July 21, 2019
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IMG Interviews Spiderweb's Jeff Vogel
October 21, 2005 | Jonathan Lowrie

IMG: Is Avernum 4 an all-new game engine or is it an evolution of previous versions?

Vogel: It's almost an all-new engine. I took the engine from Geneforge, massively modified it, and completely reworked the game system.

Avernum 4 is fully turn-based, like all Avernum games. It has a completely seamless world, with no "zones." If you get a monster angry enough, it can chase you a very long way.

The game also has a higher screen resolution than many of our games, and most of the graphics will be completely new.

IMG: Your site offers some fantastic hints and tips to aspiring programmers wanting to build good games. How did you get started in the business and what was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome?

Vogel: It all started when I was in grad school, studying applied mathematics. I really didn't like it and was burning out fast. So, during one summer, I decided to take some time off doing something I'd been dreaming of doing for years: writing a fantasy RPG. I used my new Power Macintosh 6100.

I released that game, called Exile, and, amazingly enough, it sold. So I quit grad school and made a go of writing shareware full-time. I've been very fortunate.

I think the greatest obstacle I've had is the need to fight burnout. Writing these games is a lot of work, and it really drains me. Doing it again and again for ten years, it's gotten harder with each game. To keep my energy up, I mean, and to keep things fresh. So far, I've managed, I hope. But the struggle continues.

Some people think writing games is more fun than developing other sorts of software. I'm afraid it really isn't.

IMG: Spiderweb Software is such a fun name for a company publishing RPG titles. How did you come up with the name "Spiderweb Software"?

Vogel: I've always had kind of a thing for spiders. Fascinating creatures. I own a chilean rose tarantula named, creatively enough, "Spider."

So the name came pretty naturally to me.

IMG: To what can you attribute your success in the shareware market when so many others have faded from the scene?

Vogel: First, very good luck. I've gotten some exceptional PR breaks. Some editors have taken a liking to me, and they gave me good press. That good fortune really helped build my business.

Second, I have the tenacity of the cockroach. I'm not a great programmer, or a great designer, or a great writer. I'm not so hot. But I do have the discipline to keep at it, day after day, and I am able to eventually look at a game and say, "It's done. Ship it."

IMG: Have you ever considered changing to a packaged title publisher and giving up on the shareware model of business?

Vogel: Nope. Those people wouldn't have thing one to do with me. They wouldn't want to touch me with their hands.

I'm a small, boutique developer, who serves a clientele of devoted RPG fans. People who want a big, exciting game and don't care if the graphics or sound aren't very sexy.

In the insanely competitive, lethal market of packaged games, nobody is going to want to give me a second look.

Plus, I really like shareware. A lot. Practically everyone who buys my games has tried it out and liked it before they give me money. I feel that I never rip anyone off. It helps me sleep the sleep of the just.

IMG: For those of a more technical orientation, what application develop system do you program with?

Vogel: I develop all my games on my Macintosh G4, using Metrowerks Codewarrior. This was once the unquestioned premier development environment for the Mac. Now that they're moving to the new Intel chips, I have to stop using the tools I've been very happily using for the last 10 years. I'm a bit miffed.

Then, once the game is happily out and stable for the Mac, I port it to Windows. I'm not happy about it, but it keeps me in business.

IMG: How long does it take to design and produce a title such as Geneforge 3?

Vogel: Practically all of my games are built on the previous engine. Geneforge 3 took 2-3 months to improve the Geneforge 2 engine, followed by a fairly standard 4-5 months to write the adventure itself. The sections are tested pretty much as I write them. Then a month for final testing, polish, and writing the hint book. And a month to lie on my back and recuperate after the game is out.

When I write a whole new engine (like for Avernum 4), it usually takes another 2-3 months.

IMG: What are some of the challenges associated with developing a title like Geneforge or Avernum?

Vogel: I don't want to complain too much, because I really am fortunate to be able to work for myself and do this for a living. But keeping from burnout really is the big problem. About three months into writing the world, when I have tons of bugs to fix, art directions to do, and mundane business matters to deal with, it becomes really difficult to keep working on the daily dungeons/sections at a high level of quality.

I freely confess that some of my games are more detailed and creative in the first third than in the last third. Though not all, thank goodness!

IMG: Do you do all your work in-house? Or are some aspects, like artwork or sound, out sourced?

Vogel: Much of the art is made in-house by one of my employees using Bryce, Poser, and Photoshop, three marvelous programs. But much of the graphics are from freelancers. I do all of the sound design myself. Even though I probably shouldn't.

When people wonder why we don't have more and fancier graphics and sounds, it's important to remember that the game needs to stay small enough to be downloaded. A lot of our customers still use old 56K modems.

Also, whenever we do take a step up and make our graphics nicer, we, believe it or not, get a lot of complaints. A lot of our fans LIKE the retro feel. So, in some ways, you can't win.


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