Today: a special feature! Martin 'Cyclotrutan' Schwesinger, the developer of Darkening of Tirisfal / Crimson Coast (2009) joins us for an interview! Take a look through the review for a quick refresher, and I'm pleased to share that the map has received a substantial update after 7 years! Go check it out!
Softmints: Martin, good morning! How are you doing?
Cyclotrutan: Hello, thanks for having me!
Soft: I'm going to ask a bunch of questions and talk through some things; hopefully have a bit of fun while we're doing it.
Cyclotrutan: Yeah, it's all saved somewhere in the very back of my brain because it was so many years ago, but I'll try to have something to say about it.
Soft: To start from a very early stage: when did you first get into gaming? What kind of games were you playing?
Cyclotrutan: Well, that was mainly shooters at first. I played Counter-Strike, and also used the Worldcraft editor to make maps for the Quake 2 engine. That was the first time I had got into mapping and creating my own games. Before that, when I was 6, 8, 10 years old, I was creating board games: very simple ones and I forced my family to play them with me. So I've done this my whole life.
Soft: When you say you were making board games, would you have got together bits of paper, drawn rules on cards, that kind of thing? Or modeled of existing board games; what was that like?
Cyclotrutan: I had some cardboard and painted some fields on it: water fields and grass fields in Settlers of Catan style, and iterated on it all the time like a 10-year-old would. You can imagine what a game developed by a 10-year-old would look like.
Soft: Tell me about your first experience with Warcraft 3. When did you pick it up, what did you think of it as a game?
Cyclotrutan: I picked it up when it came out, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I played competitively in 1v1 and was in a clan; we did clan wars back then. I wasn't the best, but was kind-of decent with Human. I went into mapping very early on, and made my first very crude maps.
Later, I enjoyed Free For All a lot in Warcraft 3 because it's actually very... it can be competitive if you play with good opponents that don't just kill you out of spite if you attack them; stopping trying to win to just screw you over. So Free for All (with 4 players) was a lot of fun competitively.
After that I played mostly custom games because yeah, that was what the game evolved into, mostly. Ladder died out and the custom game section grew.
Soft: When you started playing custom maps, which ones were you playing? There's a huge variety out there.
Cyclotrutan: Let's see... so I enjoyed Uther Party - the minigame compilation map. The original DotA, of course. I really enjoyed the Gaia's Retaliation RPG though that came out a little later - this was one that fascinated me, and inspired me to do the latest iteration of my own map.
Element Tower Defence, and some other tower defences... but you know, you play a tower defence 2-3 times and it's like: okay, I've solved it, nothing more to see, but Element TD was a cool map also, you can do a lot of fun strategies and variation in there.
Soft: Gaia's is a huge project. But lets go back to that interaction with Eul's DotA: I would assume that was the first AoS map that you played?
Cyclotrutan: The first DotA I enjoyed a lot. When DotA Allstars came about, I really lost interest in it and that was mainly because it was too much on the custom maps section; 80%, 90% of the games on the list were DotA Allstars and there was too much of it.
The other thing was that it moved into a direction that I didn't really enjoy: it became much faster and more like a tactical shooter than what I would like in an AoS map. So when DotA Allstars came around, I didn't play DotA anymore.
Soft: Were there any other AoS maps that caught your interest around that time?
Cyclotrutan: I played a few. Tides of Blood I remember, that was a cool map. But none that I really played extensively.
Soft: At some point, you decided to start your own AoS project. How did that come about?
Cyclotrutan: Well, it was just me experimenting with the editor at first. Until now I've had five different versions with different names of my AoS map: and always because I wanted a new terrain. It started with an ice terrain called the Frozen Blood, and then it was a forest terrain called the Forest of Blood so it was not very creative naming. Then it was Sands of Blood, and I kept improving on the mechanics and introduced new heroes, and made my first attempts at complex abilities with triggers and so on. It was when I did the Crimson Coast version that I decided maybe I should publish it on some website, and I published it on Hive Workshop where it got some good positive feedback.
And later, inspired by Gaia's Retaliation RPG; I saw the terrain there and it was so fabulous that I thought: “well maybe I can do this myself”. I tried to do new terrain and then I renamed the map again because it was no longer a coast, and then it was the current version which is Darkening of Tirisfal.
Soft: Those early versions had a consistent naming trend, which was Forest of Blood, Sands of Blood... was there a little bit of a Tides of Blood inspiration there, or is that just coincidence?
Cyclotrutan: I think my map pre-dates Tides of Blood, so it can't be.
One thing in my map that I think was inspired by Tides of Blood was from one of their heroes: the Blood Mage. It has this huge blood wave and blood explosion, and I made a hero the Blood Lich which also does everything like that. So that was maybe the inspiration I took from Tides of Blood.
Soft: When you say that your map pre-dates Tides of Blood, that means it made before the Frozen Throne expansion, right? Were you doing this in the Reign of Chaos editor?
Cyclotrutan: I think so. When I started there wasn't even an ability editor in the World Editor, so what I had to do was edit the ".slk" file, this table that's in the map archive, and it's still in the map which is something that isn't very efficient because it takes up a lot of data and makes the map much larger. I wanted to get rid of it, but it's really difficult because it's so ingrained in the map that if you take it out it just crashes.
Soft: For a map that started with Reign of Chaos (2003), it wasn't until quite a lot later (2009) that the map ended up in the public. That's a six year gap! Who was playing the game?
Cyclotrutan: I played it with friends and my clan and with testers. Of course I don't remember the exact timeline, but I know WoW came out in 2005 in Europe, and during Burning Crusade we still played Sands of Blood; this was a version that pre-dated Crimson Coast. I don't put so much focus on publishing stuff I work on; I just enjoy doing it. If someone likes it, of course that's great but its not something that really drives me towards my creations. I do it just for fun and for creating something.
I'm also quite a perfectionist, and if something isn't as good as I think it could be, I tend to be very hesitant to publish it because I think it will be critiqued and I can improve on it, and then maybe later I'll publish it. So I'll delay until I think it's perfect. Of course it's never perfect, but I'm obsessed with perfection I guess.
Soft: You wouldn't be the first artist to feel that way! Apart from early DotA and ToB, were there any other maps that influenced your work, or was this a work that evolved in isolation over this long period of time?
Cyclotrutan: There were certainly some minor influences from different maps; Gaia's Retaliation and maybe I had some influences on heroes but I can't remember the specifics now.
Soft: One of the things I first noticed when playing Crimson Coast was that it's 4v4, rather than 5v5 like most AoS maps. Was there anything behind that choice?
Cyclotrutan: It started as 4v4 because I think there was a cap on the number of players back then and you couldn't do 5v5... I don't know if I'm remembering that correctly. We never played 4v4; we only played 3v3 and the map was balanced around that, though there’s the option of 4v4.
Later, someone told me that I should probably increase the cap to 5v5, but there were so many triggers and abilities that were written for 4v4 that making the shift would have been an immense effort.
Soft: In some senses, Crimson Coast would feel familiar to any AoS player, because you've got three lanes, the regular troops, creep camps, and some recipe items in there as well. One of the things that makes the game a bit different is that every hero starts the game with a Staff of Teleportation item, and it lets you teleport to any allied unit after a 10 second channel time.
Cyclotrutan: Right. At first it was just an item you could buy at the shop, and it cost gold like anything else. We found that everyone would buy it immediately with their starting gold, so it was really obvious that it should just be a standard item that everyone gets. Then they can buy some other item with the gold they have.
Soft: Was this because everyone needed to have a Staff to play effectively?
Cyclotrutan: I think it was very necessary. One of the tactical depths of this game is quickly switching lanes and going where the creep wave is currently pushing towards the tower. Battles are much slower in Darkening of Tirisfal, so the computer-controlled creeps need a lot longer to kill the other wave. As a result, they spend more time between the towers before they reach the tower, and when they then finally arrive: more creeps have accumulated at the tower.
So you wait for this to happen on a lane where nobody is, teleport there, and use the momentum of that creep wave to push against the tower. The towers are quite far apart, so the teleport is a valuable resource.
You have to really switch quickly between the waves, because as you're pushing, the other wave you just neglected comes up to your own tower. You have a lot of dynamic gameplay this way.
Soft: You changed the terrain a number of times over the map's development, at least in terms of theme and setting. Were you iterating on the layout as well?
Cyclotrutan: I made one change to the mid lane when I switched from Sands of Blood to Crimson Coast. Previously it was a straight line in the middle with L-shaped lines at the edges. What happened was people would always push the middle lane and the outer lanes had little relevance.
I don't know how it works differently in DotA or League; a straight mid lane didn't work for me, and it certainly works for them. I made this S-shaped lane so the overall length of the lanes remains the same and all three lanes have the same relevance in the late-game.
Soft: Right; the troops tend to bundle up in Crimson Coast so lane length matters a lot. One of the other features in the game are these special passives called Runes. You can only unlock 1-2 of them during a match. How did they fit into the game?
Cyclotrutan: This was something I introduced very late. Previously the level cap was just 20, and in a long game you always hit the level cap and there was nowhere to go. The way Runes work is: you can get to level 20, but the experience bar goes to level 21. If you hit level 21, you go back to level 20 and get a rune slot instead. So every time you hit 21 you get another rune. It's another way to progress.
Soft: The runes are quite creative: one reduces the channel time on Staff of Teleportation, another explicitly helps you destroy buildings... did you plan in advance to have them interact with so many mechanics?
Cyclotrutan: I was just designing on the go. I started with a few runes, to see what different kind of effects I could do. Also, I wanted each hero to have some kind of rune that they can use. That said, often players would say, "I don't want to spend too much time thinking, I'll just get this one rune I get for every hero". That was Rune of Enslavement: it gives you a summon that follows you around and shoots at enemies.
Soft: Crimson Coast has a number of what I've been calling chambered abilities. They're this type of ability where you have multiple sub-abilities that are tied to the one ability slot. It's as though you have a gun, and can choose what bullets to load it with: the bullets have different effects but the gun has a single cooldown.
The idea gets explored quite a bit: how did you refer to that type of ability, and how did you think about it?
Cyclotrutan: The first hero with this large number of abilities was the Shapeshifter hero, a wisp that can learn five different transformations. You can go into treant form, wolf form, etc. and they have their own abilities. You can stay in each form for only 30 seconds, and then you must choose a different form with your next transformation.
I had imagined making a hero like Shapeshifter for a long time. It was my first try at a complex hero, and working on it taught me a lot about the trigger editor. Everyone liked the result, and because it was so successful I decided to try another, similar concept.
The second one I did was Avatar of the Elements, which you covered in your review. She’s the hero whose skills have one sub-ability for every element. Some people liked the complexity and would play her from time to time, but for most people it was too much. They couldn't remember that many abilities!
I didn't refer to these as 'chambered abilities' or anything; I just saw it as ‘complexity’.
For the next hero I made, I decided to have one chambered ability which would be very interesting, and keep the other skills simple. This way, the hero would have less of a learning curve: you can select something at random on your first time playing and it will be good enough, but on the second try you can think about which sub-ability you want.
Soft: The game demonstrates a lot of variety in how often and where you can switch out your bullets: it really explores the idea of chambered abilities in depth. It sounds like you were prompted by player feedback: by how willing people were to invest in learning heavily chambered abilities versus lightly chambered abilities.
Cyclotrutan: The first heroes I made were very heavy on chambered abilities; these were too much for most players. But I had a variety of players in my playgroup, and some players just wanted to play one hero every time, and it was one of the simplest heroes.
I wanted to give them all a chambered ability and make them a bit more complex (and in my estimation more interesting) but there were players who just liked these very simple heroes. I added a bit of variation, but kept them simple so that those players would have a hero they could enjoy. And then there was the Avatar of the Elements and the Shapeshifter that were very complex, and all subsequent ones were at a middle level of complexity.
Soft: You were a player of WoW for a number of years, and that's a game where you have access to quite a lot of abilities. Would you consider that to be an influence on the relatively large number of abilities your heroes ended up with in Darkening of Tirisfal?
Cyclotrutan: Sure; there were certainly some heroes that were heavily inspired by WoW. The Death Knight, the Shaman, and the Dark Naaru. The Dark Naaru was a very controversial hero: every time I played it, it became the main focus in the chat. It overshadowed everything else.
I wrote in the hero description that “this hero is the most difficult to play that you will probably find in any AoS map”. Still, some people who played the map for the first time would just slam the Dark Naaru and complain that it's impossible to play and they're dying all the time. On other hand, when I was playing the Dark Naaru, I made mistakes, but I got it under control fairly well and people were complaining that it was too powerful. It was very funny.
What the hero does is: it cannot move, and cannot attack. It can summon two voidwalkers; they can move and attack, and scale with the stats of the Dark Naaru. They have an ability called 'Recall', and can teleport the Dark Naaru to their current location. You move around using them, but the Naaru itself just sits somewhere on the battlefield shooting its spells. It wants to be in the center of the battlefield, and just unleash its storm ability. If you made one mistake, you couldn't move and would just die. So you had to be very careful.
One of the things I just cannot wrap my head around is how people played against it. Again, when I was playing the hero the complaint was always that it was too powerful. For example, if I was pushing a tower with Naaru, the opposing team might teleport in to deflect the wave.
At that point I say: "okay, I have to retreat" and order my voidwalkers to back up. Every other hero could have just walked away, but because I was playing the Dark Naaru I was forced to sit there while the voidwalkers did the walking. Then, the enemy finishes with the wave and starts attacking me, but now I can Recall because my voidwalkers had a 10 second head-start.
The best way for the opposing team to look at that is "he got away", but they don't: they chase right across the map even though I already have a lead. Then they complain that this was imbalanced.
It's something you have to keep in mind while testing; people are not always thinking rationally. If you want to test how people react to it, their emotions are very important. You don't only want the game to be balanced, you also want it to be fun. If people feel that way, you have to keep that in mind: "what can you do to make them less frustrated?". But when it comes to balance, people are very irrational.
Soft: Did you feel that the better players would pick the heavily chambered heroes and Naaru more often?
Cyclotrutan: Sure. The Dark Naaru was either picked by me, or someone who had never played it and complained all game. There was nobody else. The other heroes were played quite often. There were ones that were more popular, but that just has to do with how the chambered abilities work. On some it's a bit clunky, and for others it’s a bit better.
Soft: It's still fascinating to see that type of ability explored in so much depth. Were there any heroes you wanted to try but never got around to?
Cyclotrutan: I don't think so. I have one hero still left in my file; maybe I'll finish it. I explored most of the very "out there" ideas.
I'm not an expert on the trigger editor or with the Jass language used in Warcraft 3. Every time I wanted to make a hero, I had to build workarounds and learn the things I needed to make it work. I think many designers fall into the trap that they're doing stuff just because they can. “I have the ability to make this very complicated ability trigger, and change the terrain and have an explosion here and stuff”; all of these things happen because they're so adept at the trigger editor and I think it has no gameplay value. It's something that I found with many of the later AoS maps.
That's not the case with the original DotA; it's very focused on combat-oriented straightforward abilities. Some heroes have a special ability that makes them very unique, but it's not something that is ever "just for show". It really has some purpose.
Soft: I think it's something that shows up in a number of AoS maps: you build this experience working with the trigger editor, you have this sandbox in which you can play, and trying out “new tech” is exciting. Darkening of Tirisfal is a very refined map; the level of 'superfluous' is quite low compared to other games.
One thing I'm curious about is: you did indulge a bit by having Naaru in the game, because as you say: it was a hero you mostly played yourself. How do you feel about having such extreme designs in the game? Is it a good thing?
Cyclotrutan: Sure, I mean you're not forced to play it. If it's too complex for you, pick another hero.
Of course, if you're a professional developer you have to ask: “do you want to spend time on something that only a few players will play?” But if you've already spent the development and creative time on that hero and someone asks you to change it, you could just do another hero and leave the extreme one as it is.
People who like to play it can play it, and other people get a new hero that they would like to play. It's not the case that it's too powerful or too toxic for the game. You have to try it for like an hour offline and get used to it, and then you can maybe play it. I don't know how it is in other play groups, because the map got played a bit by other players and I don't know if the Dark Naaru was ever used by them.
Soft: Could you describe what was going on towards the end of Darkening of Tirisfal's development? Did any other projects spring up to fill in the void?
Cyclotrutan: Well, our play group slowly fell apart. That was at the end of Wrath of the Lich King, so around 2009-2010. At that time, I didn't have any players to test what I did, so I lost interest in continuing the map.
I've since got into card games. I currently play Magic: the Gathering; I played Hearthstone when it came out. I still watch but don't play. I'm currently working on my own card game called Conquest of Orion. I've done this for probably longer than I worked on my moba map... since 2008 almost?
It's the same style of design I described before. I have a new version, brainstorm on it, create, let it rest, and then get some distance to it so I can re-evaluate all of the core mechanics in a few months. Then I say: "Now that I have clarity on this, is this really worth it? Do I have to change this completely because this doesn't work?" I have it in a state that I'm very happy with, and I'm still testing it but it needs a lot of work.
Soft: Nice! It sounds like people have a lot to look forward to in terms of this card game and a new version of Darkening of Tirisfal!
Around 2009, we started to see the first commercial mobas kicking off, such as League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth. What was your opinion of them at the start?
Cyclotrutan: I never got into them very well, because I think they're doing a bad job at being accessible to new users. When I watch a League of Legends or Dota2 stream, it's hard for me to see what is actually happening there. I don't enjoy this very fast gameplay.
Basically in esports right now you have two different games: there is Hearthstone and then there are variations of CS:GO. Of course the variations are quite different games, but they all test for the same skills. The skills that you need to be good at CS:GO for example are the same skills you need to be good at Dota2: team coordination, alertness, and motor skills. Across the entire genre, these are the things that are being tested. It seems that this is the thing that people want to see.
I think this is one of the reasons that Starcraft 2 failed: it didn't include the teamwork component. It was just everything except teamwork.
What I dislike about the new mobas is that they ask players to do something that is not very intuitive. I want to pick a hero and I want to start brawling. I want to attack the creeps on the opponents side and battle with the heroes, but that's not what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to strafe around, wait for the last hit, and then you attack. In some games I heard that they've removed this, but you’re also supposed to attack your own creeps.
This is something that seems to me to be a big game design flaw, because for example in Magic: the Gathering, they had a problem for a long time where the cards wanted to play intuitively weren't very good. People want to smash in the opponent's face with giant dragons, and for a long time dragons sucked. Newer players would play their dragons and would get obliterated by their opponent playing counterspells and control and “you discard your hand and I gain 10 new cards”.
What they had to do was change the game so that dragons are actually good, so a new player wanting to smash in the face of the opponent with a dragon could really do it.
The moment you start a game of League of Legends or Dota2, the thing that you want to do is not something that you're supposed to do. That seems like a design flaw to me. I'm a bit confused that this isn't picked up in the community.
I think it has to do with that in Warcraft 3, the DotA community became very elitist. Maybe it's some remnant of it; they don't care about it... it's very competitive so for competitive players it's a very good game, don't get me wrong. It's just not very accessible; that's my take on it. You could have the best of both worlds.
Soft: One of the things that many people like about Dota 2 and League of Legends is that you have a large cast of heroes. That seems to have become the standard in mobas: aim for 100+ heroes, and then you have a drafting phase to produce a lot of dynamics. How do you feel about the idea of such a large cast?
Cyclotrutan: I think it's quite astounding that... I think 100 heroes were played in one Dota 2 tournament. I think it's just astounding that they managed to do that: to get the balance so right and make the draft so tactical. I can see that this is something that's very compelling to watch and play if you're an expert on the game. I don't think I could do such a large draft of heroes on my map because it would take too much time!
For Dota 2, I think the heroes are just a vessel to experience this very competitive environment with many different choices, and they're all designed to fill a specific role. For me, I wanted to do the heroes as just an exploration into flavour and mechanics, so I didn't have too much focus on the metagame. I think that's just a different approach.
Soft: Have you tried any of the more recent mobas, like HotS/SMITE/Paragon?
Cyclotrutan: I have to stress: my days of playing mobas were 7 years ago. I played a bit of HotS when it came out but it didn't spark anything, so I lost interest in it. It's partly because I think it's a bit silly. The idea that you smash everything together is something that I don’t like; I would like a game more focused on flavour. You get more immersion that way.
For me, games are just a vessel to explore worlds and flavour and so on. Of course I cared about gameplay, but not in a competitive sense: more the experience of this hero and the flavour of everything coming together. When I, for example, design a card game, that's a perfect opportunity to design a new world and translate it into a game, and let the players experience the world first-hand. It's something that excites me about game design.
Soft: Has your work over the years with Darkening of Tirisfal and its predecessors had any impact on your career or what you do now? You certainly put a lot of time into it!
Cyclotrutan: I went to university at the time and studied physics, and I think my affinity for game design and my affinity for physics come from the same character traits that I have: I'm a very creative and analytical person. For example, I'm not as good at writing as some other people, but at game design there comes together this creativity with also this very mathy style.
Another thing is that... I'm a perfectionist type. I think the two components of perfection are striving for perfection which is positive, and there's obsession with perfection which is negative. I think I'm extremely high in striving, and moderately high in obsession. Striving means you're trying your best to get it right, but obsession is when you're writing your thesis but you can't sleep because you have one comma wrong or something. With my thesis, the day I got it printed, I saw that there was a grammar error in the very first sentence of the introduction. I had to get back there and fix it and call up again and say "NO! I NEED A NEW VERSION!".
I think this perfectionism is something I see in my maps and I hope that other people see it: being very careful to the details. It's something that fascinates me with Blizzard games. They are very good at it; they're very good at having a... the saying in german is "aus einem Guß". It means "Everything fits together perfectly". You get the idea that everything works together in harmony; nothing seems out of place.
In general, my time mapping hasn’t affected me. I've never been in a professional position as a game designer, though I’m still pursuing it as a hobby and it’s something that I want to do more seriously at some point in my life.
Soft: Thanks so much for your time Martin! Where can we find you and Conquest of Orion?
Cyclotrutan: I don't have social media right now. I have a small web page at antaresdesigns.com where you can find the card game. You can also find some of my fanmade MtG sets on there, and some of my paintings (but I'm a very novice painter). I am currently trying to focus on Conquest of Orion, and want to have a new site up for it in the near future.
Softmints: All right. Best of luck with your projects going forward!