Spiderweb Software Interview

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Eschalon: Book II

Developer:Spiderweb Software
Release Date:2009-12-05
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
With the release of Avernum 6, Spiderweb Software has closed the book on its flagship franchise with a final critically acclaimed and commercially successful entry. With the independent studio also working on a new game in a brand new setting, we jumped on the opportunity to talk with Spiderweb Software founder Jeff Vogel about both about Avernum 6 and his next franchise.

GB: Following the Mac release, you mentioned in a post-release blog post that Avernum 6 was outselling its predecessors. Given its success, how do you feel about your decision to end a franchise that's climbing in sales?

Jeff: There are always regrets attached to ending a successful series, and Avernum has done very well for us. However, there is a fundamental limit to the process: If I can't write it, it doesn't happen. Seven games (Avernum 1-6 plus Blades of Avernum) is a huge amount of time working on one world, and at a certain point you get squeezed kind of dry. I've already gone too long without writing something all-new.

It's a big risk making something new, and I'm pretty terrified about it. But it's also really exciting to make a new world. I've having a lot of fun with it.

GB: Avernum 6 had quite a few sequences where the player's party is just one part of the overall assault, or clearly tasked to assist someone more powerful than he or she is. It de-emphasizes the power and importance of the protagonist in a way the older Avernum games didn't or did to a lesser extent. Why did you make this change in narrative structure?

Jeff: Because it makes for a cooler story, and it adds more variety to the action. And I really don't think that the player should always be the most powerful person in the world. In fact, having more powerful people around makes for a more interesting story, not less. One of the reasons Lord of the Rings was such a compelling story is that it focused on Bilbo, not Gandalf. And, for what it's worth, the player response to those sections you refer to has been very positive.

GB: I wrote in my Avernum 6 review that the reusage of assets was starting to jar a bit as we see varying levels of quality and style side-by-side. Do you agree with this assessment?
Is this something you can/would address while making a new series?

Jeff: There is something to be said for this. That is why I am approaching the graphics in the new engine from scratch and working harder to maintain a unity of styles.

Similarly, when I released polished new revisions of the first Avernum trilogy over the next few years, I will have a lot of the graphics redone, including the old character portraits.

[Editor's note: Spoiler warning for the following question for those who have not finished Avernum 6]
GB: Another element that de-emphasizes the importance of the player's actions is the ending: while Avernum 6's ending varies based on your actions, its ending message is clearly that the cave is more or less the same as it was before the events of Avernum 1, and all the actions in between really had very little consequence. Why did you choose to go this route?

Jeff: I don't think that the world is the same at the end of the series at all. In the beginning, the people of Avernum are prisoners. At the end, they have won freedom, respect, and a land of their own. In the beginning, the Empire is a land of tyrants. In the end, the rulers of the surface are much more sane. And the player, through the games, has a major role in bringing these changes about. It is the story of the series.

The land of Avernum, itself, ends up a wild place, full of danger and adventure. And I think this choice, itself, is a cool and exciting one. There are a lots of reasons I wanted this, including that it makes sense. I don't think the underworld is a viable place for a lasting civilization. The final fate of Avernum is foreshadowed since the second game.

GB: What about the idea of Avernum 0? Is that looking possible or even likely?

Jeff: That is an idea I threw out a few months ago in an interview, a single game that is a prequel of the whole series. It's a cool idea, but it's not something I would seriously consider for at least five years or so. That's enough time to recharge enough "Avernum energy" for one more game. Maybe.

GB: So you've got a new franchise in the works. Have you tossed around any ideas on a title yet?

Jeff: Many, and I think I've settled on one, but we're still running it through the legal paces. I don't want to announce something until I'm sure it's safe to.

GB: What are the main things you learned from Avernum and Geneforge that you are taking into your next franchise?

Jeff: Many things. Even after fifteen years, I am learning new things all the time.

For example, I've learned a lot about the difficulty curve. My last few games have been, frankly, too hard. I want a smoother, gentler difficulty curve with fewer surprises. For people who want a challenge, that are what the tough difficulty levels are for.

I've also learned a lot about graphics. Avernum 6 is the nicest looking game we've ever done, and the next game will be even prettier.

GB: Please expand upon what you mean exactly by "too hard". Should I expect the new game to simply have an easier standard combat difficulty setting? Or are you also referring to quest design, meaning that I should expect the game to "hold my hand" while resolving quests?

Jeff: I like the quests the way they are. Some of them should be simple, and some should require more digging and thinking. In terms of puzzle-solving, I think we're in a good place.

By difficulty, I am referring to toughness of fights. I have allowed my difficulty curves to get too spiky and unpredictable. I've always liked to put the occasional tough monster early in the game, to give players a chance to face a challenge. I then put warnings that a tough encounter was ahead. But people either miss those warnings or ignore them, fight the tough monster, get killed, and get angry at me. I am going to do less of this in the future and be a lot more careful about how such tough encounters are placed.

GB: Does starting a new franchise mean that you'll be upgrading your technology (a new graphics engine, higher resolution models, etc.), or will it use a lot of the same technology and assets that powered Geneforge and Avernum?

Jeff: We will be sticking with the same basic technology. The truth is that it works for us. It works well. And I am mainly a designer. It is sort of the limit of what my programming skills are capable of.

But there are still a ton of improvements. All of the graphics are being redone at a larger scale, and we have some very skilled freelance artists redoing huge swaths of art. It will be the best-looking game we have ever written.

GB: Will the new game be closer to Avernum or to Geneforge in style? For example, will you be shooting for more or a linear or open world, a faction-based or non-faction based world, or party-based or solo adventures?

Jeff: The game is based more on the Geneforge engine. It will have a linear world, but with many player choices. It wouldn't be one of my games without giving the player the ability to make huge choices that affect the world. There will be factions, and there is a dominant power that the player has a very complicated relationship with.

The game will have a three person party (although there are also solo portions). The game is very class-based. There are four classes, each with a very distinct suite of abilities and play style.

GB: Setting-wise, are we talking low fantasy or high fantasy? Or something new altogether?

Jeff: It is high fantasy, and I have put a ton of work into making an interesting world with a deep history and a lot of bloody power politics. For those so inclined, the game has tons of background information. And, of course, players can ignore all this without penalty. But it's there.

GB: Neither Avernum nor Geneforge had much mission scope outside of fighting and collecting. Is adding more non-combat gameplay, such as dialogue skills or interesting non-combat spells, something you'd like to do more of?

Jeff: Of course, like all of my games, there is a ton of dialogue, choices, and player decisions that can affect the world. This week alone, I wrote over 30000 words of dialogue. That is a lot. At least, my sore hands are telling me that it is.

But it's still a role-playing game. There's a lot of cool encounters, fighting, missions, and so on. The focus is on kicking butt. It's what I like.

GB: I don't think anyone would argue Spiderweb games have too little dialogue, but I was thinking more of the fact that Avernum lacks specific character skills that determine the scope of your interaction, whether it be an "intimidate" skill or skills like arcane lore being checked while in dialogue. Is this something you'd consider or do you dislike skills impact dialogue, or feel they don't fit what you're trying to do with your next series?

Jeff: I have had games in the past with "Leadership" skills that affected the dialogue options available. The new game engine won't have that. Instead, I'm focusing on role-playing. I want there to be lots of decisions and for those decisions to shift the storyline in meaningful ways. I am leaving out Leadership skill because, simply, I want all of the cool decision points to be available to all players.

GB: Given Spiderweb's ongoing success, have you considered bringing your games to other distribution channels (Steam, Direct2Drive, etc.) or porting them to other platforms (Apple's iDevices, Xbox Live Arcade, etc.)? How about a boxed compilation of all your games (or at least an entire series) on retail shelves? What are the challenges associated with expanding your reach beyond the official website and the PC/Mac platforms?

Jeff: One of the reasons I am making this new, more accessible series with nicer graphics is that I want to expand my reach. I have every intention of approaching Steam and similar services.

That said, the place for PC/Mac games on store shelves is getting smaller, not bigger, and we are a low-budget niche product. I would love to see my products in stores, but I doubt that it will ever happen.

GB: Will the new game follow the normal Spiderweb release schedule, with a Mac release followed by a PC port some months later?

For years now, we have release the Mac version in Late November and the Windows version in Late February, for a roughly three month delay. I don't think that this will change any time soon. I don't ever get involved in the Mac vs. PC debate. For me, personally, I get work done faster on a Mac, and, since I do all the coding and design myself, I absolutely need to work in the way that makes the most efficient use of my time.

Do people still argue about the Mac/PC thing? Hopefully, the debate has move on to Netbooks vs. iPad by now.