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Road To The IGF: Dawnspire: Prelude's Henrik Öquist and Anders Hammervald

Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, today’s interview is with Henrik Öquist and Anders Hammervald of Silent Grove Studios, developers of o
Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, today’s interview is with Henrik Öquist and Anders Hammervald of Silent Grove Studios, developers of online action RPG Dawnspire: Prelude. The team of Swedish developers now known as Silent Grove Studios had been working on the game since late 2002 on a part time basis, until the company was formally incorporated in May 2006, after which they began working on the project full time. They describe the game as “a team-based online action-RPG in a fantasy setting,” with a focus on “teamplay, tactics and player skill.” Most interesting is the fact that the game “ignores the concept of character levels and the grinding often found in other fantasy role-playing games”, instead offering players the chance to “earn experience as [they] play games versus other players online and use it to purchase individual skill levels”. We spoke to Öquist and Hammervald about the game, its entry into the IGF, and its intriguing gameplay choices. What is your background in the games industry? Öquist: We don’t really have much background in the industry; part of the crew developed a freeware asteroids clone called Hyperium a couple of years back, and Nicklas, our level designer and world artist, worked for little over a year on Just Cause. Other than that we’re all pretty new to this, and Dawnspire is our first larger scale project. Needless to say though, we’re all avid gamers and have been playing games since the pre-NES days. When was Silent Grove formed, and what previous titles have you released? Öquist: Formally, Silent Grove Studios was formed this May, but as a team we've been working together for a number of years though. Dawnspire is our first title. What inspired Dawnspire: Prelude, and why did you decide to make it? Öquist: What really started the whole thing was our love of RPG's and fantasy. We've always played games like Baldur's Gate, Diablo 2, Neverwinter Nights and other such titles. At one point we sat down and created a small Warcraft 3 mod which focused a lot more on hero vs. hero fighting, which turned out to be a blast. So we thought, ‘Wouldn't it be sweet with an entire multiplayer game devoted to this?’ Of course it would! So we sat our asses down and, to keep an extremely long story short, we did it. What were your expectations from your game, and do you feel the end product lives up to those expectations? Öquist: What we set out to do was to create an enjoyable and frantic team oriented fantasy action game, and that is something we definitely think we’ve achieved. That said, we always tend to find something new that we want to improve further, or another feature we want to add. As a small team, lack of time is always your enemy, but we’re passionate about our game and we’re working hard to continuously improve upon it, one patch at a time. What is Relic Conquest, and what does it add to PvP? Hammervald: Relic Conquest is a unique game mode which has some similarities to both Capture the Flag and Domination. The two teams fight for possession of three relics on the map. The first team to capture all the relics wins the match. Each relic has its own unique effect which influences the tactics the teams have to deploy to successfully capture them. For example, we have the Star of Belzirin which sets everyone nearby on fire, so it’s very painful to carry and is best retrieved with a healer backup. Another example is Eiloran's Anguish which channels part of all combat damage to the carrier, so keeping far away from any engagement is a must to survive. Öquist: What Relic Conquest does really well is to bring out the teamplay aspect of the game, forcing you to really work cohesively as a unit, pushing forward trying to gain new relics while still not letting down your defense so that the other team instead can steal one from you. Combine that with the relic effects and you've got a game mode with just enough depth to be easy to learn and fun while still allowing for some really nice strategies. Why did you decide to dispense with character levels? Hammervald: Since Dawnspire is purely PvP with no PvE content whatsoever, we felt that we needed an even playing field from the get go. The short treadmill we had in the game from the start, while fun, made it very difficult for new players to complete against our more seasoned veterans. Moving away from this brings a lot more focus on player skill and creating interesting character and team builds. What do you think the most interesting thing about your game is? Hammervald: The countless variations of team builds and strategies that are possible, and to see how our players use the tools we have provided for them. Öquist: Yeah, it's always cool to see a player make a sweet move or invent a completely new tactic. As the developer, you don't really plan or device all of these from the beginning, the players excel at constantly finding out new ways to use skills in specific situations or in strange and exciting combinations. It's great fun to watch! What struggles have you faced in getting the game to function effectively online? Hammervald: Initially we worked with Direct Play as our networking library, and that wasn't quite painless, later on though we switched to RakNet and since then we haven't really had many issues with the online bits. Of course we still have to contend with standard internet lag, but the game is pretty forgiving and quite playable even with high ping rates. The biggest obstacle for us was actually the communication with our master server via HTTP, due to our web host having serious trouble with connection reliability, which forced us to implement a lot of extra code for retries and failed connections. With this in place though, it is pretty pain free. How long did development take? Hammervald: Roughly four years, most of that time the game was developed only in our spare time, and since we’ve all held more or less full time jobs all the time, we weren’t able to put as many hours into it as we wanted to. Still, progress was steady even then and the game has been fully playable for over a year now, when we started closed alpha tests. What was the development process like? Hammervald: It was pretty chaotic with five people working out of their own homes for most of the time; still we had bi-weekly meetings to coordinate our efforts as best we could which kept us moving in the right direction. Our internally developed project site has helped a lot as well and has been a place for us to discuss various topics, share ideas and show off the latest work. The development pace varied a lot depending on various things going on in our lives outside of the project, but we were always moving forward. Since starting up full time, however, things have become much more structured. Öquist: Well, relatively speaking anyway. What do you think of the state of independent development, and how do you think independent games fit into the industry? Hammervald: The current wave of independent projects is very exciting, independent developers might not have the ability to compete on pure production values but can make up for it with narrower and more unique gameplay concepts. The general quality of independent titles is going up all the time, partly due to inexpensive frameworks developed for hobby and independent development, and general improvements in development tools and APIs. Have you checked out any of the other IGF games? Öquist: Well, we've read up on or been touch with a few of the other projects, especially the other Swedish contributions: Penumbra, Dreamlords and Toribash, all of which look pretty darn cool in their own right. For various reasons we still haven't been able to try any of them out and actually play them though. Which ones are you particularly impressed with, and why? Öquist: I'm honestly impressed by anyone who finishes a project on this level. There is just so much work to be done before a game can be played even in a rudimentary state. Looking around the various contributions you know that there will be some stiff competition, people are getting crazy good at doing games. Which recent indie games do you admire, and which recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why? Hammervald: Tumblebugs, while it may be a clone (as I understand it), it is a very competent game which has managed to steal away my girlfriends’ attention for hours on end. I’ve played it a lot myself as well, and while the cute graphics might not be what I’m usually looking for in a game the gameplay is easily accessible and addictive. Looking at more mainstream titles there has been a lot of titles which are impressive technically but from a gameplay perspective I haven’t really found a lot of exciting stuff for a long time it seems, the one exception would be Company of Heroes, which brings many nice touches, and a superb WW2 atmosphere to the RTS genre. I still haven’t tried WoW though; I have too many addicted friends to risk it. Öquist: It's maybe not that recent anymore, but Savage. It's a great indie game. And like us, the game design of Savage itself isn't that "indie" but they wanted to do that particular game and they did it! So kudos to them for leading the way! Darwinia also has to be mentioned; that crew turned quite a few heads in the industry in a way that we can only dream of doing. Among the mainstream titles, WoW naturally has to be mentioned as well. What a game, and what a commercial success. Lately I've been playing a lot of Splinter Cell co-op which is just great - we need more co-op games out there, they've been sorely missed! Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF? Öquist: Hey, if you buy our game, we'll buy yours! We might not get richer from it, but at least we'll all get to play some great games!

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