Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 14, 2010
So I apparently have this habit of ambushing game developers with a request for interview a mere days before a major release. Somehow, Thomas Riegsecker of Basilisk Games still managed to do the interview in a timely manner without impacting the release of his new game of awesome old-schooly RPG goodness, Eschalon: Book 2 (I hope I haven’t delayed the Mac & Linux releases… *gulp*). In this interview, he talks about his new game, of course, but also his influences as a game designer, the sordid truth about the inception and composition of Basilisk Games, his regrets and desire to travel back in time to change his past, his gaming influences that no doubt pushed his mind to the breaking point, and the shocking truth about old-school RPGs. Or something like that…
So let’s jump into the fun of people giving smart answers to dumb questions!
Rampant Coyote: First of all, I wanted to give you the opportunity to introduce yourself. So who is the man behind the curtain?
Thomas Riegsecker: I’m just a guy that enjoys playing and making games. I’ve played enough in my lifetime to have a good sense about what makes them good and what makes them bad.
Rampant Coyote: If you could pick three games that inspired you to become an indie, and make your own games, what would they be, and why? How did they inspire you?
Thomas Riegsecker: Any classic RPG from before 1995 is what I would consider to be my inspiration. Series such as Ultima, Might & Magic, and Wizardry- these are all on my computer right now and I often load them up just for inspiration. I could probably write an entire book on how these games have inspired me, but it basically comes down to playability. They are simple to get in to, yet complex enough to stimulate the brain. Wrap this in a huge fantasy world with fantastic monsters and sprawling dungeons, and there you have it. The problem is that no one makes these games anymore.
However, if I can name a single person who inspired me, it is of course Jeff Vogel. Without him paving the way by proving that making indie RPGs could be a legitimate and viable career, I doubt I’d be doing this. Vogel’s the man.
Rampant Coyote: Tell me a little about Basilisk Games. Is it just you plus contractors, or do you have a dedicated team? How and why did you get started?
Thomas Riegsecker: Basilisk Games is primarily just one person: myself. I do hire contractors to help with music, graphics, or writing when I feel bogged down, but I still manage probably 90% of each game by myself.
I got started on this career path after I lost my IT job in 2005. After going through the interview process with a dozen different firms and getting nowhere, I decided that I was done with all that. I cashed out my life savings and started making Book I. It’s was a big risk and I am still waiting to see if it was a smart move or not.
Rampant Coyote: The big marketing point for Eschalon: Book 1 was that it was “old school” in style. What does “old school” mean to you? How did you incorporate that feel into Eschalon: Book 1?
Thomas Riegsecker: Modern RPGs tend to consist of action-oriented game play, “skill trees” and storylines that can fit on a napkin. You may ask: what is wrong with a skill tree? Well, with a skill tree you can’t build an incompetent character- your skills may branch out, but they all lead to the same bad-ass dealer-of-death by the end of the game. It doesn’t matter what branches you take- you will have a successful character by game’s end. The only difference is the special effects you’ll get to see blasting out from your weapon.
Old-school, to me, means that we give the player ultimate control over the development of their character. With a complex array of attributes, stats, and skills you have the freedom to experiment with your character’s design- and that means you have the potential to make a jack-of-all-trades dud…or a god-like titan that can walk through the game with little effort. There is freedom in an old-school game; not just in the character design but also in the world design- a sense that you really can go anywhere from the very start.
Rampant Coyote: There are a lot of modern RPGs being released on PC and consoles (not to mention MMORPGs) that all promise evolved, superior gameplay – but apparently there’s enough of an underserved “niche” out there to have made it worthwhile for you to continue on with the Eschalon series. What do games like the Eschalon series have to offer a gamer in a world full of games like Mass Effect 2, Fallout 3, and World of Warcraft?
Thomas Riegsecker: World of Warcraft is awesome in so many ways, and it has altered the landscape of gaming forever. But to me, when I enter that game, I feel as though I am just one of a million other would-be-heroes. Everyone there wants to be the best, the most respected, the one with the coolest mounts and weapons and spells. I don’t find that competition enjoyable. Now in Eschalon, you are the hero. There is no one else there to compete with. Every dungeon you come across if fresh to your eyes- it is pristine and untouched, waiting for you to unlock its secrets. No one else has come before you to raid it and leave their garbage behind.
This sense of “this world was made just for you” is what I love about single-player RPGs.
As for the other RPGs you mentioned- I admit that I enjoyed the hell out of Fallout 3, but calling it an “RPG” is being really loose with the term. It was a good “tactical shooter with role-playing elements”, but it could never satisfy that itch you get when you need a good old-fashion RPG.
I never played Mass Effect, so I have no comment there.
Thomas Riegsecker: It is just bigger and better all around. It has a larger game world, improved balancing with spells and skills, an updated graphics engine and about 60 other fan-suggested enhancements. We really took everyone’s comments and suggestions regarding Book I to heart and tried to make a game that is truly an evolution of its predecessor.
Rampant Coyote: Without giving away too many spoilers – what is the story of the second game about?
Thomas Riegsecker: The menace that overtook Thaermore in Book I has not been stopped, and now it threatens to wash over Mistfell as well. Through this conflict, you begin to learn more of your past that was lost to you in Book I when your memory was erased. As the story peaks near the end, the truth about the war is revealed, which sets up the story for Book III.
Rampant Coyote: The Eschalon series is more skill-based than class based, with the class really only defining your starting skills. For a single-player, single-character game, that’s generally assumed to be the best way to go, but balancing the skills against each other can be tricky. What challenges did you run into balancing the skills in the games, especially with Book 2 allowing you to go to a much higher level?
Thomas Riegsecker: Skill balancing is hugely difficult and all I can say is that we’ve done our best to keep them all equalized. There will always be exploits or limitations to any open-ended system, but that is okay. It’s what most people expect from this kind of RPG- finding an edge or exploit is as much a part of the game as the game itself.
The biggest problem for many new players is that they tend to spread themselves too thin- too many points spread out over too many skills, so it becomes very hard for them by mid-game. We can’t just “dumb the game down” for these people, so it can be challenging for players who are used to a more guided route to character development.
This is also why we’ve allowed for higher leveling in Book 2- if you find out by mid-game that your character is lacking in some skills, you can hang back and level a few more times before continuing with the storyline. Some people may finish the game at level 18, others may wait until they’ve hit 22 or 23.
Rampant Coyote: Combat in Book I – well, for me – was often a bit more of a slug-fest interrupted by potion-drinking. Have you made any improvements to the combat system for the sequel?
Thomas Riegsecker: In keeping with old-school RPG tradition, combat tends to still be about exchanging blows with your enemy until one of you is drained of Hit Points, which is true for every RPG ever made. However, in Book II we’ve added a few elements to make this more strategic for players. You can now select your combat style, such as Power, Finesse, or Parry, which improves your ability to inflict damage, strike, or defend against various opponents. Numerous other factors such as weapon wear, weather, darkness and much more also factor in to combat, so you really need to do more than just click the mouse to be successful.
Rampant Coyote: There has been a lot of discussion about food & drink requirements for Eschalon: Book 2. It is definitely an old-school system, and was hardly universal even back in the day. Why a food & water requirement? And what form has it finally taken in Eschalon: Book 2?
Thomas Riegsecker: Food and Water is an optional rule in Book II, and it does two things: First, it adds challenge to the game for the exceptionally skilled players who want it. When the Food & Water Rule is turned on, you must plan ahead for extended trips into the dungeon, and a simple walk from one city to another becomes a true journey when you need to stock up on supplies before you leave.
Secondly, it personalizes the game for many people. Your character becomes just a little bit more real- he gets hungry and thirsty, he needs to camp when drained, or seek medical attention when injured. It just gives a bit more life to your on-screen avatar.
Rampant Coyote: If you had the chance to use the Tardis to go back and leave your younger self a bit of advice about making the first game, what would it be? And were you able to follow your fantasy-advice in making the sequel?
Thomas Riegsecker: I’d tell my ignorant self: 1) beware of “feature creep”. It can drain the life and finances from a project quicker than anything else. 2) Don’t let nay-sayers bring you down, just make a game that you enjoy and you’ll find others who will like it too. 3) Good tools are invaluable. Don’t skimp on the tools you use to make the games.
And no, I didn’t follow all of this advice with Book II.
Rampant Coyote: This may be a LOT premature, but you’ve talked about working on a new game that isn’t in the style of the Eschalon series. Any more hints on what’s simmering in the depths of Basilisk Games?
Thomas Riegsecker: The future is cloudy. Ask me again in 6 months.
Rampant Coyote: Anything else you’d like to add?
Thomas Riegsecker: Yes- when can I get my hands on Frayed Knights?
Rampant Coyote: Oh, come on, you know the answer to that one: “When it’s done!” (I’ll pay you later for the mention!) Thanks, Thomas, for a great interview and some insight into what I certainly hope will prove to be a highly successful and influential RPG and the guy behind it!
Filed Under: Indie Evangelism, Interviews - Comments: 13 Comments to Read