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In The Company of Wolves: Celso Riva Interview

Italy’s Winter Wolves strikes me almost as out of time in terms of how devoted they seem to an old school idea of what an indie game is. But what shame is there in that? I thought, seeing that Celso Riva has managed to follow the Shareware model of gaming – finding niches and filling them with games like The Goalkeeper, Magic Stones, Supernova 2 and six currently available others – it’d be worth seeing talking about where he came from, how he managed it and where he plans on taking it yet. And how even the indiest of the indie have their own anti-piracy solutions…

RPS: Could you talk a little bit about your background? Where you from? What did you do before you got into games?

Celso: I’m from Italy, and actually I worked in the games industry for a short period, but for a small Italian software house which is now defunct. I started making adventure games. We had an engine made in VB6 similar to the SCUMM one, even if lot more simplified! Then when the software house closed I had to take a normal boring job in the IT field, but luckily I found out about shareware games in 2003 and decided to give it a try.

RPS: What made you take that step? You only had limited time as a developer, when many successful indies seem to have had more experience to leverage. Why did you do it?

Celso: I worked a few years in a small Italian software house, but surely that experience was nothing comparable to the big companies in UK/USA. When I started making my first game USM, I didn’t even know C. Indeed, I made it in Blitzbasic. I decided to try it because I found the Dexterity forums and the games within, and after reading the Pavlina articles where he was claiming that was possible to make 100k/year with a puzzle game I thought (wrongly) that I could make it too, easily!

Not having several years of work in a big games industry for me wasn’t a disadvantage, at least I didn’t feel it – because shareware is totally different. In modern games often you see LONG unskippable cutscenes and often I wonder why they made them at all! In shareware, you have to capture the player in the first moment of the demos, with an user-friendly interface, simple rules, and most importantly original mechanics and playability – things that seems to have disappeared from the commercial games nowadays.

RPS: What about before you went into the industry at all? As in, what’s your education? What’s your background? Where in Italy did you live?

Celso: I have secondary school education (scientific) but I am not graduated. This to say that you don’t need to be a math genius, neither be an engineer to make games. As I said, I think about games (especially shareware ones) like artworks, and not pure code. I’ve been playing games a lot when was younger: started with Atari 2600, C64, Amiga, then PCs. I live on northern Italy, near Bologna.

RPS: You talk about being disappointed in the mainstream direction of games. What sort of games inspired you?

Celso: I grew up playing the wonderful SSI rpg/wargames (Panzer General, Wake of the Ravager, AD&D series, etc) and the early Sid Meier games. One of my favourite games ever is Darklands for example. Games that didn’t had 15h of FMV inside, but could create more atmosphere with a few well-written paragraphs of texts… so I’d say I am in the “old school” of games. Turnbased wargames, RPG, strategy and such. I moderately like MMORPG, because of the nice rules they have (Everquest series for example), but don’t like the idea of being foced to group or raid, wastes too much time.
I like and play lots of games to be honest, from RTS to FPS, but only if they can capture my interest with good plot or level design (for example I enjoyed Max Payne and Fahrenheit).

RPS: What’s the Italian scene like, for growing up in? Do you see any differences between what you experienced rather than – say – the Americans?

Celso: Well Italian scene is really poor, and is not my opinion. There is no gaming culture, piracy was spread, and there are very few software houses and I must admit I was lucky I found one nearby where I live. I know many talented italian programmers that went in UK, USA or even Japan to work in the mainstream gaming industry. I thought about relocating abroad too to continue working in the game development industry, just before finding out about shareware.

RPS: Earlier you talked about talking about “discovering” Shareware… how did you discover it? What was the moment you thought – Hey! I could have a crack at this…

Celso: Well I already knew about shareware, but mostly the professional programs. Sure, I saw some shareware games (the famous ones by Apogee for example) but I thought that they would sell 0, only because they weren’t my kind of game (most were action/platform).

Then I read Dexterity forums, and there I met Patrice Krysztofiak, who is running Phelios website. He was making shareware games for a living already since few years, so that was the most important step. You know, they say that you must be in the right place at the right time: for me, meeting Patrice was probably the key moment of my career so far, since he taught me lots of things (including the C/C++ basics), and also now I had someone clearly telling me that it was actually possible to make money through shareware, a thing I wasn’t really sure before. So that was the moment I decided to try it seriously.

RPS: And the final starting question – what was your plan? Did you have one firm from the start?

Celso: Well no – I just started making the first game that I thought I could make – in practice a Championship Manager clone. I thought about that one because it had no particular gfx requirements (the matches were displayed as texts only) and I thought I could make a similar engine, but faster. The end result was that it was faster, but had lot of less features than the original game. It didn’t sell so well – 10 copies the first month, and then going down…

Then I made an attempt in the casual games with Spin Around but was a failure, so I went back into Sport Simulations with Universal Boxing Manager. I remember I was working on it for 3 months during winter, while outside was snowing, totally unsure about the result. One month after release and with 60 sales (about 2/day) I knew finally it was really possible for me to make some money with shareware games.

I did release 4 sport simulations in 4 years so far, mostly because they were “easier” to make, even if my dream was to make rpg / strategy games, and the games Magic Stones and Supernova 2 are my first attempt in those genre of games.

RPS: You talk about the appeal of original mechanics in games – what sort of original mechanics appeal to you? Also, was it a case of you realising you were off on the wrong foot with trying to do a straight football management game rather than something with its own personality?

Celso: For original mechanics of course I don’t mean “completely original” because that’s really hard to find – but is enough to mix existing gameplay elements in a different way. For example in my game Magic Stones, I tried to mix card-combat games based on avatars already seen in Magic The Gathering, with several rpg elements like character creation, leveling up, inventory with magic items that increase the character skills, quests, and so on.

The principle would be even quite simple, take what works already in other games, and experiments with them. But I know that for commercial games this isn’t always possible, because experimenting something new can lead to results both good and bad. My first Supernova game was an attempt to mix a shoot’em up with a chess game (like the good old Archon 1-2) but was quite disappointing in terms of sales even if got the Apple Staff Pick award when I released it back in January 2005.

About the USM game, yes: trying to copy an already existing successful commercial game is one of the most basic errors a shareware developer should avoid. Even USM2, which is really good and has many features, still didn’t work well as my other more original games.

RPS: Which of your games are you particularly pleased with? How do you decide what games to make – you focus on niches, clearly, but what makes you hone in on one?

Celso: Well there are 2 games I am really fond of. The first is Universal Boxing Manager because was the first one to sell in a decent way, and because I updated it through the course of those years with new features, based on users feedback I got in my forums. The other is Magic Stones, the rpg card game, because I think is really an original idea and I love both fantasy (celtic in this case) settings and roleplaying games in general.

About how I decide what games to make, I really get ideas in the most various way: while playing other games (I think: “what if they added this other element? could this work?”) or while doing completely different things like gardening or walking in the woods. I had the idea of using celtic setting in Magic Stones after I watched a tv documentary about them, and the same night I started to think about a game to make while I was in bed. Was so excited about the idea that barely slept, and the morning after I woke up at 6 to write down the main storyboard of the game!

Usually I have 2-3 game ideas running at same time: I write some prototypes then I decide, playing them, which one could be more fun either to program and to play it, because in practice I make games I want to play myself.

RPS: What sort of advice would you give to someone trying to follow your route? You talked about taking on a game which already is well served in the mainstream – What mistakes do people make?

Celso: The main advice is: don’t think to get into shareware to work less than a regular job! Actually, I work 10h a day (even if I take some days off), and had my last holiday 4 years ago! Also, where are you from? it might seems strange, but your nationality is very important: for someone living in poor countries, $100/month could be enough to live, so that makes a big difference vs someone living in expensive places like UK or Europe in general.

Also, I think the most important skill needed to succeed is perseverance. It took me 3 games before making one that was selling. Others make a game that sell at first time: then their second doesn’t met their expectation, and so the third – this doesn’t mean they should give up, but it is really impossible to know if a game will do well or not because there are too many factors in play. The first year I went in shareware (2004) I made 4 games (Spin Around, Universal Boxing Manager, Quizland, The Goalkeeper) and I’m glad I made so many, because I was able to learn many different aspect of marketing having several games, and also started to build traffic for my site.

A mistake people do is aiming to make the BIG game as their first. I seriously think that working on a game for 1+ years is a wrong strategy, because if you fail, you have wasted all your chances (and time) in one shot. It’s better to make several smaller-scale games, because what counts is the idea and the gameplay mechanics.

RPS: Are their any other indie developers you especially admire?

Celso: Well Cliff Harris of Positech for the kind of games he makes (even if recently he turned a bit too much on the casual side!) and Spidweb, because is one of the few shareware programmers that make RPG and Exile was one of the first shareware games I’ve ever played with interest.

RPS: Obvious question. What are your current and future plans? What’s next, sir?

Celso: Well at the moment I have 4 projects running. Planet Stronghold is a sort of Simcity meets Tower Defense that will use same wargame engine as Supernova 2, then I have Tower of Destiny (classic dungeon crawler RPG), a Princess Maker game and another card-rpg game.

Those last 2 could be made to be played online-only. While I don’t like that idea very much, is actually one step I think many indies and non-indies will be forced to take in the short future. It means savegame will be stored on game server, so player could resume playing the game anywhere and anytime without worrying about backups, and more importantly would eliminate the piracy that is seriously damaging the pc scene nowadays. If I can implement such system I think I would even be able to reduce my games prices, since there wouldn’t be the piracy problem anymore.

RPS: Actually, that’s really interesting. What’s people response been like to it? Why did you decide to try the route?

Celso: Well to be honest right now is just an idea, an experiment I want to try. Worse case I can revert back to normal offline savegame. I decided to try this route in one of my future games (probably later this year) because honestly I’m a bit tired of seeing some honest people paying, and others getting away with the same game for free. I lose money everyday because of this, and also all the freeloaders consume server bandwidth just to download the demo to use their cracks, which damages me even more. It’s a matter of survival, really: I don’t like particularly the idea, but probably will need to implement it soon, if I want to keep making this job to live.

People’s response (of honest customers) I think could be good actually. I often talk with other devs which are skeptical about this. But if you think about it, who doesn’t have a permanent internet connection nowadays? everyone has it, and those who don’t, aren’t probably likely to know about your game or buy it either! Another argumentation was that if my company goes bankrupt and the server taken offline, players wouldn’t be able to play my games anymore. That can be easily solved releasing an offline version for free in the remote case I should go bankrupt (but I have no intentions).
Also big companies like Steam are going to use that in the near future (have their games even the single-player ones going online only). I see nothing weird or problematic for the end user, and actually only advantages since a reduction/elimination of piracy could bring back more companies making games again for the PC, making continuous updates to the games, and so on.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Winter Wolves’ games and demos are available from their site.

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Kieron Gillen


Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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