The fourth and final installment in the Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness series came out recently, so now renowned indie RPG developer Zeboyd Games is looking to the future. I chatted with Robert Boyd from the company about its recent release and what's next.
The first two entries in the Rain-Slick series were developed by Hothead Games and took the form of 3D cel-shaded role-playing games that parodied a wide variety of popular console titles (including, to my immense pleasure, Shadow Hearts). The planned four-game series was cancelled after the second episode, however, while Hothead went off to develop the marvellous Deathspank series and, subsequently, a parade of increasingly unremarkable mobile games.
"When the Rain-Slick series was cancelled, Penny Arcade considered the idea of continuing the series as a retro-style RPG, but couldn't figure out how to pull that off," Boyd tells me. "Much later, when we released our first RPG, Breath of Death VII: The Beginning, Penny Arcade saw it, enjoyed it, and then contacted us and asked if we wanted to pick up the series from them."
The shift in style from the first two Rain-Slick games to the 16-bit era pixel art of the second two is very noticeable, but did Zeboyd have any sort of "handover" with Hothead to ensure the series had some consistency?
"We haven't had any direct contact with Hothead," says Boyd. "Primarily we've dealt with Jerry Holkins (aka Tycho) and Jeff Kalles, who has acted in a producer role for the game. Working with Jerry and Jeff has been great -- they gave us a great deal of creative freedom, and I feel that we've learned a lot from them as to give our games a higher degree of polish than we did with our first couple of games."
I noted that Zeboyd had primarily had contact with Penny Arcade's writer Jerry Holkins rather than illustrator Mike Krahulik, aka Gabe. Krahulik has been under intense scrutiny recently due to controversial comments he made on Twitter regarding the trans community, and this is far from the first time he has invited the ire of the Internet community. I was curious as to whether or not Boyd felt that the fact Krahulik appeared to be something of a controversy magnet had an adverse impact on the perception of the games they had been making, but he didn't directly comment on this to me.
He did, however, note on Twitter to people asking similar questions that Krahulik had "washed his hands of the series" after Hothead's second game, and appeared to express a degree of understandable frustration at Krahulik's latest outburst -- particularly as said outburst led a number of people to call for a boycott of anything with "Penny Arcade" written on it, regardless of whether or not Krahulik was actually directly involved at all.
Boyd is clearly keen for people to judge the games on their own virtues, however, not by their association with Penny Arcade. Indeed, the Rain-Slick series has always dealt with "alternate universe" interpretations of Gabe, Tycho and the other Penny Arcade characters rather than the exact versions that are depicted in the web comics or their real-life counterparts.
"I believe Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 4 is our best RPG to date," Boyd says proudly. "It's fast-paced, has deep but accessible gameplay that celebrates the classic 16-bit era of RPGs while getting rid of the annoying bits, and has fantastic graphics and music."
It also provides quite a flexible experience with a selection of difficulty modes ranging from what Boyd refers to as "story mode" up to an "Insane" difficulty that requires a deep understanding of the game's mechanics and strategies in order to progress effectively. Those who liked Grandia will also get a kick out of the game's combat system.
Boyd also noted on Twitter that for those who are still concerned about supporting Penny Arcade but who want to play the new game, Zeboyd Games gets the lion's share of the money from sales rather than Penny Arcade. He wouldn't give specifics, however.
Rain-Slick 4 marks the end of Zeboyd Games' association with Penny Arcade, though Boyd notes that the split was "amicable" -- they had just come to the end of their time together due to the completion of the Rain-Slick series. Now, then, it's time to look to the future, so what's in store?
"We got our start with parodying and doing homages to various video games, especially with our first couple of RPGs," explains Boyd. "We love parodies, but since we've been doing them for so long, we thought we'd try something with a little more depth for our next game; it will still have humor and warmth, but we're aiming for more of a Lunar or Prydain Chronicles feel rather than a full-blown parody."
Boyd was coy on details about the new project, but promised to reveal more in the coming weeks.
"For now, we can say that the acronym is CSH, it's set in a distant future sci-fi setting, it's not directly connected to any existing game, and it stars a female protagonist who happens to be a spy," Boyd says. He also later noted that, in a break from the norms of Japanese and Japanese-style role-playing games, all the characters in the game would be adults rather than teenagers.
The development of "CSH" marks an important transitional period for Zeboyd Games in many ways: it not only marks the end of its relationship with Penny Arcade, but also marks the end of their time with the cross-platform development solution XNA, which the team used to develop all its previous games for both Windows PCs and the Xbox Live Indie Games program. Instead, Boyd is moving towards the popular Unity engine for future development, which will make deploying on additional platforms relatively straightforward. He's also planning on using Kickstarter to fund development of the new game.
"We've done a successful Kickstarter in the past (for the PC version of Cthulhu Saves the World), but that was before Kickstarter exploded and before most people knew who we were," Boyd says. "It should be very interesting to see how our new project turns out."
Does the new project being funded by Kickstarter mean that Zeboyd is keen to remain independent rather than working with a publisher, then?
"We aren't necessarily opposed to working with a publisher again," says Boyd. "But it would probably have to be for an IP that we were interested in -- for example, if Sega or Nintendo came to us and asked us to make a new 16-bit style Phantasy Star or Earthbound, we'd definitely think long and hard about their proposal. But purely as a matter of raising funds, I think Kickstarter is a better route for a smaller developer."
Further details on Zeboyd's new project will emerge in the next few weeks -- keep an eye on the team's official website and Boyd's Twitter account for the latest developments, and check out the new Rain-Slick game on Steam.