Rogue Snail founder Mark Venturelli on the logic of hairy Vikings and evil mollusks doing battle in space, why a game should be its own tutorial, and how a developer can pass the Mom test
Star Vikings Forever is, as Mark Venturelli says, “a weird game.” A puzzle/RPG hybrid about marauding Space Vikings squaring off against bad-tempered intergalactic snails, it’s not easy to categorize. But it is pretty easy to pick up and play and get sucked into, which surely helps account for the game’s success to date.
Winner in Best Game Design at the Brazilian Independent Games Festival and named Best Indie in Google Play’s Best of 2017, the game debuted on Hatch Beta in December and has been lighting up the content flow ever since. To find out more about how Star Vikings came to be, over Skype I chatted with Mark, the Brazil-based founder of studio Rogue Snail, who created the game and then developed it further in collaboration with publisher Akupara Games.
When did the studio get started, and how many are you?
Back in 2010 I had cofounded Critical Studio in Rio, and in 2013 we shipped the game Dungeonland. We had never made a game before, and we sacrificed a lot and poured a lot of resources in to make the game happen, copying the way big foreign studios work -- at one point we had almost 20 people on the payroll, taking up a whole floor in an office building in downtown Rio. The game finally came out, and even briefly made it to No. 3 on Steam. But after the dust settled, we saw ourselves back in the same position as when we started. We couldn’t go through it all again. So we decided to close the studio, and I created Rogue Snail.
At first the company was just me. In the aftermath of Dungeonland, I spent a year backpacking around to all the different states in Brazil -- that’s where the snail comes from in Rogue Snail -- getting to know different developers and trying to figure out a smarter way to make games. Eventually I started working with collaborators from all over the country, each of us based remotely. Today we are 4 partners, with a total of 9 people working on our current project Relic Hunters Legend, and we still don’t need an office.
What’s the game dev community like in Brazil?
Brazilians are very creative people, and the current generation is the first that really grew up playing video games. And so in the past ten years, a very friendly and open community of hobbyists and professionals has grown up in Brazil. But there’s still a relatively small number of people who can make a living off of games full-time. That’s starting to change, thanks to investments made by the government in the Brazilian games industry, helping more people to make the jump from part-time hobby to full-time business. You’re starting to see a new and maturing industry growing on top of a very healthy community.
Why should people play Star Vikings Forever?
Because it’s really hard to describe it if you don’t! It’s a game I’ve given up trying to explain to people. I’ve just started saying, “It’s weird. Play it.”
I was very much inspired by old school PopCap casual games like Insaniquarium and the original Plants vs Zombies. The idea behind those games is that they treat the player as if they’ve never played anything before. But with each new level, you learn a new thing, and then another new thing, and then another, and another, and so on. To the point where, without you really noticing it, you’ve become a really hardcore player and you’ve mastered a super complex system of mechanics and rules, and you’re loving it.
I will say that Star Vikings Forever is the only game I’ve made that passes the Mom test -- I can put it in front of my Mom, leave the room and when I come back she’ll still be playing. It’s also a game that I can give to my hardcore gamer friends.
There’s a lot of tactical depth at hand, especially the more lanes and characters you start working with. Was it a challenge to make the game work for mobile as well as it does?
My original intent, when I first designed the core mechanics and before I had even started Star Vikings as a real project, was to make a game for iPad. So touch controls had always been part of the thinking. In the event, we ended up launching on Steam, as that was the market we were most comfortable with. So going to mobile afterward wasn’t that hard, technically.
But considering how deep and hard-core the game goes, as were making the game, we spent about a year not on a tutorial -- the game itself should be a tutorial, if you think about it! -- but on the first time user experience. To make sure that anyone could pick it up, start playing and get as good as I was. That is super important.
What made you want to put Vikings in space? Against killer snails? How do you approach story in game design?
In the past I have been a very mechanics-driven designer. And usually the story would come in later. Nowadays I’ve changed and I think of story differently. For example if you look at our game Relic Hunters Zero, the world and the lore are just as critical as the mechanics to understanding the game and making it fun. I think I started to change with Chroma Squad, a tactical RPG I worked on for Behold Studios that really helped me to understand the value of building a game around story from the ground up.
But with Star Vikings Forever, which I had started a long time previously, the mechanic definitely came first. At first I had called it Adventure Company. But long story short, some game artists -- my former colleagues at Critical -- took the game concept and ran with it, and brought in the Vikings and snails and came up with the name. I didn’t create the characters, I didn’t create the story, it was all my former art team running amok and having fun, making the game they always wanted to make! But I loved what they did, and I continued to develop the game with the new story and characters.
Relic Hunters Zero was self-published, but for Star Vikings Forever you’re working with Akupara Games. What’s that been like?
When Akupara first came on board, “Star Vikings” was pretty much finished, but with their help the game became Star Vikings Forever. They made suggestions for changes that a fan would make, because they’re fans themselves. As our publisher, of course they want to help the game sell as much as possible. But the changes they encouraged didn’t necessarily help the game sell more, but they definitely make it more fun to people already enjoying the game. And I think that’s great, and a real service to our players. Especially for a premium game, most publishers just want to frontload everything they can and they’re not really interested in long-term player engagement or staying power. Akupara have taken a different approach and I’m super happy. They have become friends, more than just co-workers.
As a platform, what appeals to you about Hatch?
I think that platforms like Hatch should be the future of the industry. I’m a huge believer in everything -- not just games -- but everything being delivered as a service instead of a product. I think a lot of the problems we have in the world right now could be mitigated if thought of in terms of service rather than product. That’s a larger conversation, but stuff like Netflix and Spotify are steps in the right direction for the film and music industries. For games, I’m surprised that it still hasn’t happened fully.
A format like Hatch’s allows us to be creative as an industry, like we always have been, but at the same time meeting the needs of this new type of consumer that is stressed out, browsing thousands of paid games on Steam, not knowing if they will like your game or even spend 15 minutes with it or not. The Netflix-like format changes completely the relationship that the consumer has with the games, and removes that stress, and grows our potential market significantly. As a developer, whatever I can do to support things like Hatch, I’ll definitely do! I’m rooting for you guys.
Great to hear. Thank you!
Joseph Knowles is Hatch's director of communications.