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Pitchforked Tongue: Davis On Sol Infernum

I wish RPS had a sexy throne.

RPS’ War In Hell is over. The ruler has been decided. But the real ruler of hell remains – and he’s Vic Davis. He’s Cryptic Comet, and between Solium Infernum and his previous Armageddon Empires, he’s positioned himself as the most interesting strategy computer game designer in years. We thought it the perfect time to catch up, discover how Solium Infernum is doing, ask about the seemingly divisive pricing as well as uncover the first real details on his next game…

This dude really is very ugly.

RPS: Demons. Backstabbing. Open malice. Cruelty. How autobiographical is Solium Infernum?

You would need to talk to my wife. I probably rate a Lemure in the domestic hierarchy. She is a university professor and knows how to twist every rule, bend every word and go bare knuckles in the faculty meetings with the best of them. I always thought she would have made a good lawyer (barrister). And as Solium Infernum clearly demonstrates, Hell is all about rules. I’m a saint by the way.

RPS: Just as a general development question – how did you find making it. Armageddon Empires was the first game, so you carried experience to here. What were the major tripping points?

My inability to rein in the scope creep was probably the biggest hurdle. And I naively thought that I would have a head start by using a lot of the tools, techniques and design patterns that I had built for Armageddon Empires (AE). It was helpful of course to have AE as a base to work from but since Solium Infernum (SI) was such a different game in some respects, especially the multi-player aspects, I had to start from scratch in a lot of areas…or worse start over several times.

I love the design aspects as do most if not all indies. The problem is of course that you have to actually execute the design and that is a tremendous amount of drudge work….building architecture, building menus, hooking everything up, testing, failing, testing, etc. Sure there are pay offs as your “monster” comes to life but there is a lot of tedium…I hope I’m not coming off too negative. I’m still having a bit of postpartum depression obviously.

RPS: The theme – I remember when it was announced, there were a couple of people on forums saying they’d never play a game set in hell. I, of course, would only choose to play games set in hell, given the choice. Have you noticed anything along those lines when the game comes out.

I can’t honestly say that I have although I’m sure that there are some people who are going to take a pass because of the theme and I understand that completely. I wasn’t intending to offer any religious or theological commentary or subtext. As I said before my biggest influence was Milton’s Paradise Lost and the many hours I looked in wonderment at the Paladin in Hell picture in the old D & D player’s handbook. It was simply too cool a setting to pass up.

Oh, fuck off back to the abyss, Descarbi. You're bloody useless.

RPS: As Quinns always notes, Solium Infernum is packed full of ideas and novel approaches. What most pleased you, in terms of how it came out? My personal favourite is the simple divorcing of terrain from production, which works brilliantly.

Yes, that’s one of my favorites as well. I also quite like the way the diplomacy worked out. The whole genesis of that is quite interesting. I had been tinkering with a design for a grand strategy space conquest type game. I always thought that what was missing from games like Master of Orion and Galactic Civilizations was the idea of operational planning. Not that those games don’t have that but it always occurs as an internal monologue in the player’s mind. I wanted to make it explicit in the game play and have players have to create operational orders that took multiple turns to be completed and then when finally finished the designated forces could head off to their target planet for a raid, assault, etc. The idea was that you couldn’t just get it into your head one turn that fleet X should jump over to some neighboring empire’s planet and capture it…you had to plan and follow some set of rules to get that to happen and the intention and planning actually existed on the game board and not just in the player’s mind. And an added bonus was that opponents could discover this information and either act on it or try to disrupt it. So out of this was born the Conclave rules and threat order list for Solium Infernum.

RPS: Flipping that around, what’s your least favourite part of the design?

Err, I think its biggest flaw is that it just works too hard.

Seriously though, if I could do it again I think I would try to find a different way for the players to make their resource base decisions. Right now, you have to make a decision on just how high you want to raise your Diabolism power to determine the strength of your resource base. So when you go to determine your starting position by creating your Avatar you find that Charisma, which determines your base Diabolism power level, is not just like all the other attributes. This broken symmetry has tended to cause a lot of consternation among some players. They understandably want to be free to spend their points but they feel like they have to put some into Charisma….and they do of course. You have a choice of 0 (bad), 1 (not so good), 2 (pretty good) and 3 (nice and closer to really nice). You have to spend “Fiend Points” to make this decision on how strong your base should be at the start of the game so that means you can’t spend them on something else that you might like. You could make a decent argument that 2 is the best choice and that you have to go there to be competitive. Like the choose a rank dynamic I find this process interesting because the “value” of your choice really depends on what the other players do. If everybody picks 0 then there really isn’t a problem…as you are all what an outsider would consider gimped….but not really since you are all the same. But this type of game theory doesn’t go over well with players I have found. Many feel that you are being forced to spend the points. It’s a prisoner’s dilemma of a sort. I could raise all the choices up a notch in efficacy (and make them all go to 11) but then the middle choice would probably still appear to be the best choice/sweet spot and the game theory component still remains. No body wants to be the guy who didn’t defect and still holding the bag. And the illusion of no choice still remains to bother a lot of players.

Yes, he does indeed look somewhat like a glans.

RPS: How’s Solium Infernum actually doing, in terms of sales? Matching expectations? How is it different, it being primarily an MP game versus a only-SP process? Noticed any trends there?

It’s doing well and I’m hoping that it will eventually at least reach the same sales milestones that AE reached. The pace of sales is actually way ahead of AE but I’m certain that’s because I have built up a fan base of a sort and more people know about my games. I won’t know for a while how the MP vs. SP label works out. These games are niche though. I’m a boutique game company. Boutique probably describes me better than indie.

RPS: When we’re on the topic… the price. There’s been a trend across the last couple of years of Indie games’ being violently discounted, or even games released for a handful of dollars. Why have you gone the opposite way? My presumption was that you see yourself as a niche product more akin to hex-based wargames, who don’t traditionally alter prices in such a way. Am I on the right track?

Yes, that’s pretty much it. The economic calculus is pretty straight forward and rational. My games are complex and require a serious commitment to learn the rule set and intricacies of play. I don’t expect to get any business from casual players and my price probably drives away some of those who fall in the middle. But there are reasons you don’t see a lot of turn based strategy games rolling out on the PC every month. One of them is that there just isn’t the demand for them anymore at least compared to the demand for other genres. I do think that if you compare my price of $29.99 to what my competitors offer for similar experiences you will find that it is a pretty good deal.

The irrational side of the equation is that I value my work and have a huge emotional investment in it. I’ve spent years making these games and they are not just a commodity for me. I would honestly rather go out of business then see them in the digital bargain bin for $4.99. If you run a real company with employees then you can’t have that attitude.

RPS: Actually, one of the things I noticed was that it seemed to have birthed a disproportionate number of AARs (“After Action Reports”, like our game-write up – Ed) for an indie strategy game. I’d take it as evidence of the game provoking a rich internal dialogue in a player, which makes it easy to write about. And the theme helps. This has got to be satisfying, yes?

Yes, very satisfying actually. Undoubtedly Hell is an intriguing place that has a real hold on the human imagination. I think the fact that you can play against other humans really boosts the narrative as well. As much as you want to impute cognitive intent to the actions of an AI opponent, there is always a layer of detachment where you know it’s just a bunch of algorithms crunching away. I also think the game design with some of its euro-style mechanics makes for agonizing decision making in some cases and that’s the stuff that provides the grist for the narrative mill….the road not taken or the decision that led to disaster…that type of thing.

I wish I never got these guys killed. They were awesome. Sad face.

RPS: You’ve got magnificent things from Director, but I’ve seen people argue you should actually try and start with a more powerful language. Are you tempted to step back and give it a shot? If you did, what route would you take. If you don’t… well, what makes you decide that you won’t?

My plan right now is to see about getting another game or two out with the tech base that I have developed using Director and then go and explore learning another development environment. Director is really not that bad actually. Many of the problems are attributable to me and my lack of programming skills, imagination or initiative. You know how it is. You tend to get comfortable in certain ruts. I can’t compete with other gaming companies by offering great visuals and I’m a bit of a hermit so I’m probably not going to be hiring a programmer (which I couldn’t afford at this point anyway.) It would probably be best to rein expectations in by posting a picture of my home office on my website and saying something like “This is where Cryptic Comet games are made…adjust your expectations accordingly.”

RPS: You’ve talked about a mini-expansion for Solium Infernum. Any idea what it’ll include?

Yeah, I have been exploring a couple of avenues for adding some new features and mechanics. It’s pretty fluid right now as I have some ideas that need to really be tested out before I commit to them and some others that aren’t revolutionary but will hopefully add some additional ways for players to interact.

One idea that I am toying with is the idea of “Curses” which would directly affect different prestige aspects of the game. For example you could “Curse” a player’s Place of Power or Relic and instead of granting prestige each turn it would actually subtract it for a set duration of turns.

I’ll most likely have some additional relics, artifacts and praetors to play around with.

RPS: In your plans for 2010, you’ve mentioned “Project Rogue Expedition: I am designing a strategy adventure game. My core design goals are to foster a fun sense of exploration and push your luck decision making”. Any chance of teasing anything else about in that? Presumably, this is returning to a single-player focus of Solium Infernum, but… well, it seems very different. Am I wrong by looking at those sentance and thinking that it’ll be a non-traditional representation of adventuring? More management than close-tactical-control? Or am I just desperately grasping?

You’re pretty close on target. You will have a map and a mission (you will be able to select from several) and the goal will be to explore the map (randomly generated paths) and manage your risk vs. your reward and push yourself at the same time to complete your mission. As you travel over the map you will have to overcome “challenges” which require you to use your stats, items, allies, special move type cards etc. I’m working on some neat mechanics here that are sort of like a card game in that you have a base set of rules and then look for ways to change and manipulate the rules. You will have to make hard choices on how you want to approach the challenges given your strategic situation on the map and the status of your mission. It will be single player primarily. I’m exploring some ways to make a meta game component but my primary focus is on single player. As I was working on SI, I found that I really missed the exploration aspect of Armageddon Empires. It just didn’t fit in with the design of SI and my idea was that new things showing up in the “Bazaar” would compensate a little for that “What is behind door #1” feeling that I like in my games.

But with Rogue Expedition I have the chance to play around with a lot of the rogue-like concepts and see what I can do. So a big part of the game will be exploration. I want it to play like a board game as well…so although you have a “character” with stats and an inventory I am going to keep those aspects tight and focused. Hopefully it will force tough “push your luck” type decisions on the player. I’m also hoping that players will get the sense of a “creating their own story” type of experience. I don’t want to talk about the theme quite yet but it might include a fedora hat.

I can't remember what Quinns did with these.

RPS: Just to ask – the AI. Could you explain why it’s so tricky to get working in Solium Infernum as opposed to another strategy game?

I think there are a bunch of reasons. Some of them have to do with the complexity of the rule set and some of them have to do with player psychology…and some have to do with the approach that I took.

The rules are fairly complex and the AI has to follow the same rules that the players do…it has to bid on legions and manage its resources and decide when to demand tribute and what to pick based on the goals it is pursuing. The structured diplomatic system despite seeming like it might help the AI actually makes it more difficult because you can’t just hammer away at a chosen opponent…..you have to be smart about the diplomatic dance and track who you want to engage and plan for that…and planning is really hard for an AI….tracking past and present states and then trying to select the best goals to satisfy the desired diplomatic moves is tough….at least for me when I approached it. I also used a roulette wheel approach to picking goals in many cases….some special cases mean automatic selection like responding to a Vendetta but in general there is a stochastic element to selecting goals based on what is in a pool of possibilities and the weights assigned to each candidate in the pool…getting that all to work right isn’t easy.

The psychological aspects are even more daunting. Just how should an AI actually play?

The initial AI was perceived as being very passive. Many of the archetypes that determine how the AI plays were what I call “turtles” which focused on doing their own thing to get to a win condition and were not really interested in demanding and insulting all the time. I found out that human players pretty much expect all opponents to hassle them. If they are just sitting there trying to assemble a Machine from tribute cards then that isn’t very entertaining. I’ve had to completely rethink how I thought an AI should play.

I got an email from a tester in one of the PBEM games that I am running from the original beta testers…it’s been going on since November since I am so slow as a host primarily due to my focus on fixing bugs and improving the game…errr, actually I’m a lousy host. But the email was asking whether one of the players was actually an AI since he had made some pretty inconsistent choices over the course of the game and he had a name that an AI might have. I had to explain that the player was a human since the game was human only. I’d been very passive myself in the game as well and was trying a turtle/steal from the leaders type of strategy and also trying to sabotage them during their Vendettas to keep myself in the prestige game…that wasn’t going to well needless to say. I’d wager that if I hadn’t chosen an unusual name that he would have thought I was an AI as well.

So the short of it is that it’s a tough problem to solve and expectations are difficult to manage. Is it Deep Blue and you might as well concede on your opening move? No hardly. It does make some goofy mistakes and it still has big areas for improvement especially in dealing with things like excommunicated players and blood feuds and secret objectives, and well you get the point. But I would argue that it is still entertaining for a good chunk of players and that was my goal.

If in doubt, blast 'em from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

RPS: You mentioned you read the diary series. Was there any particular bit you wanted to grab a player and say DO THIS? YOU’RE GOING TO SCREW UP? MAN! DO IT PROPERLY?

I thought you guys did a great job of groking the rules pretty quickly and caught on to the nuances as well….like if you have bunch of Kleptos who have gone Deceit then the vault is your friend and you need to move your artifacts and praetors out only when you need to.

I did get a good laugh though when you guys would write stuff like this:

Seeing everyone get in a fight with Scrofula, I throw a mild insult at him. Surely he won’t want to fight me too?

This proves to be a misreading of Scrofula’s character.

And This:

So I write a mail to Quinns, explaining this. Don’t crush me. I’m the only one who can kill Speedo. You’re risking a win on revenge, man. Yeah, I almost engineered your destruction with a few well-chosen e-mails. Yes, I’m your mortal enemy. But I’m the only person who can help you win. I send it off and sigh. Scrofula and I sit discussing it. Will he accept? He’s got to. I mean, I would.

Misdjudging character is really what this game is all about….and I could almost hear the reading audience groan collectively when you guys would go….”Surely, he wouldn’t do X, which would really screw me over….” or “Surely he would do X, I mean that’s what I would do….well I mean not in the past but I would do that now.” Those were some of the best parts of the diaries.

RPS: I like the bits where Quinns doesn’t have any Iron. But that’s a different diary. Thanks for your time.

Solium Infernum can be bought from Cryptic Comet’s site. There’s also an available demo. As previously reported, at the time of writing, Vic has an offer on for RPS readers. The discount code is BNEO000B9 which will save five dollars off the RRP and is valid until the 29th of January. If you take the plunge, there’s a busy forum at Cryptic Comet for arranging games or an RPS Steam Group – Rock Paper Satan – if you fancy playing RPS’ community.

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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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