The Interactivist: Since you are RPG enthusiast, please, tell us - what do you think about replacing standard persuade-streetwise-impersonate skills with "choose your rhetorical style in the beginning of the game (and there is also some sophisticated quest to get second style)" mechanic as can be found in Expeditions: Rome? Ethos for aristocratic characters and NPCs. Logos for rationalists and people of letters, who can be persuaded by arguments. Pathos for manipulators and their victims. There must be obvious restrictions for sure: a character with a plebeian background can't just pick ethos and so on. Don't you think this approach is better and more elegant than the classical one?
Vince: Can't say I like it. There were many aristocrats who were skilled and well-educated 'rationalists' and philosophers, as well as good manipulators. Or low- /middle-class men who successfully did all three. Thomas Cromwell would be the best example.
We prefer a skill-based approach and if we stay in business long enough, we'll try to evolve it to make it more tactical and less 'pick the line that corresponds to your highest speech skill'.
The Interactivist: Can you recommend any books (like Dungeons and Desktops by Matt Barton and Shane Stacks or The CRPG Book Project) or blogs/sources (like Iron Tower Studio depository) to aspiring devs, RPG enthusiasts, connoisseurs or true video game journalists (who actually try to do their job properly and do want to learn history of gaming and game genres, game design concepts, role-playing game systems and other features)?
Vince: The only way to learn more about game design is by playing games and (if you're an aspiring developer) by trying to make your own.
The Interactivist: John Priestley long ago wrote a brilliant allegory: a conversation between a mage from XII century and a designer from XXI century. The mage explained how it took nine centuries for all mages to disappear: there was a great fear of uncontrolled power growth in students. So each master-wizard was teaching only small parts of their arcane legacy/spellbook. What could go wrong?
Well, everything. Mages got wiped out by nested intervals, according to Cantor's intersection theorem. Inherited "parts" of knowledge were getting smaller and smaller. And one day - puff, nobody is competent anymore.
In the context of game design: this is exactly what is happening with many RPG developers right now. Even the greatest studios/companies are losing their arcane design powers, being unable to reproduce "the magic" of their own past games.
Vince: It's a cute theory but it's not applicable to game design. Because they're not trying to reproduce that 'magic'. They're trying to sell more units, which is a very different game.
Do you think the former Interplay developers forgot how to make games like Fallout and Planescape? Fallout sold 400k units, Baldur's Gate sold over 2.5 mil (counting the sequel and expansions). That's where the magic went. That's why when Obsidian got a shot at making their own game, they went with BG (Pillars), rather than Fallout or PST.
Plus, what do you need a game design book for? Play Fallout (or your favourite 'old magic' RPG) and analyze it to death. No hidden design secrets there.
The Interactivist: Is it all about "sales-centered mindset" and "doing what everyone else is doing, while trying to bite off the biggest piece", even in the indie sector? Such things as "spirit of franchise" or "expectations of fans, waiting for a sequel/next addon/whatever", "unique selling points of the game" will be forgotten as soon as an angel investor with $50 mln (or even less) appears, right?
Vince: That's how it is.
If you look at the evolution of the Elder Scrolls games (from Arena/Daggerfall to Skyrim), you'll see a very clear trend. Daggerfall nearly bankrupted Bethesda, ZeniMax bought it and invested into Morrowind. Morrowind was a disappointment to many (most?) Daggerfall fans, but it sold more and showed Bethesda the golden way forward. Oblivion was, in turn, a disappointment to many Morrowind fans, but it sold even more, attracted way more people who had their own ideas about this 'spirit of the franchise'.
The Interactivist: So, for the safest and easiest sales, your new RPG now must have 1) generic quasi-medieval pseudo-European fantasy look; 2) yet another boring magic system; 3) all RPG elements brought to the lowest common denominator; 4) elves-orcs-dragons-but-with-bells-and-whistles; 5) no new gameplay features, cause it's too risky... etc., you get the idea.
Vince: Because that's what the market wants.
The Interactivist: Will you follow this route too if an angel knock on your door (theoretically speaking)?
Vince: Angel investors don't knock on game developers' doors. Corporations do and the terms of the contracts, the milestones, the payment conditions are all spelled very clearly. Would I sign such a contract? No. Would I honor its terms if I had to sign it? Absolutely.
As the old saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune. Don't want to play tunes someone calls? Don't take the money.
The Interactivist: There is no academic approach to RPG game design. There is no methodology or general theory of RPG design (and no Albert Einstein of RPGs for sure). Developers are not teaching each other "the whole thing", that started somewhere between 1975 - 1979: everyone knows just some part of the whole picture. Few play older RPGs to learn what was good/bad/lost forever. Few know the history of the RPG genre, at least to some extent. Same mistakes are repeated over and over again. Constructive RPG criticism is rare, and marketing is often misleading.
Vince: Because RPG is the most diverse 'everything goes' genre. Isometric, first person, third-person, class-based, skill-based, turn-based, phase-based, real-time, party-based, solo, action, tactical, story-driven, etc. You can't have a unified design when the genre is anything but.
Then you have the money factor. Some games sell a lot, others - not so much. If I were to write some articles on how to make RPGs, I'd be writing articles on how to make RPGs that don't sell, would I not?
The Interactivist: But there are (or can be) design theories for every RPG subgenre. For tactical RPGs, third-person ARPGs. For immersive fist-person ARPGs. For RPG + strategy hybrids, isometric turn-based solo RPGs, RPG + driving/piloting something, roguelikes. For shareware RPGs. Even for JRPGs. Don't you agree?
Vince: AoD and Underrail, two indie games made on pure enthusiasm. Isometric, turn-based, solo. Very different design with very different design goals.
The Interactivist: Imagine somebody like Dr. Matt Barton reaches you. "Dear Vince, I wrote a book to summarize isometric party RPGs with turn-based combat. There are some "must-have" things, important things (good to have) and garbage things to avoid. I've tried to cover the past, the present and the future of gaming. Discussed this work with others and they were very interested in it. Get a copy, will ya?" Will this book be of no use to you and other developers?
Vince: To put it politely, it would be of very limited practical use.
First, what's important for us and our audience might be 'garbage to avoid' for many other people. Would the Pathfinder developers be interested in our perspective and experience? Of course not. It's not applicable and a recipe for a financial disaster. Would we be interested in their design template? No, because that's not the direction we want to explore.
Second, if you ask me 10 'why did you design it this way?' questions, the answers to at least 8 of them would be 'because we had limited resources', not 'because we didn't think of that'. Basically, an indie game developer makes plans and then limited resources start altering it.
m00n1ight: Please, tell us more about a hypothetical role-playing game in the Spanish Inquisition setting. I've often seen it mentioned, but nothing concrete.
Vince: I love the 19th century's Gothic novels like The Manuscript Found in Saragossa or Melmoth the Wanderer. Love the idea of proper magic, witches being dangerous, Lucifer corrupting souls and commanding agents, the Christian faith a shield against darkness, which is everywhere, the Spanish Inquisition fighting the good fight, cursed places abandoned for a reason, forbidden knowledge, supernatural creatures, that sort of things. Needless to say it would make a great setting, but how do we get there?
The main character would be a monk, armed with faith and potent prayers fuelled by faith but full of doubts that can be exploited. Basically, a character development fork: a man of God bringing light into darkness or an occultist who abandoned God's light, trading it for forbidden knowledge. Both character types would communicate with powerful demons - dukes of Hell and such, but in different ways.
- The demons and most "magic-users" can't be killed as they're far too powerful; you can only bargain, protect yourself, play them against each other, maybe banish from your presence to piss them off even more; thus the focus isn't on demon slaying but surviving in a dangerous world most people are unaware of.
- you use combat (or speech/stealth) against the human minions or human enemies standing in your way, like the Inquisition if you turn to the Dark Side.
- such a setting would be perfect for relics, both Holy and Unholy.
- skills like languages (reading ancient books, communicating with demons, etc) and rituals (from exorcism to summoning), derived stats like Faith and Sanity, etc.
- magic would play a large role: prayers, words in God's own language, signs, magic circles & pentagrams, rituals, spells and incantations. You'd acquire them from archives, NPCs, rituals, etc. Too much "hands-on" Occult knowledge would weaken your Faith and thus the power of your prayers and Holy relics, just like too much Faith would weaken your dark rituals and incantations (i.e. it will be hard to play a hybrid).
m00n1ight: You said that you plan to release a small companion game to an every full-scale project of yours (just like there is Dungeon Rats for The Age of Decadence). What about a similar game for Colony Ship?
Vince: Since Dungeon Rats failed miserably, we won't try again. The (sub)market has voted and we'll abide by its decision.
m00n1ight: In light of recent lamentations about the lack of coverage on major gaming resources and other media, which ones did you try to contact, and what their reaction was?
Vince: Naturally, we contacted everyone who covered AoD, but didn't get a single response. We hired a small marketing agency to handle our EA launch, but they got the same treatment and were surprised by the outcome. I can only assume that Colony Ship is even less appealing than AoD.
Some of your readers suggested that it's because going sci-fi was a bad decision. Maybe so, in which case the market will vote once again and we'll (have no choice but to) abide by its decision as well.
FromLeftShoulder: Have you considered that, maybe, a narrative-oriented text-based quest/interactive novel would be more appealing to RPG fans than a game with minimal narrative leading the player through a series of tactical battles? Or making a game like Dungeon Rats is easier and cheaper than something like The Life and Suffering of Sir Brante?
Vince: Dungeon Rats' main purpose was to test our party-based design (combat, Charisma-driven party size, XP split favoring smaller parties, etc) and gather players' feedback. This way we didn't have to stumble in the dark while working on Colony Ship, so from this perspective Dungeon Rats wasn't a mistake. We hoped it could sell better and maybe even attract more people to AoD, but it didn't happen.
Trying to switch to another sub-genre if Colony Ship fails would probably be a mistake.
m00n1ight: Casual players are outraged that Iron Tower games is "mocking" them. However, the Colony Ship settings include new options to make life easier for newcomers, such as a choice of two difficulty options and random number generator settings. What else did you do to "meet the needs" of a less hardcore audience?
Vince: The death timer (when a party member goes down, you have 3 turns to end the fight to save him or her).
m00n1ight: How do you feel about determinism in attack, damage, skill checks (Fallout: New Vegas) and so on?
Vince: Never liked it.
Xanathar: Which RPGs have you played before becoming editor-in-chief of a certain prestigious magazine? Was Fallout your first rodeo or have you had a lot of RPGs under your belt? We would like to know what games you played and loved.
Vince: I'm 52, so if I start talking about RPGs I played and loved, it would take a very long time.
The first RPG I played was Dungeon Master 2. I played many RPGs (probably everything that was labeled 'RPG') before Fallout, but it has a special place in my heart because there was nothing like it before. Other notable RPGs that come to mind - Arcanum, Torment, Daggerfall, Ultima Underworld, Darklands, Realms of Arkania 2, probably a few others I can't remember now. I played these games on release, so today I wouldn't put RoA 2 on my top 10 list, but back then it was an absolutely amazing game that left a strong impression.
Xanathar: What do you think about the almost total demise of the classical dungeons (as in Wizardry, Eye of the Beholder or Ultima Underworld) in the genre? With deadly traps and not-so-clever but still enjoyable navigational puzzles, hand-drawn maps and so on?
Vince: The genre was always moving toward bigger games that can sell millions of copies. The dinosaurs that couldn't adapt were left behind. I'm a dinosaur myself, so I sympathize.
When developers say we need to sell a million copies or two just to break even, which is a very high bar, you know what drives the design.
Чума: The Age Of Decadence used a mix of classical skill progression (skill points based) and "learn-by-using" progression (experience divided into combat, non-combat and general) as a system of character progression. But Colony Ship uses "learn-by-using" only. Why?
Vince: I think that learn-by-using fits our design better. First, it reduces metagaming and eliminates skill points hoarding. Second, it rewards a playstyle. Do you want to be smooth-talking killer? Then decide when to fight and when to kill, instead of shooting everyone you meet in the face and then raising diplomacy. Do you want to raise Critical Strike? Use weapons and attacks that boost this particular skill growth. Overall, I think it works very well.
If Colony Ship buys us a ticket into the next round, the sequel will have the same systems. If we ever get a chance to work on AoD 2, we'll use the old setup (solo, earn and distribute skill points, etc).
Чума: Is metagaming always a choice?
Vince: I couldn't agree more.
Чума: I don't recall the developers ever being able to "beat" players prone to metagaming.
Vince: We can't remove it but we can reduce it (and see what happens).
Guest: How about The Age of Decadence sequel?
Vince: The way the game ends, there isn't much room for a direct sequel. So if we stay in business and get to revisit the AoD world, we'll set the sequel on another continent and give you an opportunity to explore the Qantari culture, see how their fared and what they are up to.
You'd join an expedition sent by House Aurelian shortly before the events of the first game. As in AoD, you'd be able to pick from different backgrounds: a praetor representing House Aurelian, a thief chained to the galley, a merchant representing the Commercium and tasked with establishing a trading outpost, a merc hired to protect the expedition (one of many, of course), a Boatmen assigned to the praetor, etc.
Even though the Qantari were eventually defeated, their own land wasn't touched by the war and didn't suffer any devastation. Since they did manage to retain the knowledge and machines, it would be a land ruled by demigods each with his own priesthood, temples, place in the local pantheon, ambitions, scheming n plotting, etc.
Guest: Do you think modern innovations in machine learning will make the creation of niche RPGs significantly cheaper? For example, one can now generate all 2D art with neural networks instead of paying artists.
Vince: While 2D art is important and can add quite a lot, it's a relatively small aspect. The key areas (that often become bottlenecks) are: programming, level design, and scripting. 3D and animations are important, but not as much.
I think it will take a long time before the AI can become a game changer in this industry.
m00n1ight: Reading some articles about Tyranny (and I never played it myself), I realized that mechanically it was somewhat similar to Colony Ship - learn-by-use progression, the same way to limit its abuse and Gated Content. And it failed in the market. Developers mostly blame the setting (where evil has won) and corresponding hero, but it seems to me that Gated Content had a lot to do with it.
Vince: Tyranny had a lot of promise, but it played like any other action RPG: you ran around, killing enemies by the dozens and clearing dungeons. I think that contributed to it modest reception a lot more than the gated content.
FromLeftShoulder: How much do you play other studios' games? And if you do, which games in the last 2-3 years have made the greatest impression on you (whether positive or negative)?
Vince: Quite a lot.
- Battle Brothers - loved it (enough to start thinking of making a somewhat similar game; not a clone but adapting the concept to our design and strengths)
- Subnautica - oddly soothing, best cure for work stress
- Pathfinder - fantastic implementation of the ruleset
- Frostpunk - great atmosphere and design
Casval_Deikun: Have you ever played jRPGs? If so, what games did you like?
Vince: I have kids, so yes. Fire Emblem, Xenoblade, Dragon Quest, Arc the Lad, etc. The tactical combat is quite good.
Casval_Deikun: Have you ever played games by CIS-based developers?
Vince: Silent Storm was amazing. What an engine... Metro's atmosphere was top notch. Stalker, naturally. King's Bounty. Atom. Pathfinder.
Casval_Deikun: If you were asked to make a game based on the Shadowrun setting, would you accept?
Vince: I'd politely decline as I've done in the past (not in regard to Shadowrun). Such offers never come without conditions and restrictions, the most important condition being return on investment. Nobody would give you 5 million dollars (for argument's sake) so that you could make the best game you can and have fun doing it. They'd want you to turn 5 mil into 10, better yet 15-20, which means that selling more copies becomes the ultimate goal.
ukdouble1: If you saw yourself in your current situation 25 years ago, would you try to start some kind of commercial project (not related to games) first, so that later you can work on your dream games more freely?
I did see myself in this situation 25 years ago. We started working on AoD without suffering under any illusions that it might be a top seller. Just like today, we hoped that it would sell enough to pay for the next game's development, and just like today it was a coin toss.
Sooner or later the coin will land the wrong way and we'll lose, but hopefully we can make a couple of games before it happens.
As for making commercially viable projects... I think to make a successful indie (meaning tiny budget) action game, you must really love the genre. I don't. I enjoy an occasional action RPG but it's not the same. ▲