February 13, 2015 7:55 AM | Lena LeRay
Spiderweb Software is an independent development studio that has been around for over 20 years now, pumping out an average of one tactical RPG per year since before it was reasonable to distribute large games via the internet. Spiderweb's most recent release is Avernum 2: Crystal Souls, a remake of the remake of the company's second game, Exile 2. Founder Jeff Vogel let IndieGames pick his brain about Spiderweb Software, its games, and being an indie developer for so long.
When did you first start making games?
It's something I've been obsessed with my whole life. I made mazes using pencil and paper when I was five. I got into Dungeons & Dragons and wrote my first computer games in BASIC when I was 10. I made little computer and board games all through my adolescence. I always dreamed of writing real games, and I was very fortunate to not have to wait long until I got the chance.
I made my first real game for money when I was 24. I was a grad student in applied math and hated it, so I took a few months off to write an RPG called Exile: Escape From the Pit. I released it as "shareware" (which is a thing that used to exist), it started selling, and I quit grad school almost immediately.
Please give us a rundown of the history of Spiderweb Software.
Exile was my first game for Spiderweb. I wrote it in 1994 and released it in January, 1995. And that's pretty much what I've done since. We've put out a game every 1-2 years for Mac, Windows, iPad, and occasionally Android and Linux. We've always had 2-3 full time employees and a host of freelancers for art and such.
We're a humble mom and pop organization. We aren't as ambitious and hard-charging as a lot of indie devs are today. Early on, we found our niche on old school, turn-based, retro, story-heavy RPGs. People always want them, and we're good at writing them. So that's what we stick with.
I remember the days of shareware. What are your thoughts on selling games as an indie in those days versus the present? Pros and cons?
It's better now. So much better. Miraculously better. Steam and iTunes and GoG.com and Humble Bundle and the web are amazing.
I mean, when I started out, the world wide web wasn't a thing. I had to scramble for months to convince a bank to help me accept credit cards, because they didn't think it was possible to have a profitable business in the internet. Most people got shareware demos from kiosks in the mall on floppy disks. It was insanely rough and crude, and I can't even feel nostalgic about it. It is just better now.
What made you decide to specialize in tactical RPGs?
I didn't choose that genre, that genre chose me. When I was young, I was captivated by RPGs. Dungeons & Dragons. Eamon. Wizardry. And especially Ultima. There is something about that genre that has always grabbed me. I think it's the way it can combine deep gameplay, satisfying advancement (and the illusion of achievement), and a good template for interesting storytelling.
RPGs are a genre that will never go away. In fact, exactly the opposite. The mechanics of RPGs are so compelling that they have infected pretty much every game in existence. (Heck, even Minecraft has experience and levels, and if there is a game anywhere that doesn't need to sink to that level, it's Minecraft.)
Your games have different settings and stories, but the gameplay doesn't seem to change much. What went into the decision to stick to the same format for twenty-odd years?
To be honest, I have to strongly dispute the premise of the question. I write turn-based, story-heavy RPGs, yes, but there is an enormous range of design options in that genre, and I have worked very hard to explore the possibilities. Our gameplay has changed a ton over the years.
For example, my Avernum games are very much straight-forward hack-and-slashy games. My Geneforge series, on the other hand, is hugely open-ended and faction based, with heavy stealth and diplomacy options and a story that can change wildly based on the choices you make. I've written conventional fantasy, dark fantasy, historical fantasy, and weird sci-fi mashups. I've done a lot of different stuff.
I think that one of the downsides to being around so long is that people can take you for granted. I've written a lot of games. I can barely keep them all straight. I can hardly expect you to. I don't think you should put in a lot of hours exploring my whole, sprawling body of work. However, if you did, I think you would find an enormous variety in gameplay. Not just between different series, but between adjacent games in the same series.
Or to put it another way: If I just churned out the same tired junk every year, do you really think we would be able to support ourselves well for 20 years? Trust me: Your fans will let you coast for a game or two. But if you don't then find some way to surprise them, they'll head for the door in droves.
To what extent have the gameplay, interface, and other parts of the engine changed since you first released Exile?
I think a great way to answer this question, if possible, is to put two screenshots side by side. First, a shot from our first game, Exile: Escape From the Pit:
I feel pretty comfortable saying we've gained some ground. There have been many, many advances in game and interface design since 1994, and we've tried to maintain the retro feel while, at the same time, bringing in the interface elements gamers expect now. Keeping my skills current is one of the ways I've stayed sane after doing this so many years.
One think that's fascinated me, though, is the ways that what is considered a cool style has changed. Right now, 16-bit pixel graphics games are all the rage. I am constantly accused of having outdated graphics, and yet the hip style in every indie game now is based on graphics from 1990. Our graphics aren't bad or old. They're now a legitimate style choice. And, happily, we have a lot of fans who like our style.
You've rereleased Exile twice now, first as Avernum and then again as Avernum: Escape from the Pit. The same is true of Exile 2 as Avernum 2 and then Avernum 2: Crystal Souls. What motivated you to rerelease them not just once, but twice?
A lot of reasons. I think releasing remastered versions of quality old games is a pretty established practice in the industry now.
For example, consider our newest rewrite, Avernum 2: Crystal Souls. It is a rewrite of Avernum 2, which came out in 2000. Fifteen (!) years ago. I think it's pretty fair to rewrite a game that old.
In the intervening decade and a half, a lot has happened. My interfaces and design have gotten a lot stronger. The resources available to me for art, sound, etc have grown greatly. Meanwhile, fifteen year old programs don't run well on Macintosh or 64-bit windows. The rewrites have three purposes: to make them function in the first place, to make them better, and to use the new engine to port the games to tablets. There's been a lot of demand for our games for the iPad, but this takes a full ground-up port. The archaic code won't work.
Rewrites of fifteen year old games are going to be a good part of our business going forward, as they are great games and the demand for remastered versions is high. Simply put, they sell really well. It helps that we don't half-ass these rewrites. Everything about them, ever space, every item, every line of dialogue, is gone over. Lots of new material is added.
How long does it take you to make a new game as compared to rereleasing an older title?
Probably about 3/4 as long. It takes a while. As I said, we go over everything.
Do you have a personal preference for one over the other between the PC versions and the tablet versions of your games?
If I was a gamer, I'd probably play them on the iPad. Personal preference... I really like to game in coffee shops. However, the PC version is better in many ways. Bigger screen, better interface, a keyboard, etc.
Avernum 2: Crystal Souls is $20 on Steam, which is up from the $10 price point of Avernum: Escape from the Pit and matches the price you charge for all of your games directly on your own site. What made you decide to initially charge less for your work on Steam?
Our new policy is to sell our new games for $20 everywhere. This is a fair price for niche products like huge retro RPGs, and early sales are strongly indicating that it was a wise choice.
For a while, we sold our games for less on Steam and similar services because that was what they wanted. It wasn't entirely my choice, and it's never wise to argue with Steam. While the Indie Bubble was raging, the policy was to charge only a little to shove product out the door as fast as possible. This is no longer a viable business path for people like me who sell more niche-type games.
I notice that you have a lot of demos available on your own web site, but the only demo I see up on Steam is for Avadon: The Black Fortress. Why is that?
Honestly, it's probably laziness on my part. I'm terrified of working with the Steam system, because I'm afraid I'll mess something up.
Also, it's not something that really gets requested. Most people who want to try a demo don't have a problem locating it on our site.
What do you plan to work on next? You released Avadon 2 between the most recent incarnations of Avernum and Avernum 2, so can we expect an Avadon 3?
Yep. Our next game will be Avadon 3: [Subtitle TBD], the conclusion of the Avadon trilogy. And then a rewrite of our enduringly most popular story, Avernum 3. And then I want to write a whole new game engine and setting.
Is there anything else you think our readers might find interesting about you, your games, or your company?
Sure! We started our business in the ancient days of shareware, when it was expected to make a good, hefty demo of your game available. I thought this was a fantastic practice, and I still do.
So do our old-school, plot-heavy RPGs sound intriguing? Drop by spiderwebsoftware.com and pick up a demo of Avernum 2: Crystal Souls. Our demos are big. Stupidly big. Like, longer than most full length indie games I've been playing recently. So you have nothing to lose (except a little time) giving us a try. If you try our demo and don't think the game is for you, we don't want your money. But I'm pretty confident. In business 20 years, and all that.