Interview with John Rhee, creator of Liege
Liege is a tactical RPG being developed by a one-man powerhouse, John Rhee. A little more than two weeks after he put the project on Kickstarter, the campaign has not only blew past its initial goal, but also reached its first stretch goal with nearly 800 backers and 18 more days to go. Worlds Factory caught up with Rhee to get his impressions on the campaign thus far, learn more about his planned trilogy, his talks with the big 3, and even get him to spill on what his top games, books, and movies are.
Liege blew past its initial goal in only a few days. First stretch goal met. You must be excited. How has the experience been thus far?
Definitely! It was pretty scary getting the whole thing started. Especially because this is a solo project. I didn’t really have a lot of people who knew what I was doing who I could bounce ideas off of. Putting it on Kickstarter was the first time I was going to be showing it to so many people. It was definitely a big relief to see it get the reception it got. It felt good.
Is media knocking your door down? Are you wearing fancy ties and socks now?
Yes and no. Definitely there’s been a lot of great coverage so far. They’ve definitely been helping bringing a lot of attention to the project. I’m still pushing to get it picked up by a few outlets that I think have big audiences that would really like it. So I’m trying to do as much PR as I can to get the word out as far as I can. But I’m one guy. A lot of the big [media outlets], they look for more experienced developers that have bigger projects. So I haven’t been able to get everyone I want at this point.
We know that you can’t give out too many details about the game at this moment, though you’ve been surprisingly open about the game thus far. However, what is that one tidbit about Liege that has you excited that we may not know about already? Why?
There’s a lot of things so I’ll cheat and give two. The first is the story. First and foremost, I really want the game to have a powerful story; the type of story you don’t see a lot in games. A lot of the people who have paid attention to the project played these old school games like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger way back in the day; but they’ve grown up since then and they’re looking for something that is a bit more grown up in their stories. That’s what I want to deliver on the story side.
As far as the gameplay, I’m really excited because I feel that it’s very different from a lot of the tactical RPGs that are out there. You can see that a lot of tactical RPGs have an influence on each other. There a lot of complexity. It’s not necessarily accessible to people who are not familiar with the genre. I know that the first time I played Final Fantasy Tactics I was disappointed because I was too young. I played it for a couple of hours and just gave up on it because I didn’t get it. Luckily I tried it again a few years later and fell in love with it. My hope with Liege is to take the best parts of the genre and boil it down to something that’s a little more accessible and give something that’s really deep as an experience, grounded in these simpler rules.
You mentioned in your interview with Portable Gaming Region that the game as it is envisioned will have about 10 hours of gameplay. Is accessibility part of the reason for this? Can you elaborate on the 10 hour mark? Is there a worry that other games tend to play for longer?
Oh, I expect there’s going to be people on both sides on the fence here. There’s definitely an audience who is going to say something like “10 hours? Why should I pay attention to this when I can go play Skyrim for 200 hours?” At the same time, I know there’s an audience who appreciates the fact that I’m trying to keep this experience as dense as possible. I’ve gotten great feedback so far from people who agree with what I’m trying to do with it. But I did expect that there will be people on both sides.
The Trilogy. Your Kickstarter mentions that Liege is part of a trilogy. What kind of approach are you taking for this? Will the other two games pick up sequentially, or will they be loosely related ala Final Fantasy?
They’re going to be sequential. You can definitely expect some cliffhangers at the end of each game. Really the goal with that is to entice you to come and see what is going to happen next. That being said, I don’t want people to expect that these are going to be small episodic releases. The idea is to have a full fledged game with each release with plenty of content. But it will add up to one big storyline that I wouldn’t have been able to deliver in a single release otherwise.
Stories within games. There is a camp that believes story is integral to the game. The other side believes that if the story is lacking, it’s okay because gameplay is more important. What side are you on?
I do think that there’s definitely a ton of potential for storytelling in games. But I don’t think that there needs to be a right answer to that question. One of the great things about games is that they can be so many different things. So you have games that have little to no story that are just amazing. You look at Tetris and a lot of other examples. Games that are purely games. They are great.
Then you have games that are purely story, or very heavily story oriented. Everything from RPGs that have almost no gameplay to big AAA titles like Uncharted and Last of Us that have really amazing stories with strong execution, and these are great games as well. So games can do both. There’s nothing wrong with either.
As far as where Liege fits into the picture, my hope is that at the core of the experience you have a strong story as well as a fun tactical gameplay which are seamlessly blended into the whole thing. Hopefully there will be something that caters to players on both sides of the debate.
You’ve mentioned that you have been influenced by several RPGs (FF Tactics, Morrowind, etc.) and Sci-fi films and books. What are you playing right now?
Honestly, I haven’t had a chance to play too much lately, especially with the Kickstarter. I’ve been doing everything I can to spread the word. The last game I’ve downloaded was XCOM for the iPad. I haven’t had a chance to play the most recent one, but I’ve heard so many amazing things. I was particularly interested how they were going to handle doing a AAA experience on the touch screen. I know a lot of people trying to tackle that problem, making touch input work on this type of game. I think there is a lot of potential for having touch interfaces for tactical RPGs. So, I’ve started playing. I haven’t had a lot of time getting into this in-depth, but definitely after the campaign ends I will take time to play through it.
What are you reading?
What was the last book I read? I can’t remember. Let me think. The most recent book I read a couple months back was Ender’s Shadow. So I’ve read through Ender’s Game a while ago. I’ve finally gotten around to Ender’s Shadow and before that I read through the Foundation series, some Asimov stuff. I had heard about the series for a long time; but I haven’t gotten around to reading it until recently. Those are the things I’ve been reading.
Sharp turn. How are the talks with Sony and Nintendo going?
So, I’ve reached out to Nintendo; I found the main contacts for their indie bus dev [business development]. They gave me a long list of instructions of exactly what I needed to do for the process. So I submitted all that stuff and got confirmation from their guy; he said I should hear back from them late last week or early this week. So I hopefully I would be hearing some news today or maybe tomorrow at the latest.
For Sony, I haven’t actually heard back yet. I got a Twitter from their guy saying that I should send him a note offline. So I sent him an email. I went through the developer application process. So there was that initial contact. But I’m still waiting to hear back.
I’ve been doing some research and I’ve been talking to people who have been getting offers from Sony to release on their platform, and I’ve been hearing that it can take at least a week or longer. So, I’m going to give them some time because I know they’ve been getting bombarded by all the indies that they’ve opened up to recently.
Are you / have you been in talks with MSFT for the Xbox?
I am not. The impression that I’m getting is that they’re generally not as open to smaller developers like me, which is kind of surprising given the amount of success they’ve had with indies in the past. Until something changes, I don’t have any plans as of now. And I know that I have enough platforms that I’m targeting as it is.
Speaking of the big 3 – are you more of a console person, or PC?
These days, I would say that I’m mostly PC and tablet. There have actually been a lot of good tactics games on the iPad. One of the recent ones that comes to mind is Hunters 2. There are a bunch of others. And they’re all doing a bunch of interesting things. So I’ve been doing a lot of tactical RPGs, I guess, on tablets. For PC, I’ve been playing a lot of stuff from the Indie Bundles and stuff like that, more than the bigger titles like Skyrim.
I saw in a recent interview you said you’ve been playing Super Brothers: Sword & Sworcery EP.
Yeah. I love that game. I don’t really cite that as an inspiration for [Liege] as much as I should. But the experience of wandering through such an amazing realm – that’s something I want to capture. It has this special kind of magic to it. I mean, just walking through the forest and taking in the sights, just being immersed in that experience. I would love to replicate even just a part of that.
Your resume is quite unique – Citigroup, BlackRock – essentially nothing related to games. What prompted this change? Or, have you always been coding, creating, and working for the man was just a means?
Well, I studied programming since high school and throughout college. When I graduated, on the East Coast, a lot of the technology related jobs were in banking. So that’s kind of where I wound up. It was a means to an end in a way; but I was also interested as an outsider – keeping in mind this was before 2008 hit – working on these really big, complex systems. That’s something that’s always interested me.
But after a couple years there, it became obvious that I needed to do something more creative. Making games is always something that I’ve done on the side with whatever time I had left in the day. Then, earlier this year, I decided to leave all of that [non-gaming work] behind and start doing this full time. It’s the only way I would be actually able to get it all done.
That’s pretty much how the last few years worked out.
Top 5 games. Quick!
Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy VII
Morrowind [Elder Scrolls]
Fifth place is a split between StarCraft and Civilization II
Top 5 books. Quick!
Cosmos by Carl Sagan
The first Game of Thrones book [by George R. R. Martin]
These aren’t necessarily my favorites. I’m talking most influential.
I’ll throw a Red Wall [by Brian Jacques] in there. It’s what got me into the fantasy genre.
Dune [by Frank Herbert] is in my fourth spot.
Fifth place would have to go to Sword of Shannara [by Terry Brooks]. It’s a fantasy title that got me hooked into the genre as well.
I have the first Game of Thrones book, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m still on World War Z [by Max Brooks].
I got into the series [Game of Thrones] by reading the books. I was actually working on the story for Liege and I was telling my roommate about it. He said, “dude, that sounds exactly like Game of Thrones. You should definitely read the book.” So I read the book and thought, everyone is going to think that I stole ideas from this book. I mean, the influence for the houses in Liege came from books like Dune and games like Morrowind which had three main houses. But at this point, I can’t really say that Game of Thrones hasn’t really influenced me. Once you’ve read that book, how can you not have it have an impact on you and whatever you’re making.
Top 5 movies. Quick!
Phew. I really suck at making these lists. I’m just going to throw it out.
Star Wars Episode II
The Usual Suspects