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From beyond the moons of Saturn, something turn-based this way comes.

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From beyond the moons of Saturn, something turn-based this way comes.

Interview - posted by DarkUnderlord on Mon 8 May 2006, 03:03:42

Tags: Dropship; Laidback Gaming; Michael Sean McCarthy

Remember Troika Games? You know, that small development studio founded by some former members of Interplay Entertainment which collapsed in financial ruin this past Christmas? Well, someone survived. Michael McCarthy, probably best described as an all-round art guy and part of the Troika team, got in touch with us recently and told us about something new he's planning. It's an RPG. An Action-RPG actually. With turn-based combat... and it's set in that good old 3/4 top-down "isometric" view. We've dubbed it Project T-BAR 3/4 and he's setup his own studio called Laid Back Gaming to get the game developed. We decided to ask Michael all about it.

So all right then, here are the questions...

Troika Games & Laid Back Gaming


1. You were with Troika Games right from the start and are credited as working on all three of their games (Arcanum, ToEE and Bloodlines). What role did you play in bringing those games to fruition?

I would say that I played a large role in Arcanum and ToEE, and a very small role in Bloodlines.

For Arcanum, we were a very small crew. Not to sound generic, but we all did pretty much everything on that project. Largely I did map design and effects. It was decided by Tim, Leonard, and Jason to hire a very small team of people who were all "leads"; leads meaning people who were experienced in many facets of game production. I think the scope of the design really lent itself to this idea. That game was BIG. For instance, we needed to place the vendigroth device on the map and there was nothing complete about it except its intended purpose. So I designed it, modeled it, textured it, and did the cut scene of it deploying. That was how that game was made. If you needed something right away, do it yourself and move on to what's next.

For TOEE, I was Lead Artist. The game started with just me, Tim Cain, and Steve Moret. I hired the art team and scheduled and managed all the art production. I was pretty tied up on the management side of things, but I did all of the effects (spells, combat, torches, etc) in the game, and a few minor animations, levels, and interfaces. A lot of my time was spent designing how we would implement the art in the game. Making TOEE was magic. The entire team was so talented and all of them were my friends. I miss them all every day.

On Vampire I would say I helped the most when we were trying to lock down a publisher. I worked mostly with Jason Anderson, Leonard, Andrew Meggs, Chad Moore, and Jason Manley to get a good looking level up and running. Shortly after that demo came together, I moved on to TOEE. The entire production of Vampire was out of my hands.

2. What did you learn from working at Troika Games, both in programming terms as well as in terms of how to run a small computer game development studio?

Man, that's a tough one. I could write 100 pages on this question. :) Needless to say, I learned a lot.

Tim, Leonard, and Jason really saw a lot of problems occur at Interplay regarding salary, royalties, and general team understanding of how and why decisions were made. They wanted to make sure nothing was in the dark at Troika Games. I don't think many people know this, but on Arcanum, everyone at the company made the same salary and had the same percentage of royalties. Anyone at the company could look through the books at any time and see exactly how much we cost to run. Even on the production side, anyone could question any decision made. There were pro's and con's to this, but in general I still hold a lot of that original Troika sentiment. If you hire a small group of intelligent, experienced people, you can keep everything in the open. It builds a level of trust and feeling of truly belonging to a family. You really feel like you are working together to create something.

A very strong learning experience for me was being the Lead on Temple of Elemental Evil. The opportunity to truly start from nothing and see a production through to completion is a tremendous experience. Since me, Tim, and Steve Moret got along so well, the communication flourished throughout the entire team. By educating each other on what was necessary to complete art, design, and programming tasks, we were able to really weigh the pros and cons of what we were implementing.

WITH OUT A DOUBT, the most valuable learning experience was dealing with the publishers. The process of bidding, pitching, and acquiring contracts was really eye-opening. The business of traveling to promote the title at trade shows and publications, and working with marketing and PR to bring the games through in the best light have been invaluable training. These are skills and experiences that have really shaped my concept of how a game company should function and what titles I want to release.

3. Where has the idea for Laid Back Gaming come from and what type of games do you see the company creating? Is it a carry over of the notions and ideas that led to the founding of Troika Games - which is to say, a desire to make unique games that you think are fun versus those that marketing thinks sell - or have you always harbored a desire to setup your own company regardless of what games it might make?

The goal of Laid Back Gaming is to create great games, and have fun while making them. While the game I am putting together now is turn-based combat, I wouldn't say that I would never release a game of a different genre. The concept is to take good ideas, and bring them to life. Remove any outside control. I truly believe the only way to make a great game is to push everything else aside, and bring forth your vision.

I would not be putting this company together if I wasn't in control.

As far as the notions of Troika go.... I am dedicating this game to Tim, Leonard, and Jason. The greatest gift I have been given in my journey through making games is the concept that "it's ok to give the player control". What would the player want to do? Why can't we let them do that? Most importantly, who's to say that the player will care about the story or not? Don't thrust the player into something they wouldn't want to do. While it is impossible to give people complete control within the game, do your best to give them as much control as the budget, technology, and development cycle can muster. While this may sound like a simple concept, it's surprisingly rare these days. Tim, Leonard, and Jason really forged a company based around giving the player freedom. It's about making role playing games The key is to let the player do what he wants, but have his decisions affect the world he lives in.

Let me give you an idea of what made Troika great. Here are two scenarios, one featuring a regular game idea, and one featuring a Troika game idea:

Regular game idea:
What the player experiences: You were told that the wealthy owner of the Inn can help you find the buried treasure. You walk into a bar. The bartender greets you with a fine "Hello Stranger! Come and enjoy a pint of ale on the house!" You will notice that you when you click on anyone else in the room you get a generic "good day sir", you certainly can't attack anyone, and if the game let you fire off an explosive spell, it wouldn't do any damage in room and no one would notice that anything had happened. You talk to the inn keeper and he says if you give him 10 gold, he'll give you the map to the secret treasure! So you do.

What the developers were thinking: Well, this has to be this way, right? I mean, the bartender has knowledge that keeps the quest moving along so we can't kill him. And what if we attacked someone else in the corner of the bar? We couldn't have that because it would look strange if the people just sat there! And I mean, c'mon, if you can kill this guy, wouldn't that mean you can kill the others too? Oh plus, our publisher informed us yesterday that we have to take out all the kids in the game because we can't sell the game in Germany if it has kid killing. Yeah..... killing people in a friendly town is out of the question.

Troika game:
What the player experiences: You walk into a bar. The bartender greets you with a fine "Hello Stranger! Come and enjoy a pint of ale on the house!" At this point, you shoot an arrow through his neck.... he drops dead, the bar maid and most of the patrons freak out and run for the door... You laugh maniacally until you notice some guy in the corner (who happens to be the bartenders' brother in law enjoying a pint himself) unsheathing his vorpal sword and coming after you with bloody vengeance in his eyes... You kill him too and take his sword. You search the inn and find a key underneath a bottle of whiskey behind the bar. The key opens a lockbox upstairs in his room where you find a map.

What Troika was thinking: Hey, what if I want to shoot the bartender? Yeah, I hate those stereo-typical jolly fat bartender guys. It'll be more trouble, but we'll make sure you can get the map some how. For the people in the room, we'll have them check against your faction and skills, if you attack anyone, they will determine if they are scared, hostile, or unmoved by your actions. If they are scared they'll run, hostile they'll attack, and unmoved they will just sit there drinking a beer while all hell breaks loose. Yeah, we should put at least on guy in the bar who's tough as nails. The tough quiet dude who calmly drinks his beer... The guy you DO NOT want to mess with. Yeah, and if you kill anyone in this inn, the cops in town will attack you on sight. The more neutral shopkeepers will still sell to you, but they will jack the prices up because even they think you are a cold blooded killer.

Now, the Troika way is much more difficult to implement. All RPG fans will notice that Troika games are often times buggy. The Troika way is much harder to test because of all of the possibilities within the game and the level. When the game is near completion and you need another few months to make sure it's tight and bug free, the publisher will rarely give you the time or money to make it happen. Many times, Publishers underestimate how difficult it is to test a game this open ended and they don't give you proper testing resources. This was the case for Arcanum and Temple for sure.

In the Publishers defense though, you did say it'd be done at a certain date, and if it's not, it's normally no one's fault but the developers. Publishers plan on releasing certain games at certain times. You can't have your game come out right after a similar title because it might get buried. There are even deeper layers that the publishers have to deal with like reserving certain times for the game to be pressed. If you deliver the final version to the reproduction facility in October instead of September, they may be busy and will charge you much more for the rush delivery and overtime.

So to recap on the question, I haven't always wanted to own my own game company. I always kicked around the idea of making a cool game idea here and there, but after seeing what it takes to really run a company and manage things, I knew I needed more experience under my belt.

It is only now that I believe that great games can be made without the perils of typical publisher involvement.

And so I request we insert question 10 now.......

10. Why Steam? Why Michael, why? Will the game be available as a boxed version in stores as well or are you only planning for a Steam download at this stage?

Why Steam... the reason Steam is so fantastic, is because the game can be developed and distributed without any publisher involvement. Laidback will get to keep the IP, which means that the idea and world the game takes place in will still be ours. Laidback can make a great title, put it up there and people can download it for less than they'd pay in the stores. On top of that, Laid Back will only need to sell a very small number of copies to recoup its cost and keep the company going.

To help everyone better understand, I will explain Publisher funding vs. Developer return process. I'm going to simplify it a lot, but this is more or less how it works.... and it's really quite amazing...

After they agree to fund your game for 6 million, you begin production. They give you 500k a month upon receiving, reviewing, and approving your milestone. They are basically checking every month to make sure the game is actually being made and going in a good direction Fair enough. To keep things easy, let's say the game ships on time and they've given you a clean 6 million bucks.

Ready?.... You get 10% of the royalties of the game! So like if the game sells 1 million units at Electronics Boutique for 50 bucks a piece, you get 5 million dollars coming back at you right?!??!

WRONG

EB bought the game for 40 dollars and sells it for 50. Now the publisher takes away their expenses of producing the full color manual and the pretty box and such which we'll say is 10 bucks (usually more like 7, but let's keep the math easy). So now we are down to 30 bucks, and you get 10% of that... 3 bucks.... but WAIT!!! Your 3 dollars doesn't go into your pocket, your 3 bucks goes to pay back the publisher what you borrowed to make the game. They did give you 6 million dollars. So before the developer see's a check in the mail, you would have to sell 2 million units!!!!! So the developer before the developer gets a check, the publisher gets 30 million dollars coming in.

Crazy huh?

So why choose Steam? I have chosen Steam because if you buy Valves engine to make your game with, you get to keep 100% of what you sell on Steam. That's right 100%. So using our math from above, if I can sell the game on Steam for 30 bucks and cost 6 million to make, I'll be seeing a check after the game sells 200k units instead of 2 million. AND the check I get for the units I sell will be 10 times more than it would be from a publisher AND after all this wonderfulness, you guys all get the game for 30 bucks instead of 50....

It's an all around winner.

If Troika was able to sell the games they made through Steam and sold only a 1/4 of the units they did, they'd be thriving today and everyone would have really cool RPG's to play. The more people who download, install, and actively use Steam the better. It's really small developers only hope to get their games out to people.

As far as the game being in a boxed version, it's possible... but I would wait until the game is close to completion before I entertained the idea of a publisher putting it on the shelf. If the game is done and there is a lot of buzz around it, then the developer holds all the cards could get a better deal out of it. Valve would also have their concerns as well and I would want to make sure the wonderful world of Steam would take TOP priority.

4. What have been the difficulties you've encountered in starting a fledgling game studio, particularly in a world that saw the demise of Troika (and Black Isle Studios before them), the never-ending death of Interplay and an unstoppable EA Games? What are the kinds of problems you've faced and how have you - or how do you - plan to overcome them?

Laid Back Gaming is being formed with different goals than other game companies. I'm not looking for mass market appeal, or to sell a bazillion units. The goal is to be able to sell 50k-100k units to dedicated fans of games like Arcanum, Fallout, and X-Com. This is only possible through online distribution. So I'm not competing with anyone like EA.

To answer your questions, the two biggest problems are funding and staffing, and they're completely tied together. If I get the money coming in, then everyone is happy to jump on board. During the prototype stage we're in now, I'm limited by own savings and friends who are donating their skills to make this happen.

Project T-BAR 3/4


5. What can you tell us about your planned action-RPG, such as what kind of setting will it take place in? Will it be yet another fantasy world, something dark and futuristic or something else? Also, what kind of RPG elements are you planning? What stats will we get to play with and what type of "choice and consequence" do you plan on building into the story-line?

Oh it's going to be dark....

The game is set in the year 2109 and takes place entirely around the moons of Saturn. Most of solar system is colonized and space travel is common, but still very dangerous. You are the commander of a powerful Dropship that houses a 4 man team You are charged with the responsibility of system security. You are like an extreme military enforced S.W.A.T. team in space. You are concealed in the control room of your Dropship and issue commands to your units in the field.

In this game, space is dangerous. Forget warp drives and beaming up anything. For instance, if one of your team members is in space and gets his suit damaged, he may only have 60 seconds to reach the airlock before his temperature control system fails and he freezes to death instantly. Same thing goes for someone you might be supposed to rescue. If you bust into a room on a spacecraft and start firing your cannon off, you might crack a window and suck little Timmy out into the void of space. A lot of this plays into equipping your team; big firepower can certainly be effective, but might not always be the best choice given the environment you are in.

On the RPG end, all communication with people you encounter comes from you. Any member of your team can fire up the communicator and you can speak through it to NPC's in the field. What you say, who you kill or who you let live, how you handle the mission, etc., all play into what missions you receive, what kind of help you have during your missions, available equipment, and a number of other factors that will reveal themselves as the game progresses.

There are two things you manage and upgrade during the game, your team and your Dropship. For your team stat wise, you can expect all the standards like strength and dex and intelligence and such. There are skills as well. Raising your skills and stats gives you the ability to use technology like forced entry devices (lock picks) and field med scanners (health packs). Your Dropship has many areas that can be upgraded as well. Of course your weaponry, but also things like your landing gear. Better landing gear will give you more advantageous landing locations around the level.

6. In a world of Diablo clones with real-time or pausable combat, turn-based games are rare to downright non-existent What made you think that the time was ripe for a new turn-based game and of all things, a turn-based action-RPG set in 3/4 "isometric-style" camera view? Did the good reception of the combat and other similar elements in games like The Temple of Elemental Evil and Silent Storm have any impact on your decision to make such a game?

I never really considered doing any other type of combat than turn-based. For me, there is far more tension in turn based games than in real time (unless you're playing with other humans). When your guy has 3 hit points left, and just enough action points left to take one last aimed shot at your wounded opponent, you are PRAYING it hits... hesitant to hit the button... you fire and miss and it's his turn.... You are PRAYING he misses.... He does by some miracle!! You fire back and kill him! HAHAHA Man, I'm getting tense just type this. Turn based isn't for everyone, but I betting there's plenty of people who read this and know EXACTLY what I'm talking about. Turn based combat is exceptional and I believe there is a great market there.

1st person games have a lot of problems built into them. The first problem a 1st person game has is asset quality. On temple we were doing about 4 creatures a month. That's 4 creatures modeled, textured, and animated. We could do that because of the size was small enough that we could omit many of the laborious details. Today's 1st person games are looking at a month to two months for a creature to be completed. The extra time and money spent on those 1st person assets means less of an amount of everything. We had over 300 spells and effects, 100 weapons, and 90 creatures in Temple utilizing a 6 man art team. Those numbers are unheard of in a 1st person game even with a large art team.

The extreme time it takes to create levels and assets in a 1st person game leads to two game-killers in my book: Linearity and Control/Submersion. Linearity comes with 1st person games because you can't have 4 levels with creatures and scripts and effects and weapons that the player will never see!!! It took 6 months to make them, so you are going to make sure that every player see's them If we all see the same thing when we play the game, then we are all most likely doing the same things. The other issue is Control and Submersion. 1st person games will frequently take control of the camera away from the player. They will often force you to watch something to keep you interested and informed. Taking away control, at least for me, ruins my submersion. What if I don't want to look there? What if I don't care about that? Makes me feel like I'm in an interactive movie... Even the people you encounter. They're faces never look quite right to me. They have a limited number of movements and repetitive motions that make them appear lifeless to me. I like that my mind fills in some blanks in a 3/4 game. If, for instance, I animated a guy from a 3/4 view pointing a finger at you saying "You are going to DIE!", your brain fills in what his face looks like and the other subtleties of his emotions. Until 1st person animation gets to the point where it looks Pixar quality, it doesn't really interest me.

1st person is great for running around and blowing your friends, but for single player games it's just not my thing.

7. Tell us about the squad members that you plan to have under the players control. Will they have their own personality and style and what type of control is the player going to have over them? For example, will the player design them himself or choose available squad members from a pre-built pool and how much say will the player have over combat orders? While we're talking about it, why the decision to make it a 4 man squad versus a single-character only game?

You absolutely will not choose from a default pool. You will build your guys. I think I have a really cool system for this that I will share at a later point. I could be swayed to put in a default team to bypass character creation, but man I love forming up my team and I can't imagine picking some default guys. :)

The squad will not have their own personalities. When you tell him/her to fire on someone, you won't get some crappy "TURN AND BURN!" comment. I really can't stand those bogus Aliens copy-cat tough guy personas in games.... that just kills me. When you tell your guy to fire or move, you will get a sharp and clean "yes sir". Someone who has trained their whole life to be in the field is straight business when people's lives are on the line. Listen to fighter pilots engaged in battle. That's the feeling.

As far as control goes, they won't make a move unless you tell them to.

NOW... having said that... your team is human. There is another factor you have to manage during gameplay, stress. Each of your team members will have a meter of stress they are encountering in the field. Stress affects the accuracy of your shots, the hesitancy of stress can reduce movement speed, and stress can make pick locking that door take much longer than normal.

Stress is caused by many factors. A small addition of stress might come into play when the squad is being fired upon. They are trained for this and will do a pretty good job of keeping a level head. Now, let's say a grenade went off; two teammates are down, you are low on ammo, and hanger doors open to reveal some 20 foot combat spider tank... Even the most seasoned warrior might panic. Panic is a state in the game where they basically shut down, curl up in a ball and keep telling you over the radio "I'm going to die... Oh god I'm going to die..."

So keep it smooth and by the numbers and your team will function at optimal efficiency.

8. You mentioned you had a planned release date of some time in 2007 in mind. That's a pretty quick development time-frame. Did the short 18-month development cycle of ToEE teach you anything in terms of how to better handle such a short development time-frame? Some people even critisicised ToEE because it needed more time spent on it and was such a short game. Are you bearing that critiscism in mind?

My thinking currently is to release the game in three stages. Each stage will encompass about 20 hours of gameplay. They will build upon each other so you can't play the 2nd stage until you have completed the first. This reduces the initial development time, and price point. The first stage will set up the story and the world, have character creation, and a bunch of really cool missions.

9. You're using the Source Engine. What are the advantages of using an existing engine as opposed to building one yourself from scratch? What kind of advantages and disadvantages will there be specifically in using the Source Engine as opposed to some of the other commercially available game engines?

In order to distribute the game on Steam, you have to use the Source Engine. The Source engine is a good if you understand what it can and can't do from the beginning, and developing your own engine from scratch is a monumental undertaking. The graphics, tools, AI, interface..... It is a lot of work and time. Once you are done spending hundreds of thousands on it, then you HAVE to find a publisher who is willing to put your game in a box.

Going from scratch isn't necessary for the game I'm designing either. Source will work just fine. It's the design that counts anyways. Does the game really suffer because it only has 1 million polys instead of 4 million? Does World of Warcraft suck because it doesn't have normal maps? How about Counterstrikes poly count? Those games rule without every bell and whistle thrown in.

Editorial ~ by DarkUnderlord


That's Michael's first interview about his upcoming game and I have to confess that the little part of me that's been wanting a decent turn-based X-Com style game for a few years now has cried out with joy. The possibility of non-linear missions andplayer's skills possibly having an impact on that certainly sounds interesting. If anything, we'll at least have a game with some great turn-based combat ala ToEE or Silent Storm. Even better than that is the possibility of a decent story (something ToEE and in some respects Silent Storm lacked) and a better implemented skill system (something I always hated about Silent Storm). If there's something good to come out of the demise of Troika, hopefully this is it. Speaking of which, hearing how Troika worked is interesting. Being such an open development studio has obviously paid off dividends to Michael and given him the knowledge and willingness to start his own company, something which would be a mammoth and scary task to under-take even more-so without that knowledge.

Now, when Michael first told us that he'd be releasing the game over Steam, I was a little concerned. I'm sure everyone has heard the Steam horror stories by now (every word contains a surprise)! I experienced Steam myself when I finally got around to buying Half-Life 2 (the Game of the Year Edition) a few months ago. Once I'd installed it, it took another two hours to download and install all the updates before it'd actually let me play the damn game. Thankfully I didn't have any of the other issues people have reported over the 2 or so years that Steam has been out but not being asked whether I wanted to download the updates now, as opposed to just play the game and do it all later, ticked me off rightly (yes, I've now found out how to disable that thankfully). I've also never been a huge fan of downloading several hundred megabytes of game content (I've still got Battlefield 1942 mods I want to download but haven't due to the sheer size of them). That said, what Michael says about it is interesting. If we just re-cap on what Michael said about publishers in question 2:
WITH OUT A DOUBT, the most valuable learning experience was dealing with the publishers. The process of bidding, pitching, and acquiring contracts was really eye-opening. The business of traveling to promote the title at trade shows and publications, and working with marketing and PR to bring the games through in the best light have been invaluable training. These are skills and experiences that have really shaped my concept of how a game company should function and what titles I want to release.

It's clear that the type of game he wants to make doesn't appeal to them at all. The fact that he's using Steam which cuts them out of the process almost entirely goes to show what publishers think of niche titles which aren't guaranteed million dollar sellers with real-time, 1st person combat. If what Michael said is true "[with Steam] the game can be developed and distributed without any publisher involvement" then perhaps Steam (now that it's over most of its teething problems) will become the great hurrah for developers who are more interested in making games for fun, rather than profit. I guess we can only wait to see what becomes of Laid Back Gaming in 2007 when T-BAR 3/4 is hopefully going to be unleashed.

Michael had hoped to have his website up by now so that we could link to it and you could check it out for yourselves but rather than putting up something quick, he prefers to do it right. Needless to say, we'll be following the project's development ourselves and following up with Michael as his pet project comes towards fruition, so stay tuned. Thanks go to Michael for what are, I think without doubt, some of the better answers we've received from a developer in a long-time.

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