Road To The IGF: Mousechief Co.'s Keith Nemitz (Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!)

Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, today’s interview...
Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, today’s interview is with Keith Nemitz of Mousechief Co., developers of fantasy RPG Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!. Mousechief has been working on the game for 10 months, with Nemitz estimating another 6 months left before the title is released publicly. He describes the game as “a teenage fantasy set in the 1920s” that “uses a virtual board game metaphor” and allows players to “scour their intolerant hometown with brazen hi-jinx”. We caught up with Nemitz via email to ask about the game, its entry into the IGF, and the decision behind its setting and characters. What is your background in the games industry? My degree and much of my early work was in software engineering. My UI background and training comes from 4 years at Apple Computer. My first game program a referee's tool for book and dice RPGs. I demoed it at the 3rd GDC, and landed a job at Sierra Online. When they moved to Seattle, I tried writing plays for theater, but took work with Digital Pictures and had my first taste of real game design. Just as our video spy adventure project was starting, they folded. I found work next with Stormfront Studios, where I led a small team to produce a product demo for an FPS. I also drafted several designs for Marvel Inc., but they all fell through when some rich guy bought Marvel for junk bonds, or something like that. As a game designer, I was very frustrated. My few chances were aborted unluckily, and the industry preferred to use my software engineering skills. I left Stormfront and created my first indie game, Flagship Champion. It offered 3D starship fleet combat where tactics could beat firepower. Luck finally found me, and Flagship Champion was a finalist at the very first IGF in 1999. It wasn't a financial success. Indies were off the industry's map at that time, and internet sales were nigh impossible. I had to take work again, next at 3DO. There I built the user interfaces for a couple PS2 games. After the dot bomb sucked them down, I worked briefly as a UI contractor, but became determined to make a success at indie development. This time, conditions are far more favorable. When was Mousechief formed, and what previous titles have you released? Mousechief Co. was formed in 2003 to produce and distribute our first title, The Witch's Yarn. It is a graphical text adventure with a novel control scheme designed for casual gamers. The narrative is presented as a cross between a comic book and a stage play, where the player is the director. It was a finalist at IGF 2006. What inspired Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!, and why did you decide to make it? Initial inspiration came from a night of parlor games with friends. We were playing a card game where your hand was a party of adventurers, and it struck me as a great way to reduce the complexities of an RPG. The card game reduced entire battles down to a single dice roll, but it was really fun! The bigger idea struck me later, that you could swap out combat in RPGs with different kinds of conflict resolution mechanisms. This idea opens up the RPG experience to allow any kind of story genre. Since casual gamers are the bread and butter of most indies, I thought a romantic comedy RPG might be a lucrative endeavor. Why did you decide to set the game in the 1920s? I wanted to tell a story about high school girls. Most of those stories are about growing into your own power. The 1920s was America's rite of passage for women, and it has a jazz/art deco mystique that is very sexy. In the cinema, it was a time for bold women like Marlena Dietrich, Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, Myrna Loy, etc. I didn't want to tell a girly story. I wanted player characters who started out tough and powerful. To challenge them, we needed an entire community of intolerant, hypocritical, superstitious folk that bordered on the mythical. The works of Sinclair Lewis were a fabulous resource! Our 1920s is occasionally fantastical and often outrageous. The town's founder is a ghost you can consult with in the graveyard. Some of the NPCs are metaphors realized, like the police's desk sergeant. He's a desk. The criminal mastermind you confront, well, we'll just say he's ahead of his time. What were your expectations from your game, and do you feel the end product lives up to those expectations? That's a difficult question. We're still in development. We haven't yet met our expectations. Some of them grew in the making, and they pushed our schedule out six months. We were supposed to be finished for the IGF submission date. Our expectation is to offer a game that will tempt both experienced, casual gamers, and core gamers who like variety and novelty in their games. It is definitely a light-hearted experience, a sit-back, relax and laugh experience. The challenges should never frustrate a player, but some solutions can be very difficult. Usually there's an easier path clearly available. Players can tackle the game at their own pace and skills. We are very pleased with the beta we submitted to the IGF. That critical first five minutes of play is well presented, and the next hour brings out a lot of the depth. The mini games - Taunt, Expose, Fib, Flirt - are very fun. We did replace Gambit with a new design for engaging in power-play, and we wish the judges could try it, but we've added so much story and scripting, we wouldn't be able to sufficiently test an intermezzo release. If we are chosen as a finalist, we will have a much more polished version ready for them. It would also be released as a public beta. You've mentioned that you intended the game to feel "accessible to casual gamers" - how well do you think you've achieved this, and how important is the casual market to you? Our approach was to use the UI metaphor of a parlor game. We deliberately designed it look as it if was a board game made in the 1920s. Pieces and maps are scratched, faded, weather worn. Your party travels around the map visiting locations, meeting people and resolving conflicts. You earn prizes that boost your party's power and unlock new areas of the game. The mini-games are overlays that play out very quickly to keep the story moving right along. Initial user testing has been mixed. It's too novel of an experience for some casual gamers, but others dig right in. We're now concentrating design efforts to target casual gamers who are ready for the next level. Casual gamers have been soaking up puzzle and simple action games for years. Many of them are looking beyond those for richer experiences. We have also seen core gamers, who occasionally unlace their combat boots, take to the game. Their lust for conquest isn't narrowed by gender differences. What do you think the most interesting thing about your game is? The game's world, which is a small town in middle America that never existed. When we named the town, 'Brigiton', we weren't thinking Brigadoon, but that's a great analogy. It exits out of reality. The girls, who are your heroes, descended straight from Mount Hollywood. The townsfolk are a mixed lot of angels and monsters. Some might be secret allies, while others are friendly usurpers. It has the intrigue and farce of Payton Place, Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure, and Desperate Housewives. It has the dangers and lessons of Buffy's Sunnydale. It has disposable boyfriends. What is "flash fiction", and how have you incorporated it into your game? Flash fiction was originally a novelty of the web. It's a cross between fiction, poetry, and jokes. The objective is to express a deep story in very few, about 300-500, words. It's fast becoming a respected, new kind of storytelling. People seeking entertainment on the web don't like to read for very long. Writers go where the audience is. There are some amazing stories out there written in a half or quarter of a page. In our game, that's equal to four or five encounters. Similar to sub-quests in other RPGs, we wanted players to be able to pick up our game, play for a few encounters, and set it aside. In 10 minutes of gaming, the player experiences a full story. With this we hope to satisfy the limited game time available to casual gamers. Additionally, as players return to finish more and more of Brigiton's little stories, they'll discover the larger epic that might bring them back more often. Production began with a general idea of the major storyline, what the town and its folk were like, and then we wrote flash fiction about events and people in the town. We thought players would enjoy wandering around, seeking out these stories. As the game started coalescing, early user testing revealed what players really wanted, clear goals. So we pushed back a lot of the flash fiction to later in the game, when players might be more comfortable exploring for the fun of it. The initial experience is a lot more linear, but we managed to fit a few, related flash events. How long did development take? We're a year into development. We have about six months left. It's largely a two man job. I do all of the engineering, coordinating, game design, and most of the writing. David Cherry, the lead artist works about half-time. Others are spot contracted. We had to switch lead artist halfway through the project, due to unfortunate health issues. We just hired a sound engineer. Most of the heavy lifting is near completion. The bulk of the work remaining is scripting and storytelling, and polishing and testing. What was the development process like? I've touched on this already from several perspectives. In summary, it's been a long haul. We rewrote most of the mini-games several times, regularly frustrated in our attempts create fun little games that met these five criteria: 1. Easy to pick up and play. 2. Gave the feeling of the action it represents. (ie. the taunting game should feel like taunting, etc.) 3. Quick to play, so players can resolve the story's conflicts at a satisfying pace. 4. Relied on at least one of the four character attributes: Popularity, Glamor, Rebellion, and Savvy. 5. Could grow its challenge as player characters improved their attributes. Crafting the final story was a huge expense of time. We're still struggling to fit in all that's necessary, while removing as much as possible. The artwork and music are wonderful! The contractors have all come through, and we're very happy with what we've accomplished. Like marathon runners, we're about to hit 'the wall'. Wish us luck. What do you think of the state of independent development, and how do you think independent games fit into the industry? Independent developers will struggle forever. Some will find themselves mainstreamed, but by definition, indies have a long, lonely road, uphill, both ways. The industry circles us like hawks with diamond eyes, plucking out the juicy gibbets for their own profit. This is not condemnation, but basic respect for the ecology. Indie development has reached its natural balance that will teeter like the balance between wolves and elk. Have you checked out any of the other IGF games? I've played Aveyond, Kudos, and the demo for Bone, and read up on several others. Aquaria looks particularly interesting. Like other developers you've interviewed here, I haven't played enough of them. Which ones are you particularly impressed with, and why? Aveyond is a successful first penguin. It's the only RPG, in the indie space, that is popular with casual and core gamers. Our game is an entirely different RPG, but we want to sell to the same audience. So the reason it impresses is purely selfish. I haven't played enough of it to judge it properly. Which recent indie games do you admire, and which recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why? Again Aveyond. And again I wish I had more time to play my peers' games. I spend some on the forum, when I can, trying to keep up, but most of my non-development time is spent with my wife. To admit my current mainstream game addiction is to admit to several lies I've told above. Company of Heroes hasn't killed a month of development like Civ IV did last year, but it's trying. If I don't achieve some major milestones before the release of Neverwinter Nights 2, we can kiss off our current March 2007 ship date. I need help. Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF? Make new kinds of games. Make them really fun! Sue the pants off of anyone who steals your ideas, especially companies who out-market you and sell to your customers before you can reach them... No, wait, that's a stupid idea. Instead of competing against other indies, reach out and help them spread their better titles. Since each us of have different ideas about what 'better' means, we'll foster a credible diversity of games. Lastly, educate your customers to buy from developer websites. Someday, we may end-run the portals with sites similar to Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. For now, we need to use portals just as much as they need to use us.

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