THQ’s demise in 2013 left a number of game developers displaced, including Vigil Games, creators of the Darksiders series. Two studios spun out of the ashes of Vigil Games: Gunfire Games, who are making Darksiders 3, and Airship Syndicate, whose first game, Battle Chasers: Nightwar, launched last week. It’s a combination dungeon crawler and JRPG, featuring turn-based combat, randomized dungeons, and a striking art style based on a late '90s comic series.
Over Skype I spoke with Joe Madureira, Airship Syndicate’s creative director and CEO (as well as writer and penciller of the Battle Chasers comic), and Steve Madureira, the lead designer and animator for Battle Chasers: Nightwar—two brothers who have been making comics and games since they were teenagers.
When they began working together as adults after the end of Vigil, the first challenge was naming their studio. "Our original name was Chaotic Evil," says Joe. "How badass would it be to walk into a place with 'Chaotic Evil' t-shirts on? We had the logo, the website. Back then we were still working in coffee shops, before we had an office. I noticed our website, ChaoticEvil.com, kept getting blocked. Someone looked back through the archive and found that it used to be a porn website. We were about to make shirts! I knew it was too good to be true."
They settled on Airship Syndicate ('Airship' was taken) to evoke an iconic element common to many JRPGs, and one included in their own debut—a Japanese-style RPG based on Joe's old Battle Chasers comic.
"I left Marvel to do Battle Chasers," says Joe, who had interned with Marvel while in high school before working full-time on major series like Uncanny X-Men, Deadpool, and Excalibur. "I was watching so much anime and playing so many Japanese RPGs. I would buy Japanese game magazines just to look at the art. I wanted to draw comics like that."
This was the late '90s, a tumultuous time for the comic book industry. Many renowned artists were jumping ship from the big publishers to join the then-new Image Comics, who were making waves by letting their artists keep the rights to their own comics.
The Battle Chasers comic was popular, but plagued by delays. Its nine issues were spread over four years, and it ended on a cliffhanger. Joe made the jump to the games industry, eventually co-founding Vigil, then working on two Darksiders games and a canceled Warhammer 40,000 MMO called Dark Millennium.
For a few years after that Joe returned to comics. "I wouldn’t return to games unless it was something smaller. I didn’t want to be an art director at some big studio." At the time of its closure, Vigil games was up to 220 people. "I was envious of these small studios that were like: 'I made this game in my garage and became a billionaire.'"
He became interested in the genre niches indie games were filling, like 2D platformers, adventure games, and 16-bit RPGs. "If I were to do this again, I would want to make these smaller games," he says. Joe and another Vigil Games founder, Ryan Stefanelli, gathered some like-minded developers, including ex-Vigil animator Steve Madureira, and Airship Syndicate was born.
The adventure begins here
"We quickly settled on an RPG," says Joe. "We're getting branded as a JRPG. We're not Japanese, but we love that style of game." They prefer to label Battle Chasers: Nightwar a dungeon crawler with a story, rather than a JRPG with some dungeon crawling. "If you say 'JRPG,' you expect 80 hours of cutscenes, whereas a dungeon crawler has no story expectations," says Joe. "I would've liked to have more story and recorded dialogue, though."
Interestingly, the idea to make an RPG came before the idea to make a Battle Chasers game. "Originally it was an all-new fantasy world with generic character archetypes," says Joe. The team got excited about the idea of using his old fantasy comic, but he had doubts. "I was kind of worried about it. The book's so old. I didn't know if those fans would care, and we were counting on new people."
The Kickstarter campaign proved that not only would fans care, but they would come in droves. Funding rocketed past the initial goal of $500,000, eventually earning over $850,000. "Battle Chasers was perfect for an RPG," says Steve. "It was inspired by anime and RPGs. Now it's an RPG, inspired by a comic, that's inspired by RPGs!"
You don’t need to have read the comics to understand what's going on in the game. Airship Syndicate pulled elements from them, but didn't want to retread the same story. "People who know the comics will know the characters, but otherwise it’s a self-contained story," says Steve. Some concessions and changes had to be made to build a better RPG, but small ones. "Bretto doesn’t have a healing ability in the comic," says Joe, using a change to its war golem character as an example, "But we know we had to make a good game first."
Battle Chasers: Nightwar launched almost exactly two years after the Kickstarter campaign, which was one year after the initial delivery date. "To be fair, the game is about three times bigger than what we originally proposed, and our team had to grow," says Joe. He had nothing but praise for their patient and supportive Kickstarter community: "We did our updates. They knew we were still working on it. No one really complained."
The alpha for Battle Chasers: Nightwar began last spring for select high-tier Kickstarter backers, and the beta launched a few weeks ago, open to all of them. "We had a lot of feedback, bug fixes, and balance changes thanks to our alpha and beta," says Steve. He specifically points to an increase in run speed in dungeons as a highly requested change based on feedback.
In addition to feedback from forum posts, indie developers can now watch players stream their unfinished game as a form of live quality assurance. Most of the problems Airship Syndicate saw players encounter were due to a lack of communication. "We didn't have any description of what the stats actually did in our in-game manual," says Steve. "People weren't realizing that 'attack power' also affected shields and healing, in addition to damage. It was also a lot of little things, like watching players get lost in a darkened area, or not seeing certain objects."
They added a few more tutorials, but were hesitant to hold players’ hands too much. "We tried to make our tutorials as unobtrusive as possible," says Steve. He singles out Persona 5, one of his favorite games, as an example of what they wanted to avoid. "In a [Persona] dungeon there'll be a cool puzzle, but the characters just tell you the solution. That would have been fun to figure out! 70 hours in and they’re still holding my hand."
Battle Chasers: Nightwar is selling well, so are we seeing the beginning of a series? "I had way more fun working with the Battle Chasers characters than I thought I would," says Joe. "I joke that I want to make a sequel where the town NPCs are the heroes. They're all really badass! Why do they need these adventurers anyway?"
Regardless of the game's success, Joe will be making more Battle Chasers comics. "I bet you Issue 10 will come out before the next A Song of Ice and Fire novel," he says, having pledged to resume work on the comic during the Kickstarter campaign. Three new issues are currently in the works. "I've had that burning question for so long. I couldn't just release a game and not put out a few new books."
So what's next for Airship Syndicate? They're currently in pre-production for their next game, which isn't another Battle Chasers game (for now), and surprisingly, not even an RPG, though we'll have to wait for more details. As for returning to Kickstarter? "We're in a position now where we don't have to," Joe says. "We'll see how it goes but I don't think we’ll have to go that route. We'll always work on games we love."
Check back soon for our review of Battle Chasers: Nightwar.