Visit our sponsors! (or click here and disable ads)
RPG Codex Report: PAX East 2015, or How Chris Avellone Called the Codex Unprofessional
Editorial - posted by Crooked Bee on Mon 16 March 2015, 20:22:34Tags: Aterdux Entertainment; Cat-Shaped Life; Chris Avellone; Craig Stern; J.E. Sawyer; Legends of Eisenwald; Obsidian Entertainment; OtherSide Entertainment; Pillars of Eternity; Quest for Infamy; Quest for Infamy: Roehm to Ruin; Steven Alexander; Telepath Tactics; Tim Cain; Underworld Ascendant; Will Teixeira
A Return to PAX East
or How Chris Avellone Called the Codex Unprofessional
Dateline: Boston, Massachusetts
March 7-8, 2015
Last year, I had the opportunity to attend PAX East 2014 and witness for myself all the insanity that the popamole AAA and indie game industries had to offer, an experience which I wrote an article about for the Codex. My hope had been that I would be able to bring back loads of information on any upcoming RPGs. Unfortunately, there were almost none to be found, and instead I ended up writing about an MMO space sim, some retro-pixel indie shovelware, and a brief encounter with a San Francisco hipster who said the Codex wasn’t playing his game right. I came to the realization that PAX East was not a place for a connoisseur of real RPGs, and promised myself that I would never return, as it just wasn’t worth the cost or the craziness. Well, so much for promises.
A few weeks ago, Aterdux Entertainment sent out a Kickstarter update for their upcoming strategy RPG, Legends of Eisenwald. The update mentioned that they were heading to Boston to attend PAX East, and that they had a few extra tickets for any backers who might want to join them. As a backer myself, this game had always interested me and I wanted to learn more about it and those that were creating it. I figured I could sacrifice a few hours to drive down to Boston to pop in for a quick look, and still be home by dinner. After exchanging a few emails with Alex Dergay, owner of Aterdux Entertainment, I had a free ticket waiting for me. Over the next few weeks I would learn that Steve Alexander from Infamous Quests (Quest for Infamy), Will Teixeira from OtherSide Entertainment (Underworld Ascendant & Cat-Shaped Life) and Craig Stern from Sinister Design (Telepath Tactics) would be attending PAX as well. It was starting to look much more promising for real RPGs compared to last year, and so I made plans to stay for the entire weekend so I could get the chance to meet all these developers.
It was then that Crooked Bee suggested that I should try and meet up with the folks from Obsidian Entertainment, who were attending PAX to promote the soon-to-be-released Pillars of Eternity. I had no idea they were going to be there and held out little hope of actually being able to ask them any questions. I could only imagine their reaction to a request for an interview by someone from the RPG Codex, something between a polite “No thank you” to “You’ve got to be #@!*#$ kidding me!” And then we received their response via an email from David Martinez, Paradox Interactive's PR guy, which stated, “We can certainly get you set up! Seeing as the Codex has a special spot in the hearts of Obsidian.” I was going to have a half hour all to myself with Chris Avellone, Tim Cain, Josh Sawyer, Brandon Adler and Adam Brennecke! Be still my beating heart! So off to PAX East 2015 I went with a full slate of five RPG developer interviews lined up.
I arrived in Boston on Friday night. Before I could go to bed, I had to meet up with Alex from Aterdux in order to receive the pass to get into PAX the next day. As Alex approached me at the entrance to the convention center, I could see the utter exhaustion all over his face. He told me he had flown in from San Francisco late on Thursday and had had to set up his booth to be ready by early morning. I suggested we go get dinner so I could interview him right then, but he politely refused. All he wanted to do was crawl into bed and get some sleep so he would have the energy to start all over again on Saturday morning. He handed me my pass, which I noticed was a developer’s pass. This was a pleasant surprise, as it would allow me access to the exhibitors floor before it was opened to the public at 10:00 AM the next morning. Alex asked if we could meet at his booth an hour before that. I agreed and thanked him again for the pass.
I left at that point, as Aterdux's tiny booth (something which Alex wasn’t happy with) quickly overflowed with attendees wanting to take pictures with the armored knight or sit down to try out the game. I had planned to walk around and explore on foot, but I quickly realized that I wasn't in the mood for a game of human pinball. I decided to go in search of a motorized scooter as I had done the previous year. With one of those I could basically LARP Carmageddon to make my way through the crowds. Unfortunately, that plan quickly evaporated when I learned that scooters weren’t free this year, and that it now cost $100 to rent one for the day! I thought the cab fare was steep, but the Boston convention center was fully embracing capitalism this year. I declined their wonderful offer, and having little desire to wade through the 30,000 people who were trying to get a glimpse of the latest Next Generation AAA billion pixeled smash hit, decided to head for the upper floor. At that point, I texted Steve Alexander and Will Teixeira to see if they wanted to meet up, found a nice corner with several plush chairs, and sat down to wait.
Blackthorne) arrived a while later. We chatted about his Kickstarter experience with Quest for Infamy, our mutual disdain for modern adventure games, and his future plans. I began by asking him about his Kickstarter, and how he felt it had gone overall. He stated that it had been a positive experience, but that the funds weren’t nearly enough to cover the game's production. It was more ambitious than it realistically should have been. Nevertheless, he said, Quest for Infamy was the game his “14 year old self had always wanted to make.” Yes, the game was bigger and more complex than it should have been, but by God, that was the game he wanted to make, and he and his team had done it. Laughing, he said he was lucky to have a very forgiving and supportive wife who allows him to pursue his dreams.
Many so-called adventure games are nothing more than visual novels today. We both agreed that as far as gameplay is concerned, they often have very little to offer other than pressing X to get to the next animated scene. That was not the game he wanted to make. He wanted to make the kind of game that Sierra would have published back in the day. He’s very proud of his creation, and he can’t wait to get the physical boxed editions finished and printed. He's just as eager as I am to have it on a shelf so he can point it out to his relatives and say, “I made that!” He explained that the boxes should be finished in a few weeks, and that he'd made sure throughout the game's development that he had enough funds to produce everything he had promised. One thing he failed to take into account, and something he thinks far too many Kickstarters fail to take into account as well, is the cost of international shipping. The shipping costs are much higher than than the physical tier prices most Kickstarter projects are offering. Regardless, Steve said that he absolutely loves the interaction between developers and players. He sees this as one of the best things about crowdfunded game development. When I asked him about his future plans, he explained that his team is hard at work on the follow-up to QFI, Quest for Infamy: Roehm to Ruin. Its overall scope will be smaller than QFI's, but it will help flesh out the story of how Roehm found himself fleeing the Baron in the first game. They’re finalizing things now and are confident they can get it out this summer.
Will Teixeira was the next to show up. I congratulated him on OtherSide’s recent successful Kickstarter campaign for Underworld Ascendant. Will is the youngest member of OtherSide, having previously worked at Turbine on several MMOs. The Kickstarter had ended just the day before, raising over $860,000 to create a successor to the classic RPG Ultima Underworld. I asked him how he felt about the Kickstarter experience. He admitted that it was a nailbiter for the whole team, as they had still not made their baseline goal with only a week left in the campaign. He said that the sole calm voice throughout the campaign was Paul Neurath's. Paul had always been confident that it would be funded. I brought forward some of the criticisms directed at the Kickstarter, such as its plethora of backer-exclusive items. He replied that Paul had closely followed the examples of Richard Garriott (Shroud of the Avatar) and Chris Roberts (Star Citizen) with regard to how their Kickstarter campaigns had been run. I explained that that had been a mistake as those games are clearly MMOs, whereas UA is a single player game with a single player audience. Will did credit inXile's, Richard Garriott's, and Chris Roberts’ backer updates, as well as our Codex interview, for helping drive pledges to the Kickstarter and finally get it over its baseline goal. He said that everyone was taking a few days off, after which they would have their first post-Kickstarter production meeting and dive into creating the game.
I asked Will if he was ready for the grind of developing Underworld, to which he laughed, stating that working at OtherSide wasn’t anything like working at Turbine. He told me that he had always heard developers at Turbine speaking of this wondrous company called Looking Glass, and how it had created some of the greatest and most innovative games ever made. He had never played any of the games (Thief, System Shock, Ultima Underworld) that these people had mentioned, and he was sorely disappointed when he Googled the name of this fantastic studio to see if they were hiring, only to find out it had closed many years ago. He learned that Chris Siegel, who he worked with at Turbine, had left to work with Paul Neurath at a new company called OtherSide Entertainment. When he found out that OtherSide was staffed by some of the same people from Looking Glass, he decided to go and interview with them. Will told me that he immediately saw that this company was different. One big difference is that they had no contract stipulations to prevented an employee from pursuing his/her own projects after company hours. Apparently, Turbine requires all of its employees to sign a contract preventing them from working on anything game-related that isn't published by the company, whether on their own time or not. Paul told Will that he could pursue his own projects outside of OtherSide whenever he wanted to. He also told Will that he didn’t believe in the 24/7 grind that many developers push their employees into to get a game out. He thinks that creates a toxic work environment which ultimately burns out good programmers. Needless to say, Will left Turbine and signed on with Paul’s company.
One of those side projects Will wants to explore is his own Kickstarted game called Cat-Shaped Life (currently running here), that he and one other person are developing. It's a kind of CYOA RPG, where you control a cat that has stats for cat-like abilities such as agility. He compared it gameplay-wise to Long Live the Queen and Princess Maker. The premise is that you, the cat, are adopted by a family and have to last a month in their house without your new owners returning you to the pound. Various encounters you experience throughout the house and the surrounding area determine how your new owner views you. Apparently, you might even end up at another house entirely by month’s end. I asked if the cat can die in various unpleasant ways, and he said they haven’t thought about that yet. I joked that if he could come up with many different horrible fates for the feline, he could rake in millions on Kickstarter, like a certain card game. He laughed and replied that they’ll definitely have to put that game mechanic in. I thanked Will for stopping by, and explained that I needed to head over to the Obsidian presentation that would be starting soon. Before I left, I asked him to try to arrange another visit to OtherSide for me when they had something to show off, and to keep Paul as far away as possible from any more MMO-type advice.
The presentation began, and since you can view the entire thing here, I won’t go over what was shown. I did enjoy learning more about the stronghold and its different upgrades, and the advantages/disadvantages associated with the visitors staying there. I do suspect that if this game is truly going to be like Baldur's Gate, the player will be swimming in gold and will be able to afford the upgrades and pay the penalties easily. The voices of the companions were very well done, and as the presentation ended I had no doubt that they've nailed the Infinity Engine look and feel. David from Paradox came in at the end and told everyone to look under their seats for little boxes. Each box contained a card holder and a Steam code for the game. Interestingly, if you've already ordered the game or Kickstarted it, the code is supposed to upgrade your copy to the next digital tier. David then announced that as an added bonus, some of the boxes contain his business card, and those who got that would receive the deluxe digital tier reward code. While everyone else reached under their seats, I just sat there, not even trying to attempt the gymnastics that would be required to look under my seat. Chris noticed this and jumped down from the stage to help me. My heart fluttered for a moment when he told me that he couldn’t find the box. He then told me to wait a moment, ran to the back of the stage and returned with two boxes, which he gave to me. It wasn’t until later that night that I opened them and found that one of them contained David’s business card. So the Codex will probably be holding some kind of Kodex Kontest for any cheap bastard Codexian gentleman/woman/etc that wants that code.
After that was over, David escorted me to the “Green Room” next to the presentation theater, and I waited for all the Obsidian groupies to get their pictures taken and their autographs signed (note: by the end of the interview I had done the same thing). Brandon and Adam wandered over to where I was sitting and we exchanged pleasantries. When David told them I was from the RPG Codex, they both laughed and went, “Ahhh!”. In a casual conversation, while we were waiting for the others to come over, I asked about the megadungeon and how much of a drain it had been on the game's budget. I told them that there were some people that were expecting a mini-Icewind Dale, based on how many levels had kept getting added during the Kickstarter. Adam assured me that it was definitely a big dungeon romp, and that he felt they had put enough resources into it so people wouldn’t be disappointed. At that point, the other Obsidian guys approached, and we soon had the room to ourselves. As we gathered, Josh asked how the interview was going to flow. Would it be conducted free-for-all or turn-based? Chris said you get interview energy points, earning less if you offer a lackluster response. I must admit that I was pretty darn nervous being around these game development demigods. Tim Cain sat to my right, in the only other chair in the room, while everyone else sat on the floor in a circle. I pulled out my digital voice recorder and asked if they didn’t mind if I recorded our conversation. There were no objections, so we began.
Chris actually asked me a question first. His question was whether Crooked Bee was a "taskmaster". I was surprised by that line of inquiry, but replied that the harshest thing I'd ever heard from her was a warning that the editors can be very harsh in their criticism of submitted articles. He looked at me with surprise and said, “The Codex has editors?”. I replied that it was nothing official, but that content gets critiqued by the moderators. That’s when he said, “Ah, I didn’t think the Codex was that professional… Oh shit, did I just call the Codex unprofessional?! That won’t be included will it?”. I lied and assured him that they would never know, and began the interview proper, for which Josh told me they were well-prepared, because they'd read the entire PAX East questions thread on our forums.
My first question for the Obsidian guys was about what they see as the difference between publisher-funded games and Kickstarter-funded games, and what they've learned or done differently when comparing Pillars to their previous games. I asked them that since they’ve gotten screwed in the past, what was their take on things this time around?
Adam Brennecke: In developing it from day one I knew that we weren’t going to have a publisher involved and that allowed us to reorganize how we do pre-production. I feel that pre-production is the most important part to a game’s development and you have to figure out your shit and make sure all your stuff is put together. So when you enter production you’re just making the game at that point. A lot of times when working with a publisher you have to do a demo at the end of pre-production. A lot of times that can be very… we call it the dog and pony show. You have to show stuff that isn’t ready to be shown yet. It’s very rough and packed together…
mindx2: … you have to reach those milestones…
Adam: …. Yeah it might be a feature in… you might do it in production but it’s not that important to do but it’s kind of a showy feature. It’s not a fundamental building block feature. And one thing we did really well on Pillars is we developed a lot of our core tech and a lot of our core RPG low level systems ahead of time. During pre-production our vertical slice was pretty rough but we all knew, the owners, the leads knew it would be looking rough. That helped a lot. We put a lot of pressure on the team to make sure that we knew how to make the game in production. That was the most important thing that I think helped the development of the game.
mindx2: Not having a publisher breathing down your neck…
Adam: … which is huge, just huge. We wouldn’t have been able to make a game as huge as it is without a good pre-production.
mindx2: With the success this is looking like, have publishers seen that success? Does it even register on their radar? You can look at MMX or Larian’s Divinity: Original Sin that was a huge success…
Chris Avellone: So the answer to that is that there are certain publishers that see that type and scope of a game to work really well with their portfolio. I think it took Kickstarter to show them that it is financially viable. So, yes we are actually having publishers approaching us to do similar types of games just because of Kickstarter.
mindx2: Speaking of KS, Peter Molyneux has been in the news lately and he went out and admitted that he went into KS not asking for enough money at the start. Is that what Pillars did?
Chris: That he didn’t ask for enough to begin?
Adam: His initial asking goal.
Chris: One thing I like about Obsidian is the fact that when we actually do the Kickstarters we try and make sure we ask for the exact amount of money it would take to make the game. I know some people play the KS game and they ask for much lower goals hoping to get much higher because they think those high numbers will scare people off. I think one good thing is we all come from Black Isle and we know what the level of production is going to be needed to actually do the game. We actually did ask for the amount we needed.
Adam: I had to put together a little production plan beforehand.
Chris: That must have been so fun…
Adam: Yeah (sarcastically), the 1.1 million we ask for I had to put together a production plan based on that budget and show it to Feargus.
Chris: And Tim [Cain] was the most expensive.
mindx2: That’s what Paul Neurath [OtherSide Entertainment] told me. At the baseline he could make the game [Underworld Ascendant] but it would be a lean, no bells and whistles game.
Adam: …and that’s where all the stretch goals came from.
Brandon Adler: What was [our] base game?
Josh Sawyer: Base game was 5 classes, 3 races…
Brandon: …and it was all the base classes.
Josh: Yeah… and just the human, elf and dwarf.
mindx2: So what were you expected out of the backer beta and what did you actually get out of it?
Josh: I was expected pretty close to what we got. Just a ton of feedback all over the place. On everything people cared about. It was mostly to look at what a mid-game feels like to have a big party which is why we started with 4 plus your main character. Diving in to see how the interface feels, how the classes feel, how the UI feels. Obviously, we got a lot of feedback and all that stuff. So we tried to iterate over time and hopefully improve that stuff…
mindx2: …and that leads into my next question - why did the mechanics change so wildly in the betas?
Josh: Ah… because some of them fucking sucked.
Josh: I mean that’s iteration. It’s the middle of development so sometimes I design something and it’s just not a good mechanic and people play it and they're like “I don’t like this.” Or even before people see it and we put it in and we realize that this isn’t even fun. Like we had the Cipher that had to maintain this focus thing and you had this and you would hold it on someone. You would start using a power and it would just sort of stick on the character but to make it more powerful you would have your Cipher not do anything [else] and that’s not fun. It sounds obvious now when I say it but at the time we were like that kind of sounds like a psionist is fucking shit up over time but it just wasn’t fun. So we just tried to adjust things so that people [have fun], and there’s a wide range of taste so…
mindx2: Why did you never land on a world identifying name such as Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk? I mean, is everything after just going to be Pillars of Eternity 2, 3, etc.?
Tim Cain: I think it’s more evocative. I just remember when it was floating around and that came up. I remember there was a list of names that came out and it was “what do you like?” and I remember seeing Pillars and going this is very evocative. As opposed to well… Forgotten Realms isn’t really the name of an area.
mindx2: Alright, this next question is near and dear to the Codex’s heart…
Chris: The heart?
mindx2: Yes, we have heart.
Josh: Ahhh, yeah…
mindx2: You wound me… What do you think with all these other Kickstarters going turn-based do you think Obsidian might be locked into the RTwP style game?
Josh: I hope not. I want to make a turn-based game. I really want to make a turn-based game.
Chris: I don’t think we’re locked in. The only conditions are that the turn-based should support whatever the next franchise is and also if we ever do a game similar to Pillars we would want to leverage all the real-time systems that Josh and Tim have contributed to them. Because once that system is really solid and polished it would be a huge waste of time to recreate a new combat system when what they’ve developed is already great.
mindx2: With Unity now going free what does that do as far as opening the game up to modding/modders?
Adam: I have no idea as it just went free this week? We haven’t really thought about that. I haven’t really looked into it a lot.
Josh: But that’s really cool.
Adam: Yeah, that is pretty cool. I don’t think it changes a whole lot but the biggest obstacle for modders are going to be making the backgrounds. It’s just rough. We’ll be pretty open on how the process goes but it’s pretty complicated.
mindx2: Well talking about those backgrounds… how many areas were you able to give a paint-over?
Brandon: I’m not sure, we hit most of the main areas but there are a ton of side areas that we either thought were good as they were and didn’t need a paint-over or we just didn’t have time towards the end. But like a lot of our major scenes that the player will see got a lot of paint-overs. One good example is one area that we painted in all the water damage on the docks and things like that. So areas you’re going to visit all the time got the treatment.
mindx2: There was a great surge of lore writing at the beginning of the project but I’m curious how this continued during and after the KS.
Josh: I mostly just tried to flesh out the things that were necessary to support the story stuff that Eric Fenstermaker and Carrie [Patel] were doing and to support anything that they needed for writing companions. I didn’t want to design a bunch of stuff or weren’t super relevant to the immediate game. I wanted to give it enough of a foundation that it felt like a believable place. If people had ideas for certain things… for examples Bobby Null, one of our designers, he really wanted a Death Knight of some sort and I’m like, “OK man, I hadn’t thought of that but let’s think of how that would happen in this setting and figure how it fits into the lore."
mindx2: As the KS grew and you saw how much money you were going to get did that have any influence that you could expand this part more or that part more?
Josh: To be honest I barely had time to think about that. It happened so quickly that I was like, oh shit, I’m going to have to develop a lot of this stuff very quickly.
mindx2: Did Ziets have any more involvement since the beginning?
Josh: No, he was involved very early on and we are still using a lot of his ideas, especially for the gods and things like that. As well as the lore for some of the cities and some of the regions in the game are based off his initial concepts. So we were able to use a lot of that stuff.
Chris: Like Josh said, he fleshed out a lot of the pantheon and did a really good job with that but he’s really focused on the Torment successor right now with inXile but he really wanted to get back into area design.
mindx2: Mr. Cain, or as you are called, Sir Tim Cain… now that you’re back designing and with Obsidian I would love to you say, “I would love to do a turn-based game!”
Tim: I love turn-based games. This actually goes back to something Chris was saying, when I worked on South Park… right when I arrived there it was a real-time game and one of the things I was asked was to make it turn-based. It’s easy to turn real-time systems into turn-based ones, so I’m just throwing that out there [as he looks towards the other team members].
Tim: I’m familiar with a lot of these systems in Pillars and how to convert them. Again I’m just saying that…
mindx2: Did you play Divinity: Original Sin and what did you think about it?
Tim: I did not play Divinity yet.
Chris: Actually a week before this interview Tim was panicking that he hadn’t played it yet.
Tim: I know, I just didn’t have time!
mindx2: Anybody here play it?
Josh: I’ve played a few hours of it.
Brandon: I’ve played some hours of it.
mindx2: …and what did you think of the turn-based combat system?
Josh: I thought it was pretty cool but I don’t think I got far enough into it to really get deep into the mechanics. I thought the game was really cool overall. It’s interesting because in some ways you would think it would be very similar to Pillars of Eternity but obviously being turn-based, the co-op with the way the personalities develop back and forth is a very interesting mechanic that they had. The environmental interactions…
mindx2: …which I was going to say that the environmental interaction is the one thing that really caught people’s eye and would work perfectly with a system built by Tim.
Tim: I’ll put it on my list of things I’m behind on playing.
mindx2: Apart from the card game with Piazo anything else in the foreseeable future?
Chris: We have Armored Warfare, helping out with the Skyforge MMO and there’s one other unannounced RPG… am I forgetting anything…?
mindx2: [towards Chris] Is the unannounced RPG your baby?
[At this point, there was some cross-talk while I was asking Avellone my question, and I clearly heard someone say “Is it one or two expansions?”, and someone else replied, "with an 's', right?". When I asked if there are two expansions, they tried to cover it up, but I wasn't buying it. I said that I had clearly heard an 's' after the word "expansion", but all I got in response was some uncomfortable laughter. Giving up, I repeated my original question to Chris.]
Chris: No it’s not.
mindx2: What about a game in the style of Temple of Elemental Evil?
mindx2: Well think about it. This is the Codex so you know you’re going to get these turn-based questions.
Tim: I own the ToEE code, not Atari. So who knows? Of course I don’t own any of the art…
Josh: Oh come on Tim, you can make all the art yourself…
mindx2: Any other platform plans as that seems to be all the rage lately with going to different platforms?
Josh: [chuckling] I don’t think this game is going to be on a console.
mindx2: Wasteland 2 is going onto consoles…
Brandon: Can’t you just submit it to Unity…
Josh: I always thought it would be nice to see it on tablets but… Adam actually got it running on a Windows 8 tablet a long time ago but we haven’t looked at it in a long time.
mindx2: What are your thoughts on TSI’s new “Gateway” system?
[blank stares from the group]
mindx2: Have you heard about that?
Josh: TSI is the SSI reboot right?
mindx2: Sure is, and they are hooking up with inXile and Harebrained Schemes to allow players to transfer characters to different games from these companies.
Tim: How would that work? They are two totally different systems…
[laughter at Tim’s confused look]
mindx2: That’s my question.
Brandon: I actually talked to someone over there about this. Unfortunately, they contacted us after we had already locked down our save game system so we weren’t going to be able to go back in and change things. At the time they had mentioned that they wanted to maybe pull out certain types of data and information like a name or a class or maybe even a race. It might be generic enough to go between different [games].
mindx2: It was so vague in what they were talking about.
Brandon: It was a little… they hadn’t fully fleshed it out yet. So we had kind of talked about it that maybe we could do it in the future and figure something out but… to be honest I haven’t really moved forward with any of this.
Chris: That does make some sense. Some people just always go from game to game being the dwarf fighter and that would work between Shadowrun and… no, not Torment…
Tim: The save game format is such that we could probably write a converter…
Josh: Tim is on the tape!
Brandon: Did we say Tim has great ideas but we’re going to have to see where that fits in the production schedule.
Tim: I’m just saying…
mindx2: another question before my time runs out and I still would like to get some pictures. In fact, I have two specific picture requests…
Chris: Uh Oh!
Tim: He’s brought this pretty dress for Josh to wear.
mindx2: What games do you play today?
Chris: You’re not going to want to hear this but Diablo III: Reaper of Souls.
mindx2: You’re right; I don’t want to hear that.
Josh: I’m playing a lot of tabletop games lately especially Ars Magica and Burning Wheel. Also I started Shadowrun: Dragonfall, very nice. And anyone who sees me on Steam knows I still play Hitman: Blood Money all the time.
Josh: It’s a nice, like if I have a twenty minutes… it’s like ah, I’ll let off some steam. I’ve been trying to play a lot of tabletop games in the past year because I was away from it for awhile.
Adam: I’ve been playing Hearthstone a lot and… that’s pretty much it. I play soccer and I get out. I’m looking forward to Bloodborne.
Brandon: The latest thing I did was Rogue Legacy but that's just me mindlessly playing. The last real game that I’ve kind of completed was The Vanishing of Ethan Carter which is really cool. Pretty cool story and the environments were beautiful in that game and fun to play.
Tim: I’m playing World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor because I have to see how the garrison system works. I just wanted to see it to compare it to our stronghold.
mindx2: Are you familiar with the Stasis game by Chris Bischoff?
["Oh yeah!" from the whole group]
mindx2: You guys have got to get together with that man and make a proper turn-based game!
Josh: I really loved his… he did was… Twin Elms fan art inspired renderer which was really awesome and was inspirational for us when we were looking at the lighting stuff he was doing. We said, “That’s a really cool look.”
mindx2: Anything else you would like to share with the Codex… now’s your chance.
Chris: If anyone is unhappy with their Wasteland 2 signature box please send it back…
[Laughter. I had given Chris a hard time right before we started talking that his signature on my W2 Collector’s box was rather lackluster and boring compared to some I had seen. He said he has threatened Feargus that he will never do an assembly line type signing again as he absolutely hated it just for that reason.]
Josh: So somebody asked on the Codex forum for you to ask me about why Might would affect things like crossbows and things like that or why everyone can engage and it’s actually for consistency and to help with the player’s learning curve because I think that can trip up people a lot in D&D is that there’s a lot of hidden like… that affects a lot of this stuff but not that. Like a subset of characters can do this stuff but not all characters can. I think that, especially when a player is building a character for the first time they don’t know any of that stuff. That's all very hard to communicate quickly and I think the negatives of finding out “Oh, by the way Might affects crossbow damage” I think those negatives are far less than finding out “Oh, I built a high Might character but it doesn’t affect bow damage”. This is something that happens in D&D where if you built your character wrong, you can’t go back and fix it. So screw you. It's not realistic and I admit it’s not realistic but it’s done so that a person can build their character and feel confident that what they invested in is actually going to pay off in the game. That’s my hope anyway.
mindx2: Well then I have one more question for you then [to Josh], what do you think in Pillars of Eternity is the “funnest” part?
Josh: Um, I think it’s really trying to build… finding all the different ways to build your character and parties. That’s something that… well, that runs through a lot of stuff. To be honest a lot of what people say is this isn’t realistic or they don’t like some aspect of it like weapons for example. Like why do daggers do so much damage or a hatchet do so much damage or whatever. It’s done that way so that if you have an idea for a character that’s kind of an oddball or something that character might actually suck or be terrible in D&D but I think it’s important for it to be pretty good in our game. And if people want to make this really oddball collection of characters there’s going to be some things that are hard for them but I think it’s important for players to feel like they have that freedom to develop it. There are going to be trade-offs for it but as much as possible I want them…
mindx2: So that’s where the balance thing comes into play?
mindx2: And do you think everything needs that balance? I mean what’s wrong with having a crappy build?
Josh: I think if it’s a non-viable build then that’s garbage, like it just doesn’t feel good. I think that if you want to build a sub-par character that’s ok but I think it’s about a certain gulf like… for example, if you build an 18 Charisma fighter in Baldur’s Gate you just built a shitty fighter. That’s just a bad fighter…
Chris: Especially in the first five minutes of the game and you find that 18 Charisma ring and you go…
Josh: Yeah, if you build an 18 Resolve fighter in PoE that’s a very defensively oriented character that won’t get interrupted very much. Is that the same as an 18 Might character? No, but it’s not about perfect balance, it’s about relative balance and finding a way to play to that character's strengths. So it’s never been about absolute perfect balance.
Chris: The worst role-playing game - PnP one - I’ve ever been in was when I actually made a character that I really wanted to role-play and the GM just goes, “I’m sorry but your character is just not going to survive. It’s just not going to work in our group.” But I just wanted to role-play and I think Josh has been very cognizant about that for which I greatly appreciate that.
mindx2: Alright, where were we… oh yeah, what do you want to tell the Codex?
Adam: I love you guys. I do lurk and read almost every forum post in the Pillars thread. Just so you guys know, I’m reading.
mindx2: It’s one of our longest threads right now.
Chris: Do you guys keep metrics about that stuff?
mindx2: As many members of ours that have a hint of autism… yes, I’m sure there is…
[lots of laughter on that one]
Brandon: I’m not sure I have anything to say to them as I’ll go on there and talk to them. So if they have any specific questions they can just send me a PM on our forums and I can answer it there.
mindx2: The one brave soul who actually still posts on our forum…
Brandon: Now, now… granted I won’t be answering everything!
Chris: You’re familiar with Anthony Davis, right?
mindx2: Oh yeah, Anthony is great!
Brandon: Sometimes Anthony writes something and I’m like, “Oh Anthony why…?”
Josh: We get so many alerts about that… “Anthony just posted on the Codex!”
Tim: I still read, I still read the Codex. I’ve been reading it ever since it was created. It remains one of the more… possibly the most… passionate, that’s a good adjective… passionate…
Tim: … passionate places about RPGs that exists.
mindx2: I think the Codex scares people and I think that is ridiculous.
Chris: Can I quote you on that? Well that’s… OK, people will think to me, “Are you kidding?!” You guys have killed people!
mindx2: …but we hide the bodies very well. Seriously, if you go in there, you will probably be attacked but it’s almost a trial by fire ritual… once you get past that…
Chris: Actually the first six months after Fallout 2 the RPG Codex was the best training mechanism when you just need to calm down, pull the calluses off your soul and figure out what they’re saying rather than have hurt feelings. Sometimes it’s a bit heartbreaking when you have a junior developer and they see feedback like that they obviously get very upset but that just means the calluses are forming. The training you guys actually provide is considered the hallmarks of our careers. You have actually trained me to be calm about these things. I’m like, “Well, it’s not as bad as the Codex so I really don’t care what you’re saying because you’re not as bad as the Codex.”
Tim: What’s funny is I was going to post something there about a year ago, I do have an account there, but I can’t remember my password.
Chris: Neither can I!
mindx2: I will have them send it to you!
My time with the gentlemen from Obsidian had expired and the meeting wrapped up. I thanked each of them for taking the time out of their hectic schedules to speak with me. Before leaving, I asked for a few photos, and for Sawyer and Avellone to sign my Collector’s Edition of Fallout: New Vegas. We’ll soon be able to find out how well the team did, as Pillars of Eternity is scheduled to be released less than two weeks from now, on March 26th. Oh, and here's one more photo I had to take before I left:
After leaving Obsidian's presentation, it was time to meet up with Alex from Aterdux. I had invited him to dinner as a thank you for giving me the PAX East entry pass. We had planned on going to a nice seafood place, but when we arrived the line was so long that we ended up going to some upscale salad place instead, where you can prepare those huge salads with everything piled into them. After ordering, we sat down to talk about his game, Legends of Eisenwald. I started by asking him why people should buy his game. Alex insists that there are few if any games of Eisenwald's type out there today, describing it as a game that combines the strategy layer from games like King’s Bounty (but without the drawn out battles) and Disciples II (but with more complex mechanics) with actual RPG elements, such as a branching storyline with impactful choices & consequences. He told me very little about the story, other than that the game will take place in a low fantasy medieval setting. He told me to imagine a world where the superstitions of medieval Europe were all real, a world where the church actually does exorcise demons and cast blessings, and where werewolves roam the forests. He and his team are tired of the generic fantasy tropes that appear in most RPGs. There will be no elves or dwarves running around in this game, but it will be inhabited by many different human factions, each with their own agenda. Alex did mention that some other mystical creatures might appear, but he would not elaborate further.
I asked Alex about his experience with Kickstarter, both the good and the bad. He replied that Kickstarter had been an overwhelmingly positive experience for him. He did admit that his campaign's pitch video was a little too long, and looking back he probably would have tightened it up a bit, but he feels that it captured the earnestness of his team, and that people reacted positively to that. They've been working on the game since 2011, and the Kickstarter money only lasted them about ten months. Alex admits that they were naïve and ignorant to think that they could finish the game in just half a year. He did make it clear to me that they'd put aside money for the physical rewards and never touched that sum. After those ten months has passed, they met an investor who agreed to provide funding for another six months, which they thought was all that they would need. Well, they were wrong again, and after those six months had passed, the investor refused to provide any more funds. Alex told me that this was the worst time, with several team members threatening to leave, and so they made the decision to go to Steam Early Access.
Alex was very clear in stating that Early Access saved Eisenwald. Without it, he doesn’t think that the game would have survived. If he'd had a choice he would have delayed the Early Access release, because he didn’t want people to receive a negative view of the game based on its state at the time. He wishes there had been a little more of the main campaign available, as he wants people to see that the game has many RPG mechanics and that it’s not just a strategy game. Whatever the case, because of those Early Access dollars, the game's development is now in its final stages before release. Alex also credits Early Access for improving the game, due to all the feedback solicited from players. In the meantime, Aterdux have also found another investor to help them with marketing and PR, which is what led them to GDC and PAX this year. I mentioned that Eisenwald doesn’t seem to get as much negative press as other Kickstarter games that have experienced significant delays. Alex attributes that to his team's habit of being brutally honest and open about their stupid mistakes. They are now looking at a mid-May release date, as Alex says they are pretty much done. The release won't be postponed any further, even if one of the localizations misses the deadline. From what I’ve seen of the game (which is admittedly little as I don’t play Early Access games), and just from listening to Alex talk about it, Eisenwald has become one of the titles that I’m most looking forward to in the coming months.
After we finished dinner, I thanked Alex again for inviting me to PAX this year. However, he wasn’t quite ready to let me go. He reached into his bag and pulled out a leather pouch with the game’s name stitched onto its flap - an authentic, hand-woven medieval pouch. He handed it to me, explaining that this was one of the few pouches produced for the $500 Kickstarter tier, and that he wanted me to have it. I humbly accepted this gift, thinking to myself that this was much better than Doritos or Dew!
mindx2: Is the return of turn based titles in recent years just nostalgia?
Craig Stern: No, I think nostalgia plays a role for some people but there’s also an appeal that turn-based titles have that can’t be matched by real-time or RTwP. It supports a more deliberative, I would say cerebral play. That just has a different kind of appeal that turn-based games are uniquely suited to.
mindx2: Why did you decide to go 2D vs 3D?
Craig: For a couple of reasons. Reason number one is I wanted to go for a high-res smoothly animated pixel art style in the game. You don’t really need 3D for that. In addition, budget-wise 3D is just more expensive and difficult to do properly. I wanted to focus more on the mechanics and on the story.
mindx2: Will there be any kind of expansion planned?
Craig: Possibly, I mean the game has a plot arc that ends in a satisfying way but it has room to be explored further so it’s possible I might do an expansion at some point.
mindx2: What RPGs influenced your making of Telepath Tactics?
Craig: [long pause here] …Interesting… it’s most immediate source of influence are Japanese strategy RPGs so I’ll just state that up front. You know, Fire Emblem, Disgaea and the like but having been said a lot of my sensibilities growing up and going to college and stuff were shaped by titles like Fallout 1 & 2, Planescape Torment and I do think I incorporate at least some of those sensibilities into the game.
mindx2: So would you see your story more westernized than eastern…
Craig: Oh God, yes. On a narrative level it is definitely much more a western style RPG. Your character’s motivations going through the story actually make sense. You don’t have scantily-clad 13 year old girls scampering around in the story. It’s a western experience that makes heavy usage of the better eastern mechanics.
mindx2: Why the decision to make the game's combat completely non-randomized/deterministic?
Craig: That originally stemmed from the fact that I when I first started to make the game I began with local multi-player. I wanted to have something that would be fun to play head-to-head. I hate strategy games where you roll dice and you just get screwed if you don’t get the numbers you want. I just find it infuriating. I didn’t even really like it back when I played 2nd Edition D&D with my friends in high school. It was just too random and it caused problems as far as having balanced play sessions with predictable results. I’m into the whole “narrative arc” of things. I want things to develop in interesting ways and when your characters are dying every single play session because your dice didn’t favor them, there’s only so much you can do with that.
mindx2: I know you promised several things on the Kickstarter such as destructible environments and things on the battlefield, so what kind of compromises have you had to make? And in a broader sense if you can talk about the KS experience in general.
Craig: I think the biggest compromise isn’t really even a compromise so much as it is my responding to player demand which is originally when I first started working on the game I wanted online multiplayer. When I had the first KS people made it clear that what they really wanted me to focus on was a single-player campaign with a good story, a lot of characters and focus on the mod support. I wasn’t but then that’s what I focused on and consequently I didn’t have the resources to do online multi-player. As far as other compromises the second biggest one is I didn’t have as many explorable areas ultimately as I wanted to have or as many instances of branching dialogue. Mainly because those things are extremely time consuming to produce. As a one man team I kind of had to focus on these other things.
mindx2: You have no one else?
Craig: Well I had some contract artists that I hired with the KS money and a composer I hired with the KS money. Other than that I literally did everything else from design to programming to balancing to creating all the levels and writing all the dialogue to all the characters. I even ended up doing some of the art and music.
mindx2: Back when you Kickstarted the game there were no new JRPG or TRPG-style games on PC at all, but now there's a bunch of new ones. What makes your game different than all the others?
Craig: Mine is better! [laughing] That’s the short version. The long version is the design tack I take with TT is not seen anywhere else even among this new crop of strategy RPGs. My approach here, which as far as I know is unique amongst strategy RPGs, is to have a game with a deterministic core. There are a few things where die rolls come into play but for the most part it is deterministic. Unpredictability is achieved instead by having a difficult and challenging AI and a large possibility space. There are so many different mechanics in the game that intersect in sometimes unpredictable ways that you’re always having to stay on your toes just to be sure you’re not taken by surprise by what the AI might do. It’s not an easy game.
mindx2: When can we expect the game?
Craig: April 16th. I’m just waiting a month because everyone and their mom is releasing everything in March.
mindx2: What are your future plans?
Craig: I will be reusing the TT engine in some shape or form.
I thanked Craig for the interview and took a few photos, but my time had come to an end as the convention doors were about to be flung open.
I made my way out, took a cab back to my hotel and was on the road back home shortly thereafter. My PAX East experience this year was remarkably different than last year's disappointment. I was leaving with hours of recorded interviews with five different developers of five (actually, six) very different styles of RPG. There was the traditional high fantasy Pillars of Eternity, the low fantasy strategy-RPG Legends of Eisenwald, the non-Japanese jRPG Telepath Tactics, the adventure-RPG Quest for Infamy, the promise of a return to the Stygian Abyss with Underworld Ascendant, and even a CYOA cat sim RPG.
As I was driving home, I realized that just a few years ago I had begun give up hope that my favorite hobby would ever recapture the glory it had possessed from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. Now, thanks to Kickstarter, I have almost too many choices… but damn, isn’t that a great problem to have. I’ve joked many times that the Codex is witnessing a RPG renaissance, but it’s not a joke anymore. If I can find this many actual RPGs at PAX of all places, then our state as a group of grumpy old gamers with nothing new to play may be coming to an end. Will they all be the greatest, bestest games ever made? No, but neither were all the ones made back in our younger days. And if PAX East keeps bringing these types of games and developers in, then I may have to start saving my pennies for next year!