Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 4 was released this past June. It's a wonderful, funny RPG, one that belies the series' long, rocky development. The Rain-Slick series began as a collaboration between Hothead Games and Penny Arcade, but the relationship ended after the release of the (much less successful) second episode. The reason for the split depends on who you ask, but the upshot is that Episode 3 was, for a time, completely canceled.
That was until a single, wishful Penny Arcade forum thread put development into the hands of Zeboyd Games, creator of offbeat retro RPGs Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World. Zeboyd took the same retro approach with the final two Penny Arcade games, releasing both Rain-Slick 3 and Rain-Slick 4 within a year of each other. The fourth game wasn't as successful coming out of the gate, says Boyd, but a recent Steam sale has helped put it on par with the third in terms of sales.
"The biggest difference is just a lot more people know about us. Sales wise, [the Rain-Slick games] haven't been mega blockbusters. They've done decently, both of them, but it's not like we're rolling in extra money now. But, yeah, they've really helped our profile a lot. It's a lot easier to get the media to pay attention to us." He adds that working with Penny Arcade was "really educational."
Zeboyd worked with Penny Arcade producer Jeff Kalles, who has experience with Nintendo, working on properties like Eternal Darkness and Pokemon, says Boyd. "He came at game development from a very non-indie perspective, so I think we were able to learn a lot from him about game development, putting polish, play testing. You know, stuff that's able to help us make even better games than we made before."
"At first, he would make these requests that we just thought were completely idiotic, just because they were so nitpicky. But then after we thought about it, we were like, 'no no, this will actually make our game feel a lot more polished and professional feeling.'" Even with a producer on the project, he says, Penny Arcade gave Zeboyd "a lot of leeway" with the property. Penny Arcade furnished the story for both games, he says, but everything surrounding the gameplay was left up to Boyd and Stiernberg. "They didn't get involved too much with the actual development of it, outside of the story and outside of that final polish layer, and bug testing and all that, and deciding when the game was ready to ship. The actual design, they let us do what we wanted, basically."
Even the story that Penny Arcade handed down wound up being a collaborative process, he says. After the initial cancellation of Episode 3, Penny Arcade's Jerry Holkins adapted the game into a short story, which eventually served as the basis for Zeboyd's version. "I ended up writing the rough draft of the script for the game, and then [Holkins] went back, edited it and made sure all the characters sounded like they were supposed to." One of Holkins' biggest contributions were the cheeky in-game descriptions of the game's monsters – "It LIVES for this," reads the description of the Ladder Mimic, a ferocious, man-eating ladder. "With the monster descriptions, he just really got into that. A few of them I wrote, but most of them were all him."
Despite the highly publicized collaboration, though, Boyd maintains that the impact of working with Penny Arcade has been fairly limited. "Don't get me wrong, neither game bombed or did horribly, or anything like that. We got decent sales from both games, and we've been getting decent sales from Cthulhu and Breath of Death. We made enough money to keep working as a developer, but not enough money that we can start hiring new people, that kind of thing." The studio is "planning on staying small," he says, and he and Stiernberg work well together.
Zeboyd is planning to launch a Kickstarter for its next project, Cosmic Star Heroine. "If the Kickstarter does substantially better than the goal, we might consider bringing on some additional people with the extra funds. It's not our huge goal to become this monolith of game development like Square-Enix, or even like Atlus. We like keeping it small so that we don't have a lot of bureaucracy to deal with."
This kind of freedom has allowed Zeboyd to move directly onto Cosmic Star Heroine, which looks to be a small change in direction for the developer. Cosmic Star Heroine will still leverage a retro RPG vibe, but its combat will be a new experiment for Zeboyd. "That's one of the big differences with this new project, is that there's no separate battle screen. You'll be running around and an enemy will see you, and then it'll start a battle wherever you happen to be in the game world." The closest and most obvious comparison would be Square's classic Chrono Trigger, says Boyd. The new system should speed up combat, he says, and should allow for new gameplay elements based on player positioning.
Zeboyd's previous projects, especially Cthulhu Saves the World and Breath of Death VII, have parodied the classic RPGs of the 8- and 16-bit eras, a layer Boyd says is laid on top of a deliberate gameplay design. "We always design our games to focus on gameplay first, and then the parody story aspect is just something we put on top of that, which I think differentiates us from some indie game developers, who are all about the story and they just kind of slap a game on top of the story."
Cosmic Star Heroine's overall plot and character development will be "more serious" than Zeboyd's previous titles, with tinges of humor. The project is also set to feature a base-building mechanic similar to the Suikoden series, Boyd reveals. "You can find people and add them to your town, or your base or whatever, and make it grow and give you new features and such." There will be multi-character combination abilities as well and a new item loadout system that regenerates a player's stock in designated safe areas rather than immediately after battle, as was the case in its Rain-Slick titles.
Zeboyd is aiming to launch the Kickstarter for Cosmic Star Heroine in September, with a planned final release in the second half of 2014. Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 4 is currently available on Steam.