RPGamer Feature - Bill Stiernberg Interview
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Vita, Xbox One
Developer: Zeboyd Games

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Bill Stiernberg is half of the two-man development team known as Zeboyd Games. Zeboyd Games is an indie studio known for its quirky and unique retro-styled RPGs, which has developed Breath of Death VII, Cthulhu Saves the World, and On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 and 4. Zeboyd is currently working on Cosmic Star Heroine. We sat down with Bill in person in his Houston, Texas area home and office to discuss his entry into game development, his work processes, Cosmic Star Heroine, and his thoughts on the gaming industry.

Johnathan Stringer: To start, can you tell us how you got into game development, and about Zeboyd Games?
Bill Stiernberg: Well, the first game I ever played was Pac-Man, and that was at some restaurant. The first console that really got me into gaming was the NES with Super Mario Bros, of course. I still remember trying to figure out what button does what, looking up and back down at the screen and my hands. Ever since then, I have been addicted to this industry. Not just video games, but following developers and what all is going on in the industry. That extreme interest in the industry is part of why making games has always stuck with me; things like making games, mods, learning programming, how to do art, and then putting it all together. When I went to law school, I did a free remake of a little Atari 2600 game called Adventure, and around that time, my business partner Robert was getting into the XNA and Xbox Live Indie Games thing. So, we decided to work together and make an RPG, and release it on Xbox Live Indie Games. And that is when we came together to form Zeboyd.

JS: What are your personal responsibilities with Zeboyd?
BS: My primary responsibilities are building the art and game assets. It is obviously anything that is a sprite or graphic, but it is also building the game world. And when I say game world, I mean literally everything that you see or do, everything that you interact with or see. So, all the maps, all the sprites, characters, the effects, the UI graphics, and everything like that. I basically put the organs into the skeleton that Robert writes with code. I say building the world, but it is the most fun part! It is building the overworld, this giant geographical thing with these different regions, and then you go in closer and you build not just the towns, but the forests, mountains, and actual dungeons.

JS: With you and Robert living in different states, how do you accomplish working remotely, and what challenges and benefits arise from this situation?
BS: Well, it works because there are a lot of ways to share resources online. The obvious big one is Dropbox. So when you have a shared Dropbox account, you can quickly and easily share game builds, or batches of sprites and artwork, music files, or just about anything. It is very instant, so that gets around a lot of things. We also use Gmail and Gchat a lot. So, when we start work each day, we just sign onto gchat, and that is how we stay in touch throughout the day, kind of like being at the office. So, yeah, we aren't sitting in the same room, so I can't say: "Hey Robert, turn around and look at my screen." But, I can ping him on Gchat, and email it to him, or put it up on Dropbox, and we share feedback that way. We may lose some efficiency, but in the end, it isn't very different than if we were in the same office.

JS: With Breath of Death VII, Cthulhu Saves the World, and On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 and 4 in your development library, you guys are now working on Cosmic Star Heroine, which was Kickstarted. Please tell us a bit about this game.
BS: It is a couple of things. It's a futuristic sci-fi game, but it also has a heavy spy and espionage element. I think that is cool as it is not just another space opera type game that you see in a lot of sci-fi RPGs. It's really got as much in the spy, espionage, Metal Gear Solid like conspiracy stuff as it does sci-fi. I think that is really fun as it gives us a chance to get out of the whole swords, and shields, and forest themes that many of our other games have. Rain-Slick 4 was kind of an exception because we got to do this sort of hellish under-hell/over-hell universe that is taking place in another plane of existence. Finally, with Cosmic Star Heroine, we get to do these other planets, these other alien species and technologies, and laser beams and stuff, and that is really exciting. Plus, we are finally jumping into this whole Chrono Trigger-esque style of presentation, and that is something I have always wanted to do. Chrono Trigger is definitely an inspiration, but I have really just been building upon the stuff I've been doing since Breath of Death. I am not trying to make it look exactly like a certain genre, or game, or even era. Yes, it is '16-bit' but, I have really just been taking the stuff since Breath of Death and kind of layering it on and learning from the previous games.

JS: How do you plan to implement this stealth and espionage element into the gameplay?
BS: Well, there are a bunch of different ideas that we have. Obviously, our main focus is that this is going to be a turn-based JRPG style game. There is some cool stuff we want to do. For example, we will have enemies on the map, and we want to maybe figure out a way for players who like to dodge enemies not be punished by lacking experience when they fight battles later on. Since, this is an espionage game, that opens up a lot of possibilities for having not necessarily stealth like you think of it, like an annoying stealth level in a first person shooter, but ways you can avoid enemies where you can still be rewarded for it. A lot of people do like to grind, and the battle system will be a big part of the gameplay, so we aren't going to make it where you can necessarily avoid every single battle. There are obviously going to be certain battles you will have to fight, so we are going to find a balance.

JS: Do you have an idea of the story, or of the challenges the protagonist will face?
BS: The main character, named Alyssa L'Salle, works for a spy agency for an intergalactic government. Without spoiling anything, she stumbles across a secret that is happening somewhere in the government, and before she can basically take it down, they reveal who she is publicly. They do this because she has made a bunch of enemies. She has sabotaged numerous other alien terrorist organizations and now everyone knows who she is. The government can look good by making her look like this hero, while her enemies can track her down to destroy her. So you have this Burn Notice-esque element to it on the government side, and you also have this alien hunter thing on the other side too, which should open up some possibilities.

JS: Could you please explain the process behind your character and story development from the very beginning to the finished product?
BS: Well, our games always start as a very broad general concept. So, Cthulhu Saves the World started it out as if what if you made a game and started off as the bad guy, but is forced to save the world. So we agreed, yeah, that sounds like a fun concept; not a lot of people are doing that. So, then we thought about what kind of monster we would want, what is he fighting against, andf then we thought Cthulhu is hilarious as a concept. Because people have heard of him, and he is this hideous horror monster. Having him save the world, and doing all these bizarre tasks would actually be pretty good. So that is how an initial concept comes up in the beginning. And from there, we use that concept to come up with some of our gameplay ideas. With Cosmic Star Heroine, for example, we wanted something sci-fi, but also wanted to have something to do with espionage. So, we started thinking about ways we could tie that in with this Chrono Trigger theme that we wanted to do. We then start coming up with ways to use technology themed things for buffs, and character interactions. So, we might have a shield mechanic for example, and a shield is something that might protect you, but doesn't affect your HP directly; or maybe you can use shield energy to do a special attack. That is just one example, and one we may or may not even implement. After that, we just start developing the ideas, and a lot of this stuff just happens while we are working on one game, and by the time we are done with that game, we already have a basis to start with for our next one. After that, it is just fleshing out ideas for battle systems, and how we want maps to work, and stuff like that.

JS: What do you think of the games industry's current status, specifically with regard to RPGs, and where do you think it might be headed?
BS: The status right now, or at least where it has been for the last couple of years, the development of JRPGs has really moved onto the mobile systems for the bigger companies. A lot of the popular RPGs you can play right now are on the PSP and DS, now 3DS and Vita, and it is has been that way for awhile since RPGs are very big games. So, to have a massive production value as Final Fantasy XIII has, only so many companies can afford to take that risk on what is becoming a more narrow market. So, if you enjoy those games, I hope you enjoy playing portable, because that is where they are. Obviously there are some exceptions like Xenoblade Chronicles, but the majority of them have gone to handheld. I think, what I hope we will see in the future, is more embracing of the PC market. I know Square Enix is starting to dabble in Steam releases, by releasing their older catalog on Steam. Hopefully that means they will start releasing their actual RPGs there, and other companies will follow suit, like how Dark Souls is on Steam. A really cool company Carpe Fulgar, is a localization team that works with a lot of Japanese companies to bring their JRPG and JRPG-styled games to Steam as well. So, hopefully that opens up the floodgates for a new market for these games so they can succeed. I think a lot of small studios are tackling JRPGs as well, as it is sort of an under served market on console and PC.

JS: So, you don't really see them coming back to the consoles?
BS: I don't see these companies going back to console until they can figure out a way to do it without risking too much. I mean, it has gotten to the point where it is mostly mainstream stuff, with the exception of the oddball risk or chance with something like Ni No Kuni. So when you see the newest Persona coming to the PS3, and not PS4, it is not surprising to me because a company like that needs to mitigate their risk by releasing it on the largest install base. So we will see what happens. It will take awhile for the PS4 and Xbox One to grow an install base sufficiently, and for these companies to make games for that, and keep their costs low enough, to release games for these consoles.

JS: Well, we have also seen the rise of the Western RPG in mainstream popularity.
BS: Oh yeah, big time, yeah I didn't even talk about that yet. Western RPGs are just blowing up. It is almost like western RPGs are now where JRPGs were 15 years ago. So, for whatever reason, I guess the whole open world theme, and customizable characters, are very popular with western audiences. Games like Mass Effect and Skyrim are selling millions of copies, and still selling well on Steam. So, western RPGs are here to stay, and on the main consoles.

JS: What do you see as the future of indie games and developers?
BS: What is interesting is, if you look before 2008, or maybe even before that, say 2002 or 2003, what you saw a lot was you had these giant publishers, and they were doing big AAA productions and first-party games. Then you had a bunch of these mid-tier developers making A or AA games, and a lot of those studios could subsist. The developer of Time Splitters was an example. Then you have the small teams that release on retail; Suda 51's team that did Killer 7 is an example. That is kind of the small quirky game that you might expect from a studio that is bigger than a 1 or 2 man team, but smaller than these mid-tier companies. Well, in the past 6 years, since the 'HD generation of consoles', and with the economy and everything, a lot of the small and mid-sized developers just couldn't make it. They couldn't compete with the larger AAA productions, and 100 million dollar budgets, or even 40-50 million, and they were bought up or had to shutter their doors. That is bad for the industry as there is less variety, less studios, and less talent. Fortunately, digital distribution really started to pick up in 2008. Since then, digital distribution on all the different platforms: mobile, console, and PC, has really taken off, and has opened the door not just for small teams, but these growing and mid-sized teams as well.

Going forward, I think you are going to see two things. A lot of small studios like us, that are releasing console and Steam games and so forth, that is going to continue. You are also going to see teams that started small get big, just because of success. But, this is what I think will also start to happen. I think you will start to see a lot more indie publishers sprout up. A big barrier for a lot of indie studios is marketing and getting your name out there, and getting on certain platforms by not having a publisher. So besides the big publishers like EA and Ubisoft, you will start to see a lot more publishers like Adult Swim Games and Devolver Digital, who are basically there to cater to talented indie studios that could really benefit from a publisher relationship.

We want to thank Bill Stiernberg for his hospitality in inviting us to visit his office, and for taking time out of his busy schedule for an interview. We look forward to more news and a chance to play Zeboyd's upcoming game Cosmic Star Heroine.

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