Interview: Enrique Dryere of Triple-B-Titles (Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages)
I have a soft spot for indie titles. They don’t have the big budget of a triple A title but for what they lack in terms of finance and man power, they always make up for with bucket loads of heart and determination. Triple-B-Titles’ Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages certainly fits the bill in that department. Powered by the hard work and dedication of Enrique and Paul Dryere, the two brothers have transformed a dream into reality. Without any prior experience in video game development, the two have spent the last six years painstakingly building Ring Runner, from the coding, to the soundtrack, even writing an accompanying novel.
On the surface Ring Runner may look like a simple, yet stylish space shooter but scratch a little deeper and you’ll uncover a rich story-driven campaign, online co-op and competitive multi-player modes, in-depth customisation options, all rendered beautifully and with such polish you’ll question how a couple of ambitious upstarts were able to pull off so much with so little resources. Recently featured on IGN’s The Next Game Boss, Ring Runner narrowly missed out on first place but in turn cemented itself as a title to keep an eye on. It gives me great pleasure to be able to speak with Enrique Dryere, Lead Designer on Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages.
Hangie: Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages has been in development for nearly six years now, under the guidance of your brother Paul and yourself. With no prior game development knowledge, it’s fair to say it’s an ambitious yet daunting task to bring the Ring Runner concept to life. Where the heck did you guys start to turn it from an idea into reality?
Enrique: I had just graduated from college with a degree in Psychology and Classics, and I found myself part-timing at Best Buy and various restaurants. I decided to go back to school with my brother, who is five years younger than I.
We studied ATEC (Arts and Technology) with the dream of becoming game developers. Having spent the greater part of our lives playing games, we were left with little choice; it’s all we know!
The University of Texas at Dallas ran a small competition, and we managed to place after just a few months of work. We won a little money and it encouraged us to continue. So we naively and quite ignorantly dove headfirst into development, thinking that the game would only take us 2 more years or so to make. It’s taken five years, partially because we had to learn as we went, but mostly because we’ve been so uncompromising in our vision. Along the way, we’ve incurred about $200,000 of debt in student loans, but we hope it’ll be worth it to be able to bring folks one of the most complete experiences ever offered by an independent title.
Hangie: On the surface, Ring Runner looks like nothing more than a standard SHMUP (shoot ’em up) title to the untrained eye. Tell our readers what makes Ring Runner so vastly different to the many flight shooters on the market?
Enrique: This is a real tough one. I feel that a lot of players may take one glimpse at Ring Runner and think, “oh space shooters aren’t for me.” But I feel that Ring Runner is more aptly labeled as a Space Action RPG. Yes, the basic controls are space-shooter-like, and there are ships and rockets and lasers, but that’s where the similarities end.
There’s a ton of variety in Ring Runner’s many skills, or at least enough that you can play like a time-bending, comet summoning wizard, a rogue crafty enough to bamboozle the most veteran of ninjas, a general of a mobile army, or even like Link from Legend of Zelda, dropping bombs, slinging boomerangs, and swinging Gamma Hammers.
There’s also a 20-hour long story-driven campaign. And you hear the term “epic” tossed around a lot, well there’s really no other word I can think of to describe this one. The campaign will take you all around the universe, where you’ll cruise the streets of giant cities in space, survive intergalactic gladiatorial arenas, torch the competition in STL (slower than light) races, delve into the subatomic space beneath atoms, and become a reality-bending Sage, all while seeking to unravel the greatest mystery: yourself. The story is based on a companion novel that took me 7 years to write, but I want to be clear that the tone is consistently light and funny. We try to pack a lot of cool Sci Fi concepts and interesting characters into the universe without falling into the trap of taking ourselves too seriously! For instance, did you know that onion rings will be encrypted in the future? I didn’t — until I wrote about it.
Hangie: Multiple genres have influenced and inspired Ring Runner, such as popular MMOs (Massively-Multiplayer Online), MOBA (Multiplayer online battle arena) and J-RPGs (Japanese Role-Playing Game) to name a few. With so many concept and ideas incorporated so far, how did you manage to find a balance between them all?
Enrique: Basically, we’ve employed two major strategies. First, we tried to compartmentalize the different modes so that someone who wants to play a game with a compelling story can go through our 20-hour campaign and never have to deal with multiplayer. Likewise, someone looking to dive right into multiplayer combat will only have to play through the first segment of single player to get the hang of the controls and how to customize. Whether you prefer cooperative play with friends, the solo experience, or seek competition, Ring Runner has you covered!
Second, our ability-to-ability or ship-to-ship balance is wonderfully blurred by a player’s preference and style. In most RPGs, there’s a hard formula that must be applied to determine whether one skill is simply more potent than the other because there’s simply no escaping it. The player targets an opponent, presses a button, and the skill takes effect. There might be misses, resists, or crits, but these are just variables of the skill’s potency.
In our game, using a different ability actually requires a different skill on the player’s part, which means that a skill that averages X damage for me, may do less for you, and likewise you might be better at employing another skill than I am. This allows players to determine what build might be best for them based on preference, rather than the uniformed numerical advantages that typically result in everyone having to adopt a “cookie-cutter” build.
Hangie: I was quite surprised to learn that the soundtrack for Ring Runner had been developed within the small team, and after hearing a few sample tracks which I thoroughly enjoyed, I must say I’m impressed by what you’ve been able to accomplish without much prior experience. Was it difficult to compose music for a game for the very first time?
Enrique: Another piece of the mounting evidence in the case of my insanity, I decided to make the soundtrack myself with no prior musical experience. I kinda knew how to play the piano, and I’m not sure I’m any better at it now, but you’d be surprised at what computers can do for you! I bought a 60 dollar MIDI keyboard, and using that and Logic Express, I’ve managed to somehow hammer every sound effect and song you’ll hear in Ring Runner. I know a lot of people make music for fun, but it’s really hard for me; so although I’ll say that I found the experience rewarding, I would prefer to have had the money to hire a musician.
Hangie: The several archetypes and customisation combinations on offer is staggering to say the least. It’s clear to see that a huge amount of time and attention to detail has been invested into this aspect so far. Tell us a little bit about some of the features fans can look forward to, and which combination is your personal favourite?
Enrique: There are five archetypes, most of which are inspired by RPGs’ mainstay classes, but I think people will find them sufficiently unique. There are 65 playable ships, each offering a unique template for customization. The nice thing is that most of the Rank 5 hulls are hybrids between the different archetypes, so there’s lots of variety and potential combinations, billions in fact!
And the AI can play any of these combinations, since every skill is modular. It takes roguelike game play to the next level when not just the backgrounds and level layouts but the actual enemies themselves are procedurally generated. After hundreds of hours, the AI can still surprise me, though you typically know more or less what to expect from a ship just by looking at its hull, or even the prefix in front of its name that gives away its combination of archetypes.
As for which my favorite is, to be honest, I’m like a little kid with a new toy. Every time we add new abilities to an archetype, they tend to be my favorite for a while. Right now, I’m really enjoying teleporting into enemies and batting them away with the Gamma Hammer’s spin attack in a Grappler/Fighter hybrid.
Hangie: One of the pitfalls of competitive gaming with so many archetypes and abilities for players to select from is certain combinations will eventually be viewed as being more superior to others, leaving many other builds being unplayed for their uncompetitive nature. How have you tackled this problem to ensure Ring Runner remains balanced?
Enrique: I’ve addressed part of this in my answer above, but we also have a lot of very dedicated and talented testers that are constantly giving us feedback. We try to remain as flexible as possible. If Ring Runner sounds interesting to you at all, we strongly encourage you to get involved. Get the demo for free on our site and tell us which ships or abilities you think are too weak or too powerful our forums! Since a lot of what might be considered as objective balance may be slightly more subjective in our game, we need as many points of view as we can get before we launch.
Hangie: What would you say has been the most difficult aspects of working on Ring Runner and if you could do it all again, what would you like to included (or exclude) from the game?
Enrique: The hardest part about Ring Runner has been dealing with the scope. This game is pretty much a triple A title in an indie’s fair-trade hemp cardigan. As I said before, we embarked on this insane project in blissful ignorance. Had we known how hard it would be, there’s no way we would’ve attempted it, but once you dig a hole deep enough and the noon sky is just a tiny blue dot somewhere overhead, you get to thinking: “it’s China or bust.”
Hangie: Ring Runner was recently featured on IGN’s The Next Game Boss, finishing runners-up this season. Despite missing out on first place, how has appearing on the show helped with the development of Ring Runner?
Enrique: The experience was nothing short of awesome. Getting to meet the judges, Jenova Chen, Lisa Foiles, and David Jaffe was easily the highlight of my tiny career! The other contestants were really cool too, and we all still keep in touch.
I feel that the show didn’t quite get the audience it deserved, and I’m not really sure why, but needless to say, the exposure was a great help. We went from virtual unknowns to virtual semi-unknowns, which despite the potentially sardonic interpretations, is honestly a huge first step for an indie. I mean, Jenova-frickin-Chen sat there and said he not only played my game, but that he thought it was fun; how cool is that?! I was writing research papers on his work just a couple of years ago, and then there I was, meeting him in person!
I’m not sure how much it helped the actual development of the game because the judges simply pointed out one of the great weaknesses of the game which we already knew existed: its lack of immediacy. Depth, by its very definition, is not something that can be expressed superficially. We did create a new mode that lets you quickly try out the archetypes and thrusts you straight into the game play, but if I’m being frank, I’d still recommend people begin with the story-driven campaign. If you don’t like to read sentences, you can always just skip the text, but it’ll still provide you a far better and less steep ramp into Ring Runner’s core game play. We may, however, end up using that mode we created for our XBL demo.
Hangie: With Ring Runner being such a huge part of your life for the last few years, how does it feel to near the end of development and soon have fans playing and providing feedback on a title so near and dear to you?
Enrique: Without a doubt, it’s scary. I can deal with criticism, and I’m not one of those guys that thinks that everything we do is some form of infallible art. If people don’t like something, we’ll change it! But the very real possibility of not recouping enough money to stay in the business is what I worry about each and every night. For us, it’s not a matter of getting rich or not, it’s just a matter of survival. All we’d like to do is to be to be able to continue making games. We’ve actually got a few really fun ideas for our next projects, and it’d be a shame if we can never make them a reality.
Hangie: Are there plans form post-release content and updates?
Enrique: You bet! Depending on how well the game does financially, we’ve got lots of cool ideas for added content. For sure, I can tell you that our full-fledged MOBA-like mode will be released as a free expansion just as soon as we’re able to complete it — likely a month or two after release.
Beyond that, we’d like to keep adding ships and abilities and maybe even story arches, but we’d also like to add whole new game modes! For instance we’d like to create “Sage Ball,” a hockey-like game using many of Ring Runner’s abilities. We’re also considering a “Dominus” mode, which lets the player customize ships, hire pilots, and pit the AI against itself in gladiatorial combat.
Hangie: Its fair to say Ring Runner has been a massive investment, both physically and emotionally. What are you going to do with yourself once it’s completed and released? Will you be plunging back into game development or take a much needed break from it all?
Enrique: If we do take a break, it’ll be for a week or so, and not for several months after release. We foresee having to continue putting a lot of effort into this game if we want it to succeed — and needless to say, we do! That’s not to say we wouldn’t like a break, but I don’t think we’d be physically able to relax while there’s still work to be done.
Hangie: Any closing comments you’d like to share with our readers?
Enrique: Just that we’d really love for them to try the game out! We know it’s a huge time investment, but if you’re looking for a fun new experience, Ring Runner won’t let you down. If you’re unfamiliar with the genre, it may be a bit difficult at first, but I promise that if customize the controls to your liking and power through the obstacles associated with doing something new, you’re gonna have hours and hours of fun. There’s a little something for everyone in Ring Runner, but one of the things that gives me the greatest satisfaction is seeing folks enjoy elements of the game they thought weren’t for them.
To try the demo, or just to say hello, come visit us at ringrunner.net
Thanks goes to Enrique Dryere for having a chat about Triple-B-Titles first major release. An Alpha demo is out now and can be sampled via the ringrunner.net website. We wish Enrique, his brother Paul and the team at Triple-B-Titles all the best with Ring Runner. Having slaved away at the game for what must feel like an eternity for them, I personally hope Ring Runner gets the credit and attention it so justly deserves.
For those interested in seeing Ring Runner featured on Season 2 of The Next Game Boss, you can check out all the episode via http://www.youtube.com/show/thenextgameboss.
Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages is tentatively scheduled for release during the second quarter of 2013 for both Xbox 360 and PC, and is currently featured on Steam Greenlight. If you’d like to see it on Steam and become part of your Steam library, show your support by heading to the dedicated Steam page located here.