Creating '80s Boardgame-Inspired Management Game

Gamma Minus UG's Jeremiah Costello has told us about the modular character system designed for the studio's 80s-inspired game Rough Justice: '84, spoke about the gameplay and game's world, and shared what challenges the team faced while creating the game.

Introduction Please introduce yourself. Where did you study? What companies have you worked for? What projects have you contributed to?

Jeremiah Costello: My name is Jeremiah Costello, and I’m originally from Upstate New York but have been living in Europe for the last 20 years. I studied acting in New York and did some stage work and voice-over work on the side. However, when I came over to Europe, I ended up focusing primarily on voice-over work for European clients. 

As most devs will tell you, they were avid gamers from a very young age, and I wasn’t any different, but I never had any aspirations to ever become a developer or be involved in the games industry. That however changed with my professional introduction to game development back in 2004 when I voiced my first video game.  

I really took a liking to it, and I quickly went from just voicing video games to being the casting and then voice director. I founded t-recs studios, a game localization studio with two colleagues back in 2008, and I co-founded Native Prime, another game localization studio in France in 2012.

Some of the games that I’ve worked on are Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X, Game of Thrones, Men of War (series), Port Royal 4, Comanche, and Eville.

Technically I’ve been in the games industry since 2008, but to tell you the truth, switching hats from game localization to development was a big step! Sure there are a lot of crossovers, and understanding the processes is important, but at the end of the day, quite often game localization is one of the final stages of the culmination of sometimes years of work, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg in regards to complexity; something I found out the hard way. 

The Team How big is your team? How is your studio organized? How do you manage different responsibilities?

Jeremiah Costello: There are 6 of us presently working on Rough Justice: ‘84. During the peak of production when we brought on a lot of artists and writers, we had about 20 people working on the project. Initially, we had a very rigid hierarchy, which luckily we’ve changed since. As the Project Lead, my initial fear of giving up responsibilities and delegating decisions to team members frightened me. I didn’t want a mish-mash of ideas that didn’t jive, but rather one unified vision.

In hindsight, for me, that was definitely the wrong way of going about things. Even with our core team, everyone is so talented, and working together as a team, you have to have trust. Relinquishing "ownership" of mechanics and making it a flat hierarchy has benefited the project in so many ways. It encourages engagement and hits home the idea that every opinion matters. Quite simply it’s no longer about enforcing my vision and ensuring that everyone does as they’re told, but rather a collective process; which, at times, sure, it does take longer, but the results are phenomenal. 

One of the biggest take-aways from this experience has been for me personally to acknowledge my screw-ups, implement course correction actions, recalibrate and move on.

Getting Started How did you get started with Rough Justice: '84? What was the initial idea? What inspired you?

Jeremiah Costello: I’ve always had this idea of an 80s-inspired security agency management game floating around in my head. Growing up in the 80s with such great TV shows and movies like The A-TEAM, Cobra, Magnum P.I., etc. However, I didn’t start putting together the initial pitch until 2020. 

One of the great things about Germany, especially the North Rhein Westfalia region, is the financial support for interactive media and games. The application process for these funds is quite involved, and to be honest, my German isn’t that good, but we managed to put together the application and submitted it.

They got back to us and informed us that, although the concept had merit, in its current state, they couldn’t accept it, due to the fact that it had no "meaningful cultural relevance to Germany". 

This stipulation of course makes sense since the fund is explicitly there to promote the growth of the local industry, but it did put us in a pickle.

We were bummed, for sure, but they mentioned that we still had 48 hours to resubmit.  

I happened to be watching Hunters on Amazon Prime at the time, and I used this initial impetus, to weave a story of hunting down embedded Nazis in American society in the 80s. The original core concept didn’t have any story elements, and it was something that was sorely lacking, so this requirement actually solved a lot of our problems in one fell swoop.

We resubmitted, and wouldn’t you know it, they approved the application. We really had our work cut out for us though! 

Gameplay Please tell us about the gameplay. What are the main mechanics? How would you describe your title? How did you come up with the management system and design it? What were the challenges?

Jeremiah Costello: In terms of the gameplay, it’s tricky. Initially, we thought we were designing a management game, but through the game development process and the iteration process, it is turning more and more into a “rogue-like” much to our surprise! But those are the "happy little accidents" that happen throughout the iterative process of game development. 

Sticking to our guns and shoehorning a mechanic that clearly isn’t viable (or fun!) is a no-go. Being able to "kill your darlings" may seem daunting at first, but once you get into the swing of it, it’s invigorating and freeing. 

The core game loop can be boiled down to accepting cases, hiring agents, and then sending said agents on cases. Cases are a mixture of dice rolls, moral decisions, and puzzles (read: mini-games).

Game's World Could you discuss the game’s world, its quests, and how the whole thing works? What are the core pillars that build engagement?

Jeremiah Costello: The story is one of redemption and vengeance. Released, following his wrongful imprisonment, Seneca City’s former "White Knight", Detective Jim Baylor agrees to consult in the operation of his old friend’s faltering security agency. What seemed like a favor to his former partner unraveled, revealing a deeper conspiracy involving foreign intelligence agencies, corruption, and unspeakable evil, that brings with it memories of trauma Jim believes are long since buried.

In a city rife with corruption, time is running out and Jim must use all the resources at the agency’s disposal to stop an unknown enemy whose reach extends to countless institutions. With the help of his growing roster of highly-skilled agents, does Jim have what it takes to be victorious in what will prove to be the battle for Seneca’s soul? 

In regards to the gameplay, it’s all about the cases. There are case officers that are specialized in certain case types, including security, repossession, fugitive recovery, etc. Case types in general share a common DNA, but there are various mechanics that differentiate each one. 

Sending the right agents on cases is essential. Various gear cards can be bought to increase agents’ chances of success. 

Modular Character System You shared a look at your modular character system. Could you tell our audience about it? Why did you decide to develop it? How does it work?

Jeremiah Costello: Having a modular character system in place allows us to eventually create a seemingly endless amount of characters, which was important for us to more or less "future proof" the game, allowing us to create modular contracts with unique characters.

The variable "parts" are limited by design. It was tough to narrow it down and not go full-hog though! We are fully aware that we didn’t reinvent the wheel here, but it was quite a mathematical challenge for us to put together the modular system within a limited time frame and budget, and we are very pleased with the results.

Challenges What are the main challenges when it comes to the business side of things? How do you fund the project and promote it to attract the right audience? Could you perhaps give some tips to beginning indie devs thinking about creating their games? 

Jeremiah Costello: Even though I’ve been involved in the games industry for years, I was a service provider, and making the switch to a developer was essentially starting from scratch. At the end of the day, finding a publisher or investor that is willing to take a risk with a new unproved team is challenging to say the least.

A lot of game studios do work for hire, which allows their company to grow, be financially stable, and have their team gain invaluable experience, which can then be transposed to their own projects. We didn’t take this route, however.

The most important thing as far as I’m concerned is perseverance. Having the grit to continue through the ups and downs is essential. Additionally, having a team in place that jives with each other is critical. It doesn’t matter if they’re the "best coder" or the "best designer". You can have an AAA coder but if she doesn’t gel well with the team, then it isn’t beneficial to the project. 

Probably the biggest question any fledgling developer should ask themselves is whether they want to make a game or build a company. It may seem like a no-brainer, but creating a game is only half of the challenge, putting together a team and having the structure in place are equally important, especially when it comes to garnering the attention of publishers and investors. The legal, financial, and production backend has to be solid, or the whole thing can implode. 

Jeremiah Costello, CEO of Gamma Minus UG

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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