Interview

Speaking With Hannah Shaffer of Owl and Raven

hannah-bio-picHannah Shaffer is a local creator who’s been living and working in the Valley for several years. She’s one of the minds behind the lovely community space The Owl and Raven, as well as half of the team that created the innovative fantasy-quest game Questlandia.

She’s currently hard at work producing a game about migraines called 14 Days, which James is looking forward to seeing in print because he has and despises migraines. The more people who play a game that gives them some idea of how terrible they are, the higher the likelihood people won’t hassle him about doing stuff on a Bad Day.

James Olchowski: Hello, Hannah! Thanks for talking to the Nerd Watch today.

Hannah Shaffer: Thanks for having me!

JO: Did you grow up in the Valley?

HS: I didn’t! I’m originally from California and spent my teen years in southeastern Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. I came here for college and decided to put down roots after graduating.

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Illustration by Evan Rowland, from Questlandia

JO: What drew you to the area?

HS: I really wanted to go to a school surrounded by a walkable, friendly town. The Valley seemed to offer a nice mix of weirdness, good food, and forests. I narrowed down my choices to Hampshire College and Smith College, both located in the Valley, and ultimately chose Hampshire because it was the weirder of the two.

JO: Is there anything unique about working in the Valley that you think would be hard to find elsewhere?

HS: Haha. Well…it can be hard to find a job here, for one thing. The flip side is that there are tons of independent creators and game designers here. I think there’s a level of support for the creative arts that might be hard to find elsewhere. Some of that has to do with all of the colleges nearby, but there are also businesses like TopatoCo that draw in creative people.

JO: Do you feel like the direction of your work has been influenced by your time in the Valley?

HS: Definitely! Going to Hampshire, with its interdisciplinary education model, inspired me consider options I might otherwise have passed over. It’s also been great to work in proximity to so many amazing game designers. Being close to other creators has made it that much easier to keep making games, even when the going gets tough.

qlandia-troubles-image

Illustration by Evan Rowland, from Questlandia

JO: Have you played role-playing games all your life?

HS: Nope. I actually came to RPGs late in the game, a few years after graduating from college. I’ve always been big into computer games, but tabletop games seemed really mysterious. I knew there were groups of people who played tabletop RPGs together, but I didn’t know how to connect with them.

JO: What was it that got you into playing RPGs?

HS: It was a weird set of circumstances! When my partner Evan Rowland and I opened the Owl & Raven Community Space in 2011, a big group of local game designers showed up on opening day.

Someone in the group had apparently read about the event on a New York City vegan message board so…we still have no idea exactly how that happened. We talked about our mutual love of games, I confessed that I’d never actually played a roleplaying game, and the rest is happy history.

JO: What made you decide that you’d like to design a game?

HS: I had been struggling to design a computer game for a few years and it wasn’t really going anywhere. The game was about finding community in a post-collapse world, but playing it was such an isolating experience. As I started playing more RPGs, I realized that this was the medium I wanted to design in. Face-to-face, paper and pencil, at a table with friends.

questlandia-cover-image-newJO: Your first game, Questlandia, is compact but ambitious. It basically asks players to roleplay not only themselves, but the world in which they’re playing. Why did you decide to make the game’s scope so large?

HS: Haha. I think many people who set out to design their first game find that the project just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Originally, I wanted Questlandia to be a straightforward fantasy quest game. As I started playtesting, I found that players rarely had a chance to start their quests before the world spiraled out of control around them.

The more I thought about that, the more I liked it. So, it eventually became a game where you get to do a lot of expansive world-building in a kingdom that will inevitably fall to pieces.

JO: Before you started on Questlandia, what RPGs had you played?

HS: Some of the first RPGs I played and enjoyed were: Shock: Human Contact by Joshua A.C. Newman, Shooting the Moon by Emily Care Boss, and The Drifter’s Escape by Ben Lehman. Microscope and Fiasco came in the second wave!

JO: Can you describe what it was about playing these games that kept you interested, coming back to the table?

That’s a great question. RPGs often play with big emotions (like fear, attraction, suspense, hysterical laughter). Sitting down at a table and playing out these emotions can be really intense, and also really rewarding. I kept coming back for those tender moments, and for all of the awesome storytelling.

human-contact-rpg-joshua-newmanJO: Did you discover anything during the development of Questlandia that affected the path you took with it? A game with a key concept you liked, a story that resonated?

HS: I think the biggest thing is the “falling to pieces” I mentioned above. It didn’t start out as a game about collapsing kingdoms, but that’s what it turned into. The idea of these rapidly escalating kingdom troubles was something Evan and I really ran with as we developed the game.

JO: Questlandia is a DMless game, all of the players are on equal footing in terms of telling the story, what drove that decision?

HS: As someone who’s still relatively new to RPGs, I really like the idea of a game that a group of friends can grab on a whim and decide to run together, with everyone sharing responsibilities equally. I decided to take Questlandia in that direction in the hopes it would feel more accessible to new roleplayers, and would attract players who like highly cooperative RPGs.

DM or GM-less games can be tricky, because they ask a lot of the players. Fortunately, some require less preparation than others. Questlandia is definitely a higher prep example, but I like that it gives each player a chance to step into the GMing role.

JO: If you were to describe Questlandia using games with which more people are familiar, how would you describe it?

HS: Hmm. People are really good at drawing comparisons. It’s like a human superpower! I’ve seen other people compare it to games like Fiasco, Microscope, Quiet Year, and Archipelago, shows like Attack on Titan and Avatar Last Airbender, and Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels. So, that’s my totally unhelpful answer. 🙂

JO: What makes Questlandia unique?

HS: I’d say the world building. It’s really good at generating weird fantasy worlds that are very different from what you’d find in more traditional Tolkien-style fantasy.

At the start of the game, you learn your kingdom’s ambition and troubles. For example, “Our kingdom loves Science and we’ve got a serious Wealth problem and a minor Health problem.” From there, players suggest kingdom features and norms based on what they already know. You immediately hear things like “What if our cool scientific technology is powered by solar gemstones?” Then another player will add, “Yeah! and a giant shadow has appeared in front of the sun, so the gems aren’t producing, thus contributing to our Wealth problem.”

There’s room for elves and dwarves in there, but they usually end up being cat-plant-hybrid-elves, or authoritarian robot dwarves.

JO: What was the biggest challenge you faced putting together Questlandia? Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

HS: Layout design! It was the first time either Evan or I had worked with InDesign, and we picked a really challenging layout for the book, where the rules on the right line up with an “actual play” transcript on the left. It was a neat experiment, but I’m not sure if I’d have the mental stamina to do it again.

side-by-side-layoutJO: Your current game, 14 Days, is based around the experience of migraine sufferers. What led you to that subject matter?

HS: I’ve had migraines for many years. In my experience, migraines are often misunderstood by folks who don’t get them, which makes it hard for migraine sufferers to communicate just how debilitating they can be. I wanted to design a tool to help migraine sufferers, especially new migraine sufferers, better communicate the experience to others.

JO: What do you hope other people will get out of playing 14 Days?

HS: I hope the game can help facilitate difficult conversations about pain. If a teenager whose parents don’t understand migraines can help communicate what they’re going through using this game, the work will have been worth it.

JO: 14 Days seems like a game with a smaller scope and physical size. Has this made it any easier to build and test?

HS: Yes and no. It’s definitely a smaller game than Questlandia, so the design process has been quicker from start-to-finish. It’s also a game that takes less than an hour to play, so it’s been easier to rally playtesters.

On the other hand, it’s more of a board game, where Questlandia is a book-based roleplaying game. That means Evan and I have had to do lots of new research around how to package and ship the game, where to source pieces from, and how to balance cost with quality.

14-days-small-coverJO: When can people expect to find this cool new game?

HS: We should be launching our Kickstarter before the end of June, sometime in the next two weeks! If folks want to follow updates, they can check out makebigthings.com or follow me on Twitter at @hanbandit.

Thanks, Valley Nerd Watch! Keep on being awesome!

JO: Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions!

Be on the lookout for that 14 Days Kickstarter, Watchers! We’ll obviously let you know when it begins, as well.

If you’re interested in checking out the Co-Working Space at Owl and Raven, we totally recommend it! For the sort of professional who likes to spend time in the company of other people while clicking away on a laptop but doesn’t like to be in the middle of a coffee shop all day, it is ideal.

If you haven’t already clicked the links and bought Questlandia, we really highly recommend that you do. It’s a beautiful book, compact, has an innovative (and time-intensive, apparently!) design that makes it easy to read, and it’s a wonderful introduction to role playing for new players or break from the traditional for old hands.

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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!

Speaking With Pioneer Valley Games Founder Jesse Bemben

We’re lucky enough to have some talented, interesting people in our happy valley, and the Valley Nerd Watch wants to introduce you to as many of them as possible.

That’s starting today, with an interview of local video-game developer and artist Jesse Bemben of Pioneer Valley Games!

James Olchowski: So first of all, why start your own studio instead of getting into the industry?

Jesse Bemben: That’s mostly because… even if I were offered to work with EA or Blizzard or something I wouldn’t do it. I spend a lot of time watching online lectures and stuff, I recently finished a lecture series by Warren Spector, and he had a bunch of people come in and talk for hours at a time, Richard Garriot and a bunch of others.

Hearing people talk about it just completely turns me off of working in the industry. The reason I’m working independently is because I want to make my story. It’s selfish but I think most people want to tell their story. If you work for a company, you’re never going to make your story. You’re always going to be working on someone else’s idea. And some people might like that but… I just am not interested. It’s also an extremely tumultuous industry.

JO: So do you do this for a day job?

JB: I actually do graphics, I’m working for a guy who does mobile games. So I put a contracted amount of hours into that each week based on my own schedule. I wake up whenever I want and work the hours that work for me. Everything else is just working on my own projects.

JO: Is there a reason you chose to make your company Pioneer Valley Games? Why you chose to specifically highlight the area?

JB: No, I mean I’m from the area and I love the area and it started in the area… so it seemed natural to me.

JO: The Valley has really built up a community of craft and artisans, have you found that it’s a good community for something digital?

JB: I haven’t had a huge amount of interaction with artists in the community. I only know a few to be honest, many of them in this building [Eastworks] itself, and one of the people I worked with was an artist, but that’s pretty much the extent of it. I think I found it more inspirational when I was a writer, actually.

You could go up to the mountain and sit down and write and it was awesome. Digital work is a bit different, I spend a lot of time hanging out at my house with my dog, I’m not connected to many people face-to-face.

JO: Interesting. Part of the reason I started the Nerd Watch, and something I’ve found as I’ve spoken to people, is that if people in the same area are doing something similar and it’s amenable to the internet you just don’t meet each other.

JB: Yeah, I’d say this area has a lot of… real artists I guess. Sculptors, painters, and they’re great and there’s just a difference between the physical and the digital mediums and how they interact.

JO: So did you get this position in part or in whole because of the Pioneer Valley Games work that you’ve been doing, and the RPG Maker assets you have for sale on Steam?

JB: Yeah, he saw that I had some stuff for sale on Steam and got in touch with me.

JO: Have you had a lot of success selling asset packs on Steam?

JB: Enough success that I don’t need a job so *laughs*, yeah.

JO: Do you think that the 3D-rendered models you’ve made [link] have something to do with your success? They don’t look much like other RPG Maker stuff.

JB: Yeah, when I started doing this about two and a half years ago there was only one additional pack that you could buy. RPG Maker came with a base set of very cartoony looking graphics. Then, they released another completely different set that was just graphics, from someone just in the community, not on staff. When I saw that I figured well if this person can do it why can’t other people do it?

So I sent a message to one of their staff asking if they’d be interested in selling something if I made something. The 3D rendering stuff I had was the fastest to work with at the time, and I was into experimenting with it so that’s where I wound up making most of the assets. And for whatever reason, no one else has been really making RPG Maker stuff in that style.

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