Conducted By Adam Ames
TPG got the chance to interview Jay Barnson, head honcho at Rampant Games, developers of the unique RPG indie title, Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon. Jay speaks about his life as an indie developer, his thoughts on the PC gaming industry and how Frayed Knights The Skull of S’makh-Daon became a reality.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon.
I’m Jay Barnson, the designer and principle developer for Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon. I’m something of a refugee from the mainstream games industry, now making indie games part-time. By day, I make crane simulators, which is often more fun than a couple of jobs I had in the games biz. I also run Rampant Games, and post way too often on the indie gaming blog Tales of the Rampant Coyote.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I’m an old-school gamer – I learned to program in BASIC on my first computer, a Sinclair ZX80 with 1K of RAM. I spent much of my teen years playing and developing games for the Commodore 64. I couldn’t afford many games, so I’d try to re-create the ones I’d played in the arcades or read about in magazines myself. And I was a D&D player who couldn’t get friends together often enough to play, so I’d try to turn the computer into my private Dungeon Master. I ended up with a lot of half-written projects that way. I learned to program so I could write games.
At the time, my parents were thrilled I was learning a marketable skill that I could use professionally. Little did they know what dastardly uses I would put it to!
So right out of college, I managed to get a game programming job, making games for the Sony Playstation. I was originally brought in to handle the PC ports of our first games – Twisted Metal and Warhawk – as I was a PC gamer at heart. My first day at the company, I talked to the VP of development and asked him about what their plans were for the port, target hardware, and so forth. He looked at me and said, “We were hoping you’d tell us.”
They ended up using me for AI and game logic instead, bringing in two more guys to handle the PC ports, so I didn’t end up working too much on the PC for the initial games.
Anyway, when I went indie, making games for the PC was a no-brainer. While the variety of configurations you have to support can make parts of development a nightmare, the PC is the most open system that there is… and hopefully it will remain so, no matter what Microsoft tries to do in the future with locking down their operating system. And personally, I’m more at home gaming on my desktop. Maybe I’m an old-school dinosaur that way, but that’s how I’m wired.
Where did the idea for Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon come from?
I’ve always wanted to make RPGs. So I finally got my chance, and while I had dreams and ambitions for these big, genre-redefining masterpieces, I realized that I needed something of a remedial course on RPG-making. Years of game programming and playing pen-and-paper RPGs is not enough to provide the skills necessary.
So I thought I would start “small,” (HAH!) and focus on re-creating the kind of old-school RPGs I loved from the 80’s and 90’s, but with some cool twists and a sense of humor too often devoid in modern games. I thought about what was missing in the old first-person, party-based dungeon crawlers, and I thought that too often your party felt like a collection of stats rather than actual characters. So I mixed the humor and personality together and had a vision of these party members offering snarky commentary and ‘table-talk” during your adventures. And Frayed Knights was born. As it turns out, the project grew to be a lot larger than I’d anticipated.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon?
Let’s see… Even though I knew making an RPG would be hard, it was more challenging that I’d imagined, especially starting from scratch without a supporting rules system and tools. I learned that even these old classics weren’t really all that simple. By some measures, the classics of the early 90s were more sophisticated than many modern RPGs. There was a lot going on under the hood. So while I thought Frayed Knights was going to be a “quick” project I could create and learn from within a couple of years of part-time effort, I was mistaken.
Unless you are an expert at it – and I’m not – when you think your scope is small enough, it’s still too big, probably by at least double.
I also learned the value of getting feedback early, especially when experimenting. I launched a “pilot” episode of the game a long time ago, which had all kinds of horrible problems with it (and I wish I could remove it completely, but the Internet never forgets), but the feedback I got from it was invaluable.
In its current form, how close is Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon to your initial vision?
The game in my mind always had multi-million dollar art, a lot more special effects, and Christina Hendricks as Chloe. But those aside, I think it came pretty close – which kinda surprises me, to be honest. It took a lot of effort to get combat and the Drama Star aspects to work the way I’d intended them to, and while they are still not “perfect” by any stretch, I feel pretty good about where they landed.
I originally planned a “larger” game, but I thought would be a lot smaller. What I mean is… I had three acts (The Skull of S’makh-Daon is the first) which I thought might only take 5-6 hours each to play through. I fortunately realized that I’d been grossly off in my calculations (both in how much work was involved, and how much gameplay a single act actually represented), and that I was really risking a lot on a single “mega” project that might be a colossal failure. So I broke the game down into smaller, indie-sized chunks. That was totally the right move, but I had to make a lot of story changes to make sure each game had a self-contained, stand-alone story. There were a few quest changes, but not too many quests spanned acts.
But really, while some details are different, overall the game came out a lot like I’d imagined it.
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 Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon and if you faced a similar challenge.
The trick with RPGs – well, the kind I like and like to make, anyway – is that there are a whole bunch of little systems that are all interconnected. This makes for fascinating gameplay, but it can be really tricky to get the difficulty and challenge level right. During the beta we had something as simple as a tweak to the enemy AI that suddenly ratcheted the overall difficulty up considerably. The price and availability of spellstones had even more impact on the game.
What I do like about RPGs is that it’s possible for the player to regulate their own difficulty level. If a section is getting too hard, the player can potentially back off, do a side-quest, do a little grinding to gain a new level and some money for extra equipment, and then try again stronger and better equipped than they were before.
That’s really the approach I tried to take in Frayed Knights. The game doesn’t demand that you be max level or have the best equipment to win. If you are trying to rush to the end, it’ll be more challenging. If you want to take a little more time, hit all the subquests, and so forth, the end game will be a lot more relaxed. At least that’s the theory.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon would run on the various PC system configurations?
Tons. I’m running an older engine, which was effectively retired when Windows XP was still king, and it was officially retired before Windows 7. And I’ve been working on Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon so long that a lot of things have changed since I started, like the popularity of wide-screen monitors, and the appearance of netbooks with small native displays that are otherwise powerful enough to run the game. And then there are joys like the Vista UAC…
So there are a lot of challenges accommodating a wide spectrum of platforms, and because of its age the engine wasn’t always a great help. The PC is a moving target, and we’re still getting the occasional report of hardware that for some reason or another just doesn’t “like” Frayed Knights. I can see why there’s a temptation to move more towards browser-based games (using HTML 5, Flash, Unity, whatever) to use that as a “virtual console.” It’s extremely frustrating to a player when a game just doesn’t work right on their hardware, and it’s no less frustrating to the developer.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Getting noticed. The modern gamer is simply deluged with games, and overwhelmed with marketing. The indie’s target audience is usually spread out across the Internet (and beyond…) It’s very hard to get any kind of attention at all. Even if your game is spectacular, there’s a good chance nobody will notice.
How did you create funding for the development of Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon and did you receive emotional support from your family and friends during this time?
I’ve got a full-time job. I’ve been funding it out of my own pocket. I’m hoping it sells pretty well, because I have one daughter approaching college age and that out-of-pocket money’s gonna have to go somewhere else. I also sell other games as an affiliate on my site, RampantGames.com. It doesn’t bring in much, but it does help cover some expenses.
My family has been incredibly supportive. I basically work two jobs, and they have made a lot of concessions to that. My daughter was even able to lend her artistic skills to the game on a couple of models, though her usual style is very different from what I had in Frayed Knights.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon.
We used a lot of different contractors and off-the-shelf licensed content for The Skull of S’makh-Daon, and while we did a lot to try to unify all these different styles, but the results weren’t as consistent as I would like. Hopefully for the next game we’ll have that down a little better.
As for the level design, I’m much happier with the results. The dungeons in Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon are really unique, and I’m thrilled with how they turned out. We took some of the basic concepts from old-school pen-and-paper gaming and classic CRPGs, but we couldn’t really stop there. Those dungeons were very… flat. Since we’re running in full 3D, we worked hard to take advantage of the vertical element, both in style and gameplay. I think we – and I’m talking about myself and my two level-builders – came up with some really interesting levels. One is a vertical shaft with a descending walkway along the walls. Another was our own twist on the minotaur maze, where we didn’t really want it to be too maze-like, because mazes are tedious.
We tried to have each dungeon have some “signature” encounters and / or visual centerpieces, and overall I think they worked out very well. For each of these locations, we tried to create two stories, where applicable: The original story of how this place came to be, and then the current story of its current purpose. The whole back-story isn’t necessarily showed to the player, but it comes through in some of the visuals, the layout, encounters, descriptions, and secrets.
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?
We’re still working with the distribution channels right now, so I can’t really speak to that too well. But the pricing issue was a tough one. The “standard price” for an indie PC game has been dropping, but that normally reflects a much simpler game than an RPG. There’s also a huge gap between the potential sales numbers of getting on a major distributor, and not. We’re talking an order of magnitude or more.
That’s part of what’s causing a lot of turmoil on pricing, and on the style of games being released by indies. It really encourages highly polished but very simple games, often with stylized graphics (The 8-bit look is suddenly in vogue again!). But this means that the poor consumer is getting confused signals on pricing – a $5 game could be far superior to a $20 game, or it might be utter crap. The graphics don’t give good signals either – I’ve seen some Unreal III based games that really just sucked, and some games that looked like they were direct ports from a Commodore 64 that entertained me for hours. And it’s worse for developers. You cut your price in half, and you get only a 25% increase in sales. You increase your price by 10%, and you might also get a 25% increase in sales. It’s just that insane.
Tell us about the process of submitting Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
There’s really no unified process. There are a lot of distribution platforms out there – it’s getting a lot like it was in the days of the casual game portals last decade. A lot of them are going to die out, but right now it’s another gold rush as they as new ones pop up almost weekly, with a slightly different approach, different features, and a different niche.
The big ones – and we all know who those are – they are pretty selective with their games, and reject more games than they accept. There’s a common misconception among gamers, who assume these are open platforms and that anybody can just “sell their game on X.” It doesn’t work that way. I can’t just sell my game on X any more than I can just walk into Wal*Mart with a stack of CD-ROMs under my arm and set up shop there.
While I think these distribution channels are great, I do worry about indies trusting their business to a third-party who has no vested interest in them personally. This is exactly what happened to casual games just a few years ago, and while it was a wonderful gold rush at first, a lot of developers found themselves at the mercy of the portals and their businesses collapsing. Indies in general don’t do what they do for dreams of huge fortunes, but they still have to eat like everybody else.
13. How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
As a whole – it’s awesome. It’s the way things ought to be. I really like it more as a direct relationship between the game-makers and the gamers, without the middlemen in the way, but the way it has been evolving it could end up being the best of both worlds. The distributors are non-exclusive, acting more as storefronts than publishers, leaving a lot of freedom to the developer that was traditionally denied to them in the old publisher model.
These are fantastic days to be a gamer and a game developer!
For the most part, big budget studios no longer release PC demos while almost every indie developer does. Why do you think this trend is occurring? Tell us why released a demo for Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon and the difficulties in doing so.
Below a certain price point, you don’t get demos of indie games too often. At $5 or below, it’s very rare. That’s an impulse buy point, I guess, and if the game sucks or doesn’t work well on your machine, big deal! I think that maybe one reason demos are becoming scarce for big-budget games is that these games have become so much shorter now than they were ten years ago. You give away a big, chunky demo, and you’ve given away a quarter of your game! Plus, so many mainstream games are sequels now that you pretty much know what you are getting based on the name alone.
But in-between, you get demos. They are a challenge. They are basically your automated sales force as an indie, your argument as to why your game is worth shelling out their hard-earned cash for. There’s an art to it, and I don’t know that I’m an expert at it. The demo for Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon wasn’t too big of a problem for me because we’d planned for it from the very beginning. We’d done the pilot, and we knew that the first dungeon would be how people were going to meet the game.
My favorite part of the Frayed Knights demo is when the characters deliver something of an off-beat sales pitch. If you aren’t too quick to end the game, they will go on for several minutes talking amongst themselves and throwing around hints that they’d really like you to buy the full version.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
As an indie, it’s your lifeblood! Maybe I’m just lucky and have the best customers and community out there, but I don’t think I’m that unique. But it’s great to be able to not only get that immediate feedback, but also to get a two-way communication going with the players. All through development, even, I’d post ideas and thoughts on a blog, and players would respond, ask questions, and sometimes point out problems that I’d miss. This doesn’t scale well for big studios with hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of players, but this is extremely advantageous for an indie!
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon professionally?
It really depends. As we’re not a big company or big game with a lot of hype and marketing money to throw around, the reviewers that cover our game generally do so because they want to … they understand the genre, and get what we’re trying to do. We don’t have people who’d rather be playing the latest Call of Duty resenting the time they are spending with a quirky turn-based RPG. The latter’s opinion isn’t really representative of my audience. The former, though – insofar as they represent my target audience, their opinions hold a lot more weight with me.
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 don’t think they are a model for how all games should be distributed or anything, but they are still novel enough and cool enough that they can do pretty well. Some do very well, some haven’t done as great, but in principle I’m a fan. They expose a lot of people to some really weird and interesting indie games they’d otherwise have missed, and in some cases they manage to help out charity as well. What’s not to love? I don’t know if I feel confident enough to launch a game through something like that, but I’d love to participate in one.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Piracy is a huge problem, no matter how some people will try to hand-wave it away. No, the crazy piracy rates would not magically convert into sales if piracy were suddenly eliminated. But the reason we’re seeing these despicable, intrusive DRM schemes and a move to online-only games is because the number don’t lie: As you do make piracy more challenging, sales jump. It only takes a tiny fraction of the pirates going legit to make a huge impact in sales.
I think any form of DRM (or as we called it in the old days, “copy protection”) should really just serve to keep the honest people honest and be as pain-free as possible. I play a lot of retro games, and it disturbs me to realize that many of the top games today I won’t be able to play ten years from now because of the draconian DRM… unless I find a crack or pirated version for the game I legitimately bought! What’s up with that? Basically the pirates are providing a superior product than the game makers. That makes no kind of sense.
I wish I knew the answer. I really do. But if this escalation continues, it’s the games and game fans who are going to be hurt. They already are.
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 posting gameplay videos of Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon?
See my answer about what the hardest thing about being an indie. I love the idea of people sharing their experiences with my game! More, please!
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
I’ve got mixed emotions. Before the digital distribution revolution – if you want to call it that – I loved expansion packs. They allowed me to enjoy more of my favorite games for a reduced price. The theory of DLC is the same… except it can be even cheaper, paying for content in a more piecemeal fashion. Awesome!
I think a lot of gamers are now suspicious of developers and publishers deliberately stripping out content that should have been included with the original game and holding it back as DLC. We don’t want to pay extra to get what would have been a “complete” game a few years ago. And then there’s the overpriced content. There are some actions and attitudes from the mainstream industry that add to that suspicion, and that poisons what should otherwise be a thing.
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 if mods were created for Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon?
If the modders are respectful of the copyrights and IP rights of the game producers, this is a great thing, and one of the strengths of PC gaming in particular. More power to the modders!
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Make games! Make finished games! Get them out there in front of an audience any way you can! Then repeat and refine. Most other advice you’ll get is going to be a variation on or specifics about this basic process. -End
TPG would like to thank Jay and everyone at Rampant Games for their dedication to the RPG genre and independent development. You can pick up Frayed Knights via the official site.
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