Game Developer Interview: Sinister Design
Welcome back to some new interviews! Today, I bring you guys an interview I held with Craig Stern. His most recent title Together in Battle launched last week, and I was eager to talk to him about his time in the gaming industry. Hope you all enjoy!
Let’s start off with an introduction! Please tell me who you are, and what do you do?
Hi! My name is Craig Stern; I’m a lawyer, and I’ve been developing RPGs and strategy games on the side since 2006.
What game/studio are you currently involved with? And what position?
My studio is called Sinister Design. I am the founder, president, and sole employee; which is to say, I’m a solo developer doing business as Sinister Design.
What advice would you give those who wish to enter the industry?
That could be an entire interview unto itself! I’ll just pick one piece of advice: spend your time getting very good at actually doing whatever thing it is you’re interested in doing. Want to be a programmer? Program. Want to be a 3D modeler? Make 3D models. Want to be a designer? Design and release games. Literally just download some free software, find some free tutorials, and get started.
Some people have this idea that they can get into the games industry and be successful simply by getting the right academic degree. I do think there is value in pursuing a higher education, but as far as pursuing a career, it makes much less of a difference than being driven to actually put in the hours honing your skills. A degree program will not do that work for you.
If you still have time to play video games, what are some of your favorite ones to play?
I love turn-based tactics games; in particular, the Fire Emblem and Disgaea series (especially Disgaea 2). I also love detective games (though unfortunately they tend not to be terribly replayable, so they’re probably underrepresented in my total hours played). I also enjoy strategy games—I’m very busy these days, so I’ve developed a special appreciation for those that can be completed in under an hour (e.g. The Battle of Polytopia).
I’m also going to give a shout-out to D20 Studios. Their deck-builder tactics roguelite Abalon is really quite excellent—in my opinion, it deserves much more attention than it’s received.
How did you get into your chosen field in the industry?
I’m a solo indie developer: it’s not so much a thing you get into so much as you just start doing it and keep doing it. Basically, I did the thing that I advised people to do in my answer above.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Being a solo indie dev requires you to be good at a lot of different things. Everyone has their areas of weakness, and I’d have to say that mine are marketing and art direction.
I can do a decent job at both when I put my mind to it, but I find them both exhausting. Spend hours programming, and you’ll come away with a cool new mechanic or interaction; spend hours writing, and you’ll come away with a cool new scene. But art direction and marketing? You sink in hours, and then…there’s no immediate feedback, no tangible result you can point to and say “I did that.” If I were ever to partner up with somebody, I’d definitely want them to be the one handling these aspects of development.
I have enjoyed your previous games Telepath Tactics. What lessons did you learn from those titles in developing Together in Battle?
You can see most of the lessons I learned from Telepath Tactics reflected in the direct remake, Telepath Tactics Liberated! There were a ton of changes there; lessons learned include such gems as “don’t have elevation mechanics if you’re going to use 2D terrain” and “don’t include emotional scenes if your character portraits don’t have varying facial expressions.” (I developed TTL in parallel with Together in Battle—they use the same engine and the same combat mechanics—so you can see these lessons reflected in Together in Battle as well.)
My biggest lessons overall, though, were probably programming-related. My approach to coding is a lot more object-oriented and modular these days, with much more reliance on custom classes. It’s not something you can observe directly in the game, but this change has made a huge difference in my ability to quickly add on to systems and address bugs.
My second-biggest lesson was probably just “don’t support multiple platforms.” Between the change to my programming approach and the focus on a single platform, it has become way easier to push out regular updates than it used to be.
What are your future project(s)?
I’m currently trying to decide between two projects; but either way, it’s too early to talk about!
If you couldn’t be a game developer, what ideal job would you like to do?
I’m already an attorney, so that’s a strong option. Perhaps I’d just become a software engineer somewhere.
What were your greatest challenges during the development of Together in Battle before the Early Access launch?
On the design side, it is very hard to make a game that uses a lot of procedural generation and still hit the sweet spot in terms of both balance and content variety.
On the technical side, it is very hard to make a game that uses a lot of procedural generation and actually catches all of the bugs that can show up; the combinatorial nature of the game means there is a lot, lot more room for interactions you never intended or considered.
On the business side, it’s been hard to pin down the game’s genre properly for marketing purposes. I started off calling it an “SRPG roguelite,” which in some sense definitely is. However, the content creator community seems to have collectively decided over the last few years that “roguelite” now means a run-based arcade game or deck-builder where you choose between three types of “rooms” and — occasionally — between three upgrades, and also there’s some kind of permanent upgrade you can purchase after you die. No permadeath required; no procedural generation required; and you can just plain forget about every other Berlin factor. It’s kind of dumb.
So I’ve abandoned the “roguelite” terminology and am now just calling the game a procedural SRPG/team management game. It seems to fit it well.
What are your plans for Together in Battle during 2023 and beyond?
I’m going to continue developing the game until I think it’s done, and then I will release it as 1.0. After that, if I can interest a publisher in handling console ports, I may go that route; if it’s selling well, I may feel inspired to release some expansions.
What games were your greatest inspirations in designing Together in Battle?
In developing the relationship system and the time management mechanics, I took a lot of inspiration from Personas 3-5; in developing random events, I took a lot of inspiration from games like The Oregon Trail and The King of Dragon Pass; and the classes and combat mechanics are straight from Telepath Tactics Liberated (with some tweaks to better fit the game’s smaller battlefields).
The Telepath Tactics battle system, in turn, was my attempt at incorporating the best of Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, Shining Force, Disgaea, and Eternal Poison into the old Telepath RPG combat system, with a bunch of neat environmental interaction mechanics added in.
What is your ideal video game if money and time was no object?
I don’t think there’s such a thing as one ideal game, but I do very much miss the old-school style of grand strategy games where you focused on claiming territory and resources and fighting tactical battles without the need to tediously micromanage cities and scouts. There’s a non-zero chance that I will make that game myself someday…
More about You
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Rock climbing; swing dancing; painting; playing board games; cooking; woodworking; and of course, playing video games!
Coffee or Tea? Or (exult deep breath) what other drink do you prefer, if you like neither?
Between those, I’ll choose coffee—but nine times out of ten, I just drink water. Coffee can make me anxious and jittery, and I have enough anxiety already.
You can travel anywhere in the universe. Where would you go, and why?
Approximately 99.928% of all available locations in the universe would simply kill me outright, so I think I’ll stick with earth. (Maybe Barcelona; that place seems nice)
Pick any three fiction characters. These are now your road trip crew. Where do you go and what do you do?
Why, I go on a road trip, of course! Maybe to Montreal. (It’s hard to drive from North America to Barcelona.)
As for who…fantasy fiction is my jam, but unfortunately it is positively packed to the gills with teenagers going through coming-of-age hero’s journeys. As a 40-year-old, I’m simply way too old to be hanging out with most of these people. I guess I’ll pick Wash from Firefly, Benoit Blanc from Knives Out, and Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Finally, what superpower would you most like?
Perhaps time manipulation; even just stopping and starting time, all on its own, would be unbelievably powerful! If I continued to age while time stopped, though, that would be an enormous downside: the more I used the power, the more I would prematurely age from the perspective of everyone around me.
Maybe super speed would be better; I could still accomplish far more in the same time without prematurely aging.