Image courtesy of Whatboy Games

How Early Access helped shape tactical deck-building adventure Trials of Fire

Daniel Kayser |
April 9, 2021
Whatboy Games was founded by Adam Doherty and Dax Ginn to make amazing indie games, focused on repeatable gameplay loops with a AAA level of gameplay polish. As Whatboy’s first title, Trials of Fire stays true to this philosophy by offering exciting new combat mechanics wrapped up in a procedural, player-driven story set within an original fantasy world.
When we first encountered Trials of Fire, it was clear that the game was seeking to offer a unique spin on the classic deck-building genre. As a single-player, turn-based strategy game set in a post-cataclysmic fantasy realm, Trials of Fire combines freeform exploration of an expansive open world, multi-character, card-driven combat, and an innovative new fusion of loot, load-out, and level up systems delivering massive depth of play and unique strategic opportunities for the player on every run.

Developed by former Rocksteady developers Adam Doherty and Dax Ginn, the duo understands the need to continually polish their project while standing out from the crowd, and even with deck-building games being rather popular right now, they’re doing just that. In fact, Polygon’s preview indicates that Trials of Fire is “among the best of the bunch” when it comes to the genre, which suggests that the game’s Early Access phase was quite productive.

With the game now launched, we circled back with Whatboy Game Director Adam Doherty and Studio Director Dax Ginn to learn more about the game’s evolution and ongoing development during Early Access.
 

Congrats on the launch! For those unfamiliar with the project, please tell us what Trials of Fire is all about.
 
Studio Director Dax Ginn:
Hey! Thanks for having us! Trials of Fire is a tactical deck-building adventure game set in a fantasy world in ruin that takes place entirely within the pages of an ancient book. It’s a roguelite built on extensive procedural game systems which means that every run that players take is a new opportunity to author an entirely new and unique story. Players begin each run by selecting a party of three heroes and adventuring across the vast and desolate wastelands of the gameworld toward their goal. Along the way, stopping off at points of interest, they will have to make tough moral judgments in consequential narrative encounters, which quite often descend into a battle to the death. The core of the game is hex-based deck-driven combat in which the player has to focus not only on their cross-party deck strategy but also on their tactical positional play to outmaneuver and ultimately defeat their enemies. The game world is chaotic and lawless following a legendary cataclysmic event as all of the remaining races are gripped by a desperate daily battle for survival.
 
Has the studio, Whatboy Games, been growing alongside the project? How many people are currently on the team?
 
Ginn:
The core team size hasn’t changed – it's still just the two of us as the only full-time devs on the team, however, we’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to collaborate with some insanely talented freelancers on this game. There are almost 400 cards in the game, each with their own illustration representing the action or power that the card will trigger if played. Max Davenport and Paul Abbott came to our rescue with these, pumping out a huge amount of hand-drawn cards, items, and characters over the last two years. There is also a really sweet transition in the game that takes place when entering a battle where the 3D battle arena emerges up and out of the pages of the book. Jody Sargent handled all of the 3D modeling in the game and did some really incredible and difficult technical work to get this effect working so well. And the very early concepting of the characters and game world was done by Sandra Deuchewitz, who really helped us create a fantasy game world that felt desolate and dangerous but with just a tinge of hope that was worth fighting for. We also worked with SCNTFC, who composed the music, and writer Nathan Joyce, who took on a lot of the lore and world-building narrative.

When listing everyone out like that, it’s still not a huge team, but a hugely talented group that has really contributed massively to the quality of the final game.
Image courtesy of Whatboy Games
Since last we connected with you, the game has spent time in Early Access. How has player feedback impacted development during this critical phase?
 
Ginn:
When we first entered Early Access in May 2019, I think we underestimated just how important player feedback and constructive community-led criticism were going to be. We have always had a fairly strong vision for how the game needed to develop and where we would focus our fairly limited resources, but by releasing an update every week for almost two years, we have been able very quickly react to comments and feedback on Discord and other forums and I think a spirit of rapid iteration and improvement is something that players really enjoy – making an observation or a suggestion and then seeing it implemented in the game within days is a great feeling, even for us devs! The game systems at play in Trials of Fire are designed to scale as the complexity of each adventure increases, so it is absolutely possible for players to push those systems into places that are beyond us – this is where player feedback has really made the difference. Being able to see how players from all around the world push the game systems to breaking point has had a hugely positive impact on the balance and quality of the final game.
 
In Trials of Fire, players engage enemies in a meld of card-play and tactical, positional combat. Has there been a lot of balancing of these mechanics during Early Access or has the experience remained largely similar to what you started with?
 
Game Director Adam Doherty:
We have balanced the game pretty extensively over the Early Access period, with large changes both in and out of combat. I would say that the experience has remained true to our original vision, but so much of the minutia has changed to incorporate players’ feedback. We also track data on how players are playing the game, where they’re failing or succeeding too easily, and what combinations of cards/items/heroes players find most effective. It’s hard to imagine where we would be now without all that amazing feedback – some of it quite brutal – and data. The game would certainly have turned out very differently without their input.
Image courtesy of Whatboy Games
You’ve previously cited your familiarity with Unreal Engine as well as the extensive creator community as reasons for selecting the engine for this project, but practically speaking, can you provide any insight into how selecting UE has allowed you to be agile and active during the Early Access window?
 
Doherty:
Definitely. We make tactical use of Blueprints to manage the logic for visual effects and UI, allowing our audio designer, artists, and VFX artists to quickly iterate things independent of any code support. Exposing certain one-off events like this allow us to be very flexible without worrying about global performance concerns.
 
From a code perspective, just being able to easily add data-driven classes using a combination of Blueprint and C++ really helps to add and iterate new features incredibly rapidly.

Also, the engine’s easy-to-use texture and streaming systems have made it very easy to add lots and lots of hi-res graphical content (card images and such) without any need for loading screens or memory concerns.
 

On a technical level, are there any particular challenges you’ve overcome during development that could be good to share with the UE development community?

Doherty:
One of the things we had to implement, as it was not in the engine, was seamlessly switching game modes. This allows us to keep a lot of the logic for different parts of the game (menus/adventure/combat) compartmentalized, and still keep a seamless experience from the moment you load up the game to when you finish your adventure. It was definitely worth the effort to get working properly.

We also put a lot of work into getting the various transitions to and from battle arenas as smooth as possible. Seamlessly loading in a level as you are looking straight at it caused a number of headaches and some impressive smoke and mirrors – mainly from our amazingly talented 3D artist, Jody. Again, we kept everything super modular so we could plug in new battle arenas that load and transition in with no cuts or fades. It was a great collaboration between me and our remote team!

Going into full launch means welcoming many more members to the game’s community. Can you talk about your relationship with the Trials of Fire community and how you hope that develops over time?
 
Ginn:
We really do owe a huge debt of gratitude to the community of players who have taken a chance on us and supported Trials of Fire throughout early access. Our attitude has always been to be upfront and honest about the challenges that we face during development and to repay the trust the gamers have placed in us by keeping them in the loop with weekly content updates and being open and available to chat on Discord or other community platforms. We make a point of sending a personal note to every person who joins the Trials of Fire Discord server and I think that goes a long way towards building the beginning of a relationship that is personal and meaningful. We are deeply grateful for the faith that players are placing in us and in return we’re there for anyone who needs us. As the Trials of Fire community grows, we’ll just need to build a bigger table. While the design of the game is built on systems that scale easily as complexity grows, we want to keep Whatboy personal and meaningful. If that means spending more of our time chatting with players and taking their comments and feedback on-board, then that’s what we’ll do.
Image courtesy of Whatboy Games
Where can people go to learn more about Trials of Fire and Whatboy Games?
 
Ginn:
The Steam page for Trials of Fire has loads of information about the game as well as the history of the weekly updates that we have made throughout early access and if players want to connect with us (and other players), we’re on Discord all day every day.

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