The game was developed over a 12 month period by a team of nine, including Humphrey and his wife. Described as simply as a “village simulator”, the title allows players to “care for and nurture a tribe of little villagers by teaching them the basics of survival” and “help them explore their new island home and the secrets it holds”. Along the way, the inhabitants of the village will “become farmers, builders, scientists, parents and make decisions about unpredictable ‘island events’”.
We contacted Humphrey via email to discuss the game, its entry in the IGF, and the fan reaction to it so far.
What is your background in the games industry?
I have been very enthusiastic about making games as far back as my first computer - a Commodore VIC-20. In college I studied computer science, but aside from that I am self-taught and have no formal game-industry experience besides that which I have gained from my own company. Aside from this, I play way too many games. If game design is truly 90% by the ‘seat-of-your-pants’, I guess that instinct must come from many summers and nights lost in front of the computer/console.
When was Last Day of Work formed, and what previous titles have you released?
Last Day of Work was a ‘hobby-business’ when it was first formed in 2003. This is a fun way of saying we were hedging our bets with the company, and had other sources of income. The first games we actually sold were on the Palm OS platform, and eventually we had a line of fairly successful games on Palm and Pocket PC, including Village Sim, the precursor to Virtual Villagers. As each new release proved itself, we were able to leverage the humble profits into the next (and always more ambitious) game. It is a very scaled, safe approach to growing a business and staying ‘in the black’.
What inspired Virtual Villagers, and why did you decide to make it?
People often classify Virtual Villagers as a “sim-style” game, but to me Virtual Villagers is in many ways a totally non-violent RTS. When I play a game like Ages of Empires, I often find that I enjoy the building and resource management portions of the game more than the preparing-for-war and battle stages. In VV, you manage your tribe much like you would in a classic history-themed RTS…you assign people to gather food and other resources, but ultimately we have shifted the core of the game to be centered around a plot and series of mysteries, rather than generating a massive war machine.
The resources are used to cause your tribe to thrive, and then later to enable them to explore and change their little island home, all the while uncovering and revealing secrets about this mysterious island. We also took it a step farther from the classic RTS, in that we gave them personalities, names, and distinctive qualities. This, hopefully, causes the player to ‘get to know’ the villagers and become more attached to them, and in turn more engaged by the game.
Why did you decide to include the puzzles into the game, and what feedback have you received in regards to them?
The puzzles were a key decision, as they change the game’s genre dramatically. I see the puzzles, in a way, almost as a throwback to old-school games like Kings Quest, where these simple challenges and mysteries were used as a way to tell a story. This really shifts the focus of VV from a “sim-style” game or a resource management game to more of a story driven adventure, but one that is told in an emergent way and at the player’s chosen pace.
What were your expectations from your game, and do you feel the end product lives up to those expectations?
Since the first versions of Virtual Villagers we always felt like we were working on something really special, and unique. We never really worried about the financial success of the game. Isn’t this really a key factor that separates a ‘commodity’ from a lovingly-crafted work? A lot of care and genuine interest went into it, and while we could have easily worked on it indefinitely, we did eventually force ourselves to release it. In many ways we felt that we were in uncharted waters, the way we were combining sim/RTS mechanics with a story, and trying to preserve a ‘sandbox’ feel, but at the same time give closure when certain goals are met.
This leads us to the trickiest, and probably most complained-about aspect of the game — the Ending. We wanted a fairly ‘soft’ ending because we wanted players to keep playing with their tribe, and keep having fun even after all the story elements were revealed. What we probably ended up with was an ending that has left some players a little bit confused, and unsure if they are ‘done’ or if they can/should/may keep playing. We are looking at this effect very closely for the sequel, which is currently in development.
How does the real-time element of the game work?
We sometimes got complaints from customers that play our game, which runs in ‘true real-time’, that when the game is closed it is still ‘draining their CPU’. This is, of course, not true... when our game is closed it is closed like any other game. The real-time is done by ‘catching up’ on any time that has passed when they start it up again. It creates a fun effect, but this particular feature has can make beta testing and debugging very difficult, as many of the features of the game can not be correctly tested in a short time. ‘Running through the game’ in its entirety can take a week or more. It also allows for a pretty wide range of usage patterns (playing all the time, playing in short bursts, etc), that can make it tricky to balance.
What do you think the most interesting thing about your game is?
The emergent stories. We have a dynamic ‘event generator’ that creates interesting and unique occurrences on the island. For example, there might be an event which destroys your village’s stockpile of food, or there might be a swarm of bees which help to pollinate their berry bush. Many of these events are generated procedurally, as well as picking a random (or not-so-random) villager as its target, and this really makes it interesting, even for the developers. We often see surprising events and the result is a wonderful ‘emergent narrative’ in the game. Did I say ‘emergent’ enough times now? But ‘emergence’ is so 2005. We’re supposed to all be designing games with ‘user-customization’ this year. Or is that also passé already?
How long did development take?
6 months for the original version, then another 6 months to enhance it and bring it up to desktop/indie standards.
What was the development process like?
The development process was really in 3 parts. First we brought the game to the handheld market. Then after months we released a patch that fixed many balance problems, and a myriad of bugs. Finally we took this patched, shiny, balanced version and enhanced it for the desktop (PC/Mac) market. These ‘little enhancements’ took just as long as it took to create the original game. The bar is indeed rising on the indie scene - thanks a bunch, Introversion!
What plans do you currently have for the game's sequel?
The sequel will be called Virtual Villagers: [To Be Announced]. It is slated for release this winter and will continue developing the story of these little villagers and their mysterious island home. Why are they there? Who was there before them, leaving all these signs and artifacts? What’s up with this crazy island? These questions and many others will possibly be answered. We are having a tremendous amount of fun working on this game, especially now that we have such a robust framework to work in. A lot of the tedious work is done (DRM, screen navigation, UI handling, multi-platform support, higher level sound and blitting functions, sprites, etc), and we are just lovingly crafting new puzzles, some new mechanics, and continuing the story.
What do you think of the state of independent development, and how do you think independent games fit into the industry?
I don’t think anyone would deny that the ‘indie game space’ is growing fast. I believe it is a combination of the new digital-downloadable models (Steam, and casual portals), and the growing buzz of the casual games industry. Casual games, in particular, are blurring the lines between true ‘casual games’ like minesweeper, and historically indie games; Oasis is an obvious example. Other new digital-downloadable platforms like Steam are now blurring the lines between indie games and core games. I guess I would say all the lines are getting blurred. I do not think there would have been a platform, nor a distribution channel, maybe not even an audience for our games just a few years ago. We are grateful and appreciative of the changes that are letting us take some chances and reap some rewards.
Have you checked out any of the other IGF games?
As a gamer, I check out most of the IGF games. When I first discovered the IGF, I was sure it was going to save the industry. With a few obvious exceptions, the huge budgets of AAA core games have really made it difficult for these huge teams to take significant risks, or make the innovations they probably would like to make. When I first saw Gish, I said, ‘This is it. We are saved’. Wik gave me that same feeling... it reminded me of the innovative exciting days of Amiga gaming, where gameplay was king.
Which ones are you particularly impressed with, and why?
From the past 2 years I was blown away by: Gish, Wik: Fable of Souls, Oasis, and Darwinia. With Gish and Wik, I was really brought back to the Amiga days, and they both use physics to great and fun effect.
Which recent indie games do you admire, and which recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why?
I am playing Defcon now. Introversion does not underestimate their players. A lot of details in their games are subtle, and when subtle works, it is hugely effective. I also very much enjoyed The Ship, the crazy multiplayer game where you can be killed with a frying pan while you are on the toilet. Rag Doll Kung Fu was certainly brilliant. Hey, these are all on Steam! I think I am seeing a pattern here. In the mainstream, I am looking forward to Neverwinter Nights 2, and Dark Messiah which reminds me for some reason of Hexen, the old Doom-based D&D derivative.
Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF?
There are a lot of parallels between indie games and indie film. There are competitions and festivals for indie films that presently may be the only way to get your foot in the door, to be recognized even if you have a very small budget. The IGF, in this same way, is hugely important and we are already seeing the innovation from this competition driving new mainstream creations - Portal, anyone?. I am sure many of the up-and-coming stars of game design are among us here in the IGF, so look around, enjoy yourself, and remember the faces you see.