05 November 2011

Pelaaja Interview

Before the iOS version was released, Janne Pyykkönen contacted me to request an interview for Pelaaja, the Finnish video gaming magazine. Janne’s article was published last month (in Finnish), and Pelaaja has allowed us to post the original English-language interview.

You were the producer, designer and one of the programmers of the original King of Dragon Pass. That’s quite a lot of titles, so how much was the original King of Dragon Pass ‘your project? And did you yourself originally come up with the idea of a Glorantha based computer game like KoDP?

The advantage  or curse  of being an independent developer is that you wear many hats. Luckily, I enjoyed all of those.

King of Dragon Pass was indeed an idea I dreamed up (though obviously many others helped bring it to completion). I actually came up with a different sort of game about the colonization of Dragon Pass as part of my tabletop gaming in Glorantha. It took a very different approach, but it showed that the setting would work for this sort of game. A few years later I figured out how I’d use this in a computer game.

The other designers were Glorantha creator Greg Stafford and another famous PnP designer Robin D. Laws. What kind of aspects of the game did each of you focus on?

Before development began, Greg and I bounced ideas off each other. Our thoughts were surprisingly in sync. As the project progressed, he approved artwork, and offered useful advice. We adapted the initial clan creation questionnaire from one he’d used in a paper & dice game.

I asked Robin to write the hundreds of interactive scenes, but he ended up fleshing out much of the game framework I’d come up with.

The original structure  management screens, advisors, scenes  ended up pretty much unchanged, though we added interactive battles thanks to Rob Heinsoo. Elise Bowditch and I wrote a few of the scenes. As far as design, I was responsible for the economic model, and tried to make it interesting and workable.

Why was the Orlanthi culture picked to star in the game of all the Gloranthan peoples? Was it because the viking-y warriors were seen as one of the more relatable ones, or was it more due to the setting of the Dragon Pass itself? It seems like a good choice at least from my own perspective, as at least many Finnish roleplayers were familiar with the setting from the translated RuneQuest material published back in the day, like the Snake Pipe Hollow adventure (which I dont remember anyone ever surviving).

One answer would be simply that in the fictional world, there already was the story of the recolonization of Dragon Pass by the Orlanthi. This gave us the most material to draw upon (such as Snakepipe Hollow). Of course, if it wouldn’t have made a good story, we would have picked something else.

The fact that KoDP takes place around 300 years before the published RuneQuest material also seemed like a nice twist on the setting.

Was it hard to design a truly Gloranthan fantasy computer game? The way the setting handles stuff like myths, magic and tradition (or even the titular dragons) is quite different from classic D&D-ish fantasy which dominates the gaming scene. And what is it for you personally about Glorantha that most captivates your imagination?

I think in most ways designing for Glorantha made things easier  so much detail already existed (even though we ended up filling in a lot more). Robin and I respected the setting, so it was easy to work with its creator, Greg.

And yes, Glorantha does have a different feel than other fantasy games. I was drawn to it by its strong mythic sense, and the fact that its cultures actually seemed plausible from an anthropological sense. In KoDP the trolls are antagonists, but in Glorantha as a whole they are just another type of people, and you can play them equally well.

In addition to your work with KoDP, youve been a pen&paper Glorantha contributor as well. Do you still play roleplaying games on tabletop these days?

A lot less than I used to, thanks to the iPhone project...

KoDP is one of those games which doesnt fall neatly into any usual computer gaming genre. Is it a strategy game where you dont even see any 'units' and the of the most important thing is your number of cows? Is it roleplaying when you control an ensemble that dies of old age and is replaced by new generation? Is it multiple choice interactive fiction? So, how would you descibe it yourself today? How would you personally describe it to someone who hears about the game first time now? What is King of Dragon Pass really about?

Im asking this since because the the critical consensus on the game was really mixed when it was released back in -99 (the Mobygames review index is hilariously polarized) and it seems many reviewers didnt know what to make of the game at all, and it still might be a ‘hard sell for a new generation.

Hmm, Mobygames seems to have ignored a lot of reviews, such as Pelit’s 94/100.

It’s true that the game doesn’t fit neatly into the standard slots. I think that’s a plus  the genres are useful for marketing, but they aren’t the only ways to have fun. If I have to describe it, I usually call it a "storytelling strategy game," because I think the stories are the key element, and because the rest of the game play most resembles the turn-based strategy genre. But what it’s really about is telling an interesting story that takes a generation or more to unfold.

Looking from the outside, King of Dragon Pass seems one of those games that really divided gamers but at the same time created a very enthusiastic cult audience. Is that true, and do you get lots of contact from eager fans still today? Can you comment on how the game was back then as a commercial success?

I was a little surprised at how well people liked the game  we had a money-back guarantee and only two people ever took advantage of it. Just this week I was wearing a King of Dragon Pass t-shirt, and a coworker (who didn’t know I’d created it) commented that he liked the game. The game’s been out a while but even so there’s still a residual community, and I hope it picks up again with the new release.

I’m told the game was in the top 10 in Finland, but in the rest of the world it didn’t do as well. We did have to make a second printing, but it wasn’t a commercial success.

How did the project to bring a new 2.0 KoDP to iOS start for you and where did the idea come from? I personally always thought of the game as a hardcore pc title but now realized its been out on Mac as well and you seem to have lots of previous experience on iOS platforms as well...?

[Oops, I somehow overlooked this question! Sorry, Janne!]

What kind of improvements have you done for the game? Did you have to drop any features that just didnt work on an iPhone?

The elements I dropped weren’t so much because they didn’t work, but because reimplementing the clan overview (with the little herds) and the clan rock (with the glowing runes) were way more effort than I thought they were worth.

So you had Olli and Jani helping you on the conversion. I guess theyll be able to tell me also what theyre actually doing, but how did you come in contact with these two originally, looking from your point of view?

When I worked at GameHouse, our sister studio was Mr. Goodliving, where Olli worked. Olli was a fan of the game, and pitched a prototype to Mr. Goodliving, shortly before they were shut down. As the game got more complete, we needed an artist to work on the new user interface, and Olli put me in contact with Jani.

I feel a bit sorry for Jani because he came onto the project fairly late, and I had to keep saying “no” to his suggestions, because the game design was already in place. But despite the constraints, he came up with some elegant ways to have a touch UI that was both functional and attractive.

The original art was one of the selling points in King of Dragon Pass. How much of it did you retain and how much did you have to get done again due the size constraints?

The original artwork (such as the ink and watercolor scenes) was the property of the artist, and they sold much of it over the years. I now have the remaining scene art, and people can buy it at http://daviddunham.etsy.com/.

We scanned the original artwork at 640 x 480, and then did retouching and color correction using Photoshop. The iPhone has a smaller screen, so we could just use the digital art. But we no longer had all the originals available, and wouldn’t have the staff to rework them in any case. So there’s no version of the game optimized for the 1024 x 768 pixel iPad screen.

Do you think its possible the revival of the game might also bring about some sort of digital distribution deal on pc or even console direct download shops? In fact, I guess many fans of the original are wondering why we havent seen it yet in a place like Steam where many eccentric games seem to thrive today... I think I read somewhere (RPG.net discussions maybe) that some sort of trouble did  prevent the republishing at least in some point...?

No, it is not possible to distribute the original game digitally. I think people don’t realize the difficulties of trying to use a 10 year old development system  which had been discontinued before KoDP’s release  to change the game so it wouldn’t require a CD. We spent a fair amount of time on this but were ultimately unsuccessful.

KoDP can be quite daunting for a beginner due its complexity and the fact that things dont work quite as same as in normal fantasy games. Do you have some words of wisdom to offer new players who would like to become clan chieftains in Dragon Pass? What are the most important things or principles to remember? (I might personally say ‘Dont piss off the ducks!)

First, listen to your advisors. Second, read the manual! If you don’t read the manual, at least read the Info available from the starting screen. We’ll be posting a series of tips on our Twitter feed, @KingDragonPass.

On the other hand, perhaps pissing off the ducks leads to an interesting story (and there’s always Restore if you decide to change your mind).

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