‘Crafting inspiring video games and enthralling worlds with exceptional people’ isn’t the worst job description one could have. At least, the League of Geeks team in Melbourne, Australia, don’t seem to be complaining.
You may remember the self-described ‘triple-i’ studio’s debut title, Armello, which put an anthropomorphic spin on the digital board game genre. Their upcoming release, Solium Infernum, may replace sword-toting foxes with blood-thirsty Archfiends, but they share a certain flavour of fantasy epic-ness.
Playing as one of the eight above-mentioned Archfiends, your goal in Solium Infernum is to ascend the Infernal Throne and become the new ruler of hell. In its simultaneous turn-based format, you do this by ‘intoning dark sorceries, devilish schemes, and Machiavellian plots’. Expect to lie awake at night contemplating your next twisted move and – if you’re playing in its multiplayer mode – lose a few friends.
This story world might ring a faint bell for some. There was, in fact, a Solium Infernum released in 2009 by solo developer Vic Davis (aka Cryptic Comet). As ‘huge fans’ of the original, the LoG team came to know Davis and eventually pitched him a ‘re-imagining’ of his cult classic. Davis gave them his blessing, and soon, players will be able to return to the political power plays of his underworld.
We speak to the game’s principal designer, Anthony Sweet, about his unexpected journey to game design and the countless (development) hours he’s spent in hell.
TAHLIA: This game has been hyped since its announcement at EGX in September 2022. How are you feeling about releasing it so soon?
ANTHONY: Solium Infernum has been a really exciting project to work on because even when you’re making a game based on another property, there are still a lot of unknowns for everyone outside of the project. As the developers, we obviously have very good insight into what’s going on, but from the outside, it can be like, ‘What’s going on in there?’
Solium Infernum isn’t just a tribute to the original – it’s a re-imagination of the original. And so it’s an interesting proposition to have people who are already familiar with what the proposal is and what the vibe of the game is like. They’re getting excited about it. Everyone’s bringing their own ‘what’ they want out of it.
TAHLIA: LoG saw massive success with Armello – what was the thinking behind choosing a re-imagining of Solium Infernum as your next project?
ANTHONY: I didn’t work on Armello, but I know that OSI [the original Solium Infernum] was a very big influence. And you can see it. You can absolutely see the DNA of Solium Infernum in certain aspects.
For our game director, Ty [Carey], Solium Infernum has been with him for a long time. It’s always been in the background for him. So it doesn’t surprise me that this project now exists. The history of OSI runs deep within League of Geeks.
TAHLIA: Did taking on this endeavour present any unique challenges?
ANTHONY: For most of my professional career, I’ve worked with licensed games – games on other people’s property, other people’s IP, and other people’s story worlds. SI was a very similar situation where the IP already existed, and we were trying to work out how much of the original tone are we keeping and how much are we trying to find our own voice. And that’s always a really satisfying problem to try and solve.
For SI in particular, we want to make sure that all players can find where their stories exist too because the anecdotes from the original SI are wild. The sheer amount of betrayal and backstabbing! It’s phenomenal to hear these stories, and that’s something that we’re really looking to replicate here as well.
I recently finished a game of OSI with some of the original community members, and I was one of three players left out of six. There were moments when I was up until twelve o’clock, one o’clock in the morning, thinking, ‘What have I missed? What’s an opportunity?’ I’m not proud to say that I was at a professional conference in October last year, and I missed a keynote because I was stuck in my hotel room trying to figure out how I was going to win a war.
So I’m keen to see those social mechanics. I’m keen for people to get really emotionally invested in the race for the throne.
TAHLIA: There’s an ongoing debate about the place of violent video games – especially for younger audiences. How do you think about this?
ANTHONY: This is really important to me. I work in strategy games, and strategy games typically have violence as a point of conflict. What I find really interesting about SI is that’s not the central point of conflict. The central point of conflict is diplomacy.
But as an industry, we should be questioning whether violence gets over-glorified or over-promoted. Something that really draws me to Solium Infernum is that we’re not revelling in the gore. We’re not revelling in the fire. Our influences are more the classical depictions of hell – Milton’s Paradise Lost, the illustrations from Gustave Doré, [Wayne] Barlowe’s work. Those pieces of media don’t exist to revel in the ‘pitchfork’ depictions. There’s actual characterisation. There’s actual sympathy for different characters in those stories – and not necessarily where you’d expect them to be. That’s important to us. We want this to be a thoughtful and considered approach to how we depict hell.
TAHLIA: Can you tell us a little about your own origin story? How did you get to be principal designer on Solium Infernum?
ANTHONY: I never intended to become a game designer. Looking back on it now I’m like, ‘This makes complete sense’, because as a kid, I used to make my own. But it never occurred to me that making games was what I was going to do. I was very firmly ensconced in music, and that was going to be the direction I was going to take.
I went to university [for music], and I performed for over a decade. But I had a part-time job working in a family business, bookkeeping. As a result, I became very familiar with spreadsheets, thinking systemically, and getting a set of data into a usable format.
A large [game] studio opened up here in Perth, and a bunch of my friends started working there. One day I got a phone call from a very close mate, and he was like, ‘You’re pretty good with MYOB, right? You know how to process payrolls, right?’, and I was like, ‘Yeah’, and he was like, ‘Great, we need someone to do it. Can you start next Monday?’ And I thought, why not?
I was purely in the administrative area, but it opened me up to what game designers did. I was looking at what they were doing and thinking, ‘That looks really fun’. They’re working with a team, they’re communicating, they’re taking ideas from everyone and collecting them. So I started talking with a couple of the folks there, and they suggested to me – very rightly – that if I was really interested in this, I should start with board games. Board games are a low barrier to entry. All you need is some paper, a pen, and scissors, and you’ve got everything you need to make a paper prototype. And I did. I ended up creating and self-publishing board games for a little while and then found my way into the video game industry.
But of all things, bookkeeping got me into game design.
TAHLIA: Wow, I love that. What games have had a particularly profound impact on you personally?
ANTHONY: I was going through the garage the other day – I had this big box of things I needed to sort out – and inside was the very first issue of the Nintendo Australia magazine. Now, why that’s so critical to me is because there’s a walkthrough of Kakariko Village from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It’s this big two-page spread with the entire village laid out. I remember looking at that map as six-year-old Anthony and going, ‘This is so cool. Someone had to come up with all this. Someone came up with this village. Someone came up with the villagers. Someone came up with this guy who runs away from you, and you can’t catch him until you get the Pegasus Boots.’
That magazine, and that article in particular, kind of turned the light switch on for me: someone had to make video games. Video games don’t just come out of the ether. They’re created by people. The fact that I got to find that magazine, and it was in the pile of stuff to get thrown out… It was the very first thing I pulled off the pile. Like, I know we’ve got to make space, but that’s staying. That’s an artefact for me.
TAHLIA: As an indie game designer, how have you found Perth, Australia as a base?
ANTHONY: I’ve been active in Perth for quite a while now. I helped set up Let’s Make Games, which is a not-for-profit here. I’m one of the many people who are waving the WA flag.
Compared to Melbourne, it’s not a large scene. But [Perth] is growing at a pace that I think is really exciting. The job opportunities aren’t high, I’ll be honest, but the pandemic taught specific industries that remote working is actually an option. And that’s been a big benefit for quite a few folks over here – myself included. It’s still not easy, but it’s easier.
TAHLIA: Finally, are there any titles you’re busting to play in 2023?
ANTHONY: I’m notoriously bad at knowing what’s going on. My backlist is huge. But just recently I picked up Duskers, which completely hooked me and took me by surprise. It’s one of those really ‘weird’ user experience games, but the vibes were super impeccable. It’s creepy as heck. It’s very slow-paced until the worst parts hit the fan, and then it all comes to a head very, very quickly.
Also – and this is going to sound like such a cop-out answer – but I can’t wait until we get Solium Infernum out and are playing it in the wild with other people.
It’s going to be phenomenal.
Solium Infernum’s final launch date is yet to be announced, so be sure to add it to your wishlist on Steam to be the first to know. You can also follow League of Geeks on Twitter and Instagram, and – if joining this league of geeks sounds like a dream – keep an eye on their Facebook page for regular job openings.
Special thanks to Anthony Sweet for his time.