Meriwether is a historical RPG that ran a successful Kickstarter campaign in December last year. I got in touch with Studio head and lead designer Josh DeBonis to ask some questions about their project.
RPGWatch: Hello Josh. Please introduce yourself and your development studio, Sortasoft, to our readers. What got you into making games and into business as an independent developer? How did you assemble your team?
Josh: I'm a designer of all types of games-real world, board, and videogames. I'm also Director of a small independent studio in Brooklyn, NY, called Sortasoft LLC. One of my other recent games is a 10-player arcade game called Killer Queen.
I became interested in making games when I was a teenager-my father had an early IBM PC in his home office. It was a machine meant for business-not games-and I wasn't supposed to use it so naturally I would sneak down at night and play the few games he had for it. I started modifying them and writing some simple games just for myself. I never really considered it as a career until 2004, when I dove in headfirst and started making games for other people to play.
Everyone on the Meriwether team fills a very specific role, but we all have a say in the design. Most of the team members I have worked with on other projects. We are also joined by someone who is making her first videogame--Barb Kubik, our historian, who specializes in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It has been a pleasure working with her and learning from each other.
RPGWatch: Your website lists a number of real-life games as well as a number of casual computer games in your portfolio. Meriwether would appear to be your first CRPG and the most ambitious project you have tackled so far. How did you arrive at the decision to develop a CRPG?
Josh: I've always played a lot of RPGs-in fact the Ultima series largely inspired me to make games (IV was great but VI is the best!) But this is the first RPG I've made. This is largely because most of my work is smaller scale, and mostly is not narratively driven. I chose the genre because I felt that it best reflected the types of gameplay that I know represent the story of the Corps of Discovery, and also allows us to delve deep into Lewis's personality and his relationship with his party.
RPGWatch: Meriwether, subtitled "An American Epic" is based on the Lewis & Clark expedition, which is a well-known historical event in the U.S. Could you summarize the scenario for our non-American readers, and explain why you chose it as a basis for your game?
Josh: In 1804, President Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis along with a party over 30 men, a woman, a baby, and a Newfoundland dog on a journey across the North American continent. They were looking for the Northwest Passage. They never found it, but they had an amazing adventure, made it from coast to coast, and met so many interesting people along the way.
RPGWatch: Most games based on historical scenarios tend to take a very loose "based on" or "alternate history" approach. In contrast, your game features the actual historical people and events that made up the Lewis and Clark expedition. Why did you choose this approach for Meriwether?
Josh: Clark, Lewis, and several of their men kept extensive journals-much more detailed than any of the contemporaries. As such, we know so much about their journey. It is filled with humor, adventure, and many things that are just downright weird. The tight constraint of being true to history is allowing us, nay requiring us, to invent innovative game mechanics to portray the past.
RPGWatch: Which of these innovations is your personal favorite?
Josh: I personally love the facet mechanic. I feel like it's an innovative addition to the genre, but also does a great job of portraying that Lewis has an intricate personality that has been established before you even started playing the game. Obviously this wouldn't work in many RPGs, but it's a unique direction that helps distinguish our game.
RPGWatch: Did you find it difficult to balance historical fidelity with the demands of game design?
Josh: Historical fidelity may have made our process longer and more difficult, but ultimately I believe such a tight constraint led us to a better game because we had to eschew many conventions of other games. An important moment for us was when we realized what historical fidelity means to this game. Like in all games, many things are abstracted. Choosing what should be abstracted, and how, was a long process-which is actually still going on. We are trying to convey the feeling of exploration and the sense of wonder that the Corps had, and by doing so we feel that we are being true to the story, while recognizing that we are making a game and, at the end of the day, it has to be fun on its own terms.
RPGWatch: The historical setting as well as the financial support the project received by various public sources could lead gamers to the conclusion that Meriwether will be more Edutainment than game. What are the central gameplay elements that you think will make Meriwether attractive to RPG players?
Josh: It's been a constant struggle to separate Meriwether from edutainment. Yes, you will learn things playing this game. But we are approaching it first and foremost as a game, in the same way that we approach other games we design. I tend to favor elegant, distilled game mechanics that are easily approachable but have great depth to explore. This philosophy manifests itself in Meriwether in many ways; we wanted a game that won't feel too daunting to a history buff who doesn't play a lot of video games, but also will have lots of difficult choices to offer to hardcore gamers. We have shown and playtested the game at both PAX East and a Lewis and Clark convention, and had a very positive response at each. I think we are well on way to making that difficult balance a reality.
There's two parts that will be especially attractive to CRPG players. The first is our dialogue system. Our writer, Carlos Hernandez, is an incredible storyteller and he is giving a unique voice to all of the amazing characters. The conversations are a pleasure to play, but they also offer an interesting "facet" mechanic. We associate each dialogue choice with one facet of Lewis's personality-leader, soldier, diplomat, scientist, or melancholy. When you choose an option, it increases your level in that facet. Occasionally, you need to choose melancholy to keep balanced, which can often lead to an undesirable situation. The trick is to choose it at the right moment! So the facet system will couple a good story with good gameplay and provides players with a pretty unique dialogue system.
The other mechanic that I think will interest CRPG players is managing the party as a whole. You need to balance all of your resources very carefully. Will you spend your timing hunting or clearing a safe path for your boats? Will you trade your last spare rifle for horses to make your journey across the Rocky Mountains easier? The real Lewis and Clark Expedition had to think about balancing those choices every second of their voyage, and they import beautifully into our game.
RPGWatch: Regarding the facet system, what effects does your level in the different facets have in the game? Is the level checked in dialog or are there effects outside of dialog?
Josh: Facet levels are not checked in dialogue, although we had experimented with that for a while. Instead, they each are tied to various game mechanics.
Leader: Increases the number of followers you can have (followers do things like carry resources back to camp, act as watch if you're camping out, or clear hazards for the boat to travel through.)
Soldier: Increases your accuracy with weapons.
Diplomat: Increases likelihood of trade opportunities, and gives you better "prices". Diplomat also affects the behavior of some NPCs.
Scientist: Increases the number of plant samples you can take per specimen, how quickly you can observe animals, and how many clues you get in the medicine minigame.
Melancholy: This one works differently. As it builds up, you get less of a bonus from the other facets. When you choose a melancholy option in dialogue, it eliminates all the melancholy that has built up. You gain melancholy automatically over time, as well as through certain in-game actions. For instance, if you try to heal someone through the medicine minigame and fail, you gain melancholy.
RPGWatch: You mentioned the importance of resource management. What happens If the corps runs out of a resource, say food or fuel? Can the expedition fail completely if that happens?
Josh: While you're travelling, you have to consume at least 1 wood and 1 food. If you don't want to, or can't afford it, you take a morale hit. If morale drops to rock bottom, the Corps mutinies and it's game over. So, it's ok to temporarily run low, but it can be deadly if you go for more than a couple days. You also have a small supply of disgusting but nourishing iron rations called "portable soup" that you can dip into in an emergency.
RPGWatch: You have stated that in contrast to most CRPGs, combat is not a major focus in Meriwether. How did you go about creating interesting gameplay for a CRPG without this typically central gameplay element?
Josh: Personally I love combat in RPGs, but it wasn't an appropriate direction for this game. Historically, the Expedition got into one fight, and came close a couple other times, but even though they were a military expedition, they were on a mission of peace. If you look at RPG combat formally, it almost always comes down to some form of resources management-usually under the guise of trading damage for hit points. We have made the "gamey" aspects of the game very much about managing your men and materiel, which allows you to explore interesting systems in the same way that combat often does. Combat can occur in Meriwether, but it is uncommon, simple, and lethal. My favorite aspect of combat in Meriwether is our game's "dragons"-ferocious grizzly bears. Reloading is slow, so you usually only get one shot, and if you miss, you better be prepared to run!
RPGWatch: One of the central pillars of RPG design is character creation and character development. Meriwether's setting is based on real people and probably doesn't lend itself to the typical "wimp-to-hero" character progression of the RPG genre. How have you approached this aspect?
Josh: Meriwether definitely differs from many RPGs in that you don't start with a blank slate. You start with an established character, and he must act within reason for Meriwether Lewis. It's made dialogue very unique and incredibly interesting, because often instead of choosing *what* to do, you choose *how* to do it. For instance, at one point, you must hold a court martial for one of you men. Military regulation dictates that it must happen, but you can choose to be more of a soldier, and stick to the letter of the law, or you can be a diplomat and be more lenient. Lewis's character changes throughout the game as you choose to emphasize certain facets over others. Additionally, many of the other major characters have their own story arc that changes over time based on your interactions with them.
RPGWatch: Freedom to explore but also choices with consequences are another feature often named by our readers as important. As a historical game, how much freedom does Meriwether grant us to deviate from the historical events? How much choice do we have in dialog and decision making, and what kind of consequences can we expect?
Josh: Well, to start, Lewis and Clark didn't die on their voyage: but the player can! More seriously, though, the fact is we wouldn't be making a game if we just wanted to put the player on a narrative rail and force a predestined outcome: novels are a wonderful artform that already accomplish that very, very well. So what we are trying to do is use the best historical research available to us to create a field of plausible scenarios in which the player can play. A "field" has boundaries, but it is much, much wider than a straight line.
A few examples. It's believed that the Corps of Discovery killed at most two Native Americans in combat. Players, depending on how they handle situations, might kill none, or more, or get themselves killed. Sacagawea may end up staying with her people, the Shoshone, rather than remaining with the Corps all the way to the Pacific and back to Fort Mandan. Only one man died during the real Corps of Discovery's travels: something of a miracle. Players shouldn't expect miracles-at least not during their first playthrough.
RPGWatch: So it seems there is definitely a chance for the player to influence the fate of the expedition members, and the success of various missions within the story arc. Will there be some kind of endgame or ending slides that summarize the players choices and achievements?
Josh: Yes, and we're very excited about it! You return to President Jefferson at the end of the game and summarize your exploits, which he reacts to. There is also an epilogue that sums up the fates of many members of your party, as well as other NPCs that you encounter throughout. There are several different fates for each of the major members, that depend on your actions.
RPGWatch: Meriwether, not unlike the recently released Expeditions: Conquistador, seems to feature a strong element of expedition management, especially in the so-called "travel levels". Can you describe this aspect in a little more detail?
Josh: In these levels, your party needs to travel across a long stretch of the trail, usually along a river. While keeping your pace, you must manage your basic supplies, like food, fuel, and gifts while keeping your morale high. You do this by sending out small parties of men led by various characters. Each character has unique traits. For instance, Lewis can observe new plants and animals, Clark's dead reckoning helps him with map-making, Drouillard is a bad-ass hunter, and Sgt. Gass leads a large crew of privates.
RPGWatch: Travel levels are procedurally generated and according to your most recent update, will also feature procedural events and encounters. Can you give us a few examples of what kind of challenges we might encounter? (Note: A lot of detail on how travel levels and some other systems work can be found in update 33 on Meriwether's Kickstarter page.)
Josh: That Kickstarter update you mentioned definitely has a lot of details, but I will relate an anecdote that happened to me earlier today that I found really fun and exciting. I had a full supply of food and, having my basic needs accounted for, some spare time to chase down a bird for my journal. Doing so would allow me to describe it for science and bring up my morale a little bit in the process. I was far away from the main party and so had to camp out for the night by myself, not having anyone with me to post a watch. In the morning, the main party took off as usual, but hit some rapids, losing half of my food. Then I woke up to discover that while I was sleeping, someone came by and because I had no watch, they stole the other half of my food! Immediately I had to forget about the rare bird and change my strategy to survival instinct. I happened across a small party of Oto who were offering to sell me some meager provisions for one of my spare rifles. It was a pretty bad deal, but I felt like I had to take it anyway, wondering if they were the same people who stole my rations the previous night. Having enough to last us just a single day, I went back to the main party and switched to Drouillard, the expert hunter, hoping to bag a couple elk to last us for the rest of this leg of the journey.
That, in a nutshell, is what procedurality can give you--an unpredictable set of challenges that can combine to tell a unique story.
RPGWatch: The Lewis and Clark expedition was a peaceful mission and had the task to make contact with, observe, and report on the native American peoples they would encounter, but the long-term intention was also to establish U.S. sovereignty over these people after the recent Louisiana Purchase. To look down on them as savages was probably the norm at the time. One of the expedition members, York, is an African American slave. How do you deal with potentially sensitive racial or social themes in Meriwether?
Josh: The game is from Lewis's perspective, and often times he says some things that are surprising to modern ears. We don't gloss over the more controversial content, but neither do we glorify it. We try to present things as they were from Lewis's perspective. We are doing our best to portray American Indians as individuals and not as stereotypes. We try to depict each tribe as a different nation, rather than a single amalgamation. We are working with experts to ensure that their depiction is both accurate and culturally sensitive.
RPGWatch: As already mentioned, you have received funding from a number of sources - how important was the Kickstarter campaign for this project? Has the Kickstarter funding been adequate to achieve the goals you had set for yourself?
Josh: The Kickstarter campaign was incredibly helpful in making our fans and the community aware of the game and getting them involved in the process. The funding from Kickstarter was certainly important, but would not have been enough to make this game if we didn't also have additional grant funding, as well as our own investments. Since the Kickstarter ended, preorders have also helped to sustain us. If you're interested in preordering, you still can at http://meriwethergame.com/preorder
RPGWatch: How far along are you with Development? Are you on still track for the originally projected 2013 release?
Josh: We are just about to be able to have our first full playthrough of the game, which is very exciting to us! Up to this point we have had to evaluate each level on its own, but now we can experience the threads as they build through the story. There are still many rough edges that we are working on in all aspects. The aspect that is furthest behind is art production (which is not uncommon), but not so far as to worry us too much. Yes, we are still on track to release at the end of 2013!
RPGWatch: Josh, thanks a lot for the interview!
Josh: Thank you for all your support of this project! We can't wait to finish this game and share it with the world.
(Disclaimer: The interview was conducted by GhanBuriGhan via email in June 2013. Ghan is a backer of the Meriwether Kickstarter but otherwise unaffiliated with Sortasoft)
Developer: Sortasoft LLC
Play-time: 10-20 hours
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PC
· To be announced
· Publisher: Sortasoft LLC