Us: Steve, let’s start with a few questions about yourself: After all these years at Revolution, how is it to be on your own now?
Steve: It was quite daunting at first, because I really enjoyed being at Revolution. And when we were all told that we were being made redundant, I was quite surprised really. We all knew that it was important that we got approval for this project but I didn’t realise that it was so serious that we were in danger of losing our jobs. It did come as a bit of a shock. Then my initital thought was to find a new job but unfortunately most of the jobs involved relocating and it wasn’t something I could do really, so I decided to go freelance and go from there. After freelancing as a writer and designer for a short while, I had so many ideas I wanted to develop myself and went from there. And while the creative freedom is excellent, obviously things that you took for granted like having an office to go to and programmers you could call on and all this kind of stuff, are no longer there.
That would have been my next question: What is the most difficult thing about being an independant developer?
I think it is one of the most difficult things actually because effectively Juniper Games is me on my own bringing in other people as I need them. Like I am working with a guy whose doing some music for one of my games and I talk to animators from around the world and so on, bringing in services in that sense. The biggest down side is actually not having other people around to fire ideas off and have brainstorming sessions and just talk through issues. When you’ve been used to working with a really talented team of people, you miss that. You miss the excitement of all that creative energy that goes on. You know programmers, artists, animators, the designers — and all these people were a really good team at Revolution. One of the saddest things about what happened is that we had a really strong team that split up. Seems a real shame that it had to happen that way.
You recently did a part of the story of the Agatha Christie game with Lee Sheldon, I think?
What happened was, I was contacted by DreamCatcher as a scripts editor because they wanted to be sure that the actual English had a British feeling rather than an American feeling. So my involvement was purely as a scripts editor. But, to be honest, Lee Sheldon did such an excellent job that it was only a case of catching the occasional slip-up, just things that would have been said in a slightly different way. Mostly it was just the odd word here and there. And it was quite enjoyable to read his stuff as well. It’s always good to get that chance to see other people effectively at work, see their scripts first hand. Particulary if someone is talented like Lee Sheldon. It was a relatively short job but it was good to be involved.
But you still do some freelance work and not only your games at Juniper?
That’s right, until I can really get the ball rolling fully once the first game is released. I enjoy working with other people. I had some really good working relationships over the past 18 months or so and the option to work on a large number of games is very good. On different types of games: action games, children’s titles and so on. I think it helps you to get a broader perspective on the games market. And I’m also working on a book at the moment.
What’s it about?
It’s about writing for games. A publisher came to me and asked me if I was interested in doing a book and I couldn’t really turn the oppurtunity down. I’m about halfway through the first draft at the moment, it’s going really well. It will be published in October next year, so it’s some time off. I think it’ll be good. Whether everybody will think that, I don’t know. (laughs) It’s got a nice cohesion to it.
It should be interesting topic, since there aren’t many books or articles about it.
There’s the start of more in this area. The International Game Developers Association has the Game Writers Special Interest Group doing a book on writing for games. But they are doing a very different approach, one writer will do a chapter each. So you got maybe 18 writers involved with 18 chapters or something along those lines. So that’s a very different style of book than mine because it will be much bigger and more detailed because it’s from a series of writers. You get different perspectives in each chapter which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing but it’s a different style. So we’re not really competing.
So is writing what you like most about game development?
One of the beautiful things about games is the fact that you can get involved in so many different things. Some people specialize in animation or programming physics and things like this. But what I’m doing allows me to have my finger in so many different things. I’m doing the writing, creating the story, I’m writing the dialogue, developing the background art and doing some small tweaky animation things. I’m also designing and implementing the gameplay. And that’s one of the great things about it. With projects like this I have got so much creative control and… (laughs) That makes me sound very ego centred. That sounds awful. What I mean is because I have so many creative interests, games probably allow me to explore much more than any other media. I enjoy doing the comic strips certainly — it’s kind of all part of my big creative mix. So it’s not that one or the other is better or more enjoyable or anything like this. It’s just all part of who I am really.
Then, let’s talk about your games a bit. You’ve announced three different games yet. One of those is Mr. Smoozles and from the first screenshot I’d say it looks a bit like Pac-Man?
The original intention was actually to kind of be like that. I wanted something that I could put together relatively straight-forwardly on my own. And I thought, let’s just have a series of rooms where Mr. Smoozles is chasing Ed and the player controls Ed who has to avoid being shot at the same time of doing a number of different things on the screen. As I said it was just going to be a series of unconnected rooms. But when I started putting the demo together, I realized it could be so much more than that. I would call it an arcade adventure. A lot of the gameplay is about solving adventure based puzzles but it is within that kind of arcade setting and so on. So though it has a retro look and style, a lot of adventure players will really enjoy it. It’s nothing that really would take an awful lot of fast reactions or anything because there are 3 settings on the arcade difficulty so you can set it to very easy and go through it. But there are also two settings on the adventure side so that people who aren’t really adventure players can actually choose to have more clues and help them along. So effectively you’ve got the possibility of six different combinations and people can find their own level within that.
So is Mr. Smoozles the first game that is going to be released? How far is it into development?
It’s probably between a quarter and a third into development now and it’s progressing very well. I’m hoping to release that one in the middle of next year. Exactly when will depend on a number of factors.
How do you plan to distribute it?
It will be just a download. The reason for this is primarily just to try to remain as independent as possible but also I think by doing that it kind of allows me to offer it reasonable priced. It will be about 15 or 16 Euros or something like this which is less than if a similar game would appear on the shelves of the shops. But also because it’s download, there is no publisher or distributor to take part of that cost. This means that I can have a break-even point which is very low which in turn means that anything above that will then fund the development of the next game. So hopefully, if it’s successful, I can build towards bigger games which will be more beneficial to the people buying the games. It’s kind of like they are not only investing in a good game but also in establishing the future games as well. I’m not out to make a lot of money, I’m out to make enough money to live and enable me to create further games. I mean, if I made a lot of money as well, I would be very happy. (laughs) But that’s not my primary goal. My primary goal is I want to make games because I love making games. And I want to make games that people would enjoy playing and that is the bottom line. And in order to do so I really want to devote all my energies into doing that. And obviously I want them to be successful and make a living. That’s kind of the philosophy behind it all.
And your other games will be released as downloads as well?
I’m certainly not going to rule out publishers at any point but the primary idea is to release them as downloads. Just because I think with the increasing take-up of broadband, more and more people are happy to download a game. I know a lot of people like to own the discs and have the boxes on the shelve, so it would be nice to offer that as well but if I plan to do too much too early, then the likelihood is that you get spanked with everything you are trying to do. So it’s a case of taking one step at a time and hopefully building from there. And I think when the first game is released, and depending on the reaction to it and how well it goes, it will define the path I take from that point.
I guess The Sapphire Claw is the most expensive game of the three?
Yes, which is why I kind of have to push that back a little. I did some calculations when I started talking to publishers in terms of the development budget for this game. It was quite expensive for an adventure for this day and age. There are probably only games like Broken Sword that can commend reasonable budgets.
Especially comic games are hard to sell, aren’t they?
Yes, and I think that is one of the things that publishers have seen as working against it. I personally disagree with the line of thought. Publishers asked me if I had considered making the game in 3D and I wasn’t willing to compromise the visual style. I’d rather do something else than do that. It’s not just like I’m being a little pigheaded or anything. The style represents what it is about, the strength of the characters and everything, the visuals represent it and you couldn’t transfer those characters into 3D without a lot of compromise which, I think, would sell it short. I also believe that because so many games are 3D nowadays, having a game which is 2D is slightly looking back to an older time, but it’s much higher resolution than say the Monkey Island games or even Broken Sword, so the backgrounds can be much richer and more detailed. Because of this it will look quite unique in today’s market. I just wanted something that looks very different from other games around.
There are no humans in any of your games, am I correct? There are animals and robots…
(laughs) Oh, they are humans, they just don’t look like humans. The characters are humanized animals. And much further down the line there are stories I want to tell that involve humans. In settings from fantasy worlds to the real world. I have a very strong ideas for a story set in the real world with humans and without any fantasy. But it’s much further down the line. I have lots of ideas. So if I listed them all — it would be quite a list.
You wrote in your blog that adventures are a niche. So you don’t think they can become really popular again?
Yes and no. I think that they can. I think that is potential there. But I also believe that all games are niche. Even first person shooters are a niche market. It’s simply that this niche is much bigger than most others. When you actually look at the number of consoles and PCs that exist in the world, we are talking of hundreds of millions of potential gamers. Yet no game sells more than a few million, so each game is only reaching a very small fraction of the huge audience. So no game is ever mass market. That’s one thing that people need to accept that all games have probably a limit on the number of people they reach. And I think part of the problem within the industry is that people try to put things into their games to appeal to a mass market that doesn’t exist. And so there are compromises and a lot of these games are so filled with compromises that they do not satisfy their core audience.
And I feel that adventures only go beyond the niche when they are really very good. I think that a game like Myst went beyond because it was so unique, a lot of people could latch onto very easily. And I think the same happened with Broken Sword to a certain extent. It wasn’t just the fact that it was a good game. It was the fact that people could connect with it easily. We simplified the interface compared to a lot of adventures of that particular time. We took away the text choices and made the conversations run by icons. Things like this which help people into the actual game. And I think with something like Fahrenheit as well incorporating things which are maybe outside of a traditional adventure game.
But why hasn’t there been a great adventure game for so long?
I think it’s got to do with the fun. We seem to have lost the comedy. There are no Monkey Islands or Day of the Tentacles. Tim Schafer moved away from adventures altogether with his Psychonauts. As good as this game may be to people it is not an adventure — in a strict sense. Somehow we need to return to that humour and the characters that made adventures strong back in the early 90s. The darker games like Scratches and Darkfall are all excellent games. But I feel there is also the need for a lot more fun, too.
Isn’t it interesting that games seem to have a completely different audience than TV shows, for example? I mean, everybody is watching these crime shows which are about investigations and so on. They aren’t that different from adventures.
Yes. I always resist when they take films and sometimes TV shows and make a game where they only pickup on the action. If you look at the Simpsons, here is an incredible license. The strength of the characters is what makes it a successful TV show. Yet, when they make games, what do they do? They have Homer running around all the time saying, “D’oh”. That’s all he does — which is not Homer. The games don’t reflect the show.
It’s the mistake of the writers?
No, I think the writers would like to create games actually like the show. Part of the problem is that they are given a brief by the publisher. The publisher will buy a license or somebody will buy the license for this particular IP and they tell the developer what to do. “Oh, we want an action game like this” or “We want a platform game like that!”
So the problem are the publishers?
I think it’s probably that. The publishers perception of what gamers want is sometimes wrong. And I think that something like the Simpsons could make an excellent adventure game. There is one episode where they have to bring Krusty the clown back together with his father, something like this. And it is quite a good story of how Bart and Lisa do this together. You can imagine a story like that would make a good adventure. How does Bart achieve these goals? He goes around the town and talks to different people in order to do. You can imagine it could be such a good adventure game. And again it would have the humour, it would have the characters. And I believe, if you would make an adventure based on the Simpsons, it would be such a huge hit.
But getting back to the crime shows: The vast amounts of them have no or very little action. They are about the investigation; they are about talking to the witnesses, about collecting clues and so on. I know there are the CSI games – I feel they can go beyond that. They can be so much more. It’s almost like they are trivializing it. I think this is why TV and movie licensed games have such a bad reputation. They are not faithful to the idea of the show or film.
The second game you announced was Mekapods. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
Yeah, I did this drawing of a robot. I thought, what can I do with this and played around with some ideas for a while until I came up with a story and drew a couple of other robots and fleshed that out a bit more. I primarily wanted to do a game that I could do again relatively cheaply. Having these robots hover doesn’t need much animation so it’s a bit of cheating in some ways because of animation costs. I wanted something where the animation wasn’t important. It was the characters that were important, it was the story that was important, it was the gameplay that was important. And I’ve long wanted to do an RPG but to do a full RPG is an awful lot of work again, so it’s kind of a mixture of those two. Because I enjoy adventures, the style of interaction, the way of puzzling in adventures.
But I wanted to go a little bit further. Part of the gameplay, you develop the characters skills, abilities and so on. Rather than getting into battle and getting some sort of generic experience, you’ll have experience that relate to your skills. If you use skills, you get skill experience effectively which enables you to kind of boost their skills. But there’ll also be other ways of boosting skills. Because they are robots they can find software which gives them a skill. It might be: Now I can do welding providing I can find a welding attachment or something but you know what I mean. They can download the welding skill, get the welding attachment and now they can do some welding. So it’s kind of a mixture in developing the skills but also an adventure type puzzle to find the welding attachment. And that kind of mixture, I believe, will work.
And all your games are for the PC and not handhelds?
No, just the PC.
I ask because I recently played Phoenix Wright on the Nintendo DS which works really well for that kind of games.
I haven’t played that one yet although I intend to. I played Another Code which I really enjoyed although it would have been nice if it had been a bit longer. (laughs) It was a good game. Maybe the logic could have been a little bit better. I like what they did with the interface –- that was good. And yes, I would love to develop for the Nintendo DS and the Revolution. The Nintendo Revolution will be great. Nintendo seems to be concentrating on content rather than getting into a kind of war about the power of the machine. I think it’s much better. It would be silly of them to try to compete directly with Sony and Microsoft. And I think to make SNES games downloadable is a brilliant idea. There are so many of those games I would love to play and here is another opportunity. And I think what it shows as well is the fact that they have the game player in mind rather than the kind of people who are obsessed with technology. I’m sure there will be great games that come out on the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 but sometimes I get the feel that a lot of these games look great but they don’t have the depth of gameplay.
Yeah, it’s just like the graphics improve but the games stay all the same.
And some of them are just getting bigger and bigger and you spend an awful lot of time just running around instead of actually playing. To a certain extent we were guilty of that in Broken Sword 3. We had areas where you did a lot of walking around before actually interacting with something in the background or other characters. That was another strength of the older games – each screen was made to work a lot harder because games came out on floppy discs and a publisher didn’t like to have a game on too many floppies, so you crammed a lot more into each screen to save on space. There was always a lot to do on every screen and we are missing an awful lot of that now. That was a strength of Half-Life 2. You did feel as there was always something to do. There are lessons to be learned from that for smaller budget games as well.
You were talking of Broken Sword 3 earlier. Are you confident how the game turned out?
There are lots of excellent qualities about Broken Sword 3. That’s my bias coming through. I’m really pleased overall how it was presented but there are things I would have done differently. Some areas of the game I would have made smaller, more compact: Couple of the areas in Paris, the area around the apartment and the area around the theatre. We used a lot of big space which wasn’t really necessary. We should have tightened it up a bit. And to be honest, I’d like to have had a bit more gameplay, a few more sections. We did actually design more sections but had to cut them out for budgetary reasons. It’s a shame really that we had to do that. Overall, I think, it really worked well. Maybe the ending was…
It was wrongly presented. We could have presented it a bit differently. I think it is not as clear as it could be. Which is a shame. Well. And I’m quite looking forward to Broken Sword 4. That is the first Broken Sword game I’m not involved in. That’s a bit strange really, to see it from a player’s point of view instead from a developer’s point of view. I’ll be just another fan.