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Author Interview: Rick Stemm
2016-08-18 · by Devi Acharya
Heroic Games is a San Antonio game design and media company founded in 2015 by Rick Stemm. Their first project, Heroes Must Die, combines interactive theater and gameplay to create an epic transmedia tale based on the tropes of classic RPGs. The game is currently available for free on Steam, and more information about the project can be found at hmd-game.com.
This interview was conducted via email.
Devi Acharya: To start off with, could you tell me a bit about yourself—where you’re from and how you got involved in the work that you do?
Rick Stemm: I have a degree in film, but I’ve always been interested in games and interactivity. I’ve read Choose Your Own Adventure books and run D&D games since I was a kid. I always wanted to make games, but game design careers weren’t really a thing when I was a kid, so I came to that professionally later. After college I ended up working as an instructional designer, using my background in video and passion for interactive stuff to make some really successful e-learning programs.
During that time, I met a fellow instructor who introduced me to theater, and the immediacy of theater—having the audience right there—drew me to it right away and got me to start experimenting with different kinds of interactive shows. Now all my major theater shows have some kind of interactive component. I also came to game design through that job, as it helped me get an educational game design job, which taught me the skills to make video games on my own.
Devi: Tell me a bit about the origins of Heroes Must Die? What was the initial concept? Once you had that concept, what were the steps you took to bring it to fruition?
Rick: It started as a theater idea—bringing the world of video games to life through theater. But then I started wondering if it was possible to combine the two things I loved creating most: games and theater. So I took the initial characters and plot from my show treatment, then backed up and thought about what they’d be doing before that story. Being such an RPG fan, I knew right away I wanted to parody and homage the genre, but I also wanted to tell a story that was worth experiencing. So I took some serious time to outline an epic story. It started as a flowchart on a huge cork board. We ended up having to cut the other paths for initial release, but it still charted out the main game flow.
I’d made games and produced shows before, so I have a good idea of the production process, but man, making a video game was even harder than I thought. The toughest part was finding the right team. With extremely little funding, it was hard to find talented people who also were passionate enough to see this thing through. We went through a lot of people who had to drop out for various understandable reasons before we nailed down our team. From there things went pretty smoothly, if slowly. Writing about the production process would be a whole new article, so suffice it to say it was a long learning journey, but we got the game done!
The show was also hard to pitch. There is not a ton of money in theater, and where it exists—those places don’t want to try new things. I was extremely fortunate to have a good relationship with the theater director at Northwest Vista College here in San Antonio. She thought her students would love it (they also have a game design program there), so we worked to get it a part of their season. From there the college produced, and they did an amazing job. I mean, in addition to the insanity of audience interactivity—we had paddles like buttons the audience would hold and use to vote on choices or even to respond to quick puzzles to change how the show proceeded—we had stage hands with props and puppets for magic and monsters, UI elements and effects, and even a three-story dungeon set for one part. It really came together spectacularly.
Devi: One of the great draws of Heroes Must Die is that it’s broken down into two parts—a game and an interactive theater piece. How do these two come together to form a cohesive whole?
Rick: They are a somewhat straightforward prequel and sequel told through two entirely different media. Each stands alone, so you get a complete story if you just play the game or just see the show. But the events in the show directly follow the events in the game. So if you experience both you see why the characters in the show have the relationships they do, why the world is in that state, and what happens after the game’s somewhat uncertain epilogue.
The visual ties are really neat, too. The costumes of the show were designed directly off the character art for the game. The sets are painted to look like the game environments. We even built giant video-game-style swords for them to fight with. And we used all the music from the game to score the show.
Devi: What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of creating for each medium (PC RPG and interactive theater)?
Rick: RPGs have story as their biggest strength, I think, which is why I chose that genre; it allowed me to tell a story across two media. But in general the strength of games is their interactivity—they are the only real major form of media that the audience controls, and I think that is fabulous, and I think more forms should learn (and are learning!) from that.
Theater’s great draw is the urgency of being in the same room with real people doing this, which is why I think it begs for interactivity. The audience is right fucking there—acknowledge them! I also just thought, you know, I would love to see what a real-life video game looked and felt like, so OK, let’s bring video games to life through a performance. And I think there was something kind of magical in actually being there in real life experiencing these patently unreal things. Did I mention we played a dungeon delve?
Devi: Heroes Must Die is extremely entertaining, funny, and genre-savvy. What kinds of influences did you draw from traditional action-RPGs or other sources?
Rick: Thanks! Those were our main goals in making the game! Obviously it is a nod to SNES-era JRPGs (sorry for all the acronyms) more than anything, so the art and exploration and some jokes draw from that. We did try to make the combat unique, though; we wanted to add something to the genre.
In particular we were all huge fans of Final Fantasy VI (also Chrono Trigger, FF4, Secret of Mana, to name a few), so those were inspiring. The Black Company book series actually inspired the main plot (the idea of the protagonists working for the traditional fantasy villains), though we of course played that out comedically. And, while I draw on a lot of different comedic inspiration, the constant joke pacing of Mel Brooks movies, the pop-culture savviness of the Simpsons, and the mayhem of classic Looney Tunes are always big inspirations for me.
The show is indebted to the Japanese art of kuroko: stagehands who wear all black and manipulate puppets (they originate from puppet theater), magic, UI, effects, etc. That was what really inspired the show and made the live-action-game thing work. And the interactions of the show come directly from video games, using things like branching dialogue, quick time events, and more.
And, of course, the big inspiration for all of it is that interactive fiction that for many of us was the first—Choose Your Own Adventure books.
Devi: Besides creating a fun and engaging product, did you have any other goals in creating Heroes Must Die?
Rick: Yes—I absolutely wanted to do something that has never been done before. I think combining these two media as we did was new, and goddamn, I am really proud of everyone involved for doing it. I hope it inspires other people to look at media in new ways. For traditional artists to see the power of games, for modern gamers to see the potential of theater, and for young artists to want to do something new and different.
Devi: If you were to start at the beginning of the development process for Heroes Must Die, is there anything that you would change? What kinds of challenges did you face in production?
Rick: Ha, well, first of all. games and theater were maybe the worst two things I could combine. Games are kind of famous for having development cycles that drag on for years, while theater seasons need to be scheduled a year in advance. So the timing was nigh impossible and almost killed me. I am extremely thankful to the college and to everyone for flexibility and relieved it all worked out. I dare anyone to try it, like us, without a gigantic budget and see if you don’t go insane.
We should have done better rapid-prototyping for the gam; that was my fault and would have gotten us done sooner. We had to scrap and rework combat halfway through. Good lesson learned! The show went pretty smoothly, but I wish we had had more time and money to market it, to get people tuning in to the livestream we did. It was cool and I want the world to see it! But I am still going to try to get video of it up on Steam alongside the game.
Devi: What can we next look forward to seeing from you or Heroic Games in the future?
Rick: I always have a million ideas, so it’s all about seeing which are the most likely to execute. For sure I’ll be doing a different kind of live-action video game performance for San Antonio’s Luminaria arts festival this fall, and with any luck will be bringing Heroes Must Die the show to PAX South. The programmer and composer for HMD and I really want to work together on another game project. Our leading idea is a co-op VR experience, but it’s too early to tell if this will be the one we stick with for the next project. Also, if we get enough interest in HMD we may also release a sequel or an expansion (more choices to different paths and endings), but those we’ll need funds for that, so please keep an eye out and support us if we do. But hey, for now enjoy this game—it’s free!