The Founder of D20Studios Ross Przybylski talked about their upcoming game Summoners Fate, explained the development process, and discussed the advantages of turn-based combat.
I’m Ross Przybylski, founder of D20Studios. The team is me, (game development), my wife Kelly (marketing), and Peter Jones (art and animation). We also work with Oray Studios, which does our art production.
I’ve got a Bachelors of Arts in Philosophy and minors in Computer Science and Mathematics from North Central College. I started working while I was still in college at an eLearning company called Reflection Software, where I got to leverage both my creative and programming skills by developing interactive training. One particular project I’m quite proud of was a role-playing simulator we created for Robert Crown Centers for Health Organization to help educate kids on the dangers of heroin.
During this time, I moonlighted as a game developer and did lectures and articles for Adobe on their up-and-coming cross-platform runtime called AIR. Having this technical expertise led to me being recruited by Electronic Arts where I worked as producer managing engineers on various projects including Tetris Blitz, Simpsons Tapped Out, Monopoly, Scrabble, and Minions Paradise.
Developing Summoners Fate
Summoners Fate is the culmination of a life-long legacy and goal of mine to capture the magic I felt growing up playing games like Hero Quest, Magic the Gathering, Warhammer, and D&D. As a hobby, I created my own versions of these games, and over time collected a massive collection of miniatures. My wife and I enjoyed painting them together. I’d host weekly game nights at my house to play them. But, as time passed on, it became harder to manage sessions because the games were too complex and took too long to play.
A friend of mine suggested I create an online version so we could play together more easily, and this challenge led to the creation of my studio’s first game, Hero Mages. When we launched Hero Mages in 2009, we were one of the first to pioneer the combination of turn-based tactics and card play mechanics as well as one of the first PC and mobile cross-platform multiplayer games. But, I still had a lot to learn about game development, so when EA offered me an opportunity to work for them, I put my indie dev career on hold to enter the AAA world.
I became a full-time indie developer in 2016 and committed myself to community-driven development. I engaged a small cohort of our Hero Mages in weekly discussions, pitching a concept called “Prophecies” that would carry on the Hero Mages legacy by adding our top player requested features: single-player campaigns and custom deck building. They playtested early builds, providing feedback and key guidance that helped shape the game that would become Summoners Fate.
Core Gameplay Mechanics
The core gameplay mechanics of Summoners Fate are:
- Strategic Resource Management
- Tactical Turn-Based Combat
- Team and Deck Building
For single-player, you’re exploring different worlds, building your team and deck along the way, and defeating powerful bosses to fulfill the cosmic prophecy. Each playthrough is a unique, procedurally curated adventure that will take about 3 hours to finish, and that gameplay is easily divided so you can enjoy it all at once, or in microbursts of 3-5 minutes at a time. Then, we also have a battle mode that can be played endlessly against the computer or via real-time and async cross-platform multiplayer.
All of our gameplay was thoughtfully designed to solve what we’ve felt is a key problem for gamers today: a desire to feel deeply engaged, but not having time to commit to long play sessions or learn complex systems. If you are curious to hear more on the specifics of that, we’ve actually been releasing some pretty interesting deep-dive articles that you can find on our Steam news feed here.
Turn-based combat has several advantages. Summoners Fate plays like a tabletop board game come to life. This is a battle of wits where you use your creativity to defeat the enemy in satisfying ways - like hurling a squirrel at an Orc, then deciding whether you want to transform that squirrel into a mutant monster or detonate it like a rodent grenade. This demands relaxed pacing that only turn-based can deliver. You have time to not only think but also the freedom to experiment by undoing actions and trying different solutions. Turn-based also allows the flexibility to quickly pick up and play in bite-sized sessions (if you so choose). And, it also allows the capability to play multiplayer games asynchronously – you take a turn, your opponent gets notified, then, after they complete their turn, you get notified. Imagine starting your day playing an engaging game with each of your friends, sending out your carefully crafted turns back for them to enjoy as well. That’s the experience we’re going for.
Developing the art style was one of our most difficult challenges, and it took us about 8 months to get it right. During this time, we experimented with numerous artists, tried different perspectives and ideas (side scroll, isometric, 3D, etc.), but ultimately, the game we wanted to make needed to be top-down in order to support our deep tactical gameplay. This is because directional facing of the characters is needed to do things like backstab, shield block, clearly convey which obstacles block line of sight, and so forth.
We wanted the game to play effectively on mobile, so bright colors, and clean and clear readability are pillars of the style. Then, there’s this other thing – we wanted players to connect with their characters, and that’s really hard if all you see is the top of their head. So, all of the characters in Summoners Fate look up at the player to signal they are ready to receive your commands. This way, you have that direct eye contact. To some folks, it’s weird at first – because no other game (aside from our own Hero Mages) has ever done this before. But the more you play, that subtle yet persistent connection creates this endearing effect where you care about the characters and feel like you truly are helping them to fulfill their destiny.
As for our inspiration, we wanted the characters to feel both familiar and inviting, as well as introduce some unique twists. So you’ll see amalgamations of classic fantasy characters like orcs, skeletons, dragons, and elves – but also unexpected characters like steampunk time-traveling rats, squirrel hurling druids, and birthday goblins.
We’re actually making three products with Summoners Fate: a single-player game, a multiplayer game, and a toolset that will ensure the longevity of our studio. My background as both a creative and a technical leader well-suited me for a career in finding solutions to difficult problems. When I started Summoners Fate, our MVP for the launch was 400 cards including 200 playable characters. Beyond that, we aspire to run Summoners Fate for the next decade and beyond with continuous expansions. How is our three-person team going to be able to produce that much content? Innovation in production and technology.
The D20 Definitions editor is our custom tool with modules for creating different content including characters, spells, maps, particle effects, world layouts, story, and localization. We started with the character creator – and this is a case where having a very talented animator, Peter, with whom I could work locally was vital. Together, we devised a series of templates for each type of body/part we wanted to animate (wings, serpent body, quadruped, etc.) and then linked these to the desired animation behavior in the editor. We send the art studio our template file (which is kind of like a blank coloring book page) – and they paint over it with a custom skin for each character. Our engine will allow us to take body parts (ex: wings) and place them on a humanoid character (like building a figurine out of legos) to create new characters like angels and succubi. Or take snake parts and arrange them on a head to create a gorgon. The behavior scripts will allow them to magically animate as fully articulated characters.
Aside from production, our other key tech concern was deliverability: the more content you create the larger your app becomes, the longer it takes to download. Our use of vector graphics and run-time rasterization allows us to deliver hundreds of cards and characters in a 50MB download/100MB install size vs. the 1-2GB+ downloads you might see in our competitors.
Finally, to get content quickly to new users, our game supports over-the-air content updates. In our best example of this, we’ve actually live-streamed game development on Twitch and, during that live session, pushed out the new content to users who were able to access it immediately without having to install a new client version.
Promoting the Game
You need to be good at two things to be successful in the game business: products and people.
First and foremost, you’ve got to have a great game. OK/Passable won’t cut it these days because there are so many choices out there. It’s got to be exceptional, and it’s got to stand out and do something new or move the genre forward in some significant way.
Beyond that, it’s people that make the difference. Starting with the building of your team, it’s about recognizing the unique talent each person can bring and discovering how you can work together to produce something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Funny, as I say this, how it parallels the gameplay of a good deck builder – it’s about finding that synergy.
It’s easy to promote games, but very difficult to make meaningful connections – and this is what you really need. I’m constantly seeking opportunities to get our game discovered, and my key advice here is to adopt an attitude of gratitude. Each person I meet out in the industry is a prospective partner, a meaningful connection, and a vital part of our journey. You’ve got to treat people with care, take time to build a relationship, and show appreciation for their support. The worst thing is to feel entitled – it’s better to look for ways to give back, to help and uplift others. This requires a lot of time and effort, and I can’t do everything, so it’s a careful decision process where I must weigh business and game development.
The risk to indie game development is that there is no guaranteed success. Even applying my best efforts, making the best game I can make, and doing everything I can to market it, does not guarantee a paycheck like a regular day job. I hold the ultimate responsibility for my company, and this uncertainty has a propensity at times for overwhelming stress. The way I deal with that is by adjusting my expectations. The success or failure of one game is not the success or failure of one’s career. There is always a means to keep making games, it just depends on what you’re willing to sacrifice. Right now, at this moment, I am doing work that I love doing, work that is meaningful and brings joy to peoples’ lives. My success is not a destination, but a purpose-filled journey.
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