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The 'Road of Kings' is paved with 38 Studios wreckage and Apple's harpy censorship

by Paul Semel

January 7 2014

Tablet Games 101: We speak with Road of Kings developer Dancing Sorcerer, risen from the wreckage of 38 Studios.

When Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning maker 38 Studios went down in figurative flames last year, it left a heap of wreckage that’s still burning. But from those smoldering remains comes Road of Kings, a turn-based fantasy role-playing game made by three 38 Studios survivors who formed a new indie studio called Dancing Sorcerer Games.

They are Paul Siegel (“I’m a level 7 Engineer/Conjuror”), Michael Woods (level 6 Designer/Enchanter), and James Ball (level 8 Artist/Thaumaturgist), and TabTimes Games spoke with them about the crash of 38 Studios, their new game, Road of Kings, and of course Apple's shameless harpy censorship.

TabTimes Games: Let’s start with the basics: What is Road of Kings?

Paul Siegel: Road of Kings is a turn-based hex crawl, inspired by awesome tabletop games from my childhood in the early ’80s. As a sort of adaptation of a board game, it’s kind of like Warhammer Quest, or perhaps one of my favorites, Knights of Pen and Paper. Except where those games focused more on tactical combat, ours is more about high level strategy and story. You play a barbarian who wants to declare himself king, but needs the cash to back up his claim. You have a set number of days to gather enough loot, with each turn being one day, and you’ll encounter all manner of random events and characters along the way.

You came up with the idea while playing Dungeons & Dragons during lunch at 38 Studios. How similar are things in your games to corresponding things in D&D?

Paul Siegel: Well, when we started playing D&D, we got into the really old stuff: the white box and red box stuff from my childhood that’s having a bit of a resurgence these days. The old stuff is all about exploration and building a collective story out of a lot of random elements. We really wanted to bring that concept forward into video games.

Michael Woods: We also wanted to retain the power of choice in gameplay decisions. The games that inspired us let you make decisions that amount to trade-offs. Should I hire this crossbowman even though my food stores are low? Do I chance travel or should I rest for a day in a dangerous hex?

In the game, you play as a sword-swinging barbarian. But you realize that because your studio is called Dancing Sorcerer Games, people are going to wonder why you don’t play this as a magician who shakes his groove thing, shakes his groove thing, yeah yeah. Well, the ones old enough to remember Peaches & Herb, anyway.

Paul Siegel: [Laughing] I certainly hope so! The name Dancing Sorcerer Games actually comes from Mike’s character in our D&D game: Bazil the Dancing Sorcerer. It was randomly generated by an online name generator and it just jumped off the screen at him. Sometimes when you’re making an RPG character, a catchy name like that can really go a long way to defining his personality at the table. 

What were some of the things that influenced how you’d depict the barbarian?

Paul Siegel: Well, the name Road of Kings comes from a poem by [Conan the Barbarian creator] Robert E. Howard. When we first started working together, I gave the other two guys each a collection of Conan stories, and told them they were required reading. The novels of Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books were pretty inspirational as well.

Michael Woods: But I think it’s also important that we didn’t write too much into the barbarian himself. Similar to D&D, he’s a blank slate who is defined by the player’s actions.

The combat in the game is turn-based. Why did you decide to go this route, as opposed to real-time hack & slash combat?

Paul Siegel: Well, a big part of that is trying to emulate the board and tabletop games we loved so much. But it’s also the idea of keeping the combat light and fast, because combat isn’t the focus of this game. The real joy is in the exploration of the world.

James Ball: I also liked the idea of the game being all 2D, with a style referencing the kinds of illustrations you would see inside the old D&D books. 

You’ve described this game as both “an open world RPG” and an “open-ended RPG.” How so?

Paul Siegel: The openness comes mostly from placement of random events on the map. Though the map is loosely divided into a few different regions, and some events are restricted to certain areas, you can go wherever you want and find different things, any of which may lead to a win…or an amusing, grizzly death.

The game is available on both iOS and Android devices. Are there any differences between the two versions? 

Paul Siegel: Well, we originally targeted Android. But when we expanded to include iOS, we had to make some small changes to suit Apple. Let’s just say that the harpy is a bit more feathery than she used to be.

As we mentioned, the three of you formerly worked at 38 Studios, which imploded rather publicly. How did that experience influence what you’re doing with Dancing Sorcerer Games? 

Michael Woods: Choosing to make a mobile game rather than a console one was based on Paul’s initial game concept and trying to keep the project small. 

Paul Siegel: But the implosion definitely impacted us, both practically and ideologically. None of us are strangers to the volatility of the game industry. 38 Studios was the third game company I had vanish out from under me. It just happened to be the most sensational. So we definitely wanted to work on something smaller scale that would have a better chance of seeing completion, and something that we owned ourselves and couldn’t be taken away from us after months of hard work. Even if we don’t sell a single copy, I think we’re all pretty proud of our game and will always think of it as a success no matter what.

Road of Kings is currently in beta and launches on iOS and Android Jan. 18.

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