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@Play 85: A Talk with Digital Eel, Makers of the Infinite Space Games

I converse with the makers of Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space and their new Sea of Stars: Infinite Space III, about the games, about design, about their history, randomness, and their friend Phosphorus.

Some of the best quasi-roguelike space games out there are Digital Eel's terrific Infinite Space games: Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space and Sea of Stars: Infinite Space III.  Quick-playing, always challenging, and filled with secrets to discover.  @Play spoke with the principals of Digital Eel, Rich Carlson and Iikka Keränen, about the long-lived series.

@P: Tell me about your company -- when was it founded, about the main people and your day jobs?

Iikka Keränen: Rich and I unofficially started Digital Eel in 1999 when we both worked at Looking Glass. That's when we bought the domain name and started working on the (never released) 4X strategy game we called Infinite Space. I have been working in the game industry since 1998 when I was hired by Ion Storm in Dallas TX. For the last fifteen years, I've been at Valve.

Rich Carlson: I was a musician in Minnesota for 20 years before deciding to try to make games for a living. I met Iikk at Ion. We ended up working at four game studios together! You may recall that Ion Storm, Rogue Entertainment, Looking Glass Studios were all closing, one by one, at the time. That was hard to watch, and hard be a part of but the games turned out well. Meantime, Iikka and I became friends and decided to make some games ourselves for fun. Later, when we came to Seattle for another game job, we met artist Bill Sears working at the same studio. He turned out to be as weird as we are, with a terrific sense of humor, and so we all became fast friends too. That's when Digital Eel was "officially" founded. Bill made the splash screen for Plasmaworm and we went on from there as a trio. Henry Kropf is the newest member of the Digital Eel nuclear family. He's been programming professionally for something like 20 years, starting at Vicarious Visions in 1996. (We all started in the game biz at about the same time.) He worked on PC and PS1 projects--the hardcore space-sim, Terminus (Wikipedia), for example. Since then he's worked on a number of projects and ports, most recently for the latter Digital Eel games, as well as being the sole programmer of the fantasy word game SpellBounders (iOS App Store).

@P: That's really interesting! The SAIS games have this outsider art feel, I think at least, like they're from some alternate universe where games evolved subtly differently. For some reason it's weird to think you're embedded in the traditional game development community! I find it difficult to believe you'd have the time or energy for this if you guys worked at, for instance, EA. Are you worried that the day job might interfere with the SAIS games?

RC: It is outsider art! Although Bill worked at game studios, he came from the era of Kustom Kars, underground comix and lowbrow surrealism. If you've read Juxtapoz or Zap Comix, that's the the realm. That's what you see in Weird Worlds, and on the DE splash screens. 60's and 70's counterculture art (done only as Phosphorus can!)

IK: Sometimes it does interfere - Funny that you should mention EA, we actually worked on an EA-published game (American McGee's Alice) after we stopped working on the original Infinite Space "big game", and before we made Plasmaworm and SAIS. That was a time when we really didn't have the energy to do our own thing. Valve is much better at not interfering with life outside the office. I think it has to do with it being a more mature company - most people have families and can't be expected to work seven days a week, that sort of stuff.

RC: We have to work on our games slowly much of the time. But isn't that best if you can? Slow and steady wins the race. We plan carefully and go step by step. Looking back, 15 games in 14 years says we're finishers not flakes.

@P: How did Strange Adventures get started? What are its play inspirations? From whence came the series' unique backstory?

IK: We had run out of steam on the original 4X game, and I had realized I needed to learn proper Windows programming as my previous coding experience was DOS-based. As I taught myself DirectX, we made a simple arcade game called Plasmaworm in 2001 and then decided to make another small game using the content we had created for Infinite Space. This is what became Strange Adventures in Infinite Space. I was a big fan of Starflight, and we had also played a Star Trek boardgame that influenced the early design of Strange Adventures quite a bit. At the beginning, we were planning to have text-based mini adventures on each planet, that sort of stuff. But we soon realized that streamlining the game as much as possible was the way to go. We had written a lot of back story for the 1999 "big game" and had a very rich universe for you to explore - much more content than you'd ever see in a single session, and that kept the game lively and surprising.

RC: Other games we played that were inspiring were Frank Butterfield's Voyage of the BSM Pandora, which turned out to be a kind of proof-of-concept that a big game theme could be condensed into a small, short game yet still convey the feeling, not just the flavor, of a star spanning saga. Though the examples I'm mentioning are fantasy-themed, they played into the design concept directly. Proto-roguelike boardgames like Terrence Donelly's Sorcerer's Cave and Greg Costikyan's Deathmaze, were, like modern full-blown roguelikes like Henzell's Dungeon Crawl and NetHack, strong influences as well.

@P: Ah, you said the magic word! Starflight also came up in an interview I did some years back with Tarn Adams of Dwarf Fortress, who also cites it as an inspiration! And Starflight's lead designer Greg Johnson is also one-half of Johnson-Voorsanger, who made ToeJam & Earl, and the prime mover of the current TJ&E sequel/revision! It's starting to seem like Starflight is a secret nexus of inspiration for roguelike developers.

RC: Starflight was a big deal. I remember waiting and waiting, exasperated, for the C-64 port to be released. Seemed to take forever but it was worth it. Btw, Starflight's spiritual cousin, Star Control II, strongly influenced the way music is used in Strange Adventures and Weird Worlds.

@P: All of those games you mentioned before sound really interesting, especially Greg Costikyan's entry. He's a bit of a NetHack fan himself you know.

RC: I didn't. I know he was a hardcore Civ fan. Greg has a fantastic imagination. He's tackled quite a variety of subjects. His ludography is frighteningly impressive. ("A bibliography is a list of the books you've written; a discography is a list of the music you've recorded; and a ludography is a list of the games you've designed." - GC)

@P: I'm a bit interested in that 4X game you mentioned. Is that project entirely abandoned or might it reappear someday? Or alternatively, do you feel it's important to be able to abandon a project that's no longer working, or gone in uninteresting directions?

IK: We have abandoned a few projects for various reasons. The big 4X game was one - it was just too ambitious for us to finish, too similar to some other games, like Master of Orion, and I didn't really know how to do multi-player code at the time (plus the whole MS-DOS thing!). It was a good choice to switch to smaller projects.

RC: For us it's about being caught by something. Like when you get into Game of Thrones or Magic: The Gathering. Only the special, best things capture you. That's what we wait for and pounce on when it shows up!

IK: Even if we do decide to make a 4X style game in the Infinite Space universe, it will not be the old project resurrected. But it's interesting how much "stuff" from it appears in Sea of Stars - for example, the races and most of the items etc have a direct lineage to the old 4X project.

@P: You're calling the games "space roguelikes," could you explain, or even justify, that statement?  

IK: Right, our games don't exactly look like the typical fantasy roguelike! But they do play like one in many ways. We have the procedurally generated maps, high level of randomness and the sense of being dropped in a world that's bigger than what you can experience in one play-through. There's no saving and reloading, so all your actions are permanent. There are tons of items and it's up to the player to figure out how to best use them. I'm a big fan of traditional roguelikes as well, so I know the dissimilarities too, of course. For a while, we used the moniker "Roguelike-like" but it's a bit clumsy.  

RC: Strange Adventures and the rest of the series pass the test in most cases, yet they must be termed as hybrids. I've looked at the Berlin Interpretation and have thought a lot about this. We respect the pure roguelike form very much, for all of the good reasons. We do sometimes say these games are space roguelikes--but in the same way that FTL was termed that. The primary reason is that it is the best way to describe the Infinite Space gameplay, overall, with just one word. Describing SAIS as "space strategy" or "adventure strategy" or "strategy rpg" doesn't convey the gameplay experience at all!

@P: I didn't mean to imply that your games couldn't be roguelikes, we've certainly covered enough games that blur the lines! And I agree that "roguelike-like" is a bit clumsy, as you've probably witnessed, there's a bit of confusion on the proper way to identify games that are inspired by Rogue's randomness and replayable elements but aren't strictly top-down, tactical combat, dungeon exploration.

RC: We have to remember that the first makers of roguelikes didn't invent the Berlin list. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson did. A roguelike is what it is (a randomized, turn-based D&D/Tolkien themed dungeon survival sim on a grid) because early roguelike creators were emulating the features of their favorite game. So, while the venerable roguelike form can number and claim these traits, it can't really own them.

@P: Describe the basic "explore a space in a limited time" gameplay.

RC: One roguelike aspect that isn't always mentioned--I don't think it's on the Berlin list--is clocks. Food clock. Radiation exposure clock. Spell duration clocks. Thirst clock. Poison damage clock. Etc. If one of these clocks time out, your character is in trouble, which adds more tension to the game. Awesome! I think clocks are an essential part of a roguelike game. Sea of Stars, Weird Worlds and Strange Adventures use clocks too. The primary one is to return to player character's homeworld within a set period of time or suffer a reward penalty. This victory condition mirrors somewhat the idea of Star Trek's "five year mission", or Darwin's voyage, or a pirate adventure for that matter.

@P: The alien races provide a good mix of beings to interact with, each of which presenting their own personality in behavior, text and combat. Any favorites?

RC: I really like one of the new species we added to Sea of Stars, the Calatians. They're mentioned in the previous games but actually make an appearance in IS3 as a full-fledged race. They boast of their mighty ships and fearsome weaponry that appear in conbat as small and unthreatening. Are they bluffing? (Tip: If you're nice to them, you might even get rewarded with one to add to your flotilla.)

IK: The Tchorak have been my favorite for a long time, just because they are so... alien. Of course, I know much more about them than you'll see in any of our games, but I hope you'll get to know them better one of these days.

RC: I can't wait to explain the sex life of a Tchorak. Or maybe I can.

@P: Secret item features (Like "hypervision," or the Lookout Frogs & Toy Robot, or the Crystal Fish?) What inspired them? Why don't more items have these features? Is there a magic number?

IK: These items are a bit like a card that allows you to break one specific rule in a boardgame - they're limited by the number of rules that can be broken in a useful way. I do agree we should think of more, there are probably fun things that we've missed.

RC: What Iikka said. There is a sweet spot where it feels good and we sort of "call it." But it's also a matter of seeing a possibile connection that might be interesting or entertaining or, more importantly, useful. If the designer puts a ship thief in the game, she should put one or two things in to help the player prevent theft as well.

@P: One-in-eight games in the original two Infinite Space games are "mission games," where the game rules change slightly and unexpectedly in the middle of play? What inspired them?

IK: I think it was at least partly inspired by some random events in 4X games, like Master of Orion where occasionally a "space amoeba" appears and starts to wreak havoc. In Strange Adventures we just had one, and we didn't want it to happen every time because that would have made the game very repetitive, so we made it fairly rare. Now, in Sea of Stars we have five different missions (and counting...) and we can just randomly pick one.

RC: These games are intended to be like instant space opera generators, so it stands to reason that every once in a while a chance to "save the galaxy," or save your character's homeworld, etc., should be included. It also breaks the game up from session to session, enhancing replayabilty, we hope, by helping to keep things fresh and surprising.

@P: One interesting thing about Weird Worlds in particular is how frequently one can come up non-combat, or what we might call "instant win" solutions to game problems, like [SPOILERS] Mirroring enemy fleets into black holes, Vacuum Collapsing the Yellow Kawangii or using the Chromium Gong on Primordius. These solutions seems to be deprecated somewhat in Sea of Stars in favor of more traditional combat. Is there a particular reason?

IK: With the exception of the mirror, these still work :) But we have tried to balance some items to make them less game-breaking - the gong no longer has unlimited uses, the hyperdrive is not always the best choice, and so on. This is mainly done to keep the game challenging even if you find the item.

@P: On the play changes with each version. Especially the substantial formula changes in Sea of Stars (Maj. Brass prologue dropped, set sector size, no need to return home at end, all mission games, removal of popular earlier items like Aetheric Mirror and Mantle of Babulon.) Was this to fix a perceived lack in the earlier games? Is the new game's 3D starmap related to them? Will we see any of these items return in later updates?

IK: We chose not to implement the mirror for various reasons - for example, we don't want you to accidentally move Haven Station or the Klakar Nest. If we made space stations non-mirrorable like the space hulk was in Weird Worlds, then you'd keep running into situations where you get a sensor blip but can't use the mirror, and that tells you it's a homeworld. If the mirror ever does appear, it will need to have some different kind of behavior. The Mantle would be easy enough to make, but as in Weird Worlds it would end up reducing your score so it's not a great item - also, combat is fun! It would perhaps be more interesting to come up with other ways to befriend specific races.

@P: Maybe describe a bit on the use of nebulas & black holes, their role in the design as an obstacle to exploration. (Nebulas usually slow the player down greatly upon entry; Black Holes may be hidden at the start of a map, and force the player to decide to turn back to forge ahead and possibly risk losing immediately.)

IK: Since we're dealing with a time limit, adding "terrain" forces you to make plans around it and makes the game more interesting, and different each time. We originally had ideas for other kinds of obstacles, like asteroid fields, but just these two made the cut.

@P: Events — derelict ship, supernova, Esmeralda, alien rescues. Their appearance, and the timing with which they appear, has the potential to either profoundly change the game, or not really change it much at all, depending on when they turn up, it feels to me like an essential part of the Infinite Space experience. Do you agree?

IK: Oh yes, these are a big part of making each game session unique and giving you the sense that almost anything can happen in the Infinite Space universe, from the silly to the spectacular.

@P: The Infinite Space games have board and card game versions? What are they like?

RC: They're fun. Eat Electric Death! is an old school hex and turn-based tactical starship combat boardgame based on the ships, ship system, items, and the way ships manuever, in the computer game versions. Infinite Space: Explorers is essentially a starship combat card game that uses a "starmap" board to keep track of where fleets are, which stars have been explored and where card battles occur. The two Diceland Space sets based in the IS games use James Ernest's unique combat system with giant paper dice. Each die is a starship and you roll them on the table in combat. It's diceless and real time. Nobody makes games like Cheapass Games.

@P: How did James Ernst and Cheapass Games help the Strange Adventures series to get started?

RC: By generously providing a distribution point for the game. Indie game portals didn't exist then, so it was terrific to have his support. He also got CD's made of the first three or four games. Those are like collector's items now.  

@P: On mods... Where did you get the idea to make the game moddable? How easy is it, would you say, to make a mod? What are your favorite mods?

 IK: Rich and I both made mods before we started working in the game industry, so it was natural to us. I also think that the same things that make the game easy to modify, make it easier for us to create the content for it in the first place. There are a lot of cool mods, but the "Even Stranger" and "Even Weirder" series is a standout favorite for sure. Modding tends to get harder as games get more complex, but we try to make it as easy as possible. In Sea of Stars, we use standard text file format to store all the data in the game so it's possible to get started with just a text editor.

@P: Will we see the return of Major Brass?

IK: He's the face of the Terran Space Fleet :) Not sure if he's going to make a personal appearance, but anything's possible!

RC: New face; same Brass.

@P: Who was Phosphorous?

IK: Phosphorous, aka. Bill Sears was the third Eel and our main artist for over a decade. He made the splash screen art for half a dozen games, tons of Weird Worlds items and creatures, etc. We had some unforgettable times together, and multiple road trips down to IGF in California. He passed away after a heart attack in 2012. We really miss him.

RC: Bill was an amazing friend and contributor. And musician, as we later found out! But not in the traditional sense of guitars and trombones. His music was strange, handmade in his garage and surrealistic. Technically it would be called musique concrete and found sound music. You know how it is. Usually when you hear sound collages that are a bit avant garde, you say no! Turn it off! But it isn't that way at all with Bill's music. It is engrossing like falling into a mind adventure. Very special stuff.

@P: Is any of his music in the games? Do you think there might be a place for it, even if just one or two pieces, or are there rights or thematic issues? Is there a place where readers can find them on the internet?

IK: Bill created music for both Brainpipe (Steam - Desura) and Data Jammers (Steam - Desura). We shared an Independent Games Festival audio award for Brainpipe. You can listen to some of Bill's music for Data Jammers here, and mixed medleys of Brainpipe music here: Smetlov's Locus - Trippocampus - Cognative Cascade.

Thanks to Rich and Iikka for talking with me, and for putting up with my whimsical and makeshift interview process!  Which reminds me, I still have a followup interview with Tarn Adams to finish....  by the way, surprise!  This isn't from the book but is an entirely new column!  I'll probably be splitting the column between book stuff and entirely new essays for a while, so don't forget about the site even if you already have it!

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