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Aldorlea Games Interview
Indinera Falls, prolific designer of an incredible number of RPG Maker-based commercial indie RPGs over the last two years, has been interviewed by RPG Fan. Enjoy!
RPGFan Interview with Indinera Falls of Aldorlea Games
RPGFan: Where do you see the future of indie gaming headed?
IF: It's hard to tell. Big portals tend to favor shorter games at lower prices, which is not a good thing for an RPG developer and true RPGs. There might eventually be a bigger separation between niche stuff (to which those real RPGs seem bound to belong) and casual indie gaming. But in both cases it should be more and more, both in quality and quantity.
Interview: Jeff Vogel's New Thing
Jeff Vogel is probably the most graybearded of the indie RPG creators. He's been making indie RPGs since before anybody even called them indie. He's created the Exile series, the Avernum series, the Geneforge series, and the one-off RPG Nethergate. The fact that he's been doing it for a decade and a half - and is still payin' the bills - says a lot. For years, indie RPGs were almost synonymous with Jeff's company, Spiderweb Software.
(By way of a totally unfair comparison of apples and oranges, the legendary RPG maker Origin Systems Inc., founded by Richard Garriott, was only an independent entity for nine years before getting sold off to EA - and was gradually dismantled before being scrapped entirely a decade later.)
Anyway - with Nethergate concluded and Avernum nearly so (just finishing up the PC port), Vogel talks about his Next Big Thing in this interview at The Gamer Studio. Rest assured, it sounds like it's not going to be straying far from what the fans are used to enjoying.
The Gamer Studio: Interview with Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software
Besides talking about the untitled new game, Vogel notes that he's planning on doing a ground-up remake of Avernum, using the latest graphics from Avernum 6.
An excerpt on the extent of the graphical upgrade:
"Spiderweb Software is a small company. We make low-budget rpgs. There are some people who require graphics quality of the level of, say, Dragon Age or Fallout 3. I will never sell a game to those people, and I wish them well. But our recent games have still had big improvements in the visuals. Avernum 6, in particular, looks better than any game we've ever done, and our new game will be better. Not 30 million dollar budget better, but, yes, the pool of people who find the graphics reach the minimum standard should increase.Check out the whole interview!
Hat tip to RPGWatch for the link!
Jeff Vogel (Spiderweb Software) Interview at 1UP
Jeff Vogel is interviewed over at 1UP's RPG blog. He discusses making indie RPGs for a living, his influences, bringing an end to the Avernum and Geneforge series, and more.
Brief Q&A With Spiderweb's Jeff Vogel
Derek Yu: Pondering the Indie Spirit
Great little interview with Derek Yu on the indie game movement and "spirit." True to form, he says, "Yeah" a lot and sounds very very casual and inclusive. Topics include "selling out" with Microsoft as a partner in indie games, "sketch" games that are to full games as vignette is to a story, and "F*** You!" games developed for no audience beyond the developer (but get released to the world at large just 'cuz, you know?)
Derek Yu at Gamasutra: Pondering the Indie Spirit
Steven Peeler Interviewed at GameBoomers
GameBoomers has an interview with Steven Peeler of Soldak Entertainment (maker of Depths of Peril and Kivi's Underworld, as well as the upcoming Din's Curse).
GameBoomers Interviews Steven Peeler
An excerpt on why he left a cushy mainstream game job and went indie:
"I started Soldak for many reasons, but it really boils down to I wanted to do my own thing. For example, I really wanted to create an RPG. I was never going to be able to do that at Ritual and even if Ritual had made an RPG, I would probably not have been the lead designer. Starting Soldak allowed me to work on games I want to play. I also will no longer hear excuses like your company doesn't know how to make that type of game, there are already too many RPGs, we should make a clone of last years best seller, no one has done that before, no one likes Sci-Fi, and many other terrible reasons not to make a game."Amen and preach on, brother Peeler!
There was also the tantalizing tidbit that he hopes one day to make a turn-based game. Not that his action-RPGs have been anything but fun!
He also notes that he's shooting for a December release, though that is admittedly not the best time of year to release an indie game.
Knights of the Chalice Interview
RPG Watch corners Pierre Begue of Heroic Fantasy Games to interview him about the very well received Knights of the Chalice indie RPG:
Knights of the Chalice interview
I personally felt that the whole Bard's Tale clobber-you-at-level-1 thing was actually not good design, but the challenge was evidently endearing to some.
screeg: KotC offers little (nothing) in the way of hand-holding, and immediately plunges the player head-first into the icy and turbulent waters of challenging, turn-based tactical combat. In my opinion, this is your single greatest departure from recent role-playing games. What led you to take this route?
Pierre: Combat is an essential part of KotC. The game doesn't beat around the bush; if you like a good dose of tactical combat within your RPGs then you will like the game. By hand-holding I suppose you mean battles that you cannot lose. If you can't lose, where's the fun? As a player, I enjoy a game more when I can see that my actions are influencing the outcome. Some of my favourite games are difficult from the very beginning. In Interplay's Bard's Tale, your level-1 party can be wiped out by a group of barbarians only a few steps away from the adventurer's guild. In Dark Sun Shattered Lands, you start the game facing monsters in a gladiatorial arena. Should you try to escape, a large group of enemy guards awaits you.
Scars of War Interview
Hi folks. Posting from Bear Lake on a borrowed (yes, I asked permission) Internet connection. You probably saw this already, but Scars of War creator Gareth Fouche has been interviewed by GameBanshee - you can check out the interview here:
Scars of War Interview at GameBanshee
Scars of War is another "hardcore" indie RPG in development, which looks awesome. If only Gareth would quit swapping game engines... :)
In the interview, he explains his very realistic expectations of indie game engines, why he chose a more "gritty, mature" fantasy world, a lot of detail on the game mechanics, his partnership with Iron Tower Studios, and much more.
Interview with Richard "Lord British" Garriott
Crispy Gamer has interviewed Richard "Lord British" Garriott of Ultima and Tabula Rasa fame. Part I of the interview was last week, and this week we've got the full installment.
Interview with Richard Garriott, Part I
Interview with Richard Garriott, Part II
Interview with Richard Garriott - Bonus Material
As you probably know, the Ultima series was not only my favorite (well, up to Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld), but was also a big influence on me as I chose a career. Working for Origin sounded like a dream job - I even called and talked to their HR folks a couple of years before graduating with a Computer Science degree to find out what kind of qualifications they looked for in candidates.
Ultima VII remains my favorite RPG, and this interview focuses a lot on it and the "third trilogy." This interview spends a lot of time reminiscing about the development of Ultima VII, about rooms of "killing children," and discussing all the ways people found of killing the "unkillable" in-game version of Lord British.
"Well, the game’s called The Black Gate, so there’s no question that it was intended to be dark. Very much so. In fact, Ultima IV, V and VI were all quite the opposite. I mean, Ultima IV didn’t even have a bad guy. Ultima V only had a misguided bad guy. Ultima VI, with the gargoyles, you were sort of the bad guy in a sense. Ultimas IV, V and VI were the lighthearted goody-two-shoes games, while Ultima VII was very purposely dark. I may not articulate it the same way you did — in that “you, the player, could kill anything and everything,” but I would say that it is dark in that the world had become dark. We now had truly prescient evil, and we had a pantheon of characters you were interacting with that were absolutely trying to take advantage of the time of darkness for their own personal gain. So you’re constantly being befriended by people who were in fact not your friends. So, yeah, it was purposely a very dark game."Good stuff. Dang, I miss the ol' glory days of Origin in that era...
Age of Decadence Interview
Rock Paper Shotgun didn't learn their lesson last time. Or maybe they did. Vince Weller, the very indie dude in charge of making Age of Decadence, has another interview up where he talks about - of all things - actually roleplaying in a roleplaying game.
Now, his view of roleplaying might not quite jibe perfectly with that of some players, but I like it. Particularly as a fan of "rogue" type characters who are treated in most RPGs as a poor-man's fighter who can pick pockets. Woot.
Anyway, it's a short one, but packed.
Vince Weller Interview at RPS
Interview: Indinera Falls of Aldorlea Games
Rampant Games recently (like, uh, yesterday) added Aldorlea Games' flagship commercial RPG, Laxius Force, to our line-up of great indie roleplaying games. It was a combination of a great indie title, and designer / producer Indinera Falls doing some great promotion work. I was surprised to find that while this was his first commercial-grade project, it was far from his first RPG. Indinera is a prolific and seasoned veteran from the trenches of freeware development using RPG Maker.
I managed to corner him (which was quite a challenge, since I'm in Utah and he's out in France) and ask him some questions about Laxius Force, previous and coming games, and his perspective as an indie game developer. I especially enjoyed his perspective as a hobbyist turned pro.
Rampant Coyote: Let's start at the top with an introduction! Who is Indinera Falls? What games have inspired you? If you had a fire-breathing monkey, what would you name it?
Indinera: Hi, I'm known as my nickname Indinera Falls and I am an indie developer of old-school RPG. My productions focus on detailed characters and great replay value along with strong storylines. As a result of many years of developing games I'm also the webmaster of two websites, LaxiusForce.com which is the official site for my latest trilogy (first part out now!) and aldorlea.com where I promote my own work and other games in the RPG and Adventure genre.
I have been particularly inspired by two distinct eras and style: the 16-bits console RPG (Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, Breath of Fire etc.) and the mid' 90 era of PC RPG (Might & Magic 6, Daggerfall etc.). My own games are at the crossroads of those two styles. I take great inspiration from the "Golden Age" of gaming and I've never forgotten this period when games had fascination gameplay and enthralling stories. Now I am able to bring the essence and strength of those types of games to my new creations.
I never had a fire-breathing monkey but I remember, long ago, trying to catch the notorious three-headed monkey of Monkey Island.
Rampant Coyote: So what got you started making indie RPGs? What was the inspiration for the Laxius series? And what came first, Aldorlea Games, or Laxius Power?
Indinera: I'd always been interested in making RPGs. I used to create them on sheets of paper, drawing the characters and the battlefield in a tactical style like Shining Force. My family and friends would play them and drive my ambition even more, so this passion has been there a long time.
When I discovered what great tools there to make your own RPG, I immediately jumped on the chance. For me, it was such a fantastic find and with my drive and perseverance along with my love of storytelling it set me off on a journey I have thoroughly enjoyed.
The Laxius series is obviously inspired from my own tastes: I like games to be challenging, exciting, full of secrets and unexpected events. Games that flow too constantly tend to bore me.
As it happens, Laxius Power came way before Aldorlea Games having been created in 2001 while Aldorlea Games was set up in 2008 as the publishing house of Laxius Force, my latest game.
Rampant Coyote: Laxius Force is actually your sixth RPG. What have you learned from your previous Laxius games, and your non-Laxius title, Blades of Heaven?
Indinera: I've learned a lot of things. I always want to push my skill levels in making games, I'm driven to improve each time on what I believe are already great games. My many years experience now in game making are shown in the maps, stories, events and all other aspects. Game making isn't something that should stand still or stagnate and I have enjoyed the continual push to give the players a great game experience.
Rampant Coyote: How long did it take you to create Laxius Force, and how many people were involved in its development besides yourself?
Indinera: Laxius Force took about two years and involved the skilled Zeriab as a scripter and talented Vince as an artist. Both these people are very helpful, great at what they do and great members of a team to work with. Although Part 1 has been released two other parts are also going into production and much work during the 2 years was on building the basis and structure for the following episodes to come.
It is only fair to also mention Karks who is my sole, and outstanding, beta tester of the newly released game.
Rampant Coyote: So what can you tell us about the story in Laxius Force? And how do you make a story with something like 15 different characters work in an RPG?
Indinera: Laxius Force is a story of passion, danger and adventure. You are following the tale of a young couple, Random and Sarah. These characters are heroes of the past, resting now after after the trials and heartaches of past confrontations and dangers. The tale starts as you join them in their days of quiet happiness, but that does not last long - they decide to go back into civilization, little knowing how their paths and that of evil are once again about to meet and how they are heading towards become entangled with the acts of the most dangerous and dark secret cult organization around.
I believe you can introduce as many characters as you want as long as you actually take the time to properly introduce them and that they have their place in the story. Each character must have an history, a reason to join, and something that needs to be said. With a detailed story it's not really a problem of making them fit, it's more about making them all memorable and enabling the player to connect with them.
I believe Laxius Force develops unique characters that are far from the usual RPG clichés of how they should be.
Rampant Coyote: Do you plot out the story for several games in advance, or do you start fresh with each game and try to decide where to take the world and the characters next?
Indinera: For the Laxius saga the story was plotted out since the very start of creation in 2001. Originally it existed in a total of nine parts and with each game release the story unfolds and I am a step closer to sharing the extent of the tale with the player.
This story has been part of my life for many years now and so I am never slowed down wondering what to do next. I know what is to come and I know what I aim to achieve in each game release.
Rampant Coyote: What do you think makes Laxius Force stand out as a game?
Indinera: Laxius Force has many strengths - the unique characters, the detail of the plot and overall depth of the game. It's one of the longest games out there, and one of the richest as well - it is full of secret places, items, characters. Huge efforts were made to hide many things making exploration and detailed play so very rewarding.
Rampant Coyote: So what's next in the series? I understand you already working on the sequel, and have a third one planned. What should players who enjoyed Laxius Force expect from the next games?
Indinera: They should expect all that they liked, plus even more features, twists, secrets and A LOT of plot development. The war against the Order takes on a new dimension in part 2, and faces of evil never seen in the saga before will be introduced. Also Laxius Force Part 2 will be introducing Luciana and her party - Luci is one of the players' favorite characters of the past episodes so her introduction will bring anticipation and the game will be a lot of fun!
Rampant Coyote: Are there any secrets or "goodies" you'd like to reveal here for players to find in Laxius Force?
Maybe you will get to play characters you hadn't expected to..I'm not going to tell you who! Old friends may be there to be found, new and interesting characters are there for you to see how they develop add that to over 500 Easter Eggs where only a hand full of people know all and you will see there is an entire game of secrets and goodies - just pay attentions and explore!
Rampant Coyote: What are the biggest challenges you've had to overcome developing indie role-playing games?
Indinera: The polishing and debugging of games are always the hardest parts. Both happen at the end of the development and you are usually exhausted yet keen to get the game out to the players - so you need to be thorough and keep going. Debugging isn't the most exciting of tasks and it is very repetitive but it is a very important stage to get the game ready for play.
Rampant Coyote: Do you have any pther wisdom would you impart to other prospective indie RPG designers?
Indinera: I think it's important to know your story from beginning to end, work on your game daily even if you don't feel like it and stay focused on it. I would recommend that you try and make a game that you personally like as that is the best way to transmit your passion to others who have the same.
Also, keep in mind the latest stages of development are the hardest, both mentally and physically, but should not be rushed.
Rampant Coyote: Any final thoughts?
Indinera: Just to thank you for this interview and giving me interesting questions to respond to. I hope people reading have enjoyed it and just to remind that as well as the games we have a fantastic community at LaxiusForce.org so please visit us, you will be made welcome!
Enjoyed the article? Be sure and download Laxius Force and give the free demo a try:
Download Laxius Force
(Vaguely) related interviews with other indie RPG developers:
* Amanda Fitch of Amaranth Games
* Georgina Bensley of Hanako Games
* Jason Compton of Planewalker Games
* Steven Peeler of Soldak Entertainment
Another NinjaBee Interview
An interview with some friends of mine at NinjaBee about doing games for WiiWare and advergaming:
NinjaBee on XBLA vs. WiiWare, AdverGaming at GameSetWatch
What they don't mention is that neither doing Wii games (albeit not WiiWare) nor working with publishers for downloadable or online games is anything new to them. But - that's not what you've heard about them. Not that you hear much about them, period. They are a small, workhorse little company with a lot of talent and work ethic and not a lot of ego.
I really hope Kingdom for Keflings does really, really well. Besides just wanting the best for my friends out there, it is the last game I worked on while I was there (well, that and an unpublished Wii title). While I only had a small contribution (which may no longer actually be in the code), I'll be glad to see it released. As Steve mentions in the interview, this was based on a Game-In-A-Day prototype launched in the forums of GarageGames. See, you never know where these little indie exercises will get you!
(Edit: Fixed the spelling of Keflings, because I'm useless without the services of my spell-checker...)
AOIA Rampant Coyote Interview, Part II
Looks like part 2 of the Alley of Infinite Angles interview with me is up. With a commentary! We really got more into biz aspects on this side. It sounds like I left Sun-ha a little bit wanting... perhaps because I didn't feel strongly that there were any real answers to his questions. In fact, I'm really interested in what other answers you guys come up with.
Anyway, here's Part II of my interview at the Alley of Infinite Angles.
And here's Sun-ha Hong's commentary.
I felt I was pretty upbeat about things. That's conscious. But I'm the first to admit that I don't see a "golden age of indie" anywhere on the horizon. The indies aren't going to be rising up and overthrowing the yoke of the big business overlords anytime soon. Feel free to sing "Won't Get Fooled Again" at this point.
You could say that indies are everything that the entrenched "institution" isn't, defining indie game developers by the mainstream. Except that isn't true, either. There are indies that treat approach the business side of making their own games exactly like the mainstream - with the exception of finding their own financing for their game. Indies are pretty much just about doing it their own way, and the mainstream dominance is simply just one more obstacle.
As to the question of why there isn't some kind of centralized "hub" of indie games - there really have been several that have been attempted, from portals to review sites to webrings to The Great Games Experiment. Every few months, someone proposes another one. Indies being who we are, we tend not to agree on details, and many of these projects die in infancy or just never quite hit the level of penetration they need. Trying to do anything like this requires some standardization and prioritization that is not beneficial to all indies, and will never seem fair to everybody.
What it really comes down to is that indies - the real indies - have that whole "independent spirit" thing going for them and don't want to be ever have their success chained down by something they have no control over. They may cooperate with these projects, but they won't make concessions to them. Why should they? They have their own businesses to run, and their own games to make.
That being said - there are also a lot of indies who are constantly looking for better ways to cooperate. I've noticed that many of the more successful indies out there seem happy to help out others... within reason. I'm on a few forums where the old vets are constantly batting ideas back and forth about how we can better pool our resources to improve things for everyone.
Another Interview With The Rampant Coyote - Part I
The Alley of Infinite Angles has part I of an interview with me about... uh... indie stuff. It's actually in two parts - part 2 will be arriving shortly. We talk a lot about the indie side of the gaming industry and how it relates to mainstream 'n stuff.
I don't know why you'd want to hear more about me and my shouting from the ol' soapbox, but in case you are that kind of masochist, feel free to check it out:
Interview With Yours Truly at Alley of Infinite Angles, Part 1
Interview with Nick Tipping of Moonpod
Here's the last of the semi-formal interviews I had with mainstream game developers who had "gone rogue" to become full-time indie game developers. This time, it's with Nick Tipping of Moonpod. Nick is another indie who is both a driven game developer and a great supporter of the indie game development community. If you have played Moonpod's games, in particular their latest RPG-esque Mr. Robot, you already know that they quality sets the bar pretty high for indie games. Darn them.
Rampant Coyote: So where did you work and what did you work on prior to going indie?
Nick Tipping: Mark and I were both at Gremlin Interactive, Infogrammes and Rage Games Ltd. We worked on a number of PC and Playstation projects: N2O and the Actua sports series mainly. The last mainstream game we worked on was Gun Metal for the Xbox.
Rampant Coyote: What propelled you out of the door of that cushy mainstream game development job to join the ranks of the self-employed?
Nick Tipping: We'd toyed with the idea for some months but when almost every major studio in Sheffield closed at the same time we decided it was time to give it a go. Severance pay and racking up huge debt on multiple credit cards saw us to the end of out first project at Moonpod. :)
Rampant Coyote: Were there any aspects of indie game development took you by surprise when you worked on your first game(s)? Any lessons you had to learn quickly?
Nick Tipping: Only really having to learn open source libraries because we couldn't afford any of the middleware we'd been using in mainstream development. With our first game we made a lot of design mistakes because we'd been developing console-centric titles for so long. Starscape didn't even have mouse support for the menus when we first released it although we added that in an update.
Rampant Coyote: What have been your your biggest struggles / challenges / disappointments as an indie?
Nick Tipping: Marketing and running our company was something we had to jump in at the deep end with. We're still learning things now, after 5 years of being in business. Things we thought would be invaluable turned out to be useless; Mr. Robot and Starscape got incredible reviews in magazines, but even the smallest website review has a much bigger impact than a magazine.
Rampant Coyote: Do you still prefer being an indie over your mainstream game job?If so, why? If not, why haven't you returned to mainstream, big-budget, big-studio development? At the end of the day, why are you an indie?
Nick Tipping: At Moonpod it was more about artistic expression than money but sadly there's always a base level of income you need to maintain to support that ideal. We essentially love making games so if we had to return to mainstream development we'd be fine with that. Ideally we'll keep Moonpod going though and maybe even get to the point where we can hire some staff. We'd love to respond to some of the ideas our customers have sent our way. Essentially we want to keep doing what we've been doing but always reaching to create a better, more fulfilling experience for those who play our games.
Rampant Coyote: What other differences between mainstream and indie game development have you noticed?
Nick Tipping: There's a surprising amount of freedom available to you as an indie developer but time is still your greatest asset and with indie dev there's little time available and more tasks biting into it. Like maintaining a website and running a business. Not to mention customer support.
Rampant Coyote: Okay, that's about all I had. Is there anything else you want to add?
Nick Tipping: Only to add that indies live and die by word of mouth so if you find an indie game you like then tell everyone you know!!!
Pocketwatch Games' Andy Schatz Talks Indie Game Development
Continuing with the series of original interviews / questionnaires I gave to former mainstream game developers who have since "gone indie," today brings us Andy Schatz of Pocketwatch Games. Andy goes through his history of going from mainstream to indie on his Pocketwatch Games History page, so I'll just refer you there. In a nutshell, he used to work for mainstream video game companies Presto Studios and TKO. While at the latter studio, he was working on Goldeneye: Rogue Agent for EA during the height of the era documented by the industry-shaking EA_Spouse article. And he was miserable. After completing the game, he quit, and TKO floundered thereafter. Not that there was necessarily a causal relationship there. He was fortunate to receive some solid success with his first indie game, Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa. And now he's made indie games his full-time career.
So here's what Andy had to say about his transition and experiences going from mainstream video game developer to a full-time indie.
Rampant Coyote: In your case, you were fed up with your job and decided to quit. What made you decide to become self-employed as an indie game developer rather than seek out another position elsewhere in the industry?
Andy Schatz: I had the same thought a ton of other developers have had: I can do it faster, I can do it better, I can get real credit for my work. That's probably a fantasy for most developers, but the only way to find out if it's true for you is to put yourself to the test. Who hasn't thought to themselves that they've got the next Sims or GTA or Zelda in them?
It's also worth noting that no one ever got rich off a salary.
Rampant Coyote: Were there any aspects of indie game development took you by surprise?
Andy Schatz: Perhaps it's naïve to say, but three years ago I thought that with the rise of digital distribution, developers were going to grab some of the power back from publishers. But we've seen pretty clearly in both the casual game market and digital distribution on consoles that the publishing/distribution racket wasn't going to let us get away with that. The future does not look as bright for developers as it did three years ago, and the blame lies squarely with BigFish, Microsoft, and other major digital distributors. These giants have found ways to corral the audience, squeeze developers, and rip off our most creative pioneers.
Rampant Coyote: So what lessons did you have to learn once you became a career indie?
Andy Schatz: Interacting with the community is an essential piece of being an indie developer. As an indie, you require the help of business contacts, advisors, contractors, and press. I had to learn to interact constructively with everyone. The lesson I learned is to always put things in context of "what can I do for you?" rather than "what can you do for me?"
Rampant Coyote: Being an indie obviously isn't all fame, glory, and money. What have been your your biggest challenges or disappointments as an indie?
Andy Schatz: My second title, Venture Arctic, was a huge leap from its predecessor, Venture Africa. It was more beautiful, more interesting, and more expansive. But despite receiving critical acclaim, it hasn't connected with as large an audience. It's very disappointing to have a title that you really care about underperform with customers.
Rampant Coyote: What are the biggest differences between indie game development and mainstream game development?
Andy Schatz: The obvious one is that as a professional indie, you've got to all the business side of things yourself. You can't just bring home the bacon, you've got to raise the pig and kill it yourself.
The less obvious one is that it's much harder to stay organized and motivated at times. Sometimes it's incredibly easy, but at others, you can slip into the doldrums and let a week go by without much to show for it.
Rampant Coyote: At the end of the day, why do you stick with being an indie?
Andy Schatz: I support myself and I'm perpetually only one game away from being a millionaire gaming rock star. Why would I quit now?
I'd like to thank Andy for providing such an entertaining and insightful look into the world of full-time indie game development.
(Vaguely) related interesting words from other people:
* "Going Rogue" at the Escapist
* NinjaBee's Steve Taylor on Indie Game Development
* Interview: Cliff "Kudos" Harris on Being an Indie Game Developer
* Depths of Peril Creator Steven Peeler Speaks Up on Going Indie
NinjaBee's Steve Taylor On Indie Game Development
I have interviewed Steve Taylor before, but in this case I wanted to ask him directly about the joys and frustrations of indie game development as opposed to traditional mainstream game development. This interview was originally done to gather information for the article, "Going Rogue," for The Escapist.
Steve's company, Wahoo Studios (AKA NinjaBee), is a little unusual in that it combines self-funded "indie" titles with contract work from publishers. Their independently produced titles include the space tycoon game Outpost Kaloki, the XBox 360 version Outpost Kaloki X, the tactics game Band of Bugs, Cloning Clyde, and the upcoming A Kingdom for Keflings. Steve was also my boss for a little over a year, but the restraining order he placed on me has expired since then, so I was able to ask him these questions:
Rampant Coyote: Okay, keeping it simple. What rocks about indie game development? Why would anyone choose to do this?
Steve Taylor: Fundamentally, creative control! The ability to do something off the beaten path, and do it your own way. The ability to succeed and fail on your own merit and nobody else's.
Rampant Coyote: Cool. So... what sucks about indie game development?
Steve Taylor: What sucks is that everything I said in my first answer is not exactly true. If you want to reach a large audience with your game, the concept of complete creative freedom with Indie games is a myth. Portals and other distributions services impose their own rules and limitations. Supposedly-indie-friendly distribution options like Steam and Instant Action still have subjective gatekeepers, and they're the ones who decide if your game is good enough and if it's even the kind of game they're looking for. And if you want your game to make money, you have to consider what will sell, and this means adapting your pure creative vision to match the real world. Besides all of that, do you really have the resources to achieve your ultimate creative vision? There's just no such thing as complete creative control for the developer, in practical terms.
Rampant Coyote: As you crossed over to the dark side - indie game development - what surprises did you encounter?
Steve Taylor: Initially, since we had no idea what we were doing, we expected that making a good game would naturally lead to instant riches and glory. The surprise was that getting involved with portals and getting the word out there about your game is not as simple as it looks.
Rampant Coyote: Since you continue to work on contract titles, have your indie efforts colored interaction or relationship with publishers?
Steve Taylor: Our indie experiences have affected our work with publishers in two really interesting ways that I've been thinking a lot about lately:
Having successfully funded and released some games on our own, we've gotten some attention that we wouldn't have gotten otherwise. Some potential clients have recognized our ability to do high quality work in the downloadable game space, and this has led to a lot of discussion about work-for-hire projects and in a few cases has meant actual contracts. With our company partly dependent on contract jobs, we live under the constant stress of trying to line up that next gig, and having people come to us because of what we've done on our own is a pretty big win.
We assumed this would mean our potential partners would trust us to make something great on our own terms. After all, that's why they hired us, right? Unfortunately, contract work seems to be business as usual. When somebody else pays for the game, they expect to design it and control its creation, regardless of the circumstances that brought you together. This sometimes makes contract work a bit more painful than it has been in the past.
Rampant Coyote: What other differences have you noticed between indie and traditional mainstream contract work?
Steve Taylor: The thing is, I still believe traditional work for hire is valid and rewarding and has some major upsides. Sure, the taste we got of doing things our own way makes contract work feel a little more like slave labor. But with a contract project for a big publisher, there are resources we'd never have otherwise, marketing effort we'd never be able to muster up, and contributions from a ton of talented individuals outside our dev team. In the end there's the potential for a much better product than we could do on our own. And the experience educates us, improves our skills and tech, and builds our reputation. If only we could somehow have all of that *and* get to pick what color hair our characters have, life would be sweet.
Interview: Cliff "Kudos" Harris on Being an Indie Game Developer
Cliff Harris, of Positech Games, is the author of Democracy, Kudos, Kudos Rock Legend, and several other titles. Cliff is known for being an outspoken indie game developer, commonly found railing against "common wisdom," including the usual belief that success depends upon going through major game portals, and that downloadable games must address a specific audience to do well. Cliff has charted his own course, but he's also managed to make it work. He's been half-jokingly referred to as a "poster child" for indie success.
But aside from this, he devotes a great deal of time offering advice and sharing his own knowledge with other members of the indie game development community, even to the point of sharing the most secret of data, actual sales numbers. All too often, his advice is sadly ignored because of its contrarian nature, but its hard to find another indie who has been more active in helping others in the community. This is an email interview I had with him while working on the article "Going Rogue" for The Escapist. Many of the juiciest parts of this interview were included in the article, but Cliff had a lot to say which I didn't have room to include. I hope you'll find as entertaining and useful as I did. Here's Cliff Harris on "going indie":
Rampant Coyote: Can you tell me about your mainstream game development experience and career?
Cliff Harris: I tried writing games in 1981, aged 11, eventually I started making and selling them online in 1997 as a hobby, but I never made enough money to live off it, so I ended up in mainstream dev, working at Elixir Studios and then at Lionhead while the indie games sales built up. I was the AI guy and general games coder for 'the Movies' at Lionhead (for the PC). The X-box game I worked on for years at Elixir got canned...
Rampant Coyote: What propelled you out of the door of that cushy mainstream game development job to join the ranks of the self-employed?
Cliff Harris: One reason was money, my games made (part-time) as much as my salary did, so it made sense, and also I was fed up with the way games companies are run. The long hours culture, the complete chaos, and the fact that obviously I was a frustrated designer working purely as a coder. I had been self-employed before, as an IT contractor and a boatbuilder, and I think I just have the DNA that makes me a better lone gunmen than someone elses employee. I'm very outspoken and probably a bit of a volatile employee. Plus I had a juicy contract with Maxis to tide me over the first difficult few months, so I knew I wasn't about to starve.
Rampant Coyote: I assume you left the mainstream gig feeling like you had a handle on What it would take to make games on your own. Were there any aspects of indie game development took you by surprise? Were there any lessons you had to learn quickly?
Cliff Harris: I'd done it before but badly, so I had already learned from those mistakes. One thing I had to learn was decent PR and publicity. When you work for some big name company, journalists get on planes and get bought to your desk to see cool stuff. That doesn't happen any more :( I had to learn how to get my name out there and promote my games, rather than just making what I thought was cool and hoping people would discover them. I was luckier than most in that money was already coming in, so I could relax a bit and just develop games.
Rampant Coyote: What have been your your biggest struggles / challenges / disappointments as an indie?
Cliff Harris: My biggest struggle is working alone from home. Especially when sales are good, because there is little incentive to do any work. Nobody cares if I'm at my desk or in the pub, and nobody cares if I'm working or playing games, or surfing the web. Staying motivated on your own is really hard, and it's tough having nobody to talk to all day, every day. That's the hardest thing about being an indie.
All the other problems, money, contracts, programming, are pretty trivial in comparison. I'm sure some of the hardcore semi-autistic programmer geeks love it, but I'm a bit more chatty than most.
Rampant Coyote: Do you still prefer being an indie over your mainstream game job? What keeps you going as an indie?
Cliff Harris: I'm definitely happier as an indie because I like succeeding or failing on my terms. Working with other people is a nightmare. I can't ever see me taking a normal salary ever again. once you get used to being your own boss, the idea of someone telling you what to do all day seems juvenile, like being a schoolboy again. I can't imagine working for three years on one game again either, or being detached from the business side of things. Sitting at a desk working for someone else, on someone else's idea, with no idea how much money it makes, just seems ridiculous. If I needed a full-time job again, I'd try and get into marketing or some other area of programming, rather than go back to 'triple a' gaming.
Rampant Coyote: Steven Peeler mentioned that one of his frustrations as an indie involved piracy. You've expressed similar views in the past. Do you have any perspective on this as an indie that you'd like to share?
Cliff Harris: The thing that really bugs me about pirates is that some of them cloak it all with this thin veneer of 'sticking it to the man' and being 'anti-DRM and anti-big corporations', and then despite me giving a free demo, no DRM, innovative games, at reasonable prices with great tech support from a one-man company, the bastards still rip me off and take my stuff anyway.
I can understand people who have no money, or even just people who are morally corrupt who think stealing is okay, but the ones that drive me mad are the idiots that lecture me about my 'outdated business model', like they are some sort of kindergarten Bill Gates, or the ones who tell me I'm some corporate shill because my games aren't free. Almost as bad are the ones who insist I should be happy that people are playing my games, and doing it for the love of it. Such people are normally living in mom's basement with no rent to pay.
Rampant Coyote: What else could you tell me about the difference between mainstream and indie video game development?
Cliff Harris: Indie devs can take risks. No way would Lionhead or Elixir have made Democracy or Kudos, they both seem a bit too 'off-message' in terms of what people think gamers want. Democracy would have had a pointless 3D engine shoe-horned into it, and Kudos would never have got away with being turn-based. But I think it's those limitations that force people to make interesting games. World of Goo will be cool *because* of it's 2Dness, not despite it. Because we don't have the option of doing a HDR-lighting bump-mapped high-poly shader-driven 3D world, it means indie games actually look different to the stuff everyone else is making. Plus, because our dev budgets are smaller, we can support niches like turn based strategy, serious games or kids games.
One of the best benefits of indie gaming is the direct connection between developer and gamer. I literally take 90% of the sale price of my games sold direct. That's way better than handing lots of cash to some middle-man who doesn't even play games.
It also means I can talk direct to my customers, implement their suggestions, help them out and support them without lawyers in the way. If someone asks how part of the game works, I can post a direct reply as the designer, or even share some source code to illustrate it. That's very rare in big retail gaming.
Rampant Coyote: Thank you, Cliff!
Depths of Peril Creator Steven Peeler Speaks Out On Going Indie
Now that my article on mainstream developers going indie for The Escapist is out, I thought I'd share more of the interview responses I got while preparing it. These guys had a lot of great things to say, and a ton of interesting quotes and valuable information were left on the cutting room floor.
Today, I share insights I received from Steven Peeler, creator of my favorite RPG of last year, Depths of Peril.
Rampant Coyote: Before going indie, how long were you in the mainstream industry, and what industry companies / titles / platforms did you work on?
Steven Peeler: Before starting up Soldak, I worked at Ritual Entertainment for a little over six years and primarily created games for the PC. Most of my time at Ritual was spent working on Elite Force 2, Heavy Metal: FAKK2, Blair Witch 3, and some unannounced/unreleased games. I also made minor contributions to Sin, Condition Zero, Counter Strike XBox, and Black Hawk Down: Team Sabre.
Rampant Coyote: What propelled you out of the door of that cushy mainstream game development job to join the ranks of the self-employed?
Steven Peeler: I actually get asked this a lot. I left for a lot of reasons, so my answer each time is different depending on who is asking and my mood. Here’s just a few of the reasons: I really wanted to work on an RPG and Ritual only made shooters, there were some annoying politics going on that was really frustrating, I disagreed with the direction the company was taking, I was really tired of pushy publishers, and I just wanted to do my own thing.
Rampant Coyote: I assume you left the mainstream gig feeling like you had a handle on What it would take to make games on your own. Were there any aspects of indie game development took you by surprise? Were there any lessons you had to learn quickly?
Steven Peeler: Yeah, I would say I felt I had a good handle on creating a game on my own.
This didn’t exactly surprise me, but there are a lot of non-game things you must do as an indie like setting up your business, taxes, creating a website, marketing, taxes, interacting with your customers, and more taxes. Did I mention taxes?
One thing that did surprise me is how hard it is too find good artists and level designers that actually have free time. I guess in retrospect this really shouldn’t have surprised me. Most of the people I find either aren’t very good, are already crunching (working more than full time) at a game company, or can’t/won’t work for royalties.
Another thing I have learned the hard way, RPGs are complex beasts especially when you go and add things like a dynamic world and opposing factions.
Rampant Coyote: What have been your biggest struggles / challenges / disappointments as an indie?
Steven Peeler: The biggest struggle has simply been to get enough attention so that we can make enough sales to continue. We’ve already created an innovative, fun game, but getting the world to notice that is harder, possibly even harder than making the game in the first place.
Personally my biggest disappointment is how much piracy that goes on in the PC market. Since we are a small developer, that has a hard time getting attention, you would think we would have very little piracy. Unfortunately, that’s not the case at all. It’s depressing how many sites are pirating Depths of Peril. What’s even worse is that after working on the game for almost 3 years, some #$%^ posts a crack on some pirate site, and the forum users thank him. I even saw one pirate site that was getting donations. Sigh, ok, enough on piracy, it’s depressing even typing this.
Rampant Coyote: Do you still prefer being an indie over your mainstream game job? If so, why? If not, why haven't you returned to mainstream, big-budget, big-studio development? At the end of the day, why are you an indie?
Steven Peeler: Overall, I enjoy being an indie more. The mainstream game job paid way better however. Hopefully that will change in the long run though.
It’s great to be able to do whatever I want to do. I never would have been able to create Depths of Peril in the mainstream. Nor would I have been allowed to bring Depths of Peril to the Mac market. I don’t have a boss. My commute is now about 10 seconds to get across the room. I no longer have to go to meetings. I no longer have to deal with publishers trying to withhold payments to get their way. I no longer have producers with an art background telling me, as the lead programmer, how to fix a technical problem. And this list could go on for a long time.
This isn’t to say I would never get back into the mainstream industry. If it ever happens, I would just be pickier about who I would go work for.
Rampant Coyote: Any other comments you want to make about the difference between mainstream & indie development?
In the mainstream industry, no one would have let me create Depths of Peril or bring it to the Mac. This is the big difference between being an indie and working in the mainstream. As an indie, I have the freedom to try new things and I don’t have to have proof that it will be a financial success.
One of the other big differences is, as an indie, I work directly for the gamers. I sell directly to gamers through our website and I talk directly to gamers through our forums.
At a mainstream developer, you directly make games for publishers. Obviously, ultimately you want to please the gamers. However, you pitch your game idea or prototype to publishers. The publisher is the one that decides whether or not your game gets made. The publisher pays you. Most developers never make any money except what the publisher gives them. So like I said, at a mainstream developer, most of the time, you are making games for publishers, not the gamers.
Rampant Coyote: And is there anything else you want to add?
Steven Peeler: I think I’ve gotten in my fill. :)
Steven Peeler Talks Indie with RPS
Rock Paper Shotgun has a very cool interview with indie RPG author Steven Peeler, the guy behind the awesomelicious Depths of Peril. Some bits of trivia coming out of the interview:
* As I expected, Steven is the only full-time guy at Soldak Entertainment. The other names in the credits are contractors.
* Shortly before leaving Ritual, he pitched another RPG design - a very tense, scary, first-person-perspective RPG. Nothing like Depths of Peril.
* Soldak is not his first start-up company (or his first start-up company working on RPGs)
* His inspiration comes from an outstanding list of classic, old-school RPGs --- and Dungeons & Dragons.
* He's got another top-secret project that's "pretty far along now," but not talkin' about it yet.
He also talks about his decision to go indie after being pretty up the programmer hierarchy at a major development studio, where he came up with the design of Depths of Peril, the difficulties inherent in creating such a dynamic-world game, and much more.
If I were to teach a class in making indie RPGs, I'd put this article on the "required reading" list.
RPS Interview With Steven Peeler of Soldak Entertainment
I Didn't Know I Spoke Polish...
Wow, I'm multi-lingual!
Frayed Knights Interview on Onet.pl!
For those of us who don't speak Polish, and who are at all interested (don't worry, I wouldn't be either), I provided the original English translation of the interview in the Forum.
Frayed Knights Interview at RPGWatch
Well, now I've gone and done it!
There's an interview with Yours Truly, where I am as verbose as usual, up at RPGWatch. The focus of the article is on that roleplaying game that may be destined to prove I don't have a clue what I'm talking about when I talk RPGs.
Warning: Do not use while driving or operating heavy machinery.
Frayed Knights Interview at RPGWatch
Interview with Georgina Bensley
Gamezebo's got an interview with Fatal Hearts and Cute Knight creator Georgina Bensley.
An excerpt on where she gets her ideas:
"I can't stop coming up with ideas. Any sort of new concept I see or hear about, I'm likely to start thinking `How could I make that into a game? How could I make that fun?' Especially if someone says a particular concept can't be done. Someone mentioned in conversation that it would be impossible to make a racing game with drama and meaningful character development. So of course I had to come up with a design for one, where the drivers would have friendships and rivalries and this would affect the way they raced... if you stole someone's girlfriend then he might decide to sacrifice winning a race in order to make you crash out.
"I'm not making that game, though. I have far too many ideas to actually implement them all. Some ideas won't leave me alone. If I keep thinking about the same thing over and over, I probably have to make it. If I start prototyping an idea and lose interest, it probably wasn't that great an idea. I have some ideas that have been sitting in my list of 'maybe someday' for years now, because I keep coming up with better plans that I feel more urgent about creating."
Interview with Georgina Bensley at Gamezebo
Gamezebo Interviews Georgina Bensley
Gamezebo has just interviewed Georgina Bensley of Hanako Games (Fatal Hearts, Cute Knight). They focus a lot on the indie game creation process, asking questions about design, how she finds contractors, and so forth. That's fascinating stuff to ME, since I have this voyeuristic interest in seeing how other indies manage to get their job done. :)
A couple of excerpts:
How do you fund your projects?Ah, bootstrapping...
The business grows organically - the sales from one game allow me to spend more money building the next.
If someone offered you a studio with a staff of 10 people, what would you do?
I can think of projects to assign if I had a bigger staff, but I'm not sure I really want one. I do always have more ideas than I have time for, but that may be a good thing. It forces me to focus. I think I'd be more likely to have people working with me than for me, people who were passionate about their own ideas.
Anyway, I thought I'd pass it along:
Gamezebo: Interview with Georgina Bensley, Hanako Games
Jeff Vogel Interview at GameBanshee
There's an interview on GameBanshee with Spiderweb Software founder Jeff Vogel. What's interesting about this interview is that it seems to have much more of a developer-centric focus. Would-be RPG developers (who, me?) should pay attention!
A fascinating couple of excerpts:
"I never really enjoyed (making RPGs). I thought I would. When I wrote the engine for our first game, all those years ago, I was really looking forward to making the world. That, I thought, would be the fun. Then, fifteen minutes into designing the first town, I thought, `Wow. This sucks.' And it hasn't improved much since then."Of course, he does talk about Avernum V, now available for the Mac and coming soon to the PC. If interested, go check it out!
"Don't get me wrong. I love nice graphics as much as the next guy. I make our games as pretty as I can. I'm not ideologically attached to low-budget games. It's just all I can do. But if someone wants a pretty game, I will not be able to please that person. And if I spend a bunch of money and an extra year making a game as pretty as I possibly can, I still will not please that person... There is one thing I can do: Make a cool adventure in a cool world. So I do that."
Spiderweb Software Interview at GameBanshee
(Vaguely) related stuff I found the other day:
* Why Does Jeff Vogel Hate RPGs?
* Jeff Vogel Gives Innovation Another Chance
* Is There Hope for Indie Computer RPGs?
The Rampant Coyote - Interviewed
WorldIV interviewed me in a series of game-blog interviews that they are running. Of all of the interviews they've done so far, they've told me that mine was definitely the latest. Specifically, they wanted me to talk about indie games. The interview went up this morning.
If you are a long-time reader of Tales of the Rampant Coyote, or if you've been an indie game player for a while, nothing there is going to be news to you. What's kind of interesting to me is that this is my first interview since actually getting some kind of clue about what I'm doing as an indie (the others were all prior to releasing Void War).
Anyway, if you are idly curious or just a masochist, you can read it here:
The Rampant Coyote Interviewed at WorldIV.
Interview With Ron Gilbert
If you remember the classic Monkey Island adventure games - or if you are looking forward to the upcoming Penny Arcade game - you may enjoy this new interview with Ron Gilbert, the designer responsible for spoiling us and preventing us from fully enjoying lesser-quality adventures of the era.
Since this interview is for the World of Monkey Island website, he naturally talks a lot about his work on Monkey Island --- with his usual humor. But he doesn't neglect his role on the upcoming Penny Arcade game.
My favorite quotes:
Q: Do you think you’ll ever create something again that gets such a huge fanbase like happened with the Monkey Island series?
A: The problem is, you can only do one deal with the Devil and I blew it on a 16-color EGA game.
Q: Now that the newness of 3D with super realistic graphics and such is beginning to wear off, do you think games will move into more interesting styles and concepts?
A: Dear god I hope so. I'm so bored with realistic graphics. I can go outside and see realistic graphics. I want something that really excites my imagination. While doing realism is technically very challenging, it's not very creatively challenging and we need some more creativity in this business. All these stupid space marine games all look the same. None of them make me care at all about the world. Sorry Halo.
Ron Gilbert Interview at World of Monkey Island
Interview With Logan Worsley, Creator of Emily Enough
I mentioned the disturbing, black-humored, free graphic adventure game "Emily Enough" several weeks ago. PlanetFreeplay.com has an interview with its author, Logan Worsley. An excerpt:
"I designed the game to be offensive or at least push the limits. Just about every game in the genre places you in the position of hero. I wanted to do something different--namely to try and make the player uncomfortable during the entire experience. The goal was to have the player know what they needed to do to win, but not want to do the things necessary to win. There's really only one instance in the game where it's that bad, but of course, that one is a little severe.Read the interview with Logan Worsley.
So, was I worried that anyone would be offended? I kinda wanted people to be offended.. not in a hurtful, mean way but just in a disturbing, creepy way."
Tip o' the derby to Independent Gaming for the tip.
(Vaguely) related ghoulishness:
* Free Adventure Game: Emily Enough
* Adventure Gaming Alive and Well?
MMORPGs Broke Jeff Vogel
Jeff Vogel, long-time indie RPG (role-playing game) developer, has an interview up at RPGWatch that is well worth reading. In it, he explains some of his more controversial articles, including his explanation for doing a Nethergate remake after blasting it as an example of why indies can't innovate.
He notes that his ripping on "level grind" and "trash monsters" was primarily aimed at flogging himself for past mistakes:
"I think that game developers need to be far, far more respectful of the time of the player. Leisure time is precious. We should not waste it. We shouldn’t burn time at the beginning making the player grind out levels before he or she can get into the plot. We shouldn’t burn time with faction grinding and trash clearing. We shouldn’t pad the game out with tons of B material."Reconciling this with his publicly expressed love of MMORPGs, he explains:
"I was an addict. It passed.He also gives a little bit of a preview for the upcoming game, "Avernum 5." Where Avernum 4 was very hack-and-slashy with a huge world, Avernum 5 will instead focus on a very intricate and detailed plot.
"I spent an abusive amount of time playing Everquest. Then something happened. The switch flipped in my brain, and I didn’t care anymore. I was really looking forward to the World of Warcraft expansion coming out. Then it came out, and I just didn’t care.
"I’ll really seriously have to need an escape from reality before I pick up an MMORPG again. The whole business model is based on keeping you playing for months and months. And, since content is finite and expensive, that means wasting my time."
Check out the full interview here:
Jeff Vogel Interview
(Vaguely) related Indie RPG Stuff
* Jeff Vogel Gives Innovation Another Chance, Plans Nethergate Remake
* Why Does Jeff Vogel Hate RPGs?
* How to Get Me to Buy Your Indie RPG
* Why Do RPGs Suck Now?
Beyond the Gate: Jason Compton On the Making of "The Broken Hourglass"
The "Indie RPG" (Roleplaying Game) is a category of computer game that, by all rights, shouldn't exist. Mainstream developers and publishers tend to shy away from RPGs because they are - short of anything "massively multiplayer" - among the most costly and difficult of games to produce. Only a handful of development houses are capable of pulling it off, and satisfying the often conflicting tastes of very demanding fans. The idea that a handful of indie developers, volunteering part-time effort with a budget that wouldn't even cover a week's operating expenses at a mainstream studio, should tackle this genre, to march where mainstream publishers fear to tread, defies any kind of conventional wisdom in the industry.
Interestingly enough, our story today begins with Baldur's Gate, a mainstream RPG which also defied conventional wisdom. During the mid-90's, conventional wisdom in the videogame industry held that RPGs were dead, and that the market was no longer interested in what was once a staple genre. Baldur's Gate was produced by the fairly new developer Bioware, which had a single action game (Shattered Steel) to its credit. Following hot on the heels of Diablo, Fallout, and Might and Magic VI (not to mention console RPGs like Final Fantasy VII) which topped the game charts in 1997 and 1998, Baldur's Gate was the title that seemed to finally put to rest the cries of the naysayers.
One great feature of Baldur's Gate was that it was relatively friendly to external modifications (or mods), allowing fans to create their own content. This inspired a new generation of amateur game developers, who learned the ropes of CRPG (Computer RPG) design by changing, enhancing, and extending existing games with brand-new content. Several members of one of the more prolific and successful modding groups, the Pocket Plane Group, grew weary of simply extending someone else's game and finally took it upon themselves to produce a brand new RPG, "The Broken Hourglass."
Now, ordinarily I'm a little bit skeptical about a "new" indie developer talking about their yet-unfinished RPG in development. However, Planewalker Games has a track record of successful mods for several years, and their new, built-from-scratch "WeiNGINE" RPG engine is largely complete and functional. Last week I had the chance to enjoy a telephone interview with Jason Compton, the producer of The Broken Hourglass, and he was able to give me the skinny on what I feel confident will be a great indie RPG in the not-too-distant future.
This introduction has taken way too long already, so I'll let Jason do most of the talking from here. Enjoy!
- Rolling Up a Character: Background Information -
Rampant Coyote: First off, why don’t you go ahead and tell us a little bit about yourself. Your background, what got you into gaming, and … everything else.
Jason Compton: Okay. Well, I’m Jason Compton, the producer for The Broken Hourglass for Planewalker Games. My gaming background goes back quite a ways. I guess it would probably start with my dad. My dad wasa young father, and the arcade stuff of the late 70’s and the early 80’s grabbed his interest. So that was something that he was interested in, and he would take me to the arcade. I was born in ’77. So as I was old enough to start going to arcades – you know – five or six years old, that’s when you had that wave of the really great, early, big-time arcade games coming through. That was my first experience, that and being an Atari player at home.
My dad didn’t grow up with videogames, but caught that wave of arcade games coming through. So he got into it, so I got into it as well.
Rampant Coyote: I was growing up during that same era, so I know exactly what you are talking about. Any game in particular really catch your interest back in the day?
Jason: I had a really wide interest. I guess some of those that really stuck – Galaga, Xevious, some of those classic games. I guess I had a couple of favorites that were probably considered “B-Listers” as well. Elevator Action – that was a big one for me. Those are the ones I keep coming back to. I put a lot of quarters and tokens into a lot of different machines. Even ones I had no chance at, like Sinistar… things like that. Just can’t stay away from them.
Rampant Coyote: (My best Sinistar voice) “I Live”
Rampant Coyote: Ok, fast forward a little... Were you ever into any roleplaying games on computer at the time? Did you have a computer at home, besides the Atari console?
Jason: Yeah! I had the Atari, and I got my first real computer – it was the Commodore 64 – in 1985. And I didn’t immediately start playing RPGs on there, but again, time-wise, that was when the first Bard’s Tale games were coming out, that would have been an early one for me. But some of my favorites again were kind of B-Listers, like SSI's Phantasie … I played quite a lot of Phantasie. And then as the "Gold Box" games came through I played them, and I was a D&D player as a kid as well.
The way I got into D&D was kind of funny. I guess it was around that same time, ’85 – ’86, I thought that I was interested in chess. The local public library had a chess club, and I went, and the young adult librarian ran the chess club. I wasn’t a terribly good chess player, and she must have seen that. She must have seen something else in me that suggested that I might be interested in roleplaying games, because she said, “Well, Jason, why don’t you come with me,” and in the room next to the room where the chess club was going on, were some kids – slightly older kids – who were playing a Dragonlance module. She introduced me to them, and that was my first “in” to the game.
So I never played chess again, and ended up playing D&D instead, which was kind of funny. I kind of accidentally got into D&D. That also crossed over into the computer.
But I actually didn’t play much in the way of RPGs throughout, really much of the 90’s, either pen and paper or computer based. There was this big, long gap. I’d go back and play old favorites – you know, I’d go back and play, like, Wasteland every six months, or a few other games. At the time I wasn’t into a lot of the games that were coming out. I think a big part of that, actually, was throughout a lot of the 90’s I was an Amiga user. So we didn’t get the latest and greatest games. We didn’t get the RPGs. So I sorta missed that wave as a primary customer, because I was busy using a different – dying - computer platform.
Rampant Coyote: That brings up one of the questions I was going to ask you was also about any dice & paper influences – did you any other RPGs other than D&D that you've played?
Jason: We primarily played D&D – we would experiment, every once in a while, play a one-off with some other system. We played a fair amount of the Marvel Super Heroes RPG as a break from D&D. I guess the one other game that I can think that I played more than one session of was, again a B-List, or even C-List – I’ve always been into a lot of obscure things- was a game called Cyberspace. It was an I.C.E. game. It wasn’t Cyberpunk 2020, it wasn’t Shadowrun, it was the C-grade version of the cyberpunk games, called Cyberspace.
Rampant Coyote: I have seen the books, but I never played it myself.
Jason: It wasn’t a great setup, but it was okay. I think we played maybe a half-dozen sessions. But we’d usually come back to D&D. Cyberspace was a percentile-based system, with traits and so forth. It didn’t hold together really well, but it was good enough for, you know, high school kids.
- Becoming an Indie Game Developer -
Rampant Coyote: Okay. Moving on to … transitioning from being a gamer to a game developer. Now I take it that creating an indie RPG is not your full-time gig...
Jason: It’s a terrible idea, I’ll tell you that! (Laughs) No it, unfortunately it’s not a full-time gig. I guess I could set aside even more money, and try to convince myself that I’m paying myself a salary. But, why fool around?
So no, sadly, there’s not the money in the Planewalker coffers to do that at this point.
Rampant Coyote: Hopefully AFTER the game’s released, there’ll be plenty!
Jason: That’s the dream, you know, that this is the first game, not the last game.
Rampant Coyote: Right!
Jason: But no, I am a freelance writer, primarily business technology. In fact, I’ve got a story that’s due… which, while I’m not doing interviews, I’ll be working on.
Rampant Coyote: Okay – well, hopefully it won’t take too long!
Jason: No, I appreciate spending the time talking about the game. But yeah, I’ve been successfully doing that for about a decade now. But this was something else I wanted to try, and if it doesn’t work out, I will still have my writing. All things considered, sure, I’d love to be able to do the game design full-time, and have it pay comparably, and be able to pay some of the other people I’m counting on for their collaborations comparably, as well. But we’re not there yet, and I’m not the kind of person to sell all my possessions and mortgage the house in order to do it. That makes a good story in the Sunday paper, but that’s not what I see myself doing, going on quite that much of a limb.
Rampant Coyote: It’s a little bit of an experiment. Especially as it seems you are experimenting with a lot of new ideas. You mentioned the other people, also, who are working with you. I understand many of your team come from the Baldur’s Gate mod community.
Jason: Right. These were people that I was comfortable with, and I knew that they knew at least as much as I did about game design in this vein, and figured I could count on to help out with content, and help me understand the engine that we were putting together. Or, of course, in the case of the engine, actually put it into play.
Wes Weimer kinda wrote, or re-wrote, I guess, the book on Baldur’s Gate modding when he came along. And some of the technologies we’re using in The Broken Hourglass are pretty unique. Not so much the visual technologies, but the under-the-hood stuff is very different.
So yeah, a lot of modders are involved with it, simply because I knew we’ve done good work. We’ve done work that had kept people involved with a game five plus years after its release date! So we must have been doing something right.
Rampant Coyote: So why create a new engine? Why not go with one of the engines that are already out there?
Jason: There’s not a whole lot out there that’s really ready to go. I did look into it. When we sat down and said, “If we do this game, what will it take?” [Wes] said, well, I could design an engine, or I could do X, Y, or Z. And I did a little looking around, but it’s not as simple as just going out and picking up somebody’s re-work of the Quake engine, or just picking up CrystalSpace, or whatever. There’s a lot of logic that goes into doing an RPG that you can’t just pick up from anywhere .
There are really few licensable RPG engines out there. We looked into them, and two out of the three were tied to the D20 ruleset,. Which you can’t use unless you are being published by Atari. I know in the case of the people doing The Witcher, they chose to rip out D20 and put in their own ruleset – they licensed Aurora. Took out D20, put in their own thing.
I didn’t think that would be a good option for us. Especially because Wes said, well, look, if you want to work with somebody else’s code, you’ll need to find somebody else to do that. So it was go with the programmer that I knew and felt comfortable with, and would make a commitment to me to be my business partner here, or … just find somebody random off the street, probably pay them a lot of money, and not necessarily know what I was going to get back on the other side, if I went with one of these engines that had to have D20 rules taken out of them.
That and they weren’t cheap. Its not like there’s Torque for RPGs, and you pay $500 and off you go. These things are specialized and there’s a lot to them, and so it’s big money to get a ready-to-go RPG engine like that. And things like RPG Maker, that’s just not what we were trying to accomplish, we were looking for something that would let us aim a little higher than that.
Rampant Coyote: Or tie you to a particular type of gameplay.
Jason: Right. And we wanted to aim a little higher than that.
Rampant Coyote: Another question about the engine. How long did it take you –specifically Wes, but the bunch of you – to create the engine? It sounds like it came whole cloth, and it sounds like its pretty much done now.
Jason: Yeah, it is pretty much done. We had an early morning phone call about some performance issues today. So there’s still some things where it’s like, “Oh, that shouldn’t be happening like that!” And that’s because of XYZ, and then it gets fixed.
I guess… let me think about this now… The very first version of the engine is over two years old now. The bulk of it was done during a frantic summer, maybe a five month period where Wes was between jobs. He’d finished his doctoral defense, and then became a faculty member. So there was that lay-off in the middle there where he was able to put a lot of time into the engine. And then since then, it’s been things coming in dribs and drabs, feature requests, or, you know, now that we’re plugging in this content in, things aren’t working they way they looked were when it was first getting coded up.
There is that. That’s the main part now. Because this is the first game being put together with this engine, there are the things that worked in the design document, or worked in his head, or the compiler said worked when we did it the first time. But when we pesky content designers come along and actually start putting twenty creatures in an area all trying to do this, this, and this, or put a door in that behaves in a certain way. And then it’s like, “Oh!!! That doesn’t work quite right.”
So that’s where the additional work, the ongoing work that goes into the engine now, comes in. The parts where the rubber meets the road, and the theory and the reality don’t mix.
Rampant Coyote: And here’s a question with respect to the mod community: I’ve heard it said of the mod communities – I’ve not really been involved in that myself, other than the Neverwinter Nights community for a while. But I’ve heard it said that in many of the mod communities that less than 10% of the community accomplish 90% of the work. Did you find that was true, and if so how did you work around that?
Jason: More than 90% of the work is done by less than 10% of the people? Yeah, there’s certainly are a few people who were pretty prolific.
I guess the projects that I chose to get involved in had more defined scope. So I worked on a lot of projects with one other person – Jesse Meyers – and he definitely did his part and then some. We didn't run into that much, because we - the Pocket Plane Group, the name of our site - we never really set out to do the crazy… We said we’re not going to try and do a whole game, because of all the issues that you run into trying to do a whole game, which we’ve now decided to take on in a different way.
No, we kept our goals in mind, and manageable. The stuff I was involved in, there really weren’t people dropping out, or not pulling their weight, because we saw what people who set their sights too high would end up with. Yeah, you’d end up with twenty people who would argue about what the credits should look like. You’d see what not to do, and say, “Well, okay, let’s not do this. Let’s define the scope, and let’s go after it.”
So, no. I mean, I never had any disappointment like that. It is true that a lot of the output you see does come out of the same people, over and over again, because you see that they are the ones who worked it out. They kind of got the technique down, and they go ahead and do it. But even now, six-and-a-half, seven years after Baldur’s Gate II came out, there’s still people that come along and pick up where guys like me left off, and are doing new things.
So certainly not in a negative sense would I say that most of the work is done by the same people over and over. I don’t have any negative feelings in that regard.
- On RPG Design -
Rampant Coyote: In your opinion, what makes a great RPG?
Jason: It depends! I think of the games that I’ve really enjoyed, there’s a single quality about them, I guess, but not a universal way that they achieve that quality. The quality is the immersiveness of it. Not necessarily that I believe I’m in that world, but I really believe that I’m controlling that world, and interacting with it. And I don’t want to leave it alone, because only I can save it, or only I can manipulate it in the way it needs to be manipulated, or whatever.
Different RPGs have done that in different ways. I mentioned Wasteland, and certainly Wasteland did it in a different way than I think Baldur’s Gate did it. Wasteland didn’t have really engaging characters with lots of dialog that really made you feel a part of that world. You know, Wasteland had a book of paragraphs you looked up. And I loved Alternate Reality but the first game in particular had no plot OR dialog to hook on, yet the sights, the sounds, the songs all made you feel like you really were plodding around this city trying not to get killed by Champions and Brown Mold.
There’s the sense of putting you in a situation where you matter in some way. Different games do it in different ways, but yeah, you have to make the player feel like they matter in the world. Whether that’s with a lot of different mysteries that have to get unraveled that only you can get to the bottom of, or different characters who come to you with problems that only you can solve, or that feel a certain way about you, and they’ll only ever feel that way about you, or your player character or whatever you want to call it. Or, an Alternate Reality, where you are so busy worrying about survival that nothing else matters and you get fixated on that goal.
That’s the quality, immersion, but there’s no single strategy for getting there.
Rampant Coyote: Okay, well, speaking of specific strategies… What was your principle focus with The Broken Hourglass? What did you set out to achieve when you embarked on this insane journey of yours?
Jason: We set out to make a game that hardly anybody else wants to make anymore … another game in a style in which we had become accustomed, but the market wasn’t coming up with. This character-focused, party-based RPG / Adventure where you would define a character, meet other characters that had an interesting personality that could interact with the one that you created for your character. And together you would go off and find big, important stuff to do.
So if there is a vision, it would be that we can create an engaging world full of intriguing characters and welcome players into it, and give them excuses to keep coming back to that world to learn more about it, or solve more of its problems, or screw around with the minds of more of its inhabitants.
There is this game format, and we're trying to breathe some new life into it. It had a lot of people’s attention at one time. It got pushed to the side. We said, “Yes, there’s more room to tell stories with these kinds of pieces.” The strong player character. The strong supporting cast, that are more than just a portrait and stats. They have personalities. They interact with the player character and with each other. And to that end, with those people, you go out and you experience a story.
I guess the ultimate goal being that we would create a game world where story and the characters in it were both important. I think of it like I think of successful television or movie series—you load up a good RPG day after day, week after week, year after year both because you want to see what happens plot-wise, and because you want to see how the characters deal with the plots. Even though I know Charlie Chan will reveal the murderer, I still like to see how he arrives at his conclusions. An engaging gameworld is the same way.
Rampant Coyote: In a lot of games, it feels like you are railroaded through a story, regardless of what you want to do with your character. How were you able to achieve that balance between story and player freedom?
Jason: Well, uh... (laughs) we’ll just have to see, in part. I know how we think we’re doing it. I’ve always been up front about saying that we are not a sandbox game. We do have a finite and limited and non-random number of things to do in the game. We are not procedural content people. So there’s only so much you can do, and a certain number of things you’ll have to do.
We hope that by making a lot of the decisions about what order to do things in, and to a some extent which path you’ll take to reach those goals open-ended, players won't feel like they're in a box. Not everything has to be solved in a specific way. It’s not just “obtain the sort of blah from the Foozle over here, and give it to this guy, and doing that unlocks the gate.” There are some other … some different strategies to reach the end of some of the major quests, and alternative strategies for many sidequests as well. If anything, from a design standpoint I worry sometimes that we don't have enough plots which just consist of "You meet Party A. They hate you, and conflict ensues!"
We’ll have to see! What I have in my head as enough freedom may not be enough freedom for some players. But I can’t know what we do wrong until people play the game.
Rampant Coyote: Are you planning multiple endings?
Jason: Not … well… “We’re discussing it,” I guess is the thing to say there. I know what the second ending will be if we do it.
Rampant Coyote: (Laughs) Okay.
Jason: I know what the main ending is, and there will be some variations on what that main ending depending on choices made during the game, including how fast they got to the end, what they did or did not do about some of the other things going on in the city while they were getting there.
For example, the game does all take place in this city under siege. It might be tempting to say, well, look, we’re only going to focus on the things we can identify as major, critical quest goals. Because those support the main plot, those support the impending threat against the city. So solving those fastest would be the optimum strategy. But in so doing, you might have overlooked something that, although minor or unnecessary to completing the game, would have actually been really nice if you’d have solved. Because not solving it means something else bad is going to happen in the long run. Or whatever.
So there’ll be some variations on that. As far as a completely different ending, like I said, I know what it would be. I think it’s a question of “can we tell it in a compelling and believable way?” We’ll have to see.
Rampant Coyote: And still make it a satisfying ending.
Jason: Yeah. I know what it looks like, but we’ll have to see how it plays.
Rampant Coyote: There are a few games with multiple endings that, you know, there’s only one ending that I felt was really the “true” ending. The other two were… lame.
Jason: There’s a problem with that, too. Right. Again, would it be better to do one thing really well, or try and do three different things and none of them are terribly interesting? Of course, if you do three different things and all of them are wonderful, everybody gets candy!
Rampant Coyote: Right. So the game, the gameplay of The Broken Hourglass, hopefully the first of a series, takes place almost entirely within one city?
Rampant Coyote: It sounds will be a fairly focused, intense experience, without the big world and globe-trotting stuff. Tell me about the city in the The Broken Hourglass!
Jason: Okay. Well, the city is Mal Nassrin. I made a comparison about it once, and I won’t do that again, because people got touchy about it. But it’s a second-class city in the nation that the game takes place in, the Tolmiran Empire. Basically, Mal Nassrin, is a city with a lot of history, in that it was a fairly early human settlement, and it was a city-state in its own right. And then the capital of a small nation in its own right. But early on, as the Tolmiran Empire was being formed, it was absorbed into it.
So a lot of its unique culture has been lost. It’s not really a ‘hot spot.’ Most of the mineral resources of Mal Nassrin and surroundings have been exploited by now. So there’s no booming economy in that sense. People live there; they work there; it’s not a hell-hole, but it’s not posh. It’s not a vacation destination. It’s not a hot spot – it’s not where a lot of things happen. It’s where people live, and there are some old buildings … Occasionally someone who’s a big history buff might come by, but its not a happening place.
So it’s not where you’d expect the world to potentially come to an end. But that’s kind of where the game starts. It’s, “Oh, And of all the places for it to happen, it would have to happen here!!"
Rampant Coyote: Sounds like you already have a lot detail on this game world. Where did Tolmira come from? Was that your idea, or Jesse’s, or one of the other designers?
Jason: We had a couple of world designers who put this together, and they were a couple of old collaborators of mine. Jesse Meyers was one of them, and Raleigh Grigsby. They co-designed the Tolmiran Empire over the course of a couple years. Actually it was originally… Jesse had some notions of using it for a game of his own design that he had tried to get together an Infinity-based project around. But since doing new games in that engine was really, really hard it didn’t really go very far.
But when we sat down and decided that maybe we could do something with some money, with a brand-new engine, I turned to that immediately. I am not a world-designer. It’s not something that I personally have talent for. I went to a couple of people who I knew had been working on something, and I could trust to get whipped into shape for the game’s purposes. You know, fleshing traditional things out, and giving some direction in terms of play mechanics in the rule set that we needed. So that was how that came to be.
Rampant Coyote: Besides the fact that it is for “Baldur’s Gate Fans,” if you had one or two “hooks” … you know, big marketing plugs there to say, “This is what makes The Broken Hourglass so freaking cool,” what would they be?
Jason: I… Right now we’re at the point of just saying, “Oh, we’ve worked so hard on it, buy our game!” But I know that’s not a realistic expectation.
I guess the thing I’d say the “hook” is that we are making a story for you, the player. There’s been a lot of emphasis lately… and I’m not saying it’s bad or negative or hurts people or whatever … but there’s been a lot of emphasis on building multiplayer worlds where a lot of the story or engagement is based around you and some people that you managed to hook up with and collaborate with. And you build the story around the programmed events in the game. And that’s fine.
And then there are games where the exploration is the story. They give you kind of a loose plot thread, and the story comes together in your head as you buy houses and play dress-up. And that’s fine, too, but… the way we’re doing it is: We are building a story – what we hope is a rich and engaging story – for you the player, with you in mind, for you to play on your own, to enjoy, to immerse yourself in. Certainly to discuss it with your friends and collaborate with on strategies or mods or whatever. But it is built as a single-player experience.
And that’s something that not everyone can say that they do right now. I think that there is still a need for that. The same as there is a need for group events, and there is a need for being able to go home and read a book. We are more the reading-a-book side of it.
- Coming Soon: The Broken Hourglass -
Rampant Coyote: Yeah, I’m right there with you! I’d love to see more of the good, quality single-player games. Especially those coming out of indies like yourselves, and several others. So I’m really looking forward to seeing The Broken Hourglass, whether it appears on store shelves, or downloadable. Actually, that’s another question – have you been able to cement any plans yet for how you are going to be distributing the game?
Jason: No changes there yet. We have had some conversations with publishers which were promising, but no commitments from anybody yet. If we end up doing everything direct, I have no problem with that. So one way or another, there will be boxed product and a downloadable version available. It’s just a question of who will handle it, and on whose terms.
But I am committed – if we have to produce our own, then we’ll produce our own. If somebody else wants to handle that side of it, and deal with retail distribution, then for the right consideration I am very happy to let them do that as well.
There's a new breed of "heavy" indie RPGs coming: our game, Age of Decadence, Eschalon, maybe even Depths of Peril in that department, and I think one way or another we will each find our audiences, and hopefully get to share them as well.
Rampant Coyote: The Indie Way: It’s gonna happen one way or another! You just don't wait for someone else to give you permission to make your game.
Jason: (Laughs) Because that’s what it comes down to. Nobody’s going to do it for me. Nobody’s going to beg me to put out the game. So yeah – we will. We’re doing our best, putting our best foot forward, with some of the publishers. And some have been impressively receptive, and saying that, yeah, RPGs are a priority for them. But if they’re not interested in what we have, or its not on terms that we think will work for us, then we are still getting it to players! There’s no turning back from that now!
Rampant Coyote: Okay, this is the dangerous question, and do not have to feel obligated to answer it but… If you were to look into a crystal ball and see about how soon you might be able to get it out to players…
Jason: (Laughing) Woah!!!
Rampant Coyote: …when would we be able to expect it?
Jason: (Sighs) It’s tricky. I really, really want people to be playing it this year. I so badly want it, and there are days where it looks like that will certainly happen, and then there are days where it looks like, “Oh, man, what are we doing?” But that’s where my energies are focused --- our getting the game out this year. And if it doesn’t happen, then it’ll be early next year.
That’s what I’m asking of myself, and hopefully will be able to get from everyone else involved, is getting it out this year.
Rampant Coyote: Well, I can’t wait. I sure hope so!
Jason: Yeah, me too! (Laughs) It has to end sometime!
Rampant Coyote: Yeah, that’s what I keep telling myself with my latest game, too. Hey, anything else you want to add about The Broken Hourglass, or Planewalker Games, or anything else?
Jason: No, we’re always grateful for the interest that those out there have shown in the game, consistently checking out what we’re doing, and covering the information that we have been metering out there. Every week, we put out something about the game, whether it’s something about the world, or about the engine itself, or a story in the game world, or whatever. The uptake on that has been pretty good. For coming from, kind of, nowhere, in some sense, its been reassuring, certainly, seeing that people are interested in what we’re putting together and how we’re putting it together.
We’re grateful for that, and grateful to you for taking the time with us! Certainly, I’ll keep an eye on the Rampant Games site. As people have additional questions or comments, I’ll do my best to answer anything else there.
Rampant Coyote: Well, hopefully we’ll be able to do a follow up with the game’s release some time this year and talk more about it! Hey, thank you very much for your time!
Jason: Thank you!
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