Spiral Knights interview with lead designer Nick Popovich

Spiral Knights is Three Rings and SEGA’s upcoming free-to-play game. You probably heard us gushing about how much we like it. Right now it’s still in beta, but you will be able to play on April 4th.

We had the chance to get some of our questions answered by the lead designer of the game, Nick Popovich.

SEGAbits: How did you guys end up teaming up with SEGA for this title? Who approached who?

Nick Popovich: I believe we approached them when we were looking for a publisher for the project.  Three Rings is an independent developer, and we normally publish our own games, but with Spiral Knights we thought a publisher would be a good fit and Sega seemed like an obvious choice given their rich gaming history (of which Spiral Knights draws much inspiration).

Sb: Where did you guys get the inspiration for the art direction?

NP:The art direction was lead by my good friend, Ian McConville.  Early on we established that the look of Spiral Knights was going to be a 16-bit era game come to life in 3d.  However, in order to preserve that look and feel we developed a series of rules that characters and environments must adhere to, such as how even though the environments are 3d, the tiles that compose them are arranged in the same manner as a 16-bit era sprite sheet.  We have spent a lot of time perusing vgmaps.com for inspiration!

I’m also a huge admirer of Dragon Quest’s ability to use their monsters as both enemies and friendly characters when they choose.  So for the monsters in Spiral Knights, we wanted to be sure to have a nice range of really unfriendly types as well as a host of monsters that a player might be able to have a drink with in a monster bar.  It’s an oddly specific requirement I know, but I think it makes a huge difference in how a player feels about the characters in the world he is inhabiting.  If even the slightest bit of character is added to a monster it can really change them from being perceived as fodder, or a source of loot.

Sb:Since you are working with SEGA, any chance that you will be using SEGA IP inspired items?

NP:No plans have been announced at this time.

Sb: The game feels like it was made for consoles, any plans on porting it to PSN or XBLA? Maybe even mobile devices?

NP: We haven’t announced any plans for anything outside of PC/Mac/Linux, but I think that Spiral Knights would be a great fit for consoles.  I play it all the time on my tv at home with a gamepad and it’s great!

Sb:What’s involved in running a free to play game?

NP: It’s very complex, but fortunately it’s an area that Three Rings has a lot of experience in.  With Spiral Knights we’re trying something really new, both in the payment model and with the game itself.  It can be very challenging to balance giving players players enjoyment for free and still cover the costs of development, server operations, customer support, etc.

Many free-to-play games limit what you can do in the game as a free player.  Spiral Knights is unique in that everything in the game is available to a non-paying customer.  There is no ‘cash shop’ outside of the game where we charge real money for in-game items.  Instead, we have a secondary currency in-game called ‘energy’ that allows players to do things like power elevators to the deepest depths of the Clockworks, build turrets in battle, alchemize unique items or even power up mechanical knights to aid you in combat.  The best part is that all players are given a chunk of energy to do as they please every day!

Sb: Does the large number of pay to play MMO games going Free to play effect how you develop titles like these?

NP: The more free to play games out there, the more potential players will come to understand them.  In our opinion, anything that helps grow the market is a good thing.  A great example of this is Steam.  Before Steam really took off, there were plenty of gamers out there that were really uncomfortable with the idea of not owning a hard copy of a game- I was one of them!  But Steam did so many things right and was so convenient that now it’s hard to imagine a world without digital versions of boxed games and dlc to go with them.

Sb: When playing the game, it constantly reminded me of Phantasy Star Online. Is that a title the team has been influenced by?

NP: Phantasy Star Online is one of my favorite games, so yes I was very much inspired by it!  I think PSO is still a very unique game to this day and I was always baffled that no one other than Sega ever tried to evolve it.  Sure, there were a few games that were similar, but nothing to the scale of PSO. It was offering an MMO experience with real-time combat on a 28.8kbps modem back in 1999!  Why is it that in 2011 with a broadband connection that most of my options for MMOs feature slow, simulated, stat-driven combat?

When I was given the opportunity to design our next game at Three Rings, I knew I wanted to do something that involved cooperative action and exploration like PSO.  But I wanted to take it a step further and make the whole thing a real time experience.  Thanks to some amazing net code, what you see in Spiral Knights is what you get- there are no hidden dice rolls happening behind the scenes to determine your fate.  The only way to dodge a bullet  is to move out of the way!

When we had the chance to work with Sega I couldn’t help but smile at the notion that the company that made PSO was going to publish our game that was clearly inspired by it.  It was an honor!

Sb: Is there anything that was cut out of the final release because there wasn’t time to get it to work properly?

NP: Yes, we’re going to hold off on releasing any kind of PVP until after launch.  The version in the Preview Event was an early experiment in that space and we learned a great deal about what players like and how they play the game competitively.  We’ll be cooking up something really nice for the official release of PVP some time in the future.

Sb: The game is coming out of beta soon, is the team satisfied with how the beta went?

NP: Yes, we are very pleased with how it all went.  A great deal was learned and our Preview Event players did an amazing job of helping us shape the game into what it is today.  And I’m not just saying that- we made a point of listening to our players throughout our development.  We read every single post on the message boards and even had an in-game suggestion box where players could offer up ideas as they played.  It was a very satisfying experience to see both our game and community grow over the last couple of years and we can’t wait to greet all the new players when we open the doors to our world once more on April 4th!

SEGAbits: Thanks to David Beavers from SEGA for setting up the interview and thanks to Nick Popovich for answering our silly questions. Make sure to download the game on April 4th!


3 responses to “Spiral Knights interview with lead designer Nick Popovich

  1. Sharky says:


  2. CrazyTails says:

    What an excellent interview. Man this whole spiral knights game could become pretty big. I haven't played it yet, but it just sounds so excellent.

  3. Great interview! I knew they had PSO blood running through them.

    Also, I do really see that 16-bit art direction coming from the game. Would be interesting to see some 16-bit style art, or perhaps a simple 16-bit style Spiral Knights mini-game.

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