Whalenought Studios' Hannah Williams Interview

I've thoroughly enjoyed Serpent in the Staglands, Whalenought Studios debut project that was a bit rough around the edges, but still, in my mind, a great RPG. And now, Whalenought's two-man team is working on a new project – Copper Dreams, a unique-looking cyberpunk RPG. And if you'd like to know more about Copper Dreams than what the Kickstarter updates offer, you might want to check out this recent interview Whalenought's Hannah Williams did with Indiegraze. Apart from the game's mechanics, the interview goes over the inner workings of Whalenought Studios, as well as their approach to system design. Interesting stuff. An excerpt:

Erik Meyer: The release of games like Fallout, Diablo, and Ultima Online in the ’90s established isometric RPGs as a genre, but recent projects like No Truce With The Furies seek to expand standard conventions, such as dialogue. Your project uses a health system comprised of wounds in the place of a more abstract HP meter. Similarly, you have extensive sneak and weapons options systems. What other novel features and content do you see yourselves adding to Copper Dreams? What do you see yourselves implementing that you haven’t seen done elsewhere?

Hannah Williams: The heart and soul of Copper Dreams has always been creating a cozy, p&p roleplaying experience. A comfortable playground that allows you to approach the world as you would in a tabletop game, a ruleset that won’t hamstring your adventure by limiting your tools to those fed through specific dialogue options or one-note item uses. When an RPG does just that, rationing out your actions or even suddenly gifting you a narrative tool that allows you to do something that isn’t possible in game mechanics, it takes away the joy of actually roleplaying without being told what to do. Partially because the game designer spoon-fed you your actions like they did the narrative, but also because it also creates a sense of disorientation. Dice are rolled and actions are performed on the result, that’s a great start, but beyond that there’s a lot we wanted to rethink what a player has control of and what to do with it.

Here’s an example: I’m talking to a guard and I pick option A to palm him five gold coins so he’ll let me pass unmolested. Neat! Glad I didn’t have to stab him, he looked like he had a nice family at home waiting for him. But wait, can I do that with anyone? I never got that bribe option in dialogue before. Why did it pop up with him and not the now-dead guard downstairs? Was one less important on my narrative path? This one has a red vest, does that mean something? Did a writer get distracted and forget to add the dialogue option in before? Was there a secret charisma roll that I finally passed? Am I overthinking this? I’m scared, help! I wish I just had a button that let’s me try to bribe someone whenever I want to!

Most players, of course, are used to a bribe option popping up in dialogue and don’t need to dig out their smelling salts when it happens, but you get the idea. If you give a player all their tools to be used at will, it makes them feel like they can do anything they want, and also gives a sense of security, despite running around in an hostile environment, because you always know what your options are. If you want to try to bribe the final boss, by all means, give it a shot. If you want to bribe a chicken, do that too. Making the DM miserable is mostly what p&p is about, and the least we could do is give the player the freedom to do that to us.

The challenge of this is creating all these tools for players to use at will. Manually jumping over obstacles instead of clicking their hit box to disable them, climbing a roof for height advantage, dropping to a crouch to avoid a missile, dragging cigarettes out of your backpack to an NPC so they will spill their secrets, using your crossbow like a hammer when you’re out of bolts or just throwing it against the wall to make noise. These are the kind of things that we think create that cozy tabletop experience, and what will make our ruleset feel different.

EM: You ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund Copper Dreams, but this isn’t your first Kickstarter, as you already had Serpent in the Staglands under your belts. What kinds of things did you learn from your previous projects and crowdfunding efforts that informed your process this go-around, and what have the community responses been like?

HW: Our Kickstarter community has always been a true delight in the experience of creating games. We are pretty introverted people, and when we started the company the idea of building a community was quite frankly terrifying. Most 13 year olds have more Twitter followers than we do. But then we took Serpent in the Staglands to Kickstarter, and suddenly there were people talking to us! And giving us ideas and suggestions! It was wonderful. Not just because no one should develop a game in a bubble, but just being digitally surrounded by people who love CRPGs was great. Even when they’re disappointed in you, it’s really great having people along for the ride to explore the possibilities of the best genre of computer games.

We had a lot of repeat backers from Serpent to Copper Dreams, and it’s been exciting to continue to see their comments and hear from them. As a two-person team, we think people know they are getting a very authored experience, a personalized product that comes from just two people creating all the art, writing, and gameplay. All that takes time though, and we learned from Serpent that we needed to allocate more time to ensure that all the ruleset and gameplay connections are working properly. So we’d like to get more feedback from our Kickstarter backers when we’re ready, but thus far they’ve been very supportive and most of all, very patient.

EM: I’m interested in the game’s freedom of movement, including vertical structures, which have often been tricky for isometric projects. What led to your decision to unite the buildings and locations of a particular district as one navigable space (as opposed to separately loaded areas), and what kinds of challenges have you faced in making movement through different areas feel intuitive?

HW: Vertical movement was our our particular obsession for a lot of this, besides tuning the tick/tile system. It’s high risk, because we were new to 3D and there are a ton of level design and programming challenges involved, but also high reward, because who doesn’t want to run around rooftops and climb walls and evade enemies by careening off of tall buildings?

It also felt necessary for that tabletop experience we’re gunning for. If you’re playing a p&p game and spot-check a tripwire, you’d just step over it, or roll to. Most isometric games fall prey to the nature of point n’ clicking, not easily allowing that, so you’d have to instead roll to disarm it or navigate around it. For non-grid based games that convey a level of ‘freedom’, that seems like phoning it in. Or if you want height advantage and you see a crate or short roof, you should just climb it. With the tile-based system we were able to allow this freedom without the need for any hand-eye coordination or reflexes. Moving in and out of buildings with a rotatable camera is important too. It adds a layer of excitement to seamlessly sneaking and getting into combat throughout the city that map loading wouldn’t allow for. Jumping outside a building window onto a lower roof to try to lose some guards chasing you is fun and gives you a lot of freedom. If you were playing a tabletop game, a DM wouldn’t say the guards lose you because you’re now in a new map.

The verticality we had envisioned has certainly been tough to implement, stirring emotions ranging from sheer panic to total excitement as we’ve evolved our systems for creating levels and seamless experiences when roofs or whole buildings that are blocking you need to disappear, or you run up staircases to a new floor and new content needs to be ready for you. If a roof disappears, is there a fog of war? Is it just a slice downward, or a big hole? They are questions asking how much do we want the player to see how the sausage was made, right? If we just chop roofs off or something, players can see how arbitrarily maps are designed. How can we make that vertical transition within a building not abrupt? How much needs to disappear so you can shoot someone at the end of a hallway? Have other isometric games done this (a few), and did they do it well (eh)? These are questions we’ve grappled with, and they’ve definitely been a challenge, but we’re actually very happy with how everything was solved.