Iron Tower Studio
Chris Picone - CSH Picone
"Vincent D. Weller" - Iron Tower Studio
Interview by Chris Picone, 03 August 2017
Last year, I started writing game reviews for the first time in more than ten years. It was a cathartic exercise to begin with, a much-needed break from writing essays and high commitment projects like Kanimbla and Blue Eyes. However, I’ve been enjoying being involved in the gaming industry again, and recently made the decision to branch out a little bit further and include interviews with game developers. This is the first interview I have published in probably fifteen years, although I plan on making it a semi-regular occurrence from here on out. I will be focusing on RPGs and indie developers first and foremost, the same niche that I write my reviews for.
Joining me is Vince, the lead designer of Iron Tower Studio, which is the developer responsible for Age of Decadence, a text-based RPG which I reviewed very positively last year, and Dungeon Rats, a tactical game set in the same world. Ryan Eston Paul, the composer, also joins us to talk about his role in the studio. Throughout the interview we chat about the AoD and the studio in general and, most excitingly, Iron Tower’s upcoming game The New World, which is still in the early stages of development.
Please note, for the sake of ease of reading, you will find the following abbreviations in abundance:
AoD – Age of Decadence
TNW – The New World
CSH: Iron Tower Studio has an interesting slogan, “proudly serving 0.003% of the Global Gaming Market since 2015. The remaining 99.997% need not apply.” Why have you chosen this approach, and do you think it has helped or hindered your success as a developer?
Vince: You don’t choose your passion. Some people are really passionate about action RPGs or MMOs. We happened to be passionate about hardcore, text-heavy RPGs, which is a very niche sub-genre these days.
We knew that AoD won’t be a top-seller from day one and we were ok with it. Same goes for The New World. Think of it this way: when you open a corner store to sell what the locals can’t buy in a supermarket, it’s never about money. It’s about doing what you love and dealing with people who love the same thing.
CSH: Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life, eh? So who is Iron Tower Studio and how did the team come together?
Vince: When we made AoD, we had a team of 6: A programmer, animator, artist/designer, writer/designer, 2D artist, and composer. For TNW, we upgraded our animation rig and enlisted a concept artist, a 3D artist, and a second programmer.
I’ve met Nick (our programmer), Oscar (artist/designer), and Mazin (artist best known for his superb portraits) on RPG Codex, a go-to site if you suspect that a game you like might actually suck but can’t figure out why.
CSH: (Laughing) that is the most accurate description of RPG Codex I think I have ever heard, very succinct. And that is a surprisingly large team for a small indie developer! Did that cover everything or did you still find that you needed to call in outside help?
Vince: We did need help with localization for AoD, which was something we simply couldn’t afford due to the high word count (about 600,000 words). Fortunately, many players offered their help and translated both games into several languages. Other than that, we also contracted another composer and three more artists to handle early concept art, character design, the logo and the world map.
CSH: 600,000 words is incredible! To put this into perspective, Final Fantasy 7 and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic had 600,000 words - Baldur’s Gate only had 400,000. For an indie RPG, that is an absolutely incredible achievement, and it really shows during gameplay. So how did you actually come up with the concept for AoD? A post-apocalyptic ancient Rome-themed world filled with “ancient” technology and demons is pretty out there!
Vince: It evolved gradually over the years. In most RPGs you’re tasked with killing some demon in some temple or, to spice things up, you’re tasked with killing a necromancer who wants to summon that demon to end the world and likes to laugh a lot: MWAHAHA!
So I thought it would be good if for once you could serve the demon and have your reasons to do so. Or if you were the “necromancer” the RPG heroes usually try to stop in other games but fail to do so because you don’t look the part. Like Benny in the Mummy:
So we worked backwards. Why are you at that temple? Three main factions should send you there, not to kill the “demon” as they don’t know he exists, but for their own reasons that might fit your own. Why does nobody know about the demon? Etc.
The Roman setting fit the world perfectly: one of the largest empires that collapsed under its own weight and plunged the world into the dark ages and ignorance.
CSH: Has the team worked on any other games outside of Iron Tower Studio’s developments?
Vince: We helped Brian Mitsoda put together a zombie survival RPG called Dead State. He did the design and writing, my team did the rest. We didn’t work in the gaming industry prior to AoD.
CSH: He says, modestly. For those of you who don’t know, Brian Mitsoda was a designer/writer for Black Isle Studios, and is best known for his work on Torn and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. Tell me about that experience – you must have learned a lot from him?
Vince: Whereas as indie developers we were excited to hastily implement things the moment we could (only to be forced to redo them a few months later), Brian followed a more structural and organized way of game development. I remember our programmer marveling at the design doc and the reference library that Brian put together. Since that's not something any of us was ever exposed to, it was a very useful practical lesson.
Plus, Brian taught Oscar a better way to script quest stages and how to make loot tables.
CSH: You mentioned your team had never worked in the gaming industry prior to AoD. Did you find your hobbies or previous work had any influence on your games?
Vince: I love reading, history in particular. History provides all the reference material you need and then some. Whatever you’re writing about, there is a good chance it happened quite a few times in the past and it’s simply a question of knowing where to look. Then you can trace the events, compare different scenarios, see how they unfolded, similarities and differences, etc.
For example, one of the factions in TNW is the Brotherhood of Liberty. They rebelled against the Ship Authority and established their own dominion. Naturally the reference materials are the French and the Russian revolutions. What’s remarkable is that even though they were more than 100 years apart, they followed the same template, including the reign of terror and the subsequent authoritarian regimes.
As for my previous job, I worked in a place where scheming, backstabbing, and ever-shifting alliances were commonplace. Some of the characters in AoD were based on people I worked with and knew well.
CSH: Let’s talk more about your upcoming game, The New World. Without spoiling too much, what can you tell us about it?
Vince: It’s a generation ship game. What’s a generation ship, you ask? Wiki to the rescue:
“It’s a hypothetical type of interstellar ark starship that travels at sub-light speed. Since such a ship might take centuries to thousands of years to reach even nearby stars, the original occupants of a generation ship would grow old and die, leaving their descendants to continue traveling.”
Basically it’s a perfect ant-farm where different societies are forced to coexist within a limited space, influencing and affecting each other’s development while fighting for that limited space, which adds “the end justifies the means” pressure.
Your character is one of the Freemen who make a living scavenging and selling various junk. One day you stumble upon something that’s clearly worth a lot of money. The problem is, you don’t know what it is…
CSH: Sounds interesting so far. How did you come up with the idea?
Vince: It was inspired by Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky and assorted 50’s sci-fi, from Asimov's Foundation to Van Vogt's The Weapon Shops of Isher.
CSH: I’ve recently started working my way through Asimov’s books, and I did note some similarity there. But I haven’t had a chance to read The Weapon Shops of Isher yet, and I’ve never heard of Heinlein. Any chance you can go into a bit more detail for those of us that aren’t familiar with 1950s science fiction literature?
Vince: Never? Start with Starship Troopers. Ignore the movie. Anyway, Heinlein was one of the pioneers of the ‘generation ship’ genre, establishing the key conventions. Van Vogt’s Weapon Shops is based on a no longer popular belief that "the right to buy weapons is the right to be free" and that every nation gets the government it deserves. Much like Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination – another excellent 50s classic, The Weapon Shops is a remnant of another age (a post-war age) that had very different ideals and beliefs.
CSH: Thanks. Can you tell us a bit about the main character?
Vince: Since that’s *your* character I might as well ask you the same question. Our job is to provide the choices. It’s up to you to define your character’s personality and ambitions as you see fit. Maybe your character will be an idealist, fully convinced that he/she alone has figured it all out, eager to change the world and solve all its problems. Maybe your character will be an opportunistic bastard, a role well-familiar to anyone who played AoD. A man of faith and traditions? A revolutionary? A totalitarian? An anarchist? You decide.
CSH: If that answer had come from anyone else, I’d say it was a cop-out. But after seeing how you handled character choice in AoD, I’ll give it to you. I can’t remember the last time I played a game where each play through was genuinely different, based on the choices I made. But with AoD, every play through felt like I was playing a totally different game.
Speaking of totally different games, I can’t help but notice that The New World is thematically very different to your last two games. How does it compare, and why did you decide to go with a totally different theme? Why science fiction instead of fantasy?
Vince: Mainly because we don’t want to make the same game over and over again (and the player doesn’t want to play the same game either). We want to take you to different ‘worlds’, show different things, offer different experiences.
So it’s sci-fi vs fantasy, party-based vs solo, ranged combat vs melee, free agent vs faction “employee”, plus a proper stealth system, feats, combat gadgets, etc.
CSH: On that note, all of your games are thematically different to anything else on the market (not too many Ancient Rome-themed RPGs out there!). Was that a conscious decision? Or just what you happened to be interested in at the time?
Vince: I was interested in Roman history long before I’ve even thought of making an RPG. I read the Orphans of the Sky when I was in grade 5 and the concept left a very strong impression, making me seek other ‘generation ship’ novels. Similarly, I love Gothic novels like Melmoth the Wanderer and The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. So making RPGs is a way to tell stories I really like.
The fact that they happened to be thematically different is a bonus.
CSH: As we discussed earlier, and as I mentioned in my review, AoD was an extremely text-heavy game. But I noticed that the concept art for The New World is lacking text altogether and appears to be far more focused on the visual aspect. How/why did this change come about?
Vince: I wouldn’t call it more visual. While AoD was a text-heavy game, it had cities with districts, ruins, ancient facilities, etc. Of course, our resources were limited, so maybe these places weren’t much to look at, but that’s a different story. We certainly want to make a better looking and more detailed game world but the overall design will remain the same.
CSH: I’ve had some experience working with artists before, but I’ve never worked with a composer. What does that entail?
Vince: I’ll let our composer answer this question.
Ryan Eston Paul: Each piece of music was composed with either a specific location or group of people in mind. Oscar would typically send me what illustrations and text were available for a location, along with any notes or ideas the team had on the direction or mood the music should take. Sometimes the team had specific goals for the musical soundscape, other times they left it up to me. Either way, I would get to work on a "mock-up" of the track (a fleshed-out, but simplified version of the piece) to send to Oscar for approval before final completion.
There was quite a bit of reflection and research that went into the music. Knowing that several composers had already worked on the project before me (all of which had done some amazing work), I had to try and process the hurdle of what exactly had not worked in the past, all while acknowledging the tricky balance of musical textures that a post-apocalyptic, historically-fictitious Roman Empire presented. Luckily, I had a love for Fallout 1 and 2 and Planescape: Torment going into this project (something me and the team obviously shared), so the work of composer Mark Morgan was an easy foundation from which to draw upon. Couple that with some extensive research into Ancient Roman, Egyptian and various Middle Eastern music, and you have the basic recipe. Oh, and I was listening to quite a bit of Norwegian and Finnish metal, so that may have played a small part.
When composing the actual pieces of music, it was a balance of "what should the instruments sound like in this part of the world?" and "what feeling needs to be expressed?" Sometimes one wins over the other (there are synthesizers and banjos in the music, after-all), but usually the balance presents itself clearly. In the end, if it feels right, I've done my job.
CSH: Thanks Ryan, that was incredibly enlightening. Vince, in my experience, making something as lengthy and in-depth as a role-playing game is a process of learning as much as creation. This is your third game now. What mistakes have you made? What do you do differently and what will you do differently next time, knowing what you know now?
Vince: We made a lot of mistakes in every category and it would take too long to present and explain them properly. I should probably write an article one day dedicated exclusively to our mistakes but I’m afraid it might turn into a novel.
One of the most common complaints about AoD was meta-gaming, which was driven by the player’s desire to get more content in the course of one game. As that content required stats and skills, it forced some players to meta-game, either to spread skill points in the most optimum manner or to hoard points until needed.
The best way to fix it is to switch to an ‘increase by use’ system as it eliminates the meta-gaming aspect since now there are no skill points to hoard or distribute. The content you get will be determined by your actions and choices (including which skills to use as your primary and secondary groups).
CSH: Now I know The New World is only early in development, but do you have any thoughts on what the next game might be? Another pseudo-Roman adventure? Another sci-fi?
Vince: An occult RPG set during the Spanish Inquisition. Cavort with Lucifer and his minions or serve God and the Inquisition, that sort of thing.
Thank you for your time, Vince and Ryan. I thoroughly enjoyed Age of Decadence and I now eagerly await the release of The New World. Until then, I’m going to keep working my way through Asimov, and now I have another couple of classic sci fi authors to add to my queue. When TNW is a bit closer to its release date you can expect to hear back from me, begging for another interview so we can get down and dirty with the nitty gritty mechanics banging about behind the scenes of a hardcore sci fi RPG. Cheers!