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Default Jeff Vogel - Why all Our Games Look Like Crap

August 24th, 2019, 01:08
Jeff Vogel has written a piece on why his games look as they do.

We've been writing indie games for a living for 25 years. My wife and I run a humble little mom-and-pop business. We make retro low-budget role-playing games that have great stories and design and are a lot of fun.

Also, they look like crap.

The first game I released, in January of 1995, looked like crap. It achieved financial success (among the blind, apparently), which funded many more games that looked like crap, enabling me to build a solid reputation.

Based on this reputation, we had a successful Kickstarter for Queen's Wish: The Conqueror, an exciting upcoming RPG that will look like crap. We hope it will be a gateway to us making games that look like crap for many years to come.

We have no complaints. We are in the middle of a long, successful career, and everything is rosy. However, sometimes I like to write about the indie game business and help people understand how it works and give advice to younger developers. This article is about why our games look the way they do, whether you like them or not (probably not).
The editorial goes on by Jeff talking about why he thinks his games, and especially Queen's Wish, do not look like crap and why he does what he does.

More information.
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August 24th, 2019, 01:32
At least he admits it…but seriously. I could be mean and say something like, "so he is justifying mediocrity, at least in the graphics department of his games". But I won't. (ok, so I did a "Trump-ism", saying something mean, and then saying that I won't say it)

Anyway, I get it. He is happy with his little niche. I'm sure his fans will keep buying his games (retreads?) as long as he keeps churning them out. And I will continue to be a non-buyer, unless I see (major) improvements in the graphics department. My 2 cents.
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August 24th, 2019, 01:40
Second, again, I think Queen’s Wish looks really nice and comfy. Maybe it's a generational thing. People who grew up with Nintendo and Sega really like pixel art. I grew up with Atari and Intellivision, and I am very used to having art that leaves a lot to the imagination.
Definitely NOT generational. I grew up with the same thing. I even loved Atari's Adventure, but playing it today sounds crazy to me. Maybe once to see if I can still get through the mazes right the first time, then one quick dance with the Magic Dot for old times' sake and I would be done. There's just so little to the game! Most of the fun came in finding glitches - even back then, playing the game as intended got old in about 4 hours.

I wonder… instead of going for more graphics, what about less? "Nothing can match the resolution of your own imagination!" Isn't that what Infocom said? Would it be better to dump the graphics completely and do a text adventure?
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August 24th, 2019, 01:53
I think the fact that each of his highly questionable arguments is marked as “LESSON” is quite telling… It all strikes me as a bit of a humblebrag, underpinned by a slightly snotty attitude.

Actually, I suspect that following his advice and attitude would likely not serve anyone well who is trying to break into the market. TBH, I think he got very lucky in finding a small, faithful following during the years of RPG drought.
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August 24th, 2019, 03:20
I mean, the thing about his games is that they were fun. I haven't been back to his games since Geneforge and Avernum (one of the iterations of them) and they were fun to play.

Most games that appeal to that throwback sensibility do so with retro graphics. There are plenty of old games that aren't pushing anything graphically but still look fine. But Vogel games aren't retro - they were always ugly. This is sort of the ultimate test for people who say they don't care about graphics - there's a difference between "not good" and "bad."

But they were fun and for a lot of people that's all that mattered.

As for his dickishness… I don't know, I don't really care. He's spent 20 years catching shit, as an individual, for what he does - from the rise of the internet, as it discovered how much fun it is to anonymously dump on someone. I hope people are still enjoying his games and they're still fun to play, there aren't really many people doing what he does how he does it.
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August 24th, 2019, 03:33
He has very valid points as a small business owner operator. If his business is able to make enough money to support his family from game sales then all the more power to him. In the last 25 years how many game companies have gone under by pushing expenses past resources and hoping sales would pull them out of the hole only to not sell enough and go under. I see it in my own business of farming too, farmers expand too fast only to have weather or the market go against them and it's hard times for the future.

Unless you have ran your own small business it's pretty hard to criticize the guy for being risk adverse.
And he is right being your own boss gives you a whole lot of freedom, if not money.
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August 24th, 2019, 03:38
Sure, and if his case was that his games look like crap but are fun, that would be fine. But I find a lot of what he says here to be unconvincing (people that hate his graphics would only be satisfied by AAA quality - that's nonsense), and I think that if someone without his faithful following made a game today that looked like something off a 1996 shareware disk, they would hamstring their chances. I think sometimes one does have to take some of the business risks he gets away with not taking. (And, not so much of a risk when one is handed $100k of Kickstarter money to hire some help!)
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August 24th, 2019, 04:04
From what I read in prior interviews and stuff I believe that he got mad because he once tried to please these people, only to find out that it is never enough. He's not a graphic artist and he doesn't really have the money to hire one full-time, so I understand him. He needs to make a profit. That's it. He knows that he would spend too much on actually good assets because his team is small and he is really not good at it, so why try? That said, his latest game looks shittier than the previous ones. It's a shame, man.
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August 24th, 2019, 04:10
Yeah, it's the fact he's trying to frame it in terms of lessons and weak justifications I find questionable. If he just said that he's making enough money, and is happy plodding along without taking risks, fair enough - good for him. But I do think he's in an unusual position, and if others looked to him for their lessons - badly-done graphics, very little audio, and years of recycling - it wouldn't go too well for them.
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August 24th, 2019, 07:07
I tend to think he's just flat-out full of shit. His kickstarter raised $98,992 for Queens's Wish, and I find it very hard to believe he spent anywhere near that much on the game.

Ghost of a Tale, a game I just recently finished, was crowdfunded with just under $55k. I know that wasn't the total cost because the dev had already been working on it for close to year, but the difference in productions values between that game and Queen's Wish is insane. On top of that, most of the work was done by a single person, and it was his first game.

Iirc, Legend of Grimrock was also made with a little over $50k. When I look at games like those, it makes Vogel's rationalizations seem all the more hollow.
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August 24th, 2019, 07:30
This is nothing more than promotion for his game, which launches in September. He writes an almost identical article every few years.
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August 24th, 2019, 09:21
Yea…I did like some of his games, but trying to justify this crap kinda annoys me. I would expect that in the years 2019 and with a crowdfounded campaign he would do something decent. This looks worse than his first games. I'm having trouble taking him seriously right now.
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August 24th, 2019, 10:00
Originally Posted by JDR13 View Post
I tend to think he's just flat-out full of shit. His kickstarter raised $98,992 for Queens's Wish, and I find it very hard to believe he spent anywhere near that much on the game.

Ghost of a Tale, a game I just recently finished, was crowdfunded with just under $55k. I know that wasn't the total cost because the dev had already been working on it for close to year, but the difference in productions values between that game and Queen's Wish is insane. On top of that, most of the work was done by a single person, and it was his first game.

Iirc, Legend of Grimrock was also made with a little over $50k. When I look at games like those, it makes Vogel's rationalizations seem all the more hollow.
I doubt highly that either of those games was just made with 50k, that is to say, I bet the people who made those games basically worked a full time job with no pay to get their games made, for a year or more. I've supported a huge number of kickstarters, and a lot of games where things are being Kickstarted for under 100k, people are basically working for free, hoping that the game will payout when its finished. In the cases you listed above, I'm sure they did. In other cases people have worked 1, 2, 3 years and they get very little back. That maybe okay for someone who is young, but a guy supporting a family will think twice about going that route. He hired a sound engineer and an artist for Queen's Wish, whether that justifies the 95k or whether he got something worthwhile for his money (with the art I definitely think he made a poor choice) is another question.
Of the games I funded that were not hugely successful, well most of those developers I've never heard from again. I think the experience can be quite discouraging if one is not a Darkest Dungeon developer.
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August 24th, 2019, 10:12
Well, I think Kickstarter is infested with amateurs and incompetents that have no business being on there in the first place. That they fall on their faces and go and get a job in Carphone Warehouse does not surprise me. Vogel compares well to them, in that he knows what he's doing, as far as it goes, and he makes damn sure he stays under budget.
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August 24th, 2019, 10:46
I thought about this a bit - one thing i've observed over the years is that different generations have different talents. Jeff probably doesn't know how to use modern tools for making 1/4 decent graphics. I suspect the person who made Ghost of a Tale learned how to use those tools (perhaps friends, internet or maybe school) and has some natural ability to make the sort of graphics he needed for his game (it was perhaps the knowledge/talent that allowed him to pursue making the game).
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Sometime it isn't about a huge gap in talent as much as it is a gap in learning experience.
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I've not been expose to the tools to make a game and I'm unsure how quickly i would pick it up on my own in isolation (not a lot of motivation to dwell in that direction right now) on the other hand I have a friend who has a friend who teaches (at masters level) a gaming class that covers the basic in graphic production - so if you took his class you would be expose to those tools and part of the learning curve would evaporate.
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On the other hand I do know a *lot* about programming and internal design and could write a game 100 times more efficient than most of the ones we see hitting the market because those talent game makers know crap about algorithms and efficiency much less about internet efficency (ever dump the communication in some of these games - it is insanely inefficient).
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The point is that knowledge and abilities go a long ways in your decision process. It is often difficult to do things you don't know how to do but once you know how to do it it is trivial - and that gap can be as simple as watching someone else once (or a video these modern times) BUT it has to be the right person (or right video) because learning how to do it incorrectly (or the hard way) can be as bad as not learning at all.
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I dont know jeff or his talent level (ability to visualize/learn new things) but i strongly suspect that is part of the driver - he doens't know how to do better graphics - he reluctant or unable to learn and he is not expose to the correct talent pool (friends - inner circle - community) to learn the trick of doing slightly better graphics easily - and he can't afford to actually hire someone to do it for him.
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Another example - when I was in college I learn how to write an interpreter. The next semester I was hired to write a simple interpreter for an environmental monitoring system (you could adjust the model by adding cascading rule system). The work was trivial - it took days to add what they had spent over a year trying to add to the system - but only because I knew how to use the right tools (lex/yacc) and understood the inner workings. Without the course - something I could do in under a week might have taken 4 to 8 months and might have been far less efficient.
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The point is that it was easy work but for them it was difficult - not because i was particularly talented or smart but because I had seen a simple approach to the problem previously.
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I know i wrote a lot and it is not well expressed but I think what it boils down to is Jeff doesn't know how to make better graphics in an easy fashion and he can't afford to hire someone but if someone could show him an easy way to improve his graphics he might be willing to do so.
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Easy things are hard until they become easy and then you can't understand why others don't see just how easy something is because they can't grasp the short path and keep taking the long path (which makes it hard).
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The rest is just excuses to justify his current position. He has a model that works and he doesn't see an easy (risk free) path from where he is to where we think he should be.
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For the record I would like higher resolution in his games - perhaps grimlock or wasteland 2 level - not so much dynamic lighting but stronger boundaries between the sprites and background. I personally am not a graphic whore - i still find wiz 8 graphics to be acceptable but when it can be hard to see things at a glance on a high resolution monitor - then it becomes annoying (i do not want to pixel hunt - while pixel hunting is a game - it is not a game i enjoyed). zooming/rotation are added bonuses.

Originally Posted by JDR13 View Post
I tend to think he's just flat-out full of shit. His kickstarter raised $98,992 for Queens's Wish, and I find it very hard to believe he spent anywhere near that much on the game.

Ghost of a Tale, a game I just recently finished, was crowdfunded with just under $55k. I know that wasn't the total cost because the dev had already been working on it for close to year, but the difference in productions values between that game and Queen's Wish is insane. On top of that, most of the work was done by a single person, and it was his first game.

Iirc, Legend of Grimrock was also made with a little over $50k. When I look at games like those, it makes Vogel's rationalizations seem all the more hollow.
Last edited by you; August 24th, 2019 at 10:57.
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August 24th, 2019, 11:09
I agree with what "you" says. I work with a lot of programmers (both games and applications), and code applications myself. It is extremely common to find programmers familiar with one code-path and way of working, and produce utterly amazing results in their area of expertise, but be at a loss when trying to do something outside of their comfort zone (at least without access to someone who has trodden that ground before).

Indeed, from my own experience, I've honed my familiarity with various libraries (and their construction) over the years and can work well with them, but when someone comes along and says "how do I do xyz with abc-set-of-tools/libraries" I'm struggling.

Mr Vogel has a set of tools which work for him, and with which he's intimately familiar. His games break even, and feed his family. He's a happy guy (I hope).

Also, IIRC his lead platform was/is Mac. AFAIK there's less of a game-development ecosystem on Mac in terms of "people to talk to" and until the last 10 years or so, probably less in the way of Mac-friendly game tools/engines/libraries.

If he moved to (say) 3D games in Unity, he'd have a learning curve, and without people to talk with, and bounce ideas off, that'd probably be years of work, expensive assets (his large game worlds need a lot of assets), in the *hope* of increased sales. That's a pretty dicey prospect when you're self-employed.

I can't blame him, but equally I always bounce off his games and I really wish I didn't. It isn't *quite* "just the graphics" but rather the immersion and feel of the game that a better presentation brings with it. I'm quite happy playing old-ish Might and Magic games visually, but they're very different in style to Spidersweb games. I suspect my problem is that I find the games a bit "dry" coupled with visuals that are a bit "dry" that don't hook me.

So, I probably just have to accept that Spidersweb may not be for me, sadly, but thankfully for Jeff, he has a loyal customer base who *love* his games, but he won't be "mainstream". And probably doesn't want to be.
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August 24th, 2019, 11:40
There's a lot of good points there about programmers and their skillsets. But, I do think one has to bear in mind that this is the software entertainment business, and that innovation and progress in the final product are quite important. Terry above made a comparison to farming, but I'd say there's a major distinction - if you're a farmer churning out the same thing year after year, that's great - that's what we need you to do. But, in the entertainment business, that's a problem - if you're essentially doing the same thing over and over, to ever diminishing artistic returns (and in some ways regressing from where you were 20 years ago), that's not such a good thing.

Vogel talks on the one hand about artistic integrity, and then also as if it’s an extremely risk-averse mom-and-pop cottage industry. I think there’s a bit of a conflict there. I have a couple of friends that work in the entertainment business, and I think they’d tell you that if you have ambitions for real creative achievement, then every project is a risk. If you want a nice steady job writing for a Channel 5 soap opera, fair enough, but don’t be surprised if you don’t get much kudos for it, and no-one is too interested in your “art”.
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August 24th, 2019, 11:44
Originally Posted by Zloth View Post
"Nothing can match the resolution of your own imagination!" Isn't that what Infocom said? Would it be better to dump the graphics completely and do a text adventure?
This is a thing I agree with to 200 %.

My dream is to make an text adventure one day, but I fear that no-one would play this these days.

Instead I get replies like these : https://www.ddo.com/forums/showthrea…=1#post6242237
But, okay, this was from a permadeath server the devs had especially set up …

Thanks to Blizzard who made everyone believe that Dialogs don't belong into RPGs.
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August 24th, 2019, 12:40
I have enjoyed his Avernum games. I love the setting and it feels like an old AD&D campaign. Plus, he does reward the player that loves to explore. His games do have that old sandbox feel where you get your butt kicked and have to come back in five lvls to get your revenge.

The games play totally different but Avernum always seemed like an underground Might and Magic.
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August 24th, 2019, 13:23
I’m not expecting his games to be beautiful but this is the first time he has regressed his graphics which is what is annoying me. I’ll wait for the reviews
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