Spiderweb Software Interview

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If you've possessed any interest in role-playing games over the past decade, you've most likely heard of Spiderweb Software. Founded in 1994 by Jeff Vogel, the independent Seattle-based development studio has created numerous role-playing games spanning four different series. The company differs from other indie developers in that it typically releases a Macintosh version of each game first, followed by a Windows version several months later. With the small team gearing up to release the highly anticipated Windows version of Avernum 5, we thought it would be a good time to sit down with Jeff for a quick conversation about the company's history, business model, plans for the future, and more.

GB: Tell us a bit about yourself and Spiderweb Software.

Jeff: Well, we've been in business since 1994, which is starting to feel like a long time ago. We're based in Seattle. We're an Indie game development company, and we put out an RPG for Macintosh and Windows every year or so. We have three full-time employees.

Our best known games are the Avernum and Geneforge series. The former is a more action-filled adventure set in Avernum, a nation in the underworld. This series (which will most likely be six parts) depicts the struggle of these cave people to survive and win their freedom from the harsh Empire on the surface.

The Geneforge series deal with a world controlled by the Shapers, a sect of powerful wizards with the ability to make and control life. This five part epic describes what happens when their creations revolt against their masters.

GB: Tell us more about your latest game, Avernum 5, and the game that won our 2007 "Independent Game of the Year" award, Geneforge 4.

Jeff: Geneforge 4: Rebellion is the next to last part of the Geneforge saga. The Shapers are in a savage war with the rebels, a combination of their rogue creations and humans who want to take the power of the Shapers for themselves. Like all the Geneforge games, it is a wide- open adventure. You can choose to fight for the Shapers or the rebels, and you have a wide variety of play options. You can rely on stealth and diplomacy, or you can slay your enemies. You can travel through the game as a solitary adventurer, or you can make a horde of deadly monsters to serve you. Either way, it's a huge game with an elaborate plot and a ton of replay value. And I think the setting is really cool.

Avernum 5 is a game we're hugely excited about, and the Macintosh version is the fastest-selling game we've ever released. Once again, it takes place in the underworld nation of Avernum. This time, however, you play soldiers of the Empire, the monolithic power that controls the surface world. You are hunting through Avernum for the villain who tried to assassinate your Empress. You must deal not only with his traps and attempts to kill you but with the strange and paranoid people of Avernum, many of whom hate the Empire with a passion.

It's a gigantic game, with a terrific story, lots of cool characters, and many unique dungeons and settings. I'm really proud of this one.

GB: Do you still enjoy making RPGs as much as you did when you started?

Jeff: Heh ... I never really enjoyed it. I thought I would. When I wrote the engine for our first game, all those years ago, I was really looking forward to making the world. That, I thought, would be the fun.

Then, fifteen minutes into designing the first town, I thought, "Wow. This sucks." And it hasn't improved much since then.

It's work. But, fortunately, it's work I have a knack for.

GB: Spiderweb Software is the oldest and most steady presence on the indie cRPG market. Does that mean others should try to emulate your business model?

Jeff: Possibly. I have the advantage of coming to the party early and possessing the tenacity of the cockroach. However, I sell most of my games myself, over my own web site. It's really hard to get enough publicity to attract that sort of attention.

I would probably recommend to a young new developer to design a more casual-friendly RPG and try to get it onto portals like Big Fish and Yahoo! and RealArcade. My niche is old-school RPGs, and I've done very well with it, but there are great opportunities for more casual titles now.

GB: Spiderweb's new releases typically use a lot of previously released assets (engines, animations, etc.). Why?

Jeff: Survival. Time is the most limited resource we have. Just producing the material we do stretches us to the limit. That is why, for each game, I only replace the worst third of the graphics. We don't have the time or money to replace everything every game, and I think that, if we did, it would be phenomenally wasteful.

I think another good question is why other games companies don't reuse their assets. Making games has become very time-consuming and expensive at all levels. A lot of the reason for this, I feel, is that every time a game is finished, everything gets thrown into the trash. What a waste! I honestly don't think anyone cares if they saw the orc model in another game a year before.

Nobody smart writes their own engine anymore. They license something like the Unreal engine instead. I bet, someday, people won't bother to make their dragons from scratch either. Not when they can rent the standard dragon, tweak it a bit to make it distinctive, and save themselves a ton of work.