Author Q&A: Django Wexler, author of The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library

The Thousand Names UK coverI am pleased to present my first author interview. Django Wexler is the author of the Shadow Campaigns, a “gunpowder fantasy” series where clashing armies echo the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, while magic-users wage a covert war in the shadows. After reading the first book, The Thousand Names, I was hooked. His other works include The Forbidden Library, a young adult series.

Read on for more:


Hello, and welcome to the site!

 I’d like to begin by asking about your journey as a writer. You got started via an interest in table-top RPGs, then wrote a number of novels before bursting onto the scene with The Thousand Names in 2013. How has your writing developed, during and since?

The state of my writing is a very hard thing for me to track from the inside, as it were.  The first thing to realize is that I wrote a lot of stuff that never has (or will be) published, so by the time Memories of Empire, my first small-press book, came out, I’d had a lot of practice with trunk novels or fan-fiction.  The Thousand Names was another three or four novels later, and close to five years, so it’s quite a jump!

One thing I’ve definitely observed is I’ve lost my taste for grand, over-complicated plots.  I had a real yearning all through my gaming years to do something enormously epic in scope, and at one point I actually tried writing it — it was going to be nineteen books long, with huge continental maps and oceans of backstory, and one of those timelines that starts with “0: The Gods Create The World”.  Fortunately I was dissuaded after only one novel from going on with it, because it would have been impossible to sell, but the further I come the less I really want to do something like that.  I have too many different ideas to spend twenty years on one of them.

However!  Nothing is every truly wasted.  The whole Shadow Campaigns series actually came from one minor thread that was supposed to be woven into this mega-project, and another thing that I’m working on came from another.


How would you describe your current books? And what can you tell us about the other project that you’re working on?

The Shadow Campaigns is a fantasy loosely based on the Napoleonic Wars.  It originally began as a project to do a fantasy retelling of the story of Napoleon Bonaparte, inspired by S.M. Stirling and David Drake’s The General series, which is the story of Belisarius.  After I started writing it, though, it changed a lot, so it’s now only very vaguely a historical analogue.  I pitched it as “A Song of Ice and Fire with guns” — a military/political fantasy set in the age of muskets and cavalry charges.

As for the next project, I have to remain fairly close-mouthed about it.  There are quite a few on the horizon, though!  More when I’m allowed to say.

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Arcadian Atlas Q&A, with Taylor Bair

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 7.50.35 AM copyUpdate: Arcadian Atlas‘ Kickstarter campaign is now live and can be accessed here.

Arcadian Atlas is an upcoming indie tactical RPG inspired by two of the greats – Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. Read on for a Q&A with Taylor Bair, one half of the brother-and-sister team behind the game:


Hello, and welcome to the site! Please introduce us to yourselves and Twin Otter Studios.

I’m Taylor, the one typically found at the computer or walking my dog as I think of story details or gameplay tweaks for the game.

And Becca is the one with her graphic tablet working feverishly on art assets for our game.

We’re brother and sister living in Dallas and Austin, TX respectively, and we make up Twin Otter Studios.


Your current project, Arcadian Atlas, is a tactical RPG inspired by Yasumi Matsuno’s 1990s classics, Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. (The art and narrative themes — the choices people make in pursuit of the things they love, and the havoc it wreaks on a kingdom” — give me a particularly strong Tactics Ogre vibe.) What drew you to these titles? Were there any other notable inspirations?

We have a lot of inspirations, probably too many to count, though we definitely played Final Fantasy Tactics like crazy growing up. As kids we were pretty steeped in video games, particularly classic RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire, and Super Mario RPG.

Something about investing in a character is probably what drew us to RPGs most. We love characters, and our story in Arcadian Atlas is very character centered – about how people become saints or monsters because of the choices they make and the ripple effect that has on Arcadia.

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Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter Q&A, with Wael Amr

2016 is due to see the release of Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, the next entry in Frogwares’ long-running series of Sherlock Holmes adventure games. As a fan of 2014’s Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments — which I called an “interesting, ambitious example” of thematic puzzle design — I reached out to Frogwares to find out more. Read on for my interview with Wael Amr, Frogwares CEO, in which we chat about The Devil’s Daughter and the broader adventure genre:


Hello, and welcome to the site!

Frogwares is perhaps best known for its Sherlock Holmes series of adventure games, most recently 2014’s Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments. How did you come to work on these games, and how has the series evolved?

We started to work on the series in 2001. Our first game was a very traditional adventure game at that time.

Every game we made since was different, in technology, scenarios, control scheme and gameplay.

The versatility of Sherlock Holmes allows to have more than one kind of gameplay or controls scheme.

Our last game, The Devil’s Daughter features probably the wider range of game mechanic we ever created.


The next Sherlock Holmes game will be The Devil’s Daughter, due for release in 2016. What can you tell us about its new features, and which do you consider the most significant?

I would say that the most significant is the rhythm of the game, that is rather dynamic. It is due to new mechanics of course, but not only, the new character controller, the removal of loading, make the overall pace more dynamic and active. Focus tests showed it was a very welcomed change. The heart of the game is cases investigation and it remains so.

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Kim Q&A, with Jeremy Hogan

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is one of my favourite classic novels, a picaresque set in nineteenth-century India. When the Secret Games Company launched a Kickstarter for a video game adaptation, I was keen to find out more. Read on for my interview with developer Jeremy Hogan:


Hello, and welcome to the site! Please introduce yourself and The Secret Games Company.

Hi, I’m Jeremy Hogan, I’m a game designer from London, where I’ve worked in the games industry for the last 8 years. I founded The Secret Games Company to release two indie projects, board game Dreaming Spires and video game Rise: Battle Lines. A year ago, I left my job to work on indie projects full-time so I could start the development of our latest game, Kim, which has been Greenlit on Steam and is now on Kickstarter.



Please tell us about your adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Based on the gameplay trailer, it looks like you’re translating Kim’s adventures into an open-world game reminiscent of Sid Meier’s Pirates or Space Rangers 2. Is this a fair reflection of what players can expect?

Yes those are fair comparisons; it’s a mix of genres so get ready for a long description… An RPG with branching dialogues, simple survival mechanics and light combat and stealth action in pause-able real time. I loved reading Kim and learning about colonial India and when I found out that Kipling’s work was in the public domain, I thought it was a unique opportunity to put such great writing into a game. Our gameplay was inspired by Expeditions Conquistador, FTL and Don’t Starve, another game it has a lot in common with is Sunless Sea.

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Crisis of the Confederation Q&A, with Gregory Hayes

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Crusader Kings II

COTC Interesting CharactersI am pleased to present an interview with Gregory “Galle” Hayes, project lead for Crisis of the Confederation – the “Crusader Kings II in space” mod I recently covered. Below, we discuss COTC‘s inspirations, the interplay between game mechanics and a space-feudal theme, where new players should begin, and more. Enjoy!


Development of the mod

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site!

Crisis of the Confederation is one of the most interesting mods I’ve encountered, a homage to science fiction classics such as Dune and Foundation. What made you decide to translate those influences into a total conversion for Crusader Kings II?

Gregory Hayes: I happen to like applying game mechanics to new story concepts in general, and I’m a firm believer that everything is better in space, but COTC specifically actually had its origins in a game mechanic idea that I was never able to implement. Way back when I was working on A Game of Thrones, I was struck by the idea of using the Investiture mechanics to represent martial law versus civilian law. That created the need for a setting in which the spread of martial law made sense, which inspired the civil war backstory, which in turn led to me to think back to the great science-fiction cliche of the rebellious space colonies.

Another factor that probably influenced my decision was that I was replaying Emperor of the Fading Suns at the time. EotFS is a lot like CK1 – a broken mess of a game that is nevertheless fun because of how great its central ideas are. COTC isn’t really that much like EotFS in gameplay, but the desire for a good space feudalism game was definitely a big influence.

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Oriental Empires Q&A, with Bob Smith

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Oriental Empires


Oriental Empires is an upcoming 4X strategy game that will cover most of Chinese history, from 1500 BC to 1500 AD. My interest piqued, I conducted an email Q&A with developer Bob Smith. Read on:


About the developers

1. Hello, and welcome to the site! Please tell us a bit about yourselves.

Development of Oriental Empires is being led by R.T. Smith and John Carline, two veteran strategy game developers with more than 30 years’ experience between them. Previously they worked together on the Total War series of games, in roles including Project Director and Lead Artist, and have credits on many other AAA titles from studios including Crystal Dynamics, Pandemic, Frontier Developments, and Slightly Mad Studios.


2. Your best-known previous work was Total War. What lessons have you learned from your experience with those games?

That you can’t please everyone, that you’ll never ship the perfect product, and that the bigger your team, the more features you’ll have that don’t quite join up.


About Oriental Empires

3. At first glance, Oriental Empires looks like a cross between Civilization V, Endless Legend, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI. What are your influences and how have they shaped the game?

The initial inspiration was to create a civilization building game based on Eastern civilization, and having an interesting combat system. Superficially this is similar to Civ, but I don’t think the games feel alike to play. The battles obviously have some similarity to Total War games, but again, the resemblance is superficial as you don’t directly control them. History, reality, space 4X games, and miniature and board games are also influences.

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Guns of Icarus Online: Adventure Mode Follow-Up Q&A

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Guns of Icarus Online

Guns of Icarus Online is one of the most unique games I’ve played – a team-based dieselpunk airship game, in which rival crews try to shoot each other out of the sky. When it launched in 2012, it was strictly PvP. The following year, developer Muse Games launched a Kickstarter campaign to add PvE (“Adventure mode”), and it seems to be coming along nicely.

Read on for my follow-up email interview with Howard Tsao, CEO of Muse Games, about Adventure mode:

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site!

When I last spoke to Muse Games in 2013, you were running a Kickstarter campaign for “Adventure mode” — a large expansion pack that would add PvE and co-op to the game. How is that coming along?

Howard Tsao: It’s been a long journey, with the scope of the expansion arguably larger than the original game, but we’re constantly making progress. Right now, in addition to iterating on some of the game modes and honing AI director as well as AI enemy movement and behaviour, we’re also doing work on player, faction, and world progressions. A lot of the in mission or in match feedback and progression are being designed and worked on as well. We’re creating factional airships, boss ships, and wardrobe as well, and we’ll soon move into designing more maps and game modes as well.

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Offworld Trading Company interview with Soren Johnson

Offworld Trading Company Logo

Offworld Trading Company is an upcoming RTS where, to quote developer Mohawk Games, “money, not firepower, is the player’s weapon”. Its stated inspirations include board games, Railroad Tycoon, and conventional real-time strategy.

Below, I am very pleased to present an email interview with Soren Johnson, the lead designer of OTC. Soren has previously been co-lead designer of Civilization III, lead designer of Civilization IV, a senior designer and programmer of Spore, and lead designer of Dragon Age: Legends.


Peter Sahui: Hello, Soren – welcome to the site!

Offworld Trading Company is one of the most unique strategy games I’ve encountered. Even after finishing the tutorial and playing several rounds against the AI, it still feels unfamiliar.

Does that affect your work as a designer? Has OTC’s novelty posed any particular challenges?

Soren Johnson: We are purposely making a game unlike any other. As a small studio, our games will never be able to compete with established strategy franchises from big publishers, so we have to be different to stand out. Offworld is an RTS game that uses tycoon game mechanics, instead of combat mechanics, to create conflict between players. The only well-known video games somewhat similar are M.U.L.E. or Railroad Tycoon, which are both quite old and also not really competitive RTS’s. What makes Offworld unique will hopefully get the game attention, but we are aware that it could also put off people who are unsure what they would be buying. Thus, as a designer, I am trying to ground Offworld as much in the conventions of RTS games as possible – from game length (30 minutes) to number of players (2 to 8) to game options (multiplayer matchmaking, single-player skirmishes, dynamic campaigns, etc). We are hoping to develop some type of cooperative mode for team play or just fighting the AI. We want people to understand that it is still a competitive RTS at the core – just one without guns.

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Hearts of Iron IV Q&A, with Dan Lind

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Hearts of Iron

HeartsofIronIV_logo_R_NormalI am a long-time fan of Hearts of Iron, a grand strategy series in which players control all aspects of a World War II nation, from armies and fleets to research, production, and diplomacy. So when developer Paradox Development Studio took the wraps off the upcoming Hearts of Iron IV, I was eager to find out more. Read on for my email Q&A with project lead Dan Lind, in which I ask about his vision for the project and how it will fit into the series:


Peter Sahui: Hello Dan — welcome to the site!


It’s been five years since Hearts of Iron III launched, and in your first developer diary, you talk about lessons learned from Crusader Kings 2, Europa Universalis 4, and HOI3. What inspiration have you drawn from other sources — other games, books, etc.?


Foto: Oskar KullanderDan Lind, Project Lead: As you know, Hearts of Iron is, like most Paradox Development Studio titles, a grand strategy game in an open sandbox and victory is determined by the goals you set up for yourself during the WWII time-span. The Hearts of Iron series is all about taking control of your nation in the years around World War II and leading it to victory – a wargame where you have to look at the entire war and take decisions in a multiple of aspects to reach victory. So Hearts of Iron IV is at its core is not a pure old-fashioned wargame.


Therefore, to be frank, there are not a lot of other grand strategy wargames to look at unfortunately. But I’m personally fan of World of Tanks as well as War Thunder and I hope we can bring in more of their flavor and attention to detail. My team also really liked Unity of Command when we tried it since it is a pretty different game that shows how you can make a fun historical strategy game and still keep things easy to understand. When it comes to books, we have tried to have both a top-down and bottom-up approach. So we take a lot of inspiration from Winston Churchill’s books on WWII as well as writings by Otto Carius (a famous German tank commander) as well as memoirs of Russian artillerymen.

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Dominions 4 Q&A, with Johan Karlsson and Kristoffer Osterman

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Dominions 4
Dom4 Virtue
Dominions depicts clashes between pretender gods, such as the Virtue seen above.

Johan Karlsson and Kristoffer Osterman of Illwinter Game Design are the creators of indie masterpiece Dominions 3, a strategy game of near-unrivalled imagination, depth, and player choice. With Dominions 4 about to launch (and following my July preview), I am very pleased to present my email interview with Johan and Kristoffer, in which we talk about Illwinter’s history, its inspirations, the future of Dominions, and more. Did you know that Illwinter even considered adding real-time battles and a 3D map? Read on:


Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site!


I’d like you to start by telling us about Illwinter Game Design. How did you get started developing games?


Johan: My first game was a long time ago just before I moved out to go and study computer science. My favorite old game was Chaos, a game for Spectrum 48 where up to 8 wizards battled it out in a very simple fashion. I got my Atari ST computer after that and felt that you could make a much better Chaos game on that computer. So my first attempt at a game was to create a Chaos clone for the Atari ST, written completely in basic. It got to a playable state and was better than the original in many ways, monsters had hit points and there were more of them as well. But it was not good enough to be sold, so it never got played by other than me and my friends.


When I started my Computer Science education I began to create a more sophisticated game that was called Conquest of Elysium. That’s also when I met Kristoffer who joined in and took over the graphics part. Being 2 people helped a lot I think and we managed to finish the game and sell it as shareware. Shareware was the thing back then and I remember that it was really bothersome and crappy compared to how it works today with Desura etc.


Illwinter Game Design had started to exist now and we continued to create a new game every few years until we had 3 CoE and now 4 Dominions as well.

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Occult Chronicles Q&A, with Vic Davis

OC Poltergeist Mission


I am very pleased to publish an email interview with Vic Davis, the indie game designer behind Armageddon Empires (one of my favourite strategy games), Solium Infernum, and Six-Gun Saga. Read on for our conversation about Vic’s latest title, roguelike/board game hybrid Occult Chronicles, in which we discuss his inspirations, his lessons learned, the challenges of indie development, and more.


Peter Sahui: Hello Vic – welcome to the site! Occult Chronicles is your fourth game, after Armageddon Empires, Solium Infernum, and Six-Gun Saga. What lessons from your previous games came in handy for this project?

Vic Davis: Well from a technical standpoint I have over a decade of experience with the development environment that I use (Adobe Director).  I’ve also got a huge library of code for doing everything from creating drop down menus to path finding for any AI.  On the design side it has helped a lot to have shipped previous games.  Even though attempting a rogue like is a new direction for me, I was able to draw upon the experience that I had gained while designing turn based strategy games.  In the end my new game is really just an adventure strategy game so it shares a lot of the same elements.


Peter: Compared to Armageddon Empires, random chance seems to play a much bigger role in Occult Chronicles. What made you emphasise luck, and how did you balance it?

Vic: Yeah, without any of the map or positional elements that most TBS games offer, the conflict resolution elements really pop out to the fore. And Occult Chronicles has a lot of rpg baggage so you have this paradigm of stats/abilities being used to influence some probabilistic outcome matrix.  Calling it luck though is something of a misnomer in my opinion.  Chance plays a big part but I tried to craft a system of mechanics where smart playing could nudge the scales in your direction.  In the Occult Chronicles you need to weigh risk versus reward when you encounter various “challenges” in the game. You are usually given various options that key off of your attributes so it might be better to talk to an encounter rather than attack it.  Similarly, sometimes it’s better to run away or postpone a choice. I do admit that the way I designed the results phase for the game where you basically pick random cards to determine your rewards or penalties for an encounter, does serve to really accentuate the idea that the game is really random.  And I’m not sure random is really bad especially in a rogue like.  It’s something that is demanded for the map generation and figures prominently in many other aspects like what you encounter on a level or whether you hit it.  Coping with the random elements is really supposed to be part of the fun. But then so is dying a lot so go figure.

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Race to Mars Q&A, with Szymon Janus

ea628dec4e69fbbbccb3b223ca0bca11_largeInspired by tycoon games and the classic Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space, indie developer INTERMARUM is raising funds on Kickstarter for its upcoming turn-based strategy game, Race to Mars. RTM will task players with helming a private space company, with the end goal of establishing a base on Mars. Read on for my email interview with INTERMARUM CEO Szymon Janus:


Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site! Could you please tell us more about your team & your previous experience?

Szymon Janus: Hello Peter. My name is Szymon and I am the owner and founder of INTERMARUM, a game development studio in a small little city called Opole. Right now there are 12 people working on Race To Mars with different levels of involvement. Up until now we did mostly contract work and this is our first independent production. We cooperate with many different developers from known Polish companies though.


PS: How will the typical Race to Mars campaign will play out? It looks like the basic “flow” of gameplay will be: (1) accept simple contracts, (2) use the profits to develop new facilities and technology, (3) use the new capabilities to take on more ambitious contracts, and so on, until you finally have enough money and technology to settle Mars and win the game.

SJ: Roughly speaking – everything is correct ;) . Adding to that is making sure the tech has a good enough degree of quality or the safety level. It will also be important to deal with random events or training your team.
What it will definitely NOT feature is being able to choose just any contract – we will compete with different companies and, for example, we will not be able to compete with them on price at a certain stage, which will force a change in expansion strategy.

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Europa Universalis IV Q&A, with Thomas Johansson

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV

EuropaUniversalisIV_Coverart_lowrez_shrunkEuropa Universalis IV is an upcoming grand strategy game by Paradox Development Studio, set during the early modern era of world history (roughly 1450 to 1800). When it was announced last year, it immediately caught my eye: I’m a long-time player of Paradox games (including the previous Europa Universalis titles); and to me, the game’s period is one of the most fascinating in history – its rich mix of global interactions ultimately laid the groundwork for our modern, industrialised world. So with the game due out in August 2013, just a couple of months away, the time seemed ripe for a chat with the developers. Read on for my email Q&A with Thomas Johansson, project lead for Europa Universalis IV.


Europa Univeralis IV and other Paradox games


Peter Sahui: Paradox Development Studio’s last major release, Crusader Kings II, has also probably been its most successful to date (both critically, and in terms of its ability to break out beyond the traditional PDS niche). What lessons did you learn from CK2’s success, and how are you applying them to EU4?


Thomas Johansson, Project Lead of EU4
Thomas Johansson, Project Lead of EU4

Thomas Johansson: Crusader Kings II’s two biggest strengths were that it was well polished and we had worked hard on improving the interface. We worked hard with the tutorial, the hint system and to make it a very polished release. With Europa Universalis IV, we are aiming to do even better! Our goal is our most polished release to date and have the best interfaces we have ever created. The main focus of the whole development team is polishing the game and refining the interfaces.

What I also believe has really helped Crusader Kings II is that it was a breakthrough for gamers to realize that the game creates stories that you want to tell other people about. So the simple answer would be that it is a game that makes people talk about it, because they want to share their dramatic events, the intrigue, backstabbing and romances with their friends. Because it constantly surprises you. Just when you thought you had everything going and an easy road to power, money and conquering new territories – then you get stabbed in the back, your wife gets murdered and your sister steals your throne. Just like life… ;)

So the fact that the storytelling came across strong with Crusader Kings II, we hope that people can see that Europa Universalis IV also allows you yourself to create the stories when playing the game. You attack your neighbours, alliances gets broken, you get an incompetent ruler and need to get creative on how to handle his/hers strength and weaknesses while keeping your territory hungry opponents at bay. Continue reading “Europa Universalis IV Q&A, with Thomas Johansson”

Guns of Icarus Online: Adventure Mode Q&A with Jess Haskins

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Guns of Icarus Online

GOIO Adv Mode Banner


Last year, I wrote about Guns of Icarus Online, an interesting, atmospheric shooter set on board opposing steam/dieselpunk airships. Since then, developer Muse Games has unveiled a Kickstarter campaign for the long-awaited paid expansion, Adventure mode. Muse’s stated plan for Adventure includes three key elements:


1. PVE and co-op gameplay, unlocked at the Kickstarter’s threshold of $100,000;


2. An in-game economy and faction system, flagged as Muse’s first major stretch goal ($350,000)


3. Worldbuilding tools, flagged as the second stretch goal ($500,000).


Muse has stated that, should it secure more than $100,000 but less than the full $500,000, all Kickstarter backers will receive a “season pass” that will entitle them to future elements of Adventure Mode as and when they are released.


Read on for my email Q&A with Jess Haskins, Designer and Chief Nomenclator at Muse:

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Age of Wonders III Q&A with Lennart Sas

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Age of Wonders III



As promised, here’s the Age of Wonders III Q&A with designer Lennart Sas of Triumph Studios!


By way of introduction, Age of Wonders is a high fantasy, turn-based strategy series that has been around since the late 1990s. In AoW, players build up their cities, recruit armies of soldiers and elves, cannons and dragons, and then pit them against rivals in a tactical combat minigame, a la Master of Magic. Fond memories of the earlier games, Triumph’s promise of further improvements, and gorgeous early screenshots all piqued my interest in Age of Wonders III; and it didn’t hurt that the most recent AoW game, Shadow Magic, held up well when I replayed it to prepare for this interview. Sadly I wasn’t able to include every question sent in (I received some separately from the comments to my original post), but I hope this Q&A will address some of what you guys (and I) had in mind. Read on…

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At the Gates Q&A with Jon Shafer!

At the Gates banner


Civilization V designer Jon Shafer has unveiled his latest project on Kickstarter: At the Gates, a 4X strategy game that casts the player as a barbarian chief out to pick the carcass of the crumbling Roman Empire. The game sets out to fix one of the biggest problems in strategy gaming, the boring middle/late game, and its promised features include:


1. An emphasis on supply: armies will have only a limited capacity to live off the land, making them reliant on supply trains and friendly cities;


2. A dynamic map: resources will deplete over time (placing players under greater and greater pressure as the game goes on); seasons will affect the map as rivers freeze and food stockpiles dwindle during winter;


3. Asymmetric non-player factions: the Romans are still on the map, play by different rules to the barbarians, and won’t give up without a fight.


This all sounded very interesting to me, and Jon was kind enough to sit down for an email interview. Read on:


Continue reading “At the Gates Q&A with Jon Shafer!”

Pricing AI War and Tidalis: Chris Park of Arcen Games speaks

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the differing pricing strategies that Matrix Games, Shrapnel Games and Paradox Interactive use for their respective catalogues of niche strategy games. Matrix and Shrapnel keep prices high and discounts rare, while Paradox titles are discounted far more frequently and have a lower base price once they’ve been out for a while. But I was also curious about the pricing strategy followed by another company, Arcen Games. AI War, Arcen’s first title, is deep, intricate and indie, but it and its expansions also frequently sell at a discount, and AI War’s base price of US$20 is also much lower than the typical price for AAA retail releases. So I decided to ask Chris Park, the founder of Arcen, about how useful Arcen finds discounting. With his permission, his reply is quoted below:


“Hi Peter,

Good to hear from you. I think that a variety of models can work, as you yourself pointed out, but in the case of Arcen we’re pretty much dependent on the occasional discount sales in order to stay in business.  Not to put too fine a point on it. ;)

In an average month with no discounts, we tend to bring in anywhere from 33% to 90% of our operating costs, which at best means we’re still losing money.  In the months where we do a discount, we tend to bring in between 300% to 550% of our operating costs, which more than makes up for it.  We tend to do discounts every 2-3 months, as you may have noticed, which keeps us usually on a growth track and quite comfortable.  Last summer when we had some financial difficulties, it was partly because our summer discounts had fallen to about 200%, which was not what we needed.

In a broad sense, it’s definitely true that the discount sales help to keep ongoing visibility for our games, but I think that’s only possible when it’s also paired with the free-for-existing-customers updates.  That lets people feel like the game is something current that they are buying (which it is), rather than just a game from 2009 that we are wringing out the last drops of money from.  For us, this has meant that in terms of AI War revenue, our 2010 income was slightly more than 4x our 2009 AI War revenue.  So far, our 2011 revenue for AI War is already about 1.5x our 2009 numbers, so it’s growing even faster now.

A lot of that comes from our expansions, or our ongoing updates, or our ongoing periodic discounts that let us get floods of new players that are excited about the game.  For our company specifically, I don’t think this would work without all three of those factors, honestly.  That puts us… in a really unusual situation as a game developer, anyway.  Normally sales start way higher and then trend off after a month or two, but ours is backwards and spread out over two years so far.”


This made me wonder whether there was any difference between AI War and Arcen’s other title, the casual/puzzle game Tidalis, when it came to the effectiveness of discounting. Surely, going by the Matrix/Shrapnel logic, discounts would be more effective for the “mass market” title than for the deep strategy game? But the answer to my follow-up question came as a surprise:


“My pleasure, and I’m glad the info was useful. Bear in mind that not nearly every indie game developer is in this sort of situation.  We are one of but dozens of successful business models I’ve seen, and I can’t claim that one is really better than another.  Instead, I think it’s a matter of each indie finding what works for their specific titles and their development style.

And that can even vary by title, too.  Case in point: the effectiveness of discounts has indeed been quite lower with Tidalis compared to AI War.  Being casual-on-the-surface and having a price point of $9.99, which people already associate with being low, are I think the two key things that make that not work as well.

Or another way to look at it, I suppose, is that it’s simply not that big a hit with the “Steam crowd” or the other hardcore distribution sites.  So putting it on discount makes a lot less difference there since that audience that is so discount-reactive is less interested in the game to begin with.  The depth is there, but it’s masked by a surface that is off-putting to many hardcore gamers, we found.

I don’t mind if you quote the whole thing, that’s just fine — just bear in mind that I don’t speak for all indies, and a lot of them that I know use business models that are utterly at odds with mine.  Indies are a very non-homogeneous part of the industry in practically every way, heh!”


Now, as Chris points out, Arcen is just one data point, taking my total to four (including the original three of Matrix, Shrapnel and Paradox). But it’s a fascinating data point, and I found it a real eye-opener as to the factors that can influence both the choice and the effectiveness of pricing strategies.


(Incidentally, I own both AI War+its expansions and Tidalis, some of which I bought at a discount and others of which I bought at nearly full price. I haven’t yet played AI War beyond its tutorials, but Tidalis has been love at first sight from what I’ve played so far, and I think it would be a shame for hardcore gamers to overlook it without even a glance. I hope to write more about Arcen’s titles as I play further.)


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