Interview: Jasper Koning of Romino Games

As the worlds of console and computer gaming continue to inspire and compliment one another, there are some who have convinced themselves that some lines should never be crossed.  Such has been the fate of the console RTS, which despite recent (financial) successes has yet to convince its primarily PC audience that console strategy can work without the keyboards and mice.  But all that’s about to change, thanks to download dreams and barbarian barbeques.

To help figure things out we recently sat down with Jasper Koning of Netherlands-based Romino Games, the studio behind the critically-acclaimed RTS hit Swords and Soldiers for Nintendo’s WiiWare service.  So just how did one independent studio deliver one of the most compelling (not to mention hilarious) console RTS to date?  Fire up the grill and pass the mutton, because we aim to find out!

Congratulations on the success of Swords and Soldiers, one of the most accessible RTS (real-time strategy) games I’ve ever seen a home console.  I think it will surprise people who might have otherwise given up on the notion that solid, well-playing RTS adventures can exist outside of the world of keyboards and mice.  Has the game’s reception surprised you, or has it helped validate the project’s ambitions?

When we started building the game, it struck us how much fun it actually was. And this was at a very early stage, so we knew it would only be a matter of proper execution to make the final product fun for the player. But still, we didn’t know what to expect, since it’s such a new concept. We knew the game was fun, but we weren’t sure if everybody would ‘get’ it. So yes, it was a surprise.

What was it about the Wii that enticed Romino Games to choose the platform (specifically WiiWare) over other download-ready gaming consoles, since little waggle controls are used when actually playing the game?  Was it the pointer-options the Wiimote provides?

The most important factor was obtaining a Wii license first. And since WiiWare is completely open to any licensed Wii developer, it was super easy to get started. But the pointer was indeed another important aspect of bringing Swords & Soldiers to Wii. It’s simply not possible to keep the controls so simple and fluid on another console. The final aspect was that it’s easier to stand out on WiiWare, since there aren’t that many quality games on the service yet.

I think people would be surprised to learn that Romino Games created the original version of the acclaimed de Blob franchise.  How did the company go from colorful blobs to whimsical RTS adventures with Sword and Soldiers?

We’re always about striking the perfect balance between accessible and deep gameplay. Having an extremely fun core, which is easily understood and offers lots of replayability. With de Blob, we leaned way more towards accessibility, but that was mostly because the game was originally designed to keep players entertained at a stand, for 20 minutes tops. As for changing genres, that’s easy. If we find something fun, we’ll try to expand upon it, and it doesn’t really matter in which genre the resulting game falls.

Halo Wars (for the Xbox 360) was quite successful, although outside of consolidated controls and the Halo license did little to tailor the experience for the platform.  Was it a challenge to create an RTS with less of the hardcore elements of its big brothers and expect it to perform anywhere near as well?

You can obtain depth by overloading the player with features and options. But we wanted players to get to the good bits, fast. And the good bits in our minds come from when the player understands all the options and can start considering and trying new strategies and tactics. Because that’s the most satisfying aspect of strategy games. Then it’s just a matter of making all the spells and units unique and interesting.

About the game itself, the art style is absolutely gorgeous! Lush and colorful – it appeals to the kid in all of us as well as our whimsical side. Is that a personal preference of yours, or is there a game or cartoon series that was influential in helping bring this design out?

Thanks! The most influential was an animation during the ending credits of a animation short called ‘Super Moine’. We also have an artist who has a knack for drawing hilarious cartoon characters, so we used his style as the base for our characters.

With the success Swords and Soldiers has seen on the Wii, are you planning on porting it to any other consoles, and if so which platforms?  Any chance we will see any changes or enhancements (i.e. online play)?

We are considering all the options. Platforms with mice or touchscreens are obvious choices because of their ability to emulate the cursor, but we still haven’t decided yet. We’re also considering online, but it’s hard to ensure that the community is large enough for everyone to find a proper opponent. But chances are pretty good that this won’t be the last you hear from Swords & Soldiers.

With the game’s intuitive controls and sense of style, it seems a shame to waste on just a single release.  Any chance we could see a sequel anytime in the near future?

We have plenty of ideas and we love to do a sequel. Hopefully we’ll find the time and budget to do so in the future.

Sometimes, you have to keep it simple. Do you feel that creating this kind of simple and enjoyable RTS is the right move in order to draw and expand the genre a new audience outside of its traditional PC demographic?

We know for a fact that there are lots of gamers who have played the first few RTS games out there. Games like Dune 2, Warcraft, Age of Empires and Command & Conquer. But somehow along the way those games became to complex for newcomers to pick up and to stale for gamers who already knew them. So yeah, we think the genre could definitely use some new ideas and a renewed focus on accessibility and fun.

I’m curious, what kinds of titles are you enjoying right now?  Does anything in particular stand out?

A week ago I finished Plants vs. Zombies and Prototype, both great games! Another great game which struck me was Braid, which I played a little longer ago. And now I’ve started playing Fallout 3, since I have some time off. I’m liking it a lot. A lot more than I had anticipated.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, and best of luck with Sword and Soldiers.  Before we go, do you have any parting words of wisdom for other aspiring independent developers hoping to break into the market?

Thank you for your coverage! As for breaking into the market, make sure your game is entertaining, and easy to pick up. Get as much outside opinions on your game as possible. If you are afraid to do so, because they might not ‘get’ it, they probably won’t. And if they can’t get it, there is something wrong, because they won’t buy the game when you’re done.

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