Indie Developer Interview: Radical Fish

CrossCode (2018) is a 2D action-RPG by German studio Radical Fish with a major twist: its beguiling narrative is set within CrossWorlds, a fictional MMORPG. Director Felix Klein joined me via email to discuss the game for The Avocado.

What is your team’s history in the video games industry?

We are a small indie developer from Germany that started working on CrossCode in 2012 and, so far, only released that one title, plus the DLC CrossCode: A new Home. We’re currently working on a prototype for a new project currently labeled “Project Terra”.

For those unfamiliar with it, could you please give a brief description of CrossCode?

CrossCode is a single-player action-RPG set within a fictional MMO of the distant future. You play Lea, who is stuck in that MMO, lost her memory and on top of that, can’t speak. As you play the game, you meet other players and bit by bit, learn more about Lea and how she ended up in the game. Gameplay-wise, the game offers a mix of action combat, puzzles, platforming and exploration. Plus, there’s all the common RPG mechanics, such as equipment, skill trees, quests, item trading and more.

How long did it take to develop the game and what were the most surprising hurdles?

A very long time! It took us almost 7 years to finish the full version of CrossCode and then another 2 to develop additional content for the console versions, plus the DLC. Apart from a lot of technical hurdles and the very stressful time during the crowdfunding in 2015, one difficult experience was the time when we decided to update the character portraits during Early Access. Even though the whole team agreed that the new portraits were much better, a lot of players complained about the change initially, which was very frustrating. It was our first major experience of “change is bad”. Over time, most people got used to the new portraits and suddenly it’s fine.

What inspired Radical Fish to combine an MMORPG setting, 16-bit aesthetics, and bullet-hell gameplay mechanics? Were there any clashes between these disparate design elements?

The MMORPG setting came more or less from the .hack franchise, though one important goal for us was to display the world of an MMO and especially the players in a somewhat more “authentic” way. We used the 16-bit aesthetics, because most of us grew up with a SNES and we love the style. Also, it’s very doable for a small team. The ball-throwing gameplay really came from the initial premise, that the game is sort of a Yoshi’s Island with a top-down perspective. We essentially designed an RPG around that core-mechanic.

For the most part the mix worked surprisingly well. When working with the MMO setting we sometimes had a hard time to display certain conflicts and dramatic situations in a “believable way”, since that setting provides too many options for most of the characters involved (for example: you could just log out when you’re cornered).

Are there any gameplay mechanics or story sequences that didn’t make it into the finished game?

Surprisingly, most of the planned content made it into the game. That’s probably part of the reason the development took so long. Early in development, we had plans for additional places and towns, and even some kind of “character class progression” event, which was cut rather quickly.

CrossCode has received near-universal acclaim, but one point of criticism has been the large number of sidequests the player must complete in its opening hours. What is your response to this concern, and do you have any recommendations for players who have a hard time with this aspect of the game?

We made the mistake to make the initial few sidequests of the game “too generic”, in that they are mostly kill and fetch quests with little interesting gameplay or story components (something that changes with later quests – please give those quests a chance!). However, strictly speaking all those quests are still optional.

Players sometimes feel like they are forced to grind and do those side quests in order to get strong enough. However, the most effective way to get stronger is to improve your equipment and there are several ways to do that. One effective way is simply exploring the area and trying to reach treasure chests. Some of them contain equipment. The easiest one is to simply go to a weapon store and buy the most powerful “basic equipment” – which is really sufficient to beat most of the upcoming challenges.

While the game doesn’t force you to do any of the side quests, it does get a lot harder if you skip through all the options to grow your character (Quests, Exploration, Trading and basic shopping). In that way, the game isn’t streamlined to just quickly play it for the story. If you want to do that, we still provide an assist mode to turn down the difficulty.

You have been adept at keeping your fans in the loop via online communication and transparency. Was this planned from the beginning of development or did you decide to do this based on other factors?

We went rather public pretty early during development already. It started with a blog that we opened around the end of 2012 (together with an early demo of the game). During the crowdfunding we started doing regular gamedev streams that we still do up to this day. Later we started our public discord server. In general we think it was a good idea to keep this close connection to the community especially during the Early Access phase from 2015-2018, because people were always aware that we’ve been there and kept working on the game. That way, they stayed with and were patient enough to endure us delaying the full release multiple times.

What is your favorite character and/or area in the game?

That is something that each team member will probably answer in a different way. My personal favorite character is Lea, since so much thought went into her personality and how things develop for her during the course of the game. My favorite area is probably Sapphire Ridge, since it has such a pleasant atmosphere to me.

Now that you’ve published the final planned suite of downloadable content for CrossCode, what’s next for Radical Fish?

As I mentioned previously, we’re currently working on a prototype for a new game. That prototype is currently called “Project Terra”. It will be another action-RPG with a gameplay mix similar to CrossCode. However, the setting will be a different one.

Graphic-wise, we’re going for a mix of pixel art and 3D graphics, with just the right amount of perspective transformation to improve the perception of the terrain. Otherwise, the goal is to make it still look and feel like a pixel-art game. If you’re curious, we’re already posting early progress on our Twitter channel and you can see a couple videos in one of our recent blog posts.

CrossCode is available now on Steam, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation, and Xbox consoles. You can even play a demo directly in your web browser! As Felix noted, you can also follow Radical Fish on Twitter to keep up with what the studio is doing next. If you’d like to see more from me, you can find me on Twitter under the handle @SinginBrakeman. Thanks for reading, and be sure to let everyone know what you think about CrossCode in the discussion below!