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.
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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.