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Capes Interview - Spitfire Interactive explains what it takes to build an original superhero world

We sat down with a couple of members of the Australian development team to learn more about their strategy game, how they looked to avoid superhero fatigue, and how they managed to stand out in a saturated narrative genre.

Audio transcription

"Hello everyone and welcome back to Gamereactor. Today we have a really exciting interview for you because I'm here with two of the members from Spitfire Interactive to talk about Capes. Now Capes is a sort of superhero strategy game that's, by the time you see this interview actually, might already be here, which is what makes it more exciting because we can talk about the game with basically any limit. So that's really, always an exciting thing for me as an interviewer. But anyway, I'm here with creative director Cade and lead writer Morgan. Before I carry on, it's late for you guys, so how's your day been? I'm assuming it's been a long one if you're sitting here with me in the evening in Australia."

"Yeah, it's been a good day. It's not too bad. It's only 10 o'clock at night, so not too bad.
Well, I won't keep you for too long then because I know it's a late one for you guys. But so let's dive into some questions. So first of all, let's talk about Capes as a whole. There's a lot of superhero projects out there these days and there's this whole idea of, you know, superhero fatigue affecting Marvel and DC and all these different things. So how did you go about making Capes in the first place and going, we're doing this, it's completely original, it stands out from the rest, this is the way we're doing things? How did you make Capes stand out and be an original product in its own? I mean, I think when we started, superhero fatigue did not sit in to the same degree it has now. Lots of people asked us early on, you know, why not just do a license title, you know, get a Marvel license, get a DC license, get a license for a comic book property and go forward with that. And our sense was that by building our own thing from scratch, we had the opportunity to avoid a bit of that Marvel, DC fatigue. We're not telling a story that hits the same beats as a big Hollywood blockbuster. It's very much, it's a bleaker story and it's a different spin. And, you know, from a purely selfish motivation, we as a team, we've got a long history of making really interesting creative projects across a whole variety of different things. And we were much happier playing in our own playgrounds."

"Yeah, absolutely. And talking about that sort of, you know, the Capes is a standalone thing, it's not part of these sort of established superhero universes we've known at. Did you look at anything in particular as inspiration for Capes? I'm not saying particularly Marvel or DC, there's lots of different superhero stuff out there. So was there anything in particular that you looked at as inspiration, maybe some particular comic series that you thought, I like the way they did things? Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, a lot of it draws on James Scott, who was the tech lead on the project and myself. It draws on a lot of the comics we were passionate about in the, you know, for me, 80s through to 90s for James, 90s through to early 2000s. You know, big stories from Marvel and DC in there for sure. I took a lot of, I think there's a real part of my DNA that's attached to like Chris Clem on X-Men. Big soap opera, team based, you know, drama around superheroes is something I really love. But there's also a lot of that, you know, like darker leaning DC, superhero deconstruction, Watchmen, Dark Knight, all the way through everything that Vertigo was doing in the 90s. All of that is in the pot. And I think, you know, if there's a vibe that I would summarize, it's when those writers who'd come in and were writing kind of interesting things on the very fringe side, then pulled back into writing superheroes. So when, you know, Warren Ellis, you know, came back to Authority and Planetary, when Gran Morrison was coming back to Justice League and X-Men, you know, that's the vibe of the storytelling I'd like to think that we're delivering. And talking about the game as a whole then, one of the things we've seen as of late is that, again, I keep bringing up these sort of more established things because they're very popular these days. And that's why we talk about it. But, you know, one of the things we've seen with Marvel as of late is that it's kind of, it's become a bit predictable ever since over the last few films and whatnot. And people are sort of losing interest in it. So is there anything that you've seen in the sort of superhero space altogether? Any sort of tropes or pitfalls that you wanted to avoid and make sure that Capes, you know, completely avoided those things and went its own way?
And I think when we talk about the inspirations for Capes, there's so much comic books, not comic book movies. So there are just, there's these constraints when you are putting together a standard blockbuster, you know, $200 million action film, that leads to a lot of those products, I think, feeling a bit samey. There's a real process where they struck lightning when they first, you know, started to do their kind of storytelling through building up the Avengers, building up to big things. You know, that's old school comic book storytelling, but at the scale they were doing it, it was new and fresh. But then once you start rolling that out again and trying to recapture lightning in a bottle, it starts to feel a bit stale. So for us, it was all just about going back to that source material, right? Like going back to the comics. And comics are far messier and far grittier than what we see in film. You can just look at, you know, you look at the Spider-Man clone saga for like different writers, different takes, different things stacked in right and one on top of the other. And yeah, hopefully there's a bit of that grit and mess about what we're doing as well. I think the other thing too is because it's original, it gives people the opportunity to kind of be exploring something fresh and new for themselves. You know, like I think there's something that, you know, I enjoy a lot of the Marvel stuff, but you know, you kind of, there's certain things you come to expect and you know, oh, I've seen this story on some level or you know what I mean? So I think for us, it was kind of exciting to kind of explore new things and go, well, if we had a comic book world, like, or, you know, a superhero world, what would that be like? And kind of have fun with it, I guess. And see what kind of stories we could explore within that space."

"And let's talk a little bit about the heroes then for a second, because you created these cast of original characters that all are very unique. You know, not only are they unique in sort of design, but in the way that they bring across their gameplay and whatnot. So what was the process like when you were creating these heroes? You know, how did you go about making them feel unique and fresh to other things we may have seen elsewhere?
I mean, it's a really interesting thing, right? Because there's this argument that superheroes are deeply archetypical. And as a result, you know, in the same way that there's a similarity across different pantheons of gods throughout history, you know, the god of light, the god of the sun, the god of the ocean, you know, they're all going to have these similarities of properties. Superheroes are really archetypical, like when they're good, they draw on something really deep. And because of that, you know, superheroes done well, I think they draw on those properties and they resonate, but they also bring something fresh and new to the table. And for us, the starting point was the story that we wanted to tell and the game we wanted to make. And it's a story, because it's a world where the supervillains have won, it's a story that's really about power and what you do when you find yourself in a world where the structures of power work against you."

"So when we, given that we know that's the story, and then given the amazing work that like James and Cade have done on the mechanics, we had this, when we were looking through characters, we were looking for characters who, you know, you always want a character who's pushed by the story and who pushes back against the story, like where their nature gives them something to relate to. So we were looking for powers that made sense, pushing back against these power structures that existed. And equally, we were looking for powers that were really mechanically interesting. And we had a kind of wide list that we started to winnow down. And then you start to get some core team members in and you're like, oh, well, they need some, they need a foil to push back against. So it's a really fun process. And talking a little bit about the combat there as well. One of the key things about sort of Capes as a game is that it doesn't follow the sort of, I'm going to say pitfalls here, but it's more of design flaw or a design element of certain ways that strategy games works. But it doesn't have that sort of random percentage based numbers like XCOM that, you know, I think for more casual strategy players can be incredibly frustrating. So why did you decide to move away from that and, you know, go with this more, I don't want to say, counter random sort of strategy with the way that combat works?
Yeah, for sure. Like I think, like in many ways, Capes does take a lot of inspiration from XCOM. Like I think there's certain comparisons that people will make when they look at our game and they're like, oh, it's XCOM with superheroes. And I think that that's fair, but I think, you know, we, like you pointed out, we have basically no RNG in the game. We're very explicit about the mechanics and the results that the player should expect. We don't have cover. And the focus is really on close combat, team ups, and smart positioning. It's in some respects, it's like we took inspiration from Into the Breach, like how precise the combats work in there. And at times it can feel almost puzzly, like, it's like, oh, I'm in this, I'm in a situation which seems impossible and you can, the information is there to kind of work your way out of it. And I think, you know, the team element is also a really big part of that. You know, so we talked about the characters just a minute ago, but like each character does have its own archetype thematically, but also mechanically. So when you, the different combinations of teams that you can have really play into that, that kind of thing. But when it comes to the RNG, that was something that we thought it would be weird for like a superhero to run down across the battlefield, do a big swing, and then just completely miss their punch. It seems so anti-heroic."

"That, you know, it was something that very early on, we were like, I'm pretty sure we're going to try and make this game without any of that. And would you say that making sort of an accessible sort of strategy game, when I say accessible, I mean sort of easy to sort of pick up and enjoy, that those sort of strategy games. Was that something that you prioritized going early in? Because it's not just about the way the combat is, you know, doesn't use those sort of random elements, but it's also in the way that, you know, the customization, the team ability, mechanics, progression, it all feels really intuitive the way it's designed. So was that something that you, you know, prioritized early on? It's funny because it's, I think with strategy games, they inherently can get very complicated. And I think it's something that will fall out of the mechanics that are created. And I think what we, what we did was we kind of, I guess, as someone who's very close to it, when we're playing like mid to late game, it does get very complicated."

"And so we were very conscious of like, how do we introduce this game in a way that's firstly engaging and fun to play, but also a way that can kind of introduce and drip those mechanics.
You know, I think, you know, over the first act, you're still, you're still learning about a lot of the game mechanics are kind of still coming online. And you're still getting more and more heroes like as you go. So it, it's a game that definitely gets deep with the combat, but yeah, we take our time to kind of ease people into it. I think that was really important."

"And one of the things that I always really appreciated with Capes as well was the, the different art style. So you have this sort of 3D elements for the actual combat, but then you used a very comic centric sort of, yeah, sort of drawn ways to convey narrative in the sort of, I don't want to say cinematic, but, you know, the sort of, the narrative elements afterwards. So was that always something you wanted to do? Or did you potentially, you know, even look at making the game fully in that hand-drawn style at all?
Was that something you ever, you know, potentially wanted to explore?
It was, it was funny, actually. I think when we started that, that was actually the intent."

"But like, as we were looking at the story we were telling, we're like, how do we have these people have emotion or like, you know, there's almost like, not set pieces, but there's these big moments that happen in the story. It wasn't really being conveyed in quite the right way through the 2D art. So we decided to just keep that at the base. So like when you're back at base in between missions and the characters are communicating, that's where the story is told that way. But of course, as you know, we kept the speech bubbles and stuff and we brought those back into the 3D element, you know, the 3D scenes to try and tie those two worlds together."

"And talking about the narrative as a whole, the majority of Capes is based in the city, you know, the super villains have won and it's based in the city, but there's a bigger world out there and you see sort of, there's occasional elements where you get to experience and see beyond into that world. Have you potentially thought about ways to, you know, explore different parts of the Capes universe and continue the story elsewhere?
Yeah, I mean, we've been thinking a lot about the kind of world building around Capes, and I guess that world building exists for two reasons. Like one is that we thought it was really important that the world feel lived in and that there'd be this sense of the bigger things around, but also it is a world that is post a big event, you know, there's been the showdown, the villains have won, they've taken over, time has passed, but that's true in this city, but not everywhere in the world. So by hitting those forces against each other, we get a good narrative engine that rolls, but there's no doubt, you know, we would love to tell stories that take place before the villains won, that take place in the rest of the world, that take place after the events of Capes. It's part of the pleasure of setting up a sandbox to play in, right? And this is very much only one story in that world."

"And have you thought about how you tell that story? Would you be looking at continuing the world of Capes through, you know, an interactive format? Would it be, I'm not saying movies, comic books, different things like that, different ways to sort of tell a multimedia story?
Yeah, we'd love to do tons with it. I'm full of additional things that I think additional strings that we can pull on, that whole chapters will come out of. And, you know, it's one of those things too, where it's fun to imagine a world where superpowers are, I won't say common, but are not unusual. You know, we know there's a lot of other supers out there. We know that they're kind of doing their own thing. And again, that's the sort of thing that makes, for example, Astro City a great read by Kurt Busiek. It's a way to look at the world through the lens of superheroes. And that's what Capes is. Capes is a way to look at the world through the lens of superheroes and a way to kind of explore some of that game space."

"And then as a final question then, so Capes, by the time that people see this interview, Capes will either be here or very close to being here. So what's something that you would like, or you think people should be keeping an eye out for in Capes? You know, something that you're really excited for people to experience for themselves."

"I think, I mean, for me, Morgan, I'm sure you probably have your own one as well. But for me, obviously game design is my kind of area and that's the part that I'm excited about. So I think the thing that I'm really proud of and the thing that we got into here was our team-up system.
So it's the ability for each of the heroes to kind of combine their skills with each other to create new abilities and buffs. And so kind of exploring those as they kind of, as you unlock more heroes, the different combinations that you get is really cool."

"I think, you know, when we started this, we were like, can we really make a combination for every hero? You know, like the number blows up pretty quickly in terms of the amount of work that was involved, but like it turned out and it turned out to like be a core feature of the way things play out. So that's something that I'm really excited to see players kind of use and discover."

"That's very similar to what I'm excited about. The amount of work and the thoughtfulness and attention that's gone into the game mechanics and the way they play out, you know, people have played the demo, people have had a look at what we've done, but I think it really does unfold over the course of many hours. And as Kate was alluding to earlier, Act 1, you know, Act 1's full of great stuff, but you come out of Act 1 and into like a real unfolding of the game systems and the interest in it. The combinatorics are really interesting and fun."

"Well, absolutely. And Capes will be, well, again, it'll either be here right now when you can play it as of seeing this interview, or it'll be arriving on May 29th on PC and console. So be sure to go and check it out. Cade, Morgan, thank you for joining me. I'll leave you to it. You can go and get some sleep and enjoy the rest of your night. This has been a game interview. We'll see you all in the next one. Thank you."

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