There’s a glowing green circle on the dungeon floor. Should I stand on it? Of course I should. Green means go. Nothing bad is ever green. So I step into the circle, and it poisons me. But look, that’s OK. Hit points are falling off me in clumps, like hair off the elderly, but over there on the wall is a font of pure, life-giving water. I race toward it and drink: it is also poisoned. Stumbling and reeling, I step back from the vile stuff onto a spike trap and die.
I’ve been playing Malevolence: The Sword of Ahkranox, which promises to deliver an infinite, procedurally generated fantasy world you explore in an old-fashioned first-person, grid-and-turn-based manner as in games like Eye of the Beholder and Might and Magic. It’s a work of passion for developer Alex Norton, who grew up playing those games with his father, naming the characters after themselves and working together to defeat traps and monsters. Malevolence is a work of modern polish as well as nostalgia, though, with Norton gathering a global team under the banner of Visual Outbreak Studios from his home in Australia, helped by a Kickstarter windfall of over $33,000.
Norton commiserates after I die on the spike trap. It’s claimed a lot of lives today. He’s showing this prerelease build at an indie game symposium in Brisbane, where it’s surrounded by mobile games. It stands out in this company, and so does he — both because he’s the tallest man in the room and because he’s casually carrying a plastic sword around. Fortunately, he doesn’t stab me with it when I start pestering him with questions. (It’s probably poisoned.)
I love turn-based games for the tension they build as you finally commit to your next action. What is it about them that appeals to you?
Alex Norton: For me, it’s the ability to have the adventure at your own pace. Some of my fondest memories from childhood have been sitting with my dad playing Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra, and us stopping at every corner with him asking me what we should do next. It’s harder to do that sort of thing in a real-time game, when the tension is always on.
Has your dad played Malevolence?
Norton: He has. He’s on the test team. He insisted, so yeah. He’s not the best tester in the world because he’s not the most techno-savvy gentleman. He would be if he had the time, but he’s a very busy man. He loves it, though. It very strongly reminds him of all the games that we used to play when I was younger, and that to me is a winner. If it reminds him of it right away, then my mission is a success.
I noticed another player approaching Malevolence like a Diablo-style click-frenzy, and you mentioned the combat speeds up if you do. How does that work?
Norton: Yes, many people die very quickly in Malevolence because they try to play it like Skyrim. You can do that, but you’ve got to be really mindful of your stats and know your character quite well before you can pull it off and survive. I’ve actually coded in monitors that watch how quickly you’re pressing buttons and moving around, and the game dynamically takes shortcuts to keep up with you. [It] took me a while to get the system working seamlessly,but the results work quite well. Regardless of this, though, Malevolence is a hard game. It doesn’t spoon-feed its players like most [role-playing games].
You’ve said the world Malevolence generates will be infinite, but the geographical details will be the same for everyone — so that I’ll be able to find something cool and then share the coordinates with someone else. What kind of cool things can we expect to find?
Norton: Well, the initial release is going to have all of your standard castles, dungeons, forests, et cetera, but also some extra coolness such as abandoned mines, caves, crypts, and tombs, and all that. Even the cities have sewer systems underneath that you can explore. Given the procedural nature of the generation, however, even I don’t know what people are going to find. On my romps through Ahkranox while developing, I’ve found some pretty amazing stuff. I really look forward to seeing what other people manage to find. And the expansion pack that we have planned will add even more to the game. We often make the joke that the expansion pack is going to make our infinite world even bigger.
Is the infinite world part of the game’s backstory? Do the people you meet there know they live on a world that stretches on forever?
Norton: Yes, indeed. The world in the game is actually inside the imagination of a sentient sword, the Sword of Ahkranox, which the people worship almost as a deity. What they don’t know is where the sword came from or why it’s doing what it’s doing. That part of the story people will have to find out for themselves.
You’re mostly self-taught. Did you study?
Norton: I am entirely self-taught. I studied special effects, so I know how to blow things up. Digitally, I didn’t do pyrotechnics. I did a Diploma of Screen specializing in animation — so all sort of explosions onscreen, speeding cars, that sort of thing, 3D animation for film and television. Then I’ve done a Certificate III in Multimedia. Then I got my job, my day job, and through that I did a degree-level aptitude course that went for two years to prove that I could do things at a degree level and passed that with flying colors.
I actually got hand-selected by Pixar when they were celebrating, I think it was 20 years or something? They came to Sydney, and they held a master class that went for two days. They hand-picked 200 people from around Australia and then culled it to 160 because they didn’t get the venue they wanted, but I still made the cut and flew down there to this masterclass and learned more in those two days than I did in the entire Diploma and Certificate III. It was just incredible. And to be picked by them when my main specialization is programming and not animation!
I was reading that before Malevolence actually became a video game project, you were working on it, or something similar to it, as a card game?
Norton: Malevolence is in existence because it was a card game. It started out with my wife — when we were first dating actually, we thought, “Why don’t we have our own go at making a board game or a card game or something like that.” We ended up going halfway. It’s not a collectible card game, you just buy a set of cards and that’s the whole thing, so it’s kind of like a board game. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could play a game like Dungeons & Dragons without a Dungeon Master, without having to organize somebody who knows all the rules, and let it create the world through random shuffling of decks?” We thought, “We’ll try and work that mechanic out,” and we did. After much, much experimenting and cutting up our own cards and things like that, doing scribble art, we eventually made a full, polished set. The whole thing. Rulebooks, cards, all the proper cardstock laminated, the works, as a prototype ready to pitch to investors to raise money to be able to produce it. It was done and ready. Nobody wanted to invest. We needed about $10,000 to actually get the first run made, and nobody wanted to put any money into it.