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An Interview with Skybox Labs

Talking delicious strategy in TASTEE: Lethal Tactics with Skybox Labs

 

Skybox Labs

 

There seems to have been a recent influx of strategy titles I’ve had the pleasure to review, and the first game leading the pack was Skybox Labs’ TASTEE: Lethal Tactics. Though it doesn’t take the title for the first of the genre, the asynchronous turn-based model was a real treat to delve into. Many hours were spent trying to get through TASTEE’s brutal single player, and when I wanted to relax a bit I challenged Heypoorplayer’s editor-in-chief to a few matches. It was very satisfying dropping some slugs into his skull, and you can read all about that experience in our review. I corresponded with a few members Skybox Labs to talk about the development of TASTEE: Lethal Tactics.

 

TASTEE

 

1. First thing, I read a blog post all about how you accidentally got stuck with the name TASTEE, has the name had any effect on the reception of your game?

Well, to be clear, we didn’t get stuck with it. We actually chose to go with it. Early on in the development of the game, we were acutely aware of the fact that we were making a game in which characters kill one another. We knew that we didn’t want a game that looked too real viscerally. We wanted the emphasis to be on a cerebral competition between 2 tactical minds. Like chess, in a way.

So while we did launch into Early Access as Lethal Tactics, none of us were 100% happy with it because it seemed to come across a bit generic and sterile. It communicated the core action well, but it had no real flavor. At the same time, the name TASTEE was always the internal project code name and had a spot in our hearts and minds. Even after the official naming and press releases, we always called the game TASTEE.

When we were making the push towards exiting Early Access, we had quite a few meetings to review our branding of the game. It was during these meetings that we felt that we wanted something a bit more unique and recognizable in the name of the game. We knew the underlying narrative setting was that of a set of hired mercs operating out of a run down diner or bar. TASTEE just kept coming up. So we had our Art Director begin to create some logos of what the diner/bar would be called. He came back with some really cool ones but the one that seemed to click was a neon sign for a fictitious steak house called Tastee. That was it. From that point, we knew that the game would be called TASTEE. We kept the Lethal Tactics part for consistency sake and used it more like a modifier, or subtitle.

Since launching, the game has been described as “uncompromising” and “tough as nails” by reviewers and fans. That said, it’s also been described by many as an approachable tactics game due to its theme, humour, and characters. Having “TASTEE” in the name helps highlight that lighter side. It’s also made for some fun pun-filled headlines.

 

2. Many of the other titles developed under the Skybox Labs moniker have been predominately turn-based strategy games. While TASTEE fits under this category, what inspired the development of asynchronous game play?

TASTEE: Lethal Tactics was SkyBox Labs’ first independent effort on Steam. After working on the AOE/AOM series for a number of years, we had learned what it took to make an excellent strategy game.

One great thing about asynchronous play is that a player can have multiple games going on simultaneously. You aren’t tied to one game, one result. In some respects, TASTEE can be that game you play in between playing other games.

 

3. Earlier builds of the game had different skills to choose for each character. What led to the decision to make single characters for each skill rather than the unlocking we saw in the beta? Who’s your favorite character and why?

With the premise of the game being that of a set of mercs operating out of a dingy roadside diner, it felt like there needed to be a larger cast of characters to help flesh out the narrative. We wanted to be able to introduce new characters that associate with the map locations so we sat down and came up with some archetypes that might work.

For example, the Wild Acres Ranch map is a clandestine drug lab so we wanted a nod to that. Hindenburg was the result (and yes, there is obviously a Breaking Bad reference in both the costume and the name).

Choosing our favourite character would be like choosing our favourite child. That said, today let’s go with Hoser because he’s Canadian 😉

 

4. While playing TASTEE I got a similar feeling to that of different tabletop combat games. Were there any influences, be it video game/tabletop or otherwise that went into TASTEE‘s development?

Our biggest influence would be Laser Squad Nemesis. LSN created the entire genre. We also often get compared to Jagged Alliance, Door Kickers and Frozen Synapse. A couple of the team members are also big Warmachine fans and used to play regularly during lunch breaks until we got really busy making TASTEE.

 

5. TASTEE‘s interface allows for the game to be played asynchronously. Having a feature that allows games to be played over a long period of time reminds me of a new age of playing chess by mail. Was a big part of developing the game focused on its multiplayer potential?

Yes. Initially TASTEE: Lethal Tactics was multiplayer only. Throughout Early Access we received overwhelming demand to create a single player campaign (and we did), but having a seamless, competitive, outstanding multiplayer experience has been our focus from the beginning.

The thing we realized early on was that this was going to be a test of tactical know-how between 2 players, much like chess. Because of this, the planning part of the game is every bit as important as the simulation and payoff. Having the game be asynchronous meant not placing onerous time constraints on the player’s planning phase. They have more time to try different plans to see how it might play out because once a player commits a turn, there is no turning back. They have to live with the outcome.

 

6. What seems to separate TASTEE from other asynchronous strategy titles is the aesthetic. What inspired the character development and level design?

TASTEE is, at it’s core, a series of epic gun fights. So when approaching the level design and overall aesthetic of the level art, we pulled from a lot of cinematic influences. Movies like Heat, Kill Bill, Way of the Gun, Sicario, and Man on Fire are favorites among the members of the team so it was interesting to see how we could translate some of the settings and tone into the level design and art. The dusty, western themed maps like Colonia and Laredo Junction are clearly inspired by movies like Kill Bill, Sicario, El Mariachi, etc.

As for the character design, we knew we didn’t want it to feel too “real”. We knew we wanted a certain lightheartedness and aimed for something that clearly communicated to players that while, yes, you are killing people, it didn’t feel like the people were real. There needed to be a bit of exaggeration in the way the characters moved, got hit, and died. It was important that we were not glorifying the kill yet still visually communicated it to let the players know that a decisive action (i.e. the kill) had occurred. It’s a fine line to walk, but we think we got there.

 

7. Skybox Labs has been airing Tactical Tuesday and TASTEE Thursdays; how did streaming help with the development and reception of the game?

Thanks for watching! Tactical Tuesdays and TASTEE Thursdays are initiatives that we started less for development and reception, but for our community. Tactical Tuesdays was created to show off cool matches that happened between community members, and also to be a teaching tool to help players with tips & tricks. TASTEE Thursdays was created to have a venue of live communication between us and our community.

 

8. TASTEE‘s approach to strategy definitely doesn’t hold your hand. While the preview feature is certainly handy, it doesn’t cover everything players are going to run into. What was it like developing the balance for that tool?

The part of the game that is most rewarding is when you formulate a plan and it is executed exactly as you wanted. There is no more tense moment than once both players have submitted a turn and you click that View Results button and then watch what happens. Sometimes your tactics are executed perfectly and sometimes, the opponent winds up doing something completely unexpected and you wind up losing a key unit.

The preview tool is a critical element to the game in that it enables you to test out what you think your opponent is going to do. It’s a way of trying without dying. Of course, the caveat to all of this is that you don’t know for sure if the enemy is where you think, and you don’t know if they will do what you simulated in the preview. Using the preview does certainly give you some level of peace of mind, but because once you’ve committed your turn, there is nothing more you can do for that turn. You have to live with your decisions.

Here’s a tip for the preview tool that not a lot of people know about. During your planning phase you can actually move and place orders for your enemy’s ghosts. Moving the ghosts around and testing out several hypothetical scenarios definitely makes the preview tool that much more powerful.

There weren’t really any balance concerns. All we wanted to do was provide the player with the ability to simulate orders for the enemy units.

9. Are there any plans for new DLC in the future?

Yes, we’ll be supporting TASTEE: Lethal Tactics with additional languages, game updates, and DLC in the future. In developing game updates and new content, we always look to our community first. Our community is very important to us and we read every piece of feedback on our Steam community forum.

 

10. Is there anything else you’d like to add/say/pitch about your game or upcoming games?

We’ve got a lot in the works here are SkyBox Labs, but nothing we can talk about just this minute. In the meantime, stay tuned on our Twitch, and please follow us:

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I’d like to thank all of Skybox Labs and specifically Shyang Kong, Derek MacNeil, Steve Silvester, Gary Lam, and Matt Linsingan for talking to us. TASTEE: Lethal Tactics is available (and currently on sale!) on Steam.

 

Alex loves all sorts of gaming from the tabletop to tv screen. When he isn't playing games he helps produce content for a little software company. He currently resides in Chicago, IL with his girlfriend and two dogs.

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