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Default Spiderweb Games - Interview with Jeff Vogel @ Gamebanshee

January 24th, 2008, 02:27
Gamebanshee's Brother None (Thomas Beekers) interviews Spiderweb Software president, Jeff Vogel in a feature about the history, business model and future plans of the company. You can read the whole article here.
Some excerpts:
GB: Spiderweb Software is the oldest and most steady presence on the indie cRPG market. Does that mean others should try to emulate your business model?

Jeff: Possibly. I have the advantage of coming to the party early and possessing the tenacity of the cockroach. However, I sell most of my games myself, over my own web site. It's really hard to get enough publicity to attract that sort of attention.

I would probably recommend to a young new developer to design a more casual-friendly RPG and try to get it onto portals like Big Fish and Yahoo! and RealArcade. My niche is old-school RPGs, and I've done very well with it, but there are great opportunities for more casual titles now.
GB: Spiderweb's new releases typically use a lot of previously released assets (engines, animations, etc.). Why?

Jeff: Survival. Time is the most limited resource we have. Just producing the material we do stretches us to the limit. That is why, for each game, I only replace the worst third of the graphics. We don't have the time or money to replace everything every game, and I think that, if we did, it would be phenomenally wasteful.

I think another good question is why other games companies don't reuse their assets. Making games has become very time-consuming and expensive at all levels. A lot of the reason for this, I feel, is that every time a game is finished, everything gets thrown into the trash. What a waste! I honestly don't think anyone cares if they saw the orc model in another game a year before.

Nobody smart writes their own engine anymore. They license something like the Unreal engine instead. I bet, someday, people won't bother to make their dragons from scratch either. Not when they can rent the standard dragon, tweak it a bit to make it distinctive, and save themselves a ton of work….
GB: Do you worry about the people who do not play your games due to the graphics or are you not that interested in their market potential?

Jeff: Don't get me wrong. I love nice graphics as much as the next guy. I make our games as pretty as I can. I'm not ideologically attached to low-budget games. It's just all I can do.

But if someone wants a pretty game, I will not be able to please that person. And if I spend a bunch of money and an extra year making a game as pretty as I possibly can, I still will not please that person. The big companies use cutting edge engines and art departments with dozens of talented people, and they spend years working on one title. I will never ever, ever, ever be able to compete with that in the slightest way. So I don't.
More information.

Where there's smoke, there's mirrors.
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January 24th, 2008, 02:27
I think another good question is why other games companies don't reuse their assets. Making games has become very time-consuming and expensive at all levels. A lot of the reason for this, I feel, is that every time a game is finished, everything gets thrown into the trash. What a waste! I honestly don't think anyone cares if they saw the orc model in another game a year before.

Nobody smart writes their own engine anymore. They license something like the Unreal engine instead. I bet, someday, people won't bother to make their dragons from scratch either. Not when they can rent the standard dragon, tweak it a bit to make it distinctive, and save themselves a ton of work….
This is eerily similar to the argument PJ was making in magerette's thread.
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January 24th, 2008, 04:17
But the whole 'reusable software component' thing is pretty old … and not doing it is becoming more and more inexcusable.

— Mike
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January 24th, 2008, 07:15
I understand that economic reasons force him to keep the investment in technology to a minimum, and of course, his success proves his model works. Still I wonder, is he really limited to the technology he is using? Could he not take over some other engine and art assets to catapult the look of his games 10 years forward? Like the infinity engine, or something of that era, e.g.? Or is it impossible to get those for a reasonable price?
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January 24th, 2008, 09:36
I don't think the engine (as such) is the problem — it's paying for the art assets to fill it. I know everyone complains about the graphics but if the Infinity Engine and every sprite dropped out of the sky (let's ignore that every background screen is hand-painted because I assume you are just using it as a general example) everyone would complain that it looks nothing like Avernum. Trust me. Go read his forums and half the people there won't buy AV4 or AV5 because everything looks like Geneforge now and the other half thinks Exile was better and all this new stuff looks worse.

Besides, he has suggested he'll look at 3D when these two series end. Let's see where that goes.

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January 24th, 2008, 10:09
Originally Posted by Dhruin View Post
I don't think the engine (as such) is the problem — it's paying for the art assets to fill it. I know everyone complains about the graphics but if the Infinity Engine and every sprite dropped out of the sky (let's ignore that every background screen is hand-painted because I assume you are just using it as a general example) everyone would complain that it looks nothing like Avernum. Trust me. Go read his forums and half the people there won't buy AV4 or AV5 because everything looks like Geneforge now and the other half thinks Exile was better and all this new stuff looks worse.

Besides, he has suggested he'll look at 3D when these two series end. Let's see where that goes.
Yeah, I agree that it would definitely have to be a new IP. I don't particularly mind his graphics. Nethergate, which I am playing off and on, is a fun game regardless. I just wonder how long he can continue on this level, especially now that the Indie scene seems to be gearing up, with some significantly better looking games, like Eschalon or AoD. But apparently he still gets new customers, so maybe he really has nothing to worry about.

But lets take AoD - Vince spent, I don't know, 4 years with a team of three to four, and $10000 on this game. What will it realistically make? He has a job, so it doesn't matter, but the moment he switches to game development fulltime, doing this will have to pay his bills (and possibly those of his coworkers). So, is reusing models and textures, and upgrading the graphics (using new feature of the Torque engine, replacing 25% of the art, like Jeff does) any more difficult for him then for Jeff? I am often surprised how changes in the renderer of old games, or highres texture packs can improve a games look (I am thinking of mods for System Schock 2, Morrowind, Oblivion), so maybe it is actually easier to stay on top of things with 3D?
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January 24th, 2008, 14:09
I was just thinking about Spiderweb Games a while ago, trying to find a reason to play the older games, because they looked too ugly by now (Geneforge 2 might have been okay then, but when compared to Geneforge 4 I just can't get back to it). In a way, this hurts his business, because new customers will only ever want to buy the latest. And, inspired by some open source ideas, I've concluded the following:

Jeff should separate the engine, and the "adventure". That way, any graphics/resolution/sound/anything improvements will translate to the older stuff, and he'd have ~10 more games to sell. And, if you find the graphics ugly, you could just wait until they get good enough for you, and then play any game you want.

Meh, just a thought.
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January 24th, 2008, 15:07
Thing about art assets is that they can be divided into two classes too: scary expensive, and cheap.

For example, fully animated models are scary expensive, but skins and textures are cheap, and static, non-animated 3D models — buildings, furniture and such — are pretty cheap.

So, why not do a game that's centered around people rather than monsters? You can easily reuse the animated models for people, tweak them a bit, and re-skin them for your distinctive look. You save a ton of money compared to having to design and animate your tentacular sewer horror that gets used once, and you can use that money saved to create interesting stories, background, skins, clothes, items, dialog, and behavior for your wee reusable human(oid) models.

Oh, and… thanks, BN. Bring on the full-featured OSS engine and model library!
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January 24th, 2008, 16:30
Originally Posted by Dhruin View Post
I know everyone complains about the graphics but if the Infinity Engine and every sprite dropped out of the sky (let's ignore that every background screen is hand-painted because I assume you are just using it as a general example) everyone would complain that it looks nothing like Avernum.
I'm not sure where people get the idea that the Infinity Engine backgrounds were hand-painted. The backgrounds were modeled and rendered in a 3D program, as were the character sprites. There are some nice looking promo shots of some areas from different angles (that image can be seen in BG2's loading screens, with a mosaic pattern).

Anyway, interesting interview.
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January 24th, 2008, 18:59
I'm pretty sure many of the backgrounds in PS:T were hand-painted.
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January 24th, 2008, 19:05
Nice interview, Brother None.

Another way to avoid the expense of graphics would be to avoid using so many of them in the first place. It's wrong, I think, to assume players need to see RPG worlds in detail.

Submarine sims are proof that video games can work without elaborate graphics (submarines don't have windows, so submarine drivers can't see where they're going). Why can't players navigate through RPG worlds the way submarine drivers navigate through the real world? The way plenty of people, and even blind people, navigate through the real world?

I can imagine a CRPG that offers peeks at the world instead of a steady flow. It could depict a creative assortment of outside sensory perceptions while focusing the player's attention on his character and his role. That would open the door to other expressions, other uses of the player's imagination and would result in something more like the act of role playing.

Jeff Vogel has chosen middle ground in a way that makes perfect sense. I wonder what he might achieve, though, if he were to stop competing in the mainstream video game market altogether. A new approach might be more appealing to fans of this genre and could tap into a different market, readers of fantasy-adventure and science-fiction novels (virtually all of whom own PCs today).

Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on. But it don't snow here. It stays pretty green. I'm going to make a lot of money, then I'm going to quit this crazy scene. — [Joni Mitchell]
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January 24th, 2008, 21:37
Originally Posted by KazikluBey View Post
I'm not sure where people get the idea that the Infinity Engine backgrounds were hand-painted. The backgrounds were modeled and rendered in a 3D program, as were the character sprites. There are some nice looking promo shots of some areas from different angles (that image can be seen in BG2's loading screens, with a mosaic pattern).

Anyway, interesting interview.
Semantics. The point is that it isn't a tile-based engine, or a terrain generator - every map had to be assembled by hand (or graphics package or whatever you want to say). Obviously, lots of the assets could be reused (trees, decorative props like chests, paintings, doors bla bla bla) but lots of stuff was also unique. AV5 is easily bigger than BG (I'd have to think about BG2) but, anyway - it's huge. He just couldn't model, paint or otherwise that much stuff.

Before anyone points out Eschalon or even The Broken Hourglass, these guys have a different approach. The scope of Eschalon is 1/4 of something like AV5 and Jeff has lots of different tilesets and areas. TBH is set in one city.

Both of these are smart moves by developers who have obviously thought long and hard about their world building but Jeff does large gameworlds. I'd agree it's worth trying something different but this works (in terms of selling enough to sustain perpetually), and changing means a different style of game that might lose some of his core audience anyway.

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January 25th, 2008, 13:44
Originally Posted by Dhruin View Post
Semantics. The point is that it isn't a tile-based engine, or a terrain generator - every map had to be assembled by hand (or graphics package or whatever you want to say).
Actually, the maps are built up by 64*64 pixel tiles, IIRC.

Originally Posted by Prime Junta
I'm pretty sure many of the backgrounds in PS:T were hand-painted.
Were they? I can't remember any that didn't look 3D modeled.
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January 25th, 2008, 14:07
Originally Posted by KazikluBey View Post
Were they? I can't remember any that didn't look 3D modeled.
As far as I know, the method used for Planescape was to render what could be rendered in 3D and then paint over bits and/or touch them up to get the final, 2D bitmap result.

I don't think the the Clerk's Ward looks like it was rendered in 3D.

As mentioned several times, that's only really possible/done in the Infinity Engine (and on the engine used of Omega Syndrome, I've been made to understand).
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January 25th, 2008, 18:46
Originally Posted by Brother None View Post
As far as I know, the method used for Planescape was to render what could be rendered in 3D and then paint over bits and/or touch them up to get the final, 2D bitmap result.
Sounds plausible.

Originally Posted by Brother None View Post
I don't think the the Clerk's Ward looks like it was rendered in 3D.
Well, at least parts of it was.
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January 25th, 2008, 19:27
Well, KazikluBey, what I noticed most about the PS:T method and why it works so well for Planescape (MCA mentions this in RPGWatch's retrospective interview) is that Planescape has a lot of hard and sharp edges, as well as a lot of curved structures. If you use only 3D, even with modern technology you'd end up with that combination of shapes looking somehow "wrong". The advantage a 2D canvas background is that you can make it look completely natural and then just smack it into the game.
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January 26th, 2008, 07:09
Is there any chance that Vogel will adopt a *relatively* modern engine ? One that isn't stuck in the 1995 ? I don't mean cutting edge 3D, but something more like 2001 isometrics present in TOEE.
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January 29th, 2008, 07:45
(various ponderings about how they made areas in Infinity)
Yes, they're 3D renders, with touchups by hand as needed. Same approach we took with The Broken Hourglass. Our methods for occlusion ("what should be in front of a sprite?") are different—we use a special silhouette map and an automatic polygon detector app, while Bioware and Interplay actually (shudder) employed junior staffers who did nothing but sit around click-tracing shapes all day, every day, for weeks. (in fairness, the underlying tech of our polygon detector didn't exist when most of the Infinity games were made, but still… shudder.)

We ended up spending more on areas than I would have liked (that's true for basically every phase of the project) but overall, it wasn't a terrible way to get a lot of real estate. And, importantly, it required a common skillset—there are a lot of people out there who can do architectural 3D work to a specification. We ended up working with two artists, but I turned away at least four others whose work I would have been perfectly happy with. It may actually be easier to find people who can do good 3D layouts than those who can generate compelling tile-based maps. Possibly more expensive overall, but a wider talent pool.

As for licensing a more modern engine: when we started TBH, I investigated licensing options for some of the engines which had been used for 2D or 2D/3D RPGs around the turn of the millennium. Two, including Infinity, weren't available at any price, and another wasn't available at a price we could afford. (Infinity would be a tremendous pain anyway because, among other things, you would have to rip the D&D ruleset out.)

The Broken Hourglass, a new CRPG under development at Planewalker Games.
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