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Interview: Going to Hell with Vic Davis' Solium Infernum

Game designer Vic Davis talks to Gamasutra about his hellish PC strategy game Solium Infernum, and why he wants to "make games that drive away 90 percent of the player base out there."

February 15, 2010

10 Min Read

Author: by Phill Cameron

[In this Gamasutra interview, game designer Vic Davis -- a.k.a. Cryptic Comet -- talks to Gamasutra about his hellish PC strategy game Solium Infernum, and why he wants to "make games that drive away 90 percent of the player base out there."] Hell is an odd place to set a game, you'd think. EA is trying it with Dante's Inferno, but instead of gruesome gibs and visceral vistas, Vic Davis has pulled the player back from the action and placed them in the shoes of an Archfiend, providing them with a simple instruction; rule hell. Except, of course, there are others with the same goal. Solium Infernum, his latest release, is a turn based strategy game that asks you to rule through manipulation of an intricate prestige system that requires you to fling insults across the abyss at one another, and attempt to ruffle enough feathers/scales/postulating protrusions that you can initiate a hostile take over of your fellow archfiends. And really, it's brilliant. So naturally, I had to have a chat with him about it. Can you explain a little about who you are and what you do? My name is Victor. Victor the game maker. I design and arrange turn based strategy games on the PC. Even in these dark times you will most likely need to read the manual before you attempt to play my games. They will require that you invest some effort in learning the mechanics and play patterns before you really appreciate them and there is a good chance that you will have cursed my name and my amateur User Interface before it is all over…although you will probably have said “Wow, that’s some nice art” before you do so. You've worked almost solely in the turn-based-strategy world, at least as far as development goes. Do you think that there's space for expansion within it, or is the niche you're filling already full? There is plenty of space to explore and the hissing sound of all the medium and big game companies leaving the punctured ship’s hull still hasn’t quite ended yet. I really like turn based games as a design medium because I think they offer a more contemplative experience. Whenever time is a resource I tend to feel harried and distracted. It also makes sense for me because it allows me to forgo the complex animation and visuals that real time and 3D demand. That type of production usually requires large teams and heavy duty programming that is way beyond what I can produce solo. You used Adobe Director to write the game, which has drawn a few negative comments your way. Were there alternatives, or did you just use it out of familiarity and ease of use? Yes, familiarity was the key reason. I knew that I couldn’t really afford the time and effort needed to learn a new development environment. I had been using Director for about five years doing U.S. Civil War battle animations so I knew I could probably pull off the coding but that the AI was going to be difficult since I’d never done anything like that before. One nice thing that has come of using Director is that generally compatibility has been pretty good. I have read reports of some developers finding that new video drivers or versions of Windows have caused all types of problems with keeping games working that were published years ago. That’s important for me since I hope that my “retro” games have a long shelf life. Was the choice of hell there to encourage a mood of deceit and connivance? Did the setting come before or after the concept of backstabbing politics? The setting and theme always come first for me. I basically decide on the theme and then build the mechanics and game play around it. So once I knew that I wanted to make a strategy game set in hell, all the corresponding attributes were fleshed out as game mechanics…the deceit and backstabbing. You've stated that there was inspiration from Paradise Lost previously. The art style, specifically the cantons and Places of Power, reminded me most of Hieronymus Bosch. Was that another inspiration? Was it that time period in general that provided the most ripe ideas concerning Hell? Yes, I did a fair amount of research to try and draw from a bunch of different sources when I was building the mythos of the inferno that I wanted to present to the players. You will see influences from things like medieval vision literature to the work of artists like Giotto and especially Hieronymus Bosch. My wife is an art historian and she actually got her Masters in Medieval art so I had seen lot of Bosch before and even had a personal tour of the Prado in Madrid led by my wife when we were much younger…almost 25 years ago. But I still had all her books to refer to. When I worked with the artists to do the illustrations they were always very keen to pay a little homage to Bosch. Following from that, while Hell is obviously timeless, there was a certain late medieval/early renaissance feel to it that in part stems from the high level of bureaucracy and in-fighting. Do you think it's important that something like Solium Infernum, which is already somewhat abstract, has touchstones in reality and period? Yes, I was definitely thinking of a feudal system when I went about designing the Diplomacy system. Even more than the historical feudal systems of medieval Europe I was thinking about the fantasy structure of the Landsraad from Frank Herbert’s Dune. Vendetta was my reinterpretation of Dune’s Kanly. Of course I’m sure Herbert drew his inspiration from a huge amount of historical research and knowledge. I also had George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones on my mind as well. The central idea in both universes is the pursuit of power through all means possible…brute force, deception and manipulation with the knowledge that you are playing for keeps…you either win or you die. When I first started using the play by email system, I thought it crude and ponderous, but as our game progressed it became the perfect medium to build tension and formulate plans that I wouldn't think possible with the immediacy of a "real time" system. Was this an intentional choice or something forced on you by the platform? It’s a bit of both. I explored ways of automating the sending of the turns by using the computers default email program but I ran into a bunch of compatibility problems and exceptions. I do like how measured and paced the sending and receiving of turns is when using PBeM. The game that real got me hooked on PBeM was Dominions by Shrapnel and Illwinter. I will never forget the racing heart feeling that I would get when I had made a big gamble move and the email with the results appeared in my in box. I hope that Solium Infernum captures a little of that. With both Armageddon Empires and Solium Infernum, you tend to offer the player a platform to work off rather than scripting a sequence of events. This obviously leads to an emergent narrative, but at the same time do you think that such a sandbox can be daunting to new players? Yes, and if you add the complex rules into the mix then you have even more for the players to overcome. I think it is worth the investment though. Replayability is something that I really like my designs to offer and is a key sales pitch. I like to also keep the play time short and focused so that you can sit down and finish a sand box in a few hours. While your games exist in a niche, they do tend to get a lot of press, at least in the indie-circuits, which encourages people who might not instantly get excited at the prospect of a turn-based-strategy game to go out and play it. Do you think it's important to cater to them, or would that dilute the experience for more 'hardcore' players? I’m happy if it reaches a broader audience but I think that what happens is that those types of players get attracted to the idea of the theme but the actual mechanics and game play don’t really pull them any further. My goal is to make games that drive away 90 percent of the player base out there. That’s how I fill my niche. I’m not making super hard games where you die every 10 steps and have to figure out how to defeat the super boss at the end of the level by trial and error 150 times. It’s a different type of difficulty. And really once you invest a little effort in learning the systems and play patterns that I am offering, you usually come to the conclusion that the complexity is really not that overwhelming. It’s the combination of simple elements that yields fun complexity and decision making… basically chaos theory incarnate. The $30 price point has been contentious for a fair amount of people. Do you think that's because it's reached a wider audience than you expected, and players who wouldn't normally be happy to pay that price for a niche game are paying attention to it? I’m reminded of that scene from Spinal Tap where Ian the manager tells Bobby Fleckman: “You should have seen the cover that they wanted to do.” I actually thought hard about going with an even higher price point for Solium Infernum, in the $34.95 range. Seriously though, I think that a higher price might even be better but I have yet to test it out. I like the thought of winnowing out the people who are going to buy based on impulse and then not enjoy the game. My games are an acquired taste. It saves us both a lot of time, money and effort in the long run…and I can focus on my niche. I only want customers who feel they got some value for their purchase. All that said, Solium Infernum is on the lower end of the price spectrum for niche strategy games (but is admittedly on the high end for and “indie buzz” game). But pricing in the games industry is undergoing a tremendous amount of turmoil. You have AAA games debuting at $60 and then a race to the bottom depending on the “success” of the game. You have a downloadable casual market that has just imploded in the Great Portal Wars deflation and you have services like Steam that offer huge volume moving sales while adding continually to already large catalogues. For a small developer or you might even say hobbyist like me that’s scary...how do I fit in? I basically just pick my price, stick my head in the sand and try and make games that justify the price to a small niche audience. With Solium Infernum completed, what are you headed towards next? I’m working on two things. First, a free mini expansion pack for Solium Infernum. Second, a new game design based on exploration and push your luck decision making tentatively called “Rogue Expedition.” It’s sort of a rogue-like board game with random maps, lite RPG character development and a cool theme that hasn’t been trodden very much. Right now I’m just designing, laying out the general game architecture and doing some quick prototyping of some of the systems. I have no idea at this point how long it will take to finish but I’m hoping no more than 18 months. Famous last words.

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