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Sarah Smellie
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Red Meat Games looks to launch steampunk, apocalyptic role-player by October

The situation is bleak for the people of Terra Corpus. A vast, empty desert is slowly creeping across the continent, destroying cities, crops and citizens in its wake.

Keith Makse (left) and Christo Stassis are the forces behind Red Meat Games, the St. John’s startup poised to launch its new game, “Steel & Steam,” this fall. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Noah Phoenix, a 19-year-old adrenaline addict who likes to get himself in trouble, and Alyssa Noble, his 20-year-old punch-throwing best friend, have been tasked with saving Terra Corpus from the encroaching wasteland.

And they can only do it with the expert dexterity of your mind and thumbs.

Terra Corpus is the apocalyptic world of “Steel & Steam,” an indie video game being developed by the new St. John’s-based startup, Red Meat Games.

“It’s a retro-Japanese role-playing game set in a fantasy steampunk universe,” explains Keith Makse, Red Meat’s CEO.

A role-playing game lets a player control a central character as that character explores its universe and, hopefully, completes a quest. Japanese role-playing games, or JRPGs, emerged in the late 1980s, with titles like “Final Fantasy,” and had a particular storyline and feel.

“Typical JRPG stories deal with an apocalypse,” says Makse. “One of the most popular stories right now are post-apocalyptic stories like “The Walking Dead,” “World War Z” or anything with zombies in it. But what we’re doing differently, and this is where the typical JRPG storyline goes, is that the world is actually undergoing the apocalypse, and you’re in the 11th hour and the 59th minute, and you may have the opportunity to save the world.”

Steampunk is a category of science fiction that mixes a Victorian-era esthetic with the gloom and grunge of the Industrial Revolution. Everything in a steampunk world is powered by steam, and its gadgets and machines are often constructed with grimy metal gears. H.G. Wells’ novels “The Time Machine” and “The War of the Worlds” are hallmark works in the genre.

The parts of Terra Corpus remaining above the sand are full of cities, villages, people and monsters of varying origins. As Phoenix and Noble, who both wear the iconic leather steampunk goggles on their heads, you can enter houses, talk to people on the street and slay lurching stone, steel and steam-powered monsters.

“With the fantasy and steampunk, it’s like mixing the Wild West with the ‘Lord of the Rings,’” says Makse. “We have magic and swords and we also have rifles, and you would have, say, a steam-powered digging machine that the goblins would be using in their underground mines to dig for more treasures.”

The world, and its story, is political, too.

“The depth of the story is in the socioeconomic and political machinations behind the scenes,” he says. “There’s a city-state right on the edge of the desert and they’re losing ground against it. So, that entire city is going to have to move, and the army is being mobilized to go over and take some other choice piece of land from other people. Certain things are becoming more rare: where, say, there was an outport community that had some sort of rare mineral that they were trading and now that community is gone, you can’t find that mineral in the world anymore, and it’s now an object of great value.”

Makse has been working in the gaming industry for 15 years, having owned both his own retail store and his own game studio, Cerebral Vortex Games, in Ontario. He also taught at the International Academy of Design and Technology in Toronto. He met Christo Stassis, president of Red Meat Games, at a workshop at Memorial University’s Genesis Centre a few years ago. Stassis had received a grant to work on a digital comic, which he ultimately wanted to turn into a video game, so he asked Makse for advice. They kept in touch and, this January, they dove into game designing full-time, launched Red Meat Games together, and began creating Terra Corpus.

“A game like this revolves around creating the story first and creating the depth of the characters,” says Makse. “So not only do we have the overview of the world written out, we have the viewpoints of every village and every town and every city that you come across: what are their motivations, what are they defending themselves against, what are they working towards? Then we also break it down to every character in the game, from the guard who let you into the city to the homeless guy on the street.

“Because, you never know,” he adds. “This guy who is always asking for food or drink or money, maybe he was a great warrior back in history and he knows where the hidden treasure is.”

Although video games are often associated with computer programming and specialized high-tech expertise, creating a good video game — especially a good role-playing game, or RPG —- takes a special blend of the technical and the artistic, says Makse.

“The first part of ‘video game’ is the word ‘video,’” he says. “It’s all visual. We’re dealing with very basic principles. We have to capture the eye and direct it to the main focus elements, so the artistic side is very important. Then there is the story writing, which is a completely different artistic skill, but just as important.

“In a way, it’s similar to the film industry, but we can go in 14 different directions whereas a film is a linear path,” he says. “In a game like ours, we actually have multiple endings, depending on what you do in the game, and you can get there from different directions. So, you’re not following a linear path, you’re following a very personalized path, and you control your own destiny.”

“Screenwriting is difficult,” he adds, “and this takes it to another level.”

The unique, personalized experiences of each player also add an interactive and social dimension to the game and its creation.

“As a game designer, we’re only co-author with the player,” he says. “We create the framework and the rules and the structure and the dialogue that you could potentially engage with, but you’re the one who actually engages. So your play experience may be completely different from somebody else’s play experience over the same game. So people engage socially with the games all the time in a very different way because they have these different play experiences.”

People set up message boards, groups, wikis, Reddit threads and even organize conventions and annual meetings to discuss these experiences in games: their techniques, their strategies and their “cheats.” Entire subcultures spring up around video games and spread across the Internet. Makse says the stereotype of the unwashed, malnourished, bleary-eyed gaming addict who never leaves their house or speaks to another person is way off.

“OK, in some cases they never leave the house,” he says, laughing. “But beyond that, it’s not applicable. Games, in essence, are very social.”

And perhaps more importantly for Red Meat Games, they’re also very socially accepted. According to 2010 numbers released by the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, Canada has the third-largest video game industry in the world and, as reported by the Financial Post, that industry contributed $2.3 billion to the Canadian GDP in 2012, up from $1.7 billion in 2011.

The audience is out there.

Red Meat Games launched a Kickstarter campaign for “Steel & Steam” in August, with a goal of raising $2,500. When the campaign closed, it had raised $8,590. The extra money will go towards art and a custom soundtrack for the game. Makse expects the game to be finished by the end of October. It will be released on their websites and, and he’s hoping to get it up on a few popular gaming portals.

Then he’ll go to work on Red Meat’s next big project.

“We’re still focusing on our core customers,” he says, “but we’re working on a very different style of game. And that’s all I can say right now.”

The protagonists’ goal in “Steel & Steam” is to unearth ancient guardians believed to be sleeping inside the planet and, of course, save the world.

The ultimate goal of Red Meat Games might be just as heroic. “We’re really focusing on our market and trying to remain independent as much as we can,” he says.

Being independent means that Red Meat will have complete creative and financial control over all of their games, rather than sign some of that away to a big game publisher. It also means it will take on all the distributing and marketing work that a big publisher would do, with a small-business budget and a small-business profile. “Publishers always want to have their own thumbprint on it,” he says. “But you’re losing a significant amount of revenue for that thumbprint. And it becomes about what they want for their clients — it’s no longer about your own customers. To be independent, you really have to know the market and find your audience. But between our experiences, we’re fairly confident that we have a lead on that.

“We can do this,” he says.

This article has been updated

Organizations: International Academy of Design and Technology, Genesis Centre, Entertainment Software Association of Canada Financial Post Canadian GDP

Geographic location: Terra Corpus, Phoenix, Wild West Ontario Toronto Canada

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Recent comments

  • Christo
    September 23, 2013 - 14:57

    Thanks for the great article! Just a quick fix though, our website is not ;) Cheers!