Since we ran our promo for Beneath the Mountain, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down and play it. As a console gamer, there is a bit of a learning curve (especially when I decide to try it at my kitchen table vs. my actual desk with a complete setup), but Max Arnheiter’s city-builder/real-time-strategy game doesn’t disappoint! Now, I mentioned we were going to sit down with Max to talk more about his game, so let’s get right into it!
That’s Entertainment: Max, thank you for taking time out of your day to sit down and chat with us. When Beneath the Mountain first came across my desk, it was an instant throwback to my early PC days of gaming, so I’m very excited to find out more about this game.
Max Arnheiter: Thanks for having me, I’m always happy to talk about my game, and you’re right, there’s a lot of inspiration from older games in BTM.
TE: Where did the idea for Beneath the Mountain come from and did you ever envision it as anything but a city-builder/real-time-strategy game?
MA: I grew up playing games like Age of Empires, Caesar 3, Dungeon Keeper, and Baldur’s Gate, and they all came together (in my mind) to create BTM. It helps that I spent 4 years prior to BTM working on another (unreleased) multiplayer-RTS game. That gave me a lot of time to learn how to implement multi-unit controls, and I took what I learned right into Beneath the Mountain.
TE: OH, that list is a throwback! I’ve dabbled in most of those, but Baldur’s Gate was easily my favorite! It was one of the fundamental games that opened the world of storytelling for me. I can definitely see some of these games in Beneath the Mountain. Is there a particular franchise that flipped a creative switch for you?
MA: Oh absolutely. Baldur’s Gate 1, 2, and the expansion (Shadows of Amn), followed by Icewind Dale 1 & 2. I think these games made up the foundation of my understanding of a fantasy universe. Much later after the launch of these games, Pillars of Eternity 1 & 2 expanded on that universe beautifully. I think you see many of these influences in the way I’ve implemented spells and magic in Beneath the Mountain.
Don’t be afraid to fail.Max Arnheiter
TE: As I play Beneath the Mountain more and more, I can definitely feel those influences (among others). It’s interesting how Dungeons & Dragons, the basis for both Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale (and, in a roundabout way, Pillars of Eternity), sets the foundation for much of the fantasy we see out in the world. Have you dabbled in tabletop role-playing games at all (D&D or otherwise)? If so, how has that influenced your storytelling in Beneath the Mountain?
MA: I used to play D&D in high school and still have all the old books and Dragon magazines. The D&D fantasy world is so large and has been around for such a long time, that it’s hard for me to think about fantasy outside of the context of that world. I’ve been too influenced by the aforementioned games as well as the Drizzt and Dragonlance books. So, in summary, I’d say it’s been fundamental to storytelling in BTM. It’s practically an unconscious bias.
TE: Sometimes you need to work on projects, even if they never see the light of day, to further your process. You mentioned some functionality coming over from that unreleased game, but did anything—art/story/etc.—make its way into Beneath the Mountain?
MA: Yes! My previous project was very precious to me, so I’ve taken as many of the same icons, models, visual effects, and sound effects as I can, into BTM.
TE: That’s great that your previous project gets to live on in a sort of way! I’m sure it helps to save time too, as a recent Tweet of yours hinted at how long it takes to create the assets in Beneath the Mountain (which, the end result is amazing). This reads to me that you’re doing more than just programming the game—aside from programming and testing (as can be seen on Thursdays and Fridays on your Twitch channel), what else are you doing to help bring this game to life? Is BTM a one-man operation?
MA: Yup, the game is made by just me, although I’m thankful for some support from my publisher, Gameclaw Studio. I’m mostly a programmer, but any indie game dev is going to have to be at the center of a lot of different things. I’m not an artist, a composer, or an animator, but I use photoshop, Maya, and other tools daily. The Unity Asset Store (and similar asset stores) is an amazing source for a game developer to pull from. I can purchase a model, take it apart in Maya, put it back together the way that I want, and re-texture the whole thing in Photoshop, and, in the end, it doesn’t look anything like the original. This is generally the process for any of the creatures I implement for the game. The buildings in BTM are a bit more challenging. Let’s just say I’m learning a lot about architecture lol.
TE: Whew, that sounds like a lot, even if there was a team working on this! I can’t imagine keeping myself organized enough to jump from one aspect to the next and show any real progress. Is there a difficulty with that? Of not feeling overwhelmed by all those unchecked boxes?
MA: Dealing with the stress of pre-launch is an ongoing process for me. The only thing I can definitively say is that you can’t look at the big picture all the time, or it’ll be overwhelming. Just focus on the work for today, and that’s good enough. It all adds up. Other than that, I find that rotating what I’m doing, really helps. For example, if I work on new orc models for 3 days straight, it’s very refreshing to move on to sound effects for a few days, and then move on to abilities and special effects for a few. It keeps things interesting, which also keeps productivity high.
TE: That’s incredibly helpful advice that I think can be applied to any project but must be especially helpful in game development where the process can feel repetitious or tedious. What is something you’d want to tell someone that is thinking about getting into game development?
MA: Don’t be afraid to fail. My username everywhere has been The Failosipher for close to a decade now because I wanted to make learning from failure a part of my ongoing improvement (as a developer and as a person). I’ve had maybe 6 or 7 major projects which all fizzled out with various degrees of success over the last 17 years. With each project’s ending there comes a period of sadness where you’re upset about not hitting your mark, but once that passes, you start to look at what you could have done differently, what you could have improved on, etc. Then you find the energy to try again, and the cycle repeats. With each iteration, you learn and improve at your craft.
It’s looking like Beneath the Mountain will be my first “success”, but even if it isn’t, that’s okay. I’ve learned a tremendous amount on this project; about working with a publisher, hitting deadlines, managing a community, pushing updates, fixing bugs, and so many other things. I’ve still got another year (year and a half?) of development on this game after launch, but part of me is already excited to innovate on my process with the next game project.
TE: There is a similar mantra in my life that comes from Kevin Smith and that’s “Failure is Success Training” and it, along with your advice above, is one of the most important mindsets one can have in any walk of life! Taking a step back and looking at what you said about your process described above, what makes creating buildings vs. creatures more challenging?
MA: I’d say the buildings are the greater creative challenge. When I import a model (for a creature), it’s often not too far off where I want the final result. Usually, I’ll just make a few model changes, tweak an animation here and there, and then re-texture it. With a building, you start with nothing but the pieces (blocks of stone, wood planks, pillars, etc.), and have to come up with a design that loudly proclaims what it is (from 4 different camera angles). What I mean is, in an RTS game, a building is almost an icon of what it represents. A blacksmith or brewery building should have visible elements clearly identifying it from very close up, or very far away. Finding a unique aesthetic for each building is really hard, and impossible to budget time for. I’ve made buildings in 3 hours, and I’ve made buildings in 15 hours. There’s tons of trial and error, tons of iteration, and you really just don’t know how long it’ll take.
TE: That sounds less like a challenge and more like a nightmare! But, then again, you’re still doing the work and clearly love it. What got you into game development in the first place? Any particular reason you gravitated towards PC game development vs. console?
MA: I’ve always been a PC gamer, and I think the trope that game developers make games for themselves is true in this case. I’ve always been fascinated with world-building and started making open-world (open-source) multi-player servers when I was still in high school.
TE: That trope feels familiar—I suppose the same could be said about writers and other creators! That said, what was missing from your gaming experience that making Beneath the Mountain has fulfilled?
MA: I love this question because it really gets to the core of “what makes BTM special?”. The answer? A defensive RTS. There are so many RTS games, and most of them follow the same blueprint; collect resources, build a base, expand, and attack the enemy. BTM is a dwarven RTS, and everything dwarven is defensive. What I mean is, yes you collect resources, yes you build a base, but for the most part, you don’t expand or attack nearly as much as other RTS games. Sure, you dig deeper and fight enemies in caves beneath the mountain, but that’s at your own pace. For the majority of the game, you’re trying to defend against the relentless onslaught of orcs pushing at your gates. In summary, BTM plays like Age of Empires, but with the constant threat of invasion from They are Billions.
TE: You know, the first time I played Beneath the Mountain, I got destroyed in about 15 minutes. It’s just now clicking that I was playing with that Warcraft/Starcraft mindset, which is overly offensive. Flipping the script as BTM does change everything about how you play an RTS. I love that you found this need in the RTS community. Speaking of community, Beneath the Mountain has an active online community on Discord. How important is that community to the development of the game?
MA: I really don’t think I can put that into words, but I’ll try. The wonderful dwarfs in my discord have surprised me with their kindness and support since day one. I’ve had people tell me they stayed up way past their bedtime to play BTM. I’ve had people submit pages upon pages of bug reports written with exquisite attention to detail, handing me everything I needed. I’ve had people give me suggestions about new ideas and features that I would have never come up with on my own. BTM started off being entirely my ideas, but it’s so much richer for including the ideas from the community.
In conclusion, the discord community’s kindness is what keeps me happy to do my work. I have a ton of dev work to do at the moment, but I always find myself wishing I had more time to read every message on discord.
TE: It’s amazing what a community can do for a creator. Often, a community can feel unheard when it comes to corporatized properties. But when you have gamers, readers, viewers, listeners—a community—as an independent creator, it means the world. Better yet, it’s wonderful that you’re not just listening and interacting, but taking action and making the Beneath the Mountain community feel heard. As someone who does their fair share of creative work, it’s hard to find the balance of “work, life, family, creative projects, and self-care”. Not only are you developing Beneath the Mountain, but you’re also a bodybuilder, which (I’d imagine) eats into a lot of your waking hours. Is it difficult to balance all those spinning plates?
MA: Yes, and no? My schedule is pretty tight, and weight-lifting eats into a good 15 hours a week, but bodybuilding gives me back as much as I put into it. I spend my daytime working in a quiet office, trying to be as productive as possible. Eventually, there’s a point where you just can’t dev anymore, and that’s the perfect time to go do something physical that requires very little thought. At least for me, it creates a nice balance with the kind of work that indie devs do.
TE: That makes a lot of sense—I don’t visit the gym much these days (the day job, writing, and my family don’t leave much time for it), but when I do something physical (cardio, kettlebells) it’s a freeing hour from everything else. Aside from weight-lifting, are there any other activities that help turn your dev brain off?
MA: Making time for the people you love, and consciously living life. What I mean is, that it’s easy to get pulled into the grind (especially pre-launch), but it’s important to remember that all the things you do outside of your dev life ADD more fuel for your next dev session. So, go out on the weekend, do something fun, do something different, so that when you hit the code on Monday, you’re coming at it with fresh energy and a renewed passion for what you love doing.
TE: That’s another bit of super helpful advice that I think can be applied to all passion projects. Heck, even just everyday work life. And, honestly, I can’t think of a better way to wrap this interview up than by advocating for folks to take time for themselves and for taking care of both their physical and mental health. Before we let you go officially, do you have a launch date for Beneath the Mountain? Where can folks keep up to date with the game and other projects you may be involved in?
MA: Our current estimate is the end of August for an early-access release on Steam. We want to release the game as soon as it’s ready, but there’s no reason to make everyone wait another year and a half when we can do incremental updates. My vision for the game is quite large, and it’s going to take a lot of time to add in all the features we’ve dreamed up. If you’re interested in following the development of Beneath the Mountain, come join the Discord server (https://discord.gg/gpsjYAQYb7), or follow my Twitter (@MaxArnheiter). We’re always looking for people to test the latest builds, so ask to be a Tester and get in on the latest updates!
Huge thanks to Max for taking time out of his busy schedule to chat with us about Beneath the Mountain! It’s a really fun game that harkens back to the real-time-strategy games of our past but puts a new spin on it. Follow Max on Twitter or join the Beneath the Mountain Discord to keep up to date with the development of the game!