To Reign in Hell… An Interview With Vic Davis

To Reign in Hell… An Interview With Vic Davis

Today under the spotlight, we have Vic Davis, indie game developer extraordinaire, and all around nice guy.  He’s the man responsible for the truly unique and excellent Armageddon Empires, one of the finest turn-based strategy games I think I’ve ever played. Today, he takes some time out of his busy schedule producing the brilliant looking Solium Infernum to answer some of our questions.

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The Reticule: First off, for those not familiar with Cryptic Comet and your games, could you give us a quick run down?

Vic: I’m a small indie game developer trying to fill the increasingly neglected “turn based strategy” niche.  I’m self employed and work out of my home and do all the design, project management and coding for the games.  I’ve found some talented artists to do the art via contract over the internet. I sell directly to my customers from my website via digital distribution.  I’m also a big board game fan so I like to draw on those types of mechanics.  Armageddon Empires which I published last year was my first game and it has a CCG/Miniatures game type feel.

The Reticule: What would you say makes your games unique in the industry? We certainly feel that you’ve caught onto a particular niche.

Vic: Well, I think the updated retro appeal is a big factor if that makes sense?  My games are something you might have found on store shelves a decade ago during the Golden Age of Turn Based Gaming.  I’ve tried to add some new twists by molding the game mechanics into more of a board game type experience.  The mantra for designers in this genre is to offer “interesting and meaningful decisions” and I do my best to do just that.

The Reticule: Tell us more about Solium Infernum; what’s it about, and why should we be excited about it?

Vic: Solium Infernum is my attempt at doing a classic Play By Email (PBEM) strategy game.  It’s actually designed to play like a grand strategy board game.  I’ve looked to some of the best games of the genre like Diplomacy, Dune and A Game of Thrones for inspiration.  The theme for SI revolves around a simple line from Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

“To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell: Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.“

So the game is set in the Infernal Pit and you assume the role of an Archfiend trying to claw your way to absolute power.  You move your legions around the board and vie for strategic locations called Places of Power. You can also perform a whole range of unholy rituals that harm your opponents or enhance your own position.  Backstabbing and treachery are a big component of the game.

If Play By Email is not your thing, then you can also play hot seat or single player against multiple AI players.  The AI is a second generation version of the AI did for Armageddon Empires and is based on a hierarchical goal based system that incorporates a bunch of fuzzy logic and now some genetic algorithm type techniques.  My goal is to make it cheat free but challenging.

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The Reticule: We were totally blown away by the quality of Armageddon Empire’s artwork, and Solium Infernum looks set to follow that precedent. Just who is it doing all that stuff? It’s brilliant!

Vic: I had 5 different artists working on the illustrations for Armageddon Empires.  It was a huge project in that regard with over 350 separate illustrations and that’s grown since then with the release of the free mini expansion packs.  Matt Bradbury a British artist did a big chunk of it working on the Machines and Mutants card art as well as a lot of the “flavor” illustrations.  Zdenek Sasek from the Czech Republic did the Empire of Man cards.  Jon Hodgson from the UK did the alien Xenopods.  All the tech and genetic engineering stuff you can create or discover in the Wastelands was done by Michael Grills a Canadian artist.  And finally Ric Lim Boon Keat from Malaysia did most of the lost vaults, ruined bases, etc that you stumble upon in the game.

The Reticule: On a related note, how do you come up with such distinct settings? Having studied them in the past, I’ve noticed Solium Infernum has a cool Dante/Milton vibe about it as one influence.

Vic: I’m making a real effort to pick off the beaten track themes for my games.  If I make a game about conquering the galaxy or fighting the dark elves with the mountain dwarves then I’ve got much less of a chance to stand out from the competition.  So that’s a big part of it.  Theme is also a big part of my design process so I like to pick something a little less generic and see what I can do with it.  It makes the whole design process more challenging and enjoyable.  I’ve got to be careful not to stray too far from the path though or I won’t be able to make another game.  Solium Infernum is a game about ruling Hell so there is a basic fascination with things infernal and I’ve tried to draw on a bunch of different resources and influences when I set about creating the game world.  The primary inspiration is Milton but you will find Dante, Giotto, Bosch, medieval “vision literature”, Greek mythology and classical demonology scattered about as influences.

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The Reticule: If you had the resources to, would you consider doing a game in “3D”. Seeing some of the unit concepts we’ve seen come to life in animation would be spectacular.

Vic: This is something I’ve debated with myself on many occasions.  I often wonder if I had the choice to take something like the Civilization or Total Wars engines and mold it to my will would I be pleased with the result?  I like seeing animations, explosions, spell effects and all that.  I have to say I’d like to try it some day.  But since I’ve got about as much chance of being chosen the Silent King as I do of completing a 3d game by myself, I’ve sort of taken off in the opposite direction and tried to design and implement very austere yet elegant game boards.  Solium Infernum is built on a simple is better type of concept.  There are terrain types for instance but they either block or permit an agent on the board from entering.  You don’t have to worry about figuring out how many movement points a type of terrain costs.  I’ve also gone a step further and eliminated supply as a restraining concept. My ultimate goal was to offer a clean and fundamentally simple display of the game board and the agents on the board and trust to Chaos theory to provide the complexity of interactions and I think it worked out pretty well.

The Reticule: Armageddon Empire’s certainly had a lot of tongue-in-cheek game references in it. Without spoiling anything, will we see some of this in Solium Infernum?

Vic: Oh Absolutely!  That’s one of the perks to being a game designer as far as I am concerned.  I’ve got some fun stuff in there ranging from the Evil Dead movies, to Hell Raiser to Mystery Science Theatre 3000.  I’ve tried to keep it very subtle though so as not to spoil the overall infernal mood.

The Reticule: What did you learn from Armageddon Empire’s development and reception, and how is this affected Solium Infernum’s development?
Vic: Solium Infernum’s multi player capability is a direct response to all the emails that I got from people wishing they could play their mates in the game.  The biggest design decision that yielded was the choice to do simultaneous turn resolutions.  Basically you plot out your orders and then the turn is processed separately by the “host.”  Everything is done in a very orderly fashion.  This WEGO type dynamic really helps with arbitrating the players actions but it means that instead of viewing the action directly and influencing it at the time, you tend to get reports about how a certain action was conducted… be it a battle or a diplomatic action or whatever it is you ordered done.

The Reticule: One thing, besides multi-player that was sorely lacking from Armageddon Empires was a way to mod the game. Will we see any steps to giving the fans a way of altering and adding to Solium Infernum?
Vic: Yes a little more mod friendly but probably not as mod friendly as most would like.  I’m still working with the same development environment which means that all the art assets are still not accessible.  Most of the data for the legions, praetors, evil artifacts etc. is in text files so you can monkey around with those.  The AI for the computer opponents is sadly not going to be accessible very easily.  I get requests for AI editors but I just don’t want to spend the month plus that it would take to create one with a usable interface.  It’s much quicker for me at this point to enter the data directly with the development environment so I’m taking the short cut….same goes for a map editor.  There just isn’t enough time in the day at this point.

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The Reticule: With recent influx of indie games like World of Goo, Darwinia/Multiwinia, and indeed Armageddon Empires receiving critical acclaim, would you say that the indie dev is going to become more and more prominent in years to come? Could it be that as development tools are become more easily acquired, the playing field will level? Do you think this is starting to become the case?

Vic: I tend to buy high and sell low so you need to take this prognostication with a grain of salt, but I think indies are going to do very well in the future.  The technology is out there for a second Golden Age of the Garage Game Developer.  Improved development tools combined with digital distribution mean that indies are all about filling in the segments of the “Long Tail” and satisfying niches that normally aren’t profitable to sell to and it’s frankly a great time to be an indie.  The playing field naturally looks like a sloping “Long Tail so I don’t think you will be leveling it as much as letting indies thrive more efficiently out on the end. Some indies will grow and then they’ll have to move up the long tail to find the thicker spots but most of us will remain indie because we just don’t want to make the move.  Indie of course is a big label for a lot of different types of small developers making anything from casual games, to art games to my bag which is complex strategy games.  So my guess is indies will surf the tail for quite some time.

The Reticule: Us at The Reticule are all aspiring writers, and prolific readers: One thing that has caught our interest is that you mentioned in an interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun a while back that you started writing a novel based on Armageddon Empires. Has this come along at all? Will Solium Infernum come with any kind of extra material as its “launch campaign” as such for example?

Vic: Not well sadly.  I haven’t touched it in months.  Writing is hard.  I keep thinking that something like a graphic novel might be better suited to attracting customers to my website but that idea hasn’t gone anywhere either.  Like your typical Dungeon Master, I’m great at thinking up shiny new ideas but the execution is always a problem.  I did think for a while that I would take the core story of my proto-novel and higher a cartoonist to do a series on it for the website, but I chickened out at the last minute when I pondered the costs versus the benefits.  Let’s face it, I’m not going to become the next Penny Arcade and I’d be better off focusing on my “core competencies” as they say.

The Reticule: Thinking in the long, long term, you’ve had a great deal of experience studying real world strategy and history. I’m a history student myself and would love to see some of your mechanics applied to a modern day or historical strategy simulation. DuBBle also particularly likes the idea of something with “Public Favour” as a resource. Do you think you’ll be approaching this sort of thing ever?

Vic: Public Favor is sort of like the Prestige resource in Solium Infernum.  It’s normally the deciding factor in who wins the game but it’s also a currency of a sorts as well.  That type of dynamic always makes for interesting decisions because you often have to choose whether to spend it now and accept some risk for a greater return down the road or just accumulate it….it’s classic risk on return type situation.
Historical strategy is definitely a place I intend to go in the future.  I’m a huge fan of Rudyard Kipling and all of Churchill’s biographical writing so a “Go to your God like a Soldier!” Game is something that I’ve tossed around in my head… along with a bunch of others.  I’ve got about 4 designs beyond Solium Infernum that I’d like to bring to life.  Had we but world enough and time…..

The Reticule:  Cheers Vic, it’s been an absolute pleasure!

Needless to say, all 3 salivating, gnashing heads are biting at the bit for this one.  We’ll have more coverage as the game nears release sometime in the latter part of 2009. Vic runs a blog covering the development here for all those interested, and you can get a demo of Armageddon Empires here.

6 thoughts on “To Reign in Hell… An Interview With Vic Davis

  1. Good point pnic101, I’ll add that actually.

    Rather than having to find where I’ve put it in there though, Vic has said Winter 2009 on his own site ;)

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