Nestled in the Southeast corner of British Columbia, bordering Alberta to the east and Washington to the south, lies the small town of Cranbrook. To glance at photos of the city – whose one-street downtown core seems startlingly similar to its 1930s counterpart – you’d be forgiven for leaving it off your list of upcoming vacation hot spots. But if you pull back a little and take it in, Cranbrook starts to feel like a place altogether transformed.
Sparsely populated roads give way to lush green forest, as trees innumerable carry your eyes to the base of the Rockies, whose impossible majesty subsumes the entire region. Suddenly, what looked at first like one of the many one-Starbucks towns dotting the remote reaches of Canada’s provinces starts to feel like the starting point for a grand adventure — a sleepy hamlet hiding epic heroes in its midst.
It’s here, in the summer of 1999, that Crythania was born.
“I was nerdy as heck!” laughs Joey Wiggs.
“Was…?” prods Ed Douglas.
“Was!?” laughs Wiggs, as if suddenly surprised by his own words “There’s no was. Am.”
It’s a blustery Vancouver evening, and I’m sitting in the office of Flying Helmet Games (FHG). At least, their corner of the office. A shared studio located on the top floor of a four-story building in the city’s poverty-stricken West Hastings area, the sprawling open-concept work space is a tidy metaphor for Vancouver’s game development scene writ large.
All around the room are “ex-AAA” teams huddled together mulling over art and design decisions. These small independent outfits are formed of the folk that once staffed Vancouver’s few existing mega-corporations like Electronic Arts. Buzzing outside the window behind me is a nearly-three storey neon sign shouting “MEAT$” — a gawdy-if-iconic monstrosity that announces the presence of the city’s storied butcher shop-cum-hipster diner Save On Meats.
A diaspora of talent, looking for new beginnings in old buildings.
In the case of the team at FHG, that fresh start needs to happen sooner rather than later. Their maiden video game, Eon Altar, has been in some form of development for about four years now. Originally, it was an elaborate but misguided attempt to bring tabletop role playing experiences akin to Dungeons & Dragons into the modern era by asking four players to use their phones to build characters and roll digital dice onto a shared central tablet screen where epic battles would play out. In its current form, the central tablet is out of the picture, and players will instead connect their phones wirelessly to a computer to work their way through a high fantasy adventure.
Almost two decades ago, however? It was a pen and paper story that transported four friends to a world where gods walked the Earth.
“In the case of the team at FHG, a fresh start needs to happen sooner rather than later.”
“The genesis of the story that Eon Altar kind of came from is this role-playing campaign that Joey took us through over the course of two summers,” says Lead Designer Scott Penner, taking me back to the high school years that started it all between he, Douglas, Wiggs, and Studio Manager Lukas Reynolds. Then named Crythania after the fantasy universe in which it was set, Wiggs’s custom-created adventure cast his friends as towering knights, powerful mages, or even supernatural astral dragons, guiding them into battle against tyrannical deities made flesh.
When the dust settled, Crythania proved to be much more than something to fill the lazy months of summer break. It was, for a time, a living, breathing world that empowered a group of self-professed geeks from Cranbrook and made them feel like they could be anything. And as high school wound down, that’s exactly what they set off to do. Scattering across the province, and in some cases, the country, the group parted ways to pursue their separate interests in music, film, and engineering. Laying down their swords, they let go of Crythania.
Crythania had no intention of letting go of them.
If he’s being completely honest, Lukas Reynolds held on to the pages mostly because he couldn’t stand tossing things in the trash.
“I don’t like to throw things away. I like to just…collect things,” reflects Reynolds. While he collected Crythania, all it collected was dust as he relocated to Burnaby, British Columbia to study Aircraft Maintenance at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. That is, until a small group of new friends he made pitched the idea of getting together to play some Dungeons & Dragons. Nostalgic and more than a little homesick, Reynolds took on the role of tour guide, guiding newcomers through a place he knew all too well.
It was a blast, and buoyed up by the positive reactions, Reynolds the tour guide quickly became Reynolds the historian.
“I more or less took everything that everybody had – all of the character sheets, all of the backstory, all of the lore, and all of the rule books – and I just kept sort of…adding to it,” he says matter-of-factly, in the way one does when they’re talking about something inevitable. As Reynolds meticulously built the world of Crythania up, things in the real world were closer to crumbling around him.
“At that time…the [airline] industry started to fall apart, right when I graduated. So once I finished…I actually moved into retail, and started working [my way] up in there. I became the manager of a store, and I then I became the manager of a district and had a whole bunch of stores underneath me.” From just after he graduated, in 2006, until 2011, Reynolds worked his way through the corporate ladder at shoe retailer Sterling Shoes. He’s quick to credit the experience with honing the business acumen that’s helped him manage FHG, but there’s a start-and-stop quality in his voice all the while — a sense of mourning for what could have been during those years.
Just about the same time that Reynolds found himself leaving school with less-than-ideal career prospects, something else happened. Something altogether more serendipitous: his friend Scott Penner moved back to town.
“I gave up on music because it pays nothing, and found that I was doodling a lot more in class than paying attention and taking notes.”
For Scott Penner, high school graduation meant packing up and heading off to Calgary to pursue Music Performance at the province’s titular university. Barely a year into his program, however, he was growing restless, and his confidence in potential career prospects was precipitously low. Jumping ship, he transferred to a local community college to pursue a one-year program in both traditional and digital animation. All the while, a voice was needling at him to journey west.
To be clear, this isn’t a metaphor. It was a literal, actual voice. Specifically? His friend Ed Douglas’s voice. Eventually, he caved.
“I think I had been bugging you for long enough, saying, ‘there’s nothing happening in Calgary. If you want to do this stuff, come visit me in Vancouver!'”
Douglas, who had attended Vancouver Film School and cut his teeth doing editing work for the likes of Cartoon Network, had just started at video game studio Blackbox — a subsidiary of behemoth publisher Electronic Arts, and makers of the racing franchise Need for Speed. After a suitable talking up to Douglas’s bosses, Penner joined the team a few short months later. Roommates and colleagues, the pair worked together on the cinematic scenes that showed between moments of player-controlled gameplay.
In short order, Penner, Douglas, and Reynolds started getting together for drinks to catch up and keep in touch. Reynolds was eager to show the guys what he had done with Crythania. Consumed by work, Douglas stonewalled him.
“We’d occasionally meet up and talk about it. And he’d be like, ‘Yeah, okay, not really interested.'” Penner, on the other hand? He was starting to grow listless, and assigned to yet another Need for Speed title, jumped at the chance for somewhere to direct his creative energies. After all, he knew a place where he could do whatever he wanted.
“We just started saying, ‘Okay, here’s a spot on the map,'” remembers Penner of his drinking sessions-turned-brainstorming nights with Reynolds. “Or, ‘Here’s a blank spot on the map that we need to fill,’ and we’d just start filling the details. We were trying to create a world…that would allow people to create characters and role-play.”
Soon fundamentally different than what once it was, Reynolds and Penner even decided to ditch the name Crythania (“No one in the history of anyone outside the four of us has been able to pronounce it right the first time, anyway,” laughs Douglas). Besides, they had something catchier. Something that just so happened to be the newly chosen name for the mythical font of power and riches to which players would be journeying: Eon Altar.
Meanwhile, feeling like it was just about time for his own travels outside the relative comfort and safety of working on a predictable annualized franchise, Douglas began casting a net across an industry in which he had cemented years worth of contacts. In 2008, he managed to land a gig at Edmonton-based studio BioWare, designing cinematic sequences for their Mass Effect series of story-drive space action games. For the time being, it seemed, our brave adventurers would be one party member down.
“I told Luke, ‘We’ve gotta’ make our game simpler…if we want others to play it…we’ve gotta evolve.'”
In his absence, development of Eon Altar continued apace. No longer gangly teenagers in it for only their own escapism, Lukas and Penner began seriously exploring the idea of pitching their creation for publishing and sale as its own pen and paper role-playing game. To hear Penner tell it, though, something was off.
“At this point, our rules were really complicated, and nobody really wanted to play it [anymore],” he recalls. Having been in a video game studio environment and seen titles fall prey to the bloat of unnecessary additional features and ideas, Penner’s spidey-sense was tingling. “I told Luke, I said, ‘We’ve gotta’ make our game simpler. We have to make it simpler…we can sell it to hardcore gamers, but if we want [others] to play it…we’ve gotta evolve.’
“So we started coming up with all these ideas…maybe we make it a card-based game? Maybe [we] try and think of different mechanics? And…[suddenly] Luke said, ‘Wait a second. Everyone’s got these iPads nowadays…’ And we knew that smartphones were dominantly prevalent. Almost everybody had smart phones, especially in North America at that point. So we said, why don’t we try and make a technology that simulates the type of board game that we’re trying to build? [Take] pen and paper and [distill] it down into more of a [digital] board game-type experience. Make character creation really simple, make combat really simple, and then try and make something that a hardcore gamer is going to have fun playing, but can just get their [friends] to sit down and play.
“We brainstormed on that really late into the morning, and maybe a week later, I had gone back to my desk, and just started rabidly writing down game design document notes. And Luke went back to his desk and rabidly started writing down business development plans. When we came back together a week later, he was like, ‘Okay so that thing we were talking about? I have this idea.’ and I’m like, ‘Whoa! I have an idea too.’ And by the time we’d compared [notes], we basically had the plan for our business, and for what this game was going to become.”
Their idea, as it turns out? It would be somewhat of a disaster.
It was 2012, and Ed Douglas had had just about as much time away as he could take. In the four years since he had left Vancouver, he had lived in Edmonton, Romania, and Montreal, working on everything from space operas to flight combat games and massive military shooters. It was his work on the latter title, Rainbow Six Siege, which almost drained his enthusiasm for the industry altogether.
The latest entry in developer Ubisoft Studio’s Rainbow Six series, the game was emblematic of the bureaucracy that comes from working on multi-thousand-person video game development teams. A telling testament to this fact? The game only properly released about a month before Douglas and I spoke — more than five years after he stopped working on it.
“I was one of the directors on it…that was such a shit show…[that] I took a break from the business for a bit…when I got back into Vancouver, Scott said, ‘Hey do you want have beers? We have something to talk about.'”
“We went out for beers with Ed,” remembers Penner, “and we said, ‘Hey, look, we’ve got this business idea, and we know that we need somebody with a ton of direction experience. We need somebody who’s produced games, and you’re that person. It’s with something you’re familiar with.’ And we dropped down a bunch of paper in front of him, and said, ‘this is our business plan and this is the game we want to make.'”
Blown away by what Crythania had become in his absence, and loathe to go back to a big studio environment, Douglas was all in. But video games aren’t made with hopes and dreams, and before Eon Altar could leap off the page, they’d need to start looking for funding. And because this is the part of the story where a sentence like this feels appropriate, Douglas just so happened to know a guy who could help.
“That was such a shit show…[that] I took a break from the business for a bit”
His name was Haydn Wazelle, and he and Douglas had become friends during Douglas’s days at Vancouver Film School, when he helped shoot Wazelle’s first feature film. Since 2006, Wazelle had been President and Producer at digital production studio Tabula Dada, working mostly on Film and TV projects. Douglas respected his talent for bringing unconventional ideas to life, and couldn’t think of anyone more savvy about Canada’s often-impenetrable network of media funding opportunities.
Intrigued by Eon Altar‘s promise of bringing the mechanics of dice-rolling pen and paper role playing games to digital devices, Wazelle agreed to take a meeting with the trio a week later. Seeing it as a challenge of sorts, Penner used that time to put together a slapdash demo of what the game could do. Propped up by the programming equivalent of popsicle sticks, it worked just well enough to let Wazelle drag a test character around on Penner’s Windows touch tablet.
Even in its primitive form, Wazelle found himself impressed how fully realized the backstory of Eon Altar‘s world was. He agreed to a partnership with Tabula Dada, and came on board to lead business development. To do that, though, he’d need an official business to develop. So it was that in April of 2012 – some 13 years after they first got together in their friend Joey’s basement to play a weird game called Crythania – Penner, Reynolds, and Douglas incorporated as Flying Helmet Games to make Eon Altar a reality.
That month, they made sure to crawl before they attempted walking, transposing the mechanics of their proposed digital game onto a physical board game so they could test. By September, Wazelle had found them enough funding to allow them to put a team together to start in earnest on a playable demo.
Then, over the course of the next year, a few really important things happened.
Foremost among them, Douglas managed to to assemble what amounted to his dream development crew, roping in some of the best talent he had worked with over the years to join FHG on their quest to the Eon Altar. Whether it was composer Tom Salta of Halo and Prince of Persia fame, fellow BioWare writer Daniel Roy taking point on story, or uber-talented Need for Speed alumni Leah Vilhan tackling programming remotely from Denmark, each addition to the team helped realize the world of Crythania somehow more vividly when it had existed in the trio’s minds.
Secondly, and perhaps most ill-fatedly, FHG decided to double down on the assumption that players would want to use a central tablet to watch the action of Eon Altar unfold. In part, this decision was the result of headstrong enthusiasm–the perception that the novelty of the idea would stand above everything as a selling feature for the game. A series of meetings the team took with prospective distributors for the game didn’t help, either.
“Then they started running out of money.”
Among them, computer and hardware manufacturer Intel aggressively courted the team to keep their line of coffee-table-sized tablet screens in mind while developing, going so far as to supply and resupply FHG with the latest technology. Toting hefty hardware to several fan gaming expos throughout that year, show-floor enthusiasm for playing Eon Altar on big, flashy, high-tech screens did nothing to bring the team back down to earth.
Then they started running out money. Remember that dream team they assembled? They didn’t come cheap, and by late 2013, Eon Altar was running on fumes. Thanks to Wazelle, there was relative certainty that they’d be approved for a sizable round of “production funding” from the government-run Canada Media Fund, but a seeming chasm of bureaucracy stood between their approval for the funds and their possession of them.
Judgement impaired by a cocktail of financial stress and self-assurance, Flying Helmet Games took to crowdfunding campaign Kickstarter on November 6th, 2013, with an epically scored pitch video showing Eon Altar in action. The ask? $300,000 to help buoy up production of the game. 10 days in, they had scraped together $50,000, and funding had completely plateaued. After over a decade of preoccupation between them, and a harrowing year of seat-of-the-pants development, the public had seen what they had to offer and answered with a resounding shrug.
“It was about 10 days in, we knew the trends: we knew we weren’t going to come anywhere close to hitting our goals” remembers Douglas somberly. “Haydn, at this point, had been working on a good Plan B, to close funding and put it together…[so] we’re like, ‘okay, by the numbers, 10% chance of succeeding on our Kickstarter, and we will kill ourselves getting there.’ We’d kill ourselves getting there and we’d still have [only] a 1 in 10 chance of getting there. Or, Haydn felt there was a 90% chance of succeeding on Plan B, but we needed to start working on it because that wasn’t going to be easy either. We had to invest in that.
“So we bowed out.”
Painfully, FHG canceled their Kickstarter efforts on November 18th, taking it as a sign that they needed to drastically rethink their approach to how players would interact with their game.
“There was a tactile element to our first prototype, where you reached over and you kind of grabbed your character, and you dragged them around on the board the same way you would pick up a figurine and move them across the board in a D&D game. And we thought felt natural,” remembers Penner. “And it is natural…” he starts, craning his neck to point at a massive Lenovo tablet sitting on the desks behind us, “on one of these guys. It felt amazing.”
“Nobody was buying the kind of gear that the game made sense for,” echoes Douglas. Voice downbeat with melancholy, Penner seems to summarize their torturous false start with the kind of clarity that only hindsight can provide.
“At the end of the day, I think the biggest thing that hurt was that everybody saw our Kickstarter and said, ‘someone’s gonna have a lot of fun playing your game, but it’s not going to be me.'”
Down though they were, FHG was far from out. That Canada Media Fund purse that was set to come through represented the seven-figure maximum granted by the organization. Meanwhile, Wazelle’s backup plan gave the team enough time to buckle down and think of a way to give Eon Altar the mass-appeal it needed.
There was, however, a glaring problem: they had lost pretty much their entire team. Part of making their meager coffers last meant paring down to a skeleton crew of founding members. In particular, they were going to need a Senior Programmer to assist Vilhan and right the ship.
As luck would have it, there was one person they had in mind. He was a guy they with whom they had spent two summers playing a pen and paper role-playing game in a basement in Cranbrook.
When Joey Wiggs heard from Ed Douglas about coming back to the world of Crythania, he was going on his seventh year working on productivity software at Microsoft. With a juxtaposition like that, you’d think the choice would be obvious. As Wiggs tells it, though, it wasn’t such a foregone conclusion.
“We were more like the friends from high school who…saw [each other] on Facebook,” he remembers of the group’s waning connection over the years. Or at least, his floating head does. Wiggs is joining us over Skype from his home in Seattle, where he works remotely for FHG.
“[They] approached me in April of 2014…and [they] were like, ‘Hey, we’re about to start round two, and we think we have a better idea on how to actually sell this.'” Through social media and a chance meeting at the popular game expo “PAX East” the year prior, Wiggs had kept nascently up to date with Eon Altar‘s progress, and from the sounds of it, needed a little convincing that the team’s new direction had legs.
“All the while, the driving force would remain the closeness that comes from playing games together on a couch.”
“I think it was a bit of a shot in the dark. I don’t think Ed actually expected me to say yes.” Once Wiggs got a closer look at the revamped proposal for the game, however, he found his faith in its potential renewed. In June, the prodigal son returned, starting at FHG as Senior Programmer at first. In April of 2015, when Vilhan left the team to seize an opportunity closer to home as a Senior Developer at LEGO, Wiggs took the reigns, leading up rekindled development efforts on Eon Altar.
As part of the game’s about-face, players would no longer be required to huddle around a central tablet to roll dice. In fact, there wouldn’t be any dice rolling at all. Instead, up to four adventurers would connect their own phone or tablet wirelessly to the same computer, which could easily be plugged in to display the game comfortably on a TV. Action would unfold completely in real-time as each person used an easy-to-manipulate virtual joystick on their personal screen to guide their individual hero through a fantasy world collecting treasure, meeting its inhabitants, and doing battle together.
The catch? Each character, from the mysterious assassin Silent Thorn to the powerful battlemage Muran, would have their own lore and goals, some of which directly conflicted with those of your fellow travelers. Prompted by alerts on the small screen, players would read out dialogue and help piece together the story of Eon Altar together, choosing carefully when they wanted to hide certain facts and secrets from the group. The game would be split up across as many as nine epic chapters, and through them all, players would uncover the reason for each of their journeys to the Eon Altar.
Gone was the game’s slavish devotion to pen and paper role-playing rules. In its place would be a modern action-focused take on things, rife with battles, backstabbing, and moral choices. All the while, the driving force would remain the cajoling and closeness that comes from playing games together on a couch.
Over the next year, a leaner, more sure-footed FHG worked tirelessly to realize this new version of Eon Altar. By May of 2015, once more down to the wire on funding, they had completed work on the game’s first full chapter, and laid much of the necessary ground work for the coming two. As if staring down a familiar dungeon boss, it was time for another campaign. This time, on PC digital download service Steam’s “Greenlight” program, where game ideas were voted on by the public for fast-tracked admission into the popular online storefront. On May 5th, at 1:37PM, the team flipped the switch on their submission page, and rolled the proverbial twenty-sided die.
With voters, it was a critical hit. It took even less time – just six days – to see the writing on the wall, but in this case, they loved what they saw. By May 12th, Eon Altar was officially Greenlit, meaning that FHG could put it on sale whenever they felt ready. In some ways, this was the culmination of a moment four friends didn’t know they were working toward for almost twenty years. In so many others, though, the real quest had only just started.
“Oh you’re holding out on us!?” jostles Penner.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I say, openly lying as I pocket over 100 Precious — one of Eon Altar‘s most valuable currencies.
Penner, Douglas, Reynolds and I are running through the latest version of the game, reflecting on how far it’s come and what it’s taken to get here. Reflecting can wait, though, because my Silent Thorn character just made use of the key she was secretly given by an elderly Keeper in exchange for being the first one to heal him with a vial of Copperweed. A few of our party’s attacks have some friendly fire blowback, and I’ve got to keep my eyes peeled for any retribution coming my way.
In moments like this, it’s easy to see in Eon Altar what Wiggs saw in it when he joined the team to help the game across the finish line. For fantasy junkies and veterans of old school pen and paper role-playing games, it often ingeniously captures not just the games they loved to play, but also the feelings they had when playing them. For folks not as familiar or comfortable with playing video games, the dead-simple controls, broad brushstrokes story, and stellar production values offer a chance to liven any weekend evening.
There are things to worry about, too. As pared down and populist as it is, there are easily twice as many menus as there should be on your phone or tablet screen, all of which demanding you read far too much text to understand each new skill or upgrade. The controller situation, which is exceptionally innovative and far easier to understand than buying and using a twenty-button gaming controller, will require some “unlearning” from players trained to use traditional inputs. And admirable and nostalgia-inducing though it is, Flying Helmet Games’s dedication to “couch co-op” – a style of multiplayer that offers no online connectivity and requires folks be in the same room – has documented difficulty creating financial hits.
Case in point? Since an August release on Steam’s “Early Access” program – where developers can sell their games as they continue to make improvements – third-party tracking tools put Eon Altar’s first episode sales no higher than a few thousand copies. At five dollars-a-piece, Penner sees that as a troubling sign.
“One glance at their product page and you see gushing review after gushing review about people who’ve all bonded over their time in Eon Altar‘s universe”
“Once we’d finished, [and] we got onto Early Access, we’re like, ‘All right, this game’s going to be amazing! Everybody loves our game! Huge response.’ And we went and looked at our sales, and for the first couple of days, we had like 50 sales. And my heart just shattered. I was expecting we were going to make so much money!” With the official public launch still to come, though, including full-scale marketing and promotional efforts, the team has plenty of justifiable optimism about their prospects.
One need only take a glance at their Early Access product page to see gushing review after gushing review about spouses, friends, first time gamers, and long-time fantasy nerds who’ve all bonded over their time in Eon Altar‘s universe, and are looking forward to experiencing more of it. For a team whose inauspicious beginnings were forged by play, that’s perhaps the greatest reward of all.
“[Our] hope is that people play the game, and they get really excited about playing games together,” says Penner. “And [as] the story kind of takes them through that experience, and by the time they finished, they say, ‘That was really fun, I’d like to see more of this world.'” In a confessional moment that takes Douglas, Reynolds, and Wiggs by surprise, he continues.
“This is going to sound really nerdy, but I told my wife, ‘Sometimes if I’m having trouble sleeping, I just imagine a place in our world. And I just imagine myself standing there, and I try to pick out all the details. Like, I’m standing in the Takala Plains, where there’s…there’s these tribesmen, and I’m imagining the grass, and the sounds and the smells.'”
It’s late, and the thin panes of glass on the windows of the heritage building we’re in are woefully inadequate at keeping out the cold.
Watching him speak, though, Penner looks as warm as can be.