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Asking manly and entirely non-Freudian questions of Vince D. Weller (part 3)
Posted By Pavlos - 05/08/08

As ever: the discussion is here

The final part in our trilogy of blockbuster interviews - the site had a record seven readers - with Mr. Vince D. Weller, of indie developer Iron Tower Studio, has arrived.

If you haven't already then grab part one here and part two here.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did making it.

Yes, part three is much longer than all of the other parts. No, I can't split things up properly.

* * * *

What can't I remove from AoD without it ceasing to be AoD?. Is there a Welleresque style or school of game design just as there is a Pinteresque play, or a Dickensian novel? Or indeed, dare I say it, an Avelloneian game -- he's perhaps most obviously recognised by his habit, liked or otherwise, of ending an act with a large, sprawling dialogue, rather than your typical boss battle.

Hmm... never thought of that, but if I have to name elements that are important to me, elements that would be carried to other games - assuming, of course, that AoD sells something and there would be other Iron Tower games, then I'd go with:

I can honestly say that I won't be interested in making a game that doesn't have all these elements. To answer the "what can't I remove...." question, I'd say "strong non-combat gameplay".

What advantages does turn-based combat bring to the table that real-time does not? There must be a reason for deciding to go against the trend set by the mainstream. Unless, of course, you’re the developer equivalent of the man who likes to record all of his CDs on to audio cassettes because he likes the scratchy noise they make.

I couldn't care less about what the mainstream likes or doesn't like. Mainstream? **** 'em. The game is turn-based because we are fans of turn-based games and like this particular gameplay. What it brings to the table? I've answered that question quite a few times, so I hope you'll forgive me if I copy-paste from the infamous Rock, Paper, Shotgun interview:

So, if tactical chess-like combat filled with “what happens if I do A vs what happens if I do B vs. …” decisions sounds like fun to you, then you won’t find TB odd or slow. If you prefer non-stop, mindless by definition, action requiring nothing but manual dexterity and fast reaction, then RT is your friend.

Most people see turns as a some kind of relic from the days long gone, a throwback to the old days when electricity wasn’t invented yet and computers were powered by candle light. Some morons even compare turns to a pause, but we shall blame the education system for that.

The main difference between turns and pauses, so brilliantly illustrated by XCOM, is that when your turn is over, someone else’s turn starts, and if you didn’t prepare for that, well, mostly likely you are dead and it’s “game over” for you. In RT it’s perfectly acceptable to run toward a door, open it, hit pause, review the situation, pick targets and start kicking ass in an unbelievable but visually pleasing fashion. In XCOM if you open a door when your turn ends, and a hostile character is in the room, you are dead. What you may see as a flaw is actually a quick test of your tactics employed during your turn. If you fail, your character dies. You need to carefully plan your actions and then you’ll have a chance to beat games like XCOM or Jagged Alliance. Only a chance. I played XCOM for 6 months on my first playthrough. I beat Heavenly Sword in a few days. It’s an amazing looking game, but it doesn’t require much brainpower. If you can hold a controller, you can play and beat the game. See the difference?
First published: Rock, Paper, Shotgun, 2008

One thing that interests me about the idea of player choice, and the way in which you’re presenting it, is whether or not they have the opportunity to completely snooker themselves. I'm not talking about the player’s progress being blocked (although, your thoughts on this would be welcome, of course) but about the player ticking so many people off and ruining so many relationships that the consequence is that there is no choice left for them. They only have one direction they can go in.

It seems like the ultimate consequence, especially in a game with such an abundance of choice, to lose choice altogether. Smacks of divine retribution for you force Sir Gavin the +10 Points to Good to murder his benevolent and wise King because he’s been a bit of an idiot. Or does railroading, even in this manner, violate your design philosophy?

Not really. It's possible, of course, to piss everyone off and become public enemy #1, hunted by all. I think that's a plus because that was your choice. I, the developer, didn't interfere and make you an outcast for extra drama, you did. If that's what you like, enjoy it. You'll still be able to beat the game, but it will be very hard, what with being hunted by everyone and all.

It's not an emergent game. It's a carefully designed game, so I'm well aware of every choice you can make and where it leads to. There are no dead ends. If you think that you are stuck, go through your available options and you will find a way out. Some things can be insanely difficult, but you'll have yourself to blame for that.

* * * *

So, what's the creative process like for you? How did you manage to come up with all of this?

I start somewhere (could be any point of the game, even the endings) and then sort through the possibilities that could either lead to this event or could be created by it. Then I pick what fits the most and creates the most interesting scenarios. Sometimes it comes easy, sometimes I have to play with concepts for weeks until something really good comes to mind.

* * * *

The playable character and what motivates him is a unique and ever-present issue for RPG development. You can make him a part of your universe, giving him friends, memories, a family and while it can help solve the problem of motivation it surely violates the agency of the player; indeed, it voids all later development of that character. Equally so, the tabula rasa playable character makes the player wonder, "Why am I doing this again?" What is your approach to this problem?

Well, it takes two to tango. The player is expected to buy into the story and go along with it. The developer is expected to respect the player and spare him the pain of "You are an emo kid with an attitude who won't rest until his beloved kingdom of Animia is freed from some emo evil".

I think that Fallout nailed it perfectly. Your character draws the short straw and is sent to look for a water chip in the wasteland. That setup covers different motivations, interests, and reasons. You may want to find a water chip because you want to get back to the safety of the vault. Or maybe you are glad to get out of the claustrophobic vault and want to explore the new world and see what it has to offer.

AoD's main quest revolves around locating an ancient temple. Obviously if the player says the he/she doesn't care about some temple and would like to settle down and open a bakery instead, then there is nothing we can do to help. Providing artificial motivations like "you father, whom you love oh so dearly, went to look for this temple and you won't rest until you find your dad" is kinda lame, so we help the player to find an object (a map) that will sooner or later lead him/her to one of the three different parties that are interested in that temple for very different reasons. Counting your character's natural curiosity (we do our best to interest the player (and thus the character) in the temple), that's 4 different reasons to get involved in the story.

So, essentially: You come up with the story and the hook (in this case, it would be the map and the temple it leads to) the player supplies his own motivation?

Not exactly. We provide motivations within the story. Since it looks like I have to be specific: You acquire a map leading to an ancient, pre-war temple. The temple is associated with a deity who was known as The Artificer and whose name was associated with many clever gadgets and engines of war. Then we have three different main factions. One wants to seal the temple to prevent the other two factions from increasing their power. Another faction wants to change the balance of power and needs to get their hands on one of the fabled engines of war that the temple might still have. The last faction represents religious fanaticism; they want to restore the deity and start a new era. So, these are the different reasons and motivations that will be offered to your character. If you accept the setting and the story, it won't be hard to find your character's place in it and find reasons that fit your character.

* * * *

What would you say is the place of the video game as an art form? By the same token: What would mark a video game as something other than an extension of literature, if it can be called that at all?

No idea. Let's leave deep philosophical questions like that for people who truly care about whether or not games are art and ready to argue to death about it.

I care but, then again, I’m an English Literature student so that makes me a bit odd…

The way I see it video games are a mix of interactive movies, comics, and books. The ratio is different for each game, obviously.

Is AoD more of a film, a comic, or a book?

A book.

How so?

It has, like, words and stuff. Lots and lots of words.

* * * *

Placing limitations on people often seems to drive creativity. If I gave you an area which consists of a single room, a small one at that, and told you to make an RPG out of it, what would you create?

Survival RPG. Kind of like the Count of Monte Cristo who spent the first half of the book in a small jail cell. The goal is to escape. You can communicate with prisoners in the surrounding cells via the Morse code, and you can also chat with guards and the warden, manipulating them if you can. I don't think it would be a challenge to make an interesting game out of this concept.

Thank you for joining us, Mr. Weller, and I wish you luck in this and in Iron Tower's future projects

* * * *

Thanks for reading, folks, and if you like this sort of thing then do tell and we'll try to organise more of these things with other developers.

- Pavlos

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

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