PAX AUS 2022 Indie Showcase - Aethermon: Tower of Darkness
The PAX AUS Indie Showcase is a chance to see some of the best new and upcoming titles from the ANZ development scene with past winners including celebrated games such as Unpacking, Hollow Knight, The Gardens Between, Hacknet, Wayward Strand and many more. The 2022 Indie Showcase is bursting at the seams, with 2021 winners invited back for the in-person experience they missed out on. Furthermore, the inclusion of Tabletop gaming means there is an even larger variety of experiences on offer on the show floor. Player2 encourages anyone visiting PAX AUS to make their way to the PAX Rising area and check out the following title as well as the many other excellent indies on display.
Monster Tamers are a long-running game genre, starting back in the late 80’s with the Shin Megami Tensei franchise and continuing with Dragon Quest V until 1996, when a certain set of Pocket Monsters exploded on the Gameboy, becoming one of the largest gaming franchises of all time across both console and tabletop gaming.
3rd Place Games, founded by developer Chris Ng, has entered the arena with Aethermon, a co-op focused roguelike card game for two to five players utilising elements of the Monster Tamer genre and featuring compelling art by Fabio Porta. Player2 spoke to Chris alongside 3rd Place Games’ Creative Director Sarah Whillier to find out more about the development process of Aethermon
Player 2: Hi Chris & Sarah, great to have you both! What led to the founding of 3rd Place Games and the development of Aethermon?
Chris: I founded 3rd Place Games years ago when I was playing around with game design. I developed some great ideas, but never found the game which just needed to exist.
Early in the pandemic, I was toying with an old game idea that had never been fully realised. It had crisp simplified JRPG mechanics but it was missing something that would just completely bring it together.
Sarah: At some point Chris asked me, “If I said ‘Pokemon inspired board game’, … good idea or bad idea?” and I couldn’t get it out of my head. The possibility space seemed so underutilised. I joined the team about two weeks later, working on the thematic/narrative side.
Chris: A week later we had a name, we started reaching out to artists and Aethermon was born.
Player 2: How did the team feel discovering you’d been selected as a winner for the 2022 Indie Showcase?
Sarah: I think it was about 3 am when the email came in. Chris actually woke me up to tell me. We were ecstatic!
This is the biggest achievement we could have at this stage in our development, so it’s really exciting. Up to now playtests have been mostly family and friends. The PAX Aus Indie Showcase is an opportunity for us to share this with a really big audience. As a PAX first-timer myself, I am also really excited to see what the rest of the convention has to offer, and check out the other showcase winners.
Player 2: There are obviously a lot of elements in Aethermon inspired by JRPGS such as the Pokemon series, Dragon Quest and other titles with Monster Collection/Battling elements like the SMT franchise. What would you say have been the biggest inspirations from both video games, other tabletop games and elsewhere?
Chris: We are so lucky to be developing Aethermon on the back of decades of gameplay innovation. While retro JRPG’s like Pokemon and Final Fantasy inspired Aethermon thematically, mechanically Aethermon borrows more from modern titles.
Recent roguelikes, like Inscryption and Hades, demonstrated how powerful a game’s narrative becomes when the player’s experience continues in between playthroughs. This inspired Aethermon’s roguelike elements that include mechanically distinct endings that can only be unlocked through multiple playthroughs.
Furthermore, these games provided the blueprint for introducing progressively more complex mechanics on successive playthroughs. Aethermon has adopted this strategy, so the player’s learning curve on their first game is relatively light, but after each run players unlock new global abilities/items/interactions which add more depth to successive experiences.
The tabletop game that most inspired Aethermon has to be T.I.M.E Stories. T.I.M.E Stories fits an entire world into a couple of decks of cards, then lets you explore it just like a point-and-click adventure! This was not only the direct inspiration for Aethermon’s quest system, but demonstrated that board games not only can but should be a place for epic storytelling.
Sarah: Narratively, I’ve also looked a lot beyond the game sphere especially toward heroic and epic storytelling – myths, legends, fairytales, modern hero stories like the Lord of the Rings. When you sit down to play Aethermon, we want you to feel like you’re part of a glorious tale of courage and heroism. But of course, the choices you make are up to you.
Player 2: Can you give us the elevator pitch for Aethermon – the sort you might have to give out to the hordes of people wandering around PAX AUS?
In Aethermon you team up with your friends, choose magical creature companions, then battle your way up an ancient tower to save the world. To solve the towers’s mysteries, you must face difficult choices and complete heroic quests – but be careful, the decisions you make will affect your future playthroughs!
Player 2: What have been the biggest challenges throughout the development of Aethermon? How much has it changed over time?
Sarah: Aethermon distils the experience of playing a 40-hour immersive video game into a 1-hour tabletop experience. That’s a pretty big ask! A lot of things need to be adapted to make that work.
Consider for instance player overhead – how much mental effort it would be to manually calculate the numerical backend of a video game battle. Even if you’re the rare person who can comfortably track that much data, most people wouldn’t find that fun. Finding ways to streamline the experience to be more user-friendly but still engaging has been a big challenge of Aethermon.
Chris: A huge part of the JRPG experience is character progression. We’ve simplified this process for players by reducing it to a single choice. Players have a number of cards representing the new moves their character can learn: choose one. You add this card to your hand, and gain max HP as directed on the card (inversely proportional to the strength of the learned move).
While this represented a simplification of other mechanics, in some cases more difficult compromises were inevitable.
Consider the breadth vs depth of our creature roster. Limited by physical components, we could not create a playable creature roster similar to that of Pokemon, while still ensuring each creature had a distinct mechanical identity.
We reasoned that a fundamental aesthetic of monster-taming games is knowledge that your companion was special unlike its peers. That being the case we couldn’t compromise on depth; we instead created a one-trainer-one-monster system, allowing us to invest more heavily into a smaller number of evolutionary lines. The result is 60 Aethermon, each with a unique place in the Aethermon ecosystem.
Sarah: Another difficulty has been just the number of changes the game has gone through up to now. We started with a different game concept, much more exploratory and with overworld features reminiscent of franchises like Mario Party and Dokapon – but at some point we realised that it wasn’t the right game to introduce first. The game we’re debuting at PAX Aus is a smaller story, just a part of the larger World of Aethermon, but it has allowed us to make the narrative element richer, plus introduce our battle system and of course all our actual Aethermon magical creatures.
Player 2: What can PAX AUS attendees look forward to at the Aethermon booth?
Sarah: Lots of things! Firstly the game itself – we have created a special scenario just for PAX that plays in just 30 minutes. Form a team of five players, choose one of 9 premade Aethermon characters, then battle your way up a 3-floor tower.
We’ll be running a tournament too – every day the teams that achieve the highest score against each of the final bosses win an enamel pin of that boss – a sun dragon or a moon dragon!
If you can’t secure a spot in the demo scenario or simply don’t have 30 minutes, every attendee can get a free Aethermon creature tattoo, spin the prize wheel for some free merch and browse the Aethermon Field Guide to delve deeper into Aethermon’s lore.
We’re at booth TSI7, just near the tabletop play area. We’d love for you to swing by and say hello!