Steven Peeler founded Soldak Entertainment in 2004 and released Depths of Peril, his first indie game, in 2007 to favorable reviews. Since then, Steven has released his second game, Kivi’s Underworld, and created Mac and multiplayer versions. I got a chance to talk to Steven about being an independent developer and the development of his third game, Din’s Curse.
GamersInfo.net: In late 2004, you left Ritual Entertainment to start Soldak Entertainment. What was going on at that time that made you push for your own business?
Steven Peeler: There was some annoying political stuff happening at the time. This forced me to think of the possibilities of what else I could be doing. I decided that one of the things I really wanted to do was create an RPG. I was never going to get that chance at Ritual since they were pigeonholed into being FPS developers. I also thought about getting a job with an RPG developer, but then I would just be a small cog and would probably end up working on some clone. So instead, I decided to go out on my own and make my own RPG. Depths of Peril was the result.
GamersInfo.net: As the primary developer/designer for Soldak, how many others do you get working for you?
Steven Peeler: I do all of the programming and design, but that leaves a lot of other important work. For Din’s Curse, we also have one writer, one sound designer/music composer, and seven artists. Considering everyone except me contracts part-time, we are a very small team. Actually, these days, 10 people would be a pretty small team — even if we were all full-time.
GamersInfo.net: I’ve read that your wife does a lot of writing for the games. Are the story and background primarily her creations, or do you do a lot of work together? If so, how does that work?
Steven Peeler: We usually work together to flesh out the basic overview. Then she writes all of the details. After that, we both go through things multiple times to polish. Basically it’s kind of a back and forth thing.
GamersInfo.net: What type of challenges do you face by being an independent developer that you weren’t used to being at Ritual? Do the freedoms make up for it?
Steven Peeler: Well, first I have to do a little bit of everything, so my time is more fractured. When I worked at Ritual, I never had to do things like taxes, Web sites, customer support and marketing.
Speaking of marketing, it is another big challenge for indies. Indies get doubly hurt here. We obviously don’t have a marketing budget in the millions of dollars, so a lot of marketing opportunities are instantly out, but even the marketing options that are free are harder to come by because we aren’t a mass-market AAA game and don’t garner the same amount of press attention.
GamersInfo.net: Are you are facing limitations with game development at this stage by being independent?
Steven Peeler: Indie developers always have limitations, like content. We don’t have an army of artists to create and populate a world the size of Texas. We must solve these problems in different ways. In Din’s case, every game is different, not because we have four CDs of content — although we do have a lot of content — but because we use random elements extensively to create a unique and, more importantly, interesting world. Each town and dungeon has a different layout, NPCs, monsters, style, quests, traps, secrets, items, interactive objects and even global world modifiers.
GamersInfo.net: Do you have any short- or long-term goals for Soldak and the games you create?
GamersInfo.net: It seems like you may not like publishers in general; is this true, and if so, is there a specific event or publisher that has caused this? Do you think you’ll be working with publishers at any time in the future?
Steven Peeler: I really don’t have a problem with publishers. I have worked with publishers that were really good at what they do, treated us like partners, and things went really well. I look forward to working with publishers like this in the future. I have also worked with crappy publishers that have treated the developers like they were pawns to do with as they wished. I could do without this type of publisher. I have probably been more vocal about the latter type, though.
GamersInfo.net: I’ve noticed that you have a fondness for the action RPG genre. What sets this genre apart from the others for you? Are you thinking of developing games outside this genre anytime soon?
Steven Peeler: I love RPGs in general — building up my character, finding cool and powerful loot, solving quests, killing monsters and all the other fun RPG stuff. Personally, if I want a good story, I will probably just read a book, so I lean either toward action RPGs when I want something more intense or toward a good turn-based RPGs if I want something more strategic and tactical. There aren’t many of the latter anymore, though. The other nice thing about action RPGs is that the subgenre has a lot of room to grow.
I would love to develop games outside of the action RPG subgenre some day. I have a lot of game ideas, from turn-based RPGs to sci-fi adventure type games and even to a cool racing game that I think would be awesome on something like the Wii. I have no idea if any of this would be anytime soon, though.
GamersInfo.net: Since starting on Depths of Peril, technology and hardware has changed a lot; has it been more difficult to keep up while being independent? What changes have you made with Din’s Curse to keep yourself up-to-date?
Steven Peeler: Actually, we don’t bother. My philosophy is to let everyone else wage the graphics and technology war with each other, constantly trying to one-up each other. I focus more on evolving our gameplay. How do I make this quest actually react to the player? How can this quest lead to some interesting consequence? How can I make the monsters act smarter and unexpected and still be fun? What new things can I add that make the gameplay better that other games haven’t already done before?
GamersInfo.net: After reading a lot of the favorable reviews for your previous games, is there anything you’ve learned that you are doing right or wrong? As an indie developer, what bearing do they have on your development?
Steven Peeler: I think reviews have reinforced that we are on the right track by providing games with unique gameplay. They can also be very helpful by pointing out issues with your games. As a developer, you don’t necessarily want this to be public, but it does help you create better games (that game through patches and future games). I’m not sure there really is a difference for indie developers when it comes to reviews, except they’re harder to get.
GamersInfo.net: So far your games have come off as quite unique; the gameplay isn’t like that of typical action RPGs. What is your stance on polished, shallow gameplay and rougher, deep gameplay?
Steven Peeler: Personally, I would much rather play a rougher, deeper game. Once you get past the rough edges, a deeper game just offers so much more. They’re more interesting, and if you want, you can spend much more time playing them. For our games, I’m polishing them more and more so that we can have the best of both worlds.
GamersInfo.net: Din’s Curse, as an action RPG, appears to be shaping up as quite a different style of game. One of the two features of Din’s Curse that looks special is the class combinations available. Can you explain how they work? How difficult were these to balance?
Steven Peeler: How it works is you have a choice. You can either play one of the full classes, or you can choose to play a hybrid character. A full class gets access to all three of its specialties. A hybrid character, on the other hand, gets to choose any two specialties from any of the classes. Each specialty can wield different weapons and armor, generates mana in different ways and, of course, has different skills. So a full class has access to more skills, weapons and armor. However, a hybrid can combine anything to form a personalized class. You can play a defender/necromancer to get great armor and undead pets. You can play a weapon master/fire mage to get flaming swords with your deadly weapon skills. You can even play warlock/healer to be able to summon demons and heal yourself.
Let’s just say it’s been interesting to balance so far. There are 141 combinations! Alpha helped balance them a lot, and we will continue to balance throughout the beta.
Steven Peeler: Instead of starting in the same world each time, in Din’s Curse, you start in a new town that has different problems than any other town. It doesn’t stop there, though; these quests aren’t static. If you don’t do anything about them, they will cause other trouble. For example, let’s say the boss Nightweaver has taken over level 5 of Frantic Pit. Nightweaver isn’t just going to sit there doing nothing waiting for you. He might cause a Saurian uprising, build an earthquake machine, send an assassin into town to try to kill the townspeople or do one of many other possible things. Other monsters can even impact the quests. In our boss example, Earthstomper might show up and kill Nightweaver to take over the dungeon.
Depths of Peril had a pretty dynamic world, and I thought it worked out really well. Our gamers and reviewers have also been pretty positive about it. So for Din’s Curse, we have really expanded it. There are more quests and many quest chains. We’re also much more careful about informing the gamer why something happened.
GamersInfo.net: Are there any other features in Din’s Curse that you’d like to mention?
Steven Peeler: One of the other big things in Din’s Curse is that there are a lot of ways to interact with the environment. You can bash down doors, oil can be set on fire and catch other nearby things on fire, breaking support beams might cause cave-ins, and many other things can be interacted with. This interaction isn’t always on purpose, though. Setting off a fire ring trap will catch wood objects on fire and destroy fragile things. Many monsters take advantage of the various objects in different ways. One of my funniest play-testing moments was when a zombie pulled a lever, which set off a trap and dropped him two floors down deeper into the dungeon.
GamersInfo.net: How did alpha testing go for Din’s Curse?
Steven Peeler: Alpha testing went really well. We got a lot of feedback, we made the game a whole lot better, and our testers had a lot of fun. We are now beta testing, which we are doing differently this time around. Anyone can now pre-order Din’s Curse and get access to the latest beta build. Pre-orders are also cheaper than the final price will be. For anyone that is interested in this, you can go to www.soldak.com/Dins-Curse/Buy.html.
GamersInfo.net: Does an estimated release date exist yet?
Steven Peeler: I’m hoping that we can be finished by late February or early March, but this greatly depends on how the beta goes. Shoot, we could sell a ton of pre-orders, and I decide to spend an extra month polishing.
GamersInfo.net: Any ideas floating around for what comes after Din’s Curse?
Steven Peeler: As usual, I have no idea what our next game is going to be. It could be something brand new, a sequel, an expansion pack or some other random thing. There are many possibilities.