METAARCADE: TMC INTERVIEWS DAVID REID

2016-08-18

Late last week, I had the fantastic opportunity to interview David Reid, formerly CCP Pokethuhlu and now founder of MetaArcade. Over an hour of lively discussion, we went over the key facts about MetaArcade, the upcoming Tunnels & Trolls adaptation, and plans for the platform’s future.

While I have written about the platform and its upcoming appearance at Gen Con, a few questions from the readers stood out. There has been a bit of confusion over what exactly it is, and why it is important, so let’s get the key facts out of the way:

WHAT

MetaArcade will be a platform for buying, playing, and creating choose-your-own adventure games. In addition to being able to play it across multiple devices (PC, Mac, iOS, and Android have been confirmed, you will be able to create your own character and take it across any number of different campaign modules or storylines.

All of this is backed with unified RPG mechanics. The Tunnels & Trolls system will be the first, both due to nostalgia, and the practical reasons of it being simple and fairly open-ended. The first adventure to be adapted, Naked Doom, was chosen because of its mechanical simplicity.

This RPG backend, and a library of art and music assets, will be available for the community to use for the creation and publishing of adventures, with most of the revenue going to authors.

As more mechanics are fleshed out, and user feedback is incorporated, a few more ambitious features are planned, including multiplayer – and PvP, which are pretty unique features in the text adventure space. Appropriately enough, PvP was mentioned with a nod to EVE players by…

WHO

David Reid is the founder and CEO of MetaArcade. He is channelling a decade of games industry experience (much of it involved with MMO publishers), and a lifetime of passion for tabletop RPGs into a platform for playing and creating adventure games.

He has gone from the world of triple-A publishing to something more akin to indie development, which brings a new set of challenges, and different ways of sharing what your company is working on. But, he has not forgotten his roots – working at CCP left him with an appreciation for communicating with players, and apparently a lingering taste for PvP combat.

When I compared running a startup to running through a famous adventure like the Tomb of Horrors, David took the comparison with good humour. Running a start-up is a high-risk situation; if you’re not aware of the risks, you shouldn’t go in.

While David is placing a lot of emphasis on mobile devices for MetaArcade, he’s recognised some problems with mobile gaming as it stands today, and is not about to forget desktop gamers. A part of that is a commitment to starting small and iterating over time in response to feedback, which starts…

WHEN AND WHERE

Next week at Gen Con, Indiana. Along with the Tunnels and Trolls team being present for its 40th consecutive year at the convention, David will be present with the first public prototype of the MetaArcade platform for public consumption and feedback…Along with giveaways to participants to sweeten the deal.

Beyond that, there is no concrete timeline. However, late 2016/early 2017 is what’s being aimed at for a release of the first adventure (or adventures), and limited access to the content creation tools.

As for the where? Just about any PC, Mac, iOS, or Android device should be an option, though I would not discount an appearance at other events in the future. While PC gamers sometimes dismiss mobile products out of hand, there is a reason everyone should be interested…

WHY

Because while there is no shortage of great instant action games to pass the time, quality narrative RPGs you can take with you are a lot rarer. Besides producing first-party content, David aims to tap into the creativity poured out by countless internet users by easing the difficulties involved in producing an adventure game.

It’s a lot simpler to pick out art and music from a library and enter a few variables when writing out an encounter scene than it is to produce everything from scratch. Steam Workshop was cited as an inspiration for non-wordsmiths to make their mark as well, but regardless of whether MetaArcade itself or the community produces content, the result is the same: enjoyable content that you only pay for once.

While Tunnels & Trolls and its assets are definitely high fantasy (i.e. orcs, elves, and wizards), the core ruleset allows for things other than standard Tolkein to be produced – much like how Knights of the Old Republic made a Star Wars epic out of Dungeons and Dragons.

MetaArcade will be starting modestly, but there is genuinely exciting potential. I thoroughly encourage readers to check out the full interview on the next page, which contains boundless enthusiasm tempered with realistic expectations, a solid grasp of what makes an adventure enjoyable, and reference to Fifty Shades of Grey.

Fair warning: it’s a massive interview. But if this doesn’t make you just the little bit curious, I’m not sure what will.

INTRODUCTION

Ryan Vincent (TMC): Good evening, David, and thank you for your time. To get things started, please introduce yourself to our readers.

David Reid: Absolutely. So I’m David Reid, and I expect many of you readers may remember me as the former CCP Pokethuhlu, where I was the chief marketing officer, and for a while, the executive producer of EVE Online. I lived in Iceland and attended of a number of fanfests with the company. I am now the founder and CEO of MetaArcade, a Seattle area independent developer. Basically what we’re building is a platform to allow people and creators of all kinds to self-publish their own adventure games. It is something where I have looked at this as an opportunity to get narrative back into mobile gaming, really.

I have looked at a lot of the stuff in mobile and you know I play a lot of mobile as many many people do right now, but I just look at the market and just see that it is utterly devoid of any inspiring storytelling or narrative, and felt this would be an interesting opportunity to not just reactivate some old licenses and bring them back, but to build a platform by which anybody who would write a story could ultimately create their own adventure game.

We are launching the platform with our first title: Tunnels & Trolls, the second roleplay game ever made, published in the 70’s shortly after Dungeons and Dragons, and that was a game that pioneered solo adventures initially in pen and paper, so bringing that to the digital age is how we started. Before CCP and MetaArcade, I’ve spent a lot of time in the video game space and on the online space in particular. I worked at Xbox, worked at Turner broadcasting GameTap, some time at NCSoft, and Trion on MMOs before CCP, and most recently before MetaArcade, at Motiga.

TMC: A few of our readers have expressed a little confusion as to what the platform is and how it works. So, you mentioned bringing Tunnels & Trolls into the 21st century, as well as creating adventures. So, could you tell us a bit more about how that works from the user experience?

DR: Absolutely. and you know, we’ve been bringing news about this bit bit as things have started. Actually just this morning I put out a blog that put out a little more detail on this, but let’s talk about this from a high level. In general, and I’m gonna guess that you know most people won’t be familiar with Tunnels & Trolls – it is a game with you know rich history, but it is not a game that a lot of people are playing today.

But a way to think about it is for anybody who ever read a choose-your-own-adventure book and something like that where you remember you’re looking at text on one side, you’re looking at art on the other and you’re going through this narrative and making decisions along the way was an interactive experience in storytelling where I’m not just following a story that an author has written, I’m actually making decisions as I go through and tweaking the story as I go. Maybe not tweaking, but leading the story as I go into a different conclusion.

This is a format of storytelling that really does lend itself well to mobile devices. It’s where, much like if I were carrying a book, I could read it, I could pause, I could pick it up and go through the action any particular time I want. I don’t have be wedded to keeping an eye on the clock in a game and coming back on a regular basis. I can play at my leisure. It is the sort of user interface that lends itself nicely to mobile devices and bringing it along with you on planes or trains or what have you.

The platform itself is designed to ultimately bring that tabletop experience in a remastered digital way with the authentic feel of what these games and books were like in their original era. So the easiest way to start thinking about what exactly MetaArcade is doing is to think about that Tunnels & Trolls experience where, you know, Tunnels & Trolls was a classic roleplaying game that in a bit of a reaction to the complexity of early Dungeons and Dragons, the designer of the game Ken St. Andre came up with a rule system that shed a lot of what the baggage, if you will in some respects, of tabletop wargaming was that came into many of the early roleplaying games, where a lot of the complexity that you find in movement and combat and things really come from those roots of tabletop wargaming.

Instead, [he] created a set of rules that were more inspired by the actions he saw in comic book superheroes and Marvel comics and such. So he came with a way where the roleplaying and the storytelling were front and center, as opposed to the combat mechanics and movement mechanics being front and center. That lends itself to the idea of I’ve got a story that I’m telling, and I’m telling it in an interactive fashion where the reader is able to make decisions. There’s a light roleplaying game egine layered on top of it where you make rolls of dice for combat, for saving rolls, and things like that, and you’re building a character in an RPG sort of way that progresses from adventure to adventure. You survive your first adventure, you’ll gain treasure gain experience you level up and you can progress from there into more and more complicated adventures.

TMC: So these adventures allow you to have a character persist through different adventures?

DR:. Absolutely, and for me that’s important. I am an RPG kind of guy. a lot of games of this ilk and coming from that era have made a resurgence lately. Things like the Fighting Fantasy license, which was originally born in the UK, Steve Jackson’s Sorcery, and things like that are making an appearance. But for the most part, they aren’t the same sort of RPG where I’d make a character and can take them from humble beginnings as a first-level noob all the way up to epic high-level fantasy across a wide range of adventure.

Tunnels & Trolls was always of that ilk in the same way that Dungeons and Dragons was, and this to me this feels like the essence of roleplaying- of leveling up and persisting a character across adventures.

TMC: You mentioned as well that a shift in how RPGs operate that Tunnels & Trolls brought – going from the tactical war gaming angle to the more of a story-driven angle. A lot of tabletop games have come out in the last decade that lean towards that more narrative feel – You have Apocalypse World and a number of other things like that. Have you had any more recent RPG influences?

DR: I would certainly be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that part of my initial interest in joining CCP came from what was once a big CCP property: the White Wolf line. There’s another example of when you look at Vampire and the games that followed, of sort of this classic RPG sort of style with a heavier bed of storytelling over some of the grindy mechanics that that were present in early Dungeons and Dragons. You can almost feel people pulling out rulers and measuring the movement, because in the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons, they actually expressed movement as inches like you were moving your character along a grid a certain amount of distances and things. So you can kinda feel that vibe going in early D&D in a way that it absolutely is not in the White Wolf properties or in Tunnels & Trolls and such. I think there are plenty of RPG properties that I would say give a lot of influence, but in the end, what sort of led me to begin with Tunnels & Trolls is my fondness for the brand. As a lifelong tabletop player, I think many of us, if you dig in your closets, you’ll find many of the stuff that you’ve kept from games that were important to you. Of course, I’ve still got some of my old D&D books, and I’ve got a pretty good stack of all my Tunnels & Trolls stuff that probably rivals just about anybody else out there. It was always a very important game in pantheon of early RPGs.

TMC: A part of Tunnels & Trolls’ appeal that you’ve often expressed has been the way it was, as you were talking about, more accessible.

DR: Yes.

TMC: And what you’re trying to do with MetaArcade involves making the creation of adventures and the playing of them accessible at the same time. Is that another reason why you chose that property?

DR: Absolutely. The idea at some basic level that just sort of dawned on me as I went through this process of thinking about the kind of work that I would really like to do in founding my own company. It comes back to narrative first. The idea that just about every gamer has a story to tell – an adventure they thought of, a world they’ve designed in their heads that they have played with others, and the idea of being able to publish that, right? If you’re going to try and do that with a complicated rule system, it adds to the complexity of actually making a product digitally. The Tunnels & Trolls rule system is something that, at its basic essence, is very very simple and straightforward, and the rules booklet itself is very very thin in terms of page count and such, yet it scales up very very nicely right. As an example, saving rolls in Tunnels & Trolls are always based on your characters attributes, and so a saving roll can be exceptionally difficult, and yet as you progress in levels your attributes go up, whereas in some of the other RPGs relatively constrained. You might roll 3d6 when you start, but the highest your attribute is ever likely to get is a 20, a 25, something like that. In Tunnels & Trolls, it was unconstrained and as a result, epic level play was simply accommodated by characters leveling up, getting higher-level attributes and having to make higher level saving rolls. The mathematics and the rules engine around it are very simple, and very simple to code as well.

TMC: And something that you can guide creators in by giving examples challenges that might be acceptable or usable for a given challenge level?

DR: Yes. And to make it easy for us to focus on the tools that allow people to bring the narrative to life, as opposed to having to dig deeply into mechanics and an engine that will bring complicated rules systems to life with the piles of rule books that other games often have. I’m not gonna say I don’t play those games and don’t love them – I absolutely do and I am a min-maxer power gamer at my essence, and I love sort of the spreadsheet side of those things. But, that said, that is a way to make your game inaccessible. It is a way to make it more and more complicated to people to enjoy and play and understand.

On the flipside, if you’re thinking about trying to do this for creators, which is really a big part of what I’m hoping to do here, you want people to be able to focus on the narrative first in this case. The idea is that if I can write a story, well now here’s a rules engine that allows me to turn that story into something interactive without having to do a lot of calculus, and without having to figure out a whole lot of how powerful should this monster be, how much of this treasure do I need to allocate, and how many experience points does a character need to get.

TMC: Right.

DR: Keeping the rules system concise allows us to focus on letting the narrative shine from the author.

GEN CON AND NAKED DOOM

TMC: Speaking of the narrative, the Naked Doom adventure the first adventure made for MetaArcade, and I believe that you’re showing it off at Gen Con next week.

DR: That’s right! I think it’s two weeks – I think we still have another week to finish it, to polish up things.

TMC: We’ll say ‘soon.’

DR: Yeah, soon! it is absolutely coming soon. You’re exactly right this is something where, when I got started talking with the Fellowship of the Trolls, as they call themselves now after reuniting the team back together again – they were the principles behind the other original rules together after the Kickstarter that they held successfully in 2013 to make Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls – as I was talking with them, my instinct had been in that we would start with an adventure called Buffalo Castle which is the first solo adventure ever written for Tunnels & Trolls and quite likely the first solitary adventure ever written for any game, of any kind.

It is a bit of a historical monument in that regard in that it came out before the choose-your-own-adventure book craze really hit North America, and it just seemed that to me to start from the beginning. In the discussions with the Fellowship, however, a number of things became clear. Number one: Buffalo Castle was something that they had already updated for the Deluxe rules as part of their kickstarter, but Naked Doom was an adventure that had been out of print for a very very long time.

Naked Doom is an adventure that has always meant a lot to me. It is the essence of the early, challenging, primal fantasy adventure where you are set into this place with no equipment, you don’t know magic, and you are going to have to grit your way through this challenging space on your wits and your combat prowess and a good dose of luck.

TMC: So it’s the quintessential RPG starting scenario?

DR: Exactly. And to make it even more of an easier decision for me to go in that direction first beyond my level of this particular adventure, the fact that you don’t even start with equipment makes it that much easier to code the prototype. On some level it was suddenly like “Well wow, that’s right! I don’t need to worry about rolling in the gold and buying equipment yet.”

A lot of what MetaArcade is about for me is taking a different journey through games development. I’ve been doing this for a long time now and I’ve had a blast doing it but there is a pattern that I’ve seen in my own career and the companies that I’ve worked at, which by in large has always been the sort of we’re building these epics of epic epicness. These massive games where lots of people are working on them, meaning hundreds of developer years, sometimes tens of millions of dollars. Sometimes it’s great when that happens, right? Sometimes you get to work on some really exciting stuff, and while EVE had a modest developer budget when it started it, certainly has had a lot of investment over the years as it continues service. EVE is certainly one of those triple-A-style games. Rift was a great success for me at Trion, but I’ve also worked on stuff that didn’t go so well after those giants investments.

A lot of times I felt like what was at play there was the view that a team of designers and artisan folks would be working on their game in isolation before sharing it with the community at a level where they could really understand what was the game that they were getting, and the community getting that feedback into a game that is actually something that would resonate with them. So for me, for MetaArcade, I really tried to move in a much different direction of “get it out there, get it out there quickly, put a prototype in people’s hands, and react to that feedback” as opposed to designing everything in isolation and then bringing it out.

So that’s what leads to your point, having the prototype ready at Gen Con. It is not an effort at this very moment but to completely finish everything in Tunnels & Trolls. That can come. The goal initially is to put this moment-to-moment experience into the hands of the RPG community and the Tunnels & Trolls fans, and get a sense of whether they feel we have accurately remastered the game in a way that represents it with authenticity and integrity. We don’t need to spend three years developing for every corner case of rules to do that, and this is just part of where once again, part of the goal of what I wanted to do, Naked Doom lent itself as an excellent first choice because it just allows you to get going into a game very very quickly. It allows you to get coding, and it allows you to get a prototype out very very quickly compared to other adventures where magic would be at play, or high-level play and things like that.

TMC: One trend that seems to be emerging is a way that smaller game creators are becoming a bit more open, sharing the development process and documenting it along the way for the interested public. Do you see what MetaArcade is doing is a continuation of that kind of trend?

DR: Absolutely. I learned this at CCP first and foremost. The amount of involvement that CCP always had with this community to me was initially uncomfortable. I came from a big publisher background where we did not share things with the community very readily, and we were very tentative and careful with how we did those things, and CCP was a lot more liberal with these things. They were a lot more inviting to the community, bringing a lot more information and interacting with folks in a much more kinda grassroots way that I had seen in other places. That continued for me at Motiga.

We developed programs that sort of amplified the ideas that I had heard and learned at CCP with, for example, the community coach program where we flew people to PAX and events like that. They would help us run the show and would coach players in the booth where you’d play our games and such. We had a group of testers that we played with on a regular basis who, frankly, were better at the game than the best guys on the development team. We wanted to understand exactly how this game would stack up in competitive multiplayer, and why not work with the best of the best to get that?

I intend to continue doing that sort of thing with MetaArcade, and to that end the journey is starting at Gen Con in many ways, where we’re able to put the prototype in the hands of people and let them understand this is what this experience is gonna be like. This is how you’re going to play through one of these adventures, with a character that you’ve created (or a pre-generated one) with art and narrative, decisions, music and sound effects and such. From there, we enlist of what I’ll call core testers on the creation side. People who are interested in giving us early feedback and getting early access into these developments tools where they’re able to start writing adventures in the platform and able to start seeing it come together.

In the blog I put out today, I talk about this a bit, so it echo it here. We have a big library of art that we’ve gotten out of the Tunnels & Trolls partnership. There is the 30-plus adventures that they made, multiple printings of rule books and such. All of this art is what we will make available first in these early access tools.

TMC: You’ve mentioned in the past that you want to provide a library of content, and you mentioned music as well, which is often not a component of the of these adventure games. In your first video there was also a glimpse of a pirate ship, a space ship, and all that kind of stuff, so what scale and kind of content are you aiming to provide here? either in terms of licensed or original material?

DR: It starts of course with Tunnels & Trolls,  which is classic fantasy. It is orcs and elves, and knights and armor, and wizards, but there are Tunnels & Trolls scenarios that have gotten into some more interesting corners of fictions. There is an adventure called Gamesmen of Kasar that has a bit of science fiction tint to it. There are adventures that have been written by other members of the community that go a little more aggressively into science fiction, and they continue to use that core engine of Tunnels & Trolls where the attributes that character has are the same eight attributes. The rolls you make for saving rolls, and the way you participate in combat is the same mechanic, even though the weapons may be different. Starting with Tunnels & Trolls does not prevent a writer while exploring other genres, like science fiction or modern, current events sort of ideas and things like that.

TMC: So, a bit like how BioWare used the D&D engine for Knights of the Old Republic.

DR: It’s a great example – it really is. Yes. It was a Star Wars game the had moment-to-moment action was a little more of playing a Dungeons and Dragons game that of X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, obviously. Iit is a very similar idea, but that’s a really good example. Now, that said, once we get going, I fully intend to pursue getting other licensed content from people and companies who have these worlds, and such and seeing if this sort of interactive story-telling adventure-RPG experience is something that makes sense for them, right.

There are literally, as you’ve seen happen, with sort of the reawakening of all these classic games through venues like Kickstarter and some of the digital reinterpretations that are happening, there are just hundreds of games that haven’t been brought into the full digital era, and in many ways they’re not gonna all be well-suited to trying to make a massive MMORPG or even a typical sort of triple-A sort of video game and in any genre, right? These are brands and properties that have dedicated communities, but they don’t necessarily merit making an effort to build the next Destiny or Call of Duty or what have you. This is something where I think in the end, MetaArcade will find some more roots as well. We will find other licenses for dedicated communities and work with those communities and those publishers to bring in early digital effort and let the community make more content, and not just wait for somebody to build a much much bigger game.

TMC: So why is now the right time to be producing adventure games? Not just from the perspective of MetaArcade, but for this community involvement that you envisage?

DR: I don’t know about you or anybody else, but I would tell you that I have been a little astonished at how quickly mobile gaming has grown, right? It was not that long ago that I was one of many who thought “Well, ok, mobile will always be a place for little shallow-end games. Little time wasters, little casual things, stuff that maybe I’ll do as a side thing when I’m unable to play a game on my preferred PC or console.” But I never imagined it would be as big as it has become. At Microsoft we always used to say that, at the end of the day everyone is a PC gamer, whether they consider themselves a gamer or not, because just about everybody in their quiet moments will play in that area – a game of Solitaire or a game of Minesweeper or whatever.

Mobile is becoming more and more like that now. Everyone who has a mobile device is playing a mobile game of some sort. They may not think of themselves as playing games if what they’re doing is a Candy Crush or Words with Friends or what not, but they are playing games, and all the app store revenue numbers suggest that games are the highest earning applications.

At the same time you’re seeing this explosion happening in digital books, and it’s not happening in the kind of classic publisher space where the big publishers who have the big book titles aren’t seeing a massive amount of their sales going digital. It’s happening in the small press. It’s happening where authors who aren’t necessarily able or interested in being published by a big house are finding ways to get their works published through Amazon small press and things like that.

There’s a confluence there of people who, on the one hand, are contributing content and who are consuming content on the digital book side with these mobile devices, and might be interested in doing something with a little more interactivity, whether it is sort of an emulation of a classic choose-your-own-adventure thing where I’m not doing an RPG and I’m not rolling any dice and I am putting myself into the story as well into the character I’ve created. On the other hand, you’ve got this massive mobile games business that, from what I have seen, is utterly devoid of quality narrative. There just isn’t anything there that people are able to write and publish great stories in an interactive way in the mobile gaming space.

That is a massive, massive market. It is predicted to be a 37-billion-dollar market this year! It’s gonna overtake consoles. I would not have bet this five years ago, and it’s the confluence of those things for me, where you look at this exciting market that is appealing to just about everybody has a mobile device, and just about everybody who has a mobile device plays mobile games. In the end lots and lots of people still enjoy quality stories. Narrative is still a very important part of gaming. I think it’s those two things coming together that to me seems like: wow it wouldn’t be hard to build something that, if this is an opportunity, we could find out pretty quickly by prototyping some stuff and getting it in the hands of people and seeing if there’s some excitement here.

It’s early, but I feel good about the reception we’re getting thus far.

TMC: In saying that, even with a mobile focus, you are still including PC as a part of your platform, correct?

DR: Absolutely. It is an iOS, PC, and Mac platform, and the reason why in many ways is that the sort of choose-your-own-adventure idea feels to me like it lends itself really well to a mobile form factor – to a smartphone or a tablet. However, number one: I think a lot of people do still prefer to play on the PC – their computer or their Mac – and so that’s not hard to allow to happen, and why not? But more importantly, when it comes time to try and do your content authoring, it just seems much more logical that you’re gonna wanna do that on a computer, with a mouse and a keyboard, a two-foot interface as opposed to trying to do that on your smartphone or your tablet right?

If you’re writing a short novella, that is gonna be challenging to do on your smartphone, and so it is by using both of those, the computer and the mobile platforms together, that I think ultimately you have the best experience. You may consume it on a mobile device or on a computer, but you’re probably creating content on a computer.

TMC: We’ve had a couple of our contributors try to write while on the road and on their phones, and I have to agree with you there as to the best way to go about it.

DR: And and look i’ll tell you this, at the same time, right, we certainly are there are plenty of younger consumers, gamers, writers out there who are all digital all the time, and probably finding ways to do those sorts of things on mobile devices. I’m not one of them, right? it’s just not the way I can do that sort of stuff, and I if I’m sitting down to play, I can see a mobile device working well, but if I’m sitting down to work (and on some level the act of creation is an act of work) I still prefer the computer for that, and I’m not sure that i’ll ever change on that front. I don’t think I’m alone.

TMC: You mentioned earlier in the interview your history with multiplayer game development. You’ve been with CCP, you’ve been with Trion, you’ve been with NCSoft.

DR: And Motiga. Exactly!

TMC: So, even though there is this community aspect to it, why go into single-player gaming?

DR: It in many ways I would call that the start point. In the end I would call the real effort of what we’re doing is an effort at appealing to a community of creators, and it isn’t necessarily that multiplayer gaming is required to be to provide something for that community. I think it ultimately becomes a multiplayer experience, and I can talk about that a bit, but we’ve started with solo adventures. It is about a 180 degrees from a lot of the work I’ve done earlier in my career of building something out in multiplayer and single player, and building massive amounts of content before you let anybody into it.

Instead, I am starting with the seed of something that is easy to scale in the right direction based on what the community tells us. Let’s assume that things go well at Gen Con and over the summer and we have the positive reception that I hope and expect to get. I believe that as we go through this process, the community will be interested in going “Ok, Naked Doom was fun. I wanna get more Tunnels & Trolls adventures. I wanna add the magic to stuff. I wanna start creating these adventures and I wanna start doing some multiplayer stuff.”

There are ways to make that happen as easy outgrowths of the seed of the solitaire experience. The first of those is co-operative play, and there are Tunnels & Trolls adventures that were written which allowed you to bring multiple characters into your adventure. Basically this was an idea that may I, as a player, I created a warrior that I took through a few adventures and I took a wizard I took through different adventures. Now I wanna take my wizard and my warrior together in an adventure, and I would do this as one player.

But the mechanics behind that aren’t that different to, say, I’ve got a wizard and you’ve got a warrior and we can play through this together in a joint session that we can share the experience of. You’re going to have to think about things like, well then it’s time to decide whether we take the left path or the right path, how do we make that decision? Do we fight or do we flee? you’re gonna need to have some mechanics like that to work but there’s no reason why a co-operative play can’t be a logical outgrowth from single-player experiences.

TMC: It’s certainly not something that’s been explored in the digital choose-your-own-adventure gaming space. As far as I’m aware, this is a unique feature.

DR: Yeah. It hasn’t yet, and I think again it isn’t the kind of thing that I necessarily would have thought of all on my lonesome, but it was an intrinsic part of Tunnels & Trolls. It was how some of those early adventures have stuck with me, and for people who’ve played the game, they’ll remember Michael Stackpole, who after graduating (if you will) from his time at Flying Buffalo, has gone on to be an author of many star wars novels and graphic novels, dark horse among other things. A couple of his early adventures were some of these multiplayer adventures, like Overkill and Dargon’s Dungeon, where you could bring a number of characters in.

Well, that seed lends itself neatly to the idea that an RPG can be played co-operatively in this regard. We’re likely talking to a lot of people who are EVE players, and PvP is a really important part of that game, and I don’t see why PvP can’t be a part of this. There is the idea that you can have a PvP arena where I’ve been playing this character for a long time on all these different adventures, let me take it into an arena against another player, that’s not a technically challenging thing to do either.

But I really have wanted to start at the basis of the solitaire adventure because, once again, if there’s one thing that I am trying to be focused, on it is the opportunity of narrative. It is the opportunity to let people who have a story to tell find an audience to do it and to make MetaArcade a platform of content creation and sharing, and if you’re lucky, commerce, If you’re writing a good enough series of stories, people may actually buy them, and to make the idea of creating and sharing interactive fiction as fun and free and easy and shareable and potentially lucrative as Twitch did for streaming or WordPress did for blogging or any number of these platforms that have empowered consumers who are doing creation and such.

This, to me, begins with that focus on narrative lending itself to solo experiences at first. If we’re successful there, there’s absolutely nothing stopping us from going into cooperative and competitive multiplayer as well

gm-scn-blog

COMMUNITY-CREATED CONTENT

TMC: You mentioned a potentially lucrative opportunity for content creators. Could you elaborate a bit more on the business model that you envisage MetaArcade operating on? both for your first-party and user-created content.

DR: Absolutely. So the way that I’m thinking about this at this point, and again this is without a lot of community feedback and without a lot of discussion with prospective authors at this point, but at a light level the business of pen-and-paper RPGs whether it was Tunnels & Trolls, D&D, what have you, was largely a business built around buying adventures. That’s a pretty well understood thing: that I am buying content that I can consume, and it’s also true in digital book space right? I am buying a book and I’m getting it on my device. There are opportunities for me to get a little trial. Amazon does a great job of this with the Kindle, where for many of the digital books that they have, I can get a chapter and decide “alright is this really a book I wanna read or not?” If so or if I don’t know, if it’s not an author I’ve read before or if it’s a genre that’s a little different to me but lemme get the sneak peak. I get the first chapter delivered to me digitally I can read it on my kindle, if I like it I can buy it from there.

So I envision this as the first part of the business model. Content is available for sale in a digital marketplace. There will likely be ways to get a taste of it before you commit to purchase. There will likely be some things that will be free – there will be little adventures that you’ll want people to be able to try, but it won’t be a free-to-play business model. We’ll be more like what I would characterize as a premium business model, and I don’t mean premium in terms of 50-dollar games, but in terms of that you are buying the content you consume as opposed to continually paying microtransactions to use it. Once you’ve purchased an adventure, it would be yours to continue to play with an any number of characters that you create over time.

That’s the core of what I call the consumer side of it. Now, as a creator, there’s a similar model at play there. When I create an adventure and put it up in the marketplace and somebody buys it, there are some revenue streams that have to throw off from that. Obviously whether you’re on the Apple App Store, or Google Play, or Steam, what have you, all those platforms have their platform fees, which is no different from any other retail experience out there, so there is a stream that goes through that. There is a stream of revenue that has to come to MetaArcade to pay for the costs, and to cover what we will ultimately have to pay for the technology that we license and things like that. If there’s a license involved, there’s some revenue that has to go to the licensor.

But beyond that it comes to the creator, and I look at Steam Workshop as a really good model. If you create a hat in Team Fortress DR: and people buy it, then Steam and Valve give you 25% of the revenue. That’s good business for a lot of people who are making tens of thousands of dollars making digital objects for TF2 or DotA and such. It’s not something that works for every game, but it really works really well there.

So there’s a model like that where I can’t say I have figured out the exact percentages yet, but a healthy part of the revenue needs to go to the creator or else there’s no interest in the creative community to do this. At the end of the day, I do not expect MetaArcade to get the lion’s share of that revenue – I expect the creator to get a bigger portion. Beyond that, I think one of the things that I would say should be appealing to creators who are thinking about writing their own adventures, creating their own intellectual property around characters and worlds and ideas and things like that, is you’ll retain ownership of it.

MetaArcade does not become a place where you get it as a perpetual license for the characters the worlds and such that you created. Those are yours. To the extent that you decide that “hey I’ve made a few adventures and they’ve done pretty well and now I wanna go write my novel” or “I wanna go make a screenplay”, somebody wants to make action figures, that’s yours to do with as you wish, and maybe MetaArcade can be part of helping you find an audience to get some exposure to that but beyond that, there’s no encumerance brought onto your proper nouns – the means of the places and the people that you create, that is your intellectual property to take with you.

You don’t get to take the rules of Tunnels & Trolls with you necessarily, but once again if you are creating a narrative, you’re building a world. You’re building characters in it. Those are yours to keep and do with what you wish outside of the MetaArcade platform.

[We lost a few moments of audio due to connection interference, which was blamed on New Zealand’s carrier pigeon-based internet]

DR: At the end of the day, the success of MetaArcade is not going to be by shaving every nickel that you can off a fledgling author. It is going to be about inspiring lots and lots and lots of people who have these ideas and these stories and these worlds that they would like to try and build and give em a shot at it and see what happens.

TMC: And part of that is starting off with inspiring people with the Naked Doom prototype.

DR: Exactly, yes. And really this is why the focus is kind of as we talked about is about focusing and polishing and making sure that that single-player experience works before going into multiplayer. It’s making sure why part of why Naked Doom works as Buffalo Castle would’ve worked is that both of those are adventures for starting characters. They’re not for high level characters where you have a lot more options as a character and you have to think about a much more elegant array of code to write to accommodate all those. You don’t have wizards and rogues, who in Tunnels & Trolls are a different kind of magic user as opposed to thieves which they are in many other games. You don’t have wizards and rogues in that adventure, and so you don’t have to worry about the magic system immediately. If in the end that experience of playing through Naked Doom with a beginning warrior isn’t fun on tablets and smartphones, well then we need to go rethink the core idea before we go and invest in other things, and so that’s why we’re focusing so much on that idea of the prototype adventure of Naked doom. This then hopefully awakens a bunch of people like “aha! now that I see how this actually plays, yeah I think I could do one of these. I could write one of these.”

Speaking as myself, David Reid, I’m not an artist, I’ve always been terrible at that, so I’m not gonna create an interactive fiction game if I don’t have somebody providing art. I don’t have any talent in music. I played an instrument in grade school but nothing since that. I’m not gonna be creating that music. So that’s a place where having libraries of content that an aspiring author and creator can comb through and find the things that feel like the right fits seem important. and that’s another place where I believe revenue can be generated for creators.

I look at fanfiction.net, and I see millions of stories that are being written by tens of thousands of people that aren’t able to be monetized in any way because they’re wedded to the intellectual property of bigger publishers. But if you had an interesting idea in your fanfiction, you are able to turn it 90 degrees and take it away from somebody else’s intellectual property and put it into your own.

TMC: The Fifty Shades treatment.

DR: That’s exactly the example, right, and not everyones gonna be that successful but that’s exactly how Fifty Shades of Grey got started: as twilight fanfiction. There’s no reason why people who are writing fanfiction stories couldn’t be making interactive fiction adventures this way. Similarly, I think about the millions of pieces of art on deviantart, and this massive community of creators that are making art. Well, if instead of drawing copyrighted fantasy characters, just making your own, you could upload those into an archive and if people are using them in their adventures, you would get a share of that revenue.

TMC: For a more conventional example with game development, you do have there are a number of asset stores out there that are aimed at entry-level game developers.

DR: Yes, exactly. And those are the sort of things that makes sense to tap into, but once again I think as you can tell, I have some big dreams here but I’m trying to stay focused on the seed of it first, and this is where working with Flying Buffalo and the archives of Tunnels & Trolls art is a great way to start on the art side. Similarly right as I’m getting started on the audio side, the partners I’m working with at SkewSound, they have a library of music that they’ve put together, and they’re writing new music for the Tunnels & Trolls game that we’re doing. We’ll start with those sorts of libraries to just give people a feel of how this could work.

Once you get an idea that, alright now I’m in the content creator, I’m actually writing an adventure, I’m writing my narrative, I’m pulling from an art archive, I’m pulling from a music archive, I’m deciding how powerful a monster is, how difficult the saving roll will be, and I’m generating this entire adventure around these assets. Once people understand how to put these legos together to build something, it’s easy to scale up. It’s just a matter of getting more art, getting more music, getting different licenses potentialy, and getting intellectual property and structuring those kinds of deals.

It all starts with getting that core seminal experience right first. If that isn’t right, you gotta work it and work it and work it until you get it right, before you distract yourself with so many other things.

TMC: So just like your adventurer in Naked Doom, you’re basically going to walk before you run starting from the beginning, and in some ways the journey of MetaArcade is going to echo that first adventure.

DR: Yeah that’s a good- [laughter] it’s not quite the level of distress you go into as a naked adventurer into the caverns there of Naked Doom, but it’s not a bad analogy, and I like your thinking a lot. MetaArcade is largely a company of one – I have some great help from contractors and freelancers and such, but there is really only one employee right now and it is a little lonely at times much like it is in Naked Doom. But getting through Naked Doom can be done, right? It does happen, and once you do, you’ve levelled up, you’ve got a little loot, you’ve got a little experience, and you’re ready to take on a bigger challenge.

It’s a very fitting analogy. [Laughs] I just hope I don’t die in the first room, as you often do in Naked Doom

TMC: Well, I would’ve thought that the world of start-ups would be more like Tomb of Forbidden Horrors.

DR: [Laughs] again, very much a legendary adventure, and it doesn’t just kill one beginning character, it chews up parties of high level adventurers, and that’s a much more epic scale of a killer dungeon.

WATCH THIS SPACE…

TMC: So after your demonstration and after you get the core system, when do you think that we’ll be able to get our hands on the first adventure or the platform?

DR: I’ve got some plans to expose the prototype, obviously at Gen Con and some other opportunities after that. Assuming those things continue to go well, and there’s more development that we’re doing that I’ll keep in my back pocket until we’re ready to share them, cause there’s some pretty interesting stuff that I want to get polished and do well before we expose them broadly. But once we get that prototype down to a good place, then we can make it available on app stores and such and let more and more people into the community.

At a basic atomic level, the tools that you need to have for the content creation side of this are things we are building now. In going through the process of building Naked Doom, we are going through the process of building the embryonic base of the content creator. It gives us a chance now, once we get some consumer feedback on things and player feedback to see “alright, this is what people are going to need when they start writing adventures. This is the UI of how it needs to look. This is how I can browse through a library of content. This is how I can construct my story and keep track of it and such” that should all be stuff that we are able to share well in the year of 2016.

In parallel with that, we should be able to get more Tunnels & Trolls adventures out there and get them ready for primetime. Now in terms of what I call commercial launch, I’m not sure we’re there by the end of the year, but I’m not sure we’re not. The work we are doing on MetaArcade, both in terms of building Tunnels & Trolls as a fully-fledged game and bringing those 30+ adventures to life and the content creation platform side of things….At some level there is always technical complexity and risk, but nothing like some of the projects I’ve worked on in my career.

This isn’t a project that requires the tens of millions of dollars or a team of a hundred awesome people to build. It is a much more manageable process. I don’t think it is inconcevible to be able to ship in 2016, but 2016s more likely to be a beta/early access kind of thing. Commerically launching in 2017 is my guess.

TMC: So, watch this space.

DR: Yeah, and I don’t think it’ll be long. I mean, I really believe that as we get our first feedback from people live there at gencon and such, we’re gonna learn a tremendous amount about where we go next with this, and I’m just dedicated to doing this in a much more public fashion than other projects I’ve had the pleasure to work on.

I just think this is more like what developing games is becoming like. IIf you really took a look at the giant hits of the past decade or so, and you would look at things like Minecraft, obviously League of Legends, you’d like at a lot of the things that have happened on Steam with Steam Workshop.Tthere’s a very deep rooted component of community feedback, and interaction in there. I think that’s just probably the right way to build games now.

It doesn’t mean that Bethesda is suddenly gonna start crowdsourcing Fallout, but it does mean that if you’re doing something new and different and innovative, I think there’s a lot of advantage to exposing it to the community early as opposed to trying to keep every secret buried and hoping you got it right without getting some real feedback. When you put something like this out there, at times you get some people – you get some confusion til you can explain it and sometimes you get some outright hostility and mockery.

TMC: It goes back to what we were saying before the interview about rolling out to a small audience first and iterating on that.

DR: Absolutely, and it’s like you said, if you can’t put yourself out there and get that feedback, then you probably shouldn’t go into the Tomb of Horrors, right? I think you should know that going in that it’s gonna be a grinder, and it’s not gonna be all easy stuff, but only by getting that real feedback from people do you know if you’re gonna be able to make something that actually works.

I think too many times, developers and designers have deluded themselves that they’re onto something great, and only when they put it in front of somebody who’s not at the company or not friends and family do they realize they’ve been going astray for too long. That’s not how we’re gonna do it here.

I would rather take the lumps early than find out years later that we’ve all been doing the wrong thing, and if we had only course directed a tiny bit earlier on we could be in a much better place.

TMC: David, thank you very much again for your time. Do you have anything else to say before we close up?

DR: No, Ryan, thank you! This has been a blast, and it’s good to get reconnected in a different way than when I was CCP with the themittani.com audience. I hope to get back out to fanfest, I hope to see some of these guys again soon, and you know, like you said, “watch this space!”

I think there will be more to say before Gen Con, after Gen Con, this will be very much a living work as opposed to “a wait for you’ve seen these trailer, now wait 6 months to get your hands on the game.” I think we’ll be able to bring back into this, who are interested, a lot sooner.

CORRECTION: SkewSound was originally mistakenly credited as Ski Sound. We have corrected this in the interview text.

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