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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Interview: Mode 7 Games

Paul Taylor and Ian Hardingham are the brains behind Mode 7 Games, and jolly top blokes. Between them, the roles usually assigned to a multitude of game designers are neatly compacted and allocated to mere human frames. How they cope with the burden is beyond me, although Ian would perhaps suggest it is his family whom keep his spirits up.

DuBBle: Hello Paul and Ian! I'd like to ask a few questions for Splines, if I may.

Firstly I'd like to congratulate you on your achivements. I can hardly comprehend the sacrifices you guys have had to endure whilst developing Determinance. I want you both to know that your efforts stand testamount to the ideals of gameplay and originality - oft lauded by the games industry but rarely delivered by any but the most daring of developers.

PAUL: Thank you. We've definitely learned a lot about the balance of originality and fun gameplay in making Determinance, and we know that gamers will appreciate the effort that's gone in to reconciling those two elements.

Q: The steriotypical game developer is thought of to be underpaid and overworked. Do you find yourselves adhering to this steriotype?

IAN : No. It's a huge amount of work but when you're doing it for yourself somehow "overworked" doesn't seem to be the feeling, and it always helps that I can (and do) get up at midday. And as far as "underpaid" goes, we haven't earnt anything yet but somehow that makes it seem much less underpaid than earning a bad salary - Paul may well have a different opinion on that! My family helps me out so I'm never short of whiskey, and as long as you have whiskey everything seems pretty rock-n-roll. When I run out of whiskey I'll be underpaid.

PAUL: I think that "underpaid and overworked" feeling is largely something that people in big commercial development houses experience. As we fund ourselves through various means, and we're working hard on something that we believe in, we've got nobody to bitch at but ourselves. You don't want to see Ian when he's run out of whiskey.

Q: To what extent have Mode 7 been left to fend for themselves whilst working on Determinance? Have you recieved much support from within the industry?

IAN: Zero, but I somehow think that's pretty reasonable. We've been working on this for three years but until this September we didn't have a product. Until then we had a bunch of ideas barely visible on a beta which looked pretty much unfinishable by two guys. During most of our development is seemed like the outside world couldn't see the potential of the idea, which I did and do still find very hard to understand. But on the other hand, Determinance really wasn't very good until this summer. It all came together through a period of bad feedback and very hard work and as soon as we got there, people started really taking notice. Easy as it would be to rile against the industry for not supporting us, we just didn't have anything particularly worth supporting until very recently, when all of the three years of hard work finally came together. And then people really started responding.

When I first had the idea for Determinance in 2003 it was like a diamond encased in mud and rock. We spent the last three years trying to expose the diamond by haphazardly cutting chunks, but the convoluted development is a huge part of what Determinance is today. I'd like to say we made one mistake and we should have prototyped right at the beginning (instead of plunging straight into full production), but I don't think we would have come out with what we have now if we'd done that. In fact, we might well have given up. Only with the huge investment of time already in the 'broken' Determinance did we have the motivation to fix it.

PAUL: Ian's right in that we've had no practical support from industry-types, but that's not to say that we haven't had encouragement and also been able to work with people to fill in some gaps. The GarageGames community was invaluable in that there were talented people around who were happy to work with us. We've also had some nice words of support and help in other ways from some indie developers: Jamie Fristrom at Treyarch; Mark Healey who did Ragdoll Kung Fu, Peter Stock who did Armadillo Run. On the PR side, PC Gamer UK have been phenomenal supporting us, as have sites like Gametunnel. There's some shameful behaviour out there in the world of commercial games journalism, but we're lucky there's still some people who are willing to take a look at new games and not just be spoon-fed by expensive agencies.

Q: Determinance constantly radiates a sense of humour. Is this a reflection of your personalities shining through the coding? Will future Mode 7 games carry on this comedic quirk?

IAN: Two things. In the very initial design document for Determinance I wanted the flying protagonists to be hugely irreverent, care-free and mocking characters. The script for the un-finished single player story (which by the way Paul thinks is ATROCIOUS) is really defined by the conversational style - playground joshing intermixed with the hugely epic, the style I really wanted to become known for. That drives the look and the voice acting of the characters - we had the entire script voice-acted and the taunts done by the actors, so each character has an actual back-story which I think helps immensely.But that's just the specific thing. Paul and I both refuse to take anything seriously, especially not anything as fundamentally ridiculous as game development. We're also both very different kinds of gamer, and the clash of the two different ways we think about games often leads to really amusing "compromises".

I have a huge dislike of things "trying" to be funny - I think you need to amuse yourself and not worry about other people. They'll follow.

PAUL: I don't actually have a sense of humour or a personality: those parts of my brain are now used to carry "information" like Johnny Mnemonic. Mode 7's not going to make any more games because Ian's analogy about the diamond was so fucking painful to read that I'm leaving him.

Q: What are your views on the connotations of the word 'Freeform'?

IAN: Ha. I believe the back-story to this question is that we were describing Determinance as a freeform sword-fighting game but had to stop because people thought that meant we were a sandbox RPG. I'm goingto let Paul do most of the answering on this one.

PAUL: Some people are idiots, so they associate words with processes and objects rather than looking at what they might actually mean. I take the word "freeform" to mean "unconstrained" and not "a bit like GTA". Thus, we were calling Determinance a freeform game because you can move the sword wherever you want, and there were no preset moves, but idiocy prevailed and we had to relent. I also hate the words "sandbox" and"febrile".

Q: Do you truly believe that blogs such as Splines are able to make a positive impact on public opinion for games developers?

IAN: I think it's pretty obvious that the news side of gaming blogs is pretty much sewn up by the big sites, so it's got to be about opinion. Any kind of loyal readership gives a blog power to impact an indie developer. If you have only a hundred readers and you recommend them to play an indie game, and half of them try it and half of them like it then you've given that game twenty-five new players who will tell their friends. That can be a huge impact on an indie developer and that's with only a hundred readers. If someone plays a game and someone they respect has said it's good they're 200% more likely to like it.

On a slightly different note, I think there's space for a vastly critical indie-games site. All the big ones right now just want to"support" indies by giving everything a positive review and not really saying the hard truths. You won't make many friends that way but you will increase the respectability of the industry - something we need right now.

PAUL: Yeah, Splines and its ilk are very important. I agree with Ian in that we would like to see some more intelligent opinion - the problems are always two-fold. One, you have to write well, and two you have to spend a lot of time marketing your blog as well as writing it, which is something that writers don't generally like doing. I've certainly struggled with both on our blog! I would dearly love to see more opinion on the indie games sector, which is why we've started doing more opinion pieces. We're starting to line up some guest-bloggers too, which I'm quite excited about. I think that big companies need to pay attention to smaller blogs -they're the ground-swell of opinion. We've obviously had great experiences with Splines and with Addicted Geek, which is somewhat similar in some respects, so we love the smaller blogs.

Q: When are we able to purchase Determinance? Will the game be available in stores?

IAN: We very much hope you can purchase Determinance from one of several online publishers in January. If it happens, boxes will come later.

PAUL: Ian just said "in January" because our actual deadline is January 14th and he and I both know that SOMETHING will happen to make us miss that. God mocks all deadlines we've ever set.

Q: What are Mode 7's plans for the future?

IAN: We've already tentatively started design work on our next game, but a lot of what happens to us depends on how Determinance is received.

PAUL: Yeah, we want to see what happens with the game and then what the community needs from us. If it's viable to do further Determinance game modes and so on then we'll do that, but we're excited about the nextgame idea too.

DuBBle: I wish you both the best of luck. I'll be following Mode 7's progress, and you can rest assured Determinance will grace my hard drive so long as I am a gamer.

IAN: Huge thanks for the support, and it's great to be here.

PAUL: Cheers, mate - that's nice to hear, although ending the interview with "Well, it's a shame your game is so dire", pulling your trousers down and making a noise like a pheasant is always more amusing, I find.

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