Saturday, 8 April 2017

Interview - Silver Spook Games

I interviewed Christian Miller of Silver Spook Games, who have recently released dystopian cyberpunk point and click adventure game Neofeud.  He's given great answers to my questions, and I think his comments about balancing being a spouse and parent with game development time will really resonate with a lot of us.

Fun fact - I did some very small voice roles for Neofeud, if you hear a little boy... that was me!  A 40 year-old little boy... (well I did do some sound editing on the samples too :-D)

1 - When and how did you first get the idea for Neofeud?

I have been working on this project since around May of 2014.  Neofeud actually started out after me and my wife (from Canada) were binge-watching Game of Thrones seasons during our kids’ naptime, and I was scarfing down cyberpunk stuff like Blade Runner and Terminator at night.

We’d just wrapped up the last episode and felt GoT withdrawals, and to fill the void until the next season, we started messing with our own made-up roleplaying game (loosely based on GURPS) that was a sort of mashup between George R.R. Martin-like medieval fantasy and hardboiled technoir cyberpunk.  Shortly thereafter, I started playing Shadowrun Returns (which is K-Rad!), and Neofeud initially began as a mod using that game’s engine.

2 - Why did you choose AGS as the dev tool to make it?

I actually began work on Neofeud shortly after a playthrough of Shadowrun Returns, as a mod using the Shadowrun engine.  Having blown 1 1/2 years of my waking life previously on a Deus Ex total-conversion mod called "Terminus Machina", being 30+ years old, working two dayjobs with a wife and an anklebiter, and having been a gamedev for almost two decades, I had an epiphany, a few days into Neofeud development.  I had to stop pussy-footing around, and go all-in on a fully commercial product, take this thing seriously as a profession, because I was quickly running out of time and headspace, with "Real Life" responsibilities piling up left and right.

So I looked at Unity.  I whipped together the first Neofeud protoype in Unity, and at the time I had a concept of a "Megaman-style platformer mash-up with Blade-Runner-like storytelling."  Unity is a much more powerful and advanced engine than AGS, for obvious reasons.

But ultimately, the maxim 'with great power comes great responsibility' applies here: there's a magnitude more infrastructure and complexity in Unity that you need to worry about.  AGS is simpler, but it is perfectly set up to create Lucas-Arts / Sierra style adventure games.  A butter knife is a simpler, less powerful cutting tool than a chainsaw.  But if you're trying to butter your toast, the former is preferable -- even though it is technically possible to make your breakfast with a chainsaw, it's more hassle than is needed. ;)

Being a one-man-band -- doing writing, programming, art, music, et. al. -- I had to cut down on the workload as much as possible.  So that factored into the choice to use AGS.

3 - What other games / authors have influenced your style?

Deus Ex 1 (The Conspiracy) is definitely #1, using the metric of ‘played hours on Steam’.  AND it is just my favorite in terms of getting everything so beautifully right, so early in the evolution of gaming.  And also, I adore the story itself.  It is just one of those alignment-of-the-planets type miracles of a PC gaming industry that was in a golden age, a bunch of really next-level game devs like Harvey Smith and Warren Spector in Austin Texas in the late 90’s, and some luck.

Fallout (All of ’em but 1 & 2 especially) Love the world, the storytelling, the total freedom.  Again, it’s one of those games that doesn’t pull punches and hits at the craziness of the modern world through the lens of a post-apocalyptic retro-future. In the point-n-click world I must say Primordia was what won me over to using the Adventure Game Studio platform.  Absolutely stunning piece of interactive art.  The art style itself was a big influence on Neofeud’s.  It was so singular and original.

With regards to point-n-clicks, again Primordia, Technobabylon, and really all of the Wadjet Eye Games titles were my ‘instruction manuals’ as I came late to the p-n-c adventure sphere.  But definitely Deus Ex, Fallout, and everything I previously mentioned is in there somewhere.  I would’ve loved to do more RPG-like elements, but because I wanted something I could take commercial and do mostly on my own, the smaller footprint of the adventure game worked better.  Maybe Neofeud 2 will be full-RPG, who knows!?

Deus Ex was one of those games that just blew my mind, and shortly after playing it, I got way WAY into cyberpunk.  Started walking around in 90-degree, 100% humidity Hawaii weather in a trench coat, in Chinatown, imagining it was Chiba City.  I must’ve looked really weird.  I started hanging out on a cyberpunk MUD called Iconoclast, which was full of super-smart, super weird folks who I thought were the coolest people on the planet, other than William Gibson, the godfather of cyberpunk.  I binge-read all of Gibson’s work from Neuromancer to the Bigend Trilogy in like a month and was totally hooked.  (Actually got to meet William Gibson in person in Vancouver and he Tweeted the birth of our first kid, which was cool.  He’s a great guy.)

I loved the superlative quality of the writing, the ‘trenchcoats and cyberware’ thing, but also I think I identified with the attitude… the un-bridled rage.  Where a lot of ‘Ivory Tower’ sci-fi starred tall, strong-jawed West Point graduates exploring, colonizing the cosmos and getting the girl, and isn’t the Astounding World of the Future great?  Cyberpunk was fundamentally a middle finger to civilization. Cyberpunk was about the 99%, the slum dog who ends up street hustling with razorgirls in cyberspace, about a world of criminals working for bigger megacorporate criminals.  Cyberpunk was revulsion with the way the world is, with ridiculous wealth and incredible poverty, and no pretense about covering it up.  No airbrushing the world into a postcard — it shoves the neon-bathed warts right up in your face.

I was like, “Yes!  There ARE flaws, even in paradise!”  I ate that stuff up.

So I worked on a total conversion mod of Deus Ex called Terminus Machina, for about a year and a half, between 2011 and 2013.  This was the first big game project where I was the lead developer with creative control.  The modus operandi was, “Make the ideal game that I want to play,” and so I set about taking the already jaw-dropping awesomeness of Deus Ex and adding in crafting, wireless hacking, a hunger system, and a ton of other features.  I also wanted to create a totally immersive, original world that was basically “Neuromancer for the present,” with society in collapse as giant banks and corporations let the world go into freefall, with tent cities and populist revolts and rioting and mass-unemployment due to robots everywhere.

I feel like it did reasonably well, getting pretty good reviews on Moddb.  Not quite as big as some of the other TCs like Deus Ex Nihilum and The Nameless Mod, but I liked that at least a small community of fans seemed to appreciate this labor of love.

4 - What aspect of the game are you most proud of?

Hm... well, my strongest suit is probably writing.  I've been writing sci-fi and cyberpunk in particular for a long while.  That's another big reason why I opted for the AGS engine: I think point-n-click adventure games are essentially cRPGs, minus the complexity of combat, stat rolls, etcetera.  I'm playing Shardlight at the moment (fantastic game) and walking around it's setup like a Final Fantasy (or maybe a 'Fallout' given the post-apoc and muted-brown color scheme).  You walk around interesting places and towns, pick up quests from folks, do the quests, there's a big world-map... You're just not gunning down molerats and ghouls with AK-47s, or whacking kobolds on the head with magic missiles and scimitars.  Adventure games are RPG-lite! :)

But the converse is that you get to really, really focus on the storytelling, the characters, the plot.  Because that is literally the stuff that p-n-cs are made of.

I'm personally pretty happy with how the art turned out as well.  I spent more weekends in art museums oogling Picassos and actually learning what the difference between a cubist and an expressionist is than I ever had in all the mandatory Art 1xx courses in college put together during Neofeud dev.

I like to think of the style I used for Neofeud as, 'Post-modern impressionism'.  Impressionistic in that I cared less about photo-real rendering of Platonic forms and more about capturing moments, specific lighting conditions.  And post-modern in the sense that Neofeud itself is deeply conscious of the thirty years of cyberpunk movies, games, and cultural artifacts it is referencing, from Terminator to Blade Runner to District 9 and on.  For example in 'The Arcade' I wanted a highly exaggerated sense of 80's primary-color neon bathing rusted out Deloreans and punk-robots, in that kaleidoscopic, Ridley Scott-esque sense.  Then you have 'High City', the sort of epitome of 50's Raygun Gothic "Astounding World Of The Future".  All gleaming crystalline towers, ridiculously lavish cyclopean starchitecture, all in pristine blue.  Like, if Tarantino had grown up working in a bargain-bin video game store instead of a VHS rental place, the video games that alternate-reality Tarantino would've made.

5 - Conversely, is there anything about the game you wish you could have done better?

I actually wish I could've hired on an artist, as well as a programmer, and a composer, in truth, as I couldn't spend all the time I wanted to on all of the aspects of the game.  I would've really been fine just writing the story and handing the rest off!

6 - What would constitute a success for you personally in regards to how well Neofeud sells?

Hm, well, if I could get Silver Spook Games bringing in enough revenue not to have to work a drudge job, that would be the big dream, haha.  If I could bring in enough to at least cover the groceries and gas, I would count that as a success. :)

7 - What kind of reaction have you had back from players so far?

Thankfully, reactions have been positive.  I was honestly worried the game would blow up on people's computers because of some overlooked bug or some incompatibility, but it appears things have been running smoothly for the most part!  The art style is somewhat, 'different' which gave some players apprehensions about the quality of the game, but after playthroughs what I've heard is 'solid story' and the soundtrack has apparently racked up the most praise.  So I suppose I will have to just give up gamedev and become a rockstar or a DJ or something, haha!

8 - What's the hardest part of being an indie dev?

Being a husband and a dad, it is a trick.  I was just having a conversation with another father/game developer and we decided that the true litmus test for a hardcore game dev is whether you can code and pixel-art whilst simultaneously having one toddler screaming in your ear to watch Sophia The First and the other one biting you while dumping their McNugget sauce on your Wacom.  Then you are a true 1337 game developer! :D

Personally, there are times when it barely feels like work at all.  I mean I did spend like 20-40 hours a week for years just making games for fun.  At the same time, if you really get serious and make a *good* commercial game, then it does take a herculean amount of truly hard work to get something polished and shipped.  The game industry is one of the most competitive, of course.  The hardest part is not knowing if this thing you're pouring your heart into will ever be cared about by anyone other than yourself, and if you're doing gamedev as a business venture (as I am), whether you will make any money back for the time you put in.  Self-doubt is always there, "Maybe I'm just not quite good enough."  It is always a risk, and there are days where you just want to just chuck everything out the window and go back to a normal day job.  But for some people, it's a compulsion, almost a demonic possession -- the need to make games.  John Romero and Carmack were obviously possessed by some serious hooved infernal hellspawn, that's how they pwned the 90's. :)

9 - So there are already rumours of a Neofeud 2...?

I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you!  But seriously, a Neofeud 2, or another Silver Spook Games project is indeed on the proverbial 'table' at the moment, but this is of course contingent on the success of Neofeud 1.  If I can free up enough time and make the finances work (as mentioned, I'm a hubbie/daddy so I've got other 'stakeholders' to pitch projects to for greenlighting) then there is definitely the possibility of a sequel in the cards.

10 - What do you consider to be the best cyberpunk adventure game ever made?

Oh man...  Point and click?  I'm a big fan of Technobabylon.  Maybe Technobabylon is tied with Blade Runner, the game.  If Deus Ex counts as an adventure, then I'd say definitely Deus Ex.  As far as I'm concerned NO ONE has been able to top DX, not any of the sequels, nothing.  But I hope to beat Warren Spector at his own game, someday, haha.

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