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The Broken Hourglass interview

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The Broken Hourglass interview

Interview - posted by Vault Dweller on Tue 12 September 2006, 17:32:48

Tags: The Broken Hourglass

1. Let's start with our traditional question: what's your definition of a role-playing game? What's important to you in an RPG and why?

Jason Compton: Since I don't run Gamestop or Gamespot, I don't really spend too much time obsessing over questions like "what is the definition of a role-playing game"—it just doesn't matter much, as I have no interest in religious discussions about what is or is not worthy to wear a certain categorical mantle. I don't stay up late agonizing over issues like, "Is Planetfall an RPG? I do get wrapped up in my role as the Ensign Ninth Class, and I enjoy interacting with Floyd, and there's guns and monsters and fatigue and hunger and so forth!" It's enough for me to know that there are games I enjoy, and some resemble RPGs more than others.

If pressed (such as in an interview), I would say that I tend to perform that test in terms of how it relates to other examples of whatever category you might choose. Consider other media—at random, let's take the movie Grosse Pointe Blank. Is Grosse Pointe Blank a comedy? I would say, "Yes, but not in the same way the movie Airplane is a comedy." Is Grosse Pointe Blank a story of personal discovery? I would say, "Yes, but not in the same way Huckleberry Finn is a story of personal discovery." I would do the same test with a specific game you asked me to evaluate for RPG-ness.

In no particular order, and by no means a list which I demand be complete for any game I could enjoy, a list of "things important to me in an RPG" would include:

- A story which engages me at the outset
- Action which engages me at the outset
- A story which I want to explore and reach the end of
- Playable characters I enjoy relating to, or at least are not too unpleasant to relate with
- Playable character(s) which are in some way customizable to suit my playing style, personal preferences, or whim. This usually, but does not necessarily, reflects some sort of "progress" or "development" or "leveling up" as the story progresses
- Playable characters whose path to victory is at least nominally impacted by my choices.
- Encounterable characters I enjoy relating to, or at least are not too unpleasant to relate with
- Characters and/or a gameworld I know significantly more about when I finished the game than when I started it
- Dialogue which at least provides the illusion of choice in almost all circumstances. (Nothing annoys me more than having only one dialogue option presented—may as well just do totally scripted cutscenes and skip the pretense of my interaction at that point.)
- All of the above adding up to an experience which immerses me—where I can believe that the events are taking place in somewhere, far far away.

Most games can't hope to meet all of those criteria, and I don't require that they do. I do tend to expect that more of them are present in newer games—I wouldn't play Wizardry I and look for significant character development, for instance. Some games will meet multiple criteria but in mutually exclusive ways—I can play ADOM for the main quest if I want to have "a story which engages me at the outset", or I can go to the infinite dungeon if I want "action which engages me at the outset." Sometimes you feel like a nut, etc.

2. Let's talk about the setting. We have a Byzantine-inspired sword & sorcery setting where monsters are rare and bad people who need killing are plentiful. Why? Skip the poetry and explain the setting elements from the design point of view.

The genesis of the Tolmira setting was a desire by the designers to use some of the familiar trappings of the "sword-and-sorcery" genre, but in a world without a thick tome of unusual monsters and a gaggle of sentient demi-human types with funny noses. There's nothing wrong with monster-whomping, or with using non-human races to explore very human issues, but this setting affords us a direct opportunity to explore issues of human interaction, human failings, and human obsessions, against a backdrop of CRPG gameplay.

Tolmira is actually a fairly stable place to live, even if the empire is on the decline. People don't live in constant fear of having their village burned to the ground by orcs or having an umber hulk burrow up through their bed during an intimate interlude or anything like that. That makes an "adventure" in this world more of a special thing—a break from the routine, a very unusual circumstance which requires an unusual collection of skill and talent to resolve. There isn't really any "You meet in a bar, decide to form an adventuring band, and go out looking for treasure" in Tolmira.

3. The game takes place in one city, which is an unusual design decision. Can you elaborate on it?

Is it so unusual? And here, I've been waiting for somebody to say we stole it from Bard's Tale I. But since you didn't say that…

At any rate, it was an intersection of several factors. This being the maiden public voyage of the Tolmira setting, and considering that our art budget is finite, I felt it would be better to focus on depicting one piece of it in great detail than depicting a lot of pieces in somewhat lesser detail. And we developed a plot which lent itself logically to a city placed in isolation. Et voila, Mal Nassrin under siege it is.

I will be more than content to produce a title which involves wilderness exploration and frequenting several small villages at some later date—if, in fact, it turns out that people enjoy playing our kind of game and wish to buy more like it. But the requirements for us to put unique content in a unique location are higher than they are for a game like, say, Elite. We can't get away with a few algorithmically-generated lines about culture and biology, we have to put unique images and unique story in each and every area we ship.

4. Tell us about the races. You have good ol' humans, "cruel, excessively tattooed elves", the Illuminated, and what could be described as half-elves. What role do these races play? How do they fit into the setting? How would your race affect gameplay? What happened to dwarves and orcs?

Humans are the majority race. At the time of The Broken Hourglass, humans do most of the living and dying and working and governing and being governed. The Tolmiran empire arose from an aggregation of human city-states roughly 200 years after humanity gained its independence from the Ilvari (aka elves). As such, they are welcome—or at least, not unwelcome—most anywhere, and you can find them in most any job or state of depravity, as well as dominating the upper echelons of government and commerce.

The Ilvari culture as it once was effectively died out as their own power and prestige waned in the wake of humanity's rise. At the time of our story, elves broadly belong to one of three cultures.

The Cella are what most people think of when they hear the word "elf", particularly if they hear it as an epithet. They have tried to keep up their forebears' predilection for tattoos and piercings, yes, although their lifestyle has little resemblance to the towering Ilvari of old. The Cella are tribal, nomadic people—traders, wanderers, tricksters, entertainers, thieves. The number of known Cella tribes in Tolmira numbers in the hundreds, but their fluidity defies an accurate census. Various Cella travelers have become trapped inside the city, but very few would ever call it home.

The Verai are the smallest of the three elven groups. They represent the last vestige of Ilvari's ruling military tradition. But in modern-day Tolmira, the Verai are an elite military force sworn—or more precisely, contracted—to the service of the human Primarch of Tolmira. The Verai's main garrison is in the empire's capital, with smaller presences scattered across the land. Mal Nassrin doesn't rate a Verai garrison, so Verai are extremely rare in the city. Unlike the freewheeling Cella, the Verai are a tightly controlled society, from child-rearing to career path to reproductive rights.

The "assimilated" elves arguably are not a culture at all. Now making up the lion's share of the elven population, they have embraced—or at least, learned to live with—the forms and ways of human society, and have made themselves part of it. Understandably, their enthusiasm for human society has been proportional to the rollback of restrictions against them. At present, elves who choose to live as mainstream citizens enjoy almost the same rights as humans, but they are prohibited from holding political office. This last institutional prejudice is also beginning to erode—there are no elves holding a nominally elective office, but a growing number do serve as appointed officials at various levels of government. As for personal prejudices, they vary by individuals, regions, and so forth. In the main, assimilated elves are tolerated by human neighbors, except where intimate relationships are concerned, because of…

The feyborn, the product of human/elven cross-breeding. ("Half-elves" in other systems, but that term is virtually never used here.) These individuals are marked by magic and misfortune. It is generally understood that all feyborn, sooner or later, develop at least a touch of madness, and most show signs of emotional and psychological instability at a very young age. As a result, the vast majority are outcast or at least kept at arm's length by virtually everybody, so they disproportionately are found in the underclasses, as transient laborers, and so forth.

The Illuminated are the newest and "most unnatural" race, having simply appeared one day roughly 100 years before our story begins. As a result of undocumented legal and (no doubt) monetary wrangling, the Illuminated were allowed to establish "Enclaves" in many Tolmiran cities—sovereign compounds which act as a sort of combination trading post, living quarters, and embassy (although to what higher power remains unclear.) They have never raised an army against the state, are involved in the commission of very few crimes (and many of those simply get written off as cultural misunderstandings, often with a lot of money changing hands), and mostly keep to themselves. It is generally speculated that the Primarchs and senators are wary of whatever power presumably lies behind the Illuminated to make any drastic moves to curtail their rights or impede their peaceful lives—which critics decry as a sign that the Empire has become soft on security. Illuminated tend to favor what we would consider "white-collar" pursuits, but this is by no means universal. Illuminated are not quite as insular as Verai, and a significant minority live and work in mainstream human society. But even these independents reveal very little about what goes on inside the Enclaves.

Racial selection does have a small impact on starting stats. It also will affect some character interplay—all else being equal, one Cella is more likely to help another Cella, or at least avoid hindering him, for instance. Some shopkeepers have their prejudices. And it will impact how some party members relate to you on certain subjects.

As to why we don't have gnomes or halflings or giants or catpeople or dogpeople or pixies, the only satisfactory answer I can offer is "because the setting doesn't call for them."

5. Another unusual design decision is the magic system. It reminds me of my TIE Fighter days: one energy pool that feeds both shields and engines. The more energy spent on shields - the stronger they are ... and the weaker your engines. Decisions, decisions.... So, please explain the system and what it may offer to avid mage players?

That's a good analogy. In that game you had a fixed pool of energy and you could split it up among laser charging, shield charging, and engine velocity. In our game, you have a fixed pool of energy and you can split it up among offensive spells, defensive and protective spells, healing spells, and wielding (and thereby controlling) magic items.

What it means for mage players is that you get to spend more of your time actually casting spells, and less time doing things that bog mages down in other systems like

- Deciding what spells to memorize
- Chugging mana potions
- Withholding magic because "we might need it in a bigger fight coming up."

It also means that you can interactively switch a mage from being an "offensive" mage to a "buff" mage, instead of having to make a daily (wizard) or a career (sorcerer) commitment to that path as a d20-style mage would.

The other major advantage our mana system gives us is a better approach to managing magic weapons. Rather than rely on D&D style "such-and-such class is the only one who can use this item" and/or a fixed body slot system, the act of equipping magic items requires that you devote some of your mana to control or tap that magic. That way, you don't have to be limited to one ring on each hand "just because we say so"… if you have the mana, feel free to load up on rings—but you won't have that mana available for dynamic spellcasting.

There are, of course, still some body-slot restrictions. You can't wear two helmets or two sets of armor, for instance. But we are able to be more open about other items because it is mana, not fixed slots on a paper doll, determining how many enchantments you can control.

6. It's a party-based game inspired by Baldur's Gate 2. What party dynamics, improvements, and deviations from the BG formula should we expect? What role do the party members play?

Those who are familiar with BG2 joinable NPCs, particularly with the ways the better-regarded mods have expanded on BG2's NPCs both in terms of depth and breadth, won't be surprised by what they find. Some of the NPCs have a close personal connection to the events of the main quest, others have been more peripherally caught up in events and are looking to cooperate to resolve the problem. Regardless, each has their own background, aspirations, fears, etc. and through discussion some of that will come out during the course of the game, as they talk amongst themselves (banter) and talk to the PC. Some can engage in a romance with the PC, which will use the incidental random flirts plus scripted lovetalk sequence that has developed over time for BG2.

NPCs are, of course, there to do your bidding--within the boundaries of their conscience and our ability to implement their conscience without becoming too distracting, at least. That is to say, you shouldn't have to constantly walk on eggshells around your own party, but neither should you expect to have everybody kill grannies and puppies and expect that nobody in the party is troubled by such behavior. We can be considerably more granular about what is and is not "appropriate behavior" as far as NPCs are concerned, so expect that to surface in the types of things they agree to do (or agree to stand by idly while you do.) They are there to advise, to act as the proverbial angel and/or devil on the PC's shoulder when an important decision is on the table, to make their opinion heard and to generally spice up the proceedings more than just going it alone would. And, of course, to provide exposure to a wider range of game mechanics than you could get out of just one character.

7. Let's talk about skills. What should we expect? How diverse the skills are? Would we be able to create two different fighters (without counting different weapon proficiencies)?

Beyond the four primary statistics, there are an even 30 skills. Some govern how well you can use magic—mana, which represents the raw pool of magical energy you can harness, your proficiency (or lack thereof) with the five elemental magic types, and the speed at which you can cast. Others affect combat: how well you can use each of the weapon types, how rapidly you fight, and how good your tactics are, providing a bonus to yourself and your party. Others are defensive—repelling physical and magical attacks and overcoming the defensive penalties you incur when being attacked by more than one enemy. Still others affect your diplomatic acumen, walking speed, carrying capacity, sneakiness, ability to spot hidden objects, and skill at disabling locks and traps. Health is a skill—if you want additional hit points, you have to buy them. (See also your next question about class templates for more about health as a skill.)

Augmenting the skills are traits, one-time purchases which enable new attack modes, or make a character better at managing the weight of his or her armor or weapons, or make certain types of attack more or less effective. Traits are point-buy and each has a unique cost, so no two traits are necessarily exactly alike or equivalent. We are presently planning to include negative traits as well, allowing you to "buy" points by taking a permanent hindrance.

Can you create two substantially different fighters? Yes, definitely. You could develop one fighter in the mold of a duelist—one who trades off brute strength or ultimate blade mastery in favor of being difficult to hit and possessing excellent staying power (lots of health), who can thus hang in a fight longer than his opponents and wear them down over time, and who takes traits like Riposte, getting in a free attack after a particularly successful parry. Or develop a fighter who is the "nuclear option"—more prone to deliver massive damage when he hits, but is also susceptible to being dropped himself by a couple of solid blows. With a combination of trait and skill selection you could develop a character who does better than most when being mobbed—thus he would be able to survive being ganged up on and leave the rest of the party free to pick off the stragglers. You can build fighters who have a relatively high Mana score, even if they have no actual casting proficiency—that would allow them to bulk up with a lot of magic items. Or forego mana and magical items in favor of more strength and weapon skill and simply swing the largest, pointiest stick you can find at your opponents.

8. For those who prefer classes you promise class-templates. The usual questions: what are those, why, how many, how diverse?

I'll start with the "why" first. Free point buy, which our ruleset is originally based on, can be a wonderful thing for many people. But it is not appealing for people who do not enjoy or might feel intimidated by learning rule systems. So for those people, we offer advancement templates so that if they know that they would like to focus on "being an archer" or "being a fire mage who can also fight with a sword" they can simply set that button and know that their stats will be boosted appropriately, rather than obsessing over how to spend each and every point. Particularly because health is a point-buy stat and not automatically granted by experience progression as is common in many other popular RPG and CRPG systems, the templates will enable us to suggest "appropriate" health advancement for people who otherwise might forget or obsess over the decision.

Free point buy is also not appropriate for joinable NPCs. These people have their own careers and their own opinions about the best use of their talents and how they would like to advance those talents, and I believe that handing over completely free point buy to the player/player character isn't an appropriate storytelling move where NPCs are concerned. Yes, we do concede some control to the player at the screen and the player character already, but I don't think advancement is an area where the NPCs should give up carte blanche. Instead, each NPC will have a list of paths they "approve of" and it will be up to the player to select which path they will go down. An NPC will never offer just one choice. More importantly, some NPCs will let you "unlock" paths as your words and/or actions convince them that they should consider broadening their horizons, which we believe offers extra roleplaying incentive and reward.

It's important to note that level paths will still leave some minority percentage of the points available for free spending, which allows and encourages some degree of customization for both the PC and NPCs (lest the game become a "teleological sandbox"), but it still preserves the majority of the ease-of-use for people who are not "rules fans", as well as preserving credibility for the NPCs' own personal preferences. As players become more comfortable with these decisions they may decide to switch their PC to straight point-buy in the middle of the game.

As for how many and how diverse, the complete list of paths hasn't been finalized yet. We will have to do some soul-searching and considering usability before locking that down—since throwing 30 paths up on the screen could just shift the intimidation we hope to avoid to another screen.

9. Diplomacy - what does it do? Does it merely add some dialogue flavor or offers a viable path through the game? If not and the game is combat-oriented, why someone should even bother wasting points on conversation skills?

Some situations have diplomatic solutions—and some of those diplomatic solutions are easier to obtain if you have sufficient skill at diplomacy. Not every critical path problem has an explicitly diplomatic solution. Much the same argument applies to the Manipulation skill, which covers deceptive dialogue. So, broadly speaking, Diplomacy and Manipulation unlock more dialogue options or make certain dialogue options more likely to succeed.

As for "wasting"—there is no rule that says people who buy the game must spend points in Diplomacy. Diplomacy, like virtually every other secondary ability, gains a small bonus from its primary statistic—in this case, Judgment. Diplomacy is also a "group" skill, meaning that you gain a fractional benefit from other party members as well. So for those who do not value the hope of seeking diplomatic solutions to some of the game's problems, they may well never spend a single point in diplomacy. Those who do look for those types of solutions, will.

10. Speaking of combat. We know that it's real time with pause. What are the pros and cons? Answering the same question before you said that "it works well... and makes good use of the medium". I must confess that the answer left me confused. Care to elaborate?

We believe that combat system is the right choice for us, for the game we want to create and the kind of action we want to convey. Pausing allows players who prefer a more contemplative or tightly-managed experience to make considered changes, while at "full speed" it can keep some of the smaller or more incidental combats from taking too much time and distracting the player from exploration, dialogue, discovery, etc. The very earliest versions of the engine incorporated more of a grid-and-action turn based system when we thought the d20/SRD rules might be available, but when it turned out that they were not, I was more comfortable with adopting an enjoyable real-time combat system than crafting a novel turn-based system. It helps that most of the TBH writers have experience designing encounters for real-time combat engines, so I feel confident that we know how to deliver enjoyable gameplay for real-time CRPG combat.

Aside from that consideration, the pros and cons are mostly a question of player perception and preference—from a design standpoint, we could have gone either way. It might have lowered the target system specification if we only had one character animating at any time, by employing a turn-based system. But in the end, that wasn't what we wanted to do.

11. How does The Broken Hourglass compare to Baldur's Gate 2? Why would someone play your game instead of reinstalling the BG saga?

Direct comparisons, I will leave to players and critics. Basic mechanics are similar to an Infinity title, although I would say we have even further improved on Icewind Dale 2's inventory management.

As to "why"—because it's a new story, with new adventures, new characters, and new experiences. That would apply to a comparison between TBH and any other existing game. As it relates to the BG series, we're offering players who enjoy that character-focused, party-centric style of roleplaying a chance to experience something new which offers those familiar storytelling elements. Familiarity can be fun, but established classics or favorites don't have to be one's sole source of entertainment.

12. Here is your chance to tell us something about the development process, differences between being a modder and being a developer, and that almost mystical indie experience. In other words, do chicks really dig indie developers?

To set the stage for the answer—most of the writers attached to TBH have done years of work on Baldur's Gate 2 mods. Another is a well-regarded Neverwinter Nights modder. And our engine developer, Westley Weimer, in addition to developing his own slate of still-popular BG2 mods, also developed the revolutionary WeiDU modding tool which literally expanded the universe of Infinity Engine mods hundredfold. So we've been around that particular block.

Obviously, developing an entirely new game using an entirely new engine is a very different process in many ways. Some of the coding conventions, such as dialogue creation, are basically unchanged from our WeiDU experience. But the game scripting is almost completely different. We are learning first-hand and as we go along exactly what works and what doesn't work so well, on what type of hardware it works well, and so forth.

When we started out, of course, nothing was a given—not how the characters would look or behave, not how the areas would look or sound, not even how we would script inside the engine. Obviously, modding can be much simpler when you can take a lot of assets and resources for granted, but it's also harder because you have to make your story work in an environment with a lot of pre-existing limitations and expectations. And naturally, the entire story has to be designed and implemented from the ground up, but we knew that going in.

Because this is our maiden voyage, everything is new—all of the utility scripting, all of the sound effects, the sprites, the areas, the creature coding, etc. So it's slower going than trying to mod a game which has all of those assets to pick and choose from.

Certainly, I would say that the fact that most of us are both familiar with each other and with the vagaries of distributed development has been a plus, giving us an advantage over a random bunch of people who decided that developing a new RPG would be a wonderful use of time and money.

As for the rewards, that still remains to be seen. There is certainly a lot of pride to be had by putting something wholly unique and new together. But since we have actual cash on the line, not to mention a greater investment of time than a mod would normally entail, without some measurable response from the buying public it could all fall a lot flatter than, say, an ill-advised one-day joke mod would.

Nothing about the process seems to have boosted anybody's sex appeal, but then, most of the game's designers are married or otherwise entangled anyway.

13. And finally, distribution. What are your thoughts on the current distribution models available to indie developers and offers you may have received?

We have had preliminary conversations consisting of little more than "Hi, how are you?" with companies both in the traditional and digital distribution worlds—since the game isn't ready for prime time and completion funding isn't a need, we are content to wait for the right situation to develop. Our objective is to deliver the game to players at a fair price, and hopefully to be successful enough to justify development of more games.

We do have some challenges atypical of most independent developers—our game is not a 25 megabyte affair, so digital distribution is not a slam-dunk. I am somewhat concerned about the fragmented digital distribution market, specifically that there isn't enough economy of scale to provide truly good value to independent developers, and that makes relying on direct download as a primary distribution method rather dicey because I think the deck is stacked against the indie ever realizing enough revenue to stay in business and grow long-term.

What we are looking for is a digital distribution partner who will provide a clean and easy handoff from payment to product, without inconveniencing customers with ineffectual copy protection or foisting extra downloads on them which they may not be comfortable with or want to use. Someone who understands our product and our market and can bring a number of new customers to the table is of course a plus. It may be that the lack of participation by an Amazon-like or iTunes-like entity means there isn't the kind of pinpoint focus and efficiency that I think digital distribution needs to gain before it's a truly appealing and natural option for developers and players alike.

That is one of the reasons we will also provide a physical media product. And as much as I do not have any great desire to enter the already-crowded digital distribution market with a novel solution, if we cannot reach a fair arrangement with a digital distribution partner which provides us a transparent and equitable business relationship and a simple, convenient purchase process for our customers, then we will have no choice but to build our own platform. I am hopeful that the market will hammer out some of its kinks before that becomes necessary, however.

We'd like to thank Jason for answering our questions and wish him luck with his project



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