Playmakers: Weaving Tales with Spiderweb's
"jot" Tuinman, email@example.com
May 2, 2000, 12:00
In a corner of the Pacific-Northwest, under the banner "Where
our aberrations become your reality," Jeff Vogel's Spiderweb
Software has been consistently developing some of the most
popular role-playing games created for the Mac.
Spiderweb's first releases hearkened back to the glory days
of the early Ultima games: absolutely massive amounts of story
that were told through an overhead two-dimensional view of the
game world. First, adventurers fought to survive in an underground
world of outcasts in Exile: Escape from the Pit, then struggled
to conquer those caverns in Exile II. Next they battled to return
to the surface world in Exile III, before finally seeing the
Exile series culminate with Blades of Exile. Blades of Exile
not only offered three new quests, but also gave gamers the tools
to create their own adventures. Just over two years later, there's
a web-ring dedicated to the series, and more than a hundred scenarios
have been developed by Exile's fans (The
Lyceum is a good place to start.)
Far from sitting idle, Jeff Vogel has been creating new game-engines,
new adventures, and new opportunities. He recently took the time
to talk with us about Spiderweb's past, present, and future.
MG: How does the reality of what
SpiderWeb Software is today differ from what you'd envisioned
it becoming when you founded it?
JV: Wow. When I founded Spiderweb,
it was just an ad-hoc sort of thing. I wrote my first game as
a stress reliever during grad school, and released it as shareware
as a lark. I was very surprised when it made good money. Since
then, I've just chugged along, writing games and selling them,
and never really thinking about where things were going.
JV: One thing is for sure though
... I'm happy with where things are now.
MG: So world domination isn't
part of the plan? Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon.com--I thought
Seattle had something in the water that encouraged that sort
JV: I've done contract work at
Microsoft, but I'm much more of a small business kind of guy.
The IPO Internet revolution has come and is going, and I've just
stayed a small businessman.
MG: Is there anything you would
do differently, if you had the chance to do it all over again?
JV: I would have been more aggressive
earlier on with distributing other developers' games. We are
trying to get into this a lot more now, because we have a lot
to offer the independent developer. It's taken us a lot of time
to get into this, though.
MG: What kind of games would
you like to add to Spiderweb's library? Do you have a specific
focus you'd like to keep, a cross-platform mandate to adhere
to, or just a desire to showcase more cool stuff?
JV: No mandates. If it's good
enough to sell, we want it.
Spiderweb's not only working to become a distributor for independent
game efforts, which so far includes Richard White's Lost Souls
and Ocean Bound strategy titles, but Jeff has dedicated a corner
of their Web site to encouraging and helping people who want
to enter the shareware arena. As it says at the beginning of
Developer's Resource, "Anybody with a computer, anybody,
even you, yes, even you, can sit down, write a great computer
program, and sell it for lots of money."
MG: On your Web site you answer
the question: "Shareware? Why shareware?" with "Shareware
is a force for good." How the heck do you retain that youthful
optimism, especially amidst all of Seattle's rain?
JV: I LOVE Seattle. I LOVE rain.
JV: I grew up here. Lots of people
have been moving here from all over the place to do computer
stuff here. And, as I always say, I was here when they all came,
I'll be here when they all leave, I will die here, and my corpse
will decompose quickly in the moist earth.
MG: Maybe I should re-assess
the "youthful-optimism"; you're sounding a bit more
like a casual existentialist now...
JV: More a great pride in my
home, and an occasional nostalgia for what it was like before
the world moved here.
Nostalgia wasn't a factor when it came to leaving behind Exile's
two-dimensional stylings, however. After Blades of Exile left
the tools for further Exile scenario creation with its fans,
Jeff moved on and released Nethergate in 1999. Featuring gorgeous
16-bit art, Nethergate marked the debut of a new look-and-feel
for Spiderweb RPGs. More than just an aesthetic triumph, Nethergate
also has an involved plot that can be played two completely different
ways: in a land where magic is dying you can play as the Celts
and use the land's faery resources to put an end to Roman oppression,
or choose to play as members of the Roman Legion and finally
suppress the Celtic uprising. Quests, puzzles, and plot are substantially
different depending on which side you've chosen, which effectively
doubles the game's lifespan.
MG: Was it a big leap of faith
for you to move games you produced from the 2D overhead perspective
you'd used in the Exile series to the isometric 3D point of view
you've used in Nethergate and Avernum?
JV: Not really. I really believed
that it was the best thing.
JV: Whenever I make a design
decision, I always go, whenever possible, for the thing I personally
prefer. That's why Avernum has a 4 person party now. I genuinely
prefer that. I have a great deal of faith in my instincts.
JV: I got completely sick of
looking at the flat 2-D screen. I felt, deep down, that 3D was
better. So I went with it and never looked back.
MG: The notion of being able
to play two distinct sides of one struggle (Nethergate) was incredibly
cool; can you see yourself doing that again, or is the planning
aspect of it too prohibitive?
JV: It was a whole lot of fun
to do, and I'm really pleased with how it turned out. However,
instead of doing it again, I'd be much more likely to try to
come up with a new idea for a way to structure a plot. I have
some cool ideas.
Meanwhile Jeff recently released Avernum, a retelling of the
first chapter of the Exile saga with some very substantial changes.
Dozens of quests have been added, the amount of in-game dialogue
has just about been doubled, and more special encounters have
been added to the story. And, of course, the game now uses the
new game system and interface that was introduced with Nethergate,
with some further modifications. Dialogue with non-player characters
is now handled through lists of available questions, and there's
the welcome integration of the auto-map with the main interface
MG: What was the most satisfying
aspect of going back and re-tooling the Exile: Escape From the
Pit story to the new engine?
JV: Just making it good. I've
always been sad that I didn't have the time to do all I wanted
with Exile. I finally got the chance.
MG: You've just announced Avernum
2 -- are you setting yourself any new technical challenges for
the sequel, or will the single focus be to create an epic amount
of new story?
JV: I'm very happy with the Avernum
engine. It's pretty sweet, so I'll probably leave it alone for
Avernum 2, except for a few improvements and new features. We'll
mainly be spending out time fleshing out and improving the world.
MG: What do you estimate to be
a typical production timeline for one of Spiderweb's role-playing
JV: Varies greatly. Nethergate
had about 3 months of pre-planning (before a single line of code
gets written) and a year of hard work. Since Avernum built extensively
on previous work, it took a lot less time.
MG: And how much Mountain Dew
and coffee gets consumed during production?
JV: Not so much as you might
think. I'm down to 2 cups of coffee (or one double latte) a day.
Mountain Dew is gross.
MG: The Spiderweb Web site invites
artists to send you samples for consideration -- have you ever
received anything truly bizarre?
JV: Not really. Sometimes artists
send me very nice drawings and portfolios, but nothing I'd ever
not show to mother. However, I have gotten an angry letter from
a father who was infuriated by the presence of demons in the
MG: Really? And how did you react
JV: With a nice note of thanks.
And sometimes I put things up on my wall.
MG: How'd Phil Foglio, madcap
fantasy/comic-book artist extraordinaire get involved with Spiderweb?
JV: Phil's been a friend of mine
for a few years, and he loves my games. Wasn't difficult. :-)
MG: What exactly *does* a spider
say to the fly? I've historically (or hysterically) been too
scared of 'em to pay much attention.
MG: Any advice for long-time
JV: What most people don't realize
is how harmless most spiders are. Tarantulas are very delicate
creatures. A fall from a few inches can kill them. There are
only 2 sorts of spiders in this country who can actually harm
people, and, with medical attention, they aren't actually dangerous.
None of this can cure a phobia, of course, but it does make borderline
people feel more comfortable.
JV: I love my tarantula.