The heroes we deserve: Sentinels of the Multiverse interview

Apparently, The Wraith didn't get the "No Capes" memo. (Image courtesy of Greater Than Games)

Apparently, The Wraith didn’t get the “No Capes” memo.

Wraith checked the time: 11:47. Less than 10 minutes to stop Blade from activating his Terralunar Impulsion Beam and destroying the planet.

She deactivated his mobile defense platform with that last stun bolt, but he had already disappeared into the jungle. She hoped that damnable T-Rex would take him out; it had proved too much for Ra, after all. Relying on hope wasn’t The Wraith’s style, however. She needed to find Baron Blade while his defenses were still down.

As if on cue, an electric green glow erupted from the jungle accompanied by a hum that she’d been chasing for hours. Quickly she hurled three steel knives toward the glow only to hear the lightning-like zap as they stuck the Baron’s reactivated shield.

She scanned the skies for Legacy, but he was nowhere in sight. The Baron’s low laughter rang from the jungle as The Wraith prepared herself for one final assault…

Sentinels of the Multiverse is a classic example of a game that prizes theme over gameplay. None of the mechanisms in this unassuming little card game are unique or even uncommon. It’s not a collectible card game like Magic: The Gathering, nor is it a deck-builder like Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. Rules? Play a card, use the power on a card, and draw a card. What Sentinels of the Multiverse lacks in innovation, however, is more than made up with theme. Here is a fleshed out world of superheroes and super-villains battling it out in a mad dash to either save or destroy the world.

The Wraith, Ra, and Legacy attempt to take out Baron Blade and foil his sinister plans for world domination.

The Wraith, Ra, and Legacy attempt to take out Baron Blade and foil his sinister plans for world domination.

In this cooperative game, each player controls a superhero or a villain, and each character has their own unique deck of cards. The brilliance behind the game is how each superhero plays different and feels a lot like its better-known comic book counterpart. The Wraith (think Batman) has gadgets like Throwing Knives, Stun Bolt and a Utility Belt to help deal more damage each round, as well as cards like Trust Fund which let you use her family’s largesse to draw more cards. Tachyon (The Flash) makes use of speed to draw and play more cards per turn. A huge part of what makes the game fun is figuring out your hero’s strengths and weaknesses and trying to mesh those with the other heroes in your group. Teamwork, not glory, will win the day.

Villains, similarly, each have their own deck, from which pour forth their minions, devices and schemes. There is also an Environment deck which attempts to replicate the wild or mundane locations that your final battle against evil will take place.

There’s a lot going on here. When playing the physical card game, keeping track of all the characters’ hit points alone can be overwhelming. Add to that ongoing effects for every character and it nearly becomes more a game of bookkeeping than butt-kicking.

Enter Handelabra Games.

Back in May of 2012, Handelabra released an iOS app called Sentinels Sidekick which handled all the hitpoint, environment and minion tracking for you. It was a brilliant app, but wasn’t officially supported by Sentinels creator, Greater Than Games, and therefore consisted of nothing but text. Earlier this year, Handelabra and Greater Than Games signed a deal to make Sidekick the official companion application for Sentinels and, more importantly, gave Handelabra the go ahead to create a fully fledged port of Sentinels for iOS.

Sidekick includes the most recent expansion material from Shattered Timelines. Nothing says "villain" like a hat with a plume.

Sidekick includes the most recent expansion material from Shattered Timelines. Nothing says “villain” like a hat with a plume.

I spoke with John Arnold and Jeremy Handel from Handelabra about Sidekick, the full Sentinels of the Multiverse, and what we can expect down the road.

Dave Neumann: Most people probably haven’t heard of Handelabra Games. Why don’t we start there. Who are you guys?

Jeremy Handel: Handelabra Games began life as Handelabra Studio in 2009. The iPhone was in its 3G iteration and I started having some concepts of app ideas. At the time, I was working at an advertising design company doing 2D and 3D animation work so I just sort of let the ideas sit, figuring someone was sure to get to them before me. Plus, I was fairly competent with scripting, but not so much real software development. Over the summer, I decided it was worth my time to pursue some of these ideas as no one seemed to be getting to them. I had known John through the website Ars Technica, specifically the games forum where we had met up to play things like Rock Band and Halo together on Xbox Live. After John developed an online tracking system for the Ars Technica members to compare their Rock Band scores, I realized “hey, this guy could be the missing piece to getting some of these ideas off the ground.”

We tried our hands at several different categories of apps (some more successful than others) until we landed on our first foray into a real game with Uncle Slam. It was actually at PAX Prime 2011, when we were showing off the first playable build of the game, that we were exhibiting right next door to Greater Than Games.

DN: So, that’s where you and Greater Than Games met, and you learned about SotM. Was it love at first sight?

JH: John is the bigger board gamer between the two of us and as they ran us through the game, he fell in love with it immediately.

John Arnold: I picked up a copy of Sentinels of the Multiverse (complete with the now-rare Young Legacy promo card) right there at the show. My friends and I back home played it quite a bit, and ever since I’ve jumped on each expansion and Kickstarter campaign.

DN: So, who are your go-to heroes when you guys throw down cardboard?

JH: I know this may sound crazy from the person making the game, but I actually don’t get to play often enough to have a favorite yet! It’s actually one of the reasons I’m drawn to a digital version. I have 3 kids under 7 and relatively few close friends who share my gaming passions so getting people together to play is actually pretty difficult for me. I’ve played solitaire a few times but running a table with 4 heroes all by myself is a bit daunting. What I really love though is just how different all the characters are. At GenCon, I got to play 4 or 5 times and so I got to try out Unity and Chrono-Ranger each for the first time. I loved how different they each were from each other.

JA: I usually play a random game, but I’d say my favorite hero is The Wraith. She’s admittedly a little overpowered, but sometimes you need it when you’re up against the tough villains! As for favorite villain, Omnitron has always appealed to me. We all have a little bit of self-aware robotics factory inside of us, don’t you think?

DN: And you and Greater Than Games joined up right there and Sentinels Sidekick was the result?

JH: While we’ve known them since August of 2011 at PAX Prime, we’ve been working with them officially since the beginning of 2013. John knew that he’d love to tackle a digital version of Sentinels almost from the first moment he played it but there were some stumbling blocks that we needed to overcome first. Sentinels Sidekick actually began life as hobby of John’s, not something meant to be a commercial product. He just knew that he wanted something to use himself when he played the game.

A new update to Sidekick will allow notes to appear on your hero's card rather than through a menu. For Sentinels players, this is right up there with the invention of the printing press as pivotal moments in human history.

A new update to Sidekick will allow notes to appear on your hero’s card rather than through a menu. For Sentinels players, this is right up there with the invention of the printing press as pivotal moments in human history.

As you know, Sentinels has quite a bit of “bookkeeping” while you play that can add some friction to the experience. We’ve always felt that one of the major strengths of the game is that feeling you get when you get lost in the story. You are participating in an epic battle and having to stop and recount hitpoints, or recalculate an attack takes you out of that. Removing some of that friction really helps the game flow.

To their credit, Greater than Games have always been huge supporters of their fan community and so at the beginning of this year, we opened talks with them about working together in a more official capacity, not only with Sidekick, but also on the full game. Since they know we’re fans of the game, they are trusting us to do it justice. And I think the fact that they have seen how much we respect the property with Sidekick has really helped that process.

DN: And, now with the release of Sidekick 2.0, you’ve got the original art in the app. What other input has Greater Than Games had, or will have in the future?

JH: So from a business perspective the board game side is all theirs and the video game side is all ours. But that being said, it’s their world, we just get to play in it. The job we want to do is to take what really works about the tabletop game, and bring that over into the digital world. As we navigate this, we’ll be checking in with Christopher [Badell] every step of the way to make sure the feel of the game is reflecting accurately the world he’s created. And Adam [Rebottaro] will be supporting us with some new artwork as well. We also plan to leverage the existing fan community to help us make sure the gameplay is working. Their fan forums have no shortage of folks who have offered to help us playtest the digital game at every step of the way.

DN: The most exciting news for Sentinels fans has to be the full port of the game that Handelabra’s working on. What are the differences you guys have noticed creating something from an existing property vs. creating a game from scratch?

JH: On the one hand, it makes our job a bit easier. The mechanics of the game already exist, we know they work and we know they are fun. A lot of the artwork we can use “as is” so we’ve got a leg up there. That puts us several steps ahead of the game in terms of time investment. However, translating an existing property does have its own challenges.

DN: Such as?

JH: The most important elements of the game to me are the story and characters and the cooperative gameplay.

To me, the biggest challenge is going to be preserving that cooperative feel in players that are separated by distance and possibly time. What makes any board game a success, in my opinion, is not so much mechanics or gameplay but how it makes players feel when they’re playing it. A straight port of the mechanics to an iPad, that loses the storyline, or the epic feel, or the feeling of camaraderie that comes from narrowly defeating a really tough villain would be a failure.

2 heroes down, 1 almost dead? Chairman, sir, you are a bitch.

2 heroes down, 1 almost dead? Chairman, sir, you are a bitch.

DN: It seems like there are two camps right now when converting board games to digital. There’s the Agricola camp and the Le Havre camp. Le Havre basically replicated the tabletop experience, looking and playing exactly as if the game were on the table in front of you. Agricola added animation and looked nothing like its cardboard progenitor. Both camps have their defenders and detractors. What’s the goal with SotM? Are we going with decks of cards, or a more “cinematic” look?

JH: I think our version of Sentinels will be somewhere in the middle. We really want to capture the idea of “Heroes battling Villains in a hostile environment” without losing what makes the card game compelling. The example we’re using is Megalopolis. Imagine a view of the characters actually standing on the buildings, facing the villain, and so that’s how you would see who’s turn is next, vs just having a flat plane with all the character cards in order. When it’s your turn, you see your play area with your hand, your active cards, etc, but you still have a sense of the space, the relationship between all of the characters, and what’s going on.

JA: The key thing here for me is to capture the core gameplay of SotM and make it come alive. That means that we’re not getting rid of cards; it’s a card game! But since it’s a digital platform, we don’t have to be rigidly beholden to static images and fixed physical representations. For example, cards can be displayed normally in your hand, but then change form when played to make better use of the screen space and confer information more readily at a smaller size. Ongoing effects, damage types, and other elements can be represented graphically in ways that are more engaging and effective than you can possibly have with tokens on a tabletop.

Our goal is that existing Sentinels players will be happy with the conversion, and new players will be drawn into the experience as much as (or more so) than the physical game.

DN: There are a lot of cards and such in the game, and a table can get crowded fast. Is there too much going on for an iPhone version, or are you targeting iPad only? What about Android?

JH: The initial release of the game is aimed at tablet form factors, both iOS and Android. We’re working in Unity which makes it a lot easier to target different underlying systems, but we really wanted to focus on a single form factor and really nail it before moving on to others. The tablet size gives us enough screen space so the interface won’t feel crowded, allowing us to focus more on the gameplay for this first version and not so much on “how are we going to display all the relevant information on a tiny phone screen?”

I say “the initial release” because it’s a goal of both ours, and of Greater Than Games, to release the game on lots of other platforms. Eventually, we’d love to see the game on consoles, PC, Mac, you name it.

JA: Our goal is for the initial release to have both online and local multiplayer modes. We haven’t nailed down the exact nature of online multiplayer, but as Jeremy mentioned above we want to capture the cooperative feel of the game and that will take some hard work and iteration.

DN: With Sidekick, you guys are right on top of the numerous SotM expansions (currently 3, with the fourth coming early 2014). There are also a bunch of promotional heroes, villains and environments which you guys have included in Sidekick. How with the SotM app handle expansions? Will any expansions be available at launch?

JH: Our current plan is to match our releases to the physical game, along this model. The initial release will match the Enhanced Edition in content, then we would plan to release the Rook City, Infernal Relics, Shattered Timelines and Vengeance expansions as we can get them done. One thing we may do is offer the expansion characters and environments as one-off purchases for 99¢ if there are people who for some reason don’t want everything from a given pack. As far as things like promo characters, well, let’s just say we have some ideas.

Baron Blade. Not since Evil Spock has so much menace hid behind a goatee.

Baron Blade. Not since Evil Spock has so much menace hid behind a goatee. (Image courtesy of Greater Than Games)

DN: The number of expansions ties into the number of heroes, with each expansion bringing more heroes into the game. How will heroes be handled? Will players receive all heroes upon purchase of the game, or will you have a “Summoner Wars” model giving 1 or 2 free heroes with the rest available as IAP? I guess I could ask the same question for all the different Villains and Environments.

JH: The short answer is that this is still very much an open-ended question. For a bit more detail: obviously, “Free to play” is a bit of a buzzword in mobile.  Everyone gets stars in their eyes that you’ll have a million free users lining up to buy your In App Purchases but the reality is that the competition for free apps is actually much, MUCH harder than paid apps. And honestly, Sentinels of the Multiverse isn’t Candy Crush. It’s a deep and complex game with lots of subtlety in the gameplay. We believe pretty strongly that people will pay for good games and I think the market bears this out. Minecraft on mobile has sold more than 10 million copies at $6.99. Other games in this category also make “premium” pricing work like Ticket to Ride at $6.99, Carcassonne at $9.99 or Catan at $4.99. Magic is a bit of a hybrid in that you do get the base app for free to get a taste but you need to pay $9.99 to get the “real” experience.

DN: Last question, and I’m only asking because I’m legally obligated to. Any idea of a release timeframe?

JH: Our stated goal is Spring of 2014 and that’s all I’m going to say for now. We’re not showing anything yet because I feel like, once you put something out there, people either love it, so they’re disappointed if it changes, or hate it and immediately start to prejudge the game based on something very rough. Let’s just say that we’re pretty excited by how it’s looking and we think the fans will be too.

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