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Road To The IGF: Keith Nemitz, Mousechief (The Witch's Yarn)

February 6, 2006
 

Introduction

Over the next few weeks, Gamasutra will be presenting a regular 'Road To The IGF' feature, profiling and interviewing each of the finalists in the 2006 Independent Games Festival main competition. Today's interview is with Keith Nemitz of Mousechief, the developers of unique PC and Mac story-based game The Witch's Yarn, which is nominated for the Innovation In Game Design award at the 2006 IGF. The developers' description of this notably alternative title explains:

"Direct the characters and events in a lighthearted melodrama upon a beautifully illustrated, abstract stage. Meet Wednesday, a witch who foreswore magic for the love a mortal. Intent on a quiet widowhood, she opens a yarn shop. However, life refuses to be quiet until she discovers her true purpose among mortals."

In this interview in the build-up to the 2006 IGF, Nemitz was kind enough to tell Gamasutra about his beginnings in the video game industry, the concepts behind his fascinating Direct'Nject story engine, and his favorite IGF title thus far:

GS: Tell us a bit about your background in the game industry, when your developer was founded, your location, your previously developed games?

KN: I left Apple Computer in '92 to work on an independent game. It was a tool for pencil and dice RPG referees. I showed it around at the 3rd GDC and, as a result, was hired by Sierra Online to port their adventures. When they moved to Seattle, I moved to a job with Digital Pictures and developed games using video with sprites. They died away a year later, and I found myself drifting in post-layoff limbo. This was before the internet bust, so work found me pretty quickly.



Mousechief's The Witch's Yarn

At Stormfront Studios, I started making the transition from programmer to designer, but after two years, we disagreed over my salary, and I broke with them to build another indie title. Flagship: Champion was a finalist in the first IGF. It was enough to land me a job with 3DO. Ahem. Near the end of their lingering demise, I was jettisoned back into independence, right in the middle of the internet bust. I moved to Emeryville to cut my expenses but ended up marrying the girl next door. That was the beginning of Mousechief Co.

GS: Tell us a little about your game - genre, how long it took to make, what it was inspired by, why you wanted to make it?

KN: Concerning The Witch's Yarn, here are three words for your readers: DON'T PLAY IT! It's not meant for them. The Witch's Yarn throws them for a loop with it's minimal control scheme, and it hits them over the head with a relaxed pace, all text dialogue, and largely inanimate presentation. The difficulty of puzzles ramp up dead slow starting with no challenge at all. Not until chapter's 6 and 7 is this game's 'innovation' used to manipulate a complex social dynamic for a rewarding outcome.

We call this control scheme, Direct'Nject. Direct'Nject gives players powerful tools to manipulate a story, in the form of characters and props. Instead of controlling a single character with simple verbs, the player 'injects' complex nouns into a dramatic situation. Different nouns influence the story in different ways. Some would be more obvious than others. The results of placing the Thief of Baghdad in a bazaar should be pretty clear, but placing Oliver Twist into a London street market would have more subtle or pervasive effects to the story.

Direct'Nject is a deliberate attempt to break the 'player control vs. narrative' dichotomy in current interactive fiction. Direct'Nject gives designers full control over the story's presentation. The simplicity of it's mechanism, selecting nouns from a list, is easily under-appreciated, but it allows for dramatically rich interaction. It also enables adventure games to be picked up and fully enjoyed by anyone who can use a mouse.

Direct'Nject allowed Mousechief to cut development costs to the bones. We would liked to have had enough funding to develop an autonomous agent filled, 3D, living-world with voice acting. The Witch's Yarn is a 2D, abstract stage play. Our budget was $10,000, and the entire product (10 hours of play) had to fit in 8MBs.

That was the inspiration, to bring interactive fiction to the masses, cut costs, and increase the player's immersion. Casual gamers were the only market we could approach for $10,000. So, The Witch's Yarn was written as an interactive sit-com. Dear readers, please tell your non-gamer friends and relatives, who enjoy a leisurely read, The Witch's Yarn was developed for them.

Actually, it was intended to appeal to women, but our sales have been fifty-fifty. We're not unhappy about that. I'm especially proud of the music contributed by several, indie jazz musicians. And, Aneurin 'Nye' Wright, totally rocked as our artist!

GS: What was the smartest thing you did to speed development of your title, and the dumbest thing you (collectively!) did which hindered development?

KN: The Python programming language and PyGame library whipped this game into shape in about two months of coding. They literally give me the power to be a designer and coder simultaneously, instead of having to switch modes with my bare metal programming past. They also made cross-platform development a breeze.

On the other side of the calendar, to be precise, nine pages later, I was still writing the story and scripts. I should not have written the entire, however many thousand lines of dialogue, by myself. I should have hired a writer. It's a lesson we've acted upon for our upcoming RPG.



A little more yearning for Yarn.

GS: What do you think of the state of independent development? Improving? Changing for the worse or the better?

KN: It's embarrassing to admit, but I've been pretty isolated from the community. I barely have time to make an occasional contribution to the indie gamer forum. My gut says its improving, but that will encourage competition. It will always be a lot of work to stay in the running.

GS: What do you think of the concept of indie games on consoles such as the Xbox 360 (for digital download) or on digital distribution services like Steam? Is that a better distribution method than physical CDs or downloads via a website/portal?

KN: It's all about bandwidth to the customers, and mind-share bandwidth is 1000 times more important that download bandwidth. Fortunately, viral marketing is fairly cost-effective right now, if not very reliable. Will modern society eventually expand or constrict this current golden age of communication?

GS: Have you checked out any of the other IGF games? Which ones are you particularly impressed with, and why?

KN: I haven't played enough of them to pick one. I wish more were available for the Macintosh. No, wait! I mean, I hope none of them are ever available on the Macintosh! It's the reason we earn more money from the Mousechief website than from our publisher's entire network.

GS: What recent indie games do you admire, and what recent mainstream console/PC games do you admire, and why?

KN: I think of Professor Fizzwizzle as a warning that indies need to take seriously. If you can't match that game's production values, your game probably won't make it, from here on.

As for industry games, I'm still jonesing for another launch of Civilization IV. I lost December to that fascinating, schedule shredding title.

GS: Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF?

KN: I feel like I've already said too much. Thank you for this opportunity to answer your questions and for your terrific IGF event! I wish everyone who entered, a rewarding future.

_____________________________________________________


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