Goodness Me: Spiderweb Software Is Twenty

By John Walker on July 10th, 2013 at 5:00 pm.

We’re a couple of days late with this, but I felt it really deserves a mention. Spiderweb Software, the studio that creates classic isometric RPGs, has just celebrated its 20th birthday. There aren’t many studios that can claim that, especially with the original team still working there. Of course, it helps that the original team is Jeff Vogel.

That’s not quite fair. Regular contributors like Andrew Hunter, Linda Strout and Mariann Krizsan have been with him along the way, but Vogel is the core creator behind 21 games over 20 years. Games like the Geneforge series, the Avadon run, and the Avernum roleplayers. And the 21st is Avadon 2: The Corruption, due sometime later this year.

Recently Spiderweb have found broader success by releasing their games for tablets as well as PC/Mac, and I can testify to their excellence on both platforms. It’s tempting to describe the games as “hardcore RPGs”, but that never feels fair. They’re “classic RPGs”, born of a world where Ultima ruled, never feeling the need to abandon a simple aesthetic and interface, while offering extraordinary depth in story and exploration. Just the written content alone makes his one-a-year output absolutely remarkable, let alone that it appears in engrossing games.

Most of Spiderweb’s games are now on Steam, at far more sensible prices than their own peculiar webstore. You can pick up all of the games in one go for £30, or individual games for between £4 and £7. Which is an awful lot cheaper than the odd $15 to $20 that Vogel charges directly.

If you’re looking for somewhere to start, I strongly recommend picking up Avernum: Escape From The Pit – a remake of the original Avernum game, as well as the first in the new series, Avadon: The Black Fortress. Both have provided me with oodles of hours of entertainment, and I dip back in pretty regularly.

There’s a splendid timeline of the last twenty years of development right here.

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49 Comments »

  1. Anthile says:

    If you are new, start out with Avadon or the Avernum re-remake subtitled The Pit. The older games have a bit of an UI problem, depending on how far you wish to go back. The Geneforge Saga is also a must-have.

  2. demicanadian says:

    Time to check old magazine cover cd’s looking for Exile shareware. One of my best shareware experiences.

    • wanderjahr says:

      Ditto. Exile was actually the first CRPG I ever played. I was just a kid and, of course, could not pay for the whole thing, but the demo was enough to leave me a rabid PC gamer for life. Can’t believe it’s been 20 years…

    • Alextended says:

      The whole Exile series is freeware as of recently so just go download those.

      http://www.spiderwebsoftware.com/productsOld.html

      • Erunion says:

        You, sir, are my hero, and I just registered to make this post thanking you for pointing this out. I played the shareware Exile II to death in junior high, and I’m thrilled to get this chance to see what lay beyond that version’s limits.

    • 2gudtoulouse says:

      I came here to say that I loved the Exile series (especially Exile 3: Ruined World). I tried the avernum series but I just didn’t like something about the isometric view.

      • Rizlar says:

        Indeed! Might be time to go back and finally try to finish Exile 3. Conflagrations and cockroaches, what more could one want?

      • malkav11 says:

        He also made a number of gameplay changes – fewer characters, a lot fewer spells, some entire spell categories went away, etc – that I was not a big fan of at the time, though I adjusted.

        • Niko says:

          By the way, the Exile series is available for free now on Spiderweb’s site. Doesn’t seem to run on Windows 7 64-bit, though, but works fine on 32-bit version.

    • frightlever says:

      … or just throw him Starbucks money for a game that’ll soak up a couple of hundred hours of your time.

  3. Sunjammer says:

    Exile 2 on the Mac was my first “real” RPG love affair. Still absolutely adore that game.

  4. qrter says:

    Jeff Vogel’s games are excellent, I have to say.

  5. killias2 says:

    I had my first experience with Spiderweb last year with Avernum Escape from the Pit…

    And I enjoyed it thoroughly. I loved Skyrim, but I somehow put more time into Avernum than Skyrim (57 hours into the former!). It’s still not Dark Souls (100 hours), but that puts it at the second most time consuming RPG experience I’ve had in year and years.

  6. Stillquest says:

    Ah, Spiderweb. Wonderful, wonderful games. Pity that Jeff keeps remaking Exile/Avernum instead of creating new games full-time…

  7. Meat Circus says:

    I played both Avadon and Avernum on a fondleslab last year, and both did happy things to my RPG glands.

  8. pupsikaso says:

    I’m immensly curious, does Jeff Vogel live entirely off of the sales of these games or does he have to keep another job at the same time to support his family (does he have a family or alone)?

    Because what this guy does is pretty much a dream life that I envision for myself – making the kind of games that I want, the way I want (as opposed to working for some studio to create games), and being able to make enough to live a normal life.

    Would be nice if anyone knew.

    • qrter says:

      I believe he has been making games fulltime for a long time now – it’s one reason why his games are seen a pricey by some, because they cater to a very particular niche that he estimated would be prepared to pay a little bit more, so he doesn’t need to sell huge amounts to be able to make a (modest) living.

      He wrote a piece about it for Gamasutra, last year – here you go

    • AlexxKay says:

      Vogel has also written about himself on his own web site: http://www.spiderwebsoftware.com/misc/jvogel.html

    • frightlever says:

      Jeff does what anyone can do. He recognises that there is the demand for something.

      Here’s the tricky part. He answers THAT demand.

      (I’m being an ass-hole, sure, that’s what I do, but I am a huge fan of Vogel. He’s so far from perfect that he’d need an eagle to pinpoint it on a map, and yet eagle crap wouldn’t faze him.)

  9. aliksy says:

    I really liked avernum, but avadon left me cold. I disliked how health regenerated for free but mana did not, since that meant the losing HP didn’t matter so long as you didn’t die, but using any skills is a Big Deal. I’d rather use my special powers frequently, and not feel compelled to plan with metagame knowledge.

  10. Aaax says:

    I tried Avadon for about 7 hours, but most of these hours were filled with either patheticaly easy and really boring filler combat or trying to beat bosses that were on the edge of impossible and for me required turning down difficulty to the easiest and using quirky mechanics of combat engine, almost bugs. Story was paced far and between and seemed rather easy to predict (thanks, achievements!). Why is everyone praising this game? If there wasn’t pack of rats in every room and at every bend of corridors game would be 60% shorter and much more enjoyable.

    • arccos says:

      That’s about how I feel, too. The combat doesn’t seem to be all that interesting or tactical. It’s just filler for the most part. And the story is ok, but suffers from the same issues most RPGs do (story beats separated by hours of drudgery, side missions that don’t really matter given by people that just met you, etc.).

    • Isair says:

      Jeff Vogel has written about his opinion on trash mobs here:
      http://jeff-vogel.blogspot.se/2011/02/three-rules-for-difficulty-in-rpgs.html.
      A big problem I have with his games is that I keep learning all the little annoyances in them are actually there by design.

      • arccos says:

        “Observation Three: If a fight has any chance of beating the player, there is a percentage of users who will NEVER be able to beat it.”

        That’s a good point, but it doesn’t really describe any way of fixing the issue. It’s not a hard problem: Allow a player to skip a fight, make it slightly easier each time they retry it, or provide an alternative path if they fail.

        I think the worst thing to do is what he and most game designers do: nothing. They just leave trash mobs in to bore you and stretch out gameplay, and difficult encounters to challenge/frustrate you and make it so you’ll never get beyond that point.

    • InternetBatman says:

      I think Avadon is by far the weakest of their games I’ve played. Try Avernum: Escape from the Pit on normal or easy. If that doesn’t grab you, then you won’t like any of their games.

      • Aaax says:

        Yeah, got the same feeling. After playing Geneforge games for some hours each they seemed a little bit better in this combat aspect. My favourie by far of Jeff’s games was Geneforge 4 with completely non-combat (*wink wink*, Jeff) character, where you really feel like a James Bond. This grasped me for a while, until I got inevitebly to some part that I couln’t figure out how to get through without combat. Still, a blast. Recommended.

        I wish his games had far less combat, tension can be achieved through other means;)

        • MadTinkerer says:

          Even in Geneforge 1 you can get pretty far with a charisma / sneaky-thief combo as long as you have one pumped-up damage sponge critter and plenty of healing skill.

          Geneforge is one of the few RPGs I’ve played where offensive spells are nearly useless as a “plan A” option, because your critters can do the same without wasting “ammo”, but sometimes are a great “last resort” option when you absolutely need to kill a wounded enemy on your turn. Hand to hand combat is even more useless, again, because of your critters. Conversely, a few points in lockpicking is valuable to every build due to points in the skill effectively multiplying the amount of loot you can access. Unless you’ve already memorized exactly which loot is where, you’re going to want to investigate every last corner of the map for things that are valuable for your build, so lockpicking becomes better than melee combat and fire magic.

          It’s no wonder the “fighter type” is considered a “hard” setting in that game. :)

      • dE says:

        Avadon somehow just never clicked with me. The writing was still excellent, it played reasonably well but a couple of hours in I’d lose all interest and go do something else. Thing is, I can’t even explain why. I wasn’t frustrated or bored or disoriented… I just lost interest in it.

        I’ve had a much better time with Avernum and Geneforge.

        • mr.black says:

          Yeah. Similar opinion. Maybe it’s cause Avadon is a bit less crazy out of this world fantasy (so like a Morrowind), and more standard fantasy power struggle (so like Oblivion). Or maybe I’m wrong, but that’s the impression which stuck to me after some year when I played Avadon. Avernum is by far the best imo, the old ones. It somehow managed to successfully combine realistic, scientific, in a way, depiction of magic, magic being just another type of physical force in that world. I loved it and can’t wait Jeff to remake Avernum 3.

  11. Pemptus says:

    Avernum 2. Still the best.

  12. MadTinkerer says:

    Oh wow. That means Spiderweb just beat Origin Systems, Sir-Tech, New World Computing, Interplay, Infocom, SSI, and Westwood Studios for longevity. Three more years and they’ll have lasted longer than fricking Sierra On-Line.

    I’m pretty sure that makes them officially a classic old-school RPG company, not just a company that makes games “in the style of” classic old-school. Congratulations, Jeff!

    EDIT: It does also make one wonder if maybe those companies would not have imploded / sold out if they had drawn a line and said: “Because graphical fidelity requires sacrificing simulation fidelity, this is the maximum amount of graphical fidelity we shall pursue, marketing be damned”. Or just “3D Graphics are for Doom clones. We don’t make Doom clones.”

    Seriously: Jeff Vogel never needed Kickstarter. He did just fine by drawing that line, and he’s now done it longer than those who inspired him. It just makes you think.

  13. InternetBatman says:

    Congratulations! I love Spiderweb’s games. Now please make a new series that isn’t Avadon.

  14. Cryptoshrimp says:

    Man, I love these games. They’re sometimes clunky, but the story is mostly excellent and interesting – especially Geneforge had some great ideas. Avadon was fun, but I felt it lacked a little originality in places.

    I also actually don’t mind how they look at all – it’s a unique style which leaves more to the imagination, which is great in my book. All of Jeff’s games for 30 pounds is a steal, though. Didn’t they used to cost like 30 each?

  15. Haborym says:

    I wish they hadn’t taken out dual wielding, my favorite character in blades of exile was a dude dual wielding flaming swords with the ninja sprite.

    • InternetBatman says:

      It’s still in Avernum: Escape From the Pit and Geneforge. I wouldn’t have been able to beat the game without my absolutely wicked frontline dual-wielder. It’s probably hard to balance though. You basically go from having a useless class at low levels Maybe it’s a game by game kinda thing, because they also kept the insane berserker casters build in.

  16. Vinraith says:

    You’ve got that the wrong way around, the prices Vogel charges on the webstore are much more sensible than the prices Steam is charging. 1000 hours of game for $30. Yeah, that’s sustainable.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      I, for one, am content to purchase his games through his website knowing full well that the money goes to the source.

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      That would only be true if at the time of purchase, you were absolutely sure that you’d see the whole game through. As it is, I own all his games through Steam and bundles, yet I’ve only played through about half of Avernum 1.

      And there’s no reason to see every one of these supposed 1000 hours as having equal value. I’d say that the ones with interesting dialogue or settings are worth more than the many ones spent fighting trash mobs waiting for the next interesting bit. Which is one of the reasons why I’ll gladly pay 12$ for a movie ticket if I expect an incredible 2-hour experience, but I’ll flinch at paying the same amount for a game (another reason is that I buy many, many games but watch few movies).

  17. frightlever says:

    I bought Avadon three times. I played it on iPad. Discuss. (I’m a fan!)

  18. malkav11 says:

    It’s not -all- the games. Steam doesn’t have Avernum 2 or 3. (Though he’ll probably remake those in the next couple years between Avadon releases.)

  19. ZombieJ says:

    Good fun until Wasteland 2 shows up! A bit weak when it comes to the combat gameplay, but the worlds the games exist in are so packed full of stuff to find and little stories to enjoy.

  20. Myrdinn says:

    I really liked Avernum (the last one, 6?) and the first part of Avadon too. Like many people I also lost interest halfway through the game. The Geneforge series always kinda fascinated me though, I heard it had a pretty neat magic system. What would be the best Geneforge game to start with?

  21. razorramone says:

    I spent so many hours playing the Exile 2 Crystal Souls shareware. It was huge.

    I’d like to play another game of his, but there are so many now. Remakes, sequels, remakes of sequels.. where is the best place to start?

  22. wodin says:

    Love him to do a Sci Fi game..

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