Conducted By Adam Ames

Telepath RPG Craig Stern Sinister Design Interview

Sinister Design lead man, Craig Stern, talks to TPG about his middle eastern steampunk RPG, Telepath RPG: Servants of God.  Craig speaks about how he got started in PC development, the successes and failures in developing Telepath and insight into the PC gaming industry.  Here is a piece:

What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Telepath RPG: Servants of God?

I’ve learned a lot in terms of design and technique. I basically had to teach myself intermediate-level AI programming to make this game. This was difficult, but I think it was ultimately worth the time investment. The enemies in Telepath RPG: Servants of God are good at seizing on small mistakes in the positioning of your characters, so tactical planning is important. I’m very proud of that.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Telepath RPG: Servants of God.

My name is Craig Stern; I’m the founder and lead designer for Sinister Design, the indie studio that created Telepath RPG: Servants of God. Other than a couple of contract artists I hired to do the game’s character portraits and GUI, and a couple of volunteer artists who contributed visual art here and there, I designed Telepath RPG: Servants of God solo.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

I started off by designing a short RPG in Flash one summer before I was scheduled to begin law school. I ended up enjoying it so much that I went on to make a sequel during school, and began sinking a not inconsiderable amount of time into developing Telepath RPG: Servants of God  after that.

Where did the idea for Telepath RPG: Servants of God come from?

I originally got the idea for the game’s premise after reading news reports about officers in the U.S. Army forcing soldiers to attend religious services and receive spiritual training; about the Department of Defense planning to deliver care packages with Left Behind: Eternal Forces to our troops in Iraq; and about the rise of dominion theology in America. The thought occurred to me: if the military were to be captured by people who place religious doctrine above the rule of law, than what, realistically, would stand in the way of a coup? This game is a way of exploring my feelings about that concept.

As far as gameplay goes, Telepath RPG: Servants of God is an attempt to make the world’s first proper Western RPG / Strategy RPG hybrid. Western RPGs, as you know, are typically nonlinear  games with open worlds, consequence-laden dialog trees, and quests with multiple endings. However, they have a history of featuring rather lackluster combat systems. Strategy RPGs, by contrast, feature awesome grid-based, turn-based tactical combat systems. However, they have a history of employing rigid, linear plot progression with no opportunity for deviation or meaningful player choice.

So you have a situation where each of the two most interesting RPG subgenres has glaring weaknesses that just so happen to correspond to the other subgenre’s strengths. Combining the two to fill in the weak points just seems like an obvious move.

What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Telepath RPG: Servants of God?

I’ve learned a lot in terms of design and technique. I basically had to teach myself intermediate-level AI programming to make this game. This was difficult, but I think it was ultimately worth the time investment. The enemies in Telepath RPG: Servants of God are good at seizing on small mistakes in the positioning of your characters, so tactical planning is important. I’m very proud of that.

I feel good about the game’s writing as well. I’m proud of what’s there, in particular the sheer number of points I’ve managed to work in where the dialog changes based on who’s alive and what you’ve said and done in-game. (One of the game’s side quests features no fewer than 12 endings based purely on your dialog choices among three different characters.) I’m also proud of all the optional dialog with members of your team. I’d love to take the time to make those dialog trees even more in-depth, but after more than four years of development, enough is enough.

The only failures I can think from development of this game were technical in nature. Let’s just say that I’ve learned the importance of modularity, and of designing good development tools before I start working on game content. My biggest lesson has been to use tiles for designing a game’s environments. Hand-crafting game environments scene by scene has been a huge drain on my time and energy. If I could go back in time and tell Past Me to do one thing differently when designing Telepath RPG: Servants of God, it would be to use tiles and arrays for generating every part of the game world (not just the battles).

In its current form, how close is Telepath RPG: Servants of God to your initial vision?

Pretty close. A few things have changed, most notably the game’s focus. My original plan was to have this game be, fundamentally, about the existence or nonexistence of God. But as I got deep into developing the game, I realized that I was wrong: really, that wasn’t what this was about at all. This game is about honesty versus self-deception; it’s about the frailty of the human mind; and it’s about the twisted rationalizations we engage in trying to justify our preconceptions about ourselves and the world around us.

Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game.  Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Telepath RPG: Servants of God and if you faced a similar challenge.

Well, I’ve certainly had moments where I designed a section of the game, then revisited it later and said “Holy balls, I need to tone down the difficulty here!” More generally, the game features selectable difficulty settings, so the player can choose at the start of the game how challenging she wants the experience to be.

Beyond that, the difficulty in Telepath RPG: Servants of God is largely regulated by the player. Characters advance through training, which takes gold and nothing else. And there are hidden caches of gold all over the world. So a player who is having a hard time winning battles needs only to take some time out to explore, find chests, and then go back and invest in training; no grinding required.

On the other hand, in a way, I almost want Telepath RPG: Servants of God to be “too hard.” It’s a hybrid western RPG / strategy RPG, so we’re talking about a game that straddles the divide between two niche, hardcore gaming communities. Pretty much the single worst thing I could do would be to make the game too easy.

Telepath RPG Craig Stern Sinister Design Interview

 Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Telepath RPG: Servants of God would run on the various PC system configurations?

Nope. That’s the beauty of using a pre-made development environment like Flash or Unity—you don’t waste valuable time on basic compatibility issues.

 Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Telepath RPG: Servants of God.

Aside from the problem of having to build each level by hand, designing levels for Telepath RPG: Servants of God was a blast. I firmly believe in the power of scattering secrets around a game world. When you notice something unusual and suddenly a whole new area opens up that the game never told you about and that has nothing to do with your progression through the plot, it suddenly fills the world with a sense of possibility. That’s been my favorite part of designing the levels—it’s right up there with designing crypts filled with nasty traps, puzzles, and hidden passageways.

I loved writing the music for Telepath RPG: Servants of God, too. I spent a lot of time researching Middle Eastern music and playing around with an oud to get a good, authentic sound for the areas around Ravinale. A lot of the soundtrack results from a mishmash of my musical influences, many of them classical. I managed to convince an ex-girlfriend of mine to do operatic singing on a couple of the tracks, which sounds pretty awesome. Probably my favorite little-known fact about the music of Telepath RPG: Servants of God, though, is that “Against the Cult,” the track that plays during the prison break sequence, was originally conceived as an orchestral reimagining of the Flash music video “Owls” by TheWeebl. (You know, the one where Simon Cowell transforms into the King of the Beavers? No? Never mind.)

I admit, the art style for Telepath RPG: Servants of God is pretty unusual. It takes place in a bird’s-eye overhead view, with vector graphics for characters and special effects and raster for everything else. In truth, I made these choices because they made it easier for me to create a lot of content with smooth animations and minimal effort, rather than out of some deep desire for a consistent aesthetic.

Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?

Keeping it together in terms of money, time, and emotional well-being. There are trade-offs everywhere as an indie. Full-time indie developers tend to be flush with time, but mired in poverty. Part-time indies tend to have some money from a day job, but time is always scarce because of the 8-hour work day. And a scarcity of either time or money will inevitably take an emotional toll on you.

It can also be hard sifting through feedback on the internet. Some people are lovely, but others forget that game developers are human beings with feelings who are probably going to read what they write. As an indie developer, you can’t just develop games; you also have to develop a thick skin.

How did you go about funding Telepath RPG: Servants of God and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?

As of the time of this interview, I am one of the aforementioned part-time indies. I self-fund, partially through pre-order sales and partially through working a full-time job. Friends and family have been a great source of emotional support for me, particularly my friends in the Chicago indie game development scene; I have yet to beg any of them for money.

Tell us about the process of submitting Telepath RPG: Servants of God to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.

I haven’t submitted Telepath RPG: Servants of God anywhere just yet, but I did spend some time submitting a game that I finished making a couple of years back, Telepath Psy Arena 2. The process is…how do I put this nicely? Let’s go with “time-consuming.” You end up having to produce scads of custom graphics for each individual digital distributor. None of them use the same resolutions for their images, and all of them require four to six different banners, so you end up creating dozens of different variations on the same banner. It wastes hours of my time. I wish these distributors would just agree on a few standard image resolutions and call it a day.

How much pull do you have when setting sale and regular pricing through digital distribution channels?  Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?

So far, I’ve been able to set my own price for digital distributors, but that might change if I ever get Telepath RPG: Servants of God onto a service like Steam or Big Fish Games. The effect that these services have had on pricing in the indie scene concerns me. I’ve spent more than four years of my life developing Telepath RPG: Servants of God; it’s a very involved, content-heavy game with unique systems that new players will have to invest a few minutes learning. Am I really supposed to sell this for $4.99? Are there really more than five times as many people who are going to buy it at that price?

When deciding what to charge for Telepath RPG: Servants of God, I focused on what other indie RPG developers were doing. Spiderweb Software, Basilisk Games, Rampant Games—these guys all realize that they have niche games for a limited audience, and so they price their new releases upwards of $20 a pop as a result. Heck, even the RPG Maker developers (Amaranth Games, Aldorlea Games, etc.) regularly release games at the $20 price point. Jeff Vogel has done some rather convincing writing on this subject, and I tend to agree with his conclusions.

There are some outliers among RPG developers, like Zeboyd Games and Gaslamp Games, who price their games in impulse-buy territory. By all accounts, these guys have done very well for themselves, though I suspect that probably has to do with all the positive publicity their games have received moreso than the price. Perhaps it’s that I’m an inherently cautious person, but I’d rather not gamble on the chance of making tens of thousands of sales at a laughable price point—not without marketing muscle like Valve’s behind me.

Telepath RPG Craig Stern Sinister Design Interview

For the most part, big budget studios no longer release PC demos while almost every indie developer does.  Why do you think this trend is occurring?  Tell us why released a demo for Telepath RPG: Servants of God and the difficulties in doing so.

I honestly don’t understand what the big budget game studios are thinking by failing to release demos. Maybe they’re employing a strategy modeled after big budget movie studios who fail to hold press screenings for upcoming movies: they don’t have faith in their work, and they don’t want to risk the possibility that people will think the thing stinks. Maybe they’re worried about jeopardizing pre-order sales. Maybe they’re worried about giving hackers a head start on cracking the game. I really don’t know: the whole idea of asking for $60 for a game without even making a demo available to play is mind-boggling to me.

Telepath RPG: Servants of God had a playable demo very early on, and I’ve updated it continually throughout development. It’s been incredibly valuable to me, both in terms of allowing me to attract new fans as development continues and in terms of getting me a constant stream of bug reports and feedback.

The only real downside to making it available during development has been that it makes it hard to make big changes to areas of the game I’ve already completed. I feel guilty invalidating everyone’s saved games, for one thing. More importantly, though, I run the risk of disillusioning those in the peanut gallery who’ve grown accustomed to the way things work. People tend not to like change. Just look at the backlash Arcen Games faced when they publicly shifted A Valley Without Wind from overhead perspective to side-scrolling. Can you imagine how much bigger that backlash would have been if people had already been playing the game that way for months?

 How important is it to get instant feedback about Telepath RPG: Servants of God from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

It is the single most valuable resource I have as a developer. It’s like having my own cheerleading squad that doubles as a QA team.

 How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Telepath RPG: Servants of God professionally?

On a personal level, I evaluate players’ opinions based on their apparent familiarity with the game, and based on the quality of their reasoning and insight. That goes for everyone, professional journalist or no. By my own criteria, the best preview I’ve read of Telepath RPG: Servants of God so far has been written not by a journalist, but by a user posting on the Giant Bomb forums.

From a marketing perspective, though, there is obviously a greater value in having someone well-known praise my game.  Journalists tend to have readerships, which multiplies the impact of their writing without regard to content.  Likewise, because journalists build up a track record over the course of their careers writing about games, they develop reputations; and people use reputation as a shorthand for trustworthiness. That also adds to the multiplier effect. So it’s naturally going to make far more of an impact if (for instance) Kieron Gillen says something about Telepath RPG: Servants of God than if (for instance) your mother goes and says the exact same thing on her blog.

Ideally, I’d like to have the best of both worlds: namely, well-known and well-respected professionals getting very familiar with my game, then saying well-reasoned and insightful things about it. But if I had to choose one or the other, I’d much rather hear non-journalists saying intelligent and insightful things about the game than hear journalists offering ignorant and uninformed opinions. It matters more to me that people “get it” than that I make gobs of money.

How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?

I love the bundles, and I’d love to participate in one. Telepath RPG: Servants of God runs on Windows, Mac and Linux, so theoretically it should be a Humble Indie Bundle candidate once it’s out.

Still, the breakneck pace of bundle releases we saw leading up to the holiday season frightens me. I worry that we are eventually going to poison the well if we keep that pace up. Every time I see a post about a new bundle, it is inevitably followed by comments from people complaining that they still haven’t played the games they got in the last bundle. (I fall into this category myself.) Sooner or later, people are just going to say, “Enough. I am drowning in unplayed games, and I will not pay for more games at any amount.” Then we’ll be stuck with the new, diminished expectations we helped foster about what we can charge for an indie game, but without any of the demand that allowed us to survive on them.

Telepath RPG Craig Stern Sinister Design Interview

What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?

There are many different approaches being used, so I don’t think it’s possible to talk about the industry as a monolothic thing. DRM-free is a legitimate strategy, and I respect companies like 2D Boy and CD Projekt that choose to go that route. Every game has essentially become its own metagame, a multiplayer affair with developers on one side and pirates on the other. The easiest approach for a developer to take is simply not to play.

On the other hand, some of the bigger publishers have really gone overboard in the other direction over the last few years. Limiting the number of times a user can install a game just feels wrong to me: once you buy a game, you should have the right to reinstall that thing forever. Requiring a constant internet connection to play is even worse. It’s hard to imagine something more inconvenient and invasive—and of course, once a crack comes out, it becomes something that only inconveniences the people who didn’t pirate the game.

Personally, I am a fan of the old one-time activation method. It’s easy, it’s non-intrusive, it doesn’t require an internet connection, and it presents just enough of a barrier that people won’t pirate your game unless they’re motivated to go looking around for a torrent of a cracked version. I think it strikes the right balance.

With all of the talk about SOPA, how do you feel about individuals posting videos of Telepath RPG: Servants of God?

I love it! (The videos, I mean—not SOPA.) Seeing people creating Let’s Plays of Telepath RPG: Servants of God before I’ve even finished the thing is incredibly flattering. It shows me that people really care about what I’ve created, which in turns makes me care more about it. It’s highly motivational.

How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?

I see DLC as a positive thing: it extends a game’s life cycle, allowing developers to continue supporting their games with new content and bug fixes long after its release. Some DLC gets criticized because it offers nothing more than a new cosmetic option, but come on: no one from Bethesda is at your house, forcing you to buy virtual horse armor. If you think cosmetic DLC is silly, don’t buy it. The people who want that sort of DLC obviously get some enjoyment out of it, and in the meantime, they are helping to fund continued development on a game you like.

How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Telepath RPG: Servants of God?

Mods are magical in much the same way that the instant feedback and bug reporting of forum users is magical. Instead of doing QA work, however, modders are people who essentially donate their time to developing more content for your game. That is obviously an incredibly good thing to have.

Making a deliberate choice to not offer mod support in your game is tantamount to saying “I want my game to have a much shorter shelf life.” Blizzard’s decision to affirmatively prohibit mods in Diablo 3 is mysterious to me. Are they finally running out of room in their Scrooge McDuck money vault/swimming pool? Do they need to stop making money so they’ll have some room to surface after a swim? It’s pretty baffling.

Now, remember when I said that modularity was one of the lessons I took away from developing Telepath RPG: Servants of God? That’s because I didn’t take a modular approach when developing it. Unfortunately, that fact means that Telepath RPG: Servants of God mods are going to be all but impossible to create. And I regret that. I don’t intend to make that same mistake in future releases. Luckily, Telepath RPG: Servants of God does come with a map editor; you can design battles, then fight them with your team from the last saved game you loaded. You can save the battles you create, then share them freely with friends. So in that limited sense, Telepath RPG: Servants of God does support user-created content. It’s just not as extensive as I’d like.

 What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?

Don’t; I’ve got enough competition as it is!

Just kidding. My best advice is to start small, making small games with very few assets required. You’ll be surprised at how long even a really small, simple game can take to complete. And since you are guaranteed to learn a lot every time you make a game, it makes sense to start out making lots of relatively quick ones. That way, when you’re ready to make your huge, epic RPG, you’ll already have a lot of techniques built up that you can throw at it.

Or, to put this in RPG terms: don’t run off to fight the final boss at level 1. Put in some time fighting smaller, quicker battles and level up your skills first. Things will go a lot more smoothly that way. -End

TPG would like to thank Craig for his extremely detailed answers and professional insight. Telepath RPG: Servants of God releases on February 14th.  You can read up on more by visiting the official site.

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  • Tufturek

    Nice interview. Looking forward to the game.

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