[The folks at Haunted Temple Studios went from EA-sized teams to a four-man operation, and they talk to our own Chris Remo on the transition and what they've learned while making their turn-based strategy game Skulls of the Shogun.]

The members of Haunted Temple Studios spent years working together on massive teams at Electronic Arts' Los Angeles studio. Now, with their debut turn-based strategy game Skulls of the Shogun, the distributed studio's developers are relishing the greater individual input they have as part of a tight four-man team.

Targeted for release later this year on Xbox Live Arcade and PC, Skulls of the Shogun is influenced by classic 60s-era anime design and driven by a desire to push the turn-based tactical genre beyond its longtime Advance Wars touchstone.

Recently, we had a chance to sit down with three of Haunted Temple's four members -- programmers Borut Pfeifer and Ben Vance, and "founder of the studio, director, and only artist/art director" Jake Kazdal.

Topics discussed include the slow evolution of turn-based strategy on consoles, the technical challenges behind moving to a gridless design, settling on a visual style, and transitioning from massive development teams to a gang of four.

Turn-based strategy has a strong heritage on the PC, but this smaller scale take on the genre has been almost exclusive to portables lately. Why do you think there aren’t more games like this on consoles or PC?

Jake Kazdal: I don’t know. I don’t know why the genre hasn’t really evolved in a long time either. Fire Emblem or Advance Wars are practically the same as they were on the SNES. Really, nothing changed. The biggest leap forward recently was Valkyria Chronicles, which I thought was a brilliant game, and this borrows from that in certain places.

How did it influence you?

JK: It definitely got me thinking about turn-based strategy games without the grid. There’s definitely a big step towards that. That game is more about ranged combat, and this is more about close quarters, so there are a lot of differences, but it’s definitely an inspiration.

Have you run into any big design or tech challenges going off the grid?

[All three interviewees laugh.]

Okay!

Borut Pfeifer: We’ve played around with a number of ideas -- where characters will go organically to get out of your [controlled character’s] way to maintain a space, but it’s tricky. You don’t want to push dudes out of their position for gameplay purposes, and you don’t want to be able to push one of your guys even though his movement is used up.

You seem to have put some elasticity in there, with units spreading out a bit when they get bunched up.

BP: Right, but after a bunch of playtesting, that probably won’t quite work, and we have a few other ideas, like being able to do a judo move through people, to keep the fluidity of motion without getting you into bad collision or breaking game mechanics.

JK: I would say it’s been one of the greatest challenges, but also one of the most interesting challenges. We’re breaking new ground in this genre with a 2D game like this moving off the grid. I haven’t seen it done before in this manner.

My whole career, and a lot of this stuff we all worked on, has been very cutting-edge -- answering new questions and new problems as opposed to doing the same games over and over. We love breaking new ground. It’s easy to iterate at this team size. We talk all the time and just plug in new ideas and feel them out. If they work, they stay; if they don’t, we throw them away. It’s awesome; I’ve never had more fun making games than this project.

On that note, how are you structured? You all work remotely, right?

JK: Yeah. I work out of Seattle, and these guys are both out of L.A. Well, [Borut’s] in L.A.; [Ben is] kind of a nomad these days.

Yeah, you were saying you’re working from the road these days?

Ben Vance: Yeah. I’ve been based in L.A. for the last five years, working with the Boom Blox team, and our new project got cancelled, so they laid the team off. At that point, I got seriously involved in this project but, because of some personal reasons, I also wanted to get out of my apartment, and I’ve been on the road since then.

[For more on Vance’s unique game development odyssey to escape a “landlord from hell,” check out Gamasutra’s previous interview.]

To go back to discussions of this genre being underrepresented, I think this art style is also not particularly represented in the genre. In part because it’s so common to portables, games like this are usually cartoonish as filtered through pixel art, whereas this is a sharper line art look. How did you settle on it?

JK: Actually, that’s one of the things I’m most proud of. I lived in Japan for a long time, and I’m really influenced by 60s anime -- classic anime with very sharp, simple character designs and very lush backgrounds. I’ve been looking at a lot of that stuff for this game. The [Legend of Zelda: The] Wind Waker art director was actually an art director from the films back in those days. I’ve been looking at a lot at that kind of stuff.

It doesn’t look as “extreme” as a lot of anime, at least to me.

JK: Well, the 60s stuff had a very different look than modern anime. It was before the whole pink hair and robots and stuff – closer to Astro Boy than to Gundam. I’m a huge fan of that stuff, and of vinyl character design like Kidrobot -- the little plastic collectible stuff. I love modern, urban character design out of Hong Kong, Tokyo, London, and lots of stuff in the United States.

I’m surrounded by that all the time, and I wanted to make something that’s fresh and stands on its own two legs, yet people would recognize it. I think it does have its own identity, and that’s my goal as an art director.

There’s a very specific vibe going on with the whole concept for this game, including the title and even the font the title is in, but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. It reminds me of a mid-century tiki attraction or something. Does that make any sense?

JK: It is very reminiscent of a lot of the black and white, late 50s and early 60s Japanese anime. You see that sort of font and look with that 60s pop design. The animation and culture of that era was very innocent and different. It’s a bygone era, but it’s a great source of inspiration. And it sticks out against other games you’re going to see, because everything is brown and photorealistic and gritty. And I love those games, but for a small team I wanted to do something different.

Did you come into the project knowing what the aesthetic was going to be?

JK: No, but I wanted to do something that appealed to me as an artist, something I wanted to spend time getting better at. So I surrounded myself with old cartoons, went on a shopping trip to Japan, I went to [Tokyo retailer] Mandarake, and spent hundreds of dollars on old anime, comic books, and urban vinyl characters. I steeped in that pot and this came out.

Since you’re using XNA, you’re basically simultaneously developing on PC and Xbox 360. Are you going to develop separate interfaces for each—cursor-based for PC and direct-control interface for 360?

BV: Yeah. There’s a little bit of it on PC, but it’s not done yet. We’ll probably do a UI that’s a little more RTS inspired on PC. That’s our first inclination, but we haven’t gotten to that point yet.

JK: We’d like to do iPod, iPad, and Windows 7 Phone version, so we’re going to need to figure all that stuff out.

How did you decide on the initial two platforms? Was it just because you like working in XNA?

BP: Pretty much. I’ve been working in Visual Studio for ten years, and as I was thinking about new projects, I got a Mac Mini and started messing around with that, and it’s just a little too ingrained. Using [Apple’s Mac development suite] Xcode is like beating my head against something. So I decided to try XNA, and it’s just this wonderful, musical experience—hallelujahs in the background and everything. I mean, [Microsoft] knows how to make dev tools. Everything is so easy. The content build process is totally customizable. There are a couple things to be careful of, like C# and garbage collection, but it’s a really nice development environment. And like Jake says, even he can figure out how to put it on an Xbox.

JK: This is a big deal. I’m not a tech guy, to say the least.

At what point are you in development now?

JK: We’re getting close to alpha on our vertical slice. We know what the game is now. There’s still some tuning and tweaking to do, and the bulk of the work left is fleshing out the campaign, AI, and network code, tweaking the UI and some of the effects, and animations.

But the core of the gameplay is there, and it’ll be easier moving forward than it’s been getting to this point. We would like to finish this year. We’re not under any strict timelines, we don’t have a publisher yet, and we’re self-funded, but we would like to finish this year.

Have you learned any major lessons about developing with such a small team, after coming from big companies like EA?

JK: For me, it was having the concept of a vertical slice, where we go almost to completion with a small chunk of the game before spending any effort on designing a bunch of levels where we might have to go change a bunch of stuff later. We’ve got a very small map, a very big map, and a four-player map, and between those three maps we’re getting gameplay consistent across the board.

Banging out content is going to be a lot easier now that we have that template in place. The more successful big studios I’ve worked at definitely use that sort of process.

BP: Also, taking the time to work on the tools, like the custom 2D level editor, functionality that will speed up map building, and a custom animation tool that can do skeleton animation with keyframing and scaling. Spending the time on the tools took more than a month and a half of focused time, but it’s definitely paid off.

Is that level editor something you would consider releasing to the public?

BP: Potentially, yeah. The core of the engine, although it’s greatly modified, stems from AngelXNA, which in turn stems from Angel, which is an EALA prototyping engine. Angel is in C++ and AngelXNA is in C# and XNA. It would be cool, when things are polished and bug-free, to put it back up there.

What’s it like each being 25 percent of the team?

BP: My day-to-day at EA on teams like [canceled Steven Spielberg project] LMNO had a lot of interacting with other people. I was on AI, so I was working closely with designers, usually upwards of ten people, as opposed to one person really closely. So we’re able to iterate much faster, and it is less hectic in that sense that you’re able to focus on really perfecting something.

JK: I’ve had pretty much every position there doing art in video games, and being at once the artist, art director, and animator, there’s a lot less communication, because it’s all me. I’m with myself all day and I can do everything. The hardest part has been defining the vision, the look, and the style guides, but once that’s done, it’s a lot easier than going back and forth with a bunch of people to keep a single vision consistent.

I definitely prefer being able to do all of this. I missed being an animator, I missed doing character design, so it’s been a dream to be able to do all the stuff while making our own game. It’s awesome.

Your other team member [Sam Bird] is an audio guy, so you have no titled designers. Do you all share the design role?

BV: To a large extent, yeah. We were all a little bit designer in previous roles.

JK: None of us are dedicated designers. [Ben and Borut] are engineers, and I’m an artist, but we’re very passionate about the genre, and I take lead design roles and make some of the hard decisions, but I bounce everything off these guys. We come to a team conclusion before moving forward on most design issues.

BV: I think that’s one of the strengths of working with these guys. We’re able to collaborate, and all of us have done that in big industry jobs. Each of us has lots of skills -- I’m not just a programmer, Borut’s not just a programmer, Jake’s not just an artist.

It’s really effective to be able to bounce things off each other and make more producer-type decisions -- these roles would be whole other people in other projects. It’s been a really interesting process.