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Muse Games Innovates and Annihilates with Gun of the Icarus: Alliance

Muse Games Innovates and Annihilates with Gun of the Icarus: Alliance

Muse Games is a New York-based indy developer that’s made a monumental mark on the all-too-rare genre of steampunk aerial warfare shooters with Guns of the Icarus. And the newest installment in that series, Alliance, docks this with year guns blazing, engines blasting, and a whole slew of new cooperative features. We had the prime opportunity to speak at length with Muse’s project lead, Howard Tsao; getting tidbits about this new game, some teases regarding Muse’s next titles, and even some deep perspective on the process of making games.

Muse is a fairly young studio, having only stepped onto the indie gaming scene in 2010 with the first Icarus game. What brought this team together?

We came together by chance and in a way unexpectedly. Before we made our first game, we were working on this project integrating web contents, such as travel journals, with 3D visualizations. For example, a virtual globe that pins where people have been to and displays the journals along with photos. Two of us met randomly on Craigslist, followed up, and got started. Then, we brought in a classmate who brought in a friend.

As we went down that trek in the early days of creating virtual spaces, we discovered a couple of painful truths. One was that there was no money to be made, and as perhaps as a result virtual spaces turned soft porn. Realizing that our days as virtual space builders were numbered, and that we’ve been using Unity, a game engine, after all, the four of us decided to shift focus and do what we’ve always been passionate about, which was to make games.

Had the founders been involved in other studios previously?

Before we made our first game, we’d never worked in the industry. Fortuitously, the Flight of the Icarus was the first cross-platform release on the day Steam’s Mac Store launched. It was also a launch title for the Mac App Store. For a game that took us six months to make and test, it was a success way beyond our expectations at the time, and it gave us the confidence to keep making games.

Could you give an elevator pitch for the Icarus series for somebody who’s never played any of the games before?

Guns of Icarus is all about teamwork, the thrill of getting on massive and diverse turret weapons to blast enemies to pieces, and crewing steampunk airships in aerial combat for supremacy of the skies. It is one of the most, if not the most, teamwork oriented experiences, where people win or die together, and where ship is the combat unit.

What was the kernel of inspiration for all the steampunk air warfare?

First and foremost, we really wanted to make getting on big guns and blast things to pieces a core of a game experience. We thought about turret shooting mechanics in shooter campaigns, and they were always very transitory and scripted. We thought it would be amazing if that could be a focal point and the core mechanic of a game. We also wanted to pair a repair element with offensive turret shooting, so we started looking at time-management games like Diner Dash for inspiration of our repair elements.

We also loved steampunk, and thought that it wasn’t represented in games much, so we wanted to bring that feeling and thrill of flying steampunk airships to life.

Alliance, the latest Icarus installment, is finally taking off. For fans coming back after Online, what new features and attractions await?  

Alliance is all about teamwork and co-op, where people, ranging from solo to 16 players spanning four airships, band together to take on AI enemy armadas controlled by an intelligent and dynamic AI director. There are seven mission types already to start and quite a few weapons and airships for players to unlock.

If people just want to play with friends or even by themselves, they now can, so it’s more accessible that way. There will also be a lot more in the way of progression. Player progression unlocks new special abilities, such as a shield or a powerful ram, that allow anyone to be a hero in the nick of time but with a long cool-down. Players can join factions, and faction reputation unlocks faction themed airships, weaponry, cosmetics, and titles. Last but definitely not least, the factions are pitted against each other on a Risk-like world map and board. From every mission, players earn loot they can spend to help their factions in territorial conquest and warfare.

Speaking of game mechanics, a lot of the action in Alliance seems to transplant more of the thrust of naval warfare than of aerial dogfights?

While we wanted to make the feeling of flying and piloting big hulking airships as realistic as possible, and thereby making them more lumbering than planes, we do want to give people the ability to dogfight aerially, as well. Ships range pretty vastly in terms of maneuverability, turning, speed, and acceleration. For instance, you have a Galleon that is very powerful but slow to turn and accelerate, while you have a Squid that is small, fragile, but very nimble and fast.

The players, though, have piloting skills, such as rapid turning, ascent, descent, and acceleration boost, that they can equip to accentuate aerial dogfights… We did also adopt nautical designs and terminologies in our ship designs and features such as voice commands. Overall, the game is somewhere between naval warfare and aerial dogfights, which is where we think airship combat should be.

This game was Kickstarted, in part. Has crowd-sourcing freed Muse to develop the game in ways traditional means wouldn’t have? 

In addition to the funds we were able to raise, which were definitely important, the most important benefit from the Kickstarter was getting backers’ help to test and give us critical feedback earlier on. We put our backers and those who pre-ordered through the wringer. They suffered through terrible bugs, crazy hard missions, aggro renditions of the AI director, and more. They found exploits and tactics that we didn’t even fathom, and we then had to teach the AI director to counter them. Getting input throughout this arduous development journey has definitely been the biggest blessing for us.

Have there been advantages to getting input from fans at all these stages?

The early testing also gave us more opportunities to converse one-on-one with many players. We’ve received a 11,000 word dissertation and had many amazing conversations. These relationships we formed with passionate players helped spread the word. Players went beyond the confines of the game to support us, even lending us computers for conventions and helping us with booth duties at conventions!

The plot of Alliance is described as “living history.”  What does the mean exactly?  

With Alliance, we are taking emergent narrative head-on.  The faction conflict is seasonal, and every season culminates in a war, where factions would form alliances, so that players are not only fighting for their own individual factions, but their alliances, as well.  At the end of a season and war, which we estimate to be about a month, the history of the world would be written into a chronicle based on the deeds of the factions and players.  So all the forward-looking lore the players would generate and write through their actions in game.

Alliance gives us so many more opportunities to show off our best attribute-our players. Those who play the most, the best, and the smartest will earn places in the history of Icarus. Players will earn their place in our books that are shared with everyone in the community.

Will these books actually be in print? Do you see any potential in expanding the world of Icarus into other media?

That would be cool! Or we could format and distribute it digitally. One thing we’re looking to do is to partner up with a board game designer who’s interested in creating a Guns of Icarus themed board game. It’s definitely an exciting opportunity. In addition, there are players who are creating pretty epic visual novel projects based the game, and we’re trying our hardest to help them succeed so that their creation could reach an audience.

Has Muse courted the same level of fan participation for other games in its roster? 

We’re fortunate enough to have fostered an indie and passionate community around Icarus. The other games we made were single-player and smaller in scope, so they were not at the same level. With Hamsterdam and our future projects, we’ll definitely reach out to our players and get them involved as much as we can.

Given the positive experience at Kickstarter, would you try crowdfunding again for future titles?

With Kickstarter and crowdfunding, we definitely would consider again.These positives have been invaluable. With Hamsterdam, we’d like to try crowdfunding again.

You’ve mentioned Hamsterdam a twice, now. We’ll assume that’s one of your next games? 

Hamsterdam is a beat’em up that involves lots of use of fingers to swipe and tap the screen to attack, counter, and react. It pays homage to Infinity Blade, Super Punch-Out, and Batman: Arkham. It’s about paying attention, reacting and timing enemy attacks, and then frantically beating them to a pulp or executing them.

The game takes place in a town called Hamsterdam. Pim is a kung fu fighting hamster that emerges as the defender of Hamsterdam after his grandpa’s cafe is wrecked by gangster vermin.

Looking at other games in Muse’s roster, there’s a real diversity of design and genre, from the bucktoothed brawling of Hamsterdam to the alien-like critters in the CreaVures platformer. Is there a signature style which fans of Muse will hopefully recognize from game to game?

We’ve tried to explore and find inspirations in different mechanics, visuals, and themes as a team. With the projects we embark on, it’s been more about seeing if we can contribute something to the game world, and bring something new to the table. With CreaVures, it’s about realizing this bioluminescent and organic look that we loved, making an environmental message, and exploring character switching mechanics in platforming and puzzle-solving.  With Hamsterdam, we started it because we could only stare at steampunk airships for so long. Ha ha. But it’s also to see if we could do something new and different with beat’em ups, timing, rhythm, and gestural inputs.

It looks like everybody, from the studio to its fans, is having a ball. We all know game development is hardly a cake walk, though. Do any especially memorable challenges from the production slog stand out?

As luck would have it, we somehow managed to release Guns of Icarus on the eve of Hurricane Sandy. There was a moment of pride and elation when the game debuted on Steam as a top seller. That moment quickly turned into a long waking nightmare, as the server hosting service we used as well as Steam’s servers were both down. We had bugs and missing items that we needed to patch in, but we had no electricity or internet. Our building was flooded, and we had to cross over police lines to rescue our build server to make builds.  Launch week was basically spent watching our lives flashing before our eyes.  Somehow we managed to survive that.

With Alliance, it’s way harder and took way longer than we anticipated.  The work on AI was way more extensive and complex that we imagined, especially given that we had no prior experience doing anything remotely this sophisticated.  There was a lot of trial and error.  Earlier on, sometimes the AI director would spew enemies nonstop, and at other times, the players might as well be sight seeing.

To somehow make it this far is pretty surreal to think about sometimes. We’ve poured everything we had into making Alliance. We’re proud of the work and hope people will enjoy it.

Thanks to Howard for the insights! Are you excited about Alliance? What about Muse’s other games? Sound off in the comments.

Image Credits: Muse Games

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