As you probably already know, independent developer Gareth Fouche has been hard at work for the last few years on a Torque-powered, mature-themed first person RPG entitled Scars of War.
If the game's feature set doesn't pique your interest, then the following interview on the game's influences, setting, factions, and more just might:
GB: What inspired you to start working on an indie RPG in the first place?
Gareth: Well, I think the answer is "insanity". It runs in my family, I'm told. Great Uncle Mortimer, that incident with the teacup and the cocker spaniel... best we not dwell on it.
Seriously though, I'm an avid gamer and like most avid gamers I have a lot of ideas for games rattling around in my head. Settings I'd like to see, mechanics I'd like to incorporate into a favored genre, that kind of thing. So I don't think any special inspiration was needed to work on an RPG, they're my favorite genre of game and one I'd dreamed about creating for years. It was simply a matter of acquiring the skills and then putting in the effort.
But I think you're more interested in why I chose to go "indie", yes? The answer is simple: I don't want to spend ten years making sports titles for EA in the hope that I might one day get a shot at making the type of game I really want to create, as long as said game meets the approval of the marketing department and appeals to the companies' core demographic of bloodthirsty teenage males.
Some people may not be aware of it, what with living under rocks and suchlike, but the games industry is a fairly rubbish one to work in. You're paid less than mainstream software development, the hours are nightmarish and job security is a joke. They can always replace you with some bright-eyed graduate who is willing to work the crazy hours for the subpar pay in order to "work in games!". For every rock star developer there are a thousand galley slaves. I'm not really fond of rowing. Quite frankly, the only way I'd accept those working conditions is if I get to bring my own creative vision into being by doing so, I'm selfish like that. So indie was the only real choice for me.
Which means that I still get to be a galley slave, but now I have to row all 20 oars by myself. On the bright side, the ship's direction is one I get to choose. So that's nice. Also, I get to act like I'm some sort of game industry rebel and "sticking it to The Man". We all enjoy hating The Man, don't we?
GB: What are the major influences of Scars of War, and what kind of design philosophy do they combine into?
Gareth: The largest influence is probably my teenage years spent playing pen and paper RPGs, mostly Dungeons and Dragons. Not so much for the gameplay mechanics of D&D, but the experience of the roleplaying itself. The roleplay options available to you when an adaptable human mind controls the world are so far beyond what computers offer as to be night and day. It's a far more fluid, dynamic experience, the opportunities to explore the limits of the roleplaying much broader. I'm the type of player who'd happily spend an entire evening roleplaying the infiltration of a gala ball, chatting up NPCs in search of information without ever rolling a dice for a combat encounter. No surprise, really, that Scars has plenty of content for the roleplayer like me, who enjoys the non-combat side of things as much as poking people with pointed sticks. I won't be able to match what a human GM can, of course, but that won't be from lack of trying.
The D&D setting of Eberron has to get a mentioned here. A rich, imaginative setting, the design philosophy of Eberron influenced my own. Keith Baker, the creator of Eberron, had tighter constraints than I did when making Eberron. The mandate was that everything that was currently part of D&D at the time had to fit in his setting, despite that he did an admirable job of working things into a cohesive whole. At the heart of his design philosophy was a principle dear to my heart. If this element X exists in a setting then the designer needs to take some time to consider how it would really affect the world. And in following that philosophy he created a fantasy world very different from the standard Tolkien derivative.
Other influences, from the gaming side I'd say the biggest influence is Vampire the Masquerade : Bloodlines. It was a bit too much of a linear, enclosed world for my tastes but the actual content was, for the most part, superb. On the completely opposite end of the scale, I loved Morrowind for its deep lore and fantastic, alien setting, I can count on one hand the number of settings I enjoyed delving into as much as that one. The actual gameplay and character interaction weren't anywhere near as strong but the explorer side of my personality reveled in it. For tone and setting inspiration I have to turn to the incredible Thief game series. When I talk about "realistic fantasy" later on, think of the world of Thief.
And then there are the host of books, movies and comics I've consumed over the course of my life which have jumbled together in my mind and somehow given rise to the ideas and plots in Scars.
In regards to design philosophy, I'll elaborate on that in a coming question, but it could be summed up as : plot heavy, character driven stories, strong opportunities to roleplay different character builds and a tight focus on tone and theme.
GB: The game is using Torque 3D. What specific advantages and capabilities made you choose this engine?
Gareth: There are a lot of middleware engines out there, choosing one really boils down to finding the right fit for you and your resources. The reason I chose Torque is that it has proven that games can be made on it by small teams and that it is "complete", ie it has the full set of features you want in a game engine.
As a tiny operation (originally only myself, now joined by the exceptionally talented Zach Fisher, artiste extraordinaire) my biggest obstacle is a severe lack of resources, especially given the scope of an RPG game. When I first chose Torque as a platform there were prettier, more modern engines out there. But none of them really came close to Torque in terms of the number and variety of games that had been made with the engine, or feature set on offer.
I see new indie devs talking about how some engine is great even though it isn't finished, how they will simply add in a few code libraries to cover the deficiencies, how it will take a few months, tops, and I smile a little to myself. Problems in an engine often only reveal themselves deep into the process, a large stable of completed titles built on an engine is a good indication that any such problems aren't insurmountable (you WILL encounter problems though, regardless of engine). They are also generally being overly optimistic about the time it takes to add in that missing functionality.
Now that Torque has received a major graphical overhaul it is more than able to stand toe-to-toe with other engines in the sparkles department. So I'm happy, I get the advantages I mentioned and have an engine with all the modern graphics baubles.
GB: Setting-wise, you seem to eschew Tolkien's creations as "that well ran dry a long time ago", but the world does have touches of magic and non-human races. What kind of balance are you aiming to strike?
Gareth: Indeed. I have nothing in particular against Tolkien's works but that well has, as you say, run dry. In fact many people see the fantasy genre itself as mined-out, creatively. I tend to disagree, as a lifelong fan of fantasy works of all varieties I can say with certainty that Tolkien is hardly representative of the entire genre, there is a wealth of ideas yet to explore there. Sadly, for mainstream game development you tend to first need some pioneer to prove that these ideas are profitable enough before "the suits" are willing to forego churning out another elves and orcs, world-saving romp. Luckily, as an indie I have nothing to lose but my own time and money, so I can take the risks they won't.
As for how I achieve a balance, it all comes down to prioritizing the tone of the setting and the story I want to tell. Anything added must serve the theme and story, first and foremost. Scars is what I like to call "realistic fantasy". I hesitate to say "gritty" or "mature" since these buzzwords are often codenames for entrails and bikini-chainmail, but Scars could be described as "gritty" or "mature", if you use those words in the intended spirit. In other words, it isn't a romanticized fantasy play land.
Since I'm aiming for a more realistic take on fantasy I have to ask myself certain questions before adding in elements. If wizards who can read minds and teleport are part of the setting, how does that really affect things? The implications for trade and judicial systems would be staggering, if you think about it. I have to consider that aspect before I add those elements in, how they would change the world and whether that change would fit the tone I'm trying to create. Would insta-teleportal trade highways support the theme I'm trying to build? No? Then that kind of spell cannot be added into the design.
You also need to consider how the specific elements work as a whole. An idea may seem to fit. Hell, 30 ideas may fit. But what is the effect of combining all 30 of those ideas? A gourmet meal isn't made better by simply adding more flavors, no matter how good each flavor tastes individually. A lot of fantasy games take a kitchen-sink approach; they throw in everything they can think of from the genre as a whole. Griffons, vampires, sphinxes, treants, gnomes, golems, throw them all in the pot! This has the net effect of diluting the impact of individual elements. A focused design, where each element exists only if it enhances the whole product, is far superior, in my opinion.
I like fantasy, magic and non-human races, make no mistake. But I'm not adding in elements if they don't serve the theme. I'm making a fantasy game with a strong focus on complex, interwoven, character-centric plotlines. There are fantasy elements there for the spicy flavor they add to the story, but not enough of those elements to shift the focus away from the characters and their personal storylines.
GB: How many factions can we expect to encounter or hear about, and how important are they to gameplay?
Gareth: There are 11 primary factions, though you will hear about and meet others who aren't as central to the gameplay. The primary factions are those you can side with and whose plotlines you can dramatically affect.
Those primary factions are fundamental to Scars' gameplay. The core plotline involves events which are developing (I won't go into detail there for obvious reasons), but these events draw the interest of those factions, interest which causes them to become involved in events as they unfold. The role of the player is that of a "wildcard". As you progress you can ally with or choose to act against individual factions, but you will have to live with the consequences of those choices. It is impossible to choose a path through the main plot that satisfies all or even most of the factions, your choices will cause some to treat you with enmity, even outright violence.
I've also tried to avoid creating any obvious "good guys" or "bad guys". Each faction has a logical (if sometimes hidden) agenda, goals and motives for their actions which are perfectly reasonable, from their perspective. It is up to the player to decide which viewpoint they agree with, if any. None of the factions desire to "destroy the world" or anything similar just to prove that they're the supreme assholes, the hope is that players will have to think carefully about who to ally with and who to make enemies of.
GB: You opted for a classless, skill-driven character system. Tell us a bit about your system and why you chose it over the alternatives.
Gareth: The problem with class systems is that invariably the limitations of a class seem fairly arbitrary. Why can't I wield an axe as a mage? Sure, I might suck at it. But can't I try? And why can't I pay the warrior trainer to make me slightly better with axes, foregoing some training in spells? There have been efforts to offer more flexibility in class systems via multi-classing and the like but they are generally clumsy, the multi-classing rules themselves can introduce further illogical meta-gaming elements.
So I prefer a classless, skill based system. Players can build the traditional archetypes if they want to, but there are no hard boundaries for players to slam against. As a designer, if you want specialization to be preferable then build that into the design via mechanics that reward specialization, instead of simply forcing limitations on players so they fit your concept of what a fantasy character should be like. Carrot, instead of stick.
The Scars character system is fairly complex, filled with crunchy numbers because that is what I personally enjoy. It starts with a build point system, you have a pool of points at character creation and can then build your avatar by spending points on one of 8 Racal choices, 7 character Attributes and a range of Skills, Knowledge and special Traits (similar to perks in Fallout). You can distribute your points as you wish, sacrificing Attributes to gain a broader selection of Knowledge, for example. On top of that you get to choose 2 options for your character's history, a Childhood Background and a Military Career Background. These two selections give you certain benefits as well as opening up unique roleplay options in-game, based on your past.
Once you actually begin playing the game, character advancement is achieved by earning experience from completing tasks, experience which can then be spent to buy Skills and Traits. To upgrade Knowledge, you have to find a source in the world that can pass on that knowledge to you, a willing teacher or a book for example, you cannot simply acquire new Knowledge out of thin air. I should also note that experience is only awarded for completing a task, not how many monsters you kill or anything of the sort. If you want to sneak past all obstacles or find a diplomatic solution instead of a violent one, you won't be penalized.
This system isn't one that I simply sat down and designed on paper initially. It is the result of many, many iterations, tweaks and complete rewrites. I wanted to design a system with a lot of options, but where each point put into an option felt meaningful. You aren't going to increase a skill level from 68% to 69%. Skills generally range from level 1-10 and increasing a rank is meaningful. I feel this is more rewarding, ultimately.