Patric Mondou is the creative director of Mages and Mystralia and a former lead game designer at Gameloft Montreal, where he helped develop some of the studio’s most critically acclaimed franchises, Modern Combat and Dungeon Hunter. With Borealys Games in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign, and NerdQ’s Erik Meyer leapt at the chance to chat him up.
Erik Meyer: Describe the genesis of Mages of Mystralia; which elements did you have on the table from the beginning, and which things did the team have to sort out as it went along? What have you come to see as the core of the game, now as opposed to when you started?
Patric Mondou: Along with studio co-founder (Louis-Felix), I wanted to make a game about magic. It’s a concept that has been floating around since we were undergraduates. Years later, we came up with this idea that the elements of a spell could be connected, like nodes in a network or like atoms in a molecule, and their respective position in the network would transform the results. When we started working actively on Mages, we thought we had it nailed. But we’re natural-born designers, so we wanted an experience, not just a system, and our initial designs for the spell crafting system fell short of delivering an accessible, immersive experience as a mage. So we redesigned it many times during production. It’s not the only thing we had to improvise with; for a while, our art direction was unclear – can you imagine we first wanted 2d sprites (à la Don’t Starve)?
EM: The game features involvement from some really big names (Ed Greenwood, the creator of Forgotten Realms, music by Shota Nakama, Final Fantasy XV, Kingdom Hearts II.5 HD Remaster, etc.); how have these diverse talents combined to the overall vision and feel of the project?
PM: In the last two and a half years, every time we felt our team had a weakness, we went ahead and poked the very best we could find in that field. We were very green with business development and we reached out to Dan. We felt that none of us were skilled enough an author to develop a top-class fantasy world; we reached out to Ed. Our composer Antoine felt that the soundtrack he composed should use real instruments and orchestration; he contacted Shota. We’re committed to doing the best we can, but sometimes admitting that we’re not the best in a specific field is very important. We trusted in those people’s talent and vision, and they believed in ours – otherwise they wouldn’t have accepted, I suppose!
EM: The spell crafting system sets the game apart from other fantasy universe projects, noting four spell types, four elements, and 18 runes resulting in a high level of customization. What challenges have you found in balancing this mechanic?
PM: I once met with Bruce Nesmith (AD&D designer and creative director of Skyrim), and he gave me a good lesson in balancing when I hinted that Skyrim was not very balanced. He said: sometimes a perfect, symmetrical balancing can ruin a game. He gave me good examples that I will not repeat here, but I can think of some too: D&D 4th edition, for example. As soon as we started the project, we knew that balancing the spells would be a big deal, so one of our first decisions was to avoid any form of gradated damage upgrades or progression (no numerical min-maxing). In essence, we wanted to stay away from Diablo-like or Lichdom-like damage optimization, instead focusing on behavioral and spatial optimization. The whole thing is managed by mana, so hopefully imbalance will not be game-breaking. However, there are some very strong (borderline OP) spell designs in there, but if players are clever enough to figure them out, they’ll just feel good and powerful. We’re not preventing that but simply seeking to provide end-game content that will challenge even those skilled spell designers. That’s partly what our Kickstarter campaign is about.
EM: The models, color scheme, shadow effects, and overall cartoonish appearance of Mages of Mystralia create a playful mood and invite exploration; what kinds of considerations serve as a compass, and what games do you look to for aesthetic inspiration?
PM: Initially, we thought that having a low-detail cartoon art direction would help with the game’s technical performance, but it didn’t so much. We had fully embraced that choice, however, and decided to go along with it, since it was so refreshing and interesting. In the early months, we studied 2d games and animation films to try and infuse Mystralia with a cool European comic vibe. Mystralia was meant to appeal to everyone, so it made a lot of sense. Later, we broadened our references to include cel-shaded videogames like Zelda: Windwaker or Ni No Kuni. Although we’re technically not cel-shaded ourselves, we did learn a lot by studying those games.
EM: Borealys benefits from Kickstarter (the current campaign has gone far beyond its goal) and the financial support of the Canada Media Fund; how do these revenue streams impact the work you do, and what challenges did you have in the crowdfunding effort?
PM: Our studio was funded by the CMF and private investors for 30 months of production. It was a lot, but knowing that we had an ultimate deadline put a lot of pressure on us and might have forced us to release a game that we were not 100% satisfied with. In video games, getting a game done is one thing, but getting a good game done is a feat that requires time. Our initial funding really allowed us to make a large-scope game and build strong foundations, but it’s really only in the last 6 months that everything fell into place. Every month, we had a new version that looked twice as polished and felt twice as fun as the last. After the holidays, it became obvious to us that extending our production by even a few months would have a huge impact on the quality of the game – and we’re in this business because we love games. Making a Kickstarter campaign was a hard decision and a risky one, because we feared that some in the Kickstarter community would consider our game done and not get why we wanted extra budget. Now, we’re relieved to see that players want our game to reach its full potential, and we’re ready to deliver that.
EM: The game has received a fair amount of attention through PAX conventions, garnering praise and exposure. What do you see as critical for indie games in these contexts, and with so many games in production, what have you done to separate yourselves from the pack?
PM: I personally know so many indie developers who make beautiful innovative games and struggle to survive as a company. The toughest thing in today’s indie scene is that devs don’t only need to make games, they need to be out there in shows, connect with press, publishers, other developers, distributors… The indie industry has grown so big that you can’t just be an indie now to attract some attention. If you’re not too confident you can do that, you need to team-up with someone who can, and that’s what we did with Dan.
EM: Brian Clevinger (Atomic Robo) and Carey Pietsch (Adventure Time, Lumberjanes) contribute a comic to the website. How did this collaboration come to pass, and how do you see the comic as contributing to the effort as a whole?
PM: We were brainstorming ways to promote the game way before launch. And one of the issues is that our visuals were not polished enough yet. There’s also the fact that the lore created with Ed’s help was very deep, and we were seeking extra ways of exploiting that. Since our art direction was very much inspired by comics, we thought that a Webcomic was the perfect opportunity to do both at the same time. Dan (speaking of the devil!) knew someone who knew people (Brian and Carey!), so we started talking and in only a few days, everyone was on board.
EM: Describe Borealys as a team/company; every development dynamic is different, and what makes your process unique? In addition, how has team collaboration played into asset creation, features implementation, and the need, when necessary, to make hard content decisions?
PM: I feel that Mage’s team is the perfect size. Some of us here (myself included) were used to much bigger production teams. It was very refreshing to be able to get my hands dirty and have a closer look on what was going on in all aspects of production. Throughout the project, we tried to welcome ideas from everyone, regardless of their roles. The game’s development really flowed naturally, with us never having to make drastic totalitarian decisions until the very end 😛 We were guided by instinct, and that felt very good, as opposed to being guided by business decisions in larger companies.