Interview with Jay Barnson

IndieRPGs.com recently had the pleasure of conducting an exclusive interview with Jay Barnson, whom you may know as the curator of the Rampant Games Blog (and the guy responsible for the occasional indie news round-up).

What you may not know, however, is that he is a veteran game developer working on a humorous first-person dungeon crawler called Frayed Knights. Jay likes writing words, and his responses below reflect that proclivity. Buckle in for some lengthy discussion of Frayed Knights and RPG design in general!

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Hi Jay! Why don’t you tell the readers a little about your background and what got you interested in making RPGs?

I am a refugee from the mainstream game development industry.  I learned a lot of my chops working at a company called SingleTrac, making games for the Sony Playstation. We had a reputation for making games that were really fun to play and did some amazing things for the time that really broke the mold, but didn’t always have the most fantastic graphics in the world. It’s a trend I’m pretty comfortable with as an indie.

I’ve always been a big fan of RPGs: pen-and-paper, computer RPGs, console RPGs, even MMORPGs (starting way back when they were text-based and “massively” meant over 30 users at a time). I made crappy little RPGs and adventure games to teach myself to program as a kid. When I was in mainstream development, we kept lobbying to make an RPG-like game, but were shot down at every turn. Even back then, few people in the games biz got to make the game they wanted to make, and it’s only gotten worse since then.

I went indie to make the kinds of games I wanted to make. That’s not been exclusively RPGs, but even when I started I was working towards that goal. The engine I wrote for Void War was originally planned to power a multiplayer RPG. I had a tiny, crappy dungeon and everything. It ended up using space ships instead.

Has the concept behind Frayed Knights changed at all as you’ve developed it?

I don’t know if the concept has really changed at all, but the details – and my understanding of the concept – have evolved a lot over the *cough*years*cough*.

I felt that just being a long-time fan and experienced action-game developer didn’t translate to expertise in RPGs. Frayed Knights was supposed to be a “quick-and-dirty” project for me to get my feet wet making RPGs. Two years, tops, that was my plan. Yeah, right. I even had to chop the concept into three pieces because what I thought was a tiny, manageable scope was still far too huge. I ended up breaking it into three parts. This first game still has about twice as many hours of gameplay as I envisioned the full game taking originally.

My initial vision was one kinda like the classic first-person, grid-based RPGs of old. In fact, Wizardry 7 was kind of my mental model (I hadn’t played Wizardry 8 yet when I started development). First-person perspective, turn-based combat, party-based RPG with a reasonably detailed rules system and western-style gameplay. Old-school!

The whole humor part of it came almost immediately after I made that decision. I didn’t want to make just a rehash of a style of game that over-saturated the market in the early 90s. Remember when it seemed we had too many games of that type, and that they’d never end? Anyway, I wanted to do something different with it, something to make it stand out on its own and take the style in a somewhat new direction. That’s where the humor came in. Not crazy, absurdist humor that just mocks everything, but the story and character based humor that has fun with the genre, like Knights of the Dinner Table, Dork Tower, Order of the Stick, and the Gamers movies.

Once those ideas came together, it felt like The Right Thing. And I’ve been going down that path ever since. It’s been a strong concept from the get-go. I found pretty quickly that I was pulling in a little more of the classic pen-and-paper experience into the game than I’d originally expected, but that’s proven to be nothing but a good thing.

You chose to give the player exactly four pre-made characters to play through the game with. For a game of this sort, that’s fairly unusual. Is that something that grew out of the game’s initial concept (that is, to play as a small party of adventurers who constantly bicker with each other)?

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Yeah, exactly. I was thinking of the table-talk we have in our Saturday Night D&D games, and I think fond memories of Mystery Science Theater 3000 also contributed to the idea. As part of the humor angle, the idea of the characters in your party engaging in in-character table-talk like veteran gamers really stuck with me.

But to really make it character-driven and not just generic snarkiness, I felt I needed a handle on the characters. So I came up with Arianna, Dirk, Benjamin, and Chloe. So I really try and blend two worlds — the old-school western RPGs where you usually created your own characters, and a little bit of the more character / story driven aspect of more modern and Asian RPGs.

I didn’t think of it at the time, but that mix has bugged some folks watching development. It’s proven pretty popular among the testers, even those who were skeptics at first, so I think it worked.

It’s strange: at first, I really disliked not being able to customize a party from a stable of classes. However, the way you’ve chosen to do it, it injects a lot of character into the game via…well, you know, characters. Most games of this subgenre are seriously lacking that; I could never imagine my party in Wizardry bickering the way these guys do. Still, I can’t help but wonder if you couldn’t have just made all of the dialog non-class-specific, but kept the core characterizations.

Yeah, in retrospect I probably could have approached it that way. It does get kinda funky by the end of the game if you’ve basically turned Dirk into an acting priest and he’s still talking like a rogue. But they originally came to be by me subverting the classic fantasy RPG class roles. You had a warrior who was actually somewhat dainty and smart instead of a big bruiser. You have a rogue who just can’t stay sneaky because he’s a braggart and an adrenaline junky. You have a sorceress who is a space cadet.  And then the “cleric” is really a druid, a class I always loved in my old games but all the other players tended to resent them because they couldn’t be a heal-monkey as well as a regular cleric.

So it never occurred to me to really separate the personalities from their base class, because it was always linked to their concept and origin stories in my mind. And that remains something of a source of humor – Dirk is probably more suited to being a swashbuckling warrior than a rogue. Arianna would probably have made a better sorcerer. Benjamin is really too mellow to be an adventurer at all, and a nature-priest remains a sub-optimal choice for that lifestyle. And Chloe… sheesh. Nobody knows about Chloe.

Incidentally, only a few people have noted that the initials of the characters are A,B,C, and D. That was another goofy idea inspired by a description of combat by Gary Gygax back in D&D. All of the characters of one team had names beginning with an “A”, and everyone on the second team had a “B” name. It was just one of those dumb things I use to amuse myself. If nobody else gets a kick of out this game, I will.

Their rivals, the Heroes of Bastionne, are named Edgar, Florentine, G’rash, and … Selena.

The “grid” is a huge staple of the dungeon-delving genre. What made you decide to go for free-form movement? Was it a design decision, a limitation of the Torque engine, or a little of both?

Some days I really wish I’d done that. It would have made things so much easier. I did it in full-on 3D environments “because I could.” Again, it was kind of the idea of marrying the old-form of RPGs with slightly more modern technology. I really wanted to take advantage of the vertical element and more open-ended level design. Later, I played Wizardry 8 – an awesome if flawed game – and found they’d done the same thing, to great effect.

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A more restrictive environment would have been far, far easier to develop, to create editors for, to code for, and to do even cooler things with. Greater flexibility means greater complexity.

But I’m still happy with the decision. We’ve been able to do some really cool levels and concepts that wouldn’t work in a Cartesian grid. So problems and all, I’m pleased. And this is an area where the strength of the Torque engine came in handy.

Speaking of engines, how is Torque working out for you? Are you going to stick with it for subsequent episodes, or have you been seduced by Unity’s sweet siren’s song?

If I were starting over today, I’d be about 80% likely to choose Unity.  At the time, the version of Torque I chose – now no longer supported – seemed like an okay choice. I designed Frayed Knights around my expectations of the engine’s strengths and limitations. I guessed wrong on some things.

I’m tempted to look at the newer version of Torque or Unity for the sequels – REALLY tempted – but I dread the amount of work it would take to port the game over. There’s a ton of game code in there. Besides just porting the game over and going through a whole new round of testing, debugging, etc. there’s the need to learn the new pipeline, processes, etc.  Changing the engine would definitely delay things.  And then there’s inevitably the surprises and limitations you don’t learn about until deep into development.

I’m not ruling it out. That siren’s song is dang strong. But now that we finally have the game running, and the thousands of issues mostly resolved, and have worked out a process within the existing framework, it’d be nice to just focus on content and small improvements for the sequels.

One thing I like about Frayed Knights: I appreciate that you can oftentimes see enemy encounters before they happen. Sometimes encounters occur from out of thin air, though, which is jarring once you get used to dodging enemy patrols and seeing guards from around corners. Are the truly random encounters a holdover from before you put in visible parties of enemies? Or is it just a matter of “I want more enemy encounters but don’t have the time to add and balance patrols that cover every area of the map?”

There are three general kinds of encounters: Static, patrols, and random. Static encounters are the meat of the game (as they are in most RPGs), have the most interesting variations, story elements, and treasure, but with a few exceptions, they are – well, static. They appear in a certain location, or when a certain sequence of events occurs.

Patrols make your wandering around more interesting. They respawn, but are avoidable. If you are looking for trouble to get the last fifty experience points to level, you can go hunt down a patrol or whatever. But they are also an exception to the turn-based rule of the game, so I don’t want to overuse them.

Random encounters are really an old-school game mechanic that adds risk to actions but plays within the turn-based rule system. People tend to think of turn-based games as being “slow,” but they can actually play a lot faster than real-time. You can spam a dozen searches in a few seconds of real-time if you want, and that’s perfectly fine. You can rest and heal completely in an instant, with no cool-down period timing down until you can do it again. You can pick locks as fast as you can press the buttons, and keep trying until you get it right.

Random encounters make any of these actions risky in dangerous territory.  They are based on turns passing, whether you do nothing for three hours while you leave the game running and go out to the movies (and thus no time passes in-game), or spam turn-long searches several times a second. Or if you try to set up camp in the middle of a hall in a thickly occupied hobgoblin military barracks.

There are some tricks to it. Not all areas are created equal as far as encounters are concerned. Some areas have a lower chance of encounters happening. Also, even the random encounters do line-of-site checks from random spots around you to detect you, and if after three or four unsuccessful attempts, it skips the encounter. So be careful where you rest, and you will minimize those ugly surprises.

What lies behind the choice to gradually reduce each character’s maximum endurance as you move through each dungeon? I ask because the first dungeon in the game (which is where the game actually starts) will not allow you to leave and recover your characters’ maximum endurance to its normal levels. Which means that you have to try to limit the amount of combat you engage in so that you can complete the thing before your party becomes completely useless. (Not that the game tells you that.) In a way, it’s a pretty harsh introduction.

This is really three questions in one: The endurance mechanic, the exhaustion mechanic, and how they work together in the very first dungeon.

In Frayed Knights, most actions – particularly combat actions, active feats, and spellcasting – cost endurance. There’s no special “mana” pool for magic or anything – it all comes from your personal store of energy. Completely depleting your endurance leaves you vulnerable – your character is not only forced to rest for their next turn in combat to recover endurance, but they are more vulnerable to attacks. Endurance management is key to success in the game. It’s a constant risk / reward factor: You don’t want to blow your wad and overkill at the beginning of the fight, and nothing left over for the end. So you can manage that resource by using less tiring option, like less powerful abilities, magical items, and picking times to manually rest a turn in mid-combat.

Then there’s resource-management in-between fights – the “attrition” mechanic. In older games (particularly D&D), player characters had to take a night’s sleep to recover all spell points. In pen-and-paper games, the mechanic worked pretty well, as combats were slow to resolve and thus relatively rare. You had to be careful about spending your resources between combats, as blowing all your high-level spell slots on the cannon-fodder meant you would have to return to base early and let the bad guys build up their defenses for your return trip. Or you could try and find a safe spot to sleep in the dungeon where you’d be vulnerable. It added an extra layer of strategy and resource management to the game. The player was constantly dealing with these kinds of risk / reward decisions below the surface, and it was a lot of fun. But CRPGs are a different beast from pen-and-paper, and combat could be resolved much more quickly and thus tended to be far more plentiful, and that kind of strict “number of times per day” limitation often proved just as frustrating on one level as it was valuable on another.

But removing the mechanic entirely robs the games of a lot of interesting gameplay and flavor. You lose the surge and retreat rhythm. Players ignore expendable magic items, as there’s rarely any need to rely on them. And perhaps most significantly, it results in an endless stream of boringly similarly challenging encounters: Since there’s zero reason to not unleash on a “lesser threat” with everything you’ve got – as you’ll get it all back again thirty seconds after the fight – they are useless encounters, and should be removed.

The exhaustion system attempts to bridge that gap a little bit. There’s no hard limit on your ability to fight, but your maximum endurance degrades a tiny bit over regular exertion, requiring more than just a quick breather in the middle of a dangerous dungeon to recover. Full recovery can come from potions, drama stars, or (most commonly) finding a safe place to get a full night’s sleep – usually back at the inn. Your abilities never degrade to zero, so there’s never any point at which your party is rendered helpless, but it does exert a pressure and constant choice on the player about whether or not to keep pushing forward, and if they do if they want to burn some expendable resources to do so.

As far as that first dungeon is concerned, that is where we’re doing a lot of fine-tuning. It’s really something of a tutorial to learn to play the game, but I didn’t want it to be an inconsequential or tedious bunny slope the player has to endure to get to the “real” game. The lack of access to a safe place to sleep is supposed to encourage the player to become familiar with alternatives to running back to the inn after every couple of combats. But it’s also a stage where the player characters are the weakest and have fewer options than they’ll have at any other point in the game.

The trick is to make it challenging enough that the player must learn to take advantage of the options they do have rather than brute-forcing their way through it, but not so difficult that players get frustrated.

Let’s talk about the drama star system. For those who aren’t familiar with it, what’s the idea behind it?

It’s actually an idea that’s been popular in dice-and-paper gaming for several years. I steal from the best sources. The concept is that the player has a resource that they can use to change the story to their benefit – a little bit of “game master” power that they have as a player that isn’t really a character ability. Traditionally it’s used for things like re-rolling the dice when it really counts.

In Frayed Knights, it is also used as an alternative to save-scumming: reloading a saved game and re-playing whenever don’t go as well as you like. I should probably be a fan of save-scumming as a developer (and for that matter, limited save points) because it encourages players to re-play the game and pads out the time to completion. But I thought this would be more fun.

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Whenever interesting things happen in Frayed Knights – combat happens, certain discoveries, quest stages, combats, conversations, etc., you get a “drama point” that fills in one of three stars at the top of the screen. The stars go through bronze, silver, and gold colors. You can spend a fully-filled-in star of various types to change the game. You can give your characters a huge bonus in their next few actions, recover their health and endurance, and even bring them back from incapacitation. They are rewards for taking risks and taking action.

The trick is that they aren’t recovered in saved games – you start each play session back at zero again. So if you have a run of bad luck, or made a decision that you don’t think was best, you can certainly reload from a previous save like any other game. Or you can roll with the punches, and rely upon the build up of drama stars to help offset the additional challenge caused by accepting a sub-optimal result.

There’s an exception to the saved game rule, which is when you save-and-quit. You can continue exactly where you left off and keep your previous drama points.

Do you feel that the drama stars are effective enough? I know that you’re still balancing the game. In the build that I played, however, you begin with only one character who can reliably deal 6-10 points of damage per hit. In under 5 minutes, you start encountering groups of enemies who each deal that amount or more. The only available healing spell heals roughly 4-10 points of damage. That’s all very much in keeping with the story, in that your characters are a gaggle of desperate, incompetent underdogs. But you have to survive something on the order of 24 encounters before you have a prayer of bringing back a single incapacitated character through drama stars. I never felt like I could rely on the drama stars as a viable alternative to save scumming.

The drama star system is intended to supplement, rather than replace, your other in-game options. There’s no way they can or should – by themselves – offset the danger of a couple dozen encounters (though actually, combat rewards the player between 1 and 3 drama stars, depending upon its relative danger, so it will often be less than that, plus there’s a small drama point bonus when a character is incapacitated).

Let’s say there’s a lock that’s really hard for you to pick, and you may try eight times to pick it before succeeding. While spending time futzing with the lock for all those attempts, you ended up encountering two or three enemy groups. When you are done, the lock is picked, but you’ve used up a bunch of endurance and some potions fighting those optional encounters.

Now if you saved the game right before you started trying to pick the lock, you can just keep reloading the game until you successfully pick it, never having to fight those encounters. Or, alternatively, you can choose the “fool’s luck” ability – spending some points accumulated over the last few minutes of gameplay – and all but automatically pick the lock in a single try. Same effect. Or you could have faced the encounters, and used your existing drama points to reduce the exhaustion level of your healer(s). Again, you end up at somewhere around the same place, but you also get to keep the experience and loot that you gained from the fights.

That’s really what the drama stars are about – increasing options for people (like me) who really don’t want to play the save-scum game. It evens out the game difficulty. It gives random events or successes meaning again. So I guess that’s a roundabout way of answering your first question.

We’re still tweaking, of course, and we’ve found that players really use the drama stars in vastly different ways. Including using the weaker powers frequently so as not to interfere with lots of reloading saved games. That’s fine. I’m not trying to police the game. You bought it, you play it how you want.  I just want to provide options so players can do that.

Not that long ago, I remember reading a blog post of yours where you took issue with Greg Laidlaw’s comments on making RPGs more accessible to new players. Do you have plans to draw in people who aren’t already immersed in the culture of RPGs—and if so, how?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of having more accessible games out there. The fact that so many millions of players are out there playing computer and console RPGs and World of Warcraft leads me to one conclusion: We won. The D&D geeks of the 1970’s and 1980s were trend-setters. Booyah!

I’m just concerned that the industry is abandoning the rich potential of the genre in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. That leaves us with simple action-games with big, slickly-presented stories and some key player decisions. I don’t dislike this – I enjoy these kinds of games too. But it’s like pizza. I love pizza, but if I had it for every meal, I’d get pretty sick of it and crave something different.

Frayed Knights is not supposed to be some holy grail example of what all RPGs should be either. It’s a little bit of a backtrack into some old-school themes, and then it goes it’s own direction from there. My intent is to add some variety to the landscape. There’s a lot more to the genre that Diablo-style fighting combined with name actors doing dramatic readings!

Anyway, if somebody hates RPGs, Frayed Knights is not the game to win them over. But my hope is that the humor, characters, and story will draw interested players in and hold their attention long enough that they can come to grips with the mechanics and the more thoughtful pace of the game.

There is a lot of unrepentant niche humor in Frayed Knights. The characters talk openly about their relative Constitution and Dexterity stats, and one of the first things you encounter is a time-to-crate gag. Are you concerned about confusing people not already steeped in gaming culture?

Sure. But someone’s gotta make games and jokes for the niche, right? It may as well be me.

I’m thrilled that a few people are getting the “time to crate” joke. That’s one of the most obscure ones in there.

Most of the humor isn’t like that. I can guarantee that not all of it will hit the mark with any given player. Hopefully it won’t have to. Most of the humor comes from the situations and characters, and just a generally light touch with things that are normally treated so seriously.  Hopefully the more broadly humorous jokes and character-based comedy will appeal even if a few individual gags fall flat.

Quick! Pick the better RPG setting: high fantasy or sci fi.

My knee-jerk reaction: high fantasy. Mainly because it is has roots in a history and culture and tropes that players are more familiar with. You don’t have to spend too much time trying to explain knights and dragons and how a sword is supposed to work, and you can focus on the parts that make it unique.

That being said, I refer you to my pizza analogy above. Bring on the sci-fi RPG settings!

Who would win in a fight: Captain Kirk or a papier mache dragon?

I love the dragons, but there’s no way I’d bet against Captain Kirk. He made a friggin’ cannon out of crap he found in the middle of a desert.

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Depiction courtesy of Mr. Barnson

Thanks for your time.

Well, that’s the end of the interview! For those of you want to hear even more of what Jay has to say, here is another interview he did recently with RPGWatch.

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