Tooth and Cog came to my attention just over a week ago. I dug through the cogs and gears of its steampunk backstory, impressed by the decadence of rust, and discovered words that filled me with curiosity. Those words described a strategy game set in the ruins of a metropolis brought low by technological mishaps, but fascinating as the setting is, it was Riveting Games' analysis of multiplayer turn-based strategy that convinced me to contact them for more information. I spoke to Lead Developer and Game Designer Kerey Roper about militarised penny farthings, reconciling turn-taking with multiplayer and why mandatory backstabbing can be unpleasant.
RPS: Hello! Could you tell us a little about Tooth and Cog’s backstory. The images and words on the campaign page remind me of a thousand things I love.
Roper: Sam did a fantastic job of painting a picture with his words, and Anthony and Nathan have been doing great on the visual side. Now I guess it's my turn to give my take on the world we are creating.
Basically it's a steampunk world centered around a giant metropolis called the Old City where overzealous technological progress goes terribly awry! Much finger pointing ensues, and the survivors fragment into several factions, and the unassociated refugees. As a player, you are the leader of one of these factions, and you are seeking to rebuild society and uncover the secrets that are buried beneath the rubble. And while you're at it, you may as well profit a bit from the chaos, right? Or perhaps you'd prefer a more altruistic approach?
RPS: And if you could briefly describe what kind of game you have chosen to set in this world, that’d be great.
Roper: We are creating a multiplayer-first turn based strategy game. Our key discovery is that the turn resolution systems used to date in most popular turn based strategy games make for great single player, but poor multiplayer.
RPS: When did you form the company and what made you decide to pick Tooth and Cog as your first project?
Roper: Legally we formed Riveting Games in October 2012, but we were working full time on Tooth and Cog without any formal structure full time since about July 2012. Before that was sort of an interesting time in my life; I had recently quit my software engineering job at Amazon and had been playing around with a bunch of different startup ideas, not limited to the world of games by any means. After failing to formulate any viable business plans with some oddball ideas, I really just needed a project to work on. And what better than the area that got me so passionate about coding at the age of 13 - game development.
I started playing around with Unity and working through some game design ideas, when I realized I was not really happy with turn based strategy multiplayer. Now it was just a matter of forming the right team and pitching the idea to them. So after a few phone calls with some old friends, Sam and Nathan joined the team and we started cracking away. Nathan's dad is a serious steampunk fanatic and general maker of wonderful gadgets, and I've been sort of watching the scene from the outside for a bit with a lot of interest, so that's how we settled on the theme. I was also a bit bored with space and historical contexts and wanted something with more creative freedom, and as I got more into the steampunk community in Seattle, I found a very welcoming and fun-loving crowd that doesn't take themselves too seriously.
RPS: How much will the lore and world-building inform the mechanics and structure of the game?
Roper: We are always trying to reconcile gameplay decisions with the world we are creating. For example, for the time scale, does birth or pure unit creation really make much sense? Maybe not, so we handle unit growth via courting refugees instead. However, if there is a mechanic decision that is fun, and one that makes better sense in the game world but isn't fun, we will obviously favor the fun approach. It's a game after all.
The lore also lends itself nicely to creative unit design. Penny farthings are fun and all, but Doom Farthings with gatling guns? Awesome. At least I think so. So far we haven't gotten any takers at our $10k pledge level to have us build one for real though. There are also epic machines that you can build that will unlock special technologies or gameplay mechanics.
RPS: Militarized penny-farthing gangs sound dapper and fearsome – will those sort of chaps act somewhat like wandering mobs or barbarians in other 4X games?
Roper: That would be really cool! In our current Alpha though, NPCs are quite boring as we don't have any proper AI. You simply walk on their tile and they join your faction without complaint, though we are obviously hoping to do better than this.
RPS: The setting sounds like the sort of thing I’d like to explore and your pitch recognises the importance of exploration and discovery. I reckon that uncovering a fascinating map (randomised or not) is one of gaming’s great joys. How will Tooth and Cog’s maps tickle my fancy?
Roper: This one is a bit of an interesting dilemma. On one hand, does it really make sense from the game world perspective to have all this technology, but not a single map escape the catastrophe, and have everyone suffer mass-amnesia (as if that's not overused in games..) as far as what the world looks like? But on the other hand, exploring terrain is one of my favorite parts of 4X early game. I can see some room for venturing into the barbarian lands or the great wilderness at least I suppose. However, we are putting other discovery mechanics in place around artifacts that will allow you to make great technological leaps and build epic machines. So while we don't have pure map exploration right now, I hope that we can at least capture the appeal of exploration in other ways.
RPS: Will it be possible to play with AI opponents as well as other players, or will the number of factions be limited to those controlled by people?
Roper: At our $40k target we are not including AI or a single player story, but that sounds like a wonderful stretch goal! (hint hint)
RPS: You’ve written a little about the game’s ‘simultaneous player turns’ and I gather that there are two main benefits – less wasted time and the possibility of orders being interrupted or defied. Let’s talk about the latter first. You want the player to feel like a general rather than a god, right?
Roper: Yes, that is exactly correct, and uncertainty is really an accidental side-effect of trying to correct the pacing of current approaches to turn-based games. So far in our testing, this side-effect turns out to be a ton of fun!
RPS: You identify the waiting between turns and the lack of activity in many turns as a core problem with Civ multiplayer. How will Tooth and Cog aim to remedy that?
Roper: There are a couple things here. The first is to decouple the wait time from the number of players in the game as discussed above via Diplomacy-style turn resolution. The second thing we did was look at why turns vary so much in play length from early to late game for most turn-based strategy. We found that, not surprisingly, it was primarily due to unit count escalation (and then de-escalation if you are on the losing end of a war.) We then took a step back and re-evaluated what a unit was. By making a unit more dynamic in terms of composition as opposed to something that takes 2 turns to build and never changes, we actually can make the unit count stay reasonably close to a fixed number. I will definitely have to do a full writeup on this as a Kickstarter update at some point.
RPS: I was speaking to the lead designer of another strategy game recently and he said that ‘respecting the player’s time’ was one of the most important lessons he’d learned. Ensuring that they have interesting things to see every turn and that every choice is meaningful. How do you avoid campaigns settling into a predictable pattern?
Roper: That advice is spot on. Unfortunately as far as execution goes, there is no silver bullet here. First of all, different players will have different preferences as far as what they find fun and what they grind through to meet larger objectives. No game will please everyone in every aspect of gameplay, so it's really a matter of figuring out what your target audience enjoys, maximizing the time they spend doing that, and minimizing the time they spend on other tasks. A good UI can go a long way towards this goal too.
As far as predictability goes, playing against human players will help with that, and we will work hard to balance the gameplay as well to create variety.
RPS: I actually quite enjoy Civ multiplayer (five at the moment) but I think you’re right about its flaws. It works best for me as a strictly competitive game rather than an experience to savour. Is the drive for victory at the heart of Tooth and Cog, or do you hope for an ebb and flow? Can the experience of falling behind be enjoyable?
Roper: To be fair, I haven't yet played Brave New World, and I think they fixed a fair number of multiplayer problems there, but definitely not all of them from reading the description of the changes. I still think there is plenty of room in the market for our approach, especially considering that to shoehorn all of our solutions into Civ would be a radical departure from the style of play that was set in place over two decades ago to make a great single player game.
I'm personally interested in the competitive elements of Tooth and Cog, but my co-designer Sam is more of a sandbox and creation type of player. Hopefully as a result, we can make both audiences happy and have a wonderful multi-dimensional gameplay experience where there is no single path to victory.
RPS: You mention the ‘mandatory backstabbing’ in Diplomacy as a flaw, citing the lack of a team victory. How does Tooth and Cog handle teams and, indeed, backstabbing?
Roper: We actually haven't settled on a single solution for this problem yet. I want to reemphasize the goal of having team victory though, and hopefully whatever we come up with will work towards that. One sort of boring solution is to have fixed teams, but I hope we have time to do better since proper diplomacy and backstabbing can indeed be quite entertaining in the right context. I just hate to have backstabbing shoved down my throat as the only way of winning.
RPS: Finally, what is the importance of Kickstarter, both to your own project and to the wider world of artistic endeavour?
Roper: Well, for our project the answer is pretty easy. Failing to meet our goal will at a minimum lead to delays to seek out alternative funding instead of working on the game, and at worst lead to cancellation of Tooth and Cog if the numbers reveal that we can't attain the critical mass of players required to make a multiplayer-centric game fun. Let's make sure it doesn't come to that.
To answer your second question, Kickstarter is a great way of reaching out to niche audiences to fund projects that would not have been possible in the past. You no longer need to have a huge fanbase or captive local audience (or go hungry) to create something new, and this is truly wonderful for the so-called long tail of artistic endeavors.
I would also like to recognize the importance of sites like Rock, Paper, Shotgun for helping readers and fans make sense of all the noise that is entailed in the whole crowdfunding scene. Thank you for providing me with this opportunity to share my message, and I hope your readers find what I have to say interesting. Sam and I will be available to answer questions people may have.
Tooth and Cog's Kickstarter campaign has eighteen days left on the clock.