PC Video Games

Exclusive Interview: Orcs Must Die! Unchained Design Director Ian Fischer

In 2011, Robot Entertainment declared that Orcs Must Die! Then, the following year, they declared that Orcs Must Die! 2. And while it should’ve been called Orcs Must Die, Too! or Orcs Must Die! 2: Electric Boogaloo, we’ll let them slide because, like the original, this tower defense strategy game was tons of fun. Now they’re working on the upcoming sequel, Orcs Must Die! Unchained. But in talking to Robot’s Ian Fischer, the game’s design director, it’s sadly clear that, despite what the name suggests, this is not a tower defense strategy game where you have to prevent David Lee Roth from invading your home and eating all your brown M&Ms. Ah well.

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For those unfamiliar with this series, what are the Orcs Must Die! games, how do you play them, and where does Orcs Must Die! Unchained fit in with the previous two?

Orcs Must Die! is about defending a fortress under siege. You pick a set of traps and try to figure out how to use these, your innate abilities, and the layout of your fortress to beat an enemy army with a particular set of strengths and weaknesses.

In the original game, you played single player only. In the sequel, we added co-op. Now, in Orcs Must Die! Unchained, we have evolved to multiplayer play and given players the ability to, for the first time, experience things from the other side. To not just defend a fortress from a siege, but to actually be the hero kicking down the gates and leading an army into an enemy fortress.

So what other games do you think Orcs Must Die! Unchained is similar to?

We used to talk about it a lot as “a more strategic Team Fortress 2,” so I think you’ll feel some of that with the core gameplay. Some of the basic setup and structure is similar to League Of Legends or DOTA, though I’m happy that in the recent hands-on sessions, most everyone said some version of “I came in expecting you were ‘YAMOBA,’ but I’m happy to see that you’re something different. Our card model is often compared to Magic or Hearthstone.

And what do you think makes Orcs Must Die! Unchained different from them?

We take inspiration from a variety of different games, and there are games to compare us to, but Orcs Must Die! Unchained is a fairly unique experience. I’m not aware of any other game that has our blend of simultaneous offense and defense, that involves trap setup like ours, or that has you selecting and leading armies the way we do. Our card-based model is also unique amongst these games, and I’d say that our ability to pack a deep, exciting, team-based, strategic game into only twenty minutes is pretty distinct.

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Is there any truth to the rumor that you only called the game Orcs Must Die! Unchained so you could have the Van Halen song in the game?

No. [shakes head yes] None at all.

Gotcha. When you were working on the first Orcs Must Die!, and were figuring out how you’d depict the orcs, what games or other works of fiction did you look to in deciding how the orcs would both look and act?

I’m sure various movies and books factored in to the creative process there. We sometimes talk about an Army Of Darkness vibe. Many of the War Mage lines came from a designer who actually wrote lines for Bruce Campbell before. But really, there wasn’t exhaustive concept-design effort here. For lack of a better way to describe it, this is just “us” to some degree.

The closed beta for Orcs Must Die! Unchained just started. Do you have any idea when the game might be out?

It’s become trite to say “when it’s ready,” hasn’t it? We’re a very iterative studio and part of that process has been extended to our awesome community with this game. More than ever before, we’re building this game as a certain audience play it. That’s awesome. It has been a lot of fun, and I think the end result will be amazing for it. But this isn’t conducive to things like “dates” or “schedules.” Going into closed beta is doing a lot of the same stuff we’ve been doing, just with more players around. There aren’t many systems left to be implemented, but there is plenty of polish that needs done, and plenty of things we could find during this next phase.

So, it might take no time at all or we might be in beta a little longer than we expected.

When it does come out, how will people pay for it?

Orcs Must Die! Unchained is a free-to-play game. We give everyone five “perma-free” heroes to start with, and will have another rotating “guest hero” that anyone can try out for free. We also give new players a free starter set of cards and award additional card packs as they level up. You earn skulls as you play, and the skulls can be used to buy additional heroes or card packs. If you want, you can spend money to purchase heroes or cards packs too. Everything that has an impact on gameplay can be earned by playing, only things like vanity are cash-only.

We’ve also done a lot of work to make sure that our content is not just “linear reward.” What that means is that we don’t generally have things that are just “better”; there’s no “sword+10” and then a “sword+50.” Instead, we attempt to give players ways to do better that require more skill.

One of the examples I use a lot to show this is the regular arrow walls trap vs. the fire version. The fire arrow walls can be more powerful than the regular arrow walls. But if you just place ten arrow walls in a row, you’ll get 10x as much damage. If you do the same thing with ten fire arrow walls, you’ll actually do less damage. Because of the way they do their damage, primarily through a “burning,” you need to arrange your fire arrows in a certain manner, and pay attention to other traps around them, to get the most out of them. It requires more skillful play to get more damage. This approach allows us to better balance things in favor of the better player, not the player who has earned or purchased the most card packs.

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Why did you go with this pay set-up, as opposed to another?

One of the ways we approach our games is from the perspective of “barriers” and trying to remove them. If your game is very difficult to learn, that’s a barrier, and some people aren’t going to take the time to learn it. If your game takes a very powerful rig to run, that’s a barrier; some people aren’t going to go buy a new PC to play your game. Price is just another barrier. Some people don’t have, or aren’t willing to pay, $50 or $20 or $10 for your game.

The way we see it, going free-to-play means removing one of the largest barriers. We’ll certainly have more people give it a look than any of the previous games, and we feel like this favors a good game. If you play it and like it, there’s nothing stopping you from telling a friend and then being able to play together shortly thereafter.

Another advantage is that it allows us a way to treat the franchise as a living thing. If we wanted to do another game the way we had done the prior two, it’s at least a year, probably 18 months, from the time we decide we want to do that to the time we can put it in the hands of players. With Orcs Must Die! Unchained’s structure, we have the ability to take the baseline content, traps, minions, levels, and gameplay and very rapidly create and present new content. The time from concept to “game release” is drastically reduced, which we’re pretty excited about.

We also picked this model because it didn’t feel abusive or slimy to us. We all play games and we all play our game. None of us wants to work on something we don’t like. We have had a number of different models, and we’ve evolved greatly from the first version to what we have now. Our touchstone along the way has really just been gut check. I feel like I should claim some other sort of “deep science” behind this work, but really we just sort of ask “would you regret spending that money a week later?” a lot.

Last but not least, feedback from our community was also crucial during this process, and they have been instrumental during our alpha process to help us figure something that works for everyone.

As I understand it, right now this is just a PC game, correct?

Right now, it is just PC. Right now.

Are there any plans to bring it to game consoles, tablets, smart phones, or even Macs?

Right now, it is just PC. Right now.

I sense a pattern…

If we want to deliver a great game, we need to focus. We’ll be smart and win one battle first, and then we’ll focus on getting ourselves into real trouble by trying to do five things at once.

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Finally, the Orcs Must Die! games are not the only ones that Robot have made. If someone liked Orcs Must Die! Unchained, and wanted to play one of your other games, which would you recommend and why?

Robot was formed after Microsoft shut down Ensemble Studios in 2008. Many of us are veterans of that studio, and have been working together for many, many, many years. So, if it counts, I’d suggest they play one of our earlier games, say Age Of Empires, Age Of Mythology, or Halo Wars.

But if you’re going to hold me to something that has the Robot name on it, I’d suggest Hero Academy. It’s a great turn-based strategy game that’s out on iOS and Steam.


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