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Prelude interview: The Zero Sum story

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Prelude interview: The Zero Sum story

Interview - posted by Vault Dweller on Sun 30 July 2006, 16:35:58

Tags: Prelude to Darkness; Zero Sum

1. Why did you decide to make Prelude to Darkness in the first place? How long did it take? How many people had worked on it?

Mat and I decided that we were going to start a game company our senior year in college (1998). Originally, we were planning on creating an entirely different game. Since we first met at Impressions Software (now defunct) we'd been working on a sci-fi/post apocalyptic role-playing concept set in America. We didn't have a whole lot put together in terms of gameplay, but the setting and plot were pretty well fleshed out and we were very excited about it. Once we had put together a team and raised a bit of money, however, the original project idea seemed a bit unfeasible. So, we began working on a bunch of "smaller" projects: a few palm pilot games (including a version of Below the Root) and Prelude to Darkness.

By the end of the first summer we were temporarily out of funds, so it was pretty much down to Mat and I. We didn't have much to show for the palm pilot projects, and to be perfectly honest we weren't really excited about them. Both Mat and I were much more interested in working on Prelude. There wasn't really much to look at, but we knew what we wanted to do with it and thought it had a lot of potential. So, for the next six months we hunkered down in Mat's apartment, spending all of our waking hours working on getting the Prelude Demo. As it began to take a bit of form, Ryan McCarthy and David Beebe joined on and began contributing in a very substantial way. Travis had a full time job, but he was also contributing a lot.

After about a year and a half, we managed to put together our first Prelude demo. The original demo would have been almost completely unrecognizable to those who know Prelude now. The engine was 2D isometric, the user interface was completely different, the demo took place in the Barrier, you could play as Vangesh, etc. But we weren't very happy with the engine, so we decided to raise the money to do a complete overhaul. It was at this point that we managed to raise more substantial capital and bring more folks in on a permanent basis. Everyone in the team made tremendous contributions; James Williams (Travis' cousin... no relation to Mat), Nathaniel Bennett, Robin Kalnin, and Tom Forget.

So... the short answer is that Prelude took around three years to make. It was touch and go a lot of the time because of the financial issues, though.

2. You must have realized that the game won't sell as much as an action RPG or at least as a somewhat familiar RPG with orcs and elves and knights in shiny armors would. Yet you made it anyway. Why?

Our goal was to build games specifically for hard core role playing gamers. Both Mat and I had worked at video game companies before, but it didn't take much foresight to tell where the industry was headed. Overhead costs were soaring and people were becoming much more conservative with what kind of creative risks they were willing to take on a game. They lacked originality and required no thought whatsoever. So, we decided to proceed even though there was not so much money to be made initially. It was more important to us to build a sustainable business model based on the creation of good games. We thought it would be feasible because our margins would be lowered via exclusively distributing through the internet.

3. The game featured a unique, well developed setting, a learn-by-use and a point-buy skill system, no character levels, tactical turn-based combat, choices, choices, choices, and often unforgiving consequences, etc. How were these design elements developed? Why?

Most of the core elements were developed by Mat. One of the things that I think gave Prelude its unique flavor was the fact that we had almost complete creative control over our own areas.

The two biggest game influences on Prelude were Fallout and Darklands. Creatively, a lot of the game is in response to "typical" fantasy settings. I'd been reading the Black Company and a lot of pulp and non-traditional fantasy and found it a lot more compelling during the time that the game was gestating. Technically almost all systems in the game was a result of iterative development. The character system was probably the 10th version that I worked on. We started with a basic point-buy system and developed from there. I really wanted to craft a system where the player really feels like he's developing characters over the course of the game, but that doesn't create an end-game with characters who are absurdly powerful nigh-gods. It's hard to speak of realism when working in a fantastical setting, but we put a lot of effort in to attempting to get a realistic feel in all aspects of the game.

Turn based combat was something we wanted from the beginning because it’s what we enjoy playing and we still believe it’s an under-served market. It lead to a lot of difficulties and it took a lot of effort to get the balance and pacing for it right and for it to feel marginally realistic.

Of course we really wanted to have as many choices in the game while still telling a coherent story and giving the player lots of flexibility. The basic story and the issues that it explores were developed initially by me over the course of several years. We ended up cutting a lot that we wanted to have in the game initially, both in terms of the story and in terms of some systems. Adding the other members of the team and giving them the flexibility to flesh out the individual areas and storylines really added a lot to the project and took in directions that I didn't conceive of, which is one of the most rewarding aspects of working on a team effort.

How was the game received?

Excluding bug issues, we received overwhelmingly positive feedback. Much of our exposure came thanks to RPG Codex. Zero Sum owes you guys a great deal of thanks.

5. Were you surprised at the reaction of players? At the numbers sold? What were your expectations?

Right after you've finished working so long and hard on something, you're only interested in hearing people sing your praise. It didn't take me too long to figure out that that's not really how it works. In the beginning I was shocked that people were so much more apt to point out something they didn’t like than the things they did like. This killed me, because I knew that the only chance we had to sell copies was for people to say what they liked about the game, rather than the other way around.

After we saw the number of bugs that could be found in the release, I wasn't very surprised that we didn't sell as many copies as we would have liked. The vast majority of folks out there simply won't be comfortable buying software from unknown developers. RPG'ers are a unique breed in this sense, but even they aren't particularly inclined to take the risk if they know there are bugs.

6. What was the strongest feature of the game? The weakest? No need to mention bugs, we are talking about game design here.


To me, Prelude's strongest features are the character building/development, the plot, and the combat. I never get tired of the combat. The weakest parts of the game are the interface and the journal. The interface could have been a bit tighter and the journal needs tightening up. We tried to fix it up in the latest version, but it will never be that great. Many of the issues with the journal I am responsible for since I was the one who edited the script for the entire game.

7. Have you ever tried approaching a publisher? If yes, how did it go? If not, why not? Was there any interest to the game from publishers?

We approached publishers, but pretty passively. Mat and I sent a few of our friends in the industry demo copies. We knew, however, that the concept was not main stream enough for them. They wanted us to 'prove ourselves' with our first release. Which was pretty funny because, of course, if our first version did well we would not have needed them.

8. What was your experience with digital distribution? Is it a viable option for indie game developers?

If you have someone who really knows how to build software, and someone who really knows business it is a viable method. It's tough to get two people like that in the same room without a lot of money though. Add to that the fact that they have to be nuts about video games and work for free for a long time, and you've got a difficult proposition.

There are several channels to actually get money to you. We were happy with the one we chose. It's hard to say if it's really viable yet. It definitely will be at some point! Company's like Stardock and Galactic Civilizations give me hope.

9. What have you learned from that experience? What did you do right and what did you do wrong? What would you have done differently today?

Wow. We would have done a lot of things differently. We probably would have stuck with our original model of creating the mobile games to sustain ourselves without having to always be hunting for financing. Our entire software development process would have been entirely different. We all learned a lot about game development, and software development in general. For programmers who are planning on making a game, make sure to pick up Software Project Survival Guide and Code Complete in order to avoid a lot of the mistakes that we made. Prelude would have been scaled down... a lot. It was an absolutely massive undertaking for such a small, relatively inexperienced group. Everyone at the time told us this, but we didn't listen.

Yeah, the scope of the project was the biggest thing we got wrong, probably followed closely by not having a real producer or manager and better software engineering. We should have used an existing engine rather than code our own as well. We did do a really good job of scaling the project back at the end and we did work hard and had a team of incredibly talented, creative people.

10. Two years ago you mentioned your plans for two expansions and a sequel. Considering that you've already had the engine and art assets, an expansion seemed like a reasonable option. Yet, nothing happened. Why? What stopped you?

The engine we have is buggy and not easy to work with, so we'd have to do a complete rebuild. If we knew that a lot of people were looking forward to purchasing expansions, we would certainly consider it. But unless there are clearly a lot of people who are looking forward to the game, we probably won't do another one. This is a big part of the reason why we re-released. By releasing for free, we're hoping that over time word will spread so that we can justify putting another out. Prelude was our first shot at a game, I know that if we had another chance we would really put something great together. So, for those of you who like the game, please spread the word!

Yeah, there's just a lot of work there. We had enough years living at home on bread and water. It's just tough to expand or develop a game in your spare time.

11. You and Mat have both the indie experience and the “mainstream” experience. How did that affect your understanding of the industry, of game development, of what players want vs what players get? Also, did your work on Prelude affect your mainstream careers? Was your design work recognized? Were opportunities given?

I think our dissolution with the industry at the time was a huge part of what led us to do what we did. Mat and I both could have gotten great jobs in the industry at the time, but we did not feel that we'd be able to make a game we'd be happy with. With all the terrible games I'd worked on, I just couldn't stomach the idea. Feature creep is really tough to deal with when you are the developer trying to make the best game you can, especially when you know a lot is riding on your first try. We reached a point where we really had to limit any new ideas, which was still difficult because the script engine was developed to be free-flowing.

Post Prelude, I decided that I was not interested in getting back into the video game industry. After having worked on my own game, really any constraints, no matter how small would have been really irritating. So I'm not sure how much my participation in the design would be recognized within the industry would be. From a business standpoint people really admire what we did, which is what I've focused on in my career. Mat, as well as a lot of the other Zero Summers went to work for Tilted Mill.

Mat: Tilted Mill has been great for me and I really enjoy being a part of the industry. It was tough to give up the complete control that I had with Prelude, but I learned a lot during the process and have brought a lot to Tilted Mill. Prelude and Zero Sum definitely helped my get my current position and gave me the wherewithal to be a success within the industry. It's been an eye-opener working and managing a big team, I've learned a ton since being at Tilted Mill. In some ways I shudder at the mistakes we made during Prelude’s development and in other ways I'm still floored that we actually released it! I do hope to develop story-based rpg's in the future independently or with Tilted Mill.

As usual, we'd like to thank our guests for their time. Let's hope that the Zero Sum story doesn't end with Prelude to Darkness.

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