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Old 04-04-2012, 10:02 AM   #1
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[Interview] Daniel Fedor, Blue Bottle Games

CoG's Intrepid Indie Editor was fortunate enough to have a chat with Daniel Fedor, of Blue Bottle Games. Currently Blue Bottle is working on "Neo Scavenger", best described as a "Post Apocalyptic Survival RPG". In it, the player tries to survive a post apocalyptic area near Detroit through skill use, scavenging, camping, tracking, and a whole lot of luck. Neo Scavenger is currently playable in browser over at Blue Bottle Games in demo form for free. If you pre order the game, you will gain access to the beta version, with many more features implemented, and more frequent updates.

This is Daniel's first solo project after leaving Bioware to pursue the indie dream.

CoG - What games did you work on at Bioware?

DF - I worked on Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age II, and Mass Effect 3. BioWare was actually my first gig in the industry, and I started as a technical artist. I would spend time trying to make tools for creating art assets more efficiently, or for testing and tracking the art assets. Later, I grew into more senior roles until I was the lead tech artist on DA:O, and early DA2.

It was multi-disciplinary work, which I enjoyed, but I was kinda hoping to get more creative (especially in game design, writing, and visual art). At around the time DA2 was starting, I learned of an opportunity to get onto a small research team forming at BioWare Montreal. It meant switching into a producer role (which scared me a bit), but the team had a lot of creative freedom, which I was really starting to crave. It turned out to be a good decision, as those were some of the best months I've ever had with an employer. And being a producer really opened my eyes to the many behind-the-scenes workings of a game project. Producers sometimes get a bum rap in the industry, but I have a lot more respect for them after trying on their shoes for a year.

Over time, that research project grew into the multiplayer component of ME3, and on a much larger team. Making a big game on a big team can be a lot of fun, but I think I had my fill after years of working on DA, and I started looking for a way to reclaim that magic we felt when prototyping on a small team. I had been saving up to work on my own game for years, and I decided then that it was the perfect time to try for it. I actually still stuck around for a while after that, helping BioWare Montreal staff-up and train my replacement. Eventually, though, my final day arrived, BioWare gave me a wonderful send-off, and I was starting my indie adventure!

CoG - Why a survival game?

DF - Why NOT a survival game? Seriously, though, I think NEO Scavenger represents the intersection of many of my favorite things: the post-apocalyptic genre, scavenging and repurposing items, creative problem solving, and role playing games.

I played a lot of pen and paper RPGs growing up. AD&D, Car Wars, Rifts, and Shadowrun were some mainstays for me, and I would pore over those books at all hours. Though, come to think of it, we were never really that rigorous with tracking rations or weather on our adventures. Still, we enjoyed good storytelling and creative problem solving. And NEO Scavenger players probably won't be surprised to hear I had a bit of a reputation as a "killer DM."

I think CRPGs do a lot of things well, but few seem to really capture the range of input options a player in a pen and paper RPG has. I wanted to make encounters a bit more like what I remember, where one could be presented with a situation, and then have a moment to look over his skills, stats, items, and abilities, and formulate a way of dealing with the situation. I also remember really enjoying picking equipment for my characters. Really considering which items and skills I might need "out there." I relished the opportunity to be rewarded for being prepared.

Judging by some of the comments I've seen about NEO Scavenger, a homeless survival sim wouldn't have been a bad bet on my part either. So, to all you other indies out there, better get cracking! If you don't have one launched by NEO Scavenger's completion, I'll be on your heels!

CoG - How do you feel about the Wasteland 2 kickstarter?

DF - I love it! I have a penchant for both RPGs and post-apocalyptic genres, so I'm anxious to see how it turns out. I'm actually ashamed to admit I never played Wasteland back in the day. I was an Atari 800/ST kid, so I always envied those IBM kids with their giant library of games. After watching some "let's play" videos of Wasteland, I can see why folks have so much reverence for it. There is a lot of depth and detail in that game, even by today's standards (or maybe especially by today's standards), and I really dig the varied approaches to solving encounters. I love that mundane items like shovels and ropes actually matter too, as it's one of the features of pen and paper RPGs that CRPGs often miss: problem solving outside of combat and dialogue.

Despite missing out on Wasteland, I'm a big fan of Brian Fargo's other work. His name has graced many a game in my library. And I get the sense that he's making W2 for the right reasons: because it's a game he would enjoy playing. So I have high hopes for the W2 project. And the Kickstarter factor is great too. There's something "right" about a game made possible by the same people who want to play it.

CoG - Is Neo Scavenger's world a fully randomized, or mostly static map?

DF - It's a little of both right now. The map is hard-coded to roughly fit the shape of Michigan's lower peninsula, with a fixed Detroit, starting hex, and quest locations. However, the rest of the hexes are randomized at game start, as are the scavenging locations, hex loot, and weather.

CoG - Will magic/Supernatural elements be in the game, or just used as rumors?

DF - I'd like for magic and the supernatural to exist in the world, but I want to try not to saturate the world with it. I quite enjoyed the mixing of magic and technology in worlds such as Arcanum, Shadowrun, and Rifts. However, I think magic should be a mysterious and untamable force: something people whisper about, fear, and covet, but never completely understand. And to many, it should be questionable whether it actually exists, or whether it's just rumors and crazy talk.

One thing I definitely want to avoid is reducing magic to concepts like "+1 fire damage" or "+3 ice damage." I think that type of simplifying makes magic into just another mundane technology. Instead of "fireball the level 3 spell," I'd prefer if the voodoo practitioner ignites scraps of his target's clothes to cause burn wounds, whereas the witch performs a ritual to curse their target into having an accident with fire. And since NEO Scavenger tracks various metabolic variables, these burns can mean more than just "damage."

Also, I really like how magic can be explained away in the X-Files and Mage: The Ascension. Most onlookers are never really sure if it was magic, natural phenomenon, or insanity. I want the supernatural to mostly live in that realm of mystery: are the dogmen just mutated dogs? Or are they creatures of local myth, come to life?

That said, it'll be a miracle if I can pull the above off. It sounds good, but it's probably a nightmare to write!

CoG - How has it been moving from an AAA studio to being solo? (Are there others at Blue Bottle, or just you?). Any big surprises so far? Is the coffee any better?

DF - Blue Bottle Games is just me, so far. Working solo has its benefits and drawbacks, as you might imagine. The biggest benefit, and probably the main reason I decided to go solo, is creative freedom. Bigger teams means fewer chances for creative control, and AAA is nothing if not big teams. So I've really enjoyed the freedom to try ideas that are close to my heart, at the speed I think of them. In larger organizations, it can sometimes feel like half of your time is spent convincing and justifying decisions, whereas working solo means I can quickly adapt to new information and ideas. Plus, I can do a little bit of everything, which I enjoy. I'm a generalist at heart, so being able to switch between art, design, business, programming, writing, and audio is a real perk.

The biggest drawback, not surprisingly, is lack of resources: nobody to help with big tasks; no teammates to bounce ideas off of; no marketing department to get the word out; no finance department to handle billing and tax issues. It's 100% on you to figure things out and do them as a solo dev, and that can be overwhelming at times.

As for surprises, I think the biggest one yet has been discovering that people actually like the work I'm doing. I figured I might get lucky and have a few decent graphics, or systems, or write something witty here and there. But people seem to really dig the whole package, and it's really encouraging. Maybe I'm a decent game dev after all!

Oh, and the coffee is awesome. I finally looked up how to use my French press after years of mediocre coffee, and I've got the amount of beans, brew time, and stirring down to a science. It's the best damned coffee ever.

Blue Reviewer is about to Die

CoG - You mentioned being a "killer DM". Are you a fan of Roguelike-genre games at all?

DF - I think my first Roguelike was Larn on the Atari ST, and yes, I loved it. I remember being so enamored of it that I started transcribing the spells into D&D, much to the chagrin of my friends.

I later discovered Nethack, which I still fire-up every now and then. I inevitably die each time, usually through some combination of foolishness and chance, but I love the challenge of it. There's something engaging about playing a game you're expected to lose. It does feel a bit like you're competing against a killer DM, and maybe that makes the victories sweeter. It also makes me less ashamed to "bend" the rules on some playthroughs

CoG - Are you planning a downloadable version of Neo Scavenger? How about an iOS one? (I admit if you had an iOS one, I'd never turn my ipad/islab off. I'd get no sleep.)

DF - I definitely want to do a downloadable/stand-alone version when it's done. And I'd like to support as many platforms as I can.

I know the guys at Amanita Design were able to do PC, Mac, and Linux ports for Machinarium. I'd like to do the same, if I can. iOS and Android are not out of the question either, but I'd have to see about how much work it involves. Apart from the conversion of Flash projects to those platforms, there are also interface and resolution issues to overcome with touchscreen and mobile, respectively.

Still, I'd want a copy if it were me buying NEO Scavenger, so I can understand why folks are asking for one. And there are tons of great ways to distribute applications, such as Steam, Desura, etc. So I'll definitely be looking into that!

At least it wasn't dysentery

CoG - Any games you're especially enjoying/impressed by lately? (Aside from those you worked on. On that note, I love Mass Effect 3's multiplayer.)

DF - Believe it or not, I'm big into Tribes: Ascend right now. I really enjoyed Tribes 2 when it came out, and Ascend has been a good surrogate for me. I think I'm an adrenaline junky, so the combination of jetpacks, skiing, and guns has an appeal. Plus, the sheer range of operational activities that are meaningful in that game keep it interesting.

I also raided Gog.comthis past Christmas for a bunch of old games I either missed the first time around, or for which I lost my installers: JA2, Icewind Dale, Freespace 2, Temple of Elemental Evil, etc. I spend a lot of time revisiting old games, I guess.

As for new games, I just finished downloading Age of Decadence, and I'm anxious to try it out. I'm also closely watching FTL and Notch's announcement about a Firefly-inspired Elite-style game. I was heavy into Elite II on the Atari ST, and I've long awaited a suitable successor in that genre. Like the homeless simulator, that's a game on my list of "games I want to make." Quite high on that list, in fact. So I'm psyched to see what other indies do with the idea!

CoG - Anything at all you'd like to add? About the game, about being a dev, or in general?*

DF - I'd like to call out how awesome my fans are! Seriously, the amount of optimism, maturity, and goodwill I see on the Blue Bottle Games forums, as well as NEO Scavenger discussions around the net, just makes me so proud. I couldn't have asked for a cooler bunch of folks, so thanks guys! It's a pleasure working with you!

Lekon - I'd like to thank Daniel Fedor again for his time, and encourage everyone to give the demo a try. Pick up a pre order as well, to support a new and wonderfully out of the ordinary game. So far the game has been a blast to play, and I look forward to each new beta update.
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Old 04-04-2012, 10:21 AM   #2
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That game is right up my alley. 100% interested in that. Lordy.
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Old 04-04-2012, 11:21 AM   #3
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It does look good, but he needs a writer to polish that stuff up. Like many creative people, he has great ideas, but hasn't learned to be a word-smith. A good analogy for this is that I can imagine a really scary monster in my head, but I am not able to paint it because I have not learned to paint.

For example, "Some sort of cataclysm has befallen the earth, returning mankind to the dark ages." has a couple of problems:

1. There is a 3rd person narrator and 3rd person narrators shouldn't be omniscient. They can be incredibly insightful, but the good ones explain how they come to conclusions based on the character's perceptions. A better way to have written this would be, "In the distance, unrecognizable creatures circle on leathery wings, and yet the wreckage near you shows signs of human vandalism. Only one thing is certain: This is not the world you once knew."

2. Some of what is said simply isn't true which will bother some readers and mean little to those who have a shallow understanding of the reference. A return to the Dark Ages would not be a world filled with monsters and littered with modern instruments for scavenging. Plus, while the Dark Ages are infamous for grinding human advancement to a standstill for several centuries due to religious oppression, that's not what is happening here. Man isn't choking itself out due to religious oppression. . . they are dying for a "real thing".

3. This may be by choice, but there is not any point-of-view for the character. The way that we look at the world is unique to our character. An example that many people may be familiar with is George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels. When Queen Cirsei is the PoV character, she sees everyone as a conspirator, and imagines people slighting her and disrespecting her at every turn, but when you see Sansa talk about Cersei in the first book, she sees the outward charisma of Cersei and is charmed by her (even though on the inside Cersei is desperately unhappy, insecure, and self-loathing.). Even with something as simple as this, exposition could be given to make the character more real. . . even if they mean the character to be a bit of a blank slate so that the player can imprint themselves on it, you could have words that are about universal experiences and emotions that someone might have to seeing the world in ruin. Writing is better when you have characters because people can then relate and feel for your characters.

There are two errors I see game developers make in this regard over and over:

1. Hiring a writer doesn't mean that you have to give up creative control. A writer is a word-smith, and many of us would be ecstatic to get work punching up an existing work. It's good to have a writer in design meetings because we can talk to you about really broad things like story momentum, climaxes, good characterization, and rising action, but these will be tips to help the people with creative control write a better story. You can always ignore the writer.

2. Writers do not have to be super-expensive-published-authors. There are plenty of people with English degrees that can do this. A great interview would be to give them a piece of game text like this and have them rewrite it. Afterward, you could ask them why they made their choices. You should be looking for someone who not only is able to punch up text (while maintaining the important action in the scene - not creating new elements or ignoring important ones), but is able to communicate well with the team about why they made these choices.

Last edited by bean; 04-04-2012 at 12:59 PM.
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