Random encounter: A hands-on preview of Warhammer Quest

By Owen Faraday 15 Mar 2013 0
Be prepared. You never know who you'll run into.

On an unusually cold, sunny day in June of last year, Ben Murch and Laurent Maguire had just taken their seats on a flight leaving Heathrow bound for the US.

Murch and Maguire were neighbours in Guildford -- mates who had spent many an evening talking video games over pints at the pub. Those chats grew in scope and ambition until they burgeoned into a plan: start their own games development house, and make a turn-based strategy game for iOS. The two had spotted what they saw as a gap in the marketplace. "Nobody was getting it right," Maguire said. "iOS games were mostly clunky action games with virtual joysticks that were horrible to control. Making tactile controls for a strategy game just clicked."

It was either an inspired play or a career suicide pact: to form Rodeo Games, Maguire had put his successful web development business on hold and Murch had left his job as a senior artist at UK gaming industry institution Codemasters. Their success or failure hinged on Hunters: a sci-fi turn-based strategy game that the two co-founders admitted was aimed at a fairly niche audience.

The duo had given themselves eight months to build their first game and prove that Rodeo was a viable enterprise. Nine weeks post-launch, Hunters was selling reasonably well and had garnered critical acclaim, but the future of the Rodeo Games experiment was far from assured. The trip to E3 was a reward -- a chance for Maguire and Murch to escape the cloister of their tiny Guildford studio and stretch their legs for a bit. "Let's not talk business on the flight," they agreed.

After they'd settled into their seats, another passenger arrived to squeeze into the unoccupied seat in their row. Murch, the ebullient Webb to Maguire's sensible Mitchell, made introductions. The new arrival asked if they were headed to E3 as he was. Maguire said yes, and told him that they made iPhone games.

"Anything I might know?" the man asked. Maguire and Murch told him about Hunters, whereupon the man laughed and reached into his pocket for an iPhone. He swiped a couple of screens over and held the device up, showing the duo the icon for Rodeo's game. "I love Hunters," he said. And then he introduced himself.

The third man in Murch and Maguire's row was Andy Jones, the designer of Warhammer Quest and Games Workshop's Director of Licensing. Turns out that they talked business on the flight after all.


Rodeo's office in Guildford. Where the quest gets made.

A few weeks ago in February, I visited Rodeo Games in their unassuming two-room studio in Guildford, across the street from the kind of boozer ("Guildford’s oldest and most haunted pub") you can only find in England. A five-foot-tall Norse Marauder cutout stands a grim watch over the stairs on the ground floor that take you up into the studio proper.

"Games Workshop has sent us tons of stuff." Maguire says, smiling. "They send us armies and posters and, well, you name it really."

Following Murch and Maguire's chance encounter with Andy Jones on the flight to E3, Rodeo and Games Workshop hashed out an agreement over the course of a few more meetings, and then Warhammer Quest's development for iOS began right here.

Up in the studio, one of the two rooms is a Warhammer fan's dream come true. Behind the couches set up in front of the Xbox and TV there's a cupboard packed with Games Workshop board games and a glass display case where Warhammer tabletop and Warhammer Quest miniatures leer menacingly and brandish their swords. "Some of these are actually first-edition miniatures from Warhammer Quest," Maguire tells me. "Also courtesy of Games Workshop."

Clearly GW don't want the developers to whom they've entrusted one of their most fondly-remembered board game properties to ever be too far from the artifacts of their vast fantasy universe. "They're very particular about canon," says Maguire. "Everything has to fit, to feel right, you can't break the lore. An orc is not an orc is not an orc -- everything has to meet their standards and a fan has be able to tell an Orc boy from a warboss."

In the other room, there's a array of monitors and workstations set up where Rodeo ply their trade. Code spools down some of the screens and half-textured Skaven and elves look out from the others. The windows overlook the pub across the street -- it's a testament to the studio's discipline that anything gets done at all. "We've grown from four to six in the last year. It'd be nice to be able to grow by that number again this year," Maguire says.

Run you fools. You shall not pass.

Back in the museum room, Maguire and I hunch over an iPad with the latest development build of Warhammer Quest, next to a couple of boxes of the now out-of-print board game. Rodeo's Warhammer Quest follows the path of the source material closely, though not exactly. "GW have been very supportive, any rule we wanted to change we were free to do so," Maguire tells me. "When in doubt, we've gone with the original board game rule, but we've also made changes to the formula to make it play better as a video game."

In Warhammer Quest, the player controls a party of heroes as they battle their way through the dungeons of the Old World. There's an overworld for players to explore, uncovering new quests, dungeons, and settlements. "In the settlements you can recruit new heroes, who all fall into one of these archetypes."

The original miniatures game dates from 1995, when Games Workshop's universe wasn't quite as fleshed out as it is today. The characters in the player's party were simply-drawn fantasy sawhorses: a barbarian, a wizard, an elf, and a dwarf. "Whereas we're using the current day Warhammer equivalent," Maguire, says. "Every hero is completely bespoke. There's one Dwarf Ironbreaker, one Wood Elf Waywatcher, one Norse Marauder, and that's the starting party. Then there's the High Elf Mage, the Dwarf Trollslayer, and the Warrior-Priest which you can recruit from the overworld settlements. There's seven heroes at launch, and each update we'll add two or three more heroes. You'll start with those characters and it'll be a couple of quid for each update to add new characters."

This is the second time I've had a chance to see the game in action -- Maguire showed me an early build of the game late last year -- but I'm blown away by it.

I walk my four-hero party through the first room of the dungeon -- like every other tile in the game it is lavishly adorned with detail. Movement is in real-time and doesn't break from that until there's enemies on the screen, saving a lot of laborious exploring in turn-based mode. When we walk up to the exit of the room, another room descends into view, as though a room tile was being laid in the tabletop game. Once I move my party into that room, a group of man-sized spiders emerges and now we're in turn-based combat.

Maguire explains the sudden apparition of the spiders, who are busy laying into my Dwarf Ironbreaker. "So here you've been ambushed. Enemies have a set 1-in-6 chance of ambushing your party, giving them the first shot at your heroes."

The ambush mechanic is Rodeo's way of instilling a sense of urgency that drives you forward through the dungeon. You can take your time making your way through, healing your party and making conservative explorations, but the more time you spend in the dungeon the greater risk of being ambushed. And your healing potions won't last forever.

Back in the game, my party has gained the upper hand over the spiders. The Ironbreaker inflicts a critical hit on one spider, and the Wood Elf fires off a very unlikely-looking explosive attack on another. ("That's actually a place-holder for an animation we haven't finished," Maguire says a bit sheepishly. "That was the rocket launcher attack from Hunters 2.")

Eek. Arachnaphobes probably shouldn't click this image.

Even in this development build, each of the heroes exudes personality with every step and idle animation. A full dynamic lighting engine even changes the light playing on the characters and the shadows they cast. I can't overemphasize how extraordinary the lighting engine is -- it looks like something from a high-end PC game, and it's purring along without complaint on the iPad in my hands.

I mention to Maguire how different the characters feel from one another, in contrast to Hunters where the player's planet-hopping mercenaries were largely identical to one another.

"That's something we really wanted to capture with this game," he says. "We've put a great deal of effort put into making the heroes distinct from one another."

They've all got unique attacks, for one thing. When the Marauder uses his berserk ability, he'll occasionally inflict damage to everyone in the area, friend or foe. Once engaged in combat with an adjacent enemy you're pinned to him, giving the enemy a free shot at you if you try to move away. The Wood Elf Waywatcher has a bonus to escaping those tie-ups. But it's not just how they play: each hero looks completely different.

"These are full 3D models," says Maguire. "When you get the horned helm or the elven scale armor, you can see it on your character. Completely bespoke armor pieces, completely bespoke weapons." Most items and weapons aren't interchangeable, so each hero added to the game means a huge number of fully-modelled items for each one. "The attention to detail in the art comes out of Ben's AAA background. You expect that level of polish and art in every aspect of the game. You don't want to find a standard iOS widget staring at you because it breaks you out of the world."

That variety extends to the enemies as well -- each one is randomly generated from a selection of weapons and armor that are available to his race and class. Long-pressing an enemy opens up a "journal entry" for each one, displaying his stats and special abilities. You can hack and slash your way through the battles in Warhammer Quest if you want, but players who want to take advantage of the turn-based combat to adapt their tactics around each enemy's weaknesses will have all the information they need.

It's all in your imagination. Remember: the map in the background is not canon.

Now surrounded by dead spiders, Maguire backs us out of the dungeon so he can show me the game's overworld map. This is every bit as detailed as the dungeon is -- clearly environments are something that Rodeo cares about getting right.

"So this is the first region, Stirland, and you progress from here and discover the rest of the map," Maguire says. "Every settlement has new stuff you can buy, new bespoke quests." He touches a settlement and a leather-bound book appears on the screen, opening onto its spine. The town springs up out of the book itself: a mill next to a stream crossed by a cobbled bridge. "The storybook effect is partly just Ben's desire for polished visuals but partly to comply with the one iron-clad rule of Games Workshop: no maps. They don't want anything to be in a canonical location because that restricts everybody that comes after who's making content."

Below the Stirland region there's quite a lot of space on the map, I point out.

"The DLC works into the existing world map," Maguire says. "The Skaven DLC adds a region to the map and then each update adds another region to the map. Some of the quests are linked and there's a story that takes you through the game and through the DLC. It's going to be episodic, so you can progress through your story over the months as more gets added. You can go into the final dungeon early if you like, but it's going to be a significant challenge."

The DLC will be available as in-app purchases, but Maguire is adamant that players will feel like the add-ons are value for money. "We've explored IAPs -- Hunters had credits. If people want to spend more money, okay we let them. IAPs probably accounted for 20 or 25% of our revenue. But we won't make a game where you have to pay to progress, and you hit a wall that stops you. If we can do it in a way that doesn't prevent people from enjoying the game, then that's where we draw the line."

That only counts as one! Twenty-six, twenty-seven..

I ask Maguire if Rodeo had been tempted by the current market forces on the App Store to make Warhammer Quest into a freemium game. He shakes his head. "It seems like a lot of gamers don't have those values that we have, that good games are worth money. I bought maybe three games a year for my NES back in the old days. Games had value. Games are a hobby that I'm happy to spend money on. That's who our games are for, I think. People that share those values."

I amble into another dungeon ("That one's a bit high level for you," Maguire warns) and my heroes are humbled by a group of orcs we find in an icy crypt. I ask Maguire if he and the rest of Rodeo aren't getting tired of making turn-based strategy games, now that they've got two and three-quarters of them under their belts -- soon to be three if Warhammer Quest ships in April as planned.

"Nope," he says, smiling. "I'm happy to keep making turn-based strategy games forever."
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