Dragon Fin Soup Interview—Finding the Perfect Combination of Elements

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I had the opportunity to sit down with none other than Ash Monif, one of the founders of Grimm Bros., a small indie team that is made up of extremely talented individuals from around the world, all of who have been diligently working on a Kickstarter-funded game, Dragon Fin Soup.

While we had ramen soup and did a formal interview, I also got the chance to actually see the game running. I can’t show off any footage as the game is still in a very early build, but I wanted to briefly talk about what I saw and how impressed I was from the walkthrough I got of the game.

I had a look at exploration, combat, dialogue, and job professions within the game. Everything ran at a rock solid frame rate and the game itself didn’t have any major issues, despite being such an early build. Everything about Dragon Fin Soup screamed polish, passion, and ultimately a love for games in the roguelike/RPG genre, which is something we get into below.

Niche Gamer: How long has Dragon Fin Soup been in the making?

ash monif 1Ash Monif: So we started Grimm Bros in late 2012, that’s around when we started Grimm Bros. We didn’t actually start Dragon Fin Soup until February of 2013, so it’s been about a year now.

A lot of that time right after we formed the company was just brainstorming, just trying to figure out what it is that we want to do, the type of game that we want to make, whether we want to jump headfirst into making a 3D game, or do something a little more 2D, our engine of technology, and just exploring what really excited us.

That’s when we started really coming together and forming the early ideas of what would eventually be called Dragon Fin Soup.

How many people are in the core team within Grimm Bros.?

Ash: We’re a small five-man team, my partner Randis does all the art, the animations, effects, and he is the lead on development in Grimm Bros. I take the business side of things, while he takes the game development side of things.

We still collaborate on a high level so that we’re in sync and can share our vision and our passion, but once we come up with an idea he goes off and gives it form. Then we come at it again and again, it’s a really great collaboration.

Where did you guys come up with the name for the studio?

Ash: So there’s two of us, and we sat around and talked for hours about what to name our company. Very quickly, we came to the conclusion that we want to have a company that we make the games that we always want to be inspired by.

One of the big things that we both grew up with was fairy tales, we’re both big fans of fairy tales. These weren’t the Disney, whitewashed ones, these were the old, dark, real messed up tales. One of the mission statements that we set out to do, is for every game that we do, should have fairy tale elements in it. It doesn’t have to be overt, it can be subtle or sometimes it is overt.

We think that’s fun, and we think there’s a huge world of inspiration that can be drawn from those fairy tales. The original Brothers Grimm didn’t make up any of those tales, they just went around and got everyone else’s story and put them into a book. That’s all they did, they were cultural anthropologists and scholars, they took an interest in all these stories and gathered them all together.

With us calling ourselves Grimm Bros., we’re making an homage to the legacy that they left us, as well as telling our own tales, our new tales with new twists on them. We’re not just giving you Little Red Riding Hood again or a version straight from Wikipedia.

Is it a challenge to work with people from all around the world?

Ash: We’ve been doing this for several years, we didn’t wake up one day and just say “hey let’s do this remotely!” It actually came together through years to get our methodology and communication flow down.

I’ve been working remotely like this for the past five to six years now. I started doing outsourcing back when I was in the AAA space when we worked with companies from around the world or different places. You learn different ways to communicate from that, scheduling, managing, and so on.

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How is communication with your team members?

Ash: With us, because we’re such a small team, we know each other and our communication is very tight.  We communicate with each other online, every day, we talk to each other and ask what everyone is doing. Whenever we find a bug, we all learn about it quickly, whenever there’s a new feature everyone gets excited and gets the newest build and plays it.

We have very good communication but so far it’s not a problem—remote development is tricky, it’s not easy by any means. One of the keys to making it happen is just having really, really solid communication. As soon as your communication breaks down people get behind, tasks get confused, but small groups with tight communication can do really phenomenal things.

How did you and your business partner Randis meet?

Ash: We’ve known each other for almost five years. We first met online, we were looking for the top artists to work with us when I was with a company. I reached out to him, he responded, and then we started doing some contract work with each other.

We did that over several projects over different game companies. We started to get to know each other, we hung out online, we talked a lot, started sharing jokes, and that’s how we became friends. So we became friends online, in fact we only met once before we started the company.

What’s with the name Dragon Fin Soup? I have to ask.

Ash: (laughs) The name—if you ask my partner Randis, it’s a combination of all these different things that we love, that’s really what it comes down to. He’ll mention the things he loves, I’ll mention the things I love, that’s really what it is.

It’s literally a soup, we took the classical console games—like Zelda, Chocobo Dungeon, Shiren the Wanderer, Earthstalker, Chrono Trigger, these are the games that really inspired us to be gamers and even get into the game industry.

So we started working on that and we started adding in different elements like roguelike elements, normal tactical elements, and then we started adding in these twisted fairy tale characters. After a while it started to feel like a hybrid, a soup, a broth. We said, Okay, this is something different, this is something unique and exciting, this is cool. What are we going to call this thing? That’s how we came up with the name Dragon Fin Soup.

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The name Dragon Fin Soup and the game itself are definitely unique. How did you guys approach development of your game?

Ash: We decided that if we’re going to make our own company, if we’re going to put all of our hearts and time and effort into it, we might as well do what we love. So we went back to that, we went back to these classic games, and we said alright let’s start there.

We’re not chasing a business model. This company is our baby, we’re putting all of our time and effort into it, and it doesn’t make any sense. We’d rather be creatively driven and be true to ourselves than try to chase some stupid microtransaction, free to play shop.

There’s a real problem with clones these days, or pay to win titles. Did this affect the development of the game in any way?

Ash: I’ve made those games before and props to people who are able to make really cool, fun and engaging games, but most of the time they’re clones or they’re pay to win titles. Why do that?

For an RPG, you just want a rich, deep experience and a lot of story.  You don’t want to get halfway through the story and see “to be continued, pay a dollar fifty” or “here buy a sword so you can beat the boss.”

So you’d say expansions are being looked at as a post-launch type thing, not something that is planned beforehand and then put behind a paywall. Is this the case?

Ash: If it’s ready, we’ll offer it immediately. One of the things about us is that we’re one hundred percent transparent, because we’re one hundred percent indie.

What we’re going to do in our game is classic expansions. Every time you get an expansion it’s a new character, new abilities, new levels, new world, and a new story. It’ll be everything that a gamer would expect to have, because we’re gamers too—and we’re making it because we want people to like it, play it, and enjoy it. Hopefully, as long as they keep liking what we’re doing we’ll going to keep doing it.

What game modes are going to be offered from the get go in Dragon Fin Soup?

Ash: We have two main game modes, story mode in which you unravel the story of Red Robin and discover her backstory, and her place in the world. Survival mode is more of a pure roguelike, you’re exploring all of the wilds of Asura. You start with very little items or equipment, you’re on your own, you have to figure it out. It is possible to beat survival mode, but it’s very, very difficult.

In story mode you can select between hardcore and classic. Classic plays like any other RPG, while hardcore adds more roguelike to the formula, so if you die you die (permadeath). However, from classic, you can reload from a save point and continue with the story like any RPG.

So with any roguelike there’s a seed, an entire universe is built on a seed, you can do something random, or you can even type your own name. That will be the seed that generates the entire universe, and you can actually your friends what seed you’re playing, or you can share with them the seed.

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The space turtle is awesome. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Ash: A quick point about the turtle, that’s actually an ancient myth. People like Terry Pratchett and the Discworld series, that’s the same inspiration, it’s the same root. Some people will say “Hey, isn’t this just like Discworld?” and we’re like “Well, Discworld is actually just like this.” It’s an ancient Hindu myth from when people still thought the world was flat.

We thought that’s a fun idea, let’s throw that in there, it’s another element of why we call this a soup. Also, because of this, we can do a lot of interesting things with this world as it is timeless, it’s going through the multiverse of space and time. So you can imagine different races, different creatures coming together.

What are the main factions in the world of Asura?

Ash: The two major factions in this world are humans and non-humans (the Wesen), or all sorts of different types of creatures. The prologue talks about the “Age of Fire”, when the Wesen and the humans were at war with each other, and the war was threatening to wipe out all life in Asura.

To end the war, the bastard child of a princess was able to form an empire. The empire basically rules over all of these different groups. Some of them still don’t get along with each other, while some of them do. Some are openly resisting, while others are kind of hiding in the shadows.

How many races are you guys planning to have in the final game?

Ash: I can’t say quite yet. We’re still in development, but you’ll get a sense of that soon.

Can you talk about the burning planet that rained down crystal shards over Asura? What kind of significance do they have?

Ash: An analogy of this is that these shards are magic, they’re a source of new power. Imagine all of these groups that didn’t get along, and suddenly someone just airdrops all of these weapons.

So that’s a very destabilizing factor there, and it’s kind of the catalyst for story.

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How can you move in the game, via pointing and clicking, keyboard, or a mix of both?

Ash: If you click in a particular area, your character will pathfind to that point. You can also use a keyboard to move as well, or a combination of both, i.e. moving to an enemy and then clicking on him to attack.

How does the pace of combat work? You mention in the Kickstarter that you can toggle the speed of turns.

Ash: In the corner there’s a turn meter, every time you take a movement, it’s a turn. You can pause, or you can start moving as if it was real time.

By turn based, I mean I can take a movement and they all move with me. So then, I can think about things like running away, or using my magic.

Do you guys plan to have the character portraits animated, or fully animated?

Ash: It’s to be determined. It depends on how far we get with the Kickstarter.

That’s one of the things about us, we know how to build games, and we’re very good about controlling scope of what we can and cannot do. We’re never going to promise that we can deliver something unless we really know, we’ve done the math, and we’re confident that we can do it.

However, she will be expressive, she will have different portraits, and she has different types of dialogue.

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How does the dialogue system in the game work?

Ash: So we call it the “smack talk” system. You’ll taunt enemies and enemies will taunt you, right now it’s all very random, it doesn’t really have any systems but it will be more contextual.

Different people will say different things, like this cat guy who is talking about a squirrel he buried when he was a kid.

Are you guys worried that having such a robust inventory system (and UI) might turn off the more casual players?

Ash: I think we offer the choices through the complexity of the game, but that shouldn’t interfere with your enjoyment of the game. We wanted to offer a lot of different things, not just equipment but your magic, your skills, and even crafting. We think it’s not too intimidating, we worked very hard to make this UI flow and be really nice and smooth.

How does the passage of time affect the towns and villagers?

Ash: We put a lot of time and effort into making this rich and detailed world. There’s all sorts of different people you can talk to, some people come and go as time goes on.

We have procedural weather, so right now (in game) it’s daytime, but it’s still a little foggy so it’s not a sunny day, it’s just a regular day.

How many job opportunities are there in the game?

Ash: You can do fishing in the game, like if you see a little sparkling spot in the world, that indicates that you can fish in that spot.

In total, we have runetracking, fishing, digging, and the crafting of weapons, items, or armor.

Can you give an example of one of the more exotic combat tactics you can employ in the game?

Ash: We have bombs, so you can lure an enemy in close and have it set off via proximity, or you can shoot them from a distance and blow them or, you can also do chain bombs.

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I’m going to assume that bombs play a factor in discovering secrets in the game world?

Ash: I can neither confirm nor deny that, let’s just say that we’ve been heavily inspired by other games. You can move stone blocks around, similar to other wonderful games that inspired so much of our game. There’s going to be puzzles, teleport traps, and all sorts of goodies.

How much more will the difficulty ramp up if you switch from classic mode to hardcore mode?

Ash: In classic mode you can save at any time, whereas in hardcore mode, once you’re dead, that ends your journey – it’s permadeath. Hardcore mode is basically for survival mode, while the save is for story mode, and labyrinth mode we’re still deciding on.

Obviously, you can play story mode in hardcore difficulty if you really want to, we’re going to focus test that to see if people want that or if it’s just a bad idea. We’d hate it if someone accidently clicked that and got hours into the game, died, and then said “Oh my god, where is my character?!”

Can you talk a bit about the procedurally generated content, and how that unfolds in game?

Ash: Even though it’s a procedurally generated world, in our story missions we can script things out. We can do what’s called prefabricated pieces or prebuilt set pieces, so to speak. If we know that there’s a special point where Red Robin has to converse with a character, we can script that so that happens somewhere in that level.

So even though that level is procedurally generated, there’s still that special place that will show up in that level. We can also pull the trigger where we say, Okay, so the whole level is scripted, it doesn’t change at all, it stays the same. For example, if you go to a castle and fight a boss, it’ll probably be a hundred percent scripted, while the boss fight will be unique. The layout of the world will be fixed, because we want to balance it properly so it will be the most enjoyable

What types of input will Dragon Fin Soup support?

Ash: Dragon Fin Soup is going to support multiple levels of input. Since we’re going to so many platforms, it will support touch screen, keyboard and mouse, controller or joystick.

Coming from that, is it daunting to be putting the game on so many platforms?

Ash: Yes and no, we’ve done this before you know? We’ve shipped a lot of console titles, I’ve been in the console space, we know the amount of effort and work it takes, and it takes a lot of work and effort.

Sony has come on board and been a great partner with us, they believe in us even though this is our first title. We’ve been in the industry for so long, they’re like, Okay, you guys know what you’re doing, your engine is solid, we’ll work with you to make it happen. They’ve been phenomenal partners so far.

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Is there a balance between the more claustrophobic areas and the more open areas?

Ash: There’s going to be a lot more open areas. You’re going to have larger vistas, usually you can use your mini map to gauge how large the area you’re currently in actually is. We can adjust the feel of the levels from player feedback – like if a player wants a particular level to feel more open.

So why Kickstarter? What are your thoughts on the platform?

Ash: We see Kickstarter as a fantastic platform to connect with the gaming community. As an indie developer, one of the biggest things we’re worried about, we love this game with all of our hearts and we hope everyone likes it too or loves it as much as we do but – how do you get the word out there?

How do you let people know what you’re doing? How do you get extra time to really polish it? So Kickstarter is all of those things bundled into one. It lets people know who we are, what we’re doing, it gets the word out about us, it gets people involved so we can get their feedback, and it helps us raise additional funds to make the game even better.

Kickstarter has been a great experience so far, and hopefully we can hit our Morgiana Expansion stretch goal.

Did you guys think that your Kickstarter would make its goal, or that it would go this far?

Ash: Honestly, we didn’t expect anything. We were hopeful, but to be clear, about the funding goal—currently we’re one hundred percent self funded. It’s my own money, my partner’s, our own time, our own heart, and the support of our amazing friends and families. So, we’re entirely self funded.

So when we did the Kickstarter, it wasn’t saying “Hey, here’s the concept or an idea, help us make it,” it was “Hey, here’s a game we have, we’re at alpha, help us through beta so that we can make an amazing game.” That was the messaging that we wanted to get out there.

To be clear, we’re promising that we’re going to deliver. We’re not going to be one of those Kickstarters that raises a bunch of money and suddenly disappears. We are self funded, and every dollar you give us goes directly into the game, making it a better experience.

We’re one hundred percent transparent about everything we’re doing, and after the Kickstarter ends you can jump on our forums and ask us anything.

While everyone else is based around the world, you’re stationed in Philly. Can you talk a bit about how different the development community here is from the West Coast?

Ash: It’s a phenomenal environment, very collaborative, very supportive. Everyone shares here, everyone wants to help you out. When I was planning our Kickstarter, I talked to all of the local game companies and everyone was giving me tips for what worked for them and what didn’t, best practices, it was truly an open forum.

You get that a bit in California but it’s not as intimate or as tight as it is here in Philly. There’s a little sense of competitiveness there, but that’s where all the jobs are. Out here, we’re all indie, and we’re all trying to help each other out. People will do shout outs on their Facebook or Twitter, you just ask and they’ll help you out.

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So your game will be playable at PAX East?

Ash: Yes, we will have it playable on the floor at PAX. The show should be good, we’ll be showing more of the game there, including a new trailer.

Lastly, do you have anything for your backers, or potential pledges?

Ash: We’re entering our last few days, if each and every one of you thinks what we’re doing is amazing—please do a Facebook post or a Twitter blast, tell your friends about us. We’re definitely within striking distance of our first expansion. It’s going to be amazing if we can get there, and we can only get there with your help.

We’re a small indie team, we don’t have that many resources. It’s basically just me and Randis replying to everyone, and doing our best. If you guys can step up and help us get there, that would be amazing.

That’s it, folks. I’d like to thank Ash and the team at Grimm Bros. so much for the opportunity to cover the excellent looking Dragon Fin Soup with this interview. If you still haven’t pledged to the game, head on over to their Kickstarter page.

They have a few days left, and they’re very, very close to their first expansion that features the character Morgiana, a deadly assassin that is inspired by the fairy tale Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

A reminder for you east coast folks, the game will be playable at PAX East this coming weekend, and they might even have some swag for fans that stop by!

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Owner and Publisher at Niche Gamer and Nicchiban. Outlaw fighting for a better game industry. Pronouns: Patriarch, Guido, Olive, Catholic