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by Joe Matar

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I, Gladiator Interview with Director/Producer Tim Dvoskin

Steel Monkey’s Tim Dvoskin Lays Out the Skinny on Their Upcoming Android Release

tim-thumbI, Gladiator is a console-quality action brawler from Belarus-based developer Steel Monkeys that’s been out on iOS for about two months and is now making its way to Android. We had a chance to speak with director Tim Dvoskin about I, Gladiator’s upcoming port to Android.

Hardcore Droid: Thanks for talking with us. Can you please introduce yourself first?

Tim Dvoskin: My name is Tim Dvoskin and I’m the head of Steel Monkeys’ European studio. I doubled up as Executive Producer on I, Gladiator.

HD: How many games have you done with Steel Monkeys?

Tim: I was the one who started Steel Monkeys and it was my idea to actually set up a studio. Because, at that time, we didn’t really have any game development in Belarus as such. I decided there are 10 million people in the country; we’re bound to have some talent. I started the company and we slowly grew. We did all kinds of games: video games, PC games. But the last couple of years we switched over to mobile development. We did several projects for hire but I, Gladiator is our first full title with a full development cycle.

HD: What kind of a game is I, Gladiator? Can you describe the genre, gameplay?

Tim: Yeah, well, I can, but I hear one word a lot when people talk about the game and the word is “epic.” It might sound kind of “Oh, yeah…” But, truly, everyone just gets blown away because you won’t find games like this on your mobile too often. We wanted to bring a console game experience to mobiles.

You actually have freedom of movement, beautiful graphics, and tense, realistic combat. We wanted the whole experience so that you get to feel that you’re really there. We wanted strategy so you don’t go out there just to prove that you’re the stronger man. More often your opposition in I, Gladiator is stronger than you are, so you have to play smart. You have to observe your opponents, find their weaknesses, who is agile, who is slow, where you can make your moves. In the environment, we have all kinds of stuff that really affects the combat, like various traps. You can lure an opponent into a fire pit. He drops his weapon and you can use it against him. If you see something while in the arena, you can use it. We wanted the whole arena experience. Often you have to face several opponents or you see other gladiators fighting among themselves and you can make a choice. Who do you help in this situation? Because the victor is going to turn on you.

We wanted the crowd not to just be a placeholder in the background, but to play a big part in the game. If you’re behaving like a chicken, running away from all the fights, the crowd will boo you and you will suffer. But if you perform well, if they see limbs flying off, heads flying off, they will love you. They will shower you with money, with fame. They like to be entertained. It’s Roman times. People didn’t have a TV so that’s probably the experience they were really going for.

HD: How does it affect you if the crowd doesn’t like you?

Tim: If they like you, they throw stuff. They can throw healing potions or money or occasionally a weapon or armor or a shield. If they don’t like you, if you do not behave as a professional gladiator should, you get less experience and money at the end. That’s your punishment.

HD: They don’t throw tomatoes at you or anything like that?

Tim: No, not this time. But it’s something we can consider for the sequel. [LAUGHS] And maybe you can throw it back at them.

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HD: What other sorts of traps are there?

Tim: There are spikes, you can impale people. One I like a lot is if you see another gladiator, standing there, waiting for their turn to get killed, sometimes, if you throw your opposition into him, they’ll gladly grab him and hold him for you, so you can get in a few easy shots.

HD: So there’s a lot of context-sensitive gameplay.

Tim: Yeah. I’ve been reading the comments on ITunes – it’s been out on IPhone for two months – but a lot of people are saying it’s the kind of game that doesn’t let you go. You can’t put it down. We really wanted it to be very atmospheric. There’s a dramatic soundtrack, which is something we’re proud of because we think our music is quite great. Depending on how you perform, there’s different music.

There is a storyline attached to it. You get to play a gladiator called Rufus and he’s the champion, but he’s tired of it. He doesn’t want to do it anymore and he decides to spare one guy. I’m not going to spoil the story for you, but he ends up in a situation where something miraculous has to happen to get him off the hook and give him another chance.

HD: What are the different modes in the game?

Tim: At the moment there are two main modes. One is the Story Mode which is a sequential chain of fights. And the other mode is the Tournament Mode. Once you clear a level in the story mode you can open it as a tournament so you can come back to it and play it as many times as you feel like. In a couple months, we’ll be following up with a Survival Mode and soon after that multiplayer. It’s not integrated yet, but it’s in the works so that’s going to crown the game. I think if we manage to do what we want with it, there’s going to be nothing like it.

HD: The style of it is a cel-shaded, comic book look?

Tim: Yeah, graphically, that’s what we wanted.

HD: In terms of tone, did you want it to be realistic or is it supposed to be more tongue in cheek?

Tim: Well, we didn’t want to go mega-super-realistic. Obviously the game is about violence. If you can decapitate a person with a sword, it needs to be about violence. But we don’t want it to be graphically realistic so that’s one of the reasons why we chose that graphic style. I think we reached a pretty good balance between it actually feeling pretty serious, but not really disgusting, repulsive, abusive, or anything like that. That’s what we were aiming for.

HD: I was wondering, if people’s limbs come off, do they keep fighting?

Tim: Oh, no, no. We didn’t want to abuse it. We wanted it to be more on the level of, “Yeah, that’s cool” than “Wow, that’s disgusting.” There’s no survival horror in it. There’s no dark mood. It’s like toy soldiers. Sometimes you break a hand off or a head off, sort of that feeling.

HD: Can you explain a little bit about how it controls? Because it sounds like there’s a lot you can do and with touch controls and I wonder how it’s actually done.

Tim: We spent I think about two months polishing the controls. Instead of going for buttons and buttons, we basically only have one button for fighting controls. So you press that when you want to block or, if you’re not in combat, you press it when you want to run. Everything else is done with swiping your finger. So, for example, you press the block button and hold it, then you want to dodge, you just swipe left or right. You can also swipe back, so you just back away. If you’re in a situation where your weapon just broke, you can block, swipe back, disengage and run away. You can also press block and swipe up and, doing that, you’re forcing your opponent backwards and just imagine there is a fire trap waiting behind him. You push him in the fire trap and he’s toast.

Sometimes if you perform a correct set of moves you can stun your opponent and line him up with a spike, then you can kick him or punch him to impale him. And a button pops up informing you that you can perform that action now. But it only comes up if the conditions are right.

Combat maneuver is very important, but it’s very easy to do. We have an option for left or right-handed. We really wanted it to be convenient for whoever’s playing it.

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HD: Is it going to be identical to the iOS version?

Tim: It is going to be absolutely identical, yes. We might have some small differences and tweaks but we need to get some feedback from the market first.

HD: With the iOS version, we saw some players seemed to be complaining that it switched from a premium title to a freemium title. Can you respond to that criticism?

Tim: Right, well, we had a promotion with Free App of the Day. So, Free App of the Day, what they do is they make paid games free. So we were free for a week because we were on that promotion with them. Apart from them, we’re a paid game. There was a bit of confusion, but, just to bury it all, we’re a paid game. And, obviously, because it’s business you never know. You don’t know when they’re going to have a window. It makes it hard to coordinate it all.

So we were planning to have this campaign right when the game came out, but it just didn’t happen. So, what we did, we basically offered that whoever bought the game for the full price before the campaign, we gladly will give them a bag of gold in-game worth the amount of money they spent, basically five bucks. But since we don’t know who they are, because Apple wouldn’t let us collect that client information, we have a Facebook site for the game so we asked people to register on Facebook and like the game so we know their identities. So that’s what we’re going to do for those customers who we know, we’ll reimburse them money by giving them gold in the game for the amount that they spent. So I hope that clarifies this issue.

HD: So normally you just pay one price and there are no ads?

Tim: The game has Tapjoy offers built in just in case people need more gold, but it’s nothing that happens in-game, nothing to take away from the experience. I will just say we never offered any ads in the game. Items popped up there because, purely, it was a mistake on the part of one of the engineers. He left it activated while it should’ve been deactivated. Probably, you read it on Touch Arcade, I would suppose, right?

HD: Yeah, it was on the message board.

Tim: Yeah, I was on the forum when it was said. I went there and if you see my comment there was: “I’m going to check on it.” We checked on it. One hour after that, it was switched off. So that was never meant to be, let’s put it that way. A few mistakes here and there, but it was never meant to be. We never gave any ads in the game and it’s not in the game and it’s not going to be in the game. And it’s not going to be on Android as well so just forget about it.

HD: In the Android version, you have IAPs? Is that part of the game as well?

Tim: Yes. IAPs are part of the whole game design and, yes, it’s going to be there. It’ll be pretty much as it is on iOS.

HD: Okay, but once you pay up front you don’t technically have to pay again.

Tim: Well, our idea was to make a game playable for everyone. We wanted to tap into as much of the market as possible. So we looked at how we could make a game enjoyable to people of various gaming experience. So we decided to design it in such a way that you can proceed, but the speed of your progression would obviously depend on how good you are. So, if you’re a hardcore player, you can easily figure out how to fight this boss, how to defeat this enemy, how to use traps… Then, again, if you are not such a great player, if you might have some problems figuring out what to do, that’s what tournament mode is for. Basically, if you get killed, no problem. If you’re short on money, no problem. You can always play Tournament because whatever you earn in Tournament you get to keep. So, yeah, it might take a bit longer for some people to learn than others, so we give them this arena, this practice mode – if you want to call it that – the tournament.

If you want to cut all of this short, there are in-app purchases. That’s what it’s like in all games. But, truly, you are never required to buy additional in-app purchases. That’s up to you.

Again, I was observing it and I can see that many people were having no problems with playing the game without paying any more than they paid originally.

HD: So there’s no actual paywall.

Tim: Again, honestly, we made it in such a way that there’s no paywall. On Touch Arcade, I was talking to active players who were playing the game. All in all, I can tell you, the conclusion is there was no paywall. Sometimes people are too quick to draw a conclusion when they can’t beat something. Again, the game is meant to be played strategically. We tried to make it very mild in the beginning, but you reach a point where you can’t just fight every guy that you see head on. You have to think, “What else can I do?” That’s probably going to solve everything at once. Show a bit of cunning.

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HD: We understand developers need to get paid and it can be difficult to make money on the platform. It’s okay paying a price upfront but it’s good to hear there won’t be a paywall in the game.

Tim: It’s definitely not there and was not the intention. Of course, the budget of the game is nowhere near your average budget for the production of an Android title because it’s a full 3D, console-quality game so, obviously, it cost us a bit more than it usually costs people to do an average title. But it’s a very bad choice to make people choose either “I keep playing” or “I have to pay more.” That’s rude to them. We want to build a community. We want people to enjoy the game. If someone is complaining about something, it’s taken to heart by us. For example, in Chapter 2, people get lost. They try to cross a bridge which is not crossable and they don’t see there is a pathway going up there because it’s dark there and it’s not easy to see. So we released an update just putting a couple of torches there just to show people the way.

Because we are leading to multiplayer, we really want people to keep playing the game. We don’t want them to hit a paywall and say “I can’t proceed because I have no money.” Even if you hit something that is above your skill level, you can always go to Tournament, make money and hone your skills and, after that, just go back to the story. We are offering a lot of help if you go to our Facebook and see the YouTube channel, we’re offering help videos about how to do stuff in the game: how to make money, how to perform combos, everything. So if you really want to proceed in the game you will find a way. There is no paywall.

HD: So you’re interacting with the community.

Tim: Yes, that’s a given. We’ve spent a year of our life and we don’t want to just throw it out there and who cares. We really love it. It’s not too often that developers keep playing the game past release because of all the sleepless nights that lead to the release. But we really enjoy the game, we love it, we love to play it, and we don’t want it to be just out there without support. So we’re doing whatever we can to make sure everyone is satisfied.

HD: Do you know around when you’re going to release it on the Android?

Tim: We’re going to be going out with Samsung Apps first of all. We should be out in a couple of weeks. And a month after that we’ll go out on other platforms, like Amazon and Google Play.

HD: Are you trying to get it to work on all the different versions of Android?

Tim: We’re trying to get it working on whatever minimal specs we can. Actually, there’s one difference I can tell you for Android. In options, you actually will be able to test your own settings. Basically, because we’d have a problem getting it fully optimized and tested for every device, we’re going to give the player the option to check something off, check something on, and see if the framerate is good for you. We don’t have this on iOS – this quality manager, we call it – so we’re giving a bit more control to Android players. We think that we did everything correctly for every possible device, but we better give some power to the people just in case.

HD: Is there anything else you wanted to add?

Tim: We’re the new players on the block. That means sometimes we don’t manage to do everything as we want to do it. But keep in mind that we’re a reasonably small indie studio. We just don’t have some of the resources of some of the guys out there. But my personal feeling is that games are not business as such. If you approach games from a pure business point of view – I mean, there are companies out there that are very successful doing that. But what it comes down to is the repetition of already used formulas.

We really wanted to do a game that’s going to turn heads. When we were in the design process a lot of passion was put into it and that passion gave us strength to carry on with all the features that you won’t see in other competitive games out there. And this is because we love it. We loved it from the minute it was conceptualized and we still love it now. And this energy we put into the game – not just doing our work, but actually enjoying our work – we hope that players will feel that and get this energy that we pass to them.

HD: Well, we look forward to playing it. I appreciate you talking to us.

Tim: Thanks, I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about it.

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About the Author

Joe Matar

Joe Matar hasn't stopped gaming ever since he first played Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders for the Commodore 64. He is always on the lookout for solid game narratives and never gets tired of writing about the games that do it right. Or terribly wrong.



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