Interview with Kosala "Kos" Ubayasekara, founder and CEO of W.R.K.S. Games
A few weeks, even days before the release of the second chapter of Blood Bond - Into the Shroud, Kosala "Kos" Ubayasekara, founder and CEO of the W.R.K.S. Games company kindly accepted to give us an iterview and unveil some exclusive details about the studio, its ambitions and other long-term projects. We got the chance to ask a few questions, related here, along with their answers. Please not that a French version is also available here. Interview done the 25th of May.
Hello Kosala, could you introduce yourself? What is your role in Blood Bond: Into the Shroud?
I go typically by Kos for short, am from Sri Lanka originally, naturalised as a Swede and now living in the UK about to become a UK citizen too! I am from a Diplomat family so widely travelled, ardent gamer and technologist since the tender age of 8 and have spent most of my life as a product innovator and entrepreneur.
Had the plan to build a game company when I was in my twenties but realised that it was impossible to do it without my own money – which I did not have at the time. So I started out building the a successful eBook company in the tabletop RPG industry, Silven Publishing, in 2007 and then later went on to technology leadership roles in several companies culminating the creation of the myGP app while leading product innovation at iPlato Healthcare. It went on to become the most downloaded app in the medical category in the UK and finally at the age of 42 in 2017 – I was able to realise the dream of starting my own game studio.
However, a lot had changed in the gaming industry in that time as did my ambitions, so just a game studio would no longer do. W.R.K.S Games (pronounced WORKS Games), where I am the Founder and CEO, was started to create a large mission in the game industry spanning video games, table top games, board games and non-interactive media – all with unique IP and content we create ourselves.
I am the lead game designer and developer of all of our games. The company is self-funded and independent.
Where does the idea of this game come from?
Blood Bond – Into the Shroud is the first game in a trilogy set in Jordenheim. Jordenheim is our fictional universe we created as our first content IP. It is loosely based on Viking mythology and history since I have been a big mythology buff since my young years and have spent 15 years in Sweden – it was a logical starting universe concept.
What influences guided you for the game and its development?
Well quite a few. First of all, I largely prefer single player RPG and strategy games. For that reason and practical purposes of working in a small team, I wanted this to be a small-scale single player RPG. I was heavily influenced by Horizon: Zero Dawn and The Witcher in game thinking but when we design our games we have some guiding principles:
1. It must be set in one of our content universes (in this case Jordenheim)
2. It must tell a story a gamer can relate to (in this case a young girl coming of age, discovering her strength and re-evaluating her relationship with her parents. Something we can all relate to in our lives.)
3. It must be accessible to new and old players. (Every game we build must have the things hardcore gamers want, without scaring away the first-time gamers).
With that in mind the story of Astrid emerged as a tale of emerging heroism, emotional challenges in her relationship with her lost Mother and her estranged Father and the climax at the end where she is forced to make a traumatic choice between good and evil.
How has been the development, and how much time did it take?
(laughs) Well that was quite a journey. It took almost exactly three years from start to being able to launch Chapter 1. We are experimenting with a new launch model for this game and are launching in chapters spread out through the year. The idea is to mimic a season of content, to allow casual gamers who do not want to be stressed trying to get through 30 hours of game play in one sitting to play a few hours per weekend – and still feel like they are getting a good RPG experience.
So we intend to launch the 5 chapters over 3 months of 2020.
The development itself was challenging because we second guessed many tropes and rituals of game development and tested practices and processes that I brought with me from enterprise and consumer facing software development that I learned over the first 20 years of my career influenced our process.
The end result was the ability to create a high-end looking game with a lot less budget than you would expect for such a title.
How many people worked with you on the game? What tools, softwares, etc. did you use?
The W.R.K.S Games company is now a dozen or so regular contributors. Blood Bond – Into the Shroud was worked on primarily by 4 people with support from the rest of the team.
How did the work go with all the people implied in the game’s development, including voice actors and other potential consultants?
Our entire team are remote and freelancers. As such work is by necessity, very organised. I set the goals each week and we aim for weekly milestones. Each team member is guided by me personally in realising their target and I ensure the team is kept appraised of each other’s work.
Finding voice actors were a real chore. It turns out there are no Scandinavian voice actors that record English in a Nordic accent. This is why all the Nordic characters in movies and animations are voice often by Scottish people. After much digging around we accidently met Alma Spahr, a drama major in Sweden who became the voice of Astrid. She is also Astrid’s age and temperament and her personality became the Astrid that you see in the game.
Thankfully I was budgeted well to hire great talent for the game and everyone from the artists to the writers and voices and support team are all great professionals that were easy to work with and have a great quality of work standard.
Have you faced particular challenges? What did you like the most, and what have you learned that has been the most valuable?
The biggest challenge was the first two years, learning how to recruit and find talent to help build the vision of the game. I found that having a strong and clear plan and sticking to it like glue was a great assistance in the up and down times of finding testing and maintaining the team. It took almost 18 months for the current team to get found, recruited, trialed and absorbed into a long-term mission like the one that W.R.K.S Games as.
Why did you choose to finance the game through Kickstarter?
We decided to give it a go because it was what indie game companies did. Since I had my own money as backup it seemed risk free to trial out and see if crowdfunding at the idea stage would work for us.
The campaign has unfortunately been unsuccessful. What were your goals after this milestone, and why did you choose to keep up with the project and develop the game?
Well we never planned to depend on the crowdfunding, it was going to be a nice boost at best. However, we did learn a few great lessons from this exercise. Idea funding on Kickstarter is almost impossible – people have been burned too many times by even established game companies. So, you need to have a demo and be pretty far in development before crowdfunding to have a chance.
We did however learn that Kickstarter can be very useful to do even if you fail. During the campaign a lot of streamers and youtubers that watch gaming Kickstarters covered the campaign without us needing to tell them or pay them. We got our initial fanbase from there and they were loyal and dedicated and many are still our most active community members today.
During the Kickstarter we got reviewed by a live Twitch streamer that nearly 100 thousand people watching. I was watching the stream live and when our campaign was featured peoples reaction to the game and the idea was so positive – it because our first validation that we were onto something that people were really going to like.
What are Blood Bond’s features? Its identity? When the game’s going to be fully available, how many hours is it going to take to finish it? Does it have any replayability? Eventually, to what genre does the game belong to?
I would say that Blood Bond – Into the Shroud is a single player RPG Game. It is aimed at both casual and hardcore players and the game experience can either be rich and deep if you wish to explore it that way – or just a strong story that you can experience with only boss combat, if that is more your speed.
We are now at a stage when we are releasing 1-2 chapters every second month (next update in June 2020) and we intend to be done by the end of August 2020 with the game. Hardcore gamers that like to experience a game from start to finish with no interruption can grab it then and take it for a spin with all the chapters in-tact.
We are currently planning for 20-30 hours of gameplay, but we will be launching additional content updates (for free) throughout 2020 with side missions and new adventures for you to play even after the main game is done.
The talents and skills you acquire in the game are semi random, so its possible to play the game 2-3 times and do so with a varied skill tree to allow you to experience the game in a few different ways. There are also 2 possible endings to the game, so you will need to play twice to see them both.
You started with a world divided into levels to finally come to an open world: why did you choose this? What challenges have you faced during this transformation?
A very good question. Initially we started with separate maps and levels. It made development easier but introduced a lot of issues. Loading times between the levels was a major pain. It also removed some of the immersion of playing the game.
Once of the goals I had with this first game for us was to introduce Jordenheim as a world to gamers that they could fully explore and experience. An open world seemed to be the way to do that.
However, many open world games (even by large developers) are empty and lacking in content and we were only a small team. So using Unreal Engine gave us the ability to create a small-ish tightly woven open world that we could fill with content and really give the gamer a great exploration experience to discovery Jordenheim and what it was – by playing the game.
The transition required rebuilding some core elements of the gameplay, like the world itself. But the second time around doing it was useful and the world itself become a lot more interesting to play in an forced me to improve on level design in ways that really benefited the game.
You seem to be late on your schedule: does it impair the game’s development?
We did indeed delay the initial launch a lot. Two things happened, after our Early Access period and the customer feedback we got we significantly upgraded and improved the game. This required me going back and completely re-developing core elements of the game. This delayed us a few months but was very well worth it.
During Early Access almost 90% of our reviews were negative. After the redevelopment and launch of the Chapter 1, 90% of reviews are positive. It was an effort that was well worth it and could not have been done without our Early Access period and the amazing feedback we got from our player community.
Ever since then we have been developing at speed and with the foundations and framework of the game now stable we are progressing much better on our new schedule. We have a had slight delay due to Covid, but it was minimal and impacted our voice acting schedule primarily.
Why do the player has to play a woman? Why did you choose to get rid of character creation?
Another excellent question. We did have a choice between male and female characters initially. However, during development we found this heavily impacted story development and dialogue. Blood Bond – Into the Shroud has a central theme between Astrid and Birger, her estranged father. The dialogue and experiences in the game show the evolution of that relationship over the game, and the way fathers and daughters talk to each other is very different from fathers and sons.
We found that it was more important to commit to a gender and central character in this game more than give players the character choice – to create the kind of immersive story we were going for.
What did the community think of this choice? Did the players make any remarks, comments?
Indeed, they did. There was quite the heated debate on Steam on this subject. By and large most loved it. We had only one person vehemently object to it, but the rest of the community rallied behind my design choice.
Are the Steam sales lucrative? Why did you choose to go on Steam? Have you received any propositions regarding other projects? Have you received any propositions from other companies?
Steam sales have been quite disappointing compared to expectations. We have done well overall so far as a company as we sell on Steam, Greenman Gaming and through deals we make directly with other brands and companies as well.
Our breakeven target is 30 000 units by end of 2021. We have sold nearly 4000 units so far. The company had total revenues in 2019 of £50 000 to add to the money I was already putting into the company. It was great to get that revenue in to soften my own investments, however we were expecting Steam to do better than that for us and instead that was our combined take from all sources during 2019.
Although Steam has been instrumental in driving initial sales and community growth for us, we can see the competition with Epic Store is taking its toll and they are pushing AAA and top selling titles more than indies. I have had numerous conversations with other indie publishers on Steam and they are seeing the same problem.
We are planning on addressing this through the launch of the WRKS Store later this year and taking charge of our own destiny. W.R.K.S Games was always founded on a vision of self-reliance and fierce independence. Steam is a great community for us, so we are not leaving it – but it will not be the only place we sell directly to consumers going forward.
We did indeed receive other publisher offers. A UK based publisher discussed a publishing deal with us years ago when we first started working on the game and we also received an offer to discuss publishing recently from a German publishing group. However, in both cases we had to give up our brand and publish under their label and that was against the core principles of the company.
Even though independence and self-publishing takes longer, it is a core value of the company and essential to the sustainable realisation of our long term plan.
Is Blood Bond - Into the Shroud a one-shot or have you planned to extend its universe through other games? We heard about Jordenheim, the pen-and-paper RPG: does this mean that you are going to create more videogames and pen-and-paper RPGs?
Indeed, we are. When I started W.R.K.S Games I already committed to three games in the Blood Bond series and was planning on developing all three even if the first games made no money. We have recently announced the titles of the games.
The second game will be Blood Bond – Jarl of Guilon. A city builder / strategy game hybrid set about 10 years after the first game that furthers Astrid’s story.
The third game will be Blood Bond – Raising Hel. Which is a Diablo like action adventure game that furthers the story of Birger.
As history as taught us in the gaming industry it takes a new studio about 2-3 games to become known enough to be a stable studio. So, I committed to three games from the onset and we planned the story of Astrid to span three, very different, games.
How about the French press? Do you know any people/websites talking about you?
Not that I am aware of. We have had a lot of YouTube coverage from the Early Access days and social media is going strong since we were joined by Cattie Thompson to manage our social outreach. However, online and traditional press coverage is something we are aiming to improve on from this year.
Why did you choose to go with the Early Access?
Two reasons. Firstly, it’s stupid to build a consumer product without consumer feedback early on. As a first-time developer to NOT have user feedback incorporated early would have been very arrogant and Early Access was a great way to do it.
It also provides an early boost of funding in the game development at a time when its most needed. For us Early Access was very successful, and the game today would not have happened in its current form if not for the volume of feedback we got during Early Access.
What your definition of RPG? What’s your favourite RPG, pen-and-paper RPG? What do you usually play?
I would say any game that allows character focused and character-development based gameplay, counts as an RPG. My favourite pen and paper RPG is Dungeons and Dragons. I no longer play tabletop RPGs myself but did for most of my life from around 12 – 20 years of age regularly. I still play computer games every day though and my top RPG favourites are the Divinity Original Sin series, Baldurs Gate, The Witcher and Horizon: Zero Dawn.
A particular shout out to Larian Studios and their Divinity Original Sin 1 and 2 games, some of the best value RPGs that have appeared in a long time and Sven Vincke the studio head is a great example of how great results can come from sticking to independence in publishing for such a long hard journey as they have had. The Divinity series is some of the best value for money RPG fun you can have on a computer, I must have spent nearly 200 hours on Divinity Original Sin 2.
Have you anything to add for our readers? You might have some other things to tell us, about DLCs, other long-term projects regarding the game, or other things?
Oh yes. We have two major things to announce. The Jordenheim RPG, our pen and paper RPG set in the Jordenheim universe is being unveiled in June 2020. It all written and illustrated and has gone to layout. This will come out as an eBook for digital download and later in the year as printed version.
This will be available on our WRKS Store only. The WRKS Store will be open the same time as the Jordenheim RPG launches.
We are going to open up the WRKS Store for other publishers right away and we will be launching with products from several other indie creators on launch day as well, though limited to digital pen and paper products to start with.
Towards the end of the year we will be adding video games as a category to the WRKS Store and taking the competition to Steam and Epic Store with a competitive offering geared towards independent self-published creators of games – more on that soon!
One last question: are you planning on localizing your many contents? Are Blood Bond – Into the Shroud, Jordenheim and perhaps even the WRKS Store going to be available in French?
Blood Bond – Into the Shroud will be localised to German, French, Russian, Spanish and Simplified Chinese. Subtitles only, voice acting will remain in English.
The Jordenheim RPG will be localised to German.
The WRKS Store will launch in English. Product pages on the store will be available in localised languages based on the preferences of the Developer/Creator in late 2020 and the entire WRKS Store will be localised to multiple other languages, including French, starting in 2021 and onwards.
Thanks a lot for your time and this interview! As a reminder, Blood Bond - Into the Shroud's first chapter is available and playable on Steam.
Tags : blood bond, into the shroud, rpg, open world, vikings, wrks games, english, anglais
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