When you consider how tumultuous and bloody the history of the Roman Empire is, it's perhaps surprising that we haven't seen more video games during the era. As is often the case though, you wait years for such a game to arrive and then not one but two hit the scene almost at once - and both on the Xbox One to boot. Launch title Ryse: Son of Rome used the backdrop of Roman-occupied Britain for its gore-drenched action, and now Wulverblade - one of the first games to be accepted on the new ID@Xbox indie development program - has also been confirmed for Microsoft's next-generation console.
Wulverblade is the brainchild of Fully Illustrated's Michael Heald, a British illustrator and designer who has worked with some of the highest profile games studios operating in the smartphone and tablet space, including Ironhide Game Studio (Kingdom Rush), Hemisphere Games (Osmos) and Subatomic Studios (Fieldrunners). While Heald has helped these and many other companies with their online presence and branding, Wulverblade is his first self-made project and the culmination of years of hard work and perseverance.
"I've been obsessed with the games industry since I was a kid, and I think it was the glitzy cover art of the '80s and '90s games that got me interested in illustration," he tells Red Bull. "All the way through school I was drawing Sonic, Mario and many others, much to the annoyance of my art teachers. When I became an illustrator professionally I had my eyes fixed on the games industry."
For Wulverblade, Heald has picked a genre which is close to his heart, but arguably isn't as in vogue today as it has been in the past: the side-scrolling fighter. "I love structured simplicity in games - the kind of simplicity that requires lots of time and play to master," comments Heald. "The classic side-scroller is exactly that. Anyone could stick a coin into Capcom's Final Fight for fifteen minutes and enjoy the game. They had all the moves available right from the off and you would come away feeling pretty good about yourself. But to complete the game, you really needed to master those controls and it’s that simplicity that shines through for me."
The side-scrolling fighter has arguably seen better days, but Heald feels that the genre is making a resurgence and that Wulverblade will be perfectly positioned to capitalise on - and even be part of - this rise in popularity. "In many ways the genre has stayed alive in the form of God of War and Devil May Cry, which you could argue are the 3D equivalent of the old-school side-scroller, in much the same way that Mario in 3D is the modern take on his 2D side-scrolling heritage," he explains.
Ironically, despite its cartoon look and less realistic feel when compared to the visuals in Ryse, Wulverblade is shaping up to be the more authentic release - at least in terms of storyline and setting.
"I'm British and love this country's ancient history," Heald says. "I've wanted to tell some of its amazing tales in game form for many years as they are largely ignored in schools and never really feature as a subject matter for film, TV or games. I'm sticking very closely to the historical roots so the locations are all historically accurate and there are prominent characters such as Agricola and [the warrior queen] Boudica in the storytelling."
Heald reveals that Wulverblade was deep into development when Ryse was first announced, so the closeness of the two games in terms of release is purely coincidental. While many designers might be annoyed to see a rival release using the same general setting as their own, Heald is a massive fan of what Crytek achieved.
"I was like a kid at a Christmas when Ryse was announced," he says with a smile. "Ryse only uses historical names and characters, but creates its own story and narrative - little to none of which is based on historical events - so while I enjoyed the game thoroughly, the history buff in me was grumbling quietly in the corner. But that wasn't their goal with the game, I respect that and also love what they did."
Wulverblade has been in active development for seven months, but Heald reveals that the original idea predates this by some margin. "It has been in the concept stage with me for years, but as I had no way of getting the game to market, it always stayed as a personal art project rather than something real," he explains. Getting the project off the ground wasn't easy, and called for Heald to make some difficult choices.
"I backed the iOS Game Dock Kickstarter with $10,000 of my own cash, as it came with a bundled offer of ‘getting your game made for the system’, which seemed like a way to finally make Wulverblade a reality," he says. "As the months drew towards the time we were due to begin development, it began to dawn on me that making Wulverblade for iOS just wasn’t right. Wulverblade was an arcade game and needed a physical pad or a stick to be played properly. Touch controls just couldn't replicate that, so I bit the bullet, cancelled the development and obviously sacrificed the investment I had made - which hurt just as much as you’d expect. This may seem crazy, but you can’t start your life’s dream project on the wrong foot."
Thankfully, Heald was able to regroup and give Wulverblade the start it deserves. He is unquestionably the brains of the operation, but not a one-man show. The game is now being produced in conjunction with Darkwind Media, a North American studio which has worked with the likes of Vicarious Visions and Kerosene Games in the past.
"We have thirteen people working on the game in total," Heald explains. "They are incredibly talented developers with so much experience. We've got a fabulous sound design team in the form of Verbal Vigilante - who predominantly work on blockbuster movies - and they've even joined me on my monster research and location trips up mountain passes and into ancient stone circles! We've also got great effects artists, additional animators, voice actors, cellists and a wonderful script writer."
Despite the additional manpower, Heald is still pouring every spare moment he has into bringing his cast of sturdy Scottish warriors and hard-nosed Roman soldiers to life. Each character is a massive undertaking.
"On average a single character can take anything from two to eight days. The game is going to have a huge breadth of characters by the end - somewhere in the region of thirty, playable and enemies. There's everything from tribal warriors and legionaries to auxiliary cavalry, wolves and wolf hounds to be precise."
Just as much time and effort is being expended on making sure that the combat engine - surely the most vital part of any side-scrolling brawler - is up to standard. As a veteran of the '80s and '90s arcades where the genre was king, Heald feels he and his team are experienced enough to strike the right balance.
"We've played the heart out of everything in this genre for more hours than I dare to count," he explains. "We've got our core standard combo, grapple, head-butts, uppercuts, special attacks, throws and many other moves that we're keeping quiet until launch. There is also a 'Rage' mode that the player has access to. This changes the combat drastically, but that's all I'm saying right now." Social gamers and fans of classic arcade fighters will be pleased to learn that local co-op play is included, and that online play is a possibility, provided that the time and budget are there to implement it.
Unlike some recent side-scrollers which drip-feed new moves as the player progresses, Wulverblade will give you all the tools you need to shine from the moment you boot up the game - something which makes it even closer to the fighters of old.
"All the characters moves will be available to you from your first go, but you've got to master them," Heald says. "What I was very keen to avoid was 'moves for the sake of it' - something that believe is an issue many similar games have suffered with over recent years. It seems that with more buttons comes the urge to add more moves. I want to retain the magic that the classics had."
Heald says that perfecting the game's battle system has required him and his team to not only look to the past, but also take into account feedback from events where the game has been played by the general public. "One of the most time consuming - and enjoyable - parts of my research has been analysing the timing of the old school classics, right down to scrutinising each and every frame of every attack sequence of every character from every major title," he says.
"We are also responding to player feedback from events where we showcase the game. For example after GDC there had been a lot of requests for blocking, and while we don't want a game where you can hide behind a shield all day, we're now building in some killer quick block and parry moves. These are already adding a huge amount of additional depth to the combat."
Another way that Wulverblade will remain true to its roots is length - Heald is keen for the game to be lean and exciting without having to resort to 'filler' levels in order to string out the playtime. "Wulverblade is an arcade game that is intended to give you an incredibly fulfilling experience for around two hours," he reveals.
"But this timeframe will vary on player skill, just as with the arcades. Master the combat techniques and you'll slice through it quicker, play it casually and it'll take you longer."
One of the most burning questions for any indie developer signed up to the Xbox One has to be about Microsoft's recent turnaround on how it approaches small-scale studios. Prior to the launch of the PS4 and Xbox One, Microsoft made some high-profile errors with its indie policies, and the recently-launched ID@Xbox program is intended to counter this. Heald reports that his dealings with the company so far have been nothing but positive, which suggests that Microsoft's hard work has paid off.
"Personally, we've not got a single gripe with Microsoft on this subject," he says. "Put simply, if it wasn't for their openness to indies we wouldn’t be here now. I've personally embraced their approach 100 percent. Microsoft made mistakes in the past but they had the guts to admit their mistakes, and more than that, fix them."
Winter 2014 is the expected launch window for the Xbox One edition of the game, with the computer versions launching shortly afterwards. Heald is keen that the story doesn't end there, though. "We're open to hitting as many platforms as possible long term, so don't write any off at this stage," he explains. He also reveals that other titles set in the same world will be coming. "Wulverblade has been in the concept stage for many years while I was saving up to pay for it, so the story for the sequel is already set." If the Gods are agreeable, then this could be the beginning of a legendary tale for the ages.