AT: Moin Bob! You've been away from the adventure scene since 1997. Your CV on Wikipedia names some milestones for the time til now, but as adventure game players we're used to examining everything within grasp (and beyond). If you can spare a sentence for each phase – what have you been doing between John Saul's Blackstone Chronicles and Unreal II, what (and whom?) have you been consulting between 2004 and 2011, how do we have to imagine your everyday working life at Zynga, and what have you been up to since 2014?
BB: That's a lot of years to cover! :) Blackstone Chronicles was Legend Entertainment's last adventure game. By the time it was published we were already switching over to working on first-person shooters, most notably Glen Dahlgren's Wheel of Time game and some mission packs for Epic's Unreal (Return to Na Pali and Unreal Gold). This was right around the time that Legend was bought by GT Interactive, and as co-studio head with Mike Verdu, I spent most of my time on corporate affairs and acting as a design consultant for other studios within the larger company. When Mike left to go to Electronic Arts, I took over as sole studio head and worked with Glen on Unreal 2. Glen was the designer, and I was the writer. Next came the multiplayer version of the game, Unreal 2: XMP, and then Legend closed its doors in 2004. As a consultant, my first project was Panzer Elite Action: Fields of Glory, a World War II tank action game developed by the great Slovenian studio, Zootfly. I was credited on the project as the lead designer, but only because Zootfly's president, Bostjan Troha, refused to take the co-lead designer credit that he deserved. I also developed an untitled Sexual Harassment Training game, one of several "serious" games I have worked on in my career. In 2006-7 I designed the missions for Spider-Man 3 (PS-2 and Wii versions) for Activision, and that game went on to be a worldwide best-seller. In 2008 I designed a class for the CIA that taught Critical Thinking to its analysts. That was fascinating work! That year also found me working with Ascaron Studios in Aachen to help them design Sacred 2. In 2009 I shared the writing of Cursed Mountain, an action/mountain-climbing/fighting game for the Wii, whose villains were drawn from Buddhist mythologies. Another fascinating project for a writer to work on. That year I also worked on the original version of Ride To Hell. I should hasten to say that this was not the version that was eventually published. And in 2010 I also re-united with Zootfly to work on their game Prison Break.
In late 2010 I went to work for Zynga as their Chief Creative Officer for External Studios. At the time, Zynga had 8 North American studios outside of their San Francisco offices, and my role was primarily to travel between them and help with their projects. In the three years I was at Zynga I touched many games lightly, but "went deep" on 3 projects. The first two, Frontierville and Empires & Allies were big successes (at one point E&A was the #2 most popular game on Facebook). But the third game, Mafia Wars 2, was a flaming disaster and shut down just a few months after launch. Since leaving Zynga, I have returned to consulting for games that are still unannounced, and I have also been working on a game of my own design, a text adventure called Thaumistry: In Charm's Way, for which I am currently running a Kickstarter campaign.
Bob Bates, looking to the left
AT: That's a lot of genres you touched over the years. Given the enormous revenue figures that FPSs or browser games achieve it was a tremendous surprise to see you go back to where it all began. What was the trigger? What was your situation like when the idea of doing a text adventure again after 23 years came to your mind? What was your motivation to track that thought, and what was your hopes and expectations?
BB: Revenue has never been the biggest motivator for me. I'm proud, of course, when a game makes a lot of money. I'm happy that the client is happy. And I'm happy to earn enough to keep a roof over my head. But I'm just as proud of the games that might not have made as much money, but which were well-received critically, which players loved to play, and which achieved whatever internal goals I had for them.
In terms of a "trigger," it's a truism that my job as a consultant is to bring other people's visions to life. When I go to work for a client, everything I do is in service of their game. I'm not there to impose my vision upon them. There is a lot of satisfaction that comes with that role. It's great to be a catalyst that enables people to make good games. But it's different from the satisfaction that you get from creating yourself, and I like to have both kinds of satisfaction in my life.
When I first got the idea for the game, it hadn't been 23 years since my last one. The first notes I have for this game are in 2005, which was about 7 years after I designed Blackstone Chronicles. I had gone through several years of corporate life at Atari, and it had been a while since I had worked on "a game of my own." So I started working on it then, but of course I knew it would be a long-term project because I first had to find and learn a development engine. Fortunately for me, Michael Roberts had created TADS (anyone can find it at www.TADS.org) and Eric Eve had documented the system. So I was very lucky that the very tools I would need had already been created.
In terms of motivation, I try to find something worthwhile in every project I do that goes beyond (or lies underneath) the game itself. That has certainly been true for all the games I have designed, with the exception of the Eric The Unready, which exists purely as entertainment. I don't like to talk about those themes and ideas. I prefer for players to find them – or not – within the game itself.
AT: Speaking of Thaumistry - in 2005 Inform 6 was well received and the language to write IF in, and in 2006 Inform 7 started to say hello to the world. What was your reasons to go for TADS? Later on, when did the thought occur that Bodgers/Thaumistry might be a commercial project (or was that planned from scratch?) Did you consider other channels than crowdfunding? And I bet you considered at least a rudimentary graphical "frame", if not interface - was HTML TADS something you ogled? Seeing what 1893: A World's Fair Mystery did in 2003 is still charming. Why not Thaumistry?
BB: I spent an enormous amount of time trying to decide on a development system for the game. TADS and Inform weren't the only choices, there were others like Hugo, Adrift, and Quest. But TADS and Inform turned out to be the leading contenders.
I went into the process thinking that I would use Inform. A few years previously, Graham Nelson had quite kindly sent me a copy of the Inform Designers Manual and Inform certainly seemed like the spiritual successor to Infocom's development system. It was more popular than TADS 2, and Inform games were portable to almost any computer. But TADS 3 was on the horizon, and it promised HTML support and the possibility of web-enabled games. It soon became clear that neither system was "better" than the other, and the choice between the two really came down to personal taste. I had by then acquired a working knowledge of C, and TADS code looked more like C, and that's probably what decided it for me.
When I started working on the game, I told my wife that I didn't know if it would sell 10 copies or 10,000, but I always intended that it would be a commercial product, something that would be sold, rather than downloaded for free. I had no idea of the size of the market for a game like this (and I still don't know), but I knew that I wanted the game to be good enough that I could reasonably ask people to pay for it.
My plan had always been to self-fund the game, purely as a one-man project. I was nervous about crowdfunding because for many years I wasn't sure how long it would take to complete the game, and I didn't want to promise a schedule that I wasn't sure I could deliver. (Given that it has taken 12 years, that now seems wise. Can you imagine what it would have been like if I had promised delivery in 2008 or so?) But after I ran my alpha test last May, the path to finishing became clearer. What also became clear was that I would need to bring in extra people to help me reach the finish line with a robust product. It wouldn't be enough to simply publish the game on my website, I wanted to take it to Steam and see it available on mobile devices. This required art and technical expertise that I don't have, and that is what prompted the crowdfunding effort.
The possibility of including graphics (and sound) in the game is something I wrestled with from the beginning and yes, HTML TADS offers interesting capabilities. I eventually decided not to include graphics for the simple reason that I couldn't create them (I can only draw stick figures) and, for this project at least, I didn't want the distraction and extra work of doing art direction. If this game is successful, then I could imagine a future project that might include graphics of some kind. But that is for the future.
Action scene in Eric the Unready
AT: Given that the Kickstarter made it over the finishing line but probably won't exceed the target by far - would that already count as "success", or what is your personal definition in terms of financial reflux and recognition?
BB: Reaching the Kickstarter minimum goal is great because it means the game will definitely be finished. But the purpose of a Kickstarter is not to fully compensate a creator for the amount of time he put into a project. The purpose is to raise enough money to get the game out into the marketplace, where hopefully it will find enough customers to make the development of the game worthwhile.
For me, "success" is measured in different ways. For this game, financial success would mean bringing in enough money that I could go ahead and make another one. Critical success would mean that reviewers like it. Popular success would mean that *players* like it (not always the same thing as reviewers ??). And internal success would mean that the game achieved my own private goals for making the game.
AT: From the future to the past: Are you in contact with other former implementors apart from Steve Meretzky? Steve is in the news from time to time, but what do the others do nowadays? Tim Anderson, Michael Berlyn, Marc Blank, Amy Briggs, Bruce Daniels, Stu Galley, Dave Lebling, Brian Moriarty, Liz Cyr-Jones, Jeff O'Neill, Jim Lawrence - anyone in this list, or even several ones, you can drop a line about?
BB: I see Steve Meretzky quite often and we're good friends (although he, of course, will deny this). Brian Moriarty is teaching game design now and I see him from time-to-time at game conferences. I haven't seen the rest of these folks in ages, and stay in intermittent touch with them only through email threads that sometimes spring up among the ex-implementers.
AT: Going even further back - you worked as a tour guide in Washington in the late 70's and early 80's. A rather successful one. That surely is a profession which provides anecdotes worth telling. Can we have one or two please?
Washington DC is full of VIPs, of course, and sometimes the people I was guiding were there to meet them. One of my groups had an appointment at the White House to meet President Carter. So I was there with them when a photographer from Newsweek Magazine took a photo of the President that happened to have me in it. The story they ran had the headline, "The Battle Begins!" I had just met the woman who would become my wife a few months earlier, and she taped the picture and the headline to the wall in her apartment to let me know I was in for a struggle to win her over. (We're still married).
The Battle Begins!
And of course there are sometimes awkward moments when it is clear you have made a mistake.... Once I had a tour bus driver who was from out of town and I had to direct him everywhere. When you stand at the front of a bus, you're looking back at the passengers while you talk to them, and so my attention was divided. At one point I looked up and realized that I had directed the bus into a dead-end alley between two disreputable-looking buildings, and the only way out was to back up several hundred feet. There's not much you can do to cover up a mistake like that.
AT: Adventure gamers are serious about their genre, and one thing they love to talk about is unfinished games and what they could have become. From what we know there was a third game planned to be released after Sherlock and Arthur - a Robin Hood game. How far did that project get, and given your experience with TADS and the Kickstarter now, would it be imaginable to see that game become reality in the 21st century, or is it buried for good?
BB: The project never even began to get off the ground. By the time I finished writing Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur, Infocom already knew that they didn't want a third Immortal Legends game, and instead asked me to work on a game version of James Cameron's movie, The Abyss. It was an interesting project, and I got to meet Cameron and watch some filming in an abandoned nuclear power plant containment shell that they had flooded for the underwater scenes. But that project was cancelled when Infocom shut down their Cambridge office in May of 1989.
With regard to Robin Hood, it's hard to say to say that any project is "buried for good," but I certainly have no plans to revive it. Besides, can you imagine the problems that a quiver full of arrows would present?
>Take arrow from quiver
[Which arrow do you mean: The red arrow, the blue arrow, the arrow with the missing feather, the slightly crooked arrow...]
AT: ...not to mention the pleasure of coming up with distinguished room descriptions for 200 pretty identical forest rooms. :) Second but last question. How would you summarize your approach of producing a text adventure, from the first idea to an early alpha version? I know you could write a book about that (and it might even find buyers), but can you put the process and its main obstacles into just one paragraph?
BB: You're right, it is hard to reduce the process to a paragraph. I guess the first thing I do is to try and understand the core idea of the game. What kind of theme does it have? Why do I want to write it? Everything after that is one long conversation with myself. If you look at my design logs, they often read like a conversation between two people. "I want the player to solve the puzzle using a hammer." "Yes, but if you do that, what if he uses the hammer to solve this other puzzle you've already designed." "Maybe we could..." etc. One other part of the process is to iteratively ask the question, "If x is true, what else must be true?" If you want the game to take place in a castle, for example, the castle had to be there for a reason. Maybe it was to defend some territory. If that is true, who is it who wanted to attack, and why? And so on and so on. That is the way you build up a world. You start with a cool idea and say, "for this idea to be true, what else must also be true?" Once you have created an interesting world, you can populate it with interesting characters and create interesting problems for the player to solve.
Bob Bates, looking to the right
AT: And the last one: One amuse-bouche regarding your next game please. Just one sentence. Like, what will the setting be, or the core topic?
BB: I don't want to reveal a setting or a topic yet, but I will say that I'm very interested in exploring the idea of a voice-only game – a game that you talk to, and that talks back to you, with no keyboard or monitor involved.
AT: Bob, thanks a lot for this interview.