Skulls of the Shogun was one of the most striking titles on the show floor at last month’s Rezzed. Of course, it helps that Strategy RPGs are the KINGS OF ALL GAMES but, even aside from that, 17-Bit’s forthcoming XBLA/ Windows 8 title is full of visual and mechanical wonder.

It’s also a game to bring a few first’s to Microsoft’s aging platform, being the first asynchronous multiplayer game for XBLA (I guess we’re not counting Trials’ ghost data competition here) as well as the first title to offer cross-platform play between Xbox and Windows 8. Exciting.

The game’s lineage is impeccable: some of its team members worked on Space Channel 5 (I know, right?!), Rez (I know, RIGHT?!) and that super ambitious Spielberg MMO that was cancelled by EA a little while back. We sat down with Borut Pfiefer to find out more about one of the most exciting downloadable titles of 2012.

What’s your story?

Well, in the game’s story you play General Akamoto, who gets backstabbed in life on the eve of his greatest victory. Then he is betrayed again in death, when he washes up on the shores of the afterlife. His position in the line to land of the dead has been taken by someone else. Instead of waiting several hundred years for the bureaucracy of the afterlife to catch up to him, he charges past the line to get vengeance.

Our story has some parallels – thankfully we’re not dead, but we all got tired of the bureaucracy at larger game companies and wanted to do our own thing.

Are you saying you guys are on an elaborate vengeance mission against John Riccitiello. You don’t have to answer that.

So, describe your game in 15 words or fewer.

I’ll just stick with two – arcade strategy.

Well that’s just showing off. Good work. So, what made you think: I have to make this game?

This sort of game just doesn’t exist out there, and we really wanted to play it. There are a handful of tactics-style games (and almost none on consoles), but they usually fall into the same clunky conventions of the genre.

There’ve been a few notable exceptions from the indie game world in the meantime, like Frozen Synapse. That takes the idea of blending action with strategy in a wonderfully different direction. It also shows what we’ve thought all along, that people are looking for more varied gameplay in this vein.

How long have you been working on Skulls of the Shogun?

Three years. The first 10 or so months were part time, after that’s it’s been full time.

OK, I have to ask this. Apologies. In what ways is the game better than Advance Wars?!

Advance Wars is a puzzle game – Skulls of the Shogun is a strategy game.

Really?

While we love Advance Wars, a lot of times you’re trying to find the one right solution, which is a result of the reliance on rock, paper, scissors mechanics.

With Skulls we wanted to move away from rock, paper, scissors for several reasons. We wanted to allow for more player expression. It’s not about picking the winning strategy, it’s more that you pick the style of play you want (whether it’s defensive, offensive, whatever monks/special abilities you rely on, etc.), and then you have to stay on your toes.

That lets us do multiplayer – it’s just no fun when one player has rock and the other player has scissors for 10 minutes of a multiplayer match. It had to be a much more dramatic back and forth, removing those points where the match is just a slog to an inevitable victory or loss.

OK. Good answer. So, what did you all do before making this game?

We worked in the regular/big/mainstream game industry. Jake (Kazdal, project lead, artist & creative director) started in the game industry as a teenager, working as a game counselor for Nintendo and Enix (those folks that would answer the hotlines and give you tips on how to progress in the game). After that he worked in Japan at Sega on Space Channel 5 and Rez.

I’ve worked at various places like Radical and Sony Online, and Ben (Vance, the third core team member) worked at Criterion and then EA.

Jake, Ben, and I all met at EA Los Angeles where we worked together on a canceled Spielberg project (codenamed “LMNO”). After that we went our separate ways for a bit. Jake moved to Seattle, and then later came to us with the idea that would turn into Skulls of the Shogun.

How did you go about designing the game?

We started with a handful of ideas for a game in this genre, such as not having a grid, and streamlining the typically awful menu selections. Very early on, through discussion and playtesting our prototypes, we settled on crisp design goals for the game – it was going to be a dramatic, arcade-y, strategy game, whose faster pace allowed for multiplayer.

From there we could try new ideas quickly with our small team, and judge them based on how well it helped achieve that goal. If the mechanic ended up slowing down the game at all, it was cut.

That is an excellent way of working.

We only built a couple levels at first, a big one and a small one, to figure out the ranges of sizes for our maps. We kept iterating the mechanics before building more maps so we wouldn’t have to redo the maps much. At that point it was already pretty fun, so we started showing it to people.

With the mechanics fairly settled, we kept refining the visual language. All the strategy elements had to be easy to understand. That got refined as we kept taking it to game expos or shows, having hundreds of people play it, iterating on various ideas of how to convey subtle things like who you can target, if a unit will counter attack, how your health is shown, etc.

What is your favourite moment in the game so far?

This is not in the game exactly, but the most enjoyable part of development is when we’re showing at a festival like PAX or Rezzed. Someone comes up but doesn’t want to play because strategy games are “not their thing”. At that point we usually plead, beg, and cajole them into trying it. Most of the time they’ll play at least one whole match if not more, and when they’re done they tell us they love it.

We’ve always wanted to take this kind of gameplay and bring it to more people to enjoy, and seeing that happen in person has been really rewarding.

Name one way in which being an indie developer is better than your previous job, and one way in which it’s worse.

What’s better is just the everyday aspect of work – no meetings (well, almost no meetings, no boring meetings at least). What’s worse is the constant fear (until the game’s released hopefully) that we will have to go back to working for somebody else at a big company, and lose all that flexibility & creative empowerment.

What’s the dream? Where are you headed next?

Our goal from the beginning has just been to make enough to support ourselves such that we can keep making the games we want.

We haven’t given ourselves the luxury of imagining what’s next, because it all hinges on whether or not the game’s successful (so instead we just work harder on it).

Sensible, but it’s fun to dream, right?

Well, I had another game I was working on when Jake and I originally teamed up, that I’d like to get back to. It’s much more serious (set in Iran during the protests of 2009), but it’s also loosely an SRPG with unique mechanics. Whatever we do will have a similar blend of genre mixing, combining older game styles with more modern tech and design practices.

You HAVE to make this. You HAVE TO. So, what two pieces of advice would you give to someone wanting to get into independent game dev?

It’s been said before, but it’s still the best piece of advice – make games. No matter how simple or basic, you can’t get better at this until you’re finishing things, failing at them, and looking to see what you could have done better.

The second thing is that actually, you can learn a lot if you go to work for someone else before you strike out on your own. You’re learning on somebody else’s dime, both good things as well as mistakes to not repeat yourself. Having that experience has been invaluable to us.

Thanks so much for your time. Hookshot is genuinely super excited about your game. Can we have it now please?