Playmakers: Weaving Tales with Spiderweb's Jeff Vogel
by Jaap "jot" Tuinman,
May 2, 2000, 12:00 pm ET

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, thought Seattle had something in the water that encouraged that sort of trait...

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 Spiderweb's Shareware 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 window.

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 games?

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 game.

MG: Really? And how did you react to that?

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.

JV: "Yum."

MG: Any advice for long-time arachnophobes?

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.