Jay Kyburz makes ludicrously compelling browser strategy games, and he's just beta-testing another one now. It's called Jupiter's Folly. I had a chat with him about that, which you can read below. He used to work at Irrational, and actually worked on XCOM for a bit. I asked him about that, too. His answer has something to do with Warhammer 40's second edition.
RPS: Tell us about the new game? What's the thinking behind it?
Kyburz: Basically this is another stab at the slow real-time game. We're calling these games real-time online board games because that how we want them to feel. A small group of friends gathered around a game enjoying some simple mechanics. We're not trying to make epic MMO's or deeply emersive RPG's.
Another big influence on me are the classic Micogames from the early 80's. I had heaps of these as a kid. I still really love the super cheesy sci-fi graphics. I suspect Jupiter's Folly is not cheesy enough! I have a copy of Helltank and Car Wars on my desk right now. I really like these small games. ( http://maverick.brainiac.com/cmm/cmm_index.html)
Jupiter's Folly is our next experiment in the real time online board game genre. This time it's a race. A race to mine crystal fast as you can. The first player to reach their quota wins! To make things interesting players can deploy teams of super soldiers to defend their mines or attack and capture the mines of the other players. To keep players on their toes there are also swarms of alien bugs that wander the map looking for something to rip apart. Almost everything you can do in Jupiter's Folly is expressed as a card. You start the game with a small hand of cards and when you play a card it returns to your hand. As the game progresses you will draw more cards and be able to do more things. The more cards you have the more you can do.
Money is the only resource players need to manage. You earn a set amount every 24 hours, but get paid a bonus based on how much crystal you have harvested in the last day. We hope the game will have all the excitement of Neptune's Pride but not be as quite as intimidating. You don't "have" to go to war with your neighbours to win. It helps, but its not the only way.
RPS: What sort of state is it currently in? Are we to expect big changes in the coming weeks?
Kyburz: Probably not huge changes, we'll tweak some of the cards, perhaps add some new ones. I don't think the game is completely broken, we just haven't had a chance to play many games yet so we can't say for sure. I have 2 or 3 games on the go now. We'll know how fun it is in a few weeks time!
Right now the target quota for crystal is only 5000 tones for example. I think this might not be enough because the game ends before you really have to expand into the other players. I'm a few days into 12 player game where we need 3 times that much to see what happens. I also have some concerns that the card mechanics will make it a little difficult to react to other players when they start attacking you. We might need to make combat cards more common so that you can go digging through your deck to draw the cards you need, when you need them. We might just let players sometimes draw any card they think they need.
RPS: What's the payment model this time?
Kyburz: I'm sticking with a system where you can buy a key that unlocks all the premium features for a limited time. We don't call the system a subscription because we'll never automatically charge your credit card, we're not locking people into a month to month deal. We've linked all three games together now so if you pay for one you can play all three.
The whole Internet tells me I should have a virtual currency and charge people for lots and lots of little things. The idea being that some hardcore fans will come along and spend hundreds of dollars buying virtual stuff. I don't like the virtual currency model for a few reasons. ...and I could have a big rant here, but lets just say that I just don't like paying for games that way myself.
RPS: What lessons did you learn making Blight?
Kyburz: There were a few design mistakes in Blight that I wanted to correct in Jupiter's, and now that we have some test games of Jupiter running we'll be going back to fix. I think Blight was a little to big for us and is not yet as polished as it should be. We plan to go back and spend another couple of months on it now, but there is too much "stuff" in there.
The other thing I discovered was that while I like playing pure co-op games, I think I'd need to write a more interesting AI for Blight to be really compelling. Writing AI is hard and time consuming, and when you have other human players to play against it seems like a waste of time. Playing and working with other real people is what I think is the most important thing in a game. Blight just doesn't require much meaningful interaction with the other players.
Perhaps Blight will morph into a kind of team PvP game, one team controlling the zombies, one team holding them back!
RPS: Was Blight more or less successful than NP? And by successful I mean "did it make more money for you"?
Kyburz: Yeah, even though the games design wasn't as polished I think people responded to the game better. It made a lot more money but we also worked on it a lot longer.
RPS: You are turning games around fairly quickly - is that going to be sustained? Should we expect a game a year from now on?
Kyburz: I like experimenting with different mechanics and playing around with different ideas. Jupiter was turned around in only 4 months. I have a things to go back and fix in Blight, but I'd like to divide my time between improving the old games and trying to get a new one out every 6-12 months or so. This is why we allow players to play all three games when they buy a key for one. We want to build lots and lots of little games. It keeps things interesting for us, and hopefully for them as well.
RPS: A bit of an odd question: Do you think you have any commercial competition?
Kyburz: Well I think there are heaps of great web games out there these days, but I also think there is heaps of money to go around. I don't know if players have to think too seriously about whether they want to spend $10 on one of our games or on Trivian, its only $10. We don't spend a lot of time looking at what everybody else is doing so I probably don't know as much as I should about what else is going on out there.
I once went to see Terry Pratchett give a lecture at our local University and he had some advice for budding writers. I don't remember his exact words but the gist of it was clear. He said if you want to write fantasy novels, don't read fantasy novels. Read mysteries, romance, thrillers, or even history. It's the easiest way to make sure your book is interesting and original. That's my excuse for not playing through hundreds of Facebook Evony clones.
RPS: Here's a question from one my twitter followers: Do you ever feel guilty for making such compelling games? The millions of man hours that are lost to these games..)
Kyburz: Haha, its really awesome to hear that there are a few people out there enjoying the games. I only feel guilty about not working faster and harder to make the games even better! You know, as an indie developer with no boss, I crunch harder and work longer hours than I ever did working for Irrational Games. It feels really good to work hard and know that at least some players appreciate what you are doing.
RPS: Do you think X-Com fans are being overly harsh in their assessment of XCOM?
Kyburz: I think 2k missed an opportunity to create an exciting new IP as they did with Bioshock. I think people would be responding completely differently to the game if 2K was selling it as something new and interesting. There are ways they could have used to Xcom brand to promote the game without actually calling this very different game the new Xcom. Are the fans being overly hash? I guess because I don't really care what the game is called as long as it's interesting and fun. But on the other hand, I'm still bitter about what happened to Warhamer 40k in 1993 when they released 2nd edition so I guess they have a point.
RPS: Thanks for your time.