Jody met up with indie creator Alex Norton in Brisbane, Australia, to talk about the development of Malevolence and how it went from scrap-paper beginnings to an explosively successful Kickstarter.
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.
I said, “I make video games as a hobby, so why don’t I try making a video game of the card game and see if we can use that to raise the money that we need to push the card game?” And the computer game exploded like a penguin in a microwave. It’s been a phenomenal amount of support and community encouragement and interest in the video game, and it sort of eclipsed the card game.
We’re still going to do the card game, but Malevolence has already made about four times as much as we need to produce the card game, and it hasn’t even come out yet. When it comes out, we’re gonna do the card game as well, and instead of being a card game with a video game supplement, it’s going to be a video game with a card game supplement.
Something for the deluxe rerelease maybe. It reminds me of Richard Garfield, when he wanted to design RoboRally — you know RoboRally?
Norton: Yes, I love RoboRally. I’ve got one of the original sets.
With the metal figurines?
Norton: Lead, before that was unsafe.
He wanted to make that game, but he found out it was going to be so expensive to get all of those lead figurines cast and all of the boards the way he wanted them. He decided to make another game first that would be easy to make, and he could sell at conventions and then take the money from that and make RoboRally. That’s how he made Magic: The Gathering.
Norton: Wow, I did not know that story. I play both of them.
He made slightly more off Magic: The Gathering than he ever made off RoboRally.
Norton: Little bit. Which is a shame because RoboRally is one of the best board games ever created. It’s beautifully chaotic. It’s the only way I can possibly describe it.
On the subject of funding, when did you decide to turn to Kickstarter?
Norton: It got to the halfway point of the development — the development was broken into three years. The first year was building the engine, getting the technology working, making sure the infinite world would work properly. And then the second year was putting in the content and things like that. The third year was going to be put aside for polish. We realized that to make it have the polish level that we wanted, we would need to have a lot more artists producing art and textures and modelers making 3D models and sound designers and composers, that sort of thing, to bring it to a level — not quite triple-A-quality, but as close to that as an indie has any right to get. To hire all those people costs money. I was doing it from my day job. For the last two years I’ve been paying for it, I’ve got a mortgage and bills and I was paying for that, but I was saving all my spare money, eating nothing but baked beans and noodles — cheap food so I could afford to pay all these other people because the game meant that much to me. And [my wife] Nyssa was putting money into it as well.
I thought, “This is crazy, I wish I could use Kickstarter” because it was over there, but it was only available to Americans. I tried Indiegogo just to raise $8,000 because that’s what I’d budgeted out to pay for everybody to get the amount of polish I wanted. We went to Indiegogo and in a month got $1,300, and it failed. That was a little bit demoralizing. It was scary putting it up there because then people can put a monetary figure to something. I thought, “What does this mean? Does this mean people aren’t gonna want to buy it? If I release it, are people just going to ignore it because they didn’t put money towards the Indiegogo?”
I was a bit demoralized, but I thought it might just be a coincidence because Indiegogo doesn’t have much traffic. So I researched quite a bit into the psychology behind Kickstarter videos and the planning side of that and spent about a month doing that. I contacted my [American] composer, probably the team member that I’ve never met whom I trust the most because it is a big trust thing if it was to go well. And I said to him, “Look, if you help this out and make this go through your social security number and bank account and whatnot, I’ll give you 5 percent of whatever we raise to be able to do that for me.” And he goes, “Fine, doesn’t bother me.” All right, great, if he ends up running off with the money, then at least I haven’t lost anything.
That allowed us to go to Kickstarter. I used all of what I studied to make a new video and a very different approach. I just watched the number go up and up and up and up. The first week, we’d already made what we asked for, and it just kept going and going and going. All of a sudden, I woke up one morning to find it had spiked drastically because Penny-Arcade had mentioned it and Rock, Paper, Shotgun mentioned it. It just shot higher and higher, and every day I’d wake up — every time somebody pledged, I got a new email. My phone’s next to my bed. I sort of wake up, “Oh, 32 new emails.” Another day, 68 new emails. Oh God! It was blowing my mind. Then, finishing at $33,000 when we only asked for [$6,000] — because we asked for eight [thousand] last time, but in the month that had passed, I’d put another $2,000 of my own money into it, so we only asked for six — but then to get $33,506. And 17 cents!
Not only did it obviously help the game, the game’s now paid for. I don’t have to put any of my own money into it anymore — I can eat food! Normal food! I can take my wife to the movies, all this stuff that I’ve been forgoing because the game was more important for two-and-a-half years. If I need a piece of art done — paid for. I need a new musical piece — paid for. Just done, done, done, done.
Nicholas, our composer, pulled through and sent the money across, no problem, no delay. He made one joke about [stealing] it, but it was received so badly he went quiet, didn’t joke about it again. It was a very wild ride, but to have it pay off both emotionally and financially, it was validating more than anything. Because it was terrifying to put it up there again after failing and to say, “Here it is, world. If you like it, put money towards it. If you don’t think it’s worth it, don’t.” And they thought it was worth it.
Of everything, 78 percent of the pledges that came in were from people who were browsing Kickstarter — not linked from blogs, not linked from forums, just people who’ve gone to Kickstarter.com, were browsing around and found it and clicked on it, so that’s a first impression because they’d know nothing about the game beforehand. They judged it purely on what I had there. And they pledged 78 percent.
That’s incredible. I’ve never just gone to Kickstarter and started browsing, but I guess once you end up at the site, it’s easy enough to see things nearby.
Norton: We received so much traffic that Kickstarter put us as a staff pick, a favorite. And we were there for about a week and a half.
What’s your philosophy of what makes a good game?
Norton: I’ve always been a big fan of the Id Software motto of “easy to play, hard to master.” I think that’s really good, but I think it’s a bit of a loaded question because it depends on what platform it’s on. If you’re jumping on a console, I don’t think consoles should ever have been used for a long, extensive gameplay experience. I think a console should be something you pick up, have a quick game, maybe a multiplayer experience — [it's] especially really good for those — then put it down again and walk off. I think PC has and always should be just the portal into other worlds, big worlds. Mobile gaming is the same again. You need to be able to play a game in five minutes, and people still make games that are designed to have this rich content experience. I think you’ve gotta play to the strength of the platform that you’re on.
The thing that makes a good game is to allow your passion as a game developer to show through. I don’t think it matters what the game is or what it’s about or how it’s played so long as you love it. Akhranox to me is a holiday location. I love visiting it. It’s so much a part of me. It’s like a child in the family. It’s going to be a very sad day when I finally click the button to send it off because of that fact. I raised it from a baby engine. It started out as nothing and turned into this huge, huge thing. The biggest part is it’s not just a huge thing for me anymore, it’s a huge thing for a lot of people. A lot of people forget that the other people, players, are about 50 percent of the game. Because without the players — not a game. No point for its existence unless the player’s there.
Some people play games just for fun, download an iPhone game, but they don’t really play it. It’s there for when they’re bored on the bus. But there are a lot of people — and you especially see them at events like this — [who] for them gaming is more than just a fun pastime. It’s an experience; it’s a part of them. Only someone that can feel that way about a game I think can make a game that will inspire that, and that needs to show through in order for them to like it. It doesn’t matter how weird the game is, people will love it if you do. You get that whole joke that your mum used to make, “When I make cupcakes, I add a pinch of love to every one.” You’ve gotta do that with games because it’ll show, it’ll show.
You get all these triple-A titles that are very cold. They seem like there’s a factory that’s pumping out first-person shooters, and it’s always the same thing with a different theme. There’s no love in them because it’s about making money. Whereas you see all these people here, they would love to make money from their games, they would love to be able to do it, but they want to make money because that will allow them to keep making games. It’ll fund the next one. It’s not that they’re making games to make money, they’re making games because they have to. The game is going to get made, it has to get made, and these guys are just seeing it through. I think if you have that system when you’re making a game, it doesn’t matter what the game’s about. It’ll be a winner, you just gotta not forget that, not get corporatized.
Were there other games you’ve worked on before this, ideas that didn’t work out?
Norton: I’ve made pretty much every idea I’ve had except for one, which I’m saving for after this. I have to make games; I can’t help it. Once this is finished, I’m gonna need a simple game, like a palate cleanser almost before I move onto my next big project. I’m holding that one aside because it’s a nice straightforward one. Before this there’s definitely been lots and lots of games. I’ve been making them since I was 10, when I got sick and was stuck in front of a computer. I remember saving all my money for my first computer, a 386, and it had Basic on it. I would sit there all day, wake up, go to school, and I was at the computers at school, typing away, pull out the 5.25-inch floppy disk, bring it home, and keep working. They say that a good indie game is a summation of a certain time in your life, and Malevolence is the same thing. Everything that I’ve done has done that — sums up a little bit of me.