Several months ago, industry veteran Brenda Brathwaite was looking over an old game magazine with fellow veteran and Loot Drop colleague Tom Hall. The year of that publication her game, Wizardry 8, had won RPG of the year -- with Ion Storm co-founder Hall's game, Anachronox, taking second place.
Recalls Brathwaite: "We were joking, and one of us went, 'wouldn't it be great if we could make an RPG together?' And at that moment, all the fireworks went off."
Thanks to the age of Kickstarter and crowdfunding, experienced devs like Brathwaite and Hall can make that kind of dream come true without a big team. They're the latest to take advantage of that chance by going back to the type of game they most enjoy making.
"We've never had an opportunity like this ever in game development," Brathwaite tells us of the potential to make the project currently-titled Old-School RPG. The pair are seeking a cool million in funding, with stretch goals to expand the game into something of a sequel.
The RPG genre in particular is a passion for both of them, but given that Loot Drop primarily works on social games, it just wouldn't be possible without crowdfunding. Even Brathwaite's Wizardry 8 received significant acclaim in the press and numerous awards, but it was a challenge to get published in its time, she says.
The idea of leveraging Kickstarter came later. "It wasn't 'let's make a Kickstarter game,'" says Brathwaite. "It was that we wanted to make an old-school RPG... and there's literally nothing stopping us. We're an independent company. It wasn't 'what type of game would we be likely to fund', it's 'what do we really love and want to make again'?'"
Part of Brathwaite's passion for making old-fashioned RPGs comes from her deep love of systems -- and how attached older formats used to make her feel to characters. There are "like 90 things" she loves about traditional RPGs, but there's one thing she misses most.
"I loved how when you would create your character or characters, it would sometimes take a long time," she reflects. "There was this incredible investment in creating the characters, and in helping those poor bastards survive, especially in party-based games where a lot of times your party would get wiped out. It'd take a lot of time and effort to build a party from nothing to a strong group, and many games had permanent death."
"But you had such an investment in your characters that when you won the game, you loved those guys," adds Brathwaite. The evidence of the power and meaning in those kinds of constructs is still alive among her own belongings: "I still have my original disk of characters from Wizardry, from 1981," she says. "I don't even have an Apple II; I'm sure there's no way it can run, but I can't bring myself to throw it away."
Like fellow RPG traditionalists Obsidian, who also recently launched a Kickstarter for an older-styled RPG, Brathwaite agrees to some extent with the idea that abstraction -- the simple graphics and systems-focused perspectives that were the only option in a bygone day -- can help inspire emotion and imagination to an extent more lifelike games cannot.
She cites Scott McCloud's example in his book, Understanding Comics: "If we look at a plug, we can see a face in that plug, and that face could be anybody," she suggests. "But the more detail I add, the less it could be just anybody; the more mine it becomes, from a design perspective, and the less yours it can be."
Brathwaite and Hall's game will have a focus on graphical style, however: "It's going to have the modern things people expect," she says, enthusiastic about the rich art concepts that are already underway for the game thus far. "But the old-school RPGs tended to be really rich in story... so we are making sure we have a tremendous attention to detail in terms of character, story and the struggle in the world."
"Not everyone will want perma-death -- save games evolved for a reason -- but we're making sure we put options into the game for people who want that hardcore experience," she says.
If games might have been limited by the pursuit of 'realism,' then maybe there's a missed opportunity for engagement with players by allowing them to be as 'hardcore' as they want: "I play World of Warcraft a fair bit, but I don't really worry too much, because I know if I kill myself the very worst thing that's going to happen is I'll have to run a zillion miles back to my body," Brathwaite explains.
"I am way more careful in Minecraft... when there's a fear of loss, your success means more to you," she says. Creating the option of a similarly risky-hardcore experience, for players who want it, is an important goal for Old-School RPG.
Brathwaite and Hall have conceived of the game as having two distinct worlds part of the same universe and the same timeline, where one of them is fundamentally Brathwaite's and the other's is Hall's, with a bridge connecting the two.
Hall's second world is viewed as something of a sequel if the game's stretch funding goals are met. But ultimately the pair will collaborate on all aspects of development, and in Hall, Brathwaite has the ideal complement to her RPG values.
"Tom Hall -- I bet if there were a contest for 'easiest to get along with game designer', he'd win," laughs Brathwaite. "And we know we're not dealing with lightweights; it's never like 'Tom's gonna make this junior mistake.' We are both able to and continue to make dumb mistakes, but a junior mistake, you're not going to see that."
Hall loves to develop universes, says Brathwaite. "We had just started talking... and seriously, within two days, he had 10 pages of story ideas. He had the name of a janitor in this universe already."
As for her, she has a deep love for systems: "I always have been and continue to be fascinated by game math," she says. "I'm fascinated with the underlying architecture of the game. Tom and I both love being architects, and we love drawing all the plans out... I'm interested in how this thing is going to work, and Tom is interested in laying the story over the top of that world and creating characters."
At least in pre-production, the two will lead a smaller team, with a couple of artists, four or five coders and a sound designer early on ("I think that affects the overall feel of the world," Brathwaite says). From there, they'll scale up the art as Brathwaite and Hall continue to lead the game design.
Long-serving game designers are migrating in increasing numbers toward crowdfunding for the opportunity to apply their expertise toward the ideas and opportunities they've always wanted to pursue.
But there's something of a learning curve for everyone: For example, Brathwaite says she and Hall were excited by the initial enthusiasm toward their announced collaboration, but the degree to which audiences wanted extensive details right away was a little unexpected.
"In the traditional world of development, you come up with an idea: It's very loose, you know what your systems and genre will look like, and you have an overall idea of how the game is going to play... but it's not done, so there are a lot of questions you still have." That sort of loose sketch might have been enough for an experienced publisher back in the day, but the expectations of a passionate audience who wants to know where their money is going are quite different.
Although the Old-School RPG Kickstarter has only been up for a matter of days, Brathwaite already has a lesson to suggest to other developers that might want to try the same path: "There's no such thing as too much information," she says. "If you know it, don't hold back... put it out there. That's just an absolute must. People who are playing the game don't want to hear your pitch, they want to know what the game is even if it isn't done."
When we spoke to Brathwaite she and Hall had just spent a long day communicating on a massive update to their Kickstarter page that would add a number of specific story and universe ideas for current and potential backers to read.
Many developers who are curious about leveraging Kickstarter need to understand that from the day of the campaign's launch, there's a hand in hand relationship formed with the audience to create the final result. "Everyone has acess to these forums now and we have a one on one relationship with everyone who's paid for this game," she says. "And that's awesome."