Exclusive Interview with Room-C Games, the power behind The Hand of Merlin

We’re nerds, and two topics that get us hot around the collar are Arthurian legends and the tales of HP Lovecraft. Now, we didn’t expect those two to necessarily meet, but meet they have, all within the upcoming The Hand of Merlin

This is a game all about unholy hybrids. Not only is it a not-particularly-canon take on the tales of King Arthur, it’s also a mix of turn-based strategy, roguelike and narrative game. Try to wrap your head around that one!

To help us on that journey, Room-C Games offered us a chat with their CEO and founder, Robert Sajko. We leapt at the chance to get a bit geeky about those topics we already mentioned, and to find out whether a turn-based X-Com-a-like can make the transition to console.

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Could you please introduce yourself and your role on The Hand of Merlin?

I’m Robert, the CEO and founder of Room-C Games. But, being in a small (9-person) indie studio, we all wear many hats. 🙂 So, other than being the project director, I’m also a programmer, a production manager, a QA/focus tester, a hiring manager/interviewer… And, probably forgot a role or two!

Could you give us a quick rundown of The Hand of Merlin?

The Hand of Merlin is a tactical turn-based game, but it is also a roguelite. So, at its core is combat akin to games like X-COM, where you need to solve almost chess-like problems of positioning Heroes and synergising their attacks. But, on top of that, there’s world exploration, with randomized encounters similar to FTL or Slay the Spire, in a choose-your-own adventure style. Each location you visit offers an opportunity of one sort or another, but perhaps also a danger. And the dangers are real, because there’s no going back on your decisions, and death is permanent. That’d be the roguelike part!

We can absolutely imagine a turn-based strategy game that embraces Arthurian legend. But The Hand of Merlin adds in science-fiction elements AND a Cthulhu-like Cataclysm. What brought all these elements together?

At first glance, yes, this is a game based on Arthurian legend, with the player acting as the titular Merlin. But Merlin is not human; he’s a traveler from across the sea of stars. His magic, technology. His enemy – the Cataclysm – a primordial force alien even to him. This clash of flavors also works well with the game’s roguelike aspect, tying the narrative with the mechanics of playing multiple runs: you visit multiple Earths, across multiple dimensions, on your endless quest. The meta-progression too, such as acquiring new Spells, is again tied with the narrative: Merlin is eternal, and is slowly regaining his lost powers scattered across the multiverse. So in short, game mechanics are the glue that ties all these narrative elements together. 

We don’t get many turn-based strategy games that use roguelite structures. How did you get the two working together?

That was the main crux of game design for this game! 🙂 We wanted to make sure that the strategy layer (the overworld travel) as well as the tactical layer (combat) both work and are fun in their own right. But we also wanted one to affect the other, in both directions. 

So here’s an example of how the strategy layer affects combat. Instead of using fixed talent trees for Heroes, we let the player discover three random skills at level up during overworld travel, and pick one of the three. This has a major impact on how combat plays out, so you need to think strategically when selecting skills, to maximize synergies. 

As an example of how combat affects the strategy layer, let’s say you make one mistake too many during combat, and one of your Heroes dies. Now, you’re hard pressed to find a replacement by visiting Heroic nodes – specially marked nodes on the map where a new Hero can be recruited. So you have to make tough choices: do you beeline to the first available Heroic node, forsaking a tempting but dangerous location on the way that might give you a new Spell? Or do you go for it anyway and hope for the best? At the end of the day, a roguelike is all about managing your risks and learning to pick your battles, and our tactical combat is certainly a great source of risk. 🙂

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There are a fair few turn-based strategy games out there. How does The Hand of Merlin stand out?

What sets us apart from other turn-based strategy games is our fusion of genres. It’s a turn-based tactical game, but without base management or a single long campaign. Instead, it’s actually a roguelike, distilling the turn-based experience into a string of short but intense battles, peppered with short story-driven encounters, all spread across multiple runs. Also, unlike most roguelikes which rely on fast reflexes, The Hand of Merlin scratches that itch for learning through your mistakes, getting better, playing smarter, and feeling great about your successes – all without relying on great motor skills. It’s a thinker’s roguelike, one that you can play at your own pace.

On top of that, we have a rather unique setting: Arthurian legend meets cosmic horror. And in this dark, off-kilter medieval world where magic is alien technology and monsters are real – you get to explore, trade, uncover buried secrets, and generally enjoy the 300 or so immersive and interconnected little stories our writer ‘ duo’ of Jonas and Verena Kyratzes crafted, all the while evaluating the risks of any choice you make.

The Cataclysm has a fantastic visual design. Was it good fun generating outlandish monsters for it?

Oh, yes! We explored a lot of different approaches. We knew from the start we wanted to avoid rehashing already-seen designs like demons, dragons, or other well-known mythological creatures – but also not go down the road of “classic” alien designs or Lovecraftian tentacle monsters. So we looked at nature. Did you know there is a fungus which can infect an ant, taking control of its nervous system and changing its behavior, all the while feeding on the ant’s innards, until it dies and disseminates infectious spores to more ants? Horrific. And that’s what the Cataclysm does: corrupts and devours everything it touches. So to create the monsters of the Cataclysm, we looked at nature again. We fused various plant and insect life forms into unique and bizzare abominations. Of course, in-game, people would give these monsters familiar names of medieval mythical creatures, like Mandrake or Basilisk; as if they desperately tried to make sense of them.

What has the experience of being on Steam Early Access been like? What did you gain from the community’s feedback?

It’s been a great experience to be on Steam Early Access! The response to the game has been great, which is heartwarming. But also, seeing the community become active and engaged on our Discord, with new faces each time we do a big update is awesome to see. And usually, these discussions turn out to be very productive! We’ve had a number of great ideas and suggestions and weird edge-case bug reports put forward by the community, which ended up getting implemented / used / fixed. In fact, even though, of course, we had a planned timeline of updates before entering Early Access, we sort of threw that plan out the window and just – listened. The very first update we did was a big overhaul of the Hero skill trees, which wasn’t planned, but based entirely on community feedback backed up by telemetry data.

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I don’t think I’ve encountered a game that has got harder based on player feedback. What’s the story behind that increase in difficulty?

Well, it’s not so much that the game as a whole got harder. Rather, we kept adding increasingly more difficult modes of play. At first, we only had two modes: Easy and Normal. But, a lot of players found Normal not challenging enough, so we added Hard Mode. That was a well-received addition, but we saw some players asking for an even tougher challenge, while another group struggled even on Easy, but enjoyed the story and the quests. So we added Story mode, which is super-forgiving, and Hard Mode+, which is super-not-forgiving. Now, Hard Mode+ may well be my favorite addition to the game thus far! To even unlock it, you have to beat the game on Hard at least once. Then, you get to unlock and add Blessings and Curses onto the base Hard Mode, with the Curses making your life even more miserable, but the Blessings there to help offset the difficulty, for a cost. And finally, by activating all of the Curses at once, you start a Doomed World scenario – the ultimate challenge, with a unique reward for beating it. And so far, no one complained that that’s too easy. 🙂

Turn-based strategy games are more naturally suited to a keyboard and mouse. How have you adapted The Hand of Merlin to a controller?

Oh, this took a few tries to get right! Simply getting the low-level support for various input devices was the easy part. Figuring out a control scheme that feels natural and intuitive, while at the same time being efficient, was the hard part.

The very first implementation we did was a naive emulate-the-mouse approach. We knew this wouldn’t be the best UX, but at least it allowed us to a) test the low-level code, and b) actually get ideas on how to directly control the UI without a virtual cursor.

So the second implementation was a full-on mapping of everything you could access on one screen to the physical buttons of the controller. That means each screen had its own control mapping. It was pretty fast and efficient once you got the hang of it – but, that was also the problem. You needed to spend time learning the controls. We ended up with a large-ish hint widget, different for every screen, that tried to teach you these controls, but it just wasn’t intuitive and the helper widget felt clunky. 

Finally, the third approach was something of a hybrid. We settled on reusing the same basic control scheme for every single screen: there’s the concept of a “current selection” indicated by a selector frame around the active element, and you move the selector using the directional buttons or a stick. Then, there’s a few actions you can take upon the active element: by default, there is “accept” or “activate”, which is always the standard “accept” button for the controller in use, such as A for Xbox or X for Playstation. There’s “back” / “cancel” which is B or O, and sometimes there’s a special action with one of the other buttons. This turned out to feel very natural and intuitive, and only required a small hint bubble next to each UI element to indicate which actions you had available on them, in the form of controller button icons. Even things like hold-to-activate or hold-and-drag ended up being quite easy to grasp just by reading the small pictograms next to interactive elements.

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What’s been the biggest headache in bringing it to console?

Well, in porting the game to each of the consoles, there were three main stages of the process: 1) getting the game to compile and run; 2) optimizing the code and assets so the game runs well; 3) certification testing, to make sure we adhere to each and every one of the hundred or so technical requirements for each console.

The first stage is exciting: you’re dealing with moderately challenging problems, with a lot of grunt work to get the codebase to behave and play nice with the platform specific tools, and at the end you’re rewarded – it’s super exciting to see your game run on that new piece of hardware for the first time!

But then, the excitement wears off, as you notice horrible performance, out-of-memory crashes, and just issues in general. So in the second stage, you’re dealing with complex, challenging problems of identifying all of the slowdowns and crashes, pinpointing their exact causes, then figuring out creative solutions to these problems. Sometimes, this even involves creating new tools to help us with the optimization, such as a tool we wrote to help us simplify the 800+ 3D models we have. And it doesn’t all happen at once. You solve one big performance or memory problem, and only then can even notice other problems hidden underneath. So, it’s kind of like peeling an onion! But even though this stage is the hardest, these problems are interesting to solve. I might even call them fun, because they really engage your brain matter, like a great puzzle.

And at the end, the third and last stage is the only one I might call headache-inducing. Checking and rechecking and ticking items off a huge list of technical requirements is not hard: each item is relatively simple, but there’s a lot of them, and it’s very easy to get something wrong. I’m very glad we had Versus Evil’s QA team help us out with this! But even so, some small violations of requirements got through testing, and when that happens, you have to restart the certification process. And none of this happens immediately: you have to schedule a certification test and get a date, wait a while for the test to conclude, then if you fail, you deploy the fix, go through QA, schedule another cert test, and await results again – weeks having passed in the meantime. So – not exactly a fun stage, but a required step nonetheless, one that we just power through!

The Hand of Merlin has seen a number of updates, including the Whispers of Doom. Are we getting the whole shebang on console? Is there anything specifically made for console?

Yup! We’ve been pretty active during our Early Access, and are still going! In fact, we’ve got some exciting new features and balancing changes lined up, leading up to and including the 1.0 release.

For example, we’re preparing a brand new mode of play for 1.0 that we internally call Endless Mode. It answers the question of: what if, once the Abominations of the Cataclysm are pushed back in the final showdown to wherever they came from – the mortal Heroes followed? What if we took the fight into evil’s own domain? Now, this is going to feel pretty different, since unlike the standard runs you play on one of the multitude of Earths in the multiverse, Endless Mode takes you into the origin of the Cataclysm: the Singularity. A pocket of interdimensional space, from where the Abominations seep into all the dimensions, all the worlds. Mechanically, this means there’s some persistence across Endless Mode runs: each one leaves a mark on future runs. And, of course, the overworld travel is a lot different and streamlined in this mode, only offering brief points of respite to rank up or discover items left behind by other mortals who’d come before; the greatest emphasis being on ever-harder, never-ending combat encounters. This will be a great way to test different builds, try out synergies and find ways to “break” the game with overpowered combinations.

So are we getting all of this on consoles? Yes, yes we are! Everything we added up to and including the 1.0 release on PC/Mac will be available on consoles from day one, and that’s Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Playstation 4, Playstation 5, and Nintendo Switch.

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And finally, which Knight of the Round Table would you be?

If you mean, of the characters currently in the game… I’d say: Sir Safir, the Saracen Knight. He’s the epitome of a classic sword & board knight, which is an archetype I enjoy playing: a strong protector, able to take quite a bit of punishment, while also meting out swordly justice. But more than that, he’s the most knightly and chivalrous of the knight-errants currently in the game, the others all having a darker side (like Sir Breunor’s drive for vengeance), or at least a more mischievous one (like Zahra al-Zakiyya’s penchant for anarchy). But then again, that’s the beauty of role-playing games: you get to identify with a Hero you like best, and play your way.

Many thanks to Robert and Room-C Games for the deep and detailed answers. To find out whether The Hand of Merlin is equally deep and detailed, find out in the upcoming review.

Launch isn’t too far away: if The Hand of Merlin has you reaching for your knight’s tabard, then know that it is arriving on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch and PC come June 14th 2022.