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Interview

Vince D. Weller, Iron Tower Studio

Mr. Vince D. Weller of indie developer Iron Tower Studio was kind enough to answer my pleas for an audience which resulted in this obscenely over-sized interview about their current work in progress Age of Decadence and game design in general.

So, obviously, major kudos goes to Mr. Weller for this.

Enjoy!




I suppose the most obvious question would be: Why? Why do this when you could be smelling roses, or playing tennis, or drinking tea or something?

This question has been asked before twice, in the Rock, Paper, Shotgun & Down The Well interviews. I don't think a lot of people care about why some guy is making some game, so I'd suggest asking questions that can either lead to interesting discussions or provide interesting answers."

Then perhaps you can explain why you've decided to go the indie route rather than seeking employment with a game developer. This thing is obviously a labour of love, would it not be better to be paid to do what you love?

It would be, of course. Unfortunately, I like games that nobody wants to make anymore, so "do it yourself" seems to be the only option at the moment. It's quite possible that nobody wants to make these games for a reason and I'm about to learn a very valuable lesson. Well, worth a shot...

Overall, there are 3 RPG studios left in North America: Bethesda, recently assimilated into EA Bioware, and Obsidian. So, it's not like an enthusiastic RPG developer has a lot of options these days.

I would have thought that Obsidian's recent performance with MotB might have given you a little more hope. Besides its intelligent story-telling -- they resisted the urge to spoon-feed the player as they had done in NWN2, preferring, instead, to have the player slowly piece the clues of the puzzle together -- and the (un)loveable One of Many, it had choices aplenty with the consequences of those displayed in the game; the most obvious being whether or not you should kill Okku. Combined with the Spirit Eater mechanic -- a wonderful, if not perfect, way of making the player think about when they rest.

I assume you've read my review. I loved MotB and I certainly wish I could work with and learn from Avellone, Mitsoda, Sawyer, Sanders, Ziets, etc. I think that Obsidian is loaded with extremely talented developers, but unfortunately, they must make safe games, appealing to the mainstream, in order to survive.


In countless interviews and forum posts you've spoken about "choice and consequence." Would you like to explain to our readers what that means, exactly? From here it sounds little more than a buzz word -- like "extreme" or "epic".

Buzzwords like extreme, epic, next-generation, etc. describe nothing and mean nothing. Reading that game X is epic tells you nothing. These concepts are subjective and since gaming journalism tends to attract the dumbest, you can read deep thoughts like KotOR is the pinnacle of greatness in TB RPGs or KotOR's story in fact is one of the best stories told this century.

"Choices & consequences", like "turn-based" or "isometric", refers to a very specific design that can't be interpreted in different ways. A game is either turn-based or not; it either has choices or not; the gameworld either reacts to those choices or not.

Choices are the core of role-playing. That's what separates RPGs from adventure games; instead of following a predetermined path and solving problems in very specific ways, you decide what to do (within the frame of a story and setting), when to do it, and how to do it.

While I understand that attempting to define genres is a mostly pointless exercise -- they exist for the better appreciation of a work, not the other way around -- I feel that I must ask if this is your sole definition of an RPG and whether or not the idea of choices and consequences is the most important thing in one of these games? Is the plot entirely secondary to the player's freedom of choice?

Let's deal with the "defining genres is a mostly pointless exercise" first. Anything that exists can and should be defined. Not to restrict, but to understand it. Can you tell the difference between a shooter and a first person RPG? Between an RTS and a party-based RPG? I assume the answer is yes. There you go.

As for plot, a good plot is a bonus, not a requirement. All genres, even shooters and strategy games, would benefit from having a good story, but I think that only the adventure genre can claim plot as a genre-defining element. As for the definition, here is an article I wrote on the subject. I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

An RPG has certain broad characteristics. You expect certain things of an RPG when you install the game; say, statistics, or a dialogue system. But an RPG designed by Bethesda would be entirely different from one designed by Black Isle. You would call both Morrowind and Fallout 2 RPGs but to say that one is intrinsically better designed than the other is impossible. It would never occur to the average gamer to think that there is some Ideal RPG, to quote – with amendment – Gamini Salgado, “which could be abstractly defined in terms of history, development, and convention to which the works of” Bethesda, Obsidian, BioWare, Troika, and Black Isle “are more or less successful approximations.” It is not a categorical straightjacket.

That is what I meant by “mostly pointless.”

And a shooter designed by ID would be very different from a shooter designed by Valve, which would be very different from a shooter designed by Crytek. Yet all these games would firmly belong to the FPS genre. It's trickier with RPGs, but common traits and design directions could be easily traced.

[Anyway...]

An RPG should never tell you "See that castle over there? You absolutely must get inside like NOW! Here is the front entrance guarded by a small army... what? No, you can't climb the walls. Can't sneak inside either. They'll notice, trust me. Can't talk your way through either. What do you mean why? You hate them, they hate you... It's beautiful, man, and you're ruining it with your whining. Get to the killing already...."

An RPG should give you reasons to go to that castle without actually forcing you to go there. An RPG should provide different ways to get in, rewarding different play styles. If you'd like to know more, here is a link.

Now, consequences. Take Knights of the Old Republic for example. Remember when you decided to be the true Revan, the Dark Lord of the Sith, and then finally arrived to the Sith Academy on Korriban and ... nobody cared. You, the Dark Lord of the Sith, had to jump through the same hoops as any other character. Remember now? Well, that's what lack of consequences feels like. You've made an important choice, but the game ignored it completely. "What? You are THE Dark Lord of the Sith? Good for you, sugar. Now go back to you corner."

Consequences complete your choices, make them meaningful. Instead of using generic examples, let me illustrate that with an actual in-game example. An Imperial Guards faction is plotting to take over a small town. You may be given an opportunity to assassinate the Guards' commander. If you do that, the guards will not attack. You'll be added to their "**** list" though. If the commander lives (you didn't take the contract or you did, but decided to double-cross and kill your partner instead), then the guards attack, but the outcome isn't certain (depends on a number of factors). If you actually side with the guards, they will take over the town, which makes them much stronger and eliminates one of the key factions from the game. Decisions, decisions...


What are your thoughts on "Jack Bauer in space" syndrome (i.e. the growing trend to remove the choice between good and evil from RPGs)?

I haven't played Mass Effect, so I can't comment on the qualities of the game or the "Bauer in space" syndrome, but here is what I think about good and evil choices:

Good and evil are subjective concepts and I think that developers should never present the player with clearly marked "good" and "evil" options. Since [this is] a Star Wars site, let's use the Anakin's fall in Ep. 3. From his perspective the mistrustful and arrogant Jedi Council plotted against and tried to assassinate the chancellor chosen by everyone, the chancellor who supported and trusted him. Was siding with the chancellor and turning against the Jedi an evil act? Not at all. Anakin was given reasons to act the way he did, and that's how RPGs should be designed.

Sides in conflicts and choices should never be black and white, good and evil. There should be reasons for acting this way or that way, for supporting the Jedi or sticking with the Sith, for saving a village or letting them die. Then and only then someone will judge your actions and slap labels like "good" or "evil" on them. People who are with us are "good", people who are against us are "evil". Isn't how it usually works?

In AoD there are no default enemies and no good and evil choices. You make decisions that make sense to your character, you side with people and factions that you agree with the most, and then some factions will see you as a great guy and some factions will see you as an evil bastard who should be killed with extreme prejudice.


It seems that a stock question to developers is "Which aspect of the game are you proudest of?" I'm going to buck the trend and ask you about the most disappointing, or unsuccessful aspect of AoD.

Good question. It's hard to answer it though because we spent the last year tearing down anything that wasn't good enough (quests, visual design, mechanics, etc) and replacing it with something better. As you probably know, we've shown every aspect of the game to our fans, listened to the criticism, and taken notes. Lots and lots of notes. It's a tough process. You show people something it took you years to make, something you didn't sleep many nights for, and then they tear it apart, without mercy, without pity, without compassion. It takes a lot of getting used to, but once you are used to it, you realize that this is the most effective way to make games.

This approach was described as:

  • Designer develops strong vision internally
  • Designer then seeks criticism and suggestions around that vision.
  • Designer and critics argue relative merits.
  • Designer improves his vision accordingly.

So, while I dislike seeing "no, everything's great" replies to questions like that, our design approach ensures that all weak spots get enough spotlight and promptly eliminated. See this thread for details.

Let’s say a scene that you loved, something that you believed was absolutely integral to your creative vision for Age of Decadence, was smashed to pieces before your very eyes by your forum community, how would you respond and what would you do? Would you scrap it or would you keep it despite the cries of anguish?

I’m wondering how far this feedback thing goes and whether or not you’d be willing to sacrifice what you desperately wanted for, what I can only describe as, pandering to the mainstream.

We don't include or throw out anything simply because someone loves it or hates it. The most important phase is "Designer and critics argue relative merits". So, if our critics could prove that some feature, element, or scene I love and cherish is actually stupid or poorly designed, then yes, I'll throw it out without reservations and thank people for helping me to see the errors in my design.

Here is a thing. The longer you work on a game, the harder it is to notice flaws. It's easy to think that a poorly thought through idea is a good idea. It's easy to like a stupid idea. Once these things are in a game, it's very hard to notice them, to realize that something is wrong. They make sense to you, so you are blind to them. That's where the critics come in.

We are making a game for the fans of "hardcore RPGs". If these fans tell us that feature X sucks and can explain and justify their point of view, then they are right and ignoring their points would be very unwise.


What can't I remove from AoD without it ceasing to be AoD?. Is there a Welleresque style or school of game design just as there is a Pinteresque play, or a Dickensian novel? Or indeed, dare I say it, an Avelloneian game -- he's perhaps most obviously recognised by his habit, liked or otherwise, of ending an act with a large, sprawling dialogue, rather than your typical boss battle.

Hmm... never thought of that, but if I have to name elements that are important to me, elements that would be carried to other games - assuming, of course, that AoD sells something and there would be other Iron Tower games, then I'd go with:

I can honestly say that I won't be interested in making a game that doesn't have all these elements. To answer the "what can't I remove...." question, I'd say "strong non-combat gameplay".

What advantages does turn-based combat bring to the table that real-time does not? There must be a reason for deciding to go against the trend set by the mainstream. Unless, of course, you’re the developer equivalent of the man who likes to record all of his CDs on to audio cassettes because he likes the scratchy noise they make.

I couldn't care less about what the mainstream likes or doesn't like. Mainstream? **** 'em. The game is turn-based because we are fans of turn-based games and like this particular gameplay. What it brings to the table? I've answered that question quite a few times, so I hope you'll forgive me if I copy-paste from the infamous Rock, Paper, Shotgun interview:

So, if tactical chess-like combat filled with “what happens if I do A vs what happens if I do B vs. …” decisions sounds like fun to you, then you won’t find TB odd or slow. If you prefer non-stop, mindless by definition, action requiring nothing but manual dexterity and fast reaction, then RT is your friend.

Most people see turns as a some kind of relic from the days long gone, a throwback to the old days when electricity wasn’t invented yet and computers were powered by candle light. Some morons even compare turns to a pause, but we shall blame the education system for that.

The main difference between turns and pauses, so brilliantly illustrated by XCOM, is that when your turn is over, someone else’s turn starts, and if you didn’t prepare for that, well, mostly likely you are dead and it’s “game over” for you. In RT it’s perfectly acceptable to run toward a door, open it, hit pause, review the situation, pick targets and start kicking ass in an unbelievable but visually pleasing fashion. In XCOM if you open a door when your turn ends, and a hostile character is in the room, you are dead. What you may see as a flaw is actually a quick test of your tactics employed during your turn. If you fail, your character dies. You need to carefully plan your actions and then you’ll have a chance to beat games like XCOM or Jagged Alliance. Only a chance. I played XCOM for 6 months on my first playthrough. I beat Heavenly Sword in a few days. It’s an amazing looking game, but it doesn’t require much brainpower. If you can hold a controller, you can play and beat the game. See the difference?

First published: Rock, Paper, Shotgun, 2008

One thing that interests me about the idea of player choice, and the way in which you’re presenting it, is whether or not they have the opportunity to completely snooker themselves. I'm not talking about the player’s progress being blocked (although, your thoughts on this would be welcome, of course) but about the player ticking so many people off and ruining so many relationships that the consequence is that there is no choice left for them. They only have one direction they can go in.

It seems like the ultimate consequence, especially in a game with such an abundance of choice, to lose choice altogether. Smacks of divine retribution for you force Sir Gavin the +10 Points to Good to murder his benevolent and wise King because he’s been a bit of an idiot. Or does railroading, even in this manner, violate your design philosophy?

Not really. It's possible, of course, to piss everyone off and become public enemy #1, hunted by all. I think that's a plus because that was your choice. I, the developer, didn't interfere and make you an outcast for extra drama, you did. If that's what you like, enjoy it. You'll still be able to beat the game, but it will be very hard, what with being hunted by everyone and all.

It's not an emergent game. It's a carefully designed game, so I'm well aware of every choice you can make and where it leads to. There are no dead ends. If you think that you are stuck, go through your available options and you will find a way out. Some things can be insanely difficult, but you'll have yourself to blame for that.


So, what's the creative process like for you? How did you manage to come up with all of this?

I start somewhere (could be any point of the game, even the endings) and then sort through the possibilities that could either lead to this event or could be created by it. Then I pick what fits the most and creates the most interesting scenarios. Sometimes it comes easy, sometimes I have to play with concepts for weeks until something really good comes to mind.


The playable character and what motivates him is a unique and ever-present issue for RPG development. You can make him a part of your universe, giving him friends, memories, a family and while it can help solve the problem of motivation it surely violates the agency of the player; indeed, it voids all later development of that character. Equally so, the tabula rasa playable character makes the player wonder, "Why am I doing this again?" What is your approach to this problem?

Well, it takes two to tango. The player is expected to buy into the story and go along with it. The developer is expected to respect the player and spare him the pain of "You are an emo kid with an attitude who won't rest until his beloved kingdom of Animia is freed from some emo evil".

I think that Fallout nailed it perfectly. Your character draws the short straw and is sent to look for a water chip in the wasteland. That setup covers different motivations, interests, and reasons. You may want to find a water chip because you want to get back to the safety of the vault. Or maybe you are glad to get out of the claustrophobic vault and want to explore the new world and see what it has to offer.

AoD's main quest revolves around locating an ancient temple. Obviously if the player says the he/she doesn't care about some temple and would like to settle down and open a bakery instead, then there is nothing we can do to help. Providing artificial motivations like "you father, whom you love oh so dearly, went to look for this temple and you won't rest until you find your dad" is kinda lame, so we help the player to find an object (a map) that will sooner or later lead him/her to one of the three different parties that are interested in that temple for very different reasons. Counting your character's natural curiosity (we do our best to interest the player (and thus the character) in the temple), that's 4 different reasons to get involved in the story.

So, essentially: You come up with the story and the hook (in this case, it would be the map and the temple it leads to) the player supplies his own motivation?

Not exactly. We provide motivations within the story. Since it looks like I have to be specific: You acquire a map leading to an ancient, pre-war temple. The temple is associated with a deity who was known as The Artificer and whose name was associated with many clever gadgets and engines of war. Then we have three different main factions. One wants to seal the temple to prevent the other two factions from increasing their power. Another faction wants to change the balance of power and needs to get their hands on one of the fabled engines of war that the temple might still have. The last faction represents religious fanaticism; they want to restore the deity and start a new era. So, these are the different reasons and motivations that will be offered to your character. If you accept the setting and the story, it won't be hard to find your character's place in it and find reasons that fit your character.


What would you say is the place of the video game as an art form? By the same token: What would mark a video game as something other than an extension of literature, if it can be called that at all?

No idea. Let's leave deep philosophical questions like that for people who truly care about whether or not games are art and ready to argue to death about it.

I care but, then again, I’m an English Literature student so that makes me a bit odd…

The way I see it video games are a mix of interactive movies, comics, and books. The ratio is different for each game, obviously.

Is AoD more of a film, a comic, or a book?

A book.

How so?

It has, like, words and stuff. Lots and lots of words.


Placing limitations on people often seems to drive creativity. If I gave you an area which consists of a single room, a small one at that, and told you to make an RPG out of it, what would you create?

Survival RPG. Kind of like the Count of Monte Cristo who spent the first half of the book in a small jail cell. The goal is to escape. You can communicate with prisoners in the surrounding cells via the Morse code, and you can also chat with guards and the warden, manipulating them if you can. I don't think it would be a challenge to make an interesting game out of this concept.

Thank you for joining us, Mr. Weller, and I wish you luck in this and in Iron Tower's future projects


Thanks for reading, folks, and if you like this sort of thing then do tell and we'll try to organise more of these things with other developers.

- Pavlos

Discuss it here...




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