Head man from Dark Vale Games, Tim Alvis, talks to TPG about his recently released online multiplayer shooter, Forge. Tim speaks on the successes and failures within development, debating the hardest decisions, the pride of seeing Forge become a reality and much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Forge.
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – I’m part of that first generation that really grew up with video games. When the bit depth of the color available was the major factor in whether or not a console was worthy of attention. I have very fond memories of playing on the old Intellivision system, a biplane game and football game, neither of which I can remember the name of. Fast-forward about two decades, and here we are. I tend to have my hands in just about everything related to Forge. Game Design, production, programming, community service. Forge is the start of something I feel passionately should exist in the marketplace. We’re not done yet, but we’re getting there.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – I started off programming middleware solutions for automated tournaments. I found myself soon after at a company that published Free to Play MMOs, integrating the tournament middleware into one of their titles. It was a bit of a sideways entrance, but it was something I was determined to do.
Where did the idea for Forge come from?
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – The shift from single guy to married man to father is really the genesis. Just going to married man, the time I had available for gaming was quite restricted compared to what it was when I was single. When I tried to keep up with whichever popular MMO was taking my attention at the time, it was quite difficult. The target market for those titles apparently have many many hours a week available to play, and I frankly do not. At the same time, when I tried to get into a more flattened experience like a typical shooter, it lacked both the flavor and feeling of progression and depth I’d come to love in the MMO space.
It seemed it would be possible to remove the necessity of a long grind by changing progression to be far more horizontal in nature, keeping the nice short gameplay session length down to something closer to a first person shooter, without giving up the flavor of combat I’d come to really enjoy. That is the essence of what Forge offers, though we are just getting started in terms of progression and customization of characters, we have the most critical component already, fun gameplay.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Forge?
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – The first success was really just proving, to ourselves and the partners we had aligned ourselves with, that we were capable of building a game that was fun. No matter how much you plan or how many hours you work, you don’t always arrive at something that’s enjoyable to play. We had a series of difficult situations arise over the course of development of course. Our Kickstarter campaign fell far short of its goal. We realized immediately that we had failed to market and describe the game to people. It’s still seen as something extremely hardcore, very niche, when the reality is more that it’s something of a hybrid between Team Fortress 2 and Guild Wars.
Any time that resources become an issue you’re left with very difficult decisions to make. We released the game when it had to be released. We’ve felt the bite from that decision every day since, but we still believe strongly that the core gameplay is fun and offers plenty of value at the price point we’re asking, even though we know that we have features that are so commonplace today as to be expected of a release title yet to be included. They’re coming very, very soon though. We’ve done amazingly well in spite of it, sitting in the top 10 on Steam for the weeks following our launch. Not a small feat.
In its current form, how close is Forge to your initial vision?
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – In many ways, very very close. We did drop companions indefinitely. They were a key part of our development efforts early on, but we just didn’t feel they fit into the game after testing them in our early public Alphas. Other than that, the game is actually very close to what we set out to build at its core.
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 Forge and if you faced a similar challenge.
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – The largest difficulty hurdle to overcome is one brought on by the design of Forge, the lack of any grind. We don’t gate your access to the ability set of the class you choose. This is something we look at on a weekly basis, how to improve the new player experience to prevent it from being overwhelming. Our upcoming skill based matchmaking will help a lot, ensuring that newer players do not end up playing against experts, something we have in spades.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Forge would run on the various PC system configurations?
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – Using the Unreal Engine 3 made this much easier on us as a studio, to get things running at a base level. We do however still have some work to do on optimization. Being Indie means that our test machine resources are limited, which made us unable to test on a very wide variety of machines to ensure we had options that would make it perform well for everyone. While for the most part the game runs great for people, there are cases where a particular card or driver can lag behind on some of the more complex maps. We’ve identified most of those issues now and are in the process of releasing patches to address them, but it is challenging when the combinations of hardware are nearly infinite.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Forge.
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – We started working with SuperGenius very early in development. They are an incredibly talented group. We gave only some very general guidelines on theme and style and they just ran with it. They took strong influences form Viking and Inuit cultures to come up with the character designs and map themes you see now.
The level design was something that evolved through development. When we realized how much fun the vertical combat could be in Forge, we actually scrapped some of the original map work and started on them fresh to take advantage. They are influenced strongly by our favorite FPS maps and MMO battlegrounds.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – Resources. It’s impossible to overstate how tough this can be. The reason so many Indie titles do not attempt to compete in the same space as large AAA studios is that it’s nearly impossible to do so on an Indie budget. Forge was also our debut title, which made this an even larger challenge.
How did you go about funding Forge and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – We were able to raise outside capital from a private angel investor who has given us the support and runway to grow the brand without undue stress and pressure typically becoming of outside investors. That, in its own right, has allowed us to focus our strengths and energies on designing and building the best game we could given our resources.
Tell us about the process of submitting Forge to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – We were actually approached by a majority of the digital platforms we’re currently on, which was a testament to the uniqueness and fresh perspective Forge offers. With regards to Steam, we participated in their Greenlight program and were one of the first 20 titles to be selected by the Steam Community for inclusion on the Steam platform.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – We did research comparable titles as well as relied on advice from our partners to determine what we believed was a fair and appropriate price point for Forge.
Can you tell us why you chose to release a demo for Forge?
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – We would still have a demo readily available if we could, and are working on that now. We believe strongly in the core of the game and thought then as we do now that the best way to get people interested in purchasing the game is to get them playing. It was also critical to get early feedback and as wide a group of people as possible testing the game.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Forge from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – Extremely valuable. We read almost every word that is written anywhere about Forge. It’s not always flattering, and it’s not always criticism, but that culmination of voices really helps us get a feel for whether or not the priorities we believe are important are the right priorities.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Forge professionally?
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – It’s hard to say, as the group is very broad. Overall, quite a bit and for a variety of reasons. The most on the nose reason is that their opinions are what gets totaled up into the scores that you are usually judged by. There are times where, despite a low score or high score, you can tell the reviewer was the right reviewer and “got it”. There are other times where you’re left scratching your head.
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?
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – We’re always open to talking with people about their projects, especially in the Indie scene.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – It’s really a tricky situation. I think anything which invades a machine to the level that some DRM solutions have is just the wrong way to go. It’s an arms race you won’t win, and will only infuriate legitimate customers trying to play your game that inadvertently anger the overly sensitive DRM. At the same time, theft through piracy is rampant. There’s the line of thought that no one that pirates would have purchased your game anyway, but that’s not even close to an excuse. It’s still the work and labor of people passionate about what they do being stolen without any remorse.
In the end, I think the best solutions are those which are least intrusive. It may be easier to crack than a more medieval option, but at least it prevents the more casual piracy that occurs. I’m quite fond of low impact services like Steam that handle this fairly well.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Forge?
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – We’re firm believers in the viral coefficient. The more people we have supporting and promoting the game for us, in any form, the better.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – It’s so broadly used that it’s difficult to lump them all in together. I think smart DLC is fantastic, especially for low budget games that aren’t charging much. Dungeon Defenders comes to mind as a great example of DLC done well. I think a $60 game offering a single new model at $10 is not a great example. At the same time, the business of building games is expensive. Without the revenue these things generate, games would not be able to keep up with the advances in technology.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Forge?
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – I’m a huge fan and spent some time in that community myself. We have active plans to embrace that community and let them run wild.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Tim Alvis : CTO/COO – Start small. Start manageable. Build something you love, not something that seems to be trendy. If you have an idea for a great game, but it doesn’t have zombies, that’s absolutely ok. Remember to seek out partnerships and advice wherever you can. Embrace criticism. Being Indie is exciting, but being well funded with a strong partner that knows the space while not taking away all the magic that is you is even better.