Interview: Checking in with Liege's John Rhee, the Mind Behind PS4 and Vita's Next Best Adventure
Posted by Sammy Barker
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Few could argue that Liege looks the part. The fantasy excursion – inspired by classics such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Suikoden, and, er, chess – is the product of one-man development shop Coda Games, and could yet be spreading its vibrant visuals to the PlayStation 4 and Vita. With eleven days left on the alluring outing’s Kickstarter drive, we caught up with creator John Rhee to talk a little bit about the inspirations behind the ambitious adventure, his personal sacrifices, and the renaissance of old-school JRPGs.
Push Square: Can you talk a little bit about your background in game development? What’s led you to the point that you’re at now?
John Rhee: I started programming in high school, and have been working on developing games in my spare time ever since. After graduating at college, I started working in technology outside of gaming, but I never stopped working on side-projects whenever I had the time. Then about two years ago, the idea for Liege started coming together, and I became much more serious about it. That's when I started working on the version of the game that you see today.
PS: What was it that made you want to make Liege?
JR: I wanted to make the game for two reasons. The first is the story. I really think that the characters and the types of conflicts that you'll see in Liege will set it apart from a lot of what's currently out there in games. The second is the gameplay. I'm a huge fan of tactical RPGs, and I think that the combat system introduces a lot of interesting new ideas that will make it a refreshing change from what you may have come to expect from the genre.
PS: How long have you been working on the game? How far into production are you at this point?
JR: I started working on the game in my spare time around two years ago, but I left my job to start pursuing it full time early this year. As the gameplay video I released shows, a lot of the core mechanics are already in place and just need to be filled in and polished up.
PS: Are you making the game on your own?
JR: So far, yes – it’s been a lot of work! I wanted to work on the project solo in its early stages, since I had very specific ideas of how I wanted it to look, feel, and play. Now that the overall direction and tone are set, I'm hoping to bring on some extra help to add more content and polish. I have some awesome sound guys in mind already, and am hoping to find someone who can help take the game's art to the next level.
PS: Can you talk a little bit about the sacrifices that you’ve made to create the project?
JR: The biggest sacrifice was definitely leaving behind a comfortable life and career to pursue the project full time. I moved back home to save on rent costs and cut way back on things like eating out and seeing friends.
PS: What does an average day of development entail?
JR: The average day varies, but I usually focus on one area for a few weeks at a time. The work ranges from coding new features, doing concept art, modelling, and animating in-game characters, creating new environments, putting it all together into playable sequences, handling the PR and business end of things – the list goes on! Switching over to working on this full time has helped a lot, but I'm definitely looking forward to getting some extra help on board.
PS: Liege looks absolutely stunning. Are you producing all of the art assets? Can you talk about your process?
JR: Thanks! So far I've done all of the art assets myself. The environments are hand drawn in Photoshop, while the character sprites are modelled and animated in 3D using Blender and exported into 2D spritesheets. I'll be doing a ‘how it’s made’ update later in the campaign to give anyone who's interested a better sense of how the art pipeline works.
PS: What are some of the non-game inspirations behind the art?
JR: The inspiration for the art comes from lots of places. Apart from games, the main ones that come to mind are film and TV shows, everything from the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones to Disney Pixar's Brave, etc. Whenever I watch anything with a medieval setting, I pay really close attention to the environments and costumes. The character art – both the concepts and the in-game sprites – also have some influences from anime.
PS: The game’s combat system is partially influenced by chess. In what way is that?
JR: The main things are the heavy emphasis on spatial positioning and the minimalism of the rule set. The amazing thing about chess is that it’s an incredibly deep game, but anyone can learn the basic rules in minutes. On the other hand, I think that a lot of people get turned off by tactical RPGs because they don't want to sit through extended tutorials and learn tons of arbitrary rules. My hope with Liege is to bring some of the elegance and accessibility of chess into the tactical RPG genre, while also keeping the game varied and fun to play.
PS: You mentioned that Liege was inspired by several PlayStation classics. Can you talk a little bit about what makes games like Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy VII, and Suikoden special to you?
JR: Sure! Final Fantasy Tactics was my first proper introduction to the tactics genre. The first time that I played it, I just couldn't get into it. I picked it up again a few years later and I'm glad that I did, because when I really started playing it, I was just blown away by the depth of its gameplay. It really just blew the JRPGs that I was playing at the time out of the water gameplay-wise.
Final Fantasy VII is to this day one of the most memorable experiences that I've had in gaming, mainly because of the story. The way that it develops its characters and deals with these really adult themes completely opened my eyes to the potential that games have for telling amazing stories.
Finally, Suikoden was the first time that I realised what improved technology could do for the classic 2D JRPG format. The technology's continued to improve since then, and I'm hoping to apply it in the same way with Liege.
PS: Classic JRPG-esque titles seem to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance on Kickstarter at the moment. Why do you think that that is? What’s your opinion on the current state of the genre?
JR: I think a lot of us would agree that there was something really special about the JRPGs that we played on the SNES and PSone. Those of us who played those games as kids have grown up since then, but I don't think that the genre's grown up with us. Our expectations for both story and gameplay have matured, but today's JRPGs don't reflect that.
I think that part of the reason why there's been so much interest for these types of projects is because we really do want to re-experience the magic from those games, but in a way that appeals to our changed tastes. That said, it's not enough to just replicate and tweak the formula that made those games work years ago. I think that the big players like Square Enix have lost sight of that, and that's opened the doors for the smaller guys like us.
PS: Can you talk a little bit about how Sony got involved with the project? Who approached who?
JR: When I saw the reception that the project got on Kickstarter, I knew that there was an opportunity to turn Liege into something much bigger than I'd originally planned for. People started asking about console support, but I honestly didn't think it was even in the realm of possibility. Ever since I was a kid, consoles were something that only big, established teams could do. But after I started hearing about Sony's recent support for indies, some supporters pointed me down the right path. I reached out, and they've been incredibly responsive.
PS: As you said, Sony’s generated a lot of goodwill in the indie community lately. Having now had a chance to deal with the company, are you starting to understand why?
JR: Absolutely. I really thought that working with Sony would be like working with a giant, faceless corporation, but it's been exactly the opposite. They've been working with me on a really personal level, and have gone way above and beyond to push things through with our limited fund-raising window in mind. They've really lived up to the hype, and then some.
PS: On a personal level, what would the game releasing on the PS4 and Vita mean to you?
JR: Honestly, it'd be a dream come true. Like I said, for me, consoles were always just this other place where only the big guys played. The thought of being on the same platform as the next Final Fantasy still feels pretty crazy to me. A part of me still doesn't believe it.
PS: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us.
JR: Thank you.
You can help realise John Rhee’s dream by investing in Liege through here. Are you planning to pledge some money towards the promising indie RPG? As always, let us know in the comments section below.