Tortured Hearts Interview
Tortured hearts can now be pledged on Kickstarter, which seemed like a good opportunity to talk to Lenore Hoehl and Zoltan Gonda from Game Psych LLC, a small house developer.
RPGWatch: What can you tell us about yourself and the team?
Lenore: I am a psychologist, basically, although I have worked at every type of office job, including budgeting, taxes, and personnel management, which I think gives me a good grasp of the business aspects of this project. In the field of psychology I started out doing attitude surveys, valuable experience in finding out what people value. My PhD is in educational psychology with a concentration on psychological measurement. Most educational psychologists would love to find a fun way to make people learn better and games are a natural field of inquiry, but somehow this has turned into a specialty called "serious games." This seems to me an oxymoron and I prefer to stick to the usual kind of games. I met Zoltan through the NWN mod community. I was really into huge, epic games and had played several, but none were like Tortured Hearts I. It was what I would have liked to make if I knew how and I stopped there, I’ve played very few other mods since. Zoltan took me up on my offer to help polish his English and we have been working together for almost six years.
Zoltan: I'm a game designer, making games since 1990, starting with Newcomer for the C-64. It was inspired by Wasteland (my all time fav), Dragon Wars and Neuromancer. The first version was produced in 1994. “Ultimate Newcomer” is the latest, upcoming version of the game. (I’m not working on it anymore though). It’s at: http://www.protovision-online.com/games/newcomer.htm
Epic RPG is the genre I like most, that's why I make huge games like the mods TH I and TH II, they contributed a lot to my skills and expertise. From 2001, I've been working in the game industry mostly as a scripter and level designer. In my spare time from making commercial games, I spent nearly 5 years on making the two Neverwinter Nights mods which kind of serve as prequels to this stand-alone game.
The other people on our team are my ex-colleagues with whom I worked for years in the game industry and who are now acting as freelancers; programmers, artists, testers, designers, and musicians. There is a list of some of them with links to their companies on the bottom of the Kickstarter page.
RPGWatch: Can you give us more information about the storyline of the game?
Lenore: It somewhat plays off the story of the NWN mods. We would be working on them and say "What if... Whatever is going to happen to..." and let our imagination go wild. Eventually we started to take those scraps and make them into a real story, but a different story in a new world.
Zoltan: The player doesn't need to play the mods at all. We made it a stand-alone game from the start. But anyone who played the mods would find some interesting references. For more details and of course spoilers :), please read the updates of our Kickstarter page.
RPGWatch: Can you tell us about the background and the setting?
Lenore: The setting is, to start with, a mortal world called Eupherea. It is roughly comparable in the cosmology of Tortured Hearts to Faerun in Dungeons and Dragons. There are other planes of existence and the PC can travel to several in the course of the game: Aengr, the plane of ice; Hix, the plane of fire; Tracus, the plane of evil; several pocket universes. Others might make it into the sequel but this is enough for plenty of activity in one game. There is one large city with many sub areas and some smaller village or limited city areas.
Zoltan: There are different cultures in Eupherea ranging from primitive to advanced urban. There are also organized groups which exploit the world, like Sylfeung Adventuring Inc. and InterEupherea Pharmaceuticals.
RPGWatch: What is the story about and what role are we playing in it?
Lenore: The story is about a world in which the social order has become upset in several ways. People are carrying on and regrouping. The protagonist is a mature person who is used to coping with the unexpected, but begins to find that unseen forces are against him personally and adventurers in general, and the attempts on his life draw him to find out why.
The PC is an adventurer, a very typical type of freelancing questor. Fairly happy-go-lucky, not someone with a Big Mission or an ax to grind. He has always been comfortable with himself and his place in life, but now...
Zoltan: It is about getting satisfaction and solving mysteries and doing things with friends.
The guy, or it could be a woman, is fed up with the everyday chore of finding loot and killing stuff ad nauseum. He needs something else, the thing that went missing during the long years of grind. It is thrill. He is a professional too, and proud of his profession, he doesn’t like phonies pretending to be adventurers. He goes on with his job even when it is boring or doesn’t make sense, because it has to be done.
RPGWatch: How is non-linearity in Tortured Hearts implemented? Do you have examples?
Lenore: You start in one point and can go in any direction. Any of the adjacent areas, any NPC. Some may not have all their lines available at the first contact, but if you talk to NPC A, then B, then C, you eventually get the same information as if you went in the order B-C-A or C-A-B. Since the plot is conversation driven, all the conversations have to be constructed so that whatever crazy order the player takes will still make sense, all the quests will still be available, the plot will still go forward, and so on.
Zoltan: For instance, there are areas which you can't go to at once, you must do some plot quests. After that, you can go on. But you could still go back to the very first area and start a side quest which you had ignored. And it will still work. And whenever a side quest is started, new people will appear in other areas and you can go to them and find new things. The world is alive!
RPGWatch: Do choices have consequences?
Lenore: Many of them do, but most of them are not the typical D&D result which focuses on alignment. There is good and evil and neutral. Law and chaos are not important. Some choices will shut you out of future quests, most of them lead to a different “reward.”
Zoltan: This is one of the most important things that makes an RPG special. So, yes, your choices have consequences that could be good or bad. Actions which are helpful to others tend to have better rewards because in the long run they lead to more side quests, but evil or neutral choices have satisfactory rewards too.
RPGWatch: Can we not start some quests because of the choices we made?
Zoltan: Yes, it is possible with a few side quests.
Lenore: For instance, the player might have killed the quest giver. Another way would be to have incompatible persons in the party: eventually one will leave and so will whatever remaining story was tied to that person.
RPGWatch: Are there multiple endings?
Zoltan: Yes and yes. :)
RPGWatch: Do quests differ when we communicate with NPCs in a different order?
Lenore: Not all quests work the same way, but in all quests there is one and only one quest giver to set the quest in motion, and he/she/it has to come first. After the quest is started, in most cases further information will usually come from several people and you can speak to them in any order. A few quests are linear because information only comes from one person at a time and in a set order. Or it’s a back-and-forth between two NPCs/areas/actions.
Zoltan: It would be a terrible mess in a non-linear game if you couldn’t get the quest information in almost every possible order.
RPGWatch: The combat system is an essential part of an RPG, how is this implemented in Tortured Hearts?
Lenore: We planned it as real-time, but on popular demand we switched to turn-based. I’m happy with this; real-time combat has an aesthetic like a movie, but turn-based is more versatile for the player. The basic ideas of combat abilities haven't really changed and also, our main programmer is quite familiar with turn-based combat. In my opinion it adds to the pleasure of mincing your enemy when you can do so contemplatively.
Zoltan: The player will be able to control each member of his party, his inventory, his weapons. Every member will have action points which determine what can be done in that round, and the whole party has a pool of special action points called tactical traits. These tactical traits either buff the party or debuff the enemy for a determined number of rounds. The trait points regenerate according to the skill level and gear of the PC and party members. You use them up, but they come back if you don’t get killed. Defense is important as well as offense.
RPGWatch: How does the level of your character influence combat and especially the level of your opponent?
Zoltan: Characters have no levels, their skills do, though. The higher the skills are, the more effective they become, the longer their buffs/debuffs will last and the harder it will be to affect them.
Lenore: Opponents have preset skill/ability levels and the player has to figure out how to use his skills and those of his companions to best advantage. Remember the companions can be developed to complement the PC. In the D&D level system, higher levels do more damage for longer basically. In our system, a PC could have maxed out his combat skills (which would have cost him in areas like healing and magic ability) and be a deadly fighter early. But it would be hard on him in other ways, because Tortured Hearts emphasizes problem solving over combat.
RPGWatch: In what way do we progress as a character?
Lenore: Characters gain XP through conversations, finishing quests, doing tasks, using skills, and combat. XP can be exchanged for ability or skill points. Abilities cost more than skill points. There are six abilities, Strength, Agility, Intellect, Bravery, Appeal, and Dexterity. The highest level you can have in an ability is 10. There are 21 regular skills such as Magical Ability and Small Weapons, and 6 crafting skills which enable you to make buffs and saleable items. The top level in skills is 10.
Zoltan: You can gain a skill or ability point whenever you have enough XP and want to take the point. You can save it up too. The companions also gain skills and abilities this way and the player can develop them as he likes, beyond their initial stats. There are no race or class restrictions on what skills or abilities you can have. There are also tactical traits, one per PC/companion. Those are chosen in the beginning and are either party buffs or enemy debuffs. They are like feats, they don’t change.
RPGWatch: What attributes/stats/traits can we change if any?
Lenore: All of them except the tactical trait which the player chooses in the beginning. You can wipe out your entire progress and redistribute the XP in different skills and abilities.
Zoltan: There is a cost to do this and the player will not be at as high a level overall.
RPGWatch: What do you consider to be the Highlight of the game?
Lenore: The non-linearity, because it means that the areas don't "dry up" for a long time. You can keep going round and round and not feel like you hit a wall. The more side quests the player takes, the deeper it gets. It can be replayed in any number of ways depending on the sequence the player follows.
Zoltan: An interesting cast of characters in a cohesive story from beginning to end which emphasizes companionship. As in real life all the interpersonal stuff takes much time--about a hundred hours of playing time. Or even more.
RPGWatch: What is it that you want to accomplish with Tortured Hearts?
Lenore: As I writer, I find games a great medium to express my thoughts. But I want to create a great story, not a series of homilies. And I would like to make enough money to keep making interesting games.
Zoltan: I would like to realize my dream project: putting the first game I made, Newcomer, on the PC. I don't want to die before that...
But now let’s go back to Tortured Hearts and save the Universe.
RPGWatch: Are there parts of the game that you consider to be finished?
Zoltan: Plot items on data level (need modeling), henchman relationships, crafting, scripting, NPC one-liners (which in itself is a huge amount of text on top of conversations), character development system.
RPGWatch: Why do you need funding and cannot finish it continuing like you have done up to now?
Lenore: Because we can't afford, actually, to pay the graphic artists, musicians, programmers, testers, and miscellaneous helpers that it will take to make the graphic interface and attach all the stuff that is already done. I really don’t know of a project of this size and technical complexity that was done by only two people.
Zoltan: We have done everything two people can do for free. I alone worked more than 5000 hours on writing dialogs and scripting the entire thing since 2008.
RPGWatch: You are aiming rather high with a goal of $300,000. Why do you think this is realistic?
Lenore: If we could create a good graphic interface for the $2000 or $3000 that some people think is all that indies need or deserve, it would be done already. We consider ourselves professional game creators with high standards even if we aren’t some big-name studio, and we already put thousands of hours of our own time into this project intending to make, eventually, a game as beautiful to look at as it is intricately thought out. There is certainly plenty of data available to justify an estimate of $300,000 to produce a high-quality visual interface.
First, I'd like to refer you to the recent survey of industry salaries: http://gamasutra.com/view/news/167355/Game_Developer_reveals_2011_Game_Industry_Salary_Survey_results.php
Second, I'd like to remind you that this will take about 18 months of development time by at least two programmers, at least four graphic artists, two music studios--based on this salary survey we're already way over $300,000. Even taking the low end of this survey. And there are bound to be more labor costs, not to mention other professional fees like accounting and attorney fees, and office expenses. It can’t be done in a garage and on weekends. This budget doesn't include money for Zoltan or myself, or even for testers: we hope someday to have a commercial product but in the meantime we’re supporting ourselves other ways.
Third, for a little independent corroboration, I'd refer you to Tim Schafer in the Double Fine Adventure pitch video on Kickstarter: at the end he explains that his request for $400,000 breaks down to $100,000 to make a documentary of making the game, and $300,000 to make the game--and he says "$300,000 is not a lot to make a game." The word of an expert, who is talking about a point-and-click adventure game, a much simpler prospect than a large RPG.
We could have asked for less, hoping we'd be overpledged. But what if we weren't? We couldn't promise a finished game of the best quality; maybe we couldn’t have finished at all.
Zoltan: See above. For a 18 month project during which you have to create 200 areas, fill them with hundreds of NPCs with well-done models and animations, this amount of money is just barely enough, even in a country where wages are lower than in the US. Each costume part like a cape or helmet is a separate model from the basic characters, of which there are 6 races, 2 genders each. To be able to customize a character by putting on a helmet requires a new model separate from the basic head, to have different faces for 500 NPCs is 500 models. Every weapon and animal or monster is another model. Inventory items have to be made. There is also the voice acting for plot characters and localization. And even though lots of the rewards are digital, they also have to be managed, which will be another cost in labor and material.
RPGWatch: What will happen with the game if you do not reach the goal?
Lenore: We will use what we have learned in this effort and try again. We have other games which we hope to sell to raise money in the meantime, and we will use that to continue on whatever art we can afford.
Zoltan: We are going to kickstart a playable demo, unless a publisher begins to fund the game.
RPGWatch: To what games can Tortured Hearts be compared? How would you classify it?
Zoltan: TH is an epic game in every aspect. It could be compared to Fallout 2 or Baldur’s Gate, but Tortured Hearts is more complex.
Lenore: I would compare it to Torment in the literate and philosophical area, except there are more areas and more possibilities, and a much happier ending. There were some old adventure games I loved, Buried in Time and Legacy of Time, and I would compare the long complicated story to them. Both of those had surprise twists and TH does too.
I've seen speculation that Tortured Hearts could be similar to Frayed Knights. Frayed Knights is a dungeon crawl and combat oriented game, Tortured Hearts is a complex story and character oriented. The style of humor is quite different also. As for the graphics, we are going to make it with commercial-grade graphics and that's why it costs much more than the usual indie RPG.
RPGWatch: In what way will Tortured Hearts be made available? Digital download? Boxed version?
Lenore: Basically, it'll be a digital download game, but money can change plenty of things, of course. Steam is a distinct possibility; people seem to like it and the customer is always right, you know.
Zoltan: I'd like a boxed version, but it truly depends on the budget. $300,000, considering what else needs to be done, absolutely doesn't make it possible.
RPGWatch: When do you think Tortured Hearts will be available?
Lenore: Our most optimistic estimate would be a year, assuming we could start out at full speed. Personally I am always cautious and allow at least 25% for unforeseen problems; they may not be foreseen but they always seem to crop up. That would be at least 16 months.
Zoltan: If funding was successful, somewhere by the time Wasteland 2 is supposed to be done.
RPGWatch: Is there anything you want to add?
Lenore: Everyone was a newcomer once.
Zoltan: If people want to play neat games other than what the mainstream industry can offer, they personally need to do something about it...
RPGWatch: Thanks for the interview.