After discovering Unworthy on my Twitter feed, I reached out to Aleksandar Kuzmanovic to assist me in developing my list of anticipated 2017 indie action RPGs, and I knew almost immediately that I wanted to learn more about the people behind the game.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Aleks about his upcoming debut release Unworthy, indie games and the Soulslike genre. I was also fortunate enough to play Unworthy alpha, and I have to say that if you’re a champion of the Soulslike or Metroidvania genre, then Unworthy should definitely be on your radar.
Tell me a little about yourself and how you got into game development?
I went to university to pursue an engineering degree. After graduating, while having the privilege to secure a job in that industry, I was ultimately left unsatisfied. I designed a few bridges and civil structures before I finally decided to leave it behind and embark on a career in indie game development. At this time I didn’t even know what a sprite or engine was.
I’m sure it’s common for newcomers to the game developing community to naively jump into the industry with huge aspirations, at least I did. For instance, my first intended project was grandiose. My business partner and I thought we were going to make an MMORPG TCG and we would cater to all of the gaming world’s desires. At some point, we came to the realization that that was simply not going to happen, especially with only two people.
This was right around the time I jumped ship and began to develop Runic: Legacy of Sin, the project I began before Unworthy.
You had mentioned in our previous conversations that Runic: Legacy of Sin had sort of taken a back seat to Unworthy. Can you tell me how you came to that decision?
When I really got into working on Runic: Legacy of Sin I started to see a four-year project on the horizon and with the amount of manpower I had I came to realize, “wow this project is still too big.”
So then I began to wonder, “how can I make something that looks good, feels good, and does exactly what I want it to do while expediting the art,” because art for me usually takes the most time.
This is how the black and white silhouette theme emerged for Unworthy. I enjoy the minimalism and think it communicates the overall theme of Unworthy as well. Ultimately, it’s visually appealing and takes less time for me to animate a silhouette sprite.
This way you can focus more on the gameplay mechanics.
Aside from aesthetics and simplicity, there was one point when I had distributed a demo of Runic: Legacy of Sin and while I was receiving positive feedback, I was personally unsatisfied with some of my observations. For example, if a game feels like the only reason to engage certain enemies, rather than maneuver around them, is to gain experience points and level up so I can beat a boss later on down the road, it can begin to feel grindy. I’m not really a fan of grindy.
I began to notice in Runic: Legacy of Sin that you could completely avoid some enemy encounters by jumping over them if the player wanted to. Most people didn’t because they genuinely wanted to fight them, but realistically because there was no incentive to fight them, I felt like I needed to rethink the combat.
This is where Unworthy became my main focus. While you can dodge certain encounters with some luck, somewhere down the line you’ll get swarmed or your stamina will become depleted and you’ll be overrun.
I definitely noticed this when I played the demo for Unworthy. If I didn’t create a strategy for certain rooms, I would almost always be obliterated. In fact, the way enemies spring toward you when you’re fighting another makes for interesting combat. In some ways, the enemies can really surprise you in Unworthy.
So I don’t want to put you into a box and over generalize here, but would you say Unworthy is part of a larger trend for gamers demanding more difficult games with Dark Souls-like combat? In other words, we may not be catering to the casual gamer here. I’m referring to games like Bloodborne, Hyper Light Drifter, Necropolis, and upcoming games like Eitr or Death's Gambit.
I think it might be a trend. I’m not gonna lie, Unworthy is very much inspired by Dark Souls. If I said otherwise, I think you would call me a liar. For example, the sin component in Unworthy is similar to the souls aspect of Dark Souls. However, while this works for the gameplay right now, I’m working toward having the sin component play a more unique role in the greater scheme of Unworthy.
I know personally that my gaming habits have changed, whereas I’m constantly seeking harder difficulties in games and combat that requires strategy and a learning curve — not necessarily having my hand held through the game.
Same. I almost exclusively play Soulslike games these days, during the rare occurrence that I’m not completely immersed in developing Unworthy. I can really appreciate the lore [in Dark Souls], which they’ve done an exceptional job with. Dark Souls lore has so much depth, but it’s not like I actually have to consume it if I don’t want to. I can ignore the item descriptions, put the puzzles together, and of course, enjoy the action. To me, this is very important.
Do you think indie developers have something more or different to offer that maybe the major developers can’t, or maybe take risks that the triple-A companies can’t? In some cases, I feel like we’re getting the same game every year with better graphics and a slightly different story.
I’m not going to over-generalize here because there are a lot of triple-A games out there that are doing a fantastic job. But I do think there is an issue with quality from some of the mainstream games. It’s turned into more about tech than games.
For instance, they can create phenomenal cinematics or movie-like trailers, but most of the time the games are shallow. Right down to gameplay, story or level design. I personally feel the bulk of indie developers are better versed in these aspects of the game.
With that being said, indie games are typically made by a single person or a very small development team, which can make it easier to create a cohesive unified image and goal. It’s likely difficult to create a unified creative image in triple-A where the product is effectively made in a game factory of 150 people or more.
I definitely don’t think the issue is talent or hard work because people working for triple-A game companies certainly don’t lack that, but as ideas flow down the line and into different teams I imagine the original idea that left the creative designer;s mouth has become quite diluted — broken telephone, basically.
Right. With my limited knowledge on the inner-workings of the gaming industry, I assume the same thing can happen when smaller developers get backed (or swallowed) by big publishers. It’s easy for gamers to get on the bandwagon and hate the direction of an Early Access game while ignoring the bigger forces at play — like investors or stakeholders, who have a bottom-line mission to turn a profit.
You recently polled the community supporting Unworthy about their expectations on the length of the game. Is this influencing what you’re doing? Or is there anything you can speak to about the scope of Unworthy?
Well, what I can say is that there will be a whole series of side-quests and secret areas that can be acquired to achieve alternate endings and piece together the larger story behind Unworthy. One of the things, like the grimoire, will be small pieces of the story that can only be acquired when you beat these side-areas. This will unlock other areas, secret bosses and alternate endings.
So we’ll have several reasons to revisit Unworthy if we missed things on the first play-through and want to dig deeper.
Right, and it will be solving little puzzles that won’t be obvious. You will need to pay attention to the environment and the clues along the journey
What are you most excited for in 2017, indie or not, aside from releasing Unworthy?
I would have to say Death’s Gambit and Eitr are two games that I am definitely looking forward to playing.
Now, for the most important question: When can we expect Unworthy?
Ugh, I’ve done this twice so far and I’ve screwed it up. I said the second quarter of this year, but as we all know life sometimes gets in the way. Hopefully, we can release Unworthy by the end of the year, but instead of launching during the 4th quarter when all other big titles do, I’ll probably wait for the 1st quarter of 2018.
Kevin M. New is a writer and gamer. He’s currently working on a cyberpunk, horror serial and covers indie games. His works have been featured on: