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Pit People, the surreal story of a man's quest for vengeance in a shattered world of evil robots, bloodthirsty vampires, and brutal cupcake people, was a huge departure for the developers at The Behemoth. But it has still managed to be a big hit in Steam Early Access since its release in January.
It's easy in our industry to get pigeonholed, locked into one genre or art style or creative direction. Make a great action RPG, and people expect you to make a sequel, or at least something with similar fundamentals. Your "pedigree" is built on your track record, and the more you succeed in one area the more locked into that area you find yourself, not only because of your audience's expectations but because of your own skill set.
But building variations on the same theme gets tiring for any artist, but the path to new creative territory is strewn with obstacles and difficulties.
It was these sorts of challenges that confronted the team at The Behemoth, who made the obscenely successful Castle Crashers (as well as Alien Hominid and Battleblock Theatre), when they decided they wanted to create a turn-based strategy game that retains Behemoth's characteristic cartoonish art style, but breaks from their legacy of arcade action.
Dan Paladin, Behemoth's co-founder and art director, says experimenting with turn-based combat was the plan from game's inception.
"Whenever it's time for another project to be considered, we think about all genres and what we might try doing with them," says Paladin.
"It's really exciting to think of how to rebuild something from the ground up, maybe throw some things out while introducing completely different elements as we go! Sometimes it's really fun to consider charging into genres we aren't particularly fond of or thought we'd never do."
Much of the original design for Pit People sprang from a single, early sketch. "One of our brainstorm sketches we had was one that closely resembles what's there now. The name and even some of the fighter types were kept from that original sketch!"
Jumping into a totally different style of gameplay is no easy feat though, and required a foundationally different approach to design.
"It's very apples and oranges," says Paladin."There's a boatload more math going on in this game, even though we do our best to mask it and present it as simple as possible. When you're building any game it's often a question of how to keep it interesting moment to moment, and the solutions are quite different."
Looking back at Behemoth's catalogue, a thoughtful turn-based strategy game seems like the opposite pole from their previous offerings. But Paladin says the pace of play they envisioned for Pit People wasn't as much of a stretch as it sounds.
"Our last 3 games were all in the reflex-based, action-oriented genres. We wanted to try something that's not reflex-based while still keeping it feeling fairly quick. We also like simplifying things in spots, so we did that in Pit People with what the player's inputs need to be while maintaining strategic depth everywhere else. Poof! Fast-paced turn-based was born!"
Pit People streamlines traditional strategy RPG combat by not requiring players to instruct their units to attack. Pop a melee fighter next to an enemy and they will automatically bash it, and ranged units will auto-attack whichever foe is nearest when you end your turn. Twisting a well-established formula proved to be both satisfying and harder than it looks.
"There's a lot of expectations," Paladin explains. "This genre is nearly so rigid it's ready to break in half. If you change things that are expected, you're almost fighting the player at the start. Considering we've never done anything like this, and that the fundamental gameplay wasn't really in existence anywhere else, almost everything served to be a bit odd and challenging."
"We'd liken it to baking a cake by using non-standard ingredients and having absolutely no recipe -- but still needing to get in the realm of tasting like a cake."
Removing the attack phase from the turn-based formula makes the entire game feel and play differently. Everything seems more fluid, more like a game of chess, where you're just maneuvering pieces rather than a two step process where you first move, then select a target and attack. It's a small but very important change.
"Through the genre's repetition people are almost virtually programmed to pick targets directly in turn-based games. ‘Click on your hero, click on the ability, click on the guy you want to use that ability on, click on the next guy and do it again!'
By removing ALL of this fundamental base gameplay and now doing this exclusively through positioning creates something very exciting and new. Both attacking and defending change. It sounds sort of stupid on paper when laid out -- but in practice it's refreshing and makes for interesting decisions."
Working in new genres, toppling old conventions and pushing the boundaries of your own experience is a tough test for any creative team, but greater challenge yields greater rewards.
"We never fully know what we're doing with any of our projects, and we like to keep it that way. It's this child-like wonder that nearly guarantees something unique in the end."