The last few years have seen a huge increase in the independent game development scene, with new studios and games being made all over the world. Alongside this, platforms like Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight have flourished, allowing the community to vote upon and decide what games and experiences they’d like to see created and developed.
Raconteur Games is a studio that formed back in 2010 in Lafayette, Louisiana. They are currently developing an arcade style space game called Close Order, currently Greenlit for Steam with an Early Access release on it’s way. To learn more about the studio, its game and motivations, I spoke to Nicholas Laborde, Founder and Chief Storyteller at Raconteur Games.
So, where did it all begin?
“It really began in 2010 when I decided I wanted to start making Source Engine mods and Team Fortress 2 maps. I threw together a rag-tag team of high school friends to make it happen,” says Laborde. “We made a grand total of one map, and then we of course felt that this totally qualified us to make games!”
Despite the normal sounding start of high school friends with a love for games and modding coming together to make games, Nicholas himself is not a developer himself, providing a unique opportunity for the studio. His skills in business and in leading a team ultimately lead him to head the studio, helping the team to realise their vision for creation.
“I’m the exact opposite of your typical indie developer, in that I can’t write a single line of code nor can I create any art assets. I tried to code in high school, but quickly realised I wasn’t very good at it. I reasoned that if I couldn’t “technically” (no pun intended) make games, I could find people who could and bring them together to create incredible things. I’m a business student near the end of my degree, and I lead a team of people far smarter than me. Every day is more exciting than the last, and the challenge is thrilling.”This brings us to Close Order, Raconteur Games’ first title. The fast paced space shooter draws from arcades of the past, putting you in charge of a growing armada of starships. As you grow your fleet you grow in power, organising formations of shield units, heavy gunners and missile ships around your core to form a powerful unit. It’s grown a lot since it’s early builds, with it’s roots in a simple prototype – now developed into a fully fledged title with a lot to offer.
“Close Order has a really interesting history and evolution. It began as an incredibly pure and context-free prototype where you moved blocks around and could generate other blocks around you known as “minions” (no relation at all to Despicable Me). You could assemble them into fancy formations and fire in unison to make fun shapes. I can’t even tell you the reason that we decided to put it in a space context, but the game just evolved that way! At Raconteur, we often talk about how pure that prototype was and how the game could have gone in absolutely any direction.”
The style of gameplay – formation based with strategy and consideration – came from Mount & Blade: Napoleonic Wars. The programmer who first developed the prototype was interested in a particular mode where you could “lead a group of AI soldiers into battle, adjust their formation style and tell them when to fire” says Laborde. “The name Close Order, of course, comes from the concept of a close order formation, where soldiers stand very close together.”
With origins in strategy and fast paced arcade shooters, Nicholas made it clear that Close Order is “not any one thing”. “It’s incredibly badass. It’s a mash-up of so many genres: arcade, shooter, strategy, moving tower defence, bullet hell… and more! It’s whatever you want it to be, and you can play it however you want. You can sit back and take out enemies from a distance, or you can plow your face into them and be right in the middle of the action. You can strategically move your minions around, or you can just spawn and shoot. You can heal them mid-battle to keep your ships alive, or keep them expendable and just spawn more. You can make it whatever kind of experience you want: A fast-paced shooter, a tactical moving tower defence, a bullet hell-strategy… lots of possibilities! It’s like your favourite arcade game from years ago, only better.”
Raconteur, an old French term for storyteller, is a core pillar of what the studio is built upon. Seen even in Nicholas’ title as Chief Storyteller, I was interested to hear how a compelling narrative factored into a game like Close Order.
“We want to tell stories you haven’t heard or seen before. We want to explore little oddities that no one cares about or is adventurous enough to undertake. We want to throw you into a universe of characters that you enjoy interacting with and never thought you’d see,” says Laborde. “With Close Order, we’re telling a succinct, episodic story about a life after Earth. Humanity fled Earth in an alternate space-faring reality version of the 1980s due to a nuclear incident, and the main characters in Close Order are in the first generation born off of Earth. They want to find out what happened to humanity all those years ago. It allows us to come up with a lot of unique situations that you wouldn’t see in a shooter, strategy, or bullet hell-type game. Most games don’t sit back and ask what would a bunch of humans in disarray do with themselves if they had to leave Earth?”
This style of game, Laborde admits, is not always synonymous with story. “It was a challenge to find an even mix of action and story for our objective-based missions, and we’re still working on making them even more fun, but we think we’ve found the sweet spot.” On the way to this ‘sweet spot’ there was some interesting feedback from fans that helped Raconteur to realise the storytelling potential in Close Order.
“The biggest challenge is that we had to not limit our thinking to the concept of a story being something a character conveys. We quickly realized early into development that, even if no story at all was present in the conventional sense, players would come back telling us excitedly about their armadas and how they worked and how they didn’t, and how it made them feel. We have a narrative, but there’s a metanarrative – it’s your experience with your armada. Every armada has a story! … and that’s something only Raconteur could accomplish”.
“Much like our gameplay, our narrative will be a situation where you get out of it what you put into it. It could be a powerful story about humanity lost and wandering after Earth, or it could be the story of how one group of people built a badass armada and destroyed everything in existence. It’s flexible!”
Raconteur Games decided to submit Close Order to Steam Greenlight earlier in the year – somewhat of a must for indie games lately. With Steam being so integral to sales in the PC market, “it’s the platform to be on if you want to be taken seriously,” says Laborde. “We really chose Steam over other platforms to be a part of the Early Access model, because Close Order’s greatest ideas have come from player feedback, and we want that to continue over the remainder of development”.
“Readying everything was a process that took myself and the team as a whole about two weeks. We had to get a placeholder-free level polished and ready for the public to play, while also balancing multiple team members’ vacation times! It was a challenge for me to manage all the gaps in schedules when we were at our busiest, but we pulled it off thanks to our incredibly talented and dedicated team. So it was the technical sense of getting ready that we had to undertake, but then there was all of the marketing and promotion and outreach. And that was entirely me – that’s my job after all!”
A challenge of this Greenlight and Early Access model is that people don’t always understand where a game is at and the work that goes into it’s production, quick to judge or trash content over issues even in Alpha stages. The process of giving games to the community while in development can also be quite helpful, with Close Order receiving a lot of helpful feedback that led it to where it is today. “I took a lot of steps to make sure people understood where our game was,” says Laborde. “We hard-coded the “ALPHA” state into the game so that all screenshots and footage were indicative of that and players’ expectations could be more accurate. Little things like that led to some really good feedback”.
It’s this feedback that’s at the core of Close Order’s appeal to fans and growth as a title. From the very start of development Raconteur have allowed the game to be praised, criticised and commented on by the community to turn it in to a title a lot of people want to play. “This helped us come up with tons of great ideas, like mouse support on the custom formation editor, the shop window and currency system, our current control scheme… some of our best ideas came from people who wanted to see the project succeed, and it shows! We’re going with Early Access because we truly enjoy building and interacting with a community.”
“Our greatest ideas have come from feedback – and the response has been nothing short of phenomenal. It’s really incredible to see, actually. I think we identify with a part of gamers that they miss from the old arcade days, and they’re coming up with all these ideas that they wanted to see then and still haven’t seen. Little things like being able to sell back your minions, or have the ships spawn with randomised names – these were things that the community came up with and we implemented”.
The act of listening to one’s audience can be quite rewarding, especially when it’s so unexpected thanks to the long held tradition of big studios developing games in isolation until launch. “One of the coolest things is taking peoples’ suggestions and then responding to them a few days or weeks later showing the suggestion being implemented, and they freak out because we’re actually listening,” says Laborde. “It’s a rush like no other, and it reminds us why we do this.”Outside of the player community, Close Order has enjoyed attention from some of the biggest names in gaming right now. Randy Pitchford, CEO and Founder of Gearbox Software and Phil Spencer, current head of Xbox at Microsoft both praised the game publicly after playing it – moves that both boosted the profile of Close Order and subsequently made Nicholas a very happy man.
“It was one of the greatest moments of my professional career. You know, Randy and Phil went out of their ways to help us succeed. I emailed them both. Randy told me I should tweet him and he’d respond and retweet to his followers, which was incredibly awesome. Then, Phil gave us his blessing to use his quote to get even more people interested – I still can’t believe that he took the time out of his day to read my email, watch our trailer, play our demo, AND write me feedback… all less than two weeks before E3. It made me put a lot of things in perspective when a person that busy could find time for someone little like me”.
I asked Nicholas who else he’d really love to play the game after those two big names, and he answered Cliff Bleszinski, former design director at Epic Games and the founder of Boss Key Productions.. “I’ve always had great respect for Cliff Bleszinski. I identified very closely with a lot of his stories about things he endured growing up, and of course wanting to get in to games. The time I met him briefly at E3 was surreal. I almost fell down when he walked away! If he played our game and told me what he thought, I’d probably melt. He once said that befriending your heroes is something you should try to do – and I’m working on it!”Close Order is nearing its launch on Early Access, with plenty more content planned for the title. “We’ll add more levels and content, improve the game, add at least one major piece of content (probably more!), and hopefully be at full version 1.0 release by the end of 2015” says Laborde.
There’s far more to come from Raconteur Games too, regardless of how well Close Order performs. “There are so many other stories that we wish to tell, and Close Order is the perfect kickoff,” says Laborde. “Based on Close Order’s success we have a plan – if we’re a smash hit, we know the game we’ll make with our newfound resources. If it does averagely to poorly, we know the game we’ll make with our minimal resources. No matter the outcome, we have more stories to tell – and they’re stories we think people will love to be immersed in.”
“My long-term goal with Raconteur is to lead a different kind of gaming company. It’s a place that, already, has people with strong bonds and respect for each other, and this company will go on to do amazing things because of that. Over the next few years I hope that we’re successful enough to scale up, grab a few more raconteurs, get everyone down to Lafayette and, of course, keep telling stories. In the long-term, I would love to expand Raconteur into an indie game publisher that provides business development support to indies trying to get their companies off the ground. A startup accelerator here in Lafayette has been so incredible to us, and I want to help others have that experience”.
It’s clear that Nicholas and his team at Raconteur Games have created something special in Lafayette, with nowhere to go but up. As the company inevitably begins to grow and Close Order nears completion, I can’t wait to see what they follow it up with, pioneering storytelling and furthering indie culture and development.
Close Order has been Greenlit on Steam, with an Early Access build set to release very soon. You can find out more about Raconteur Games on their website and Twitter, and play an in browser demo of Close Order right here!