Luc Bernard may still be short of 30 years in age, but he’s already something of a veteran to the video game business. Perhaps best known by PlayStation fans for micro-download Mecho Wars, the British designer has also courted controversy at times, with his Holocaust-based Imagination Is the Only Escape bringing buckets of inevitable media attention when it was announced. Having kept his head down for a few years, the likeable luminary is now very much back in the game, with a couple of free-to-play titles for the PlayStation Vita: Reaper and Desert Ashes. We caught up with the auteur to learn a little more about both titles – and any latent plans for the PlayStation 4.
Push Square: Last time we talked, you were just getting started on Reaper for the PlayStation Vita. Can you give us an update on that game? What stage are you at now in development? How has the project changed since its initial announcement? Have you got a release date in mind yet?
Luc Bernard: Well, Reaper was shown at E3 this year during Sony’s press conference – the free-to-play part – and also on the show floor. The game, I will say, is done when it’s ready, since I really want it to be a great title. There are a lot of things that I'm thinking about – especially multiplayer – so that's what my focus is on, and how to approach that with this title.
You just announced Desert Ashes, a free-to-play turn-based strategy game for the Vita and PlayStation TV. Can you give us the elevator pitch for this title?
It’s a turn-based strategy game with the entire multiplayer section for free – what more could you want?
From the screenshots that you’ve released, it looks like it’s based upon your previous PlayStation Minis title Mecho Wars. How are the two games linked, and why have you decided to adopt a different name?
Well, honestly, after a while I thought that the title Mecho Wars sucked – the name. So, I wanted to change it. Desert Ashes is an extension of that universe and game, [and] it's inspired by it a lot. So, with Desert Ashes, I'm kind of pretending that Mecho Wars doesn't exist. They both have similar gameplay, but the difference is mainly in the online multiplayer, where you can level up and unlock new perks which will change your entire strategy during matches.
You’ve mentioned that the title will be compatible with PlayStation TV as well, but you seem to be going above and beyond to include local multiplayer support on the stationary system. What’s the draw of the microconsole for you, and why do you feel that this is worth the extra effort?
I'm also looking to have at least local co-op for Reaper on the PlayStation TV. I think that it’s a great device; I mean, $100 for a console that can play all of these games – it’s amazing. I want PlayStation TV owners to be able to have a free turn based strategy game to play alone or with friends – online or at home.
To be honest, also technically it's really easy for us to do, so it's not much effort. Anyone who will tell you otherwise is talking nonsense.
Obviously, there’s always concern when the phrase ‘free-to-play’ is peddled out. For gamers, there’s a worry that you’re going to nickel and dime them, but you also have to make back your initial investment as well. So, what do you think is going to be the sweet spot for Reaper and Desert Ashes, and how are you going to go about making money without putting anyone off?
Well, for Desert Ashes, you will be able to buy single player campaigns and maybe skins in the future – but that's it. So, it will be like normal DLC; the rest the multiplayer is entirely free – yes, free!
Now, Reaper is a different beast: you will be able to purchase new cards that will give you new armour, spells, or summons – but if you don't want to pay, you can just grind and find loot by playing the game. So, it's entirely up to the player. I think that people will mainly spend for cosmetic reasons, such as to have their Reaper look different to other players’.
It sounds like PvP multiplayer – be it online on Vita or locally on PlayStation TV – is going to comprise a big part of Desert Ashes’ replayability. How difficult is it balancing a strategy game like this, and what measures are you taking to ensure that it launches in an optimal state?
Well, since we launched a strategy game back in 2009, we now know how to handle all of those things. [Laughs]. With regards to replayability, I hope to update the game often with new levels based upon the feedback of the players. In Desert Ashes, you can level up and gain XP based on your matches, which will then allow you to unlock new perks. I just hope that players find it fun enough to keep on coming back.
The art direction in your games is always so striking, and we’re particularly fond of the chunky user interface that you’ve adopted in Desert Ashes. What have been your influences for the overall look of the strategy game?
Well, that user interface, my partner Sean – who’s a programmer – came up with it all by himself; it works great on touch screens, but also on controllers, too. The cool thing with that menu that he made is that you can play several games at once, and switch to and from seamlessly. So, you don't have to exit a mode to go back to playing another – people will see, it's bloody amazing.
"I don't have any interest in other platforms; working with Sony has been the best experience in this industry that I've had"
You’re obviously investing big in the Vita, and that’s exciting to see. However, the system’s commercial fortunes have been widely publicised of late. From our external perspective, it seems that the platform has a very loyal but small audience. Are you worried that your games could get lost with such a miniscule install base to target – or is there a sense that your games have a better chance of succeeding in the Vita niche as opposed to the Wild West of, say, iOS?
iOS: meh. Don’t expect any iOS games from me anytime soon, as I'm now mainly PlayStation. I don't have any interest in other platforms; working with Sony has been the best experience in this industry that I've had.
On the other end of the spectrum, the PlayStation 4 has been setting sales records on fire of late? Do you have anything in the pipeline for Sony’s new machine, or are you focused on these Vita titles at the moment?
I'm a PlayStation developer, which means that I'm going to be supporting all PlayStation devices. First, I wanted to focus on the Vita and PlayStation TV, because I love both devices. All I can say is that it seems most likely that these titles will come to other PlayStation devices...
Will you be giving Desert Ashes and Reaper a spin when they eventually release? What’s your overall opinion on the free-to-play format? Cut us down to size in the comments section below.