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Canberra’s Echidna Studios takes on international video game makers

Kaylia Payne

Canberra’s creative scene is truly thriving as is the local design community. But what you might not be aware of, is just how good our city is at producing awesome games. From massive hits like Bioshock Infinite and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (from Australia’s only AAA developer, 2K Australia), to independent games such as Epoch by Uppercut Games, Canberra definitely holds its own in the booming and competitive video games industry.

So it comes as no surprise then that Canberra locals Ben, Andrew and Miles of Echidna Studios received positive feedback at PAX Aus (Australia’s premier gaming convention) in the lead up to their first release Merchants and Mercenaries, which is a ‘turn-based strategy game trapped in the framework of a real-time game.’

Not being much of a gamer myself, I have absolutely no idea what that means and so Ben is quick to clarify.

“It’s much like sitting and playing a board game with friends, except that you can do it anywhere and any time,” he explains.

“The map is on your screen and can be zoomed in to see great detail or out to view the whole map. Players establish a settlement in the wilderness and use resources to build, thereby improving the land with mills, farms, mines and quarries to receive different resource types.

“A timer ticks away in the corner and, when it reaches zero, players receive more resources for each building they have. The resources can be used to create more buildings or upgrades, and can be sold for gold. Gold can be used to buy resources and is the only way to create military buildings as well as merchants and mercenaries.  Players use different strategies to fulfil one of two win conditions: 1) destroy the others or 2) finish building a castle and protect it for a while.”

Miles and Andrew show off their pride and glory - Merchants and Mercanaries

Miles and Andrew show off their pride and glory – Merchants and Mercenaries

Given my limited gaming experience, I’m curious to know just how quickly I could get the hang of their game.

“People were picking it up quickly at PAX,” says Ben.

“We want it to have the depth of play and strategy of many games without being too complicated, which is partly why we like the board game aspects we’ve included in the game. We want people who have never picked up a video game, but love board games, to try this and to find it easy.

“Like all the best games, the rules are straightforward, while the strategy can be quite complex.’

Ben, Andrew and Miles have been playing games for as long as they can remember, finding it to be both a great way to socialise and take a quick break from reality.

However, they have found that as they grow older it becomes more difficult to play games with friends and family; people are busy, loved ones move, things change and like so many other pastimes of our youths, it becomes harder and harder to find the time.

It was this that inspired them to create Merchants and Mercenaries.

“Many board game lovers found that games like Words with Friends allowed them to enjoy turn-based board games like Scrabble on the go (or under the office desk),” Ben says.

As technology became better and mobile networks more reliable, the guys sensed the opportunity to make more complicated board games, like Settlers of Catan, mobile and even real-time strategy games like Age of Empires, available to phone and PC users alike.

What resulted was a hybrid game that looks like a giant Settlers of Catan board with units defending and attacking in real time.

A close-up of the game on a tablet device.

A close-up of the game on a tablet device.

 

“We’ve designed the game so it will already work on any PC, tablet or smart phone regardless of the operating system so people who want to play the game together won’t be hindered by compatibility problems,” describes Ben.

“In short, I guess we were inspired by the idea we could bring quality gaming to people who wanted to immerse themselves in an engaging multiplayer without having to spend the big bucks or be on the same type of device as their mates. No one is really doing that, so we wanted to be the first.”

While I may be a novice to the gaming world, even I can’t help but feel that developing a game for six different platforms is a lot for a first game to take on.

Ben admits that it’s had its difficulties, which is probably why a lot of developers steer clear of cross-platform multiplayers.

“Getting it to work for the first time was very exciting and now we have the luxury of playing with different art styles and game balancing; now we have achieved a working model of the game which we took to PAX. We wanted to make it available on everything so everyone could play.”

But will there be a sequel or additional content to support their game in the future?

“We will support the game for as long as it is on the market and have plans of adding more customisability to encourage a modding community,” Ben answers.

“We’ll be listening to our fans and who knows what surprises we’ll deliver in the future!”

As for the price to purchase the game? Players will only have to make a once-time affordable payment.

“We don’t want advertisements blocking the limited screen space and we want gamers to be on an even footing and not trying to out-spend each other for better and better virtual gear. We’re not a big fan of that sort of thing,” Ben says, relieving any concern of in-game advertising or the need to purchase in-game items to progress.

However in the game development world, it’s not simply a matter of creating an awesome game and then releasing it.

It’s a massively competitive market and to have a successful PC game one is heavily reliant on publishing through Steam (a digital delivery platform – like iTunes for games). But Steam doesn’t allow just anyone to publish their game through this platform; the only way that an independent developer can get their game onto Steam is by getting the community to upvote and say that they want it released. A certain number of votes will lead to a game becoming Greenlit and available for purchase.

So just how do they plan to stand out from the thousand of other games competing to get upvoted?

Ben admits that it has its difficulties especially being their first big release not to mention that they don’t have the same support that their crowd-funded million-dollar games have. But ‘we’re just trying our best’ he says.

“We have carefully found a niche in the market, so we don’t really feel like we’re directly competing with anyone. It’s more important to us to reach people we think will really enjoy the game.

“At PAX we were next to virtual reality zombie games, shiny console multiplayers and other big budget games made by established studios. We were worried that we wouldn’t be noticed, but people came up, they even lined-up and the feedback we received showed us that not all gamers are looking for the same thing.

People loved that they could just sit down at any device and set up a game with their mates, and that unlike simple games where you can do this, the game is fully animated in intricate HD (high definition) and the action is thick and fast like video games they play together.”

Come release day, when the guys see their game on mobile platforms and PC market places, they believe the game will speak for itself and support will flow into Greenlight. Until then they’ll  just keep spreading the word any which way they can. Starting right here.

If Merchants and Mercenaries sounds like a game that you’d like to play or you’re a fan of helping the underdog, then you can upvote their game here.

 

 

 

Kaylia Payne

Kaylia is a career-student who is currently doing her MA in Writing and Literature. A student/office assistant by day and a blogger by night, she dreams of one day having a job where she doesn’t need to wear shoes to work. Read more of her fabulous work here.

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