An Interview with Jeff Vogel
Spiderweb has been creating indie RPGs for over a decade now - quite a feat of longevity for a small outfit in a niche market. With the more action-oriented Avernum 4 out now for several months and Geneforge 4: Rebellion due in the near future, we had the chance to fire off some questions about the indie market and the next Geneforge.
RPGWatch: Do you see the player demand for more advanced technology making the successful indie development of cRPGs harder, or is that outweighed by better development tools, things like the rise of broadband and online distribution or more players disenfranchised with AAA offerings?
Jeff Vogel: That’s a very good question, and, if I knew more about marketing, I could give it the answer it deserves. But sometimes it’s a mystery to me why I sell so many games.
But I will say this. One thing that trumps most other factors is the simple lack of new, quality single-player RPGs in the marketplace. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion showed that there’s a desire. But most of the time, I’m one of the few people fulfilling it.
RPGWatch: You have said the sales success of Avernum 4 is due in part to the action focus – while acknowledging some of your fanbase prefers a different style of gameplay with more emphasis on dialogue and plot. Did the action in Avernum 4 attract a wider audience or do “hardcore” cRPG players secretly like a dungeon romp?
Jeff Vogel: I think there is plenty of room in the genre for success for just about every style of play. Both hack and slash and more cerebral games will sell, if they have quality. (Though I suspect that even the best more cerebral game won’t sell unless it packs a good dose of fightin’.)
I tend to write very different sorts of RPGs, just so I can keep it feeling fresh for me. My current game, Geneforge 4: Rebellion has more heavy plot stuff than just about everything I’ve ever done. It’s nice to write that after the more action-heavy Avernum 4.
RPGWatch: A tongue-in-cheek comment in one of your RPG Vault columns described Nethergate as not having an “asinine Tolkien-world with dwarves and hobbits and crap” but you also acknowledged “straight-up hack 'em good fantasy” sells. In the back of your mind, have you thought about creating a new setting beyond Avernum and Geneforge? Hypothetically – how do you balance the potentially better sales from traditional fantasy versus being more creative and avoiding “asinine crap”?
Jeff Vogel: I want to write a game with a light, funny setting. Lots of humor and crazy fights and puzzles. So I am definitely thinking about what’s coming up.
But I will always write games with a fantasy element. I’m just not brave enough to fight the marketplace. Originally, Geneforge was going to be pure sci-fi, and I think it would have made more sense like that. But then I realized that, at some point, I wanted people to buy it.
RPGWatch: Speaking personally, I enjoy the turn-based combat in Spiderweb’s games but I’d like more options, such as active combat skills, different melee attacks and so on. Is this something you would ever consider?
Jeff Vogel: Yes. This will happen at some point. Not Geneforge 4, though.
RPGWatch: So, Geneforge 4: Rebellion is on the horizon and players will start as rebels for the first time. How much does this mix up the story and general gameplay compared to previous Geneforges?
Jeff Vogel: The basic gameplay is the same, though I am adding more creations and spells and smoothing out a lot of the old rough spots. The new action point system, for example, is much, much better.
But the story has a much different feel. You start on the bottom, not the top. From the very start, you are hunted. There are fewer supplies, fewer allies. It takes a long time to find a place where you can feel safe. And the Shapers who are trying to win you away from the rebellion can dangle lots of treasures and treats in front of you to get you to switch.
RPGWatch: The Geneforge series is generally more dialogue-heavy than Avernum but each game has varied. Where will Geneforge 4 stand in terms of quest complexity and the balance between dialogue and combat? How developed are the options for diplomacy or other non-combat solutions?
Jeff Vogel: As always, with patience, you can get through the whole game without ever directly attacking a foe. (Though you might convince others to fight for you, or use spells to confuse enemies while you slip past.) There are lots of complex quests, using every possible skill in the game, from battle to stealth to diplomacy.
And, of course, there are a ton of simpler quests. Plenty of “Go kill Bob and then bring me his hat.” kinds of missions. I always put in many of these because they’re great for people who want to play a few minutes, do something, and feel like they made progress.
RPGWatch: How non-linear in Geneforge 4? Can you outline the impact of siding with different factions and is the story significantly influenced by the player’s actions throughout the game, or only a couple of key branch points?
Jeff Vogel: The game progresses through five chapters. Each chapter has a sub-story you have to deal with before you can move on. But the rebels and the Shapers are both trying to get you to do different things. As you help one side or the other more, some options become available to you and others fall away. But the game allows you to decide new courses at many points.
And there is a third faction, hiding in the shadows. You have to seek them out, and they give you other, difficult, interesting options as you reach the climax.
RPGWatch: How does being a rebel change the classes, skills and magic?
Jeff Vogel: The basic spell and creation structure is still there, but there are more spells and creations now. There are five character classes instead of the previous three, with new specialties and weaknesses.
And, if you’re a rebel, you can learn all of the spells and creatures you can make. But, if you betray the rebels and help the Shapers, you can grow powerful much more quickly. There are advantages to serving the mighty empire.
RPGWatch: You’ve said you plan to improve stealth – what do you have in mind?
Jeff Vogel: It works much, much better now. Creatures become more likely to notice you as you spend time near them. The closer they are, the sooner they notice you. You will see signs that they are becoming suspicious about your presence, and you’ll have time to run away.
The system makes more sense, and it’s easier to understand what’s going on.
RPGWatch: You also want to make tool use for traps and mines more interesting. What are your plans here?
Jeff Vogel: There are entirely new sorts of traps to deal with. Some are mines set off by triggers. To get past, you need to slip around to the mines without getting close to the triggers. And there are pylons that incinerate you if you get too close. To turn off the pylons, you might need to slip through a maze of them.
And, in the Geneforge style, there are many different routes to any goal. If your character doesn’t have the skills to handle the traps, there is a way around them.
RPGWatch: Scripted events and big battles are to play a more significant role. What impact will this have and can you give us an example?
Jeff Vogel: I just want for there to be more variety in gameplay. When you enter a new zone, I want it to always be different from the one you just left.
So, in one zone, you might enter and meet some fleeing rebels. They tell you that another group of rebels is trapped in the ruins of a fort just ahead. If you run in, you can help them fend off the waves of Shapers that attack them. Or you can just watch from a distance. Or you can help the Shapers.
RPGWatch: Weather effects and graphical improvements have been flagged – why spend resources on these items when graphics has never been a focus for your games? Wouldn’t your audience appreciate greater depth in a gameplay related area?
Jeff Vogel: I don’t have a religious opposition to decent graphics. I never have. I always put in the best graphics my limited budget and programming skills allow.
It’s all about fun, and about creating an engrossing experience for the player. And if I have a way to improve the atmosphere of the game and pull the player in more, I’ll do that. That’s why I added effects for rain and snow and magic sparklies in certain areas. It really does change the feel of the game. The swamp feels wetter. The icy mountains feel colder. It helps make a better playing experience.
I can never match the big boys, but I do what I can.
RPGWatch: Is there anything you’d like to add in closing?
Jeff Vogel: I love the Geneforge games. I love the open-endedness. I love that you can switch sides and join the so-called “bad guys”. I love that there’s always a non-combat way to do everything. Sometimes it makes them a pain to write, but I’m always proud of what I come up with.
And we sell the first trilogy as a bundle for cheap. So if any of this intrigues the reader, we’ll be happy to make them a deal.
Information on Geneforge 4: Rebellion is at
RPGWatch: Thank you!
Jeff Vogel: My pleasure!
We wish Jeff all the best and, of course, we'll follow Geneforge 4 closely in our news.
Information aboutGeneforge 4: Rebellion
Developer: Spiderweb Software
Play-time: Over 60 hours
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2007-02-05
· Publisher: Spiderweb Software