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Interview with Gearhead creator Joseph Hewitt

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Interview with Gearhead creator Joseph Hewitt

Interview - posted by Spazmo on Sun 6 June 2004, 15:44:17

Tags: Gearhead; Joseph Hewitt

1. Tell us about yourself. Have you made any other games? Do you work alone? Are you currently working on any projects aside from Gearhead?

My name is Joseph Hewitt. I'm an English teacher from Newfoundland, Canada currently living in Ulsan, South Korea. I have a BA in Dramatic Literature from Memorial University, but before that I studied math for two years at the University of Waterloo. I enjoy math and computers but decided that it wasn't really what I wanted to spend my life doing.

Other games that I've developed include "Realm of Sendai" for the Amiga and "DeadCold" for Windows. Neither of those were finished, unfortunately.

2. Sum up Gearhead in brief. What's the game about? How does it play?

A century and a half ago the Earth was nearly destroyed by nuclear war. Now, a federation of free city-states has begun to restore civilization. However, there are forces operating in the darkness which will unleash the horrors of the past age in a bid to determine the future of the human race.

Features of the game include random storyline generation, richly detailed character generation, complex NPC interaction, and of course over 150 different mechanical designs ranging from jet fighters to giant robots to city-smashing tanks. GearHead is written in FreePascal and is open source. It compiles for both Windows and Linux; other platforms have not yet been tested.

3. Give us a quick behind the scenes look at roguelike development. How long ago did you start working on Gearhead? Did you just decide one day to write up a giant robot game and start coding?

I've always wanted to write a giant robot CRPG because I've always wanted to play one. I'm a big fan of pen-and-paper mecha RPGs such as Mekton, Jovian Chronicles, and Mechwarrior. There are plenty of mecha computer games out there, but most are either FPS or RTS.

I made two previous attempts at a mecha RPG while in university. Work on the current incarnation of GearHead started in 2001.

4. Obviously, when developing a roguelike, there probably won't be a major boxed release sitting on store shelves throughout the world. What challenges have you encountered because of the small nature of your operation? Conversely, what advantages do you think an indie project brings?

The big challenge is that I have to do all the work myself. At least, I had to in the beginning. These days GearHead is starting to attract fans and I've been getting more and more help from others.

It's difficult to stay committed to an independent project long enough so that you can start attracting fans, and thereby start attracting help. This is especially true if, like me, you're highly motivated by feedback.

The big advantage to working on an independent project is that I can do whatever I like. I started writing this game because it was something I wanted to play. That's still the driving reason behind development.

5. What led you to develop a giant robot game? What other games inspired you to make Gearhead?

I was led to develop a giant robot game because I've had a lifelong obsession with giant robots. The games that inspired me include ADOM, MechFight, Fallout, Flames of Freedom, Porto Estado, and Virtual Reality Whack-A-Mole.

6. What are your immediate plans for Gearhead? What kind of upgrades and changes do you plan to make?

The game is mostly complete. Now I have to polish it. The next release will feature permanent PC injuries, which is as close to roguelike permadeath as I plan to get. I also need to add mouse control for the SDL version since many people find the keyboard interface difficult to use. After that, there shouldn't be many more big changes up to v1.0.

7. What are your long term plans for Gearhead? Are you just going to keep releasing updates until the sun (or you) burns out or are there any plans for a sequel or other major overhaul?

When version 1.01 is finally released, I'm going to take a small vacation from GearHead. I want to work on some other projects. Among the projects I've been thinking about are a superheroes RPG, a party-based fantasy RPG, an Illuminatus-type world domination game, a GearHead prequel, and a rewrite of DeadCold.

Later on I'll start work on GearHead-2. The sequel will be set 20 years after the end of the first game, will feature a much-improved random story generator, and may or may not be first-person 3D.

8. Tell us about the setting and story of Gearhead. Is it like traditional roguelikes such as NetHack insofar that it's just a large "dungeon" or does Gearhead sport a full cast of characters and interesting places to put them in?

I've tried to make the game world as interesting as I can. GearHead features a number of different cities, and hundreds of different NPCs. Conversations are resolved with a menu system similar to that used in many other CRPGs. There are twelve different factions of which the PC can join seven. As a campaign progresses, the PC will make a number of friends and enemies who may show up at various times to either help or hinder his main quest.

9. Many of the mechs on the Gearhead website seem to bear a heavy anime influence. Since the Japanese are known to be prolific giant-robot creators, how else has that branch of Oriental culture influenced Gearhead?

Anime has been very influential to GearHead. The main titles I've drawn from are Bubblegum Crisis, Macross, Battle Angel, Iria, and the old Sunrise mecha shows like Dougram, Votoms, and Dunbine. I've tried to pace the combat in GearHead so it feels like the fight sequences from these series.

I've been trying to stay true to the mecha genre, but I haven't been trying to create a mock-Japanese product. I've heard some people complain that GearHead is too anime-like, and other people complain that it isn't anime-like enough. I guess that means I've found a good balance.

As a side note, although many of the mecha and place names sound Japanese, roughly half of them are Korean and the other half are gibberish. I follow the Gundam naming convention: it doesn't matter if a name makes sense, as long as it sounds cool.

10. Gearhead, like many roguelikes, is a totally open-source project. Have any independent programmers that you know of made any significant improvements to the game that you wish you had made? Do you think variants of Gearhead--much like the near-endless variants of AngBand that exist--might be created?

No-one has yet developed any GearHead variants, but a few people have been working on alternate adventures. I'd love to see more of this.

11. Aside from giant mechs blasting each other, what kind of things can players expect to do in Gearhead? Several screenshots of the graphic version show characters on foot. Does the player mostly just buy supplies and talk to NPCs while on foot or is it just the part of the game before you bag a mech?

I've tried to fill GearHead with as many different activities as I can. Many of these are drawn from anime. The PC can join the army, become a pop star, collect superpowered pets, take a vacation at the hot springs resort, find a girlfriend or boyfriend, construct an intelligent robot, and do many other things.

Interaction with NPCs is very important in GearHead. It's the only way a starting character can get jobs. In most RPGs the easiest character for a beginner to play is one who is good at combat... in GearHead, I think that the easiest character for a beginner is one who is very charismatic.

12. The Gearhead website claims that the game can be played as a CRPG or a tactical combat game. How so? Does the player choose what kind of experience he'll have at the beginning of play or is it just a result of how agressive and trigger happy a player decides to be?

The GearHead tactical game has been temporarily disabled; I have to do some work on it in order to make it playable again. For the time being GearHead is just a RPG.

13. Any advice to burgeoning roguelike developers on how to get a project off the ground?

Stick with it. Realize that the first few months of programming are going to be extremely boring, until you reach a playable state. When you do reach that state you should play your own game as much as possible.

I think the best piece of programming advice I can give is that you shouldn't expect the computer to do anything you can't do yourself. Many people start with lots of ideas about the features they'd like to have in their dream CRPG. However, unless they can describe precisely how these features are going to work, there's no way they'll ever be able to implement them.

Thanks a bunch to Joseph Hewitt for answering our questions!

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