Dungeon crawling is traditionally reserved only for the brave, the bold, and the willing--a causal undertaking it is not. But for Ryan Rutherford and Andrew Welch--the talent behind studio Big Cave Games and its upcoming action-RPG Orc: Vengeance--dungeon crawling needn't just be reserved for the hardcore, mouse clicking PC audience. There's just as much demand for such a grand and absorbing experience on iOS as there is on PC, they say, and Orc is the game that's going to convince the world.
And they should know. Welch and Rutherford have the kind of game making experience that studios dream of. Welch, a self-taught coder, worked at Ion Storm on the infamous Daikatana, before jumping ship to work with John Carmack and the brilliant minds over at id Software. Rutherford, who attributes his own interest in games to Half Life and its "Worldcraft" level design tools, worked at Treyarch on the Call Of Duty franchise, before also jumping ship to work at id Software on Rage. But it wasn't long after Rage had shipped that the pair decided to go it alone and form Big Cave Games.
"These days, AAA titles require huge teams and can take years to make", says Welch. "When we started at id Software, there were still around 30 employees. By the time we left, there were around 200. iOS titles and the app store channel were an alluring platform that would allow just a couple guys and some extra help to create really cool games. It didnít hurt that there were early stories of people making loads of money, but I think we went into it with realistic expectations. In the end, it was about simplifying things and making the game we really wanted to be working on."
"iOS is an indie game developerís dream come true."
And so they created Orc, an action RPG for iOS--a platform Welch calls "an indie game developerís dream come true"--that stars an Orc warchief who's out for revenge against an ancient evil known as the Dark One. An Orc isn't the classic hero character you might expect, but for Welsh, taking an "unconventional approach" resulted in a much more endearing character, one that makes the player feel more powerful, and more imposing than a traditional hero ever could. It's that power that forms the basis of Orc's narrative, and of course its combat, which takes place in gritty, isometric, 3D dungeons.
If you've played any sort of dungeon crawler in the past, or more recently Diablo III, you'll know what to expect from exploration and combat--just replace the clicks with taps. Tapping anywhere on the screen moves your character; tapping on an enemy launches standard attacks; and tapping objects lets you choose to pick them up or equip them to your character. It's simple stuff, but the innovation comes when more complex commands are required, such as when launching special attacks like dashes, dodges, and sweeping circular sword swipes.
"One of the unique features to ORC would end up being its touch-based gesture attack system", says Welch. "From the start, we didnít want on-screen controls covering up the graphics we'd spent so much time making. Tapping to move and attack seemed intuitive, and that was easy to envision. The gesture-based attacks would come later as we played the game and realised it all just needed to be better. Iterating on gameplay was key."
And so, a series of swipes, double taps, and zigzags allow you to launch different attacks, or buff your health and armour. Not all attacks are open to you straight away, with many needing to be earned as you progress through the game and level up. Not all gestures are opened up to you either, but can be unlocked by purchasing them with gold found along your travels, or by using real-world cash. Yes, there are in-app purchases to be found in Orc, but more often than not we found it was easy enough to earn new abilities and weapons, just by playing the game.
In fact, all the key elements of your character, Health, Attack, Defence, and Vengeance (mana for your special attacks), are linked to XP and level, rather than your purchasing power. Weapons and armour have levels too, which provide different buffs for your character. There's a wealth to choose from, so that everyone from skull smashers to sword slayers is catered for.
Backing up the action is a full narrative, voice acting, and a deliciously detailed 3D world, which is powered by the Unity engine. "We had no interest in writing our own engine", says Welch. "The only way two guys could make a game like ORC was with proven technology and a set of tools that allowed us to work fast. Unity is really an amazing development tool. The ability to extend its tools, its super fast iteration times and its ease of use means that the game was much easier and more enjoyable for us to make."
"We had no interest in writing our own engine. The only way two guys could make a game like ORC was with proven technology and a set of tools that allowed us to work fast."
It's not like development has been a total breeze for Welch and Rutherford, though. Dealing with a new platform, and making in trade offs in the visuals for older generation devices with less memory or processing power has proved difficult for the pair. So too has adapting a genre that is typically played for hours at a time onto a device that is typically played in much shorter bursts. And sure, you can while away the hours in Orc, but Welch hopes that players will appreciate a "robust checkpoint system" that lets you "play for 5 minutes, or sit down and play for 50".
So too does he hope that gamers will appreciate the benefits of iOS, just as much as he does as a developer. "The iOS platform is very appealing in a lot of ways. The App Store has a low barrier of entry and an excellent update system. Combined with a massive install base, it became pretty clear early on that we should begin on iOS. Mobile games really are where itís at now. With one button press, you can buy a new game to play anywhere at anytime. The pick-up and play anywhere method is very different to the sit-down and play of consoles and PCs. Itís also a lot easier for someone to justify spending a few dollars on a game versus spending $60 for a console game."
Like any small indie, Big Cave Games has a lot riding on the success of its first game, though, if our time with it is anything to go by, it shouldn't be worried--a view very much shared by Welch. "Regardless of what happens, we are extremely proud of the game. If ORC is even a mild success, we can keep making games like this. Itís every game developerís dream scenario--creating games they want to make and play, and doing it on their own. Leaving a great company like id in a terrible economy to pursue our dreams was a huge risk we were willing to take. Weíve gone for longer than we like to think about without a paycheck. So in that respect, itís make or break."
Orc: Vengeance is due for release on July 26th for iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad.