Conducted By Adam Ames
James Cavin, Lars Doucet and Anthony Pecorella bring their RPG title, Defender’s Quest, to life in this detailed interview. You will read about how Defender’s Quest came to be, the struggles of indie development, their thoughts on the PC gaming industry and so much more. Here is a slice:
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
Actually, we are now launched at an open beta price of $6.99. We’ll eventually go up to $9.99 when we do the full “gold” launch with the rest of our features. The opinions we got online tended to echo this – the $5 – $20 range is about right for solid indie games I think, with the >$10 range really being for the ones that had a good-sized team and a significant budget behind them, or are just that awesome (like Gratuitous Space Battles, by one-man-wonder Cliffski).
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Defender’s Quest.
I’m a Norwegian citizen, I was born and raised in Texas, and I got my Master’s degree in Visualization Sciences (code for “Computer Graphics and Stuff”) from Texas A&M University. I live in the small town of Bryan, Texas with my amazing wife Emily, and we attend a super-tiny Russian Orthodox church there with my friend James Cavin, the game’s writer.
I’m the “lead developer” for the project, which means I wear five or six different hats and do most of the grunt work. That includes programming, pixel art, website maintenance, managing testers, talking to our lawyer, marketing, etc. Anthony handles design and balancing, and James does 99% of the writing and most of the cutscene character art.
I’m Anthony Pecorella, the lead designer for DQ. My full-time job is as the developer relations manager for Kongregate.com, so my DQ work was all nights and weekends. I was responsible for gameplay design of the characters, enemies, levels, spells, skills, etc. Basically, I sat there with giant spreadsheets and tweaked the numbers until things seemed to make sense. I also did some coding for the game, but only in a support role.
My name is James Cavin, and I wrote the story and designed the characters of Defender’s Quest! I like grape soda, weasel fights, ending sentences with exclamation points and excessive use of the word “yo”!
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I’ve been making games (especially flash games) since childhood. My professional career, however, began with “serious games,” when the Houston Advanced Research Center sponsored my Master’s Thesis developing the game Super Energy Apocalypse. That got me several more gigs in that field, and I wound up doing some contract work for various grant projects at Rice, Texas A&M, and Wake Forest Universities. This last one was for a biology game called CellCraft, which was led by Anthony Pecorella, which is how we met.
While I tinkered here and there over the years as a video game fan and a computer science major, my first broadly viewed game was a grant-funded educational game called CellCraft. I was in a design/producer role for that, and well as some of the programming. That project is how I met Lars, and when we finished it up we decided to go for our own indie project.
I’ve known Lars for ages, so I’ve pitched in here and there with some of his projects. Years ago, Lars asked me to help him with a bit of the dialogue from Super Energy Apocalypse, so that would be the very first official video game story writing I’ve done. Defender’s Quest marks the first time I’ve worked on a commercial product, so it’s pretty exciting.
Where did the idea for Defender’s Quest come from?
I think the idea had been mulling around for a while, but it got its first moment of clarify when playing a great little Flash tower defense game called “Defend Your Honor”. It attached a story to the game and the towers were characters from the story, but nothing persisted and the summoning concept seemed peripheral to the plot. Things started clicking for me, and the idea of persistent characters, tied closely to a story, within a tower defense mechanic came to life. There are other obvious influences in there, probably the largest of which is Final Fantasy Tactics.
Anthony had this great idea for an RPG with tower defense as the battle mechanic. For the story, I just created the plot and setting by trying to explain our basic mechanics: why are you defending this thing? Why doesn’t everyone just run away? How do you purchase people into existence out of thin air? Where were they before that?
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Defender’s Quest?
It’ll be hard to make too many conclusions until we’ve had it on sale for a while, so I’ll limit my answer to development stuff for now.
Everything will always take more time than you think. Always. Also, don’t leave the stylus of your drawing tablet where ferrets can get at it, because they will hide it under the sofa and you’ll have to spend an entire after noon hunting it down. On the plus side, you’ll find like 50 pairs of socks you were missing.
In its current form, how close is Defender’s Quest to your initial vision?
Pretty dang close. This doesn’t usually happen with games I develop, but in this case Anthony had a very clear vision from the start. There’s a “pitch” document Anthony e-mailed me at the start of the project outlining the basic design, and aside from a completely different story, the whole thing is very similar to what he originally outlined, point by point. It originally had 8 characters classes but we dropped two – “Protectors,” a defensive melee class, and “Paladins,” a sort of cross between a healer and a knight, who both wielded spears. The dragon was originally a “Dragon Rider” who could wield a bow and arrow, that got simplified to a normal dragon who can’t equip anything.
Lars sent an early design document from over 18 months ago to me after we launched, and I was actually quite surprised how true to the original vision we were able to be with the game. There are clearly some differences (we dropped a few character classes and got a much better story when we brought on a real writer), but it’s much closer than I expected, and then previous projects like CellCraft had been.
The setting is mostly the same, but we’ve had a good amount shuffling about with characters and motivations. Originally, I had a character called the Lord Warden of the Pit who was going to be super integral to the plot. Subsequent revisions axed his role, but I liked the name so much it comes back as a unique item.
Some 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 Defender’s Quest and if you faced a similar challenge.
This was something we took special care to address. I wrote an article devoted to this exact topic called “RPG’s, challenge, and Grinding.”
In short, our approach is to provide a wide range of challenges that lets the player make the game as hard or as easy as they want without any up-front commitments. Each level has 4 challenges – casual, normal, advanced, and extreme, each uniquely designed and with special rewards for each.
The RPG level-up system serves as a safety valve, so that if it ever gets too hard, you can grind. But, rather than just force you to play tedious random battles, the game encourages you to go back and play previous missions on harder difficulty settings, which you might be strong enough to beat now. This way, if you do have to grind, you’re still playing an interesting, uniquely designed battle that challenges you and offers a new experience.
Finally, players can adjust a global experience multiplier if they want to speed up (or slow down!) the pace of the game. We find that hard-core players generally ignore these settings, but casual players or people who just don’t have as much time appreciate the option.
This was a constant battle for us, though fortunately I had Lars as the angel on my shoulder to remind me that optimal solutions are not always obvious to new players. At the same time, tower defense is a well-known genre and plenty of players are far better than me at these games. This was a major reason for the “star system” that we implemented, which allows players to customize their difficulty curve a bit and only take on challenges that make sense for them. We added a “casual” mode that my mother very literally can play through, and “extreme” challenges that require great strategy and a wee bit of grinding, for those who like that.
Were there any unique difficulties developing Defender’s Quest to run on Mac or Linux?
A bit, yeah. First off, Defender’s Quest is built off of Adobe AIR, which is cross-platform. There were a few difficulties we had to overcome. First of all, Adobe AIR doesn’t provide any normal way to change the screen resolution, which is a pretty essential feature for a downloadable title. Fortunately, it does allow you to publish your game in a special mode that lets you call external applications, called the “NativeApp API.”
So, what we wound up doing was tracking down freely-licensed command-line utility programs for each OS that would return a list of legal screen resolutions, and also accept a resolution as input and change the screen settings accordingly. For Windows we used ResSwitch, for Linux we just used a shell script based off the Xrandr command, and for Mac we used something Anthony cobbled together for us.
This worked pretty well, though it took us a few months to iron out all the kinks. We had some other problems, too. For one, using the NativeApp API requires you to compile the game in the specific operating system you want to support. So rather than have one process compile all three builds, I had to build the game for windows, then copy the files to my Linux box and build them there, then send the files to Anthony so he could build a mac version. It’s less than ideal.
Finally, Adobe dropped AIR support for Linux. Fortunately, the version we used in the game (version 2.6) was the last supported Linux version, so it still works – Linux users just have to install the AIR runtime manually. However, it did mean that I had to set up some special scripts to get the Linux version to compile correctly. I also needed a lot of help from a Linux expert to help me get the .deb, .rpm, and .tar.gz packages set up correctly because Adobe’s AIR SDK kept screwing them up. Finally, I don’t have access to a Mac so right now Anthony has to package all the Mac updates. We’re going to get me a Mac pretty soon so I can handle all the builds and hopefully automate them.
So yeah, took a bit of work 🙂
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Defender’s Quest.
The art style is a bit cobbled together, it was designed to be produced quickly while still being “good enough.” Most of the art in the game is pixel art, with a story-book style for the cutscenes. James designed the character art in flash, and I would then re-touch it in Photoshop. The backgrounds are either simple flat-shaded drawings or filtered CC-licensed photographs from Flickr with some texture applied to make them look somewhat like paper. The art style is the most frequently criticized aspect of the game, but was the best we could do without a dedicated artist. Interestingly enough, however, a lot of people – including some of the artists we’ve approached about redoing the art – really like the current style! It’s something fans seem to be divided on – some love it, others say it’s the weakest part of the game.
The development of the art style was basically this: what can I draw? What can I draw really fast? Do that.
In a perfect world with infinite time, our cut-scenes would look like Hark! A Vagrant, Hanna is Not a Boy’s Name and The Secret of Kells all had some sort of mutant art baby that could draw amazing art. Zelemir would be voiced by Christopher Lee.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
I imagine everyone’s going to give a different answer on this one. I was the only working full-time on this project, so for me it was the uncertainty. James is a college student and Anthony has a full-time job at Kongregate. My day job is as a consultant, but for the last few months of this project I set aside my contract work and focused entirely on Defender’s Quest development. The biggest question was – am I just throwing this time away? Will I ever be paid back for all this work? My wife and I decided to give it a try, knowing that we’d been careful about saving and that we could recover and move on if it failed miserably. This was my dream, though, and we knew that this was my one big shot to make it work. If it failed, the simple economic reality would be that I’d probably never get another chance to try again.
Finding out that you are the man. (In the bad sense). This was a kind of horrific experience for me, because it’s not something you think about. You’re enthusiastic and indie and making the game you want without publishers interfering and then you stop and realize that you’ve been working 12 hour days for the last 2 weeks and you realize that you’ve been in crunch time without knowing it. And there’s no suit making you do it. You did this crap to yourself! I’m indie! I’m supposed to be immune to this!
How did you go about funding Defender’s Quest and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
We started by not quitting our day jobs.
I was working as a contractor/consultant, etc, and was working on Defender’s Quest part-time. I’d built up some savings from my contract work, but to be honest, I couldn’t have taken on this risk if my wife didn’t have a steady job with good medical benefits. My day job was good but unstable – I made great money from contracting, but had no benefits and I never knew when a client would stiff me (I’ve had two clients delay checks for months).
The benefits thing is especially important because I have several neurological disorders that require insanely expensive medication. Eventually, I took the plunge these last few months and focused exclusively on Defender’s Quest. Without the hard work, support, and trust of my wife and family, you would not be playing Defender’s Quest today.
DQ was funded out of our pockets (for the few startup costs like legal fees, incorporation, and server hosting) and with a ton of our own time.
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 Defender’s Quest and the difficulties in doing so.
I can’t really speculate as to why big budget studios don’t release PC demos, but for us a free, browser-based demo was a crucial part of our marketing strategy. Our website is designed to get you try the demo as soon as possible, and we let you export your save file for use in the full version. We’ve also started distributing our demo on the various free flash gaming platforms such as Mochi, Kongregate, Newgrounds, etc, and the response has been incredibly positive.
I’m a little surprised by the trend, though I don’t think it’s entirely accurate – demos are released fairly often on Xbox, especially for XBLA titles. At its core though, I imagine that games that are sequels, have tons of reviews, and huge marketing budgets, simply don’t need demos to push sales. People are going to buy Assassin’s Fantasy Solid 24 regardless – why would you put extra time and effort into creating a demo? Meanwhile, indie developers have to rely on word of mouth and quality of the game – what better way to show someone how great the game is by letting them play it? It’s risky, sure – if they don’t like it, they definitely won’t buy it. But as an indie developer with a fun game it’s an effective sales driver. Plus, we like demos – why wouldn’t we extend the courtesy to our players?
How important is it to get instant feedback about Defender’s Quest from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
It’s pretty important, but for the most part people e-mail us directly or leave comments on our blog. We’ll get a forum up eventually, but for now the most important thing is just responding to all the e-mails and keeping customer support response times low.
Well, we’ve spent most of the last few days just cruising the internet and responding to emails. I think it gives a great sense of satisfaction to see people enjoying the game, and it allows us to respond to criticism and bugs right away.
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’m conflicted. I used to think they were nothing but great, now I feel like they’re still great but might have some unintended consequences. First of all, I see bundles and pay what you want as two different issues. I think Pay What You Want is a good idea for those able to leverage exposure and press and it’s probably something we might try eventually with Defender’s Quest. I don’t think it’s a magic bullet, however – if you don’t generate goodwill or a personal connection with your fans, I think you won’t have too many people paying above the minimum, and if you aren’t able to leverage the traffic you won’t make much revenue. Now that the novelty is starting to wear off of Pay What You Want you’ll have to do something besides the payment model itself to attract attention. As for bundles, I think we’re experiencing “bundle fatigue” right now with the enormous glut of copycats trying to follow the Humble Indie Bundle. It’s still a cool idea, but the novelty is wearing off here too. I’ve heard a lot of indies wondering whether bundles and Pay What You Want are pushing down prices. I’m not sure about that, we’ll have to see. The hypothesis that some posit is that players won’t buy a game now because they’re waiting for it to be bundled, whereas before they were. The way I see it, selling games on the PC has taken this course over the last few years:
“I’m won’t buy PC games.”
“I’ll buy PC games, but only for Steam.”
“I’ll buy PC games, but only for Steam or on a bundle.”
That’s a bit of a straw man, of course, but what I’m trying to illustrate is that Steam and the Humble Indie Bundle work because, among other things, they provide a pleasant buying experience for the customer. I think it’s generally difficult for an Indie to make a pleasant enough buying experience to overcome the inherent friction and obscurity of being a lonely website on the internet, but I think it’s worth it to try, and it’s where we focused a lot of our efforts. So far we’ve had a modest but surprising success, without the benefit of Steam or a bundle. I don’t know to what degree our experience is reproducible, but I think there’s something of value to our case study that others can hopefully learn from and improve upon.
Well, it’s hard to argue with their results, at least for the Humble Indie Bundles. Other bundles appear to be having trouble really taking off, but the concept is interesting. Pay-what-you-want makes me a little nervous, but it can clearly be effective with the right audience and the right games. I would certainly be interested in participating, given the right venue and terms.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
AAA is doing a terrible job, period. They are focusing their efforts on people who are not their customers. If they poured all that effort into pleasing their own customers – the people actually paying for their games – I think they would see a major difference in sales. The only DRM anyone seems to tolerate these days is Steam’s, and that’s because Steam goes out of its way to provide a pleasant, customer-focused experience. When my brother bought Dragon Age II, it took him several hours just to wrangle with all the DRM verification. When a close friend who worked for EA bought a copy of Spore for me from the EA campus store, I couldn’t even run it because it thought the copy was pirated.
It is kind of sad that we can advertise “NO DRM” as a feature. It is literally the absence of something. All we have to do is nothing and we massively increase the value of our product.
It’s a Cold War problem and is a very difficult one to handle. I understand publishers wanting to protect themselves, but they seem to be taking it so far as to be tripping up legitimate buyers, which is, I think, a clear indication that you’re doing something wrong. I shouldn’t have to be online just to play Starcraft 2, in my opinion.
Opening up with no DRM is obviously scary too – I’ve seen estimates that say 90% of all copies of World of Goo are stolen. That’s a staggering number. But honestly…how many of those people would have paid for it? The free-to-play model works extremely well for MMOs and other online games, and there are parallels between that model and no DRM (and pay-what-you-want). It’s not an ideal solution, but keeping DRM from getting in the way of playing our game is a pretty high priority.
With SOPA and PIPA in the news, how do you feel about individuals posting gameplay videos of Defender’s Quest outside of official sources?
I WANT people to post gameplay videos of Defender’s Quest. I desperately want that. I want people to post as many videos as they possibly can. Why anyone would not want this is beyond me. If someone sees a Let’s Play series, I think they’d be more likely to buy our game. And even if they aren’t, I often watch LP’s myself for games I have trouble with and would want that option to be available to anyone who couldn’t play Defender’s Quest.
I don’t think this is a totally fair question, as clearly we need all the publicity and attention we can get, but obviously we’re happy to have people post gameplay videos wherever. We want to cultivate a community of fans around the game, and letting players talk about it is crucial. Gameplay videos aren’t the same as pirated movies, though even with that I do oppose the far-reaching SOPA/PIPA bills in their current form.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
It depends. At its core, it’s a digital expansion pack, and I don’t feel there’s anything wrong with expansion packs. I do, however, think it’s kind of lame to chop a complete experience up into little parts and sell each one separately. I also think it’s lame to use day-one DLC as some cheap incentive to undermine selling used copies. Other than that, I think DLC is basically fine, so long as it’s done right. Have the main game be a nice, core, monolithic experience that is complete in and of itself, and then release real expansion packs that need after-the-fact funding as DLC. For Defender’s Quest we’re giving free updates to the core game itself, and don’t have any DLC plans as of this moment, though we wouldn’t rule it out, either. If we do DLC, we would do it in a way that is clearly and obviously separate from the core game so people wouldn’t feel we were reneging on our promise of free updates.
This is a pretty broad question, as DLC comes in lots of forms on lots of platforms. One could even argue that Defender’s Quest is DLC, since you can play the demo, or pay to download the rest of the game. In general, I like DLC though – it lets fans get extra content and fund it for the game developers, and it opens up more of a pay-what-you-want system for games, essentially allowing you to price your game by how much content you want. It’s going to be a big part of games in the future and we should continue to develop and learn from the various models out there.
My general feeling is if you’re going to nickel and dime me, actually nickel and dime me. A single new skin or item would be pretty cool if it was 50 cents. If I’m going to be shelling out 5 or 10 bucks, I want something I can sink my teeth into. I would love to see more expansions – something that gives me new stuff to do and new stories to experience.
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 Defender’s Quest?
Defender’s Quest is not very mod-friendly right now, and it’s one of the free updates we’d like to implement. Right now, all the data files are packed into the game’s main binary blob, so there’s no easy way to tweak data. In a future release we’d like to “unpack” all of these into discrete data files loaded dynamically, and make it so the game can copy all the basic data files to a new folder, and you can switch between data folders when you start the game, effectively adding data-driven mod support. That way, players could swap out the art, write new dialog, design their own character classes, levels, overworlds, etc. We make no promises for full-fledged modding tools beyond just messing with the data, but this is where we’d like to be. This would also have the advantage of giving us a framework for localizing the game for different languages and cultures.
I think it’s hard to argue that an active community of people playing and tweaking your game is in any way bad for you. We didn’t create DQ in a way that could be easily modded, but I’d like to think we’d be supporting of any community that built around it. Games are there to be enjoyed, and if that’s how you enjoy it, why should we stop you?
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Well, I think it’s a little early at this point, as I’m not sure if we’ve “broken in” or not. But in general the biggest thing is probably find a team or partner that you like and can work with, and make sure your skills complement each other. Then, make a game you would love to play, show it to people (and not just family/friends!), tweak it a bit, and then launch it. I don’t have any secret formula at this point, as we’re still learning it all ourselves!
I have to agree with Anthony that I’m not sure we’ve “broken in” just yet, but here are some things I feel might be good ideas, and are specific to my experience:
- 1. Do NOT quit your day job!
- 2. If you don’t have a day job, consider getting one.
- Learn some practical skills, like programming, or art.
- Try not to rack up a lot of debt in an expensive school program if you haven’t already.
- Make sure you have a record of finishing games before even thinking about making money.
- Decide why you’re doing this. If you’re in it for the money I would advise you to seek a new career.
- Read about development! Gamasutra.com and Gamedev.net are great places to start.
- Look for successful case studies and analyze them.
- If you’re putting in a lot of hours, don’t skimp on ergonomic equipment – crippling injuries are more expensive than a good chair, keyboard, wrist braces, etc, by far.
- Learn how to recognize a bad deal and learn to say “no”
- Learn enough about the law to not get totally screwed
- Learn how to read and negotiate contracts.
- Be nice to people! It really helps. Even if they don’t start by being nice to you.
- Don’t be afraid to cold-contact people you don’t know. Just be polite and get to the point.
- Don’t be afraid to take contract gigs – almost every successful Indie I know got their start that way or are currently using it to supplement their indie work.
- Know what you’re worth. Find out what the going rate for your skills are and price them accordingly when you take contracts. Most talented up-and-comers undersell themselves.
- Don’t pin all your hopes and dreams on making it is an Indie. Have a fallback plan. If Defender’s Quest doesn’t succeed, I won’t go bankrupt, and I have other work I can start doing in short order.
Remember to eat. …yo. -End
TPG would like to send a big thanks to James, Anthony and Lars for their entertaining and informative answers. You can grab Defender’s Quest or download the demo first via the official site.
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