Games like Call of Duty and DotA require a hefty amount of skill, reflex, and precision, bringing competitive play under a higher threshold. As many players look to practice to excel in those titles, imagine if someone sat you down for a tournament and gave one condition for entry: “you can’t use your hands.”
That’s a normal day for Max Strzelecki, a programmer working on Warlocks, who uses his feet to precisely control a regular mouse and enter commands on a keyboard. An avid fan of the MOBA and FPS genres, Strzelecki hardly ever feels handicapped while performing either rudimentary computer tasks, or precise video game commands. But this isn’t a story about how good his multiplayer skills are, or some hopes of entering pro tournaments. In a way, this is the story of many indies, because Strzelecki never let his condition be a sign of any difference.
This interview was conducted in Polish before being translated to English by the author.
Looking up in Spellbooks
Warlocks is an upcoming adventure RPG game in 2D, weighing heavily on quick spell-slinging action in old-school pixelated-but-detailed art. A group of mages band together to combat evil Shadows that start to invade the human world, wreaking havoc left and right with dark magic, as new heroes join the fray when they are defeated by former characters in climatic, large boss battles. Every character has four complimenting abilities, MOBA style, the last one being an effective Ultimate. All of these can be leveled up by choice and further customized with randomly generated, shiny gear. One of the bigger attractions for the title is undoubtedly four-player co-op, as well as competitive, PvP magic mayhem.
The idea of Warlocks originated at some point on or before December 2013. Dushan Chaciej, a fellow Polish developer, was playing Risk of Rain around that time. He added an important factor to the mix: Magic. Working on the title by himself, in seven days he created Risk of Death, a wave defense game with a few mages. While the graphics are rudimentary, the four skill system was there, monsters spawned and rushed down in series, and even gold floated to the hero in similar way to the modern incarnation of Warlocks. But this was one of many projects Chaciej designed, as he had a fondness for creating systems for board games and RPG systems since a very young age. A fan of text-heavy classics like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment, he found his designing tool, Multimedia Fusion 2, when his cousin introduced him to it.
Chaciej went to work for a bigger studio in Cracow, Poland, called Bloober Team. There, he got his taste of developing in a larger team, enlightening him on the traditional indie vs. AAA differences.
“At first it was tough to adjust. Everyone has work assigned to them. You have to talk to a large amount of people, the work needs to be organized more,” said Chaciej. “People aren’t as much into the project because it’s not their own. Everyone has less influence. You don’t grow as close to the project. You don’t think about it for days, you have more free time for yourself. When you make an indie game, you live with the project.”
Chaciej met Wojtek Wilk, a graphic artist, who also worked for Bloober. Wilk was into Risk of Death, Chaciej’s prototype game, and showed him a few promising art mockups. The game Chaciej conceived as a weekly project grew in possibility. Seemingly there was an opportunity to work on it more seriously, and take it to the next level. As Chaciej joined up with an artist, now he just needed a programmer.
Spells out of Numbers
Max Strzelecki, similarly to Chaciej, early developed a penchant for his current profession. The computer showed up in his family “practically from the beginning.” Strzelecki’s grandfather worked in the army under a technology department. But Strzelecki wasn’t that interested in games initially, just lightly playing 3D platformers like Croc and Kao the Kangaroo. He preferred to hang out with friends outside. However, programming entered his life thanks to an uncle who worked in the same company as his grandfather.
“We talked one-on-one sometimes, and he got me into it,” said Strzelecki. “So that was in grammar school. In 5th grade, 11 years old, I already programmed first walking characters, animations, showing that in school. From that moment, that interest grew until today.”
Chaciej and Strzelecki both live in Koszalin, a city on the north edge of Poland near the Baltic Sea. They met each other in high school, and Strzelecki’s interest in gaming rekindled. They knew each other from class prior to online bouts, something that caught Chaciej a little off-guard, not knowing how really skilled Strzelecki was.
“I only knew him from class, and then at a certain moment in Lineage 2, he wrote to me in-game, ‘this is Max from class,'” said Chaciej. “I couldn’t get my head around it at first, that this is a game on the PC, then I played him in Call of Duty and he was beating me. Now I’m used to it. He’s definitely above average, and that’s surprising.”
The two crossed their game design interests and started working on little projects together. Strzelecki taught his friend some [C] ++ programming. Since 2008, rarely a month passed without some kind of game venture together, some going on for 15 months, and it was always important to finish it, no matter what.
“That’s good experience, and the lone fact of finishing something is also important,” Chaciej said. “It’s a big step when you’re doing this.”
He estimates that about a 100 projects got done before finding that special something that got more serious, like Warlocks. Strzelecki doesn’t have any lofty ambitions or huge dreams. He doesn’t need to be a big, famous, rich developer.
“My dream would be to ‘make it as an indie,'” Strzelecki said. “That the project works out, and if not with this one, then maybe with the next. To make a living out of this, to work and make games that people like. I’m not talking buckets of money, but to survive, and make games on your means. At this moment, I cannot imagine going to a corporation as a programmer. That doesn’t work for me.”
After Chaciej met Wilk, the artist from Bloober Team, and was ready to take Warlocks to the next level, he immediately thought of his long friend, Strzelecki, and got him on board to program for the game.
Yet it’s the indie shows that happened later that pushed Warlocks even further.
Where the Magic Happened
The team brought Warlocks to Digital Dragons 2014 in May to Cracow, one of Poland’s biggest cities and most popular tourist destinations. Digital Dragons is an international showcase for the games industry, with about 600 participants, among them 11 bit studios and CD Projekt RED, 200 game developers and 50 speakers from 10 countries. Chaciej brought his project to showcase, letting people play the Versus mode, receiving a lot of positive feedback for it. This was a key moment for the indie devs, because it marked the beginning of cooperation with One More Level, the studio under which Warlocks is getting finished.
Chaciej and Strzelecki stayed in Koszalin, which is close to 500 miles by driving from Cracow. The two work remotely, hanging out together for about eight hours daily, while One More Level is seated in Cracow. It’s working out well between the members of the team, and Strzelecki has a fairly easy time programming the MOBA-like characters, despite their complicated skill synergies.
“Warlocks is more or less halfway done,” said Radek Ratusznik, producer at One More Level. “We have three worlds, ready, a fourth is getting touched. We have most of the cast ready. The problem is that we’re mainly getting the money to polish it, so that all our ideas get realized. It would be nice to add an online versus mode, but the entirety of the network structure, as we’re looking into different solutions, requires financial backing. We are able to finish the game by our own means, but some things will be lacking.”
The team came together for an event in Gdansk, a Polish port city that hosted World of Gamedev Knowledge. A nine-day conference, it featured over 100 panels and had about 1300 participants. Warlocks garnered an award by popular vote, as attendees hardly wanted to leave the multiplayer magic brawl game. The game also was showcased at Gamescom 2014, and depending on the Kickstarter, it may come to Poznan Game Arena 2014, an expo show coming up at the end of October.
“I’m surprised how supportive everyone is,” said Strzelecki, talking about the media attention as well as his family and friends. “I can’t even get around all that, I’m not all that much interested in it, and I think my close ones are more than I am. They’re happier than I am. I don’t know why. However, I’m focusing on the game, on the job. Because the game still needs to be finished. Time for congratulations will be later.”
Beyond the Slavic Borders
Strzelecki says the most difficult aspects of design are the initial stages, getting the framework together for the game.
“You put a character in, some movement, something else, but there isn’t certainty as to where all that is going. This stage is extremely long, I feel, but when you get through it, that’s when the pleasure from creating comes. Although maybe some enjoy that first stage too, the prototyping. I don’t know. I like it when I have everything arranged, and I can add content and features.”
That’s where Warlocks is, as the final characters are getting done, and the story mode has a lot of work. The plot isn’t a big focus, and the gameplay takes precedence for the team. As Chaciej talked about the importance of finishing projects, he strongly advises against adding new features to ongoing work. Having the scope of the game sketched out, they plan on sticking to it. The decision to add the Wii U as a platform came much later, evolving from feedback they received.
“At first the Wii U wasn’t a platform, but a lot of people asked for it,” said Ratusznik, producer. “Porting that from Unity shouldn’t be a big problem, but certifications are another matter. When you want to put a game on a store, it’s a painful process with certifications and requirements.”
The financial support will shape up a lot of the polish on the game. When creating the Kickstarter, Ratusznik aimed it more for the Western market, especially the States, where indie games are a thriving scene and people are willing to spend money on it. That involved making the video in English, minding small words like “soccer” vs. “football” and generally posting updates when the Americas are awake. On Wspieram.to (“I support this” in translation), a Polish crowdfunding platform, Warlocks got many more Facebook likes than backers, something very telling for Strzelecki.
“In Poland, you know, someone will tell you it’s a cool game, but that doesn’t translate to sales at all,” he said. “It’s growing over here, because of those events, and that consciousness, slowly. Although I have to admit that indie games are not as popular here as abroad. People are still in that mindset that ‘why would we make 2D when we make 3D, why the pixel art, the 8 bit?’ those are the opinions I heard from people. That seems to slow the development [of the indie scene].”
He would love to see even more developers show up and keep the scene growing. With the worldwide success of The Witcher, Poland’s game development scene seems stronger than ever. A few of the past events – Digital Dragons, Pixel Haven, World Gamedev Knowledge – show promise for more awareness and appreciation of independent development. Ratusznik said that a few cities in Poland, especially Cracow, have become a hotbed for regular meetings over beer, and a tight-knit scene where devs help each other out.
Warlocks, which garnered both local and international coverage, has a good chance at improving the mindset.
You can currently support the Kickstarter campaign in its final stages! There is also a free demo to check out the game. The team is looking to deliver a finished title in April 2015.