Eric Jordan and Clive Gorman hold up a huge board so we can see it during our video chat. The high-resolution map was given away by Wizards of the Coast during Extra Life last year and they paid a local shop to print it onto foam core. However, the item is yet to find pride of place on Codename’s wall, such is the secrecy of working on a D&D title.
“We were going to mount it but we couldn’t tell anyone we were working on a D&D game and we thought people would think it was awfully suspicious that we had this massive map of the Sword Coast in our meeting room!” says Jordan.
“It’s funny that I was at the Wizards offices to appear on the Dragon Talk livestream and I thought to myself as I went in, this is the first time going there to talk about D&D that I could publicly say that was what I was going do. All those other times I’d be so excited as a diehard fan but of course I couldn’t post or mention it at all! Because people might be like, ‘Eric, why are you visiting Wizards of the Coast?’ So no Twitter posts or checking in online. Nothing. It was nice to be able to talk about it for a change.”
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Now that the silence has been broken, the most important question for those who’ve never played a title in this relatively new genre is, what defines an “idle” video game?
“The starting point would be Cookie Clicker coming out. There were several proto-idle games that came together and most people point to Cookie Clicker as the start point,” explains Jordan. “Not everyone understands the genre. They hear the word idle and think it’s a game that plays itself in a way that seems really casual. It’s casual in the sense that you’re not actually going off casting spells, the characters you’re using to do your quests are doing all those things. But because you’re doing all the management of these characters, you’re thinking a lot about how you’re crafting them.”
In Idle Champions, the heroes complete quests and adventures, gathering gold and gear so they can become more powerful and repeat the cycle.
“A key part of it is that idle games provide this touchpoint experience where you can go in, play for a bit, manage your guys, and leave,” Jordan says. “Idle games are designed for shorter interactions. You have this sort of ambient awareness that your guys are off completing a quest for you and you go back and look at how they did.”
What gives Idle Champions its depth is one of the more deceptively complex parts of the game. According to Jordan, it’s this function that takes a while to grasp. “People think where you’re going to place the characters is pretty simple, but where you slot them has a huge impact on the total strength or total DPS for your group. You unlock twelve characters overall and in the base adventure there are only nine slots you can put them in—the number of slots varies with different adventures. You can also build different kinds of formations, such as a tanking group, or one that’s more optimized towards collecting gold or killing monsters. So to really master the game, you’ve got to spend a lot of time figuring out the placement mechanic.
“It’s relatively easy to pick up but this formation strategy provides a certain elegance to the game. Once you start to get into it, you realize it has all of these different variables and you have to decide which trade off you’re going to do relative to other pieces, in order to get the most effective grouping.
“We’re the only company that’s done the formation strategy element in this particular way. One of the cool things about working in a new genre is that you can come up with something that no-one else has done. Other people may start copying you but we did it before anyone else did it.”
Jordan says Codename was excited to be able to combine this new genre with Dungeons & Dragons. “There’s such a depth of history and stories that we can draw on from D&D—in particular, fifth edition and the cadence of the stories they’ve been doing there. We can allow players to experience all of that content as part of their game.”
A big piece of the game’s development was to recreate key settings and capture fan-favorite characters. New heroes and old, from Bruenor to the Force Grey characters and everyone in between, have been added to the base set.
“So you’ve got the stats of these characters, their backgrounds, and dialogue pieces that come up. You go on quests and those all move through the Sword Coast as its set in the Forgotten Realms, so you have those iconic locations.
“It’s important to note that while we’ve translated D&D into the clicker realm, it’s not meant to be a recreation of fifth edition rules,” says Gorman.
“What we’re trying to do is remain very faithful to the spirit of Forgotten Realms and its characters, monsters, and iconic locations within the context of how they’re presented within fifth edition. You don’t roll a d20, you don’t have a literal translation of magic missile doing 1d4 damage. The ruleset that we’re using is a different ruleset to fit the genre. You will see magic missile and other pieces like that because it’s the spirit of D&D that we’re really trying to be faithful to.”
Idle Champions includes the five characters from Force Grey: Lost City of Omu and as part of their inclusion Codename got to work with some of the celebrities. In particular, Joe Manganiello was very keen to help them translate his dragonborn paladin/barbarian Arkhan.
“It’s been a real privilege to talk to these celebrities about ultimate attacks and convert their ideas of what the character could be into a video game,” says Jordan. “I know that Dylan Sprouse, who was on The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, studied game design at university. So he was thrilled to have a character in a video game and he posted ‘Life goal met!’ on Twitter.”
“It’s fun to get to work with the people who created a character because you get additional details and background pieces,” Gorman adds. “We’re designing all of that gear and equipment. It’s harder to do that if the person who created it isn’t someone you can interact with.”
With Minsc included as a classic character, we’re naturally intrigued to find out how his miniature giant space hamster Boo translates. “He’s part of an ultimate attack,” reveals Jordan. “There’s a specialization tree you can use and he’s one of the ultimates for Minsc. Go for the eyes, of course. I got to chat with Cameron [Tofer] from Beamdog, who had played Minsc originally, so that was pretty fun. We had a chance to play D&D together and that was a life goal personally met for me.
“We’ve since had several different groups saying, ‘We’d love to be in Idle Champions.’ Characters like Bruenor, Celeste, and Minsc and Boo are iconic Forgotten Realms characters, so it wasn’t a surprise to have them in our game. But it’s a really exciting, fun thing to include the Force Grey characters and then potentially in the future look to where we can add in other D&D streamers!”
One of the initial attractions for turning D&D into a clicker game was because of its diverse, rich set of stories. Having such a depth of content to draw upon is crucial for the way Codename approaches its titles, which is very good news for regular players.
“All of our games are free-to-play and we focus very heavily on live servicing them. We tend to do an update every week for a game, including seasonal events, new content areas, new objectives, and features in the game. And we continue to do that for years. We’ve been doing updates for Crusaders of the Lost Idols for two years now. Bush Whacker 2 is over five years old and has a really dedicated following, and we continue to push updates out to that every week.
“That desire to push out updates means we need this unending set of content. So you’ll see there’s a brief tour of the Forgotten Realms in the first adventure, which has different pieces within it. Then you’ll see the Tomb of Annihilation content, and we’ll obviously bring in things like Storm King’s Thunder over time. Each one of those will take you to different parts of the Forgotten Realms.” “Every time there’s an adventure or some kind of update in the D&D tabletop RPG, we’re going to have something related to that,” Gorman adds.
It sounds to us like Codename will soon be getting plenty of use out of that map, once it’s finally been hung on the conference room wall.
“Oh gosh, that map,” Jordan says, with a laugh. “We completed a closed alpha for the game and one of the things we had in there as a placeholder was the existing Sword Coast map. But the art style didn’t quite work with the style of the rest of the game, so our lead artist and another guy had to redo the whole map! The joy of Chult, which exists outside the Sword Coast, is that we get to do that all again…”