Conducted by Adam Ames
TPG was given the great opportunity to interview Jeff Vogel founder of Spiderweb Software and developer of the smash RPG hit, Avadon: The Black Fortress. Jeff also speaks on DRM, piracy, digital distribution, lack of PC demos, life as an indie dev and much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Avadon: The Black Fortress.
I am founder and president of Spiderweb Software, a 3-person company based in Seattle and founded in 1994. We’ve spend all these years making the best Indie, old-school RPGs we can for Windows, Mac, and iPad.
I am the main programmer and designer for Spiderweb. Others handle the art and business stuff. I figure out the game part.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I was studying applied math in graduate school and hating it. Really, really hating it. At that time, I got a brand, new, shiny PowerMac and decided to take time off and do something I always wanted to do: Write a full-length fantasy RPG. I started it in the summer of 1994 and released it in January, 1995. And, for some reason, people bought it. I quit grad school not long after that.
Where did the idea for Avadon: The Black Fortress come from?
A Hungarian opera called Bluebeard’s Castle. Really. It’s an opera about this shadowy, powerful, somewhat sinister guy who lives in this castle with doorways in it to faraway lands. You know he’s really dangerous and influential, but you never really learn why. I found it to be very intriguing. That little seed grew into Avadon.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Avadon: The Black Fortress?
The big success in Avadon is the extra level of graphical polish we put into it, more than in earlier games. I put more money and work into the art (and received a ton of fantastic advice from Ben Resnick, one of our freelancers), and it gave it that extra shine that drew a lot more attention.
The biggest failure in Avadon is not polishing it even more. I’ll work harder on that for Avadon 2. Also, the demo is a bit too plain and dry. The game really picks up after the demo. I promise!
In its current form, how close is Avadon: The Black Fortress to your initial vision?
Surprisingly so. I mean, there are always compromises, and these things always fall short of the glorious image you have in your head. But the complexity of the strategy, the crazy fun of the encounters, the twists in the plot, they are ended up in there to some degree. I am genuinely proud of this game.
Also, my wife actually played the whole thing, so there’s some satisfaction in that.
Some indie devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Avadon: The Black Fortress and if you faced a similar challenge.
I was determined to make Avadon accessible to someone new to role-playing games. This is really important to me, as the genre need to draw new fans. At Normal difficulty, it’s not a tough game. This was our goal from day 1. But if you are an experienced gamer, I strongly suggest starting out on Hard or Torment difficulty.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Avadon: The Black Fortress would run on the various PC system configurations?
There always are. PCs can be tricky to develop for. But it wasn’t too bad. Our games are fairly simple, technically. If a graphics card can handle basic OpenGL, it’ll be fine. And, if not, we have on our web site a DirectX version, just in case.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Finishing the game. I know that sounds like a glib answer, but really, finishing a game and polishing it enough to be playable and sellable is a rough road. I spend a lot of long days and sleepless nights. There’s always another job to do, always something you should be doing better.
Tell us about the process of submitting Avadon: The Black Fortress to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
Well, it’s a low-budget turn based RPG. Not the most popular style and not the biggest genre. However, we have the tenacity of the cockroach and the help of a really good marketing guy. Some distributors rolled their eyes and told us to go away, but others were kind enough to give us a shot. I don’t hesitate to say how grateful I am to Steam for giving us a chance.
How much pull do you have when setting sale and regular pricing through digital distribution channels? Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
Due to antitrust laws, I am not allowed to dictate prices to distributors. I make suggestions, and then they decide the actual price. But, in general, they ask a suggestion, I give it, and they take it. As for research, there’s not a lot. In the Indie space, most of the people who do similar things tend to copy each others’ prices. There’s no sinister collusion or secret meetings or anything.
How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
Like it’s this gigantic, unbelievable, rushing river of money and Indie developers, if they’re good, are allowed to dip their toes in it. In other words, it’s totally awesome.
Remember, I started out in 1994, the dark days of shareware, when I got modest chunks of money hawking my wares on AOL and CompuServe. To my eyes, we are in a glowing, golden age.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Avadon: The Black Fortress.
There’s not much music, and, for level design, I tried to just pack as much interesting stuff in there as I could. Our art style is kind of a hodgepodge, to tell the truth. We tend to reuse a lot of assets. If I have a nice graphic of a wolf, I figure, why redo it the next game just for the sake of redoing it. That has resulting in a sort of odd look for our games, something I plan to work on fixing in the future.
For the most part, big budget studios no longer release PC demos while almost ever indie developer does. Why do you think this trend is occurring? Tell us why released a demo for Avadon: The Black Fortress and the difficulties in doing so.
I suspect the lack of PC demos is related to the general lack of interest in the PC at all. It’s a shame, but it’s there funeral. I think, if you want to sell a game for more than a few bucks, demos are vital. I’ve always had demos, and I will continue to whenever I can. It’s how you build trust with a customer.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Avadon: The Black Fortress from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Not a lot, to tell the truth. I tend to avoid forums. They are often a cacophony of voices, and they leave me more confused and stressed than enlightened. If you want me to see your opinion and really read and think about it, e-mail is the way to go.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Avadon: The Black Fortress professionally?
I think they are interesting, but the criticisms are often things I can’t do anything about. For example, I write low budget games. I can’t afford to fight against AAA titles, so I don’t try. It is entirely, 100% fair to point this out and criticize me based on it. But it’s not something I can change.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
I think it’s pretty awesome, though, to be honest, not that revolutionary. Companies have been bundling lots of older games for cheap for years and years. But Indies are making money doing it, and that’s terrific. If the Humble Indie Bundle came knocking on my door, of course I would say yes.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I think they’re doing their best to scare their customers away. And succeeding. Trying to stop piracy is like trying to stop wind.
Bill S.978 was introduced to the Untied States Senate earlier this year which could make it illegal to post unauthorized copyrighted content on YouTube and other video sharing sites. How do you feel about individuals outside of Spiderweb Software posting gameplay videos of Avadon: The Black Fortress?
Like it’s awesome! Please keep doing it!
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
DLC is a neat idea, I suppose, though I’ve rarely felt happy with DLC I’ve bought. It always feels like a pale shadow of the game it’s expanding. But I’m sure that’s just me.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk about modding of PC games and the relationship developers have with modders. How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically mods created for Avadon: The Black Fortress?
I think it’s terrific. The ability to do that is one of the great advantages of the PC, and we should play to that advantage. I don’t provide specific modding tools for my games, but I’m happy when people do make mods.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Remember how difficult it is to make a game that people will actually pay for. Don’t give up. Get enough sleep. And invest in a chair with proper back support. -End
We would like to thank Jeff for his detailed and informative outlook on the PC gaming industry. You can pick up Avadon: The Black Fortress via Steam.