As you all know, the main focus of this column is the creation of highly commercial, very elaborate computer games that require more dollars than cents to create. However, this is not the only way to make a computer game. In fact, for a long time the most popular way to release computer games was via Shareware. This is when you get to play part of the game for free, and then if you like it you can support the developers by buying the rest of it, but if you don’t like it then you’ve lost no money.
One example of such games is “Deadly Rooms of Death” (DROD), a game that was originally released by Webfoot Technologies as shareware in 1997, and has continued growing ever since. For this week’s column, I was lucky enough to get the chance to sit down with Erik Hermansen, the original creative mind behind DROD, and fire questions at him in a shameless attempt to do less work.
Behind the Veil: First of all, thanks for coming out for the second of what I hope will be a long line of interviews with game designers.
Erik Hermansen: Wow man, you’re like the James Lipton of interviewing game designers!
BtV: What inspired you to start work on DROD?
EH: I used it to learn C. I was working as a programmer in mostly Visual Basic, and I saw cooler projects being given to people who knew C, which made me jealous. So I worked on DROD as a C self-tutorial, then at some point I got brutally serious about developing it into a real game.
BtV: When you were the only person working on the game, what seemed to be the most daunting task facing you?
EH: Not having enough time or money. The balance would almost always be too far in one direction or the other. I split my time between DROD, which brought in no money, and other projects that were lucrative but drew me away from DROD. Many times I would be upset because things were moving so slow. Webfoot wanted me to finish the game so they could sell it, but I’d have to go work on accounting database software or something like that to pay the bills.
BtV: How did the pressure from Webfoot affect you?
EH: Webfoot wasn’t pressuring me so much, as just asking if I was done. Keep in mind they didn’t fund development of DROD. If I was that lucky, then I wouldn’t have needed to split time with other less interesting projects. Back then they were in contact with many small developers and trying to get a bunch of games on their site for sale; but if one lone wolf developer didn’t come through, I don’t think it was such a big deal for them. It mattered more to me, because I wanted to write games, not accounting software. So the pressure was me screaming at myself to get the game done. I had a lot of angst about spending my Precious Waning Life Energy on anything that did not express me. Now I am working for Webfoot as a contractor and I’m getting your traditional pressure of the external variety. In fact, don’t tell them about me doing this interview, because I am supposed to be working on their game right now.
BtV: What was the start of the design process like?
EH: At one point in the early 90s, I sold my only computer (an Amiga 500) to pay rent. So there was this computerless time of several months when I would do a lot of “pre-programming” with graph paper and other stuff. The earliest prototype of DROD was me moving pieces of paper around on a chessboard in a cafe. I explained the rules of movement to my friend, Alan, and let him control a player piece. And then I would move around the enemy pieces in response to his moves. This is actually kind of a silly way to design games, and I only recommend it if you don’t have a computer to work on.
BtV: How much did your game design change and evolve over the creation process?
EH: There were a few ideas that I scrapped early on while prototyping. On the latest version of DROD, we prototyped about twice as many game elements as will go into the final release. For a game like DROD that doesn’t borrow from other sources, you have to try a lot of new things and pick the ones that work. After a certain point, features get locked down so that the release doesn’t drag on forever. I try to put the creativity away and focus on finishing the game. Only during maybe the first quarter of development time, is everything up for change. I should point out that on the latest release we are working on, Mike Rimer, not me, is the lead developer and is doing a good job making game design decisions. I’m handling project management, art, and story.
BtV: Were there any setbacks you encountered when developing DROD?
EH: Webfoot dropped DROD and several other games because they wanted to focus on promoting 3D games. I was a little bummed about that, but DROD wasn’t selling, so I couldn’t blame them. I resolved after that to self-publish future titles unless some impossibly good deal landed in my lap. For a smaller game like DROD, I don’t think it makes sense to make an exclusive publishing deal with anybody.
BtV: What kept you going in the face of adversity?
EH: Well, I don’t think I’m fighting against much here except my own lack of motivation. There was a time, years after the original publishing of DROD, when I had completely shelved any work on it. Some fans surprised me by starting up a DROD mailing list. I thought, “Yay! People still like my game!” So that gave me some inspiration to work on an open source release. There have been many people that joined the project and helped with programming, testing, art, music, level design and translation. And there’s all these people that play the game religiously, create new levels, and post on our message boards. There’s even one superfan that dressed up as Beethro (DROD’s main character) for Halloween. Whenever I get bored of working on the game, I think about all these people that have helped me and how they’re waiting for the next release.
BtV: Over the past couple years, a very intelligent community has sprung up around your game. How important are fan interaction and community involvement to you, and to the continuing game development process?
EH: So important that it will be impossible to get across how much. Firstly, if you have an audience it makes you want to perform, so the dev team sees people eagerly awaiting the next release and that’s fantastic incentive to keep going. Secondly, nearly everyone on the development team started out as a fan and hung out in the player community for a while before they volunteered or got recruited. So we find quality contributors this way. Thirdly, players get bored during the long interval between releases and the message boards have minimized that effect, giving players something more to do so we don’t lose them over the long run. People who read this will think, “So you’ve got a message board—big freaking deal! Everybody’s got a message board.” The difference is that we spend a huge amount of time on it, both socially and technically. One of our guys, Matt Schikore, hacked the forum software in countless ways so that now it’s really an extension of the game. As soon as he puts something new in, people immediately start using it and ask for something else. We even have a DROD-related contest every month—the latest contest is to design a level based on an I Ching reading. Other contests have been designing a map of the DROD world, completing a level in the shortest amount of time, and writing DROD Haikus.
BtV: If you could offer one piece of advice to aspiring game developers, what would it be?
EH: Make a small game. Be prepared to finish it completely by yourself. Although you can get help from other people, you should not depend on other people to contribute. If you succeed in completing the small game, then you could try something more ambitious, but most starting game devs have a tough time getting anything done.
BtV: Shameless plug?
EH: Go to DROD.net and download this really cool puzzle game we have there. It’s FREE, dammit!
BtV: Thank you again for coming out, and sharing your experience with us, and best of luck with the next version of DROD.
EH: My favorite word is “rankle”. My least favorite word is “arbavita”. What? No more questions?
So there you have it folks, another interview with another set of opinions expressed. Next time we’ll return to our general theme of examining the game design process, and take a look at what defines “content” within a game.
Disclaimer: Behind the Veil was written by Chris Marks and hosted by Diabloii.net. The opinions expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Diii.net.