Our Interview With The Astronauts About Witchfire

The Astronauts, the developers of Witchfire sat down with us to talk about EGS exclusivity, difficulty, co-op, weapons, AI, spells and more.

Witchfire, the upcoming first-person shooter roguelike hybrid from The Astronauts, the same studio known for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, is slated to come out for Early Access on PC sometime this year. We got to sit down with some devs who explained the game’s changes and mechanics, and why they were made.

We love challenging games, but we also love games that offer alternative ways of success to just being really good manually. If you look at Soulsbornes, for example, one way to win is to “git gud”, but you can also play super smart or even overlevel yourself. With this in mind, going rogue-lite instead of rogue-like was the solution we preferred. In practical terms, it simply means that not all is lost when you die. As simple as this. And yeah, originally the game was more like, say, Killing Floor kind of experience, where you’re driven from one hot zone to another. But we’re fans of immersive sims, and we love the idea of merging gameplay with immersion. We looked at the world we created and we thought to ourselves it’d really be a shame if this was all just for show, and if the game would be almost this linear experience, with arenas blocked by magical barriers. So we got rid of the barriers. With great player freedom comes a great amount of hard work, but we feel it was totally worth it.

Witchfire is already taking large risks by releasing only on the Epic Games Store in addition to being exclusive to the PC for now. However, The Astronauts have given their reasons, especially since the studio is made of former People Can Fly developers, who have worked with Epic in the past.

It’s really not that complicated. Witchfire is a huge project for a small team like ours. And it’s not cheap, once you add all these years of work. A deal with Epic allows us to continue to focus on the game instead of cutting corners or agreeing to an investment we’d regret later down the road. We’ve worked with Epic before, after all, my previous studio, People Can Fly, was bought by Epic back in the day. We know each other, the cooperation is great, they’re very supportive. And we can release wherever we want as soon as the Early Access phase is over.

Going straight from a first-person mystery game like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter to a fast-paced first-person shooter pseudo-roguelike like Witchfire is a big step for The Astronauts. But while the two games may be different, the studio’s philosophy behind them is the same.

One might think there’s just no way that an interactive drama like Ethan could have anything to do with a dark fantasy shooter like Witchfire – but that’s not true. One of the biggest risks – at least, right or wrong, that’s how we felt about it, that it is a risk we took with Ethan was to trust the players in every way imaginable. The game even starts with a disclaimer, or a warning, if you will, that it is “a narrative experience that does not hold your hand”. From that angle, be it discovering how the game world works on their own or understanding what the game is truly about, we’ve decided to trust the players. It worked. And we’re trusting the players again with Witchfire.

Of course, despite the game supposedly coming out in Early Access this year, the fact that we’re almost halfway through the year with nothing does raise some questions. The Astronauts are aware of this, but have assured us that they’re still close to releasing the game on Early Access and it won’t be delayed further.

Yes, but not by much. We really suck at estimating the amount of work needed for a game like Witchfire and the time it takes with a team like ours. I mean, this is the team two times smaller than the small team we had in 2002-2004 when making Painkiller, a game infinitely less complex. But we’re close.

One of the biggest gameplay mechanics in Witchfire is the ability to not only utilize guns while fighting enemies, but also a variety of spells. However, for now, The Astronauts aren’t sure of a full number, and don’t want to reveal all of the spells and weapons they have in store for us.

We don’t have a final number of spells set in stone, that’s where the Early Access thing comes in. Like, the whole idea for us doing Early Access – something none of us has ever done before – is to develop and tweak the game depending on the player feedback. As for how you get the spells – and weapons and other cool gear – we’re not ready to reveal that yet. Which is a constant struggle for us, because on one hand we’d love to reveal all the long hours we’ve put into the game and show everything that we’ve got, but on the other we’d love for the players to have an unspoiled experience and discover things on their own terms.

Due to the game coming to Early Access, the studio also can’t really give us an exact number on the kinds of guns we’ll be getting. Roguelikes are often full of various creative weapons that players can create builds around, so hopefully when the game does come out we’ll get a good number of weapons.

Same answers as above, but we think the final number should be pretty high, higher than spells, possibly. Again, depends on the feedback. Worth mentioning isthat the guns are upgradeable and that slightly changes the way the players use them. So you could say that in Witchfire, a gun is a gun and a half. Variety is the perfect word to use. The idea behind guns is actually the same one I had for Painkiller, which is: all guns have to differ dramatically one from another. So we don’t have, say, a hand cannon and then another hand cannon that has one less bullet in the clip but offers slightly higher damage and range. No, all our weapons feel unique and require a unique set of skills to use them to their full potential.”

Being an Early Access game, this is only the start of what we’ll be seeing when Witchfire actually comes out. It will also mean that the game can have a full release date that will likely be some time after the game releases in Early Access so that the developers can fine-tune it, and The Astronauts actually have a time frame.

Considering how bad we are with time estimation, I’m not sure we should risk guessing the release date for the final version… Let’s say twelve to eighteen months after the Early Access starts. We’ll see if it’s a PC then consoles, or a sim-launch.

As with many games, various things can change over the course of development, and Witchfire is no exception; according to the developers, the game that would eventually become Witchfire started development in 2015, though it didn’t become what it is until sometime later.

After Ethan Cater, we started developing a new game at the end of 2015, but for a while it was a different kind of game. A sci-fi survival sim, if you can believe that. The real Witchfire started in the middle of 2017, if I recall it correctly. The team grew to 12 people since then. Not counting cooperators like composers, of course.

Another interesting issue that The Astronauts is currently mulling over is whether or not to add cooperative play to the game. While they’re fairly sure they could implement it, considering the game’s roguelike roots, there are issues that it could cause outside of technical ones.

I think that technically we’d still be able to do coop but I’m not sure we want to. There’s something special about Witchfire being kind of an immersive sim, and I’m worried a coop might trivialize that experience. More importantly, I’m not sure a coop is possible with the current mechanics and AI
that is fine tuned to the single player experience. Like, what do we do if we have so many enemies on screen that anything more would kill the framerate? Do we keep the number of enemies in coop but double their health? But that might affect the experience in a bad way, because suddenly an enemy that your coop friend does not shoot at with you feels like a bullet sponge. And so on, and so forth.

Since roguelikes are intended to be games that are difficult to complete for most people on the first go, challenge is always an issue, one that The Astronauts have taken note of.

Yes. Our mantra is “challenging but fair”. You die to your mistakes, not because the game cheats or is fuzzy or janky in its combat logic. But also, souls-like – as I mentioned it before – means to us that there’s more than one way to deal with a problem. So the game is more about how you want to overcome a serious challenge rather than training you to beat that challenge in a specific way the designers intended.

Another part of game difficulty is how intelligent the AI is. However, the developers have also thought that through, and are hoping to strike a balance with enemy AI that will keep the game challenging while also making it fun to play.

We don’t believe in “smart”. We believe in “fun”. It’s actually much easier to make enemies smart rather than fun. I think we have a pretty unique approach to AI. Enemies are both dumb and smart at the same time. Dumb, because they’re basically ghouls, zombies, the undead. Smart, because they’re puppets that the witch commandeers. That mix results in something that is hopefully a fun experience for the players. They’re fighting the undead hordes, but in reality they’re playing war chess with the witch.

And finally, the last big part of most roguelikes: Boss fights. The culmination of a run in many instances, the boss fights of Witchfire will definitely be similarly important, though The Astronauts have their own philosophy on how they work.

With our bosses, we try not to go for a directed experience but rather answer the question of how a fight against this or that big boy would unfold if this world existed for real? Of course, at least in some cases we respect the golden rules of boss fights like phases, but I hope we’ll add something fresh to the general idea, too.

While we don’t exactly know when Witchfire will be released for Early Access, if The Astronauts have put as much work and care into it as they did with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, hopefully it will end up being just as fun.

Hunter is senior news writer at SegmentNext.com. He is a long time fan of strategy, RPG, and tabletop games. When he is not playing games, he likes to write about them.