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Depths of Peril: Steven Peeler Interview

I've ranted about Depths of Peril before, last year's premier Indie RPG (Or so Indie Tunnel say anyway, and I agree with 'em). That it came from Steven Peeler, who previously worked at Ritual and was best-known for his action games may be a surprise. After reading the interview, it won't be. We talk about his roots, his decade-plus nagging desire to create an RPG and the problems which he overcame making the game that's to the Diablo action-RPG what STALKER is to the FPS. Except far closer to what STALKER promised than what we received...

RPS: You were previously Technical Director at Ritual, but what made you decide to go indie?

Steven Peeler:I decided to go indie for a bunch of reasons. Many of them are pretty common to other indies. I was tired of publishers having all of the control, I wanted to do my own thing, and was tired of office politics. I also really wanted to work on an RPG and Ritual was never going to be able to create one (goes back to the publisher control thing).

RPS: Did you weigh any other options up?

Steven:I actually did think about other options. There are a lot of other developers in Dallas, but none of them really offered what I wanted to do. Most of the developers in the Dallas area create first person shooters (thanks to id and 3D Realms). I also didn’t really want to move out to California where most developers seem to be these days.

RPS: You also worked at communication-company Nortel before deciding to move into development - what made you realise games was for you?

Steven: I have nothing against Nortel since it was a good place to work, but it was boring. Telecommunications isn’t exactly the most exciting of fields and doing anything in a company of 70,000 people takes forever. Personally I like designing and programming, but at Nortel, most of my time was spent writing documents, going to meetings, and testing. I worked on three different game prototypes/engines while working at Nortel. I think that says something.

RPS: Then you left to form a start-up. How did that go? What made you pack it in to join Ritual?

Steven: The first startup that I worked at (way back in 1997 or so), basically died because we didn’t have any experience in the industry. I think we were capable of designing and programming a game, but we really had no way to get enough quality art work done and more importantly we really had no chance to ever impress a publisher enough to get a publishing deal. So eventually the other owner and myself both got jobs within the industry. BTW, for upcoming developers, this is the best way to get a job in the industry. Making a cool demo makes it a lot easier to break into the industry.

RPS: What sort of game were you working on back then?

Steven: We were working on an RPG of course. It’s too bad we never got the game to the market. It would have been cool. Some of the more interesting things about that game were that anyone could setup their own server, you could customize the world quite a bit, and you could link different.servers together to form larger worlds. It would have been interesting to see what zones people setup and how they got hooked up together.

RPS: Talking about Soldak, what's your set-up, in terms of staff? You're the sole programmer and designer on Depths, according to the credit, but there's a lot of art staff. Is this a distributed development team or... well, what? And how does it work for you?

Steven: I’m actually the only full-time person at Soldak. Everyone else are contractors that work from various places around the globe. The number of people in the credits is actually a bit misleading since some people had huge contributions and some of the others had very little. So far our setup has worked fairly well. We have a bunch of good people working on our projects and we have very little overhead. This allows us to not be dependant on publisher money and not go out of business if we spend too long between contracts. This is something that is unfortunately very common in this business.

RPS: As a dual designer/programmer you must have an enormous amount of control over your game. What's it like? How does liberating did it feel?

Steven: It’s nice being both a programmer and designer because the programmer knows exactly what the designer wants and the designer knows what he can get away with and what he can’t. I’ve been in this role many times before though. While I wasn’t the lead designer on any games at Ritual, I did a good bit of the design work on the areas that I worked on.

This isn’t really what gives me all of the control though. It’s the fact that I’m the only designer/programmer and I don’t have to answer to a publisher. This is great. I can make whatever type of games that I want and it doesn’t have to be a proven format. I can experiment. I can create things that are new. I can mix and match different genres to create something cool that isn’t from an established genre. I also don’t have other people constantly telling me to add features for dumb reasons like some other game in the genre had the feature (even if it sucked in that game also).

RPS: Depths of Peril: It's an obvious question to ask first, I know, but where did the idea of it come from? How long have you wanted to do something like this? Why did you decide it should be Soldak's first game?

Steven: Well I’ve wanted to create an RPG for ages. Soldak’s first game simply had to be an RPG, because I had to make one. For any other upcoming developers I wouldn’t suggest making an RPG as your company’s first product however. They tend to be way more complicated than you realize. Of course, part of this was deciding not to make a simple clone. Even though I’ve wanted to make an RPG for ages, I didn’t think of some of the key things for Depths of Peril until shortly after I left Ritual. Exactly what RPG I have wanted to do changes depending on what exactly the circumstances are: like what engine is available, the game’s budget, what the distribution will be, etc. For example, not too long before I left Ritual I pitched an RPG that would have been very tense, as scary as possible, and first person. In other words, it would have been nothing like Depths of Peril.

I don’t think I even remember where all of the ideas came from for Depths of Peril. I just wanted something that was fundamentally different than other action RPGs. I didn’t want to create just another clone. I think I decided to add multiple factions fighting each other first and the dynamic world followed because it just made sense. I mean what happens if you have a static world and an enemy covenant goes and kills one of the bosses? It seemed to me that the world needed to be dynamic or I was going to have to make the covenant’s not really impact the world any. So like I said it just made sense.

RPS: So you've always loved RPGs. What sorts? Which ones were a formative influence on you? What's so great about the genre, for you?

Steven: I have played way too many RPGs over the years to remember them all. Off the top of my head here are some of the more memorable games for me (but in no meaningful order): Tunnels of Doom (TI-94A), Gauntlet, both Diablo games, World of Warcraft, lots of different Rogue games, the Might & Magic series, the Wizardry series, different Gold Box games, and Temple of Elemental Evil. As is fairly common with guys my age, this all started by playing D&D though.

RPS: The sort of interactive-faction, agents-in-world approach to games is brilliant and strikes me as profitable in terms of experience, but it's not one which is explored compared to more on-rails scripted approach. Why do less developers, especially mainstream ones, decide to pursue it? What especially appeals to you with it?

Well I can think of one main reason why this isn’t done very often. It’s much harder to create than an on-rails story game, especially when it comes to testing. You know exactly what players are going to do when the player is on-rails, so you know what to expect. With interactive factions and a dynamic world just about anything can happen, so you as the developer have much less control. I think this scares a lot of developers (for good reason).

To me though, a more dynamic game simply creates a much cooler atmosphere, more depth, and a lot of replayability.

RPS: What challenges did you face putting it into action? What sort of advice would you give people trying something similar?

There were a bunch of challenges with getting the factions and dynamic world working. I’ll just talk about a couple of them though.

The first challenge, one that I think a lot of “hybrid” games fail at, was finding a good balance of strategy and action and doing both well. It seems to me, a lot of “hybrid” games end up trying to take too many features from both genres. You tend to end up doing both halves badly and have a big mishmash of random features that don’t work well with each other. In Depths of Peril, we knew we wanted to primarily be an action RPG, so we chose very carefully what strategy elements to include so that all of them enhanced the gameplay and all together created something unique and fun.

The other big challenge which I touched on earlier was testing and fixing bugs. In a linear game, when a game crashes at the first left turn on level 5, it’s most likely because the player did something specific that crashed the game or the game is coded/scripted to do something specific right there. In other words, many times you know what caused the problem and can reproduce it fairly easily. However, when you have multiple factions that are constantly adventuring or raiding one another, monster uprisings, attacks on the town, and many other dynamic things going on in the game world, it is rarely obvious what happened if the game crashes. I’m not saying that linear games are easy to test or debug, but a dynamic game is much harder to track down these things. Depths of Peril however is pretty stable and has fixed most of our bugs a long time ago.

RPS: Was there a magic moment when something happened and you realised "Yes - this is really cool. This is going to work"?

Steven: There probably was a first magic moment, but I’ve forgotten it. It’s gotten lost in all of the other magic moments. The first time I was raided by another covenant that was taking advantage of my mostly empty house because I was raiding someone else, was really cool. The first time I forgot that I was suppose to be testing something specific and played for a couple hours was a pretty good indication the game was coming along well. The first time I ignored an uprising because I thought something else was more important and they decided to attack the town and kill all of the town’s NPCs was just awesome. There have just been lots of them.

RPS: What has the response of the gamers to the game been like?

Steven: I think the response by gamers to Depths of Peril has been great. We have heard from tons of people about how cool and different the game is and how they want more. We even have a bunch of gamers that tell us Depths of Peril is the best game that we have played in years and proceed to tell us how it’s better than particular huge named games that have sold millions of units. So, yes I’m very pleased with the response.

RPS: I see you're currently working on a Mac version of Depths - have you any plans what you want to do next?

Steven: The Mac version of Depths of Peril is actually out now. You can download both Windows and Mac demos. We do have another project that is pretty far along right now, but we aren’t quite ready to talk about it yet. We should be announcing it fairly soon though.

RPS: Excellent news. Thanks for your time. We'll look forward to hearing more. For more information on Depths of Peril, look at Soldak's Site.

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Kieron Gillen


Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.