Interview with Vince D. Weller

RPGNuke: First of all, I’d like to highlight my impression by your self-restraint and determination. Age of Decadence have been in development for a several years now, but still you’re working hard as hell, not losing even a bit of hope, and even using every chance to bring some information about your game to your fans. Not to mention the giving of an interview. It’s worthy of respect.

But let’s get down to questions. Let’s not talk about combat system and role-playing system in the game, as we could spend forever talking about such things and it’s probably better to wait for R4, which is going to have a plenty of major changes by itself.

Some of the players, who’s been waiting for your game, are not really happy with the major changes and game content that you have included in already completed sections of the game, and also not happy with the things you add into game «under way». Some people even think that you are prone to «changing your mood» sometimes, which lead to all those reworkings. Some impatient folks are even suggested to bring all new extras through the infamous DLC, so you wouldn’t have to delay the AoD’s release every time. Any comments?

Vince: First and foremost, we prefer the iteration approach. I believe that it is impossible to produce a quality game simply by writing a design doc (pure theory) and sticking to it no matter what (which, in practice, means sticking with your mistakes and ignoring exposed weak aspects). Instead, you implement, test, identify issues, fix/change/redesign, test again, rinse and repeat.

Take our character system, for example. Originally, we started with 1-300 system. Why? To give you more room to grow, which was a mistake. There are different ways of achieving it, and going to 300 makes things a bit vague. So, we changed it to 1-100 and added a ‘weighted buy’ system after the combat demo and the feedback received. It worked much better in combat, but it was still too vague for non-combat, which led to meta-gaming. If you have 35 points in some skill, do you put a few points in it or not? Would raising it to 37 make any difference? What if the check value is 38 and you missed it by a lousy point and died?

So, we switched to 1-10, which makes a lot more sense. It’s not a radical change, as it’s just a matter of scale that makes quite a difference. Could we have done it at the beginning? Maybe, but we didn’t know back then what we know now.

Character generation is another issue. It was kinda … boring. It worked well on paper and in Excel. Choose your stats (the active part) and they determine your skills (the passive part). So, we removed the skill influence and split the points into two pools — combat and non-combat. The physical stats contribute to the combat pool, the mental stats to the non-combat pool. Etc.

Basically, we aren’t changing the core of the system; we’re evolving the existing system based on the extensive feedback. That goes for everything else in the game.

Second, sometimes (quite often) good ideas take time to brew. There is a reason why even accomplished writers re-write entire chapters and characters. As with games, it’s very hard to write a great story in one sitting. You write a chapter, read and re-read, think about it, carrying it with you in your head everywhere you go, and then you see a way to make it better. Contrary to what some people may think, such improvements are not endless. You improve the weak areas and you know when you find what you were looking for and fix what was bothering you.

For example, the Abyss was originally designed to show the effect of magic. You hear about the magic, about the war, and then you finally see what it does. Sort of like visiting Hiroshima. Yet it felt incomplete. Something was missing and it took me a long time (sort of like stumbling in the dark, when you know that the area needs something, but you don’t know what) to figure out what, to find the missing part that ties the Abyss with other events and stories, to provide another piece of the puzzle.

Third, no matter how much you can discover while playtesting yourself, it pales in comparison to even a small-scale beta test , not to mention a demo release. You get feedback, good (constructive) and bad (not so constructive). You can ignore constructive feedback and go with «ah, fuck it» or you can take your time and fix the issues. It’s a judgment call. It took us at least six months after the initial demo release to fix most issues and I don’t mean the bugs. If we didn’t, we could have released the game in October, but we did and it seems to me that most people agreed that the changes from R1 to R3.2 made the game much better, which is all we care about.

Either way, the second chapter (out of three) is almost done and about to be released to those who have pre-ordered the game. Hopefully, they won’t be disappointed.

Talking about your original designs and ideas — was there something you had to exclude from the game, feeling sad about it as a result?

No. We were fortunate to have a very capable programmer who built (and evolved) great tools and was able to implement everything I asked for.

Beta version of the game can offer us a fine idea about quantity of variations in the game. As far as we can tell at this moment, Age of Decadence is going to have more than a single ending. Also different player’s actions would lead to different consequences on a lesser scales. Talking about those «consequences» — are we going to see them through the some kind of cutscenes (like we had in Fallout or Gothic III)? Or maybe your game is going to have an open ending (with a lot of questions and fertile ground for all that fan-fiction stuff)? If so, then how much details your game will give us concerning the player’s influence in the game world? I’d like to witness a couple of hundreds of slides.

The game will have the ending slides, similar to what you’ve seen in the first demo:

  • The effect of your actions on the region in general
  • The effect of your actions on each town
  • The effect of your actions on the factions
  • The effect of your actions on different people

One and half year ago you mentioned, that Age of Decadence is probably going to appear on a Kickstarter, but then you’ve totally refused the idea. Can you explain us why? Do you still planning to use crowdfunding in the development of your future games?

You’re mistaken. We’ve never had any plans to go on Kickstarter. I prefer the old-school way of doing thing — prove yourself first, deliver something playable, then ask for money.

Kickstarter is very much the opposite — dream selling and upselling. It’s not about game design, it’s about well-calculated tiers, «stretch» goals, loot bags, asking for a third of what you need, upselling the low tiers, playing the system, and the lack of anything resembling accountability and transparency.

Mind you, I did back a few projects; not because they sold me on their ideas, but because I trusted the studios and wanted to support them in the absence of any other way to do so. Project Eternity, which is my most anticipated RPG at the moment, is a good example of that. They had a vague ‘we’re gonna do something awesome’ pitch and when they got a million bucks in the first 24 hours, they started figuring out what this ‘awesome’ actually might be.

As for AoD, if it sells, we won’t need a Kickstarter campaign. If it doesn’t sell, why go and ask people to fund games that nobody wants to buy?

After I’ve seen some dialog stuff in Age of Decadence, now I do have interesting question — haven’t you been a writer before? And if so, what about published works?

I’ve always had a knack for writing and talking, but until recently it was used to sell advertising and write semi-insulting business proposals and other equally exciting things.

During my illustrious career, I’ve seen all kinds of scheming, plotting, backstabbing, shifting alliances, greed & stupidity, and met hundreds of different personalities. Thus, when I write my characters, factions, and dialogues, I tap into my experience and write on subjects I’m well familiar with.

Personally, I’m quite disappointed, that with ever increasing frequency RPG developers are giving us «ready-made» main characters, like Adam Jensen (Deus Ex), Geralt (The Witcher) or Commander Shepard (Mass Effect, even if this game allows us to adjust our character). In your opinion, is it good or bad if your character in RPG would have some independence from the player’s actions, leaving the place for some kind of a personal history? Or maybe should the developers leave the character’s personality aside, so the character him/herself would be your own avatar in the game world?

Depends on the writing team. PST is a great example of a superb story-driven game with great characters, including the Nameless One. Despite the linearity, it’s on most top 10 RPG lists. The game had depth. In comparison, Commander Shepard has all the depth of a cardboard cutout and the story is remarkably idiotic.

Almost every game’s storyline have been based on a Joseph Campbell’s «hero’s journey» concept — Becoming a Hero, a Hero’s fall, introduction of helpers (allies), returning of a Hero. What about the storyline of Age of Decadence? Is there any proper alternatives instead of Campbell’s scheme?

I believe that the Campbell’s concept applies only to heroic fantasy — can’t have a «hero’s journey» without a hero. Such fantasy does tend to be very formulaic and due to the excessive demand generated by 12 year olds is in steady supply.

As for AoD, our guiding principle was realism. So we started with small, local events — a disgruntled officer who wants to take over a local shithole of a town, a prospering trading guild that wants to stop him, the assassins caught in the middle, a local noble grasping at straws — and then followed their effects on other factions. Sort of like a snowball rolling down the hill, gaining speed and growing in size.

In your opinion, is it necessary to mix the major side quests (which could be made a stand-alone storyline by themselves) with some tiny ones (delivery services etc.) or every quest should be unique, well-made and complex?

Depends on the game. A game that tells a story should have unique, hand-crated quests with multiple solutions and at least some consequences.

Can you give us some more details about your «Generation Ship» RPG? If I do understand correctly, whole adventure is going to take its place at the spaceship’s closed rooms and halls. I think this is going to be the one hell of an intriguing story.

A long time ago I’ve read Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky and fell in love with the concept. If you or your readers aren’t familiar with it, imagine a huge colony ship slowly traveling to a distant system. The voyage will take hundreds of years and only the distant descendants of the original colonists, born and raised on the ship, will reach the destination. Sooner or later things go wrong and the ship descends into chaos and when the dust settles, a new society (or societies) emerges. They are no longer aware of the original purpose; they don’t care of the hardships and struggles of their forefathers. The ship is their world, the only world they’ve ever known.

While the physical setting is somewhat constrained, when it comes to different societies, there is so much to explore and experiment with. The potential for different conflicts is unlimited.

Such a game would be party-based, focused on exploration and dealing with different factions. We envision a huge ship with different decks, restricted area, abandoned and forgotten areas (so being able to find new passages, interact with the ship’s systems, deal with factions controlling different parts of the ship, brave the ship’s dangers, etc, will be of utmost importance), irradiated areas, etc. Plus mutants. Can’t have a generation ship game without mutants.

Those of players who is quite familiar with the game industry must be heard of plenty of funny stories related to the game development. For example, we have many characters, who had been created due to the bugs or just funny misunderstandings in famous Mortal Kombat series. After eight years of the AoD’s development, you’ve definitely got some funny stories to tell by the campfire (or maybe the scary ones as well)?

Can’t think of anything yet. I guess, the small team and ‘narrow specialization’ environment eliminate misunderstandings. Looking back I see nothing but numerous trials & tribulations, hard-gained milestones, and years of work. The worst days are days when nothing is done — not when you take a break, but when you work hours but produce nothing of value. Or when you waste time trying something, only to discover that it doesn’t work as you expected and actually makes things worse.

I don’t know if this is the thrice-told question in the game industry, but I just can’t resist: what is video games? Is it art?

Like any other ‘creation’, it can be art, it can be mass production crap, or something in between. I’d say it depends on one’s goals. If you worry mostly about sales and are trying to make the game more accessible, it can’t be art (which explains the sad state of the industry where anything that doesn’t sell 2 million copies is a horrible failure, which forces developers to play it as safe as possible).

Despite your openness and good fellowship with your fans, it’s easy to notice your absolute anonymity. The only thing we know about you, is that «Vince D. Weller» is a pseudonym, and in real life you’ve been a vice president in a well-known Canadian company (it’s really hard to understand now with such a fact, where did you get so much time for game’s development), till the last year. Can you tell us why did you hide you real name?

When I started working on the game, I didn’t want to run into any issues related to my involvement with the game. While I saw it as an after-hours hobby (and thus entirely my business), it could have caused ‘misunderstandings’.

Now announcing myself to the world would be kind of pointless (What does it change? Nothing) and I’m used to the Vince moniker. What’s in a name and all that.

What does your family think of your «hobby»? Do you have any personal problems caused by the AoD’s development? Especially when you left your job in the last year.

They are fairly supportive. I’ve done the Right Thing ™ all my life, so I figured that I deserve a chance to be irresponsible and do what I’ve always wanted, even if it’s the dumbest thing ever, business-wise.

And last one. Is there something you wanted to tell your fans here, in Russia (and maybe somewhere by the neighborhood)?

I’d like to thank them for their support. Sure, it’s a generic phrase, but I do mean it. We’re grateful for the interest, for the discussions, for the translation project (it was kinda cool to see so many people working together), all the kind words and 68 pre-orders.

One gentleman generously gave us $500 — a true patron of the arts, so special thanks to him.

Many thanks for answers, Vince. Looking forward to your game.

Русская версия интервью с Винсом Уэллером