To celebrate the 12th anniversary of Wizardry 8‘s initial release (November 15, 2001), I’m sharing the full, unedited Q&A interview I did with Night Dive Studios last month. The questions were gathered from the fans, and I really enjoyed answering them and taking a trip down memory lane.
Night Dive Studios is a game developer that has recently published several PC classics on Steam such as System Shock 2, Wizardry 6, 7, & 8 and many more. I encourage you to check them out and follow them on facebook and twitter!
Q. We’ve got one questions about Wizardry Stones of Arnhem, wondering if you were at all familiar with the project and what the scope of it was? I’m not sure you can even talk about that, but anything would be welcome!
A. To be honest, I hadn’t even heard of Wizardry: Stones of Arnhem until I saw it mentioned in your question. Based on what I read and saw after googling it, I can say this occurred well before I joined Sir-Tech Canada in 1999.
Q. There is a general question about the workplace, and whether or not development was a game-dev-stereotype terror or if it was a real positive place to work? So any story that pops out at you regarding that would be great.
A. Everyone on Wizardry 8 worked very hard and invested a lot of hours into the project, but those hours were flexible, and I feel that everyone’s quality of life was well respected. Some people with families would work a ‘typical’ work day, while others would come in a bit later and work later. I can’t recall anyone ever being told or even asked to stay later on any occasion. We were a smaller team, so everyone knew what they needed to do and how to manage their own time accordingly. The fact that our team stayed together for as long as it did, even after Sir-Tech Canada (and Strategy First) went under, speaks volumes as to just how much we respected and enjoyed working with each other.
Q. Is there any huge difference between development during Wiz8 (or earlier) and today that jumps out at you?
A. Absolutely. The industry has evolved drastically from those days. It has also expanded, so there is a lot more variety in game development than there ever was. I’ll discuss the differences based on my past experience with Sir-Tech Canada and more recently with EA to hopefully address your question.
Four of the most impactful differences that I have observed over the years in the industry are: team sizes, development tools, distribution methods, and the target platforms.
Team sizes have grown exponentially over the years. On Wizardry 8, there were about 30 people on the team at its peak. In comparison, the last project I worked on at EA (Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel), had around 300 people on it towards the end of production. Another interesting fact is that Wizardry 8 provided gamers with 100+ hours of gameplay, while Ao2 took less than 10 hours to complete. Some of the larger blockbuster games can even have around 1000 people working on them (Assassin’s Creed IV and GTA V for example). With such large team sizes, it means that the games have to sell millions of copies just to break even; which is why you see very little risk and innovation with those titles.
On a small team, such as the one we had on Wizardry 8, everyone had the opportunity to wear many hats and contribute to larger portions of the game. For example, everyone contributed towards the design. We didn’t even have a fully dedicated designer on the project! As a team, we trusted and respected one another. Everyone’s strengths were utilized to their fullest. The end result was a game that felt like it had a ‘soul’, and a team that could feel proud of each other and their accomplishments.
On the other hand, working within a larger team is not nearly as rewarding. Your role becomes so specialized that you feel segregated from other disciplines. Some individuals even develop a sense of fear and a ‘territorial competitiveness’ that is simply not condusive to proper game development.
I feel this is partially why we’re seeing such a strong movement back towards smaller and independent game development teams.
Game development tools today, are significantly more advanced and accessible than they ever were.
Back in the days of developing Wizardry 8, there were very few options for game development tools and 3D engines. Many companies built their own engines and tools from scratch, which is a very time consuming and costly investment that is almost unheard of today. There were a few 3D engines available at that time, but they were very limited, very expensive, and a major pain to work with.
Today we have flexible, powerful, and affordable game engines and tools such as Unity, Unreal Engine, and CryEngine, just to name a few. The cost of entry for developing a game is easier than it’s ever been, so we’re now seeing more and more people able to create games that couldn’t just a few years ago. The other major point with these tools are that it’s easier than ever to develop for multiple platforms such as smart phones and consoles.
Methods for distributing a game have changed dramatically over the past 10 years. Internet speed and global accessibility have provided incredible growth potential for the industry that we’re only just starting to see. For example: I can open up Steam, purchase, download, install, and be playing a new game within 10-20 minutes. The same applies to consoles, smart phones, and tablets as well.
When Wizardry 8 came out, online digital distribution was not an option. Steam didn’t exist yet. Online retailers were just starting out, and were not a viable option. In fact, the majority of people were still using dial-up to access the internet on 56k modems! For people to purchase your game, you needed to be in a retail store. To be in a retail store, you needed a publisher. Unfortunately in Sir-Tech Canada’s case, they couldn’t find one for North America initially, so they ended up self publishing through an exclusive agreement with EB Games for a period of time. This really hurt sales, and consequently contributed to the closure of the studio. It would have been interesting to see how Wizardry 8 would have fared back then if online distribution existed as it does today.
Target platforms are also something that has drastically changed between then and now. Back in the days of Wizardry 8, there were very few platforms available to publish on. It was difficult enough getting published on the PC, but even harder to get published on a console. For a complex game like Wizardry 8, PC was pretty much the only option.
PC gaming is as strong or stronger than it’s ever been, but there are now many more options available to developers. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are practically begging independent developers to make games for them. Meanwhile, smartphones and tablet hardware is improving so rapidly, they will most likely be comparable to consoles in just a few years time.
All of this to say, it easier than ever for game developers to create and distribute games to a larger audience on a variety of different platforms.
Q. At one point in Wiz8 did you join Sir-Tech? Any particular part of the game you’re especially proud of?
A. I joined Sir-Tech Canada in the summer of 1999 to work on Wizardry 8, but it had already been in development for a while. The game had gone through some significant revisions before I joined. For example, Wizardry 8 was initially a 2.5D game. The team transitioned the game to 3D shortly before I arrived so it felt like I was joining just as they were shifting direction and finding their way.
It’s difficult to look back on some of the animations and models I created and not feel slightly embarrassed because I know how much I’ve grown as a game developer and artist since then. That being said, there are still many ‘proud’ memories that stand out.
As far as all the creatures go, I’m probably happiest with the way the slimes turned out. Our animation system used morph targets instead of real-time bones like you mainly see today. This allowed me to make the slime appear to jiggle and move in interesting ways that hadn’t really been seen or done in a 3D game before. I was also able to figure out a way to animate a creature’s motion in a non-linear way without any visible sliding. This meant that something like a slime could ooze forward in a ‘snail-like’ way, while a creature such as a frog could hop, stop, then hop again. It was a small detail that is mostly noticeable outside of combat, but it allowed me to inject a bit more personality into all the creature’s through their movement animations. Lastly, we had a simple but powerful scripting system for creatures. This allowed me to play with things such as a creature’s scale and create epic monsters like Nessie and Tiny. It’s easy to take some of these things for granted with today’s game engines and tools, but it was cutting edge 12 years ago.
Another part of development on Wizardry 8 that was very rewarding to me, was actually the retro dungeons. For those that may not know, there are 3 secret ‘retro’ styled dungeons that you can discover in the game. James (the lead level artist) and I were chatting one day, and I mentioned how cool it would be to create a retro-themed dungeon. We love easter eggs in games, and felt it would be a nice little treat for fans of the classic Wizardry games. Others on the team really liked the idea as well, so we managed to squeeze it into the game despite the fact that we were nearing the end of production. If I recall, we may have had to convince Linda (the producer), that it could be done without jeopardizing any of the remaining work. It was meant to be a simple easter egg, but the dungeons ended up having some pretty epic monsters and loot, thanks to Charles (a writer and our ‘monster wrangler’). Something else people may find interesting is that the original idea for the retro dungeons was to actually use the dungeon layouts from the original Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. Unfortunately, there were some potentially complicated legal issues related to that, so we wound up creating original layouts instead.
By far though, the thing that I am most proud of is what our team accomplished, and the reception Wizardry 8 received from the press and fans. It won RPG of the year from Computer Gaming World, Single-Player RPG of the Year from GameSpot, and was one of their top 10 PC games of the year. It also won several other awards from both online and print publications. There were also a bunch of great fan sites devoted to the game as well (many still exist even today). The fact that I’m being interviewed about the game 12 years after its initial release is a testament to the fans and their continued support for the game. It’s extremely humbling to think of, and I’m very grateful to have been a part of it.
Q. What inspired you to start your own game development studio?
A. I wrote a post on my website that touches on this a little, but I’d be happy to answer your question in more detail here.
As far as inspiration goes, I guess you could say that it was a result of me becoming disenchanted with the way most larger game development corporations operate. I disagree with the way they create their games, the politics, the way employees are treated, and the way customers are taken for granted. Don’t get me wrong. There are some great games that come out of these companies. I’m just personally not a fan of how the results are achieved.
I actually thought of starting my own company when I was back in college studying animation. I knew I didn’t have the experience or the money, so I ended up working at a variety of local game development studios. Over the years, I experienced many company closures first-hand as the gaming industry evolved and companies struggled to keep up. Out of necessity, I ended up joining EA Montreal’s studio in 2004 until this past February when they also shut down due to being unable to adapt to a changing industry.
After the EA layoffs, I decided to take a bit of time off and consider my options. I knew that I didn’t want to work in a large studio environment anymore. I knew that I wanted to get back to being creative and develop some of my own ideas. I knew that I acquired a good amount of experience over the years, and that I finally felt confident and mature enough to apply that experience. I knew that I had enough of a financial cushion and a willingness to take on additional debt if necessary. Most importantly, the timing was right, and I knew that this was the best opportunity I’ve ever had to chase my lifelong dream.
I founded Unorthodox Entertainment this past April with the goal of creating high quality games for a variety of different platforms. The name represents my own belief that thinking outside the box and being different is a good thing. History has shown this to be the case as well, so we’ll see where things go from here.
Q. And I’ll just throw in myself that if there was any aspect of the development process of Wiz8 that really jumped out of that, feel free to send that our way. You know, the type of details that seem normal to you in the middle of work but that aspiring devs love to hear. We have a large community of aspiring and/or indies so yeah…
A. I think I covered a fair amount above, but I do have one last story from my time on Wizardry 8. It was kind of funny at the time, but also a useful learning experience as well.
At one point during production, our QA lead logged a bug about spell casting. He was claiming that the spells were backfiring too much. Everyone else who was playing the game didn’t have that issue. It kept happening to him and he insisted that it was a bug, so a few of us ended up watching him play the game. We saw him click on a red colored power level to cast the spell, which consequently backfired in his face (Wizardry 8 uses green-to-red colors for communicating spell success rates). He proclaimed “See!? It should have worked!”. We were all confused, because clearly, he selected a high-risk power level before casting. We had an artist that was color blind on the team already, so it was at that moment when we realized he was most likely color blind. He didn’t know it at the time, so he took a couple tests online in disbelief. Sure enough, he was indeed red-green color blind. This led to a bunch of interesting discussions as we researched the topic further. The percentage of people affected by color blindness was high enough that we ultimately decided to adjust the UI and tweak the colors to accomodate color blind gamers.
It’s not something you necessarily consider or think about when creating a game, but little details like this can wind up alienating a large percentage of your customers… and the customer is the only thing that matters at the end of the day.