Interview with Jeff Vogel

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Today I scored an interview with Jeff Vogel, one of the great-grandaddies of the indie RPG world.Vogel has been developing indie RPGs for a whopping 15 years, and by all accounts, he’s been quite successful at it.

We discussed the reaction to Avadon (his latest game), what his next move will be as a game developer, and what the heck Matt Findley could have possibly been thinking when he opened his mouth to Gamasutra. While we were at it, I also pressed him for specifics about his recent development choices, and got some details about what we can expect to see in Avadon 2.

Intrigued? Hit the jump and find out what Mr. Vogel had to say.

As you know, Avadon received a less-than-enthusiastic reaction on the RPG Codex forums. Many there evidently saw Avadon as an attempt to appeal to the casual market by streamlining player choices and ratcheting down in-game difficulty. On your blog, you responded that you have to make design choices that are “best for what you’re trying to do.” For the record, what were you trying to do with Avadon?

Make a good role-playing game, one that is accessible and easy to understand for people new to the genre but has enough gamey details and difficult bits (on harder difficulty levels) to please hardcore gamers. And I think I did a pretty good job at both tasks.

Remember, a gaming genre is only viable if it is trying to bring in new players. If most of the new RPGs are made to be scary to people who have never played them before, it is just bad for the genre.

Your games have appeared on causal game portals like BigFishGames for some time now. Are these the venues you find yourself drawing most new players from?

I honestly don’t know if we’re getting the bulk of new players, but such portals bring in a lot of new faces. The rise of gaming portals has been an enormous good for small indies. I could never get my games on, say, the shelves at Best Buy, but Direct2Drive and Wild Tangent and the like are very good to us.

You’ve stated that Avadon’s sales exceeded your expectations. Without getting into specific numbers, would you say that adopting Avadon’s more linear, class-based approach was a good business decision for Spiderweb?

I can’t point at any one decision in Avadon and say, “That was the one.” Avadon is hundreds and hundreds of discrete decisions, each of which add up to one full game that turned out pretty well. What I will say is that changing everything up every few years is a good decision. I need to keep things fresh to not burn out. I don’t think a lot of people realize how important this is.

How about from a developer sanity perspective? (It seems to me, for instance, that discrete classes would be much, much easier to balance than amorphous balls of skills and stats.)

Not too bad. Happily, Avadon has no PVP. Having to balance classes against each other is the really tough thing to do.

Is there a danger in poking your head out of the small niche you’ve carved for yourself over the many years that you’ve been making games?

Change is always dangerous, but Avadon still very firmly in the same niche we’ve always been in. Low-budget, story-rich, indie RPG. The differences between Avadon and, say, Geneforge is really not that large.

You’ve made an entire career out of designing turn-based RPGs. I’m curious to get your take on the recent Matt Lindley interview scandal. (Is “scandal” the right word? Maybe “controversy.” Anyway.) Did all of those old turn-based RPGs really want to be action games at their heart?

The best way to get attention for your product/blog/whatever is to say outrageous things. Everyone has done it. I have done it. He was putting down the types of games he’s not writing and building up the sort of game he is writing. It’s marketing.

Saying turn-based games are outdated is kind of silly. I mean, people still play Chess, right? Go? Settlers of Catan? Turn-based games are less popular than they used to be, but they will always be a thing.

Have you ever thought about doing a real-time RPG?

Occasionally, but that is a little bit outside both my programming skills and our established niche. Maybe someday, but not for a long time.

Just a few days ago, you mentioned on your blog that you’ve made enough sales to enable you to create Avadon 2. Is Avadon 2 in development?

Not yet. We’re working on the first Avernum rewrite right now. Avadon 2 is next year.

What changes are you planning to make to Avernum 1 in the remake? Will there be substantial changes to the dialog, quests and/or in-game systems, or is it mostly going to be a graphics and interface overhaul?

Everything. We are spending months and doing major changes. To the world, to the storyline, to the game system, to the interface. It will be a major revamp. We aren’t half-assing it, and we hope to provide screenshots and details soon.

However, I want to make one thing very clear. It will still be Avernum. It will have the same story and characters and towns. There is still an outdoors that is huge but separate from the cities. I want to make sure that the things people love about the series are still there.

What will change between Avadon and Avadon 2?

The only thing I’m sure of is that Avadon 2 will have a much flashier demo. That is my main regret about the first Avadon.

Are you sticking to your guns on health regeneration and auto-resurrection of fallen comrades?

Absolutely, without question.

How about outdoor exploration?

Nope. It just doesn’t fit the story. Some sorts of storylines support a big, expansive outdoors to wander around in. (Fallout 3. Elder Scrolls.) Other stories are best served with individual, highly-detailed areas. (Dragon Age: Origins. Avadon.)

If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that you’ve chosen to use detailed indoor environments because of the game’s focus on factional conflict/political intrigue. What would outdoor environments detract from a game like this?

To put it simply, the outdoors isn’t where the game is. If a game is about exploration and travel (and I really enjoy such games), it needs a big outdoors. If the game is about politics and intrigue, it needs to be where the politics and intrigue are. This will not, largely, be in a huge, swooping outdoors.

Is it true that you are not cool anymore?

There has never been a millisecond in which I was cool.

And if so, have you considered making a pile of money in your backyard and setting it on fire?

I try it to do it every year. I just keep failing.

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