Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Interview: Craig Stern of Sinister Design

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 7, 2011

Craig Stern is the dude behind the indie game studio Sinister Design. He’s one of those developers who seems to be able to do it all – code, art, music, writing. I get really jealous of those guys. And on top of that, as we find out below, he’s apparently pretty smooth with the ladies, using lines like, “Hey, want to be in my videogame?” Man, if I was single, I’d totally try that one…

Oh, wait where was I?

His latest game, Telepath RPG: Servants of God, combines turn-based tactical combat and open-world gameplay with heavy characterization and dialog to tell a story of rebels battling a totalitarian theocracy.  The game is reaching the final stages of development, and is currently available via pre-order at the Sinister Design website. A free demo / tutorial of the game is also available there.

I caught up with Craig and hit him with a barrage of questions about his game, and his path to becoming an indie RPG developer.  For your entertainment and edification, here’s what ensued…

Rampant Coyote: Not that you have to establish your cred or anything, but I’m always curious as to what kind of games influenced today’s indie designers. What games really pushed your buttons? Did you ever play a game and say, “I wish I could have been involved in making that one?”

Craig Stern: The original Shining Force games were a huge influence on me growing up—I loved the heck out of those. Strategy games, such as chess and Magic the Gathering, occupied a lot of my teenage years.

I used to run Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition campaigns with friends back in middle school and high school. I wrote and ran scenarios for the group, but I came to find AD&D’s rules cumbersome and rigid. Its heavy reliance on dice made it very difficult to have combat that was either narratively coherent or tactically satisfying, and the game simply didn’t have systems for much of anything outside of these unpleasantly randomized combat scenarios. So in essence, you would have short stretches of role-playing interrupted by long, poorly-balanced dice games.

Later, I would be strongly influenced by Fallout and Planescape Torment with their rich, interesting worlds and character interactions. Oh, and Dungeon Keeper. Brilliant  game, that.

Rampant Coyote: And on that note – what was it that pushed you over the edge to become an indie developer? Why and how did you go about it?

Craig Stern: I’ve always enjoyed making games. When I was a kid, I would do things like take a pack of index cards and create a card game. Once, I bought an oversized game of checkers from the Cracker Barrel, then created a strategy game by assigning each piece a playing card from a standard 52-card deck.

I started making video games back in 2006, the summer before I began law school. I had a few months to kill before classes started, so I taught myself Flash and created a small RPG.

Rampant Coyote: Your newest game, currently in development, is Telepath RPG: Servants of God. You’ve described it in the past as part “Japanese strategy RPG, part free-roaming Western RPG.” For those who haven’t yet played the online demo, describe your game. What’s it like, what makes it great, and what is the story about?

Craig Stern: Telepath RPG: Servants of God (a.k.a. TSoG) is like an inverted funnel: it starts off very linear, then opens up wider and wider. By the end of the game, it’s all about currying favor with different factions around the continent, trying to secure troops and financing in order to successfully invade your home city, overthrow the theocratic government that has taken root there, and restore democracy.

TSoG is sort of my dream game, the game I always wanted to play as a kid: which is, essentially, a cross between Shining Force and Fallout. So you get your Western cake of exploration and role-playing and you get to eat it topped with the rich, creamy icing of Japanese-style turn-based tactical battles.

Rampant Coyote: Now, this game is actually the third chapter in a series of games – including two spinoff titles, the Telepath Psy Arena games. How long have you been working on the game series, and on TSoG in particular?

Craig Stern: The first game in the series was released back in 2006. It wasn’t a very good game, unfortunately, and I’ve grown more and more ambitious with every release since then. With TSoG, I’ve arguably gone a little overboard. I started developing it around the end of 2007, if that tells you anything.

Rampant Coyote: So your games are in Flash, which is pretty ubiquitous by now as a powerful development tool. But for most players, Flash is synonymous with “Free Web Games.” Yet TSoG is a pretty major, ambitious endeavor – regardless of underlying engine. How do you work with that perception in creating a premium, commercial, downloadable game?

Craig Stern: See, here’s the thing. People see the phrase “flash game,” and they immediately think of portals like Armor Games, Kongregate or Newgrounds, sites that are overflowing with thousands of free games playable in-browser, and many (if not most) of them poorly constructed rip-offs of other games. Players have been trained to expect these sorts of shoddy games out of Flash. However, as you point out, Flash is actually capable of much more than that! People confuse the business model (free and ad-supported) with the engine’s actual capabilities.

Flash can support games with surprising depth and sophistication. Closure, Meat Boy and Fantastic Contraption were all originally created in Flash. VVVVVV is a Flash game. Machinarium is a Flash game. Captain Forever and its progeny are all Flash games. The bottom line is that Flash is just an engine. If the game is great, it doesn’t matter what’s under the hood. I think this is just one of those things where we have to educate gamers and change attitudes.

Rampant Coyote: Your website suggests that the NPCs in the player’s party have dynamic relationships with the player character. When I hear that, the first thing I think of is the Baldur’s Gate series. How does TSoG compare? Are the dynamics more story-based, or based more on your general actions – sort of a continuous scoring of faction or karma?

Craig Stern: There are some similarities with Baldur’s Gate, in that your choices will impact which characters join your party, stay with you, help you, or—in some cases—even hurt you. People will remember certain things you say or do, but I very specifically chose not to include “cosmic scorecard” elements in the game like alignment or karma. It’s always struck me as a clumsy mechanic to tell the player “that was a Good thing you did, and now all Good people in the game will like you more,” or “that was Evil, so now you are more Evil.” That’s not how people actually behave, and it doesn’t fit with the message I’m trying to send with TSoG.

Because your party is essentially the head of its own faction within the game world, your teammates won’t generally respond to choices you make as far as allying with other factions. Rather, your relationship with each character is tracked on an individual basis. The small-scale choices you make around them, as well as how you conduct yourself during certain missions, will impact their opinion of you, but not the fact that you chose to (for example) ally with the Assassin’s Cult rather than with the Order of the Black Rose. That said, there are always exceptions to the rule, and it is entirely possible that a certain faction may try to assassinate one of your party members if you aren’t paying attention to what’s going on in your ranks.

Rampant Coyote: Of significant interest to me is the tactical, turn-based combat in TSoG. I got a bit of a taste of that in Telepath Psy Arena 2. It definitely had a different flavor to it – more chess-like, I guess, in its emphasis on position and facing and the lack of randomness in the results. What are the tactical battles like in TSoG? What’s new or different from the previous games?

Craig Stern: TSoG uses an improved version of the Telepath Psy Arena 2 battle engine, including a nastier, less predictable enemy AI and the ability to move your characters in any order.

One major change from the earlier games is that you have the ability to swap out team members before each individual battle. There’s a greater diversity of characters and individual abilities than before, with certain characters better suited to certain battlefield roles than others, so you’ll want to take advantage of that flexibility based on which enemies you’re fighting.

You also have greater flexibility in terms of customizing your main character. There are literally dozens of attacks your hero can learn during the course of the game, depending on what choices you make regarding his development as a psy. You’re able to swap those out between battles as well.

Rampant Coyote: You’ve taken the increasingly common strategy of opening up the beta of the game for pre-orders.  How has that gone? Have people already beaten the game, or is that part still not available to early players?

Craig Stern: It’s gone well. I’ve already sold several dozen copies, which I feel good about considering TSoG‘s low profile in the indie game media. Pre-orderers have access to all completed portions of the game, and I’m told that several of them have already reached one of the game’s alternate endings. The game isn’t complete yet, however, so I wouldn’t say that anyone has technically “beaten” it yet.

Rampant Coyote: Do you have any amusing stories from development of the game to share? Unusual / frustrating bugs, things that surprised you, or stories from working with the voice-actors?

Craig Stern: Well! This one time, I was coding, and all of a sudden…um…yeah. I got nothin’. Much to my dismay, it turns out that game development isn’t filled with wacky hijinks. (The movie) Grandma’s Boy was a damned dirty lie.

My favorite moments during the development of the game have almost universally been occasions when I was riding the train. I would suddenly be struck with a brilliant idea for a character, or some dialog, or a scenario. I always carry a yellow legal pad with me for precisely this reason.

Well, not always. I actually had one of these “eureka” moments on a date. I was getting drinks with an actress. Midway through the evening, I suddenly realized that she would be perfect to voice Malis. I mean, perfect. She talked exactly the way I envisioned Malis sounding. I asked her if she was interested, and she agreed, and that is how I found the voice of Malis the shadowling. True story.

Rampant Coyote: That’s a much better story than I was expecting! That’s about it for me. Anything else you’d like to share about the upcoming release of Telepath RPG: Servants of God?

Craig Stern: Yes: Telepath RPG: Servants of God is great and you should buy it.

Filed Under: Interviews - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • Binh Nguyen said,

    Thanks for the interview! Looking forward to see your game!

  • Kelly said,

    I love reading interviews with game developers. The “Behind the scenes” stuff is fascinating to me. Thanks for the interview!

  • Craig Stern said,

    Thanks! I look forward to showing you guys the game. 🙂