Co-Op and Small Armies Make A Year of Rain an Accessible RTS

A Year of Rain Daedalic Entertainment and lead designer Christoph Carstensen

The German studio Daedalic Entertainment is best known for developing point-and-click adventure games like The Whispered World and Deponia, which is why it was surprising when the company announced in March that it was working on its first multiplayer real-time strategy game, A Year of Rain.

“It’s pretty insane to be honest,” said lead designer Christoph Carstensen. “We tried to limit ourselves. It’s an RTS with three factions but every faction has ‘just’ seven units and three heroes. We’re trying to really focus on having this first small package be really, really good.”

A Year of Rain enters Steam Early Access on Nov. 6, offering players the first of three planned campaigns that will each take 5-7 hours to complete, as well as the game’s 2 vs. 2 skirmish mode. But Carstensen, who’s inspired by the genre’s powerhouses like Warcraft, StarCraft, and Age of Empires, has big ambitions for if the project proves successful.

“If people like it, we could scale it to a StarCraft level and have a hub with mission structures where you can talk to people and have more in-game cutscenes,” he said. “It’s just amazing what you can produce with what we have right now. It’s impressive to see what comes out of a team that’s limited but really talented.”

A Year of Rain Daedalic Entertainment and lead designer Christoph Carstensen

Carstensen was hired in February as part of a 25-person team working on A Year of Rain. He said their limited scale has forced them to “pick our battles” and find other ways to distinguish themselves from the competition. The primary way has been a focus on co-op play, with both the campaign and PvP modes meant to be shared with a friend.

“Having the focus on the two-player helps with things like accessibility,” Carstensen said. “One person can explain to another person if there’s some difference in skill levels. All of the mechanics are designed to be co-op-focused, so there are different heroes and abilities that work really well together and unit combinations and army compositions.”

Early Access players will get to play the campaign for House Rupah, a classic fantasy-themed faction featuring humans, elves, and dwarves. The next campaign will tell the story of the Restless Regiment, a group of elite undead warriors, and the third will be devoted to the Outcasts, tribes of monstrous races like gnolls, frilled lizardmen, and cyclops. The campaign missions, which take about 15 to 30 minutes, will teach players different strategies they’ll need to succeed in PvP play while also telling the stories of each faction’s heroes. The two players will control their own heroes and even see different cutscenes during the game.

“Everybody has their own goals and motivations, and everybody tries to survive but some are more aggressive than others, which fosters some conflict which we like to have in our story, which we take pride in because we are an adventure game company,” Carstensen said. “We really try to focus on the narrative part in the campaign.”

A Year of Rain Christoph Carstensen

Each faction also has its own strengths and weakness in PvP. The Outcast structures consist of giant lizards and dinosaurs that will happily munch on grass while serving as a base for workers, which are a cross between pangolin and kobolds. Those beasts can get up and move locations if your base runs out of resources. The dwarven-built human structures, which look like miniature versions of buildings in World of WarCraft’s human city of Stormwind, can’t move, but they are much harder to destroy. Because players will be working together, they need to not only be aware of what units are best at killing specific other units, but which ones will work together to produce synergies like pulling a bunch of enemies in close and then hitting them all with an AOE attack.

Skirmish mode is designed to encourage short, small-scale battles. As your army gets bigger, it will gain an upkeep cost that will reduce the effectiveness of your resource gathering and make it more difficult to build additional units. Rather than requiring players to build specific structures or units to expand the size of the army, A Year of Rain just applies a cap that can never be altered.

“We wanted to streamline the game and get away from unnecessary features that make the game a little more complex or give the player more mental work to do,” Carstensen said.

Other abilities meant to make players’ lives easier include a suggested build order guide and notifications when workers have become idle due to a resource node running out. Each of the three maps that will be releasing with early access pushes players into conflict in the center of the map by having resources run out quickly so they’ll have to move to more vulnerable locations.

“In the middle of the map is one of the last mines, but it’s also very effective,” said Carstensen. “We want players to have little fights and skirmishes and then, at the end, big fights with ultimate abilities.”

With smaller armies, more emphasis is placed on micromanaging the player’s hero, who will level up and gain new abilities during the course of the match. They can gain experience points from fighting their opponents or by defeating NPC minibosses and bosses found around map. Those victories typically require both members of a team to work together, but then they also reward the team with temporary buffs that can be used to rush into battle with their opponents.

The first content that Daedalic plans to release after entering Early Access is a second PvP mode called Against All Odds where players control either an army without a hero or just a hero that must defeat the whole army with the help of a “spider mech” found at the center of the map. The team is also working on releasing a map editor so that players can design their own battles.

“We’d like to do that as soon as possible because we know how valuable it can be for a game and for a community,” Carstensen said.

The team expects it will be making regular changes to keep the game balanced as feedback comes in from Early Access, though it’s already gotten a lot of help developing and polishing the experience thanks to beta play. Daedalic hosted a tournament during the beta and has replay and observer modes within the game to make it easier for players to hone their skills.

“We’re trying to infuse some esport capabilities, and if the game takes off and people like it, we hope that they do play competitively,” Carstensen said.

For more about the process of making A Year of Rain, watch this exclusive dev diary.

About the author

Samantha Nelson
Contributor at The A.V. Club, Polygon and the Chicago Tribune. Member of the Critical Hit podcast.