finished. We have those probably a lot but it kind of still works. They just play the beginning and think “Ok, that’s great. I’m just gonna wait.” and it’s, again, its not the perfect draw for Early Access but overall I would say that it actually worked really well. We’d probably do the same thing again for the next project. I would do it again, Early Access for a single player RPG.

About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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