Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2013-04-09 16:03:56
An Interview with SinisterDesign (Telepath Tactics)
Craig Stern is a video game developer living in Chicago in the United States. He is the founder of Sinister Design and functions as the studio's game designer, writer, programmer, artist/animator and composer, with occasional help from outside artists on a contract basis. In addition to serving as the creative force behind Sinister Design, Craig Stern runs the website IndieRPGs and serves on the board of the Chicago-area indie game developers' group Indie City Games. Stern is known for the popular Telepath RPG (PC) series, and the latest game in development in the series, Telepath Tactics (PC), has recently been successfully funded on Kickstarter. I spoke to Craig about what we can expect from Telepath Tactics:
Alex Phillimore: Hi Craig, could you tell us a bit about when you first started to learn about game development and when you began to make your own video games?
Craig Stern: I first started making video games back in the summer of 2006. I had a few months to kill before I started law school, so I set out to teach myself game design as a sort of "last hurrah" creative project. After 2 and a half months of experimentation and free internet tutorials, I'd created my first real video game.
AP: What games would you say inspired you? Fire Emblem and Disgaea are two listed on the Kickstarter, but critics seem to have mentioned a wide variety of other games they were reminded of with Telepath Tactics, including Shining Force. Which games would you say had the most profound impact on Telepath Tactics?
CS: Telepath Tactics is actually part of the "Telepath RPG" series, which was originally inspired primarily by Shining Force and the original Fallout. Telepath Tactics itself gets ideas from a lot more sources than just those, but Fallout and Shining Force are probably the ones most responsible for getting me started.
AP: The world of Telepath Tactics seems to move away from typical fantasy tropes: cavalry riding praying mantises rather than horses, for example. Did you deliberately set out to challenge common archetypes within the genre, and what are the benefits of having that sort of creative freedom?
CS: It's not that I want to challenge them so much as that I'm simply bored of them. Dragons, dwarves, elves, orcs: it's all been done to death already! Tolkein wrote The Lord of the Rings in the 1950s--what was once fantastic has since become expected, tedious. Ultimately, what's the point of creating fantasy worlds if they're all just going to slavishly recreate the same fantasy over and over?
AP: What were the challenges in making the move from a multiplayer experience to having a story-driven single-player campaign?
CS: It took a lot of work, but doing it this way actually had a lot of advantages. I started work on single player with a very well-balanced set of character classes and a flexible, robust combat system already in place.
AP: Have there been any other challenges in the making of Telepath Tactics that you have overcome?
CS: There have been a lot of challenges! There have been technical challenges, like writing my own blitting engine and coding robust enemy AI; there have been organizational challenges, such as finding good, reliable artists to work on the game's tiles and animation; and there have been challenges relating to my own limited resources. So far, I've been able to overcome each (the last most recently with a successful Kickstarter campaign).
AP: Could you give us any additional insights into the single-player campaign? What sort of themes can players expect to see in the story, and do you have an estimate as to how long the story will roughly take to complete?
CS: The main campaign's overarching themes will touch on resource exploitation, neocolonialism, and the dignity of sentient life. I don't want to say too much more about it just yet.
AP: Kickstarter can be a useful platform for building a relationship between developer and consumer. Given your eagerness to see the game modified by players, would you like to see an active community arise from the game and its map editors? If so, would you play other player's maps?
CS: Absolutely! I'd very much like to establish an online repository where people can upload their own campaigns and play the campaigns that others have made. And yes, I'm absolutely dying to try out all the awesome stuff I know people will come up with.
AP: How did you determine the original $15,000 goal for the Kickstarter?
CS: Based on my knowledge of what it costs to contract art and music, $15,000 is my best guess at what it will take to produce all of the base content I need to finish the game.
AP: Now that you have almost doubled this original figure, what will these extra resources go towards?
CS: Well, that is why we have stretch goals! We've already hit the first two stretch goals, which call for more animated character classes and a brand new dungeon tileset with scriptable objects like buttons, levers and pressure plates. Thanks to peoples' generous contributions, we'll be able to afford these things.
The next stretch goal is procedurally generated battlefields, followed by a branch in the main campaign and mobile ports of the game. If we hit those goals, the extra money will be going to fund those things as well.
AP: How does it feel to know that over 1,000 backers are eager to play your game? At the time of writing, one backer has generously donated $3,000. How does that level of support influence your creative process and motivate you to deliver a great product?
CS: Without a doubt, it feels great to have so many people excited about the game. Having a larger pool of fans is really helpful because you'll naturally have more people offering you feedback, which means I have more information about changes I need to make to create the best possible game. It's like having a little hint button to guide me if I get stuck.
AP: What do you feel are the benefits to using Kickstarter as a platform for independent game development?
CS: It's a brilliant site. Kickstarter provides way to simultaneously gain visibility, attract fans, and obtain a budget to produce a polished game without selling your soul to a publisher. Aside from the intense time commitment that running such a campaign entails, there are basically no downsides. There is a reason why Kickstarter has been so popular with indie developers over the last year!
AP: Finally, once the game has been released, how would you like people to remember it? Perhaps you could describe the game to us in a paragraph or so, so that gamers unfamiliar with Telepath Tactics can familiarize themselves with it and get excited about playing it.
CS: Telepath Tactics is a strategy RPG a bit like Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, or Disgaea, but with a lot of really cool features that set it apart from the crowd. You can kill enemies by flinging them off of cliffs, into water or lava; you can build bridges, lay down barricades and freeze water to open up and close off routes across the battlefield; the battlefield is destructible, so you can bust down doors, destroy walls, bridges and trees; and on top of all of this, the game is moddable.
I don't want people to one day look back and "remember" Telepath Tactics, because that implies that they ever stopped playing it. I want to live a long, full life, and on my deathbed, check SinisterDesign.net only to see people still playing it and producing campaigns for it. I want Telepath Tactics to be a tactical RPG that lives as long as chess.
AP: Thanks, Craig. Are there any additional comments you would like to make?
CS: If you like strategy RPGs, please support the Telepath Tactics Kickstarter and upvote the game on Steam's Greenlight!