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Jay 'Rampant Coyote' Barnson Interview

by Corwin, 2011-09-08

As work on the soon to be released Indie RPG 'Frayed Knights: The Skull of S'makh-Daon nears completion, its developer Jay Barnson from Rampant Games was gracious enough to answer a few questions about both himself and the game.

RPGWatch: Could you please give us a little background on yourself and how you got into game development?

JB: I was young and stupid and needed the money.

Okay, backing up a bit… I taught myself to program when I was twelve specifically so I could make games.  I had a home computer but I was too poor to afford many games for it, so I'd write crappy, incomplete clones of the coolest ones I'd played.  Sometimes I'd dream in game-code.  I even taught myself 6502 machine language just so I could write faster games. I used it to write a fast fake-3D rendering subroutine to display a Bard's Tale-style world. I never got much further in the game than that, so maybe Frayed Knights is some kind of deep-rooted subconscious wish-fulfillment thing to finish that stupid little game.

A few years later, in college, I enjoyed the real golden age of PC gaming in the early 90s.  You folks who were there and remember it can nod your heads - you know it was awesome. The industry was booming and it occurred to me that it might be possible to actually make a career out of making games. It was a ridiculous idea, but I figured I'd try for a "dream job" as a game developer first, and then when that didn't pan out I'd settle for some joe-programmer job writing accounting software. But I knew that I'd regret it forever if I never tried.

After graduation, I interviewed at a couple of local game companies, and somehow BS'd them enough to get a job offer from both. I worked on some hit titles... and some not-so-hit titles.  Amusingly, when I was hired at SingleTrac I was probably more knowledgeable about the games biz and making games than most of the other people there. Most of the employees had been at/ from a major simulation company, and had decided to form a game company in the belief that they could make games. Based on the sales of our first titles, I'd say they were right.

Anyway, I've been in and out of the games biz as a full-time career a couple of times now. But the mainstream games biz - especially now - really kinda sucks. It's changed a lot, and isn't as much fun or as fulfilling as it was when I started.  The real fun and excitement is with the Indies. They're doing exactly what attracted me to making games in the first place. I have a day-job right now that basically funds my part-time game development addiction.

RPGWatch: Why did you decide to make a humorous, tongue-in-cheek RPG as your first Indie effort?

JB: I was actually working on a deep, serious, episodic modern-era RPG that I still want to make someday. But as things went from design into early implementation, I realized that I was in over my head.  I had several years of pro and indie game dev experience, and had been playing computer and tabletop RPGs for decades, but I recognized that these things didn't necessarily translate into the chops required to do justice to my concept. So I backed off, and thought I'd do something quick and light. HAH!

I decided to do a first-person perspective, turn-based, party-based RPG because I loved those kinds of games, and they are disappointingly scarce these days. But being who I am, I didn't want to just make a rehash of an older game. After all, gamers can still go back and play those classic games just fine. I wanted to make something that hearkened back to that style, but was a unique experience on its own.

While I was thinking about that, I got the idea of party members bantering back and forth a lot like players in my dice-and-paper RPG group do (and, I expect, the players in almost EVERY RPG group). That was the inspiration. What if the world was a lot like a fourteen-year-old's earnest but silly masterpiece, and the characters acted much like player characters in every table-top adventure? See the movies, "The Gamers" and "The Gamers: Dorkness Rising" for an idea of what that might look like.

I've also felt that RPGs and players have gotten too serious in recent years. Back in the day major RPGs (and especially adventure games) weren't afraid to get a little silly with goofy ideas, silly monsters, pop-culture references, and a decent sprinkling of jokes.  While I appreciate a good, serious, angst-filled RPG as much as the next fan, it's good to just kick back and have fun with it, especially when the designer feels 'in' on the idea.

RPGWatch: Could you give us some background on what you hoped to achieve when you first began FK?

JB: While I can't even pretend that Frayed Knights is going to make much of a dent in the world of CRPGs, I guess in many ways it's part of my damn-fool idealistic crusade to prove a point. There's a lot of talk about how RPGs have evolved into their current incarnation --- which I feel is more like action gaming with lots of story and the trappings of character progression. I don't believe that's "evolution" so much as an attempt to find a unique selling point in the much larger action game market. I don't really want to turn the clock back to 1993 or anything, but I think the ideas and conventions of the genre from earlier eras are ripe for mining by modern, low-budget indie games. They may not be able to sell a million copies anymore, but they don't need to!

So besides the humor aspect, what I was really trying to capture was the feel and flavor of not only the old-school CRPGs, but also the thrill of playing dice-and-paper RPGs back in the early 80's.  I don't know if it's possible to bottle that - or if it is, if I have one iota of the talent necessarily to make it happen - but that's what I've been going for.  And I wanted it to be a game that would still be a fun RPG even if the humor didn't work at all.  I've also tried to address some of the deficiencies of the genre. For example, I've tried to make picking locks and disarming traps an interesting mini-game of its own, and then I introduced the drama star system to encourage an alternative to save-scumming. 

RPGWatch: How has your initial vision changed over the development cycle?

JB: Well, let's see… I had a vision of releasing a full-fledged RPG in only two years of part-time development! That goal's been blown all to hell for a couple of years now.

I don't know if my core vision for the game has changed all that much, but the details really have. Limitations in the engine dictated that my areas are a bit more sparse than originally intended, and the dungeons a little smaller. Realities of budget and manpower meant I can't get quite the production quality I always said I didn't care about, but secretly envisioned. And I've had a few corny ideas - like the movement system that was in the pilot - just not survive feedback from testers.

Perhaps the biggest change was realizing that even what I thought was a pretty small scope for an RPG was way too huge for a single game.  I had three separate "acts" that took place in three different regions, and I thought that the acts might only be around six hours of gameplay each.  Right now the first act is clocking in at around five times that, on the average.  Breaking the acts out into three different games was definitely the right idea, though it did require some significant changes to the story and quests to make all three fully stand-alone games.

RPGWatch: What are some of the things you've learned during this time which have come more as a surprise than something you may have expected?

JB: I'd tackled lots of little RPG-like projects in the past, and some bigger games with RPG-like elements. But I was still unprepared for the magnitude of the task that is creating a complete hardcore RPG. The pieces are easy to write, but putting them all together into a cohesive whole, and making interesting custom content to fill it, is a pretty staggering task. Maybe I'm just doing it wrong, I dunno.  But I came to the realization last year that in spite of working on some "AAA" games in the past, this is probably the biggest project I've ever worked on.

Also:  Text can be surprisingly time-consuming.  Anyone who has followed my blog knows I am very good at spewing out copious amounts of text on a regular basis. When I went into this project, I planned on it being pretty text-heavy. After all, writing text - descriptions, dialog, etc - is easy, right? I discovered writing stuff that has at least a tentative association with "quality" can take a lot more time and effort than I'd anticipated.

RPGWatch: What has been the most challenging aspect of this experience?

JB: That would be pretty much everything that I'm not much good at. Which would be everything but coding. And the coding is marginal.

The art - 2D and 3D - has probably been the biggest challenge. Especially with the project running as long as it has; I've run through several different artists / modelers, who all have different styles. Add to that the off-the-shelf content I've licensed from different vendors, and the stuff I've had to do myself, and a less-than-perfect tool, and you've got an eclectic bunch of visuals. Starting out, I had a much more limited vision of what the visuals were supposed to represent, but the art needs just sorta kept… compounding…

Sticking with this thing through its long dev cycle has been a real trial, too. I got very frustrated with how long it takes to get this stuff done. What else… oh, right! I also have very thin skin and cry like a little girl when the game is criticized. It's been a challenge coming to grips with my inner wuss.

RPGWatch: What has been the most rewarding aspect so far?

JB: Lemme answer that question when it's released, 'k?  Somehow I think that's gonna trump everything else. That, or that whole crying-like-a-little-girl thing. Or both. We'll see how that goes.

There's a point a few months ago when I was supposed to be testing some feature, and I totally forgot about the testing part. I was just playing - and I kept playing for quite a while that night.  It was hell on getting everything done that night that I'd intended to do, but it was awesome. This giant thing that I've been working on for so long was finally a game, and it was fun.  That's immensely satisfying.  It's dumb, as I'm supposed to be some kind of seasoned vet and all jaded to that kind of thing. But it's still a giant thrill. 

RPGWatch: OK, enough about you, let's discuss the game :  When can we expect to see it released?

JB: I promised this year, and I aim to deliver. If I don't beat the Thanksgiving rush here in the U.S., it'll be a personal failure. That's a pretty narrow window.

While we're still chomping at the bit to get cracking on the sequel, even once the The Skull of S'makh-Daon is released, it's not the end of the story.  We're Indies; it's a digital product. It'll be alive and updating for a while to come, I think.

RPGWatch: How do you plan to market and distribute the game? (Yeah give us some links) :

JB: Distribution will be initially through Rampant Games. ( ). You can check out the Frayed Knights webpage for updates ( ). And of course, irregular updates my blog, Tales of the Rampant Coyote ( ).

Shortly thereafter, it will be available on affiliate sites. If we manage to get on some other portals, we'll let you know.

RPGWatch: You and I have discussed certain design decisions over the last few weeks. From tester feedback you've received, which decisions are you most happy with/pleased about and which ones might be causing you concern, if any?

JB: You assume the two are mutually exclusive!

In light of tester comments, I'd have to say the characters and dialogs have turned out to be the biggest success.  It's no Planescape: Torment or anything, but the response has been really positive so far.  We also added some really interesting changes to Dirk in a recent beta based on feedback from multiple testers, which I'm really excited about.  I'm thrilled with how quickly those were put in place, and get more feedback on them.

The game system is pretty complex, and it's turned into a mixed bag. I'm thrilled that it works, and many testers have enjoyed the depth and amount of customization possible, but it's also a source of concern. It's not as easy-to-use as I would like, and has been a source of confusion for some.  I'm still working to make it easier to use and to understand what numbers are getting crunched, but it's definitely something I'm both proud of and worried about.

As an interesting side-note, when I was first developing the rules system, I made a somewhat awkward decision that multiple enemies would be more dangerous than a single, powerful enemy. Sort of a realism thing that was probably more appropriate to another game, but it's pretty deeply embedded now. The game even awards an experience point bonus for defeating larger groups… so battling 4 goblins at a time is worth more than two sets of two. Anyway, as we went into beta and were really starting to focus on game balance, testers began noting that some of the boss battles were just too easy. Sure enough, those were the fights with a single opponent. So we've had to both beef up the main bad guys and, in many cases, give them a couple of henchmen.

The adventure-game elements are another part that worries me a bit.  I love them, particularly as I hate quests where an NPC says, "Fetch me ten rat tails!" That's boring.  I've tried to avoid that.  In a handful of cases, the solution to a quest or obstacle is more of an adventure-game style puzzle - though generally pretty lightweight fare as far as that is concerned. But for some players, those have really blocked progress. I've tried to provide a few extra clues and hints in the game to make those less likely to make a player quit the game early, but I guess we won't know if it's enough until later.

RPGWatch: I know some testers have said parts are too easy, while others think it's too difficult. How have you tried to reconcile this during your final play balancing?

JB: Too hard? Are you kidding me? Bah. You guys who think it's too hard can go back to your easy-cheesy, namby-pamby games like Wizardry 4

Okay, in all seriousness - there's no simple formula for reconciling the difference of opinion.  Earlier, in late alpha and early beta, we'd make some big changes to try and get things in the ballpark.  That's still not out of the question, and I'm still refining some of the overall rules to try and get the feel just right.

But what I like to do is ask the testers about their characters (or even play their saved game, which is a weird but cool experience), and find out why they are having a too-tough or too-easy time. It may be that they have chosen a build that's really not very efficient. While that may make the game more challenging, I don't believe the game should be impossibly hard if you've chosen non-optimal progression. And in many cases, it has turned out that certain abilities or feats are not well balanced - they are too effective or not effective enough. Then it's my responsibility to tweak them so they are at least in the ballpark.

It's not an exact process, but as we're getting closer to release it feels like things have really started coming together nicely.

RPGWatch: One final question, well two actually... Approximately, when do you hope to have part 2 finished and will your characters continue on from where they finish part 1, or do they begin at level one again?

JB: I've discovered that I am horrible at estimating schedules, so I'm not sure I really want to venture a guess about release dates for the sequels. While I expect I'll be upgrading the game engine and system somewhat to respond to the demands of players and the special situations of the sequels, we're sticking with what has already been built and tested for the next games. We know how to do it, we've got the content pipeline figured out, and things can be done about 10x more quickly now than when we first started.  If we can avoid reinventing the wheel, development speed should be much faster for the next games. We've done a little work on them already, but not enough to give us a significant head start.

The sequels will be just as big as the first game, and will continue the story almost exactly where it leaves off in Frayed Knights: The Skull of S'makh-Daon, and will import your characters with their current levels, abilities, and equipment.  I can't promise everything will be exactly as they are at the end of The Skull of S'makh-Daon, as we could tweak the rules system a little bit with the next game, but for the most part you get to stay as you are.  You earned it!

Unfortunately, you probably won't find out why the entire party starts out at a meager level 2 at the beginning of The Skull of S'makh-Daon until the third game…

Once again, we at RPGWatch would like to thank Jay for both his time and detailed answers. For those still unsure about the game, we'll have a full review available once the game has been released.

Box Art

Information about

Frayed Knights

Developer: Rampant Games

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: RPG
Combat: Turn-based
Play-time: 20-40 hours
Voice-acting: None

Regions & platforms
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released: 2011-09-28
· Publisher: Rampant Games

More information

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