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Interview with Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software
Interview - posted by baby arm on Mon 30 March 2009, 03:54:09Tags: Jeff Vogel; Spiderweb Software
1. Take us back to the start... You founded Spiderweb Software in 1994. What made you decide to get into the game industry? What was your background before then? What were you doing and what experience led you to starting your own company?
In 1994, I had been a math grad student for a bit over two years, and it was driving me mad. I decided to take the summer off, write an RPG on my new Mac, and release it as shareware. I found that it was far more fulfilling than my graduate work and, when I released it, I was surprised to find that it was actually selling. I quit grad school almost immediately, and the rest was history.
As for prior experience, I’d been making D&D modules and writing my own computer games since I was 10. Most of my childhood was spent building up to what I do now.
2. What current games (other than your own) keep you interested in the industry? What are you playing? What are you looking forward to playing?
Lately, I played Rock Band. And Fallout 3. And Rock Band. And grand Theft Auto 4. And Rock Band. Plus, all of the most fashionable indies, like World of Goo, Braid, and Crayon Physics. And Rock Band.
I usually only have time to play the best and most innovative games. An RPG has to be very, very good before I can stand to play it. I’ve just played so many over the years.
I’m looking forward to getting time to play Resident Evil 5. Kind of. Resident Evil 4 was classic.
3. So, which were the last "very, very good" RPGs you've played? Any thoughts on Mask of the Betrayer, The Witcher, Fallout 3?
I liked Fallout 3 a lot. Played it like crazy. I also liked Mass Effect. And Final Fantasy 12. These days, I like my RPGs with action, to keep me awake, and on the console, so I can play on my couch.
The only turn-based RPGs out there I’d consider playing are mine, because I write what I like. But when I finish a game, I never want to see it again. So it’s not an option.
4. Sales pitch time: If I've played Geneforge 1 through 4, why should I bother with Geneforge 5? What will it get me that I haven't already seen and done?
It’s the end of the story. All of the epic events in the first four games have come to a head, and you finally get a chance to help end the war and reshape the world. It’s like the last book in a long series.
And, while the engine is the same, there’s a lot of cool new stuff and neat ideas. I don’t think you’ll find it’s a rehash of the earlier games at all.
5. How about Avernum 6? What changes are in the pipeline for this one? Will character creation see any changes?
The game engine will be much the same. Character Creation won’t change much. If it did, it wouldn’t be Avernum. I’d get a lot of angry E-mails.
Much of the work for Avernum 6 has gone into the graphics engine. It will be the nicest looking Avernum game by far. And, of course the story. Avernum 6 has a really cool and detailed story. About the end of Avernum.
6. One gripe of many Spiderweb fans is that combat doesn’t offer enough in the way of interesting tactical choices for non-spellcasters. Battle Disciplines in Avernum 5 partially addressed this. What other changes (if any) are in store for the combat system?
I get a lot of suggestions for how to add “depth” to the battle system. Most of them, frankly, aren’t very good. Stuff like, “Oh, I see the monster is using a power attack. I’d better press the Block Power Attack button. There. Done.”
It’s a turn-based game with small-scale combat. To be honest, there is only so much tactical depth you’re going to get. And, heck, please point me to an RPG that has rich and varied tactical combat, because I’d sure like to play it.
I mean, I loved Fallout 3. It’s a great game. But opening up the targeting window, selecting “Shoot Head” five times, and watching the brains fly everywhere isn’t “tactical”.
As RPGs go, I think the Avernum games have a really good variety of challenging fights and tactical situations. But if you want lots of tactical choices, single-player RPGs, any of them, are really not where you should be going. That isn’t what the genre is about. And, if I had big, epic, chesslike battles where you had to think about your battle plan until sweat poured down your face, a huge portion of my fans wouldn’t like that. At all.
7. Fallout 3 isn't exactly what we had in mind in regards to tactical combat. We were thinking more along the lines of Temple of Elemental Evil, the Gold Box engine games, Realms of Arkania series, Jagged Alliance, and Silent Storm/Hammer & Sickle. Granted, the last examples blur the lines on being an RPG a bit, but it's hard to see (from our admittedly biased angle) why tactical choices can't be part of what the genre is about given that two of the genre's key elements (oodles of combat and character development) lend themselves to detailed tactical gameplay. Why do you think RPGs are not where we should be going for this? And what is the genre about? (yes, we just had to slip in a "what is an RPG" question)
The only Realms of Arkania game I ever played is Shadows Over Riva. I walked outside town, got attacked, spend a half hour fighting one excruciatingly slow combat, got wiped out, and uninstalled the game. To have “detailed tactical gameplay,” you need details. And that takes time. Which distracts from story, makes it slower to build your character and get cool lewt, and drags the game out excruciatingly. If you want that sort of gameplay, write a game that showcases it (see Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel).
As for the Gold Box games, I played those. A lot. I loved them, but detailed tactical combat was not what they had. My main memory of those was chain-casting web spells on my enemies and waiting for them to suffocate.
As for Temple of Elemental Evil, I didn’t play it. It might have had “detailed tactical gameplay.” However, if its Metacritic score is to be trusted, it might not, in fact, have been very good.
Look, in a turn-based RPG, with a small number of dudes fighting a small number of dudes, there isn’t much in the way of tactics that is possible. The math isn’t there! I think you’re wanting something closer to chess. Sure, chess is complex, but that’s sixteen pieces on sixteen. For a single-player RPG, the fun is in the story (on a high level) and the stat building and lewt finding (on a low level). The combat is a means to an end. So make it fast and lively, end it, and get on to the next fast, lively combat. I do put in fights with odd tactics, generally weird or boss encounters. It’s nice variety. But combat is still the means to an end.
If you really want tactics in an RPG, play chess and give your pieces cute names. Like, “I declare, forsooth, that Queen Zzelma, my 18th level Rogue-Paladin, doth move 4 spaces diagonally in defiance of the Darkbeetle Empire. Hark, she hath slain a Knight, and is thuseth Level 19. Huzzah.” Chess is about quality. RPGs are about quantity.
The whole structure and pace of RPGs is based on having many small fights, occasionally interrupted by a big one. Everything people like about the genre comes, in some way, from that. And small quick fights can't have strategic depth. Because they are, after all, small and quick. Prospective designers ignore this at their peril.
8. What's next after Avernum 6? If it's too early to give any specifics, perhaps you could divulge whether the game will be fantasy or science fiction or a mixture a la Geneforge.
I have the bones of a whole new fantasy world, with a new system and engine, in my head. I’m trying hard not to think about it too much, because I really need to focus on the current game. But I have some good ideas.
9. About the new engine you're considering down the road: when do you plan to start on it and what time frame are you planning on for completion? In what ways will it differ from the current engine?
I want it to have a system that is simultaneously simpler and deeper. Much nicer graphics. And the same complex stories and interesting choices that have been our trademark.
I’ll probably start it late this year, and hopefully I’ll have something to show for the effort 18 months after.
10. Did you ever consider experimenting with writing a game centered on a particular character whose traits wouldn't all be dependent on the player's choices? This could be an opportunity to display your storytelling talents (and likely annoy some of your fans).
One of the great pleasures of RPGs is the simple, goofy, visceral thrill of building your character and gaining power. I wouldn’t play an RPG that didn’t give me that, and I only write games that I could conceivably want to play.
11. Your games are typically very similar. In fact, they're nearly all sequels or re-designs of previous games you've made. They're also all RPGs. Have you ever thought about creating a new RPG IP or even branching out into a different genre?
I think about writing a different sort of game all the time. Every year. I’ve designed so many different games in my head since 1994. Some of them really excited me.
But surviving as a small Indie game developer is tough. It’s easy to forget that when you look at how many years I’ve been doing this, but I’m one good flop from closing up shop.
I have a niche, and I write very good games for it. And, when I decide what to write, I do have to take into account what will give me the best change of remaining able to buy food and clothing for my children.
Plus, my games are similar. So? Stephen King wrote a million horror novels. Were people bitching him out for not writing biographies and romance novels too? I really, really, really think there’s nothing wrong with writing a bunch of fantasy games, especially when, whatever else you can say about the graphics or game systems, my stories are all quite distinct.
12. What were your expectations for Spiderweb? Did you have wild dreams of selling millions of games and turning Spiderweb into a bigger company or have you always wanted - or expected - to remain small?
I don’t dream that big. I wanted to work at home, not kill myself with long hours, and make a comfortable living. I have succeeded at that, and I’ve been very happy with it.
13. In your recent article on sales numbers, you mentioned that Geneforge 4 didn't get any third-party distribution. Why is that? I seem to recall the Geneforge series moving into WildTangent and other outlets. Any intention (or past attempts) to get on the bigger download platforms, such as Impulse or Steam or XBLA?
My games are pretty niche with simple graphics, and they’re not casual. So the 3rd party distributors are really now knocking down my doors. Plus, I can be awful lazy about pursuing them.
I plan to make a real effort to get my mysterious new game onto the services. But I can see why they aren’t excited about my older titles.
14. Were you ever offered a publishing deal with a company that would sell your game in brick 'n' mortar stores? If so, was the reason for your refusal purely a financial one?
Never. Too niche. Too low-budget. I’ve love to sell out, but nobody is buying.
15. Tell us about the motivation behind your games. How do you start? Is it "Okay, now I should do another Geneforge sequel" or do you look at a sequel as an opportunity to bring new elements in or trying things differently this time around?
It really does start with the story. With Geneforge, I had an overarching storyline, and I told that. Same with Avernum. With each game, I try to put in incremental improvements in the graphics and game system, but I really look at these games as writing novels. It’s just, I use pixels instead of paper.
That is why I am so unapologetic about not remaking my game systems all the time. They are just the medium. I care about the message. I try to make changes for a little extra variety or depth, but that’s not where my passion is.
16. What's life as a self-sustaining indie developer like? Do you wake up in the morning and go to work for regular hours or do you find yourself coding at all hours of the day?
I generally work from around noon to around six and a bit more after the kids and wife go to bed. I go to sleep around two. In busy times, this expands and includes weekends. In quieter times, it shrinks. And it varies depending on other life factors. It works pretty well overall.
17. What do your friends and family think about what you do? Do you work at an office or at home?
They used to think it’s weird. Now they think it’s cool. And I only work at home. Which I love.
18. Do you ever need to force yourself to sit down and complete a certain element? Is working on a game something you try and schedule or do you just let it happen naturally?
I always have to force myself. It’s work, after all. Tricky, painstaking work. And I schedule myself mercilessly. I break the world I am making down into discrete chunks, each of them designed to take a day. And the only way I let myself slip is if I have the flu or something.
When you work on big jobs alone, I think you have to be pretty strict with yourself. Or, at least, I do.
19. In between making sequels, you've also created a faux political party and written a book about baby poo. Are these things you see as side-projects to your main task or do you have other ambitions, perhaps more books in the works? Is writing something you enjoy and plan to do more often?
Sometimes, I just have to sit down and write. Sometimes for fun, sometimes for publication. It may take some time, but I hope you’ll see another actual book from me somewhere along the way.
20. This leads to a somewhat cheesy question: what are your favorite books? What genres in the reading rainbow do you find yourself coming back to?
I read all sorts of things. Fiction and non, literary and genre. Reading is a fantastic source of ideas and inspiration.
But the thing I read most fanatically is my daily New York Times. What is happening in the world always colors the games I write.
21. Given you "look at these games as writing novels" and talk about the story of your games, what do you think about former World of Warcraft director Jeffrey Kaplan's recent comments?
"Basically, and I'm speaking to the Blizzard guys in the back: we need to stop writing a fucking book in our game, because nobody wants to read it," he explained.
"We need to deliver our story in a way that is uniquely video game," Kaplan, who left WoW to work on Blizzard's next MMO, explained. "We need to engage our players in sort of an inspiring experience, and the sooner we accept that we are not Shakespeare, Scorsese, Tolstoy or the Beatles, the better off we are."
What's your opinion on this? Should games be trying to deliver a unique "video game" experience or do you think they already do?
There’s a little Apples and Oranges going on here. World of Warcraft is multiplayer, which means it’s a vastly different experience from a single-player game.
I can sometimes overstate how important story is. I’ve often joked that a player will forgive you for having a story as long as you don’t bug him with it too much.
But World of Warcraft is about character building and PvP and working with groups/raids to figure out encounters. Story is nice, and some people care, but it has other strengths.
22. On to tech: netbooks are the new craze and they seem ideal for indie games. Do you intend to explore this niche, which, though potentially profitable, would require making sure your games run at weird resolutions and God knows what other hassles?
I have to look into it more. However, my newer games will need graphics hardware. Not a lot, but some modest capabilities.I’d need to make sure that was present. Also, there gets to be a point where supporting weird resolutions hurts the game for everyone else. It’s definitely a case-by-case basis thing.
But friendly advice. If you want to spend $250 on a laptop, fine, but you might not want to be too optimistic about your gaming future.
23. How come most games written for Mac suck? Is it because Macs suck? Macs suck don't they?
Mac versus Windows arguments? Who still does that?
Most games written suck, period. I think the average quality for Mac games is quite high, since only the best ones tend to get ported.
24. Why do you think there aren't more games available for Macs? You've said elsewhere that you almost consider porting a game as "free money" as little work is required, so why do you think few developers go out of their way to make Mac ports?
I think it’s free money for a company like me, with low overhead. I can just bang out a port, release it for almost free, and collect money. A big company, shipping something in a box, has far more expenses (printing, marketing, etc) to pay. So it’s harder to see a way to profitability.
And yet, I think, with the Mac’s much larger market share these days, there could be more profitable games for the Mac than are being released.
25. Where are the linux ports?
Being written by someone else. My brain just isn’t large enough to fit developing for another platform. No offense intended to Linux people.
Many thanks to Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software for the interview.