After playing and thoroughly enjoying Avernum: Escape From The Pit, I was excited to talk with designer and writer Jeff Vogel about his work. Vogel, the founder of Spiderweb Software, is the designer and developer of Avernum, as well as many other award-winning narrative RPGs. He wrote Computer Games magazine’s Grumpy Gamer column, and blogs on game design over at The Bottom Feeder. Overall, he’s a hoopy frood who really knows where his towel is.
Here, Jeff Vogel talks to Hardcore Droid about narrative design, connecting with gameworld characters, and why you won’t see a 99 cent Scroll of Resurrection for sale in Spiderweb Software titles.
Hardcore Droid: Playing Avernum, I found myself reminiscing about good D&D tabletop adventures… Besides classic D&D, what games would you consider your major influences in creating this game?
Jeff Vogel: I am heavily influenced by all of the classic computer fantasy RPGs I’ve ever played, starting with EAMON in 1980 and Wizardry in 1983 and going forward to Dragon Age and Elder Scrolls. I have been weirdly compelled by this genre from a very young age, and I always am looking for interesting new design ideas to incorporate into my own work.
Hardcore Droid: Your titles employ elements from retro RPGs as well as elements from more modern RPGs, like *quick slots and quest markers. What are your thoughts on the current state of RPGs, for example the latest games in the Elder Scrolls series?
Vogel: There are a lot of contemporary games I really like. I loved Skyrim. I really enjoyed a lot of Mass Effect. I’ve been playing a lot of World of Warcraft lately. Lots of good stuff in the indie space too. I think there is a lot of first-rate design going on right now.
Hardcore Droid: Avernum: Escape From The Pit throws some morally questionable choices at the player. Adventurers can earn money by stealing food from starving settlements, for example. Is there a “right” way to play through?
Vogel: Not really. I think it’s really important to put the “Role-playing” in a role-playing game. I always try to put choices in my games, so that you can start to assign personalities to these abstract computer people you are playing. Even a handful of fairly simple choices can do wonders to bring a world to life and make the game feel more real.
Hardcore Droid: You mentioned that moral choices for player characters can bring a game world to life. What other strategies do you use to make your game a narrative adventure, as opposed to the typical series of battles that just happens to take place in a fantasy setting?
Vogel: One of the things I’ve worked hardest on in Avadon 2 is making the story and the adventuring blend together. I don’t want a game where there’s a cutscene with a bit of plot and then a long stretch of just stabbing and then another little squib of plot. I’ve tried to set up the adventures so they involve constant contact with story elements, like, say, characters that travel with you. There are still the less interesting trash encounters from time to time, but I want a lot of the action to feel like it’s directly pushing the story forward.
That’s my goal, anyway. I hope to succeed.
Hardcore Droid: Avernum, and Spiderweb’s other titles, are very focused on story. What would you say to uncultured cretins who believe no one reads game dialogue anyway? (Disclosure: I write and localize game dialogue when I’m not writing for Hardcore Droid!)
Vogel: Everyone’s got their own thing. I try to write my games bearing in mind that a lot of people will just click through the dialogue quickly and get to the stabbing. I think Avernum is more tolerant of this than a lot of games I write. I think the story and the setting are really cool, but, if a player just wants to trash bozos and gather loot, I want to get out of that player’s way as much as possible.
As I like to say, players will forgive you for having a good story as long as you let them ignore it.
Hardcore Droid: I’ve written before about freemium frustrations, and noticed that Avernum: Escape From The Pit uses a monetization model that’s pretty unusual for the App Store. The full game is offered at a set price point of $9.99, with no internal monetization on in-app purchases of healing potions and plus-one swords. Why did Spiderweb Software choose this method? Has it been successful for Avernum: Escape From The Pit?
Vogel I’m old.
I started to write games for real in 1994. I grew up with the business model where you pay some dollars, you get a game, and it’s yours, and you can just focus on playing it. It’s what I know, and it’s what I write. It’s not really where the money and excitement is these days, but I think there’s something to be said for being able to sink yourself entirely into a game experience and not be pulled out of the action by trying to decide if you want to pay a dollar for a slightly better shield.
And, so far, it’s worked. We do still sell a pretty good number of games, so the old ways aren’t entirely without hope.
Hardcore Droid: One major issue for publishers and developers, especially indies, is software piracy. Have you experienced problems with piracy? Have you given any thought to ways of protecting your games from piracy, such as releasing them in stages or having users sign into an account to download your games?
Vogel: Piracy is huge. Every time a PC indie game company tries to estimate their piracy rate (by comparing sales numbers to the number of copies reporting to their servers), they tend to come up with around 90% of the players having pirated it. It’s the sort of thing that can drive you mad if you let it.
I don’t let it. Piracy is a simple fact of life. I won’t ever get money from those people, so I focus on making life as pleasant as possible for the nice people who pay for my work. I don’t use DRM or accounts or other trickery. Any time you say “How can I change my nice, working game to prevent piracy?” you are very close to making a mistake.
Hardcore Droid: What’s next for Spiderweb Software? What new Spiderweb titles can we look forward to?
Vogel: We have been working for what seems like forever on Avadon 2: The Corruption. It’s the second game in the Avadon trilogy, after Avadon: The Black Fortress (also out on Android). We hope to have it out this fall, and we’re really excited about it. Then we’ll do Avernum 2: Crystal Souls, the next game in the Avernum trilogy. So we’ve got enough plans to keep us busy for years.
Thanks so much for your time, Jeff. I’m already looking forward to playing Avernum 2.