E3 2015: Interview- Skyshine’s John Mueller Gives Strategy a Whole New Name with ‘Bedlam’

Evan Slead ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Head Movies Editor

Photo Credit: Skyshine Games.
Photo Credit: Skyshine Games.

While E3 is known to be the stomping ground for the AAA studio game announcements, indie companies also get a chance to introduce the gaming world to their concepts. One such company is Skyshine Games, creators of the rogue-like strategy game Bedlam. After getting to try a demo of the game, I got a chance to sit down with the art director at Skyshine, John Mueller. A childhood dream become reality, Bedlam proved to be more than just another turn based strategy game. It’s chock full of nostalgia for the 1980’s with its beautiful futuristic road warrior art direction while also reinventing the turn based strategy genre. The chess like approach allows the player to truly delve into the mechanics of what their road crew can do, while also giving them a firm handshake for overcoming a challenge. Coming from me, a gamer that typically gets bored with what the strategy genre fair has to offer, I found myself engaged and lost in Bedlam’s fragrantly grungy world of road dusted chess.

Emertainment: The game you were showing us today was Bedlam. Have you worked on any other games within Skyshine or just Bedlam?

Mueller: Skyshine is really our new entity that we created this last year, but prior to this I was a studio art director at Vigil Games for Darksiders and Darksiders II. I was also a concept artist at Crytek and before that I had small company in Austin, Texas called Outlaw Studios. Prior to that Interplay Entertainment, Epic Games. I’ve been around for a quite a bit.

So you’ve jumped around from AAA to indie. 

I’ve mostly been AAA for most of my career; been in big studios. I was the art director for Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa which is a big MMO type project.

What made you want to move from AAA to more indie and work on your own?

Not to be coy about it, but I’d probably say sanity. I think a lot of developers have been through the AAA experience long enough to agree that we all want to get back to where we started which was small teams. When I started at Epic Games it was twelve guys on picnic tables and there was no HR or corporate agendas. We were just trying to make cool stuff. All these companies grow and I think they’ve all tried to build their studios into a global organization. It’s just not what twelve guys on a picnic table truly dream of in the end. We all just want to go back to that because its more fun. It’s way more fun. And the last year for me at Skyshine has been the best twelve months of my career.

Photo Credit: Skyshine Games.
Photo Credit: Skyshine Games.

You were explaining with Bedlam that this is a project that harkens back to childhood for you?

When I was a kid I played Dungeons and Dragons so my friends and I would get together every Sunday to play some D & D. This was back in the 80’s; kind of when all that RPG stuff was all starting. We started to think “we can change this, we can make the game whatever we want”. We started writing our own adventures. We were surrounded by Terminator, Judge Dredd, and Blade Runner; all that kind of futuristic stuff. We thought “let’s just make a D & D that’s futuristic”! Of course at the time we didn’t know about AutoDuel or Car Wars which were games doing that, but we were just kids trying to come up with stuff that we thought was cool. We ended up playing that game [Bedlam] and developing that world for about six years, all through high school. It was the same group of guys where we got together and played this game every weekend. Now here I am, nearly thirty years later, working with one of those kids. That’s how we created Bedlam. The game itself is the different but the world, fiction, characters, and tone of it is exactly the same as it was when I was a kid.

That’s amazing to have a dream carry over such a long period of time.

If you look up some of my art it’s very different before Bedlam. I really wanted the art to look like it was made in 1989; I wanted it to feel like it was from that era. So you’ll see guys with cybernetic metal heads and manacles; things that could be called cliché. And yes, it is cliché, but that stuff is awesome and there was a reason we loved that stuff. I’m trying to make something that my fourteen year old self would just [audible squeal] love.

Which is great because a lot of the past aesthetic is now trendy again. Nostalgia kicks.

It is interesting, and it’s not by strategy or design on our behalf, that if you look at this movies out recently like Jurassic World, Mad Max Fury Road, Terminator Genisys, and even the remake of RoboCop, we’ve all been mining the same stuff for a really long time. What I’ve been trying to do with Bedlam is go to that original source material, go back to my original motivations, and not overthink or over design it. I’m not trying to look at it as an artist in 2015 with my experiences as an art director because if I did that then it would be way more complex than it needs to be. I’m thinking of it just as stuff that I thought was cool when I was that age.

Photo Credit: Skyshine Games.
Photo Credit: Skyshine Games.

You said for the gameplay that it plays differently from others in that style. Could you expand on that? 

We’re a “turn based tactical rogue-like” is what we like to say, but we don’t use turn order in the typical way in the game. It’s more like chess with pieces. So if you want to go commando with your shotgun guy and just level him up on one board because you want to get all of your shotgun guys to veteran, then you can do that. We don’t say “no, you have to move this piece, then this piece”. Now, unfortunately the enemy also operates under the same rules. They can move any of their pieces at any time to pick your guys off. If they get a shotgun guy in your backfield, they can decimate all of your snipers. It’s pretty cool, I love the system. I find myself using the pieces, just like I would in chess, to sort of position my pieces to strike. Then also use my pieces to create a strategy. So I’ll use my shotgun guy, knock a guy back three squares, and have my sniper take him out. Or I’ll tie somebody up with my tank, which is my melee unit, and have the enemy keep striking him. Since he has a high amount of health he can take it and then I’ll use my sniper from a distance. You know, there are some interesting pairings in the game and it’s a lot of fun.

So it’s a lot more about strategy.

It’s a very deep strategy game. I mean, a lot of people have equated it to Final Fantasy Tactics but I haven’t played a lot of FFT. I do know its a deep strategy game, but we’ve tried to design beyond that. We built this [Bedlam] first as a board game and then we transposed it to a video game. When we started the project we made little pieces, created a board, tried to figure out the battle board size, and then figured out all the mechanics that would make it fun. That’s how we ended with the two turn style. Essentially you get two turns, every turn. The equalizers and weapons are free, we don’t charge you to use them, but your resources do get used. So if you’re really in trouble, you can drop a nuke, but you can only drop one and then need to recharge. You don’t know what your next event may be so you have to be choosy about when you use those.

On the main map there’s a main objective to reach, but there are also mini events to do along the way. What do those entail?

So there are a lot of little quests and things that will get you good stuff including elite units. Elite units are these big monstrous units you encounter. The game is tiled based, so you’re crew are one tiled while these elites are four tiled guys. They’re like big monsters and robots. Most people playing it today have seen Chunderock, most people know him as “The Barf Monster”; he pukes on guys and melts them. There’s an undead gunslinger guy that’s really awesome because he has more range than a normal gunslinger and is really powerful. So he does the damage of a sniper but the great range of a gunslinger which is fun to really play with those kinds of mechanics.

Photo Credit: Skyshine Games.
Photo Credit: Skyshine Games.

You said also that if you defeat these elites in game then you can recruit them as well?

Yeah, so the deal is in order to get an elite unit you can recruit them. You need to have the right items, which is still a mechanic we’re messing around with. We don’t want to make it too hard to get an elite since defeating them is hard enough. Right now we have this mechanic of cargo where if you have the right item they’ll join your team. Basically they’re on their own story quest but you may have something they’re looking for and will join you if you have it. Otherwise, if you don’t have it, they may say that they’re looking for a specific item; “if you find it, let me know” kind of deal. We’re still messing around with it though because it could be a little tricky because everything is random. There are twenty elites in the game, but the world spins up giving a different experience every time for the player, so you’re only going to encounter three or four of them on that journey. So we’re still trying to finalize how we want to recruit. The main thing that will stay is have you to defeat them though. Overall they’re bosses that can then become yours.

That’s such an awesome mechanic that usually only comes as later DLC or something. 

Yeah it’s kind of like Pokemon in a backwards way. We’re also trying to add a new game plus mode that becomes available once you beat the game. If you have stuff you’ve collected you can basically start a new game with all of the stuff. Basically carry it all over to a new run. We think that will be a lot of fun.

In regards to development, do you guys have a release date set yet?

Yes, September. The cool thing is that we’re going to keep working on the game even when its out. I guess you could call it DLC, but its more just new events. We just want to get the base game there and keep adding events. So you could beat the game now but come back in a month and have all new factions, maps, items, and all that. We’re gonna have to see, but we’d like to give it all away for free. We’re a small company though and we’re not immune to needing to make money to keep doing this. We may do some paid DLC later, but our goal as a studio is to offer that stuff for free. I feel like you should pay for a game once and that’s it. There’s no walls or shenanigans that are attached to it. We really think the indie game is about doing what we as gamers want. We tell people that Bedlam is like a Mad Max type road strategy and people get so pumped, which is exactly what we wanted to make because we would be pumped to play it too. That’s the great part about being our own company too is that we don’t have to pitch this to a board or publisher. It’s just the game we want to make, there’s no approval. We took our game to Kickstarter and that’s why we’re here. We don’t have any big famous names on our team either. People just responded to the idea. I think the people that backed us are going to be happy.

So what platform is the game going to be coming out on?

It’s going to be out on Steam initially for both PC and Mac. Our next stop is probably going to be iOS since its so great on a tablet. We already have it running on the Microsoft Surface and it’s awesome. It works great with a touch screen because you’re moving pieces and feels like chess. We just think its even better with that personal touch experience. But we’ll see, we have to make enough money to make that happen. It’s funny, I hate talking about the money side, but it is a reality. We have to keep our lights on.

That’s definitely understandable and most gamers will too hopefully. 

The nice thing about this is that we’re such a small company and don’t need to make a ton to keep doing this. We’re not doing this for money. There are some amazing free-to-play games out there and we’d love to always be that, but we think our game is going to be a really good deal no matter what happens. It’s very replay-able, everything is totally random and makes it different. The structure of the game is always there with the specific goal, but its just challenging as its always slightly different.

Where can people look you up for more information?

You can go to www.gobedlam.com and pre-order there. We just got our Steam page up (http://store.steampowered.com/app/367600/) where you can add it to you wish list as well. We may do an early access weekend on Steam. We love demos though so that may be a fun way to get players into it before the game even comes out.

Watch the Trailer below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3SRarkMCoE

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2 Comments

  1. I’d just like to mention my mother Martha Mueller is a graduate and also taught at EMERSON. My sister Ann Mueller, and my nephew Nicholas Mueller are also all graduates from EMERSON. I was so happy to see this thank you for the coverage! My mom will be so proud!

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