Jeff Vogel’s been writing games, by himself, mostly in his basement, for longer than most people have been playing: 22 games in the past 22 years. The most recent, the role-playing game Avernum 2, just published last month.
His Spiderweb Software company name comes from a real spiderweb in that basement. He’s one of the few full-career indie developers still working at it in his 40s, and he never once turned away from writing games on his own, not even when the invitations and the money came.
Vogel is also one of the most interesting guys in the business. Take these snippets of things he said in this interview:
“RPGs are ludicrous.” (Vogel develops nothing but.)
On Exile, his first hit game: “It was a mess.”
Advice for game designers: “I think people need to embrace more — just making games dumb and unfair.”
On the 20th anniversary of the publishing of his first game, Exile: Escape from the Pit, I spoke with him in a video call, asking him to riff on that process, indie developing, his basement, and the game industry in general. Here’s the “good parts” version:
GamesBeat: Is this the infamous basement I’m seeing behind you?
Jeff Vogel: No, no. For the first 18 years, all of our games were written in my basement, but two years ago, we moved into a nicer new home. Now I get a room on the main floor. All my comic books and old video games and Magic [the Gathering] cards are on shelves all around me, just to make me feel comfortable and enfolded.
GamesBeat: What got you started in the business?
Vogel: I’ve always been compelled by games and puzzles. I started out probably by drawing mazes for my parents to solve when I was 5 years old. I was born in 1970, so this is just about the time that computer games were being invented. I remember my dad coming home from a bar and saying, “Hey, Jeff, I saw this cool thing that you might like, it’s called Pong.” As soon as I started playing video games, I was immediately just compelled by them. As soon as I got the chance, I learned to program. I started programming games, I think, when I was 8, 9, [or] 10. It’s always been a compulsion.
GamesBeat: What is it about them that captured your interest?
Vogel: I think part of it is just a matter of brain chemistry — the idea that video games, when really addictive and well-crafted, can addict you and cause your brain to release satisfying chemicals that create the illusion you’re accomplishing something, even though of course you’re not. It’s a unique art form.
GamesBeat: Tell me about the first game. How did it begin?
Vogel: The first game I wrote professionally was called Exile: Escape from the Pit. I was in grad school studying applied math. I really kind of hated it.
After passing my qualifier exams, which is the thing you have to do to show you’re actually serious about it and ready to start research, I was really burned out. I decided to take a few months off from that and do what I’d always secretly wanted to do, which was write a real video game.
Then I released it as shareware, which was a thing that existed at the time. [You could get the software free, then choose whether to pay for it.] Much to my great surprise, people bought it.
It was at a real lull for RPGs in the industry. So many indie success stories just come from having the right game at the right time. People are hungry for a shooter or a [real-time strategy game] or a tactical game or what have you, and there’s nothing on the market. Then you come out with the perfect game at the perfect time.
It made money, and then I quit grad school almost immediately and said, “OK, I’ll make a go of this.” It’s run from there.
(Trailer for Avernum: Escape from the Pit, the rewrite of Exile.)
GamesBeat: What led you into RPGs, as opposed to any other genre? It’s a long way from Pong.
Vogel: RPGs have always been my jam. It’s the combination of the addictive, the illusion of achievement, combined with the storytelling. I’ve always said that gamers will forgive you for having a good story, as long as you allow them to ignore it. Not everyone is as into the storytelling aspect of it. That’s totally cool. But I love video games as a storytelling medium more than just about anything.
Most indie RPGs are just parodies of RPGs. I think that’s cheap. Let’s be clear: RPGs are ludicrous. They are a ludicrous paradigm in every way. We know! And yet they work really well for telling stories.
The basic paradigm in an RPG is that you start out as this weak little guy with a wooden dagger or whatever, and you gain power and gain knowledge and you grow to the point where you’re powerful and influential. You start a child, and you become an adult.
People make a visceral connection to that. There’s something about that that feels true, because in a sense that’s how you go through your life. You start weak, and you become strong — hopefully.
Just about everything is an RPG now. Every game you play borrows RPG elements as far as gaining experience and using it to develop a character, because that feeling of growth, the feeling of accumulation of power, just works. It just works.
GamesBeat: You’ve stuck with this genre over time, but the individual games you’ve created have changed quite a bit since those early titles.
Vogel: I always write what I want to be playing. That changes. It helps me keep it fresh.
Every year, I learn a new thing or learn a new trick. A lot of it is invisible, just learning how to make and maintain the code. A lot of it is improvement in business model. A lot of it is improvement in writing. I’m a better writer than I used to be.
At the same time, when I was young and just getting started and didn’t know what I was doing, I had a freeness and a looseness and an energy that I don’t really have anymore. I didn’t know how anything I was doing would turn out, so I just threw everything in there, and through some weird alchemy, it worked.
A lot of it was just, by modern game design standards, broken.
GamesBeat: Can you give us some examples?
Vogel: In my early games, I had a spell called Create Quickfire. Quickfire is this fire that expands and kills everything uncontrollably, so you could walk into a dungeon, make Quickfire, and walk outside and wait a couple minutes. Then you’d go back in, and everything was dead.
That is ludicrous. There is no way that any professional game designer would consider that good design. And yet people loved it. I can’t do that anymore. I am constitutionally incapable of doing that. I envy my younger self for being so unconcerned.
One of the biggest challenges with the Avernum games — Avernum 2 [which released in January 2015] is a rewrite of a game I wrote in 1995. One of the biggest challenges I’ve had is to just respect my younger self, to look at something and say, that’s dumb, that’s broken, that’s out of control, and then just trust my younger self and trust my fans who loved this game and leave it be.
For example, in Avernum 2, there’s this crystal. You can go make copies of monsters and then summon them to serve you in later fights. I left that in. It was a struggle. I had to grit my teeth, but I left it in the new game, because it’s ridiculous.
You can go up to a lich or a dragon or some sort of ridonkulous monster and make a copy of it and go to another dungeon and start photocopying this stupid mega-powerful monster.
It’s not good design, from a contemporary game design perspective, which is why I think that contemporary game design is actually kind of bad. I think a lot of game designers are so tight-assed and want everything to be so balanced and so super under control — I think that’s a bad instinct. We’re making games. We should allow them to go crazy sometimes.
Jeff Vogel: For example, take Minecraft. Minecraft, in its basic form, is just out of control in terms of contemporary game design. You go into Minecraft, and Minecraft just murders you. And then it just murders you again.
There’s probably nothing more iconic in video games now than the Creeper, and what the Creeper is in Minecraft, it’s this funny-looking cactus that walks up to you and just blows up, and all the cool stuff that you’ve created is blown up, too. From a modern game design perspective, it’s a terrible idea.
Creepers are unfair. They just kill you without warning. They destroy your work. They make you feel bad. And yet they’re absolutely compelling. They probably made $100 million now just selling little stuffed Creepers. My kids alone have like 80 different Creepers.
They’re the best possible form of bad design. I could live 10 lifetimes and not come up with an idea as good as the Creeper.
GamesBeat: It reminds me of the grue in the original text-only adventure, Zork.
Vogel: That was back in the day. That was a fantastic little quirk of design. The idea is that if you go in a dark place, you die. Which is stupid and unfair. But it’s part of the system, so it’s in there. They just came up with this clever idea to justify it.
It’s ridiculous, but it’s a funny, charming kind of ridiculous. People will know about the grue even now. I think people need to embrace more — just making games dumb and unfair.
GamesBeat: You said you pick up a few tricks each year as you went along. Were there lessons that were difficult or painful to learn?
Vogel: The most painful lesson I ever had to learn is that I am a mortal being who is growing older, and I’m not in my 20s anymore. I don’t have the energy I used to.
When I was in my 20s and just started doing this, there was this compulsion to it where I could just work and work and work. At the end of the week, I would be so exhausted I could barely keep my eyes open, but it felt good. It felt so satisfying to be like that.
Jeff Vogel: I feel guilty for describing what I do for a living as work. There are people dying working 80-hour weeks in Shenzhen [in China] to make iPhones. I just sit at my desk and place orcs all day.
But at the same time, writing and making games does require energy and an expenditure of effort. As I’m cruising through my 40s, I’m finding that I can’t ask of myself what I used to. Every year, the things I’m doing are more ambitious. The technical hurdles get bigger, and at the same time, every year my brain is older and softer. Plus, now I have a family. I have kids to raise.
GamesBeat: There’s the key to a softer brain right there.
Vogel: That’ll kick your limbs right out from under you. It’s just been a really hard adjustment over the last few years, to just explore my new middle-aged body and brain and figure out what I can ask from them. For example, how far I can push myself before I hit a panic attack. That kind of thing. That’s an ongoing process.
That will continue for a long time, because I’m not going anywhere.
GamesBeat: That was my next question. You’ve been doing this for 22 years now. Any indication you want to settle down and do something else at this point?
Vogel: Nah, nobody wants me. I’m stuck here. I’m in my 40s. Getting a tech job in your 40s sucks. Nobody wants an old guy. Plus, also, at this point I can cheat. I have a back catalog that goes for days. At this point, all I can do in any given year is rewrite the game I released 15 years before and release that, and people love it. I could just keep doing that.
Writing new games is very difficult and very draining, but I keep doing it because I need to do it to look at myself in the mirror. To be able to be proud of myself and confident in myself as a developer, I need to make new work.
But it’s like, nobody wants to hear The Rolling Stones’ new songs. I was lucky enough two years ago to see Paul McCartney in concert. When he did his new songs, you could feel the energy fall out of the audience. “Oh, God, you asshole, we don’t wanna hear this, sing ‘Yesterday.'” It’s the same thing.
I need to keep making new games, but at the same time, from now on, I could just do rewrites. And the rewrites sell great. Avernum 2: Crystal Souls is going great guns. [It released in January and, according to Spiderweb Games, is selling extremely well.] I’m hugely pleased and relieved, because it’s a great design and people love it.
A lot of new people are picking it up. They’re like, “Oh, who’s this guy?” They’re loving it, too. I will be doing rewrites until I retire. Who knows when that’ll be, but it’s not going to be for a long time. I have to rewrite the whole Geneforge series. That’s five games.
GamesBeat: Do you have a favorite game out of the 22?
Vogel: Every game I’ve released has things about it that I think are terrific and ways in which I think they failed. Nethergate, for example, has a really cool setting and a really cool story and a really innovative way of presenting that story, so I really love that game, but I have a hard time saying it’s my favorite because Geneforge is really cool
Avernum 4 and 5 are cool. Avernum 2 and 3 have storylines that are as good as anything I’ve done. Avernum: Escape from the Pit is the first one, and it’s really — I can’t come up with a favorite.
Probably my least favorite was Blades of Avernum, an Avernum game with the scenario construction kit, because it was incredibly draining and incredibly hard to write. It took forever. And then it sold really poorly. So if you want my favorite game, it is not Blades of Avernum.
GamesBeat: Which one are you looking forward to redoing the most?
Vogel: Geneforge 1. The Geneforge series is weirdly — it’s hugely popular. I’m still surprised at how enduring it is, although among really serious hardcore RPG fans, a lot of them consider it my great work. I kind of agree with them.
It’s a hugely innovative design. It’s open-ended. It’s super-open-ended in terms of how you develop your characters, how you progress through your game, what political factions you join. They have an almost unprecedented amount of player freedom. The storyline is cool. The characters are cool.
The Geneforge games are really neat. But the presentation is archaic. There are a lot of things I did in them design-wise that just never really worked, never really came together. I have to leave the basic open-endedness of it alone. But there’s stuff on the periphery that never quite worked right, and I want to rewrite and redesign all of that to make it more interesting and compelling.
Jeff Vogel: I know that some people will be like, “No, don’t rewrite Geneforge, you’ll just screw it up,” but I swear to God, I’m going to do my best to do that game justice and make it way cooler.
GamesBeat: Is it safe to assume that’s somewhere coming up close on your to-do list now that Avernum 2 is behind us?
Vogel: Not close. The next is Avadon 3, to close out that trilogy. Then I have to rewrite Avernum 3: Ruined World. Avernum 3 is probably our biggest hit. It is arguably our most beloved game and most beloved design. Rewriting that is a huge priority, because that game has serious fans. It’s really neat. But I’m dreading rewriting it because it’s enormous. It’s a frighteningly huge game. Rewriting that is going to take a long time, to do it up right.
GamesBeat: What new projects are you working on?
Vogel: After Avernum 3, after Avadon 3, before the Geneforge rewrite, I want to write a whole new game with a whole new engine. I’m thinking about that a lot, probably a lot more than I should be thinking for a game that I shouldn’t be able to start for three years. But I have some neat ideas about what I want to do.
GamesBeat: You wrote a blog entry about the end of the indie bubble. Can you explain?
Vogel: Four or five years ago, indie games really super took, and there was a huge demand for indie games and very little product, and a small handful of fortunate people managed to make a lot of money.
Then everyone who was working in the computer game industry and hated life, because that’s what working in the computer game industry does to you, they said, “Holy crap, I’m gonna quit my stupid job writing Call of Duty 83, and I’m gonna go out and write my dream indie game, which is Pong but a 2D platformer, or something like that.”
Oh, thank God for 2D platformers. They’re like indie game development Viagra.
Jeff Vogel: Everyone did that, and now there’s just a terrifying, soul-deadening number of indie games. I went to [PAX, the Penny Arcade Expo] a few months ago, and it has this area for the indie games that didn’t get in the PAX 10 [the 10 indie games judged to be best at the show]. That was full. There were like 80 games on show there, and a lot more games that were rejected, so they made, on another floor, another indie showcase area. Some indie people dropped the extra bucks and got their own booths.
So even with four full days of PAX, there was not enough time to acknowledge all of the indie games that were available.
It’s terrifying. I counted more than 100 indie games on show there. The video game industry does not need 100 games a year total. Let alone your roguelike 2D platformer puzzle-stealth game.
GamesBeat: If you had to do it again now, would you?
Vogel: If I was starting out today, I wouldn’t write an indie game. I’d go get a real job, because it’s so hard and so competitive. I feel really bad for them, because I was at PAX just looking at these young developers and the glow of love and energy in their eyes. It just did me good to be around them.
A lot of them will say, “I played your game when I was 8, and it made me dream of being able to do this!” And I’m like, “Yes, I am comically old, thank you.” But at the same time, it’s really heartening. It makes me feel like I may have accomplished something in this lifetime. It also makes me feel guilty, because good lord, it’s tough out there now.
GamesBeat: But perhaps they have the energy for it.
Vogel: I think you’re exactly right. It’s important to point out that in 1994, to make a living writing shareware, writing indie games, you might as well have just climbed Mt. Everest naked. When I started, the World Wide Web was not a thing. It existed, but nobody had heard of it. I got most of my early sales off [America Online], for the love of God. You got your shareware at a kiosk in the mall.
When I think about my days starting out, when I was just scrambling for individual sales on CompuServe and Prodigy [two dial-up online communities], and now young developers have Steam. Steam is a miracle wrapped in magic riding on the backs of unicorns.
The things that Steam does for you as a developer are astonishing. When I started out in the business, I needed the ability to take credit cards. I struggled for months to get someone to help me take credit cards, because nobody I talked to believed you could run a business on the Internet.
I had to hustle for months to get the ability to take credit cards. Not to mention maintaining our website, maintaining our servers, maintaining the infrastructure to distribute demos, marketing and sales and stuff like that on my own lonely website, running my own store — now Steam will just lift all of that off of you. God, it’s good.
It’s really hard to go to PAX and stand out from the crowd, but when I started out, we didn’t even have PAX. There were no video game conventions.
GamesBeat: You’ve managed to remain independent over the course of two decades, which suggests to me that you’re there because you want to be, not because you have to be.
Vogel: In 1997, when Exile III came out, it was by shareware standards just a radioactive explosive hit. It was making all kinds of money and getting all kinds of attention. This was when dot-com craze was taking off. Everyone was making a fortune. I was like, I could ride this rocket to the moon. I could get investors. I could build a company and get employees. It would be easy as pie.
And then I chose to not do that. Because … [Long pause] You know, people who make video games are artists. Artists have their own styles and work flows and ways they prefer to work. I feel that an artist’s way of working is sort of a sacred thing, and you can’t mess around with it. I work best when I go into a room and I shut the door and I code for a year, and I come out and I have a thing.
Of course, I’m not doing this by myself. My wife is a huge help. My contractors are a huge help. My volunteer beta testers are invaluable to the success of my business.
But I’m alone in a room, and I send requests out over email and then stuff comes back to me via email, and I’m still alone in a room. I’m not a hermit. I have family and friends. I just — I work alone. That’s just the way that the games come out of me.
Among the many bits of advice I have to young developers is, figure out how you work. Figure out what works for you. Then defend that. Stick by it.
If you catch lightning in a bottle and find a circumstance that enables you to create great work, if you find that you can only write games while wearing a Seahawks cap and lacy undergarments, then by God write all your games with the Victoria’s Secret stuff on.