Crate Entertainment Q&A

We've been fortunate to have the chance to run a quick Q&A with two of the fellas who work at Crate Entertainment, Game Developer Kamil Marczewski, and Team Lead Arthur Bruno on Grim Dawn. I've been keeping in contact with Kamil for a few months now, and he's a real stand up guy. Be sure to check out their company page and Facebook. Read on below for the full Q&A.

Nathan: Thanks for agreeing to this Q&A gents. So, could tell us your names, and what your roles are at Crate Entertainment?

[KM] My name is Kamil Marczewski, known as Zantai at the Grim Dawn forums, and I am a Game Designer.

[AB] My name is Arthur Bruno and I'm the team lead

Nathan: How many strong is Crate at this point in time, and how many of that number are the old Titan Quest guys?

[KM] We are a team of eight, with two of us hailing from Titan Quest.

Nathan: What roles did the old Titan Quest guys used to have, and are they in the same positions now?

[KM] From the old Titan Quest team, we currently have Arthur Bruno as the Lead Designer and Brian Stephens as our Network Programmer. Both had similar roles at Ironlore.

Kickstarter potentially failing to deliver

Nathan: Kickstarter seems to have drawn a lot of scepticism lately, with big projects failing their goals. You guys obliterated your Kickstarter campaign, and it was one of the relatively early ones. Do you think if you had to redo that campaign again today, it would have turned out with the same figure?

[KM] That is difficult to predict. With so many Kickstarters failing to deliver and many players becoming jaded with the crowdfunding model, some projects that may have been fine in 2012 now struggle to hit their funding goals.

[AB] I think also during the first months of KS, the press was still captivated by the novelty of it and interested to see how each new project fared. That made it easier to get widespread coverage but over time, it became less of a novelty and now I think press coverage isn't a given. It takes a bigger project from a known team and / or something that looks really fantastic and innovative to rise to the level where it will get a lot of coverage.

Nathan: You guys took to Early Access after having nailed Kickstarter, has the game been more or less profitable on each platform?

[KM] It is difficult to compare the two as Kickstarter served as a means to raise initial funds and let fans know that we exist whereas Early Access is a means to get our game out to more players. In the longterm, Early Access would probably win out simply because you can no longer back our Kickstarter. :)

[AB] I think "profitable" may not be the right term here since developers shouldn't be trying to make a profit on Kickstarter earnings and our original funds from there have long since been spent on development costs.

In terms of revenue though, Early Access has pulled in significantly more money but it's also been going on for over a year. Much of that has also been re-invested in expanding development.

They're different beasts though, as Kamil said and serve different purposes. It would have taken a lot longer to get to Early Access, if we made it at all, without Kickstarter. At the same time, Early Access has allowed us to expand Grim Dawn far beyond what we originally planned during the KS. So both have been complimentary and served different needs.

"...without the KS, I'm not sure that things would have worked out..."

Nathan: Was Early Access totally necessary?

[AB] There may have been a way to continue without it but it would have been tough. In the months prior to the KS, some of the guys who had been volunteering their time on the game but who had other full-time industry jobs became less able or unable to contribute due to increasing responsibility at their day-jobs or other life events. The pace of development, already slow with only two full-time people, was dragging to a halt. I had already been working on the game for a couple years without earning any pay and I couldn't afford to do that forever, so I had do something to get development moving again.

Additionally, the ARPG genre, which had been relatively barren for years, exploded with sequels and new titles during the development of Grim Dawn. So my original, modest plans were no longer going to be enough but to expand the scope, I needed more people.

Nathan: Have you preferred one over the other?

[AB]Well, Kickstarter is definitely more intense and demanding, in terms of running the campaign, coming up with compelling rewards and then later managing the distribution of those rewards. To run a successful campaign and exceed your goal, you also end up signing yourself up to deliver more with stretch goals. So, even as you raise more money, the project goals also become more demanding. You also suddenly have a large group of people who are waiting for their game and it can add a lot of pressure to development, trying to meet the expectations you've created.

Early Access has been great because it's allowed us to sort of get ahead of our burn rate, where we have more financial stability and can focus more on just making the best game possible instead of worrying about running out of money and potentially having to make hard decisions based on that.

But again, they both have filled totally different roles and without the KS, I'm not sure that things would have worked out nearly as well.

Nathan: What sort of numbers came from the Kickstarter and Early Access sales? Was one of them more successful at bringing in the numbers over the other?

[AB] The Kickstarter was successfully funded by 12,457 backers. To this date, the game has sold over 150,000 copies. It would be unfair to say that one was more successful than the other though when the game would not be where it is today without the generosity of our early backers, those before and during the Kickstarter.

Nathan: One of the things I always notice on Early Access titles is the stream of users moaning about games being broken or incomplete. Your page is one of the few I've read where that's a hell of a lot less common. What would you say that's down to?

[KM] We put in a major effort to ensure that whatever we release is as bug free as possible. This does mean that we do not release content as often as some other Early Access projects, but whenever we do release a new build, it has been thoroughly debugged and features a significant amount of new content to play. That way whatever build you are playing feels somewhat complete, even if the game is not yet finished. If bugs do get out into the public build, we do our best to quickly release a fix if we can reproduce the issue.

Complete Rewrite of the Multiplayer Code

Nathan: How much feedback has actually been useful from Early Access users?

[KM] Feedback has been tremendously useful in regards to planning new features and discovering issues. Even reading player discussions as innocuous as item builds can yield interesting information such as noticing a pattern where nearly every build features the exact same accessory.

Nathan: What sort of things have you implemented that have been wholly the request of your Early Access players?

[KM] There are quite a few, some examples:

  • Personal multiplayer loot mode
  • Auto-combine components button
  • Expanded shared storage
  • DPS comparisons
  • Caster weapons

Nathan: Are you guys still on target for a fully polished release by the end of 2015?

[AB] I think the game will be complete before the end of the year. If it's ready for official release before the end of Oct, then we'll move it out of Early Access. If we finish in Nov or Dec, we might keep polishing it until Jan or Feb just because the holiday season would probably be a tough time to release, with all the high-profile games that come out at that time. In either case though, people will be able to play through the full content before the end of the year.

Nathan: Have you felt that the whole project has been a real success since launching in Kickstarter in the very beginning? Were there any major issues that cropped up or was it smooth-sailing for you guys?

[KM] The project has felt very rewarding from the beginning and it has continued to evolve well beyond its original scope to become far bigger and feature-rich than we initially imagined. No project is without issues though. When the Gamespy multiplayer service shut down, we had to completely rewrite a significant portion of our multiplayer code. Thankfully Brian, our network programmer, was up to the task and we were able to provide one of our major features without cutting anything back.

[AB] Haha, well, the beginning for me was a couple years before the KS and before Kamil joined the team. In the early days, I had sleepless nights wondering if the project was ever going to go anywhere or whether I might be wasting good years of my career on a dream that was unachievable.

After the KS, things improved a lot and I felt much surer that Grim Dawn was going to be finished. The great guys that I was able to hire after the KS boosted the energy or the project and the pace of progress picked up immensely.

We did run into various bumps along the way, like at one point we had some technical problems with the rigs used to animate our player characters and we had no full-time animator initially. Luckily, we were able to bring on a top notch animator a couple months later who resolved those issues. Later we were having trouble re-writing the multiplayer code to work with the new pathing engine and other features we'd added but we lucked out again when Brian Stephens joined the team, who is a network programmer I've now worked with at three different companies, including Iron Lore.

Now that we have experienced people to cover all critical areas of development, I feel like we can overcome any challenge that presents itself.

"Then there is the devotion system…"

Nathan: One of the things I noticed about Grim Dawn is the real dedication to a "grim" game. One of the aspects of this is that even the best equipment and armour still looks rusty, old and battered in most cases. Was this a design decision from the very beginning and how did you decide on that direction?

[KM] We wanted to tell a convincing story of a post-apocalyptic world where humanity is struggling to survive among the ruins of its once mighty civilization. To achieve this, every facet of the game had to fit the narrative. That isn't to say that everything looks like it has been cobbled together from scrap. Many higher end items and uniques represent equipment from before the fall of mankind and look appropriately impressive.

[AB] Yeah, I'd say a good portion of the early to mid-level gear still retains some of that make-shift, cobbled together look but there are some cleaner, more impressive looking epics that can drop now and no one has seen the best items yet, as they won't start to appear until we raise the level cap further.

Nathan: You keep the game up to date on a regular basis and add a lot of features in a constant stream, are there any big unannounced features you're going to drop in before full release?

[KM] Of course, there is still plenty left to look forward to. :)

[AB] The rest of the faction system is rolling out in the next build, which will add a lot in terms of replay and later game depth. The larger monster packs and nemesis bosses that can spawn from earning the ultimate level of hatred from enemy factions should be fun for hardcore players.

Then there is the devotion system, which will add a whole other layer of strategy and customization to player skills…

Nathan: Were there any parts of the development in the very beginning that you would have done differently, or any parts that never made the cut but were still interesting concepts?

[KM] There are some side-stories and dungeons that did not make the cut simply because of our limited team size. Sometimes we have to make difficult decisions about what content will make it into the game without delaying the project. We may revisit the cut content in an expansion.

Nathan: How much difference do you think there will be to the look of the game now compared to full release?

[KM] We make some small improvements with every build, such as improving lighting or updating spell effects; so you can expect some improvements, but there will not be a major change in the visual style.

[AB] I always think the look of the game is essentially done and it's not going to improve but then a few months later, we end up reworking something and the game suddenly gets better looking. Last build we released new trees for the Act 1 swamp and some lighting and texture changes that I think were a big improvement.

Next build there will be another series of texture changes that I think are another big step forward in the look of the game.

"We have at least one expansion planned..."

Nathan: What sort of stage is the game's optimisation in? Are we nearing the end of the optimisation updates, or are you expecting the game to become a lot more lightweight by release?

[KM] We make an effort to improve the game's performance with every build. For example, Build 24 has optimised the loading process to improve framerates by up to 30% for some users. We are still making changes to the code-base though, so a full optimisation pass will not be done until we are closer to the full release.

Nathan: Is the Titan Quest engine still holding up for the title, and were any other engines considered beforehand, like Unity?

[KM] We made significant changes to the engine, including fixes to old bugs and the addition of many new features, so it has been an excellent starting point but we've also come along ways. Given that the project originally started with just two people, going from scratch with another engine was simply not an option. Without access to the TQ engine, there would have been no Grim Dawn.

[AB] As Kamil said, it was the TQ codebase that allowed us to create Grim Dawn with such a small team. Without it, we'd have needed to hire at least a few more programmers, which we wouldn't have had the money for early on.

We've heavily modified and upgraded the engine though. At its core, some things remain the same but we've added in post effects, rewritten many of the shaders, made many other graphics improvements and also added in new physics and pathing engines.

Nathan: Once Grim Dawn is finished, is there word/interest of a sequel to this franchise, or is the team looking at fresh new challenges?

[KM] We have at least one expansion planned, which can be pre-purchased with the Loyalist edition on our website. Whether we do more expansions beyond the first will depend on the success of Grim Dawn.

Nathan: If you were to make another game in the same genre as Grim Dawn, or even in a different genre, would you still use Titan Quest's engine? (e.g. Haemimont's engine for Tropico was used for Victor Vran)

[AB] It would depend on the nature of the game. If we did another ARPG, we very well might but we'd have to make a big investment in upgrading some core aspects of the engine, like the lighting and such. If there was enough shared features / characteristics, it might be worthwhile.

If we did something significantly different from an ARPG, then we might go with a commercial engine like Unity or Unreal.

Nathan: Finally, how would you say your Early Access title fairs against the likes of the various other games in the ARPG genre? Is there anything in particular you think our readers would like about Grim Dawn's current or future state that would win their attention over from the competition?

[KM] It is a great time to be a fan of ARPGs, with more options than ever available to players. I think we set ourselves apart with more focus on storytelling, choice and consequence, factions and exploration, while still offering all the core features that players love in ARPGs such as deep character development, ruthless bosses and awesome itemization.

Thanks for your time.