Speaking With Evan Rowland of Small Fly Games

MainMenuBG-3-31-15Today, we’re speaking with local game designer Evan Rowland, both about his life as a designer and about his newest work: Goblin Diplomat. Goblin Diplomat is a unique conversation-based roguelike about trying not to be murdered by xenophobic humans.

James Olchowski: Did you grow up in the Valley?

Evan Rowland: I grew up on the northern coast of Massachusetts. My hometown was similar to Northampton, except with more emphasis on fish. I came out here for Hampshire College, and have generally been here since.

JO: Is there anything about working in the Valley that you don’t think you could find elsewhere?

ER: I’m working at the Owl and Raven co-working space, and I doubt I could find a place more cozy, social, and filled with game designers. There’s a surprising concentration of game designers in the Valley, and if I hadn’t collided with them, I’d be living a different life.

JO: How long have you been designing games?

ER: The earliest games I can remember designing were custom maps for Starcraft. That’s maybe 16 years ago? It took me a long time to think of myself as a game designer, though. My hope of making a living with games is about 4 years old.

JO: Has becoming a game designer been a lifelong dream, or is this something new for you?

ER: My lifelong dream was to be an astronaut. Before turning 20, I decided to be a mathematician, then an editor for PC Gamer magazine, then an animator, then back to mathematics, then a teacher. I wish somebody had told me, “make games!” because it seems very obvious to me now. It combines my interests in math, art, communication, drama… But making independent games just didn’t occur to me until later in life.

JO: Where do your own gaming interests lie? Is there anything you’re playing right now that you love?

ER: The board game, Go, is my lifelong gaming love. But there are so many games, roleplaying, board, and video, that I’ve loved. I could talk about them forever. I’ve been playing a lot of XCOM lately, the modern remake of one of my childhood favorites.

JO: What’s one game you think more people need to play?

ER: Let me break it down by the medium.

Board game: Go. It’s a beautiful game, heart-breakingly unknown in the west. I’ve run a number of Go clubs, and taught at least a hundred people to play. It’s a very philosophical game, it can reshape your perspective on life!

Roleplaying game: Vast and Starlit, by Epidiah Ravachol. It’s a space adventure saga, with rules that literally fit onto a business card. It expresses the power of the roleplaying genre – with only a few rules, you can tap the massive creative potential that every player contains.

Video game: Beyond Good and Evil, from 2003, is a thoughtful, heartfelt, and well-designed game that commercially flopped. If it had been a success, maybe we’d see more worldbuilding, great female protagonists, and non-traditional fantasy in mainstream videogames.

WWM_Cover_Feb2015final_nologoJO: Is game design your only creative outlet?

ER: I make art and animation, which aren’t always for games! I also play the piano, and I wish I played well enough to make my own music for games!

JO: What is daily life like as a designer?

ER: Start off by getting to the co-working space, hopefully with lunch in tow. Make a to-do list for the day, including whatever is left over from yesterday, and decide what’s reasonable for the day, and what needs to be put off.

Every day, I try to make at least one drawing, to take care of any communication, and to consult the overall timeline for my games. I’m juggling several different game projects, so there’s usually a meeting or two with different collaborators.

At this point, most of the work looks like carefully editing rules text and drawing goblins. There are always, always more goblins to draw.

JO: I know you worked with Hannah Shaffer on Questlandia, was that primarily as an artist or were you involved with designing the game itself?

ER: I was part of the game design as well! Hannah was the lead designer, but we worked together on every aspect of the rules, the editing, and the book’s layout.

JO: What made you decide to strike out on your own?

ER: I’m still working with Hannah on several game projects, including 14 Days, a game about chronic pain that will be launching a Kickstarter this month. She’s also been an invaluable help in the project management of Goblin Diplomat. No plans to strike out from our collaboration anytime soon!

JO: Why design a computer game rather than something pen-and-paper?

ER: I’m still designing pen-and-paper games! Besides 14 Days, I’ve been working on a hack of the Numenera system, and have a couple other potential projects in the works.

But Goblin Diplomat is designed for the computer. It demands quick thinking and reflexes, and has a complicated set of visuals that I think are best suited to a computer game. It’s fun – there are some very different design decisions in making a computer game. Thinking about user interface, visual animation, sound effects and music, with every aspect interlocked – it’s a great challenge.

JO: Your current game, Goblin Diplomat, is about attempting to navigate conversations. Is there a specific reason you chose that theme?

ER: Just to briefly introduce Goblin Diplomat, it’s a game where you play a goblin tasked with reaching the human king and negotiating a peace between humans and goblins. However, the humans you meet along the way will be suspicious and violent. With only a shaky grasp of the human language, you’ll have to defuse these situations and make friends out of enemies.

As for why the game is all about conversations – it’s a personal decision. Navigating conversations has been something difficult for me since childhood. I think the struggle of communicating clearly, of making a connection with somebody – that’s a familiar subject for me. I can put my heart into the theme of navigating hostility through language, rather than violence or avoidance. I think, when making a game, you have to have a personal investment in it, something that can drive you through the crazy amounts of work it takes to finish the project.

JO: Why did you choose Goblins and medieval fantasy as a setting?gd-gameplay-03ER: Goblins are are known as small, petty, weak, simpering, violent, savage. That’s how you’ll be perceived by the humans in the game. Using goblins means I don’t have to spell all that out. I can just start from that perspective, and show how it looks from the other side – seeing these massive humans, that fear and hate you. It means that every conversation has to start by bridging a terrible prejudice.

JO: Why did you decide to make a roguelike?

ER: Originally, I wanted to make a very traditional roguelike, a dungeon-crawl on a grid. But I wanted one of the classes to be a diplomat, using words to navigate the dungeon. I found I was spending all my time designing that class – it was the only one that really interested me. So the game started morphing around the idea of diplomacy in a hostile setting, eventually becoming what it is now.

One aspect of roguelikes that has been preserved is the idea that when you die, you have to go all the way back to the beginning. That aspect makes death feel actually scary to the player, not something you can just undo. I want you as the player to feel as similar as possible to the goblin you’re playing. So when a farmer pulls out his pitchfork, I want you to actually feel worried!

JO: Why is the focus on avoiding conflict? Most roguelikes are expressly about getting into trouble.

ER: Goblin Diplomat isn’t about avoiding conflict – otherwise you’d never go talk to the humans. It is about avoiding violence, which is the most common strategy in gaming for dealing with conflict. This game is about a different strategy – not fight, not flight, but befriending your enemies, and unraveling the prejudices that made you enemies in the first place.

JO: Have you experienced any significant challenges putting together the game?

ER: Endless challenges! In a game about conversations, you immediately run up against this central problem: Computers aren’t good at making conversation. The go-to strategy in conversation games is to use dialogue trees. In a dialogue tree, you, the player, are given a set of possible things to say, and the game has pre-written responses to each. It’s a very old style of computer-game conversation, and hasn’t really evolved much. Modern games will sometimes have a countdown timer to add a little tension.

That style doesn’t work well with Goblin Diplomat. For one, in a game you’re going to be replaying quite a bit, pre-written dialogue gets old very quickly. Once humans start repeating themselves, it draws you out of the setting immediately.

In addition to that, dialogue trees, even with a timer, don’t express the panic of being in a near-death situation, and are limited in how they can express unfamiliarity with the language. So making the game has involved coming up with a new system for conversation.

There’s also been struggles with programming, with the user interface, with the art direction – nothing has been easy! Except, maybe, the name. That was pretty straightforward.

JO: Has anything about making the game surprised you, or gone in a very different direction than you were initially planning?

2015-04-24-gameplay-05ER: So, I’ve called Goblin Diplomat a conversation-based game a bunch already, but that isn’t really true. That was the initial plan. But in trying to create a system that expressed panicked communication in an unknown language, the game ended up leaving conversations behind entirely.

The game instead focuses on the first moments of each encounter with a human, where the human is deciding whether to call the guards, or kill you themselves. In those moments, you’re wracking your brain, trying to remember the bits of language you’ve learned that might convince this human to do something other than kill you. It’s a frantic search through associated words and memories – maybe if you call yourself a farmer, the human will calm down? But what’s the word for “farmer”? And how is it pronounced?

I thought initially that finding the right word would be a small part of the gameplay, but it’s become the central mechanic of the game.

JO: If you were forced to describe Goblin Diplomat in terms of other games people may have played, how would you describe it?

ER: In one sense, it’s a fast-paced puzzle game like Tetris – you’ll be making quick second-to-second decisions about how to navigate your problems.

In another sense, it’s a challenging roguelike like FTL – you’ll have a series of difficult encounters, any one of which could kill you and force you to try again from the beginning.

In yet another sense, it’s a game about using language in the face of violence – a little like the Insult Sword-Fighting sections of the Monkey Island series.

JO: Of all the games you’ve played, which would you say has created the best conversation system?

ER: Deus Ex: Human Revolution put in a solid effort. It is still using dialogue trees, but gives you the ability to investigate the person beforehand and try to put together what verbal strategy to employ. Alpha Protocol had a similar system.

I’m sure there are better answers, I’m sure there are some games that are trying to revolutionize the conversation system standards, but none are springing to mind.

JO: When is Goblin Diplomat going to be released to an eager public?

ER: It’s scheduled to be Kickstarted this September, with a public demo released simultaneously. The outcome of that fundraising campaign will impact how quickly we can finish the game from there!

JO: What methods are you using to release the game? Will it appear on any services, or will it be available directly from your website?

ER: The goal is to have the game available on a number of online retailers, including Steam, Humble Bundle, and GoG. After the computer release, we’re hoping to get the game onto phones and tablets as well. There are different hoops to jump through for different platforms, but at the very least, the game will be available directly from our website!

JO: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk, Goblin Diplomat sounds like something extremely interesting!

ER: Thanks for the great questions!

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