When I was about six or seven, my dad bought me a re-release edition of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and that book basically set my life upon an irreversable course. I was hooked on exploring the mountain, fighting through dangers, working out puzzles, ignoring bad rolls and cheating because pfft, who was going to stop me? I nerded out something fierce on that book, which would eventually lead to an interest in D&D, as well as role-playing in general, completing the circle of nerdom that had started with video games. When I discovered that there was going to be a fleshed out, table-top like video game of Warlock, I made several noises too embarrassing to recount here, but were very much made out of excitement. During PAX Aus, I checked in with designer and programmer Clinton Shepherd, and tried to act professional while giggling uncontrollably on the inside.
You guys have tapped into a major part of my childhood here, I friggin’ loved this game when it was just a book, how did you guys go about picking it up as a video game?
Well, first of all we’ve done a bunch of Fighting Fantasy titles in the past. We’ve been working with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone for four years now, and we’ve previously done these games as more traditional digital stories. They’ve been fun to work on, but with this one, because it was the first book they did in the Fighting Fantasy series, we wanted to do something a bit special. We wanted to expand on it, and make it play like a tabletop roleplaying game. You know, in some ways, those books were kind of like single player D&D experiences, and that’s kind of what we wanted to bring out.
What was your role in the project, and how much have you worked on before?
Normally I’m a programmer, but for this project I actually designed the combat system, level design for the combat, setting up the monsters, giving them their different behaviors, that sort of thing.
I forget how many titles I’ve done for Tin Man, but I’ve worked previously on Starship Traveler, To Be or Not To Be, we did Herald of the Oblivion, which was a 40k game book. We’ve done that’s a bit more traditional with dice rolling, we’ve done stuff without combat, Herald of Oblivion had another weird little combat system we came up with, which involved a 3D computer rendering of you in the battlefield.
Was it a really straight forward process then in converting it from a book into a virtual tabletop game, or were there unexpected complications in the design process?
There’s always going to be challenges, and I think one of the great things was that we sat down at the beginning and were like, “we want to rework the combat and expand on it.” As you know, the old Fighting Fantasy combat was the classic “role two dice, add your skill, highest number wins–”
Pretend that you won, and move forward.
Of course, yeah, and regardless of the result just continue playing. So we ended up doing this simultaneous turn-based combat system where everything plays out together, and that was really fun to work on. But as we built it up, we learned a lot about what we were aiming to do. Originally, we had these very smart AI’s that could kind of predict player moves, and had personality, but we realised that players couldn’t predict their movements and we felt that that was unfair, so we looked at that and decided, “No, we need to go back and make these enemies more predictable, so you can identify what they’re doing.” That was definitely one of the things that we ended up changing afterwards.
Is everything in the story more-or-less exactly as it is in the book, or have there been changes along the way?
We’ve definitely expanded the original story, the core of the original Warlock of Firetop Mountain is in there, but we have made changes to expand other areas, and added new areas in. And in doing that, you kind of have to massage the old parts to make them all fit up, and make a new story. So, we wanted to expand on it to make it this big, epic story. We are thinking about going back and releasing the original book in our old style, like doing a classic version – taking the classic version and releasing it just as it was.
I can see that, while you’re playing, the rooms are sort of generated as you move your character along, so is it procedurally generated, or is everything set in place?
At the moment, it’s prodominantly just the same each time, we’ve laid out the dungeon in a specific way. You want to make sure that it always makes sense, because procedural generation and narrative don’t always work well together. We do have on area, Zagor’s maze, which does change each time. The mazes were always fantastic in those books, aren’t they everyone’s favorite bit of the old Fighting Fantasy stories? The maze sections?
Yeah, I didn’t go crazy and want to stab the book or anything.
No, no, but we wanted to improve that, so we ended up playing around with procedural generation so that it lays itself out differently each time, and you still have to find the different events that occur inside the maze to get yourself out. That also, was one of the challenges along the way, and we definitely learned a lot from that and hopefully next time we’ll keep trying stuff like that, refining it and iterating on it.
How long was the game in development for?
We released on Steam about a month ago, and we’ve been showing it off here at PAX. In terms of development, we’ve been working on it for about two years, but it would have been in the last nine months that we pulled pretty much our whole team onto this project to get it done. We always work on multiple projects at the same time, so we had out programmer Lexa and our artist Ed working on it for the longest time, and then towards the end we all started jumping in to help out.
And what engine have you been using for this?
We use Unity for this, it’s definitely the easiest way for us to get games out quickly, and get games onto multiple platforms. It does a lot of the heavy lifting, and means we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, or build apps and everything up from scratch every time you go to make a new game. We already reuse our technology for each game we work on, so the stuff in our gamebook engine from our original gamebooks about six or seven years ago, we still use that sort of stuff in our games today. We just keep building on it and reusing it in each title, and Unity means that we can focus on that kind of stuff, stuff that’s specific to our game.
So, have you been working directly with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone on this, and other games?
Oh yeah, Steve and Ian, whenever we finish a build we send it off to them, show them the game, see what they think, they let us know.
What is it like working with giants in the tabletop world like those guys?
It was definitely intimidating the first time. I remember the first game I got feedback from Steve Jackson on was Starship Traveler, I sent something off to him and turned around and was like, “Oh, you need to improve this.” It was great feedback too, and it was really intimidating, but they’re great guys – they love Fighting Fantasy, they’re very, very proud of it, and proud of its legacy. They’re really great to work with.
You said that you expanded on the story a little bit, what was it like to add something to something as classic as Warlock of Firetop Mountain? Was there ever a moment where you worried that what was written wasn’t up to scratch?
Well, I’m not the writer on the project, so I’m glad I haven’t had to grapple with such things, haha. There’s so much to draw upon in terms of the Fighting Fantasy universe, I was watching Ben, our producer and writer, map out where we were going to expand the story and how were going to go about doing that. There’s so much stuff, even the special heroes that you can play in this game, there’s the land of Titan, the continent of Allansia, and all the different things that happens there. There’s so much material to work with, it’s pretty good.
What would you consider to be the most difficult part of developing this game in contrast to stuff you’ve done previously?
I think it was just the scale, it’s a lot bigger and a lot more involved than anything we’ve worked on, it’s a bit of a reality check. I think the best thing I can think of was when we were trying to figure out the combat, and we were like, “Oh, yeah, it’s fine, we just put some monsters on a grid, and put the player in there, then away they go – we’ll bang this out in no time!” Then sitting down with it later and going, “No… I need to think about how this is placed properly, and what these are doing.” There was a lot more to it than we thought.
You guys ran a Kickstarter for this project, what was it like running the Kickstarter campaign, and trying to deal with the backers while working on the content?
Again, thankfully, I didn’t have to deal with that, that was primarily Neil and Kamina, our community manager, who was in charge of that side of things. Kickstarter is definitely a lot of responsibility, and it’s a lot of work to make it happen. The backers are generally pretty good, they’re really passionate and they love Fighting Fantasy, and I think we had someone drop by yesterday and congratulate us on our updates, like “Good job on keeping us informed, not going quiet but also not spamming our mailboxes every couple of weeks!” So, hearing stuff like that is really good, it’s encouraging. So, Kickstarter is a lot of work, but if you can embrace that and work with it then it’s really, really good.
You said before that you guys usually have a few projects on the go at once, what else are you working on at the moment?
Well, what I can talk about is that we’re doing a visual novel style mystery game for Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, if you’re familiar with the TV show. We’re doing an iPhone game for that.
My fiance will be very excited.
Haha, it’s looking amazing, and hopefully we’ll be bringing it out early next year. And we do have other projects on the go, but nothing I can really talk about right at this moment. But stay tuned, hopefully we’ll have something interesting to announce.
Lastly, what is your favorite game? I’m expecting something fairly old-school, given what we’ve got here.
Like, my favorite video game of all time?
Just in general, this is based in tabletop after all.
Aw, look, the game that got me into video gaming was DOOM. I was, and still am, a big first person shooter nut, and that was the one I remember playing back in the day, spending a lot of time on it.
Would you ever consider working on a first person shooter title?
Actually, no, that’s the weird thing. It’s my favorite game, but it’s not necessarily the kind of game I want to make. I think FPS games are really cool, but it’s not the kind of game that I want to work on. I actually prefer working on turn based combat, and even narrative design, or being the person who sits next to the writer, helping them work on the mechanics to make the story come alive – that stuff is interesting. First person shooters are like my fun time, they’re my holiday!
Here are some other places where you can show your support for Warlock of Firetop Mountain:
Fighting Fantasy Twitter: https://twitter.com/fightingfantasy
Tin Man Games Twitter: https://twitter.com/TinManGames
Steam: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain