Interview with Tim Conkling, Creator of Antihero
Don’t you just love it when you are walking the floor of game expos and there is a game which catches your eye and sticks with you? For me, if a game has a unique look about it then it will have definitely caught my attention. One such game is Antihero. Predominantly developed by “one man show” Tim Conkling from San Francisco, CA, Antihero is a game where you get to delve into the seedy underworld of Victorian London and so about running a Thieves Guild. I’ve seen far too many films, read too many books, to know that this is an interesting setting for a game and it dragged me in! Check out this trailer:
Recently, I got to ask Tim a few questions about the game and here are his answers for you!
Jump Dash Roll: Hi Tim, thanks for giving me this opportunity to speak to you today. Could you start by giving our readers a little brief about yourself and a little intro to the game?
Tim Conkling: Sure! My name is Tim Conkling, and I have just released Antihero, a strategy game about running a thieves’ guild in a gas-lit Victorian underworld. I like to think of it as an Oliver Twist simulator.
I’ve been a game developer for about 10 years, both as a programmer and a game designer, at small studios. I left my previous job at Three Rings (best known for Puzzle Pirates) about 4 years ago — it’d recently been acquired by a major publisher, who were changing the direction of the company in ways I thought were uninteresting. So I left to do the indie thing.
I flailed for about 6 months on a different project that I had a hard time getting anywhere with, and then put that down and began on Antihero.
JDR: How did the idea for Antihero come about? Were you inspired by anything? When I hear anything about a Thieves Guild, I automatically think of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld!
TC: This is sort of the boring game-designer-y answer, but Antiherobegan as a bunch of prototypes that had nothing to do with thieves or Victorian London or anything really resembling the game as it exists now.
At the outset of development, my goal was to create a fast-paced asynchronous multiplayer game that married the core mechanics of Civilization — exploration, expansion, and resource management — with a Words With Friends pace and multiplayer component. Basically, I wanted to create a game like Hero Academy, which I’d been in love with for about two years before I started.
For the first 6 months or so of development, I was working solo, and I’m not an artist, so all the game’s assets were stolen from other games. I was using a bunch of Warcraft 2 sprites, and the game was originally about flying around a fantasy world in an airship and getting into fights with orcs and goblins and other generic Tolkienesque creatures.
At one point in my prototyping, I hit on the game’s scouting mechanic while trying to figure out how to make exploration work in the constraints of a fast-paced async PvP game. The scouting mechanic immediately made me think of thieves, and that’s how I landed on the setting.
JDR: The art style of the game is unique and quirky which, to me, is definitely part of its appeal so how did you settle on this style? Was it ever going to look different?
TC: Yeah, it took forever to get to this style. Way longer than it should’ve, and longer than it would’ve if I wasn’t such a terrible art director.
I hired a really talented artist, Jiyoun Lee-Lodge, about 8 months into development. By that time, the game was called Antihero and was about thieves, but I didn’t know what I wanted it to look like, and I wasn’t experienced enough to give good art direction, so we spent tons of time on styles that were vastly different than what we ended up with, and that just didn’t work.
We started out super-serious, with small-headed characters that didn’t have tons of personality. Then we went super-cute, into a more Hero Academy direction. And then finally we settled on the Edward Gorey/Don’t Starve-inspired style the game has now.
I still have a number of screenshots of the game from some of those early art styles, and I’m so glad we kept experimenting till we landed on something more appealing.
JDR: You don’t hear about a game being set in Victorian London much these days so why did you settle on that era? Is there anything about the era that you really wanted to include?
TC: I just have an intense fondness for gas lamps, cobblestone streets, and English accents, I think. When I was at Three Rings, I created a game called Corpse Craft that shares a lot of aesthetic and thematic similarities with Antihero.
I’m… trying to come up with a better reason than that, but it really just comes down to finding the setting very romantic and appealing.
In fact, the game was originally supposed to be set in America. I’d recently re-watched Gangs of New York, and I thought it would be great if Antihero was about playing Daniel Day Lewis’ “Bill the Butcher” character from the movie. But the thievery aspect kept pulling me towards Dickens’ Oliver Twist, and Dickens pulled me to London, so…
(That said, a gang leader bearing a striking resemblance to Bill the Butcher plays a pretty big role in the game after all.)
JDR: For a game that relatively new, Antihero has already won a number of awards and nominated for more. How has this shaped the game’s development? How has this made you feel?
TC: There’s one award that absolutely shaped Antihero‘s development. In late 2015, the game won the Whippering Indie Cup in San Francisco. One of the judges in the contest put me in touch with Versus Evil, the publisher I’m working with. They totally got what I was going for with Antihero.
Before Versus Evil, I’d pitched the game to like 5 or 6 other publishers, and been turned down everywhere. A reason I was given several times is that the game was “too cerebral”, which I think just means that the pubs I was talking to were more interested in action games than in strategy games. It was so nice to find an indie publisher that is genuinely into strategy.
Beyond that, awards and festivals and conventions and whatnot are just tools for getting the word out. You hope that each one slightly increases the chance that someone will remember your game when it launches!
JDR: I’ve seen Antihero at a number of gaming events here in the UK and I’ve liked what I’ve seen but what seems to be the general reception to the game? What have those that have played it liked the most?
TC: I’ve been showing Antihero publicly for a couple years at places like PAX, and there was a point in the past year or so where the game turned a corner in terms of the response it was getting from players. Like, we’d finally ironed out enough of its rough edges – and there are a lot of rough edges in a strategy game with an original design – that people were really getting it.
What makes me extremely pleased, though, are the hardcore players who’ve been spending time with the game in its First Access phase through itch.io. We have some players who are pushing 100+ hours in the game’s multiplayer. My dream for Antihero is that it’s an “evergreen” game that you can come back to over and over and feel like it’s still interesting, and seeing serious players put serious time into the game in early access gives me hope!
JDR: Which part of the game are you most proud of?
TC: The async multiplayer. Antihero will ship with a story-driven campaign, a skirmish-vs-AI mode, a local hot seat mode, and a “real-time” online multiplayer mode, in addition to its asynchronous multiplayer mode. So there’s something there for many different types of players, whether you’re only into single-player, or only into multiplayer, or both.
But the async multiplayer is the original reason the game exists, and it’s the framework on which almost every design decision rests.
JDR: Now that Antihero has been released, have you started to think about what you’d like to create next? Are we allowed a little snippet of info about it?
TC: I’ll be continuing to work on Antihero for a while after its launch – the iOS and Android versions will be coming later this year, and if the sales justify it, there are several new mechanics and gameplay twists I’d like to add to the game to keep its multiplayer community healthy.
Beyond that… I have several ideas I’m excited about, but none that have gone beyond the earliest concepting phase. That said, I’m definitely planning on taking a break from turn-based strategy with whatever comes next. Balancing Antihero has been really hard — reflexes, perception, and reaction speed aren’t variables you can tune with when you’re making a turn-based game, and I’d really like to work on a project that’s a bit messier and doesn’t require the careful oh-my-god-if-I-change-this-parameter-it-breaks-all-this-other-stuff tightrope walk that Antihero game balance has been.
JDR: Well, thank you for giving me some of your time, Tim. I wish you all the best for Antihero’s success and for everything still to come!
Antihero is available now through Steam for Windows and Mac, priced at £11.99.