Soulframe, you studied architecture in Beijing and New Haven. How did this education inspire development of S-Game and Phantom Blade Zero?
Soulframe: Architecture is not only about building houses. It taught me almost everything that I need to complete games–from traditional drawings, to animations, to 3D modeling, to programming, and engineering–budgeting and program management. So when I began to develop my first indie game, I was a “one man army” who did almost everything on my own.
Game development is a mysterious and coveted profession, how did you get your start? And how did S-Game come to be?
Soulframe: I finished my first indie game before I graduated college, and after that, I moved to the U.S. for graduate school. Then I tried to translate the game into English, and put it on several indie game websites. In that way, I made my first group of fans outside of China. This goes even beyond gaming, because it really helped me overcome the loneliness and frustrations as an international student who’d just arrived in the country. I didn’t have many real friends in real life at that moment. But it was tough in the very beginning. We had to face reality. We had to make several free-to-play mobile games to survive. But I dont think this means we have given up on our dreams of making PC and Console games. Actually, this year I think its a great opportunity for us to start maturing. The whole company, the whole team was so excited about the positive feedback for the trailer at the Playstation showcase. We can’t thank enough to everyone who loved us. And I think there is no better way for us to show our passion and appreciation to everyone but to go forward and make the game as good as possible.
Now earlier you mentioned loneliness and working by yourself, but now you work alongside a team of talented developers there at S Game, can you tell me what it’s like to work with a group of developers in a shared space as opposed to by yourself?
Soulframe: I think I’m really lucky to work with some of the most talented developers in China. I think we inspire each other, and we work in mostly old school ways. I really love the old days or Golden Age of PlayStation 1, PlayStation 2, when great games were made based on the pure creativity and motivations of developers. I think that passion for gaming is key with S-Game, and we want to share this passion with everyone.
For those unfamiliar, what is the Phantom Blade Universe?
Soulframe: The Phantom Blade universe is called “Phantom World.” It’s basically a fantasy version of China. The period of history is more or less the Ming Dynasty–namely the 14th century to 16th century. Based on that, I blended in steampunk, cyberpunk, dark fantasy, horror movies, and many other things. But apart from the obvious, I think the deeper meaning of Phantom World is about Chinese Wuxia. Which is, once you’re into this world, you have no way out. It’s blood in, blood out, and there’s no exit other than death. But you still have to fight for what you believe in, and who you care about. But I think that makes a perfect background for a Chinese Wuxia story since the “Xia（侠）”character in “Wuxia（武侠）” is equal to the “man” or “woman” parts in “Spiderman”, “Batman” and “Wonderwoman”.. But [a Wuxia hero] has their own spirit. They’re slightly different from superheroes, and different from the knights of the west and samurai of Japan. They’re someone who fights from the darkness and makes hard decisions.
Phantom Blade Zero is billed as a rebirth of one of your first games, Rainblood. What’s the difference between the two, and how does Phantom Blade Zero build on what came before?
Soulframe: Rain Blood is 2D and turn based while PhantomBladeZero is 3D and powered by Unreal Engine 5. But apart from the difference, I usually emphasize the similarities and coherency between the two since PhantomBladeZero is not coming from nowhere. It’s a spiritual rebirth of the original work, so the most difficult part is going back to the origin point and grasping the essence of that work. That’s why I usually lock myself in my office to review the scripts and drawings I did 15 years ago. It’s a very interesting process. It’s like having a conversation with my younger self. I always ask myself what indeed was the story I was trying to tell, and what would be the ideal gameplay I would go for without the limitations I had in those days
Are there any features that are added in Phantom Blade Zero that you would like to have had in Rainblood?
Soulframe: First is the story itself. The complete walkthrough of Rain Blood is about two hours, which is like a fragment of a longer story. It’s obviously too short. In PhantomBladeZero, I wished to present the full story. I think the second thing is the combat. Because of the limitations of my tools and capacities, I had to go with turn-based combat when I was developing Rain Blood. Obviously, we have changed the combat to real-time in a fast paced combo-based action RPG. In PhantomBladeZero, we would like you to develop that style into something we call “Kung-Fu Punk.” It’s a complete version of the style I wish I could’ve done in Rain Blood.
Now tell me more about Kung-Fu Punk and its origins in Wuxai
Soulframe: Let’s say real Chinese culture and Chinese history is on “Level One.” And on Level One, there were a bunch of novelists and filmmakers back in the 20th century that built a whole new paradigm of fantasy that we call Wuxai today. Wuxai isn’t reality; it’s a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy different from swords and dragons, or magic, or science fiction. It has its own unique style and aesthetics, like the sword masters flying in the bamboo forest in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. What we’re trying to do is to build “Level Three” based on Level Two. We keep the core idea of Wuxai, but we blend it in the elements that inspired us, and expanding the borders of Wuxai. Like Bruce Lee has introduced Kung-Fu to the rest of the world, we would love to introduce the idea of Kung-Fu Punk to our audiences.
The trailer shown at the PlayStation Showcase features combat that seamlessly pivots to stealth when Soul is attacked by the flail-wielding enemy. Then Soul launches into the air to take his foe head on. Is that how all combat encounters play out? What sort of playstyles does Phantom Blade Zero encourage?
Soulframe: We don’t encourage players to go for certain playstyles because we have multiple styles that players can choose from. There are assassinations and combos, and they can make use of the environments and such. But the scenario you mentioned is the core idea, or core system, of our combat system. It also reflects the main principle of Chinese Kung-Fu martial arts, which is about making use of the environment or any other available resources to fight. I’m not sure if you’ve heard this well known joke: “Don’t fight Jackie Chan in the supermarket. You’re not going to win because he has so many things to make use of.”
Now you talked a little bit about weapons, what other weapons can players use in Phantom Blade Zero?
Soulframe: In our game, players will equip two weapons. One is the main weapon, and the other is a secondary weapon that we call the shachi weapon. The main weapon is different kinds of blades, since you are a blade master. Your movements change according to the different lengths and weights of blades. There are also dual blades. This is the traditional part of the gameplay. Then we have more than 20 different types of secondary weapons, or shachi weapons. Your shachi weapon is more creative, from canons to lances, from axes to big hammers that break shields. So a combination of the main weapon and the shachi weapon means a combination of tradition and imagination.
What does gameplay look like between combat encounters in Phantom Blade Zero? How will the player upgrade and customize Soul over the course of the game?
Soulframe: Between encounters, there is tons of exploration and character development. We have sophisticated map designs with dungeons, side quests, NPCs, powerful weapons, and powerful items. Powerful enemies are hidden everywhere in different corners of the game. As for character development, we have gear to collect and upgrade, and we have skills to also collect and learn and master. You’ll find all this from the chests and bosses in the different corners of the game. You have to explore.
Now your company S Game is hard at work on a separate game called Phantom Blade Executioners, how does that tie into Phantom Blade Zero? And do people need to play Phantom Blade Executioners before they play Phantom Blade Zero?
Soulframe: Do you have to read The Hobbit before reading The Lord of the Rings? I don’t think so, right? But I think Phantom Blade Executioner is under development and maintenance of another independent team inside S-Game. But I don’t want to mix things up here. It’s a great game if you’re into this kind of game. It’s totally worth trying, because it’s top notch in the standard of mobile games. But I totally understand not everyone is a big fan of Free to Play games. So if you’re not a big fan of this kind of game, you don’t have to play it just because you’re interested in PhantomBladeZero. Just wait for PhantomBladeZero.
Phantom Blade Zero is the next big step for S-Game – allowing you and your team to bridge the PC and console market with a game that’s a complete package. No microtransactions and no compromises. Was it difficult to design around? Or is this a new challenge your team was ready to embrace?
Mike Peng: I witnessed the hardship the development team went through. I think between mobile and PC/console, we’re talking about two very different platforms with very different user bases, user behavior and engagement. Mobile is more casual, it’s more “on the run,” you can play five minutes and put it down. But with PC and console, we fully understand it demands new challenges, both in the players and the platforms. With the PC and console, we really want to engage our users and have them embark on this wonderful journey with us for hours without interruption. Like I said, this is a wonderful challenge, and we’re ready for it. We can’t wait to show you guys what we got.
Now we have seen many Chinese and Korean studios announcing major console titles, what inspired you to make the jump to console development?
Mike Peng: That’s a really good question. This is just the beginning of a new trend. We are very glad to see a lot of new studios step into making high quality games. I mean, we’re already seeing a lot of Chinese studios making great work, and making great profits in the overseas mobile market. I think it’s about time when more and more studios are ready to put more patience, budget, time, and effort into making better games.
Speaking of showing us what you got, there will be a playable demo available next year. Will it be open to everyone? How can players get involved?
Mike Peng: Absolutely, there will be a playable demo next year. But it’s for invitation only this time, so if any of you are interested, feel free to reach out to us. Right?
Soulframe: Yeah, from the aspect of development, we don’t want to hide the gameplay until the last minute. We want the players to play the game as soon as possible, because it’s really important to help us to improve the game. Our 30-minutes or so demo will be prepared next year.
How is development progressing?
Mike Peng: We can’t tell our players anything that we’re not sure of. But we do keep dropping bits of information and updates on our social networks, whether that’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Discord. So follow us for the latest updates. Speaking of updates–Wanna give our players some updates?
Soulframe: [Laughs] I think that’s the only thing Mike will let me say. I think we’re doing well, and the development is going smoothly. We really wish you to get your hands on the game as soon as possible, but it’s not the time yet for us to announce the release window.
Now before we wrap up, is there anything you want to tell the fans who are looking forward to Phantom Blade Zero?
Mike Peng: I just want to say that we truly appreciate all the love and support we’ve received from our players around the world these past three months.
Soulframe: As I said before, I’m an old school guy, and I really love the games from the PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2. Unfortunately, speaking as a player, I have less and less options these days. I hope our games can be something unique and different. We’ll just work harder and go forward and deliver something really special to you guys. Thank you.