Interview: ATOM RPG development team

For anyone with a soft spot for RPGs that follow humanity struggling to survive in the aftermath of doomsday, ATOM RPG should come as a new, if curious, wrinkle. Set in a Soviet Russia that experienced Armageddon in 1986, the game takes place in 2005, as players take the role of an undercover operative from a secret bunker society. With a Kickstarter campaign gaining steam, NerdQ’s Erik Meyer chatted with the guys behind the game.

Erik Meyer: The post-nuclear genre has drawn a great deal of attention since the ’80s with games like Fallout, Wasteland, The Fall: Last Days of Gaia, Metro 2033, and others adding to the canon. What does ATOM RPG contribute to the playing experience? What do you hang your hat on, so to speak?

ATOM: Well, the main trump we’ve got in the battle against the classics is that everyone played them for unknown hundreds of hours. We’re the new guys. Our world is open for exploration. It still holds some mystery. Honestly though, we’re not trying to out-do the best. We’re continuing the tradition these games started. As for the newer titles – we’ve got text. Most of the newer projects that take inspiration from Fallout and Wasteland try to mimic those titles, combat and atmosphere-wise. What we’re offering is a lot of text. Unique dialogues with every NPC, role-playing moments in every dialogue, multiple solutions to any quest. Skill and perk-based dialogue options. Whole quests centered on the dialogue text window. The game isn’t finished, not by a long shot, but it already sports 3,000 lines of text. There’s going to be a lot more. For each and every occasion.

EM: Americans have a fondness for decades past (the styles of the ’50s and ’80s, for example); your game takes place in an alternate-reality USSR. What aesthetics make the Soviet era an attractive location, and what are your challenges therein, from the development side?

ATOM: It’s unusual, mainly. It’s exotic. That’s the strongest part of the idea, I think. The region we based our world on, Kuban, near the Ukrainian border, is a very unique place, both in the real world and in ATOM. Historical baroque and modernist buildings mix with the gray-clad utilitarian architecture of the Soviet era. Quaint villages and high-tech factory towns. Amazing forests, lakes, and rivers, neighbored by industrial landscapes. Rich fields and the steppe. But in all of these aspects, a certain colloquial romanticism makes it all just a little bit more special. Now, add nuclear destruction into all of the above!

EM: The game has a page on Steam, and a Kickstarter just launched; as you put your work out into the world, how are people responding? From a marketing and exposure standpoint, describe the current indie sales platforms and social media challenges, as you see them.

ATOM: We consider ourselves to be very lucky people, indeed, in this aspect. As a small team with no ad budget, the only thing we were hoping for was word of mouth and interest from people around the world. And boy did we get a lot of it! Beasts such as the RPG Codex posted news about us, fellow indie devs helped us out a lot, our backers made posts on forums on our behalf, and letsplayers made videos about our game. It’s very humbling and inspiring to see people you don’t know personally take interest in the thing you made. There are nay-sayers, sure. I get where they’re coming from, though. It’s hard to take another Slavic Fallout-inspired game seriously, after most of the previous attempts. But many more people took our game in with much kindness. We’re getting backed by people from all around the world. We get kind, inspiring, and helpful messages every day on all the social media accounts we use. I never thought the “sense of community” was a real thing. Now, I’m a believer, and I want to thank all of our community for the trust and recognition. You’re all on the Atom team now, guys!

EM: The demo drops players into the story and reminds me of Interplay’s work, in terms of HUD, stats, missions, and overall feel, yet you’re using 3D graphics and content of your own design; the demo feels well-executed. What did you see as essential experiences and mechanics, in terms of drawing people in?

ATOM: The village where you begin in the demo is a microcosm of sorts. It’s made up of various content in a small, enclosed region of the world. You have your grumpy doctor, your corrupt politician, your honest old policeman struggling to keep the peace; you have the spy trying to destroy the community, a young girl with big dreams, an old crone with a temper, etc, etc. You take on quests that require different sets of skills and have multiple solutions. You also have a token “Collect five *item name*” quest as an inside joke. And a lucid dream sequence when on drugs. Overall, a nice place to use as the face of the game right now. A place to get to know our world.

EM: Turn-based systems can lead to amazing triumphs in CRPGs, and they can alternatively be broken or slow. As you’ve tuned ATOM RPG, how do you keep it open to multiple styles of play, and how do you encourage multiple solutions in an open world?

ATOM: We just make a lot of options for everything. Certain dialogue options are only available when you have certain perks, skills, or linguistic abilities. Certain object-related quests can be solved by brute force, guile, or getting the right tool. Certain quests have multiple endings, depending on the role you played in the world before and your reputation with some of the people. There are checks for everything – from your Dexterity stat to your knowledge of street talk. If the check is passed, a new option is made available when in dialogue or while doing a quest. Everything is varied, but no skill set will ever get more or less attention than the rest.

EM: The game’s genesis was in April of 2008; it’s been nearly a decade since that point, and your team has picked up skills, shelved ideas for a time, and ultimately rekindled the project that got you so fired up in the first place. What do you see as important aspects in this process, and how have you or your team changed/risen to the occasion?

ATOM: Our project’s destiny has a lot in common with a typical myth or fairytale. The young hero doesn’t have enough strength to complete a task, so he goes out into the world for a long journey. Later, he comes back strong and experienced and completes the task that sent him on this quest in the first place. In 2008, we recognized our lack of skills, so we went on to study our trade and to work for bigger, more popular dev companies. As we grew, though, ATOM did not want to sink into obscurity. We talked about it all the time, sharing thoughts and ideas. Now, we trust our experience, and we’re ready to make it a thing.

EM: Games used to be made in isolation, and studios kept things hush-hush until a final product released. For larger studios, that’s still true, to some extent. How do you see the game industry changing and evolving? Where do you see indie studios heading?

ATOM: I can’t say that our team’s actions in this regard are the most commercially viable (let’s face it, they’re probably not) but we still stick by them. What we do – is we give it how it is. We do not promise an amazing, flawless game. We don’t say we are better than the rest, that we are unique, that we are the best thing since Wasteland 1 hit the shelves. We are self-conscious about our project, we’re open, and we try to be honest. Sometimes, brutally so. If you want proof, there’s that “Risk” section on our Kickstarter page. It’s rather large. Much larger than ordinary. That’s how it should be, in my opinion. There are no flawless games, there are no commercial projects without risk, and there are no ideas that can’t become better. There are only people who market their games as flawless. Most of them get infamy after getting caught in lies. So why lie in the first place? I don’t know whether our way is the future of the industry or a doomed branch of the evolution of marketing, but it fits us just fine.

EM: If I were to craft a short list of words describing the post-nuclear genre, I’d include radiation, Hazmat suits, gas masks, resource scarcity, mutants, bunkers, bombs, industrial laboratories, and ghost towns. What would you add to that list?

ATOM: We’d add poverty, disease, total obliteration… But also change, adventure, exploration and many fun times ahead!

EM: As you enter the home stretch with ATOM RPG, describe the state of your team and the project; what’s on your mind? What loose ends are you tying up? What does your day look like, and what stands at the horizon?

ATOM: We’re tired. Physically. It’s hard to get much sleep these days. But we’re also psyched. Big time. We’re constantly working, and we’re hoping for the best. Our days look pretty chaotic because of this. It’s mainly the same old routine – day job 8 to 5, then Atom all the way until midnight. Maybe some food and drink in the intermission. Rinse, and repeat. We’re not trying to whine, though. The work is amazing. It makes us feel truly alive – with all the support and all the fun stuff we get to do in the hopes of becoming a small dot on the gamedev map.

In case you missed it, here’s the ATOM RPG trailer:

Author: Erik Meyer

Erik edits content, writes articles, conducts interviews, and draws silly things for The NerdQ. He also produces Planning Session, a comic showcasing dev discussions.

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