Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
To me, strategy is one of the most absorbing video game genres, and it’s also one of the oldest. How do developers even begin to implement the intricacies and complexities of strategic warfare? And in a genre dominated by a handful of key players, what does it take to stand out?
The long-awaited turn-based strategy title Cantata is finally available to play through early access. I spoke to Kyle Kukshtel, creative director of Afterschool Studios, to learn more about the ins and outs of developing a game like this in 2022.
Naturally, I began by asking Kyle where it all started and what his inspirations were. Development began nearly seven years ago — a spark of inspiration whilst listening to a podcast:
“I had listened to a Three Moves Ahead podcast about the foibles of modern 4X games and thought, “Hey, I could solve some of these issues”, and I got to work sort of prototyping an idea along the lines of Advance Wars in space + light 4X elements.
Advance Wars is probably the most obvious inspiration. Cantata and Advance Wars share a similar core ideology — trying to provide a compelling tactical experience that mostly exists ‘on the map’ instead of in menus.”
Aside from allusions to the Gameboy Advance hit Advanced Wars, Cantata will also feel familiar to board game lovers. Having recently been enjoying Scythe — a game with a map so big we could barely find a table big enough to play it on — I’ve been longing for video games to catch up. According to the Kyle, the team shared this sentiment:
“I think I was more looking at board games [than drawing inspiration from video games]. Things like Inis, Twilight Imperium, Chaos in the Old World, and Root — large-scale area control games. If you know those games, the line to Cantata seems a lot more clear. Personally, I think a lot of the best design work in games right now is happening in board games and, honestly, I probably play more board games now than video games.”
After expressing my own assumptions of the design process being incredibly complicated, Kyle spoke of a “push/pull” during development — the ambition to create something that was both deep and specific as well as being flexible enough for modding:
“I think you hear that a lot from developers — that the hard parts of development are all the things that players take for granted. At a baseline for Cantata, building the game to support modding from the start has been a pretty huge task.
The ability to mod is built into the core of the game’s operation (even the “main game” itself is a mod), which means that we are often unable to program and design systems for specific behavior and have to account for edge cases.“
Finely tuned, intuitively flexible
It was clear that modding was an essential part of Cantata’s ethos. Titles like Age of Empires and Total War are kept alive today through the liberal implementation of mods, so it was exciting to learn that this would be a huge focus for this game going forward:
“Strategy games are a weird space because they are effectively dominated by a few incumbents — Paradox, Firaxis, and Creative Assembly. The sort of target people we want to play Cantata are likely asking themselves, “Should I play Cantata or should I play Total War?”. We’re a small studio, so we can’t compete on all the things that make Total War a compelling option (amazing graphics, TONS of 3D art, millions of systems, narrative, etc.), but we can be more nimble than those studios.”
He also spoke of the inherent challenge of being in a class of their own; there aren’t many other similar games on this large a scale, so there was a necessity to switch-up play styles so things didn’t get stale:
“It often feels like we’re feeling around in the dark until we strike on something that works. You can really see this play out in the campaign as well — some missions are large-scale battles, and others zoom in a bit more on a small contingent of units.”
We discussed these mechanics a little more deeply. With such a robust arsenal of tools available to the would-be warlord, I was curious as to what Kyle considered to be the game’s most unique tactical advantages:
“I think the logistics component is a huge deal, and the region mechanics are part of that. It’s something we’re always working on to improve, but having a logistics and base-building component really grounds the gameplay in tangible constraints (and hence creative problem solving) that aren’t reducible to micro-unit positionings or one unit’s specific stats. It makes the game have stakes beyond the current battle and forces you to think holistically”
He gave the example of the multi-dimensional victories a player experiences during a typical match:
“Maybe you lose a front line skirmish, but if at the same time you were throwing units there to split an opponent’s logistics focus so you could flank a rear position to fully cut their supply lines — that feels really good. No tactics game gives you that same experience, and outside of really heavy-hitting wargames it’s hard to find that experience anywhere else, and certainly not in something as approachable as Cantata.”
A galactic saga
I switched gears to discuss the narrative and visuals — the ying to Cantata’s yang so far as creating a novel, modern strategy experience. I fell in love with the game’s eerie pixel-art aesthetic. How did this style come to be?:
“At some point, I had read or watched something Jenny Jiao Hsia had mentioned for her game Beglitched. She said “just make it pink”. I was also browsing the Tig forums image crawler and saw CobraLad’s (Cantata’s pixel artist) orange tanks and immediately thought “that is what Cantata should look like”.
This sort of led me into a hole of looking at lots of more colorful sci-fi art (Killian Eng was a major inspiration here), which eventually led to the style that we do now. Additionally, I knew it was a way we could stand out.”
Kyle went on to explain how the simplicity of the art style fostered versatility — an asset for the future of a strong modding community:
“If people look at Cantata and see an amazing Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or Dune mod, we’re effectively offering people more than just Cantata, but a whole universe of games that play in our tactical mode. That gives someone a reason to play Cantata over Civilization or CK3 or whatever else. It’s meant a bit to be our secret weapon, so we really hope it takes off.”
Lastly, I quizzed him about the game’s lore. The narrative is something I’ve never paid much attention to in my strategy titles, but Cantata’s episodic tales had me hooked from the start. I wanted to know how the team struck a balance between conveying a compelling story and keeping a steady gameplay pace:
“Magic’s current lead designer Mark Rosewater talks about bottoms-up vs. top-down design: where the former is effectively mechanics first and the latter is story first. We’re really in the latter camp, as when we first sat down to think of the commanding officers and units in the game, the question wasn’t “who makes sense as a supporting character?” but “who exists in this world?”. It helped us find more interesting characters to populate the game and world with, and it helped us eschew stereotyped ‘roles’ that I think players are tired of.”
A promising, community-driven future
Strategy games have seen somewhat of a rebirth in recent years, and what’s most impressive to me about Cantata is how it draws upon decades of innovation — both in video games and board games — to create something that’s wholly familiar yet in a league of its own: something that’s tightly woven yet flexible.
Most exciting of all is what the future holds so far as modding; as has been a common thread throughout our discussion above, the game not only offers an inventive approach to an old formula, but it also offers a blank canvas.
I thank Kyle for his time, and we wish the team all the best for the future. We’ll be looking forward to seeing Cantata evolve.
Frequently asked questions
Question: What will I get with the early access release?
Answer: The early access release will give you the first three chapters of the campaign. You’ll also have basic access to the modding tools.
Question: When will the full game launch?
Answer: The full launch doesn’t have a set release date yet. Updates will be split into three distinct phases that will proceed 1.0. You can view the early access road map here.
Question: Where is the best place to connect with the developers and learn more?
Answer: The official Cantata discord would be your best bet: A link can be found at the bottom of the early access road map page linked above!