Skulls of the Shogun First Look

  • by John Davison
  • June 29, 2010 15:12 PM PT

A fast-paced, turn-based, downloadable strategy game designed to accommodate the gameplay needs and the time constraints of all gamers. It's like Advance Wars, with zombie Samurai, and with none of the waiting around.

Skulls of the Shogun is described by Haunted Temple Games founder Jake Kazdal as “an arcade style turn-based strategy game.” That’s not a collection of words that you very often see used together in a sentence, but it aptly describes the approach that the small startup team is taking with its first title. “I love games like Advance Wars, and I really wanted to make something like that, but something that wasn’t as bogged down with all the menus and clutter,” he told me when he visited the GamePro offices this week.

Kazdal has worked in the games business since 1996, and has served as a texture artist, modeler, rigger, level designer, production designer, concept artist, and art director at studios around the world. If you’ve been playing or reading about games for the past 15 years, you’ve almost certainly seen his work. He was responsible for the concept art and animation for the character Ulala in Space Channel 5, he worked on the concept art and animation for Rez, designed the user interface for Boom Blox, and was a concept artist for Command & Conquer 4. Before leaving Electronic Arts’ Los Angeles studio last year, he was a concept artist for the much-ballyhooed, but ultimately cancelled Steven Spielberg “LMNO” project.

It was on the Spielberg game that Kazdal met his new coworkers. Borut Pfeifer, a game designer and programmer who had previously worked on Radical’s Scarface game and Sony Online’s Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom, and Ben Vance, a programmer that had previously worked on new technology and gameplay concepts for Microsoft’s Kinect. After years of absorbing the disciplines associated with big studio game development, the trio decided that what they really wanted to do was break out on their own, and try something more intimate. Something that was a direct expression of their own tastes, and which allowed them to control their vision much more directly. Kazdal cites PopCap’s Plants Vs. Zombies, and the PixelJunk games as big influences for how they wanted to progress. “The team that made PvZ was only about four or five people,” he says. “It’s just great, it’s so pure and it’s clear that the vision for it was consistent from the get-go.”

After teaming up with Sam Bird, a musician and sound designer that had also worked with them at Electronic Arts they formed Haunted Temple Games and set about their first game. Unlike many studios, the team doesn’t work from a central office, and the guys rarely spend much time together in the same place. Kazdal is currently based in Seattle, where he works from home - something that he enjoys as he gets to spend time with his one year-old child, while Pfeifer still lives in Los Angeles. Vance admits that currently he doesn’t actually live anywhere. “I packed up my old apartment weeks ago, and I just haven’t decided where to settle yet,” he laughs. “I just work wherever I can find a Wi-Fi connection, and we’ll all get together on video chat whenever we need to meet, so it doesn’t really matter at the moment.”

Skulls of the Shogun is described by the team on its official website as “an invigorating cocktail of 1960s flavored sorcery and strategy.” Inspired by Kazdal’s love for what he describes as “really, really old anime... The stuff before the big pink hair and all the crazy sh*t,” the game is set in a Japanese themed afterlife in which players “meet and join forces with vibrant ghost-samurai warriors, magical animal-monks, and mustachioed samurai generals on the way to capture Skulls of the Shogun.”

Fundamentally its shares a lot with the kinds of turn based strategy games that you already love. What sets it apart though, is the pace that it moves at. “I really wanted to try and make a strategy game that had a bit of Japanese fighting game about it too,” Kazdal admits while trying to describe the concept. Rather than wade through layers of menus or screeds of narrative exposition, the game is fast-paced and action packed, while retaining the need for tactical skills. Unlike many games in the genre the game has a limited number of units, and individual battles rarely last more than an hour. “We wanted to make something that really showed respect for how you might want to play it,” Pfeifer explains. “You can play it solo, or with up to three other players locally or online, and we support drop-in and drop-out multiplayer throughout. You can save a multiplayer game at any point, or you can switch out with the A.I. whenever you want to.”

“That was a really important consideration,” Kazdal explains. “We wanted to allow anyone to really get into the game, even if they only have 20 minutes or so to play at a time. We didn’t want anyone to ever have to abandon a game a lose their progress.”

The basic structure of the game sees you controlling a small group of undead warriors as they try and wipe out all opponents on the battlefield. There’s a very limited (but highly tactical) resource management element in the shape of areas that can be captured to assist with unit generation, but the core gameplay is dictated by the fact that there are only a handful of unit types, and each turn is limited to just five moves, or "orders"; you move a guy, you let him attack if he’s able, and you move on. You can burn a move on “haunting” something, which serves as the game’s “capture” mechanic, or you can burn another on summoning a new warrior to the field if enough resources are controlled. Players must "haunt" temples to summon new units, or rice paddies to serve as currency. Players have direct influence over each individual unit, and they can be moved anywhere within a circle depicting their range without the player having to worry about tiles or hexes or any other turn-based game conventions.

Though it's unlikely we'll see the game before early 2011, the team is very clear on what it wants to achieve with Skulls of the Shogun, and is currently exploring publishing partners and distribution methods. It's currently being developed using XNA, and as such is an easy fit for Xbox 360, PC, and potentially Windows Mobile platforms. Kazdal and the team are very interested in exploring opportunities on PlayStation Network as well though. "We're early enough in development that we can talk to everyone out there and find the best possible scenario for us," he explains, "but the downloadable space is absolutely where we want to be."

Even at this early stage, it's clear that the clarity of vision will ensure that the game will exhibit a purity that we rarely see in the strategy space. As yet another example of game coming to the downloadable space that is stripped of extraneous considerations it adds to the momentum that we're currently seeing of games getting back to basics, and allowing small groups of developers to really express themselves.